Mending the World, bit by bit

Rebecca Murphy

(First read aloud to the WPGrace community on Aug. 30, 2009.)

Rebecca and Jacob Cynamon-MurphyMost of you know that I am marrying a man who follows God by practicing Judaism. Jewish tradition holds that a member of the community who is getting married during the week following a particular Sabbath is honored by being allowed to read the scriptures and to give a brief reflection. This is called an aufruf. Most Jewish faith communities have a proscribed schedule for which scripture gets read on a given week, so a person's "Torah portion" is kind of a crap-shoot.

Because my faith community is so important, I have asked Nanette and the worship committee if I could have my own aufruf at Wicker Park Grace. To reflect the tradition of the Torah portion, I've used the Revised Common Lectionary, which fulfills a similar purpose for Protestant Christian faith communities.

As luck would have it, the assigned Old Testament scripture for August 30 is an underhand pitch of a piece of scripture:

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (The Message)

The Woman

8-10 Look! Listen! There's my lover!
Do you see him coming?
Vaulting the mountains,
leaping the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle, graceful;
like a young stag, virile.
Look at him there, on tiptoe at the gate,
all ears, all eyes—ready!
My lover has arrived
and he's speaking to me!

The Man

10-14 Get up, my dear friend,
fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Look around you: Winter is over;
the winter rains are over, gone!
Spring flowers are in blossom all over.
The whole world's a choir—and singing!
Spring warblers are filling the forest
with sweet arpeggios.
Lilacs are exuberantly purple and perfumed,
and cherry trees fragrant with blossoms.
Oh, get up, dear friend,
my fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Come, my shy and modest dove—
leave your seclusion, come out in the open.
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice.
For your voice is soothing
and your face is ravishing.

Perfect for a wedding, right? Listen to the barely contained excitement of the woman awaiting her man: "My lover has arrived and is speaking to me!" Who doesn't like to be reminded of times when we've felt like nothing else mattered but the attention of the person we are infatuated with? Then, the passage goes on to describe the man's attempt to persuade the woman that she should do the scary thing and leave the safety of the life she's always known and join him "out in the open." I have never denied that getting married again scares the hell out of me. I mean, I know more than most that there is no guarantee. You can never know someone well enough to know for certain that he will want to do the hard work of staying compatible ‘til death do you part. I have needed a little persuading, needing to be told that my voice is soothing and my face is ravishing.

So, a perfect verse for a wedding aufruf, right? I mean there's that gag-me-flowers-puppies-and-sunshine stuff in the middle but we can all publicly laugh at that with ironic cynicism and know that it's OK that we secretly nurse a hope that someone will think we are the Spring that banishes their Winter.

It's a perfect verse but as I read it and re-read it, I was not quite content. It was too easy. So, I read some of the other options in the Lectionary, which also provides a designated psalm, New Testament epistle and Gospel reading. As I continued reading, the Gospel lesson tugged as my heart. It is such a difficult passage for Jacob and me in our endeavor to create a life where our two different faith traditions are compatible.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (NIV)

Clean and Unclean

1 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2 saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?" 6 He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. 16 Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.'"
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? 19 For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.")
20 He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' 21 For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.'"


When I read this passage, it seems to me like Jesus is saying, "You know those things that Jews do that help them identify as a distinct community of people? You don't really have to do them. In fact, they get in the way of doing what God wants you to do."

Harsh. Especially for an interfaith couple that keeps kosher, the practice of eating only "clean" foods, as directed in the Torah.

Last week we studied a passage similar to this and, in fact, for the past several months we have been studying Acts, the book in the Bible that describes in painstaking detail how people who followed God by following the teachings of Jesus separated themselves from the people who followed God through Jewish practices by changing their habits, loosening lifestyle restrictions and including the Gentiles as part of the club.

Separation is hard. Remember adolescence? So many of us needed to declare that our parents' beliefs –about our hair, about our friends, about God – were wrong in order to clear out the space that surrounded us. Once we had that space, we were free to determine for ourselves what we believed and wanted from life. Often, the process wasn't black and white and our parents (sometimes rightly) insisted on maintaining closeness.

Jacob and I stopped coming to services at WPG recently because Acts is full of this kind of separation pain and reading about and discussing that pain makes us fight. For instance, Stephen is a real jerk about it, comparing the Jewish people who he had been trying to convert to the Jews in history who had turned away from God, like with the golden calf. Is Jesus being a similar jerk? Is he saying that if I want to follow him, I can't keep kosher?

These kinds of passages make Jacob and I fight because they seem to be saying that we have to choose one side or another. Either you keep kosher dietary restrictions or you don't. Either you follow Jesus or you don't. And if you are going to be a couple traveling the same path, you both must choose the same things. But neither of us could live a life trying to talk to God in a language that is not the one we were born into. And yet, we love each other. More than that, we have the ability to make each other's lives better. It is like "The whole world's a choir—and singing!" when we live our lives together.

We have spent the last year hashing out whether or not there was a third option. Could we both continue to claim our separate faith identity while still being full partners in life, including raising children? We have decided that we can. However, this truth is still tender and vulnerable. We are still liable to lash out, or crawl inside of ourselves or get stuck in a bout of melancholy when someone challenges our resolve.

But when I look a little deeper, I don't believe that Jesus is testing our resolve. I think that Jesus is manifesting one of the most Jewish characteristics: iconoclasm. The midrash - which is a collection of stories told by rabbis to help explain the scriptures – describes Abraham, who was considered the first Jew, smashing the stone and clay idols in his father's shop with a hammer. This is iconoclasm. Worshipping god and nothing else is the first commandment handed down to the Jews by Moses at Mt. Sinai. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; Do not have any other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."

And what do we like to worship most? Personally, the idol I worship most often is my own life. I love looking at my own Facebook profile and reading my own blog posts after I have posted them. When I got my yearbooks in high school, I looked up my picture first. When people intrude upon my plans and interrupt my routines, I get upset and whine: "Is she going to be there?" "Do we have to leave so early?" I gather possessions around me and feel special because I've made just the right choice, finding the perfect item for $1.50 at the thrift store or acquiring a hard-to-find multi-purpose item to "simplify" my life.

These habits and choices are no different than the hand-washing rituals that Jesus condemns. Again and again, the scriptures tell us that the way to worship God is to serve others: to welcome the stranger and to care for the weak. The people Jesus was speaking to in this passage loved their carefully-chosen practices more than they loved making people feel affirmed and welcome. Instead of saying, "Hey, we're glad you're eating," they said, "Hey, what do you think you're doing?"

Many spiritual practices and regular everyday practices serve to bring us closer to God and to create a more strongly-knit community. For instance, while prayer might bring us closer to God, tooth-brushing allows us to draw close to each other. But Jesus says that we must never fall so far in love with these practices that we forget about the feelings of others. For "sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly" are, at their core, things that hurt the feelings of others. Literally, they make other people feel bad. If the necessity to pray in a certain way or time spent on Facebook cause us to neglect our duty to serve God through serving others, than it is itself an idol or "unclean" and must be smashed.

Jacob and I believe in this kind of iconoclasm. We believe that together, we can mend the world a little bit. By destroying the "traditions of men" that state that two people must stay within the well-defined boundaries of different religions, we think we are following God more closely than we would if we quietly, safely, peacefully accepted their restrictions. Those traditions have become idols that get in the way of serving God. And so, when Jacob says with his life, "Oh, get up, dear friend, my fair and beautiful lover—come to me!" I do.

(wedding photo by Jennifer Wiley)


Embracing the Questions

Sarah Ross, student pastor

Sarah RossBeing involved in the community of Wicker Park Grace as a student pastor is changing the way I think about faith and ministry. One of my first weeks at Wicker Park was a week for spiritual practice, so we were breaking up into small groups to discuss some Biblical texts. This particular week we were beginning to consider the theme of salvation and what that means for us. We were asking questions like "What is salvation?" and "Is salvation only about 'spiritual' things and the afterlife, or can salvation apply to our lives here and now?" There were a lot of complex ideas in the topic, and many people had strong feelings about it based on their past experiences with churches or other religious groups.

I was facilitating one of the discussion groups, or at least I thought I was. In reality, the group jumped into a pretty fascinating discussion without much help from me. It was an interesting experience because it was so different from any Bible study or small group discussion which I had led or been involved with before. In those studies, there had always been some main point or "answer" that the leader is trying to convey. They might get to the "point" through discussion, but eventually the goal is to get people to see or agree on this lesson from a book or from the leader's own observations. At Wicker Park Grace, the goals are different. As a leader there, I have the opportunity to tackle questions for which I may not have a clear answer. Often people come there looking not for clear-cut certainty and textbook answers, but for a community where they are free to bring their questions and doubts and to wrestle with those questions honestly and openly. The questions are not just ways of arriving at a specified answer or destination, but a way of journeying together through both faith and uncertainty.

At the end of the night, we did not come to a clear and certain universal definition of salvation, but we had considered the idea in a light which was new to many people and which broadened our understanding of God as one who cares about the totality of our lives both here and in eternity. The idea that it was okay and even preferable to leave people with questions rather than answers was a major paradigm shift for me. In some ways, it made me uncomfortable. A part of me wanted to know what the right answer was, to have that sense of finality and certainty. However, as I spend time in this community, I am realizing that wrestling with good questions can sometimes touch our souls more deeply than learning right answers ever could.


Taking Chances :: Touched by an Angel

Rodrigo Carrillo

(First read aloud to the WPGrace community on Nov. 16, 2008.)

Rodrigo CarrilloI just wanted to share something with all of you on this special day. Many of you know that today marks my one year anniversary of dating Michael. It has been a long road to get to a point of being in a healthy relationship and I wanted to take a moment and share a part of my heart with all of you. You may not know this but in a week it also marks my one year anniversary coming to this church, Wicker Park Grace, and with this I wanted to mark my celebration by showing you more of who I am.

Touched by an Angel

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

Maya Angelou

As I reflect on this past year the first thing that comes to mind is the great loss that I have endured this year. Last year, on Christmas Day, I lost my paternal grandmother in Mexico due to a long battle of diabetes. I met my grandmother when I was 8 years old and I instantly made a spiritual connection with her. I went to visit her almost every year since then establishing a relationship as her grandson and trying to gain some of the time I lost with her.

I also spent much of my energy making sure she knew that no matter how far she was that she is in my heart everyday and that I love her more than she could imagine. She was full of strength and courage as a mother of 18 and grandmother of 56.

I spoke to my grandmother a couple of days before she died and I made sure she knew that I was so proud to be her grandson and that I admire her so much. My grandmother died on Christmas Day and I was not able to go to Mexico as all the flights were booked. I feel unresolved because I didn't have a proper goodbye but at the same time I feel that I did.

I then find out that maternal grandfather was diagnosed with Cancer 4 months later. This was a hard hit to me because my grandfather was my world. My bond with him was stronger than my bond with my parents. My grandfather had a short battle and died in a matter of weeks much to my surprise. In a state of shock, I was faced with losing the most important man in my life. He was my heart , my idol, my soul, my friend. I told him how much he meant to me every chance I got.

He would always tell me in his broken English "You are my number 1." My grandfather held my hand when I was sick, held my hand to cross the street, and held my hand in life. I held his hand in death. I held his hand until he took his last breath on June 22 of this year.

During all of this I also was trying to establish a relationship with Michael. I met Michael a year ago today for just a friendly dinner and has turned into something so special that I could have never imagined it. I met a charming, smart, good hearted man with a witty sense of humor.

Our relationship has not been roses and clouds but it has been a breath of fresh air. It was refreshing meeting a man that has gone through so much pain and hurt in his own life and see him standing tall and proud. Michael has not only given me the privileged by letting me in his heart, he also helped me visit two other relationships that needed to be reevaluated. Those two are my relationship with God and my relationship with myself.

Our internal relationship with ourselves is a never ending journey to discover our strengths and weaknesses. The challenges of life help us discover that but it's those challenges that can also consume us. As long as we face the challenges of life with courage and openness, we will continue to grow into the kind of human beings we are intended to be.

My relationship with God has been quite a rollercoaster ride in itself. I have questioned him in the hard times of my life. I have thanked him in the good times of my life but I never really have taken the time to praise him in my daily life.

I have always been spiritual and a believer of God and Jesus Christ, I just have always been conflicted about religion not about my saviors. I considered both sets of my grandparents and especially my maternal great grandmother my spiritual teachers. It is because of them that I have a relationship with God.

So, as I reflect about this year it is only natural that I am focusing on my loss but there is so much that I gained this year that I should not ignore. I have gained a new home, a new job, new friends, and a new place to be spiritually free and that is with all of you.

You are not only my fellow church goers you are my friends. I came in to this church and instantly you welcomed me. Nanette, our pastor, has quickly become a friend and a true leader that I continuously learn from each week in attending Wicker Park Grace. I want to thank all of you for allowing me to grow, for inspiring me to grow, and for teaching me to grow.

In conclusion, I really wanted to speak on taking chances. I read Maya Angelou's poem, Touched by An Angel, for the reason of love. She says "It is only love that sets us free." She is so right! At one time I thought I was in love with someone but I wasn't. I didn't even love myself, much less love someone else.

But I took a chance and I let God lead my life and I stand before you to tell you that for the first time in my life I am in love. I am in love with myself, with all of you, and Michael. Michael has had such an amazing journey in his own life to get to where he is today. I am very excited that we are now on a journey together as partners letting God lead the way.

I am so in love with my new found relationship with God. He has comforted me through some hard times this year. I have had much loss and heartache but I am learning to trust in him. I am taking chances and invite all of you to do the same to take chances on love and listen to your heart.

Always remember, God has a plan that we may not understand but just know that he is with us wherever we stand.

Thank you and God Bless!


A Vehicle to Reconnect

Merari Fernandez

Merari FernandezWicker Park Grace has been a vehicle to reconnect with my spirituality. I left a traditional Presbyterian church in Puerto Rico after finding my values were different from what was taught there and the pastor telling me before leaving I should suscribe to God values and not my values.

I left disappointed with the work the church was doing in our society. It seemed to me church existed to impose traditional values on the name of God. After I visited other Presbyterian churches in Chicago, I came to the conclusion that church was not the place for me. I was continually struggling with singing hymns, listening to a pastor doing the sermon for an hour, carrying the Bible to church, sharing with people who did not understand I have a different way to see God and what spirituality was for me.

Before going to Wicker Park Grace, I went to a church I liked that was open to the gay community, but practiced all these rituals I was struggling with. I decided instead to stay at Wicker Park Grace because these rituals were not present. Wicker Park Grace was open to the gay community, something very important to me to find in a place as a straight person. I did not feel anybody was imposing on me what to believe or to think, and the community welcomed all.

I did not feel I had to join the community in a formal way by becoming a member in front of the congregation in order to feel part of the community, nobody was asking me why I did not come last week, there was not a preecher in front of the community telling me how to live my spirituality.

I shared with people who were open about their sexual orientation. The use of the art and talents of people as a way to practice spirituality was a strong component, and the community was oriented toward taking action in regard to social issues.

I was impressed about an image Wicker Park Grace had of Jesus with dark skin in the middle of the room. I have felt as part of the community every time I have been invited to read a portion of a poem in Spanish or when Nanette read something in Spanish herself.

I liked the time we had an art piece of a woman in blue in the middle of the room and we talked about women's bodies and sexuality, a topic barely talked in a traditional church. I love how other people with different beliefs are invited to the community.

I like the fact that yoga is part of the services of the week because this shows that there are other ways to worship God, nature and honor ourselves. I always like that Nanette is always trying new things to approach people like me, who are struggling with the traditional idea of God.

Many of us grew up in church, were leaders in church, but after a transformation in our lives feel a traditional church is not the place for us. I am very happy Wicker Park Grace exists since I feel now that people like me are also people of God and have important things to say.

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