Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Woman's Best Friend

Gryffin on adoption day, resting after his 1st bath.
by Rev. Laura Barclay

A few months ago, my husband and I adopted a dog from the Kentucky Humane Society. After three years of allergy shots, I was ready for my first canine. We had been to the shelter several times and never found the right one for us: relatively quiet, good with kids so my niece could play with him/her, medium to small in size, and a low shed breed. As we looked through the cages, I saw a ball of matted fur in the back of one off to the side. Large brown eyes stared out of a mound of dirty white hair.

The name on the card read "Walter". It wasn't his real name (if he was ever given one) but a moniker given by the intake volunteers, which didn't seem to fit his obvious youth. I slowly removed him from the cage and he walked around with me, hovering close to my ankles. While I knew we should keep looking at the rest of the dogs, this one had crawled into my heart. He kept gazing up at me intently and expectantly. I hated even putting him back in the cage to fill out the adoption forms--I was a afraid he'd think I didn't want him, or worse, there would be a mix-up and he would be gone when I returned.

In the days to come as we bathed him, re-named him "Gryffin", took him to the vet to cure his kennel cough, weaned him off of people food and tried to convince him we'd never abandon him, I learned that he was found at a gas station in the small town of Mayfield, KY.  He tried to crawl into the car of a newspaper delivery woman before she called the pound to come and collect him. He was transferred to Louisville because of his sweet nature and high probability of adoption.

Gryffin whimpers and cries during storms, watches us sadly when we leave the house but no longer slams himself against the door to follow. He has gradually eaten his meals more slowly since he trusts that there will be another soon to follow. He still has panic attacks, but far more rarely unless brought on by his bad allergies. Yes, he's a handful--with him I adopted his anxieties, his health problems, and his fears. But he's given me such a blessing in return.

Gryffin lets me style his hair between cuddles.
On days when I'm stressed, he jumps in my lap and forces me to play. He knocks me out of a downward spiral of anxieties because he is highly attuned to his parent's moods. Gryffin's demanding sense of play time forces me to exercise more which also lowers my stress and reframes my mood. More than anything, I have found it incredibly rewarding to help be responsible, along with my husband, for guiding this little guy out of his shell and watching him become more relaxed, loving and confident every day.

I'm learning about that oldest and most ancient of relationships and what having "dominion over the animals" means. It's a great responsibility to care for this puppy, discarded and unwanted by someone who didn't or couldn't understand the depth of that task. In caring for Gryffin, I'm also caring for myself. I'm being reminded of the blessing of God's creation, the importance of being connected to all creatures in it great and small, and my heart has grown larger and more grateful.

I'd love to hear from you: Do you have a special relationship with an animal? What have you learned from that relationship? Leave me a comment!

This column originally appeared in Next Sunday Resources.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Wild & Precious Easter

“Mangrove tree inside Snipes Point near Key West,” Florida Memory, Wikimedia Commons
by Rev. Laura Barclay

I had the opportunity to go on a much needed vacation recently with my husband to sunny Key West. Because he had looked forward to this for weeks, he immediately wanted to book some excursions. We settled on a jet ski tour around the island and a boat trip that included snorkeling in the middle of the ocean. After nearly drowning in the ocean when I was 12, I was less than enthused about these choices, but I try to live by Eleanor Roosevelt's advice to "do one thing everyday that scares you."
I was even less enthused the next day when I realized we had hired a speed demon for a jet ski instructor who used words like "gnarly" and "rad" far too much. My options were to go between 45 - 50 mph and risked being flayed by the water if I fell off or lose site of the guide and wander aimlessly off the coast. While I like a bit of adventure, these are not my idea of good choices.

During one of the rare times he stopped to give us information about the island, he told us about the mangrove islands off the coast that we were about to fly past and barely see at breakneck speeds. He said that mangroves aren't actually saltwater plants. So how do they live in saltwater? They send a sacrificial leaf down to soak up all the salt. While this leaf withers and dies, the rest of the plant remains hearty and healthy.

I was just about to ask another question when he revved up his engine and rocketed away, and the moment passed. Later, I thought of this plant and how timely it was to learn this lesson the week before Easter. Throughout Lent, we give up bad habits or taken on spiritual practices in the hopes of reconnecting with the very core of our faith in God, and perhaps to learn something about ourselves. 

What is our sacrificial leaf? What have we had to give up so that we could flourish in our lives and our calling? Isn't that a bit like taking up our cross, as Jesus bid us to do? Well, in order to make it to the end of that terrifying jet ski tour, I had to give up fear. Instead of thinking about the sickening sound my body would make hitting the water at high speeds, I tried to focus on the wind in my hair, the color of the water, and the uniqueness of the moment.  I realized would never be in this situation were I in control. Control can be both good and bad; we can surround ourselves with things that comfort us, but we may miss a lot of great experiences. 

Our God is a great one who defeated death. Jesus flipped our world on it's end when he showed that the evil power of a corrupt Roman ruler wouldn't have the last say. Nothing is safe. The order of things has been upended. C.S. Lewis put it best in his "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" when the children are nervous about meeting the Christ-like character of the lion, Aslan. Susan says, "Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion." Mr. Beaver replies, "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”

In a world where anything can happen, we aren't in really in control, and we follow a God who can defeat death itself, what does Easter mean?  In this celebration of our risen Lord, I think we should all ask ourselves what our place is in this world. If we take up our cross, shed our sacrificial leaf, and lean into God's call, what could we do? What will we do?

As the great poet Mary Oliver asked, "Tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?"
The article originally appeared on "Next Sunday Resources":  http://www.nextsunday.com/a-wild-precious-easter/

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Lesson in Humility

by Rev. Laura Barclay

A few days ago, during a respite from one of the many polar vortexes that have blown through Louisville, I took my dog for a walk. My neighbor called me over.

“Hey there! I saw you fall the other day.”

“Oh, yeah. I slipped on the ice.” I laughed nervously and stared at my dog.

“Yeah, you fell. Then you laid there a while. You looked like you were hurt, and I thought you might have moaned a little. I was about to come over and check on you, but you stirred a bit, fell back down, pulled yourself up, and then limped slowly inside your house. I thought it was best not to disturb you, since you were probably icing your wound.”

Thanks, neighbor. He keeps an eye out for those around him and not a lot makes it past him, but I could’ve done without the painstaking retelling of one of my most recent examples of clumsiness. The only thing that makes this story even more embarrassing is that I was running back inside the house to change my shoes when I fell. I had realized I was about to take my sick dog to the vet in my house shoes instead of my snow boots.

We’ve all been there—tripping on the street and moving quickly along like we just decided to change our pace, as if anyone besides children would suddenly decide to start skipping instead of walking. Or maybe we spill a drink on our shirt and then decide to wear our coat to cover it for the rest of the evening. “Oh no, I’m not uncomfortable. I love sweating.”

But here’s the thing: life is too short to pretend we are perfect. As a recovering perfectionist, I should know. This means that where I would normally get very anxious about completing a project or meeting a new group of people, I now just try to do the best I can. If I fail or people don’t like me, so what? Neither of those so-called potential failures should be the measure of success to Christians, who are commanded to love their God and their neighbors as themselves. That’s easier said than done, and I can still get very anxious about the smallest things. But having a mantra of “so what?” has been helpful during those moments when I screw up or my neighbor slowly regales me with tales of my face plant or I just can’t seem to get it together.

Paul advises a church in Romans 12:3, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Paul’s point is that we are all part of the body of Christ, and each one of us has gifts and a role to play. We don’t have to be perfect or have it all together. We are meant to work in community to help one another and embody the love of Christ. We can fall down, mess up, be awkward and fail. Each one of us is beautiful despite (and even because of) our shortcomings.

You are a member of the body of Christ. You are gifted and special. Let’s work together to share this message with all God’s children.

This article also appears on Next Sunday Resources.

Friday, December 13, 2013

No, Megyn Kelly, Jesus and Santa Weren't White

by Rev. Laura Barclay

A few days ago, conservative talk show host Megyn Kelly claimed on her Fox News show that "For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white...just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change, you know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too...that's a verifiable fact, I just want kids to know that."

This statement was in response to a Slate piece by Aisha Harris entitled, "Santa Should Not Be a White Man Anymore", wherein she notes her confusion between seeing a black Santa figurine in her home while white Santas were popularized elsewhere at the mall and her school. Because the real history of St. Nicholas is so far removed from his present iteration as Santa Claus, she argues that it would be easier and less culturally problematic to change him into a penguin. This avoids questions of race and culture and makes him accessible to all. While I see her point about wanting to avoid cultural problems, it might be a good idea to confront the underlying issue of racism in America rather than continue to ignore it.

On that note, I would like to confront the factually incorrect statements made by Kelly in response to Harris.

Image pulled from "Image Foundry Studios"
1) "Santa just is white." -- First, Santa isn't real. So, I'm assuming she's talking about the person upon which his legend is based, St. Nicolas.  According to The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, St. Nicholas was born in the fourth century and became the bishop of Myra. Myra is located in present day Turkey. Supposedly, he provided three different girls each with a sack of gold to serve as dowries and rescue them from a life of prostitution. Over time, the legend grew and meshed with Norse legends. Immigrants brought these legends to North America, and the modern Santa Claus was pretty much manufactured by Norman Rockwell, Coca Cola, and other manufacturers of goods that wanted to ramp up Christmas sales.

So what did the the ancient Turkish gift-giver look like? A composite, made from forensic anthropologists who reconstructed his skeleton from his crypt in Bari, Italy, shows that he looked very much like modern day Turkish men. I think we can agree that he doesn't look like a typical white American male, though that categorical racial box is very problematic and fraught with ambiguity. It might be more accurate to say that he would not experience the privileges of being a white male in American society.

2) "Jesus was a white man, too." -- Wrong again. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew in first century Nazareth. This was a poor village in the shadow of the large city of Sepphoris. He, his father and his brothers, while stylized as artistic carpenters in the Christmas story, are actually more akin to day laborers who would have walked miles everyday to find work and survive in the shadow of the powerful Roman rulers who controlled the land. When he grew up, he heard about numerous uprisings to throw off the Roman yoke and started speaking out against the political powers and the religious leaders who collaborated with them. Speaking out too much and being referred to as "The King of the Jews" caused him to be executed for sedition.

Image from the BBC Photo Library
The United States is arguably the Rome of the modern world. We are the most powerful nation on Earth. Jesus would not identify with the privilege of being an average United States citizen. He did not live in abundant opulence like we do, when 50% of the world lives on less than $2.50 a day (80% on less than $10 a day). If Jesus were an American, he would more likely identify as an undocumented immigrant or other poor, oppressed class, given his historical social standing and statement regarding wealth and poverty.

Regarding Jesus's appearance, he most certainly would be flagged for a security check and racially profiled by TSA. According to forensic anthropologists who examined countless remains from that time period to find the most likely image, he looked like a Middle-Eastern male of Arabic descent.

So, what should we do with this information? We should ask ourselves about the images we hold in our minds of important historical or cultural figures. Are they constructed based on fact or to remake someone in our image for our comfort? Does holding on to historically inaccurate images keep us from becoming a more unified society, where we can appreciate and value one another's diversity? Perhaps most importantly, do they keep us from seeing people of all races as precious children of God? If so, we may want to smash these false images as idols and dig deeper for the sake of Jesus's call to love one another as we love ourselves.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Heartbreak and Hope in Miami

Flickr Photo by Tiffany L. Clark/Creative Commons
Jose Antonio Vargas Flickr Photo by Tiffany L. Clark/Creative Commons
by Rev. Laura Barclay

Last week, I attended a screening of Documented, Jose Antonio Vargas’ film about his coming out as an undocumented immigrant after winning the Pulitzer Prize. His journey is honest, poignant, and humorous. A lesser subject would have cut some of the material showing the strain of the situation on his familial relations, but the film never flinches from the raw story.

I sat in on a panel discussion after the screening filled with members of an organization featured in the film, “DREAMers Moms.” I had a chance to speak with several of them, and one story stuck out in particular. One mom left her country for the good of her children so they would have hope of a positive future in the United States. She hasn’t seen her mother in 13 years and won’t until immigration reform is passed into law. If she leaves the U.S., it’s likely she wouldn’t be allowed to return and care for her children. This would leave them essentially orphans who would be placed into foster care. Her mother is now in her 80s, frail and sick. This woman is losing hope of ever again touching the woman who cared for her, but still prays daily for a miracle.

Jose mentioned during the panel that a largely untold side effect of being undocumented is the toll that the constant fear of deportation and worry about family has on mental health. As he edited the film, he said, he noticed several points where he was clearly suffering from depression. I asked panelist Gaby Pacheco, an immigration activist and Dreamer who also appeared in the documentary, how she and others she knew developed mental health strategies for coping with anxiety and depression. She said it is vital to find others suffering from similar fears and share stories with them. With a lack of mental health resources for undocumented persons, that communal sharing is a form of therapy. She also voiced a need for mental health services to be included in comprehensive immigration reform.

The documentary will air on CNN, and be screened at film festivals and in theaters. Don’t miss a chance to see this film and encourage others to see this story that humanizes immigration reform. Partisan rhetoric has fueled this issue to a point beyond realism, but this film makes the political intimate and personal. After you see the film, join the discussion at organization,
www.defineamerican.com. Address the question, “How do you define American?”

I became passionate about immigration reform a few years ago when working with pastors Javier Benitez and Hector Villanueva at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina. The two work constantly to protect their parishioners from racial profiling and deportation, especially on Sunday morning when police camp outside entrances to Hispanic churches in order to profile and catch potential undocumented persons on the way to worship. This is intolerable. It is a moral imperative that we find ways to welcome the stranger as Scripture calls us to do. We must listen to immigrant stories and respond appropriately out of love. What does a Christian response to immigration look like in your community?

The article originally appeared on Sojourners.