Roots Here and Branches Everywhere

Eight reasons why many young adults don't go to church

May 06, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

“Eight reasons why many young adults don't go to church: They've been hurt by the church. College or adult life doesn't seem to mix well with church. Unlike credit card companies, churches don't know how to connect with mobile young adults. Many other activities are competing for their time and attention. They are especially skeptical about people or organizations that are trying to get their attention. Their lifestyle leaves them exhausted. They think 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is a “dumb” time. And they don't see any relevance to the church.” (Christian Piatt)


Many prefer to think of the persistent widow as hunched, bent, ragged, stringy hair, the works. I prefer to think of her as a graduate of Stanford, possibly in engineering, or of Yale, possibly in French literature. At Stanford she also studied French, at Yale she also studied physics. When she arrives at the judge, she is wearing an Eileen Fisher ensemble, gladiator sandals and demure gold earrings. The long dangly ones she wears at night. She has fed her children good yogurt in the morning, and will give them the left over tagine for dinner. After that she will go out with her friends, have a great time, perhaps pick up a gentleman. She has the joy that Michelle Obama’s yellow had on election day nearly four years ago. She has never had the kind of sex that Girls have on girls. She imagines the judge as her peer. She talks to him, not out of desperation, but out of hope. This parable is about Jesus honoring her hope. BTW if you want a good way to interpret parables, imagine yourself in each role. You, who are fearfully and wonderfully made, can be the judge, the widow, the courtroom, and the dead husband. You are the kind of person I call a triple: you are so convinced that you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 119) that you consider people in power your peers. Perhaps you are a black man who has been stopped or frisked. You are also well dressed, erect, genuinely a human. What is a triple: someone who knows and loves beauty, someone who enjoys community, and someone who refuses not to have power for beauty and community.

Yes, I am talking to the new rap on Occupy. Or the rap on Judson. From the little kitchen that could emerges the best potlucks I have ever known. We are the kind of people who bring our best dishes to the potluck. Remember those deviled eggs, or the chocolate mouse, or the empanadas? Just to remember a few spring items. Many people hear the words ‘Church potluck” and imagine a lot of baked beans and wilted salads. Guess what? They are wrong. On behalf of Judson’s community and beauty, we have hope to have power. Not on behalf of our baked beans. And by the way I have nothing against baked beans.

People imagine the widow is weak in the same way that we confuse Jesus’ power with softness. We have very few pictures of the beautiful or the well connected (and by that I don’t mean wealth) also wanting power. I think Jesus is warning Occupy not to give up power and Judson not to give up on raising money – and asking that we do so from our hope, not our desperation.

That’s what I think the parable means. All ideas have roots and branches and if we take the Sunday School leaflet version of the persistent widow and the unjust judge, our ideas will be patronizing. We will imagine the judge as having more power than the judge does. Always treat a cop as your peer, a judge as your peer. Repeat if you must, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Two examples.

PTSD, Moral Injury

Sanford preferential ice, Waking: from Trauma to Transcendence. Good ideas and good parables also have roots and branches. We will reap what we sew. For today imagine yourself a triple, like the widow. A person of beauty, with power and with community.


I greet you in the name of the grandiose full moon that rose last night, only to hide itself in the clouds. I greet you in the name of beauty.

I greet you in the name of the great power of the church supper. I greet you in the name of community.

And I greet you in the name of an Almighty God, who sent Jesus to us, to tell us healing stories. I greet you in the name of the widow who bothered to wear the judge down with her persistence. I greet you in the name of power and those who bother to care about power.

And I greet you in the name of all three, beauty, community and power and come to testify to the possible presence of all three in your life, in our lives together and in our nation and world. Most of us choose only one or two. Only the rare person, or congregation chooses all three. Beauty and community seem possible to us. We can imagine a beautiful church potluck, we can see the big full moon in our minds, even if we forget to look or it fogs in on its big night. Very few of us can imagine power as well as beauty and community. Even Occupy, that great wake up call that flashed as lightning all fall, is now telling us that it is about beauty and community, not power. The parable for today tells us that Jesus, the soft one, has little interest in weakness. He commends to us the persistent widow, who bothered the judge to justice. I greet you in the name of the widow, a woman unprotected in the world, as so many are: I greet you in the name of her capacity for beauty, her capacity for community and how that capacity cannot be realized without power.

Jesus is a man whose softness is often confused with weakness. Today I want to agree that Jesus is a softie, only to add that there is nothing soft about weakness. Many also confuse power with strength – and beauty and community with weakness. There is often a delicacy to beauty, the way a fog can cloud a moon or caress a half built building. There is often fragility to community, and if you have ever wondered if a potluck supper will really work, and then realized that you had just the right number of salads, mains and deserts, you understand both its power and its great possibility to fail. Have you ever been at a potluck where everybody brought deserts? I have. It is wonderful. You don’t have to bother with the first course. If I declare that beauty and community are possible, even for the powerless, I must also say that power is dangerous without beauty and community. The three all together need to approach the judge’s bench, and there not be apologetic. Human beings deserve all three, want all three, and can get all three. We dare not hide from power, just because we have beauty and community. And we dare not let beauty and community hide from power. When we do that, we hoard the delicacy and the fragility that makes us so wonderfully and fearfully made. Power, beauty and community have roots and branches everywhere. All three make the tree strong. Absent one, and the tree starts to die.

I refer you to our guest, Deborah, who experienced a moral injury in her life, only to transcend it, by the power of persistence and the refusal to be told that she didn’t matter. I refer you to the imaginative work of Rita Nakashemi Brock, who is one of our Occupy partners in Oakland. Her theological and pastoral work is with veterans, many of whom have that diagnosis PTSD. You know the lingo. PTSD means post-traumatic stress disorder. Rita is arguing with great power that we have misnamed something powerful – and that in the misnaming, we have gone off the track of healing. Her preferred words for PTSD is “moral injury.” Many of us have probably used the language about ourselves or others and described them as having a posttraumatic stress disorder. It is very hard to get home from that diagnosis. It is too psychological, the words are too socially scientific, they are ugly words, that throw a people into more than one kind of absence of order. It also refuses to source. It occupies a large space in the language of the present tense. Something happened back then, the “post.” It is, presently experienced as trauma. It causes stress, which is a word that more aptly applies to wood or steel or fabric, than it does to the fully beautiful, fully formed human that the psalm describes so well. Did you hear Psalm 119? We are fearfully and wonderfully made, formed and authored by a God who searches and knows us. We can never be reduced to a diagnosis, whether it is bi polar or ptsd or mnokp. Whatever that is. The reduction of moral injury to ptsd causes a reduction in our parabolic purpose in life. The diagnosis almost implies that sure you can have beauty and you can have community but you can’t have power. No one stops wars in the name of PTSD. We stop wars in the name of stopping moral injuries.

If you prefer a more personal example, listen to Matthew Sanford talk about what happened to him after he had his back broken and his neck broken in a car accident at age 13 that also killed his father and his brother. Of course, Matthew has PTSD. He also has extraordinary capacity. He also learned how to tell a healing story about himself that allowed him to live and to write. His memoir, Waking: from Trauma to Transcendence, tells how he immediately knew that he had to stay alive for his mother and his brother. “They needed me to live for them.” Matthew knows that something accidental happened to him. We call these car accidents accidents because we don’t know what else to call them. He speaks of “preferential icing,” that thing that we learned about in drivers’ ed and how it changed his life in an instant, as he puts it in the memoir, “In an instance, the connection between my mind and body changed. I was driven to an interior silence. My inner silence does not require that I flex muscles. It does mean that I engage more powerfully with my experience. That I reach in more firmly to darkness.”

I personally get very tired of the language having to be correct. I don’t get tired of bothering the wicked judges. There is a difference. We are here to bother the judges, those that have nested in our hearts and minds, the interior ones. We are here to acknowledge the moral injury of war and the way the government tries to take care of soldiers in a way that diminishes them. We are here to acknowledge the moral injury of preferential icing, the kind that frisks and stops certain people, while letting the Irish run free on St. Patrick’s day, drunk as skunks. We are here to remember that Jesus’ softness was not weakness, but instead an urgency for power, the power of language, of connection, of healing, of the refusal of people who are fearfuy and wonderfullyl made to be reduced to a diagnosis, that goes on a piece of paper. We are here to remember that babies can be born from a mother who forgot herself long enough to know crack too well – and go on to write books and unprison all kinds of projects.

Your take away, whether you have moral injury or not, whether you have PTSD or not (yes a diagnosis is a subset of moral injury, not its final definition) is this: You are fearfuly and wonderfully made by an Almighty God. You are large not small. What you do matters. You can stop shoulding yourself, even if your error is to worry that you should not say the word should so much. You can stop judging yourself, even if your judgment is that you are too judgmental against yourself or others. You can stop being defensive, because you have nothing to defend. You can plan at least one day this week in which you don’t want to be anyone else.

Maybe you have never met a wicked judge or been unfairy accused or unfairly addicted. You still wonder how you can tell your aging out tennis partner that she is just ruining everybody else’s game by no longer being able to hit the ball over the net. You still wonder if you can trust the tram to Roosevelt Island. You still wonder what will happen to you if you don’t get health insurance soon or what will happen if the fullness of the moon stays hidden from all humanity for too long.

Injury can root in you and have branches everywhere, on health insurance forms and in minimalizing diagnoses. The moral vigor of power, beauty and community can also root in you – and it, too, can have roots and branches everywhere. The choice is not the judge’s. It is ours.


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