Cynthia Dahlin: Isaiah: A Prayer of Confession for Sinners

Sermon for Seekers Church, 11/28/99
Cynthia Dahlin 

Isaiah: A Prayer of Confession for Sinners

Margreta told us last week that even the most seemingly random lectionary readings were selected for a purpose. I know that to be true, but this week’s seeming potluck took me a while to puzzle together. But I think that they will help me to share a bit about my learnings in ministry while in Sydney, about how my feelings about being part of Seekers community deepened because of my experience there, and finally to talk about how one of the roles of community is to keep us focused on God’s call, as we may be, or even are, being called to judgment at any time. As our lectionary theme for the advent season this year is "Manger and manure," I promise you there will be some manure in this discussion somewhere. When my husband, Ron, was asked to go to Sydney three years ago last July, I said yes because I felt very strong and supported. I had just experienced a wonderful term of training in chaplaincy at Sibley Hospital, had worked hard at bringing some new ideas to my mission group, Hope and a Home, and had learned a lot about faith and patience in seeing the group work with them, and was feeling very much a part of the center of Seekers, ready to ask to enter core membership. Out of that feeling of strength, I said "yes" to Sydney, knowing that there was to be in the experience something of great learning for me. I could not find out through Wesley or by asking friends what seminary might help me to move forward on my M.T.S. degree, or what churches might have small groups or missions where I might find a place, but I thought that I wanted to help Ron do something he had voiced as a life goal, to live abroad for a time, and I thought it could be good for our family. In addition, I had a strong feeling there would be growth for me. We arrived in Sydney and I tackled the job of helping the kids settle in and finding Scout troops, friends and church. For a few months, I went on adrenaline, but after 4 months or so, I felt tired, and sometimes homesick.

I asked Christo to play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" today. For some of you it may recall the moving solo April Barber sang five or six years ago. For me, its mix of longing for happiness and lack of any specificity about what "somewhere" was and how it might look, evoke my own feelings to find friends, meaningful work, and a feeling of community when I felt far away in Sydney. After the first few months of novelty, I felt alone, could not fit into any of the many hierarchical, conservative and formal churches that I tried, and felt I was not getting to know the real culture or society by attending the rounds of coffees, lunches and school fete stall meetings which made up my life as a mother. I had begun taking a few courses at the United Theological College, which served the church formed by the union of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations in Australia, and had found some contacts to begin searching for a placement to try to do a second Clinical Pastoral Education Unit, where I could find a place to explore God down under.

Some of my informational interviews were a shocker! At the huge state-run hospital nearby, I was told I could not introduce myself as "Cynthia Dahlin, the chaplain," as is common practice in the U.S. I could ask if the patients had any concerns they wanted to talk to a male priest about. I could not look at the patient’s charts, or write any of my observations down. As a woman in a state, and therefore, Anglican, institution, I would be a fifth wheel. In other places, I was encouraged to not talk directly about God, as people are not used to it, and it would put people off. In a couple of programs which run shelters which are used by men, I was told that as a woman I would just get in the way as I could not enter a man’s room, and they might talk to me too much, perhaps getting in the way of programmed activities run by men. I had started to meet some very independent and interesting women in school and social activities, and I did not lose hope. I knew that there was a religious underground where I would fit in.

I found it at Women’s Space, a safe house for women in the sex industry in Woolloomooloo, a community on the edge of the red light district of downtown Sydney. As soon as I met the director, I was certain the placement would work out and that I would challenge myself to meet and listen to a very different group of women, and that I would find a way to grow during my time in Australia. I knew this because Tracy, the 34-year-old director, asked me to tell my story, and then told me hers. She wanted to see how I ended up coming to the door, and to feel for herself what I might add to the team of five women who staffed the safe house. She told me what it was like to work with heroin addicts, what it was like to work with prostitutes, and about the personalities of the "regulars." She offered to help me to be able to work for short periods in a few of the other ministries in the neighborhood so that I could get to know the community as a whole. I knew I had found my placement. I walked out to my car, and found the window had been broken and my phone stolen. One of the regulars showed up, in jeans with peek-a-boo holes cut out from hip to ankle, and gave me a lecture about security. I was talking to my first prostitute, and she was thinking I was a yokel who did not know not to leave valuables in a car just outside the door of a place where we were sitting talking only 10 feet away.

Once I had found this place, I suddenly "fit in"–my whole relationship seemed to change from outsider to insider in Australia. I had a few weeks until the CPE program formally started, and I took an interterm course at the United Theological College, where I made this pain box. It shows all my nice, cheerful coping strategies on the outside, and my pains, which I hide, and which I felt the Australian culture encouraged hiding, on the inside. I had felt a shock of pain when I was, as it was now usual, put in a small group of foreign students in this class. I felt isolated and rejected by the Australians. I asked the other students, from Korea, Tonga and Japan if they felt left out being separated; they said they had not thought about it. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a gift to me to get to know some Asian students well. We each had to produce an artwork that represented how we saw pain in our religion. One of my group mates made a beautiful Crucifix, with his 80-year old Grandma, in traditional Korean dress, crucified in service to the male culture of his homeland. He described how she had slept on the dirt floor of the kitchen, and eaten after everyone else in the house had finished, and meanwhile had smiled and loved him just for being a boy in the family. That course was an unexpected gem.

When I started at Women’s Space, it turned out that the women challenged me constantly. I had feared that I would not know how to treat them. I knew most of them were nearly homeless, camping at the homes of various men they could persuade to take them in, but routinely thrown out without their clothes or possessions when they stole to buy drugs or imposed on the relationship in another inappropriate way, such as bringing a male client to the boyfriend’s home and being caught–the soap operas were endless. Most of them had serious medical issues from abusing and overusing their bodies for many years. I had been shocked to find many of our clients were in their fifties, and wondering how to support themselves with food, home and drugs when their bodies wore out. About 800 people a year are currently dying of heroin use in Sydney, so many of them had never pictured themselves getting old, so had never thought of getting off of drugs and finding another way of life. The women were extremely uninhibited, and teased me at the beginning when I turned to give them privacy when they stripped in the middle of the room to try on new outfits "found" or stolen from the local thrift shop. Later, some of the intimacy caused me great sadness, when as women could not talk about things which had happened, but wanted support, might strip off their shirts to show that a client had put out cigarettes all over their body, or to show the site of new self-inflicted cutting of her body. I found that when the women could not find words, I could not. Instead of reassuring or trying to understand, just crying with them was all that was possible. This is definitely the manure part of the sermon.

Now to get back to our lectionary: Many of the women, after they got to know me, and after the obligatory 30-40 minute chat on coffee, biscuits, and how everyone in the room took their coffee, and the last good cup of coffee everyone had had, etc., etc., etc. were very happy to talk about God with me. The other women who had worked in the Women’s Space ministry faithfully over several years were social workers, drug counselors or therapists in training. Despite taking on a committed and very meaningful ministry, they did not use religious or theological terms. When I was introduced as a chaplain in training, it meant a lot to the prostitutes. They would tease me a bit, but they wanted to talk about God. The way they talked about God was like our passage in Isaiah: "Oh, God–you meet those who gladly do right … but because you hid yourself we transgressed." Many of the women clearly saw the bad or self-harming things they did, using drugs, stealing, selling themselves but felt that God should take part of the responsibility, as it was God’s action of turning away that led them to the first harmful action down their life paths. "For you have hidden your face from us, and delivered us into the hand of our iniquity"

Many of you may know that Isaiah, like the Psalms, was written to be read antiphonally. One side of the congregation reads a verse, and the next is a synomomous phrase, restating the same idea. I found that this rhythm of Isaiah is like the confession of the prostitutes. They confessed, and I found that in reflecting back their feelings, I found a deeper ability to confess myself. In addition, the gift that I got was that as they were very willing to call on God for forgiveness. "Yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, and you are our potter." "Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever." I have not done a tenth of the bad deeds that these women have and I am a lot worse at confession. I notice that sometimes I come here on Sunday, and when it is time for the prayers of confession, I will be thinking, "I’ve got nothing to confess this week, just prayers of thanks or intercession." Then someone will say, " Dear God, I don’t take time to enjoy all you have given me." And I think, "Oh, yeah, me too. I should have said something like that." Moreover, someone says, "I make my life so busy there is no time to hear your voice speaking to me." And I think, "Yeah, me too." I found that in listening to the women confess, I could repeat what they said, albeit toned down a few shades for the outrageousness of some of their acts, and I would find a need to confess of my own. I found that in being with women who were obvious sinners in so many ways, made my own recognition of my own sins clear, and their confession less weighty. Sometimes it seems such a burden to be with people who think they are perfect; this is the opposite. Being with these women made me see my sins, but made confessing them and feeling forgiven much easier. It made me believe that is why Jesus preferred the company of sinners.

The clients at Women’s Space typically had no community in their lives, and no family or friends in healthy relationship. Family histories included abuse and abandonment; love and common law relationships were based on drug use and mutual manipulation. We had some success in a parenting group for the young mothers we came in contact with, but mostly women formed a relationship with the staff, and were willing to be in a room together focused on relationship with us. It would take much work before any of these women could ever be in community. Nevertheless, for me, the community among the women I worked with was rich. Facing some of the terrible choices: should we help this woman keep her baby? Should we help someone get drugs if the methadone clinic shut down for a few days without notice? Should we discuss a discovered theft of our property with someone if we knew it would scare her away when she was making progress? –We had to trust each other and help each other through the pain we saw and felt. Once we delivered some furniture we found from St. Vincent’s to a woman, helped to move out her futon, and there was a nest of thousands of roaches underneath. She had no bug spray–we stomped and swatted with her for a while–it sure helped to go home and talk about how grossed out we were, and how simply amazed we were that she accepted her squalid living conditions without a complaint, and we could barely stay in the room! We talked about how graced we felt to be able to express feelings to each other, form bonds, and build healthy relationships and friendships. We celebrated hard, and when one of us had a problem, all rallied round. I was feeling bad when Christo’s school situation seemed so mean–it was hard to find a good fit for a bright boy with ADD. Everyone encouraged me, heaped blame on Australian rigidity and made me feel like justice was on my side and things would work out. When one woman faced a suicide attempt by her daughter, we took turns calling her each night, trying not to swamp her, but to assure her that we would offer any support we could. We talked about the injustice of the world, how our clients could have so darn little, how the drought was hurting the farmers, how the women were oppressed by the macho society. Moreover, we discussed the redemptive side of God, who we saw as Christ, and spent a lot of time discussing the lack of an understanding of the trinity in Australia. We believed that people could see the presence of God the Creator in nature. They believed in the Holy Spirit in the guise of world peace efforts or friendliness at the pub. However, the risk taking required to find redemption with another person, with an enemy or with God, seemed foreign here. In our little community, we felt that the aspect of God which was hard to find and that we saw working with an extremely marginalized population, was the God of resurrection, dying to find life again, being with sinners, hoping to see new life growing in dead lives. That discussion, with those caring workers who knew so much about the pain in the world, is what I loved most about Sydney. I felt we were at the manger together trying to understand how God had decided to come to earth and live with us and teach us to try to love even the sinners, and in doing so, find ourselves.

As I find so much of the meaning for my own life in mission, I feel the Mark passage of today’s lectionary is a caution to me about the importance of remaining in mission where I meet God daily. If I am not doing what I need to be in conversation with God, God may come, the end time may come and I may be off redecorating my house, for example. We are the servants in charge of God’s world, and we need to be doing the work we are each assigned. "Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

I believe I was going along smoothly, feeling call in my work at Hope and a Home, feeling pulled into community here, feeling growth in chaplaincy training when I felt a pull into going into a new place, feeling a new role as a spiritual leader for women who had not claimed their ministry explicitly at Women’s Space, and learning so much about some very troubled people. Now I am home again, and want us all to Keep Awake together, trying to listen to how God is guiding us about our new home, our community’s work, together and apart, and about our own lives. My connection to Seekers gave me the support to look for community in Sydney and the discipline to name, in my spiritual direction by e-mail with Marjory, what was going on for me. I found I called myself a Seeker as a key part of my introduction to my new friends and know it is a key part of my life. I told Sonya and Marjory a couple of weeks ago that I feel ready to join the Stewards. I want to join you and struggle together to keep us all awake to the coming of God to our manger.

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