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Paula Mehmel

Paula V. Mehmel describes herself as “a radical, evangelical, Lutheran mystic.” After 24 years serving as a pastor in North Dakota, she recently moved to New England, where she serves as senior pastor of Emanuel Lutheran Church in Hartford, Conn. A Minnesota native, she holds an undergraduate degree in English and German from Washington University in St. Louis and her Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. “Pastor Paula,” as she is widely known, is a popular speaker, writer and proud single mother of two sons who both attend Harvard University. With a passion for serving the last, the lost and the least, Mehmel is a committed community member with a special interest in homelessness, refugee resettlement and addressing issues of sexual violence. She also created a no-cut community theater in Casselton, N.D., to assure herself a small role in the ensemble each summer, fulfilling her desire to sing and dance on stage. One of the many reasons she is thrilled with her recent move is that she is two hours from New York City, where she goes to as many shows on Broadway as possible. Thus far, though, no opportunities to perform. She relishes the opportunity to share her thoughts on anything from social justice to theology to random musings about her latest travel adventures.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids —Finding A Balance

I took a week to be quiet.

I realize how privileged I am to have this opportunity — to get away and turn off the noise of the world. For far too many, the realities of everyday survival preclude such luxuries, and for a chance such as this, I am deeply grateful.

I’ve done this for years.  I return to Manitoba Pioneer Camp, the camp I attended as a child, which my children attended, where members of my family have been attending every decade since the 1940s.

MPC is on an island in Shoal Lake, on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods, and from the moment I step foot on the island, it feels like “going home.”

My parents are gone and the house I grew up in was sold nearly 20 years ago, and the house I raised my sons in we left six months ago. In the midst of the transience of life, this is a place to which I can always return.

As I walk down the path to the Stuga, a small cabin overlooking the lake past the end of the cabin line where I retreat, I am greeted with happy smiles and the occasional shout of “Paula!” as I am embraced old friends, unsurprised to see me in my old stomping ground.

During the course of the days at camp, I spend time with people who were my counselors in the ’70s,  as well as those who were campers and then on staff with me and also the children of friends and friends of my children. The whole span of my life  melds together seamlessly over shared meals of amazing food and shared prayers to an amazing God.

But mostly, I am here for silence. Except for the time I spend at meals, the only sounds I hear are the lap of water on the rocks, the birds and creatures that scurry around and my favorite sound of all — the cry of the loon.

I have come to the Stuga over the years at various points in my journey — after my divorce, when I was going through changes of call, and this time, I came to spend time rooted in the Mission and Ministry of Emanuel Lutheran Hartford.

My goal was to hunker down with all of the materials I have pulled together in the past nine months of listening to my congregation in small group meetings as well as archival information about where they’ve been and where they are going.

And then pray.  Pray for God to help me discern the next steps in what I hope is a very long journey together. To help cast the vision, after listening to their voices, of where God is guiding us, hoping that I set a pace that is rapid enough to keep us vital but not too fast so that I lose folks along the way.

I find that the silence clears my mind and helps me really hear — hear voices that get drowned out when I spend too much time consumed by news that I cannot change.

And as I listen to those voices, they encourage me to change the things I can. To work with others, in this messed up broken world, to be agents of change. To look for common threads that will come together to strengthen the fabric of our shared experience.

We are living in dangerous times. And we walk between two extremes.

On one side, we can become completely subsumed by the news and the noise, and it all melds together in one cacophonous yarl that overwhelms us with an addiction to what is happening coupled with a paralysis  to do anything but simply howl about it.

On the other side, is the desire to tune it out. To normalize it. To ignore a world rapidly spinning out of control with the poor and the disenfranchised becoming victims of hatred that is accepted as a form of discourse. We cease to be outraged by horrific actions, sliding into a state of being comfortably numb.

We need to find a place between the two where we can be aware, be outraged, but be effective and find a place of peace — solid ground from which to build up the world we want to see.

I think we find that place by seeking out places of silence and places where we feel at home. By being intentional about recharging.

My breath prayer, the prayer I say when I need to center myself, has long been “Be Still And Know that I am God”

And I understand it on two levels. One says, “Let your heart be still, Paula, and your soul, in the current of life and trust me to guide you.”

The other says, “Shut up, Paula, quit talking, and start listening to me.”

I need both to stay centered — to shut up and trust.

And I need both in order to navigate the world we are in so that I can remain effective — to not fret about what I can’t change and to find courage to change what I can.

I leave this week recharged, but I can’t afford to wait another year to do this in a news cycle that seems to run 25 hours in a 24-hour day.

So my challenge to myself, and to anyone else looking for hints of ways to remain sane in this world, is to be deliberate about finding ways to seek out  and  relish silence, whether it is on a walk or in the car or in a media free zone.  Find silence and sit with it for a while. And then return to the world and it’s struggles.

Because we can’t remain silent in the face of oppression.

 

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Survival In Turbulent Times

It’s hard not to be depressed these days.

Images of babies screaming as they are ripped away from their mothers breasts and 3-year-olds brought into court alone to face charges haunt my dreams, along with the cries of children who are lost, confused and alone.

Social media posts from young men I knew in a kinder, gentler time, whose worst instincts have been unleashed by a crude, crass and deliberately divisive leader, giving them permission to embrace the Confederate flag (in North Dakota of all places) and all that comes with it, believing somehow that they are “victims” of diversity. In a different era, they would have been good conservatives, but now they are becoming a mass of followers who celebrate unchecked anger and find it socially acceptable to spew hate.

Realizing that many of the fine Republicans I knew, loved and respected, though we differed on solutions, have decided that morals do not matter, nor does character or honesty or integrity. They silently follow behind leadership that openly flouts decency, civility and the rule of law, lies brazenly and seemingly celebrates cruelty and exclusion. I have seen people I admired cast their values aside for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom.

Watching the national debt soar, knowing that in the aftermath of a tax cut that benefited the rich, it will be used as an excuse to further dismantle an already fraying social safety net; seeing voters rights further dismantled and Muslims banned; listening as brutal dictators are hailed as “nice guys” and foreign friends are insulted as the world becomes more dangerous; being cognizant of the impact of climate change daily as environmental protections are cast aside; hearing about what is being uncovered in a probe about foreign election interference even as facts are ignored and twisted and nothing is being done to prevent it in the future; and mourning as we grow further apart rather than seeing someone call out our better angels to bring us together …

The list could go on …

It is easy to be depressed these days and want to retreat into a place of self-pity and despondent inertia, which is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Right now, more than ever, we need fair-minded people, both conservatives and progressives, who believe in core values, decency and the rule of law, to step up and be engaged as we battle for the very soul of our nation.

But how do we do it? How do we keep fighting what feels like an overwhelmingly losing battle, in the face of vitriol being celebrated as approval ratings rise, as people who call themselves people of faith defend behavior that seeks to cast those who are different from us as alien rather than children of the same God?

I’ve been thinking about this the past few days, and I’ve come up with some suggestions for survival in turbulent times.

1. Exercise self-care. As the old saying goes, “put your own oxygen mask on first before helping those around you.”

I know being able to do this comes from a point of privilege that not everyone has, but I also know it is imperative to take care of yourself if you are in the fight for common decency for the long haul. Because the world cannot afford us stepping back or burning out.

For me, that meant signing up to be a “goat nanny” at a local farm and taking some time out to play with animals, to refresh myself. It means going for long walks in the woods with my dog to think and pray. Heading to a musical on Broadway or supporting local arts at a museum or show, or going to the ocean for a nice long walk.

I return from these times of self-care rested and ready to keep going.

2. Figure out what how to tune in and when to tune out. We are met with two conflicting tensions. One is to tune out the news completely and pretend this isn’t happening. That is dangerous because we need constant vigilance. The other extreme is to become so obsessed with it that it becomes almost addictive and we end up listening but not doing. I have been subject to both extremes.

What I am learning is best for me is to focus more on reading articles, as opposed to the radio or TV, because it doesn’t drag me down as much but keeps me informed. I have a few podcasts that are weekly compilations and the occasional nightly show that I listen to, but I find classical music centers me and Broadway tunes and the 1980s buoy me up.

I also try to listen to voices with whom I have not always agreed — Bill Kristol, George Will, Steve Schmidt, Nicole Wallace and John Kasich are just a few. This gives me hope and reminds me that these are not normal times, but that there are people of integrity who see the difference. We are united in a fight for “liberty and justice for all.”

3. Find a community of support so you know you are not alone. I once had someone ask me why I loved to march, even if it didn’t make a difference. I said there was strength in solidarity and the support of like-minded people. Joining in song and chants helps you feel stronger and it provides energy for the battle ahead.

Finding friends to support you, in person and on social media, helps us pick each other up when we feel overwhelmed and just want to quit.

There will be setbacks and losses. We know that too well, but as someone who marched against apartheid for years, smuggled for the ANC and was willing to raise my voice at what I thought at times was a futile struggle, I also stood outside the South African consulate in Chicago the day Nelson Mandela was released. There will be victories, both large and small, which we need to celebrate together, and our voices do make a difference.

4. Don’t get stuck in an echo chamber. One of the worst things that can happen right now is for people to get further caught up in tribalism, so deliberately seek out people with whom you don’t agree to engage in conversation and seek to find common ground.

I can’t believe that most people of decency support this policy at the border any more than I believe most people in Germany supported the genocide of the Jews. What happened was that it was easy to ignore, so don’t let others ignore what is happening.

Engage in conversation, don’t demonize those with whom you disagree, and try to reach out to our better angels as we work together to come up with solutions. I had a conversation with someone on Facebook the other day. I didn’t back down on my faith or this moral imperative, but I didn’t call names, and in the end, I think I made progress in helping them see the humanity of those they were denigrating.

Yes, there are people who celebrate cruelty and relish in white supremacy and nationalism, but I can’t believe it is 40 percent of the population. My job is to keep engaged with those who know, deep down inside, what is happening, and try to find a way to help them move out of this “autopilot of support” and try to get back to that place where we could agree to disagree without casting aside decency, humanity and a equality.

5. Find small ways to make a difference. Last year, after the election, I started tutoring recent Muslim immigrants, teaching them English. I felt like, in some small way, I was making a positive impact. I can’t imagine how scary it must be to be Muslim these days in a nation that essentially said it was OK to isolate a religion, but I know that I can be a supportive presence. Volunteer locally to connect with those who are being marginalized, reach out to an immigration service, donate your time and money. You will feel like you are having an impact — and you will be doing good.

6. Figure out a way you can have a larger impact. Elections have consequences.

I am someone who makes phone calls, but I know I can’t really make a difference with what happens right now in Congress. I can make a difference with who gets elected, however. Less than half of the people eligible to vote do, so the key to making a difference is getting more people to vote. The current regime was elected by less than 25 percent of the American people — and I know many of those who voted did it as a protest of the other candidate, not a voice of support for this dystopian vision of America.

So we need to get involved and get people registered to vote and then get them out to vote and ensure their right to vote. I am planning on taking Nov. 3-6 off and going wherever I can to help as a poll watcher or drive people to vote, whether that is in Georgia or North Dakota. This, perhaps, is the most important American election of all time. It will be to see if we can stop this careening car from crashing.

7. Don’t let anyone normalize what is happening. Jon Stewart appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on Thursday night and reminded us of what Abraham Lincoln said regarding the one thing that Southern slaveholders wanted: “This and only this: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right.”

“It was on this point that Lincoln said the Union could not bend,” Stewart said. “And what Donald Trump wants is for us to stop calling his cruelty and fear and divisiveness wrong, but to join him in calling it right. And this we cannot do. And I say, by not yielding, we will prevail!”

When George Will and Jon Stewart are on the same page, you know it is not about politics, it is about the future of democracy.

So we can’t afford to retreat into depression. We need, now more than ever, to act boldly because the very essence of our nation is at stake.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Rules Of Engagement

As a blogger and Facebook presence, I use my forum to give my opinions but have always steered away from engaging in debate with others online, especially people I don’t know … until now.

Perhaps it is because my posts and blogs are shared a lot and I get tagged in them, but in the past week, I have been trolled by more than a few people, spouting inaccuracies, and I am no longer holding my powder.

Not because it is me they are attacking. I’m an old hand at being attacked. But because they are defending a policy that I believe is morally bereft and indefensible.

I want to actively engage with people who are supporting what I believe is an evil policy of our U.S. government, challenging false statements and forcing them to think about the morality of what they are supporting. But I want to do so in a way that honors my values.

After talking to a few people about it, I thought it might be helpful to share my rules of engagement.

1. If possible, have face-to-face or one-on-one discussions with people you know. It promotes relationship and is the best way to change hearts and minds. But it is OK to confront hatred, ignorance or meanness. Sometimes we can’t leave it unchallenged or unchecked.

2. Treat others the way you want to be treated, whether in the cyber world or the real world. The view from the high road is always better.

3. Facts matter. Be relentless in relying on them, share them freely and if you make a mistake, acknowledge it and correct it. I posted an inaccurate picture, was called out on it, apologized and corrected it. And then posted accurate photos. It reminded me to check and double-check because inaccurate information provides fodder to deny accurate information.

But remember, just because someone says something often enough doesn’t make it so. Lies are lies.

And we cannot “agree to disagree” when what the other person believes is wrong. (I, for example, will not agree to disagree that the world is flat or that this current crisis can only be solved by Congress. The administration can do it with a phone call and refuses.)

4. If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I serve a Lord who is merciful, compassionate and always sides with the oppressed. I don’t assume everyone shares my faith, but I will boldly proclaim that I make my choices guided by my understanding of God and am not afraid of confronting those who claim the name of Christ with the words, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me and whatever you do not do to the least of these you do not do to me.” There are some things worth fighting for, and this is one of them in which Jesus picked a side. If that makes others squirm, so be it. I stand with Jesus.

4 Jesus was a criminal. So was the Apostle Paul. Committing a crime is not an excuse for cruelty. “Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison in with them; those who are tortured as though you are being tortured.” — Hebrews13: 3

5. Ask questions and tell stories. It promotes dialogue. Share why you feel this is wrong and tell your own story. I go to refugee camps. I’ve seen and heard firsthand what people experience. Tell your story and why you care. Don’t let people reduce you to a trope or caricature.

6. Kindness is a virtue. Selfishness is not.

7. Silence is complicity.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — There Is No Moral Defense Of Evil Acts

I will never forget the first time I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., because by the time it was over, I wanted to crawl out of it in shame.

I was a young pastor, serving as the keynote speaker and Bible study leader at a continuing ed event for people who worked with youth, and part of our program included a tour of the Holocaust Museum.

Because I was one of the leaders, I was wearing a clerical collar during the tour, and with each step, the collar became tighter around my neck.

The reason?  Well, simply put, because Lutheran clergy, for the most part, either sided with Hitler, defending his actions or else remained silent. Of the 18,000 Protestant clergy in Germany at the time, only 16 percent said “No” by becoming part of the Confessing Church, that stood in opposition to Hitler and his nationalistic propaganda, lies and destruction.

And the museum did not ignore this fact. It pointed out, vividly, how the Nazis used the Bible to defend their actions and co-opted the church in the process.

Pastor Julius Leutherser embodied the beliefs of so many pastors when he preached, on Aug. 30, 1933, “Christ has come to us through Hitler,” citing the passage from Romans 13 that states, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”  (Rom. 13:1)

The complete misinterpretation of this passage allowed over 80 percent of the clergy in Germany to simply look the other way in the face of the Holocaust.  After all, the leaders and the laws were put in place by God, and who were they to disagree with Adolf Hitler’s favorite passage?

That is why my blood began to boil when I heard U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cite Romans 13 to defend the repugnant decision of the current administration to make a substantial policy shift from previous administrations and forcibly separate parents from their children when they came to the U.S.seeking asylum.

Later in the day, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed his sentiments by saying, “It’s biblical to enforce laws.”

Sessions, Sanders and all those voicing similar views stand on the shoulders of those German pastors who defended Hitler, as well as American preachers who used the same passage to justify first slavery and later Jim Crow laws, when they  turn to Romans 13 specifically and the Bible in general to support immoral acts.

As a pastor, nothing angers me more than people using the Bible to defend actions that would make Jesus weep.

Quoting Scripture to defend something as abhorrent as ripping a 4-month-old baby out of  his mother’s arms, as she pleads for asylum from abuse and violence, is antithetical to everything that Jesus stood for.

After all, Jesus was about an infant when he and his parents fled violence in Bethlehem to become refugees in Egypt. And somehow, I don’t think it would have been good or godly to rip Jesus out of Mary’s arms.

The story of the temptation of Jesus shows that even Satan could quote Scripture for his own benefit. Which is precisely what Sessions was doing.

When people use the Word of God to make evil actions seem justifiable, they are breaking the Second Commandment and using God‘s name in vain. They are using God for their own purpose, defending something that directly defies  the God of love made real in Jesus embrace of those who are rejected and forgotten.

No human with an ounce of compassion or human decency can defend what the U.S. government is doing with the enforcement of a decree from the executive branch to rip small children away from their parents.

It is despicable to muddy the waters even further by throwing the Word of God in to justify it.

The Bible says far more about the care of orphans, widows and strangers in a strange land.  For example, Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

In addition, God is clear that there are unjust laws and warns against those who make them. In  Isaiah 10:1 the prophet writes, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people.”

I could go on all day, finding passage after passage that paint a picture of a God of love who cares about the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. Who sides with those who have been abused.

Even if one argues that these people have broken the law, the Bible states clearly that we are to “Remember those who are in prison, as though we are in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourself were being tortured.”  Heb. 13:3.

Breaking the law does not justify acts of cruelty.

Jesus himself was subject was a convicted criminal who was whipped and crucified and whose murder was defended because of a belief that it was “Scriptural to enforce laws.”

This should not be a partisan issue. It isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue. This is an issue of what it means to be a decent and just nation.

Since Sessions and Sanders like to reference the Bible, I suggest they reread the book of Amos. It describes what happens to nations that behave like this. It isn’t pretty.

Or perhaps, since they are fond of emphasizing the aspects of the Bible that talk about the law and quoting Romans 13, they might want to read further down, where it says, “The Commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom.13:9-10)

I was filled with shame when I walked out of the Holocaust Museum because I was part of a church whose leadership remained silent in the face of unadulterated evil action.

I will not be quiet now and I will defend the Word of God that is being taken hostage by those who would use it for this vile purpose.

God is clear about the poor and oppressed and always stands on the side of the last, the lost and the least, demanding we treat everyone with love, which is the highest law.

History will not look kindly on those who remain silent. There is no moral defense of evil acts. And there is no ground to remain neutral.

Silence in the face of evil action means you have chosen your side.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Be A Voice Of Hope

On Monday, I read their names.

The names of some of the men, women and children who were among the 6 million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust.

As part of Yom Hashoah Holocaust Remembrance Day, Voices of Hope and the Mandelll Jewish Community Center in West Hartford, Conn., sponsor a Community Wide Reading of the Names.

A member of my parish alerted me to it, and so I signed up for a time slot and went there to read the some of the names of those who were murdered in places like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. I wore a clerical collar, both as an act of solidarity and contrition, since Lutheran clergy in Germany played a very mixed role in the rise and normalization of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Voices of Hope is an organization created by descendants of Holocaust survivors to collect, categorize and share the experiences of Holocaust survivors for the benefit of future generations. Its bold mission is to foster a culture of courage and social action against hate, bigotry, intolerance and indifference.

After learning over the weekend that almost a quarter of all millennials knew nothing about the Holocaust and 41 percent of all Americans (66 percent of millennials) had never heard of Auschwitz, the importance of reading these names became more apparent.

We are living in a country that is quickly forgetting the consequences of hatred driven marginalization of a specific race or creed. And now, more than ever, we need to remember what happened in Germany when good people looked the other way, ignoring the facts when their neighbors were isolated and then removed, objectifying them, rather than seeing them as individuals.

What happens when you read the names is that it becomes personal. No longer is the Holocaust 6 million nameless, faceless people. It is Chave Friedman, Jacov Freidlander and Mordichai Fuchs. Real people, with real stories, who bled and died in the ghettos of Warsaw or who were gassed in camps like Buchenwald.

What struck me, as I read name after name from the same family, is that entire generations were eliminated. Brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents and grandchildren. Genocide is a horrible thing. And seeing it in print and reading the names aloud, made it real.

We live in a world where we see both the horrors of war and genocide up close, as we see victims in living color, and yet we become immune to it. Only the rare photo, like the blood-stained face of the Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh, whose trauma after a bombing captured the price of that horrific war, breaks through and makes these people real. Otherwise, it simply becomes the story of a war in Syria or Afghanistan — not the story of lives disrupted or refugees fleeing in terror.

I think of the victims of genocide and mass slaughter — the bodies of babies thrown into a pit in Cambodia, the Native Americans perishing after a smallpox- laden blanket wiped out entire communities, the mass graves in Bosnia — they are more than simply a number. Each statistic represents a flesh and blood person, whose story came to a horrible end for no reason other than hate that went unchecked.

And I think of the people I met in the refugee camps in Uganda who are fleeing a genocide in South Sudan, and the Palestinians, who are facing a slow and deliberate choking out of existence through the illegal seizure of lands and assaults on unarmed resisters who are helpless to do anything but scream as their way of life and identity is being robbed from them.

Their stories need to be told. Their names need to be said aloud — like the thousands killed in South Sudan in recent weeks or the 17 unarmed Palestinians who were shot in Gaza. When we hear their stories, we are able to understand more deeply the pain that drives them and the struggles that unite them.

When we lump people into a group by their nationality, or their religion, or their color, we take away their individuality. It is easier to hate a group than it is to focus on the person who is being targeted.

Voices of Hope gave me a chance to say the names of those who were killed nearly 80 years ago, killed because the majority did not stand up to say “no” in the face of bald hatred and vicious lies, scapegoating a people and tolerating the indefensible.

I read their names, knowing that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And understanding that a genocide does not begin in a day. Instead, it happens because good people look the other way for too long, until what once was seen as horrific becomes normalized and acceptable.

And today, I will continue to say the names of Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and others because their lives, their stories matter, too.

We can’t look the other way or we become complicit. So Monday, I read the names from the past, committed myself to share the stories of those facing a genocide today and joined in a bold venture to continue to say these names aloud too, to help tell their stories.

As Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” So we need to do something. And it begins by saying their names.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Single But Not Broken

I am a single parent.

It wasn’t what I set out to do. When Steve and I had Duncan and Ian, I had all the hopes and dreams of a young married mother, raising my children in a loving, intact family.

However, that was not to be.

Steve and I separated the weekend Ian began kindergarten and Duncan started second grade. I remember it well. The boys and I went away that weekend to my friend Holly’s parents house so they wouldn’t have to watch dad move out and returned to a much emptier house.

Because I was determined to do everything I could to save my children from the stigma of coming from a “broken home,” Steve and I reunited after a year of separation, but ultimately, the demons caused by his addiction became too great a burden to bear, and we had to tell our heartbroken children that we were divorcing. I can still see the look of sadness in their eyes.

From that point, I became, for the most part, a single parent. During the first couple of years, Steve had the kids for a night or two every few weeks. After that, there were occasional visits, though never overnight. As the years rolled on, the visits became less and less frequent, and sometimes they would go months at a time without hearing from him, as his addiction took its toll, until he tragically died from alcoholism when the boys were 14 and 17.

I tried to do what I could to promote a relationship with Steve, knowing that they needed a dad. And I was grateful for the men who stepped up over the years in different capacities to help — Bill, who taught them to drive; Tristan, who helped paint Ian’s room and would talk to him; Aaron, who provided a spiritual influence, and Doug, who taught them a little here, a little there, and just cared.

There were also a couple of men at school who went above and beyond — Darcy, their band teacher, and Coach Schauer, who was such a kind man.

But mostly, it was just me.

I was a single parent.

But my sons did not come from a broken home.

There was nothing broken about our home. They may not have had a dad around, but we had each other, and together we made a whole.

We developed, over the years, deep and honest relationships with each other. We were vulnerable, we expressed frustrations directly, and we supported each other in meaningful and real ways. And we spent a lot of time talking. There is an authenticity in our relationship that has created a strong and enduring bond.

My sons say that they were each other’s father, filling in for the other the gaps that happened because there wasn’t a dad in the house. Although my sons did not have a present father, I know that their lives would have been much more broken if Steve and I had stayed together the way things were.

Which is why it makes me so angry when I see single mothers become the punching bag for those who want to change the subject from sensible gun laws whenever there are school shootings.

Take Rick Santorum. On Sunday, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” he changed the subject from the gun control debate by saying there was “another debate” we should have, and that’s “the fact that these kids come from broken homes without dads.”

For the record, this was the same man who in 1994 in Mother Jones, with regard to crime rates, said “What we have is moms raising children in single-parent households simply breeding more criminals.”

It’s so easy to throw stones and simplify the problems of society by blaming it on single mothers and “broken homes.” My home was far more broken when I was not a single mother. And I know I am not the only parent who can say that.

Thanks to the Dickey Amendment in 1996, which mandated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  may be used to advocate or promote gun control , there is precious little research on mass shooters or school shooters.

However, in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook, the National Science Foundation did a study on youth violence, published in American Psychologist in 2016.

In it the researchers determined the risk factors for increased violence included “harsh and rejecting parents, interparental violence, child abuse and neglect, chaotic family life, inconsistent discipline and poor monitoring by parents of children showing early signs of aggression.”

Conversely, the factors associated with lower risk for youth violence included “close attachment bonds with consistently supportive caregivers, effective and developmentally sensitive parenting (including consistent disciplinary practices and monitoring) and families operating in ways that children experience as safe, stable, well-managed, and well-regulated.”

Note neither of these groups include the number of parents as a factor.

The truth is, single mothers get blasted by people all the time as the reason for a whole host of societal ills, when the facts bear out that it is the quality of parenting, not the quantity of parents.

Sometimes, one can avoid the factors that increase the risk of violence by divorcing. I know I was a much better mother when I was able to focus my time and energy on parenting my sons and not trying to salvage a union ripped apart by addiction.

Yet, I stayed in it for longer than perhaps I should have because I wanted to avoid the scarlet D of divorce and having my children deal with the stigma of coming from a “broken home.”

It was only when I got those shaming voices out of my head that I was able to do what was in the best interest of my children, even if the politicians, pundits and, sadly, religious leaders leveled blame on me and my ilk, condemning our home and labeling us broken.

My sons are now young men and both are fortunate enough to be students at Harvard, where Ian is a sophomore and Duncan is a senior. They have done well for themselves, largely because of their natural talent, work ethic, communication skills, willingness to face challenges and grit — all but the first of which were honed because of the home in which they were raised.

But for me what is more important than where they go to school is the fact that they are kind and compassionate men who have empathy and integrity.

Society may look down on my family and call us broken. But we know better. We know we are strong in the broken places, and because of that, there is nothing fragile about us.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — A False Idol

There is a meme that makes the rounds on my Facebook feed after every school shooting that makes my blood boil. It takes the form of two letters.

The first says “Dear God, Why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, a concerned student.”

The response reads “Dear Concerned Student, I’m not allowed in schools. God”

I find the sentiments of this meme incredibly offensive as well as theologically inaccurate, at least from a Christian tradition.

I know countless teachers and school employees, from administrators to cooks to custodians. Many of them are people of faith who are part of what we call The Priesthood of All Believers in the Lutheran tradition.

What that means is that they exercise their faith through their vocation. They feel called to be teachers or paraprofessionals or school cooks or administrators. They bring glory to God by ministering to the students they serve and see their work as a calling.

I know that they pray fervently for their students, during school hours and afterward, and they bring God with them to school every day.

I also know countless students who are people of faith. They show love to their classmates, sit by the kids who are lonely, share their meals with kids who don’t have a lunch and quiet bullies.

I know these students bring God with them to school every day — not just praying before exams but reflecting God’s love to others.

This arrogant meme implies that we have the power to control God and keep God in a box, letting God be some places and not others. Like we are the ones who control God.

But I believe, as a Christian, that when Jesus said, “I am with you always,” he meant it. God is never absent and is with us always. I believe God is true to God’s promise and that means that God is very present in every school. Nothing can keep God away.

The only thing being kept out of schools is a watered down prayer forced on people — that, in order, rightly, to honor our Constitution and the diversity of people’s faith lives, could not honor anyone’s God. After all, who decides what people are to pray or to whom?

People pray all the time in schools. We simply don’t have required prayer. I don’t want some government or school bureaucrat writing a prayer for kids to say. And I certainly don’t want the religious leaders who send around that meme to do it because they clearly think they are in control of where God goes and what God does.

The problem is not that God is not in the schools. The problem is that too many people are placing their trust in a false idol, their guns, the NRA or their political power and lack the courage to enact simple reforms that could help curb the violence that is becoming, sadly, all-too present.

A forced prayer would not be from the heart but instead would be as worthless as the “thoughts and prayers” of those who refuse to enact common-sense gun reform that would help prevent these kinds of tragedies.

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” — 1 John 3:18.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Power Of Forgiveness

Steve died five years ago today.

I decided to take some time this morning to reflect and pray. So I headed out to what I thought was a dog park, with the hopes that there wouldn’t be many people there on a dreary crisp morning.

As luck would have it, the place that Google told me was a dog park was in fact an Audubon Center situated by a woods with a creek running through it and an old cemetery adjacent to the walking paths.

I love how God knows what I need and often provides it, unasked. It was utterly solitary and the perfect place to reflect on a man who loved to watch and feed birds and felt no more at peace than by a creek in the woods.

It gave me a chance to remember. To remember what was good about Steve without denying the broken parts that resulted in our divorce and ultimately led him to death far too soon.

It is too easy to just hold on to either the good or the bad — to turn the dead into saints or else to allow the disappointment of broken promises and broken dreams to color all that was connected with them. Neither is fair to those who were once living, breathing people, filled with both the breath of the Spirit and the complications of living in our fallen, imperfect state.

Steve hadn’t always lived well, but he died well. Clean, sober and chemical-free. Neither of us loved perfectly, but in the perfect love of God, we both found healing and grace through the power of forgiveness.

As with all divorces, we each had our own stories, our own hurts and sins that each of us committed that the other needed to forgive. Over the years, we had more to forgive. Even in the process of dying, we each had to forgive each other again and again because at the core of any real, honest relationship is the ability to forgive. We can hold on to anger and resentment, or we can move through it, let go and move forward.

In the end, our relationship was defined by forgiveness. The last evening I spent by Steve’s bedside, I spoke to him about my regrets and once again offered my forgiveness to him, and I held his hand as I prayed with him. He had not spoken for three days or been at all responsive, but a tear formed by his eye that I wiped away. I told him I was going to leave at 8, if he wanted me there when he died. He took his last breath at 7:59.

By moving past so much brokenness, we were able to heal so many shared memories and give our sons a gift. After seven years of divorce, their dad died holding their mom’s hand. I hope that legacy of grace transformed the way they view the world to accept and forgive others who fail them in their life, even as we failed them as parents by divorcing.

I know that Steve’s and my final gift to our children was reflecting the power of forgiveness and how the beauty of forgiveness and reconciliation can be what defines you, not all the shattered pieces in between.

Our lives together at their best were filled with serendipity, as I said in our vows the day we were married, which led us to “together when neither of us was looking for what we found in each other.” Sort of like finding a peaceful woods when you are looking for a dog park.

When I reflect back, it is that serendipity I like to hold onto — knowing that for all of the pain and the heartache, the two sons we created, arising like phoenixes out of the ashes of our union, were the most serendipitous acts of all. A reminder of God’s power to find grace even in the midst of tumult, of continuing hope even in the face of death.

Today, as I wandered through that park, tears streaming down my face at what was and what could have been, I felt both sorrow and peace. Sorrow that so much in Steve’s life was never fully realized and that he wasn’t there to see our sons grow up and become the fine men they are and peace in knowing that in the end, he found the courage and the strength to let go and let God take him to a place of eternal peace.

Henri Nouwen wrote in a devotional I read the days after Steve died:

“Forgiving does not mean forgetting. When we forgive a person, the memory of the wound might stay with us for a long time, even throughout our lives. Sometimes we carry the memory in our bodies as a visible sign. But forgiveness changes the way we remember. It converts the curse into a blessing. When we forgive our parents for their divorce, our children for their lack of attention, our friends for their unfaithfulness in crisis, our doctors for their ill advice, we no longer have to experience ourselves as the victims of events we had no control over.

“Forgiveness allows us to claim our own power and not let these events destroy us; it enables them to become events that deepen the wisdom of our hearts. Forgiveness indeed heals memories.”

Five years later, I read this again and am grateful for its truth, God’s power and the gift I received as Steve was dying. Because forgiveness truly does change the way we remember.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — ‘Christian Evangelicals’ Have It All Wrong

I’ve been wavering for weeks as to whether to weigh in to the recent #MeToo movement.

On the one hand, as a survivor of rape as well as sexual harassment who has experienced sexual discrimination, I have some pretty strong opinions on the matter.

On the other hand, I am fully aware of subtleties in every case and worry about broad brushes that equate molesting a 14-year-old child with an inappropriate intentional grope, or potentially an inadvertent one. All sexual offenses are not the same. And my fear is a blog opens one up to being attacked on social media over a topic better suited for face to face conversation, which is sorely lacking in our polarized society.

However, I decided to dive in after just hearing David Brody, a reporter for the Christian Broadcast Network, explain why so many evangelical Christians are standing by Roy Moore and Donald Trump. He claimed that the Bible is full of imperfect people that God used to accomplish God’s work and that as Christians they believe in grace and forgiveness.

It is true. The Bible is full of imperfect people. In fact, last time I checked, every single one of them, except for the main character in the New Testament, was an imperfect person. Which is precisely why Jesus came. To bridge the gap between us and God — to offer us the gift of forgiveness.

I believe the reason that Jesus was turned over to Pilate by the religious leaders was precisely because he came to forgive. He had the audacity to suggest that they were not perfect. That they could not follow God’s laws exactly. And that they needed a Savior.

Rather than humble themselves in the sight of the Lord, they lifted Jesus up on a cross to be killed.

And through his Resurrection, he showed us that not even death will keep God from offering to forgive us. That God’s love is more powerful than human judgment.

But here’s the thing that bothers me about what these “Christian evangelicals” — I use quotation marks because I am a Christian and an evangelical Lutheran who believes in the Good News of God’s grace and forgiveness made real in a personal relationship with Christ and I wish to remove myself from their sphere and reclaim it for those of us who find their defense of the indefensible abhorrent — who support Trump and Moore without reservation because they believe in grace and forgiveness and God using broken people:

In order to be a person of faith used by God in this way, one NEEDS to repent. The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia,” which means “to change direction.” One needs to admit they were wrong and work to make things right.

Brody, echoing the “Christian evangelicals” led by the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr, used King David as his example of a person who God used in spite of his sinful action.

It is true, God used King David, who committed adultery by forcing Bathsheba to come to his royal palace and raping her. (I don’t think she was in the position to give consent, so let’s call it what it is.) When she became pregnant, he arranged to have her husband killed in battle.

By all accounts, King David was a poster child for men abusing their power and assaulting women.

But here’s the thing. When the prophet Nathan came and confronted David with his sin, David immediately repented. In response to his sinful behavior, he wrote Psalm 51, which is a plea for forgiveness.

David claims his sin and begs God, “Do not cast me away from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore me to the joy of your salvation and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10-11)

In Lutheran tradition, we use this Psalm as an offertory, recognizing in order to be so bold as to make an offering to God, we need to acknowledge that we are not worthy, and approach God with our gifts only through grace.

David gets that he did wrong and from the very essence of his soul pleads with God to put him right again.

In addition to his repentance, there are consequences for David’s action. Most notably, he was not allowed to build the temple, which was his dream, because he had shed blood in war — namely, he killed Uriah. Instead, Solomon, the child born when he married Bathsheba — more power abuse, but I’d have to write another blog to deal with that — built the temple.

When “Christian evangelicals” make this claim about David and God’s use of other imperfect people (read as humans), they miss a key point in the comparison: the essential need for repentance and a plea for mercy and forgiveness to be used by God as a disciple. God uses many different types of people to accomplish God’s will, but to be be one of the redeemed, you need to be, well, redeemed. You need to know you sinned.

Without that, you utterly miss the point. That is, as Bonhoeffer says, “cheap grace.”

Can perpetrators of sexual abuse and any sin be forgiven in a Christian community? Of course they can. Can they be rehabilitated? Yes, of course they can. But in order to do that, they need to repent. They need to change direction.

Al Franken, in his acknowledgement of his action, most particularly the photo, said it was wrong. He privately apologized to Leeann Tweeden, she accepted his apology, and ultimately he paid the consequences by resigning from his seat.

This is a textbook case of how it is done and although Franken’s iniquities were hardly in the category of King David’s, serves as a perfect example of what Brody was describing.

All government leaders who stand accused, especially in the case of multiple accusers whose stories have credibility, either need to face ethics inquiries to deal with the facts or come clean, admit guilt, repent and move forward to the stage of forgiveness with the consequences that accompany them.

For a Christian leader of any stripe to say that you can skip this stage is to forget what it means to repent. It is to defend sin without acknowledging it. Now we can get into a debate about what sin is, and what one needs to repent over, but that again is a whole other blog. I am being specific here about sexual predation.

But there was one more thing that Brody said, echoing the opinion of the “Christian evangelicals,” that left me in a fury. He said that they wanted to be people of grace and forgiveness and so they could forgive Roy Moore of his transgressions, if he committed them, especially if they were long ago.

No one has any business forgiving someone of a sin that was not committed against them.

The only person on Earth who can forgive my rapist was me. (And I did, for my sake, not his. I didn’t want to carry that burden through life with me, so I left it on deposit with God, should he ever repent.)

I have no business forgiving someone for what Roy Moore did to them. Or Donald Trump. Or Matt Lauer. Or Al Franken. Or …

I can chose not to judge someone because of their sin. Because I am also sinful. I can chose to move past it in how I interact with them. I can chose not to hold it against them.

And as an agent of God, when someone makes confession of sin, I can offer God’s forgiveness. Which is always ready for those who turn to God, regardless of the sin. And I can stand with them as they face the consequences.

But I can’t forgive them for what they did to someone else. Only the person who was victimized can do that.

That’s it. Full stop.

I think many of these “Christian evangelicals” who are selling their souls for political power would be better served by focusing their efforts not on defending the indefensible but rather focusing on those who really need defense and who Jesus called us to serve — the last, the lost and least; the downtrodden and the forgotten; the orphan, the widow and the alien (immigrant.)

Because when all is said and done, Jesus came for two reasons. To forgive us our sins and to call us to respond with mercy to all of God’s children as forgiven people armed with love. So focus with humility on your own need for forgiveness and go out and serve and love everyone with radical abandon.

That is the image the world needs of Christian leaders, and the only way we can live out the amazing grace of God.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 12

“Very early in the morning, before the sun had risen, Jesus got up and went to a quiet place to
pray.”

This verse has ordered my life for years, serving as a reminder for me that Jesus, whose mission it was to save the world, literally, still found it vital to pray and made room for it in his busy days, so who am I to think I don’t need Daily Quiet Times with God.

This morning, I had the perfect Quiet Time.

I awoke about 5:15 and knew I wasn’t going back to sleep, so I quietly dressed, so as not to
disturb my roommate too much, and slipped down to the Sea of Galilee well before the sun had
risen.

It was quiet, and reflective and beautiful.
As the dawn sky began to lighten, I prayed and I sang all of my favorite songs about Jesus and water. “You have come down to the Lakeshore” and “Come to the Water” were both sung at my ordination, and I always associated those with the Sea of Galilee.

I was in my element.

It was a magical time of prayer and reflection for me — a reminder of why I need that time with God to stay focused and how it connects me with Jesus, who was as human as he was God,and who needed reflection time too.

For all of the incredible things in Israel, the Sea of Galilee is definitely “my place.”

After breakfast, we headed to the Mount of the Beatitudes for a wonderful Eucharistic experience.

The chapel is at the center, but there are several altars surrounding it that can be reserved, so
we set up for Communion on Altar 1.

The Bishop presided, having four different people read four different versions of the Beatitudes in lieu of a sermon. It was more time for reflections on what it means to be blessed and how the values of Christians are at odd with the world — but that we will be blessed for being faithful.

Sharing the Common Cup and song united us with the disciples over the past two thousand years who have come to this place to hear the voice of God. It truly felt like we were part of the Communion of Saints, in every time and place.

During the service, large acorn like seeds kept falling from on high, which added a sense of danger to the service. After it was completed, I learned who the culprits were — at least five parrots who used the camouflage of the tree well.

We had 45 minutes after worship ended before we needed to board the bus, and I used it well. I
wandered from altar to altar and heard worship services or songs in at least a dozen
languages.

My favorite was when I head one group singing to the tune of “The Last Supper,” which I videotaped and posted, tagging everyone who appeared in Jesus Christ Superstar with me in 2015, the musical that made the song famous.

I also found a quiet place to be alone here as well. One song that has always touched my soul is from the Iona community “Take, Oh Take Me as I am, Summon up what I shall be, set your seal upon my heart and live in me.”

It has been a song that has centered me at many crossroads in my life and I sang it over and over again on the Mount of Beatitudes, to serve as a touchstone as I begin a new call in Hartford, but also as I offer myself up to God in service to the people whose cries I’ve heard
here in the Holy Land.

God has called me to care and will summon up what I need to be a bearer of this message from the people of Palestine.

Going from one spiritual high to the next, we drove to Capernaum, the town where Jesus lived and was the center of his ministry.

Whereas Nazareth is now a lively modern city with large churches to mark the places where Mary, Joseph and Jesus lived, Capernaum was an archeological site and for me a place of reflection.

The Synagogue there is the largest ever found and it is quite possibly this is at the same place
and location where Jesus taught.

There is also a space over which there is now a church that is thought to be the homes of Peter and Jesus.

But for me the highlight was seeing the layout of homes in the city. One of my favorites Bible Stories is the one where four friends bring the man who could not walk to Jesus by lowering him through the roof.

I love this story because there have been times in my life when I felt like I couldn’t move and it was others carrying me to Jesus in prayer that got me through.

Recently I shared that image with a friend who was struggling and I know it helped.

Seeing that spot and carrying friends to Jesus in prayer made it real to me. This whole trip makes the story real. They make Jesus more real.

After more time of reflection on the beach where I pictured Simon, Andrew and the sons of Zebedee being called to “fish for people,” it was back on the bus for a fish dinner at Peter’s Place and one more stop in Israel.

Enroute to Beit She’an, we took a route that went through the Golan Heights, which I didn’t expect. The Golan Heights have been a tense area since Israel seized them in 1967 and a tense truce followed with Syria talking 5 percent and Israel the remainder.

When that division was not respected by Israel and they seized more land, the UN declared that it was all Syrian territory but Israel ignores that and controls it all, without regard for international law.

I decided to go along with the UN and added Syria to my country list. But we didn’t get out to walk. Our guide said the Syrians left lots of land minds when they retreated.

We toured Beit She’an, an impressive ruins that traces its origins as far back as the 15th Century BCE and was destroyed by an earthquake in the 8th Century CE.

Beit She’an’s extraordinary Roman ruins gave us a great sense of what it was like to live, work and shop in the Roman Empire. Colonnaded streets, an 8500-seat theater that looks much as it did 1800 years ago with the original public bathrooms are nearby,  two bathhouses and huge
stone columns that lie right where they fell during the 749 earthquake evoke the grandeur, self-confidence and decadence of ancient Roman provincial life.

Nowhere was that decadence more evident than the brothels in the center of town — right down the street from the theater. And looming large around the city was a huge hill with a cross on it — used as the site of the Crucifixion in the movie Jesus​ ​Christ​ ​Superstar​.

For me the most striking story was the one about a skeleton that was found of a man crushed by a pillar in the earthquake — with a pile of gold coins lying next to his hand bones. If ever there was a more poignant story proving “You can’t take it with you” I’d like to hear it.

Following our tour, we headed to the border to bid our driver Ismael and our guide Tareq goodbye as we continued on our Jordanian part of the journey, which I will cover in my next blog.

Israel and Palestine were confusing, overwhelming and filled me with a host of emotions I will explore at a blog when the trip is over, but my experiences today reminded me of the one things I need to do most when it comes to what is happening here.

I need to take the time to pray. And then carry the people of Palestine with my actions on their behalf, when they can’t move forward themselves, knowing that we find blessings in hungering for righteousness and being peacemakers.

In the end, like the man under the pillar, we will all fall victim to death, under the weight of time,but what becomes our legacy is not what we have, but what we do for others. In that, ultimately,
we find our greatest blessing.