Category Archives: roller derby

“Courage, Confidence, and Character” or, roller derby, girl scouting, and the season of Lent

Preached March 9, 2014, at Head of Christiana PC for the first Sunday of Lent and our celebration of Girl Scout Sunday.  The congregation included many visiting Girl Scouts, family, and friends. 

Matthew 4:1-11

What a strange juxtaposition today! On one hand, we’ve got Girl Scout Sunday, full of songs and laughter and smiles; and then on the other hand we’ve got this story about Jesus being tempted by devils, while for Christians this is the first Sunday of Lent, which is a season of repentance and discipline and fasting.

To make things even more complicated, I spent most of yesterday up in Lancaster at two women’s roller derby games. That might be a surprise for those of you who don’t know me – I guess that’s not a typical pastor activity!

Some of our older folks might remember banked-track roller derby on TV in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but this looks a bit different. Modern roller derby started up about a decade ago in Austin, Texas, when a bunch of women got together and decided to revive it, by women and for women. Since then it’s grown like crazy – spread all over the world – and every league is run by the skaters themselves. They put on their own games, write their own bylaws, raise money for uniforms and travel, and even vote on the rules of the sport.

Most teams choose a charity to receive money from each of their games – they are a part of their community and they give back to their community. And it turns out that the group benefitting from last night’s game was the Girl Scouts in the Heart of Pennsylvania! I think they probably resonated with the Girl Scout mission of “building girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place.” I know I resonate with that – it’s a pretty great mission statement.

One of the things people have heard about roller derby is derby names. Skaters choose tough or silly or smart names to go by when they join the league. I love that, because how often do we get to do that? You show up somewhere and get asked, who do you want to be? It’s a blank slate.

My name, if you’re wondering, is Bruise Almighty. I’m really proud of my name, because it’s pretty hard to be scared or intimidated when everyone’s calling you Bruise. Some of my friends have names like Amelia Dareheart, Marie Antoithreat, Stompin’ Lizzy Stanton– remembering strong women from our history.

And recently, some skaters have started using their real names. It’s as if they’re saying, “I think Jocelyn is a strong name too.” Susie, Melanie; these are strong names.

* * *

This week, Christians are beginning the season of Lent, which is a time of focus, prayer, and honesty about the ways we have fallen short of the people we would like to be. For us it is a reflection on the end of Jesus’ life, leading up to his death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter. In some ways it’s the end of the story, but in Matthew’s gospel, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is still the very beginning of his story – he’s starting out on a journey just like we are.

As Matthew’s story goes, he’s written so far about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, his family’s escape to Egypt to protect the young Jesus from those who were trying to kill him, and then their return to the town of Nazareth when that particular threat had passed.

And then our writer picks up the story some years later, when the adult Jesus is ready to begin his ministry. He is baptized in the river, and a voice booms out from the sky, “this is my son!” That’s the first time in Matthew’s story that Jesus is called the Son of God – but as soon as it happens, we read, the Holy Spirit whisks him off into the wilderness to fast for forty days, alone with no food and no friends or family; just him and God and this new identity of “Son of God.”

And he’s out there for forty days! Who here has ever been camping before? I bet you brought some food with you, right? Has anyone been camping for longer than a week? Two weeks?… Forty days – that’s a really long time to be out there alone. Almost six weeks! I can’t even imagine how hungry he must have been after all that time.

Then, finally, along comes this tempter who says, So, you’re the Son of God, huh? I bet you could do anything you want. I bet you could work magic if you wanted to; you could have all the food you ever wanted, all the money and power and influence – you could make everyone worship you!

But he says no. And he doesn’t just say, Oh, no thanks, I’m not really that hungry – like a good Jewish scholar he steps right up and where this devil quotes scripture at him, he quotes it right back. Where this tempter offers him the opportunity to show off this new power – look at me, I can fling myself off these rocks and God will save me! – Jesus says, that is not what my power looks like.

This devil offers him wealth and power and influence – because isn’t that what we all want? – and instead of just shrinking back into the hills and quietly going back to his fasting, he raises his voice and says, No! That is not what I want, and that’s not what God wants!

We read in the prophet Isaiah about God telling the people that God doesn’t want their humiliation and their showy piety.  God says, “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry?”  Starving yourself just to impress people is not at all what God is asking for.

* * *

Our temptations are a little different than the ones Jesus faced. We aren’t asked to turn stones into bread or take spectacular dives off buildings – but what Jesus’ very particular temptations have in common is that they’re opportunities to brag about being the Son of God. To do tricks just to impress people, to use his special talents to hoard money and buildings make people respect him out of fear. These are temptations of selfishness, of pride, vanity… these are temptations that we all face, aren’t they.

And they’re temptations that feed on our knowledge of who we are. We grasp at tricks and dominance and trying to show we’re better than someone else when those demonic voices in our head have started to plant doubt and fear. The voices say “you’re not smart enough,” and so to prove them wrong we feel like we have to put someone else down.

Well, I’m smarter than her, right? So I must be worth something! Right?

… right?

* * *

So, who are you? That’s the question, always, isn’t it?

The world tells us we’re not strong enough or smart enough or pretty enough, and so we’re mean and awful to each other to prove it. To prove we’re worth something.

And at the same time, the church has taught us (along with the world, sometimes) that we’re sinful, we’re not fasting enough, we should deny our bodies and our humanity in order to be holy enough. We should only think about other people, never ourselves. Especially as women, we get this from both sides.

So who are you? You are a child of God.

When we choose the identity of “child of God,” we can be strong and secure – courageous and confident – in our character as good creations of God, and we can choose to do what we know is right because we know who we are. We can choose good food rather than bread made of stones. We can choose girl scout cookies and support girls learning exactly how strong they are.

We choose who we want to be, and we can choose what path we follow. We can choose God’s way of justice and love and equality and strength, and we can say No to those things that work against God’s way.

In this season we put aside those things that distract us, that make us doubt our identity and doubt that God loves us. We practice saying No to the voices in our heads that tell us God could never love us because we’re sinful and weak, and even when we’re scared, we can say with strong voices, “I am a child of God!”

Let’s try it out. Say it with me: I am a child of God. I am a child of God.

I am a child of God!

Roller Derby and the kingdom of God

Roller derby is a whole world unto itself.  It’s not quite like anything else we’ve known, ever, and it’s constantly changing because we’re making it up as we go along.  And yet there are values, which are not quite like rules but which guide the growth of this world in ways spoken and implied, and which are so counter-cultural that even we fail to live up to them sometimes.  And I believe they have the power to change the world.

Who are you, really?  If outsiders know anything about derby, it is derby names.  More than nicknames or “fake” names, derby names are an opportunity to be exactly who you want to be – who you feel called to be.  I am Bruise Almighty, and I have grown into that name as I have grown physically and mentally tougher.  When a big, jock-y Parisi coach can see the fire in my eyes and call me Bruiser without a hint of sarcasm, I grow stronger and more determined in a way that “Kate” just doesn’t capture.

There’s a place for you.  Over and over I’ve heard from skaters, it doesn’t matter what you do out there, it just matters what you can do with eight wheels on.  And even if you can’t skate, you can coach, or you can ref,  you can take photos, or you can do stats/penalties/timekeeping, you can mascot, you can be a superfan, you can announce.  And there’s a place in the derby world for you if you just show up and claim it.

By the skater… The phrase is so ubiquitous we almost don’t know what it means anymore, but however you frame it, this is our sport and we have made it what it is.  It is about empowering people who have no idea what power feels like, and it is about making something awesome happen out of almost nothing, and making it better and better while not losing sight of where we’ve been.

And when something is wrong, you speak up and fix it.  We made this up, and we can make it better.  In the real world, we spend a lot of time waiting for permission to do things.  We sit around and wish the world was different; wish the government weren’t so corrupt and bureaucratic and tied up with corporate interests, wish racism weren’t still alive and well, wish women and queers were free to behave as poorly as white men get away with…. But in derby, if something is wrong we have the chance to step up and fix it.

Power in derby does not look like power in the rest of the world.  Power here is internal strength.  Power is something claimed for yourself, and nothing that can be given or taken away.  Leaders come from among us – those who have claimed the authority and self-possession of the amazing person they were created to be, or those who want the chance to grow into it.  We have different gifts, but we all have the opportunity to claim them and let them shine.

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And that’s a threat to the world out there.  A lot of people are invested in the way the world defines power – the hierarchies and bureaucracies and the “power” that is earned by trampling more vulnerable people under your feet and hoping desperately that no one points out your own vulnerabilities.  People who question that sort of power end up dead, whether by assassin’s bullet or execution (crucifixion).

Because Jesus preached that the kingdoms of this world have no authority over us.  We are invited to be citizens of something greater.  A world where all the f-cked up things are made better, made good, made whole again.  And that kingdom is “at hand” – it is not just close, it is within our grasp, and it is within our power to make it real, here and now.

And the kingdom of God is full of paradoxes.  It is the tiny seed, the yeast growing like a fungus until it takes over, the weak becoming powerful, and the sick, the blind, the despised, being healed and discovering a strength they never knew they had, healed by their connection with God and one another, and together being a new thing.  It is that little germ of a vision, an experience of the divine that creeps out and starts bleeding into all parts of life until it takes over.

Which sounds a lot like roller derby – that secret identity you discover on the rink and claim and grow into until becomes you, until you are Amelia Dareheart or Harper’s Fury or Marie Antoithreat or Spinal Snap or Mariah Scary in every corner of your life.  That strength fills your bones and you’re not the same person you used to be, because you are strong and you are full of God, of your own power, of the skills and passion you never knew you had.

And we screw it up sometimes.  A lot of the time.  But we can try again.  And we can constantly say to the “real world” that this is not how we want things to be, not how God wants it, not how it should be, and we’re going to build something different.

The kingdom of God is at hand, and we can make it happen.  We can reach out and grab it, incarnate it in any old skating rink or abandoned warehouse or big corporate convention center.  We have a vision of a new thing, and we are going to make it happen.  It will be imperfect, it will come in fits and starts, but we are going to try.  We have discovered how strong we are, and there is no stopping us now.

The Rev. Bruise K. Almighty

Some recent posts of mine have caused a bit of controversy in my congregation.  In one case it was my use of a particular word, and in the other it was my reference to some past sentiments in the church as “dying” and “forgotten,” in order to illustrate the present reality which feels much more hopeful.

I’ve edited the first, now, because the one word doesn’t feel worth the trouble.  [Y’all know you can curse in front of me if you need to, right?]  And these particular issues feel like they’re really pointing to something larger.

I think the root of this difficulty is the tension between the world of the established, institutional church, and the world outside it.  However you want to characterize it, there is obviously a significant cultural disconnect for congregations across the country, otherwise the church as a whole would not be in the sort of crisis where we find ourselves.

I have one foot in each of these worlds.  I was raised in the church, nurtured in the church, and the church is in my bones.  At the same time, I was not discouraged from being part of the wider world.  I am a real person, very much a part of my generation at the oldest edge of the Millennials.

I love my identity as a cultural translator, a bridge between worlds.  But it is not always an easy place to be.

Most obviously, in my two jobs as parish pastor and campus pastor, I have had to carve out on the fly what I look like and how I speak in each of those roles.  They are similar, often, but distinctly different because each group has different needs and comfort levels and expectations.  Then throw in who I am with my colleagues and friends, and then who I am in roller derby, and the picture gets more and more complicated.

Each of these identities is still me.  I strive to be true to myself in whatever role, and I really value the multiplicity of my identity.  I have thought a lot about cultivating my image in different contexts, and I’ve learned some invaluable things that help me to dress intentionally for each different role.  Even if that does mean a lot of costume changes.

I am at the meeting place of the culture clash between mainline church folks and young adults, and in some ways my very identity is emblematic of the changes that are taking place.  For many people, I am not what a pastor looks like.  I am young (in church terms), I am female-bodied, I have tattoos, I am bisexual, I am honest about my own struggles and my own humanity, I am passionate about justice issues and not afraid of shaking up the powers that be — although I’d argue that last one is exactly what a pastor looks like, or at least they should.

And I’m realizing that this very reality is powerful for people who are not served by the church as it is, or the way they perceive the church to be.  For people who have seen the church as disconnected from the modern, “real” world, I am proof this reality is changing.  People who have said to me, I don’t really go to church but I’d love to hear you speak sometime.

But that same disjuncture – where for some people it is a positive thing that I don’t look like a pastor – presents some difficulties when you’re looking from the other side.  Because I don’t look like a pastor.

And there’s nothing I can say that will smooth out that tension, because that is the present reality of the church in the modern world.  And that is the reality of my self and the unique ministry to which I am called, somehow bridging this irreconcilable divide.

So I invite you to be here with me in this tension.  If the mainline church and the modern world are going to have anything to say to one another, we will somehow have to face these places where our cultures clash and our expectations have to shift, from both sides.

Or, you know, we won’t.  But I have to have faith that we can.

Banksy - Stained Window

Just As I Am…

I had an amazing weekend filming with the team from Out of Order!  I am so excited about this project.

On one level, it’s a project about queer people seeking ordination in the PC(USA) (or already ordained) – but what I articulated this weekend was that for me, this is a story about the church just not knowing what to make of me.  Or really, anyone who doesn’t quite fit the mold we’re used to.  I sometimes feel like the church just isn’t ready for the reality of younger people, who maybe have tattoos or play sports or make art or teach yoga or prefer brunch on Sundays or really like arguing and debating and picking apart theology and other claims of Truth.

We filmed at the church where I grew up, and we also filmed at a Brandywine Roller Girls bout where I was refereeing.  In talking about this project, a friend of mine commented that “the roller derby community is more like Jesus would have wanted the church to be: welcoming and accepting of people as they are, no strings attached.”

And that is SO true.  Derby falls short of that ideal sometimes, too, but that kind of accepting spirit is really integral to what roller derby is today.  While I was skating, we said it over and over again – you get on the rink, and it doesn’t matter how your day was, it just matters what you can do with 8 wheels on your feet.

There is such a hunger for that kind of community, especially as our generation becomes more and more transient and economically unstable.  I love that I could go to just about any city in the US, and a lot more around the world, and immediately have a group I can belong to.  And that belonging isn’t conditional – it doesn’t matter what my family looks like (or doesn’t), it just matters that I skate.

Imagine if the church could say that.

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