Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Worst Sermon Ever?

In Acts 20:1-6 we have a wonderful little story. Paul is having a discussion with a group of followers in an upper room. His little talk begins with the breaking of bread and lasts until midnight. A young boy who is sitting on a windowsill nods off, falling out the window and three stories to the ground below. Dead.

But Paul brings him back to life, which is the least he could do.

In my humble opinion.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Anticipating Yom Kippur

One of my favorite blogs is Velveteen Rabbi ("when can I run and play with the real rabbis?"), authored by Rachel Barenblat. She also contributes to Radical Torah, and this week has posted there this amazing reflection on walking the walk; i.e., what does it mean to take Torah seriously?


Thursday, September 28, 2006

For Such a Time as This

What is it about scripture, this collection of ancient texts that has the ability to speak to the issues of the day with such pointedness? The lectionary is moving through the book of Esther, and today we are approaching the denouement of the story, which will wrap up entirely on Saturday. In the broadest of strokes: Esther, a Jew, has been married to the king. The king's right hand man, Haman, has an extreme, eyes-rolling-in-the-back-of-his-head type hatred of the Jews generally, and Mordecai in particular. He decrees that all the Jews should be rounded up and killed. (Too real, too recent, too possible.). The king seems all too ready to go along.

Mordecai, Esther's surrogate dad, appeals to her to intervene, but she is, understandably, shaking in her shoes. Access to the king, even for his queen, is limited and bound up in arcane ritual. In the reading from Monday, Mordecai is making his appeal to Esther. In response to her hesitation, he says,

For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this. Esther 4:14

Esther intervenes, at a sumptuos banquet of her devising, confronting the king with her request and with damning information about Haman, and Haman ends up hanging on the scaffold that had been prepared for Mordecai. It is decreed that Esther's bravery will be commemorated in an annual festival. For real fun, find an active vibrant synagogue in your neighborhood and try to get yourself invited to the blow-out that is Purim. From the hamantaschen (little cookies shaped like bracelets) to the dress-up plays, it is fabulous, family-friendly fun.

It is all inspiring, no?

For such a time as this...

Here is what I see and hear at such a time as this:

My government has at its head a man who has achieved an unprecedented power-grab, aided and abetted by courts of his composing, with the results that our civil liberties are all but eviscerated, we are thumbing our nose at globally accepted standards of human decency, we are detaining and torturing people we will never be able to bring to trial precisely because we have detained and tortured them, US citizens are loathed around the world, we are mired in a no-win war (can anyone say "quagmire"???), and our congressmen and women are ineffectual in even saying "wait a minute..."

The world fiddles while true atrocities are taking place in Darfur.

We are in the run-up to an election, and the electorate is unhappy with the status quo, but also disheartened, dispirited and skeptical. How fascinating: gas prices are coming down! And don't you think that They, whomever They are, have achieved their goal when we say "$2.65 a gallon! How wonderful!"? By the way, I would be delighted to pay $5.00, $6.00/ gallon of gasoline if some of that money was a tax dedicated to developing renewable energy sources and more efficient and clean modes of public transportation. But we tax-phobic Americans won't stand for that, so goes the conventional wisdom, and so none of that is happening. Exxon and Mobil and their shareholders are simply getting richer.

We are in the run-up to an election, and the likelihood is that the last two presidential elections were manipulated by vote-stealing and suppression of minorites.

As my friend Yvonne says, "Why have we not taken to the streets?"

If Esther has a message for us, it is, "Speak. Now."

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Sick Blogger and the Devil(s)

I have spent the last three days in a feverish haze, coughing, choking, generally feeling miserable. It all started as soon as I got home from preaching that tomato flavored sermon, which ended up not being tomato flavored at all. The 40 or so people who heard it were very receptive, in fact, one of the liveliest crowds I've preached to in a while. They nudged each other; that was a first in my experience. Then they came up to me and said these exact words: "You hit the nail on the head." Four different people said those words; others said some version of them. They wondered whether I had asked their regular supply pastor about them. Had he been telling tales out of school? No, I said. This was the lectionary epistle for the day. Period. What I didn't tell them was this: 95 out of every 100 churches would probably recognize themselves in what I said.

Then they asked me if I was looking for a job.

So I was flying, and then I was home coughing, and the rest is sort of a blur.

Except: the season openers of Desperate Housewives (Sunday) and The Gilmore Girls (Tuesday). Woohoo! My Petra and I had much fun. Much. But when, o when, will Bree stop falling in love with psychotics? And when, o when, will Lorelai stop sabotaging herself?

The day will come when I will write astute commentaries on the sociological trends and mores revealed in Desperate Housewives and The Gilmore Girls.

Today is not that day. I still don't have three brain cells to rub together.

But I have two. So here are my thoughts on Luke 4:1-13, today's lectionary gospel offering.

On this day when I been reminded about both Hillary Clinton being compared to the devil (by Jerry Falwell) and President Bush being called a devil (by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez) in Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times, I have the fun of reading about Jesus being tempted by the devil in Luke.

Let's read it:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Here are my thoughts (remember, two brain cells):

First, Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit (having just been baptized by John in the Jordan). Big Theme in Luke/Acts. Watch out for the Spirit every which where. Always a good, good sign.

Second, he is led out into the wilderness by that same Spirit, so the temptation must be a necessary part of God's plan for him. In fact, I would go further than that. I would say that Jesus can trust the temptation, if that makes any sense. If it is Spirit led, good will come of it.

Third, the devil's temptations begin with the basic human need--bread, sustenance-- and progress to more advanced kinds of needs/ wants-- earthly power/ riches, and then proof positive of God's care for him.

Fourth, note that Jesus responds by quoting scripture. I'm not so impressed, though, because...

Fifth, note that, on the last temptation, the wily devil begins to quote scripture back at him. Even the devil can quote scripture.

And sixth, notice that the devil is gone... for now.

Like my cough.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Tomato Flavored Sermon

This is the sermon my friend Mieke assures me will result in tomatoes being thrown at me this morning. I'm wearing a plastic tarp instead of my preaching robe.

I tried, really tried to write a sermon on Proverbs 31. But yesterday at about 12:30 PM I hated it, I was bored by it, and I found myself saying (in a transition that was supposed to take us to this piece of scripture) "Now onto something relevant." And I thought, well, sh*t. Might as well make the whole thing relevant. So I threw that one out and started over.

Note some borrowing from last week's sermon. You can do that when you're in a different pulpit every Sunday!

Note: the monastery story is adapted from M. Scott Peck. I think he got it from someone else.

“Show Me”
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
September 24, 2006

There is a wonderful scene in My Fair Lady. Eliza Dolittle, the newly educated, cleaned-up and beautifully dressed flower-girl, is being followed around by the wealthy and silly Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who is singing his heart out in a vain attempt to woo her. Finally, with the wrath of God in her eyes, Eliza whirls around and lights into him:

Words, words, words,
I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through,
first from him, now from you.
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don't talk of stars, burning above.
If you're in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams, filled with desire.
If you’re on fire, show me!

After this week, I will always think of Eliza Dolittle when I read the letter of James. I think James would understand her frustration. After all, that’s what James is famous for. This is the “put your money where your mouth is” epistle. This is the “You’ve got faith? You believe in God? Show me!” epistle.

The letter of James is a fascinating piece of scripture. I was thrilled to learn in my reading last week that at least one solid, well-known and highly-respected scripture scholar is out there making the case that the letter of James is the work of James, the brother of Jesus. That James. The New Testament tells us that James the brother of the Lord was prominent among early followers of “the Way,” as Christians called themselves. And I love the thought of scripture having been written by someone who grew up in the same household with Jesus. I imagine the boys, scraping their knees side by side, learning their father’s skill at the plane and the lathe, dipping their bread together at the table. I imagine a man watching from a distance as his brother is tortured and executed, and then standing in amazement as that same brother breathes peace and reassurance into a roomful of frightened followers. Imagine—that man, speaking to us now.

And don't you just have to love a piece of the bible that so ticked off Martin Luther that he called it "an epistle of straw"? Luther hated, loathed, despised and abominated this little gem because it seemed to veer wildly away from what he thought was the Main Thesis of the New Testament, i.e. Justification by Grace and Not Works.

And that is what James is famous for. Hear again his words:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
James 3: 13-17

When James gives the instruction, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” it helps to know exactly what lies behind those words. James is making an appeal to wisdom here, and a very specific kind of wisdom at that: the wisdom that comes from God. There are whole books of the bible devoted to the subject of wisdom, and we have just heard a passage from one of them, Proverbs. I know that what we heard sounded like a great and lengthy laundry list of the attributes of the woman of valor, but I would like to draw your attention to just one of her attributes. Near the end of the reading, we have these words: “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” The woman of valor is the one who fears the Lord, and as Proverbs tells us elsewhere, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Now, we should always be careful to explain exactly what it is we mean by that marvelous phrase, the “fear of the Lord.” The fear of the Lord is simply this: the understanding that God is God, and we are not. It’s the understanding that all the power, majesty, glory, intelligence, justice, truth, and wisdom, are in God’s corner. It is the recognition that, by comparison, we are almost hopelessly finite and limited. The “fear of the Lord” is not about cowering in terror in the dark somewhere, although that would be one understandable reaction to being in the presence of all that power. It is really about knowing our limits, and where we stand in relation to God.

You can bet money on the fact that James, a devout Jew raised on scripture, knew this definition of wisdom, and that he embraced it totally. So when he says, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” he is speaking of the wisdom that “gets” the place of the individual in the grand scheme of things; the wisdom that arises in those who “fear the Lord.”

This seems like such a simple thing, but obviously it is not. Turn on a television, go online, open a newspaper, or just call a friend, and, more often than not, you will hear a story about people of faith—and let’s just limit ourselves to Christians, in the name of not being hypocrites—we will find stories of people of faith who treat one another atrociously, and who treat people of other faiths atrociously too. Ask any person who is a member of a church if they have ever seen instances of people being unkind to one another in a church setting, and most of them will look at you as if you are insane. Of course they have seen and heard and experienced terrible things at the hands of fellow church members. Of course they have. Those things happen all the time in church. People are mean to each other.

And I am here to tell you, my sisters and brothers, that that is a sad state of affairs. Later in Eliza Dolittle’s song she sings,

Never do I ever want to hear another word
There isn’t one I haven’t heard
Here we are together in what ought to be a dream
Say one more word and I’ll scream!

This is what is so sad about the kind of situation James is describing. Here we are together in what ought to be a dream: the Beloved Community, the body of Christ, in which we all know we belong, and where we all offer one another the same acceptance and love God has offered us. Here we are together in what ought to be a dream, James says, and look: it’s a nightmare.

This next part is the reason I love this passage so much. James, writing about 2000 years ago, offers insights into human psychology that are as modern and relevant as we could hope to read in any contemporary journal:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.
James 4:1-2a

Have you ever heard of a MacGuffin? In movies, books, even video games, a MacGuffin is something that seems very important at the beginning of the story… and which, by the end of the story, is revealed as being completely irrelevant. The movie Psycho has a classic MacGuffin. As the movie starts, a beautiful young woman steals money from her employer. She’s murdered within about a half hour, and those looking for her suspect she was murdered for the money—the money’s the MacGuffin. But by the end of the film the money is all but forgotten as the audience has learned the truth about psyscho-killer Norman Bates.

Conflicts in churches almost always revolve around a MacGuffin. It seems that people are fighting over which hymnal to purchase, or how to redecorate a parlor, or whether the church should host this or that community group, or embark on such and such a mission. But the truth is that some churches that fight are simply churches that fight. They fight over whatever MacGuffin is at hand, because that’s not really what they are fighting about. They are fighting about power. They are fighting about influence. They are fighting about whether the church feels like the church they grew up in, because if it doesn’t, they aren’t sure they recognize it as church anymore. To be more precise, they are fighting about things that are internal to themselves—fear, anxiety, dread, loss.

James hits this nail on the head. The conflicts and disputes we engage in come from cravings at war within us. We are in need of healing. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask… Submit yourselves to God…Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”

There is a story about a monastery. You may have heard it before, but some stories are worth repeating… the birth of a baby in a manger, the death of a man on a cross, the mutual love of a small band of believers. Maybe this story is just as important, and we can hear it just as many times.

There was a monastery, which had fallen on very hard times. Once upon a time it had been a home for many brother monks, singing together, praying together, working together. Now it was nearly empty. Just a handful of old monks were left, and they shuffled through the cloisters and praised God with heavy hearts.

One day the abbot decided to take a walk in the woods, and as he did, he came upon an old rabbi. The two men sat together, and soon, tears began to fall down both their faces. They sat together and they cried their eyes out. Finally, the rabbi looked at the abbot, and said, “I know why you are here. I have been given a teaching for you.” Then he leaned in very close and said. “You and your brothers need to know something. The Messiah is among you.” For a while, the two men just sat together in silence. Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.”

The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back. The next morning, he called the monks together to tell them what he had heard. With eyes like saucers, the abbot told his brothers, “The rabbi told me that the Messiah is among us.”

The monks were startled, to say the least. “What could this mean?” they asked themselves. They looked around the room at each other. “Is brother John the Messiah? Or Brother Matthew? Or Brother Thomas? Am I the Messiah?” They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi's teaching, even a little skeptical. But no one mentioned it again.

As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a kind of tender and loving care, just in case one of them was the Messiah. Each man deferred to the wishes of his brother, and gradually their heaviness of heart lifted. Once again they found joy in singing together, praying together, working together. They lived with one another as men who had finally found something. And they prayed the Scriptures together as men who were always looking for something.

“You do not have, because you do not ask,” James tells us. “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” It seems so hard, but it is really so simple. Change is as near at hand as our next encounter with someone we can’t stand. The Beloved Community is already available to us, right here, all around. Here we are together in what ought to be a dream, a community filled with wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Why not make it so? Why not let it show? Amen.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


In Esther 2:5-8, 15-23, we meet Mordecai, a Jew whose parents were carried away at the time of the Babylonian exile. Mordecai is surrogate parent to the beautiful Hadassah, that is, Esther. Right away the King sets about procuring himself a new, more biddable queen. The situation sounds remarkably like the plot set-up of Cinderella, in which all the eligible young maidens of the kingdom are brought in for royal inspection (though there is, alas, no ball). Esther, a Jew, is one of the maidens, and behold: "the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti."

We learn that Mordecai has urged Esther to say nothing of her ancestry. Thus, Queen Esther begins her life in the palace closeted, unable to reveal the truth of who she is because she is an obedient girl.

Mordecail promptly does something heroic: he hears a couple of eunuchs planning to kill the king, and reports his knowledge to Queen Esther. The king is saved and the eunuchs are hanged. (Their names are Bigthan and Teresh. I wish I could find my Hebrew lexicon. I just know their names mean something amusing).

It is quite an interesting thing to ponder beginning married life withholding a major piece of information about yourself from your husband. Major. Of course, we should remember that this ancient story does not describe marriage as we moderns would idealize it, with our open, honest communication, equal partnership, etc. Esther is more property than "wife" as we might understand it, and she is the king's to do with as he will. But still... closeted life. Right here in the bible.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Beauty Trap

Just to show how long it's been since I abided my intial commitment to write on the daily lectionary readings... yesterday was the last day of Job. (BTW, in my so far fruitless search for a monologue for my audition THIS SUNDAY, I just discovered the Neil Simon play "God's Favorite," a contemporary re-interpretation of the book of Job! Only he doesn't kill the kids, I think).

And so today we have Esther, the beginning of which is a marvelous piggy-back on yesterday's post on the thinness of runway models/ our cultural expectations about beauty. Today's passage (Esther 1:1-4, 10-19) has King Ahasuerus summoning the beautiful Queen Vashti to appear in her crown, before his guests at a royal banquet, for the sole purpose of showing off her beauty.

On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who attended him, to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
Esther 1:10-12

Note the context: the king is drunk, and he's already been partying for seven days, the very beginning of a party that would last half a year. The queen refuses the king's command, and he is angry.

Fun Hebrew Facts! I'm taking a risk here, because my Hebrew Bible and lexicon are at present unreachable in the bottom of boxes awaiting my next office space (please God!). But in general, whenever in the Hebrew bible it says "he was angry," or "his anger burned within him," the actual Hebrew words are "his nose got big." I am not lying. This is the idiom. Do you love it??? It really conveys something that we acknowledge with our own idiom, "he got his nose out of joint" (equally incomprehensible to, say, visiting Venusians).

So the king, big nosed, nose out of joint, deccrees that, having missed out on her chance to please him with her appearance at the banquet, Queen Vashti will never get to appear before him again. Thus he commences a search for a new queen, which will shortly bring Esther into the story.

In my searching for an image (Vashti refusing to appear; isn't it lovely? It's by Gustav Dore, 19th century; see original context here) I learned something fascinating. In their attempts to explain why Queen Vashti would not appear wearing her crown, some (the rabbis?) have suggested that his order was for her to appear wearing only her crown. Personally, I think there was enough that was offensive going on to explain her refusal, but realistically, a Queen of that era would most likely not balk at a command appearance under normal (even drunken revelry) circumstances. So this may make sense.

Vashti is really a side character; her sole purpose in the story is to be booted out to make room for Esther, the heroine. But Vashti is a wonderful figure. She reminds me of the rabbinic offering Lilith, the woman of the first creation story in Genesis (read it! there are two!), who refused to submit (sexually) to Adam, or so the rabbis speculated, and so was cast out of paradise to make room for Eve. Vashti is my new hero. But she also makes me long for a day when women are not reviled for their unwillingness to be merely decorative.

There has been lots of reportage lately Katie Couric's transition from Today Show host to CBS Evening News anchor. One of the saddest, saddest things I have read about that had to do with why it has taken this long. Katie was too cute/ not beautiful enough. Katie had children. Katie was seen as "lightweight"/ too confrontational in interviews. In other words, the woman was in an unfair, irrationally constructed, damning-every-way-you-looked-at-her box. And one woman who might have been her successor on the Today Show was not chosen because she is too sexy and doesn't have kids.

As Charlie Brown would say, "AUUUUUGGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!"

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Irony! Life's Got Lots of It

In a week when "the woman of valor" is a Sunday preaching text for lots of my brethren and sistren in the pulpits, it's fascinating to me that there is yet another explosion of controversy over the thinness of runway models. The photo they are running with this article online is truly shocking; an already emaciated woman made freakish by the addition of distorting mirrors.

Here are the last verses of the Proverbs reading:

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruits of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.
Prov. 31:30-31

As someone with a lifelong weight struggle (and no, it's not a struggle to keep from getting too thin), I am always suspicious of my own reactions to these sorts of things. But I must refer anyone who's interested in this topic to a mini-rant of PeaceBang's from September 8 on the topic of young women's bodies, and the really disturbing cultural expectations that are placed upon them.

Here's what I think about the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom. The fear of the Lord is simply this: the understanding that God is God, and we are not. It’s the understanding that all the power, majesty, glory, intelligence, justice, truth, and wisdom, are in God’s corner. It is the recognition that, by comparison, we are almost hopelessly finite and limited. The “fear of the Lord” is not about cowering in terror in the dark somewhere, though that would be one understandable reaction to being in the presence of all that power. It is really about knowing our limits, and where we stand in relation to God, and, hence, the world. That is a very sane place to begin a conversation about our bodies-- how marvelous they are, how tenderly we should care for them, and how various and diverse they are in size, shape, and ability.

Emerging from What? And into What?

I have just read an article in the Christian Century on the emergent church movement as exemplified in Jacob's Well, a congregation inhabiting the building of a Presbyterian Church that folded in Kansas City, MO. (Here is a link to CC; oddly, they are behind online, showing the most recent issue as September 5).

Here are the things that really struck me about Jacob's Well:

~ The sermons take on a questioning tone. They are conversational, and responsive.

~ The pastor is careful not to get too embedded in Church-speak, aware that newcomers aren't necessarily going to know the rich layering of terms like "grace alone" or "atonement."

~ They are not abandoning the traditional symbols or practices of Christianity (a la the conservative/ evangelical megachurch movement). Rather, they are embracing them-- meditation, fasting, centering prayer, Sabbath Keeping, hospitality, etc.

~ The music is mostly original, and mostly-- hold on to your beanies-- grunge rock. Now this is a big turn off to me, I think, but I'm not sure, because listen to what the pastor says about grunge: "Grunge is what happens when the children of divorce get guitars."

~ The church embraces a local artist community, opening its space for exhibits.

~ The pastor says that they have turned traditional Christianity's "believe-bahave-belong" on its head; at Jacob's Well it's "behave-belong-believe." What this means is that behavior-- via those practices of faith mentioned above-- leads to belief, which leads to belonging.

I think these folks are onto something. It's scary, probably to a lot of folks, for that last reason. You (read: professional bloviator, church) are not instructing the person on what to believe. You are offering a space in which belief can grow through the intentional comminuty that practices faith together. That belief might look quite different than it is spelled out on the sermon page. (Which is the truth of the way it is anyway, whether we admit it or not).

I think these folks are onto something.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Random Thoughts While Doing Yard Work

Allow me to say this: I grew up in a house surrounded by concrete. Ex-Mr. Mag grew up in a house surrounded by paid staff. Whatever possessed the two of us to purchase a house with a lawn... a small lawn, mind you, but a lawn nonetheless... I never will know.

So there I was using my edge trimmer to mow the whole lawn (which has, among other challenges, patches of moss in some places, weeds everywhere, patches of overgrown ivy creeping down, lots of sticks from tree branches taken out by summer storms). And suddenly in my head are the words of Mrs. Lovett's first song from Sweeney Todd.

A customer!
Wait! What's your rush?
What's your hurry?
You gave me such a...
fright! I thought you was a ghost!
Half a minute, can't ya sit?
Sit ya down!
All I meant is that I haven't seen a customer for weeks.
Did ya come here for a pie, sir?
Do forgive me if my head's a little vague.
What is that?
But you'd think we had the plague.
From the way that people
keep avoiding!
No you don't!
Heaven knows I try, sir!
But there's no one comes in even to inhale!
Right you are, sir, would you like a drop of ale?
Mind you I can hardly blame them!
These are probably the worst pies in London.
I know why nobody cares to take them!
I should know!
I make them!
But good? No...
The worst pies in London...
Even that's polite! The worst pies in London!

Except, in my head, the words were... "The worst lawn in My-town!"

Ususally I badger Larry-O into doing the lawn. He hates, loathes, despises and abominates it. Then he says something nasty to me. Then he does it. Then he apologizes and says, "I'm so spoiled." Is this story sounding familiar? I think Jesus talked about someone who said "Hell no!" when his mom asked him to mow, but went ahead and did it anyway. He comes out better in the story than the other guy, the yes man who goes and plays video games.

But I digress. Larry-O is in college 180 miles away (having the time of his life, from all accounts!). And Petra is running for secretary of the student council, so... needless to say, I'm the lawn lady. And I don't hate it. It's actually incredibly satisfying to do something that has such an obvious, tangible result-- it looks way better out there. WAY better. And the grass smells good as it gives up the ghost. I did decaptitate a worm, though. I had no remorse. Then I remembered the Zen koan shared with my class by one of my favorite professors of all time, the Very Fabulous Sr. Joan Chittister, with whom I studied Benedictine spirituality once upon a grad school.

In each pocket you should have a piece of paper.
On one, it should be written, "You are as lowly as the lowest worm that crawls upon the earth."
On the other, it should be written, "You are the most glorious of God's creations, and all the stars in the heavens were created for your pleasure."

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Pope and Islam

Generally speaking, as a former Roman Catholic who has always regarded the former Cardinal Ratzinger with something between horror and fascination, I am always ready for the man to do and/or say something appalling. In my professional life I am always cautious, naturally, about excoriating representatives of communions other than my own; it's just not cool. But I have been seething all week about the pope's apparently idiotic quoting of a medieval Byzantine emperor on the evils of Islam.

However. Thank goodness for Socinian, who quotes the pope's speech in context. For the first time I feel that I understand what the man was trying to say. I understand that a slam of Islam itself was not the intention of the speech.

I still think the use of the quote was misguiuded. But it probably wasn't evil.

Something else for my tombstone: "She was misguided. But probably not evil."

Ode to A Woman of Valor

I am preaching again this Sunday. So here we go, with the lectionary readings for that day:

Proverbs 31:10-31

A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.
She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
for all her household are clothed in crimson.
She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.

Well, this is one of those roller coaster moments for me as a feminist and a lover of scripture. So much in here to love, so much to make me say "Ew."

First things first. The opening phrase, my Jewish Study Bible tells me, is "commonly translated 'woman of valor,'" though "'woman of strength' would be a better translation." Why, then do both the Jewish Publication Society and the New Revised Standard Version translate it "capable wife"??? What the...? Now it is clear from what follows that the woman in question has a husband, making her, naturally, a wife. But the use of a word that reduces her to her relationship rather than a word that describes her, herself, feels like a gross editorial misstep. In my humble opinion.

Pairing the woman of strength with a husband I can understand, and I take no offense at this representation of the cultural norm of the day in which this was written. Women were expected to marry and they did. And clearly, from the content of this passage, the man who marries this woman of strength gets a formidable partner. Note that, though she is in charge of the domestic sphere, her responsibilities are carried out in the public arena as well. And note the strong implication that her husband can thank her for some of his status... that he is known in the city, taking his place among the elders.

Favorite phrases:

She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong. refreshing to see physical strength in a woman lifted up and admired... still vaguely countercultural, certainly in more conservative religious circles.

She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.

... this is not all about the private sphere, about taking care of our own.

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

I would not mind being described this way, or having the people I love decide to put it on my tombstone.

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.

The "one who fears the Lord" is described in all sorts of places in scripture (see, for example, Psalm 112), and has been said by at least one commentator to be the overarching theme of Proverbs. I love how, here, it is followed up with, "Give her her due." Yes. Indeedy.

One more thing about the woman of valor... her story is the last word in the book of Proverbs. The end. The book starts where it began, describing the one who fears the Lord. Neat!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Costly Perfume; Mistaken Identity; Scripture Abuse

My house is filled at this moment with the fragrance of the Body Shop Body Butter known, oddly, as "Hemp." I don't use this often, but when I do I find that the fragrance trails along with me for hours and hours. Today's gospel passage for the daily lectionary has to do with fragrance, among other things.

Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, "What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?" Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
John 11:55-12:8

First, in the name of Magdalenology, I need to offer some clarifications. Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are not the same person. One of the sources of confusion is the anointing of Jesus, of which there are four distinct accounts. The confusion stems from Luke's offering, which comes at the end of chapter 7. There, a "woman in the city, who was a sinner," anoints Jesus' feet with an alabaster jar of ointment, during a dinner held in the home of a Pharisee. Jesus has a dispute with those who question his actions (if he were a prophet, he would know that this action made him unclean). This gives Jesus an opportunity to ignore the purity issue, and to comment on gratitude ("...herefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."). Note: the woman is not named.

But in the next chapter, Mary Magdalene is introduced as a character, as one from whom Jesus drove out seven demons. She is not identified as a sinner. She is also not identified as the one who anointed Jesus.

Which brings me to today's passage: a Mary anoints Jesus, Mary of Bethany. Again, this Mary is never identified in any gospel account as a sinner (she is mentioned in Luke and in John, both times as Martha's sister). She is also never identified as being the same person as Mary Magdalene.

The confusion is understandable, I suppose. There are lots of Marys, or "Miryams," as their name would have been rendered in Hebrew/Aramaic. Why so many Miryams? One of the Herods married a Miryam. Just as many "Dianas" materialized when Lady Diana Spencer became a member of the Royal family in England, so many Miryams were named for a member of that royal family.

Now that that is out of the way...

This is a really huge passage, with many things going on, and I would just like to highlight some of them.

Note the anxiety of the crowd... Surely Jesus will not come to Jerusalem for the Passover, seeing as there's a warrant out for his arrest?

Note the domestic scene of dinner at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Lazarus is identified in chapter 11 as "the one whom Jesus loved." Therefore, I nominate Lazarus as the "beloved disciple" who shows up throughout this gospel without being named.

More on the domestic scene, which strikes me as a little bizarre. Jesus is being hosted by a family for whom he has performed the ultimate miracle: the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is like a wake, only the corpse gets to be there... because he's actuallly not dead. I want to make my way imaginatively into the hearts of this family. They have experienced grief, and then the shocking reversal of the impossible. And now they are doing something ordinary yet extraordinary: hosting this dinner. I imagine them feeling like the families of those hostages who are released after being held in places like Iraq, or the families of prisoners released from the dark hole that is Gitmo. I can't imagine. I can't imagine.

The perfume... such a rich symbol, such an extravagant gesture of love and gratitude. The whole house is filled with the fragrance. A little unnerving for some, evidently.

Here comes the scripture abuse: no sentence of scripture has been more badly abused than Jesus' statement, "You will always have the poor with you." This one sentence has been used as an excuse to turn our backs on the poor, to indicate that the problem of poverty is so overwhelming we can ignore it, or at least cut ourselves some slack about it. And that flies in the face of the consistent witness of all the rest of scripture (including the gospels; it is impossible to imagine this sentence proceeding from the mouth of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark or Luke).

Let us linger at the meal... an intimate lamplit scene, buzzing with the voices of the guests, the spicy aroma of Middle Eastern cooking warming the air, the shock of the perfume entering everyone's nostrils, catching their breath. Breathe it in.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sermon for Big Ivy U., September 17, 2006

Note: This picture shows the interior of the lovely chapel in which I preached this morning.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
Psalm 19:14

I realize it takes… some amount of nerve, shall we say, for an utter stranger to stand in this particular pulpit in front of students, staff and faculty, and proclaim, “Not many of you should become teachers.” I preached on this passage three years ago in the church I served as an interim associate pastor, and believe me: I scooted right over this particular phrase just as quickly as I could, and I didn’t even mention it in the sermon. Sunday School teachers were always in short supply, and I certainly didn't want to be in the position of discouraging volunteers. But today, in this setting, I feel compelled to address the first verse and a half of our reading:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes…
James 3:1-2a

The author of the epistle follows these verses with extended metaphors about the tongue as blazing fire, locus of iniquity, bearer of poison, etc. to illustrate what I really think is his main thesis: teaching is a risky business at best. What comes out of your mouth matters, perhaps more than you know. It could change the course of lives. Be duly warned.

How can we begin to parse the bold statement, that not many should become teachers? Clearly the writer of this letter did not want the transmission of the Christian message to grind to a complete halt. So we have to find some more nuanced interpretation than “Teaching: Bad.” As I’m sure you all know already context is terribly important, whether we’re studying Shakespeare, cell growth or scripture. What is the context of this statement? Maybe if we can figure that out we can begin to move towards something fruitful for all of us this morning.

I was thrilled to learn in my reading this week that at least one solid, well-known and highly-respected scripture scholar is out there making the case that the letter of James may well be the work of James, the brother of Jesus. That James. The New Testament tells us that James the brother of the Lord was prominent among early followers of “the Way,” as Christians called themselves. To be fair, scholarly consensus tends to place this letter much later than that, for a number of reasons, including the beauty and elegance of the original Greek. There is some skepticism that a native Aramaic speaker could have the kind of poetic style that shows up here. Still, I love the thought of this having been written by someone who grew up in the same household with Jesus. It adds a certain richness and depth to the words. I imagine brothers, scraping their knees side by side, learning their father’s skill of woodworking with the same plane and lathe, dipping their bread together at the table. And of course, to have this person warning about the grave responsibility associated with teaching I find particularly fascinating. Is it at least a partial result of James’ experience of watching his brother, by all accounts a brilliant teacher, get taken down by the powers and principalities? Or perhaps is it his experience of the blazing tongues of Pentecost that informs this warning about the blazing tongues in our mouths?

There are other contextual clues about the letter. The opening, the very first verse of chapter one, seems to assume a primarily Jewish audience. It begins, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations…” (James 1:1). If you read the letter through you will notice that, unlike the letters of Paul, the nature of Jesus, who he is, what he means—is not really treated in this letter at all. The letter is theological, but not Christological. It has been called one of the more “ecumenical” of the New Testament letters for that reason—a work that speaks to those who confess Jesus as Lord as well as those who see themselves primarily as children of Abraham and Sarah. And this makes sense, especially in the earliest years of the formation of Christianity. Jews who considered themselves followers of the Way and Jews who did not were still, in James’ era, one community, working together, worshipping together in synagogue or temple, sleeping under the same roof. The letter of James is, to coin a phrase, a uniter, not a divider.

But to press this piece of context just a little further, I think we also need to remember the role of language, the role of the word, in the Jewish context. Words are seen as innately powerful. In the beginning, all was formless and void; and then God spoke a word, saying, “Let there be light.” And there was light. The spoken word of God causes creation. The word is not just print on a page, scratches on papyrus, or carving in stone. The word is an actor in the world. The word makes and unmakes, it binds and looses. Even nature is seen as being endowed with speech, if we can only attune ourselves to its language. In Psalm 19, which we have heard this morning, the lessons offered by nature and the word of God in Torah are placed side by side, equally compelling movements in revelation:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Psalm 19:1-3

James speaks to a community well versed in the power and importance of the word.

The other thing revealed in the greeting comes courtesy of that word, “servant,” as our translation puts it, but really, the word is “slave.” James calls himself “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” My sources tell me that this word suggests “the confident and understated authority of a teacher.” The author, who offers words on teaching, and more generally, speech itself, understands himself to be a teacher. If we recall that the remainder of our passage paints a vivid and ultimately discouraging portrait of the damage that can be done by the untamed tongue, we can venture a guess that James seems to have painful, firsthand knowledge of how badly teaching can go awry. Perhaps it would be good for us to focus on what we know about good teaching, and teachers.

So, as an experiment, let’s all take just a moment to allow our memories to come into conversation with our text. Surely each of us can remember at least one teacher who stands out in our long academic careers, one really good teacher. Who is it? Is it someone who is teaching you linear algebra and Markov chains right now, or is it someone who gave you the basics of addition and subtraction at age 7? Is it your macroeconomics professor or your home economics teacher from the 7th grade? When I pause to try this experiment, I am interested to note that, the teachers who pop into my head aren’t the ones I expect—they’re not the teachers of my favorite subjects, for instance, or the teachers with whom I had the most in common. Instead, they are the individuals who kindled in me a fire of enthusiasm or even love for a subject I’d previously disliked (or which had bored me). They are the teachers of the class I didn’t want to take, who helped me to see that it might just be a rich expenditure of my time after all. The really good teachers are the ones who took me out of myself, of the self I brought into the classroom with me, and who introduced me to a new possibility, a self who liked and learned something completely new.

Ultimately, I think love has to enter into it. The best teachers love both their subject and their students. I had to take an early church history class in seminary. Now, generally, I am pretty interested in all things to do with religion, but there are even hierarchies within that overarching interest. In the case of early church history, it’s fair to say—I wasn’t so enthused. But the class was taught by a droll Englishman, a hip Russian Orthodox priest who explained icons to us and who cracked us up with his jokes. Pretty soon I was hooked on Modalism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and all the other early –isms Christians ultimately defined themselves over and against. I finally realized what a fantastic teacher the Rev. Dr. Early Church History was when I found myself, nearly a year after graduation, cutting out a letter to the editor from my local paper because a debate had broken out in Binghamton over 1800 year old heresies, and I just knew he would be tickled to death to hear about it. He was.

Love of subject and love of students—a genuine interest in the student that goes even beyond the classroom and the final paper—these are the things that make for excellence in teaching. And I’d just like to say—that’s a pretty tall order, and a pretty exhausting one, all that love. That’s enough to make any of us pause, and wonder: is this really what we want to get ourselves into? Especially when we consider the rest of our verse: “….You know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.”

These last two points are worth our attention: First, teachers will be judged, and that judgment will hold us to a higher standard. James is certainly not commenting on the tenure system, but rather on the consonance or connection between what the teacher teaches and how the teacher lives. And, of course, missing from the entire conversation so far is the content of the teaching. James is not talking about teachers of philosophy or history or mathematics. He is referring, of course, to faith itself. To quote from an earlier moment in this same letter, James is encouraging his audience—teachers and non-teachers alike—to be “doers of the word, as well as hearers.” If the main content of what you are teaching is “Love thy neighbor,” and you are seen, with your blazing tongue, to be eviscerating that very neighbor, you will be judged appropriately, says James. And here is a huge point of connection between what James teaches and what Jesus—his brother? Our brother—teaches: “The measure you give will be the measure you get,” says Jesus (Mark 4:24); and, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” Mark 7:6), and “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). For Jesus and for James, what you say and what you do must match up, must make sense, must not be in conflict. If you are a teacher, you’d better know that going in.

“All of us make mistakes.” Here is where I think the truth of truly great teaching lies: in admitting when we are wrong. It lies in remaining open to new information, information such as, “Well, that experiment didn’t go the way I thought it would,” or, “Hey, this looks like a civil war.” Truly great teachers remain students their whole life long. We all, all of us, every last one, make mistakes. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Good teachers, great teachers, are not bowled over or destroyed by that information. They go forward, they try again, they act like they students they are.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters. But of course, you will, in this room, to a degree disproportionate with the rest of the population. You will, many of you, engage in the risky business that is teaching. So, since you are going to do this thing, or since you already have done this thing and have no intention of stopping… I think James would advise you to know, really know, how powerful are the words that come out of your mouth, that come out of all of our mouths. He would tell you to let every word that blazes forth from your mouth be a word spoken in love; to love your subject and love your students. And he would certainly encourage you to remain a student yourself, open and learning every single day. And may the words of all our mouths, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in the sight of the Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Words, Words, Words

Words, words, words,
I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through,
first from him, now from you.
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don't talk of stars, burning above.
If you're in love, show me!

Eliza Dolittle, My Fair Lady

I'm up late finishing my sermon for Big Ivy U. It's not as bad as it might have been. I am preaching on James 3:1-12, on the portion I mentioned earlier in the week about teaching. But ultimately, with James, I find myself returning to this theme of words, how important and powerful they are, and how they'd damn well better match up with our actions.

The Psalm for today (for it is Sunday, now) is Psalm 19, which carries on this theme of words, beginning with the beautiful ode on the speech of creation:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Psalm 19:1-3

Even the created realm, the firmament, is speaking--shouting!--the glory of God. But as eloquent as that speech, it pales and fades away by comparison to the speech of God, extolled in glorious and rhythmic couplets that just make you want to be a 5th grade Sunday School student and set to memorizing again:

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Psalm 19:7-10

I read somewhere earlier in the week that John Calvin considered this to be a perfect prayer, his favorite of all the psalms. I get that. I tell you, I read this, I pray it aloud, and it locks into some part of my brain and begins to produce some kind of amazing God-drug. Maybe that is what the psalmist means by "sweeter than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb." It's a sugar-buzz I'm feeling, I swear it.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


So this happens to me every once in a while. I am going along, reading my Daily Prayer (really, trying to pray it, which is different, of course). And something stirs in me and I become just a little reluctant, recalcitrant. I begin to balk, to resist. What I resist is something that, in my opinion, is a pretty enormous problem in Presbyterian circles: the relentless maleness of language for God.

I know, I know. Yawn, many will say. But even the Daily Prayer book I use, which works pretty hard to use inclusive language and avoid gender specific pronouns wherever possible, is still steeped in this language of God as "He." And some days I flow with that just fine. And some days I have to find other avenues to connect with what I believe is a much more complex, many-faceted, many hued expression of the Divine.

So this happened to me today, and something in me whispered "Meinrad Craighead." And I did a quick Google of her, and found this site. And I meditated upon "Garden" (above) and felt much better. Free-associating, I also listened for a bit to the music of Therese Schroeder-Sheker (see her website here, and find her recordings here)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Tongues Ablaze!

Blogging James 3:1-12, I realize I preached on this passage three years ago in the church I served as an interim associate pastor. I know that I focused at that time on the portion of the passage about the dangerous tongue, as follows:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
James 3:5b-8

In other words, you kiss your mother with that mouth? But I find today that it is the first two verses that have captured my imagination.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. James 3:1-2

This may be because I am preaching at Big Ivy University this Sunday. I just am tickled at the thought of standing up in front of students, staff and faculty and saying that first line: You know, not many of you should be teachers.

Let's play with possible interpretations.

Not many of you should be teachers.

...despite what you are thinking.

Not many of you should be teachers.

... but it's ok if some of you do that.

Not many of you should be teachers., of all people!

Not many of you should be teachers.

...but I accept that inevitability.

Not many of you should be teachers.

...but there are plenty of other jobs out there! Keep looking!

I think James follows up on these verses with his extended metaphors about the tongue as blazing fire, locus of iniquity, bearer of poison, etc. to illustrate his main thesis: teaching is a risky business at best. What comes out of your mouth matters. It could change the course of lives. You sure you want to take that on?

Last time I preached this passage I shied away from the first verse. After all, Sunday School teachers were always in short supply. And I sure didn't want to suggest that I was in a position to judge (even though we all know it's James who's doing that). But this time... it seems a fruitful possibility.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Lady Wisdom Goes Begging

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
"How long, O simple ones,
will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Proverbs 1:20-24

This is such a strange image: Lady Wisdom, out in the street calling out like a fishwife, "GETcher wisdom he--eere! GETcher wisDOM!" The idea of Wisdom... who, elsewhere in Proverbs, is described as participating with God in the very act of creation... going begging for adherents is poignant and strange. Imagine her bafflement. Imagine her frustration! Why would anyone turn up their nose at what this Lady is offering? This passage makes me think of our Commander in Chief, who is proud that he gets his information not from newspapers or other media but only from his hand-picked lackies, who only feed him what props up what he thinks he already knows. This makes my head and heart ache with anger and frustration. This president and his administration are scoffers, alright. They think "intellectual" is a dirty word, and so they embrace willful ignorance.

I think, too, there are different kinds of wisdom. Today I saw a young woman running in my neighborhood, and I saw such an ease in her stride and her beautifully coordinated breathing. There is a kind of body-wisdom at work there, as well as much discipline, of course. But isn't that one of Wisdom's points? That acquiring her requires effort, at the very least the effort of response and acknowledgement that we don't have all the answers?

Listen to what she says will happen to those who refuse her:

Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Proverbs 1:25-28

As yet another anniversary of 9/11 recedes, those words are chilling. Panic has struck us like a storm, and instead of attempting true understanding and dialogue we are flailing about, throwing American lives and American billions at a problem we don't even fully understand yet.

Here, in honor of Lady Wisdom, I offer the 99 names of Allah:

The Beneficent
The Merciful
The Sovereign Lord
The Holy
The Source of Peace
The Guardian of Faith
The Protector
The Mighty
The Compeller
The Majestic
The Creator
The Evolver
The Fashioner
The Forgiver
The Subduer
The Bestower
The Provider
The Opener
The All-Knowing
The Constrictor
The Expander
The Abaser
The Exalter
The Honorer
The Dishonorer
The All Hearing
The All Seeing
The Judge
The Just One
The Subtle One
The Aware
The Forbearing One
The Great One
The All-Forgiving
The Appreciative
The Most High
The Most Great
The Preserver
The Maintainer
The Reckoner
The Sublime One
The Generous One
The Watchful
The Responsive
The All-Embracing
The Wise
The Loving
The Most Glorious One
The Resurrector
The Witness
The Truth
The Trustee
The Most Strong
The Firm One
The Protecting Friend
The Praiseworthy
The Numberer
The Originator
The Restorer
The Giver of Life
The Creator of Death
The Alive
The Self-Subsisting
The Finder
The Noble
The Unique
The Single One
The Eternal
The Able
The Powerful
The Expeditor
The Delayer
The First
The Last
The Manifest
The Hidden
The Governor
The Most Exalted
The Source of All Good
The Acceptor of Repentance
The Avenger
The Pardoner
The Compassionate
The Eternal Owner of Sovereignty
The Lord of Majesty and Bounty
The Equitable
The Gatherer
The Self-Sufficient
The Enricher
The Preventer
The Distresser
The Propitious
The Light
The Guide
The Incomparable
The Everlasting
The Supreme Inheritor
The Guide to the Right Path
The Patient

Patient One, give us patience to seek you.

New Direction for This Week

Since I am... hold your breath... preaching this Sunday (!), I have decided to blog the lectionary readings for that day, aka the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time. (Love that "ordinary time.") I have decided to preach on the reading from James (I think). But I am going to try the experiment of blogging them all, to see what arises.

For your information, gentle reader:

Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19:1-14
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Click on the above link to read them. I'll be back after my LPC (Lengthy Presbyterian Committee) meeting.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Tug of War

So I've been thinking about Job a lot this week, no surprise there. And I've been thinking a lot about my daughter this week, turning 14 as she has been doing. And it occurs to me that these two interesect in a sort of interesting way (to me, at any rate) over this question of sinfulness/ righteousness.

When Petra was born, I was in the midst of a snit about baptism. I will explain. I was a second time mother, Larry-O having been born nearly five years earlier, and I had a lot of residue, if you will, from the experience of Larry-O's baptism.

When I was pregnant with Larry-O, I was a 26 year old in the throes of a religious crisis. The church of my childhood (Roman Catholicism) was rapidly losing its ability to feed me. I struggled mightily with all the issues around women in the church-- ordination, reproductive freedom-- and some that were more general human rights/ scripture interpretation issues-- homosexuality, priestly authority. You name it. I was unhappy about it. And my belly was getting bigger. The summer before he was born I remember going to Episcopal services, Quaker meeting... I was looking desperately for a place to feel at home. I asked myself, How can I raise a child in a church in which I am losing faith? But my husband and I were swept up in the tide of events. Translation: my mother-in-law had a Christening gown made for the baby. And so the baptism was scheduled.

My experience of my new baby was that he was utterly perfect. He was born in November, and as the Christmas season came and went, and I nursed and held this beautiful and surprising child, I felt that I got Christmas for the first time, that it was all about the miracle of birth and new life, period. But as we went through with the baptism, I was struck with a sense, somehow, of wrongness. The focus seemed to be on the unworthiness of this child, of his innate sinfulness. It didn't make sense to me. It didn't reflect my experience of my baby. He was perfect.

Fast forward to Petra's birth. I was attending an Episcopal church, which resolved some of my issues (though not all of them), and I was resolved to have her baptized as well. But something else needed to happen. I needed to affirm her goodness, her perfection. Again, I felt that to hold a ceremony saying that, in effect, the womb waters were not sufficient to give her birth, was a terrible denial of her innate goodness as well as my own. So I held a welcoming ceremony for her. I invited a group of woman friends to my home (her dad and Larry-O attended, but they were the only men). I made a little coat of many colors for Petra, and we did readings from women writers, one explaing her name, one by a former professor of mine who bore the same name... we sang, we ate cake, we toasted the woman we hoped she would become, and we wrote blessings in a book (which I gave her last year on her birthday).

I think the same tug of war I felt within myself over the question of baptism is refelcted, once again, in today's lectionary offering from Job, Job 25:1-6; 27:1-6. Bildad asks a question, THE question:

How then can a mortal be righteous before God?
How can one born of woman be pure?
If even the moon is not bright
and the stars are not pure in his sight,
how much less a mortal, who is a maggot,
and a human being, who is a worm! Job 25:3-6

Is it possible for anyone to be righteous? This veers away from the way I have framed the conversation in earlier posts-- Job's idiot friends assuming he is bad because of what have happened to him-- and towards a much subtler and more real question. Is moral rectitude possible? Really? Who is without sin?

Job has his story and he's sticking to it: he has not sinned.

As God lives, who has taken away my right,
and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter,
as long as my breath is in me
and the spirit of God is in my nostrils,
my lips will not speak falsehood,
and my tongue will not utter deceit.
Far be it from me to say that you are right;
until I die I will not put away my integrity from me.
I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go;
my heart does not reproach me for any of my days. Job 27:2-6

It seems to me a different question, then, to ask, "Has Job sinned at all?" Job is claiming total purity, total innocence, total righteousness before God and humanity. But is Job right? Wouldn't Job's position be stronger if he admitted some human frailty? Doesn't everyone sin, at some time or another?

Now I have baptized babies and adults myself, in my duties as a professional religious type. What do I think of that? Have I sold out? Or have I grown up? Here's what I think. I think there is a profound brokenness at the core of humanity. That's what Calvin would call "original sin," though he would have far more colorful language for it. I think we come into this world beautiful but broken. Life bears this out. I am not embarrassed by my earlier attempts to affirm the goodness of my babies. But life-- mine and theirs, and the lives of so many others-- has taught me that, we are all to blame, we all fall short of the glory that God has created us to be.

So. Job is wrong.

At least, that's what I think today.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


I have been kicked out of Petra's birthday party. Harrumph. She says it's "awkward" having me around. So I am upstairs (where I can hear everything anyway), eating my party food alone.

She's 14. Did I mention that?

Here is a fabulous looking cake from the web. The one I made doesn't look quite this faboo, but I can guarantee you this: it tastes amazing.


I had the experience of singing today, for the first time in a long time, with a group of people I know well. I have flitted in and out of the Madrigal Choir of (where I live) for the last 16 years. The first rehearsal of the fall is always a day-long affair, complete with a lunch catered by the ladies of the First Presbyterian Church. On this day we immerse ourselves, first, in exercises designed to help us listen, and then, in our fall repertoire.

We sang some old chestnuts along with many new macadamias today. I was caught up short by the sheer power of music to hold and mediate memories. We sang a lovely King's Singers setting of the James Taylor song "Lonesome Road."

Walk down that lonesome road all by yourself
Don't turn your head back over your shoulder
And only stop to rest yourself when the silver moon
Is shining high above the trees

If I had stopped to listen once or twice
If I had closed my mouth and opened my eyes
If I had cooled my head and warmed my heart
I'd not be on this road tonight

Carry on

Never mind feeling sorry for yourself
It doesn't save you from your troubled mind

Walk down that lonesome road all by yourself
Dont turn your head back over your shoulder
And only stop to rest yourself when the silver moon
Is shining high above the trees

I was reminded (as I have been a lot this week, I notice) with a painful time: the fall when I felt my husband slipping away, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. How powerful these memories have been this week may be a factor of a lot of things-- Larry-O's absence, for example, reminding me of the last time my family changed configurations so radically. But I think it's the bible, folks. There is something so... real about the emotions conveyed in these words, this ancient testimony to human longing and limits. This song, in all its piercing longing, connected for me with the psalm of the day, Psalm 63.

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you. Psalm 63:1-3

Pray it slowly, aloud. Hear every word. Know how deep your longing is.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Job for the Defense

You know, I really should trust scripture. All of it. Again and again I am reminded that it is bigger than my little pre-conceived notions of it. Again and again, I am caught up short, surprised, left breathing hard in my efforts to just keep up.

Yesterday I said, "Weeks of Job? You gotta be kidding! Let me bring some Jesus, some salvation into all this darkness!" Well. Today Job reminds me that the New Testament is already woven through the Hebrew scriptures; Jesus doesn't spring up fully formed like Venus on the half shell, something completely new and unimagined. The themes of the New Testament are present and accounted for in Hebrew scripture. You just have to pay attention. It's all in there.

Today's reading, for instance, Job 19:1-7, 14-27. "Then Job answered," it begins. Job is answering one of those three friends, Bildad, who has just made a speech saying, basically, "If you're evil, God's gonna getcha. And Job, God's gotcha. So you must be evil." Unassailable logic, right? Actually, no. Faulty logic. (I could prove it with a diagram, but I'll leave that to indexed.)

Our passage, chapter 19, is Job's response. My seminary Old Testament professor, David Carr, said that Job is filled with legal/ trial imagery. And here is Job, arguing against Bildad in his own defense. And like a great lawyer, Job cuts to the heart of the matter:

If indeed you magnify yourselves against me,
and make my humiliation an argument against me,
know then that God has put me in the wrong,
and closed his net around me. Job 19:5-6

Job knows what's going on here. The three friends need to "magnify themselves against" Job, need to demonize him, need to believe that he earned all his suffering by being (one must assume secretly) evil, because they need to think they are safe. If Job is suffering because he's a bad guy, then, good, if I stay a good guy, I can avoid suffering.

Oh that it were true.

Job goes on, in verses 14 and following, to paint as pathetic a self-portrait as one can imagine, including his relatives running the other way when they see him coming, his wife being repulsed by his foul breath, all those whom he has loved turning against him. It is almost dizzying in its power and despair.

And yet. Smack me upside the head with salvation, why don't you, Job? Verse 25, and the music of Handel swells in the heart of the reader:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God... Job 19:25-26

Oh my. This is what kills about Job: even in despair, his confidence that God will vindicate him, will give him the verdict he so richly deserves. In the Daily Prayer book, the prayer offered for Friday morning (the day on which the prayers recall the crucifixion) says, at one point,"Especially we thank you for the presence of Christ in our weakness and suffering..." When I first read that I didn't really understand it. That is probably because I hadn't really known suffering. At the point at which I was well-acquainted with suffering, however, these words took on a potency it is hard to describe. They became a kind of talisman for me, a little surprise every time I prayed them, as I struggled to make sense of what was happening to me and to find a path through.

God is present in our weakness and suffering. God plants in us the seeds of hope, tiny though they may be. God is at our side as we plead in our defense. All this from Job, whom I was ready to dismiss yesterday (or at least to pretty up). Man. I must trust scripture more. I really must work on that.

Petra! Is (almost) 14!

Yes. It's true. My youngest (if you only have two, perhaps it's younger) turns 14 tomorrow, beautiful young lady that she has become. She's having one of those three-day extravaganzas (said like Phoebe Buffay); dinner and a movie with BFF and me tonight, party with her friends tomorrow night, and dinner with her Dad and his SO Sunday night. My parents always said my birthday went on and on, like a Polish wedding. So the tradition continues.

Last night Petra and I were looking for a monologue for me. Stepping out of my comfort zone (i.e., Gilbert and Sullivan plays), I am trying out for a local theater company which is holding general auditions in a few weeks. We ended up reading aloud to one another from the book for "A Little Night Music," which we both adore, and we even ended up singing a duet of "Every Day a Little Death." I love Madame Armfeldt! Choice quote: "To lose a lover or even a husband or two during the course of one's life can be vexing. But to lose one's teeth is a catastrophe. Bear that in mind, child, as you chomp so recklessly into that gingersnap... More champagne, Frid. One bottle the less of the Mumms '87 will not, I hope, diminish the hilarity at my wake."

I want to say two things.

First. How amazing it is to have children (think of Larry-O in Big City U, acting his butt off!) who share a passion with me, something that really bonds us and helps us to get each other. I suspect they think my profession (professional religious bloviator) is vaguely intriguing, but also sort of an embarrassment. But we connect in the place where there is music and theater. I have tried deliberately to foster an environment unlike my experience growing up, with loving parents who appreciated my talents and interests to a point, but who tried desperately to steer me away from the arts because it was an unstable, undependable living. They tried to get me to go to medical school. Someone suggested recently that my choice of ministry is a kind of middle place between what they wanted and what I wanted. I am not sure I believe that... I feel wholeheartedly called to my work. But it's an interesting thought.

And second. Happy Birthday to my beautiful, funny as hell, private, talented, horse-riding, flute-playing, soprano-singing, Gilmore Girls-loving girl. Happy, happy birthday.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Job and John

So, a modification of aforementioned plan. Still committed to Daily Prayer. Still committeed to blogging scripture. HOWEVER. Looking ahead at the daily lectionary, we have week upon week upon week of Job. I think we need a little New Testament mojo in the mix. I mean it. Week upon week. So... maybe a little John today, too.

"My face is red with weeping," Job begins today, "and deep darkness is on my eyelids, though there is no violence in my hands and my prayer is pure" (16:16-17). Let us remember what has brought Job to this state. In chapters one and two (prose chapters, probably added later to frame the extended chapters of poetry that begin in chapter three, and which are some of the oldest scripture we got), Job, an upright, upstanding, go-to guy, is being observed by the heavenly court. Ha-Satan -- which is to say, the Tempter, not to be confused with the devil, evil incarnate, or the Anti-Christ, but a member of the heavenly court whose job it is to poke holes in everybody's nice theories-- says to God, "I bet this Job guy wouldn't be so just and righteous and goody-goody if you just took everything away from him. Just take it away. All of it." God says, "I'll take that bet," and allows Ha Satan to strip Job of nearly everything he has-- his children, his wealth, and his physical well-being. At the end of chapter two Job is sitting in a pile of ashes, clothes torn, scratching his boils with a shard of a pot. Three friends come and, at first, do exactly what friends should do: they keep silent vigil with Job in his grief. They do it for seven days.

At the end of seven days, however, Job wails aloud his rage at the injustice of what has happened to him. He has been good! He is a just man, a righteous man! How can God do this to him? (this is where the ancient poetry begins). And in response the friends of Job begin to make speeches. Their speeches all amount to some version of "You must have done something."

I mention all this background because Job is responding to his friends in this passage. "I am miserable, yes. But there is no violence in me and my prayer is pure." Job is trying to introduce his friends to a concept that darts around all through Hebrew scripture, but here gets its fullest treatment. Bad things can happen to good people. This theme winds all around psalms. But this theme is generally repudiated in the narrative of the Hebrew scriptures. Generally speaking, your enemies defeat you, it's because you screwed up. But here we have Job as a witness, defiant, crying out of the dungheap that has become his life: Not so. Bad things can happen to the decent guy, and for no good reason.

John has Jesus treating this theme this morning, and it is such a refreshing moment in a gospel that I have often had to hold my nose to get through. Jesus and the disciples see a man, blind from birth. "Who sinned?" they ask. Someone must have been really really bad, to bring this curse down on this guy. Jesus, in a remarkably lucid moment in a gospel that often has him spouting curlicues of thought, says, "No one." No one sinned. This man's misfortune is unrelated to his righteousness. Of course, Jesus doesn't stop there. He says that the man's blindness is for just this moment, the moment of spit and mud and sight, and praising God for it all.

M., one of my best friends in the world (and she's really out in the world just now, she's in Peru! and I don't mean Indiana!), and I have talked about this endlessly, both of us moaning and tearing our garments and gnashing our teeth through pretty devastating break-ups. We know we don't believe the theology of Job's friends, or the dim disciples. We don't believe that is how a loving God works in our lives-- punishing us with misfortune because we've been bad. That's not our theology! But when push comes to shove comes to heartbreak, we both go there. We both ask the questions. "Why? What did I do? Am I a terrible person, that this has happened to me?"

I look at the world, and I know full well that terrible things happen all the time to innocents. Lebanese children are buried beneath the rubble created by Israeli bombs. And so on. But this is pervasive, it is powerful, and it is ancient. I think it is because we want to make sense of the world, and it is in some ways easier and more comforting to think there's a logic to it all. On top of that, I'm supposed to be a Calvinist, which means God's plan is always at work, nothing happens that God doesn't either will or permit. But oh the miles between willing and giving permission. The miles and miles and miles. Those miles are the place of mystery, in which Mieke and Job and the man blind from birth and I all live.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Job and Mom

A funny thing happened on my way to blogging this post. This passage blew me away.

Here I was, thinking I was embarking on a new, potentially fruitful, but probably somewhat tedious (at least at times) discipline. I will open to the Hebrew Scriptures passage, thought I. (Loved Hebrew in seminary. It's so intuitive. Was not on such great terms with the Greek. Too much memorization... no room for invention.) I will blog the Hebrew Scriptures passages for the next year, thought I! (I like to make plans.)

Then I read these words:

A mortal, born of woman,
few of days and full of trouble,
comes up like a flower and withers,
flees like a shadow and does not last.
Do you fix your eyes on such a one? (Job 14:1-3a)

And my eyes filled with tears and I wept for my mother, and for my father, and for my best friend who thinks she's old (but she's not), and for all of us who are faced with the problem of inevitable human decay. I heard just a few minutes of Norah Ephron on "Talk of the Nation" yesterday (I find that a few minutes of Norah Ephron is plenty). She was talking about the indignity of it all, aging that is. She talked of how, if you have been a reader your whole life, and you are used to seeing something you want to read and just picking it up and reading, you experience the shock, the absolute shock of finding that your eyesight is failing you and there is an impediment to that completely natural act that you have always taken for granted. Now you have to find your glasses. There is an obstacle, an unfair, unforeseen obstacle betwee you and your reading. I empathized with her plight, as someone whose eyes have changed dramatically in the last year and a half, and who now finds she must wear bifocals in leading a worship service. I related to her complaint, as a lifelong reader (including, sometimes, under the covers with a flashlight), who now finds that she cannot read her good-as-candy-at-bedtime novel unless she has remembered to bring the damned glasses.

I like to depend on my body not decaying and growing old, but that is not the way of the life God has created for us creatures. We come up like flowers and fade. We flee like shadows, and we do not last. Why depend on humans, in all our frailty? Why get attached, since there is the absolute guarantee of it not lasting?

My mom was nearly 86 when she died on February 11, old and full of years, as the scriptures describe some of the patriarchs and matriarchs. But she died full of pain too. She died a hard death, from an unusual kind of lung cancer (probably secondary to breast cancer from 15 years earlier) that spread to her bones and closed off her windpipe. "As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again..." (Job 14:11-12a). My mom dried up... my last memories of her are of an unquenchable thirst combined with an inability to swallow. The last line of this passage is "They feel only the pain of their own bodies, and mourn only for themselves." Yes.

So... a bit unexpected, my sojourn into Job this morning, what with the weeping and all. Thank God for the psalm provided for my morning prayer, Psalm 147:1-11, which probably above all other scripture carried me through the breakdown and break-up of my 21 year marriage.

The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem
and gathers the exiles of Israel.
The Lord heals the brokenhearted,
and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:2-3)

The lesson of our fragility, our here-today-and-gone-tomorrowness, is a hard one. We are exiles from ourselves, the young and energetic selves we have come to depend upon and take for granted. And our cracked and bleeding hearts (and our teary and unfocused eyes) look to the one who rebuilds, and gathers, and heals and binds up. Thanks be to God.