Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Now Here's Something REALLY Scary...

Thanks to newly discovered (by me) blogger Queen Mum, I have learned about something that really excites and scares me: NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel-- good, bad or indifferent, serious or silly, any genre at all-- and to do so in a limited time, November 1 through 30.

God help me, I'm going to do it.

I wrote yesterday about my stop-and-start attempts at artistic expression. I have been thinking about writing a novel for approximately 35 of my 45 years.

This is it.

So.... dear blogiverse, I'm not sure how that will impact blogifying over the next 30 days. It is not my attempt to abandon it. This blog has a very different thrust than writing fiction. But my entries may well be shorter and further apart, if I am trying to crank out the equivalent of one slightly short sermon per day (see September 17, 24 and October 8 for typical sermons of mine)!

Yikes. Maybe I won't do this.

No. I will. I am. No time like the present.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Rejoice in Hope! aka, Parents' Weekend

I returned last night (in the dark... the dark, dark, dark!) from Freshman Parents' Weekend at Big City U, where son Larry-O is pursuing his dream of acting in what is probably the best program for it in the country. (No pride or bragging there.) As on moving in day, it rained and rained Saturday morning, and I grumbled as the ex Mr. Mags and I shuffled into the snazzy auditorium to hear speeches by deans and department heads. (Larry-O and Petra were off being sibling-y together. More on that later).

Instead of a boring two and a half hours of speeches, I was treated to what was really a conversation with artists who appear to be genuinely in love with both the work they do and the young people with whom they get to do it. In every case we heard a clarion call for the importance of the arts in society-- a mission on behalf of excellence and in service of a national and international conversation about what is really going on in this hurting world of ours. I tell you, friends, my heart soared. I became teary. I contemplated my own stop-and-start artistic endeavors (the play I began writing ten years ago; the one I said I'd write this summer; my just about once-a-year songwriting; the all-woman Shakespeare troupe I keep thinking I'll start), and resolved not to let all these things die in embryo. We saw a wonderful, slightly demented movie by an alumnus of the program whose theme can be described as "Bowling with a madman in the woods... but at what cost???" but whose theme is really the delicate task of pushing the baby bird from the nest and hoping like hell s/he can fly. The head of Larry-O's department left us with a quote of James Baldwin: "Be careful what set your heart on, for it will surely be yours."

Saturday afternoon was devoted to a brilliant demonstration at the theater studio where my son is getting his primary training in acting. Again, I was inspired, uplifted, and thrilled to be brought in on the theory and the practice of what Larry is setting his heart on.

Saturday night we took in the local cultural scene with a vengeance, and Petra was in heaven for the play we saw, the celebrity photos we got, and songs we all took home in our heads and hearts.

Sunday morning I had the privilege of hearing a stewardship sermon, of all things, at one of the great churches of my denomination, by one of its great preachers. And there my heart soared for this work I have chosen, or which has chosen me (I think that's what a call is...).

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Romans 12:9-12

Larry-O looks tired. He is working hard. He has a stubborn stye in his eye. He is switching roommates, because the one he has is partying a little too hardily for his taste. He loves his classes passionately, especially the ones on acting technique. He is thriving in the city environment.

When he and Petra got to go off for the morning on Saturday, they basically walked around the city, got coffee, met up with friends and other siblings. And they talked and talked and talked. He told her about his life. She told him about her life. When we parted on Sunday afternoon, and they hugged, I heard her say to him, "You are so cool." And he looked at her and said "You're cool." Sorry, but I'm tearing up even as I write this. If anyone had presented me a vision of this brother and sister in such a love-fest even 2 years ago, I would have said "Yeah. Right." But time and mutual interests and, probably, a little separation have worked their magic. I now think they have the kind of relationship I never dared hope they'd have. It's so cool.

There it is... parents weekend, complete with a sermon. That baby bird is flying. Rejoice in hope!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Amen, brother!

Courtesy of the Beliefnet Daily Jewish Wisdom email (I get the Daily Muslim Wisdom one, too), this statement about scripture study that just about peeled me like a grape. In the words of the immortal Meg Ryan, "Yes, yes, YES!!!"

The study of Torah is not simply a didactic act...It is a powerful experience involving the closeness of many generations, the joining of spirit to spirit and the connection of soul to soul.

- Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik

Halloween from (this) Christian Perpective

Having posted the Ghoulish Friday Five (see below) without a second thought, it occurs to me that not all my clergy colleagues out there would do so, certainly not so blithely. There are those who have serious concerns that the celebration of Halloween amounts to satanic worship, invocation of the dark world and its spirits, and a serious departure from Christianity.

To these dear ones, I say: lighten up. And stop trying to take Harry Potter books out of school libraries. And, if you hear only one thing I have to say, hear this: have more confidence in God. OK?

Ghoulish Friday Five

Having joined the RevGalBlogPals webring this week (see my sidebar for the link), I am pleased to present (drum roll please): the Friday Five! Five questions for fun and... fun.

You wanna see something *really* scary?...

1. Do you enjoy a good fright?

You know, I do... as long as it is a verifiably safe good fright. Scary movie in the comfort of my own home? You bet. Engine trouble on the plane? No thanks.

2. Scariest movie you've ever seen

I think Silence of the Lambs still wins that title. I remember distinctly the first time I saw it, in a theater filled with other terrified people, and my sheer disbelief that a movie could fill me with such fear. That film pushed me to deal with the idea of evil as an active force, and not simply as the absence of good. Powerful stuff.

Other films that have scared the bejeesus out of me:

Alien (love, love, love Sigourney Weaver)
The Shining (though, if you have seen the movie, check out this brilliantly edited trailer for a great laugh)
And, yes, we bow to the master:

3. Bobbing for apples: choose one and discuss:
a) Nothing scary about that! Good wholesome fun.
b) Are you *kidding* me?!? The germs, the germs!

I have to be honest. The germ aspect never crossed my mind. Not once. Until now. Eeew.

4. Real-life phobia

Nothing that rises to the level of phobia, I don't think. I have a fear that George W. Bush is deliberately trying to bring on the apocalypse. Does that count?

5. Favorite "ghost story"

The Others, another movie, starring Nicole Kidman and Fionnula Flanagan. If you haven't seen it, it is a perfect Halloween movie... an intelligent plot that makes your skin crawl before it allows you a good cry. What could be better?

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Come, fathers and mothers,
come, sisters and brothers,
come, join us in singing the praises of Zion...

It was a blustery October day, three years ago today, and family and friends came from afar, just as if it were a wedding. College friends, whom I hadn't seen in more than ten years, in some instances, gathered the night before in an Italian restaurant. Things went wrong (the pastor who was supposed to give the charge to the congregation got the time wrong, and showed up an hour late... the interim executive presbyter punted, very well, too). But things went so, so, right... The Madrigal Choir, of which I am an erstwhile member, sang two amazing pieces: "Zion's Walls," a folk song setting by Aaron Copland, and "Many Waters" by John Bell, based on a text from the Song of Songs. I will never forget the thrill of the opening piano riff from "Zion's Walls"... the words, "We'll shout and go 'round," the absolute exuberance and hope and joy of that music.

One thing I didn't know at the time of my ordination was that my then-husband had decided to leave me. In fairness, he didn't even know it. We had been in couples counseling for months, he longing for another relationship, me desperately trying to hang on. Later he told me that when he came forward with the rest of the pastors and elders to lay hands on me, a spontaneous prayer had arisen in his heart: "Take care of her." That was when he knew it was over.

It still stands as one of the happiest days of my life.

Many waters cannot quench love,
Neither can the floods drown it...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Plan B

I have been reading about seven books simultaneously... this is a sorry state of affairs, brought about by the fact that, sans gainful employment, I find it devilishly difficult to focus my mind. I'll give you an example.

A couple of days before Labor Day weekend 2005, I decided on a whim to remove some hated wallpaper in a bedroom, and paint the room the most wonderful colors: Swan Dive on the walls (a color I chose, frankly, because of an ani difranco song by that name, and which ended up being a wonderful cream with a hint of green in it), and pure sky blue on the ceiling. I decided all this on Wednesday. Friday I was removing wallpaper. Sunday at 4 PM I was finished painting. Fabulous. Right?

Fast forward to summer 2006. Yours truly had an interim pastorate that ended April 30, following which I planned to: 1) Be in a production of The Yeomen of the Guard with my kids (I ended up dropping out because my dad was sick); 2) Remove hated wallpaper in my living room and paint that room and the dining room; 3) Spend quality time with my kids before Larry-O went off to college. 4) Read, read, read. Guess which of the above I accomplished? Number 3. That's it. (Naturally, if I only accomplished one, that was the right one.)

As I've said: problems focusing. So I am wending my way through Will in the World (as mentioned yesterday), Transforming Congregations for the Future by Loren Mead, Life of Pi by Yann Martel (I've been assured it's life-changing, but can't get so excited just yet), The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler, Open House by Elizabeth Berg, and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. I'm reading everything slowly, carelessly, a few pages at a time, in bed, or not. So far I've finished Open House (disappointing: it turns out the best way to get over a divorce is to find another man. Oh. Gee.). And I've really caught the bug for the beloved bard, again, as mentioned yesterday.

Starting this week I've been delving further and further into Anne Lamott's delightful and meandering book. Since it does indeed meander, it sort of matches my not-so-focused self. And Lamott has hit me right in the heart, especially last night. I read two chapters, one on her troubled relationship with her dead mother (as worked out in reference to her mother's ashes), and one on seeing a beloved dog through illness and death. One thing she is devastatingly on target about is the need to pray, pray, pray. Her relationship with God, with Jesus, is just so vivid and present... she envisions him pumping his fist in victory like a frat boy when her heart softens, just a bit, towards her mother.

So I am trying to take into my unfocused mind simply this: Pray, pray, pray. I think that's enough for tonight.

Vine and Fig Tree

Micah 3:9-4:5

And every one neath their vine and fig tree
Shall live in peace and unafraid
And every one neath their vine and fig tree
Shall live in peace and unafraid

And into plowshares turn their swords
Nations shall learn war no more
And into plowshares turn their swords
Nations shall learn war no more

I learned this little Hebrew folk tune about 10 years ago, when I was part of a group of Christian Educators putting on a vacation Bible School called GIGL (Gathering In God's Love). We taught it to about 120 children and adults, together with the appropriate grapevine dance, and sang and danced it together in a darkening Presbyterian sanctuary on a hot August night.

There are at least four places in the Hebrew Scriptures where the phrase "under [his] vine and fig tree" is used to denote a place of safety, peace and plenty.

I want to say something profound about this, but mostly I feel a sense of weariness. This sense of safety is so elusive for everyone, no matter where they are. The truth is, as a US citizen living in a less densely populated area, I am probably as safe as anyone in the world can hope to be. Little likelihood of a terrorist attack. I have a warm home to retreat to on a cold October day, and a refrigerator and freezer filled with meat and vegetables and grains. I am not in danger (or so I imagine) of sudden assault or home invasion or cluster bombs exploding. Certainly, in comparison with a woman of Darfur, no question. I don't face rape and abuse when I go to the market (just temptation). Certainly, in comparison with an Israeli woman, no question. I don't face the possibility of suicide bombers along my commute. Certainly, in comparison with the homeless woman in the US, no question. I am safe.

I don't always feel safe. I didn't feel safe as a seminarian living half of each week in New Work City in the fall of 2001. I don't feel safe when I consider the antibiotics used to raise the chicken and beef I purchase and prepare for myself and my family. And I don't feel safe when I hear about random acts of violence perpetrated against good and peaceful people, either on a local level or in my name by my government. Yet, the truth is this. I am safe, By comparison with the vast majority of people who inhabit this planet, I am almost unimaginably privileged, and my safety is a part of that privilege.

My question to myself is this: how can I use my safety to help to bring safety to others? Is it possible for me to step out of my cosy home and life to bring the reality of the vine and fig tree to others who live at the knife's edge every day? Together with other safe people can we help the vine and fig tree to flourish in Baghdad and Kabul and Darfur and Laramie?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Will's World

I have just returned from three lovely days in Chicago with my BFF, to see her daughter in a production of Macbeth (and also to spoil her very delectable grandkids).

It was neat seeing a production of the Scottish Play at this particular moment, as I am about halfway through Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. The author takes the few known events of Shakespeare's life (as evidenced by a marriage certificate here, a baptismal certificate there), looks at what was happening in the world around Shakespeare (Elizabethan England at the time of the Settlement, when Roman Catholics were essentially thought to be treasonous by nature, but everyone was trying to live with the Book of Common Prayer), and finds connections in the plays and sonnets. So, for example, a play presented for Queen Elizabeth (on a well-documented visit of hers to a town four miles from Stratford-on-Avon when Shakespeare was a boy) turns up in astonishing detail in a description of mermaids and Poseidon in The Tempest.

This reminds me of nothing so much as certain approaches to scripture study. So as a fan of both the Bard and the Book, I am pretty much in heaven.

Greenblatt had a section on marriages in the plays ("Wooing, Wedding and Repenting"). Short version: not so good. Shakespeare has many couples who are longing to be married, but precious few married couples whose relationships we get to see in any detail. The big (and fascinating) exceptions are Gertrude and Claudius (from Hamlet) and Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth.

The highlight of this weekend's play for me was probably Lady Macbeth's famous early soliloquy, in which she invokes the spirits of the underworld to aid her in helping her husband to do what she knows must be done: bloody murder of the king (in Shakespeare's world, undoing the will of God). Lady Macbeth bent and placed a hand on the floor as she began her invocation:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry 'Hold, hold!'
Macbeth, I,v.

What I find most remarkable here? This is a prayer. It's just not what one (read: this Christian minister) would normally think to be prayer. But it is a perfect inverse of prayer: she prays to be made what she is not (not to best fulfill what she is); she prays for the gift of cruelty (not goodness or kindness); she prays away her conscience (rather than praying to be guided by it).

It was horrible and thrilling. By the end of the play, we see what comes of such a prayer: rivers of blood.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Angry, Angry God

I will destroy you, O Israel; who can help you? Where now is your king, that he may save you? Where in all your cities are your rulers, of whom you said, "Give me a king and rulers"? I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath.

Ephraim's iniquity is bound up; his sin is kept in store. The pangs of childbirth come for him, but he is an unwise son; for at the proper time he does not present himself at the mouth of the womb.

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your destruction? Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

Although he may flourish among rushes, the east wind shall come, a blast from the LORD, rising from the wilderness; and his fountain shall dry up, his spring shall be parched. It shall strip his treasury of every precious thing. Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.

Hosea 13:9-16

I'm sitting at the breakfast table while Petra munches on Cheerios and checks her email. I have just looked at the daily lectionary texts and was so repelled by this one I thought I probably had to deal with it. We Christians claim the whole bible, not just the parts we love and connect with; therefore, passages like this screed from the 8th century B.C.E. prophet are ours, just as the beautiful parts about Jesus raising little girls to life. It's all ours.

Recently someone else posted a link to this Imperial History of the Middle East, a graphic that purports to show 5000 years of history in 90 seconds. The period of time we are talking about is just a few seconds into the movie: the Kingdom of Israel arises, a lovely purple wash, and almost as quickly as it rises, it is mostly obliterated by the Assyrian Empire. That period of obliteration is the one in which Hosea is writing.

So, just to be clear: the things Hosea is saying will happen, have happened. The treasury of the king has been stripped of its precious things; the people have fallen by the sword; atrocities have been committed against men and women and children alike. It is as if a prophet would arise in the US today and say, "Your great monuments to commerce shall be destroyed; your young men and women shall perish on alien soil; your leaders shall fumble and fail." Been there, done that.

There is a fantastic, truly prophetic series of Doonesbury comics this week by Gary Trudeau. In them, 'Fear Itself' is holding a press conference about the strategies being pulled out in advance of the midterm US elections on November 7. Fear, as Trudeau points out, encourages us to ascribe blame and come up with surefire solutions. Fear causes us to vilify our enemies, and describe as enemies those who question us. Fear obliterates the possibility of reasoned discussion. In today's strip, Fear describes the choice for Americans: you can either vote for Repulicans or for enemy combatants. This is how I read Hosea: a document of fear, filled with all the blaming and finger-pointing. "Israel, you whore," Hosea says, "You have done this." The image of prositution is an image of idolatry, bowing to other gods, while the true husband tears his hair out and exacts his revenge.

I don't doubt Hosea's description of the people's unfaithfulness to the God of Israel. But I think there are other explanations for war and death and empires falling as well. I have said it before: I don't think God exacts revenge here and now; I don't think God is keeping 6 billion scorecards and sending payback on accounts delinquent. I think we can look at the abysmal situation around us, and determine why it is happening with a long, hard look in the mirror. Sure, I think God is probably angry. But I think it is more likely God weeps and weeps and weeps.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

In Memoriam: Michael, February 14, 1995-October 18, 2006

He was a good doggie. He died very peacefully this morning, with me telling him what a very good doggie he was.

Child, Get Up!

Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying.

As he went, the crowds pressed in on him.

While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.’ When Jesus heard this, he replied, ‘Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.’ When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, ‘Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’ Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat. Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened. Luke 8:40-42, 49-56

I have not been a professional bloviator for all that long. But I have been reading and studying and preaching on scripture for something like 18 years, and so certain stories are my old chestnuts, things I discovered way-back-when, stories that I almost know too well. (Narcissism alert!!! OK, for the record: unless my Greek improves beyond the ability to look words up in the lexicon, I officially don't believe I know any New Testament passage too well. Glad we got that out of the way).

So when I come, in the daily lectionary, to a passage like this, my mind begins a process that is both comforting and annoying... I simultaneously want to remember and forget everything I already know about the passage. I want to remember and forget the amazing poem I read about it once upon a time. I want to remember and forget the other gospels' parallel versions.

How do I come to the text fresh?

I have always loved this story, folded in as it is with the story of the woman with the twelve-year hemmorhage (Luke 8:43-48). But today I want to just consider the daughter of Jairus on her own. What we know about her is the following:

She is unnamed.

She is the daughter of a leader of the synagogue... always confusing to me, this. Are there synagogues at the time Jesus is preaching and teaching? Isn't the synagogue a post-temple phenomenon, therefore sometime after 70 CE? Anyhoo... Jairus is a Jewish official of some kind, not a priest. But he is a bigwig who has most likely exhausted all other options before coming to the controversial healer. And his desperation is palpable... he falls in a heap at Jesus' feet.

She is twelve years old... at the time the scriptures were written, this is most likely a borderline age... not yet pubescent, and not quite a child. It is a liminal time, a time of mystery and possibility.

She is dying, and then, she is dead.

I offer two poems, one found this morning in an internet search, and focusing on Jairus; one found in my files, and speaking from the point of view of his daughter.


So, God takes your child by the hand
and pulls her from her deathbed.
He says: 'Feed her, she is ravenous.'

You give her fruits with thick hides
-pomegranate, canteloupe-
food with weight, to keep her here.

You hope that if she eats enough
the light and dust and love
which weave the matrix of her body

will not fray, nor wear so thin
that morning sun breaks through her,
shadowless, complete.

Somehow this reanimation
has cut sharp the fear of death,
the shock of presence. Feed her

roast lamb, egg, unleavened bread:
forget the herbs, she has an aching
fast to break. Sit by her side,

split skins for so she can gorge,
and notice how the dawn
draws colour to her just-kissed face.

Michale Symmons Roberts, copyright 2004

In the interests of full disclosure, this next poem was published in the newsletter for the Center for Women and Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, as one of a pair of poems from Mark's gospel, not Luke's. I love it and I'm giving it to you anyway.

Jairus' Daughter

I am stealing gold from my father's synagogue.
I will not get caught. When I have enough,
I will run away and join the others in Jerusalem.

One girl would throw the beads as far as she could,
then we'd all race after them, each girl hopping on one leg,
up and down the alley chasing the beads.
One day the string broke. Crawling on my hands and knees,
sifting brown clay beads from brown clay dust, I looked up
and saw my father looking me over the way he looks over
camels for sale at the trough where the caravans drink.
And that night my mother looked at me
that way. I could not eat.

What ties an eye to an eye or a bone to a bone?
Who looks for bones in the gully? Like the mud beads
that slipped the string in the alley, let my flesh
slip off my bones and the bones scatter unbound.

I was hopping on one leg again, down an alley in the gloaming
away from the glittering eyes, into the simple dust.
He did not chase me-- it was as if I'd found Him there
walking ahead of me into the desert at evening, to be alone.
He waited for me and we walked for a long time.
Then He said: Little girl, neither one of us can escape, both of us
must go back. Come back with me. Come with me. Come.

And we returned to my father's house.
And I agreed to eat and become a woman--
but I did not promise to be good, or to marry, or to stay at home,
or not to bind over my life lawlessly to finding Him again.

Inna Jane Ray, 1995

Monday, October 16, 2006


So we are all thunderstruck at the Amish, at their ability to forgive. By now everyone who reads this has probably also read the stories about how, in the words of this writer in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "the blood was hardly dry" on the boards of the schoolhouse floor when members of the Amish community reached out to the family members of the murderer to extend their forgiveness and offers of help. Stories of how the Amish attended the man's funeral, and brought food to his home, and offered to share the funds that have been raised for their families with his family.

The example they offer us is jarring. It is like a cold bucket of water on our collective American faces. The message it gives is this: there is another way to live. There is a way to be in the world that is an alternative to the way most of us have chosen. I suppose we might ask, "But have they really forgiven him?" Hopefully we have all experienced the balm, the healing that comes when we are able to let go of an injury and truly forgive someone who has harmed us. The truth is, it is so liberating, it is so exhilarating, it's hard to understand why we don't gravitate to that response immediately. Is that what the Amish (and it's absurd to refer to them like this, I know, as if they are of one mind, like the Borg) are experiencing? Do they feel the forgiveness?

And if they do, why can't I? Why can't I forgive, for example, the family friends who sued my parents, making a hell of the last year of my mother's life? If a parent can forgive the killer of his child, why can't I forgive the guy who cuts me off in traffic?

I may be thinking about this in the wrong way. I may be expecting the feelings of forgiveness-- liberation, joy-- when, in fact, what is required are the actions of forgiveness. What the Amish community has done this week is to reach out in ways that embody forgiveness, no matter what their inner turmoil is. As the writer of the above mentioned article points out, many aspects of Amish life emphasize their conviction that the gospel calls upon us to live together in communities of caring, everything from barn-raisings to acting, literally, as one another's Social Security plan.

There is another way to live. It is in the media and on our minds and at the door of our hearts right now. I wonder if we will take notice.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Joyous Simchat Torah!

Every glory and wonder, every deep mystery and all beautiful wisdom are hidden in the Torah, sealed up in her treasures.

- Nahmanides (1194-1270), Commentary on Pentateuch

On this day, after the eight day of Sukkot, our Jewish friends and neighbors are celebrating Simchat Torah, or "rejoicing in the Torah" (so, my title reads, "Joyful Rejoicing...!"). On this day Jews mark the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings and begin again. For a really delightful article about one woman's experience of the joy of torah, go to Beliefnet and read Love at First Sight by Mary Blye Howe.

I think we Presbyterians could do with a little more dancing with scripture and a little less beating one another over the head with it.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Contextual Faith

Reformed people have taken pride in always having confessed their faith in their own way, in tempore and in loco. . . . This is the way, as they say, authentic confessing will always take place: it will always be contextually determined. — Martien Brinkman, “Unity: A Contribution from the Reformed Tradition”

Today I am offering a quote from the daily "Devotions and Readings" posted on the web by my denomination. (This is a "Daily Quotation.") I am fascinated by this idea of faith arising contextually... my faith is what it is because of where it is and when it is. When I was ordained a statement of personal faith was one of the requirements; in fact, I had to read it to the Presbytery and be examined on it. I wrote it in my last semester of seminary, and sent it by email to my whole committee. In that exchange I had two experiences, one with a male minister of many years (we'll call him Dave) and one with a female minister nearly my own age (younger, I think; we'll call her Ellie).

The idea of corresponding with Dave made me nervous, because he was an openly conservative, evangelical type, and I was (am) a flaming liberal, about to graduate from one of the most liberal seminaries in the United States. "Oh great," I thought. "I can just imagine what he will think of my faith statement!" But something funny happened in our exchange, something unexpected. Dave took me seriously. He engaged me. He pushed me, and I pushed back. In some instances, our exchange resulted in my modifying our faith statement because Dave convinced me by the strength of his argument. And in some instances, the prodding and pushing resulted in my feeling that much more confidence in my position, and stating it even more boldly.

Ellie, from whom I had anticipated no problems (a little cocky???), took me by surprise. Her first email to me felt like a real attack. In fact, it had me sputtering in indignation on the phone with my friends and classmates. Ellie's critique was general: she said the document sounded more like a seminary paper than like a faith statement. She said it would alienate people, because it sounded like I was trying to flaunt my education rather than sincerely expressing my faith. I was defensive. I was offended. I was mad as hell. And then I sat down and rewrote my statement, this time as a prayer instead of an explanation. And you know what? It was better. She was right.

Here it is:

Life-giving God, my greatest comfort in life and in death is that I belong to you. You created me, you love me, you redeem me through no merit of my own, and you walk with me all the days of my life.

Inspiring God, Holy Scripture and our human senses reveal you to be the Creator of all the universe. In sovereign love you create all human beings in your own image. In fathomless generosity you give us a beautiful and bountiful earth to care for and to cherish.

Gracious God, the world is a witness to your loving deeds in the midst of our history. You and you alone know the depths of human brokenness. Sin and evil seem to triumph, from the deserts of Iraq, to the fence posts of Laramie, to the crater that is Ground Zero. And yet we are your witnesses, amazing God: people reach across the divides of our violent culture to take one another’s hands and to offer one another their love, support and solidarity. This is your glorious work, for from you alone all goodness flows.

Saving God, I believe that Jesus the Messiah is your Word and your ultimate revelation in our midst. Jesus came healing the sick and casting out demons. He lived among us welcoming sinners, women, children and all who were outcast. He lived celebrating, teaching, breaking bread and sharing the cup. Always, in every place, he revealed the redeeming power of your love. In his death on the cross Jesus suffered brutally the effects of human sin. In his being raised from the dead, he revealed your ultimate triumph over sin and the powers and principalities of this world and the next. I recognize Christ Jesus as being both fully divine and my fully human brother. Jesus’ life calls to us to accept your free gift of forgiveness, and to engage in a life lived for one another, in justice and love.

Restless, sanctifying God, I believe that you are revealed to us in the work of your Holy Spirit. Present from the beginning of all things, the Spirit is poured out upon all flesh to be your presence among us, and to be our advocate with you. Through this outpouring, Jesus Christ calls the Church into being. The Spirit calls all people to be ministers of the good news of your love for us.

Mysterious God, you are God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God, you exist far beyond our words, our conceptions and formulas. We know you to be sovereign and transcendent, human and immanent, relational and dynamic. You are one God, Lover, Beloved and Love.

Ruling God, the Church is yours. We your people are called to preach the gospel in word and deed, and to embody in our own lives Christ’s commandment that we love one another. The Church is the body of the faithful, a grateful community of sinners, assembled into the one body of Christ through our baptism. In solidarity with suffering humanity Jesus accepted the baptism of John. For followers of Jesus baptism is the sign and seal of our membership in the body of Christ and our acceptance of the gift of salvation that you bestow upon us in grace.

Prodigal God, you give us every good gift, and we remember and give thanks. The sacrament of Holy Communion is the sign and seal of Christ’s saving work. In eating the bread and drinking from the cup, we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we anticipate his return and the heavenly banquet. In our celebration of this meal, we show a unity we often don’t feel, and we act in hope of a community we fall short of living out. We are bound to one another as we recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

Patient God, the world is a partial and incomplete revelation of you. But scripture is your Word to us, and the place where we meet and are instructed by your Holy Spirit. Holy scripture is the priceless lens through which we see you, and through which we learn more perfectly to recognize you in the world. But even scripture cannot contain all your mystery and goodness. Surprising, radically free God, you who continue to move among us in the Holy Spirit, you are my comfort in life and in death. Amen.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
righteousness and justice
are the foundation of his throne.
Fire goes before him,
and consumes his adversaries on every side.
His lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.
Psalm 97:1-5

North Korea may have detonated a nuclear device this week-- or may not have done so. It's hard to know; I listened to nuclear experts on NPR yesterday morning trying to suss the whole thing out. The explosion was large enough to have been a small nuclear bomb, but not so large that it couldn't have been some kind of gussied up conventional weapon. The only thing for certain, it seems, is that we are thrown into the predictable rounds of brinkmanship on all sides: threats, rebuttals, ultimatums, defiance, posturing and, in some circles, panic.

I heard the announcement of the North Korean government on Monday morning; I don't speak Korean, but there was something in the voice I found terrifying (certainly the tone; probably the unknown; maybe my own depths of uncovered racism). It's been interesting to note the reactions across the political spectrum: everything from "Duh!" to "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" How terrified should I be? I wonder.

The psalm offered in today's lectionary readings always makes me think of what my Old Testament professor David Carr called "the radioactive power of God." He said the word, "radioactive," with a separation, a glottal stop between "radio" and "active." He was trying to convey to us the ancient Hebrews' attitude towards their God, one aspect of which was sheer terror. I preached on the "fear of God" not too long ago, and I really only paid the tiniest bit of lip service to the most common definition of "fear" in that description. But fear, as in "terror," "shaking in the boots," "wanting to hide from," was a primary attribute of YHWH. Even speaking God's name aloud would constitute a violation, a trespass into territory too holy to he inhabited by human beings, a reason to be terrified.

Sometimes I think we modern Christians, with our football-buddy Jesus
-mentality have really gone way too far in attempting to domesticate God, in attempting to de-claw, de-fang, render God manageable. When Prof. Carr said "radio-active" I got a shiver down my spine. I got the same shiver when reading one section of the recent Anne Rice novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. In one scene describes the temple sacrifices at the Passover, as viewed by the faithful from a great distance. The priests, in their immaculate white robes, move back and forth around the altar in a stately dance, the spatters of blood painting their vestments. I don’t know whether Rice's depiction is accurate. But the queen of vampire fiction managed to portray the eeriness of the ritual in a way that has captured my imagination and left its imprint. There, I thought, is a God to be reckoned with. There is someone before whom any sensible being would fall on her face and worship.

So why are most of us more afraid of the North Koreans with their maybe-bomb than we are of the one who really holds all the power? I think this is the classic problem of the liberal believer. We're the ones who embrace universalism, we're the ones who believe God's love conquers all and has conquered all. So what is there left to fear? If God is going to just sweep us all into a big hug (and I've said as much at funerals, though hopefully with a little more dignity), why sweat it? Why not dress Jesus in a jersey and cleats and show him for the buddy he is?

Well, because it's tacky, for one thing. And just because God chooses not to use God's radio-active power to smite us, doesn't mean that the power isn't there, and isn't worthy of respect, even fear. Perhaps the word I am really dancing around here is "awe." Where, o where, is our sense of awe? How can we reclaim and recapture it and, in so doing, find our way into a right relationship with God?

More ideas on this to come...

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bitter Valley, Place of Springs

How lovely is your dwelling place,
LORD God of hosts!

My soul is longing and yearning,
is yearning for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh ring out their joy
to God, the living God.

The sparrow herself finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for her brood,
she lays her young by your altars,
LORD of hosts, my King and my God.

They are happy, who dwell in your house,
for ever singing your praise. Selah
They are happy, whose strength is in you,
in whose hearts are the roads to Zion.

As they go through the Bitter Valley
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rain covers it with blessings.
They walk with ever growing strength;
they will see the God of gods in Zion.

O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
Turn your eyes, O God, our shield;
look on the face of your anointed.

One day within your courts
is better than a thousand elsewhere.
The threshold of the House of God
I prefer to the dwellings of the wicked.

For the LORD God is a rampart, a shield;
The LORD will give us favor and glory.
The LORD will not refuse any good
to those who walk without blame.

LORD, God of hosts,
happy are those who trust in you!
Psalm 84
translated by the Ladies of the Grail

I opened A Prayer Book for Remembering the Women this morning in an effort to find an opening devotional for a conference call. Psalm 84 was offered for Wednesday morning, in this stirring translation, followed by a beautiful litany for the renewal of the church.

I find myself in the bitter valley right about now. I am struggling to discern whether I am still called to congregational ministry. I have been without a church for six months (without pay for four), and I am feeling so many conflicting pulls and desires. I long to be in relationship with a congregation again, but I also am finding myself drawn to other kinds of work-- not ministry at all. I wonder if this is because I am so discouraged that nothing has become available that I want to forestall "failure" by not even hoping any more.

Last night I received an email from a colleague who passed along to me an invitation from the tiny church where I preached last Sunday to become their Temporary Supply pastor, 1/4 time. I am considering it (prayerfully, as they say). My BFF says "Of course, as soon as you take it, something huge will come along!" But that's not a reason to take it.

It is a lovely little church (really little, doll-sized, practically!). Old fashioned, New England protestant style, white clapboard with a steeple. Just the kind of church I love. Maybe it is my place of springs.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Job Sermon: God's Promise

I will offer this sermon today at a little rural church about a half hour from my home. It was fun working with Job after my musings of about a month ago. Regular readers will recognize some content...

“God’s Promise”
Job 1:1-22; 2:7-10
October 8, 2006

On an episode of “The Simpsons” that aired a number of years ago, a massive hurricane hits the normally sunny town of Springfield, destroying the house of Ned Flanders, Homer and Marge’s godly neighbor. At some point in the episode, the scene flashes to the sign out in front of the First Church of Springfield: it reads, “GOD WELCOMES HIS VICTIMS.” Let’s admit it: this week’s reading from the book of Job does cause one to wonder. Let’s review the facts. There is this wonderful man, Job. In the words of our passage, he is blameless and upright, he fears God and turns away from evil. He is prosperous and has a large family of children whom he seems to have raised right, because they like each other! They all like to get together to have big family dinners all the time! And their father, rather than lecture them on morality (which we suspect isn’t really necessary, seeing all this family love on display), quietly offers atonement sacrifices for them, just in case they’ve strayed in their hearts. Job is not only righteous: he’s also humble. He sounds downright sweet! And so, naturally, God allows Satan to destroy all his property, kill all his children, and afflict him with loathsome, painful boils, in an effort to find out if he’s really all that righteous. “God welcomes his victims.”

It is a question as old, perhaps, as language itself. Why do terrible things happen to innocent people? In a week in which the Lancaster, PA Amish community buried five little girls and hovers anxiously at the bedsides of five other little girls, we might well ask this question. Just a year after hurricane Katrina, and just three months after devastating flooding in upstate New York, we might well ask this question. Approaching two years after the Southeast Asian tsunami took an estimated 200,000 lives, we might well ask this question. Why? Why do terrible things happen to innocent people?

If we read scripture, we have a mixed bag of answers to this question. We have many psalms and great portions of the Hebrew Scriptures that say, with a loud voice: “Bad things only happen to bad people. You were beaten by the (insert biblical enemies here)? You must have offered sacrifices to idols. You lost this or that city? You must have disobeyed God’s command to leave no enemies left alive, even to their women and children. You were carried off into the Babylonian exile? You must have been intermarrying with non-Hebrews. You must have done something wrong.” This is a strong and persistent theme throughout great portions of scripture.

And that is a view that has not, really, gone out of date. You may remember that after 9/11, the Rev. Jerry Falwell quickly assigned blame for the attack. He said that it was God’s punishment for the US not being a Christian nation, and he cited gays, lesbians, and feminists as proof of this. There followed such an outcry of protest that the original statement was backpedaled, with Falwell saying that only the terrorists and hijackers bore the blame.

Lest I be too hard on Rev. Falwell, this kind of thinking is widespread and pervasive. In fact, I daresay we each carry a little of it within ourselves. One of my best friends from seminary, as she cried on the phone to me over the breakup of a relationship she was sure would lead to marriage and children, said “I can’t help asking, what did I do to deserve this?” I know just what she means. There have been times when I too felt that I must have done something terrible to deserve all this pain.

But it’s important for us to note that there are other themes in scripture as well, though. There are strong currents that disagree with the notion that God punishes us in the here and now for our transgressions. As Christians, there is one that ought to jump to mind rather quickly. The reason terrible things happen to good people is that God has a purpose that can only be accomplished in that particular way. Consider Jesus. The description of Job applies to him, certainly—if not more so. He too is blameless and upright, he too fears God and turns away from evil. Not only that, he spends his life and his ministry helping and gathering in celebration with the ‘least of these,’ the poorest, the downtrodden, the rejected and despised. Jesus’ righteousness is so striking that we have developed a whole new way of thinking about him: he is, in the words of our passage from Hebrews, “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3). And yet, a terrible thing happens to Jesus. He is arrested on trumped up charges, tried by a kangaroo court, and horribly tortured and executed. Why? Because, scripture tells us, that was the only way to accomplish salvation for all the rest of us sinners. Bad things happen to good—the best—people, because God has a purpose that can only be accomplished in that particular way.

Good-hearted people often offer this logic in hopes of giving consolation in the face of tragedy. God must have wanted to show us something, teach us something, God wanted another angel for the heavenly choir, God ended this relationship so that a new, better one could take its place. I don’t know about you, but when I’m bleeding on the inside, this line of reasoning is not terribly comforting. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. It’s just not terribly comforting.

There is another theme in scripture. This theme tells us that we simply don’t have God’s eve view of the situation, and so all our speculation about evil and suffering, while legitimate and important, is not necessarily going to provide us with answers. This idea is a strong undercurrent in our own Calvinist heritage, and has to do with the sovereignty of God. We profess that nothing happens that God does not either will or permit. And, I might point out, that there is a huge space between what God might will—in other words, something God wants to have happen, even causes to happen—and what God might allow to happen. For some people, free will plays a huge role in this thinking. We recognize that God has created the heavens and the earth and human beings and animals and plants and microorganisms, and has given all these things their own logic, laws and properties, and allows the whole shebang to function and unfold and roll along as it will. And where there is free will, and where there are sinful people, where there is brokenness at the heart of it all, tragedy will occur. But we can’t lay it directly at God’s doorstep, because a lot of it has to do with what we have made happen. God permits natural consequences of human action to take their course.

And so we come to Job. Here is a case of God’s permission being given for terrible things to happen in a way that feels an awful lot like God willing something to happen. Let’s just say that God does not come off too well in this story—certainly not in the passage we are reading. God enters into a bargain with Satan. It’s interesting to note that, at the time this book was written, Satan is understood as a member of the heavenly court, not evil incarnate or the devil, or someone who is actively trying to cause the downfall of human beings. Satan—which, in Hebrew means, literally, “The Tempter”—simply tests out theories of good and evil, and tests God’s view of the world and God’s people. God permits Satan to decimate Job’s life, and it causes us to wonder. It reminds me of an old story about Saint Teresa of Avila, the medieval mystic and church reformer. One day as she was traveling around on her donkey, the animal slipped and off Teresa fell into a muddy stream. Looking up to heaven she shook her fist and said, “God if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder there are so few of them!”

This must be how Job felt. Imagine, as one after another, the servants came to tell their terrible tales of tragedy, devastation, disasters natural and manmade. Imagine what must have been going on in the innermost heart of this righteous man as he heard the dreadful news. These animals are gone. These servants. These children.

Job’s response is startling, to say the least. After the last messenger has brought the most devastating news, Job rises up, tears his robe and shaves his head—both ancient and traditional symbols of mourning—and then he falls on the ground and worships God. When he can finally speak, Job says words at once chilling and hopeful, some of the most famous words in scripture: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 2:21).

Part of me wants to say: this Job, he’s really too good to be true. A few years back I taught a class on prayer, and one of the folks who attended said something around class 5 that shocked me, and which I didn’t quite believe. He said that the only prayer he ever prays is “Thy will be done.” I think I said something wholly inappropriate at the time, something like, “You’re kidding me.” That’s the reaction I have to Job. “You’re kidding me.”

And yet. And yet. There is something about the biggest losses in our lives that just completely opens us to God’s presence. Heartbreak can pry us open in a way nothing else can. That is the deep emotional truth of this story. When the floor just falls out from beneath you, the earth gives way, the bridges collapse, and you are stunned to still find you are still here, there is really nothing left to do but to turn to God. In Job’s case, he turns to God with resignation, with praise, even with gratitude. He turns to God and says, in essence, “I accept this. Whatever it is, I accept it, because it is from your hand.” And whatever our understanding of suffering is, whether we understand God to have a purpose in our suffering, perceived or hidden, the ability to still turn to God in trust is the key to living with our suffering.

In the 1950’s the great folk singer and activist Woody Guthrie was lying in a hospital bed suffering from what would later be diagnosed as Huntington’s Chorea. While he struggled to understand the disabling tremors, mood swings and the loss of motor control that characterize the onset of the disease, Woody wrote the words for a song. This song wrestles with the problem of pain and suffering, and the fact that it seems so unfair. Instead of asking the question, “Why?” this song begins to propose a “How”—how to live with suffering, how to understand God’s relationship to us in suffering. The song is called “God’s promise.”

I didn't promise you skies painted blue
Not all colored flowers all your days through
I didn't promise you, sun with no rain
Joys without sorrows, peace without pain.

All that I promise is strength for this day,
Rest for my worker, and light on your way.
I give you truth when you need it, my help from above,
Undying friendship, my unfailing love.

In this song, the great theologian Woody Guthrie hits upon a truth that can be found all throughout scripture, in every interpretation of pain and suffering. God abides. God remains with us. God stays in relationship with us. God promises God’s presence and help from above, undying friendship, and unfailing love. This is what I believe is behind Job’s ability to fall down and worship God in the most horrible moment of his life: Job’s utter trust that God will abide and remain with him, no matter what. Job knows that, despite what might reasonably pass as evidence to the contrary, God has not abandoned him. Job instinctively knows that his suffering is no evidence of God’s lack of love for him. God’s promise, to remain with us, abides.

I never did promise you crowns without trials,
Food with no hard sweat, your tears without smiles,
Hot sunny days without cold wintry snows,
No vict'ry without fightin', no laughs without woes.

I sure didn't say I'd give you heaven on earth,
A life with no labor no struggles no deaths,
No earthquakes no dryspells, no fire flames no droughts,
No slaving no hungers, no blizzards no blights.

All that I promise is strength for this day,
Rest for my worker, my light on your way,
I give you truth when you need it, my help from above,
Undying friendship, my unfailing love.


Friday, October 06, 2006

Rude and Bold Women

Years ago when I was a Director of Christian Education I joined together with folks from our local Jewish and Islamic communities to study and share. It was around the time of the Bill Moyers series on Genesis, and we used his wonderful book as the foundation of our gatherings. After working our way through Genesis, we decided we wanted to share some of the fruits of our time together with the larger communities we represented, and so we decided to offer a lecture/discussion series. It was at that point that I came up with what is still my favorite title for an educational program: "Daughters of Abraham: Matriarchs Harlots and Queens."

I am thinking of that series as I run around this week in preparation for a local art show I am proud to be associated with: Rude and Bold Women. This show, born in 1996 (around the same time as the series above), was reincarnated in 2000 in the hands and under the inspiration of two women of my community who are artists/ supporters of the arts /business women. (The image above is of an installation of breast castings of local women from that 2000 show.) I am now on the Rude and Bold committee, and we have been meeting weekly for months, reviewing the applications and art, recruiting sponsors, nailing down every last detail of publicity, and finally, hanging the show itself. Here is a link to our website, and here is a link to our local press coverage, from yesterday's paper.

Why "Rude and Bold?" Well, it's a tongue in cheek response to the fact that women who are simply confident, assertive, and visionary are often perceived as being rude and bold; it is also the definition in a turn of the (last) century dictionary of a "hoyden."

I wish I could convey how the women who enter their art into the show respond to interpreting that phrase, "rude and bold women." Sometimes, it is a phrase they wear tentatively, gently, even with some hesitation. And sometimes they charge in as if their picture is next to those words in the dictionary. In either case, what I think they experience-- what they thank us for over and over-- is the opportunity to share their vision, without censorship, in an environment that celebrates them. It's a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Fasting Season

This morning's lectionary gospel is Luke 5:27-39, concerning Jesus calling Levi, the tax-collector, who promptly throws a big banquet with Jesus as the guest of honor. I have heard it said that the gospel of Luke is the gospel of eating... every time the reader turns around, Jesus is reclining at one table or another. This passage offers the rationale for that ongoing feast.

First, Jesus is criticized for "eating with tax collectors and sinners." Tax collectors, it should be understood, are portrayed in the gospels as the ultimate traitors in Rome-occupied territory. These are Jews who are "collaborators" in that they deal with the unclean Romans and their unclean money, collecting unjust taxes from their fellow Jews. Jesus addresses the issue of the often colorful guest list with the reasonable retort that people who are well don't need physicians, but the sick do. Then follows this passage, in which the issue of fasting is addressed head on.

Then they said to him, "John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink." Jesus said to them, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days." He also told them a parable: "No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, 'The old is good.'" Luke 5:33-39

This, of course, is fasting season for other children of Abraham. Jews have just completed their Yom Kippur (Day of At-One-Ment) fast, and Muslims are in the midst of their month-long fast of Ramadan. Jesus is here rejecting the idea of fasting because, in his words, "the bridegroom is with the wedding guests." Here is the fundamental argument that Luke presents in favor of the celebratory, open-table fellowship celebrated by Jesus. The feast has been spread, it's time to join the celebration. Christians do this (in theory) every time we sit down to communion together.

However, it is worth considering the rest of Jesus' words: "the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days." I am feeling acutely the absence of Jesus these days. The bridegroom has left the building, folks, and it may be that a fast is officially in order. I have been reading lately about churches that are embracing ancient practices such as fasting to generate spiritual growth in their members. I have to come clean here: Like many women, I have a lifelong struggle in terms of my relationship with food. (And as I write that very phrase, "relationship with food," it strikes me that it is a disordered way to experience something that is meant for pleasure, yes, but essentially for fuel.) Fasting is complicated for me. It appeals, but perhaps for the wrong reasons (Drop! Pounds! Quickly!).

I have also been reading the Velveteen Rabbi, as I have already mentioned in these pages. I love what she said about the Yom Kippur fast, and I share it here:

A teaching from Philo, as retold by Reb Shefa Gold: We Jews love to eat. We eat all year long! And then we need a whole day of fasting in order to properly say the birkat ha-mazon, the grace after meals, so that we might truly feel gratitude and bless all that we have eaten. In this sense, all of Yom Kippur is one spontaneous upwelling of blessing.

At the end of the Kol Nidre prayer, at the very beginning of Yom Kippur as the sun is just going down, we recite the words "vayomer Adonai, salachti kid'varecha," "And God said, I have forgiven you, as I have promised." The whole holiday begins with forgiveness. We're always already forgiven. We just need the 25-hour experience of the day in order to really feel that in our bones.

I have read that many Christian communities are joining in the Ramadan fast this month in order to show solidarity with Muslims in view of recent events, papal and otherwise. I would suggest that a fast can join us with all children of Abraham, Jews, Muslims and Christians, as well as those outside the Abrahamic fold. We can all use the experience of knowing our lives to be "one spontaneous upswelling of blessing." Perhaps, in these days, fasting is the new wine we need.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Weep With Me

I dropped off my beautiful, funny, irreplaceable daughter this morning at her middle school with the following unbelievably lame and simultaneously appalling instruction: "If a strange man with a gun comes into your classroom, duck."

I am beyond heartsick. I feel somehow that the world is embracing despair, nihilism, death and violence as the only alternative. And, sorry folks, but it's the girls who are taking the brunt of it. That's how it feels to me today. So I offer this artless but heart-full reflection.

Judges 11:29-40

Come, my sisters, my brothers, and weep with me....

Weep for our lost daughters

Weep, my sisters, for the unnamed daughter of Jephthah

Jephthah the warrior,

Jephthah anointed by God's spirit,

Jephthah who vowed a vow that must be fulfilled

Jephthah vowed a sacrifice to God

Jephthah gambled away his daughter's life for a battle won

Out she came, his unnamed daughter,

Out she came singing, ready to celebrate her father's return,

And his vow turned to dust in his mouth

Weep, my sisters, weep with me

Weep for all the daughters who die, the unnamed girls who perish

Weep for those whose lives are gambled away

By cowardly legislators

By woman-hating rhetoric

By eternal, infernal images of grotesquerie and violence

Weep with me

Let your song turn to dust in your mouth

Let a custom arise in Israel, in Pennsylvania, in Montreal, in Colorado

Let the women and girls

And also the men and the boys

Set aside days in each year

In which they simply



Sunday, October 01, 2006

Welcome At Love's Table

I worshipped this morning at the church of a seminary friend. She is trying to plant a Metropolitan Community Church here, and it is still a small group, generally. But today was "Bring A Friend" Sunday, and so the ranks were swollen-- I think there were about 40 of us in the basement of a local United Methodist Church. My friend, Miller, is a gifted, truly beautiful preacher, and I love to sit and listen to her on Sundays when I am not preaching elsewhere.

I love worshipping at this little MCC. I don't know much about it, but I believe the MCC is a denomination that was founded as the gay rights movement began to take hold in this country. When the arcane policies of my own denomination get me down, I am encouraged by the fact that the MCC practices an open table every Sunday, not just World Communion Sunday. The MCC is all about communion. All Christians are supposed to own up to their fragility, their brokenness. But this group really gets it. The people who worship there are used to being marginalized, for being gay, lesbian, transgender, bi; that, or they are living with the pain of loved ones who are so excluded. These folks know who Jesus is talking about when he refers to "the least of these." There is something powerful about bowing my head and closing my eyes during the prayers there, as each person lifts up a name or two, or a situation or two. The prayer is intense. Everyone in that room is so, so happy to be in a place where they don't have to apologize for who they are. They are so happy to belong. I am so happy to belong.

During the summer Miller asked me if I would preach there, and it was one of those thousands of Sundays about the loaves and the fishes and Jesus the Bread of Life. Along with my sermon I sang this painful/beautiful Julie Miller song, "By Way of Sorrow." I thought of it again today, as I worshipped in the midst of all that love and all that brokenness.

You've been taken by the wind
You have known the kiss of sorrow
Doors that would not take you in
Outcast and a stranger

You have come by way of sorrow
You have come by way of tears
But you'll reach your destiny
Meant to find you all these years
Meant to find you all these years

You have drunk a bitter wine
With none to be your comfort
You who once were left behind
Will be welcome at love's table

You have come by way of sorrow
You have taken the long way home
Who could offer words to you?
You will one day come to know
You will one day come to know

All the nights that joy has slept
Will awake to days of laughter
Gone the tears that you have wept
You'll dance in freedom ever after

You have come by way of sorrow
You've come over a stony ground
But when love calls out your name
You will lay your burden down
You will lay your burden down