Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Promise Fulfilled

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness." Jeremiah 33:14-16

Advent is upon us... I know I'm not the only one who knows this. For the first time in three years I do not have a single congregation I am serving this Advent season. I have had the luxury of looking at the season as a whole, planning a series of sermons to take us into the great feast of the Incarnation. But this year I am preaching just twice, once at a small urban Metropolitan Community Church and once at a small rural Presbyterian Church.

This Sunday I am confronted, as all lectionary preachers are, with readings that have as their focus the end times. (That is interpretive, of course. It is not clear to me at all that Jeremiah is here referring to an apocalyptic event. Rather, he seems to be presenting an era of earthly justice and covenant enacted.)

It is interesting that we return to the beginning of the church year and the Christ event by looking to an ending that none of us have seen. It knocks me, for one, off my pins... I know there are preachers and congregations who love this theme, who celebrate it joyfully.

I am not among them. I want us to save the planet, not surrender it to oblivion in the name of a single interpretation of scripture that is less than 200 years old.

Listening to: the new Sufjan Stevens Christmas Album. What is it about this young man that so pierces my armor? And where did an indie rocker who writes songs called "Incarnation" come from, anyway?

Maybe the end is near.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Poor: "Not Our Base"

According to a this article currently making the rounds of US newspapers, the recently elected leader of the Christian Coalition resigned after a disagreement in philosophy with the governing board arose.

The Rev. Joel Hunter, of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla., said he quit as president-elect of the group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson because he realized he would be unable to broaden the organization's agenda beyond opposing abortion and gay marriage.

He hoped to include issues such as easing poverty and saving the environment.

"These are issues that Jesus would want us to care about," Hunter said.

The resignation took place Tuesday during an organization board meeting. Hunter said he was not asked to leave.

"They pretty much said, 'These issues are fine, but they're not our issues; that's not our base,' " Hunter said of his conversation with the group's leadership.


Wow. You can't make this stuff up. What a damning statement about the Christian Coalition and its priorities. What folly.

Labels


I have been lurking and posting the occasional "Yes!" "No!" to a discussion on evangelicalism on MadPriest's blog. (Note the "al", evangelicalism.) And it has got me thinking about labels.

I submit the following labels to you:


Christian

Progressive

Presbyterian

Clergy

Mother

Divorced

Liberal

Pro-Choice

Pro-GLBT rights (including ordination to all offices of the church)

Pro-Immigration

Pro-Union

Pro-Living Wage

I would submit to you that if I were to disclose one tenth of the ways in which I frankly label myself in private (not to mention some of the ways I decline to label myself even here) I would not stand a shot in hell of getting a call to a church in my denomination (Mother and Presbyterian are the safest; it all goes downhill from there).

All that said, I have forged good working relations with many of the folks in my judicatory who find themselves at the other end of the spectrum theologically. Recently I was speaking with a woman pastor whom I was urging to join a particular committee, possibly as chair. She is strongly evangelical, and she indicated to me that "certain folks" might not want her in that position because of it. I was torn. I told her the truth, which is that I trust her, even though I know we're not in sync in many of our positions. She smiled and said, "I trust you, too."

At the risk of sounding holier than thou, I am troubled by the labels and how limiting they are. "I am with Apollos." "I am with Paul." (In my case, I am with John Buchanan and Barbara Wheeler.) And I am, unapologetically, with these folks. One Presbyterian leader with whom I got to rub elbows at GA 213 said, "It's coming. It's just a matter of time. It can't be stopped." "It" being full inclusion of GLBT folks. If the gospel is a call to greater and greater freedom, I affirm this wholeheartedly: it's coming. Nothing can stop what God has set in motion. But how do we work together in the mean time?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Blue


There is another brand new color of blue here this morning as I prepare to hit the road. I wish I could describe its clarity, its sense of uplift and height, the way it draws the eyes to the heavens.

This is where I learned about God.

My time with my Dad has been good. Beyond good.

The waters receded. The streets are dry. It is a new day.

Many thanks to those who kept us in their prayers and hearts. Many thanks to those I love who don't pray particularly much, but who never stopped thinking about me while I was here.

Drive safely everyone. Keep giving thanks...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Flood!

Well here'a a fine turn of events. The siren song of the wind and the rain kept me in a drug-like stupor while the waters were rising. When at last I looked out the window this morning, the marshes had entirely disappeared, the street was flooded, and water was lapping at the wheels of the cars in the driveway.

There's no going anywhere just now.

I'm so thankful I'm here with my Dad.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Storm I'm In...


... is, I'm happy to report, "one hellacious Nor'easter," according to the CNN weather woman. As I drove south the skies went from mostly sunny/bright to mostly cloudy/grey to seriously overcast/dark to dropping buckets, cats, dogs and kitchen sinks on my car. And the wind... it is blowing so loudly here it's hard to imagine trying to sleep. It sounded, a moment ago, as if some siding just came ripping off the neighbor's house.

The Dad is well...better, in fact, than expected. He was genuinely happy to see me, and I him, and we headed out immediately in search of some fresh seafood. That accomplished, we settled into a cosy evening of him watching the Flyers lose to the Senators while I watched him watch, and also watched and listened to the storm.

The house is on the Inland Waterway, about a quarter mile from the ocean. My bedroom window has the same view as the kitchen window, which is of the bay, then marshes (often plentiful with sea birds: egrets, blue herons, gulls of course), then a bridge, then Bright Lights Big City. It is one of my favorite views in the world. On a calm bright day there is nothing like sipping coffee while the water wavers and sparkles and shows you new blues you didn't know existed.

Tonight I can say without reservation that I am glad to be here. My dad is just one more senior citizen, stunned to learn that his body really ages as does his mind. The least I can do is to be with him in it, to let him know he is loved in all his crotchety splendor. In the words of the lovely and talented Lucy Kaplansky, "It's a dirty trick this growing old." No wonder the psalmist attributes aging to a God mightily pissed off.

Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.

You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due to you.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.

Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!

~ Psalm 90


This psalm contains several of my favorite fragments of scripture, words that regularly make their way into extemporaneous prayers.

"Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love..."

"Prosper for us the work of our hands..."

Two prayers that sum it all up for me, I think. Let me feel your love, and let my love be returned in the work I offer you, steadfast God.

Dad

In the morning I am off to see my father, a four and a half hour drive from here to coastal South Jersey, the little seashore town where I grew up.

I have mixed feelings.

The family mythology is that my dad and I are very close. We even have a flower... daisies. My mom informed me of this special flower, my dad's and mine, when I was 21 and we were choosing flowers for my wedding bouquet. "OK," I said. I had no memory of our having a special flower.

Throughout the years my mom encouraged this story, of my dad's and my closeness. But I don't feel it. I am not sure why.

I saw a side of my dad, while my mom was dying, that I wish I didn't know about. Their relationship was troubled, and my dad seemed to think my mom's physical weakness, as she grew more and more gravely ill, was a direct assault on him; that she was helpless to spite him or trap him in the house. Mom said very directly that the best part about dying was that she was finally getting away from him. She made her great escape in February.

In June, I was called away from a retreat I was leading because my dad had collapsed in a supermarket parking lot, and was seriously ill with double pneumonia. The doctors in the hospital prescribed steroids to treat the inflammation of his bronchii, and he reacted badly to them. He became psychotic. For about 36 hours he was belligerent, coarse, paranoid, and delusional. He believed he was being held prisoner (which, in a sense, he was; he had to be restrained at times). He didn't sleep. He lived out scenes from his entire life, his youth, his marriage, his days in the liquor store (he owned the business). He tried to climb out of his bed; he had no sense of modesty. Intermittently throughout the psychotic episode, as a kind of entr'acte, he made apple pies. His hands mimed peeling apples, and rolling out pie crust, and he talked tenderly of the delicious smell of the pies baking.

I saw a side of myself, while my dad was ill, that I wish I didn't know about. I was angry with him. I was harsh. I was unforgiving. I was tired, and I just wanted him to sleep, but for 36 hours he didn't. When I left the hospital, they called me back in the middle of the night to watch him.

My dad has been through hell the last two years. He was sued by the estate of a former business partner, a suit that finally settled in October. My mom died. His health has deteriorated rapidly, and he has pretty significant cognitive losses. I love him. I pity him. He is alone, more alone than anyone should be, especially when they are so helpless. But he also refuses to come to stay with me or with my brother and his family (in Wyoming). He seems to be embracing his solitary existence. "I don't have much longer," he says.

So I am going to be with him. My children will be with the former Mr. Mags and his GF. My dad shouldn't be alone. So I will be with him.

Prayers are appreciated.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ahhhhh....Employment!


Yes, dear blogosphere, it's true. Beginning January and for the length of the spring 2007 semester, yours truly will be the Interim Chaplain at Big Ivy U.

I am just so darned pleased.

I have always thought I would be well-suited to campus ministry/ university chaplaincy (though these evidently are two very different things, as Friends Who Know have told me). However, since my ordination I have been in an area for which there is not much demand for this sort of thing. The local state U. does not have any mainline Protestant campus ministry, and for a brief time I considered going hat in hand to local mainline churches in an effort to spearhead something, proposing myself as a kind of organizing chaplain. However, with no direct experience (save four happy years as an undergraduate active in campus ministry, in an increasingly misty past), I didn't imagine having much success with that pitch.

At the end of May, I will have experience. And I will know whether I love it as much as I suspect I will.

Can you tell I'm excited?

Philippians 4:13, darlings!

PS: Thanks to MadPriest for his prayer tips--- a big thumbs up for being clear and direct!

Monday, November 20, 2006

DeLurk! You know you want to!


Along with other RevGalBlogPals I invite visitors to this site to come up for air and say "Hey!".

Blessings to each and every one of you this Thanksgiving week.

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Interview

I left my interview yesterday feeling this:

That rocked.

I don't know if I rocked; but I felt chemistry with the group of people interviewing me for the position of part-time interim chaplain at Big Ivy U. I certainly hope I get it. But I did tell God it was ok with me if the divine has other plans.

What is it Cynthia and Timothy are always saying in the Mitford books? "Philippians 4:13 darling!"

Oh, that's not what I meant-- though it is a good sentiment. They also always say "Let's pray the prayer that never fails."

Thy will be done.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sermonette


... for a job interview.

“Standing in the Doorway”
1 Samuel 1:4-20
November 19, 2006

On this day when many U.S. churches are celebrating Thanksgiving, the lectionary offers us a passage that seems downright contrary to that intent. The story of Hannah, mother of Samuel, seems intended to steer us into darker, more pain-filled waters. It invites us to ponder questions such as, how do we cope when the world we inhabit seeks to define us, at times, against our will? How do we live with our experiences of failure, disappointment, emptiness? Where do we perceive God’s action in all this? This passage, at the very beginning of 1st Samuel, is probably intended to alert us to what an extraordinary person Samuel will be, and how important his work—the work of creating a godly monarchy from a loose confederation of tribes. All that is true. But the piece of this passage that calls to me today isn’t about the astounding accomplishments of the great prophet. Rather, it is in the domestic details of a woman’s life that I suspect most of us will be able to encounter this sacred story and see in it some reflection of our own.

When we meet Hannah, her symptom is her identity. She “has no children,” in contrast with her husband’s other wife Peninnah, who has children in abundance. It’s hard to overstate the catastrophe, the sheer scandal that infertility is understood to be in biblical literature. Fertility is always seen as a product of divine favor, and infertility, predictably, of divine judgment. Hannah is suffering as a result of her status: her rival taunts her, she weeps. Hannah has the love of her husband, but she is too miserable to eat the double portion he gives her. But the story—our portion of it, anyway—has a happy ending. After petitioning God in the temple, and having an intriguing conversation with the priest Eli, Hannah conceives and gives birth to her son Samuel. Symptom removed.

This seems to be a fairly straightforward tale: emptiness/ prayer/ fullness. Problem/ prayer/ solution. But let’s not skip too merrily to the ending. Thanksgiving for the son whose name means, “I asked him of the Lord,” will come soon enough. I prefer to ask, how do you and I relate to his story of Hannah and her symptom, removed by God’s intervention? How do we encounter this sacred story and see in it some glimpse of our own individual sacred stories? Hannah is her symptom. In her culture there is no other way for her to be perceived, except as “barren.” She is not functioning according to the cultural mores assigned to her: she is out of step with her peer group. Hannah has an expectation placed upon her—one she very much wants to fulfill, I might add—and her perceived failure defines her. Like Hannah, you and I sometimes have roles that are assigned to us, with or without our consent. Like Hannah, there are imposed upon us expectations that we do not meet, sometimes despite our best efforts, all our hope and will. Like Hannah, we have peers for whom it all seems so easy, colleagues who seem to be excelling, sometimes leaving us feeling like failure defines us.

I was looking on a website that actually offers little stories for ministers to insert into their sermons, “illustrations,” we call them. And I looked up “failure.” What I found interested me. To tell you the truth, it dismayed me. There was not one illustration—out of nearly thirty offered—that did not deviate from the general notion: “If at first you don’t succeed…” Not, in the words of the immortal Jerry Seinfeld, that there is anything wrong with that. Effort is noble. Experimentation is bold. Courage in the face of disappointment is admirable. But the truth is: sometimes your womb will not carry a pregnancy. Sometimes someone else will get the fellowship—not you. Sometimes you will disappoint yourself even more that you disappoint those you love and respect. I don’t believe the gospel according to Thomas Edison is much use to us at moments like these. Something more is called for.

For me the turning point of Hannah’s story begins the moment she gets up from the dinner table and heads for the temple to pray. I believe this for two reasons. For one thing, Hannah is being real. She is bitter. She is bargaining. She appears to require sobering up, so out of control is her emotional state. She is baring all before God and man, and her appearance in the temple is a clear demonstration that she is through with trying to go it alone. She reaches out, she reaches up, and she is heard.

The other reason I believe this is a turning point for Hannah is that her action puts her in contact with the priest Eli. Eli is someone whose life has been spent right where he is at this moment—waiting on the Lord, quite literally, in the doorway. Doorways are tremendously potent symbols in biblical literature. A doorway is what is known as “liminal space,” a place of being between, neither in one place nor the other. Eli is at his post in this in between space, which is precisely the place where one waits for God. In this waiting place we experience openness—openness to God, openness to others, openness to a new plan, a new state of being. Hannah too is in liminal space. She is neither here nor there, neither maiden nor mother nor crone. Hannah’s Twilight Zone intersects with Eli’s. A new view is offered. A new possibility is made clear.

For me the grace, the gospel in this story comes at the point of contact—contact with God and contact with another human being. I ask myself, is the story of Hannah simply a story of divine intervention? On one level, certainly—it is one of many biblical stories in which the hand of God is nakedly at work in the birth of an exceptional person. But I don’t think it’s in the realm of the miraculous that we connect with Hannah’s story. Instead, I think we connect through our own experiences: experiences of disappointment or frustrated hope; experiences of reaching out to God in prayer and to those around us in sharing our burdens; experiences of God showing us a way where formerly there was no way; experiences of God staying present with us, in all our bitter ranting, when, in the final analysis, there is no way. Are these miracles? I am not sure. Is reaching out a miracle? Is openness a miracle? Is standing in a doorway, expecting God to show up, a miracle? Is giving thanks—for the hoped- for, expected, the dreaded and everything in between—a miracle?

In what doorway do you stand? Where does the sacred story touch you?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Gratitude List

RevGalBlogPals' Friday Five is pretty simple today: name five things for which you are grateful. Here are mine, as explicated in haiku form (why, I do not know; just felt like it):

Life

Universe, grub worm,
starry invitations to
the everlasting now.

Love

Lean in to me, O
my unexpected lover:
let's breathe together.

Kids

Tabula rasa?
No. You have always been you,
inevitable.

Thought

Calisthenics of
the mind: delightful stretching,
sweetly open me

A Voice

With which to speak, to
sing, to offer tiny bits
of hope, to wonder

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Liminality


I am in the midst of writing a sermon for an interview this Sunday (remember Big Ivy College? They need a part time chaplain for one semester. Cool!), and I am doing so on the lectionary passage of the day from 1 Samuel, dealing with Hannah, her infertility, and the birth of Samuel. In the course of writing I was struck by the position of Eli the priest at the temple in Shiloh: he is described as "sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord." This particular detail has never struck me before, and I wandered over to it to have a look.

Doorways and tent openings in biblical literature are liminal places, defined for us in Wikipedia as "characterized by ambiguity, openness and indeterminacy." Kind of like Hannah, in her "not a maid, not a mother, not a crone" positions. Egads! Kind of like me. A preacher with no place to preach. A person between.

About a hundred years ago I was trying to make the move from what dear MadPriest calls "the Italian church." I was attending an Episcopal church, and feeling drawn to it, but feeling unable to make the jump from the church that gave me birth, nurtured me, formed my faith, and put it in my heart to preach the gospel. I had tea with a dear friend one icy winter night, and I put all this to her. She looked at me with cool grey eyes and said, "It sounds as if you are not ready to do this. And you don't know when you will be. It sounds as if you may as well embrace this time of not knowing, of being in-between." It was as if a huge weight had been lifted for me. I didn't have to know. It was OK not to know.

So, I remember my grey-eyed friend's advice, and I repeat it to myself. I may as well embrace this liminal space and time. Let me be characterized by ambiguity, openness and indeterminacy, and let me know that the holy happens in this place with remarkable regularity.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Use Me, God


Use me, God, in thy great harvest field,
Which stretchest far and wide like a wide sea;
The gatherers are so few; I fear the precious yield
Will suffer loss. Oh, find a place for me!
A place where best the strength I have will tell:
It may be one the older toilers shun;
Be it a wide or narrow place, ‘tis well
So that the work it holds be only done.


—Christina G. Rossetti

This poem is a daily reading as offered by the PCUSA.

It hits close to home.

I have an interview for an interim chaplain position this coming Sunday; I have also been in conversation with a church that is in need of a temporary supply pastor while they complete their pastoral search.

It has been more than six months since I was gainfully employed. (I joke with people that the fact that I have a blog is a bright red sign of how badly I need a job. The truth is, I imagine blogging will continue to be a part of my life.)

Even at the same time I feel how acutely I am ready to work, I am aware how evervating the experience of being without work can be. I feel a great fatigue, even as I am hoping for some work to both A. awaken my energies, and B. throw my (seemingly nonexistent) energies into. (Sorry about that dangling preposition. I am too tired to try to figure out how to pretzel that sentence.)

Therefore I pray. Use me, God.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Feasting on Love and Cookies


He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Luke 14:12-14

Last night went to the movies with Petra. During the previews, we were treated to scenes from "Mel Gibson's Apocalypto," which confirmed for me yet again that the man need therapy and needs it now. The main attraction was movie that I expected to be a piece of fluff: "Stranger than Fiction," which confused me even with the members of its cast (Will Ferrell: frat boy gross-out king; Emma Thompson: elegant Jane Austen heroine). "Stranger Than Fiction" turned out to be one of the most lovely, moving things I've seen on the screen in a long time.

It is the story of someone who is only half living, when the sudden appearance of a narrator's voice in his head alerts him to the fact that, in fact, he is soon to die. Unfortunately for him, his life has just begun to blossom: he has fallen in love with a tattooed baker who feeds him cookies and swoons over his efforts to learn guitar (finally). He consults a therapist (who tells him he is schizophrenic: thank God there were no therapists throughout most of church history. Julian... Francis... John... Teresa... but I digress...). Then he consults an expert in literature, which is more helpful. Ultimately, the choice is between definitions of the good life-- which things we must choose, embrace, which we must let go, what it is to be, finally, at the bounteous table.

Just as at the movies last night, I am caught in the tension between all the apocalyptic catastrophe and the feast imagery the lectionary offers up these last days of the church calendar. I know where I find my hope. Maybe not literally in "cookies" (though, boy, Petra and I left the theater salivating). But I do keep my eye and hope on the banquet. On life. Lived.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Throwing a Party: a Sermon


I preached this morning in a small church that is going through some difficult transitions. They have just had to say goodbye to a pastor (because they could no longer afford him full-time), and a founding, beloved member dropped dead suddenly last month.

I decided to preach an adaptation of a stewardship sermon I preached last year (on the logic that, without a regular pastoral presence, who knows if they'll hear this message? Happy to take one for the team.) I owe the genesis of this sermon idea (the throwing a party part) to dear MoreCows, a truly gifted preacher and pastor and luminary in our denomination. Thanks, you!

Here 'tis.

“Throwing a Party”
Deuteronomy 14:22-29
November 12, 2006

I have a confession to make. I’ve been an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament for just over three years, and I've been preaching on a regular basis for a little over ten. As a preacher, I have been neglecting something incredibly important that Jesus, if we are to take him seriously at all, seems very much to want us to talk about. I don’t know if I’ve been neglecting it because I tend to preach from the lectionary, and it just hasn’t come up that much in the normal cycle of readings. I don’t know if I’ve been neglecting this topic because I’m just plain nervous about it. Whatever my reason (or my excuse), the result is the same. With just a few exceptions, I have ignored or neglected or forgotten to talk to the churches I’ve served about the one thing Jesus talks the most about in the gospels. I have not spoken about the topic that makes up more than half of Jesus’ parables, and about one verse in every six verses in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. I have not preached very much at all about money.

And no wonder. No one wants to talk about money. I was recently talking to a new pastor about the church she serves. “They say they need new members and they say they need more money,” she shared with me. “But they have neither an evangelism committee nor a stewardship committee. And when I mention this to them they get pretty annoyed with me.” Pastors are only human. Can you blame us if we shy away from topics that might aggravate you?

Money. Everyone needs it. Everyone wants a little more than they currently have. Everyone has some anxiety around it—“filthy lucre,” we have heard it called. So why get up into the pulpit to talk about money?

I think I may just have talked myself out of it. New topic. Let’s talk about something much more pleasant. Let’s talk about…parties! One year ago today I survived my son Larry's eighteenth birthday party. And it was a pretty great affair—lots of food, good friends, music, and no property damaged. That was a great party! My daughter Petra and I love to watch a television show called the “Gilmore Girls” together. Last season, Emily Gilmore, the matriarch of the Gilmore clan, decided to throw a 21st birthday party for Rory, her granddaughter. As Petra and I watched this episode we were somewhere between laughing hysterically and salivating.

The elder Gilmores are wealthy, and for Rory’s party Emily pulled out all the stops. There were caterers and carving stations. There were elegant little canap├ęs and a cake you could hide a person in. There were hot and cold-running servants. There were favors—each guest received a lavish little box of expensive chocolates as they left. It was a real blow-out by anyone’s standards. And as I prepared today’s sermon, Rory Gilmore’s 21st birthday party reminded me a little of the party in today’s reading from Deuteronomy.

It may surprise you to find that God gives the people instructions to have a blow-out party in the Torah, but here it is.

Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God. ~Deuteronomy 14:22-23

This is the fullest Old Testament understanding of the tithe. The people of God were encouraged to take one tenth of their income—that is, the yield of their fields, flocks and herds. They were to take it to the Temple. And then they were to feast upon it. They were to have an enormous, extravagant, once a year party, in the presence and under the sponsorship of the Lord their God. There is a provision in the passage for those instances where carrying/ herding all those items is impractical because of the distance; in that case, the people are to convert the tenth of their yield to money, take the bundle to the Temple, and buy “whatever [they] wish…oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever [they] desire” (Deut. 14:25). Then they are to eat it, the whole household, in the presence of the Lord, “rejoicing together.”

No more coyness. Of course, I am talking about money today, specifically about money and the church, since this is the time many of us set our budget priorities for the coming year. And it behooves me to remind you that the encouragement to tithe in Deuteronomy was, first of all, encouragement to have a beautiful celebration as a reminder that all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. Life and all that supports life, from air and water to fresh fruits and greenery to the fish of the sea and the beasts of the field—everything is a gift from God. The command to tithe was, first and foremost, an opportunity to remember that in a joyful, tangible way. This was a party that would make Rory Gilmore’s 21st look like a fast food lunch.

Whether we give to the church or to any one of a number of charitable causes, our gifts are always an occasion for remembering how we have been blessed. You know far better than I how you have been blessed throughout your years in community together. The blessings take the form of people—those we love who are all around us in this room, or far away, or who now stand in the presence of God, with the great communion of saints. The blessings take the form of this very place: a sanctuary that means home, where your children have been baptized, where you have received the bread of life and the cup of salvation, a place where you have married and you have mourned. The blessings take the form of the faith you share, that binds you together when you stand to proclaim the Apostle's Creed or when your voices ring out in a favorite hymn. We give because we have a sense of having been blessed.

There is another compelling reason God instructed the people to give a tenth of their annual income. Every three years that tenth was to go to the “least of these,” that is, the resident aliens, the widows and orphans, and the priests who served in the Temple and who were therefore not out farming or herding for their living. Built into the command to tithe was the understanding that a portion was to go to those who could not support themselves.

People shudder when preachers say the word tithe—and as I’ve already mentioned, we hate annoying you. And the truth is, tithing is an Old Testament concept. But Jesus and the authors of the New Testament also testify to giving that is proportional to one’s income, regular, sacrificial, and cheerful. I’ll go through these for you.

First, believers’ giving should be proportional (2 Corinthians 8:12). Proportional means exactly what it sounds like it means. Take your income, decide on a percentage, and figure it out. Then give that. Just for the sake of comparison, you might like to know that statistically, very few Americans tithe. But of those who do, the poorest Americans are more likely to give a tenth of their income than the wealthiest, and the middle class are the least likely to tithe of all.

Second, believers’ giving should be regular (1 Corinthians 16:2). Many churches provide envelopes for a weekly gift for whose budgets work that way, but monthly gifts are fine too. As you know, the bills need to be paid regularly, so regular gifts are a real Godsend. I don’t use that word lightly. They are a Godsend.

Third, believers’ giving should be sacrificial (Mark 12:43-44), and fourth, it should be cheerful (2 Corinthians 9:7)! These may seem to be in conflict, as they were for the little girl whose mother gave her a dollar and a quarter on Sunday morning. Her mother instructed her, “Decide which one you want more, and then put that one in the collection plate.” After church, the mother noticed that the child had the dollar bill in her hand. Her explanation: “I remembered that God loves a cheerful giver, and I decided I would be more cheerful if I gave the quarter.” Unassailable logic. Until you remember the party.

We are asked to give, not so that life will be harder at home, or so that the Finance Committee’s job will be easier, or so that the church will be able to be featured in some “Who’s Who” of religious achievement. We are asked to give so that we can take part in creating a great celebration. We are asked to give so that we might have life and have it in abundance, right here, in this congregation. We are asked to give so that we might share that life with all who need it, emulating that grand and sumptuous banquet the ancient Israelites had each year in the Temple. We are asked to give because, as Jesus reminds us again and again, in all the meals he enjoys throughout the gospels, the bridegroom is with us, and it is time to feast.

C. S. Lewis said, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” A number of years ago I was the Youth Minister at a local church, and there I met an elderly gentleman named Dave. He was known for wheeling a grocery cart all around the West Side in search of bottles and cans to redeem so that he could live on the proceeds. Dave had arthritis, which made his collecting arduous and painful, and he was very proud when he could break $1200 in a year. One fall the youth group decided they would like to have a bottle drive to buy gifts for women and children who had to spend Christmas at the SOS Shelter for victims of domestic violence. I was a little anxious about this. Dave was a member of the congregation, and I was aware that lots of members were accustomed to saving their bottles and cans for him. I worried that the bottle drive would result in Dave collecting less than he needed.

One day Dave came into my office. Uh oh, I thought. Here we go. He’s going to want to talk to me about the bottle drive. And he did. But not in the way I expected. Dave took a $20 bill out of his pocket and pressed it into my hand. “Here,” he said. “This is for the bottle drive. But don’t tell the kids who gave it to you.” I was flabbergasted. “But Dave,” I said, “this is a huge contribution for you to make. Are you sure you can afford it?” “Absolutely,” he said. “I know how hard collecting cans and bottles can be. And I am so proud of the young people for wanting to help the women and children. I would like to make this gift. But it has to be anonymous. Just tell them whoever gave it thinks they are doing a wonderful thing.” As Dave left, I did the math in my head. He had given a gift worth 400 cans or bottles. He had given nearly five days of painful and slow walking in every kind of weather. But he wanted those women and children to have a good Christmas, and he wanted the youth to be successful in their outreach. That is the story of the widow and her two copper coins. That is sacrificial and cheerful giving.

So why not do it? Why not plan to throw a party, right here? Why not decide together what that party will look like… what will you serve? Will you serve classes and bible studies? Will you serve generous gifts to local charities? Will you serve the most beautiful, the most inspiring worship you can create together? Will you serve up to the people of this city a place where they can come and say, “I have feasted with the bridegroom; I have experienced the greatest party of my life”? I encourage you to figure it out together. Why not throw a party? Amen.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

In Memory of Her


I have been madly working on my novel today, having ignored it for three days. It's an amazing process, about which I will have to write when it's not midnight.

Tomorrow-- ok, later today-- I will be participating in a Presbytery Assembly, and I have been asked to make a few remarks on the celebrations my denomination has been having on the anniversaries of the ordination of women to the various offices of the church. Here you have my offering. Enjoy.

“In Memory of Her”
Mark 14:3-9
November 11, 2006

The story is a deceptively simple one. Jesus is reclining at table in a private home. A woman enters, carrying a container of ointment of nard, perfume worth the equivalent of nearly a year’s salary for a day laborer. Breaking open the jar, she pours the fragrant oil over Jesus’ head.

As so often happens when the unexpected occurs in polite company, brows are furrowed, curses are mumbled under the breath, accusations fly. It is fascinating that no one in the story names the elephant that has just been escorted into the room: this anointing is a potent symbol of Jesus’ status as prophet, priest, and king. The unnamed woman has just proclaimed, by prophetic action, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One. Jesus staunchly defends the woman from her critics. He insists: she has done a good service for him. She has anointed his body beforehand for its burial. She has recognized both who he is and what the cost of his ministry will be. What she has done, he says, will not be forgotten, her extravagant gesture of love.

In 2005 and 2006 the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) sponsored a number of celebrations in honor of women who, like the unnamed woman in Mark’s story, did something prophetic and extravagant in the name of love. Just about 100 years ago, the first woman was ordained a Presbyterian deacon; about 75 years ago, the first woman was ordained a Presbyterian elder; and 50 years ago, the first woman was ordained a Presbyterian minister of Word and Sacrament.

The debate over whether to admit women to these offices raged for nearly 125 years, all told. In 1832 the General Assembly, in its first public statement on the question, sent a pastoral letter to the churches, stating the following:

Meetings of pious women by themselves, for conversation and prayer, whenever they can confidently be held, we entirely approve. But let not the inspired prohibitions of the great apostle to the Gentiles, as found in his epistles to the Corinthians and to Timothy, be violated. To teach and exhort, or to lead in prayer, in public and promiscuous assemblies, is clearly forbidden to women in the Holy Oracles. (General Assembly Minutes 1832:348)

While there was nothing wrong with women having religious and spiritual leanings, the GA said, they were best satisfied in the privacy of the home. They invoked Paul to back them up. Of course, they neglected to mention the numerous passages where the apostle names women who are fellow-workers with him in the spreading of the gospel. The position claimed in 1832 was overturned in 1906, when the United Presbyterian Church in North America permitted women deacons to be ordained. Twenty-six years later the presbyteries approved an amendment to the constitution allowing the ordination of women elders, and 49 years later, women were admitted to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Hear now the words of the General Assembly from 1956:

God may endow women for service in his church today. Whom he will call, and how many, and when and where, we do not know. Only the Holy Spirit can say... Let us seek to avoid being in the position of making rules for our church which would prevent the Holy Spirit calling to service those whom He desires. (General Assembly Minutes, 1956:138,140)

Women were admitted to the last of these offices just 50 years ago, and the road to acceptance hasn’t always been smooth. Last year, attending one of our denomination’s celebrations in Chicago, I had the privilege of hearing Margaret Towner speak. Rev. Towner, our church’s first woman minister of Word and Sacrament, was ordained by the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery in 1956. Towner, a tiny and energetic woman whose towering spirit belies her size, talked about the pastors who favored her ordination corralling a key hold-out on the golf course and prevailing upon him to change his vote. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. Sadly the church in which she was serving as minister of education at the time permitted her in the pulpit exactly once: to give a benediction on the Sunday after she was ordained.

Why tell these stories today, when women have clearly claimed their place in ministry, and the roof hasn’t fallen in, as an article Presbyterians Today put it? Well, for one reason, equality with men in ministry, especially for ministers of Word and Sacrament, is still an elusive goal. Though women are entering seminary at a rate greater than that of men, they are also leaving ministry at a rate greater than that of men. Women account for less than 20% of ministers of Word and Sacrament. Women are still a rarity in the pulpits of large churches, except as associates. Women are more likely to be associate pastors than men are, they remain associate pastors longer than men do, and they are more likely to be found in alternative ministries such as chaplaincy and campus ministry. Though we celebrate what has been achieved, we still strive for the time when we can be assured that the Holy Spirit has free reign in calling those whom God chooses to all ministries of the church.

Jesus’ response to the woman who anointed him encourages us to share stories of women in ministry. Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Mark 14:9). It is our commission, in each new generation, to share the stories of all those in ministry, all those disciples who have engaged in the work of proclaiming Jesus as Messiah to a broken world. Whom God will call, and how many, and when and where, we do not know. Only the Holy Spirit can say... Let us seek to avoid being in the position of making rules for our church, written or unwritten, which would prevent the Holy Spirit calling to service those whom God desires. Let us pray to be made willing, when God calls upon us, to do something extravagant for love. Amen.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Mea Culpa. Mea Culpa. Mea Maxima Culpa.


I am a sinner.

I just found myself clicking on a link on the New York Times Website to see whether the Republican or the Democrat had prevailed in the Texas 22nd Congressional District-- Tom Delay's old seat.

It was the Democrat. I smirked with glee.

I am a sinner.

Sisters and Brothers, it is a Blue America this morning. And I am happy about that. I am an unrepentant liberal. But this joy in another person's defeat... this is not an attractive characteristic.

We Democrats are no better or worse than Republicans (though we are right. On the issues, I mean. Correct.) What I am saying is, a razor thin majority gave the Republicans the feeling in 2000 and 2004 that they could do whatever the hell they wanted, because the opinions 49.5% of US Citizens just didn't matter to them. Please, please let us not make the same, arrogant mistake.

Let us really reach across the aisle (even though the demon in me does not want the Democrats to allow that turncoat Lieberman his seniority).

Let us really try to mend fences (even though my shriveled little heart is rejoicing at the thought of the comeuppance those idiots have received).

In short, let us act better than our worst impulses.

Really.

I mean it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What He Said

I have been wondering how to talk about the Rev. Ted Haggard situation.

MadPriest Did it first. I could not have said it better. Go read this.

VOTE


This week former US President James Earl Carter has been in Nicaragua monitoring the elections that have returned Daniel Ortega to power in that country.

This morning, as I go to cast my ballot, I sincerely (almost desperately) wish we had someone with the ethics of Jimmy Carter monitoring our elections. There are already reports that Republican operatives in Virginia (henceforth known as the "macaca" race) are calling Democrat types with threats that they will be arrested if they attempt to vote, suggestions that they have registered incorrectly and cannot vote, and other improbable suggestions.

We can no longer say "It can't happen here." It does. It has. It is.

So, friends, whatever your political persuasion (gee, I wonder what mine might be? I've been so clever at concealing it thus far...), get out and vote, and fervently defend the right to vote of your fellow citizens. This isn't a democracy unless every vote is counted.

God help us.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Day in the City, and An Eye on Life and Death


Yesterday my BFF and I took the 8:40 AM bus to New York City and the #3 train to Eastern Parkway Brooklyn to see the Annie Leibovitz retrospective at the Brooklyn Art Museum.

Oh my. Words fail.

It was a fascinating exhibit. All Leibovitz' portraiture-- remember nude pregnant Demi Moore? Remember Mikhail Baryshnikov being lifted by another man on the beach? Remember Meryl Streep, face painted white, pulling at her beautiful skin like a rubbery mask?-- all that was shown on the same walls as family photos of Leibovitz' three young children, her parents, siblings, and longtime companion Susan Sontag, and all that, in turn, was on the same walls as enormous landscape photography... lacy birch trees in upstate New York, a wadi in Jordan.

The exhibit was called "A Photographer's Life," and that is exactly what we were immersed in as we roamed the galleries. We saw a photgraph of Mitsuko Uchida seated at the piano and wringing her hands expressively. We saw an abandoned bicycle next to a pool of blood on a street in Kosovo. We saw Susan Sontag in the bath after her mastectomy. We saw her body, dressed for the funeral.

Death was a strong and pervasive theme in the exhibit, especially in the personal photos. We saw Annie Leibovitz' father on his deathbed, and then her mother weeping in bed, with a daughter clinging to her on either side. There was a photo I'd never seen before, taken in Langley VA, of a stealth figher. The photographer was looking up at it as it flew overhead, so close you almost felt you could touch it. There was a sad and spent Johnny Cash on his front porch, watching as daughter Roseanne and June Carter Cash playing music together. In a film that was shown as part of the exhibit Roseanne Cash describes how, during the shoot she looked over at the photographer to see that she was weeping.

Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord. Yes, they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Writing About Mom

I am working on this novel...

What a funny way that is to begin a sentence.

Anyway, my dear buddy More Cows Than People has this exquisite remembrance of one of her life's saints on her blog, and I was commenting to her that I am sorry to have not spent All Saints Day more mindfully-- thinking, for instance, about my mother, who died in February.

Then, thinking aloud (or, more accurately, with my typing fingers), I realized that working on this novel is very much, for me, about remembering my mom. It is loosely based on a number of things that happened to the two of us when I was an adolescent, and my conjecture about some of the things that happened to her, and it is all being wrapped in the conceit of a summer vacation.

So, my novel is, in a way, a kind of extended All Saints exercise.

My mother was no saint. Ha! I just wanted to say that. Except that I fervently believe we are all saints, all called into the gracious community. It's just not always that evident from our behavior. It's also not always evident from our self-regard, and the struggles we have.

Mom was a very hard-working, driven woman-- driven by her experience of growing up during the Depression (she was 86 when she died). She knew things I will probably never know-- what it's like to go hungry because there's no food (her dad died on her tenth birthday, which coincided with the crash of the stock market), what it's like to lose a parent at a very early age, what it's like to dump the bootlegged whisky down the toilet because the police are at the door. She and my father, working together, achieved significant financial stability for themselves and their two (adopted) children. My brother and I never knew want.

But my mother was also someone who was driven by her fear of instability and loss of control, and for that reason she was a pretty controlling and difficult lady. When I was in college I would tell stories about my mom-- mostly with humorous overtones, but they always got raised eyebrows from my friends. Then when she came to visit they would be shocked-- here was a small, pretty grandmotherly type of woman. Everyone expected a six-foot Valkyrie.

And that is how she was in my heart, and still is. She towers. She looms. She loved fiercely and she lived proudly and she lavished everything she could on her children. She died a hard and painful death, and for that, I will always feel sadness and regret.

Some of the sweetest years of my relationship with my mom were her last years. For the past 19 years she has been the best imaginable grandmother to my children. (It also didn't hurt that they took the focus of her intense gaze off me.) Two years before she died I finally confided in her that my marriage was about to end, and I enjoyed several months of her "holding" my anger at my ex (which was very hard for me to feel or experience). She was equisite in anger-- she was an anger artist. She had voodoo dolls, she knew Irish curses. She called forth all her rational and irrational and subrational self to be with me at that painful time. And then, as I pulled myself together and found that my life was actually a still-unfolding wonder, she joined me in peace and forgiveness. "He is really a good father," she said to me, and I nodded in agreement.

So. A saint. Yes. An unforgettable member of the body of God's children, of which we are all a part. An ultimately un-lose-able part of myself. Still with me. Still with me.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Michael the Archangel


I never thought I would be one of "those people" who went on and on about their pets, especially their dead pets. But Mikey RIP plus two weeks has come and gone, and today this was in the Daily Lectionary:

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. Revelation 12:7-8

Far be it from me to suggest that John of Patmos had my dog in mind. But he was known in some circles as "Michael the Archangel" and "Michael the Good." And I love the image of him, sword in paw, kicking ass on some cosmic level.

Above is a photo of Michael the Good with Petra, taken about two weeks before he died. Look at those eyes. The house is both filled with his presence and achingly empty.

There. Hopefully that's out of my system.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

One Last Halloween Gasp...


... Petra, Biker-Chick.

Two Graves


There are two sets of lectionary readings for today, one for the Daily Lectionary and one for All Saints Day. Interestingly, Jesus is talking about graves in one of them and standing at a grave in another.

In the DL reading, Luke 11:37-52, Jesus is at yet another meal (Luke! You are a boy after my own heart. Lots of eating/ radical table fellowship in your gospel, and I think that's as it should be). Unfortunately, our man is not washing up before the meal, an omission that would get him fired from McDonald's. But to the Pharisees' amazement he replies,

"Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you." Luke 11:39-41

Jesus is using his poor personal hygiene to teach a rich, rich lesson: stop paying so much attention to externals and start looking inward my friends. That is where the real pollution, the real filth lies. And of course he's right. But can we please wash our hands anyway?

Then Jesus goes on to compare the Pharisees to "unmarked graves" that people walk on wihtout knowing it. The folks who have set themselves up as arbiters of what is clean and what is not are now like one of the most unclean things in the ancient Jewish world: the place where the dead are buried, a place to be avoided at all costs for the uncleanness that will cling to the one who comes in contact.

This ancient understanding of cleanness and uncleanness is at the heart of what Marcus Borg for one thinks is a main thrust of Jesus' critique and therefore his ministry. Borg (in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time) makes the case that the purity code, however it developed, became something that was the ultimate weapon to keep in place a stratified society: the poor were mostly unclean because they were stuck with the jobs that the elites wouldn't do, like, for example, dealing with the dead and digging and tending graves. Women were unclean, because their bodies were permeable (what with all the discharges, etc.).

Jesus is challenging this. Jesus is saying, "Uncleanness is a state of the heart. Get over it."

In the All Saints gospel (John 11:32-44), Jesus is actually at a grave: he is weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, described in this gospel as "the one whom Jesus loved." (So, is he the beloved disciple, and therefore, possibly the author?) He calls Lazarus from the tomb, telling his friends, "Unbind him and let him go."

Years ago I heard a wonderful ordination sermon based on this passage, the gist of which is: that is our calling, to unbind and let go. That is what Jesus is doing, I think, in challenging the purity codes that get to call the shots of who's in and who's out. This is, in the words of that sermon, our "unbinding obligation."

The earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it: the living and the dead, the table and the grave. We are challenged by Jesus to be a part of making all one.