Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Lent Day 8: Responsibility and Love

"To love oppressors in particular,
or sinful human beings in general,
is to have continual hope for them
that they will stop their oppressing and sinning
before they do harm to others and to themselves.
To understand Jesus' death too quickly
as part of a divine plan worked out totally in advance is,
in fact, to give up too quickly on the potential for responsibility
on the part of those who are the most powerful,
or really on the part of any of us."

Jim Perkinson,
Cross Currents, 2001.

Thanks to The Text This Week.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lent Day 7: Can These Bones Live?

Claims by filmmaker James Cameron that archaeologists have found the resting place of Jesus Christ, including an ossuary that contained Jesus' bones (now reburied, as is standard with archaeological finds), are being challenged from all quarters. Attacks coming from Christian individuals and right-leaning organizations, naturally, are strongest, though everyone quoted seems pretty uncomfortable. This article, from a fairly conservative viewpoint, offers 10 reasons "Bible scholars" would refute the claims, and a number of them (though not all) are pretty sound.

I have been slogging my way through James Tabor's book, The Jesus Dynasty, in which he makes a case in favor of the now widely debunked ossuary purported to be that of James, Jesus' brother. He also makes a much more interesting and compelling claim (to me) that Jesus and his cousin John were, in fact, engaged in an attempt to restore both the monarchy and the priesthood of Israel. (Have I missed it? I wonder why no one is talking about this theory. Is it self- evident to everyone?) Unfortunately, reading it is like watching a Geraldo Rivera special. The book has cringeworthy pictures of Tabor standing in front of the relevant tombs and breathless prose accounts that sound like they belong in a tabloid.

I understand that scholars tend to agree that the names supposedly found in the tomb of Cameron's documentary-- two Marys, a Judah ("son of Jesus"), a Matthew, a Joses, and a "Jesus son of Joseph"-- are common enough first century names, though finding them all in one place is noteworthy (calculated at a 1 in 100 to 1 in 1000 probability).

The theological conundrum is this: if there is an ossuary for Jesus, that means that bones of Jesus were buried: ossuaries are boxes into which the bones are placed after the first year of mourniing, and, of course, the physical decay of the corpse.

I don't think those who hold to a bodily resurrection need to be so defensive or frightened of this story.

"Three days." John Spong's book, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, while not everyone's cup of tea, made at least one point that has stayed with me nearly ten years after reading it. He says that "the third day," rather than referring to a literal 72 hours, may have the meaning of an eschatological symbol. Three days may refer to the fullness of time, God's time. He claims that the "third day" may have taken place as long as a year or more after the crucifixion. (My first reaction to this at the time was to be intrigued; now, I confess, I immediately move to how it messes up my preaching.) What would Christianity lose if the resurrection took place, not within 72 hours, but a year later? Would our theology suffer in the translation?

This theory allows for the possiblity of bones in an ossuary. It does not, however, allow for those bones to still be in the ossuary, which is where Christian orthodoxy parts ways with Tabor/ Cameron's discovery.

But I ask again: if this tomb is credible (and I think, personally, there are so many obstacles to it being found to be so, that a consensus is unlikely), does the existence of bones of Jesus do damage to our faith? Our pal MoreCows preached recently at great length on the resurrection, working her way through the latter chapters of 1 Corinthians (click the link for her wonderful sermon). She got me thinking about this passage:

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

~ 1 Corinthians 15:50-56

I know that the Greek is complex, and that there are issues with the translation of "spiritual body" (which occurs earlier in the passage). But I wonder: is the glorious, imperishable body Paul describes one that necessarily has to be built on the frame our our bones-- the seed of perishability? For some the answer to this question is an immediate and unqualified "yes." For me, the resurrection is a challenge, yes, and a scandal, as it was for the early church. But I have never anguished over it the way I have never anguished over the Virgin Birth: once you have gotten as far as positing God, in my humble opinion, the rest is easy. If there is a God, it is all easy. But I wonder at our need to control our imagination of how God works.

I believe in resurrection. I believe that God takes what is dead and miraculously makes it alive, and I base this, neither on cocoons and butterflies, nor on bulbs under the snow, but on the witness of scripture. I believe that Jesus walked among his disciples after they had witnessed his death and buried him. I believe that he breathed the Spirit into them and urged them to proclaim the reign of God now at hand. I believe that they saw him, ate with him, touched him and rejoiced at his presence and wept at his departure. But I don't believe that the presence of bones, even his bones in a tomb, undermines that. With God all things are possible. Why do we need (as with creation vs. evolution) to control everyone's understanding of how God works? Where's the humility?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Lent Day 6: On Ashes and Food

Please, go to "Don't Eat Alone" right away and read this.

I wish I'd written it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Lent Day 5: Everything is Different

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” ~ Luke 4:5-8

This morning our worship service at Big Ivy U was marked by a number of changes/ additions to our regular style and format.

1. Instead of sitting in seats arranged as pews, all facing straight forward, we sat in a oval arrangement, with the members of the congregation facing one another and the preacher and liturgist at one end.

2. Yours truly didn't robe, because...

3. Yours truly didn't preach. Instead, a thoughtful grad student in engineering gave a sermon on Luke 4:1-13, "A Wilderness Survival Guide," in which he began by stating the things one would need if in fact one were setting out for a solo trek through the desert -- water for hydration, GPS tracking system pinpointing the locations of oases, a back up navigation system-- and proceeded to draw parallels as to what individuals here at BIU might need for their Lenten wildernes sojourn-- the living water of the Spirit, "oases" such as the worshipping community, etc. My favorite remembered lines, in re the living water:

"Walking from class to class? Take a sip. On your way to a prelim (mid-term exam)? Take a big gulp. Admiring the sunset over the lake, or the beauty of a gorge as you walk home? Bottoms up."

4. We had a Board member visiting our worship service. This is unuusual, but was really a welcome occurrence. She seemed genuinely pleased by what she saw and heard.

5. We had an ASL interpreter present because a student who normally attends brought her hearing-impaired boyfriend for the first time.

6. We had several new faces, one of whom shared the joy that her spiritual life and faith were finding renewal this week.

7. We did not have our usual pianist, because his brother was in a terrible accident, and he had to go home. We prayed for all concerned.

It was a wonderful morning, but I confess to being a little off balance as I decompress. It was wonderful, but it was not my usual Sunday morning experience. One reason for that was the change in my role. I love to preach. I don't give up the pulpit lightly (and I should probably have a look at that, I know.) The reason the student preached today was that on Tuesday I received a call from my dad, who was in an emergency room. At the time he could't really convey to me what was wrong, but eventually it was revealed that he'd feared he was having a heart attack, and he had called an ambulance. Within the hour of receiving the call I had rearranged my schedule for the rest of the week, and was ready to head south. Within another hour I learned that dad had been discharged and given a clean bill of health. So, I guess my being off balance began Tuesday afternoon.

Because I've had a tough time limiting my hours on the job I decided to go with the emergency plans, even though I could be here. As I listened to the tensions and anxieties I was feeling this morning, with all our logistical challenges, I thought: I really don't like being out of control. And I am, I am out of control. I can't make things flow smoothly (though they did), I can't make it so that the interpeter flows wonderfully with the word (though she did), I can't make it a good sermon (though it was).

As I listened to this young man preach the Word with great ernestness and diligence and, I might add, some real talent, I was thrown off, in a different place, but perhaps, right where I needed to be: letting go of control, letting myself receive help, letting myself hear the word afresh.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Lent Day 3: My God, my God

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why so far from my delivery
So empty in the anguish of my words?
I call to you in the daytime but you don't answer
And all night long I plead restlessly,uselessly

I know your holiness, find it in the memorized praises
Uttered by those who've struggled with you
Through all the generations
These, my forbears, trusted you
And through their trusting you touched them
Held and delivered them
They cried out to you and you met them face to face
Their confidence was strong and they were not confounded

But I am not as they
Utterly alone, I am cast out of the circle
A worm, a living reproach, scorned and despised, even less than despised
Unheard, unseen, unacknowledged, denied
And all who encounter me revile me with cynic laughter
Shaking their heads, parting their nattering lips, mocking
"Let him throw himself at God for his deliverance," they say
"Since that is who he trusts let the Lord save him."

And they are right:
How not trust you, and what else to trust?

You I entered leaving the womb
You I drank at my mother's breast
I was cast upon you at birth
And even before birth I swam in you, my heart's darkness

Be not far from me now
When suffering is very near
And there is no help
And I am beset all round by threatening powers
The bulls of Bashan gaping their dismal braying mouths
Their ravenous roaring lion mouths

I am poured out like water
My bones' joints are snapped like twigs
My heart melts like wax
Flooding my bowels with searing viscid emotion
My strength is dried up like a potsherd
My tongue cleaves woolly to the roof of my mouth
And I feel my body dissolving into death's dusts

For I am hounded by my isolation
Am cast off and even encircled by the assembly of the violent
Who like vicious dogs snap at my hands and feet
I count the bones of my naked body
As the mongrels shift and stare and circle
They divide my clothes among themselves, casting lots for them

So now in this very place I call on you
There is no one left

Do not be far from me
Be the center
Of the center
Of the circle
Be the strength of that center
The power of the absence that is the center
Deliver my life from the killing sharpnesses
Deliver my soul from the feverish dogs
Save me from the lion mouths
Answer me with the voice of the ram's horn

And I will seek and form and repeat your name among my kinsmen
In the midst of everyone I will compost praises with my lips
And those who enter your awesomeness through my words will also praise
All the seed of Jacod will glorify you
And live in awe of you
All those who question and struggle
Will dawn with your light
For they will know
You have not scorned the poor and despised
Nor recoiled disgusted from their faces
Frin them your spark has never been hidden
And when they cried out in their misery
You heard and answered and ennobled them
And it is the astonishment of this that I will praise in the Great Assembly
Making deep vows in the presence of those who know your heart
Know that in you the meek eat and are satisfied
And all who seek and struggle find the tongue to praise
Saying to you:

May your heart live forever
May all the ends of the earth remember and return to you
And all the families of all the nations bow before you
For all that is your domain
Your flame kindles all that lives and breathes
And you are the motive force of all eternity
The yearing of the grasses, the lovers' ardor
And they that rise up, live, and eat the fat of the earth will bow before you
Before you will bow all those who lie down, find peace, and enter the dust
For none can keep alive by his own power--you alone light the soul
Distant ages to come shall serve you, shall be related to you in future times
Those people not yet born
Will sing of your uprightness, your evennness, your brightness
To a people not yet born that is still yet to come
That this is how you are

~ Psalm 22 from Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms by Norman Fischer


It is too easy to be trite in the face of the towering beauty of these words. Just this: this is for all my brothers and sisters who suffer this week in the face of grave injustice.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lent Day 2: Transformation and Change

Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change. If you truly want to be transformed you have to admit that you need to change. That’s called humility: recognizing that there’s wisdom in the whole body of Christ that’s greater than your own personal short stock of wisdom.

As we entrust ourselves to these ancient traditions, as we join our brothers and sisters in the faith going back two thousand years, we keep the same fast with them, as we’re also going to share in the glory with them.

~ Frederica Mathews-Greene

Photo courtesy of Frederic Gerchambeau and Flickr.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Who Knows? An Ash Wednesday Meditation

Did I talk about Lynnette Scavo in my Ash Wednesday meditation? You know I did...

“Who Knows?”
Jonah 3:1-4:11
February 22, 2007
Ash Wednesday

When they were very young my children were involved in a Christian education program designed to give them a hands-on experience of faith and church—acting out bible stories with small wooden figurines, “playing” with items like candles, communion plates, etc. I remember looking through the curriculum and sensing that its creators were really on to something… church for children is so often about what they can’t do, what they are prohibited from doing. How refreshing to find a program that invited and encouraged the very young to have ownership of their spiritual home on the same level we encourage in adults. Anyway, I remember leafing through the materials and laughing out loud at the description of Jonah. Jonah was the Backwards Prophet. When God says “Go right,” Jonah goes left. When God says go east, Jonah goes west (quite literally).

Truth be told, all the stuff for which Jonah is famous (or infamous) happens in chapters 1 and 2 of this tiny book from the minor prophets. His famous reluctance—really, recalcitrance. God’s anger at Jonah, causing the storm that gets him thrown overboard like a case of rotten fruit. And of course, there is the matter of his languishing in the belly of the fish for three days. We come upon Jonah after his fishy sojourn, when he is more—shall we say—receptive?—to God’s commands. As chapter three begins, God says “Go to Nineveh,” and instead of lighting out for parts unknown, Jonah obeys. He has become, as my grandmother would have said, “biddable.” What follows is, in keeping with the beginning of the book, a tale full of exaggeration (I’m not sure it would take three days to walk across the 5 boroughs of New York City), absurdity (can you say, livestock dressed in sackcloth?) and, ultimately, the outcome God is seeking.

Make no mistake. God wants the people of Nineveh to repent. “Their wickedness has come up before me,” God says, and one gets the image of the divine nose wrinkling with disgust at some foul stench. But God, here, is like nothing so much as a mother, dreading doling out punishment to her children, and seeing what she can do to avoid it.

I believe my love of pop culture has already been much noted in this community, so you will forgive me if I refer, just for a moment, to an episode of Desperate Housewives. For you uninitiated, Lynnette Scavo is the woman who, at the outset of the series, is drowning in the mayhem of life with four children under the age of six, and who is longing for a return to corporate America, a place where she was actually able to exercise some power. Not so with her noisy brood. In one early episode Lynnette must cope with the embarrassment of knowing that her three riotous boys have stolen from a neighbor, and they must be punished.

Scene: the boys are sitting at a table. Their mother stands across from them, looking down sternly. Laid out on the table are implements of torture—that is to say, a hairbrush, a spatula, a “hickory switch,” improbably cut from some tree in their Southern California suburb. She then enumerates in disturbing detail how much pain will be inflicted by each item when it is used for the inevitable spanking. The boys protest. Lynnette is stern and immovable.

"Too late. You STOLE. And then you LIED. Even worse, you made me look bad in front of Mrs. McCluskey, who you know is Mommy's sworn enemy." So, she says, “Pick your poison.” gesturing to the aforementioned instruments of torture: "How about a belt? It's a classic." She runs through the rest of the choices, as the boys continue to wail that they don't want to be spanked. Lynnette reminds them that "thieves get spanked, that's just the way it works." Unless! Unless they swear never to steal again and write Mrs. McCluskey a nice letter of apology. (1)

Of course, the boys relent. And of course, they are not spanked. Do you know why? Not because they don’t deserve punishment of some kind—they certainly do. They are not spanked because their mom doesn’t want to spank them. They are not spanked because she cannot bear to make them suffer. And so she devises her own form of psychological warfare to ensure that the boys will escape their dreaded fate. The mother protects her beloved children.

As does God. It is hard to see the Almighty in the story of Jonah as anything except an anxious and anguished deity who dreads punishing the evil deeds of the people of Nineveh. The Ninevite king asks, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” But what he doesn’t know is that God has done every thing in God’s power to avoid having to carry out the sentence. Instead, God has appointed a prophet and given the wicked a chance to reform themselves. And on the strength of just one pronouncement, we have a turnaround so startling that, yes, even the cattle are quickly dressed in penitents’ clothes. God chuckles. And then God relents, because that’s who God is.

What we need to understand is that God is less a ball of fiery fury and more a wounded lover. God longs for the people to repent, but beneath that longing is God’s desire that the people love God. That they simply wake up to the fact that God is there, caring, loving them, cheering them on to new and better life. When we become convinced of the fact that we are “bathed in [God’s] encircling kindness,” (2) there is no question of wickedness. There is no question of sin and evil. There is only grace.

And notice who is advocating for the “Let the punishment fit the crime” position. Jonah, who is royally ticked that his preaching worked and the people are saved. And God pulls a splendid little practical joke on him, the bush growing up, the bush being eaten by the worm, and then God’s unassailable logic, “You cared more about that bush than about 120,000 people. AND animals. You silly, silly man.”

Here we are, with the 2007 equivalent of sackcloth, but really just ashes, prepared to remind ourselves, for a season, that we truly are surrounded by God’s encircling kindness, and that, indeed, our only comfort, in life and in death, is that we belong, not to ourselves, but to God. And we have more options to remind ourselves of that truth than the Ninevites, for whom repentance came in one basic flavor. Some of us have spent years in which Lent was defined by what we could not do, what we were prohibited from doing. But really, the great value of Lent lies in the hope that the disciplines we observe result in an opening of ourselves to God. That’s all God really wants. That’s all we really need. Amen.

(1) Jessica Morgan, Television Without Pity (
(2) Norman Fischer, Psalm 145, Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms

A Good Thrashing

Yesterday Madpriest left this comment on my post "This Just In..."

Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!
Stop being so greedy about "the pain"
Do you know how dangerous this world is because Americans cannot see beyond their own pain?

Yikes. Aside from feeling like the puppy that piddled on the good rug, I had to admit (immediately) that the man (whom I admire tremendously) has a point. The world is, according to the Ship of Fools, at a 68.8 percent chance of rapture, thanks in no small part to US policies and-- there's no other way to put it-- our heavy hand around the globe.

After I got my tail out from between my legs I began to muse in a 12-step mode about the whole thing. Because, clearly, the land I love and call home, has an addiction-- it is addicted to power, to military might, to weaponry, to oil and to riches. It is also addicted to a slim view of scripture and salvation that would, I truly believe, be unrecognizable to Jesus.

What to do? The first step to recovery is the admission of powerlessness. I admit that am powerless over my drug of choice. Can you imagine the US consciousness ever being able to say "I am powerless over..." anything? It is almost the definition of everything reviled by those in charge (and I am making no claims based on partisanship. I watched as key senators made themselves absent so that they wouldn't have to vote on the non-binding resolution against the war in Iraq. How disappointing that was...).

I listened to a National Public Radio report this morning on the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka. The report focused on a family who had lost their father. Ho hum, right? Everybody's losing fathers and brothers and mothers and sisters and lovers these days, right? Oh, God, forgive our self-absorption. No, never mind that, heal it. Madpriest is right. We US-ans don't corner the market on pain. We just shatter the globe with our attempts to medicate ourselves back into thinking we have power over something.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

This Just In: Eye Has No Need of Hand; Head Disses Feet

On this sad, sad day on which a group of angry intercontinental ballistic bishops slapped down the dignified and brilliant Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and by extension, the Episcopal Church in the USA, I will finally post this sad piece of news with respect to the New Wineskins movement about which I posted last week. It was released on Valentine's Day, and I didn't have the heart to share it here then.

People, what is so freaking scary about 1, women clergy (because make no mistake, a lot of the folks who are spazzing about same sex issues spazzed about that too), and 2, people of the same sex who love each other? I mean, give me a break. I can't even attempt to wax eloquent on this stuff... I'm so disgusted and heartsick.

If in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, then neither is there gay or straight.

If we comb our red-letter bibles, we will find, from the mouth of Jesus, exactly nothing on this topic.

If we listen instead to Jesus' constant, recurring theme-- love your neighbor, and who your neighbor is might just startle you-- then our path is clear. The ones who are most despised are the ones with whom we are to break bread. We are to make no distinctions. We are to celebrate love and commitment where they occur. We are to welcome the ministries of all. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” And yet, that is exactly what has happened.

Weep with me folks.

February 14, 2007

Formally engaged

New Wineskins votes to move ahead with “marriage” to Evangelical Presbyterian Church

by Toya Richards Hill

ORLANDO, FL – After a yearlong courtship, a formal engagement between the New Wineskins Association of Churches (NWAC) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) was agreed to on Friday, Feb. 9.

The NWAC, a group of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations unhappy with the state of the denomination, voted unanimously on Feb. 9 to petition the EPC to create a non-geographic, transitional New Wineskins presbytery (NWEPC) for those churches wishing to leave the PC(USA).

The EPC, whose leadership has been working with the New Wineskins on the presbytery idea and was already circulating an internal proposal, will now vote on the matter at its General Assembly (GA) in June. If approved, the NWEPC presbytery, transitional for a period of five years, could be set up immediately following the GA, said the Rev. Dean Weaver, co-moderator of the NWAC.

A courtship that began with a first meeting about a year ago has led to an engagement, and “Oct 29 and 30 is our wedding date, if you will,” Weaver told members of New Wineskins-endorsing churches gathered for the group’s winter convocation Feb. 8-9 at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, FL.

Oct. 29-30 is when the New Wineskins meet again for their fall convocation in Sacramento, CA, and will be the first gathering under the NWEPC presbytery, if all goes as planned.

The decision to petition the EPC to create the new presbytery was one of five recommendations presented to New Wineskins’ delegates by a nine-member NWAC strategy team charged with devising an action plan. All five recommendations, which also include endorsing the overall plan, were approved with the one vote.

Highlights of the plan include:

* The NWEPC will be self-governing under the NWAC Constitution and shall have the authority to ordain, install, receive and dismiss pastors.
* NWEPC pastors and staff shall be immediately eligible to participate in the pension and medical plans of the EPC.
* Each NWEPC church will own its own property and will elect and ordain elders and deacons from its own congregational members.
* The NWEPC shall have the authority to plant churches.

“I believe we have crossed the Rubicon, for which there is no turning back,” the Rev. Gerrit Dawson, co-moderator of the NWAC, said immediately following the vote. He cautioned the group that, “there will be those who will not be pleased” with the action taken, but he told them to look to Christ and “be of good courage.”

Under PC(USA) law, a PC(USA) congregation must ask its presbytery to dismiss it in order to officially leave the denomination. A presbytery can only dismiss a congregation, either with or without the church property, to an ecclesiastical body “whose organization is conformed to the doctrines and order of this Church,” according to a 1976 General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission decision. The EPC falls within that rubric, said Office of the General Assembly officials.

It’s not clear exactly how many PC(USA) congregations might seek to leave the denomination and join the EPC via a newly created New Wineskins presbytery, but the New Wineskins say they have 151 endorsing churches overall.

Not all will opt to leave, particularly with weighty issues over whether they could take church property with them often hanging in the balance, and workshops held in advance of the vote on Friday were indicative of that fact.

Question-and-answer sessions were held separately for those wanting to leave the PC(USA) now, those wanting to leave in the future, those not sure what they want to do and those wanting to stay in the denomination.

All four sessions were well attended, although the meeting for those wishing to remain in the PC(USA) had the least number. Chief among the concerns of those in that workshop was the possibility of being left by themselves without moral support if the NWEPC is formed.

Weaver, Dawson and others in the leadership stressed that staying in the denomination is a “faithful option,” and promised that those New Wineskins churches remaining in the PC(USA) would stay formally connected to the NWEPC for cooperative ministry and mission, among other things.

“It’s a realignment into a new, additional thing,” Weaver said. “The churches that remain are part of that realignment.”

NWAC delegates voted to create a task force to flesh out how to handle those New Wineskins churches that opt to remain in the PC(USA), and asked that the task force bring recommendations to the fall convocation.

One concern raised during the discussion of the new presbytery and joining the EPC is the lack of women in ministry in the EPC. The denomination leaves decisions over ordaining women “to the Spirit-guided consciences of particular congregations concerning the ordination of women as elders and deacons, and to the presbyteries concerning the ordination of women as ministers,” according to a position adopted by the EPC’s General Assembly in 1984.

The EPC, which has 75,000 members in 182 churches within 8 presbyteries in the United States, has two ordained female ministers, one of whom is retiring, said EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah.

The Rev. Carmen Fowler, NWAC vice-moderator, assured delegates that women would not be forgotten, and encouraged them to trust.

“I feel confident in saying that the brothers involved are not going to let the sisters involved fall by the wayside, because frankly they know how much work we do,” she said.

Fowler also responded to complaints about the all-male, all-white NWAC strategy team — which came up with the recommendations that included joining the EPC — by pointing out that the nominations for the strategy team came from “names you placed in nomination.”
New Wineskins’ delegates ended up passing a motion calling for the leadership to form a team to “affirm and outline” the biblical basis for women to serve as pastors, elders and deacons.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Oil Cross

On the front page of today's New York Times: everything that is wrong with this administration and this war.

God help us.


I need to begin this post in utter honesty. My prayer practice is nothing to be emulated or admired. It is herky-jerky, characterized by fits and starts, and altogether a thing of momentary enthusiasms and chasms of desperate need. Still, once in a while something comes along that helps me to make it more what I hope it to be... an authentic opening of myself to God's presence, already there, I know, I know. The Book of Common Worship Daily Prayer book was one of these resources. So was Companions in Christ, the 30-week Cokesbury curriculum for spiritual formation that I worked through with three wonderful women in my first interim call. And the lovely Prayer Book for Remembering the Women (by Mary Louise Bringle and J. Frank Henderson, who has done really important work suggesting adjustments to the lectionary so that women might reclaim their place in the salvation story). I am always on the lookout for new resources, in hopes that my herky-jerky practice might find itself on a more even keel. (I know.)

In a post not too long ago the Velveteen Rabbi turned me on to this book, Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms by Norman Fischer. Steeped in both Jewish tradition and Zen practice, Fischer re-interprets 93 of the 150 psalms contained in the psalter. I have not read all of them... I have been using it along with daily prayer, so I have explored them one at a time.

Here is Psalm 5, one of today's morning psalms:

Incline your ear towards me
Listen to my piercing cry as I pray
At daybreak hear my voice
When I order my words toward you
And wait

For you do not take pleasure in the crooked
The heedless can never reach your courts
The arrogant fall away when you look at them
The wicked are distasteful to you
Liars you cut off
The violent ones, the deceivers, you cast away

But as for me--
Bathed in your encircling kindness I enter your house
Bow myself down before your presence
In awe and wonder

Lead me into rightness against the force of my envy
Straighten me
For their mouths know not a single sincere word
Inside they are full of deception
Their throats are graves
Their tongues slides
Cast them out of me
Let them fall by their own weight all the way down
For they are your counterforce

Then all who put their trust in you will rejoice
Will shout out their joy in your protection
Will exalt in you all you love your unsayableness
For your bless the faithful
Circling them round like a shield

When I approach this psalm in a lectio divina frame of mind, I am stopped by the words "Bathed in your encircling kindness..." I want to remain with that image, the warmth and intimacy of it. Fischer is redeeming for me some psalms that have left me cold, and even psalms I already love, such as 145 (the other morning psalm, every Monday), are breathing freshly in me. Lines like this are making my heart skip a beat:

I will stop
And consider
Your burning beauty
Your wondrous deeds
I will stop and speak
Of your awesome acts
I will stop and remember
Your greatness

And that wonderful newly coined word, "unsayableness." Your unsayableness... I want to pray it over and over.

Lotus blossom courtesy of Toshio at Flickr.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Beyond: A Sermon on Luke 9:28-36

Luke 9:28-36
February 18, 2007

We have a strange and intriguing story about Jesus in today’s lectionary, a story set side by side with another intriguing one about Moses. An account of what is called the transfiguration appears in three of the four gospels, and in many respects it baffles readers. What is happening, exactly, in this eerie mountaintop moment, complete with changed face and dazzling garments, sleepy disciples and special guest appearances by august Old Testament figures? Is this a story that reflects an actual event in Jesus’ life, preserved for us by those who witnessed it—Peter, John and James? Is this a resurrection story—and it sure has the feel of a resurrection story—that Luke for some reason has replanted in Jesus’ earthly ministry, like a garden of lilies in full bloom in the middle of February? Or is this a story told by the early church to reflect their eventual evolved understanding of who and what Jesus was?

This is a story that generates a lot of questions. It is also a story about someone who, himself, generated a lot of questions. These are some of the questions asked about Jesus up until this moment in the gospel…

The religious lawmakers and bookkeepers, upon hearing Jesus tell a man that his sins are forgiven, ask, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies?” (5:21)

John, cousin of Jesus, baptizer of penitents, threat to the powers that be, sends disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come?” (7:19)

Fellow guests in the home of Simon the Pharisee, after watching the sensuous and scandalous spectacle of Jesus being anointed by a woman who bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair, ask, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (7:49)

The disciples, windblown and with hearts still racing after their near-miss with the notoriously unpredictable waters of Lake Gennesaret, ask, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (8:25)

And just a few verses before our story, Herod Antipas, Rome’s puppet-ruler in Galilee, who has been hearing Jesus compared with ancient prophets as well as the now beheaded John, and who has much to lose depending upon the answer to his question, asks, “Who is this about whom I hear such things?”

Who is this? Speaking blasphemies, healing, restoring sight, releasing the imprisoned, who is this? Forgiving sins and exhibiting mastery over the elements of earth, air and water, even over life and death: who is this?

Jesus has been tooling around Galilee with his disciples for some time now, adding impressively to his resume. He began, as you know, with healings—a demon exorcised, a fever eased. He has taught and preached, and nearly got himself thrown off a cliff for the impudence of claiming the words of the prophet Isaiah were fulfilled in him, and that people had best not be depending on the small-town ancient near-eastern equivalent of country club membership to get them by any longer. He has healed everyone in need whose path crossed with his. One gets the feeling a kind of heady exhilaration has been building among the disciples, the kind of emotion that makes some sorts of individuals begin to plan redecorating the corner office (as soon as they get in there). Jesus caps all this with the kind of miracle that draws the press like flies to honey, the feeding of the multitudes with a few loaves and fish. It is just after this that Jesus apparently feels the need to stop and tell the disciples precisely what they are in for, and proceeds to say all manner of appalling things, things that include words like “suffering” and “rejection” and “cross” and “death.”

This is where our story picks up—eight days, the evangelist tells us, after “these [appalling] sayings.” Jesus takes three disciples and goes up a mountain to pray. Take some time to notice the kinds of things that happen in Luke’s gospel when Jesus prays. In fact, take time to notice that Jesus prays. Sometimes I think our theology gets in the way of what can be good and important instruction for us, living our lives, writing our papers and sermons and negotiating our living situations. Jesus works, he performs his ministry, he heals and he teaches. And then he takes time out to renew his connection with God. Jesus does this thing—he prays. Because he needs to. Because even Jesus cannot run on empty.

Something is happening while Jesus is praying. His appearance changes, his clothes become dazzlingly white. And it is almost as if a foretaste of the resurrection has come to visit this mundane moment, this moment when Jesus has gone off to recharge his battery. And then the disciples see Moses and Elijah—we might ask how they knew the men were Moses and Elijah. Well, much the same way you and I know someone is an officer in the military or a clergyperson or an auto mechanic. Tools of the trade, readily identifiable symbols. We might imagine Moses holding the tablets of the Covenant, for example. And Elijah, wearing his distinctive cloak. At any rate, the disciples knew who they were, and early readers or hearers of the gospel would have known why they were, would have seen beyond them to the obvious significance. Jesus has “demonstrated his mastery over the sea and fed the multitude in the wilderness” (like Moses, representing the “law”); and Jesus “has multiplied loaves, cleansed lepers and raised the dead” (like Elijah, representing the prophets). These two are chatting with Jesus, the fulfillment of what they have been all about. They are chatting about what in English is departure, and what in Greek is “exodus.” Jesus is talking again about one of those appalling things: his exodus.

There is a brief interlude in which Peter—the one who is always willing to speak without engaging his editing mechanism—offers to build three tents, or “Sukkoth” for Jesus and his companions, an offer, really, to freeze-frame the moment… Jesus with Moses and Elijah makes for so much more picturesque a memory than Jesus suffering, dying, on a cross. As soon as the offer is made a cloud intervenes. The cloud, which in the book of Exodus serves to both reveal and conceal the presence of God, here conceals Jesus and the scene Peter had hoped to freeze forever, or at least for a while. Fear seizes the disciples, just as a voice comes from the cloud, the voice of God saying who this is, what this is. And what is to be done about it. “This is my Son, my Chosen, my Beloved. Listen to him!” And poof. It is over. Everything is back to normal.

Except, I’m not sure there is a “normal” to which one can return after seeing the face of God shine through the face of someone you know intimately, someone who is standing right in front of you. The Israelites knew this. They saw the glow on Moses’ face and it terrified them because they knew very well the reality to which it pointed, the reality of God, so far beyond any of our experience or ability to process. And they knew instinctively they needed to be shielded from it. So much wiser, really, than the disciples, ready to light off for Home Depot so that they can begin their misguided building project.

Maybe I am being too hard on the disciples. I mean, why wouldn’t you want your peak experience, your moment of greatest spiritual transcendence, to go on and on… why wouldn’t you want to remain basking in the glow? I believe this is why so many really committed Christians hesitate to pray, avoid having real prayer lives… they are secretly afraid that they will never want to come down from the mountaintop of communion with God. But here’s the thing: God’s response when Peter makes his move is to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen one: listen to him!” The reality beyond the present moment, beyond the dazzling clothes and unlikely visitors, is God. The message from God is “Listen.” Listen.

I assume many of you have seen or perhaps even own a red-letter bible. The editor of a Christian magazine got the idea back in 1899 that it would be an interesting and potentially beneficial thing to have an edition of the bible in which all the words spoken by Jesus are printed in red. In our own day, there is a movement called “Red-letter Christianity,” which suggest that perhaps what Christians really ought to be all about is contained, right there, in all the words Jesus spoke. What would happen, I wonder, if we went back and red-lettered the words of Jesus from the gospel of Luke? God says, “listen.” OK, let’s listen, to some of the words spoken by Jesus in chapters 1-9 of Luke’s gospel.

“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (2:49)

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (4:18)

“Be silent, and come out of him!” (4:35)

“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God … for I was sent for this purpose.” (4:43)

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (5:4)

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (5:10)

“I do choose. Be made clean.” (5:13)

“Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” (5:20)

“Follow me.” (5:27)

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (5:31)

“…new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.” (5:38)

“The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (6:5)

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (6:20)

“…love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (6:35)

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” (6:37-38)

“Do not weep…Young man, I say to you, rise!” (7:13-14)

“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (7:50)

“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (8:21)

“Where is your faith?” (8:25)

“What is your name?” (8:30)

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” (8:39)

“Who touched me?” (8:45)

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” (8:48)

“Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.” (8:50)

“Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” (8:52)

“Child, get up!” (8:54)

“You give them something to eat.” (9:13)

“Who do the crowds say that I am?” (9:18)

“But who do you say that I am?” (9:20)


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

But really, Happy Saint Valentine's Day

What else is there to say? Now that's love.

Happy Saint Cyril and Methodius Day!

The feast of St. Valentine or Valentinius was first added to the Christian calendar by an early medieval pope, who remarked that he was one of those "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." In other words, it's not really clear exactly why or how Valentinius came to be revered as a saint. Earliest traditions honor him as a martyr. Though this feast coincides with a Roman fertility festival, taking place between mid-January and mid-February, honoring the marriage of Zeus and Hera, St. Valentine's Day is not associated with romantic love and marriage until Chaucer's Parlement of Foules.

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese [chose] his make [mate].

The earliest surviving valentine dates from 1415. It is a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife. At the time, the duke was being held in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.

It is probable that the various legends about St. Valentine were invented during this period. Among these legends:

* On the evening before Valentine was to be martyred for being a Christian, he passed a love note to his jailer's daughter that read, "From your Valentine."

* During a ban on marriages of Roman soldiers by the Emperor Claudius II, St. Valentine secretly helped arrange marriages

And, finally, in 1969, as part of a larger effort to pare down the number of saint days of purely legendary origin, the Church removed St. Valentine's Day as an official holiday from its calendar. February 14 is now dedicated only to Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius.

Isn't Wikipedia a wonderful thing?

A foot so far...

... and they keep saying the heavy snow starts this afternoon. Hmmm....

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


... for Mother God to give snow like wool and to scatter frost like ashes. We have been told by the National Weather Service that we are in for 20 to 30 inches of snow beginning now.

Looking up...

While doing so I am listening to my iPod on "shuffle." Here's what happens when my music library comes at me unmediated:

"Easy to Love" by Billie Holliday
is followed by
"Don't Drink the Water" by Dave Matthews Band
is followed by
"Eight Days A Week" by the Beatles
is followed by
"Baby Can I Hold You" by Tracy Chapman
is followed by
"Longer Boats" by Cat Stevens
is followed by
"The Red Thread" by Lucy Kaplansky
is followed by
"Blue Prelude" by Patricia Barber
is followed by
"Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?" by Po' Girl
is followed by
"Diamond in the Rough" by Shawn Colvin
is followed by
"We Learned the Sea" by Dar Williams
is followed by
"Leaving On Your Mind" by Patsy Cline
is followed by
"Leaving" by the Indigo Girls
is followed by
"Lady Be Good" by Ella Fitzgerald
is followed by
"Honky Tonk Woman" by the Rolling Stones

reminding me of all the women I am...

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Love Songs: A Sermon on Psalm 1

“Love Songs”
Psalm 1
February 11, 2007

At the risk of being compared to Barbara Walters, I want to ask you a question. If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be? Think about it for a moment. I was asked this about a dozen years ago in a bible study, and as odd and potentially silly as it is, this question produced, at least for me, some valuable reflections, some spiritual insights. So I invite you to imagine… you are a tree. What kind of tree are you? Are you evergreen or deciduous? Mighty oak or weeping willow? Exotic palm or fragrant lilac? Are you in a grove of several trees, one of millions in a forest, or are you standing alone in a field or snuggled up against a house? Are you a tree that flowers? Gives fruit? And—here is the most crucial question, the question I am still struggling with all these years later—what, if anything, keeps you from growing? What impediments stand in your way?

We are reflecting on Psalm 1 this morning, and a tree is the central image of that psalm. Before delving further into the psalmist’s meaning and motives, it might be good to consider the book of psalms as a whole. In her book Cloister Walk, poet Kathleen Norris describes the experience of going to live with religious communities of monks and nuns, for months at a time. She tells how she became immersed in the psalms for the first time in her life by participating in the prayer life of the monastery, a place where all 150 psalms are typically prayed over the course of a month, every month. She describes falling in love with the psalms. She describes being transformed by them, formed and reformed.

The first thing you should know about the book of psalms is that it is a collection of poetic prayers, prayers intended for the most part for public worship. They are songs, meant to be sung or chanted, not spoken—the original Hebrew word for psalms, “mizmor,” actually means “a song with the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.”

I’ve said that the book of psalms is a collection. That’s partly correct: it is a collection of collections. The book is divided into five smaller books, each of which has its own distinct flavor and character. For example, book 1 contains psalms 1-41, and most of those titled “psalms of David” are in that collection. The five books are divided by doxologies—short hymns of praise to God. The last psalm, Psalm 150, is a doxology for the entire collection. Psalm 1, the psalm we read this morning, is really an introduction to the whole collection.

There are many ways to analyze the structure and content of the book of Psalms as a whole; one of the most interesting ways is to see in it a reflection of the history of the people of Israel, the five books of Psalms mirroring the books of the Torah, the first five books of the bible. Most psalms fall into one of three categories: psalms of praise, psalms of lament, and psalms of thanksgiving. But there are other smaller categories too: wisdom psalms, royal psalms and psalms of Zion. If I could urge you to remember just one thing, I think it would be what John Calvin had to say about the psalms. He said:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.

Calvin has it exactly right. Every single human emotion can be found somewhere in the psalms, from the dizziest joy to the most wrenching sense of abandonment to the most fiery anger. Open up the book. It’s all in there.

And our psalm, number 1, is the introduction to it all. It is a wisdom psalm, a psalm whose intention is to tell us something true about life, the universe and everything. In this case, the message is straightforward: happy is the one who does not listen to the wicked, the sinner or the scoffer, but, rather, who meditates upon the law of the Lord. The word here translated “law” is, in Hebrew, “torah,” and may indicate God’s law generally, or those first five books of the bible. The ones who meditate on that law, the psalmist tells us, “are like trees, planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in due season, and their leaves do not wither” (Psalm 1:3).

The first thing we notice about the happy person is what he or she does not do. He or she sets out on the path to righteousness by refraining from certain activities, and by choosing to avoid certain company. This is a wonderful and psychologically sensitive insight. The path to happiness or blessedness begins by avoiding certain kinds of people and activities. We could comb the bible for lists of sins and be here until sundown, but let’s just take that last word: scoffers. Scoffers, it seems to me, are people who have already made a judgment about the possibility of new learning or new insight. They have decided they don’t want it or don’t need it or, even, that it isn’t possible. The psalm tells us first that the path to blessedness and happiness begins with an attitude comparable to what in Buddhist practice is called “beginner’s mind.” As one Buddhist maxim has it, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Those with beginner’s mind are much like young children. Children greet all situations and possibilities with a desire to learn more, with a willingness to be open and even vulnerable. They explore, they wander, they wonder, they touch. The first thing this psalm encourages us to do is to avoid those who sneer at the idea of spiritual insight. The first thing this psalm encourages us to do reminds us very much of the words of Jesus, who said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Luke 18:16). The psalmist wants us to cultivate beginner’s mind.

And this brings us to the tree. The one who meditates on the teachings, the law of God, day and night, is like a tree, a tree planted by streams of water. Let’s consider that image for just a moment. A tree planted by streams of water has roots that are deep and well saturated, roots that serve to take in all the nutrients the tree needs, roots that reach down and anchor it, and enable the tree to grow and grow to its fullest potential size and to withstand the buffeting of wind and storms. The roots reaching into the water enable the tree to bear fruit, to have leaves that stay green and glossy. This is the tree that, in the words of the poem on the cover of your bulletin, “looks at God all day/ and lifts her leafy arms to pray.”

The thing about the tree is this: the tree is open to the sustenance that nature offers it. That is what the psalmist is urging us to do: to open ourselves to the sustenance God offers us, in this case, God’s law, God’s teaching, God’s torah.

12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous ask their members to attend meetings, and you will find, in many instances, alcoholics with years and years clean and sober who still attend meetings. Those not familiar with the program often ask why, after all those years, they find it necessary to keep going to the meetings. One person put it to me this way: “I go to remind myself who I am.” This is why I think this wisdom psalm was placed here as the introduction to the whole book of psalms. At its heart this is a psalm that entreats us to remember who we are and Whose we are. We do that by returning, over and over, to the rushing and refreshing stream that is God’s word, that is worship with God’s people. We don’t stop going to church or reading scripture after we become Christians, any more than the alcoholic stops going to meetings after getting sober, any more than the tree stops drinking water after it blossoms forth. We are in constant need of reminding that we are God’s children, created to love God and serve God all our days, just as a peach tree is created to bear beautiful flowers and sweet, succulent fruit.

Kathleen Norris noticed something odd about one of the convents where she was staying. Something didn’t feel right. Something was off. Eventually she noticed that, in this convent, they had cut out certain psalms, excised the nasty and violent ones from their daily prayer. They didn’t recite them because they rejected the violent and troubling imagery in the psalms. Norris was troubled by that. She came to believe that, in that particular community, a kind of pathology arose, a pathology of denial of the most basic truths about humanity. She felt they lived out that pathology in their day to day lives as well as in their liturgy. They were not as healthy, she concluded, as the convents and monasteries where all the psalms were a regular part of prayer life, where people acknowledged the hard truths about their common humanity.

I think of the book of psalms as a collection of love songs sung between humans and God, particularly honest and searing love songs. Anyone who has ever been in love knows that it is not all moonlight and roses. Sure, breathless romance and aching desire is a part of it. But love—real love—is also struggle and disappointment and forgiveness and rebirth. So it is with our relationship with God. The psalms provide us with an honest language for the love affair between God and God’s people, a relationship described by every imaginable human feeling. Psalm 1 gets us ready to drink in that relationship, in all its complex glory.

So I ask you again: what kind of tree are you? Are you evergreen or deciduous? Mighty oak or weeping willow? Exotic palm or fragrant lilac? Are you in a grove of many trees, one of millions in a forest, or are you standing alone in a field or snuggled up against a house? Are you a tree that flowers? Gives fruit? And what, if anything, keeps you from growing? What impediments stand in your way? What stops you from drinking deep from that living stream that is God’s love, always flowing your way? Amen.

More from the Presby News Service

February 9, 2007

Evangelical Presbyterian Church woos PC(USA) congregations seeking to leave
EPC Assembly will consider creating ‘New Wineskins Presbytery’

by Toya Richards Hill

ORLANDO, FL — The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) has extended an invitation, albeit a preliminary one pending the approval of its General Assembly, to create a new presbytery within its fold for the New Wineskins Association of Churches (NWAC), a group of dissident Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations.

“The Holy Spirit is drawing us toward you,” said EPC Moderator Paul Heidebrecht. “We are truly impressed by the mission-driven polity” of the NWAC.

Heidebrecht discussed plans to create a non-geographic presbytery named after the New Wineskins during the opening day of the NWAC winter convocation, taking place Feb.8-9 at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, FL.

Organizers of the meeting said representatives from 130 of 151 New Wineskins-endorsing churches were represented at the meeting, which is expected to yield a more formal strategy and way out for PC(USA) congregations that wish to leave the denomination.

Thursday’s opening set the tone for the delegates meeting scheduled for the evening of Friday, Feb. 9, and provided a glimpse into the recommendations expected from a nine-member NWAC strategy team charged with outlining a way forward.

Much of the displeasure voiced by New Wineskins congregations centers around a belief that the PC(USA) has become consumed with institutional preservation and lost sight of doctrinal integrity.

The New Wineskins point to the actions by the 217th General Assembly (GA) regarding the report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity (PUP) of the Church, and the paper “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing” as examples of ways the denomination has gone wrong.

At issue regarding the PUP report is the GA’s approval of an “authoritative interpretation” of the church’s Constitution that maintains current ordination standards for church officers, but gives ordaining bodies greater leeway in applying those standards to individual candidates for ordination.

At the heart of the matter is the ordination of homosexuals, an issue that has become a lightening rod for the New Wineskins and other PC(USA) renewal groups.

Heidebrecht told the NWAC that its proposal regarding a New Wineskins presbytery, which would be “transitional” for a period of five years, would be presented to its General Assembly when it meets in June.

Currently the EPC is comprised of some 75,000 members in 182 churches within 8 presbyteries in the United States, according to information on its Web site.

The EPC also intends to propose to its assembly that it allow churches that choose not to fall within the New Wineskins presbytery to also come into the EPA as transitional members for a period of five years, said EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah.

“We believe Christ is working and moving in you like He is working and moving in us,” he told the group.

As proof of the commonalities between the two bodies, NWAC co-moderator Gerrit Dawson outlined mutual essential tenets of the NWAC and the EPC. Under headers that included “The Triune God Makes Himself Known,” “The Bible,” “The Person and Work of Jesus,” “Our Need,” “The Work of the Holy Spirit,” “The Church,” “Our Mission,” and “Come Lord Jesus,” Dawson reviewed where each entity stands related to the specific areas.

He called the essential tenets a “baseline,” pointing out that “what we believe is clear and specific and beautiful.

“This, I believe, is going to build the church,” Dawson said.

A good deal of the talk on Thursday centered on “realigning” the Presbyterian Church, and at the end of the day NWAC co-moderator Dean Weaver introduced “two faithful options” for displeased PC(USA) congregations, stressing that both include “being a missional congregation right where God has placed you.”

He promised more details on the options in the strategy team report, but said one way would involve churches wishing to remain in the PC(USA) yet be under the fold of the New Wineskins initiative, while the other option involves congregations that want to leave altogether falling under the jurisdiction of the New Wineskins/EPC.

“What excites me is what we are moving towards,” Weaver said, predicting this could be the first of a series of realignments bringing streams of Reformed Evangelical Presbyterian back together.

No comment. Except for the picture.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Trouble at Home

I have been an enthusiastic reader of blogs all over the blogosphere in which the troubles of the Episcopal Church in the US are being described, lamented over, raged about and yes, even thoughtfully discussed. Imagine the hairs standing up on the back of my neck when I read the following on Presbyterian News Service this week:

Stated clerk, GAC chief urges churches not to defect from PC(USA)

Editor’s note: General Assembly Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick and General Assembly Council Executive Director Linda Valentine recently sent the following letter to every congregation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). — Evan Silverstein

The full text of the Kirkpatrick and Valentine letter dated Jan. 29:

We are writing to you in advance of news you may read in the coming days. We have heard that a few Presbyterian congregations may soon announce their intention to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

We are deeply saddened by this news for several reasons. First, any church’s departure is difficult and painful for the congregations involved and the wider church. Fractures within the body of Christ diminish our witness of God’s grace and mercy to the world—unfortunate in these already divisive times. And, the PC(USA) will miss the gifts and perspectives of these brothers and sisters in Christ.

Among the reasons of those wishing to leave are perceptions of particular actions of the 217th General Assembly last summer. These perceptions include concerns that our ordination standards have changed and that the PC(USA) no longer believes in the Trinity. Neither of these is true.

It is our deep conviction that we are better together than we are apart:

* We are better followers of Jesus when we stick together, mutually encouraging one another in the work of discipleship.
* We are better together and more effective in confronting the enormous problems in the world—dire situations like Darfur, HIV/AIDS in Africa, and ongoing human tragedies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
* We are better together because the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as one expression of the whole body of Christ needs all of its parts in order to function well (1 Cor. 12).
* We are better together because our resources of time, talents, and treasure have a larger and farther reach.
* We are better together because our discernment and deliberations on tough topics need our many perspectives to reach the most faithful decisions.

Our confidence in the strength of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its people is unwavering. More than 11,000 PC(USA) congregations are, day in and day out, engaged in remarkable ministries that include proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, breaking the bread and sharing the cup, challenging injustice, and exhibiting the kingdom of God to the world. As the apostle Paul wrote, “I am confident … that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).

In over three hundred years of American Presbyterian history, we have never agreed 100 percent on any issue of the day. But, in the end, we are better together in Christ’s unity.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.


Ever since last summer's adoption of the report of the task force on Peace, Unity and Purity, there have been rumblings in the right-wing Presby press (which I try not to read, as it elevates my blood pressure) that this was it, schism was inevitable. But until now, the powers that be in Louisville have appeared to take a quietly optimistic stance. Until now.

More later...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Busy Busy

new job...

planning and facilitating healing retreat...

planning and facilitating workshop for newly ordained pastors...

planning and facilitating board retreat...

co-chair of judicatory committee...

teaching lay preachers' class...

liaision to four churches...

active applications in to two churches...

being a mom...

being a person...


Photo courtesy of Cedar Mesa Hiker and Flickr.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Running Deer

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
"Where is your God?"

~ Psalm 42:1-3

It was the chapel service that clinched my decision to go to the seminary I attended. I had visited several institutions, and come away from each feeling enthusiastic, excited: "I could go here!" But I visited the seminary I ultimately attended reluctantly. It was in the Big City. Which I had always loved to visit, but which I dreaded being in on a regular basis, as a resident or commuter. I just couldn't envision myself there. I was afraid.

So I visited... actually, I used the pretext of the seminary visit to see a friend whom I had been longing to see, who lived not too far away. The visit was complicated, overdue, and in some ways hard. But I made it, and I visited the seminary the next day.

In the morning I attended an Old Testament class, and in the afternoon an early church history class. Both were excellent; neither of the other seminaries had offered an opportunity to actually see professors and students in action, and I was impressed. But it was what happened between the morning and afternoon classes that grabbed my heart and twisted it and told me that, commuting be damned, this was where I belonged.

While in my last semester of seminary I worked with two other students to create a worship service for the community's daily chapel service. We used Psalm 42 as our text, and I wrote a song which I sang as a part of the service. Here are the lyrics.

there's a deer and she's running
running through the woods
she is searching for water
a clear refreshing stream
she is longing, she is thirsting for that water
that deer is me.

I am running, I am running
running through the woods
I am searching for that water,
a sweet living stream
when I find it, that cold, quenching water
I will drink deep

why do I go
so heavy in my soul?
why is my heart cast down, down, down?
when will I
when will I see
the source of that sweetness that keeps eluding me?

oh it's hard to be the child,
the one who is forgotten
the one who is waiting,
waiting back at home
so where are you? and do you remember the love we've known?

you draw me into the darkness
into the beat of your heart
can I rest there for a while?
is there water flowing in the dark?

there's a deer and she's running
running through the woods
she is searching for water
a clear refreshing stream
she is longing, she is thirsting for that water
that deer is me.

magdalenemusic, copyright 2002

Thanks to davidzand Flickr for photo.

Monday, February 05, 2007

One Month Ago Today

Petra and Larry-O were on the slopes...

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Catch and Release: a Sermon on Luke 5:1-11

“Catch and Release”
Luke 5:1-11
February 4, 2007

Politics brings out strong passions in many people. People who would ordinarily be perfectly pleasant, kind-hearted and reasonable suddenly become nasty, suspicious and profoundly unreasonable when the topic is political in nature. And it’s hard to top political operatives in the search for the creative insult. One of the most striking political insults I have ever heard was a description of Democrats from a Republican TV ad during the 2004 presidential campaign. In that ad, Democrats were described as “Brie-eating, chardonnay-drinking, latte-sipping, French-speaking, Volvo-driving, New York Times reading, elite liberals.” Wow. Do you catch the undercurrent there? What is really being said? If you pull apart that string of activities in which Democrats are allegedly involved, you get a picture of spoiled people with too much disposable income and too much time on their hands. What the ad is really saying, in my opinion, is that Democrats know nothing about hard work. They are soft. Interestingly enough, from the other side of the political spectrum, the same allegation is made. The singer Pink currently has a song making the rounds of YouTube emails, “Dear Mr. President.” The emotional climax of the song comes in the refrain, where she sings over and over again, “Let me tell you bout hard work, Hard work, Hard work/ You don't know nothing bout hard work, Hard work, Hard work.” In both these instances, in opinions from the left and the right, the accusation is the same. You people. You soft, spoiled people. You do not know anything about hard work.

I think it would be interesting to hear what social scientists have to say about why this particular insult is hurled so regularly, and why it seems to cut so deep. I suspect it’s because mostly everybody believes that they are working very hard, and that they aren’t getting much recognition for that fact, not are they getting much tangible benefit. People struggle to make Solomon-like decisions about how to spend their time and their money, and no one seems to feel like they are making any headway. And a look at the statistics seems to bear this out. In the United States, the wealthiest one percent of individuals own more than a third of the wealth, while the poorest 40% own, collectively, .2% of the wealth. Or, to look at it on a global scale, the 225 wealthiest individuals in the world—and we can all probably name at least a handful of them—have a combined wealth of $1 trillion. That's equal to the combined annual income of the world's 2.5 billion poorest people. Everybody feels that they are working just as hard as they can, but many suspect that the system might just be unfair.

This is not unlike the situation in which the people described in today’s passage from the gospel of Luke find themselves. We’ve all heard this story. Jesus is standing by Lake Gennesaret—also known as the Sea of Galilee, Lake Tiberius, or in modern day Hebrew, Yam [the Sea of] Kinneret. Jesus is speaking, and the crowd is pressing in on him, to better hear the word of God. Jesus sees two boats there, fishing boats just returned to shore after a long and fruitless night of labor, and Jesus has an idea. (Maybe he has two ideas.) He decides to get in one of the boats, the boat in which Simon is still washing nets. Jesus asks Simon to pull away from shore a bit, so that he can speak to the crowd from the boat. We can imagine his words floating back on the surface of the water. When he finishes speaking, he tells Simon to pull out further, and let the nets down just one more time. Simon reminds Jesus of his futile night of hard work, but he humors the teacher. And the nets are immediately so filled with fish—swarming with fish—that they seem about to break, and they have to call upon their partners in the other boat to help them haul in the catch. All the fishermen are astonished. Simon—who here is first referred to as Simon Peter—falls at Jesus’ feet, and declares himself a sinner, and unworthy. Jesus says to him, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Simon, James and John leave the catch and their nets and they walk away into a new life, a new world. They follow Jesus.

Here we have a story about which I think we need to do a little unlearning before we can do any useful learning. We need to unlearn our preconceived notions about what it was to be a fisherman in Palestine in Jesus’ day. The life of a fisherman has been, to a certain extent, romanticized. We imagine the men setting out early, fathers and sons—before dawn, perhaps—to prepare their nets and to clean their boats. We imagine the fresh smell of the air. And we imagine them as, not wealthy, of course, but as having a certain independence. Entrepreneurs. Small businessmen. Self-employed.

That’s not, unfortunately, the reality of first century Palestine. In Jesus’ time and place, there was no such thing as a free market; the rulers (both the Roman Emperors and their client kings) designed the economy for their own exclusive benefit. As a result, peasants—and this would include fishermen—were kept at subsistence level by a series of taxes, tithes, and tributes. All so-called excess wealth flowed to the top of the pyramid. Here are just a few of the taxes fishermen would have to pay: if they owned their own boats—which was rare—they were taxed on every item used to make and stock the boat, flax for the sails, wood for the hull, stone for the anchors. If they didn’t own their boats—which was far more common—they paid exorbitant rates to lease them. They paid a tax to acquire the right to fish, and they paid a head tax on each fish they caught. There were taxes levied on the transportation of the fish and on its processing. And this doesn’t count the tributes—taxes levied by rulers simply because, they could do so. Moneys that were given—taken, really—to honor them. All this money flowed through the tax collectors—who had the right to publicly and viciously beat anyone who dared to try to evade the taxes—right to the top, to client rulers such as Herod, to regional governors such as Pontius Pilate to the Emperor himself.

In other words the life of the peasant—in this case, the peasant fisherman—was a trap. It was a trap in which they were caught, with little or no hope of escape. It was a life of brutally hard work for subsistence level pay. Add to that the fact that it was a life with no honor or prestige associated with it. Fishermen were listed by Cicero along with fish-sellers, butchers, cooks and poultry-raisers as being the most shameful occupations. I think you get the picture. Hard work. Hard work, and almost no reward for that work. This is the economic reality in which the followers of Jesus lived and struggled.

And along comes Jesus. If there is anything we know about Jesus it is this: he spent his days walking the hills and deserts and villages of Galilee, seeing suffering, taking it into himself, and spending himself in order to end it. Until this moment in the gospel Jesus has been sharing the word of God as he heals people and exorcises their demons. He has been witness to suffering—first a man with a demon, then a woman with a terrible fever, and soon, all those, Luke tells us, in the whole village of Capernaum who were sick with various diseases—and Jesus has reached out to heal each and every one. So why should we be surprised that when Jesus sees other kinds of suffering—in the case of the fishermen, economic injustice—he offers healing for that as well? Why should it astonish us or disturb us that Jesus sees those who are caught and offers them release? This text is often used as a conversation-starter about evangelism, fishing for people, bringing them to faith. And that is fair. But I think we can also read this text as being powerfully, profoundly about the moment Simon, James and John looked at the haul of fish—the seeming answer to their desperate efforts—and realized that they could be free. I think we can see here Jesus encountering the poorest, most marginalized people and saying, “I have another vision. I have another way, a way where there is plenty for all, and not just a few. Don’t be afraid. Follow me, and you are released from your bondage.” This story is about the radical act of refusing to be a victim of injustice, of walking away, of finding a new way to live.

This story from Luke’s gospel invites us to look hard at economic injustice. It invites us to look at it with the lenses provided by Jesus. I know the statistics are overwhelming, but what do we think of a world where 225 people have as much as another 2.5 billion? What do we think about living in a world where the privileged few have enough wealth, in the words of the inimitable Eddie Izzard, to make Solomon blush, while so many others are sharing the literal dregs of the world’s resources? We can look with Jesus’ lenses. And we can approach this terrible problem as Jesus approached it. Jesus didn’t hold out his arms—as he could have, with the power at his command—he didn’t hold out his arms and declare everyone in the whole world healed. He addressed pain and suffering the same way we can, one person, one encounter, one decision at a time. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be overwhelmed. But don’t forget.

It is a short step from leaving the boats to gathering around the table. What did Jesus give us, more than anything, to remind us of our connection to one another? He gave us this table. He gave us the simple meal that graces it… bread, the fruit of the vine…the gifts of God for the people of God, all the people of God. He gave us his own life for our nourishment, to remind us that, as we share that life, we share responsibility for one another. He caught us, caught us up in the net of his love so that we might be released into this hurting world with this good news in our hearts, on our lips, and in our actions. Amen.


Photo courtesy of Jibba Jabba and Flickr.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Flesh and Spirit

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.
~ Ephesians 6:7-9

There is a lot of talk in the blogosphere these days about weight loss programs. RevGals in particular have lots to say about their efforts in this area. (One of the reasons I joined this group was the deliciously wry sense of humor demonstrated above). This issue is such a pointed one for women, in particular. The sad truth is that men can still get away with carrying excess weight from a societal standpoint. (It appears none of us can "get away" with it from a medical one.) And the role of female minister can be enmeshed with a maternal role that excess weight seems to feed into (pardon the expression).

What strikes me as I do my own work in this area is the way in which passages like the one from Ephesians (today's lectionary) seems to come at the whole thing from both hopelessly harmful and hopefully helpful angles at the same time.

No one is interested in hanging onto the old hellenistic mind/body dualism. If our faith was planted with Abraham and Sarah's offspring then we receive in our spiritual genes a conviction that the created world (our bodies included) is good, and that the spirit and flesh are one. What I dislike about the way Paul phrases this is that he pits the spirit and the flesh against one another, when nothing could be further from the truth. When we honor our bodies we simultaneously honor what animates them, and the one who created them. Likewise, when we abuse our bodies (whether that is with sugar or alcohol or nicotine or any one of the myriad substances at our disposal) we similarly dishonor our animating spirit. They are one, they can't be separated.

And vice versa. When we honor the spirit... when we attend to our connection to the Divine, for example, and when we feed our spirits with beauty, meditation, peace... then something happens with our bodies. This is the genius of 12-step work. Everybody finds their way into the various Anonymous meetings because their addiction is killing them, one way or another. And they leave, if they attend to the true message of the program, armed with a spiritual solution to what they had previously seen as a material problem.

Some Buddhist monks and nuns, before each meal, recite the following prayer, called by some the Five Intentions, or the Five Contemplations.

This food is the gift of the whole universe—the earth, the sky, and much hard work. May we live in a way that is worthy of this food. May we transform our unskillful states of mind, especially that of greed. May we eat only foods that nourish us and prevent illness. May we accept this food for the realization of the way of understanding and love.

This is my prayer for all of us: that we accept nourishment from the earth to further in us the way of understanding and love.

But one quick question: does this pulpit make my butt look big?

Thursday, February 01, 2007


I have now had more than a full week "unescorted" at the university, as the chaplain for a joint ministry of several mainline denominations. While I have by no means figured it all out, I am rapidly settling into the rhythm of the place. In many ways this work is more focused that the work I've done as an interim pastor. Mostly, that's because this is part-time and I can't realistically attempt to do what the permanent full time chaplain does in my 24 hours. So I focus on what is manageable and necessary for the moment: worship/ preaching. The weekly fellowship, including dinner and speakers/ leaders. Connecting with students. That is basically it. There are hundreds of little details in need of coordination, and I am on top of some of them. But mine is not the fundraising task, nor is it the long-term visioning of the place. Mine, rather, is an exquisite exercise in presence: being in the present, and being present.

It is fascinating rubbing elbows all day with people in the same peer group as Larry-O. I confess: it is a little like eavesdropping, I imagine, on his life. Though none of the students I've met are theater wonks. I have had some amazing conversations. I have heard about their academic anxieties. (A lot.) I have heard about their hopes for our shared ministry. (A little.) I have heard about relationships, not at all. (Yet.) (This doesn't strike me as odd. I would think that would be the last frontier in terms of trust.) I have heard about families. (Again, a little).

Happiest moment so far: being invited to brunch in the dining hall after worship Sunday, traipsing across the snowy campus in my collar and good "Sunday" coat in a chattering group of about a dozen. Funniest moment during lunch: I was blathering about the fact that we have communion coming up this Sunday, and I asked (basically knowing the answer) whether it was the tradition there to use grape juice or wine. I watched as, lightning-fast, glances were exchanged around the table, and about six students said, sounding like a Greek chorus, "juice." And we all cracked up. They'd thought about it.

Thanks to foreverdigit and Flickr for the photo.