Friday, June 29, 2007

Writing Like a Girl

I want to thank you all so much... from the bottom of my heart... for your good and kind words, celebrating my new call with me.

What a girlie sentence that was.

I have recently discovered this website. Using an algorithm developed by a couple of university professors of linguistics, the "gender genie" makes very reliable predictions about the gender of the author of any text which is typed or pasted into a box on the webpage.

I went to gender genie, and I pasted in a blog posting. Result: female. I used female-signifying words (such as "I," "you," and "she") twice as frequently as I used male-signifying words (such as "the," "that," and "these"). I pasted another blog post in: same exact result. By a two to one ratio, my blog writing is overwhelmingly female.

Except, for some reason, I had a hunch about something. I went and found a sermon of mine, and pasted that in. Result: male. Again, by about a two-to-one margin. I got another sermon and tried again. Same thing. At this point I was hooting and hollering and talking aloud to myself. "Oh my... !" "What the...? " "Holy....!"

Then I remembered that for Easter this year I wrote a sermon in the first person, from the perspective of one of the women at the tomb. I pasted this in. Result: female, but by only the tiniest margin. A handful of words made the difference.

Now, I am just stunned by this. I am stunned that the language I use for preaching is so clearly not my native tongue. And I am really wondering how this came to be. Is this the inevitable result of theological education? Have I unconsciously absorbed some kind of sexism? Is this the result of nearly 2000 years of preaching by men almost exclusively... have we received a tradition that is overwhelmingly male in expression as well as in content?

The RevGals have questions in today's Friday Five about personality tests... I realize that one should not put all one's faith in something so... well, arbitrary, perhaps, so artificial. But I am really, really interested in this question. And I am very interested in preaching... well, not like a girl, but certainly, like myself. I have always been under the impression that I brought my own voice into the pulpit. Does this mean I am not doing that?

So, any readers who are similarly interested in these questions: I invite you to go to the gender genie (link above) and tell me your results. Are you preaching like the gender you are? And what do you think about that?

Thursday, June 28, 2007


I have a call.

I was called after church on Sunday by a search committee with whom I have been in conversation for several months. They have been coming, two or three at a time, to hear me preach in various locations (I have several months scheduled doing pulpit supply). I hadn't exactly given up, but I was aware that they had a couple of folks they considered strong candidates; they had told me they had a "very difficult" decision to make.

I guess they made it! I have been asked to be pastor of a church, just a few miles from my home, with which I feel much connection. They are progressive, they are mission-minded, they are eager for adult education opportunities. They want someone to walk with them and they've decided I am that pastor.

If you had told me when I left seminary I'd spend four years doing interim work, I'd have said that you were mad, mad I tell you! I wanted so much to find a congregation, fall in love, settle down and get married to them. Well. That was not to be. God, evidently, had a bunch of other stuff in mind for me... getting interim training years one and two, working with a congregation in crisis, working with another congregation in deep conflict, and finding a passion for campus ministry were all things I needed to do first. And now that I have done those things, a church that feels pretty nigh perfect comes along, and decides I am the gal they want to be their next rev (their first woman pastor, with the exception of a short term interim).

I should say this: it doesn't feel like flowers and rainbows and falling in love. It feels like a couple of older and wiser folks understanding the things people need to get along for the duration. I have learned that flowers and rainbows and love are not the feelings I feel when a pastoral call is in the offing... just hasn't happened that way for me.

So here I am, all grown up and gettin' my own church. ("My baby's all grown up and savin' China!") So. Yay. YAY! I'm jumping for joy.

Photo courtesy of Flickr and biglake brian.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Possession: a Sermon for for Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Psalm 42; Luke 8:26-39
June 24, 2007

One thing people learn pretty quickly about my children and me is this: we absolutely adore the movies. We love new films. We scour the reviews and wait for the movies that sound wonderful, and then we see them, and then we endlessly debate their finer points as well as their disappointments after the fact. We love old films. We rent and purchase them and have theme-inspired film festivals and wax nostalgic for stars who were dead even before some of us were born. We love the movies.

This week I finally sat down with my son to watch a film he’d been trying to get me to see for a while. [This is not a necessarily pastoral recommendation.] “28 Days Later.” For those of you unfamiliar with it, this has been described as a “post-apocalyptic science fiction horror film.” It’s about a highly infectious virus that causes people to be filled with a horrible rage, making them incredibly violent, committing murder and mayhem. The infected people look like zombies, with red eyes and no language except for horrible screams and grunts. It’s absolutely terrifying. These people are possessed—possession by virus—and in the world of the film, they are utterly evil and have to be destroyed.

As I pondered the movie I remembered another movie about possession, a Denzel Washington film called “Fallen.” In that film a demon possesses both human beings and animals, traveling from creature to creature in order to, again, cause them to become incredibly violent, committing murder and mayhem.

Scientific and rational as our society supposes itself to be, we are still fascinated by evil. Evil is clearly real: we see its effects in our world every day. And I think it’s important for us to recognize that human beings have been trying to explain evil for as long as evil has existed… which, apparently, is pretty much from the beginning. In one of the films I have mentioned, the outbreak of evil is explained by science—it is a virus that has broken loose that causes all the murder and mayhem. In the other film, the outbreak of evil is explained by religion. It is the devil who causes all the murder and mayhem.

Of course, our gospel text for today is about Jesus’ encounter with a particular man possessed by demons. When we read about demon possession in scripture, I wonder what we think. I will confess that, more often than not, I look to a scientific explanation to for demon possession. I tend to imagine that the man who is described by Luke as being possessed by demons was probably a victim of schizophrenia, perhaps someone suffering from multiple personality disorder. But I recognize that in Jesus’ day, people didn’t think about things like blood chemistry and major mental illness when confronted with someone who was clearly not in his right mind. People in Jesus’ day looked at a man like this and said, “The demons have him.” And I also recognize that we have to be careful what we claim to believe and not to believe. C. S. Lewis said, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was in convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

With that in mind, I believe it’s always a good idea to read this kind of story on its own terms, to understand as best we can the worldview that informs it. And one thing we can say with confidence about this passage is that it’s not about the question of whether the devil is responsible for possession or whether there is some other scientific, medical explanation. Demon possession is a given for Jesus and all first century Palestinian Jews. So, given that, what is this passage ultimately about? What is the good news to be found in this selection from the gospel of Luke?

I think the first thing we need to see, which Luke depicts so vividly, is the absolute devastation of the man’s life. He is a vision of loss, of misery, of disconnectedness from community. He has lived for a long time, Luke tells us, naked, among the tombs. Tombs were places that were unclean according to Jewish practice, so we know that the man is cut off from his community: no one would want to become unclean by associating with him. The man has been living like an animal, needing to be guarded and shackled, presumably to protect either himself or others. But his bursts of seemingly superhuman strength—the strength of the demons, mind you, not the man—can cause him to break his chains, and allow him to escape into the wilds. The man is a picture of devastation, of ruin. In his day and age, for those like him, there is little or no hope.

Along comes Jesus—fresh off the boat, our text tell us, the boat in which he rebuked the waves, and calmed the stormy seas. Here is Jesus, of whom the disciples are, right now, asking one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” [Luke 8:25] The demons know who Jesus is. The man falls to the ground at the sight of Jesus, and screams, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” The demons know they have met their match. Jesus asks the demons their name, and the response is one chilling word: “Legion.”

Jesus and the man possessed by demons live in occupied territory. The Roman Empire dominates most of the known world, and ancient Palestine is all too familiar with signs of Roman presence—well made roads to allow the flow of trade and aqueducts to enable irrigation go hand in hand with countless crucifixes lining those well made roads, and legions of Roman soldiers. A Roman legion was composed of five or six thousand men.

When asked their name, the demons said, “Legion.”

The story we are reading this morning has been set up as a battle of powers. The tremendous, destructive power of the legions of demons, inhabiting this man’s body and soul, are being pitted against the power of Jesus, Son of the Most High God, of whom it has been said, “Who is this, that even the winds and the water obey him?” This is a story about the power of God, expressed in Jesus, confronting the power of evil, expressed in the demons, wreaking havoc in the life of one, poor human being. From the moment Jesus comes on the scene, the demons know that whatever happens to them is within his control. They beg him to be permitted to go into a herd of swine—another image, for Jews, of uncleanness—and they end off careening down a steep embankment and drowning themselves. Possession ends, for the swine, as it does in the movies I’ve been watching with my family—with violence, murder—swine murder, at any rate—and mayhem.

I’ve never met anyone who claims to have been possessed by a demon or demons, as our scripture understands possession. But I do know people who are and have been “possessed” by other kinds of demons—people who suffer from addiction, to all kinds of activities and substances. There are currently 12-Step Programs to help people to recover from addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling, debt, and dozens of other painful and debilitating conditions. And I personally know people whose struggles with these addictions are certainly matters of life and death, matters of trying to end a cycle of doing violence to themselves, struggles with powers that feel, at times, superhuman.

And do you know what people in those 12-step programs say, each and every time they get together to advance their recovery just a little further? They say the 12 Steps. Here are the first three:

1. We admitted we were powerless over [the substance or activity], and that our lives were unmanageable.
2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

In this consummately scientific and rational age, there is hardly a doctor or a psychologist or a social worker who does not refer addicts to twelve step programs. It’s not that science has given up on seeking to find other interventions and cures. But science, at least in the area of addiction has, for about the last 70 years, has come to admit that it is powerless… but that 12-Step recovery programs, with their emphasis on, God, are not.

Jesus, filled with the power of God, confronts the demons. Clearly God is the higher power. The witnesses to this amazing event run off to inform all the locals about what they have seen, and when they return with the locals, they find the man, in his right mind, clothed, sitting at Jesus’ feet. “Sitting at Jesus’ feet” is another way of saying, the man is now a disciple. Not only is back in his right mind, he is ready to learn what Jesus has to teach. The man who was possessed by the legion of demons has given his heart into the possession of God.

It’s telling to see how the locals react. Their response to this display of God’s power in Jesus is terror. They don’t have any way to incorporate it into their understanding of how the world works, and they’d rather not think about it any longer. So they ask Jesus to leave and never come back As for the man, he asks to be with Jesus—to follow him and continue to learn from him, to join with his band of disciples. But Jesus has another plan for the man. For this man, formerly the image of devastation and loss, Jesus has another commission. Jesus tells him, Go home. Go back to the people who rejected you when you were possessed and show them the marvelous, mysterious power of God that possesses you now.

This is a story about a battle of powers. One power is determined to isolate, to fragment, to devastate. It turns the human being into a miserable object, capable only of violence and mayhem. It cuts off the individual from family, from community, from love. We can explain this power however we like—we can turn to science, we can turn to the social sciences, we can turn to scripture. But we have to recognize that this power is real.

There is another power, and this is the greater, the higher, the Most High power. It is the power of God. And this power is determined to heal, to make whole, to knit back together what was torn apart. This power makes the human being more fully human—capable of rational discourse, thirsty for knowledge, ready for love. This power brings the individual back into the human family—whether that is the literal family of birth, or the fellowship of other believers. There is really only one way to explain this power: it’s the power of God. And it may work in us in the rooms of 12-step recovery, or through the fellowship and learning of a bible study. It may do its work in the action of being baptized or in the gathering around the table of the Lord’s Supper. And who among us can say it is not God’s work when we receive healing at the hands of a skilled surgeon or a gentle marriage counselor? God’s power to knit back together what was broken takes many forms, but we know it by its fruits: healing, restoration to community, readiness to be a disciple.

God wants to be with us in our battles against our demons, however we understand them. And for our part, as we experience healing, we are commissioned to declare how much God has done for us. Amen.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Friday Five: Hot Times, Summer in the City...

[Posted by ReverendMother over at RevGalBlogPals]

...or town, or suburb, or hamlet, or burg, or unincorporated zone, or rural area of your choice---pretty much anywhere but the southern hemisphere, it's summer. (Australians and others, consider this an invitation to take a break from winter for a while.)

1. Favorite summer food(s) and beverage(s)

I have just pulled the silky threads from 6 ears of sweet summer corn, locally grown. That has to be one. Strawberries and blueberries as they come into season here-- there are a couple more. Ice cream. Fresh flounder caught by my brother and fried up in a big mess. Fresh-picked tomatoes that really taste like tomatoes. Cold, soft, slightly oaky Chardonnay. Also, burgers, steaks and salmon on the grill. Fresh veggies on the grill (Reverend Dona Quixote! Go to her blog immediately for a recipe). And fresh pineapple on the grill. And pesto made with all that wonderful fresh basil.

2. Song that "says" summer to you. (Need not be about summer explicitly.)

Heidi Talbot's Summer's Gone... Petra and I listened to that album over and over as we drove to rehearsals for Ruddigore three summers ago... The whole thing says Summer to me, but that song especially.

...Still those tales are all I've had
Since your sails rose high that morn

Your last words drift on every wave

"I'll be back before summer's gone
I'll be back before summer's gone."

The thing about the song is, it's a lament, but a rather cheerful one. It's a sailor's hornpipe, and the singer knows better than to have expected anything else. It's mournful and knowing and winking at the same time...

3. A childhood summer memory

In the ocean, every day, from 10 AM until 5 PM, diving, tumbling, riding the waves, getting sunburned, taking a break to have a peanut butter sandwich, counting to 600 (10 minutes) aloud so that we could get back into the water as soon as possible, building sandcastles, just being, in that water, those waves. Such joy!

4. An adult summer memory

Same summer as in the music answer, sitting in the backyard of our director after rehearsal, drinking water to rehydrate on a hot sticky night, then gathering around a bonfire as the breezes rose.

5. Describe a wonderful summer day you'd like to have in the near future. (weather, location, activities)

I'd like to go to an outdoor concert in a wonderful location where I can picnic. Day warm, with a breeze coming up in the evening (pretty standard around here except for about two weeks in July). I would take with me fabulous chicken salad with walnuts and grapes, and Indonesian rice salad (from the original Moosewood cookbook!), a blackberry-cinnamon coffeecake, a bottle of chardonnay, and a big, soft blanket to sit on. Then I would lie back and listen to the music under the stars.

Optional: Does your place of worship do anything differently in the summer? (Fewer services, casual dress, etc.)

I'm not serving a church at present, but most every church I know (in my denomination) does make summer-time adjustments-- earlier services, different communion ritual, an outdoor service or two, joint services with other churches. A couple of summers ago I departed from the lectionary to do a sermon series called "Beach Reading" in which I brought some best-sellers into conversation with scripture texts of my choosing. I fully intend to do that again, I had so much fun with it!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

Since A Year Favorable asks, I thought I'd publish here something very close to my heart: the PCUSA's "Brief Statement of Faith." It was written in response to the 1983 reunion of the Northern and Southern denominations (UPCUSA and PCUS) which had split in the run-up to the Civil War more than a hundred years earlier.

There are those who will point out that it's not exactly, well, "brief," as advertised. To which I reply, have you read the Westminster Catechism?

When I use it in worship, I usually choose the first part, followed by one of the three main sections, followed by the concluding doxology.

It makes my heart sing.


In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve.

We trust in Jesus Christ,
fully human, fully God.
Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:
preaching good news to the poor
and release to the captives,
teaching by word and deed
and blessing the children,
healing the sick
and binding up the brokenhearted,
eating with outcasts,
forgiving sinners,
and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.
Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition,
Jesus was crucified,
suffering the depths of human pain
and giving his life for the sins of the world.
God raised this Jesus from the dead,
vindicating his sinless life,
breaking the power of sin and evil,
delivering us from death to life eternal.

We trust in God,
whom Jesus called Abba, Father.
In sovereign love God created the world good
and makes everyone equally in God’s image,
male and female, of every race and people,
to live as one community.
But we rebel against God; we hide from our Creator.
Ignoring God’s commandments.
we violate the image of God in others and ourselves,
accept lies as truth,
exploit neighbor and nature,
and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.
We deserve God’s condemnation.
Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.
In everlasting love,
the God of Abraham and Sarah chose a covenant people
to bless all families of the earth.
Hearing their cry,
God delivered the children of Israel
from the house of bondage.
Loving us still,
God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant.
Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child,
like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home,
God is faithful still.

We trust in God the Holy Spirit,
everywhere the giver and renewer of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the Church.
The same Spirit
who inspired the prophets and apostles
rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,
engages us through the Word proclaimed,
claims us in the waters of baptism,
feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calls women and men to all ministries of the Church.
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit,
we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks
and to live holy and joyful lives,
even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth,
praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

With believers in every time and place,
we rejoice that nothing in life or in death
can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen

I Really Do Dig Jesus

I have been tagged by A Year Acceptable for the Five Things I Dig About Jesus meme...

I am excited about this. I really DO dig Jesus. I was shocked, not too long after my ordination, to learn that another pastor with whom I worked closely assumed I held a "low" Christology/ theology of Jesus simply because of my seminary. (It is true that, at the time I attended, the front page of the seminary website said "The Church's rule-breaker for over 150 years." It was a deep regret of mine that the seminary backed off that claim-- it was, in my view, utterly prophetic.)

But Anywho, back to Jesus. I shared (I believe I sputtered) with aforementioned pastor that, indeed, I held that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One of God, and that I can say the words of our statements of faith without crossing my fingers. And, contrary to that pastor's expectations, the things I dig and believe about Jesus are the underpinnings to my progressive theology.

So here are the rules:

1. Those tagged will share 5 Things They Dig About Jesus.
2. Those tagged will tag 5 people.
3. Those tagged will leave a link to their meme in the comments section of this post so everyone can keep track of what's being posted.

And here are 5 of the Things I TRULY Dig About Jesus:

1. I dig that I can dig and dig and learn and experience more and more of the truth of who Jesus is... that Jesus is like a Zen koan, bottomless in meaning and a window into the deepest, most unfathomable mysteries.

2. I dig the way in which Jesus challenged the religious authorities of his day, to recognize that all God's commands boil down to two, and that anything that prohibits us from living out those two is not of God.

3. I dig the way in which Jesus constantly allied himself with the "least of these." Our Brief Statement of Faith says it so beautifully:

Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:
preaching good news to the poor

and release to the captives,
teaching by word and deed
and blessing the children,

healing the sick

and binding up the brokenhearted,

eating with outcasts,
forgiving sinners,
and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.

I truly believe this is the gospel-- this, right here, is what Jesus calls us to do. Can you dig it?

4. I dig that women were the primary witnesses to the resurrection, and that Mary Magdalene was the apostola apostolorum, apostle to the apostles. I think this was so subversive that people are still arguing over its ramifications for ministry (if they aren't ignoring it entirely because of its... ahem... inconvenient truth.

5. I dig that Jesus loved to gather around a table with people-- people he knew and people he didn't-- and that this gathering is the primary prophetic action with which he entrusted us (yes, in my view, even moreso than baptism). It is in this gathering that we attempt to live out the mandate of #4.

So there you have it, friends... five things I dig about Jesus.

MoreCows, Little Mary, Suzer, Knittin' Preacher, and Sally, you're it. I look forward to hearing what you dig!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Good Tired

I have just returned home from a rehearsal in which Larry-O and I blocked our big number and our two scenes of dialogue.

Here's the setup. Katisha (yours truly) is "an elderly lady" who has her sites set on Nanki-Poo (the hot young tenor). But due to the kinds of ridiculous and improbable plotting for which W. S. Gilbert is famous, Ko-Ko (that's Larry) along with two other characters fakes Nanki-Poo's execution (something to do with the city being downsized and losing state funding because of a dearth of executions... seriously). Then, because they realize Nanki-Poo is the son of the Mikado (the Emperor) and killing him would be decidedly un-cool, they need to bring him back while preventing Katisha from getting her hands on him (otherwise, he's skipping town). So Ko-Ko must woo Katisha and win her. He sings a song about a bird killing itself for love ("Tit-Willow"), which does the trick: she falls for it/ him. Then she coyly asks, "You don't mind if I'm just a little teeny tiny wee bit bloodthirsty, do you?" He replies that bloodthirstiness is quite fetching, and they sing this little ditty.

There is beauty in the bellow of the blast
There is grandeur in the growling of the gale

There is eloquent outpouring when the lion is a-roaring

And the tiger is a-lashing of his tale...

A volcano has a splendour that is grim

And earthquakes only terrify the dolts

And for him who's scientific there is nothing that's terrific

In the falling of a flight of thunderbolts...

The director is blocking us as if we were in a Betty Boop cartoon... Larry is all arms and knees pumping and I am sort of vamping as if Betty were doing her Mae West impression. At the end of it all I pull him offstage with my arm around his neck, as if he were a drowning man being rescued from a pool.

The really fascinating thing is that Larry and I can do this scene, and really act it outrageously, and it's very funny and cartoonish. And then, with the other Katisha (for my part is double cast)... well, there is a very different feel. This young woman is actively flirting with him... and it works... and it's completely different, and also very funny, and it works, and I am so not doing it!

So I am cooling off with sparking water and cold strawberries, my voice just a little hoarse. It is a good kind of tired.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Spirit Matters: a Sermon for Pentecost Season

“Spirit Matters”
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:43-47
June 17, 2007

A few weeks ago the church celebrated Pentecost Sunday, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the early followers of Jesus. We Christians regard this as the birthday of the church, and celebrate it accordingly. I was privileged to spend Pentecost Sunday with my family at a local church where my daughter was being confirmed and received as an adult member of that congregation. The church was beautifully decorated with red and orange streamers that moved in the breeze, almost like flames. We had birthday cake at the coffee hour! It was a wonderful day.

But I think it’s a shame, really, that for much of the church, we think about the Holy Spirit only on Pentecost. To say the Spirit’s role is in the birth of the church, and then to simply leave it there, gives us an impoverished understanding of God. For the rest of the year, the third person of the Trinity gets short shrift, if you ask me. I was so delighted to see that this congregation recognizes the fact that it is still the season of Pentecost… we can still talk about the Holy Spirit! But that brings us to a great question: how do we understand the “Spirit?” What do we mean when we, people of faith, say, “Spirit?” And, more than that, why should we care?

Dictionary definitions don’t help much. Spirit is usually defined as “the incorporeal part of humans”—the part that’s got nothing to do with the body. When we talk to un-churched folks about the Spirit, sometimes the best we can hope for is something vague, something harmless… “It’s out there,” or “It’s about a feeling I have,” or, my particular favorite, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” By which it is usually meant that Sunday morning is spent at the Church of the Sunday Paper and Bagels… a great, church, by the way, as far as it goes. A dependable experience, with a little something for everyone. When I asked a non-churchgoing friend for a definition of spirit or spiritual, she replied, “That’s airy-fairy stuff.” She may as well have said, “Stuff that doesn’t matter, things that don’t have any relevance to my day to day existence.”

The witness of scripture tells quite a different story. Look with me at this morning’s reading from the prophet Ezekiel. This reading is dominated by the Hebrew word ruach—meaning spirit, wind or breath. Every time you see the words “spirit” or “wind” or “breath” in this passage, it is that same Hebrew word. And ruach as we experience it here is bold, powerful, active, body-oriented! It matters. It makes a difference, a difference of life and death.

Ezekiel is preaching to people in exile: people disoriented, cut off from the place they call home, cut off from their familiar leaders, cut off from the reassuring pattern of their life of worship. The prophet does not begin with words of reassurance. He spends the first 32 chapters of his book dismantling everything God’s people thought they knew for sure about God. He tells them, “You were wrong. You were wrong to expect God to go on mindlessly blessing your offerings and festivals. You were wrong to think you knew exactly who would be your leaders forever and ever. You were even wrong to think that your worship and your Temple were eternal. You were wrong to think the good old days would last.” Hard words.

By the time our passage begins, Ezekiel has finally been commissioned with a word of hope for the exiles. But to experience that hope, they first have to see clearly the reality of their situation. And so God gives Ezekiel a vision. The powerful hand of God comes upon the prophet, and by the ruach of God he finds himself in the valley of dry bones. There are a few modern day parallels we can invoke to understand the picture Ezekiel is painting: the killing fields of Cambodia, the mass graves of Auschwitz. For the exiles, they may have immediately conjured a memory of the killing fields of the Assyrians.

God tours Ezekiel around the bones, convincing him of their dryness—their deadness, their seeming beyond-all-help-ness. But when God asks, “Son of Adam, can these bones live?” Ezekiel knows better than to rule it out. And so God gives him this prophesy: Say to the bones, I will cause ruach to enter you, and you shall live… And there follows a noisy scene, a scene that’s the opposite of decomposing, a coming together of the bones and the sinews and the flesh that is, frankly, more "CSI" than “airy-fairy.” But still there is no ruach in the re-enfleshed bodies, so God tells Ezekiel, Prophesy to the ruach, son of Adam, say to the ruach, thus says the Lord God: come from the four winds—the four ruachot!— O ruach, and breathe-blow upon these slain, and they shall live. So says the Lord, and it is done.

This is the vision. Then God interprets the vision. Yes, God tells Ezekiel, these bones are the whole house of Israel—all my beloved chosen ones. And then God does something I don’t want us to gloss over. God tells Ezekiel what the people have been saying: they say,

Our bones are dried up
and our hope is lost;
we are cut off completely.

These words in the Hebrew make up a small triplet, a rhyming verse. They were probably sung or chanted by the exiles in their worship.

Yahvshu azmohteynu;
V’ahvdah tiqvahteynu;
Nigzahrnu lahnu.

Our bones are dried up
and our hope is lost;
we are cut off completely.

God hears. God says: I hear your laments, I hear your prayers. And here is my response: I will re-flesh your dry and parched bones, O my people and I will pour my spirit, my wind, my breath into you, and you will live. You will live.

One of the most important things we can do as people of faith is to engage in the sacred act of honest self-appraisal. We can look hard at our own situation—do our very best to see it clearly, like the exiles were able see their situation. How many of us feel, at times, that we are living in a kind of exile? How many of us are feeling disoriented, cut off from the places that have felt like home to us, cut off from our friends and families, cut off, even, from God, our very source?

When we are able to see clearly where we are, and we call out to God in our distress or isolation—just as honestly as the Hebrew people when they said, “Our hope is lost, we are cut off completely”—when we do this, there is room for the Spirit, the very breath of God to enter with power. The Spirit of God rushes in when we recognize the bare and painful truth of our need for God—when we open that space where we are able to admit that we cannot do it all ourselves. This is the truly good news in this passage: God hears our cries. This is what scripture tells us: “Spirit,” ruach, is not “airy-fairy” and separate from the body and remote and irrelevant. The Spirit matters. The work of the Spirit of God is the work of binding together weary flesh and dry, aching bones—yours and mine and our church’s. The action of the Spirit of God is earthy, and earthly—it is resurrection—resurrection now, in the form of new life and energy and joy. The power of God’s Spirit says, “You think you are beyond all hope. I know better.”

God wants us to be whole, not fragmented, body and spirit as one. But when we are feeling fragmented, cut off, or torn apart, God wants to be with us in our pain and distress. God wants us to call out—to pray, to sing, to share our fears and pains and joys. When we do, we open a space for the Spirit, who wants to bring us back from our exile and build us up into a living and thriving community—like that early group of Christians in the Acts of the Apostles. Remember what our passage says about them? They devote themselves to the teaching of the gospel and to fellowship, they share what they have, they break bread together. The Spirit is a powerful and ongoing reality of their lives together.

To say that the Spirit is present at the birth of the church, and then to simply leave the Spirit there and dismiss its role ever after, is a little like saying being a father is all about the act of conception. There is a role for a father to play there, to be sure. But being a father is about so much more—it is about being present, about recognizing a child’s needs and responding to them, about recognizing a child’s openness and teaching them. Being a father is a very flesh-and-bones activity—it is about picking up and holding, and binding up wounds and wiping away tears. And, yes, it is about changing diapers and feeding and all those earthy and earthly realities of basic human need. So it is with the Spirit. The Spirit helps us to recognize how very much we need one another, how we are just as connected to each other as the bones and sinews of our bodies are connected, as parents and children are connected. Thanks be to God, who holds us together, body and spirit, in this earthy and earthly reality of our lives. Thanks be to God who, when we feel like we are falling apart, gives us the power of prayer and fellowship, the blessed ties that bind us back together. Amen.

Photo courtesy of Flickr and (nz)dave.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Friday (but really Saturday) Five: books, books, books

This from Sally, who has just returned from a meeting in Cambridge where she took the opportunity of a free afternoon in Cambridge's wonderful book shops... she claims only to have bought a few!

So with her head full of books she's seen and a long wish list in her mind, she brings us a Friday Five on books... which I'm getting to at 7:15 on a Saturday morning...!

1. Fiction what kind, detective novels, historical stuff, thrillers, romance????

I actually am quite the fiction omnivore... I adore the classics-- Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are particular favorites. I love the breadth of their narratives, the details of description in which I can completely lose myself. I also love contemporary writers... Barbara Kingsolver is dependably wonderful, with her luscious descriptive and spiritually charged prose. I also really dig Jim Crace, who has written two really strange and challenging novels, Being Dead (about the bodies of a couple who were murdered decomposing in the woods while their families search for them) and Quarantine, an imaginative retelling of Jesus' days in the wilderness (neither of these is for the faint of heart). And the religiously themed, gorgeously written novels of Gail Godwin are favorites too.

I have been reading the detective novels of P. D. James for about 25 years at least; I spent the months immediately following my separation from my husband reading about murders being deciphered and deconstructed by the tragic poet Adam Dalgliesh. I also really got into a Kay Scarpetta novel (by Patricia Cornwell) when I was in a traveling nightmare last January; I seem to like to lose myself in murders when it seems a better option that actually putting my hands around another human being's throat.

As for historical fiction, I fell in love with the Dorothy Dunnett books about 10 years ago... I read through the Lymond Chronicles (set in the time of Mary Queen of Scots) and have recently read the first two of the Niccolo Rising serie

And of course, there's the book which must not be named, whose arrival I await on my sidebar and in this post.

2. When you get a really good book do you read it all in one chunk or savour it slowly?

Depends on the book. I am reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith (an updated homage to Howard's End... taking on race, campus politics... so, so amazing), and find that I am savoring it. The Harry Potter books I tend to devour whole, like a snake eating an elephant. As a result, I need to re-read them at a more leisurely pace when the next one is about to come out. I want to savor book 7, but also realize that the whole world will be buzzing with the ending (much as the Sopranos finale has been so hotly debated), and it will be hard to shield myself from all that.

3. Is there a book you keep returning to and why?

I have struggled with this answer. I think the books I tend to re-read are the classic fiction, Austen and Dickens, because in their scope they hold up so well to constant re-examination. But the truth is... I want the new stuff. I love, love, love reading new things that thrill me.

4. Apart from the Bible which non-fiction book has influenced you the most?

This would probably be some kind of biblical commentary... Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time is a book I teach as often as people will let me, and so I end up re-reading it quite a bit. The work of Luke Timothy Johnson was a real revelation for me in grad school 20 years ago. Phyllis Trible was on the faculty of my seminary, but left just before I arrived-- but I had read Texts of Terror years before. The New Interpreter's Bible keeps me coming back for more. I guess contemporary scripture scholarship has influenced me enormously... it has enabled me to open the bible win a way that offers endless possibility and discovery. So... not a book, but a movement, I suppose!

5. Describe a perfect place to read. ( could be anywhere!!!)

Thing is, I can read anywhere. But one of my favorite memories is of reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I was with Petra at our local park, which has a nice swimming pool. While she romped in the water, I sat on a quilt under a tree and escaped into the wizarding world, a gentle breeze rustling the leaves above me. It was well-night a perfect reading experience...

Friday, June 15, 2007


Last night (actually, this morning at about 6) I dreamed I was moderating a session meeting at a beautiful beach house in a town not far from where I grew up. My best friend Jennifer and I used to ride our bike to "the point" in this town, a rocky man-made jetty that marked an inlet between the Atlantic Ocean and the inland waterway. We used to take picnic lunches there on weekends, when I was just about Petra's age, and we used to imagine that would be the coolest, most romantic thing we could think of to do with anybody. We made plans!

In my dream I was at a meeting in a house that had a view of the ocean and the point, and the house was for sale-- so realtors and customers were roaming around, not to mention the elders who were supposed to be working with me on the business of the church (exactly which church, I have no idea). Part of the work of the church had to do with the sale of the house-- maybe it was a manse! I was trying to get everyone back to our meeting room-- a gorgeous dining room with an ornate purple ceiling-- and disturbing everyone, evidently, with my yelling. "Like herding cats," I heard myself growl.

I have a feeling this is what our good director felt like at last night's rehearsal of The Mikado. We were all supposed to be off book for Act 1 (yeah, right, and I only appear in the finale!). We were a bunch of tired-warm-Thursday-night people, and we were joking and laughing and poking fun at one another's lapses. I for example, completely lost the seccond verse of my screed against Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, which is supposed to go something like this:

Pink cheek, that rulest where wisdom serves! Bright eye, that foolest Heroic nerves! Rose lip, that scornest lore-laden years! Smooth tongue, who warnest that rightly hears! Thy doom is nigh, Pink cheek, bright eye! Thy knell is rung, Rose lip, smooth tongue!

And so on. Instead, I barked a couple of random facial features, interlaced with "La La La La!" I give myself credit for not stopping the flow of the scene. My dear director gave me no such leeway. Oh, he was mad at us, a bunch of great big kittens, running amok.

Thing is, I remember the ending of my dream. I decided I wanted the house. I wanted it more than anything, that amazing view, that slice of a childhood dream, purple ceiling or not. And I was in tears, because I couldn't get anyone to focus on the work at hand with me, which I knew would result in my being able to realize my dream.

I am going to be very, very good at rehearsal tonight.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Friday Five: Getaway Island Edition

Posted at RevGalBlogPals by Cathy...

Perhaps you have had this opportunity to escape, or maybe it's only been a thought to get away. However, suppose you were told to pack some essentials for a trip to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Describe your location, in general or specific terms...

I am torn between a couple of different kinds of islands. I have spent time on islands in the northeast US... Peak's Island in Casco Bay, Maine; Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts... but I think for my fantasy getaway, I'm thinking... Kona... or whatever Hawaiian island is the least populated by tourists. I went to Hawaii with my mom when I was 12, and I loved the outer islands... black volcanic sand beaches, watching pods of whales swimming while we ate our dinner on a veranda, rainforests, the feel of 12 foot waves throwing me around...


1) What book(s) will you bring?

I always bring my bible (though I don't always read it). On my pile of recent purchases/ gifts: Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor, The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren, What Would Jesus Buy by Reverend Billy, Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, Grace (Eventually) by Anne Lamott.

2) What music accompanies you?

Let's see... for an island experience, I'm thinking Putumayo Presents "Mali"; Noe Venable, "The World is Bound By Secret Knots"; Indigo Girls "Shaming of the Sun"; "Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood" soundtrack; and Gipsy Kings "The Best of the Gipsy Kings."

3) What essentials of everyday living must you take (as in the health and beauty aids aisle variety)?

Sunscreen (Irish/ Brazilian ancestry: I still burn); hot oil treatment for my soon-to-be sun-damaged hair; West Indian Lime cologne; Estee Lauder Beyond Paradise body lotion (I'm gonna smell goooooood).

4) What technological gadgets if any, will you take with you or do you leave it all behind?

Leave it all behind.

5) What culinary delights will you partake in while there?

I had pineapple for the first time in my life in Hawaii... I still remember the sweet shock of it. That, hearts of palm salad, grilled everything (fish mostly) and umbrella drinks, my friends, umbrella drinks.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

As Inclusive as God's Grace

Sorry for the long silence... I have been struggling with a back strain that makes sitting in a chair the most painful option in the many options of what to do with my body, so there has been no blogging for me.

But I do want to take a moment to point you to something happening in my denomination of which I am so, so proud. A NYC-based organization called Presbyterian Welcome tries to live into this vision:

As followers of Christ, convinced by Scripture and the Reformed tradition, we envision a world as inclusive as God's grace and a church where God's call to service is affirmed in all persons.

Oh, can I get an AMEN?

Anywho, this lovely group is hosting a bunch of LGBTQ persons experiencing God's call to ministry for a retreat (I believe they do this every year), and they have a blog, Queer Presbyterians. I have it on good authority (or maybe it says it in the blog) that any supportive comments will be collected and read to the group each morning.

You know what to do.

Image snatched from Whitman College website.... thanks!