Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I Love It

Halloween. Oh, how I love it. I love the scary music (Bach Tocatta and Fugue, anyone?). I love the scary stories. I love that my neighbors have put up a coffin, and a hanged man, and a ghost in varying positions on their lawn. I love escaping into some other identity, feeling the spookiness of it all. Just for tonight.

I read this column last night, by Cary Tennis of Salon Magazine. Someone asked a question about a teenager who wanted to dress "slutty." I wish that hadn't been the question that prompted this answer. I love this answer for other reasons. There is a time and a place to talk about young women and how they value themselves, and what it means to them to show a lot of flesh. So, for that question, I wish this hadn't been the answer, and the closer he gets to that particular issue, the less comfortable I am. But this is the answer to my other Halloween questions, my adult Halloween questions. So I share it with you here.

Dude, it's Halloween.

People wear costumes. It's pretend. It's I Think That's My Boss in the Bustier and Garters Ween. It's Hallo Hookers and Sluts Live in the Hearts of All Righteous and True Women Ween.

Let us sing a song of Halloween. An ancient incantation. Here are words for us to sing.

It's time for all that's repressed to rise from its graveyard and flout its slutty self, for everything frightening to scare us, for everything attractive to fill us with desire, for everything hidden to be seen and shared, for everything strange to seem normal once again, for everything insane to be understood, for everything unbearable to be borne, for everything unhearable to be heard.

If any lines are going to be crossed, any untoward word said, any strange vision appear, any unthinkable thought be thought, any unbreakable rule be broken, any impossible fences be climbed, any clothes be shed, any roles be exchanged, any vows be suspended, any treaties be sealed, any enemies see themselves in each other, any false friends see their falseness, let it be done on Halloween.

It's a night to praise our ancestors burned for being witches. It's a night to bless our ancestors imprisoned for being anarchists and hung for being black and tortured for being gay and sneered at for being strange and blacklisted for being communist and shunned for being lame and shut in for being blind and cursed for being devilish and frozen out for being warm. It's a night for the fucked up and fucked over and fucked around to get back and get even and get over and get well.

It's just one night. For just one night we let go of our precious, obsessional hold. We let go of the ringing cash register and the heavy, silent till. We let go of the obsessional ledger written in that obsessional, speed-freak hand. We let go of the hourly wage recorded with a clunk and a clang on endless yellow timecards. We let go of the minuscule raise that we hardly even want. We let go of our computation and our consultation and the tiny hateful things we control the rest of the year.

We Protestants let go of our righteousness and virtue, we pagans let go of our orchestrated coolness, we Catholics let go of our crushed erotic saints and we Jews let go of whatever it is that binds us and drives us into the desert. Whatever it is that won't let us sing and dance, we let go on Halloween.

For one night we stop. We stop being executives. We stop being cops. We stop being artists and we stop being salesmen. We stop being editors and we stop being kings. We stop with the puffing and the huffy huff huff. We stop with the glad-handing and back-slapping and the promises of call-backs never to be made. We stop with the tickets and stop with the bail. We stop with the judging and sending to jail. We stop our bitching and moaning and at midnight we think about death.

Death. Here it comes in costume down the street. Death as the reaper. Death as the white sheet of insubstantial memory. Death as the bloody car crash victim. Death as the maggoty corpse risen from the grave. Death as the headless horseman riding his cliché. Death in all the forms we can imagine it in save the one form that resists all our fiercest imagining, the one form in which it forever hides its truth.

Snap out of it. Sit on the curb and try to sober up. Think about death, how soon it will come. Think about your breath: How many are left? Count your coupons and your change. How many are left?

Think about your feet. Think about the night. Think about the nurses and the schoolgirls. Think about your mother and the strap. Think about the birthing and the screams. Think about the screams in the graveyard and the maternity ward. Think about the bullshit, how you'd like to rise above it. Think about being 16. Think about facing George Bush from when you were 9 to when you are 16. Can you imagine what it's like to be 16 today? What hope is there? What dreams? What possibilities? Let her dress like a slut if she wants.

That's why we do it. That's why we pretend. The real thing we can't handle. The real thing is too much. So we pretend.

Dude, it's Halloween.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Thank God! A Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

“Thank God!”
Luke 18:9-14
October 28, 2007

Oh my friends. What a double bind we find ourselves in this morning. Again, we are listening to the words of Jesus, telling us a parable. Again, Luke gives us a rather broad hint in the first verse as to the subject matter of the parable. Again, the content of the parable is prayer. Again, the two main characters of the parable are as different from one another as can be. Again, an undercurrent of justice flows through the parable, capable of bearing us away to some entirely new place! But this is a different parable, too. Let’s meet our main characters.

First, we need to say a word about Pharisees. Pharisees have the reputation, especially in Luke’s gospel, of falling into that unfortunate category of religious hypocrites. They tend to be the moneyed class, the elite religious class, and that means that they have the means to observe the law in all its complexity, down to the tiniest stroke. I have shared with you in another sermon that complete observance of the law was out of the financial reach of the poor most of the time. They poor couldn’t afford the Temple offerings to be made ritually clean after illness, after childbirth, after the normal rigors of a life of labor. Not so the Pharisees. They thought of themselves as models of holiness and righteousness[1]… something made possible, in part, by their financial status.

Next, let’s have a word about tax collectors. If Pharisees were models of holiness and righteousness, tax collectors were models of a different kind: they were mostly thought of as models of greed, uncleanness and dishonesty.[2] Imagine the poor opinion most Americans have about our own system of taxation, and then add to that the fact that the tax collector was a member of the community, a son of Israel, working on behalf of the enemy, occupying nation. They worked for the Roman Empire making themselves rich off the misery of their own people. Tax collectors were traitors.

Both these men go to the Temple to lift their voices in prayer. And what a contrast we see. The Pharisee, we are told, is standing by himself… but really, in the Greek, we read that he is “praying to himself.’ Most likely, the Pharisee was saying a “berahkah,” a Hebrew prayer of blessing. These always begin in the same way: “Baruch atah Adonai, Elokeynu, melekh ha-olam” “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe, who has…” and then the blessing continues by naming that for which the person is giving thanks. Here, the Pharisee gives thanks that God did not make him like four different kinds of people he clearly thinks are inferior, including tax collectors… and he singles him out, maybe even points to him, that guy sitting in the back, very much alone. Instead, the Pharisee thanks God for giving him a heart for Jewish piety. He fasts. He tithes. In just these two areas he shows himself to be someone who not only obeys the law, but goes beyond it. By the tone of what he says, he reveals that he is pleased with the state of his religious observance. Thank God, he says. Thank God I’m not like other, lesser people.

Then Jesus turns our attention to the tax collector. But before we hear his words, Jesus paints a vivid picture with three brushstrokes. First the tax collector is standing far off, not at the center or front of the Temple where we assume the Pharisee stood. Second, he does not even raise his head as if to look towards heaven, but keeps it bowed. Third, he is beating his breast, an action signifying repentance. This is a snapshot of someone who is so filled with remorse or shame that he is wearing it visibly on his body. He utters just seven words. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” There is no pride in what he says. There is no pride in what he does. He looks down on no one except himself. And, Jesus tells us, he returns home that day justified, forgiven, restored to right relationship with God. Despite being a traitor. Despite being a truly despicable person. He goes home, a beloved child of God.

It seems simple enough, doesn’t it? The clear lesson is that we should be like the tax collector and not the Pharisee? But there is a danger in this parable. The danger is this: as soon as we hold the Pharisee and the tax collector up for our examination, as soon as we come to a conclusion about which of these is truly the better human being, we begin to pass judgment. You see what I mean? It’s a double bind. If we take the parable seriously, the worst possible outcome for us is to say, “Thank God. Thank God: we’re not like the Pharisee.”

But we come to the story ready to judge the Pharisee. And, truthfully, many Pharisees were simply people who sought with their whole hearts to follow God’s law. And, if we are honest with ourselves, every last one of us has said a prayer at least a little bit like the prayer of the Pharisee. We say these prayers when we observe some human tragedy, and realize our own vulnerability to such things. After we pass a terrible accident on the highway, we might say, “Thank God: it wasn’t me.” On hearing of some misfortune, injury, death, we might be tempted to say: “Thank God, it wasn’t my family.” Which is just a millimeter away from, Thank God, it was them, thank God it was their family. Here’s the problem, as one writer expresses it vividly.

If the New Testament were like some hiss-and-boo melodrama from the Old West, the Pharisees would be the fellows in the black hats, twirling their moustaches and fingering the six-shooters on their hips. It doesn't much matter what a character like that says, we expect it to be ugly even before the man opens his mouth.

But suppose it was in a different setting. Suppose it is your sweet little old grandmother praying over the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. "Dear God, we are grateful that we are not like other families we know: people who don't know you enough to offer thanks to you, families that have fallen apart and so they never gather around the table anymore. We rejoice that we went to church this morning to do what all people should do: render thanks to you as the Giver of all good gifts." So this is Grandma now, not the Pharisee in the black ten-gallon hat. What, if anything, keeps her prayer from falling into the error of the Pharisee? Or does nothing keep it from that error? Is it the same mistake all over again? When and how does gratitude go bad, and what can we do to make sure it doesn't happen to us?

If we look again at the words, the very carefully chosen words of the parable, we begin to find a clue. Remember all the fuss I made last week about the introduction? This week, I’m liking the introduction: “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…” (Luke 18:9). I like the fact that Luke doesn’t interpret the parable for us here, as much as he tells us about the audience: they were those who trusted themselves. And remember when I was talking about the Pharisee’s prayer, that interesting little twist in the Greek: the Pharisee is “praying to himself.’ That could mean something like, “He was praying silently.” But that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here. On the other hand, it could mean something a lot more troubling… that he is praying to himself, that God is not his prayer’s intended audience. And the words of the Pharisee are very much centered on himself: he makes claims about his character; he highlights his own admirable activities. All these things point to the fatal flaw in the Pharisee’s prayer: a prayer of Thanksgiving should focus on the goodness of God, not on our own goodness.

Every week in the prayers of the people, we give thanks for all kinds of blessings God has bestowed on us. We thank God for babies baptized and for couples joined in marriage, for people being ordained into offices of the church and for good test results. We thank God for our faith, because we believe that our faith is a great gift to be treasured. But this parable is a stern warning to us, in all our prayers, to be focused on the goodness of the Giver, not on the way in which these blessings make us such excellent people. This parable is a cautionary tale, telling us that our focus should not be on our own excellence, but rather on God’s unfathomable, immeasurable generosity.

Gratitude. Proper gratitude. For two weeks in a row we talked in the children’s message about gratitude, and you heard, I think, the kinds of things they said. They gave thanks for their excellent new shoes. They gave thanks for mothers and fathers. They gave thanks for good things to eat, and snow, because you can make snow angels in it. They gave thanks for Thanksgiving! Everything for which they gave thanks fell into the category of gifts… things and people and events over which we have no control. Things, which come to us from outside ourselves. Things, which come to us because of someone else’s love for us. Children have good instincts about gratitude. You will rarely hear a child say, “I thank you God because I was so smart in school today that I won the spelling bee.” They know that a prayer like that turns gratitude into self-congratulation. This week, somewhere in the United States, a minister wrote in his weekly newspaper column, “…Commercials for Jesus are the people like me who follow him.” Now, by quoting that, I have just become the Pharisee, by implying, “Thank God I’ve never said anything like that in my writing or sermons.” But I’m sure I have. It’s easy to slip and slide from “Thank you God for this faith I treasure” to “Thank you God for this faith, which makes me so much better than people with that faith.”

Proper gratitude helps us to be on the lookout for God’s providence, another foundational Presbyterian notion. Providence is a term that reminds us that God is very much in relationship with us, and with the world, that God continues to be our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.[4] Providence reminds us, in the words of the Psalm, that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). If everything belongs to God, even our very lives, then we begin to understand what gratitude is.

And so we can say, with confidence, Thank God!
Thank God for our lives.
Thank God for our faith.
Thank God for Jesus, whose response to the most broken, sin-filled lives was always, unfailingly, “This is a new moment, and a new day, and you can be a new person.”
Thank God for our bodies, imperfect and vulnerable and fragile as they are.
Thank God for our minds, and all the growth and stimulation they experience over a lifetime, the fresh beauty of new ideas, the holy complexity of our ability to reason.
Thank God for our particular talents, the ability to play a Bach prelude or run a marathon or cook a fabulous meal.
Thank God for loving family and friends to stand by us when our bodies and minds and talents begin to fail us and fade away.
Thank God for new lives, for new life.
Thank God for lives changed in positive ways.
Thank God for love.
Thank God for hope.
Thank God for the Holy Spirit, who is both beyond us and ever with us, claiming us for the One who was, and is, and is to come.
Thank God for this deep mystery.
Thank God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 225.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Calvin Theological Seminary, “This Week in Preaching,”
[4] The Rev. Martha Gillis, PhD, “We Believe: A Theological Assessment,”

Friday, October 26, 2007

Such a Surprise

Guess there's still some Catholic girl left in this Calvinista.

Eucharistic theology
created with
You scored as Orthodox

You are Orthodox, worshiping the mystery of the Holy Trinity in the great liturgy whereby Jesus is present through the Spirit in a real yet mysterious way, a meal that is also a sacrifice.














... is the fourth anniversary of my ordination.

I like very much what I wrote last year.

Of course, now I have the more recent memory of my installation to add to the memory of my ordination. But nothing (short of giving birth or finding the love of my life) beats the memory of that ordination day. My heart soared.

Seen in My Neighborhood

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dispatch from Red Sox Nation

Scene: Pastor's Office

Occasion: Pre-baptism counseling with Mom, Dad and 6-week old Baby

Magdalene: Oh, what a cute baby! And what a great Yankee's onesie!

Dad: Yeah, he's a die-hard Yankee fan.

Magdalene: Well, you should probably know that I'm a Red Sox fan.


Dad (to Mom): We gotta find someone else to do this.

Sequel: Magdalene baptizes Baby. Everyone lives. Sox rule!!!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

It Was Lovely, Thanks

Son Larry-O did himself proud in the one-act play at Big City U.

We met him beforehand for tiny little hamburgers at a hip fast-food type place with a fabulous bar in the back (a bar where we had Cosmos and Mojitos until curtain time). He was energized, happy, hungry, and he left us rather quickly, to get to the theater an hour ahead of his call.

At details of his life like that last one (an hour ahead of his call), I want to ask, "Who are you, and what have you done with my son??!?"

Larry's program (which actually takes place at a theater conservatory affiliated with BCU) has done more to grow this boy up than all the yelling and haranguing a mother could lovingly squeeze into 18 years. This was a boy whose constant refrain to mom in high school was some combination of, "Five more minutes" (playing Halo II), "I have plenty of time to work on that" (school assignment that was due in 12 hours), and "Five more minutes" (to sleep).

But now that he is doing what he loves... and isn't this the key for us all?... he is striving to be an hour early for his call to the theater, because that is professional, that is respectful of his fellow actors, that is what is expected, that is what is required.

As for the play, he was wonderful, as was every other student on the stage. Ah, the complicated goodness of being in the premier program for what you are doing: everyone is fantastic. But Larry's goodness is multi-layered... he is good (read: excellent at his craft) and he is good (read: a good soul). Afterwards, I marveled at his ease and happiness among his friends; no strain, no struggling to fit in, he has found his niche, he has found his place.

I am wandering the same terrain as Cheesehead and Jan Edmiston this morning. Wondering at the change and growth, and knowing that his center of gravity, his polestar, has shifted, and his home is now, truly, elsewhere. It is a joyful and shattering thing, all at once.

Love him like crazy, my talented boy. Trying to maintain some dignity here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Do. Pray. Sermon on Luke 18:1-8

“Do. Pray.”
Luke 18:1-8
October 21, 2007

Beware the storyteller who tells you the ending first. Personally, I have never been one to peek at the last pages of a novel, though that last Harry Potter book was a little bit of a temptation. Nor have I been one to search the house for my birthday or Christmas presents, even as a little child. I love a surprise, and I do everything I can to cooperate with surprises! So I say, beware the storyteller who tells you the ending right up front. Question their motives. Ask why they feel it necessary to control how you hear the story.

Case in point: Luke’s parable of the widow and the judge. Luke inserts an editorial comment: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” My reaction to a story that starts like that is something like, “OK then! We know the ending, so why go any further?” The thing is, that’s not how parables work. The last thing a parable usually does is to tell you the ending or the meaning right up front.

Parables are stories. Stories lie in the province of the imagination. Parables are stories that allude to other realities, and do so in an imaginative way that leads to illumination, enlightenment[i] … but also, more questions, and sometimes, confusion.

It may be helpful to say what parables are not: parables are not analogies. There is never an easy correspondence between the characters in a parable and those in “real life.” Though we might be tempted to say, for example, that the prodigal son ‘represents’ sinners, and the forgiving father ‘represents’ God, the parable resists any such easy answer, it’s more multi-layered than that. Parables are deceptive in their simplicity.

But this makes sense, given the kind of teacher Jesus was. To borrow a phrase from the era of “No Child Left Behind,” Jesus was not “teaching to the test.” He did not give his listeners clear, unambiguous answers. Mostly, he gave them questions… questions set aloft on an iridescent blue set of wings, ephemeral, here now, fluttering away in a second. The danger with a sermon on a parable is that we may just be trying to dissect a butterfly. Let’s hope that, when we are through, the beautiful creature is still capable of flight.

So let’s look at this story. In it there are two main characters. First we meet the judge. It must be said: the judge is the one with all the power in the story. He is the one who is able to grant or deny justice. But Luke tells us right away that the judge doesn’t fear God and he doesn’t respect people. Those are two powerful condemnations packed into just a few words, given what we know our disposition is supposed to be towards God, and towards our neighbor. These words are all the more troubling because of the judge’s position. With the power available to him, he is supposed to do what is just, what is right. We already know not to expect that from him.

Next we meet the widow. According to Psalm 68, God is the “protector of widows…” In a society in which women depended on the protection and patronage of fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, widows could be particularly vulnerable. Throughout scripture certain groups—we would call them “at-risk” groups—are specially singled out as being in need of justice and protection. Widows are among those with a strong claim on God’s justice.[ii]

In our parable, the widow is described as continually coming before the judge, seeking justice against her opponent. Her relentlessness gives us the feeling that this woman is desperate. Perhaps she is poor. Perhaps she is starving. Perhaps whatever her opponent is withholding from her means the difference between having a warm hearth sit beside and homelessness. The judge responds predictably at first: since he doesn’t fear God, and doesn’t respect people, it’s no surprise to us that he initially ignores the woman’s pleas. But eventually, he reasons with himself: ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ (Luke 8:4-5). The unjust judge goes against his own character… he grants justice… because he wants to be rid of a nuisance.

Jesus goes on to explain, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” (Luke 18:6-7). The implication is, if this terrible judge, who is so corrupt, will grant justice to this poor widow, how much more will God, who is perfectly just, listen to the pleas of those who cry out? It’s an argument from the lesser to the greater. It’s an argument in favor of trusting in God’s perfect justice, even if we don’t see any evidence of it at the moment. And if we let the introduction inform our interpretation, it’s an argument in favor of taking our concerns to God, praying always, praying persistently, because surely God will respond.

If we are to take Luke at his word, and interpret this parable as being about prayer, that leads us to ponder a few things. As you all know know, I am in the midst of a series of children’s messages on prayer, using the fingers as mnemonic devices. This parable seems to be referring to intercessory prayer, prayer of petition, prayer for ourselves. In the case of the widow, the prayer seems quite urgent. Justice has been delayed, and we all know what that means: justice has been denied. And she is praying… which is to say, bothering, harassing, annoying the judge in hopes of having her petition answered.

I read story this week. There was a large gathering, it might have been a conference, of people concerned about inequality and oppression in our society. At a certain point an elderly black minister stood, and opened his bible, and read this parable. He then gave a one-sentence sermon on it: “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.”[iii]

Pray. Pray without ceasing. Pray as if your life depended on it, and God, who is loving and just, will hear your prayers. That is one interpretation of this parable.

And it is a good one, it is one that has been preached for close to two thousand years. But there is another interpretation of this little story that has begun to take hold as well, and it is one that I just can’t seem to put out of my mind this week. I suppose this alternative interpretation finds its seed in something troubling. The judge. He is unjust. Would Jesus really represent God in a parable as this corrupt, self-involved official? There is something about this that irks. It seems somehow wrong.

The other little seed of doubt comes about when we consider the widow. I’ve already mentioned how widows have a special claim on God’s justice in scripture: God was always on the side of the widow and the orphan, and the poor one and the immigrant, the slave, the prisoner. And what is it the widow wants? Justice. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she says. She doesn’t say, “I want my money,” or “Give me back my house”, or, “That plot of land has been in my family for years.” No. She says, “Give me justice.” Pure justice. Come to think of it, isn’t the character of the widow closer to that of God than the judge is? And the judge… well, doesn’t he more accurately represent human beings? Slow to give justice, concerned most of the time with only what affects him directly, making decisions more out of expediency than out of altruistic motives?

This is not a very pretty picture of humanity, I realize. But it is one on which our Presbyterian, Reformed tradition is founded: the flawed nature of human nature. The fact of sin.

“Sin” is not a very popular word these days. I don’t much like it myself. And I think, truthfully, that many of us grew up with unhelpful notions of what it meant to be sinful. We may have gotten the impression that we were “all bad,” or that we should be in a constant state of shame. That’s not what I’m saying at all. In fact, that is a profoundly unscriptural understanding of human nature. I think it’s important for us to look at human nature with open eyes, and if we do, we will see an awful lot of brokenness in the world side by side with an awful lot of goodness and beauty… what one author has called “original blessing,” right there beside the “original sin.” We Presbyterians believe that we were made in the unspeakably beautiful and noble image of God, and that at the first possible opportunity we took a rock or a can of spray paint to that image and defaced it. But God’s image is far more beautiful than any power we have to do it injury. This is the paradox of our flawed and beautiful human condition.

And God’s response to the brokenness of the world? Well, God has given us the way of Jesus. And here, in this parable, it may just be that Jesus gives us an image of God, bothering, harassing, annoying us, knocking on the doors of our hearts, crying “Justice! Give me justice!” After all, we are the only hands God has on earth; we have, like the judge, the power to do it. And if we look around our world, I think you and I can both agree, we have a long way to go to answer God’s prayer.

About 400 years ago an English clergyman was writing both sermons and poetry. His poetry included gorgeous, sensual love poetry to his wife and also to God, some of the most exquisite religious poetry ever written in the English language. Here is the first stanza of a poem by John Donne.

BATTER my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new…

In Donne’s poem, he recognizes that God has been trying gentle persuasion, breathing shining, and it may well be time for God to resort to stronger methods. He is inviting God to batter his heart, to overthrow him, to make him new, by whatever means necessary. Be careful what you ask for. Is this what Jesus is getting at in this parable? That God, as the widow calling out for justice, is battering at the doors of our hardened hearts, hoping we can recall our fear of God and our respect for our fellow human beings and do something about the sorry state of our world? Is God hoping to overthrow our unjust ways, so that we might help at last to usher in God’s reign? Is this a parable telling us to “do,” just as much as it’s telling us to “pray”?

I leave it to you. Why did Luke tell us the ending right at the beginning of the parable? Why do you think Luke preferred one interpretation over another? I believe with all my heart that the story of scripture is our story, and one consequence of that is that the Word of God whispers in each heart differently. So I invite you to hear the Word of God to you this day, telling you to “do” or to “pray” or maybe both or maybe neither. This is the word of the Lord. What did you hear today? Thanks be to God. Amen.


Here is the full text of the Donne poem:

BATTER my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new…
I, like an usurpt towne, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely I love you, 'and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

[i] Robert C. Tannehill, “The Gospels and Narrative Literature” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 60.
[ii] Wayne A. Meeks, General Editor, Associate Editors, Jouette M. Bassler… [et. al.], The HarperCollins Study Bible (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 1994.
[iii] Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 209-210.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Off to Big City U...

... to see Number One Son Larry-O in a play! We'll see Little Mary there too!

Good times.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Seen in the News this Morning; Itty Bitty Lectionary Musings

Here are some items that caught my attention as I ate my breakfast.

The New York Times is beginning an occasional series on the US justice system, highlighting things we USans take for granted which are actually unique in the world. They begin with this piece on our practice of sentencing adolescents to prison for life without chance of parole.

New evidence of another massacre is found in Darfur.

This piece looks at research about the connection between healthful eating and TV viewing, specifically, the practice of eating while watching TV.

And in local news... a local city councilman is embodying an all-time high (or, perhaps, low) in ass-hattery, even for himself. He wants the city to pass an ordinance that would place signs on the homes of registered sex-offenders.

Pray with me... let's be the widow, pounding at heaven's gate for our just Judge to act. Or... let's live into that other interpretation, the one in which God is the widow crying for justice, and we are the ones in need of conversion. How much more?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Installation Bullets

Highlights of the service and the day:

~ The way a big group of Presbyterians will sing: full-throated, joyful almost! "Shall We Gather at the River" was particularly wonderful, not to mention my seminary hymn.

~ Petra singing "Songs of the Wayfarer" with the Youth Choir, and looking both beautiful and happy.

~ People saying really nice stuff about me (I've asked for copies).

~ The presence of travelers MoreCows and hubby K, and Little Mary, and another seminary friend who showed up quite unexpectedly.

~ Little Mary's sermon. Oh, friends. The gospel. Challenge. Hope. It was breathtaking.

~ Being told that people from other churches and presbyteries were praying for my congregation and for me at their Sunday worship services (including people at the church that was the worst work experience of my life, everything to do with the pastor and nothing to do with the people).

~ Always, communion.

~ Non-churched friends who love me enough to endure churchly weirdness for a few hours.

~ The cake, which made me cry. On it was written this.

~ Dinner (even after the fabulous, over-the-top reception) at my favorite red lightning Italian restaurant, with daughter and other assorted loved ones, a nice, round, biblical dozen of us.

~ Five of us piling into my playroom to watch the TiVo of "Desperate Housewives."

~ Overnight guests. We don't have enough of them.

It's over, thanks be to God. And it's begun, thanks be to God.

Stole... my actual stole, by Jan Laurie.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Years ago, during my sojourn with the Episcopalians, the new rector of our church arrived, and was going to be formally welcomed by congregation and bishop. I asked eagerly about the details of her installation.

"I am not being installed," she said, testily. "Toilets are installed. I am being instituted."

Well. Here I am, not an Episcopalian any longer, but a Presbyterian, and today I am, indeed, being installed. Come to think of it, I kind of like the toilet metaphor. Toilets are good and necessary things. They keep the household running (ahem) smoothly. They minister to the sick and the well alike. You can read on the toilet.

Now, the toilet does have to deal with a lot of crap. But who doesn't, minister or congregant alike? And while a household can, I suppose, do without a toilet, it's nicer if one's around.

OK. Done torturing that metaphor. I am being installed today. Here is the call to worship for my installation:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life…
Shall we gather at the river?
… bright as crystal, flowing through the city of God.
Yes! We’ll gather at the river.
On either side of the river is the Tree of Life…
Yes! We’ll gather at the river…
The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
…the river that flows by the throne of God.

I hereby solicit your prayers as I mark the beginning of my ministry with New Church. I am so happy. And a little scared. But mostly happy.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Dan Le Sac Vs. Scroobius Pip: Letter from God

This comes to me via email from Larry-O. It's fabulous.

Nine Theses: Thesis Four

Thesis Four: Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama. — The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture”

I love this thesis. This seems profoundly true to me. I see in scripture a beautiful gemstone, that reflects and refracts the light differently according to which way we turn it. (Where have I read that before?) Turn it this way, and we see one thing. Turn it that way, and we see another. The thing is, the light is always changing. We can almost never recreate the light that was present at the moment the scripture was committed to parchment. So our hope of understanding "original intention," though an important endeavor (and one every preacher has an obligation to attempt), is small, at best.

The reason it is scripture, the reason these writings were kept and cherished and passed on, I believe, is that they have the ability to speak to us new every day. Wyld said in a comment, "It's all interpretation" (or something very close to that). There is much wisdom in that statement. Scripture does have the ability to speak fresh to every fresh situation.

Of course, that said, I think there is such a thing as bad or wrong interpretation. I think there are guidelines we need to stick to in order to interpret. Any interpretation that gives permission to harm someone, or vilify them, or put them in a group that is somehow considered to be less than fully human, is not of God, in my humble opinion. But we are also getting back to my earlier statement that, while there is much of God in scripture, there's also some garbage. Let me clarify: I believe there is stuff ('kill your firstborn son!') that is reflective of human efforts to deal with situations, and not God's.

Scripture: multiple. Complex. Yes.

How Did Specialist Ciara Durkin Die?

This story was hanging around the airwaves, briefly, about a week and a half ago. I think it's important not to let it die.

Exactly how Ciara Durkin died remains a mystery. The Army National Guard soldier from Massachusetts was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head in Afghanistan last week, and now her family is demanding answers from the military.

Initially the Pentagon reported that Durkin, part of a finance unit deployed to Afghanistan in November 2006, had been killed in action, but then revised its statement to read she had died of injuries "suffered from a non-combat related incident" at Bagram Airfield. The statement had no specifics and said the circumstances are under investigation.

Durkin had a desk job doing payroll in an office about three miles inside the secure Bagram Air Base. About 90 minutes after she left work last Friday, her family says she was found dead near a chapel on the base with a single gunshot wound to the head.

The 30-year-old soldier, who was born in Ireland and came to the U.S. as a little girl, felt safer deployed in Afghanistan over Iraq, her family told CBS News correspondent Kelly Wallace. Yet she was found dead within a highly secure base, with few answers.

"The family has been informed that she was in the compound, and she was shot in the head," Durkin's sister, Fiona Canavan, told the Boston Globe. "She was in a secure area of the compound, which, even though the investigation is not complete, leads the family to believe it was what is called friendly fire," she said.

Adding to the mystery is something the Army Specialist told her family: if something happened to her in Afghanistan, they should look into it. She was concerned about things she was seeing over there, one of her eight brothers and sisters said in an interview.

Canavan told the Quincy, Mass. Patriot Ledger on Wednesday that when her sister was home three weeks ago, she told her about something she had come across that raised some concern with her: "She was in the finance unit and she said, 'I discovered some things I don’t like and I made some enemies because of it.'"

Canavan revealed that Durkin said if anything happened to her, to make sure it was investigated.

"At the time we thought it was said more as a joke," Canavan told the paper.

The family is also wondering whether Durkin's sexual orientation - she was gay - played a role in her death.

"We just want full disclosure, that's all we want - to know what happened to our sister," Diedre Durkin said.

Massachusetts Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry and Rep. William Delahunt are pressing for answers.

I read this week that Ciara Durkin was laid to rest, after a funeral mass at St. John the Baptist church in Quincy, MA. I attended this church occasionally in the 1980's, when I lived in Quincy. Funny how a little connection like that can bring a story home to you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bulletin from New Church

One of the first folks I met here at New Church has a reputation for being somewhat of a curmudgeon. Actually, a huge curmudgeon. Make that a royal PITA to every pastor to come and go from this place for the last 70 years.

When I first arrived, R. told me that the church register was missing. I tucked this item away and didn't ponder on it too much; it came in the midst of a litany that went something like,

"And I lay THIS problem at HIS door,

And I lay THAT problem at HER door,

And I lay THIS OTHER problem at THEIR door."

The gist was, the Church of Jesus Christ is going to hell in a handbasket, and only the oldsters like R. know what it is to be good, loyal, God-fearing churchgoers. Fair enough. The register got buried, in my mind, under all R.'s complaints and accusations.

Well, friends, some of you "got" what it meant that the church register was missing. It means that, from the time of the ending of the previous church register...

no baptism

no marriage

no reception of a new member

no ordination of a deacon or elder

and no death

is recorded in any official record book. The last available church register ends in.... drumroll please.....


Yes, that's right. Forty-one years. I have before me the task of either A. finding the damned thing (the preferable option) or B. trying to reconstruct forty-one years of church history.

This is a huge bloody deal. And somewhere God is giggling like crazy that I, an ENFP, a vision kind of girl, a not-so-interested-in-details-and-minutiae kind of girl, get to do/ oversee this incredibly detailed reconstruction of a vital piece of church life and history.

I am audibly whimpering, just a little.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Thesis Three

Thesis Three: Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New. — The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture”

I am falling behind on lots of stuff lately. There are just too many... things to work into every day. Too many people, places and things. I am pretty proud of myself for setting some sensible boundaries at church (Item: I need one evening a week free for Petra. At the very LEAST.) I invited the congregation to read the psalms with me this month (in my sermon of September 30). So what was I doing this afternoon at about 3:15? Sitting in a car, waiting for Petra while she took her flute lesson, catching up on, oh, about 25 psalms. Yeah.

So blogging these theses... I'm on thesis three, all other Presbyterians in the world are on thesis 6. We will all live through this disequilibrium in the universe, I'm sure.

Faithful engagement with scripture requires engagement of the whole narrative. I agree with this thesis, as a Christian. Many (though not all) the writings of the New Testament presuppose a knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures. Reading Matthew or Luke without that knowledge would be possible (we Christians do it all the time). But it would be an impoverished reading. To know that Luke's Magnificat is echoing Hannah's song from 1 Samuel is to open a whole dimension in the text that is otherwise missing. Mary is not the first woman to have a miracle child! To understand that Matthew is quoting Isaiah (misquoting him: in Isaiah it's a "young woman " who will conceive) opens up fresh understandings of the nature of Jesus' advent.

But I have to allow Jews the right to disagree with this thesis. God made a covenant with Israel that is irrevocable, which God still honors (why would God not honor it?). Jews are used to having Christians push and pull their scriptures in ways that are nearly incomprehensible to them. Why should they have to take Christian scriptures into account in order to understand God's good revelation to them?

As a Christian I read the story of creation in Genesis 1 and I see glimmers of a Trinity. But I realize that is offensive to Jews, who may well consider it polytheism. So I accept this statement for Christians, while I reject it on behalf of my Jewish brothers and sisters. I believe God's revelation to them stands without need of Christian correction.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sermon Preparation

Little Mary at "We Do It Too" has asked people to share their sermon preparation process. I enjoyed reading everyone's processes, even though I was somewhat shamed by many of them. I decided to post my comment here.

Here is my process.

Monday (or thereabouts) read through the text (I usually spend some time early in a season deciding in advance which texts I'll preach... right now I have a worksheet that takes me through Christ the King). Open up my NIB. Read the Harper Collins study notes (I'm going to be better about that, now that I've read here about pasting them into an outline...!).

But, really, the phone is ringing, I'm going into the sanctuary with the sexton to talk about the placement of the baptismal font, I'm talking to the sewing circle about their latest project... so this might not happen on Monday. Or Tuesday.

I look at The Text This Week to see if any articles there catch my eye. (My favorite link lately is Daniel Clendinin, The Journey With Jesus).

Then I let it all simmer on the back burner. I write as soon as something occurs to me... whatever my "way in" to the text has turned out to be. Once I start, I try to refocus myself periodically by asking, "What's your point, Homer?" (Said like Moe).

I sometimes (this is the truth) set myself the task of dreaming about the text. If I can't find a way in, I read the text before bed and ponder. Often in the morning I've made a connection of some kind that allows me to begin writing.

I like other peoples' processes better.

I forgot to mention translation work. That's because I have this obsessive all or nothing relationship to it. I either must translate the entire passage myself or I have no time or energy for it. (Usually the latter). When I translate I have great fun. Occasionally... only occasionally... does it make a huge difference in what I will say.

This was fun.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A Holy Calling: A Sermon on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

“A Holy Calling”
2 Timothy 1:1-14
October 7, 2007
World Communion Sunday

What do you treasure? I looked around my room and my house and my heart this week, and asked myself that question. One item I treasure was very near at hand… on my hand, literally. More often than not I wear this oversized art deco ring that belonged to my maternal grandmother. Here’s how it came into my possession. When I was about 12 years old I was watching my mother go through her jewelry box. It’s hard to describe the fascination that had for me… my mother’s jewelry seemed exotic, mysterious, from another time and place. It belonged in the movies, on Ingrid Bergman or Joan Fontaine. As I watched, I saw this ring, which I had never seen on my mother’s finger.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That’s your grandmother’s ring,” she answered. My grandmother had died just about a year earlier.

“Why don’t you ever wear it?” I asked, already suspecting I knew the answer.

“Not my style,” my mother said. “I don’t like old stuff.”

“Oooh,” I said, probably sounding like someone scheming, maneuvering. “I love it.” And my mother plucked it out of her jewelry case and dropped it in my hand.

“It’s yours.”

I probably wore the ring a lot when I first received it, but then it languished in my own jewelry box for many years, until just recently…until my own mother died. Then I found it again, and put it on my finger, and… here it is, connecting me to two generations of women who have gone before me, as I hope it will one day connect my daughter to us. I love this ring. Every time I put it on I think with gratitude of my mother, carelessly tossing it to me, and of my grandmother, who had slender fingers but large, arthritic knuckles, large enough so that a ring that fit her could also fit me.

What do you treasure? I am sure you can think of many possessions, as I can, and of what they signify. But that’s the trick in the question… what do we really treasure, the items or the meaning for which they are the repositories? What do I treasure, this ring, or the way it brings memories of my mother and grandmother into sharp, bright focus?

Paul treasures Timothy’s tears. Did you notice that? Paul says, “Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you” (2 Tim. 1:4-5). Timothy’s tears are a container for memory, and the memories they conjure in Paul must be rich… the memories of three generations of faithful followers of Jesus. Paul recalls Timothy’s grandmother, Lois and his mother, Eunice… I wonder what he remembers about them? Did they convene a church to meet in their house? Did they dedicate Timothy to be a follower of the way of Jesus when he was very young? Did they lose something or someone they loved because of their faith, perhaps Timothy’s father? Does Paul remember a specific word of encouragement, a prayer of blessing, a gift of support for his work?

Paul treasures Timothy’s tears. I don’t know why Timothy was crying, whether it was something to do with his parting from Paul, or Paul’s imprisonment. Perhaps Timothy feared he would never see Paul again, Paul who died, in the end, at the hands of the Roman Empire. Perhaps Timothy’s tears were tears of joy, at the accomplishment of some great task, planting a church, defending the faith. But there is something in the words that follow that leads me to believe Timothy’s tears had to do with fear or pain.

Paul seems to be giving Timothy words of encouragement for some difficult task he was facing. He says, “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:6-7).

Rekindle, Paul says, the gift of God that is within you by the laying on of my hands. There’s a story behind this, and it sounds to me like a baptism story. The gift of God Paul alludes to here is surely faith… faith is the great treasure passed on to Timothy by his mother and grandmother and confirmed by Paul. Paul reminds Timothy that this faith brings with it the Spirit of God, available to equip him with all he needs… with power, with love, with self-discipline. This is our holy calling, Paul tells Timothy. We gratefully receive the grace of God, and we pass it on, like a precious family heirloom that we don’t want to be lost. We receive the tiniest smidgen of grace and faith… tiny as a little seed…as a splash of water… and we allow it to be implanted deep in us until it grows into something large enough to carry us through life, like some gorgeous balloon that can be lifted on the gentlest current of air. We receive the gift of grace and we allow it to come to life in us and we pass it on.

There is a mysterious way in which we choose and don’t choose baptism, in which we choose and don’t choose faith. Paul didn’t choose it… quite the opposite. God famously knocked him to the ground and took away his eyesight for three days before he turned, grateful and weeping, to Jesus. Baby didn’t choose it, as far as we know, but his parents have chosen to pass on this treasure given to them, perhaps by mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. Baby's family chose baptism for him. And, in a mysterious way, God chose baptism for Baby, and Baby for baptism. This is the definition of grace, this is why we Presbyterians baptize infants who are capable of deciding nothing more complicated than when to give in to sleep or to holler that they are uncomfortable. God chooses us long before we are capable of choosing God.

On this World Communion Sunday, the knowledge that God chooses us, outside of our own capacities and capabilities, awakens another kind of knowledge in our hearts. The fact that God chose us for grace before we were capable of choosing for ourselves hints at something alluded to in our other reading this morning. Luke is being typically inscrutable today, but he offers, for the most fleeting moment, another miniscule parable of grace: the improbable image of the slave coming in from the field to be welcomed to the table by the master.

If we understand ourselves as God’s servants, bidden by grace to do this work of receiving faith and passing it on, we can also understand this: there will be bread for the journey. All over the world this morning Christians are gathering around the table of God. In nearly every language that is spoken upon the earth people will be reminded that God welcomes us to this table, and sets before us good and nourishing food and drink. Reversing the usual course of things, the One who is unimaginably great serves the ones who are infinitesimally small, encourages us to open our hands like eager children, so that the bread may be dropped into them, and we may be told, “It’s yours.”

It’s yours Baby, and it’s yours, Mom and Dad of Baby. It’s yours, good people of This Church: the mysterious gift of faith, the treasure passed on through countless generations. It’s yours, visitors, friends, strangers, travelers: this holy calling that provides us with the power and love and self-discipline we need to travel through our nights of tears and our mornings of joy. It’s yours, countless people throughout the world, who will draw near to God’s table this day: the bread of life and the cup of salvation, bread for the journey and the water of life. It’s yours. Open your hands and your hearts and receive it. And then, give it away. Amen.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Nine Theses: Thesis Two

Thesis Two: Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church’s rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative. — The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture”

This is where a Calvinist is supposed to rise up and declare, "Nuh-uh!" Sola scriptura, folks, remember? Except... gosh, despite my self-description in the sidebar... I think this thesis has something sound behind it. It is this: scripture is not meant to be interpreted in a vacuum. Scripture is to be tossed like a ball, chewed like taffy, digested like a rich and delightful meal, passed around like after-dinner mints, fussed over like a beloved child. It is to be read and and debated and struggled over, and these things can really only happen in community. No one mind, however brilliant, however spirited or inspired, can or should bear ultimate responsibility for interpreting the words found in scripture.

The Spirit moves best in community, when and where the Spirit has somewhere to move to. This is not a new idea: far from it. This idea was embodied in the great rabbinic tradition, which encouraged every person (well, OK, every man) to become a scripture scholar. The Christian church famously departed from this and put scripture into the hands of scholars only for nearly 1500 years, until a few brave souls rose up and demanded that it be returned into the hands of the community.

The problem with all I've just written may be that Thesis Two might be read to mean The Church instead of the church; in other words, the experts rather than the entire community, the Rule of Faith as a monolith, unassailable. This member of the community chooses to read the latter interpretation. Scripture is to be interpreted by us all, experts and laywomen and men alike. We neglect any of these voices, and the truth is diminished. We include all these voices, and the dramatic narrative comes to brilliant, full-bodied life.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture: Thesis One

Thesis One: Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world. — The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture” in The Art of Reading Scripture, Ellen Davis & Richard Hays, eds.

The folks who bring us the daily readings (he Company of Pastors, of the PCUSA) are offering these nine theses for our consideration. The Scripture Project, as I understand it, was an attempt to end the fragmentation of the interpretation of scripture across the theological disciplines. (See review here for more information.)

It is hard to find fault with this first thesis. (That was an interesting way to put it, wasn't it?) What I like about this statement is the way in which it leaves all sorts of (sorry, gotta be truthful here) wiggle room. Reminds me of the famous Presbyterian statement that scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, to which the liberal theologian replies, "Yeah, that plus a whole lot of other crap."

I do believe scripture truthfully tells the story of God's relationship with humankind, from the human perspective, and with glints of insight into the godly perspective. I believe that scripture is full of good news for everyone... that God loved us into being and continues to love us in ongoing acts of creation, calling to accountability and redemption.

That does not, however, translate to scripture telling the "truth" about nuclear physics, the intricacies of the human genome, dinosaur fossils or any number of things. Scripture is capable of telling the truth without being mistaken for a science textbook.

I know. I'm preaching to the choir.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Free Burma

Thank you MoreCows for doing this first...

Free Burma!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


If spiritual pastors are to refrain from saying anything that might ever, by any possibility, be misunderstood by anybody, they will end — as in fact many of them do — by never saying anything worth hearing. — Dorothy Sayers, “The Triumph of Easter”

I don't know who the folks are at the Presbyterian Church (USA) who choose our daily quotes. But I am planning to blog a bunch of them in the coming weeks... they are quite wonderful.

I have to confess that I know Dorothy Sayers primarily from her Lord Peter Wimsey novels which were turned into smart, visually scrumptious television dramas, shown on the PBS series "Mystery." (And more compelling, by far, than the persnickety Wimsey was his "husky-voiced" love interest, Harriet Vane.)

But I see from the Wiki article that Sayers' major accomplishment in her own mind was a translation of the Divine Comedy. And judging by the quote above, she had more than a little experience with church.

Years ago I was in conversation with a Presbyterian minister who acted as a mentor to me. We would have lunch every so often, and as we did, we would talk about theology... my understanding of ordination, of church, of salvation, etc. One time, over lunch in a whole foods restaurant, she looked at me with the kind of bemused look one gives a child and said, "You do realize you are more free as an unordained person than as an ordained one, don't you?" As ordination was the goal I was pursuing with laser-like focus, I was startled by this comment. "No, I don't," I said, a little annoyed.

"You can't say everything you want to say as a minister. You can't push people as hard as you want to, to bring about a change of heart."

"But aren't ministers supposed to preach the gospel?" (I believe I was actually sputtering.) "Aren't they supposed to be prophets?"

She thought a moment and replied, "They are treading the thin line between prophet and pastor. They neglect either one at their peril."

I think Sayers is talking about those who have turned their backs on the prophetic role. And, really, with job security on the line, the forces pulling ministers of the gospel in this direction are strong. But I think of people I know only in the blogosphere... MadPriest! Elizabeth Kaeton! Mother Laura! And I know it can be done. It isn't easy, but it can be done.