Wednesday, November 28, 2007
A shout-out to anyone who can read my mug.
Scratch that. Anyone could read that mug (as long as they didn't have my uncorrected eyes).
Sunday, November 25, 2007
November 25, 2007: Feast of the Reign of Christ
I bet each and every one of you has the words to at least one love song permanently imprinted on your heart. Who would like to share the words to a favorite love song with all of us? Here’s one of my favorites, a Cole Porter classic:
You're the top!
You're the Coliseum.
You're the top!
You're the Louvre Museum.
You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss.
You're a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare sonnet,
You're Mickey Mouse.
You're the Nile,
You're the Tower of Pisa,
You're the smile
On the Mona Lisa.
I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, Baby, I'm the bottom
You're the top!
I love the language of love songs! I love how we instinctively understand them, even when the words are all hyperbole and exaggeration. When hear that song, we don’t imagine that the singer has literally fallen in love with a building or a museum or a cartoon character. We understand that the object of her desire fills her with emotions on a grand scale, feelings that seem bigger than life. Some love songs use language that is much more direct and non-metaphorical. My daughter and I have been listening to a lot of Beatles’ lately, and I was thinking of this one:
Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way she woos me
I don’t want to leave her now
I know I believe her now…
That song, by the under-appreciated George Harrison, could hardly be more different than the Cole Porter lyric. Still, like the other one, it describes a surplus of feeling, a sensation so big it takes the singer out of himself. What all love songs have in common is this: they speak the language of the heart. They describe feelings that overflow, that are too big for mere words. They also describe experiences that, even though they may be specific, are also somehow universal. Most everyone who hears a great love song “gets it.”
I want to suggest we look at today’s passage from Colossians as a love song. Of course, when we look at any passage from scripture, we can approach in any number of ways. To name just a few…
We could think about scripture as a guidebook for living, looking to it to give us sound advice on ways to deepen our faith, live a more fulfilling life.
We could think about scripture as a piece of law, looking for the great, overarching legal and moral structures.
We could think about scripture as history, looking for information about the particular situation of the world in which it was written.
We could think about scripture as if we were editors, searching for “layers” in the text… linguistic clues as to this or that editorial hand at work.
We could think about scripture as theologians, asking, “What does this text tell us about the nature of God?”
We could think about scripture as anthropologists, asking, “What does this text tell us about the nature of human beings?”
Scripture contains dozens of different genres—histories, letters, genealogies, poetry, liturgical formulas, laws, narrative biographies; one of my seminary professors even described one little book as a novella. And there are probably at least a dozen ways we could approach our passage today. But today, when I read this passage: I hear a love song. They way I hear it, we are listening in on a love song from a particular community, the church at Colossae, to Jesus Christ. Listen to these words again, and see if you can recognize the surplus of feeling, the overwhelming nature of the relationship that is being evoked:
He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
[whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—]
all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, [the church];
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
[so that he might come to have first place in everything].
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
[by making peace through the blood of his cross].
Scripture scholars believe that what I’ve just read is a fragment of an early Christian hymn… a hymn that was sung by the very first generations of those who followed Jesus. The writer of the letter is quoting this hymn back to the Colossians, as he greets them and prays for their strength and faith. This hymn is filled with beautiful and important reflections on the nature of Jesus, who he was and is, what he meant to that early community and what he means to us today. We could definitely approach this scripture as theologians! But for today, I’d like us to focus more on the relationship than the theology.
Love songs tell us about relationships. When the first Christians lifted their voices to sing these words, I believe they were attempting to describe a relationship that was life changing, world-altering: the encounter with Jesus Christ. Like Paul, like us, these folks never met Jesus during his earthly ministry. Like Paul, like us, they instead had an encounter with him through story and song, through the preaching of the good news. Like Paul, like us, they met the risen Christ through his body, the church.
Last month I heard Marcus Borg speak at Wonderfully Liberal Local Church. For those of you not familiar with Professor Borg, he is the author of such books as “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” and in some circles, his liberal reputation is a liability. But when I read that particular book, I was stunned to find that, at the heart of his theology is the conviction that, we need to encounter Jesus Christ. The Christian life is about entering into relationship with the One towards whom all our stories and hymns and love songs point: the living, eternal God, the risen Christ, the Holy and astounding Spirit. When we hear the words of the epistle, they are a reminder of one community’s extraordinary experience of the risen Christ. When we hear these words, they are an invitation to us to enter into that same relationship.
This morning we have been privileged to be witness to two baptisms even as we all strive to remember our own. Now, I was a month old when I was baptized, so, in that sense of course I can’t remember it, and maybe you can’t either. When we are called to remember our baptism, as we were called to today alongside C, D, G and M, we are asked to remember the relationship into which we have been called. If we look at our passage, we see all sorts of ways of understanding that relationship:
The relationship with Jesus is like the relationship with an older brother, the firstborn who loves us and protects us and goes through everything before we’ve gone through it.
It’s like the relationship with the One whose signature is on all of creation, whose fingers traced the outlines of the mountains and placed each point of light in the sky.
It’s like the relationship with our own body… our need for Jesus Christ is as vivid and dramatic as the body’s need for the head.
It’s like the relationship we have with the beginning of all things: without it there would be nothing.
It’s like the relationship we have with the ones who loved us first, before we even thought of returning the gesture.
There’s something in the way he moves… he is the top, and the Christian community has composed many a great and soaring melody to testify to that love.
Today, while our new member families were greeting the congregation, the choir sang an anthem that is the other side of this love song: the love of the risen Christ for us. This song was composed as a love song from God to us. I invite you to hear the words again, and to recognize in them the claim of this love on your heart and mine.
I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see life unfold.
I was there when you were but a child with a faith to suit you well;
in a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell.
When you heard the wonder of the Word. I was there to cheer you on.
You were raised to praise the living Lord to whom you now belong.
If you find someone to share your time and you join your hearts as one,
I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme from dusk till rising sun.
In the middle ages of your life, not too old, no longer young,
I’ll be there to guide you through the night, complete what I’ve begun.
When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes,
I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.
I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old,
I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see your life unfold.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
One of my strongest, fondest memories of Petra and Larry-O's childhoods has to do with baking cookies. Specifically, chocolate chip cookies (classic Toll House recipe, with the following adjustments: three times as much vanilla; 1 c. brown sugar (dark); 1/2 c. white sugar). For some reason this had a soundtrack: Shawn Colvin's album, Fat City.
Last night, after the (remarkably good) obligatory turkey, rice, onion, chopped green beans and broccoli casserole, Larry asked if we had anything sweet in the house. The brownies Petra made on Thursday were long gone; he doesn't like pie. I said no, but perhaps we could throw something together. Petra quickly volunteered, the ingredients were assembled, and the chocolate chip cookies began to take shape.
At a certain point, yes, there was Shawn Colvin on the iPod, singing,
Oh, my soul, sometimes we don't know what to do
We work so hard being tough on our own
But now it's me and you
Just give it up, sad bones,
'Cause we all fall on hard times
But you don't have to stand up all alone
Just put your hand in mine
Climb on a back that's strong
You can get what you want
Climb on a back that's strong
And if you can save me a place in heaven
with a clean, well-lighted room,
I'll muscle up to Armageddon,
And I'll wave to you darlin': be home soon!
And if you could show me the story of love
I would write it again and again
And then you could be the woman you need
If you'll just let me be the man that I am
Climb on a back that's strong
You can get what you want
Climb on a back that's strong.
And we were all dancing and singing, Petra, Larry-O and me, the girls sticking to the original lyrics, Larry rapping some kind of crazy obligato in harmony, Petra and me spooning dough on the cookie sheets.
Friday, November 23, 2007
You are Superman
|You are mild-mannered, good,|
strong and you love to help others.
Click here to take the "Which Superhero am I?" quiz...
How was your Thanksgiving, my loved ones? Some of my closest friends IRL as well as the blogosphere were hosting this year. How was it, Little Mary and More Cows?
Here's how it went at my house.
I slept in until 10:00 yesterday morning. Oh, sweet sleep. I can go months without seeing the inside of my eyelids past 6:25 AM, and you know what, people? I am a night time person. I was made for the night, like Carly Simon. Sleep all day long. But that, alas, is not my lot for the most part. Except yesterday.... Mmmmmm.
Was it the fact that Larry-O was safely tucked in in his room, after arriving after 11 PM on the express bus from Big City? Nice thought, that, but he was with Petra and me for exactly 25 minutes (playing us his new Muse album) before saying, "I'm gonna go hang with P and M (high school pals who are suddenly a couple)." So... it was back to reading for me, and back to writing (NaNoWriMo) for Petra. At 2:30 AM I heard Larry' delicate (ahem) tread on the stairs.
So I woke up on Thanksgiving to my children, one additional beloved houseguest, enough sleep, and bunches of the meal already made (I'd done the cranberry-orange sauce on Tuesday night, Petra's apple pie on Wednesday night, and the other two pies were purchased from Petra for a school chorus fundraiser).
First up: craisin pancakes for the masses. (And there was much rejoicing.) Then, the stuffing (traditional) and the bird (11-3/4 pounds), the giblet gravy. Peel the potatoes (again, traditional mashed-- nothing fancy), snap the ends off the green beans, and suffer a sudden attack of guilt that there was no dessert for Larry-O. Yes, three pies, but nothing he liked. I enlisted the help of his sister, who whipped up a batch of brown sugar brownies, to be put in the oven as the bird came out. Also, mashed squash for BHG.
While the turkey roasted, we watched "Pieces of April," and once again I wept. I identify with every damned character in the movie, except perhaps the father, who is too good to be true (but in a very real way). I am simultaneously the "good daughter", the rebel and the mother who can't seem to connect in the way she knows she must. Such a purge was there.
We sat down to eat shortly after 5. And lo, there was much food, for four people, and much rejoicing also. We held hands around the table and said our traditional grace:
Lord, bless our ears with your words,
bless our bodies with your bounty,
bless our lives with your love. Amen.
After dinner all hands were on deck to clean. We got things stowed relatively quickly, and then three of the four of us dived into dessert. We watched a movie not on my short list, but a recent discovery of Larry's: "Memento," about a man with short-term memory loss who is trying to solve and avenge his wife's murder. As he makes discoveries he has the clues tattooed on his body. It is a weird and disturbing film, told in reverse chronological order so that the audience knows little more than the character does.
Thereafter it was time for BHG to depart, for Larry to retreat into his room to do some character study for "The Seagull," and for Petra and me to watch "Ugly Betty." (Yes. Appointment TV in this house. Missed the boat on "Grey's Anatomy.")
So.... dear ones, especially you who hosted. How'd it go? What'd you have? Would you do it again? And you who were not in your own homes: was it a good holiday for you? What made it meaningful-- or not? Are you thankful? Was there drama? (We had no drama.)
Love to all.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Monday, November 19, 2007
4. How do you like to relax during your down time?
If you will read the first paragraph of the sermon posted earlier today, you will learn about one of the great passion of the Magdalene-Ex family: we do love the movies. My children are connoisseurs of films of nearly every genre and era. How many fifteen year old girls can quote extensively from "All About Eve"? How many twenty year old males (I want to call him a boy, and I know I shouldn't) know entire David Mamet scripts by heart? And have opinions on different film versions of Shakespeare plays? It's kind of an obsession, the films. We do love them so.
I, like a lot of my readers, have found the internet takes up more and more of my time... blog reading, certainly. I think I have bookmarked over a hundred blogs, and it does take time to get to them all! I also love to read, and normally have a pile with about 10 books in it next to my bed. Last night I checked, and I have, among other things:
Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community (I have a friend who is a descendant of the notorious leader)
Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Babara Brown Taylor
The Birth of Christianity: What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus by John Dominic Crossan
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
I knit. (But not like some.) I walk, because I love the outdoors and the trees and the scents of this time of year in particular. I volunteer with one art group (Rude and Bold Women) and one peace group (CodePink). I sing, every chance I can get. Most recently my daughter and I had a gig together at one of our downtown gallery nights, and we'll be convening a little group to carol in December. I write some songs... not so many. But every once in a while the muse grabs me by the ear.
My favorite Sunday afternoon activity (Sunday afternoon coming after Sunday morning, when I have what I consider the highlight of my week, work-wise, and also the day that takes the most out of me): reading the newspapers (local and New York Times) while listening to jazz, until I fall into a cozy nap.
5. Any pets in childhood? Any in your house now?
The earliest pet I can recall is a Weimaraner named Gretl. When I was born she was about 12, and she lived to be 16. I remember her as being very gentle and tolerant, looking off sadly into the distance when I would try to ride her like a horse. My mother considered Gretl to be a kind of best friend, and drove around town with the dog in the front seat of the car. This caused many a neighbor to ask, "Who was that lady with the long grey hair riding around with you in the car?"
At the same time as Gretl there was a Tom cat named Sammy, Jammy, Sam-sam-bo-bam. Sam thought my chubby little calves were irresistible. He would hide behind the furniture and jump out as I walked by to scratch and bite me. He also was a terrific mouser and birder, and was so good with the birds that my mother, tired of having little trophies deposited on her front stoop, tied a bell to his collar to give the birds fair warning. It didn't matter. Sammy got them anyway. Once I had a canary for about a week. When we would go out we locked the canary in the bathroom. The canary left under extremely suspicious circumstances. I wasn't allowed in the bathroom for a while after the... departure.
Later came Max, a sweet, fierce German Shepherd, and then Rommel, a Rottweiler. For 11 and a half years I had a dear, troubled mixed breed named Michael. He was on Clomipramine for his anxiety. He died October 18, 2006 of complications from heart failure.
I had a hard time with this sermon. Petra saved my bacon by reminding me about "Pieces of April," and she didn't even know what my sermon was about (except, generally, Thanksgiving).
Those readers of this blog who always catch the sermons I post will realize the first paragraph is very similar to a paragraph the last Sunday in June.
“Think About These Things”
November 18, 2007
Have I mentioned that my family and I are avid filmgoers? Some of the members of the Pastor Nominating Committee have already heard about this. And they might agree that calling us “avid filmgoers” is putting it too mildly. We are film nuts. We read about them, we wait for them to come out, we watch them, and after we see them we debate their finer qualities and defects and even argue about them. We plan themed film festivals, and right now we are planning what to watch on Thanksgiving, in between stuffing the bird and stirring the gravy. As luck would have it, some of my very favorite films take place at Thanksgiving: the sweetly sentimental “Miracle on 34th Street”; the slightly outrageous “Hannah and Her Sisters”: and even the bleak study of isolation that is “The Ice Storm.” These would all be on my short list for viewing. But my all-time favorite Thanksgiving film has to be “Pieces of April.”
April is a twentysomething, pink-haired hipster, living for the past year in a funky East Village apartment with her boyfriend Tyrone. April is estranged from her family, who live somewhere in far-off suburbia. Things are particularly strained between April and her mother, who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, and who’s feeling some urgency about mending the relationship. To mark her first year of independence, and, in part, to prove that she can do it, April decides to invite her family for Thanksgiving dinner, which she will cook. What follows is often hilarious, at times shocking, and always thought-provoking. One of the best scenes in the film takes place in an apartment in April’s building, the home of a recently arrived Chinese family. April struggles to explain the origins of Thanksgiving to her neighbors, for whom it is an unfamiliar celebration.
April starts, “Once there were people here called Indians, Native Americans, whatever. Then a big boat came called the Mayflower, it landed on a big rock, carrying people just like me. And the first year on their own was hard. It was really, really hard.” At this moment we see April’s face take on a look that tells us, she has just realized something, made a connection. She has had a moment of clarity. She stops, and starts her story again.
I wonder if you’ve ever experienced it: a moment of clarity, in which suddenly, everything fell into place—your priorities, or your plans, or even your problems. I think I have experienced this a few times in my life. I can’t help reading this morning’s passage—actually, the entire letter to the Philippians—as one of those decisive moments, a moment of clarity, for Paul, the author. Writing from prison in Rome, under the watch of the Praetorian Guard, Paul is most likely awaiting his death. He has words for an anxious community, a community he founded, a community that is facing the prospect of life without its leader. With beautiful simplicity and clarity, Paul tells them how to deal with their anxiety. He tells them to focus on joy and thanksgiving.
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. ~ Philippians 4:8
I can just imagine Paul’s community receiving this letter. They are hurting. They are scared. They are facing a newfound independence for which they may or may not be ready. And they, like we, are in a society that doesn’t place much stock in the gentle values Paul raises up. They, like we, are in a society focused on other things. Ours is a culture that encourages us to be restless and dissatisfied with what we have, how we look, who we are. Even a day such as Thanksgiving, whose reason for existing would seem to be prayer of gratitude, is subject to a kind of consumerism-inspired angst. I imagine we all have images of the ideal Thanksgiving celebration in our heads, whether they’re informed by the famous Norman Rockwell painting, or by pictures in magazines, or by the movies, or by our own wonderful or painful memories. All these images, swirling around, can lead us right down a path of forgetfulness. All these pressures to be, to have, to do, can lead us away from what truly matters.
Paul offers a radical alternative. The act of giving thanks for who we are and what we have right now is radical. It is countercultural. Paul tells us that, to contemplate our current condition with eyes sharpened by gratitude, is to open the door that leads to peace.
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
What a wonderful Thanksgiving exercise: to contemplate everything and everyone in our lives, or in the world around us, that resonates with these words. What a wonderful daily or nightly prayer practice for every Christian to undertake. Let’s do this with respect to our lives right here at Our Church. Let’s do it right now. Let’s embark on the radical and countercultural course of giving thanks. Let me name just a few things that I have experienced in the 11 weeks since I stepped into this pulpit as your designated pastor, things that ring true for me as I contemplate Paul’s sage advice.
Every Sunday that I have been here, someone has volunteered to act as liturgist, sharing the leadership for our time of worship; and a choir has shown up, with their voices and hearts tuned for singing; and volunteers have staffed our nursery so that families can experience worship without anxiety about their children. Greeters have welcomed our visitors and made them feel at home, and ushers have taken up the collection and presented it with dignity and solemnity. Most Sundays, a team of incredible bakers and cooks have provided us with a tempting coffee hour, offering their hospitality to us as we meet and mingle following the service. And every once in a while, we get to experience what one of our elders has called "candy": our bell choir! All this, the entire beautiful and well-oiled machine that goes into our Sunday morning liturgy, is the work of the people, the work of Christ’s church.
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just…if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
From my first days in the office, I have noticed the church’s generous use of its physical plant to welcome in various members of our community. I have heard the voices of children singing in their classes at the Pre-School as I typed up the bulletin. I have met with the dedicated staff of the Local Religious Counseling Center as they shared coffee after their worship and staff meeting, one of just a handful of places in Our County where the uninsured and the underinsured can turn for mental health services. I’ve seen the folks from TOPS, striving to live healthier lives. I’ve seen the big crowds brought in by the AARP for their monthly meetings. Opening our doors to the community is a ministry, and it is evangelism: these activities are all a part of the vital work of Christ’s church.
Whatever…is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
I soon met members of our congregation who were bravely battling grave challenges to their health. I also met members of our congregation who are generally well, though homebound. As I would visit each person, whether in home or in hospital, I would inevitably meet members of this congregation, sons and daughters of this congregation, on their way in or out from a visit themselves, carrying flowers, carrying cards, carrying a casserole or plate of cookies. This caring ministry of visitation, which is claimed and undertaken by the members of this church, is a vital part of the work of Christ’s church.
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable…if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
We would hardly be able to consider ourselves a Presbyterian Church if we didn’t have boards and committees. Every week the library or the fellowship hall echoes with the voices of individuals, deacons, elders, congregation members, doing the work of the church—the unglamorous stuff, the number-crunching, the getting of bids for sealing the parking lot, the planning for a visit by an Ethiopian peacemaker, the details of Rally Day for our Sunday school. The behind the scenes attention to the basics, the administrative and other details of our lives together, are part of our ministry: they are a vital part of the work of Christ’s church.
Whatever… is just… whatever is commendable… if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
There is so much more. So much that is true, honorable, just, that is pure, pleasing and commendable. So many actions, small and large, that speak of kindness and good-heartedness, things most excellent and worthy of praise. Things that happened before my arrival, like the stunning generosity and hard work that went into flood relief, both locally and on the Gulf Coast. Things that happened because someone’s mind was powerfully focused, because many people’s hearts came together in a great moment of clarity.
And let me tell you about the love of this congregation. I’ve witnessed small children going from shy to gregarious under its influence, I’ve seen teenagers stifle their natural inclination to hide out under their MP3 players and give their time and talent for the church and for those who hunger. I’ve seen adults in midlife fitting in bringing meals to neighbors while juggling full schedules of work and family commitments, and I’ve seen members in their 70’s and 80’s taking the active roles usually expected of those in their 30’s and 40’s. I have seen many hearts beating as one, coming together in a great moment of clarity. This is the ministry, the vital work of Christ’s church.
Toward the end of “Pieces of April,” April is still struggling to explain Thanksgiving. On her second attempt she starts to tell of the real plight of Native Americans, only to stop once again, because that’s not what she wants to say either. At last, this is what she tells her neighbors, “Once there was this one day where everybody seemed to know they needed each other, this one day when they knew for certain that they couldn’t do it alone.”
A moment of clarity: we need each other. We can’t do it alone. When we contemplate the ministry of God’s church in this time and place, we recognize the truth of these simple words. Together we are able to do in ministry what none of us can do alone. Together we can do in service what none of us can do alone. Together, we can share in love what none of us can manage alone. And what is more true, more honorable or just; what is more pure, or pleasing or commendable than this?
Think about these things… and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Friday, November 16, 2007
3. What kind of personal prayer/spiritual practices do you find most nourishing?
According to Bishop Laura, we now are into "geeky spiritual director" territory! Here's where these damned feet of clay slip out from under my nice preaching robe for all the world to see. WHEN I engage in prayer/ spiritual practices, I am deeply, deeply nourished. For me, the things that work are: daily scripture reading, saying the daily office, and using other fairly structured helps.
Daily scripture reading is something I almost always do. However, it is often utilitarian in purpose, as I am preparing a sermon. In 2006 I used the One Year Bible and made it all the way through, for the first time in my life. This is not the ideal way to read scripture, in my opinion. It makes it more of a challenge, an obstacle to overcome. I definitely had this idea that I "had" to get through it. Scripture is powerful enough, of course, that it broke through that mindset often enough. But I prefer to read in a way that is more like Lectio Divina. This takes me out of my goal-oriented way of reading, and allows me to savor scripture, even get to a place beyond meaning and interpretation. My favorite line on how to read scripture comes from Macrina Wiederhehr, who said, "When God comes in the first verse, why go on to the second?"
It's wonderful, potent, mind-altering. When I do it.
I also love saying the Daily Office. The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship Daily Prayer book has a format for this that is very like the traditional Roman Catholic Breviary, or the Episcopal/ Anglican Book of Common Prayer. I recently discovered that Bishop Laura has written a "Sophia Psalter" and version of Compline (night time prayer) in which she uses feminine language for naming God. For someone like me, whose tradition is "not there" yet in terms of the language we use in public worship, using this privately can be a powerful and healing experience. Leave her a comment if you want a copy. I opened up the file and nearly swooned, it is that good.
Here is what happens to me when I pray in this way. Immediately upon saying the opening sentences of scripture... "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise," I am taken into another kind of consciousness. As I pray, I experience a kind of pleasure... I am sure it's a neurological response... that I feel in the top of my head, towards the forehead. My breathing slows, and I experience a sense of being connected with God which is, if I'm honest, pretty damned scary. I don't do it often. It is the kind of thing that could take over.
Part of this is that saying the Daily Office connects me with my earliest experiences of deep prayer and spiritual searching when I was 13, 14 years old. At that time a fantastic priest, Father J H, presented me with two books, Praise Him! and Bless the Lord! The former is for "ordinary time," and offers a kind of beginners' daily prayer (from a Roman Catholic perspective); the latter is similarly simple, and covers Advent, Christmas, Lent and Eastertide. They wer both written by William G. Storey. [When I typed his name into Amazon to search for the books, I discovered that he has more recently written A Book of Prayer: for Gay and Lesbian Christians.] The gift of these books taught me to pray; I can't say much more than that.
I have also used another book, A Prayer Book for Remembering the Women: Morning and Evening Prayer for an Inclusive Church by J. Frank Henderson, with hymn texts by Mary Louise Bringle. [Henderson has also complied Remembering the Women, an important lectionary resource that every minister and priest should have, in my humble opinion. This compilation offers alternative passages for every Sunday of the three-year lectionary cycle, passages that either tell women's stories, use feminine images for God, passages that used imagery based on the physical experiences of women, or passages that refer to the female figure of Holy Wisdom.]
As I have already said, I do best with the structure these resources provide. They are all grounded in scripture, and I thrive when I am able to immerse myself in that world. All is well.
So why don't I do it consistently? The other morning I took part in a conference call. The person who led devotions read to us from Barbara Brown Taylor's book, Leaving Church. This is a book that is on the tall pile next to my bed, a pile that hasn't been getting shorter. I have yet to crack it. Am I afraid? I'm sure I am. When one of the "dozen best preachers in the English language" has to leave pastoral ministry because she burns out, damn right it makes me afraid.
My colleague read to us a selection about Taylor's knowledge that she had tools at her disposal-- prayer, scripture, meditation-- to nurture herself in her ministry, and her total inability to do so. "I pecked God on the cheek, like I pecked my husband, and slowly died inside from lack of making love."
Hear, O church. Hear, O ministers. Hear, O Magdalene. This is the Word of the Lord.
I leave you with a tidbit from A Prayerbook for Remembering the Women. It is one of Bringle's hymn texts, from the week-long cycle on Holy Wisdom. It can be sung to any hymn tune in Common Meter, 86.86. (Examples of this are Forest Green and Amazing Grace.)
Through silver veils of morning mist
break rays of golden sun.
In amethyst and ruby skies
a new day has begun.
More treasured yet than silver, gold,
or any precious gem,
God's wisdom breaks upon the earth
and wakes our morning hymn.
A radiant and unfading light
now shines before our eyes,
with insight for all minds that seek
and truth to make us wise.
Sophia calls us to the feast
of wine and living bread,
where fruits of grace and peace abound
where hungry hearts are fed.
With Huldah, Hannah, Miriam,
and womenfolk unnamed,
we cherish our inheritance
of prophecy proclaimed:
The needy shall be lifted up.
The weak shall be made strong.
And Wisdom's flowering tree of life
shall blossom in our song.
PS: I love trees.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Well. I love just about everything there is about worship. I love creating worship services, I love crafting sermons, I love presiding and praying with the congregation. I love singing my heart out. I love the sacraments... more than I can say, more even than I know, I think. I love the way they take you by surprise: the baby squeezes your finger, or an elder looks into your eyes in the most poignant way when he takes communion from your hand.
I think worship is a relationship. I love the way in which I am related to everyone in a worship service, whether I am presiding or not. I love that worship informs our relationships across the table at a session meeting or a potluck, or when we pack Thanksgiving baskets for families in our community for whom it would be an otherwise slim holiday season. I love that I get to love all these people, and they get to love me... and we get to disappoint one another and frustrate one another and drive each other crazy. And then, on Sunday, on Christmas Eve, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we get to participate in something and be in relationship with SomeOne who takes us out of our little selves and into a place where the air is clearer, the light is brighter, the colors richer, the chords more lovely. We get to be our very best selves together, because the One who loves us into wholeness already sees our perfection, even though we are not there yet.
I find most challenging the moments when convictions or ideals come into conflict with relationships or feelings. This is very hard for me. I bitterly disappointed someone this week because I am encouraging a new way of doing nominating, which pays more attention to boundary issues, to diversity and representation. This means a husband and wife will not serve on the same board. This hurt someone. She wept at the end of our session meeting last night, and told me she needs a week or so to consider whether she will resign. She was not being manipulative. She was genuinely grieving. I turned myself into a human pretzel to try to convince her that this has nothing to do with her or her husband's gifts, years of service, status as beloved pillars in the congregation. But the bottom line is, my way of doing things... new to this congregation... hurt someone. I absolutely hate these moments. And because I am an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs scale, it's an enormous challenge to me to hold firm. I want to make it better. I want to preserve the relationship.
But I do love it all.
Monday, November 12, 2007
1. What do you see as the most pressing issues facing the Christian Church today?
I have recently been reading some Brian MacLaren, I can often be found reading Marcus Borg, and I aspire to read more than I can reasonably get to. But I have been thinking a lot about what I think is "the problem" with much of the church today, and I will see if I can state it succinctly: I think we largely miss the boat where Jesus is concerned.
I think that much of the Christian church is more concerned with "believing in Jesus" than "believing Jesus." As in: Jesus has given us some rather radical instructions, and an even more radical example. As in the following quotes from roughly five chapters of the gospel of Luke:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (4:18)
“Be silent, and come out of him!” (4:35)
“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God … for I was sent for this purpose.” (4:43)
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (5:4)
“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (5:10)
“I do choose. Be made clean.” (5:13)
“Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” (5:20)
“Follow me.” (5:27)
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (5:31)
“…new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.” (5:38)
“The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (6:5)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (6:20)
“…love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (6:35)
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” (6:37-38)
“Do not weep…Young man, I say to you, rise!” (7:13-14)
“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (7:50)
“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (8:21)
“Where is your faith?” (8:25)
“What is your name?” (8:30)
“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” (8:39)
“Who touched me?” (8:45)
“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” (8:48)
“Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.” (8:50)
“Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” (8:52)
“Child, get up!” (8:54)
“You give them something to eat.” (9:13)
“Who do the crowds say that I am?” (9:18)
“But who do you say that I am?” (9:20)*
* If this rings a bell, you can peek back at February 18.
It seems to me if we believed Jesus, we would be spending all our time in trying to heal people, in throwing wonderful dinners and welcoming absolutely everybody to them, in forgiving radically, in giving radically. We'd be standing in solidarity with the poor, the imprisoned, the proverbial "least"of our sisters and brothers. We would not be confusing faith with patriotism or citizenship (these are always, always, in radical opposition in the gospels). We would probably not own as much stuff, be as obsessed with appearance, or be as willing to trash our environment.
Tonight a really bright woman at a bible study said: "I don't know why we would bother believing in God and Jesus if we didn't believe in heaven and hell." Her point was, religion makes sense in a context of earning credits and erasing debits, in a context of reward and punishment. This is straight out of the "believing in Jesus" theology. I think this is a total misreading of the gospels. I believe in Jesus, but I also believe Jesus... and this would not change if he appeared in my den right this minute to inform me that, yes, the Jews had it right, and after death there is basically, Sheol, nothingness, or, to spin it as well as possible, the bosom of Abraham. Heaven and hell are abstractions that may or may not exists. I don't actually think it matters if they do or don't. They have nothing to do with why I believe.
Christianity has to be able to hold up without the afterlife carrot. Otherwise, it's no different from anything else in our capitalist, reward/ punishment society. I happen to think it's damned different. It's about doing what's right whether or not you get a cookie at the end. Doing what is right is its own reward. Living with a Kingdom mentality requires going beyond what will benefit us, even in eternity.
Does this make any sense?
Sunday, November 11, 2007
November 11, 2007
Only a handful are living, but there are still a few men for whom the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month has great personal meaning: veterans of the First World War. It was decided that that particular hour would mark the formal end of hostilities in that great and terrible war, a war in which warfare itself was changed forever by the introduction of technologies from aircraft to mustard gas to the machine gun to the tank. In the end, the destruction was awful, and possibly past our ability to imagine: an entire generation of young men, lost to the fields of Flanders and the Somme and Gallipoli: ten million dead, nearly eight million missing, and 20 million wounded, many maimed for life. So traumatic was the war and its aftermath, those who lived through it became known as the Lost Generation. It took decades for nations to recover; many individuals never did. And all of it came to a halt, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, exactly 89 years ago.
We have a scripture reading this morning that is dated nearly that precisely: “In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai” (Haggai 2:1). Translating from the Hebrew dating, and taking into account the historical record concerning the reign of Darius, we know that Haggai received his revelation on October 20, in the year 520 BCE. Let me tell you what was going on in the world at that time. This was 67 years after the beginning of one of the most traumatic events in the life of God’s chosen people of Israel: the Babylonian Exile.
The story of the Babylonian exile and return has been called one of the great defining stories for the people of Israel, a story that even today gives Jews a sense of their identity.[i] It’s important to understand that, before the exile, the remnant of God’s people lived in Judah, in the shadow of the great Temple of Jerusalem. King Solomon had built the Temple more than four hundred years earlier under the direct supervision of God, according to scripture. It was a place of unimaginable splendor to the people of its time. It was understood to be the literal house of God, the dwelling place of God here on earth. The people came to the temple to offer their sacrifices, and the priests entered the Holy of Holies on their behalf, that hidden, screened off area where the presence of God was thought to dwell. God and human beings interacted directly in the temple; heaven touched earth.
So imagine the devastation when Judah fell to an invading army: the year 587 brought Nebuchadnezzar’s display of irresistible force, the carrying off of political and religious and intellectual leaders, and the splitting up and relocation of families in a foreign land. The Temple was destroyed, reduced to rubble, desecrated. Like the survivors of the First World War, survivors of the Babylonian exile felt lost, relocated to a place and time separate from the world in which they had previously lived. Psalm 137 is thought to have been written during the time of the exile:
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? ~ Psalm 137:1-4
But now it is 67 years later, when Haggai speaks the Word of the Lord to the people. Exiles are beginning to return home to the land of Judah, and its capitol Jerusalem. The people have been instructed to rebuild the temple—the authorities have given their permission, and building has actually begun. But some in the community are not happy about the reconstruction project. Some in the community are critical of the new temple. It seems that those whose memories are longer, some of the older members of the community, remember the gorgeous edifice that Solomon had constructed. Now, as they return to an occupied Jerusalem and the new Temple is being built on a more modest scale, they can’t abide the difference between their cherished memories and the current reality. God tells Haggai to ask the people, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” God puts the ugly truth right out there for all to hear. The new temple just doesn’t measure up to their memories. The people are not impressed. They are bitter and they are disappointed.
Does any of this sound familiar? This passage actually describes a very common dynamic abroad in mainline Protestant churches today, for congregations who remember days of splendor not too long ago. I have heard that under one minister about thirty years ago, the congregation of Our Church swelled by an additional 500 members. The Sunday school probably had 100 or more students. I think it might be a very natural reaction for those of you with good and long memories to feel some anxiety, some depression or sense of loss when you look around the sanctuary to see 75 or 85 people on a Sunday morning. When we look around us and all that we see is colored by powerful emotional memories of the past, we can lose the ability to see the blessings that are right here in our midst today. We can lose sight of the fact that, right now, we are building.
This is a time of building here at Our Church. I’m not speaking of building a physical space, like a sanctuary or a Temple or an education wing. I’m speaking of building as Paul describes it in the letter to the Corinthians. “For we are God’s servants, working together. You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9). Paul is speaking, not of a structure of stone, but of the church that is found in the people. He is speaking of the building up that is done, not with bricks and mortar, but through intentional engagement with the Word of God. Paul is talking about discipleship.
We are building up, not a building, but the body of Christ here at Our Church. How are we doing that? For the last several weeks I have been meeting with several folks who are contemplating joining our ranks, and last week I handed out to them a couple of pages copied from the denominational Book of Order. It is a section called, “Membership as Ministry.” As a refresher for those of you who joined some time ago I will read the first part of this passage.
A faithful member accepts Christ’s call to be involved responsibly in the ministry of his [or her] church. Such involvement includes:
~ proclaiming the good news.
~ taking part in the common life and worship of a particular church.
~ praying and studying scripture and the faith of the Christian church.
~ supporting the work of the church through the giving of money, time and talents.[ii]
There’s more… much more, including statements about how our church membership calls us to service in the world, to transforming society according to the way of Jesus. Membership in the church is a tall order. But I want to focus, for today, on these first four essential building blocks in our faith formation.
Did you know that, as members, you are called upon to proclaim the good news? Don’t panic: not everyone is called to preach sermons from the pulpit, though some are. But we are all called to proclaim the good news of God’s love for us in the course of our everyday lives. God’s love for us: we are called to let it inform the conversations we have with friends, family, co-workers, fellow students. Every member of the church is called to proclaim the good news in that way. We build up our own faith and one another’s every time we allow the good news to inform our day-to-day lives and conversations.
Taking part in the common life and worship of a church seems pretty obvious. As members of the church, it stands to reason that we would worship in that church regularly. But I believe worship is the cornerstone of our lives together, even more deeply than we can imagine. Everything we do should grow out of this experience of gathering around the Word of God, hearing it proclaimed in words, music and actions, and bearing that Word out again into the world: we are bearers of the Word! It is here that we are refueled for our lives of service and witness. It is here that we forge our common and yet distinctive identity as Christians. It is here that we receive the spiritual nourishment that helps us to get through another week. Every member of the church is called to take part in the life and worship of the church. We build up our own faith, and one another’s, every time we do it.
Because being a Christian isn’t a one day-a-week (or even a one hour-a-week) enterprise, we are also called upon to study scripture and pray at times other than Sunday morning. Here at Our Church we try to offer opportunities to do just that… the Women’s monthly bible study, which takes place tomorrow evening, is a wonderful opportunity to participate in some really thoughtful conversation about scripture. Beginning the first Sunday of Advent, I will be offering a bible study designed to take us through that season. It has been suggested that a book group would also be welcome. I think a great goal for us would be that every member of Our Church has an option for small group study and prayer. Every member of the church is called to pray and study our scripture and faith. We build up our faith and one another’s when we let the stories of our own lives and the stories of scripture come together.
At last, we come to the three T’s: Treasure, Time and Talent. Though the Book of Order is a little more direct: it says, “money.” I briefly considered calling this “The Money Sermon,” because I knew we would get to this moment eventually. We are in the midst of our stewardship campaign: members of our Finance and Endowment committee have been working hard to present you with materials designed to prompt you, inspire you, even enlighten you into giving generously to Our Church so that we might be able to, not simply maintain the ministry we currently have, but to grow it.
I’d like to offer one little thought about giving. I’ve heard it said that some people give time and talent, and other people give in dollars and cents. Actually, that’s not true. According to all the research, money follows time and talent. In other words, the people who are most generous with their time and talent are usually the people who are most generous with their money as well.
I’d like to offer another little thought about giving: we are one body. That means we are committed to one another’s well-being, in and out of the church. Pledging can be scary for some people, because life is uncertain. This has been a week in which nearly every major economic indicator is pointing to trouble. For those who have very real concerns about how the economic climate will affect their families, who may be facing layoffs or job changes, I want to say this: pledging conveys your intention to give. It is not a binding contract; it does not lock you in. If your economic circumstances change for the worse, of course, you can and should adjust your giving accordingly. And, if your economic circumstances change for the better, of course, you can and should do the same. We are all called to give, money, time and talent for the mission of the church. Whenever we do so, we are building up, not only our own faith, but also one another’s and the well-being of the whole church.
The prophet Haggai speaks to people who have been traumatized by the loss of everything they held dear, everything that spoke to them of their relationship with God: the Temple, their leaders, their homes and homeland, their families. Haggai brings them these words from God: “…take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts…My spirit abides among you; do not fear…” We are building, here at Our Church. We are building up our faith through our lives together. We are building through our worship, through our proclamation of the good news, through our pastoral care of one another, through our study and prayer together, through our service of God and God’s world. And God’s word to us is this: Take courage. Work. Do not fear. I am with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.
[ii] G-5.0102, a-d, The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 2005.
Friday, November 09, 2007
Stewardship is a concept that has its roots, I think, in the first creation story of Genesis.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
~ Genesis 1:27-30
That idea of "having dominion" over the earth is often interpreted as being equivalent with "dominating." But my understanding is that it is really about being good stewards... being caretakers of these astounding gifts that God has gives us.Translated into the life of the church, it has to do with how we care for the assets of the church: buildings, grounds, staff, programs. To be good stewards means that we have to care for these gifts, whether by giving of our time, our talents, and /or our cold, hard cash (often called "treasure," for those who love alliteration).
There are other ways to care for our gifts as well. Sometimes we do that in more unexpected, radical ways... like the dying church not too far from me that decided they didn't want to end their time as a congregation spending all their money to care for an aging building. Rather, they decided to spread their assets around: they sold the building, gave the money to a youth program in the city, and rented space to worship. Oddly, they ended up being completely re-vitalized by their decision. Their act of generosity attracted people to them, gave them a new sense of mission. They considered themselves "stewards" not just of a building, but of the gospel. And that made all the difference.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
I graduated seminary with a serious aversion to this magical time of year. I couldn't imagine how, as a person paid by the money that comes out of the pockets of the congregation, I would ever be able to stand up in the pulpit and, it felt to me, shill for my salary.
I got over it. Here's how.
First, I worked with a guy who had a serious... well, crude metaphors come to mind. Suffice to say, he loved stewardship. He lurved it. He loaved it. He preached-- wait for it-- six stewardships sermons throughout the fall! No, scratch that: he preached four and I, who couldn't imagine preaching one, preached two. And I caught some of his enthusiasm. It had to do with genuine love of the church. It had to do with calling people into being the best, most dedicated, giving people they could be... not for our salaries (though you still can't get away from that little detail), but for the spreading of the gospel. I was hooked. I started seeing stewardship as a challenge that I might, just might, be able to rise to.
Second, the model for stewardship at that congregation was very much driven by the work of the members. We did our six sermons (which, in all honesty, I do think was overkill), but they did six minutes for mission. And I truly believe that their work-- their testimony-- was more powerful than our sermons.
And finally, I went to an institute for newly minted ministers of my denomination, in which we were offered a workshop of Stewardship. Now, many of my classmates fell asleep during this workshop. And it's true. We were inundated with information in a way that was not entirely helpful. Except: we were given a thick take-home packet at the end. It included sample brochures created by various congregations. And the little tiny design geek that's inside me... the one who used to get a charge out of creating a newsletter for the youth group when I was a director of Christian Ed... found another way to play with stewardship time: creating cool narrative budgets, complete with awesome pie charts and beautiful, carefully-chosen verses from scripture.
So this is it! We're doing it! Who's with me?
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Petra is writing a novel. Its protagonists are named Julian and Caroline, and it's set in the Regency period, inspired by the novels of Jane Austen.
Its' NaNoWriMo-- National Novel Writing Month-- and at this time last year, Petra watched with amusement and curiosity as I made my first swipe at writing a novel (I fell short of the event's 50,000 word goal. I also fell short of my own standards artistically, but that's kind of the nature of trying to crank out 1700 words/ day). She is a Jane Austen heroine herself, in my opinion, but perhaps I am biased.
Last Saturday I traveled many miles for denominational obligations, and then many more to hear Petra sing in a chorus made up of students from schools across a wide geographic area. What is it about young people singing? Practically as the conductor brought down her hands to mark the first beat of the first measure, I began to weep. It is the sound, surely, of those beautiful young voices. It is the sentiments of the songs they were given to sing... songs about peace, one song in an African dialect, one heartfelt folksong from the British Isles, and so on. It is the look on their faces: the complete focus, the innocence (I don't care how many of them are smoking doobies and/or having sex... these are still innocent children). The tears slid down my face as I listened, rapt, to the beautiful and somehow incredibly sad sound of all our children singing their hearts out.
And I think I am still here: in that place where I see my children as they were, as they are, and as they will be... separate, whole without me, lovely and soaring.
Oh, that's Petra as Janis Joplin on Halloween.
Monday, November 05, 2007
Sunday, November 04, 2007
November 4, 2007
Here’s how it happens. You are just doing what you always do. Maybe you are walking down the street, hurrying on your way to work. Maybe you are loading up the dishwasher after a rushed breakfast, getting your children off to school. Maybe you are walking into a room where it has been your custom to show up for many, many years… a member of the board, the church, the local chapter of the AARP, dependable. Maybe you are hurrying out of the house, because you can’t stand it in there one more minute. Maybe you are walking into a bar, one where everybody knows your name, or no one knows it, no one at all. You are just doing what you do, without much thought, without much reflection, without a plan beyond the next 5 minutes or so.
Here’s the thing. You don’t like your life. You are not happy at the way things have turned out. The status quo is killing you. The work is killing you. The expectations of the people you love are killing you; the constant, nagging sense of disappointment is killing you. The opinions of your so-called friends and neighbors are killing you. You are surrounded by beautiful but ultimately untouchable and inanimate things, things you thought would define you and give you meaning and impact but which, in the end, only fill you with sadness. You can’t conceive how you managed to find yourself painted into this exquisite corner, but here you are. And you don’t like it. Some days you hate it, and even the love of your nearest and dearest has to hack its way through a dense and elaborate thicket in order to penetrate your rapidly hardening heart.
Let’s talk about your heart. Once upon a time, a long time ago, it was a living, beating thing… a soft animal, open, vulnerable, inquisitive, ready for what life had to offer you, ready for the next adventure. But something happened to your heart. Maybe it grew too accustomed to the ticking of the clock, and it began to think of itself as just another timepiece, a place to punch in and out of your many obligations, your many situations. Maybe it was ignored, and it got used to its solitary existence, peering out from between leaves of gold and rust, at a remove from the world. Maybe it was badly in need of protection after becoming scarred, bruised, or broken, and so you built a beautiful and strong fortress for it, to keep it safe, never to be hurt again, never to be touched again. But left alone to tick, or left alone to brood, or even left alone to heal, your heart took on an unexpected outer crust, a layer of thorns, briars, a dense forest of protection. That is the heart you carry around inside you. Hidden, seldom seen, seldom heard from. That is what beats inside you, as you move through your days.
So there you are, just doing what you always do, carrying around this heart, showing up here or there, or running away from this place or that person. And then, in an instant, you meet someone while you are hurrying down that street. Someone you’ve never seen before, some person with whom there is really no reason for you to interact, no reason that you know of, anyway. Maybe the name is familiar; maybe not. But there he is, this new person, and he’s looking at you. There he is, his eyes penetrating, even though you tried to glance away when you saw his glance coming. There he is, seeing you, even though you had tried to blend into the landscape, back into the cupboard, melt into the crowd, scramble up a tree. There he is. And there is no escaping it: the encounter.
What would you say about the encounter? Would you say that it’s like a sudden gust of icy wind that clears away an accumulated pile of sodden leaves? Would you say that it’s like the unexpected sensation of a patch of ice under your foot, simultaneously thrilling and terrifying? Would you say that it’s like the sharp scent of something new in the air? A new season? A new location, like getting off a plane into the unfamiliar sensations of a foreign land?
There he is, looking at you, and the icy wind is rushing through you and your foot is slipping and your mind is trying feverishly to place the face, the scent, the sensation. And he speaks. And he says the most absurd thing to you. He says, “Magdalene. Hurry up. Come here. Come down out of that tree, come out from behind that cabinet, come away from that dessert table, come away from that crowd. I need to come to your house today.”
And in the aftermath of the wind and the ice and the sensation, there is suddenly a great and potent silence. And you can hear your heart thudding, for the first time in a long, long time. You can hear your heart, as if it were once again a part of you, a living animal with its ears pricked up, listening. You can hear it in the silence, and feel it trying to explode from your chest with the most unfamiliar of all sensations: joy.
It’s joy. This person has looked at you, and, by God, he’s seen you. He’s seen you, and, in the name of everything that’s holy, he knows you. How is this possible? He knows you. He knows it all. He knows the crushing disappointments and the broken, fractured, fragmented heart. He knows the disappointing relationships, the rift with the children, the co-worker you can’t stand. He knows about the work that no longer excites you, and he knows about the dreams you’ve squashed in order to keep getting up morning after morning, in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other. He knows. He knows. And for you to understand that, to know that you are known, brings a rush of relief and joy so unexpected, so piercing, it makes you dizzy. It brings tears to your eyes. It makes you stagger, just a bit, to find your footing. It makes you laugh out loud.
He wants to come to your house. He wants to come to your house. And so you scramble down out of the sycamore, you brush the leaves and twigs off your tweed jacket and pick the bark out of your stockings and your hair. You are still laughing. You are laughing at the absurdity of it. You are laughing at the shriveled lettuce and the marginal cheese and the partial six-pack of beer you know you will find in the refrigerator, because you know that lettuce and cheese and beer are his favorite foods! You simply know this. You are laughing because the last time you had anyone over to your house you cleaned for 3 hours, and you still ended up throwing things into a closet at the last minute, and the whole experience nearly put you in a neck-brace as you tried and tried to affect casual, carefree hospitality. And you are about to welcome this stranger… this penetrating, knowing stranger… you’re about to welcome him into your house and you’re happy to do it, you are thrilled. Because he already knows you. He knows you and he still wants to come. He knows you and it is evidently your lettuce and cheese and beer he wants to eat and drink. He knows you, and he wants nothing more than to be at home with you.
And you are laughing because now you see the looks on the neighbors faces, their… puzzlement, their attempts at politeness, while you know they are hissing under their breath, “Look. Look at that. Look at who he’s going with. Is he kidding?” And you know that, last month or last week or even ten minutes ago, you would have twisted your hands together with anxiety over their stares, over their disapproval. You know that you would have clenched your fists in anger over the hissing and the rudeness. But now, your hands are strangely… open.
Your hands are open. They are open and they are light. You feel that you never want to clench them together, that you never want to twist them together like that again. They are open. And they are inclined, not to hang on, but to let go. As you walk toward your house… your house, so filled with beautiful, disappointing things… you think of letting go. Just, letting go. You think of letting go, and it occurs to you: it’s easy. It’s easy, because now, everything has changed. You have been seen. You have been known. That icy wind has blown through you, and it’s shaken the crust off your heart. Your heart is beating, and you are wide awake and wondering. You turn to him, and you say, “My hands are open now. What can I give? Who needs something?” And he laughs, and you laugh together. And he says, “Oh, it is a day of joy in your house. Truly, you are a beloved child of God.”
And you walk along to your house, discussing the particulars… of what you can give with your newly open hands. The newly open hands of a beloved child of God. And when you arrive at your house… what do you know? There are the friends and neighbors, the loved ones. And suddenly you forget. You forget the disappointments and the pettiness. You forget the crushed hopes and the squashed dreams. You forget it all, because today there is a radiance abroad, in all these people, and it occurs to you: They too are beloved children of God! And now the laughter starts again, and it is hard to contain it. A feast has somehow arrived and been served. A banquet has somehow been provided, and here you were thinking you were the host. But you’re not the host. You’re the guest. All you need to do is to receive it, into your newly open hands and heart. And everywhere you hear the laughter that is pure joy And you think, yes. This is it. Beloved child of God, this is it. What joy: know and be known. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Friday, November 02, 2007
I've spent much of this week at the hospital with a dear member, well into her nineties, who has been ill, with they knew not what for several days. Tonight she is resting (I pray) following successful surgery to untangle her intestines. She has had a rough week, lost a lot of blood early on, and she isn't out of the woods quite yet.
I have spent much of my time with her next of kin. D. doesn't have children, and her husband died about 30 years ago. But she is a kind of "aunt" to two women, twin sisters, who have been by her side constantly. They were raised by their grandparents, who happen to have been dear friends of D. They have adopted her as their own as fully and fiercely as you can imagine. They are with her virtually every moment, advocating for her, deciphering her slurred speech, catching her jokes (she is still making jokes, even in extremis, as she is. She is wry and hilarious. Today when another of her friends said "I'll call your neighbors with an update," she rolled her eyes. "You can tell them where to go," she said. She is in pain and not to be trifled with.)
I met D. in September, nearly as soon as I began working at New Church. I went to bring her Communion, along with a Deacon, after I'd been there about 10 days. She was sprightly, on a schedule, eager to tell me about her days as treasurer of New Church. She told me then who her friends were, the same women who have been standing vigil with her this week. She reminded me of my mother-in-law, now deceased. There was something in her delivery of lines... that humor I mentioned. Also, a slightly gravelly quality that may have come from just a little bit of smoking once upon a time. What a contrast to how I've seen her this week: so close, hovering near the veil that parts the worlds.
And this is what it is to be a pastor this week: the best laid plans of writing text for the narrative budget... out the window. Maybe I'll get to it Monday morning. Preparation for my new member class... Sunday morning. Practicing guitar to play with the youth choir... also Sunday morning. Memorizing sermon... we'll see.
One of the twins called me on the phone this morning to tell me what time D.'s surgery was scheduled for. She told me, "D. said to us last night, 'If something happens to me, call Magdalene. I want it to be her.'" I hope what happens to her is that she gets to sip some clear liquids tomorrow, and then to have some Jell-O and crackers on Sunday, and maybe a bit of chicken soup on Monday. I like her. I hope she sticks around.
I care. But I feel powerless. I feel like I am no longer a citizen of the country I grew up in.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
Marine Father Victor in Suit Over Protests
BALTIMORE, Oct. 31 (AP) — The father of a marine killed in Iraq was awarded nearly $11 million in damages on Wednesday. A jury found leaders of a fundamentalist church had invaded the family’s privacy and inflicted emotional distress when they picketed the marine’s funeral.
The jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. Later, it awarded $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress to the father, Albert Snyder of York, Pa.
Mr. Snyder sued the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., for unspecified monetary damages after its members demonstrated in March at the funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, in Westminster, Md.
The defense said it would appeal. A church leader, Shirley Phelps-Roper, said members would still picket the funerals. Church members say American deaths in Iraq are punishment for tolerating homosexuality.
Before the jury deliberated punitive damages, Judge Richard D. Bennett of Federal District Court in Baltimore said the compensatory award “far exceeds the net worth of the defendants,” according to financial statements.
The suit named the church; the Rev. Fred Phelps, its founder; and his daughters, Ms. Phelps-Roper and Rebecca Phelps-Davis.No one I know views the members of this church as anything other than members of the lunatic fringe, an extraordinarily ugly manifestation of the way in which Christianity can be warped and twisted into an unrecognizable form. That said, I'm not sure this is the answer.
I feel for this family. To lose a child-- or parent, or spouse-- in war must be a devastation I can only begin to imagine. To have the religious and civic services associated with bringing closure to that loss marred by crazy ugliness sucks beyond all comprehension.
The jury in this case concluded that the activities of this "church" transgressed the bounds of allowable free speech. I'm glad they concluded that. I hope this muzzles these wack-jobs once and for all. But this monetary award will almost certainly be overturned. US-ans love to throw money at problems, as if that will solve everything. This is phantom money, that neither Phelps nor his followers have. And judging by the response of the church so far... that they vow to continue picketing funerals of US service personnel... the judgment against them most likely only convinces them of their martyr status and stiffens their resolve.
The whole thing just leaves me feeling unspeakably hollow and sad.