Friday, October 31, 2008


Obsessive-Compulsive Election Disorder. I've got it.

I start and end the day at How are Nate Silver's numbers today? If That One's electoral votes are down from the day before, I go into a veritable funk, and no coffee can lift me out of it. Then on to Yahoo's Election Dashboard, for another electoral vote projection. Then, maybe a dash over to HuffPo, just to see what tabloid-worthy (but progressive!) items I can find there. Then, if I really want to scare myself, I might sneak a peak at the Ugh Report. I return to the fresh air of the Grey Lady, and then glance real quick at Real Clear Politics. Then... maybe Nate has crunched some more numbers, so back to Fivethirtyeight....

This goes on All. The. Live. Long. Day. Whether I'm trying to write a sermon (remember those? It's been weeks!) or balance my checkbook, the above routine is repeated, oh, every fifteen to twenty minutes. I can feel the brain cells starting to slip out... they're thinning, like hair. They're fleeing! They're seeking sanctuary in friendlier countries!

This all started during my convalescence. But I can't blame my gall bladder. Because this is a snapshot of me, every four years. Slowly going insane. And the last time I went to bed happy on election night? It's been twelve years, people. Twelve loooooonnnnnnnnng years.

Let's get this thing over with. Shall we? My church needs me. My family needs me. My leaves need me.

But... just another quick look at Nate's numbers... I think there might be something there.

Graphic courtesy of... you guessed it!...

For Your Halloween Enjoyment

Classic. I'm a little scared now.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Prayer for the US Presidential Election

By Rev. Dr. Ken Carter, and distributed by the Day 1 November 2 email.

Creator of us all:
you are the source of every blessing,

the judge of every nation
and the hope of earth and heaven:

We pray to you on the eve of this important and historic election.

We call to mind the best that is within us:
That we live under God,
that we are indivisible,
that liberty and justice extend to all.

We acknowledge the sin that runs through our history as a nation: The displacement of native peoples, racial injustice, economic inequity, regional separation.

And yet we profess a deep and abiding gratitude
for the goodness of ordinary people who have made sacrifices,
who have sought opportunities,
who have journeyed to this land as immigrants
strengthening its promise in successive generations,
who have found freedom on these shores,
and defended this freedom at tremendous cost.

Be with us in the days that are near.
Remind us that your ways are not our ways,
that your power and might transcend
the plans of every nation,
that you are not mocked.

Let those who follow your Son Jesus Christ be a peaceable people
in the midst of division.

Send your Spirit of peace, justice and freedom upon us,
break down the walls of political partisanship,
and make us one.

Give us wisdom to walk in your ways,
courage to speak in your name,
and humility to trust in your providence. Amen.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Swarming with the No on 8 Crowd

My lovely and talented friend Choralgirl jetted me an email about a blogswarm taking place today, all of us urging you, the reader from California, to vote No on Proposition 8 next Tuesday. (See Choralgirl's piece here; gorgeous, on point, perfect as ever). I'm happy to take part.

I believe Proposition 8 does what it says: it denies gay and lesbian citizens of California a right accorded to the rest of the populace. Why our country is so in love with taking away these particular rights puzzles me: any institution that is designed, by virtue of the many rights it confers, to strengthen and undergird relationships would seem to be a no-brainer, good for society. Marriage is designed to further all sorts of good things in society: people taking care of one another, people being responsible for and to one another, people sharing the risks and benefits of things such as home ownership, parenthood, insurance policies. Marriage is a good thing for those who wish to partake, and I believe that discrimination based on sexual orientation is both unconstitutional and un-Christian.

However, I believe something else, and this something else is part of the problem with the whole rationale of those who are for Proposition 8. I believe that religious groups should be out of the marriage business altogether. If you are a Presbyterian couple, and would like to have the blessing of the church on your marriage, I am overjoyed to help you to have that. But I don't think that I, a minister, should be an agent of the state. The first year I was out of seminary I was shocked at how loosey goosey the whole thing was. I called around in vain, trying to find the place where I would register as an ordained minister, or where I would get my state credential. No such place or credential (in my part of my state) existed. I was told, "Just sign "Rev" on the license. That's it." Well, if marriage is going to be about giving rights on behalf of the state, if it is going to be about legitimizing some relationships over others, if my signature is going to be the stuff on which court cases can be decided, or wills contested, or children acknowledged... I think it should be done by officials of the state, thanks.

Then... Rick Warren and the Roman Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in America and all the other proponents of this sorry piece of legislation can withhold their blessings and approval from those they choose to exclude. And I can preside over the blessing of those unions I think have a shot in hell at succeeding, whether the organist has played Here Comes the Grooms or Here Comes the Brides or even Pachelbel's Canon.

So, No on 8, people. But... taking the longer view, let's us religious types get ourselves out of the business of working for the state in this particular way. If we are agents of the state, how can be be free to critique it... as all who stand in the shadows of the prophets must from time to time?

First Day Back

I went in to the office today for the first time since Youth Group on Friday night October 17. The hardest thing, honestly, was getting up at 6:45. That hurt. I'm off the pain meds, and I decided: Hey, Preacher! Leave that couch alone. So off I went.

L, my fabulous and sweet administrative assistant drove me, even though according to my surgeon I was good to go, driving-wise. But the beauty of this plan was L's schedule: 8:30 Am- Noon, not a moment longer, because she is in class in the afternoon. So when she left, I left. See how smart I can be?

I was happy to see everyone, they seemed pretty happy to see me. The church email account had 605 messages in it (that's the one that holds the subscriptions to two lists for preaching types). I was able to rustle up most of a bulletin for Sunday. By 11 AM... my drass was aggin'. I couldn't believe I had only been there two and a half hours; it felt like I'd run a marathon.

Left with L at noon as scheduled. Came home, had some lunch and collapsed. Later I went through mountains of mail, but I'm not writing any checks tonight. I'm tired.

Off to knit (a sweater I'm trying to have finished for Petra for Christmas) and watch several episodes of "House" I haven't seen. Because, you know, maybe there's something else I'll get.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Week One

We are one week post surgery today, and I'm feeling not bad at all. Yesterday, in hopes of eventually getting behind the wheel of my car again, I stopped the meds. I'm fine. A little sore, but really fine.

I also went grocery shopping. BFF took me. (She is really amazing, my rock through all this.)

Oh my. That was difficult. I felt as if I had no filters, and was completely overwhelmed by the people, the noises... had a brief moment where I though I might actually faint, and how embarrassing would that be? But... got through it, got stuff for Petra and me to live on this week (my dear girl... there's another rock!). Came back to Recovery Central and collapsed on the couch.

Then I went to a concert in which I was supposed to be singing. Petra and I have been singing with this fine organization this fall. A bit of history: when the ex Mr. Mags and I moved here in 1990, with Larry-O in tow (who was all of two and a half) I quickly did two things in order to meet people. Mr. Mags had, after all, a graduate program... He had the colleagues one finds in school... who are, in my life, my bestest friends because of all sorts of "We've been through it together" feelings. So, he had all these built in insta-friends, and I had... Larry, who was as darling as he could be, but... I'd left all my grown up friends (and a half finished Master's degree) in Bean Town. So, two things: I ran for the board at the pre-school Larry attended (and got on), and I auditioned for that choir. In both places I made friends with whom I am still close... in fact, I made one friend who is a member of St. Sociable. ("Little town, it's a quiet village... " everyone knows everyone two or three ways here, honest.)

I sang with Local Choir for three years, until Petra came along. Then I dipped in and out of their seasons until seminary-- during which time it was impossible to commute to Big City AND sing-- and then my divorce, at which point the music became a little too painful (a fall concert of love songs just about sent me over the edge) and I took some time off. (Before that, Larry sang with me for one season, which was lovely.) Then I commuted to distant interim pastor positions; since we sing on Sunday afternoons, that became tough. But this summer, Petra and I discussed the possibility of singing together, and she made an appointment to audition for the director, and... we're in.

So, we've been rehearsing a concert of songs from around the world-- England, Ireland, Japan, Africa, and the US, plus a couple of songs in Hebrew-- Petra and I even had parts in a little quartet for a shape-note hymn in the second half. The concert was supposed to premiere in a town an hour from here (where I was an interim pastor for nearly two years) on Sunday the 19th... on which morning I awakened at 3 AM with my second gall bladder attack, yada yada yada. And Petra was not leaving my side, so we both missed the first concert.

On Friday, just for fun, I stood and tried to sing something. And my muscles said, "No no no no no, we're busy. And we hurt. What the hell are you thinking?" And I said, "Oops, sorry guys," and that was officially it. I wasn't singing the second one either.

But Petra did sing, so Ex. Mr. Mags (I think he needs a new name. Henceforth: he is the Impresario) and I sat companionably together and watched and listened to our daughter sing like the lovely and talented young woman she is (youngest in the choir). And then Petra and I went out to a red lightning Italian restaurant with our fellow choristers, a dozen or so of whom shared their gall bladder (or appendix or perforated colon) stories with me. Whee!

Then... Petra back to Impresario's, for one last night, me back to BFF's, for one last night. Today... follow up with surgeon. Tonight I cook at home (Alert the media!!). Tomorrow, a half day at work. The surgeon told me two weeks for recovery. This week I plan to do two half days in the office and to write my sermon at home and get ready for Sunday. That seems doable... today. I promise to evaluate as I go.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bullets of Healing

  • I can now (usually) roll over in bed without big yelps of pain.
  • I am still taking the House pills, (as prescribed, Petra)
  • I have been outside twice, including right now... an hour at an internet cafe
  • But I'm starting to shake, so I'll be going home soon
  • I've been reading:

And this:

And this:

  • I still walk really slowly.
  • I've perfected what Petra calls the "gall bladder laugh": a loud, breathy guffaw (to dissipate the impact of the breath on the muscles) during which I clasp my stomach and close my eyes, and mouth "No!"
  • Thank God I am not preaching this Sunday. I love it, you know I love it. But Thank God.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Rest of the Story

On Friday I felt better... a little transparent, for my scary experience Thursday, but essentially myself. I had a full day, including meetings with colleagues, working on my sermon, and a long youth group meeting in the evening.

Saturday Petra and I had a rehearsal for a concert Sunday afternoon, and then I spent the afternoon somewhat desperately trying to finish my sermon. But I was still tired from my ER visit... I kept nodding off. Saturday evening we had dinner out with BFF, and then headed home, where I finished my sermon (I wasn't thrilled with it, but... it was what it was, I know you know what I mean). I pulled some things together for a New Member Class to take place Sunday AM at 9. At about midnight I climbed into bed.

At 3 AM Sunday, it happened again. The pain, though not quite as bad as Thursday. But unmistakable. I got out of bed and paced a bit. At 4 AM I decided to take a pain pill (the same ones "House" pops). I called BFF, and said, "I think I'm having another gall bladder attack. I took a pain pill, and I'm just calling to see if you'll be willing to call me at 8 AM to make sure I didn't oversleep."

"I'm coming over."

"No, I don't think that's necessary...."

"I'm coming over."

And there we were, again, waking Petra (except, I woke her myself, and I was able to get dressed and walk with her to BFF's car instead of being taken out, in my nightgown, in an ambulance). And... it wasn't as scary, because I knew what was going on.

By the time we got to the hospital the pain had ratcheted up a bit, more like the first attack. They got me right in a room, and took blood tests. This time the liver was involved, and the pancreas. So... they admitted me. I met with the surgeon. And yesterday at 4 PM the nice doctor took out my gall bladder.

I had six pastoral visits during my 60 hours in the hospital. I knew this would be the case. Sure enough, my colleagues showed up. They stood by my bed or sat with me, they prayed with me, they didn't stay too long, they showed the loving face of God to me.

Each visit was precious. One stands out in particular: a colleague who has been battling cancer. Her prayer: God, thank you for joy, for life, for health. Thank you for being with us even when our health leaves us.

Tonight I'm back home (at BFF's place), resting comfortably. Petra is with her dad, where she is 99% guaranteed a night free of trips to the emergency room.

All my obligations for this week have been passed on to others. The worship chair has arranged for another preacher for Sunday. I have nothing ahead of me this week but to get better.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Scary Night

I had a scary night. I awakened at about 3:25 this morning with a pain on the right side of my abdomen, radiating through to my back. I tossed and turned a bit, but realized it was getting worse.

I got up. I went to the bathroom. I felt nauseous. I started to have difficulty breathing. The pain was crushing. I wondered, am I having a heart attack? Unable to lie down again, it was so excruciating, I paced a bit, and finally, unwillingly, called my best friend and 911. I coughed until the ambulance arrived (I read that somehwere... the crew confirmed to me, it's the right thing to do if you think you're having a heart attack).

They were all at the house in a matter of minutes. BFF had the job of waking Petra without scaring her to death. Quickly the EMT's (whom I LOVE. A shout out to EMT's. Woohoo!!! You guys rock.) determined it was not my heart, which was in a nice, normal sinus rhythm, though ticking along at 120 beats per minute (my blood pressure was so high I have blocked it from my memory. The diastolic was 90.). They took me to the hospital, where a lovely doctor (who looked like she might need to leave to go to the prom) quickly diagnosed a gall bladder attack. An ultrasound confirmed that I will need to have it removed. Fortunately, the pain passed (likely, a stone passed) and I was released. I need to follow up by calling the surgeon... now, I guess.

I've been sleeping for a couple of hours at BFF's place. Petra is in school, where I imagine she's somewhat the walking wounded (having been roused before 4 AM to accompany Mom to the hospital). I'm still a little shaken... the minutes waiting for the ambulance, the minutes driving to the hospital... I wondered if they were my last.

Thank God, they were not.

Monday, October 13, 2008


I'm pretty excited, because tomorrow morning at 10 AM a coupla my favorite clergy gals are darkening the door of St. Sociable in the name of our Brand Spankin' New Tuesday AM Lectionary Group. Yee!

I've searched around a bit for a lectionary group. I need one that is very efficient. The last one I attended, about 35 miles away near our denominational offices, was convivial but highly inefficient. Sometimes we didn't get to the readings until 45 minutes had gone by, and sometimes I needed to leave after an hour. I'm not a group process Nazi or anything. And this is going to sound very, very.... J of me: but I need any group I attend to actually get to the business we say we want to get to. I just don't have time to socialize when I expect to be doing specific tasks that need to be done (like my scripture study for the week).

Anyway, here's how we're going to proceed. We'll meet every two to three weeks. When we meet, we'll each do a brief presentation to the group on one reading for one of the upcoming weeks. We'll provide each other with a handout. We'll brainstorm sermon starters and illustrations. Two hours, and we all leave with two to three weeks of exegesis, done.

Doesn't that sound groovy?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Those Other Guests: A Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14

“Those Other Guests”
Matthew 22:1-14
October 12, 2008

One day not too long ago I looked out my office window and saw that a fight was about to break out. A large group of teenagers had gathered, and in the middle of them, two boys were approaching one another with rigid, angry postures, as they threw their baseball caps to the ground and buffeted one another on the shoulders. I watched fascinated… it was like something out of “Romeo and Juliet.” An insult had been hurled, and for someone, the figurative gauntlet had been thrown down. Someone’s honor had been insulted, and there was only one perceived way to remedy it.

Honor and shame: these values are still active in our society, even though we might think of them as quaint relics of a bygone era. Those angry boys have been schooled in a culture in which their honor must be protected; if they believe they have been shamed, they will violently defend themselves.

The culture of honor and shame was active in Jesus’ day as well, even more dramatically than in our own. In fact, these may well have been the most important cultural values of that era: everyone, from the fisherman next door to Caesar in his palace, was working overtime to get honor, to avoid shame. This has to do with the structure of society in New Testament Palestine. In 2008, we all know there is a great disparity between the haves and the have nots, between those who are at the top of the human food chain and those who are at the bottom. In Jesus’ day, it was even more pronounced. Everyone knew that the world was ordered with a tiny few at the top and the vast majority at the bottom, and it was of great concern to everyone to know precisely where they fell in that ranking. It was also of paramount importance to them that they maintain their rank—at the risk of their honor. If their rank fell—it was a source of devastating shame.[i]

Honor and shame are key (if unnamed) characters in our parable this morning. In the version Matthew tells of this story, a king decides to throw a lavish wedding banquet in honor of his son. Here’s how it worked in the days before eVites and the US Postal service: an invitation would be sent by messenger, and delivered orally. “His majesty the king requests the honor of your presence…” etc. To be invited by a king was a great honor; normally, anyone invited would immediately say, “I would be delighted to be there. See you on the 12th!” But don’t forget: the king’s honor is on the line, too. The way people respond will either honor him or shame him. In order to protect everyone’s honor, on the day of the party, servants would be sent around again, with a reminder. That way no one accidentally shames either themselves or the host by forgetting to attend.

Here’s where there’s a hitch in the story. Those who have been invited suddenly, inexplicably, refuse to come. And the fact that this is not just one guest, but all the guests, suggests some sort of conspiracy… an uprising…an unimaginable assault on the honor of the king. But the ruler is patient; he sends around more servants, to entice the guests with the details of the party… Look, he tells them to say. The fatted calves are roasting. The oxen are turning on the spit. Can’t you almost smell the aroma? All is ready. Come on over! Who could refuse such an invitation?

These are no ordinary invitees, evidently. Not only do they refuse the second invitationa, they “make light of it,” Matthew tells us… and some of them even, shockingly, seize the slaves and kill them.

Something is wrong here. The people in this parable, frankly, are not behaving very realistically. The idea that a king’s servants would be treated in this way… that they would be killed… that the king would, by implication, be so dismally and shockingly shamed by the actions of all those he invited… this is a very big clue for us that something else is going on here. There’s no other way to say this: Matthew has hijacked this parable, and turned it into an allegory. Remember: A parable is a story about everyday matters that transcends its everyday meaning. A parable is not an allegory… in which every character has a not-very-well-concealed identity. Matthew clearly wants us to understand that the king is God, the son is Jesus, and the first guests, who treated the servants so appallingly, are the people of the covenant, God’s chosen people of Israel. Matthew, who is himself Jewish, is using a parable of Jesus, also a Jew, to throw punches in an ugly family fight of the early church, a fight between those Jews who follow Jesus and those who don’t.

The story continues. After the king has exacted vengeance on the rude guests… by not only killing the murderers but also destroying their whole city… he sends his servants to invite anyone and everyone… men and women on the streets… Matthew tells us, the good and the bad alike. And they come.

The part of this story that makes most of us wince, that makes us shake our heads, that has caused interpreters throughout the ages to do back flips to come up with theories to excuse the behavior of the king… that part comes next. In the last three verses of the story, the king becomes angry with a partygoer—someone whom we know was invited at the last minute. The king has the unfortunate man bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness for the almost bizarre reason that he does not have the proper attire. The king does not like what he is wearing.

If that sounds capricious, if that sounds randomly cruel, if that sounds… well, not like something that either Jesus would say or God would do… well there’s a very good reason for that. Matthew has created this part of the parable himself. These three verses are not a part of the original story as Jesus told it. How do we know this? We know this because the parable exists in two other places. It is told also in the gospel of Luke and in the Gnostic gospel of Thomas. In both those instances, the parable ends with the vision of the banquet of misfits and outcasts, those most of us would judge as unworthy, all enjoying the lavish hospitality of the host: a giddy vision of life in the kingdom of heaven. Scene, Curtain. End of Story.[ii]

In Matthew’s version we seem to have a king who is double-minded. On the one hand, he throws a great feast and invites many people. On the other, he kills, not only those who refuse his invitation and kill his servants, but their whole city. On the one hand, he invites everyone without discrimination, “both good and bad” to come and enjoy the feast. On the other, he kicks someone out for coming casual when the dress was formal. (This last piece has inspired the most creative excuses throughout the years, including the idea that the wedding garments were actually handed out at the door: not true, there’s no evidence for that theory). In other words, this king seems to be as caught up in the whole honor/ shame game as the surrounding culture. And if there’s anything we know about Jesus… it is that he rejects this game completely. Backtrack a few chapters and read the Sermon on the Mount. Read almost anything else in Matthew except for these few verses. Jesus rejects this way of looking at the world. Jesus specifically praises those who refuse to play by these rules. One scholar, talking about all three versions of the parable, puts it this way:

It is the random and open commensality [table fellowship] of the parable's meal that is its most startling element… And the almost predictable counteraccusation to such open [table fellowship] is immediate: Jesus is a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He makes, in other words, no appropriate distinctions and discriminations. He has no honor. He has no shame.[iii]

I think it’s fair to say that Jesus wants us out of the honor/ shame game. He wants us to know that, if there is honor, it belongs only to God. And he has shown us the things that give honor… the crazy, counterintuitive, countercultural things like divesting ourselves of wealth and possessions, rather than accumulating them. Things like serving the poorest and neediest at a soup kitchen, rather than being served at the fanciest restaurant. Things like quietly working behind the scenes to help, to heal, to encourage, to comfort, rather than grabbing the headlines. Honor and shame are not what we think they are. They are not what those boys think they are. We all have to learn a new way to play and be together.

This is a story whose original purpose was to encourage people described as “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” It was designed to give hope and heart to those who had no clothes whatsoever, let alone fancy ceremonial garments. It was told by Jesus to those who believed themselves helplessly and hopelessly on the outside, never to get in, to give them the radical and startling message, “Hey, you. Yes, you. The other guests. You are invited. Yes, you.”

You, who believe you are too full of despair or anger to be close to God. You’re invited. You are welcome. You, who do not fit in with the in crowd, with the magazine-cover models or the Wall Street moguls. You’re invited. You are welcome. You, who have received the message… maybe even from the church… that you are unacceptable, that you are wrong, that you are a sinner… You’re invited. You are welcome.

So, let’s hear the original words, the words that we know came from Jesus, the words that tell us… whomever we think looks like they belong on the outside… we’re probably wrong. Jesus chooses the least and the lost, the outcast and the outrageous, those “other” guests. So you, whomever you are, if you feel that you are not worthy or not ready or not right, hear this good news: You’re invited. You are welcome. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] J. Paul Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. X (Nasville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 782.
[ii] Luke 14:15-24; Thomas 64:1-12.
[iii] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 1993), 261.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

OK, Could We Have the Election, Um, Tomorrow Please?

Because I am mighty tired... bone and spirit tired... of all this.

My guy looked good last night, but he... like not-my-guy... was essentially repeating memorized speeches, all of which I heard verbatim at the first debate.

The moment for which I was grateful was when my guy was finally forced to answer the question: "Health care: a privilege, a right or a responsibility?"

And he finally, blessedly, said, "A right." Thank you Senator.

And here's the best commentary on that issue: thanks to my friend Jane R at Acts of Hope. Theologian Mary Hunt says, we should have health care not because we have a job, but because we have bodies. Amen to that.

Bring out the polling booths.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

New Rules: A Sermon on Exodus 20:1-21, Matthew 22:36-40

“New Rules”
Exodus 20:1-20, Matthew 22:36-40
October 5, 2008
World Communion Sunday

It seems that sometimes we live in an era that calls for new rules. I believe we might be in one, right now. All sorts of signs and omens would seem to be jockeying for our attention, telling us that the ways in which we have lived are not working for us any more, and another approach is in order.

Of course, these last weeks we have all been witness to a breakdown in our financial system so dramatic that it threatens to grind not only the US economy, but global economies, to a halt. Much smarter people than I are very busy analyzing this collapse, and a number of theories are emerging as to why it has happened, and how it might be both fixed, and what can be done to prevent it from recurring. But the situation remains: the rules we have been working with, have not worked. We are in an era that calls for new rules.

Political comedian Bill Maher has made this concept a staple of his television show, and each week he recommends New Rules based on his acerbic take on the week’s news. His most recent New Rule is a gentle jab at Secretary Paulson, combined with a shout out at those of us who grew up watching television in the sixties: “Next time we get in an enormous financial crisis, the guy we're depending on to get us out of it can't look like Colonel Klink.”

This morning we have as our reading some of the oldest codified rules in existence, though to call them rules runs the risk of vastly oversimplifying them. In Hebrew, their original language, they are called, simply, “words.” Ten words, conveyed to God’s people as being the basis for how they will live together.

These words are simple, fairly easy to remember. I’ve heard them described as follows:

1. THOU shalt have no more gods but me.
2. Before no idol bend thy knee.
3. Take not the name of God in vain.
4. Dare not the Sabbath day profane,
5. Give both thy parents honor due.
6. Take heed that thou no murder do.
7. Abstain from words and deeds unclean.
8. Steal not, though thou be poor and mean.
9. Make not a willful lie, nor love it.
10. What is thy neighbor's dare not covet.

Two things stand out to me about these ten words, which are still so relevant that as recently three years ago, the constitutionality of their display in public places was still being argued before the Supreme Court.

The first thing that stands out to me is this: each commandment is expressed in the negative. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol…You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. With just one exception, every commandment is expressed as what we shall not do. (The exception, of course, is “Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” Fascinating to theorize about why that particular word is given a positive spin!).

In this way, the Ten Words, are really not at all the highest expression of what we should aspire to as human beings, or as Christians. They are the lowest common denominator… the very least we can do, literally, is to avoid spilling the blood of the people who annoy us. The very least we can do is to tell the truth. The very least we can do is to not steal from one another. You catch my meaning. A society that lives by the Ten Words, and only by the Ten Words, would seem to be one focused on all the things we can’t do, have, be or want. I think there is something higher to which we are called than these commandments, revere them though we do.

The other thing that stands out to me in these words is their 40/ 60 breakdown. Two fifths of the commandments… fully the first four…forty percent of these commandments from God concern our relationship with God. If we really look at the number of words spent, though, the proportion is even more dramatic. The commandments, by my count, take up 315 words in English. 233 of these are spent on those first four… more than two thirds. The lion’s share of these words concern how we are to live in relationship with God. These first four commandments are both the heart of our words from God, and the basis upon which the other commandments rest.

This is where the new rules come in… well, not exactly new rules. But rather, Rabbi Jesus’ interpretation of the old ones. When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus does not actually quote from the Decalogue, or the ten words. Rather, he quotes from another passage in the Hebrew Bible, from Deuteronomy, just slightly amending it: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” reads the original (Deut. 6:5). Jesus changes the word “might” to “mind.” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” he says. And, love your neighbor as you love yourself. Love God. Love others. No “thou shalt nots.” Gone are the lowest common denominators for behavior. In their place is a whole lot of blank space for our interpretation of what it means to love.

I have some experience with 12-Step programs. These are programs designed to help people to learn to live without addictive substances or behaviors… alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating. The thing about being an addict is, no one wants to give up that substance. We pick it up for a reason. It feels good. It helps us get through the day, we think… until we realize it’s killing us, or it’s destroying our health or shattering our relationships. When an addict walks into a 12-Step meeting for the first time, the thing most on her mind is what she is giving up by taking this action. She’s giving up that first glass of wine (that leads to countless others). He’s giving up the prescription pills he initially needed for his back injury, but which are threatening to drag him to economic ruin or even jail. The addict gives up something, and in the initial phase of recovery (often referred to as the white-knuckle period), our whole experience is about trying to cope with what we can’t do, have, be, or want.

But something amazing happens. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” we are taught. It is strongly suggested to us that we put God and what we believe God wants for us first (just about exactly like the emphasis the ten commandments place on trying to get us to put God first). And soon, as the compulsion to use the substance is removed, something remarkable is left in its place: pure, unadulterated gratitude. Thank you God, recovering addicts say over and over. Thank you God… for giving me this day. Thank you God… that I don’t have to drink/ smoke/ overeat/ gamble today. Thank you God… that I can feel my health returning. Thank you God… that I don’t have to disappoint and hurt the people who love me today. Thank you God… for every tiny miracle that a day free from addiction enables me to experience, from waking up without a hangover to being able to pay my bills this month to being able to remember the beautiful intimacy of an encounter with another one of your children.

What if our national conversation… about the economy, about the environment, about race, about the war in Iraq… you choose your favorite issue… what if we stopped focusing on the least common denominators of morality and citizenship, and began to focus instead on that vast blank space of interpretation of what it means to love God and others. Call me naively optimistic… I can take it. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might and with all your mind,” Jesus tells us. And love your neighbors as yourself. On a World Communion Sunday… I am willing to be na├»ve enough to believe that these new rules for living together just might work. Thank you God. Amen.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Indigo Girls in Concert, 9-30-08

Tuesday night saw Petra, BFF and myself driving more than two hours away to see Teh Girls in concert... my fourth time, Petra's second, BFF's first. Oh my. Why are they so wonderful?

The opening act was Kathleen Edwards, of whom I will admit I have never heard before. She was fabulous... I highly recommend her album, Asking for Flowers, from which she played most of her set. She was personable, funny, and a kickass guitar-player.

After that, it was just Amy, Emily, a large assortment of guitars, mandolins and at least one banjo, and Julie Wolfe on keyboards and accordion. Amazing.

Here's their set list.

Pendulum Swingers
Fill it Up Again
Heartache for Everyone
Power of Two
Dairy Queen
Let it Be Me
Hope Alone
Money Made You Mean
Get Out the Map
Shame on You
Prince of Darkness

...a fabulous assortment of recent and vintage Girls music. Then two numbers from the new album that will be released in February:

Sugar Tongue (which, I believe, is about fascism... fabulous Amy song)
Fleet of Hope (beautiful allegorical love song by Emily)

... Then Amy sang this one from her new album, Didn't It Feel Kinder:

Stand and Deliver

And the remainder of the set:

Land of Canaan
Closer to Fine

Followed by encores

Hide Yourself

The beautiful Smith Opera House was packed with a mostly appreciative, respectful audience. One woman who was clearly drunk started yelling because they declined to do a request (they didn't do ours either: Three County Highway). She was escorted out. Other folks showed that the whole boundary issue between themselves and Teh Girls was... challenging for them, shall I say?

But there's nothing like dancing to Galileo at the end of a fabulous night.