Saturday, January 31, 2009


Because I know you are all on PINS and NEEDLES, wondering how my Study Leave Stay has gone, I bring you: this meme. Because, this girl can produce. Know what I'm saying?

1. Put your iPod, ZUNE or other music player on shuffle.
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer.
4. Tag friends who might enjoy doing this as well as the person you got it from.

"Settlin'" by Sugarland

"Gaude Virgo" by Therese Schroeder-Sheker

"Tea and Sympathy" by Jars of Clay

"What Is This Lovely Fragrance?" by Holly Cole

"Down Easy" by Noe Venable

"Gethsemane" by Rickie Lee Jones

"You Don't Know Me" by the Susie Arioli Band

WHAT IS 2+2?
"Bonefields" by Shawn Colvin

"This Song Has No Title" by Elton John

"Give Peace a Chance" by the Plastic Ono Band

"Waiting" by George Michael

"After All" by Dar Williams

"So Wrong" by Patsy Cline

"Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne- Let Flocks and Herds Their Fear Forget"-- Choir of King's College, Cambridge

"Possession" by Sarah McLachlan

"Praying for Time" by George Michael

"Shroud" by Ani DiFranco

"Brown Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison

"Strange Lover" by Julie Miller

"Trouble" by the Indigo Girls

"White Daisy Passing" by Rocky Voltolato

"You'll See" by Rebecca Parris

"I May Know the Word" by Natalie Merchant

"Well Well Well" by Lucinda Williams

"We're Not Right" by David Grey

"Wish I May" by Ani DiFranco

"Already Gone" by Ferron

"This Is Not Goodbye" by Melissa Etheridge

"Crocodile Rock" by Elton John

"Kazoointoit" by Ani DiFranco

Monday, January 26, 2009

Study Leave Stay

I was supposed to be here with her.... Yes, again! It was great last year, so why not repeat it??

Well, sometimes you can't go home again. (What an original thought.) Indeed, sometimes you can't even go on the same study leave twice... though I have high hopes that Little Mary and I will figure out how and when soon. But things went awry on this end-- family stuff, friend stuff, and it turned out to be... just a better time to be home.

So home I am, and trying to do study leave here. (And write the sermon for Sunday that should have been written last week, but which aforementioned situations... family, friends etc... rendered nigh on impossible.)

So. What would I like to do this week?

  • Read all ninety books on my "to-read" list. Yeah, I know. Maybe pare that down to... three? four? Can I read four books this week? If I can, I will dutifully report them here.
  • Put together the Lenten series (worship with different music each week, including a jazz vespers with a well known Presby jazz player. Cool!).
  • Plan sermons (vaguely, allowing for the Spirit to move, of course) for Lent and Easter seasons. (I like to just... read ahead, you know? Have a game plan, even if I change it at the last minute? I just makes me feel better.
  • Plan a class on "Faithful and Vital Worship" for elders and deacons at an upcoming regional training event. (If those buzzwords made you think of this book, nice job. That's the one I'm stealing shamelessly from.)
  • And maybe most importantly, read up on other conferences happening this year so that I can plan my next study leave week. Sheesh! It can't be all fun and games.

In all seriousness: the thing I will miss most this week of not being with Little Mary is the morning prayer together. That was fabulous. Powerful. Moving.

Guess I'll have to make do with just, you know, me and the Big Guy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Where We Were

I've had so many meetings lately, and a funeral some distance away... I've been missing in action from my office, and so yesterday... despite the fact that anyone should understand the impulse to stay home and watch the thing... I was in my office. I asked the seccretary if I could have her radio (she wasn't listening) and I plugged it in next to my desk and tuned it to NPR. Then I found streaming video (at first on CNN, but there seemed to be a several minute delay, and L (the secretary) told me AOL was more current, so I went there. And... I pretended to do work (I did a little work), but basically, from about 11:15 on, I watched the festivities.

When the chamber music began, I began to weep.

When I had first graduated from college, I sang with T., a wonderful and enthusiastic choral director at the university parish at Big Jesuit U. This woman was the first to tell me: you must do something with that voice. I commenced a lengthy and fraught process of trying, then shying away from the idea of being a singer... for real. I studied with some wonderful voice teachers, ad in performance, I generally did well. I have a naturally beautiful and rich vocal instrument (through no merit of my own; God/ genes did it). But it was the auditions that killed me. In the most demoralizing one, the auditioner listened to me, and then ignored me while trying to convince my accompanist to come to work with her.

But through it all, T. had confidence in me (the kind I was never able to find for myself). She introduced me to all kinds of music, and the piece that stands out-- a piece I had her sing at my wedding, a piece I still love to sing whenever and wherever I can-- was the Aaron Copland arrangement of "Simple Gifts." It was T's way of saying to me, in effect, yes, you can.

So I heard the clarinet sweep into that theme yesterday and I was done for. The tears came. And when the gentleman said, "Please stand," I stood, in my office, weeping, and watched the Obama girls skip forward to see their daddy take the presidential oath of office haltingly, with some confusion, but in the end, to good effect... kind of like my singing career.

In the midst of it I received a text from Petra:

I'm watching! Are you?

To which I texted back,


and then,

I'm crying.

Petra told me later that all but one of her teachers allowed her classes to go to the auditorium to watch on a big screen. She told me two of her friends were unhappy, sullen, but that everyone else was in a party mood. In her French class, they watched C-SPAN, and various people got their cell phones out to call in. Eventually, the Parlor City Sophomore Honors French Class got through to the Democratic call-in line, to say, "We're so happy! We're so excited!" until the anchors broke off the call, laughing, that there was too much chaos for their young voices to be understood.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Poem

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

~ Elizabeth Alexander


Today's the day. Glory hallelujah.

Now let's back off, give the man room to breathe, and offer our big benefits of the doubt as he goes about the messy (anyone ever heard the old saw about sausage-making?) business of government in messy times.

But still. Glory hallelujah!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Fearful and Wonderful Knowing: Sermon on Psalm 139 and 1 Samuel 3:1-10

There is nothing in the world that compares with the experience of being with someone who truly knows you. Think about what it is like for those of you who have a brother or a sister, or a spouse or partner, those who have a parent or a child or a dear friend of whom you can say: she knows me better than I know myself.

Just think: you look into someone’s eyes, and he or she knows what you are feeling at that moment without your saying a word. You leave a party together, or a movie, or church, and each of you knows without being told what the other one is thinking, how you loved this particular part of the conversation, or you hated that particular character in the film, or how the minister’s tendency to run-on sentences drives you crazy.

When you are sick they know what you need, as they do when you are sad or frightened or lonely. They know what time you get up, so they can call you without waking you. Or they know that you won’t mind a wake-up call, from them. They know your habits… where you are likely to be at what hour of the day. It is a wonderful thing to be known in this way.

It can also be terrible. When someone knows you intimately, there is nowhere to hide. You can’t pretend you didn’t know that thing that he hates. He knows that you know it, so every time you do it it’s a willful act of aggression. You can’t pretend you didn’t know when her birthday was, or what her favorite flavor is, or that she wanted you to rent “An Affair to Remember” and you came home with “The Guns of Navaronne.” You can’t pretend. She knows that you know. It can be a terrible thing, in a wonderful way.

For me, it was my mom. A few words on the phone and she knew if I was happy or sad or getting sick from 250 or a thousand miles away. It was both a wonderful and a terrible, fearful thing, not to be able to hide from this woman who knew me better, often, than I knew myself.

God knows us with a fearful and wonderful knowing. Imagine how far we can take the words of the psalm: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up. You discern my thoughts from far away. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely” (Psalm 139:1-4).

God knows us. God knows everything about us. Like a loving sister, like an attentive lover, like a doting father, God knows everything that makes us tick, that gives us joy, that scares the daylights out of us. God’s knowing of us extends beyond who we are now, and back to who we were and who we were meant to be. Our frames were not hidden from God, when we were being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. God’s eyes beheld our unformed substance. In the Divine book were written all the days that were formed for us, when none of them as yet existed” (Psalm 139:15-16). God knew us, from the beginning, from before the beginning, when each of us was just a twinkle in our parents’ eyes, a thought, a hunch. God’s knowing of us is wonderful.

And God’s knowing of us is terrible and fearful, too. There are parts of this psalm that the lectionary advises us to skip right over, words and sentiments that feel unsavory, the parts we would rather not read because they speak of feelings and attitudes we would prefer not to acknowledge in ourselves: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me… Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies” (Psalm 139:19, 21-22). God sees those ugly parts of ourselves… the parts that hang on to bitterness, to anger, to hurt. God knows the parts of us that could envision, even if for just a moment, doing violence to someone, making our hate for them a centerpiece of our moral vision. God knows all this. God’s knowing of us is wonderful and fearful.

God knew Samuel in just this way. God knew Samuel’s past. God knew all about his brokenhearted mother Hannah, unable to conceive and desperately jealous of her husband’s other, fertile wife. (Remind me, someday, to preach a sermon on “Biblical family values.”) God knew how Hannah stood in the temple at Shiloh praying, her lips moving but no sound coming out, so that the attending priest, Eli, thought she was drunk and tried to shoo her away. God knew how Eli, moved by her plight, interceded, offered his own prayers to God on her behalf, and so Hannah conceived and bore a son, Samuel. God knew Samuel even before he was born.

God knew Samuel when his mother dedicated him to God. One old fashioned, biblical definition of a tithe is to give your firstborn to God, and Hannah did just that, turning Samuel over to Eli while he was still a small boy. “And the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD,” we are told… God knew Samuel. God had his eye on Samuel, because something was not right, and God had need of Samuel to step up, to step in to fix things. Imagine. Samuel, a young child, away from his parents and given over to the service of God in the temple: and God already had a plan for him, a plan hatched probably before he himself was hatched.

Here was the problem: Eli was good and faithful, but his sons were corrupt, and God had had enough of them. God knew them, too. God knew they were abusing their power and abusing the people who came to the temple to make offerings. And God had another vision in mind for his servants. So God called Samuel.

We don’t know exactly how old Samuel was in this scene, when he was sleeping near the Ark of the Covenant—in the very presence of God. The text calls him a “boy.” I don’t think we have to work it all out in detail, but I do think it’s good for us to remember: God sometimes calls people who are still young, still untried and untested, to make big changes, to make a difference in the world.

God called Samuel, this young person whom God already knew intimately. And what a shock that first contact must have been for the boy. God isn’t breaking Samuel in gradually. It’s not as if God says, “Well, Samuel, you are growing nicely, so, I’ll tell you what: you can light the lamps in the temple now. “ No. Samuel’s first assignment from God is to call down hellfire and judgment on Eli’s family.

God knows us in ways that are wonderful and fearful, and God’s call can be wonderful and fearful too. I think it’s safe to assume that God only commissions us for work that we are in fact able to do… with God’s help, of course. But sometimes the work to which we are called is not fun. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the servants of God. Sometimes it’s hurricanes, and tsunamis.

God called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into a virtual firestorm. The nation was torn apart by two wars, one abroad and one at home. God did not break him in gradually, either. King rose to prominence as an organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott when he was all of 26 years old, and he continued to move the civil rights movement forward by preaching and modeling nonviolent action until an assassin’s bullet ended his life. He hadn’t reached the age of 40. No one could call the path he walked an easy one. But it was a God-given one. God knew this man was equal to the task, this man who said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

I imagine God knew Martin Luther King in much the way God knew Samuel. God called one to make a change in religious leadership in the temple, and the other to fashion a change in the very fabric of society. Both were called at times of upheaval and uncertainty. But both were called by a God who knew them intimately, and who remained with them through all their days. God searches us and knows us and calls us to tasks greater than we are, and promises to remain with us while we accomplish them. God knows us with a wonderful and fearful knowing, and calls us, at times, to hard work, to transformational work, to the kind of work that makes us tremble in our shoes but which is, nonetheless, ours to carry on, and to carry out.

I wonder: what work is God calling us to do, both as individuals and as a congregation? Is God calling us to the hard work of forgiveness? Is God calling us to the strenuous tasks of planning and envisioning the next right step for our lives together? Is God calling us to abandon what is familiar and comfortable, to step out into God’s new plan for our church? Is God calling us to get involved, to join a committee, to call the church office and say, “What can I do?”

And if God is calling us, what is our response? Is it “Oh, five more minutes please”? Or is it, “Here I am, Lord”? When God calls our names, do we hear the voice of someone else by mistake? Or do we say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”?

There is nothing in the world that compares with the experience of being in relationship with the One who truly knows you. Just think about it: what it is like for each and every one of us to be able to say with utter confidence: God knows me better than I know myself.

God knows what and who it is that we love. God knows what and who it is that drives us crazy. When we are sick God knows what we need, just as when we are sad or frightened or lonely. God knows our sitting down and our rising up, and sometimes makes a wake-up call to us. And whether we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, or curl up in a familiar and beloved place, God is still there…still with us, still waiting for us, still calling our names. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Random Musings Before the Inauguration

I haven't written about politics in a while. I'm just kind of waiting and watching, like everybody else, I suppose. I've watched the cabinet picks unfold, and was glad to see my girl Hill get the nod for Secretary of State (I predicted that one; it's the only post that would truly be a star in her resume). I was impressed with the choice of Leon Panetta for head of the CIA (a strong voice in opposition to waterboarding and other torture methods for extracting information) and Steven Chu for Secretary of Energy (someone who's actually, uh, a scientist? with fantastic credentials in understanding both the causes of global warming and strategies for slowing/ stopping it through alternative energy sources, no less!). On the other hand, I am concerned about Lawrence Summers for head of the National Economic Council. My friends in Boston tell me he sowed nothing but dissent and misery at Harvard-- does not play nicely with others.

I was driving down Main Street of my fair city a few nights ago. We'd had a fairly large snowstorm, which had wound down until everything was coated thickly in one of those pretty new-snow blankets. The streets were plowed enough, though mostly empty, and the streetlights cast a golden glow on everything. I drove by all the churches on Main Street... the Presbyterians across from the Methodists, then the Lutherans, then the Episcopalians (across from the high school), and finally the Congregationalists. This music was playing in my car. Everything was so still. Everything was so beautiful.

Then I had a corny and sweet moment. It occurred to me: this is America, just before the inauguration. I can't even begin to try to convey the hopes of so many at this moment, so I won't. But... for the one or two people I saw hurrying along, bundled up as they were in their coats... I imagine that life is hard right now. Things are scary, uncertain. But there is this possibility that things might start getting better, even if, really, all that's happening is a thick and pretty covering of optimism falling and settling all around us.

I felt happy and excited, for just a moment, and then something odd happened. My family drove by in another car. There was the Impresario, along with Larry and Petra, and, of course, the Violist. In another car, going in another direction. And even though... I am happy, and life is good, and I was on my way to see someone wonderful, and the street was beautiful, and Obama's almost the commander in chief... I got a first-hand experience of how tentative and fragile everything is. Even my own life, even my own sense of family.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Claimed for Service: a Sermon on Mark 1:1-11

“Claimed for Service”
Mark 1:1-11
The Baptism of the Lord/ Ordination of Deacons and Elders

Well I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old day
And who could wear the starry crown
O Lord, show me the way.

O mothers let's go down
Let's go down, don't you wanna go down?
O fathers let's go down
Down in the river to pray.

Have you ever gotten to a point—the end of the line, the end of your rope—where and when you knew something had to change, something had to be different or—you just couldn’t go on? In the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou” three escaped convicts are racing around the Mississippi delta looking frantically for buried treasure. They still have the shackles on their legs from the chain gang from which they escaped. They are not innocents; they’re thieves, what you might call “common criminals.” As they meander through the woods they come upon a congregation of people headed for a river, singing that song, “Down in the river to pray.” The escapees watch, mesmerized, as people wade into the water to be baptized. Two of the men are seized with an overwhelming conviction that this is what they need, that they want to turn their lives around. They wade into the water, the congregation’s singing ringing in the air all around them, and they emerge, soaked and jubilant.

This is the kind of baptism Mark reports in these opening words from his gospel: a baptism of repentance, from the Greek word that means “turning around,” a baptism born of the conviction that one’s life is going in the wrong direction, that only a fresh start in God’s hands will make it right. This is the kind of baptism that caused people from the whole Judean countryside, all the people of Jerusalem, says Mark, to pour out of their homes in the hopes of wading into the muddy Jordan so that John could pour some water on their heads.

This is the kind of baptism not so often experienced here in the Presbyterian Church, where it’s the custom to baptize our babies and small children before it ever occurs to them to ask be baptized… people small enough that most of us would assume they can’t have had the opportunity to become sinners, or to get themselves on the wrong track. This is not the kind of baptism that comes to mind most readily for us, we who tend to think less about sin and forgiveness and cleansing, and more about belonging, identity, and incorporation into the body of believers. When we think of baptism, we tend to think of parents presenting an infant to become a member of the church, or folks who have simply not had the opportunity to be baptized in the past, offering themselves to be baptized so that they can become members.

Do we have two different baptism here? Not really. These baptisms are one and the same, even though Christians have wrangled about the subtle differences for centuries. Each and every baptism is about joining together with the body of Christ, with Jesus who, himself, was baptized, even though he had no need of repentance. Each and every baptism is about fallen humanity and our predilections for messing up the goodness of God’s creation, whether we’re talking about messing up rivers and oceans or messing up relationships. Each and every baptism is about knowing that the path you are on needs a change, even if that change is as simple as deciding to join a church.

Baptism is about repentance, turning your life around. And baptism is about binding ourselves to a community of faith, the ideal location for just such a project. The two kinds of baptism we see most commonly practiced demonstrate both these facets of the sacrament. But there is another facet to baptism, one that, perhaps, we don’t think about as quickly.

“In those days,” Mark tells us, “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” ~ Mark 1:9-11

Something else happens in baptism, something so cataclysmic that Mark speaks of it in terms of the heavens being torn open. In baptism we are brought into a stunning affirmation of God’s claim on our lives. “You are my Child, my beloved Child,” says God; “with you I am well pleased.” It’s worth noting that, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus hasn’t really done much of anything to merit this amazing declaration of love on God’s part. The gospel has just begun… so far, it’s all prologue. Jesus presents himself for baptism, and God’s love pours out of the heavens in recognition. Jesus emerges from the water, soaked and jubilant and glowing with the love of God.

It’s like that for us, too. Something else happens in baptism: God puts God’s mark on us, God’s seal that we too are Beloved, through no merit or work of our own. Simply because we are, God speaks these words of love and affirmation to us. And that sets the ball rolling.

Baptism starts the ball rolling on Jesus’ ministry. It is in baptism, in this moment of heaven-ripped communion with God who loves him, that his ministry begins. It’s like that for us. Yes baptism is about repentance, about turning our lives around. And yes, baptism is about binding ourselves to a community of faith. But also, baptism is about being claimed by God, claimed as God’s own beloved children, claimed for service.

This is true for all of us. Every one of us has already been claimed by God, affirmed by God, called “Beloved” by God. And God has already set us on a path for service. Discerning where this path will take us is challenging and exciting and even a little scary. After all, the heavens don’t rip open every day. Some of us are called to serve God in the church, in particular offices such as deacon or elder or minister, or by other kinds of service to the community of faith. All of us are called to serve God outside the church, in God’s beautiful and broken world, and that service is as wide and varied and many-hued as God’s beloved children. We can serve God by working for safe and peaceful communities and neighborhoods, or by delivering Meals on Wheels, or by giving someone a lift to a doctor’s appointment. We can serve God by loving and caring for our aging parents or our children or even our families of choice, those who are knit together not by blood or legal contract but simply by love. We can serve God by sitting on a jury. Anywhere we can serve God’s people, we can serve God.

Today, a day on which we ordain and install deacons and elders, is a day to remember our baptisms, whether they happened within the last few weeks or months or decades ago. We remember, whether we were infants held in the arms of a parent or godparent, or we were adults who emerged from the experience soaked and jubilant and glowing with the love of God. We remember that baptism is about turning our lives around, and the opportunity to do that is always before us, always a possibility, whether we’re being baptized or remembering our baptisms. We remember that baptism is about belonging: throwing in our lot with a community of people who are striving and struggling to follow God through God’s Child Jesus. And we also remember that baptism is about being claimed by God: “You are my Child, my beloved Child,” says God; “with you I am well pleased.” Remember your baptism, and how you too have been claimed for service by the one who calls you “Beloved.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Well I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old day
And who could wear the starry crown
O Lord, show me the way.

O sisters let's go down
Let's go down, don't you wanna go down?
O brothers let's go down
Down in the river to pray.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Heard Chez Magdalene

Out of the Blue, Larry-O to Petra: "So what the f's with all this Gaza bu!!$#it?"


In the midst of a conversation on the relative merits of girls and boys, Petra to Larry-O: "Well, boys are fine and all, but it's not as if they can push a human being out of any particular orifice."

It's all very highminded around here, I tell you.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Remind Me

... next time I have a "staycation" to put a friendly message on my answering machine referring folks to the on-call person for pastoral coverage.

Over and out.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Bonfire of Regrets

I stood in subarctic temperatures late last night and into this morning as part of a merry group celebrating First Night here in my hometown. What you see here is a cellphone image of the "Bonfire of Regrets," something I've been hearing about for years and yet never participated in personally until New Year's 2009.

I assume the idea is to metaphorically (or perhaps literally, with the help of pen and paper) throw your regrets of the past year on the bonfire as part of your efforts at beginning the new year fresh and unencumbered.

As I stood there, these were the chief regrets that swam into my mind:

* Not wearing warmer gloves.

* Not getting there early enough to stand at the fence, where, Petra tells me, it was tolerably warm.

* Angry words exchanged within the last week with someone who means the world to me.

That was about it. I don't mean to imply I Am Perfect and Perfectly Happy With Everything About Me. (I don't know anyone who lives on that planet; do you?) But... I am more than tolerably happy. I am happy. I feel blessed: in family, in relationships, in work. I feel gratitude, not regret.

As I sit here typing this, 10-plus hours into the New Year, I'm fairly astonished to read my own words. But there they are.

Wishing you love, warmth and meaning in 2009.