Wednesday, December 1, 2010

World AIDS Day

I want to say that I don't personally know anyone struggling with HIV or AIDS, but I assume I don't. I could very well come into daily contact with someone(s) who have the disease and know it or who haven't yet been diagnosed.

I have never forgotten the first time had a strong reaction to the reality of AIDS. In 2008, I was reading Bryce Courtenay's book, April Fool's Day,  about his son's struggle with HIV/AIDS. His son was a hemophiliac and contracted the disease through blood transfusions. Bryce detailed the frustration of dealing with politicians who wanted to stop research into what became identified as AIDS as a way to punish homosexuals, who were presumed to be the only sufferers of the disease. Courtenay lays bare his own struggles, confusion and fear about his son's struggles, as well as tangentially touching on the political issues around the diagnosis and the way his son, Damon, is treated in hospitals because of prejudices and misunderstandings about AIDS.

It's easy to roll your eyes at World AIDS Day or even to toss off a prayer, but to keep on thinking it doesn't affect you personally.

But if you take seriously, at all, the truth that we are all the body of Christ, then you must truly absorb the fact that some of the members are dying. That there is dis-ease in the body caused, in part, by AIDS.

It's true that the spread of the disease is, in some cases, caused by sexual contact. But that sexual contact has innocent victims. Wives from husbands and husbands from wives. Mothers to children. Hemophiliacs and others receiving transfusions. Uninfected children who are orphaned by infected parents. The list goes on.

If we allow "condoms" to be the last word on AIDS prevention, we do a disservice to all people and to the body of Christ. We allow the disease, rampant and painful, to be cast into a sexual ghetto, wherein sufferers are "getting what they deserve". On World AIDS Day, we are called to shine the light of Christ's love into the reality of suffering due to this pandemic, to ponder our own reactions and to seek to support those missions and research facilities that are genuinely attempting to alleviate the suffering and stem the tide of this pandemic.

George W. Bush, former U.S. president, had a profound editorial in the Washington Post today. Among other comments, he urges current politicians to take the fight against AIDS to heart:

We still hope for an AIDS vaccine. In the meantime, there are millions on treatment who cannot be abandoned. And the progress in many African nations depends on the realistic hope of new patients gaining access to treatment. Why get tested if AIDS drugs are restricted to current patients? On AIDS, to stand still is to lose ground.
I am happily out of the political business. But I can offer some friendly advice to members of Congress, new and old. A thousand pressing issues come with each day. But there are only a few that you will want to talk about in retirement with your children. The continuing fight against global AIDS is something for which America will be remembered. And you will never regret the part you take.

Indeed, that message goes to all of us who follow Christ. We are called to prayerful action today (and all days). Today, let us pray for those who are suffering and for those who have yet to be diagnosed, for those who have been orphaned, widowed or lost friends and family, for those who are researching and for those who are on the frontlines of treatment, for those who wish to stop the research and for those who wish to hide from the truth. Let us pray that we, who are not suffering, will have the courage and the wisdom to bring awareness to the fight against AIDS and to use all the tools we have been given to bring a measure of healing to Christ's own body. Amen. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Victory Lap

I had hoped to do a more in-depth post today (perhaps in the 50 Essential Passages group), but life has intervened. It always does.

Thus, I'd like to take this moment to congratulate myself on completing National Blog Posting Month! This post means that I did write or post something for every day of the month.

Back on the 1 November, I thought this would be challenging. Then a personal friend died and I was helping with the funeral and what had previously seemed like a pleasant challenge became daunting when I was tired and grief-stricken. Yet, I plunged on with the project, though I told myself I could quit and nothing would happen.

Committing to daily blogging has helped me in a couple ways. First of all, I tend to have great ideas about posting, particularly about news items, but I think them out until I'm sick of them and the news is old. Then I decide there's no point in commenting. The pressures of daily blogging made me go ahead and comment. This means you get a truer picture of my feelings than when I sanitize them through a long process (though that IS a good thing sometimes).

I also got a clearer picture of how long an individual post takes me. Something like Thanksgiving takes about 10-15 minutes, depending on the length of time it takes to find the video, article, whatever. It does take restraint to post something and not comment. Less is occasionally more. Posts in which I comment, but do little biblical work, take about 40 minutes to an hour. Good examples are my comments about the Pope and condoms or my thoughts about Lectionary Year A. Finally, posts that are based in the Bible and are primarily biblical analysis or commentary can take between 1-2 hours. Commenting about David and Jonathan and about Saul took about 90 minutes each time.

NaBloPoMo helped me just to go ahead and write, to consider my daily life at a different level and to go ahead and commit some of my reflections to the public view. Not everything I had to say was interesting, but the practice of writing helps develop the skills for when you need it to be interesting.

Even as I write this, I'm thinking about the NaBloPoMo website and their challenge for December blogging. The topic was zeitgeist- the spirit of a time or age. That's something on which I could comment...

Monday, November 29, 2010

Embarrassing Freedom

It's the least wonderful time of the year. I've already been hit with one memo from the American Family Association, urging me to boycott Dick's Sporting Good's stores for promoting a "holiday shop" instead of a Christmas shop. Within days, Dick's caved to the pressure and changed their website to read "Christmas Shop". And so AFA has another "victory" in the "War on Christmas".

Well, I call, "Baloney".

While the AFA was fighting the good fight against pluralistic advertising, the US State Department issued its Annual Report on Religious Freedom. (Executive summary linked here.) This lengthy document covers the oppression, repression and struggle of believers of all faiths around the world. The report details how governments, juntas, militaries, private groups and others restrict religious freedoms, withdraw permission to practice from certain groups, kill, injure or imprison missionaries and charitable workers and otherwise prevent the free expression of faith. 

Here are just a few excerpts: 

Afghanistan:  Residual effects of years of jihad against the former USSR, civil strife, Taliban rule, popular suspicion regarding outside influence and the motivations of foreigners, and weak democratic institutions remained serious obstacles. Intolerance in the form of harassment, occasional violence, discrimination, and inflammatory public statements by members of parliament and television programming targeted members of non-Muslim minority groups, particularly Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs, as well as Muslims perceived by government and societal forces as not respecting Islamic strictures.Non-Muslim minority groups, particularly Christian, Hindu, and Sikh groups, were targets of intolerant attitudes. Conversion from Islam was understood by Shi'a and Sunni Islamic clergy, as well as many citizens, to contravene the tenets of Islam. Relations among different Muslim sects continued to be difficult, and members of the minority Shi'a community continued to face societal discrimination from the majority Sunni population.

China: The constitution protects "normal religious activities," but officials have wide latitude to interpret the meaning of "normal." The government restricts legal religious practice to five (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) state-sanctioned "patriotic religious associations." The government bans some religious groups. Treatment of unregistered religious groups varied significantly across the country. In some areas unregistered religious groups met without interference; in other areas officials disrupted their meetings, and even imprisoned worshipers on charges of "illegal religious activities." Lawyers and other activists who tried to defend the religious freedom of unregistered or banned religious groups faced disbarment, harassment, and imprisonment.

Malaysia: Officials at the federal and state levels oversee Islamic activity and sometimes influenced the content of sermons, used mosques to convey political messages, and prevented certain imams from speaking. Religious minorities remained generally free to practice their beliefs, although approval processes for building permits for places of worship were reportedly at times extremely slow. The High Court overturned the government-issued ban on use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims after an appeal by the Catholic Church, although the ban remains in place pending further appeal. Numerous attacks on religious venues, most of them minor incidents, followed the court ruling, and in response the government quickly condemned all violence and dispatched police to guard religious sites. The Hindu community continued to express concern about the demolition of Hindu temples.

North Korea: Although the constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief," genuine religious freedom does not exist, and there was no change in the extremely poor level of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period. The government severely restricted religious freedom, including organized religious activity, except that which officially recognized groups linked to the government supervised tightly. Some foreign visitors to the country stated that services at state-authorized churches appeared staged and contained political content supportive of the regime. The 2009 Korean Institute for National Unification White Paper indicated the regime used authorized religious entities for external propaganda and political purposes, and strictly barred citizens from entering places of worship. Defectors reported the regime increased its investigation, repression, and persecution of members of unauthorized religious groups in recent years. 

These few examples hardly begin to detail the struggle of people around the world to practice what they believe to be true and holy. And, yes, it might not be what you believe to be true and holy. The embracing of pluralism pushes forth the idea of "one God" in a way that can't be true, if all religions were honest about their tenets. The struggles for religious freedom in the United States are not detailed, presumably because we are optimistic about the level of religious freedom we have here. In my lifetime, I have been targeted for attack, personally, because of my Jewish heritage. Not being a practicing Jew or a person of color, I don't think I can even estimate the way religious freedom is viewed here. 

Still, each year we are bombarded with messages about the "War on Christmas" and the removal of Christ from the public square. Until you have to buy religious Christmas cards on the black market and exchange them, furtively, in dark alleys- there is no war on Christmas. Until the name of the holiday is changed to Mid-Winter Festival or Saturnalia or Day of Giving, there is no War on Christmas. Until your creche is confiscated, your neighbors calling the police because you displayed a manger in a window- there is no War on Christmas. Until each church is locked and Christians gather in little rooms, daring to defiantly light a candle to celebrate- there is no War on Christmas. 

I heard Christmas carols in a store today. I heard people talking about Christmas shopping. I saw decorations for "Christmas trees". I saw Christ's name EVERYWHERE, even if people weren't using it specifically to refer to Him. 

You may not like it when people say "Happy Holidays". You can smile and say, "My family celebrates Christmas. I hope you enjoy your celebration." You could smile and say, "Thank you and you too." You could just smile. 

Despite the loud protestations of the AFA, in the United States, we have amazing, embarrassingly abundant religious freedom- especially those of us who are Christian and vaguely mainstream, even with some level of standard deviation to the right or left. 

How about we thank God for that freedom and we pray for our brothers and sisters around the world, loved by God, struggling in darkness? How about we pray for an end to oppressive regimes? For the courage to fight for freedom? For wisdom to know how to support educational, medical, and spiritual missions around the world? 

Why should you do that?

It's what Christ would do. 

You remember Christ. 

The reason for the season? 

I just wonder if the AFA remembers Him. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Poem: Christ's Hands (Teresa of Avila)

Christ's Hands

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, 
no hands but yours, 
no feet but yours. 
Yours are the eyes through which is to look out
Christ's compassion in the world; 
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now. 

- Teresa of Avila 

Teresa of Avila. "Christ's Hands". 1000 World Prayers. Marcus Braybrooke, ed. John Hunt Publishing, Ltd. Hampshire, UK, 2003. p. 147

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Five: Pie Edition

Friday Five: Pie-ola!!!

Please answer these five questions about pie:
1) Are pies an important part of a holiday meal?
Well, I love pie, but I don't make them. Thus, pie is not a crucial feature of a holiday meal at my house. Again, though, I love pie. So, if you're coming over, I'll probably ask you to bring dessert. Bring pie. 

2) Men prefer pie; women prefer cake. Discuss.

I feel like this is a mood thing for me. Sometimes I want pie. Sometimes I want cake. Since I don't make pies, that craving may typically go unfulfilled. I do like cake, though. Creamy chocolate frosting, dense poundcake, squishy angel food. Mmm, cake. 

3) Cherries--do they belong in a pie?

No, they belong in a cobbler. Except apple, I prefer all fruit in cobblers (no bottom crust, thicker top crust) to pie. And I like Apple Brown Betty better than apple pie. 

4) Meringue--if you have to choose, is it best on lemon or chocolate?

What is this "better"? It's dessert. There might be preferences, but there is no "better". Chocolate. 

5) In a chicken pie, what are the most compatible vegetables? Anything you don't like to find in a chicken pie?

Peas, carrots, pearl onions. Yum. No potatoes in chicken pie and no tomatoes. 

Bonus "chicken pie" story: When I am in love with a food, I will eat it until I'm sick of it. At my college formal, I went with the roommate of a friend of mine and said friend went with my roommate. (Clear enough for you?) We went with a few other couples to dinner before the formal at a fairly nice restaurant in Raleigh, NC. The restaurant was famous for its wood-fired grill and everyone ordered fish or steak. However, I spotted artichoke hearts on something called "Fabulous Chicken Pie". Artichoke hearts were my new food loooooove and I was thrilled to see them. The chicken pie in question, however, was about 1/3 of the cost of everyone else's dinner. I asked if it was only for lunch and the waitress said that it was available for dinner. So I ordered Fabulous Chicken Pie, imagining a lovely chicken pot pie with my delicious artichoke hearts. As the other entrees arrived, plated and garnished within an inch of their life, the spot in front of me remained empty. Until, lastly, out came the Fabulous Chicken Pie, which turned out to be a pizza. A big pizza. With artichoke hearts, chicken and sun-dried tomatoes. Whoops. So I sat in my fancy hair-do and slinky dress and ate a pizza (or most of it) by myself while everyone else at the table at some very high-brow food. I suppose I could have been embarrassed, but those artichoke hearts were good. :) To this day, I've never seen artichoke hearts in an actual chicken pie, though I've eaten them on pizza many, many more times. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In Control

There has been a lot of buzz lately about Pope Benedict XVI and his stance on condoms. The pope has a new book out, called The Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times. The book explains the pope's thinking on some controversial issues, but has not necessarily clarified the Roman Catholic Church's position to the fullest extent. In a tiny section of the book, the pope mentions condom use by prostitutes to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. 

Even sight unseen, many hailed this as a change to Vatican policy, a sign that the RCC was relaxing its stance on birth control. However, as Vatican spokesmen have clarified in the past few days, this has nothing to do with birth control- it's about disease prevention. Furthermore, this does not express a change in position, but a hope that a person willing to protect another person from a deadly disease might be moving along a moral path that would end with appropriate sexual behavior (i.e. abstinence until heterosexual marriage). The scope of the papal comments do not even include the use of condoms within the context of couples in which one of them is infected. 

Cardinal Raymond Burke explains the nuances of the pope's words here

I don’t see any change in the Church’s teaching. What [the pope is] commenting on — in fact, he makes the statement very clearly that the Church does not regard the use of condoms as a real or a moral solution — but what he’s talking about in the point he makes about the male prostitute is about a certain conversion process taking place in an individual’s life. He’s simply making the comment that if a person who is given to prostitution at least considers using a condom to prevent giving the disease to another person — even though the effectiveness of this is very questionable — this could be a sign of someone who is having a certain moral awakening. But in no way does it mean that prostitution is morally acceptable, nor does it mean that the use of condoms is morally acceptable. The point the Pope is making is about a certain growth in freedom, an overcoming of an enslavement to a sexual activity that is morally repugnant [unacceptable] so that this concern to use a condom in order not to infect a sexual partner could at least be a sign of some moral awakening in the individual, which one hopes would lead the individual to understand that his activity is a trivialization of human sexuality and needs to be changed.

So, let's be clear. The use of condoms is not a real or moral solution to sexual immorality. It does not undo the wrong of prostitution (the prostituting or the purchasing of services). This is true. 

If you notice, however, Burke does mention that the efficacy of condoms to prevent disease is questionable. Well, it's not 100%, but it's better then nothing. In fact, it's a lot better than nothing. And the use of condoms to prevent the spread of disease is a step in moral progress. 

I'm still undecided, leaning toward no, however, on whether this statement represents moral progress on the part of the Vatican. It's hard to believe that person could engage in sex for money, but refuse to use a condom because of the say so of the Holy See. Also, the condom use that desperately needs to be advocated (with regard to disease prevention) is in married couples that include an infected partner. The spread of HIV and AIDS in the global South is exponential in this regard. Presumably, the RCC feels she has already taken a firm stand against prostitution, but I've heard much more commentary on the evils of birth control in general than on the sex trade around the world. (Though, I will admit, I don't look for information on the Church's activities with regard to the sex trade, so I could be missing some amazing, significant and abundant work.) 

I've read several memoirs by nuns and priests (and ex-nuns and defrocked priests) who married shortly after Vatican 2, believing the advent of married clergy (if not women clergy) would be right on the heels of the sweeping reforms. It didn't happen. And many chose their marriages over their vocations. To be fair, many didn't have the option of returning to their vocation. 

Almost every Catholic I know has used birth control. Even those with larger families realized the blessing in reaching one's limit and that God continues to bring fruitfulness into one's life in many and various ways. I think those that hope the pope comments in The Light of the World might be a sign that of changes to the RCC stand on birth control are hoping in vain, just as those did who thought Vatican 2 was sign of further openness to come. 

In an interview on All Things Considered, Father Joseph Fessio gave this example to explain what Benedict meant by moral progress: 

[The pope is] not giving a scale of evil or good here. But let me give you a pretty simple example. Let's suppose we've got a bunch of muggers who like to use steel pipes when they mug people. But some muggers say, gosh, you know, we don't need to hurt them that badly to rob them. Let's put foam pads on our pipes. Then we'll just stun them for a while, rob them and go away. So if the pope then said, well, yes, I think that using padded pipes is actually a little step in a moral direction there, that doesn't mean he's justifying using padded pipes to mug people. He's just saying, well, they did something terrible, but while they were doing that, they had a little flicker of conscience there that led them in the right direction. That may grow further, so they stop mugging people completely.

The way I see it, with their continued hardline on condom use in marriage, the Vatican might now be wrapping their pipe in foam pads for some people. But they're still hitting people far and wide and they don't show signs of stopping any time soon. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Pain in Year A

This week is a curious limbo in the church year. Even though is the week that follows Christ the King and, thus, the last full week in the church year, the Advent preparations are underway. It's like the week between Christmas and New Year's, you might not quite be ready to pull down that tree (and you shouldn't until 6 January), but you're ready to get on with the New Year and whatever that will look like.

This year, though, I experience a little hesitation. For churches that are on a lectionary cycle, meaning sets of readings prescribed through three years, this Sunday is the beginning of Year A- the year of Matthew. Matthew is not my favorite.

I adore Mark, the quick pacing, the sparse detail, abrupt beginning, the equally abrupt ending.  I savor the slow, unique parables of Luke, the inclusion of women and children, the surprise appearances of Samaritans and righteous Gentiles. I enjoy the special perspective of John- the classic verses, the unique metaphors, the secrets half-exposed for the exploring.

But Matthew... Matthew is the first gospel, not because it was written first, but because it was historically prominent in the Church. Matthew has the structure and instruction, from Jesus, about how church members should treat one another. Matthew has the beauty of the sermon on the mount, but it's contrasted with the undertones of Jesus as the new Moses, leading the people to the final Promised Land. This would be great and gorgeous, if it didn't come with some underlying anti-Semitic tones. (And, yes, those are in John as well, but this isn't about John.) Some of the undertones are there in the gospel and some appear through the historical lens of interpretation that has been laid over Matthew for centuries.

In the year of Matthew, we have to deal with divorce. With the fig tree. With more specific passages about the paraousia (the Second Coming and judgment) than any other year.

In short, Matthew requires real pastoral work- wrestling for blessing and leaps of faith. And this work won't just be on my part. It will be on the part of those who are listening. You too will have to consider where the good news is in this gospel. How Jesus Christ is revealed in, this, the church's favorite gospel. What does it mean to say "Jew" and mean the religious Hebrews of Jesus' day? What does it mean to break traditions, to have a Savior who brings not peace, but a sword, to see Jesus as the new Moses?

Due to the shape of the church year, it can be easy to feel like the Bible just happens to you. You show up and there are readings. But there is a shape, from anticipation to birth, from slow realization of God's epiphany to the anger and crucifixion, from resurrection to the gifted Spirit, from the teaching and shaping of the church back to the triumphal hope in Christ's return.

Matthew has a unique outlook on those events, an outlook that has shaped the church in years past and with which we are still shaped, by or against, today. Perhaps a good resolution for me (and maybe you) in the coming year, Year A, is to seek the good news of Jesus Christ according to Matthew and to be found by it.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Iced in today, I never left the house. I did some work while Dear Son napped (and I napped a little myself). In the spare moments, I thought about the dinner I will be cooking on Thursday. We're having friends over, a couple we've know for a long time and their 9-month old daughter.

I'll be cooking the turkey and a few of the side dishes. Of all the things to consider when we had a baby, I didn't realize I wouldn't be able to the hostess with the mostess any more, at least for a while. You just can't pull out all the stops when you are sitting down every few minutes to help put shapes in a shape sorter or to read a Sandra Boynton book. Again.

Nevertheless, I pondered a few alternate cranberry recipes today. Considered variations on mashed potatoes. Reflected on the nuances of green bean casserole, which I love. I moved the turkey from the freezer to the fridge to begin thawing. I've pondered brining, but my husband doesn't like juicy turkey (I know!), so no brine this year. (Though I still strive for moist turkey.)

Even with all this thinking ahead, I'm no kitchen perfectionist. There won't be garnishes on the side dishes. No fancy folded napkins. No hand-carved radishes, ice sculptures or centerpieces. Just family, food and fun.

The truth is, I'm not much of a perfectionist in anything. I don't worry about the details (and, occasionally, I should) because I think they'll either get taken care of or they won't matter.

I've read historical accounts of buildings, tapestries, gardens, etc. that would have a small flaw worked in because no one creates anything perfect except for God. Yeah, allowing one flaw is not my problem.

In the end, though, if I can't be gracious and forgiving to myself, what am I gaining? It's not that I'm a slob with a microwaved turkey and Potato Buds. No, I'll be roasting, mashing, sampling and attempting to plate attractively. But I do think what will matter most is the company, the memories, the thanksgiving. And that will be perfect through the work of the Spirit, regardless of my cooking.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Prayer: Psalm 103 (NRSV)

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, obedient to his spoken word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Saturday Art: He Qi's Peace Be Still

He Qi is a Chinese artist who paints biblical scenes in a distinctive, modern style. This picture is from his website, here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Five: Unexpected Thanks

Name five things that were unexpected in your life that you are now grateful for.

My husband: When I moved to Nome, AK, I was set on staying for a year, maybe two and then going to seminary, from grace to grace. My prior dating experience said to me that I was probably not a person who would get married. It wasn't about standards, but that I just didn't seem to meet a guy who could keep up with me, much less occasionally set the pace. One night in October 2002, a guy spoke to a friend of mine in the Anchor Tavern in Nome and I turned around on my bar stool to join the conversation. Four days later, I ran into the same guy when he was flying Senator Ted Stevens to the island of Little Diomede and I was going along as a reporter. We ran into each other again at my house Halloween party and then off and on until he asked me out on 2 January 2003. And I guess we've never looked back. But I never saw it coming. 

My son: Yes, I know how it happened, but we weren't trying. We weren't surprised at the situation, so much as the timing, but we were excited about Beloved Son from the moment we knew. (Overwhelmed, but excited.) Now I couldn't imagine life without this giggling surge of energy, tracking me around the house with stories to read, throwing things (spoons! shoes! the dog's bowl!) into flower pots. (We keep the door to the bathroom CLOSED!) He's into everything and he thinks it's all hysterical. Everything is new and everything (almost) is fun. And I'm very grateful for his enthusiasm and love. 

XX, my autism intervention client: When I started at a 4-year school, I chose one that did a specific method of autism intervention, focusing on basic skills, repetition and positive reinforcement. I loved the work, but it was very, very frustrating. Since I do not have a child with special needs, it is difficult to imagine the day in and day out stress of that situation. Thus I am not judging the mother of this client when it seemed like she was undermining our progress. We would work to get him to use a spoon, she'd let him eat with his hands. We were working on "putting away", she wanted to work on opening Christmas presents. As sympathetic as I tried to be, I felt frustrated. I remember leaving after a session and having a clear vision of only being able to do this kind of work for 7 or 8 years before being too tired, frustrated and burned out from the struggle to teach and to match goals. Releasing my vision of myself as Special Needs Therapist Extraordinaire made room for me to muse about my interest in religion and the recent appearance of the phrase "discernment" in conversations I was having. I hope that client and his family reached some of their goals and that they are all doing well. They taught me that it is possible to love something, but realize it's not for you. 

Medical technology: You don't always know you appreciate it until you need it. My father survived a surgery and healing of a broken neck. My son and I did not die when he became lodged in my pelvis. I'm glad we live in this day and age. I was grateful at the time. I'm far more grateful now. 

My best friend: We met working at a summer camp in NC in the summer of 2001. We connected, but I don't think either of us had any concept of how much more deeply we would go. Nine and a half years later, we're still supporting each other. We're planning a big event for ourselves next year- a milestone birthday for both of us and our ten-year anniversary. Break-ups, deaths, moves, job changes, graduations, pets, birth, deployments... this friend has always been there. I think the thing that I appreciate about this relationship is that we know how much work we've put into it. Sometimes people make it seem like a friendship is effortless, but I think any close relationship takes work. We've had to learn how to be honest with one another, how to speak up for what we need,  to remember connections that bring the past into the future's light. My first memory of her is during camp orientation, I see her sitting in a chair, telling us how to pronounce WIS-consin and finger- knitting. We've come a long way, though I know she'd still run me over to get to Justin Timberlake. ;) 

Thursday, November 18, 2010


This morning I decided to come up with new lyrics for Old 100th or the Doxology for use during our children's service. I love "praise God from whom all blessings flow", but it's hard to explain some of those concepts to a 3-year-old. I was trying to keep the same scan (number of syllables in time to the music), but I kept trying out different sentences. This floated to the top of my consciousness several times today until I finally solved the problem.

At one point, I was showering at the gym when I realized, I was singing to myself, not opera-style, but loudly enough that people nearby could hear me. I didn't stop, though, but kept going.

The novelty in this sentence isn't that I kept singing, it's that I was doing it in the shower at the gym. The gym that I have managed to visit every day this week.

Like so many people, I've made many resolutions about getting in better shape. I've joined gyms before. And I've never made it past about a week and a half. The effort would get to me. I wouldn't make the time and I'd always have excuses.

However, in mid-October, I decided I was done with that. I sought a new gym location. I made a new plan. I wear my workout clothes out of the house every day. The idea was that even if I didn't workout, I was still developing a habit. I've now worked out consistently for 3 weeks and I feel like a commercial.

I have more energy!

I have more stamina!

I feel stronger!

I'm happier!

In all honesty, I realized the other day that I haven't wanted to lay down on my couch and take a nap for a few weeks. And I'm really looking forward to working out. In fact, I feel disappointed when I realize I need to quit what I'm doing and get to work.

Which brings me back to my original point. I don't entirely know how, but my mind works in a different way when I'm exercising. It's like I can feel the synapses firing with new frequency and connections. Problems turn in my head and surface and I feel things coming to light. Exercise is helping me be better at my job.

This is still a new discipline for me, but the fact that I'm enjoying myself is going a long way toward becoming a habit.

New lyrics:

Thank God for everyone I know
For sky above and earth below
Thank God for moon and stars and sun
Thank God for family, food and fun.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To Preach

Revhipchick discusses her "conundrum of preaching" here and I confess I could relate to many of her comments about wondering about how to preach.

There have been many times where I felt tingly because I knew what I was preaching was so true and so focused, probably the best I could do as a human being trying to receive and channel the Spirit. And no one said anything afterwards. No one blinked. No one fell out into in the aisle, slain in the Spirit. No one shouted, "Amen." So maybe I was wrong.

Then there are times when I feel like my examples aren't meaningful to me, the connections are so-so, the upshot feels a little platitudinous and people love it. I see eyes surreptitiously wiped and receive comments days later about how people are still thinking about the sermon.

That's when I know it's not all me. It's not even mostly me.

Yet, with preaching, it can feel a lot like mostly me doing the work.

I've asked people what they'd like to hear about. (Asking what you'd like to hear about is different that asking what you'd like to hear.) More history? Theology? Church doctrine? Modern parables? Explanations? Apologetics?

I think it's easy to forget that, in the scope of history, it has only been a short time since the pastor had all the church power and made unilateral decisions. Though the work of the church has always been the work of God's people, it's only been a short time that all God's people have been invited into that work. That all people are afforded access, to the best of their ability, to the tools of a Bible, dictionaries, histories, commentaries and... Wikipedia.

Preaching changes as people have more information. In a world of facts and time demands, the slow wait and mystery of faith can be frustrating rather than intriguing. A pastor's dance through what we know to be true and what we believe to be true can seem like tap-dancing rather than honest admission. And, despite the best efforts of many, people still look for ways to assure themselves of having achieved salvation. (Or, in some cases, assure themselves of being in the process of santification.)

And preaching has to deal with all these realities.

Most preachers have a tune. A basic melody that undergirds their sermons. Overtime, you'll see the wind-up and hear it comes...

Mine is this: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39)

All my preaching gets back to that. And, I hope and pray every time, that at least one person hears that, through the help of the Spirit, in their heart.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

One in Five

Our society, in general, does not deal well with grief. By our society, I mean mainstream, contemporary American society- the only location from which I am (semi-) qualified to speak. After the funeral ends, we may make a couple obligatory phone calls. We may make an effort to visit the bereaved. Yet, more often, we think about how we should do something, anything, and then it remains undone because we worry about what to say or what to do.

When we are grieving, we often are surprised at the length and depth and breadth of the feeling of loss. The world doesn't stop turning and, yet, nothing feels right. Nothing will slow down to mark the time-stop we feel. And that feeling goes on for a long time.

That being said, we do at least have some ways of acknowledging the death of people and  more and more frequently there are rituals to marks the death of pets, changes in life, anniversaries of grief, etc.

Yet there are pockets where it's very difficult to publicly acknowledge grief. There are situations for which there seems to be no ritual and, even if people want one- they're not sure how to ask.

The main situation of which I'm thinking is miscarriage. The loss of a pregnancy- known or unknown.

The Mayo Clinic says 15- 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. Since a miscarriage is a spontaneous loss of pregnancy in the first 20 weeks, there's no way to tell how many miscarriages may actually occur in the first weeks of pregnancy.

This means one in five (1/5) women who become pregnant in their lifetime will likely have a miscarriage.

When this happens, there are many mixed feelings.

If a woman is uncertain about her pregnancy, a little overwhelmed at the idea or her circumstances, the loss can make her feel guilty and, perhaps, a little relieved- which may compound her feelings of guilty.

A woman who has struggled to become pregnant may be devastated at the loss of a life she hoped would grow. She may wonder what's wrong with her. She may second guess every move she made.

Even the most matter-of-fact woman who miscarries before she knows she's pregnant may feel a wistfulness at what could have been.

And there are many, many, many other scenarios and reactions.

Often, we learn of the miscarriages experienced by the women around us after we have one of our own. (Or someone in our close circle does.) It's then that the stories come out. Worries that have been expressed only to partners and spouses or sisters or mothers suddenly find the light of day.

Grief over a miscarriage is most frequently deeply personal and, usually, private. Yet, when we don't occasionally discuss life events like this, people who experience them can feel alone. Not everyone is going to have the same experience and, of course, there is a time and place for discussion.

Still, there must be a way to speak of these kinds of things. To share our grief. To carry one another's burdens, so that we reduce the feelings of guilt. So that we acknowledge that these things happen, frequently. We have to learn to sit with, stay with the grief until it ebbs. Not trying to wash it away with a slurry of easy comments, statistics or biological guesswork. We can speak truth to the power of this kind of grief- to its fellow travelers of fear, anxiety, guilt and hopelessness.

We may not like death, but we cannot pretend it doesn't happen. By acknowledging the deaths and hurts that do occur in our lives, we can begin to put away the cloak of invisibility that doesn't really work anyway. In walking with one another, we can come to a deeper understanding of what it means to live and to die together.

Creating God,

You are the God of what has been, what is and what will be. You know the potential within each of us. We believe that You grieve when we fail to reach that potential from our very first days to our very last. With the consoling presence of your Spirit, bring peace to those who mourn, assurance to those who are anxious, restoration to those who feel torn apart. Help us to sense your Presence in our lives and to share that same Presence with those around us. We ask all these things through Jesus Christ, through whom we are united to unfailing love, now and forever.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Two Favorite Authors

I needed a NaBloPoMo prompt today: Who's your favorite author, why and what work of  his or hers would you recommend reading first?

I'm going to give two. These authors are currently my favorite, non-theological writers. When I enjoy someone's writing style, I tend to ravenously consume all their works and monitor their website for upcoming works. The two authors I'll discuss, in brief, today are Tony Horwitz and Bill Bryson. (Links are to their respective websites.)

I was first introduced to Tony Horwitz through Confederates in the Attic (Pantheon, 1998). Intrigued by the grimacing Confederate on the front, I began reading the story of how the author dug into his own love of Civil War history to find out why the War Between the States continues to have skirmishes (so to speak). Horwitz's style might best be classified somewhere between travel writing and historical expose´. I have pressed Confederates on every reading friend I have. I think it's well-written and carefully exposes the nuances of why people participate in Civil War reenactments, frequently as Confederates, the continuing struggles around the Confederate flag (the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia) and the haunting feeling present on many battlefields from the War of Northern Aggression.

Horwitz has a great writing voice and style, humorous and smooth, conveying lots of information without being overly didactic. I've read everything he's got out and I definitely recommend starting with Confederates. Blue Latitudes, about Captain Cook, is also very enjoyable.

Bill Bryson was my bridge over the Swamp Homesickness when I lived, briefly, in England. Because he's lived there for a significant portion of his life, he is slightly more prominent in bookstore placement in England than here in his home country. His self-deprecating style of travel writing (through Europe, Australia, US, Appalachian Trail) is engaging and warm. I do own all his books, including the tiny one on Africa and the ones for writers. I'll admit that I still haven't made it all the way through A Short History Nearly Everything. And I'm about halfway through At Home: A Short History of Private Life, his most recent work detailing the history of home layouts and basic household items. It's great, but a little dense.

I've mentioned A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country more than once in this blog. Respectively, these details travels through and history of the Appalachian Trail and Australia. I think they're the best. I also love The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America  and Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe. He also wrote an autobiography about his childhood in America in the 50s: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

With BB, you'll either like him or you won't. His voice and style are fairly constant, particularly with the travel books.

At this stage in my life, I enjoy learning while I'm reading, but I don't like to work in my pleasure reading. Both these writers provide a lot of information and make that information accessible and approachable through their writing voices.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday Prayer: After the Turbulence of the Day (Camara)


After the turbulence of the day,
thank you for sending the peacefulness of the night.
How blessed the peace of the night,
so still,
that the very tones
of mountain and skyscraper
lose their jutty, harsh aspect
and bathe in thrilling stillness.

Let us not ruminate upon
the disagreeable scenes of the day.
Let us not rehearse
bitter, hard words,
coarse actions.

Mindful, Father,
of your infinite patience with us,
your infinite goodness,
we ask you to help us
never to harbour a single drop
of hatred, or resentment,
or bitterness
against anyone.

Fill us
with your limitless mercy.

--- Helder Camara

Camara, Helder."After the turbulence of the Day".  Robert Van de Weyer. The HarperCollins Book of Prayers. HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. p. 82f

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Five: Winter's on the Way...

The Friday Five prompts come from here.

SingingOwl writes that she needs to plan ahead for the winter activities and seek a little inspiration. I just chuckle because, though it might technically still be fall, winter's been in my neck of the woods for a while.

1. What is your favorite movie for watching when curled up under a wooly blanket?
Something sweet or funny. I don't like violent or scary movies. When people hear that, they often tell me that I need to toughen up. I just point out that I have actually seen people die and I'm tough enough. I don't need that in my escapism. I also love to have a mini-marathon of television episodes. Frasier and Big Bang Theory bring on the giggles and make me feel cozy.

2. Likewise, what book?
In my quest to reach 1,000 new books, I hardly re-read these days. However, Bill Bryson's travelogues In a Sunburned Country (Australia) and A Walk in the Woods (Applachian Trail) always make me happy to read them again. And, of course, nothing beats Luther's Small Catechism for a stimulating and, simultaneously, comforting read.

Just kidding.

3. What foods do you tend to cook/eat when it gets cold?
Moose chili, homemade pretzels, brownies, spaghetti with bison, peppers, mushrooms and lots of garlic, snow cream, bread, oranges, clam chowder, lentil stew. Grilled chicken is for the summer. I like red meat, tomato sauces, butter and slow cooking in the winter. Mmmm...

4. What do you like to do if you get a "snow day" (or if you don't get snow days, what if you did)?
The first snow I remember I was probably 4 and my family lived in Wake Forest, NC. My mom spent a while suiting me up (probably equal to the amount of time I actually spent outside) and I remember her putting plastic bags over my socks before I put my feet in my shoes, so that my feet would stay dry. (I came in fairly quickly because I got scared by a neighbor's dog.) However, I've never forgotten the plastic bags. Now, where I live requires real winter shoes. My 14-month old has snow boots, so we don't often use the plastic bag scenario.

To wit, snow days don't really happen here.

5. Do you like winter sports or outdoor activities, or are you more likely to be inside playing a board game? Do you have a favorite (indoors or out)?
I like cross-country skiing. I'd like to try snow-shoeing, but I need a companion. My husband thinks, "Why walk when you can ski?", so he's not much help. I also like winter photography, so that lends itself to more walks, but cold hands. And winter is a good time for Scrabble tournaments.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lost in Translation

At a recent ecumenical event, the following translation of the 23rd Psalm was used. It comes from the New American Bible.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me in right paths
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.

You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.

As I was organizing the paperwork, I kept looking at that last line and blinking. For years to come? Years to come?

I don't know about you, but I'd like forever. Period. And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I have no concept of what forever is like. I've sat through some long and boring things. I been to some great events I hoped wouldn't end. I was in labor for a dang long time, but it wasn't forever. It wasn't even years.

If I had heard this translation for most of my life, it would likely be the one to give me comfort. I'd probably see little difference between "years to come" and "forever". However, having grown up with "forever"- anything other than that exact time concept seems like, well, short-changing my expectations. (Of which I have none, except maybe fried chicken and singing, but not at the same time.)

Bible translations are interesting because 85% of them are essentially based on a handful of manuscripts, but also reflect the theological, political and social positions of the translators. I lean toward the New Revised Standard myself because I think it's a fairly good translation. However, I know that there are alterations to the text to be in keeping with current social thought. Toward more inclusive language, The NRSV tends to use "friends" where the Greek says "brothers". Somedays I'm bothered by this, other days not so much.

I also like Eugene Peterson's The Message for his turns of phrase and ways of expression. I think the New International Verson and the New American Standard Bible also provide fairly accurate translation, combined with readability.

Some people choose Bibles because of what they grew up with in church or because of what they think they "should" be reading. Some people have more mundane (!) concerns like font size, columns or no columns, words of Jesus in red, footnotes or the space for one's own notes.

Even with a translation you enjoy, we often still have preferences of the heart and mind for certain passages. The little Southern Baptist girl still inside me recites, "For God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him shalt not perish, but have everlasting life." Yet for 10 years I've used Bibles that read, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

In general, I would say the main thing is to have a Bible that you like to read, that's accessible to you. That's the first hurdle to Bible-reading.

As for Psalm 23, I think the following will be the translation I prefer for years to come. :)

The LORD is my shepherd;

I shall not want.

2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures;

He leads me beside the still waters.

3 He restores my soul;

He leads me in the paths of righteousness

For His name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil;

For You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

My cup runs over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life;

And I will dwell in the house of the LORD


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Et tu, Spiritu?

The previous post about David and Jonathan got me to thinking about Saul. There is a certain sadness to the story of Saul. He's anointed by Samuel to be Israel's first king. (1 Sam. 9-10) Unfortunately, Saul can't always follow God's directions and doesn't destroy the Amalekites with the thoroughness that God demanded and expected. (1 Sam. 15) His failure to trust and obey causes God to regret choosing him as king and God's regret puts Samuel into mourning, because he had high hopes for Saul. (1 Sam. 15:10ff)

Long story less long, just before David enters the scene, we read the scene between Samuel and Saul, wherein Saul finds out what's happened:

Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, so that I may worship the Lord.’ Samuel said to Saul, ‘I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.’ As Samuel turned to go away, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. Moreover, the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind.’ Then Saul said, ‘I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.’ So Samuel turned back after Saul; and Saul worshipped the Lord. (1 Samuel 15:24- 31)

So David, our boy hero, makes his entrance into the story when Samuel anoints him and when he, subsequently, goes to soothe Saul’s troubled mind with his music. That’s right, David shows up to comfort Saul- the newly anointed consoling the one abandoned by God’s Spirit.

Did that last phrase seem a little harsh? Read on:

Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skilful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.’ So Saul said to his servants, ‘Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.’ One of the young men answered, ‘I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skilful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.’ So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, ‘Send me your son David who is with the sheep.’ Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. Saul sent to Jesse, saying, ‘Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.’ And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him. (1 Samuel 16:14-23)

The spirit of the Lord departed from Saul and yet something remains to torment him. We could say that the understanding of the time was that the torment he experienced was God’s judgment. True enough, but while I’m loathe to place the framework of modern, Western psychoses on ancient stories, I’m inclined to say that our man Saul had God’s judgment and it made him capital Depressed. (You need to draw that out a little… DEE- pressed.) And so he moped around the castle, needing a faint soundtrack of New Age harps to go with his mood.

While Saul remains in the place of the king, he already knows, through Samuel, that he’s lost the Lord’s favor and he’s just waiting for his replacement. He’s a lame-duck king and he’s lost in a landslide through the only voter with power.

For the biblical story, the reminder is to hold God’s commandments close and to realize that distance in your relationship with the Holy is because of your actions, not God’s.

For our own interpretation, this story brings up another point with which to wrestle. If Saul is tormented by an “evil Spirit from the Lord” and we recognize his behavior as depressed (and later a little manic)- are we to believe that mental illness is caused by evil spirits or, even more difficult, by God?

Of course not, you say, “We know so much now about brain chemistry, post-traumatic stress, workplace anxiety, depression through life change, etc. How could anyone say God causes mental illness?” (And if Saul didn’t wasn’t affected by at least 3 out of 4 of those, I’ll eat a DSM.) In our modern context, we view mental illness as more organic than spiritual, even when it can have a spiritual dimension.

It’s important to remember that people struggle with mental illness, from what seems common place like depression or chemical dependence to less common things like schizophrenia or avoidant personality disorder. In that struggle, it is easy to feel abandoned by God, as well as those around you. When you can’t make sense of your world, there is an additional grief, which can make you feel like you’ve failed. If your world includes a system where in goodness is a reward from God, then your apparent not-goodness is either a curse or, at the very least, God withdrawing God’s blessing.

People of faith must be vigilant in love toward those around us, not always being aware of who longs for a song from the harp to soothe their soul and quiet their demons. Words of blessing are better than nosy questions. Specific offers of help are better than waiting to be asked or worrying over doing the right thing.

We look to Saul, who sank without the Spirit of the Lord. He struggled until, at last, he fell on his sword to keep from being humiliated in death at the hands of the Philistines. Even to the last, he fought for God’s people and, likely, for God’s favor.

We who believe that we are in God’s favor through Jesus Christ must remain ever vigilant to share that same good news with those around us who struggle, in whatever ways present themselves through the Spirit.