Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Slaughter of the Innocents

The appointed gospel reading for 12/28: Matthew 2:13-18

13Now after [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
  16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
  wailing and loud lamentation,
 Rachel weeping for her children;
  she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Where were the wise men to tell Tamir Rice's mother to flee, to move, to run? 

Where was the dream that told his family to gather him close and escape with him? 

Where was the truth-teller who would dare to say, "You can't give him a toy gun. The police don't stop to look for the orange tips when all they see is black skin"? 

Where those who will refuse to be consoled about Tamir, about Bettie, about Quintonio?

The greatest lie in print in our country at this time is thus:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (The Declaration of Independence)

Clearly, these truths are not self-evident. 

They have been massaged and rebranded and covered over by the lies of generations who will not let them go. Who will not allows the mistakes of the past to be properly understood as mistakes. Who will not grieve what might have been if Freddie had lived and been treated as an equal or Sandra or Michael. 

It is a slaughter of innocents when the boulders are coming down a greatly tilted playing field and when the shots come from those who have sworn to serve and protect. 

Where are the wise men and women? The angels? The Josephs?

All I can see is Herod after Herod after Herod.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Ezra in Advent

The Narrative Lectionary reading for this week is: Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13

These thoughts were written for the 10W podcast for the week of 12/13. Please find this podcast here

          In this space, those of us who record this podcast usually offer a very short homily- some theological thoughts. I beg your indulgence to let me offer some personal thoughts this time. The book of Ezra is very difficult for me to read in one short bit, as in today’s reading.

            It is a deeply emotional and theological book. The beginning of the book details the return from the exile of the people of Judah. This return, however, is one of deeply mixed emotions. There are people who were left behind in Jerusalem who do not know those who are returning. There are Jews who remained in Babylon, not remembering or having a relationship with Judah- the land or the people. There are non-Jews, Gentiles, who now also reside in Jerusalem or who have taken ownership and care of the land itself.

            The first temple, built under Solomon, was built with conscripted Israelite labor. That conscription- slavery itself- led to deep divisions within the land. The second temple, now, will be built with permission and supplies via a decree from King Cyrus. While Ezra and parts of Isaiah acknowledge Cyrus as a servant of God’s will, whether or not Cyrus knew it, this still means the Holy of Holies has a mixed history at the hands of people.

            Finally, the book of Ezra will end with the men of the prophetic class (and perhaps others) being required to set aside their foreign wives and the children they have for their wives. Perceived to be a threat to the religious purity of the land and the people, these women and children are, presumably, sent back whence they came. Despite the guidance of the law to care for widows, orphans, and strangers- regardless of their origin- Ezra holds up the ideal of internal purity of a people as a commendable goal.

            The weight of awareness of privilege- Western privilege, white privilege, cis-gendered privilege, straight privilege, and even the advantages that I haven’t fully comprehended- the awareness of these things compels me to say this: Group homogeneity, or sameness, disguised as ‘purity’ is not a spiritual goal given by God.  When we make an idol of a time when “we” were all the same, allegedly great, we are willfully ignoring the work of God’s hands creating difference and drawing together into community. We are willfully refusing to see the others in the land, in the city, in our neighborhood, in our family, as a child of God. We are willfully choosing not to see Christ in the person right next to us.

            Perceiving the Messiah in the stranger is not a reality within the community in Ezra’s time. We should not read shame backwards onto that group for that failure. Instead, in the burgeoning labor of the Advent season, as we wait to celebrate Christ’s light at hand, we should read shame forward in that we- fellow humans with Ezra’s community- are still often too ready to shut out strangers. This unwelcome often goes by the names: safety, security, greatness, borders, danger, different.

            This is the story of the holy family. Our Advent prayer must be for God to birth in us the welcome and openness of the shepherds, the magi, and the Egyptian community. And for God to let die in us the fear of the other, the urge toward purity through shutting out others, and the hesitation to welcome difference in our communities. Amen.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Isaiah 11, For Our Time

Cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals as a Friday Prayer.

The truncated tree of Leah, Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth shall sprout,
New growth shall come from their roots.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on the One who comes,
    the spirit of discernment and patience,
    the spirit of thoughtfulness and strength,
    the spirit of deep awareness of the power of the Lord.

The One will find joy in the awe-inspiring work of the Lord.
The Messiah shall not judge by what eyes see,
    or decide by what ears hear;

but the poor will be seen through honest lenses,
    and decisions for equity will be made for the humble of heart and spirit;
The words of the Savior will cut through the bullshit of worldly powers,
    Those who oppose his goodness will be slain by grace.

The torso of the One who is to come will be garbed in justice,
    With decency and commitment as a lower garment.

The Black Lives Matter activists shall be welcomed by the police unions,
    the teachers shall celebrate down with the congressional representatives,
the Tea Party and the ACLU and the Zionist together,
    and a little child shall lead them.

The Republican and the Democrat shall eat,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the 700 Club will host Bill Maher and they shall find joy together.

The young will play together with no lockdown drills,
    and the older child will have struggles taken seriously .

No one will not hurt or destroy
    on all God’s creation;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Note from Auntie Screwtape

Cross-posted at (and originally written for) RevGalBlogPals.org.

My darling nephew,

Your uncle is terribly busy these days, but your auntie thought she would take a moment to write to her favorite nephew. I hope that you’re doing well and that you’re keeping warm. A chill will give you a devil of a cold. (Haha, I hope you’ll forgive the little pun.)

There’s so much happening amongst the humans these days that it’s almost a demon’s playground. I am certain that your dear Uncle Screwtape has given you much guidance about how to proceed with your important work of opposition. Your uncle advises that the One who is against us wants the humans (our patients) to be aware of what they can do and the heights of their capabilities. Our work, darling Wormwood, remains to keep at the forefront of their mind ideas of what can happen to them and fear of those things.

This season is absolutely delicious fodder for that. With every reminder of that wretched story of the Boy and his Mother, we can subtly push forward the images in which those Two looks like our patient- Westernized, white, and wonderful. The fewer images our patients see of a brown-skinned baby with his young brown mother and adoptive father (sigh, that one got away!), the easier it is to make the patients afraid of people who have those qualities.

The patients sing, “We wish you a Merry Christmas”, but they don’t truly because they are busy and tired and feeling exploited and fearful. This is the time to practice your whispering, dearest nephew. The most insidious and, thus, delightful whispers are as follows:

1.     There’s not enough to go around. Will you let your family be without to help someone who hasn’t worked like you have?
2.     You’re never going to be good enough if a bunch of new people come in and live in your neighborhood.
3.     You and you alone are responsible for your safety. You are alone in that goal. So alone.
4.     Who can you trust? Really, if someone disagrees with you on something small, who’s to say they don’t disagree about something fundamental? If you disagree on fundamentals, what’s to say that they follow any kinds of rules at all? Someone who disagrees with you is hardly better than an animal.
5.     There has never been a more dangerous time.

Wormwood, I am absolutely green with envy that you will have the thrill of uttering those whispers for the first time. Once they are swirling in a patient’s head, they are so difficult to expunge. That’s not our problem; that’s our success!

Our patients fail to see that the wars and skirmishes they perceive as cosmic and perpetual are really little battles that are in response to kings, presidents, and military leaders jumping at our very own whispers. As long as they continue to believe these things and see each other as threats to their own, personal happiness (which we certainly endorse as the life goal), they will remain focused on what can happen to them and they will do all they can to prevent it.

And then, darling nephew, we will have won.

Auntie must wipe away a tear now. It’s so beautiful. The chaos, the fear, the loathing, and the delicious, delicious division- especially in families… it just makes me howl with enthusiasm. We can hardly be more grateful for social media. They use it themselves to stir things up and even the most well-meaning get drawn in. For a while, I did fear that the patients had grasped how to use the widespread contact for support, encouragement, and whatever else they think is “good”. But a few of Auntie’s patented whispers and they’re at each other’s throats.

Wormwood, dearest, I shall sign off now. I’m sure you’ll hear from your Uncle soon. Keep up your work and, remember, a little whisper about fear goes a long way.

With affection,

Aunt Mephistophelia Screwtape

All credit and apologies to C. S. Lewis and his original characters of Screwtape and Wormwood. Mephistophelia is my own creation.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Knowing More Fully...

Even as we are more fully known.

Sister Joan Chittister says, "We don't change as we get older - we just get to be more of what we've always been." (The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully)

This is the definition of sanctification for me. We are children of God, simultaneously saint and sinner, but we are not yet what we have been made to be in fullness. 

The on-going work of the Spirit within pulls, pushes, and propels us to being more fully the child (children) of God for the time and place and hope and future for which we were created. 

When there is great turmoil and fear in the world, like now, I can easily feel detached from many things. Yet, because I believe God is still working - even and especially in me- I believe that nothing is settled. History is within God, thus no other forces will even be footnoted in the final telling. 

Every glimpse of pain or horror in the world is also a chance to perceive one's own sanctification, to respond with Christlikeness and holy hope and to glimpse within one's own heart what has always been true about the self and what is becoming more true through the power of God. 

Jephthah's Daughter and Fear

I've probably read Judges more than most "normal" people. I've read it a lot for someone who hasn't written a dissertation or a commentary on it. I can't escape it. There is something very truth-telling about human history in a book that perpetually shows how things go astray when they "do what is right in their own eyes", believing they have no holding center. They consistently forget God's deliverance and they fail to recognize God as their king.

In the midst of the present turmoil, pain over violence at the hands of violent, desperate people in Paris, in Beirut, in Syria, and elsewhere ... the pain is becoming fear and the fear is becoming irrationality. Our best selves are not speaking. We are not acknowledging facts (there are terror cells of the present perpetrators already within our borders plus others), nor are we acknowledging the role fear of the "other" has played in United States history (much less human history).

For me, the central story of Judges is the tragedy of Jephthah's daughter. Jephthah is a rough-edged guy, rejected by his family and his larger community due to the circumstances of his birth. He runs with a band of warriors who, if  they're not his family of origin's specific enemies- they might as well be. However, once the elders of his original community end up in hotter water than they can handle with other forces, they reach out to Jephthah for help.

He points out this hypocrisy, but they want him and his band. (He comes with his own army! Great!) According to Judges, Jephthah does a little reconnaissance work and does try to make peace with the king of the warring faction. Nevertheless, peace-making fails. Jephthah then makes a deal with the Lord. If Jephthah prevails over his enemies, he will sacrifice to the Lord the first thing he sees when he returns home.

Which will turn out to be his daughter.

This is the shift in the book. In earlier chapters, women had property, women were judges, women were part of the society and the promises of God. As the people did more and more of what was right in their own eyes, as they continued to drift further from waiting for justice and divine guidance, the value of women drops like a stone until Jephthah's daughter's fate seems ideal compared to what happens to the Levite's concubine in later chapters.

When people forget their guiding principles, their foundational hopes, their true origin stories, other things will flood in to fill the gaps left behind. Fear, anger, revenge, and false bravado are slippery little devils that will grow like weeds, especially in places with little light.

I worry that we are in a Judges moment, perhaps even a Jephthah moment. Our words, our promises, our decisions matter now more than ever. Otherwise, we will sacrifice what is most dear to us in the name of safety, security, and triumph- all of which are false gods.

Other ways aren't as easy, but for those of us who believe that God is God and there is no other... there are greater commandments for us to follow, including "Do not be afraid."

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lord's Prayer (For Kids)

God, our father in heaven, Your name is special. The whole world wants your good works. Let them happen here, just like they do in heaven. Give us today exactly what we need- not too much and not too little. Forgive us where we've messed up and Help us forgive the people who've hurt us- our bodies or our feelings. Remind us that you are always with us especially when we are afraid. The entire universe, all the power, and the most glory go to you, because you are the only God. Amen

Dry Bones (Haiku)

Out of the depths we
Cry out for the Lord whose day
Is near and yet far.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Future Perfect Tense

While Japan is still shaking and ears are still rattling in Beirut and no one is sure what happened in Paris, except that there is a lot of blood and grief... I feel still as I wait to understand how to pray.

It is almost as though praying for peace has become a kind of false prophecy, for I have seen how the forces that oppose God and God's will in the world go to all kinds of lengths to avoid peace.

I sought out several translations of Psalm 27, particularly verses 13 and 14.

The New Revised Standard Version says:

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord!

All of it is a future hope as well as guidance toward the future. 

The New American Standard Bible reads: 

I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the Lord.

This points to the idea that the psalmist has had an experience of God within the concreteness of earthly life and applies that lesson to his (or her) future expectations of the Holy One. 

The New International Version: 

I remain confident of this:
    I will see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and take heart
    and wait for the Lord.

Again the outlook is ahead and not behind.

The NASB is the closest to a literal translation of the Hebrew, whereas the other two are attempting a balance between the beseeching spirit of the psalm and the actual words thereof. Our prayers have to do the same thing. We cry out to the heavens with our grief and our frustrations- HOW LONG, O Lord- and we wait. Yet we also keep living- tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow- with the faithful expectation of seeing God's good work in the world. 

We lean on what we know to be true, because of what we have seen and heard, and we trust that it shall bear fruit again- even in our lifetimes- for the healing of the earth and all who dwell therein. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Lucky in Love

I love what I do.

Sure it would be nice to have more money (I don't generally say no to a raise now and then), but I feel very privileged and lucky to do the work I do.

This week I have-

- played pub trivia with members of the congregation I serve,
- debated the root of the Hebrew word miqreh on Facebook and tried to understanding the place of luck in the story of Ruth
- visited a woman post-hip replacement
- met with a variety of different groups
- presided over a wedding that left no eyes dry
- sat as a quiet witness to a broken heart
- prayed in a bunch of different place for different things
- power-napped on the couch in the church
- had a good book discussion (and a Good Book discussion)

And the week is not done.

I am tired. I'll be taking a little comp time tomorrow to make up for two long days, but on the whole-

I feel lucky and grateful to be paid to witness and participate in God's amazing work in the world.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Sun Also Rises

About a month ago I went on a silent retreat to Christ in the Wilderness in western Illinois. I had a little hermitage to myself and I spent five days walking, praying, reading, thinking, and listening. One evening I hiked up hill (both ways) to the big, free-standing porch swing on a hill. This swing faced due west.

I positioned myself in the swing to watch the blazing orange sunset over the span of corn fields and hickory trees. I heard coyotes yip and yowl. I watched flocks birds swoop and then come to rest, facing the disappearing sun like me. I saw the bats come out and dive for their food.

As everything settled into evening humming, I decided to go back toward my hermitage. I climbed out of the swing and walked the path, back around to the east side of the hill. By the time I was ready to descend the hill toward the little chapel, I was facing due east. I could no longer see the sunset because the peak of the hill was between me and the view.

My new view was the rising deep violet of the coming night. It was easy to perceive myself as walking into the night. In fact, that's what I immediately thought. I am walking into the night.

Then I had an insight. I am not only walking into the night, but I am walking toward the dawn.

Walking into the night- into a darker space where the shapes and path are not as clearly defined-  also means heading toward dawn, a new day, and a new beginning.

Sitting down in the little chair at the top of that path, I looked down the hill and watched the night rise.

How often do we as people or as a church watch the sunset over and over and over, forgetting that we are called to turn toward a resurrection sunrise? We fear the dark- forgetting that the stars and the night are as much a part of God's creativity and creation as the sun and the day.

What does this look like?

- Wringing our hands over dwindling numbers without examine why they're happening
- Expecting the same thing over and over to get the same result it did years ago
- Telling the same stories of history over and over without celebrating the successes of the present or leaning into the dreams of the future

What does walking into the dark look like?

- It looks like the widow of Zarepheth feeding Elijah with some of the last of her food.
- It looks like the widow giving two mites to a system that exploited her, but that she also perceived to allow her access to God
- It looks like a centurion saying, "I believe, Lord, forgive my unbelief."
- It looks like 2-3 women walking with heavy hearts toward a tomb that will turn out to be empty.

If we watch sunsets over and over and over, without ever turning into the dawn, we should not be surprised when nothing ever changes. When we turn, when we yield to the Spirit's call, we find that we are not abandoning our history, our saints, our stories. Instead, they are also ahead of us, reminding of us of how God has provided before and the promises of provision for the future.

Turn around, step into a slightly dimmer light, and head toward the dawn- knowing God is with you every step of the way.

Not Exactly Rarin' To Go

Prompt: What is the hardest part of a big project: getting the energy to begin, finding the time to work on it, or feeling down that it's over?

I can never get started. 

It's not because I like putting things off. It is actually because of my fear of failing. As long as I haven't started, the project is not a failure. 

I started to write "perfect", but I don't actually expect perfection of myself. That's not attainable. I do, however, have a standard for myself that probably looks like perfection to some people. I tend to operate with the personal expectation of a high level of competency, creativity, and clarity. I feel it very deeply when I fail on one of those. 

Thus, it is often easier not to start something because I can't flop on what I don't leap for. 

What a horrible sentence

It is the time of year when all my spare thoughts are about my Christmas Eve sermon. What can I say to communicate the power, mystery, and deep love of the Incarnation? How can I keep myself out of it, but make it personal enough that the majority of those hearing it believe it was meant for them? 

I almost write the thing on 12/23. On two years, I wrote it before then only because I had other people involved in the sermon. 

I was late on a play this year because I wanted it to be just right. I'd planned out most of it my head, but I dragged writing that first page. I knew once I started, I'd be okay. However, I couldn't commit to being open to the Spirit, writing, editing, and moving forward in the way I imagine normal (read:most) people do. 

I waited. Until it was embarrassing. 

I wish I had a clever ending for this post, but the truth is this: I'm just glad that I started it. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Psalm 23, Revisited (ReBlog)

This is an edited repost from here.

The Lord is my mechanic, I’m satisfied by his work.     
She keeps me tuned and running smoothly.
He leads me to open roads, 
    She grants me peace in congestion. 
God’s mercy and grace toward me reflect well on her reputation. 
Even when I need serious maintenance, 
    I know the cost has been covered;for you are with me;    
       your torque wrench and your lift platform— they comfort me.
You bang out my dents and mend my scratches,
In front of those who treat me with disdain.
You keep my fluids filled,    
    My belts are tightened.
Certainly safety and stability will pursue me on all of my expeditions, 
And I shall ride in the chariot of the Lord forever.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Worship Assistant: Google

An elderly woman and her son have attended church where I serve for a few weeks. They always leave very quickly, such that I've never really be able to meet them. She comes up for communion with the help of someone in the congregation, but he stays behind in the pew.

She receives the bread and doesn't eat it. A couple weeks ago, the congregation member who had helped come up waved me over and asked to give her a blessing. The older woman said her name, which I thought was French. Conjugating quickly in my head, I said, "Dieu vous donne la paix." She smiled gently at me and I felt successful.

This week, at the beginning of the service, they were back. I looked at the younger man and asked "En francais?" He said, "No, she speaks German."

That explained two weeks of blank looks!

"Guten Morgen!" I quickly offered. The congregation chuckled.

During the passing of the peace, I went back to him and asked about communion. Knowing I hadn't been speaking the right language, I asked him about the bread issue. He confided that she actually struggled with Alzheimer's, so she wasn't entirely sure what was happening. "Thank you for tolerating her," he concluded.

"Oh, no," I protested. "We aren't tolerating anyone. It's an open table for everybody, no matter what they understand. Besides, no matter what she forgets, God remembers her."

His face reddened and his eyes watered as he thanked me. I felt intensely emotional.

During the offering, I used my cell phone to Google how to say some kind of blessing. The words for "The body of Christ broken for you" were beyond my pronunciation. The smile she gave told me she'd understood what I'd gotten out.

During the last hymn, I googled "German English Bible". Word project.org offered me the page you see here in a side-by-side translation. I knew if I could find that, I could find the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6 and offer at least a line of it.

I think it's really important for anyone visiting a church to hear a least one line in their own language. No church is likely able to offer a complete translation of anything to a new visitor. If you don't usually have non-English speaking visitors, you may not even have materials available in another language. Nevertheless, it is hospitable, kind, and generous to offer something in a language that a visitor or newer member can understand. Particularly in the case of older people or people who have difficulty processing information, words in a childhood language or song may be the most comforting thing they could hear. I've greeted people in French (correctly) and offered the Holy Communion dialogue in American Sign Language before.

At the end of the service, I spread wide my right arm and clearly announced, "Der HERR segne dich und beh├╝te dich." Before the sound had fully died, the face of the woman at the back of the church was transformed. She lit up and grinned so broadly I could see her teeth. She heard. She understood. She felt the blessing.

I offered the full blessing- intercession, request, and promise- in English.

I will always remember how Google, my worship assistant, actually allowed me to see the blessing of Aaron take root in a woman who just wanted to feel- even briefly- welcome and at home.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Hark Anticipation

My favorite Christmas carol is “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Pastor’s prerogative allows me to put this song at the end of the Christmas service. It is rousing and ends on a strong note. Most important to me, the words of this song give me great comfort and encouragement.

I especially love the second half of the third verse, “Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die/ born to raise each child of earth, born to give us second birth.” For me, these two phrases sum up the Incarnation. Jesus doesn’t come as a fire-breathing, chariot-driving, fear-mongering salesman of salvation. Instead, he is mild- a healthy infant, wrapped tightly, representing God’s willingness to break into time and space and flesh and breath and blood and water.

Jesus comes for each child of earth. Not only for those who will perceive him as the Messiah, but also for those who will deny him, those who will betray him, those who will doubt, and those who just are not sure. The second birth, through water and the Spirit, is more than the one moment of our baptism, but the regular opportunities we have- through grace- to be a part of what God is doing in the world for Christ’s sake.

As soon as we round the church year corner that is Christ the King Sunday, my whole body anticipates singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” Since it is a Christmas song, I usually have to wait until Christmas Eve for us to carol out these words together. We do not always get the last verse in the Family Service (at 5:30 pm). Thus, it is finally at about 9:30 on Christmas Eve- after candles and communion and everything- that the words that give me chills finally ring out into the night.

This is Christmas for me and it is the moment I anticipate each year. A full-throated burst of this song is the greatest gift to me because it make me grateful, all over again, for the greatest gift the world has ever received. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail, Incarnate Deity!/ Pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”

Friday, November 6, 2015

Can't Decide

Prompt: Take the first sentence from your favorite book and make it the first sentence of your post.

This would require choosing a favorite book. I can't even begin to do that. 

I have books that I've read so often that I know their terrain like a favorite hiking path: A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Walk in the Woods, Bet Me, Outlander, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Confederates in the Attic

I have books that are so gaspingly wonderful and provoking that I've only read them once or twice, but I will do it again- when I can breathe again from the first time: God's Hotel, The Secret Chord, The Hour I First Believed, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Dear Leader, Religion for Atheists

There are books that I've read repeatedly because of my occupation and their call to me: Jonah, Mark, Ruth, Judges, Revelation, Romans. 

There are the books that I won't read again, but I recommend so highly: Five Days at Memorial, An Unquenchable Thirst, It Gets Better, Full Body Burden, The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks

So I've completed flubbed the prompt. 

I will give you this opening line: 

"The evening is typical enough until the dog begins to choke." 

It's the first line of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. This book was such an unexpected plot that even though I've read it 3 times, my heart beats faster just looking at the cover. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Hamilton and My French Boyfriend

The other day I encouraged people to blog about a secret obsession or, at least, an unexpected one.

Mine is my love affair of the heart with the Marquis de Lafayette. I read all I can about him. (Yes, I know about Sarah Vowell's new book.) 

My Lafayette love led me to follow through on learning more about the serious popularity of the new musical, Hamilton. Yes, it is a musical about Alexander Hamilton

And it is amazing. (Not only because Lafayette does French-accented rapping!)

The musical touches on what it means to be an immigrant, an orphan, a spouse, a parent, a "Founding Father". The musical styles are all over the place, but amazing in their variance and scope. 

There is little religious significance to this, except that people are people and motivations remain the same. There are always those who are driven, those dealing with the unimaginable, those who are afraid to take sides. 

And we live our stories together with our secrets known to God (and the spirit of Lafayette). 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Daily Scenery

The post challenge I took up today involved taking a picture of something you see every day. This is not quite the view of Anchorage I see all the time, but it's a shot I snapped this morning with no extra effort. 

I'm in the middle of missing some of the things and the people that would be closer if I lived a little more east of here (as in: the Lower 48). Yet there is so much here: the church I love, my son's school, friends, trails I love, the bears and the moose. 

The grass might be greener elsewhere, but the mountains aren't higher or closer or home. 

The Longest Day

November 3rd, 2007 was- to date- the longest day of my life. 

I've flown over the Atlantic, across the country, sat in hospitals for hours, was in labor for 30+ hours before an emergency C-section... none of that was as long as this day in that year. 

It was a Saturday and we had been promised that our loved ones would be back from Iraq that night. They'd left in March. Since saying goodbye to my husband in mid-March, I'd graduated from Yale, driven across the country with my youngest brother, started my internship, and wandered around our house alone. I'd thought through every activity I picked up... would it be something I wanted to do when I was no longer living the single life. 

Earlier in the week, we'd heard a maybe of Saturday afternoon. By Friday, we knew it would be Saturday evening. By Saturday afternoon, we knew it would be after midnight. 

By 5:30 pm on Saturday, I'd cleaned the house to a degree it has never seen since. I baked chocolate chip cookies. I'd been to the store 3 times. I'd shaved all that was reasonable to shave. I washed the towels. I called a couple other wives 2-3 times... apiece. 

We waited. 

And waited. 

And waited. 

I listened to Queen's "Somebody to Love" on repeat out of my laptop for hours- dancing, singing, crying. 

Finally at 10, another woman and I agreed to meet at midnight and drive onto the post- no matter what the latest update said. We met at the exit by the dump and convoyed onto the base. We waited in a large assembly room: bleary-eyed children, emotional parents, stoically exhausted spouses. It was 1 am. Then 1:30. 

Finally we heard that the plane landed on the Air Force base, so they had to bus everyone over to the Army post. The rumor was that my husband was in charge of the battalion for this part of their trip. All eyes on me, I offered assurances that he was not prone to speechifying. 

Finally... finally... finally, the bus was outside. We cleared the doors. A line of people marched in and made formation in the middle of the room. My husband watched them line up, saluted, and dismissed them. 

So much chaos. I could see him looking around for me. I know exactly what I was wearing and I can feel the pull of boots against my calves as I recall darting through the swirl of moving bodies to reach him. I don't know if we spoke, but I know that we didn't stop holding hands for a long, long time. 

In those minutes, the anticipated grief of deployment, the wrench of being separated, the timidity of trying to figure out life together all lifted for a minute. The longest day was over and that was all that mattered. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

As the Commandment Says

based on Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Often something positive eventually comes from a disaster. This does not mean that the disaster was God’s way of achieving the positive. The birth of David results from Ruth’s union with Boaz (encouraged by Naomi), but the biblical events preceding that: Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s incest with his daughters, the famine and death of Naomi’s family… these are not God’s preferred method bringing grace into the world.

The first widow I ever understood to be a widow was 25 years old. She was in a college class with me. Her husband died of a heart attack while playing basketball. He was 29. Suddenly, the notion of widowhood became clear to me. It was not that a woman simply outlived her husband, but that there was a blank space at the table, an empty side of the bed, a phone number that goes unanswered, conversations that become one-sided. Widows and widowers of all ages and circumstances frequently surround us. And we forget their status. We forget that they are among those who are considered most vulnerable and most wise in Scripture. We forget that God’s heart is with them.

            It is critical to remember that her beloved, deceased partner may not have been a saint, but she will still grieve. That he is still thinking of his loved one, even if you are afraid to bring up the subject. That she may grow accustomed to her new state, but never stop missing the ones who rest in light. Being widowed, being left out of partnership, should not mean being left out of community. Let not the community of God forsake those who mourn. It is not enough to say God is with them. We are to be the hands, words, and consolation of the Spirit with widows, orphans, and strangers.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Litany for the Feast of All Saints

...based on Isaiah 25:6-9; Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 24

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
All that surrounds it and all who dwell therein have a home in God.
The Lord has taken chaos and brought forth beauty, creativity, and community.

The bounds of creation extend beyond our imagination.
Science and mathematics spiral out in response to God’s omnipresent expanse.

Who may ascend into the Lord’s presence and who dares to seek God’s holy face?
We believe in rest and peace in God’s light for all who died in the faith.

We dare to claim the same comfort and mercy for those who died in fear, pain or without clarity of heart or mind.
Because grace and mercy are upon God’s holy ones, and God watches over those who have been saved.

Our grief is not in vain because God is faithful and has promised to destroy death- our final enemy.
Our grief is also not false because we do miss those we love, who loved us, and with whom we look forward to reuniting.

Those who have not been named are not forgotten.
They shall receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of their salvation.

Those who rest in the Lord will understand truth.
Those with whom the Lord abides will perceive his loving presence.

God will wipe away all tears, bring healing to the nations, and console those who mourn.
This is most certainly true.

The communion of saints is around us, within us, ahead of us, and beside us. It exists outside of time and place.
This is most certainly true.

We give thanks for those whose faithfulness and love brought light and life to us and to all around them. We are glad to continue their work through the help of the Spirit.
This is most certainly true. Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Difficult Questions: Return of Christ

Malachi 3:1-7; Psalm 98; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-5:4; Matthew 24:36-44

            I did not anticipate that this sermon, the one on the return of Christ, would be the hardest to write. When I was planning the series, judgment, heaven, and hell all seemed like hefty theological balls to smack into the stands. The return of Christ seemed like a wiffle ball in comparison: Don’t know when it’s coming. It will surprise us all. Be ready by keeping the faith through loving your neighbor and caring for creation. Voila, let’s eat!

            Yet this topic wouldn’t let go of me. I regretted the chosen texts. (Never mind that I chose
them.) Malachi pushes his hearers into a fearful anticipation of what it to come. The one they anticipate will burn off their impurities and everyone who has done any wrong will have it revealed. Those who hear this are supposed to look forward to this day with hope and dread.

            I sometimes visit a Korean spa that offers a full body scrub. (Stay with me here.) You have to soak in a hot tub and then a very aggressive woman scrapes you down with the roughest cloth you’ve ever felt. Your dead skin piles up next to you- if you’re like me. It’s horrible and wonderful all at once and you definitely feel purified- at least skin deep- after it’s over. Is Malachi’s one who is to come going to do this for us- but spiritually and with finality? Is soaking ourselves in the written word and the experiences of community and communion the way of being prepared for this eschatological scrubbing?

            Eschatology is the fancy word for the last things or the end things. If you use it too much, it means you’re not focused on the things of right now, which is its own problem to scrub out. 

            Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians connects us to some of the earliest followers of Christ. Likely, it is the oldest part of the New Testament. The people receiving the letter wrapped themselves in the good news of Jesus Christ that they heard from Paul. Part of his understanding of that gospel and their take-away was that Jesus was returning soon and very soon (as in he’s just around the corner).

            When some of these first believers died, those who remained panicked. How would those who died be able to enjoy what Jesus was going to institute when he came back, which should be in just a few moves on the sun dial. Any moment now… Part of the reason this matters is that the early Christians lived in what historians call the Pax Romana. This was a nearly 200-year stretch of peace achieved by Rome, not because it was actually peaceful, but because Rome had so beaten down its enemies that none had the power to rise against it and break the “peace”.

            This did not mean that the surrounding areas, the Roman territories, felt at peace. Local governors and governments had their own discretion and power to wield in local affairs.  Often this passage from Thessalonians is used not only for its “thief in the night” intimidation, but also as a consolation to Christians who worry that they are wrong. Wrong about God, wrong about Jesus, wrong about what it all means. The Thessalonian Christians were among those who hoped Jesus would return, and soon, so that they would know true peace. They would worship without fear. They would see their loved ones again, according to Paul. And they would be able to show everyone that they were right.

The promises of God, however, are not our trump card when our back is against the wall. When rulers say “peace, peace”, but there is not peace, the promises of God are our consolation. The comfort of knowing that God does not lie is not meant to keep us cocooned in denial or ready to say “Told ya so!”, but to break us out in resurrection freedom so that we may take up our baptismal callings, our vocations, our avocations, and be part of the kingdom that come near right now.

            The passage from Matthew has been so misused that I’d prefer if we never read it. (Yeah, I did say that.)  Without its surrounding passages, it means nothing. Pulled from the context of Matthew’s “Little Apocalypse” or revelation, the gospel writer is explaining to the disciples what it means to faithful. In Matthew, there are only either/ors, this or that, goat or sheep. Period. For this writer, the disciples are either keeping the faith and are among the elect or they are not. End of story.

            This call to righteous living has been manipulated to point toward a “rapture” that has its own theology of discipleship around it. When we have stories that are not centered in Christ, that are not anchored in grace, that do not point to the on-going, merciful, inviting work of the Spirit, or do not fit with God’s eternal character of creation and creativity, then these stories (including the rapture, the tribulation, and all their fabled friends) cannot be part of our way of talking about faith and faithfulness. Matthew’s entire gospel is a guide to those who have found themselves outside of the place they once called home and now need to form a new community. Matthew is writing for spiritual refugees.

            The fancy theological word for the return of Christ is “parousia”, meaning presence or arrival. When I think of the parousia, I think of my junior year of college. I was a transfer student, so this was my first year in this school. I noticed the girl who sat behind me in Italian did not come to class for two weeks and this was after the drop period. Not coming meant either she left the school or was planning to fail the class.

            I did not know many people, but she had been friendly to me. I called the office and found out where she lived in the dorms. I made some brownies and went to make a call. I found her in her dorm room, alone and lonely. She’d decided to attend this formerly Baptist women’s college because it was where her girlfriend wanted to go. Two months into their first year, they broke up. The girlfriend had moved out of their room and, being the more social of the two, had taken most of the friends.

            The tearful girl in front of me looked at me and waited to see what I would do. I wasn’t prepared with a good speech. I didn’t come from any church tradition, family practice, or even friend history that gave me a script for what to say the first time someone told me that they were gay and then cringed to see how I would react. Then the parousia happened. My dad’s refrain of “You know what’s right. Do it” played in my head, overlaid on a soundtrack of every hymn about welcome and grace and hope and love I’d ever sung or heard. Here is how the parousia happened: Deep breath, “Okay. Want some brownies?”


            This arrival, the return of Christ, is not just far off. If the body of Jesus wouldn’t stay dead, wouldn’t stay entombed, and wouldn’t bother to only speak to the upstanding in the religious community, how can we believe that the spiritual presence of that body will be contained merely to a future date and time. Surely there is a both/and reality that would make the writer of Matthew go wild, but it cannot be denied. Christ is present and Christ is coming. God created and God is creating. The Spirit resurrected and the Spirit is resurrecting. The return of Christ is coming and the return of Christ is here. In our conversations, in our baptisms, in our communion, in our dark nights of the soul, in our singing of “Joy to the World”, in our brownies, in our learning, in our repenting, in our life, and in our death.  

            Embracing the return of Christ as the mystery that it is means letting go of the false gods of bad theology, releasing our fear of hell, rejecting heaven as a prize that we can earn, and realizing truth of the presence of Christ in, with, under, and for us and all creation at all times and in all places. Furthermore, embracing the return of Christ as the most concrete reality of our sermon series forces us to reject spiritual complacency. We must embrace the tangible things that draw us together as a congregation and push us out toward community. These things, from water and wine to sandwiches and books and peanut butter and Christmas stockings and bible studies, are clues. They are clues that point to mystery of how the Savior of the world can be as close as our hands.

            Christ has died. Christ is living. Christ will come again. And he does.