Sunday, December 18, 2011

Advent Crossroad: Fourth Sunday in Advent

Fourth Sunday in Advent: Malachi 3-4 (Narrative Lectionary)
           This time of year I think a lot about the fact that I had two Jewish grandparents whom I knew and loved. I had four Jewish great-grandparents who died before I was born, whose parents came from Eastern Europe to escape the horrific persecution of Jews. From my Jewish grandparents came my mother who came to know and believe in Christ in her mid-twenties, but still shared with her children some of the celebrations of her youth- Chanukah, Passover, Sabbath.

            This time of year, when we all reflect on families, I think of the Chanukahs of my youth and I think about the people who came before my great-grandparents. My family tree with many branches cut short on one side because of the violence against Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. When I read stories of pogroms in ghettos and shtetls, I wonder if those were my distant cousins whose descendants the world will not meet, whom I will not meet.

            When I think of these people, my ancestors, who died because of their religious and cultural identity, I have wondered if I am betraying them. If I am not practicing Judaism (I am technically a religious Jew, just not of the Jewish faith.), am I undermining their sacrifice?

            It’s not just this time of year that has me asking these questions, but our reading from Malachi. Malachi isn’t really a name, but a title meaning “Messenger of YHWH”. This emissary is bringing another message from God: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight -- indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

            As I read Malachi, I think of all the stories we’ve heard from the Hebrew Scriptures. The story of Abraham and Sarah, of Joseph and his brothers, enslavement in Egypt and freedom with Moses, the giving of the law, the leadership of David and Solomon, the struggle to keep the faith in the midst of tribal warfare, and when kidnapped and taken to a strange land. Through these stories, the Bible points to God’s ultimate faithfulness despite human unfaithfulness.

            And now we come to the end of the Hebrew Scriptures. There are other stories that didn’t make it into the regular canon, the agreed upon list of Bible books. There are events that happen after Malachi’s prophecies- the Chanukah story with the lamp oil that lasts for eight days is one such story. But here is a place of turning, a fork in the road, a split in the tree. At this place, we either continue to remain in Advent or we move on to Christmas. Malachi says, “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

            For me, as much as I might wrestle with what it means to be Jewish in ancestry, I cannot remain in Advent. This is not the end of the written word of God for me. Somehow, through the Spirit, I have been brought to believe that the sun of righteousness has risen and that Son’s name is Jesus. I may have moments of doubt and of darkness, but I cannot dis-believe the experiences I have had in Christ. The encounters that I have had with Jesus in other people.  My understanding of the powerful reality that God was born onto the earth and knows fully what it means to human.

            Here at the end of Malachi, the branch of Christianity grows out the roots of the tree of Jesse, the Jewish roots of our faith. From this tree we receive our Savior. From this tree we receive the roots of baptism and of blessing bread and wine. From this tree, we receive the understanding of the cloud of witnesses of faithful people who encourage us onward on our journey. Until we are gathered around that manger in Bethlehem and share in Mary’s pondering and the shepherds’ rejoicing, we who believe in God are all Jews.

            But here we are as Christians, believers in Christ, standing at the Advent crossroad and there are two questions for us. The first is will Christ return today? There is still time. And if not, there is still tomorrow.

            The second question that we must ask at this intersection is, “What about God’s promises to Jews?” If we have been brought into faith through Jesus, but there remain some who received God’s promises- what happens to them? What happens to them?

            God happens to them. The oracle of Malachi begins, “’I have loved you’, says the Lord.” The book speaks of God’s election and how God will prepare God’s people to endure judgment and being made holy. Again and again, throughout Hebrew Scriptures, God goes the distance to uphold the promises that have been made between God and God’s people. God does not fail.

"I have loved you" is the banner of a God-created and God-given relationship.  God re-creates and sustains that relationship in the face of human struggle and failure. If no one can endure or stand in the day of the Lord's appearance, then God will have to create and sustain that which can endure and stand. God will not fail.

            We are poised in a thin space between Advent and Christmas, a place where God meets creation, a place where God became creation. In this space we see backwards and forwards- history and future. It is only in this space that, just between waiting and birthing, we sit with the possibility and the mystery of what has been and what will be.

            There is a possibility that my ancestors might not have been killed and that I might still have become Christian. Who can say? But they were killed. Killed because of who they were and it is a great loss, but one that I cannot change. I do not forget them. I honor them by being honest in who I am and by holding fast to what I believe.
            And I believe in God’s work for the world in Jesus. I believe with Mary and Joseph, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Hosea, and Daniel in God’s promises from the beginning of creation. In God’s plans for hope and a future. In how God loves God’s people like a parent who lifts an infant to the cheek.

            God has not forgotten the promises made to my ancestors and yours. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. That love burns through all distinctions, all sins and all lies and leaves only what endures. God’s promises are all that can endure and, because of that covenant, God upholds those to whom life has been promised. Then. Now. Forever. God does not fail. 


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Unexpected, Mysterious and Fun

I've been trying to think of what to say about this article from the New York Times, in which the author calls himself a "None"- meaning no religious affiliation. It's not this designation that bothers me. I'm also not too upset when he goes on to comment on how many such Nones get turned off religion by religious people. Been there, seen that, had it happen to me.

Here's the thing that gets me:

We are more religiously polarized than ever. In my secular, urban and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but God? He is for suckers, and Republicans.I used to be that way, too, until a health scare and the onset of middle age created a crisis of faith, and I ventured to the other side. I quickly discovered that I didn’t fit there, either. I am not a True Believer. I am a rationalist. I believe the Enlightenment was a very good thing, and don’t wish to return to an age of raw superstition.We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.Nones don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.” (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)By that measure, there is very little “good religion” out there. Put bluntly: God is not a lot of fun these days. Many of us don’t view religion so generously. All we see is an angry God. He is constantly judging and smiting, and so are his followers. No wonder so many Americans are enamored of the Dalai Lama. He laughs, often and well.

This gets my dander up in a variety of ways. First, and you may read however much defensiveness you wish into this because I can't stop you, I appreciate reason and science and I don't check my understanding of either at the church door. I don't expect anyone else too.

But I take my reason and science right in there with me and somehow, someway, somewhere... they encounter mystery. It's not hocus-pocus or woo-woo, it's something intangible, indescribable and desirable.  Mystery is not automatically irrational, it's just inexplicable.

Truth isn't what works. What's true is true, regardless of our ability to believe it. All of which means that I could be wrong in what I believe. I could be a little wrong (this life could be all there is). I could be a lot wrong (see: Reformation, the). I could be going to hell (does that really need parenthetical explanation?).

When Eric Weiner says that God is not a lot of fun these days, I think he might be talking to the wrong people or listening to them. The loudest voices don't speak for God. They speak for themselves or whoever is paying them. They don't speak for me. Speaking for myself, I have a darn good time.

Being religious, for me, is full of surprises, moving moments, laughter, questions and
discussion. And I see lots of people around me having a good time as well. I saw people laughing together tonight as they distributed food. I heard clergy laughing today as they pieced together sermon ideas for this week. I heard children giggling through the Christmas story and I heard adults chuckling about how to tackle serious issues related to healthcare.

I've said the wrong words during church, choked on what I was singing when a spider jumped on music, forgotten major points of what I was going to say and even skipped elements of the service. Nothing happened. To me that's not because there is no God, but because God isn't worried about that.

I don't think God's worked up about perfect worship. Solemn faces. Pristine on-key singing. Regimented liturgical actions.

For me, my life of faith is on the edge, pushing the envelope, and skidding right up to the altar rail and thinking, "The Spirit led me back again! All right! We must be okay! Grace wins again!" Because I believe in a God of fullness, a fleshed out God who lives and breathes in all creation. The God who made me laughs, because I laugh and I am made in God's image.

I believe this. I believe it is true, but my faith doesn't make it true. It either is true or it isn't. And I am living, whole-heartedly, like it is.

Which brings me back to mystery. Just because you can't pick apart and explain every detail doesn't make something unreal, dishonest or untrue. In age of science and reason, I think it's good for all of us to know that there are things we cannot explain, we cannot fully grasp, we cannot totally control. That's right. We're not totally in control and it SUCKS to admit it.

Some things are mysterious. The pull and push of certain sounds, sights and smells can be unraveled and unraveled, yet still remain, in part, unexplained. And here's where I think some Nones (not necessarily the author) and certain religious fundamentalists are singing from the same page. Everything has to have an explanation. Either it's God or science. Having an explanation is about control.

Mystery. Learn to live with it. Learn to embrace it. Roll in it and let it wash over you. Babies in hay, stirring songs, sunrise, sunset, quiet nights, bustling cities, bread and wine and thou, fire, flower buds, blue skies, water, first words, last words, kisses, and amazing coincidences.

There will be some things you will never explain. This is most certainly true.

And you just have to laugh about that.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Father Knows Breast

Today I was at a sushi bar and a Dominican priest was seated one chair away from me. I knew he was Dominican because he had a white robe and a large wooden rosary- like other Dominicans I have known.

I wonder if I should greet him. Why? I'm not Catholic. He doesn't know I'm clergy (no collar on today). He probably wants a peaceful lunch. I want a peaceful lunch.

I do not leave well enough alone. I ask if he is, in fact, Dominican. Yes, new in town (of several months). We know someone in common. We talk briefly about where we're from. All good. No problems.

I'm reading from a Nook and he has a paperback by Wallace Stegner.

Him: We're thinking about starting a Theology and Literature group. I'm checking out Stegner.
Me: (Trying to make a joke) So, not Father Greeley. (A Roman Catholic priest who is a prolific writer and some of whose novels are famously or infamously sexy.)
Him: No, not Father Greeley. Too many breasts.
Me: (Raising my eyebrows) Well, breasts don't usually hurt people.
Him: No, but the breasts are all anyone can think about.
Me: Well, there are vows about that.
Him: Well, what are you reading there?
Me: (looking at my screen, open to a historical romance/novel): It's full of breasts.

... and it kind of trailed off from there and we ate in silence.

I was fine with our conversation until he said, "There are too many breasts." If he had said, "There's too much sex." That's a different thing and, for me, it would have been putting men and women on an equal sexual plane. To say that there are too many breasts, though, and that the breasts are distracting was very irritating to me. Perhaps there is a preponderance of breasts in Greeley novels, but it never seemed that way to me. Yes, I'm reading into an encounter with a man I don't know, but his response to me (focused on women's bodies as distractors) seemed rooted in distaste. So was it women in general or just me?

I finished lunch first and so I attempt to offer an olive branch by saying, "It was nice to meet you. I hope you enjoy your time here. Happy Advent." He murmured the pleasant responses and then I said, "Dominus vobiscum." (Latin for "The Lord be with you") I had hoped that he would respond, "Et con spirito tuo," (and with thy spirit), to show a sense of shared history (in Christ) and collegiality in ministry. The thing is that in Catholic tradition, only the priest would normally say the phrase I spoke. And I did know that.

He looked at me and said, "Nice translation."


Was I as nice as I could have been? No, I was not. I had hoped for a shared conversation with someone close to my age about what it means to live as a religious leader. I have not yet come to accept that this will never happen with someone who believes that my ministry is not valid (good, but not valid) and that, in any count, it exists outside the One True Church.

And there is something sad about a young man who has taken a vow of chastity, uttering the phrase, "But the breasts are all anyone can think about." Does this come from sacrificing his own sexual desires for the sake of his vocational call? (Possibly) Does it stem from teachings that may still exist in some Catholic churches or seminaries about women, women's bodies and female sexuality? (Possibly) Am I way off the mark? (Possibly)

The story that made me a little giggly at first now makes me sad because I feel the great divide between myself and a peer who will never see me as an equal. And it's a loss to both of us to learn from one another and to the catholic Church as a whole that we are so divided.

The other thing that occurs to me, though, is that I need to wear my collar more often. I was just reading on the Miss Representation website about the absence of women in certain roles and jobs in society. For the most part, if you can't see it, you can't be it. Meaning young women often don't consider careers in which women are less visible or non-existent.

My visibility as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ matters because people need to see women in this role. Girls and boys need to see women clergy- in the pulpit and on the street.

And if you see my collar or stole and all you can think about is the breasts, that's your problem.

Mary didn't feed Jesus Similac.

Dominus vobiscum.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Like One Who Lifts an Infant to the Cheek

A Sermon on Hosea 6:1-6, 11:1-9

Who knows anything about Hosea (the book or the prophet)?

Hosea is a prophet in the Northern Kingdom, probably just a little more than seven hundred years before Jesus is born. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, remember, has more money, more tribes and more power, but it doesn’t have the Davidic line (the line of kings descending from David). During the time of Hosea’s prophecies, the Assyrians will come and conquer the Northern Kingdom and carry them off into exile.

One of the reasons we don’t get a whole lot of Hosea is because the book can cause a lot of indigestion. There are two main metaphors in the book: a husband/wife metaphor and a parent/child metaphor.

In that first one, the husband/wife metaphor, God is the faithful husband and Israel is the unfaithful wife, deserving of punishment- possibly death. While we can understand a metaphor of idolatry as adultery, we don’t always think about the fact that in ancient Israel, there wasn’t really any such thing as an unfaithful husband. Men controlled money, land, power and women’s lives. When we try to bring the metaphor forward into modern times, the language of faithfulness and unfaithfulness stands, but not the husband and wife language, which can get in the way of what prophet is using the metaphor to express.

How were the Israelites unfaithful? They didn’t honor their covenant with God, the God who had brought them out of Egypt and sustained them. By the time of Hosea, Israel had little religious cults that worshipped the Caananite ba’als. A significant portion of this worship involved fertility ceremonies- sacrifices, worship and sexual activity to ensure the fertility of the land, especially rain, safe planting and plentiful harvest.

We know that the Israelites should have trusted God to provide these things, but in an arid, desert climate- we can have a little sympathy for people who tried to hedge their bets so that they could have enough food.

After all, how many of us have ever said, “Knock on wood” or thrown some salt over our shoulder? Did we really think that would do anything? Then why do we do it? It’s something we’ve heard about and we think it can’t hurt to do it. Technically, if we trust God for and in all things, we don’t need little rituals like that. Furthermore, we shouldn’t perform little rituals like that. Same for the Israelites, but on a bigger scale.

Before I talk about the parent/child metaphor, I’d like to ask how many of you are afraid of God? I know we talk a strong and long line about God’s grace and mercy, but in the end how many of us still worry about God’s anger?

Here’s the thing, though. If we were going to be afraid of God, we shouldn’t be afraid of God because of who God is. We should be afraid because of who we are. We are to fear, love and trust God, but all of those emotions stem from knowledge that goes two ways… knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.

Lots of times, children get grouchy about the punishment their parents dole out, but there is a way to avoid punishment. What would that be? (Don’t do it in the first place.) This is the heart of the parent/child metaphor of Hosea. Israel deserves punishment for violating, for forgetting, for abandoning the rules of the covenant between them and God. God is tempted to wipe them off the map.

What stops God from doing this? Not a sense that the punishment would be too harsh, but the love that God has for them. Listen to those verses again:  

1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him,
   and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 But the more they were called,
   the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
   and they burned incense to images.
3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
   taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
   it was I who healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
   with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
   a little child to the cheek,
   and I bent down to feed them.
 5 “Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent? 
6 A sword will flash in their cities; it will devour their false prophets 
and put an end to their plans. 
7 My people are determined to turn from me. Even though they call me God Most High, I will by no means exalt them.
 8 “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? 
How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim? 
My heart is changed within me; 
all my compassion is aroused. 
9 I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. 
For I am God, and not a man— 
the Holy One among you. 
I will not come against their cities.

I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

What did I say before? If we were going to be afraid of God, we shouldn’t be afraid of God because of who God is. We should be afraid because of who we are. We are to fear, love and trust God, but all of those emotions stem from knowledge that goes two ways… knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.

Even though we don’t like to admit it, we know ourselves. We, like sheep, have gone astray and we will again. We could knock wood after each confession and assurance of forgiveness, to hope that we won’t need it again, but we know we will.

So we need the knowledge of God to bring us comfort. We are afraid because we know the judgment we deserve, but we trust in God’s goodness and mercy because of who God is and because of God’s compassion toward all creation. In the Hebrew Bible, knowledge isn’t only intellectual- head stuff. It’s in your gut, in your heart, in your body. Knowledge is knowing AND doing. Acting on knowledge brings relationship. God acts on God’s knowledge of creation and keeps God in relationship with all creation, because God will not break his end of the covenant.

We have to act on our knowledge of God. And this is what Hosea tries to impart to the Israelites (and to us) through his metaphors. God is the Holy Parent, bringing people into the world to share in creative love. As a parent teaches, so God gives us the Spirit to instruct us, shape us and help us become the people God means for us to be. God is a patient parent, who will allow mistakes, forgives them and knows there will be more. God’s love is unconditional, more so than even the best parents among us.  God’s love heals us, bringing wholeness and peace.

I led them with cords of human kindness,
   with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
   a little child to the cheek,
   and I bent down to feed them.

God’s parental love always leaves the light of faith shining for us, drawing us back home. Amen. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

One Minute Writer: Teach Edition

If you were to teach as a career, what would you teach?

One of the reasons I haven't considered hospital chaplaincy more seriously is because I love to teach. I think I would enjoy teaching religion- world religions, church and culture, Jesus (and Jesus figures) in film, modern religious movements.

Above is all I could write in one minute, but it caused me to think back on some of the classes of my Religion degree (undergraduate) and remember how much I really enjoyed them. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Prayer for a New Day

Psalm 19 - Contemporary English Version

The heavens keep telling the wonders of God, and the skies declare what he has done.

Each day informs the following day; each night announce to the next.
They don't speak a word and there is never the sound of a voice.
Yet their message reaches all the earth, and it travels around the world.

In the heavens a tent is set up for the sun.
It rises like a bridegroom and gets ready like a hero eager to run a race.
It travels all the way across the sky.
Nothing hides from its heat.

The Law of the LORD is perfect; it gives us new life.
His teachings last forever, and they give wisdom to ordinary people.

The LORD's instruction is right; it makes our hearts glad.
His commands shine brightly, and they give us light.

Worshiping the LORD is sacred; he will always be worshiped.
All of his decisions are correct and fair.
They are worth more than the finest gold and are sweeter than honey from a honeycomb.

By your teachings, Lord, I am warned; by obeying them, I am greatly rewarded.
None of us know our faults.
Forgive me when I sin without knowing it.
Don't let me do wrong on purpose, Lord, or let sin have control over my life.
Then I will be innocent, and not guilty of some terrible fault.
Let my words and my thoughts be pleasing to you, LORD, because you are my mighty rock and my protector.

(This new translation could definitely grow on me.) 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


I'm at a continuing education conference that is turning out to be really excellent. One of the things that happens when you get a bunch of people in the same profession together is that they will get on each other's nerves. In clergy circles (of the same denomination), there can be little tweaks in verbage or theology that can cause eye-rolling and snarky comments like you wouldn't believe.

(What? You thought we were all sitting around singing Kum-Ba- Yah?)

In reality, there is always truth to what is pointed out to you, it is just that it can be hard to hear it.

Two phrases that have been pointed out by people I know well (and like) are:

1) "We worship # on Sunday." A phrase that I never use in my daily life comes up immediately with other clergy because one is quickly asked, "How many do you worship on Sunday"- meaning "How many people attend worship on Sunday?" The great pastor from Sitka Lutheran in Sitka, Alaska says, "We worship God with about this many people."

It's such an awesome point to make. Too often pastors and lay leaders are put in the position of being made to worship (or bow down to) statistics like attendance, activities and output. I don't worship 50 people on Sunday. I worship God with about 50 others and we have a pretty good time.

2) The other phrase is a sneaky pronoun. "My congregation" "My building" "My people" It's easy to become proprietary about one's call, location and congregation. I very consciously refer to the church's administrative assistant as just that- working for the congregation (with me), not for me. Occasionally, I know I've said "my building", not because I have any designs on it, but it simply happened. I think (!) I most frequently say "our/ours". Nevertheless, I do hear people talking about "my people".

I think this is problematic in that we forget that we all belong to God, first and foremost. This language use first came to my attention in October through the pastor at Shishmaref Lutheran in Shishmaref, Alaska. For whom are we working? With whom are we working? The words we use matter.

Words have power.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Where Have All the Reading Materials Gone?

The NaBloPoMo prompt for today is: When was the first time you realized that your home was not like other peoples' homes?

I recall roller skating in a friend's garage in kindergarten. We didn't have a garage, but that's not the memory that sticks out in my mind. Nor is it when I think about playing with Barbies at other peoples' homes, but not having them at home.

When I was in eighth grade, I went to spend the night with a friend and I remember her house looked totally different than either my (parents') house or other houses I knew. There was something odd about the place that I couldn't put my finger on for a while. Finally, we were dancing in the living room and I stopped and said, "Where are all your books?"

I was used to a house that had reading material everywhere. In the living room on shelves and by chairs. In the laundry room on the "brown table" that collected everything. By my parents' bed. Both sets of grandparents had many books as well.

This pristine house had lovely shelves of knickknacks and picture frames, but no books that I could see.

For me, it's just a house until I put my books all over it. Then it's home.

If I Were A Rich Man

A couple weeks ago I went to an excellent production of Fiddler on the Roof, one of my favorite musicals. John Preece was Tevye and he was AMAZING. I was seated in the front row (a friend picked the tickets) and Preece's expressions and emotions were mesmerizing. (I can't find any videos that show Preece, but you can hear him here.)

Her characterization of Tevye was of a man who prayed without ceasing, in continuous give and take conversation with God. His wrestling and faith were evident in each sideways glance, tap of a mezuzah or fidget with his tzitzit.

One of the scenes that has stuck with me is the song "If I were a Rich Man". Preece ambled around the stage and it was as though each new verse struck him as an epiphany. My wife could have servants! I would be respected! We could live in a bigger, better house!

Then the last verse came very poignantly and I heard it in a way I've never heard before. "If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray. Maybe have a seat by the eastern wall. I'd sit and study the holy books with the learned men- seven hours every day! And that would be the sweetest thing of all."

Preece's eyes teared up and he clasped his hands to his chest and you knew he meant it. This wasn't a promise to get something from God, but his fervent hope that he could have enough wealth to have free time to pray and study scripture.

Would I do that? Would you?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Meditation from St. Francis of Assisi

For All Saints' Day- a meditation on the Lord's Prayer from St. Francis of Assisi: 

Our Father. 
Our Creator, Redeemer, Comforter and Savior.

Who art in heaven. 

You are with the angels and the saints, bathing them in your light that they may be enlightened by your love, and dwelling within them that they may be filled with your joy. You are the supreme good, the eternal good, from whom comes all goodness, and with- out whom there is no goodness.

Hallowed be your name. 

May our knowledge of you become ever clearer, that we may know the breadth of your blessings, the length of your promises, the height of your majesty, and the depth of your judgments.

Your kingdom come. 

Rule in our hearts with your grace, that we may become fit subjects for your kingdom. We desire nothing more than to dwell in your kingdom, where we can watch you on your throne, and enjoy your perfect love.

Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

May we love you with our whole heart by always thinking of you, with our whole soul by always desiring you, with our whole mind by directing all our intentions to you, and with our whole strength by spending all our energies in your service. And may we love our neighbors as ourselves, drawing them to your love, rejoicing in their good fortunes, and caring for them in their misfortunes.

Give us this day our daily bread. 

In memory and understanding and reverence of the love which our Lord Jesus Christ has for us, revealed by his sacrifice for us on the cross, we ask for the perfect bread of his body.
And forgive us our trespasses. 
We know that you forgive us, through the suffering and death of your beloved Son.

As we forgive those who trespass against us. 
Enable us to forgive perfectly and without reserve any wrong that has been committed against us. And strengthen our hearts truly to love our enemies, praying for them and striving to serve them.

And lead us not into temptation. 

Save us not only from obvious and persistent temptations, but also those that are hidden or come suddenly when our guard is lowered.

But deliver us from evil. 

Protect us from past evil, protect us against present evil, and free us from future evil.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Pineapples to Hockey Pucks

I love where I live, but certain comparisons should not be made:

10/18/11- Waikiki, HI

11/4/11- Anchorage, AK
10/30/11- HI sticker on AK truck 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Five: Time with Friends Edition

Over at RevGalBlogPals, kathrynzj encourages us to write about five things we like to do with friends. The posts seem to take two directions- what you like to with friends in general and what you like to do with friends who visit your hometown.

In general, I like to travel, eat, read books, walk and have long, long talks with friends.

If out of town friends come to Anchorage, I like to:

1. Go to the Winner Creek trail and (maybe) do the hand tram!

This is not my video, but it's pretty good. You can see how far you have to go and what the gorge looks like. The hike is fairly easy- a little hilly and beautiful. The tram is optional! ;)

View from the salmon deck
2. Visit the Eagle River Nature Center (and assorted trails). I got married here on the salmon viewing deck. It's a great place- all supported by volunteers. The ERNC is only about eight miles from my house.

On a clear day in Seward, you can see forever.  
3. Drive to Seward and visit the Sealife Center. Seward is a really neat town. We could walk up to the face of Exit Glacier, eat salmon and halibut and relax at Sweet Darlings with handmade fudge and gelato! Mmm.
The face of Exit Glacier

4.  Drink a spiced ginger mojito at Simon and Seaforts- my favorite restaurant.

5. Walk a long way or a short way on the Coastal trail. We might see a moose. Maybe a bear. And we'd definitely go to Earthquake Park, where you can still see some of the devastation from the '64 Earthquake.

When are you coming?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The More Things Change

After a book discussion around science and speculative fiction, I needed a funny reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.


L'Ultima Cena

L'ultima Cena is the name of the painting you may know as "The Last Supper". The Italian uses the phrase "ultimate" as in final, not as in awesome (though I enjoy a parsley salad and some lamb, so it may well have been awesome).

It never fails to move me to think about Jesus, gathered with those he loved, in that upper room- smoky and close- consuming their history and sanctifying their future. Powerful stuff.

On a more mundane thought, the NaBloPoMo prompt for the day is: "What would you want for your last meal?"

What would my ultimate, ultimate last meal be?

In truth, I'd prefer not to know it was my last. That would the best seasoning of all. I love food in general, so it's hard to narrow it down to one meal. Several courses?

I'd like Greek salad with lemon and oil dressing, heavy on the lemon. Then a open-faced, hot turkey sandwich, with gravy. Mashed potatoes. Cranberry sauce. Steamed broccoli. And chocolate cream pie.

Comfort food, I guess. As I am writing this, it occurs to me that I haven't eaten that meal in any form in recent memory. Maybe it's just a craving.

It's been a long time since I went more than a week without communion, but I can remember distinctly the last time I did. When I was on maternity leave, I didn't go to church. While pastors came to visit, no one brought communion and I didn't think to ask. I did start to crave it after a while. It wasn't just the bread and wine, though, it was the experience of being at the table, of hearing the words, of sharing with another or others in something basic and mysterious.

In early Christianity (and still in some places), one strove to die with the elements in one's mouth or only just there. Could there be a better last meal, a more ultimate meal? Comfort food and great company. L'ultima cena, indeed.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Death cannot destroy

For some reason, I'm thinking of both All Saints and the first law of thermodynamics today. 
Aren't you? 

Today is the Feast of All Saints, the day upon which we celebrate the lives of the faithful who have gone on to their reward. I want to be able to say that I am celebrating, but mostly I am missing people today. My grandparents, a mentor, friends, classmates... all gone too soon to my way of thinking. 

The first law of thermodynamics is that energy can be transformed, but it cannot be created or destroyed. I could talk more about heat and energy conservation- the principles of thermodynamics- but that's not what I want to say. 

Energy can be transformed, but it cannot be created or destroyed. 

There's no way to talk about this without seeming a little out there, but stick with me. Scientifically, I know that our bodies decay, but spiritually I believe death is not the end God intends for us. We are transformed in ways we don't understand after death. I can't speculate as to how or where or even when, but I have a hard time thinking that we are fearfully and wonderfully made for a span of a few short years and that's it. 

(Neither do I assume eternity is a like a long church service.) 

In thinking of the saints I have known, today I am pondering how God has transformed their energy. The work of their lives affected me and it touches people with whom I interact- sometimes daily. Their energy, in part, transfers to me and others who knew and loved them. 

And I think God is still using them- not just through the memories and works that remain, but in some way that is beyond our comprehension. 

In Revelation, the saints intercede for the believers who remain on earth. Perhaps they are praying for us. Maybe they are worshipping with us. Maybe they are doing work on a plane as yet beyond our understanding. 

However, on this day, I'm comforted by believing that their lives have been transformed, but not destroyed. That their energy is altered, but still powerful. That their lives continue to matter, even beyond our memories. 

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: A Thousand Lives

When I heard Julia Scheeres had a new book coming out, I jumped on it. I read  her memoir, Jesus Landseveral years ago and found it fascinating. I was even more eager to read the new book: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown. I was not disappointed. Scheeres was working on a novel about a charismatic preacher from Indiana, when she looked up Jim Jones and then discovered the released, but untapped FBI archives, audio files and documents, of Jonestown.

In her introduction, Scheeres writes, “I believe that true stories are more powerful, in a meaningful, existential way, than made-up ones. Learning about other people’s lives somehow puts one’s own life into sharper relief… You won’t find the word cult in this book, unless I’m directly citing a source that uses the word… The word cult only discourages intellectual curiosity and empathy. As one survivor told me, nobody joins a cult.”

As I read this book, that last sentence came to me over and over: “Nobody joins a cult.” The book opens with a brief description of people arriving in Guyana to go to Jonestown. It quickly flashes back, then, to the early life of Jim Jones and his attraction to the church. He was drawn to the power and attention given to the man behind the pulpit and the physical aspects of devotion in Pentecostalism (speaking in tongues, slain the Spirit, dancing and prophesying). He began preaching in his late teens and proclaimed a message of God’s call to racial integration.

It was Jones’s push toward racial harmony that drew people to his church. In the book, many people recount how the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church was their first encounter with black and white people worshipping together. The success of Jones’s ministry and its focus on neighborhood service drew much attention and many accolades. Many people were willing to give freely to such a mission and that initial dedication is what many of his followers would recall when they later thought Jones was straying from his message and, possibly, his sanity.

Jones later proclaims himself as “the one they call God” by denouncing the violence and segregation of the Bible (he repeatedly points to its “support” of slavery). When he moves his congregation from Indiana to California, everything becomes about loyalty to him. Even in the Indianapolis congregation, Jones presses people to lie on the floor one Sunday to test their trust in and faithfulness to him. This is one of the first signs of his maniacal behavior and the demands he will place on his followers. Even as evidence of Jones’s deceptions and pressures became evident, Scheeres writes:

True believers had an answer for everything. They excused Jones’s peculiarities with the maxim, the end justifies the means. The beatings, the swats- it was all showmanship, they said. The disciplines didn’t really hurt. Jones’s antics- like stomping on a Bible or [swearing during a sermon] – were all theater. He likes to get a rise out of people to force them to pay attention. Those members who were offended by his increasingly bizarre and cruel behavior kept quiet, and in their silence, seemed to condone it. (p. 88f)

Eventually as people move to Guyana, the book becomes like a horror movie. I could barely contain myself from screaming, “Don’t get on the plane! Escape through the jungle! Don’t eat the sandwich! Don’t drink the Kool-aid!” That last line is what most people know, if anything, about Jonestown- that nearly 1,000 people died there in November 1978 because they followed their leader, who was obviously crazy. People who are old enough to remember the story may recall a few other details- the number of children killed, the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan, the pictures of the dead spread out in a field.

“Don’t drink the Kool-aid” is hardly the complete legacy of Jonestown, idealized to many who died there as a socialist paradise where everyone contributed and received according to their abilities and needs. Even as Jones obviously unraveled, people alternately agreed with him because they believed in the truth he had preached at one time or because they want him to leave them alone. Jones held two suicide “drills” in before the actual incident. People were routinely harassed into voting to “support revolutionary suicide” so many times that it ceased to become shocking. You know the ending to this book, but you don’t know the story.

One thing that I kept turning over in my mind as I read this book was the knowledge of the cults we have seen and that continue to exist since Jonestown. A thousand people died, manipulated to death by a drugged madman convinced he was God. And since we’ve had Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, and several others (names intentionally omitted). My inability to complete the previous sentence in the way I want brings me to my point in recommending this book: just because people are clean and tidy or are technically protected under the First Amendment doesn’t mean they are not in a cult. No one joins a cult, but almost no one is able to voluntarily leave one. If you’re like me at all, names and pictures are coming to your mind of current organizations, supposedly religious in nature, that manipulate, mentally torture and extort those who join.

When we dismiss the people of Jonestown as weak-willed, we are ignoring the truth that history repeats itself and the only way to stop the cycle is to speak the truth. Loudly. Frequently. In all times and places (or close to it). Many people are still  surprised to be encouraged (or allowed) to ask questions in church and to examine the truth in which we claim to believe. Our ability to question and even doubt does not undo what is true, especially about God. The more questions are encouraged, the less anyone person can claim to have all the answers. That can be unnerving, but it can also be empowering. And it’s the only way to prevent the success of cult mind control. 

A Thousand Lives gave me the shivers… because of what’s in the past and what could easily be in the future. Probably not a book for a women’s circle, but possibly good for your book group, for fans of true crime or contemporary history, or anyone who wonders how things like this could (and do) happen.

Scheeres, Julia. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown. Free Press; New York, NY. October 2011

Reviewed copy purchased by reviewer. 

A version of this review first posted at RevGalBlogPals on 10/24/11. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Doing It Wrong

Yesterday I was in a meeting and we talking about Synod Assembly (the BIG annual joint congregations church meeting). When we were trying to figure out how to include more young people in the meeting, someone mentioned "the boring parts".

I retorted, "You mean the part where we're doing the work of the church?"

Someone later said, "What did you call it 'the work of the Lord'?"

I said, "No, the work of the Lord and the work of the church sometimes overlap, but are not interchangeable."

Work of the church: stewardship (care of) financial, spiritual, physical and emotional resources.

Work of the Lord: care of neighbor and fulfilling the Great Commission (not necessarily simultaneously).

Yes, church meetings can have slow parts. Not everyone is interested in or understands budget discussions. Not everyone comprehends the, sometimes, technical wording of resolutions or the use of shibboleths to show who's in and who's out.

The necessity of planning for the future and talking about details is sometimes the work of the church, on the local and national scale. Leaders must be chose and decisions must be made and dollars must be accounted for.

True enough, people who don't have control elsewhere in their lives often bring it to a church meeting where they can yell about what we're spending on toilet paper or whatever. Forgiving them... that's doing the work of the Lord. Figuring out how to appease them and move on before the meeting lasts four hours... that's the work of the church.

Often pastors find themselves groveling to people to fill church council/board/trustee spots. The prayer that goes into this is, "Pleeeeeeease, God, let So and so say yes." People are intimidated by the title of church leadership and/or they've heard that the meetings are BORING!

Church leadership takes energy, vision and prayer. If you're depending on the pastor to supply that, it won't work. The pastor is not the Messiah. He or she can't save the church single-handedly.

If the work or the discussion seems boring or intense, CHANGE it. Pause to sing a song or say a prayer. Encourage the judicious use of "calling the question". Don't allow moaning and groaning to precede a meeting.

I'm not Pollyanna enough to say that meetings are ALL GREAT, ALL the TIME. However, a church meeting shouldn't be a sprint- covering all the ground, but no room for the Spirit. Neither should it be an ultra-marathon, where at some point everyone has zoned out and you're only debating for the sake of debate.

Not every bit of conversation at most workplaces or in most families is fun, but some conversations have to be had. The opposite of fun isn't boring. We can have profound, meaningful discussions on finances, vision, expectations and the future that are motivating, well-paced and well-lead.

The real question is not "Can church meetings NOT be boring?", but "Are you willing to put the effort and challenge forward to change the culture of church meetings?"

Maybe changing how we do the work of the church IS the work of the Lord for this day.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ten Years Later

In the summer of 2002, I worked in New York City through Lutheran Disaster Response (then Lutheran Disaster Relief) leading day camps in congregations that had experienced serious loss on 9/11/01. Not just the loss of the understanding of the world as they knew it, but loss of life.

I worked with children who had parents who came home and parents who didn't. I talked to spouses who waited and were reunited. And some who weren't.

All week I tried to put some order into my feelings. I never tell these stories. They are too raw, too hard, too stark. Two weeks after the camps ended, I moved to Nome, Alaska. I didn't process when I could have and trying to do so now is like trying to rework plaster that has set.

So as I turned over the hard shape of this experience this week, I wrote this in my journal:

Anyway, I want to write a blog post about my memories, but I am not sure what to say or how to talk about the end of my memories. That I had to shut some of them away so that I could move forward. There are memories that are paralyzing in their truth. We have to dim them, fade their edges, fondly tuck them away and allow a burnished fire to peek through the keyhole of our memory trunk. We cannot live with their undimmed fullness in our lives. It is too much. This is not to say that we would ever forget. We just are incapable of remembering so intensely that it hurts. Constantly.

In order to live, in order to do service to life and to the memory of the dead, we go on and we put on foot in front of the other. We are not disrespectful. We have not forgotten. As long as we breathe, we remember, but we also want to live.

In living, we allow those who have died, both too soon and in their time, to continue in us. Through DNA and stories, through impressions and legacies, through gifts and habits.

That is all I have to say. 


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Friday Five: Your Workspace Edition

Over at RevGalBlogPals, Revkjarla writes: I don't know about you, but I am a notoriously messy creative worker.  My workspace at home, and at my office is always littered with books and papers and mail and pens and keys and mugs....and tchotchkes (momentos, weird things, etc.)   I am looking right now at a pair of dice that someone gave me that have "God" on each side, so that anyway you roll 'em, you end up with God.  Different, right?   
So, this Friday Five is all about YOUR tchotchkes in your workplace.  Describe five things in/on your workspace (however you define workspace--I tend to spill over onto bedside tables, end tables, coffee tables...create wherever I land) that are special to you!   Bonus points for pictures!

 Oh, honey, the disaster of my desk means my workspace usually looks like this. I'm a member of the Flat Surface Society, meaning if there's a flat surface, I'll stack stuff on it. And I'm not likely to change. I clean my desk post- Christmas and post-Easter, every year. :) 

 Here are my tchotchkes...

An icon of the Holy Trinity or of  Jesus and the travelers to Emmaus. It all depends on your view of it. 
A large rock given to me as a gift from a local United Methodist pastor. There are holes drilled through the rock and small dish glued to the bottom to hold lamp oil. The wicks are fed down through the holes. I love it and I don't light it often, but I like having it on my desk. 
A little large to qualify as tchotchkes, but nevertheless- these are my Mother's Day hats from our preschool. Every year we have a Mother's Day tea (Grandmas, Aunts, Friends, etc) and the kids have made these great hats. I suppose I will eventually have a wall-full! 
This is a beach rock from Nome with an iconic picture of the Holy Family decoupaged onto it. I received it (along with 2 others) from the three Little Sisters of Charity who lived in Nome, Alaska during the time I lived there as well. I housesat their cats when they went out of town. The rock makes me think of the Little Sisters, the prayer room in their house which I used more than once, and my time in Nome. 
I couldn't seem to get this picture to  load with the correct orientation. Oh, well. This glass paperweight is the only sign within my office of the school where I received my Master of Divinity. I'm proud to have to gone to Yale Divinity School and it's not a secret, but my diploma (written in Latin) seems a bit overdone and I haven't yet hung the sketch of the quad that was gifted me. So the paperweight lingers on my desk, often covered with papers (ironic, isn't it). And it brings many memories when it surfaces. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

My Alternative Trinity

I'm a big fan of the Trinity: One God, Three Expressions- Father, Son and Holy Spirit- Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier- Our Source, Our Brother, Our Sustenance. (The links go to previous Trinitarian love blog posts.)

I believe the Trinity is how God has chosen to make Godself and power know in the world. However, there are other things I believe to be true and worthwhile. In particular, I believe in the holiness of bodies, in backing up your computer and in counseling (talking to someone). This has the potential to be a series, but I'm going to try to be brief this time.

1. The Holiness of Bodies- I believe that our bodies are a gift from God and that we are unable to accomplish the work God intends us to do without them. This is why taking care of our physical being is spiritually important. If God's work within us for Christ's sake could be accomplished through the power of thinking alone, then we wouldn't need a physical presence. However, God created a physical world, creatures with bodies and even came among us IN A BODY so that we might understand our call as participants in creation, shapers of this kingdom and our role as "bestowers" of God's blessings.  You may not have a full complement of limbs or working limbs. You might not run quickly or speak well or be ruddy and handsome, but God is still able to use you. To deny that or to degrade (through action or word) the gift of the body is to doubt God's own abilities in through the Spirit.

2. Backing up your computer: I've nearly lost my hard drive twice. Once in an unexpected computer expiration and once in a hard drive failure. The first time, magic computer elves rescued my files. The second time, I took my little hard drive, plugged it in to my external hard drive and the only things lost were 4 days of email (which were saved to the cloud!). I back my computer up to an external hard drive twice a week and I'm alway surprised when I hear people say that they've never backed up their files. It's one of those "I know I should, but..." (If you don't know how, go buy and external hard drive and I'll come to your house and show you. I promise. Or I'll show you via Skype if you don't live in the Anchorage area.)

There are many things in that "I know I should, but..." category: exercise (see above), making a will (or dealing with other legal matters), creating a budget, talking about issues that are going unspoken... They're all hard to do, but going ahead and doing them gives a freedom from fear that is only rivaled by the freedom we have in Christ. It does take time to review your insurance paperwork, have the conversation, plug in the external hard drive, but none of these things take as long as we think they will. Furthermore, none of them take as long as replacing files, lamenting lost items, fixing something without insurance or waiting out the probate court. Back it on up, baby!

3. Counseling. The following is a quote from the book, Rage Against the Meshugenah, by Danny Evans.

Depression= crazy. Crazy= people who mutter angrily to themselves, people who see things that aren’t really there, people who try to kill themselves. Crazy doesn’t = me. I’m married + I have a son + I have a college degree, for Pete’s sake! These things > crazy. Crazy most certainly does not = me.

When I recommend seeing a counselor more qualified than myself to someone I've talked to about the same issue more than 3 times, this is the response I usually get. They can't see themselves lying on a couch talking about their mother. (You don't do that on your first visit!) Talking to a professional is a great way to make links to situations in your life, to figure out some of your behavior patterns, to discuss thoughts or feelings or reactions around major life changes. Not every down feeling is depression. Not everyone benefits from talking things out, but many, many, many people (including me) do. Additionally, you may have to re-visit counseling more than once in your life. You don't expect what worked for you physically or emotionally at 20 to keep working when you're 35 or 40 or 65. You change and grow and how you think does as well. And, yes, you may have to revisit the same thing more than once. I've had short-term counseling (6 months to 1 year) 3 times in my life and it's been transformative for me each time. Though some of the same issues were covered, I had changed and needed to think things through again. Each time was with a different counselor because I lived in a different location. 

I usually give myself the talk above when I start thinking I should see someone. Then I berate myself for not being able to solve my depression/ anxiety/ sadness/ frustrations on my own. And then, finally, I make some calls, go on the first visit and wonder why the heck I didn't do this sooner. 

The Holy Trinity gets us into life, carries us through it and receives us into the next. However, there are additional blessings from God that make our present life more real, more enjoyable and more connected. Without a body, back ups, and counseling, I wouldn't be where I am today, enjoying the life that God, +lifeboat, wind and waves+, has gifted me.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What Am I Missing?

In the past week, I've been reading In the Garden of Beasts, a book set in 1933-1934 Germany. The book discusses William E. Dodd, the American ambassador to Germany as Hitler rose in power. He and his family have to sort out what is true and who is telling the truth in a critical age of shadowy figures and subterfuge. This in non-fiction.

As I read In the Garden of Beasts, I'm disheartened by the correspondence that goes back and forth between high powered American government officials and regular civilians that ignores or downplays Germany's actions against Jews and other "unclean" races. Not only do people seem to dismiss the allegations, very often the letters reveal confessions of personal ambivalence or outright antagonism toward Jewish people. The main concern of the American government is primarily Germany's potential default on war and reconstruction debts and, secondarily, Germany's failure to reduce their armaments. The people who sound the trumpets about the plans toward Aryan supremacy and ethnic cleansing are dismissed as exaggerating or misunderstanding the work a few ruffians. The ambassador's daughter, Martha, even believes that the comments are rumors directed at keeping Germany down because the wonderful country and people of her experience cannot be participating in systemic violence.

I also went with friends to The Help, a movie based on the book with the same name. My bookclub read this book last July, before there were rumors of the movie. The Help deals with the complex relationships and the power dynamics between white employers and African-American maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early sixties. (That is a GLOSS if there ever was one.)

In The Help, a young white woman is encouraged to interview and write about the experience of as many black maids as she can before the whole "civil rights thing blows over". In the backdrop of the story, Medgar Evers is killed and instructions for non-violent resistance are beginning to spread. Simultaneously, the Junior League is raising money for "starving children in Africa" as well as promoting a "health initiative" to encourage the help to have their own bathrooms- "for health reasons".

All this makes me think, "What am I missing?" What's going on today that will be obvious to my son or grandchild, but I'm missing. Which emails have I glanced past asking for my help that are the actual issues of my generation?

I know I can't do everything. True story. Is there ethnic cleansing happening in the world today? Yes. Have we moved into a new era of racial understanding? Not so much. Are there starving children in Africa, Asia, Anchorage? Yes. Are there regimes to oppose? Yes. Is it likely that I pass by people each day who are affected by sex trafficking, drug sales, poverty, mental illness, stop-loss, wage freezes, reductions-in-force (laid off), and lack of education? Yes.

I think of the things I know I care about and they are mostly related to my own experience. Then I know there are things that cross my mind occasionally, usually because they are important to someone who is important to me. Then there are a wealth of things that I don't notice (or that I might contribute to) because I'm not looking. Or worse, because I dismiss them, believing they are minor and will blow over soon. Is there something obvious that I'm missing?

Again, I can't do everything. (I'm telling myself that, not you.) However, what I'm watching and reading these days has me re-evaluating what I am doing. You?