Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I Miss You

Tonight I was reflecting on the prophet Samuel at the beginning of 1 Samuel 16. God asks Samuel how long he intends to grieve for Saul. If you only pick up in the middle of Samuel, it's easy to forget that Saul is still alive at this point. He's just departed so greatly from God's vision (and Samuel's) for him, that God is asking Samuel to get out his anointing kit and go get another king for Israel.

Grieving someone who is still living is hard and painful.

In this Lenten season, I told myself I wanted to focus on forgiveness with regard to a specific situation in my life. In 2009, I had a couple very traumatic life events and someone to whom I was very close abruptly left my life without explanation or goodbye. I haven't heard from or seen this person since.

I've been picking at the scab over this emotional wound. Playing over the events in my mind, wondering what I could have changed, what I should have anticipated, what was my fault, what wasn't.

This wasn't an acquaintance. This was a very, very close friend. Someone with whom I had laughed, made plans, traveled, stayed up late, had adventures, trusted with secrets. This person was the only non-medical person present with me at the birth of my son and the first non-medical person to hold him. Five days later, the person left my life... apparently forever.

How long should I grieve this friendship, this bond, the plans that will never come to fruition? Do I cut off the branch, believing it will never bear fruit again?

This grief is complicated by additional longing for other people. Additional grieving of living persons. Following a significant church decision last year, several people left our congregation. While I support the decision, I cannot deny that the loss of the members has grieved me. Deeply.

It's not the lower numbers or giving. I miss the laughter that used to echo the halls, the hands that were always there to set up table, the loud amen that let me know a sermon point had hit home.

We still talk about the people who have left. Airing their stories. Pushing their names out of our mouths and remembering the life we shared together. And I don't think I am the only one who grieves, who misses friends and neighbors.

When people die, we may well struggle to make our peace with them and with death. The grieving goes on beyond what we expect and, often, beyond what we imagined we could handle. When we are grieving the living, it's hard to know what to say or how to frame our feelings.

I once heard it said, regarding grief, that your need to discuss it goes on beyond other people's ability to listen to it.

I've found that to be very true.

I think of Samuel, pouring oil over young David's head at God's command. As his hands performed the task, I think his mind probably went back to the last time he'd done the very same thing. He thought of Saul and there was the familiar accompanying twinge.

I miss you.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Woman Speaks Out (A Sermon on John 8:2-11)

Lent 3
27 March 2011

John 8:2-11

            Many times people assume that a group of religious men stormed my house and caught me in flagrante delicto, but it wasn’t exactly like that. I’ve heard rumors that some assume I was trapped, set up by a religious man and his buddies, part of a scheme to trap that man, Jesus. It wasn’t like that either.

            The truth is, I was committing adultery, but not quite in the way that you might think. According to our law, which we understood to be from God, when a woman’s husband died, her husband’s brother would take her as a wife. Basically, the intention was that any male child she would conceive, then, would inherit in her husband’s name. Thus, property would stay within the family. Property included me, a wife.

            My husband had died and his brother was away. I knew the law and I grieved my husband, but I also loved another. A childhood friend was now a widower and we wished to be joined together. We had begun to discuss it and, in the absence of my brother-in-law, a few friends even began to speak as though we would marry. Some of the Pharisees and scribes got wind of the local gossip and pounced on me one day in the market. Since the only real option for me was to marry my brother-in-law, even entertaining the idea of marrying another was tantamount to adultery. Not only was I conspiring to deprive my husband and his family of their rightful heirs, according to the law, but I was also defying God and God’s plan for my life.

            I still remember the taste of dust in my mouth as this group of men scurried through the market to the synagogue porch where Jesus was teaching. This was the Court of the Gentiles, between where money was changed and the cool inner rooms of the temple where only Jews were allowed. People who were not allowed inside could sit here and listen to teaching as good as any that happened in the actual building.

            Crowds parted for the Pharisees in their official garb and soon our group, several angry men and me, were in front of this man I’d never seen before. He remained seated, refusing to acknowledge the scribes or Pharisees as fellow religious leaders. When I heard one of them hiss his name, “Jesus”, suddenly I knew he was.
            I was sweating through my dress, nervous and anxious. I knew I had been wrong to even entertain the idea of marrying another man, outside of the Levirate law, but people skirted these official rules all the time. You did what made sense, made an offering to God and went on with your life. Even the Pharisees and scribes did as well, but they were very careful about getting caught.

            So there we were, in front of Jesus, this new rebel rabbi, and one of the Pharisees pushed me forward and said, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

            Stone? They were going to try to stone me for this? What could Jesus say? If he says Moses is right, then I’ll be dead in the hour. So much for the new teaching he was said to be doing. If Jesus says Moses is wrong, they’ll stone him and he wouldn’t be around to challenge religious authorities any more.

            I wanted to vomit. I could hear the rustling of the crowd as they realized things had just gotten interesting. People were murmuring and a few people caught my eye sympathetically, before looking away. Then Jesus stood up. The Pharisees and scribes straightened because they knew they had him. I wanted to sink into the floor, to be swallowed up into the earth like the Hebrew people from the rebellion in the book of Numbers.

            Then Jesus squatted and began writing in the dirt. I know many people have speculated as to what he was writing. Did he write the laws that commanded that the man be stoned with the woman, meaning the husband I was considering need to be here with me? Did he write the laws regarding the two witnesses that were needed for any trial? Did he write something from one of the prophets about God desiring mercy and kindness?

            To tell you the truth, I have no idea what he wrote. I was too blinded by fear and, well, I couldn’t read much more than what I needed to in order to figure out prices in the market. However, there was no great reaction to what he wrote. The reaction began when people realized that Jesus was ignoring the authorities. Men who were known for their memorization of the law, their knowledge of the scripture, were always honored. Now they stood around, waiting, clearing their throats, while Jesus doodled in the dirt. One guy, slightly younger than the others, practically turned purple with rage when he figured out that Jesus was ignoring them. A couple of the older scribes laid hands on his arms, to keep him from lunging forward and hitting Jesus.

            The scribes and Pharisees began peppering him questions. “Do we do as Moses says or not? What say you? Is God changing? Do you know more than our father, Moses?” Finally, Jesus looked up without standing and said, “All right. If any of you is without sin in this matter, let him throw the first stone.” And he went back to his dust arrangement. He was challenging them not on the grounds of moral perfection, but on the grounds of sexual legality in our religion. Any man who had set aside a wife without good cause, who had failed to perform the required waiting periods after emissions, who might have snuck out and had sex with his wife during her menstruation or a little too soon after she had a baby, anyone who had done any of those things had to step back and wait for someone more pure to throw the first rock.

            I braced myself and waited. There was a long silence and then a few of the oldest men shuffled away. There was an audible gasp from the crowd. Jesus kept drawing and I didn’t turn around to see who was left. Finally, I dared to look. Mr. Purple Face clutched a heavy stone and glared at me, then at Jesus, then at the crowd, then Jesus. You could almost hear his teeth grinding, until he dropped the rock and swept out of the court.

            I turned back to find Jesus standing and very close to me. He wasn’t much taller than me and his eyes seemed very dark as they looked into mine. “Well, woman,” he said. “Where are your accusers? Hasn’t anyone come forward to present a case against you?”

            He saw the whole thing, I thought. But I said, shakily, “No one, sir.” Then he looked at me gently and said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go on and sin no more.” I turned and fled, before he could change his mind, before he could explain to the crowd why I must be killed and then throw the first stone himself.

            I’m sure you’ve heard what happened to Jesus after that, but you don’t know what happened to me. I married my brother-in-law, in accordance with the law. It’s what we knew at the time. When I considered marrying someone else, I didn’t think it could matter that much. If I didn’t ask for the money from my first husband’s family, if we went off quietly, it was just a little thing and surely no one was hurt.

            That’s what I told myself, but in truth I would have been leaving friends and family whom I had come to know and who were counting on me to do the right thing. What seemed like a little sin would have hurt many people. That’s the difficulty of sin. It inflates the unimportant things and disguises what really matters.

            When Jesus looked into my eyes, I knew I had the love I was longing for. "I have forgiven and accepted you.  Now respond to my love by allowing me to change your life."  Those are the words I heard, somewhere inside me on that day. And I was so grateful to be allowed to live that I resolved to live differently.  I didn’t care that much about whether religious authorities had accepted me, but I did care how that man Jesus had accepted me. His forgiveness and gracious challenge to me made me want to be different.

Jesus gave me a chance to love God and love those around me in a different way. Not because it would save me, but because I had already received love and wanted to share it.

I’m sure it sounds strange to all of you, but I just want you to understand what it was like for me, just for a minute. Jesus treated me the same way he treated the Pharisees and the scribes. We were all equal before him and it was as though he could see everything. He could see everything and he was willing to forgive it. He could see everything and he was willing to forgive it. And that day, in that hot courtyard, with the murmuring crowds, it was like he wanted us to learn that’s how we’re supposed to look at one another.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reframing Hope (A Book Review)

I read Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation by Carol Howard Merritt for a recent continuing education event. I struggled with the book, initially, for two reasons. When I started, I felt like this was one of those books that helpfully tells pastors everything about church is changing and that's it. No help for how to cope with change, how to educate around and love into change. The other reason I felt frustrated was that I was holding a book in my hands about ministry to 20-30 somethings (or so it seemed). If I could get them to meet me somewhere, anywhere, I'd be glad to try new ministries with them, but...

So I dragged my feet about reading the book until on the plane flight for the event. Once I started to read, I felt drawn in to Merritt's style and narrative. She actually has been a pastor of a small congregation and is now in a larger context. I resist reading books where I feel like the person is talking at me and Merritt's voice is the exact opposite. She speaks from her own pastoral knowledge and spiritual longing. She explores the topics of social media, Scriptural understanding, relationship to creation and community activism, describing new ways that congregations are coming to understand themselves through these lenses.

I remember a woman in a preaching class I took telling one of those apocryphal stories about a "new preacher". Said preacher was going to do his first sermon in a new congregation. Nervous, he studied the passages and did his own translation from the ancient languages. He read multiple commentaries and authored several versions of the sermon. He had illustrations, sung refrains, voice modulation and a powerful conclusion. When he delivered the sermon, he worked up a sweat and prayed powerfully at the end. When he was greeting members of the church at the end of the service, one of the matriarchs of the church said to the young pastor, "You've got powerful living water, but you have to bring it to us in a cup we can drink from."

I thought of that anecdote several times while reading Reframing Hope. Merritt brings difficult news, but refreshing grace in a cup from which any congregation can drink.

Mainline churches are slowly coming to grips with the reality that people aren't seeking spiritual services in the same way they once were. However, this doesn't mean change for the sake of change. It means rethinking the roots of a church's faith. What's important to your congregation? Is there a way to offer those core values to one another and a neighborhood that might look different? Is it time to consider offering the new covenant in a different cup, so to speak?

Too often churches look at what people are drawn to outside of church and then try to imitate that. As Merritt points out, the imitation is poor and not flattering to either side. In addition, the implication is then that the church has nothing to offer of its own accord. No wonder people don't see the point, if what the church holds out is a strained pablum of entertainment and self-justification.

Merritt writes:

It is easy for our churches and denominations to slip into a narrative of decline, which leads us to impart a message of deprivation: Come to our church because we need more people, money, and energy (which doesn't sound like good news at all). If we want to reach out to a new generation, we must avoid communicating that we're seeking just another warm body in the pew, another giving unity to meet the budget, or more volunteers for our programs. 

Yet, if our churches can develop and communicate a narrative that invites people to enter- if they are places where a person can slip into the pew for an hour of internal wrestling, where she can mentally question everything that happens, and at the end of it, she knows that such a questioning is okay- then people will attend again. Because, after all, we often talk about the spiritual journey as a matter of acceptance, but in reality it has more to do with struggle. Then, after a good long time, if she's willing to listen to the stories of the community, her own story will begin to form in her belly. It's an extensive, tough and beautiful process. And it is only of the great things about being church. 

I think that's the heart of reframing hope and drinking from a new cup. In our pews, social halls, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds and late night conversations, we have to be honest about our questions, our doubts and our certainties. There are people who are thirsty and our Mainline congregations (among others) know where to find Living Water. We must learn to reorient ourselves to the new tools of communication and meetings, while holding fast to what is true.

The way, the truth and the life is not in our denominational polity, our traditional Easter service, a new afterschool drop-in program or a sports complex. It is Jesus Christ and how he meets us in one another in every day encounters. By rethinking how we encounter people in preaching, worship, Bible study, recreation and environmental stewardship, we take our hope and place it, once again, squarely in God's hands.

I keep thinking of Paul's words to the embroiled Corinthians: In the end, three things will last: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love. (The Word According Julia interpretation)

The greatest of these is love. Faith without love is dogmatism. Hope without love is bleak. But love without faith or hope longs for structure and impetus.

Merritt's love for the Church as God's work on earth shines through her analysis and prodding. Her faith in our ability as church people to make change is perhaps deeper than we deserve. Her hope, though, that people will understand that the world thirsts and we can help, if we'll just look at the cup we're using. Think of Indiana Jones. What kind of a cup would a carpenter use? While the world changes at a rapid pace, the Church has the opportunity to provide respite and the consolation of mystery if we're willing to reframe our objectives and our understanding of what it means to be a congregation, united in hope and love.

I recommend Merritt's book to people who are trying to understand the changing dynamics of the Mainlines and emergent traditions. I have an extra copy of this book, purchased with my own money, to give away. Please comment if you'd like to receive it. If I receive more than one request, I'll choose a recipient at random.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Songs in a Slow Season, or Why I Love Lenten Hymns

I received a message today from a source who shall remain nameless asking, "Why are there no good Lenten hymns?"

Aside from the fact that I was greatly anticipating singing Fanny Crosby's "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross", I also took umbrage on behalf of Lenten hymns in general. Greatly maligned in moderns times, I often hear, "It's better than what we sing in Lent," with regard to some hymn that has yet to reach popular heights.

I like the Lenten hymns and their deeply resonant lyrics. What else reaches the lyrical heights of "In the Cross of Christ I Glory": "When the woes of life o'er take me, hopes deceive and fears annoy, never shall the cross forsake me; lo, it glows with peace and joy."? Can you honestly say you feel nothing when you sing, "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me"?

I realized today that I think I prefer the Lenten hymns to the Advent ones. In Advent, we sing about a hope that is still to be fulfilled, the return of Christ, even as we celebrate with joy the first coming of Jesus. In Lent, though, we sing of our struggles with faith, with sacrifice, with grief and loss.

If you don't like singing, that's a different issue. However, I'm a little bit of a hymn fanatic. My life flows on in endless song and I hold to the faith we sing. For me, the Lenten hymns express the depth of that faith in a way that is unique and special.

I may have to use this season to showcase a few of my favorite Lenten hymns. (If I knew how to make a bracket, I'd take nominations and we could have a little tournament.)

First up, "Come, Ye Disconsolate". This is my number 1 seed Lenten song (and one of my 4 funeral selections).

The lyrics are below and I've included two VERY different arrangements of the song for your listening enjoyment.

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,

Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.

Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;

Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,

Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!

Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,

“Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure.”

Here see the Bread of Life, see waters flowing

Forth from the throne of God, pure from above.

Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing

Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.

Blowing in the Wind (Sermon 3/20)

Lent 2, 11A
20 March 2011

1 Timothy 2:1-12; John 3:1-17

            So this is the first time I’ve ever preached on this text. Since my preaching life began within the Lutheran tradition and this passage doesn’t appear in the lectionary, then it’s never come up for me. Of course, I’ve had many heartfelt discussions regarding these verses. Ironically, many people focus so heavily on “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” that they forget the fun verse “Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” I’ve had many people express concern for my salvation because of my sense of call to ministry, but no one ever told me that I needed to pop out a kid in order to cinch a place in heaven. (Of course, I did have a caesarean, so I hope that counts.)

            We could very easily dismiss this passage of Scripture. By what method? Historical criticism. We could examine this passage, the context of the book and decide that this was late-first century Christians who were trying to blend in a little bit more in society. If they didn’t stand out quite so much, then they might not be so persecuted. Dusting our hands off, we could say, “That was then and this is now.”

            Arguably, we know so much more now. For example, in the Greek of the New Testament, the word for woman also means wife (gyne) and the word for man, husband (aner). Since we know that the early Christians churches met in households, two sets of rules ran into one another. On the one hand, you have an understanding of men and women as equal before God, that through Christ all people have equal standing to their Creator and, therefore, with one another. On the other hand, you have the Roman world order, which makes the father of the family the head of the household (paterfamilias). When a house church is meeting, a woman might have an insight into Scripture. If she shares it, perhaps in the context of the worship it’s fine, but it could upset the balance of the home life after church is ended.

            The author of Timothy is concerned with church order and the perception of Christianity outside the bounds of the community of believers. Knowing this and, of course, considering ourselves more enlightened now, we could then simply say they were wrong. We know it’s tough if husbands and wives have to learn from one another, but it has more to do with being married (and knowing one another’s foibles) than the concerns about family hierarchy.

            However, if the teaching portion is anachronistic, what do we do with the idea that women achieve or receive salvation through childbirth? How can we solve that problem?

            This is why we use Scripture to interpret Scripture. If we read this passage from Timothy within a vacuum, we can’t do anything except either accept it as true or live with it as false. Does anyone think it’s true? Does anyone think it’s false? Why?

[At this portion in sermon delivery, the bishop of our synod pointed out that we could consider that the passage was redacted, or edited in, by later editors, especially considering that the voice or writing style of the passage seems different. Though he is a man and very learned, I pointed out that while that may be true, the passage is still in the Bible and therefore we have to consider it with other Scriptures. If we are to be taken seriously as people with some trust in the written word of God, we have to deal with what it means to have this passage in our Bible.]

            If this were true, it means the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ doesn’t do anything for women. If women are saved through childbirth and through raising godly children, then we don’t need to baptize them or teach them the Catechism. All the women can go because we are either in the middle of earning our salvation or we should be lamenting that we aren’t going to receive it.

            However, as we read other passages of Scripture, we see Jesus speaking to women, encouraging the Samaritan woman to drink from the well of life, teaching the disciples the significance of the woman who anoints his feet, showing compassion to the woman caught in the act of adultery, allowing Mary to sit at his feet and listen and encouraging Martha to do the same. In Scripture, we see God using Sarah and Hagar, Deborah, Jael, Huldah and Michal. We see Paul’s ministry made possible by Priscilla, Phoebe, Eunice, Lois and Julia (Romans 16:15).

            For many years, the Church operated under the idea that it could control the Spirit. And, if it couldn’t control it, the Church definitely had the authority, the only authority, to recognize when the Spirit was at work. And that didn’t happen in women. So they thought.

            But consider what Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3. Remember, Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a man who knows Jewish law inside and out and has been hearing Jesus teach radical things inside and outside the synagogue. Nicodemus goes to him in the night, so he won’t be seen, to learn more about what Jesus is talking about. Does Jesus tell him, “You’re out, buddy. You’re a Jew,”?

            No, Jesus says, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is of the flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

            Jesus goes on to say, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

            There’s no addendum about childbearing. What happens to Nicodemus after this encounter? He stands up for Jesus in the temple, when other Pharisees are accusing him, arguing for a fair hearing. Then we see him with Joseph of Arimathea, collecting Jesus’ body after the crucifixion and wrapping it for the tomb.

            Jesus attracts Nicodemus through his interpretation of Scripture, but he keeps him through his revelation of who God is and how God works in the world. Through Jesus, Nicodemus hears God’s call of love to all creation. That call of love, the love that saves and wins, stirs up faith and faithful responses. That call of love changes Nicodemus and anyone else who hears it and listens to it. God uses whom God chooses. We have to try not to get in the way.

            The overall arc of the biblical narrative does not allow us to believe that women are saved through childbearing. We’re saved by God’s grace in and through Jesus Christ, and that alone.

            The overall arc of the biblical narrative also shows us that God uses men and women of all kinds, in many and various ways, to accomplish God’s purposes for the world. Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, Paul, Peter, John, Joanna, Martha, Timothy, you and me.

            Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this… preaching, but I can’t help it.

I only know one capital T Truth and it is this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This I believe. And I can’t shut up about it.


Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Five: Spring Forward Edition

Friday Five: Springing Forward

Jan writes: Whether we liked it or not, we all "sprang forward" with the change to daylight savings time in the USA this past Sunday. There is lightness and brightness slipping in as spring approaches, so let us consider what is springing forth in our lives right now.

Name 5 things that are springing forth, possibly including :
  • what you hope for
At this time of night, I usually hope for a little more energy either to do something I think I should (laundry) or something I want (read). Usually the latter wins. I'm also hoping for some continued enthusiasm (from myself and the congregation) around the Lenten sermons on non-lectionary texts. I'm also hoping to figure out how to get in more training for the triathlon I'm signed up for in June. 
  • what you dread
Writing my sermon tomorrow. I don't like writing sermons on Saturdays, but some weeks that just happens. It's not the sermon writing that I dread, it's my fear that it won't come together and I'll be left blinking at the congregation. In which case, we can pray and sing another hymn. On the Sunday when I'm supposed to talk about whether or not women should remain silent in church, not having a sermon could be a problem in more ways than one. 
  • what you observe
I observe my son figuring out things for himself more and more. He's learning how to make and use tools (especially his parents) to see things, touch them and/or figure out how to get to them. He's just made the switch from sliding down the stairs backwards, on his stomach, to going down facing the front, scooting on his bottom. We're an exploring and asking house, while the evidence of his "experimentations" is everywhere- his discoveries bring him, and me, such joy. 
  • what is concrete
That my husband is snoring so loudly, I have put on earphones to drown him out while I read and type. 
  • what is intangible
That there have been many nights in our marriage when I would have given a significant organ to hear that snoring and to know that he was okay. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

God and Bodies (Sermon, Lent 1A)

Song of Songs 5:1-6a; Matthew 4:1-11

            The book most of us grew up calling Song of Solomon is now more frequently being referred to as Song of Songs. When we called it Song of Solomon, we did so because we thought it was written by Solomon or at least attributed to him. However, as the book has begun to be more deeply read and examined, we’ve come to realize that at least 60% of the book is written from a woman’s point of view.

            In fact, though the action of the book can be a little difficult to follow at times, the female narrator has a distinct voice as she makes her case for being allowed to be with the man she loves. We may long have attributed the book to Solomon because it’s kind of a racy book and, according to biblical sources, Solomon knew his way around a, ahem, bedchamber. (See 1 Kings 11:3)

            That worried feeling that you having right now, the one that I might start talking about sex, that feeling has accompanied biblical interpreters for years when they come to Song of Songs. A book that so frankly approaches human desire and physical longing makes everyone a little nervous. And, when the clergy was mostly male and celibate, a book that makes feminine sexuality couldn’t be interpreted as anything but allegory.

            So, for much of history, allegorical interpretation was the way Song of Songs was read. It was considered a demonstration of God’s love for Israel, Christ’s love for the church or even the Spirit’s love for the individual soul. But look at what we read today. Does anything in that passage make you think of God’s love?

            Stay with me here for a moment. I don’t think Song of Songs was initially included in the Hebrew Scriptures because it’s allegorical. In some deep way, this book expresses a truth about how human relationships reveal divine love. In some way, this book’s uncomfortable stanzas about the desire of the body for fulfillment help us to be in touch with our struggle in what it means to be human.

            Songs of Songs is part of the Wisdom literature, like Psalms, Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. We don’t interpret Psalms allegorically. We read the psalms of joy, the psalms of lament, the psalms of anger and fear and the emotions resonate with us. We learn from the Psalms that there is no human cry that God has not already heard and, therefore, we should not be afraid of our prayers. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are interpreted as wise sayings or philosophy. We don’t make them allegory. And we read Job, again and again, to understand how we can keep going in the face of tragedy and for the assurance of God’s presence and awareness of our pain.

            If allegorical interpretation is not generally a part of Wisdom literature, why would we apply it to Song of Songs? Is it possible that this book, this poem of poems, was brought into the Scripture because it celebrated the mysteries of human love, an experience we believe God created us to enjoy?

             Song of Songs is very similar to other ancient Middle-Eastern love poems that were used as funeral or wedding songs, affirming the power of love in life and over death. Is it possible that this book, this poem of poems, was brought into the Scripture because it celebrated the mysteries of human love, an experience we believe God created us to enjoy?

            That’s the hard part. Most of us have absorbed and internalized negative ideas about bodies, about sex, and about our physical selves that we are unable to separate those feelings from what we think about God. That’s the first temptation of the devil with regard to our physical selves. If we can be made to believe that God is only interested in our souls, we will either ignore our bodies to their detriment or we will think what we do with them doesn’t matter.

            If God didn’t want us to have bodies, God wouldn’t have given them to us. If our physical selves didn’t matter, then God would not have sent the Son, in the flesh, so that we might know more fully God’s love. In addition, Jesus’ temptation in the desert wouldn’t matter because we would have nothing to gain from knowing God’s body was hungry, tired or bruised. Furthermore, if God had no interest in our bodies, then we would be able to God’s work with our minds. How’s that working out for any of you?

            The second temptation of the devil with regard to our bodies is that if God so loves our bodies, then sex corrupts them. True enough, through lust, shame or misuse, sex can cause us to sin and to feel separated from God and from other people. However, that’s not the only thing that can happen. The church draws boundaries around sex not because of its corrupting power, but because of its creative power. I don’t just mean creative power in the sense that you can procreate through sex. I mean that sex makes co-creators with God. A healthy sexual relationship between two committed adults nurtures respect, hope, confidence and future fulfillment. In that love-making, we get a glimpse of God’s hope for us, God’s desire for the fulfillment of creation, God’s deepest desires for our redemption. That’s powerful and God desires that for us as much, or more, than we desire it for ourselves, not some cheap imitation of it.

            The third temptation of the devil is that if our bodies matter, then our bodies define us. Each of us, right now, could probably fill a sheet of paper with what we would like to fix about our physical selves. Some of us might have a slightly longer list, some of us shorter ones. Some of the repairs might be cosmetic while others are for deeper physical struggles. Some people really struggle with their physical image and the way they feel about their bodies gets in the way of their ability to believe in God’s grace. If you have changes to make, make them and if things can’t be changed, let them go. The woman speaker in Song of Songs had very dark skin, a flat chest and hair that looked like a flock of goats running down a mountain. She thought she was beautiful, as did her lover, and we’re still talking about her as a paragon of beauty. God defines us through Christ and Christ’s body alone.

            Song of Songs deserves our attention as the deep, erotic hymn to human love that it is. This hymn of hymns keeps us from ghettoizing our sexual selves, keeps our bodies at the forefront among our gifts from God, reminds us of women’s voices in Scripture and in the world and serves as resistor to temptations from the forces that oppose God. That’s pretty good for a book with only 117 verses.

            At its finest, the Scriptures remind us of what it is to be human, both the highs and lows, and where God meets us in our humanness. “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone.” That verse alone reminds us why Song of Songs isn’t allegorical. Human love, even its best form, bring disappointment. God’s love for us does not fade, not for our spirits, not for our bodies, not for eternity.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Theodicy, the Odyssey

Theodicy is the fancy name for those late-night, exhaustion or substance-fueled, discussions wherein one tries to balance the goodness of God (or the presumed goodness of God) with the existence of evil. The same name is also applied to the philosophical or theological study of the same. I know no one who hasn't had this discussion, so I hardly think formal rules apply.

In the wake of the  8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan, many people are having this conversation. Even as we pray, "Lord, in your mercy remember your creation", we wonder how this can happen. I know some of my brothers and sisters in faith, even now, are sorting through the history of Japanese sins, but many others are already collecting or sending funds, supplies and heartfelt prayers.

Does God cause these things to happen? Answering this question would take me into the realm of apologetics, the theological field of explanation. I'm neither qualified nor able to be God's apologist.

Here's why:  Consider Isaiah 45:6-7

[S]o that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting 
people may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other. 
7 I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. (New International Version)

So that everyone, from east to west, will know
   that I have no god-rivals.
   I am God, the only God there is.
I form light and create darkness,
   I make harmonies and create discords.
   I, God, do all these things. (The Message)

[S]o that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. 
I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.  (New Revised Standard Version)

I realize I'm proof-texting from two verses what I could easily undermine by discussing God's love for creation, promise to Noah and even other verses in Isaiah. However, the end result will be the same. I don't know why bad things happen. I believe God is in control, but I also believe that God does not subvert the way that nature plays out.

The Lutheran theologian Martin Marty says this:

God the creator creates out of love. That creation finds us in a created and hence "natural" world, not Eden of old or Paradise of tomorrow or Utopia in between. Since we belong to the created or natural world, we are subject to all that goes with it, including birth and death, springtime and autumn, sunshine and shadow- some lives knowing outrageously more of the latter than of the former. And as we belong to created nature, we also live in a world in which accidents happen, unexplained good and bad things occur. Those people killed by the fallen tower of Siloam just happened to be there, and the surviving soldier whom one bullet missed just happened to have moves before it came and killed his buddy behind him. (Marty, Martin E. Lutheran Questions, Lutheran Answers. Augsburg Fortress, Minneaoplis, MN. 2007. p. 45) 

What Marty is saying is that we don't always know why things happen, but we're not called to stark realism, we're called to hopefulness in the presence of God in suffering and in joy. We may never fully understand the whys and wherefores in this life, but we  simply focus on the the gift of life we have and on trying not to cause more chaos than already happens around us.

For today, Psalm 46 in haiku:

God is our refuge,
a timely help in trouble,
the Giver of strength.

Never shall we fear
even though mountains should fall
into ocean depths;

when wild waters rage
and mountain are washed by waves,
God is our stronghold.

Consider God's works
and the redoubtable deeds
He has done on earth:

He has stamped out wars,
breaking bows and snapping spears
setting shields ablaze.

'Know that I am God,
supreme among the nations,
high above the earth!"

Yahweh Sabaoth,
the Lord of hosts, is with us.
Jacob's God, our shield.

Gwyn, Richard. The Psalms in Haiku Form. Gracewing, Fowler Wright Books, Herefordshire; 1997. p. 52

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Collar Me Purple


So, I've taken on the Lenten discipline of wearing my clerical collar. I've debated this before and I did promise a parishioner that I would wear it for a week, if he wore the pectoral cross for a week. He did, mostly, so I will, mostly.

I've even taken to wearing an Anglican collar, so I can't just slip the tab out. I'll be wearing during my working hours until I go home, but not on my days off (unless I go to a work function). 

I've resisted the collar previously for the following reasons: 1) Actual physical discomfort. Both the tab and the full circle are close fitting around the neck. In addition to feeling a little tight, it makes me hot. I hate being hot. The Anglican collar has an additional, hair-shirt quality that comes from the collar stud that pokes into the middle of my throat.

2) In cognito. It's much easier to go in and out of the grocery store, car dealership, Sears, gas station without people asking questions or staring. And it does happen.

3) Alaska casual. I have seen clergy, mainly men, wearing their clericals daily, but I can name 2. Some clergy I know wear the shirts, but keep the collar optional, putting it on as needed (such as to go into the hospital). This isn't a suit-state. I'm a fairly casual person, particularly in dressing, but the collar seems to call for a little something more.

4) Along with being "undercover", not wearing a collar keeps me from spontaneous confessor status. Once people "know" you're clergy, they have a range of things to confess from unbelief, to struggles with the church, to divorce and all manner of faith struggles.

On the other hand, it's arguable that wearing the collar creates ministry opportunities that I'm missing right now. Wearing a dickey allows me to still be fairly casual. And if I lost more weight, maybe the collars wouldn't be as snug.

In reality, I think wearing my collar more frequently will help me to consider aspects of this call and vocation that I usually ignore or that I have yet to consider.

Already, last night, I stopped on the way home to buy a few groceries. When I came to the check-out line, both the checker and the customer stared at me. I just unloaded my cart and then the customer, a woman, asked, "Are you, um, clergy?"

"Yes," I said, wondering what would happen next.

"Have you seen that show... um..." she began, pausing.

"Oh, you mean, 'What Not to Wear'?" I guessed she might be referring the TLC show, which featured an Episcopalian clergy woman a few months ago. Her congregation wanted to spruce up her wardrobe and, among other things, she got a very nice, custom-made clergy dickie.

"Yes, that show," she said. "I loved that show and they gave her one of those things you're wearing."

"I went to school with the woman on the show," I said, which I did. "They did make a collar for her, but it's about $90 and this one is $25."

"Wow, there's a big difference then." she said.

As I nodded, she moved her cart away and the checker began processing my few groceries. "I love that show," the checker said.

I nodded, noncommittally, since I don't have television and have never seen the show.

I could see the other customer waiting, just beyond the registers.

As I began to push my cart toward the parking lot, she fell into step next to me.

"You don't look so fuddy-duddy, though," she confided. (I assume she dropped the "for a pastor".)

"Thanks," I said. "I'm not much for suits, so it's good to live here."

We both laughed and went on our way.

And now at least two women have encountered a woman clergy person, in real life, wearing regular clothes and the "uniform" of her calling and she was a real person.

I think I have a lot to learn in the next six weeks.

And maybe a little to teach.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The time has come, the time is now (Ash Wednesday Sermon)

Ash Wednesday, a
9 March 2011, (LCOH/TUMC)

            Ah, Lent. It’s that time of year again. What are some of the words that come to mind when you think of this season? 

            We do tend to think of guilt, preparation, longing, darkness, deprivation. I don’t know about you, but those are January and February words to me- winter words. But here we are with a Lenten springtime, where we’re already almost to 12 hours of daylight. It’s hard to focus on darkness when we know the sun is coming.

            And I think that’s the struggle of Lent for Easter people. Easter people are people who already live in the light of Easter. (That would be us.) It’s hard to think about darkness when we know the Son, that is Jesus, is coming. Since we already know the joy of resurrection, why do we have this slow season, these darker songs, this heaviness?

            Lent feels like a burden, no matter how we try to spin it. It plays on our sense of guilt, our uncertainty about grace, our discomfort with joy, our Good Friday fears. We don’t think about roses, posies or dancing, we just know: “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” And so we trudge through Lent as though it were a weight around our ankle.

            Yet, what are the words we hear today, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” (from Psalm 51) We hear from the prophet Joel, “Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” From Jesus, we hear the fearful, but encouraging truth that God sees us, even when we think we’re hidden, even in secret. Last, but certainly not least, Paul writes to the Corinthians and to us, “See, now is the day of salvation!”

            Now is the day of salvation. We don’t have to contrive our fear and worry through the season of Lent. Our salvation, our Easter rejoicing, is already at hand.

            Yet we have this season. What shall we do with it? How is God calling to us through this tradition, through these weeks?

            What if we treat Lent not as a burden, but as a gift? Could these weeks, this slowness and time of reflection be a gift? It’s the one time of year where you won’t get sick of Lenten carols in the grocery store. You won’t be bombarded with Lenten commercials. No one will pity your lack of Lenten plans.

It’s a time when we can even more fully realize that the world cannot offer us what we receive from the hands of the One who made us. In this season, we realize that we have salvation from temptation, from relentless wanting, from our weaknesses and from ourselves. Today is the day of salvation.

So many of us give up or take on minor things. Not everyone, I realize, but many people set aside chocolate, caffeine, television, or Facebook. Some people take up a practice. We are called to set aside the things that come between God and us, that cause us to feel a separation in that relationship. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been so overcome by a Coca Cola that I forgot to Whom I belong.

In considering Lent as a gift from God, for the people of God, we have to take seriously the things that cause us to feel a separation in the relationship between our Creator and us. Is it really sugar? Or is it more likely our relationship with another person? Our fear of change? Our lack of trust in prayer? Our inability to find time to read the Scriptures?

We know that everything we have is a gift from God, our time, our possessions, ourselves. The season of Lent is gift of time to reflect on those gifts we have, on how we are using them, on what we would like change, on what we believe God would like us to change. If we take this gift seriously, it’s probably not our chocolate habits that concern God.

Today is the day of salvation. Today is the day of salvation. Lent isn’t inviting us to anticipate the day of salvation. The season of Lent is encouraging us to embrace the reality that our salvation is at hand. Christ has already been crucified, died and risen. And you and I, bits of clay and ash that we are, have already been put to death and brought to new life with him.

We can treat Lent like a burden, something to be endured. Or we can enter more fully into the gift of lengthening days. We can take seriously the things cause us to feel separated from God. We can pray with our whole selves, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” We can open this gift from God and say, with fear, trembling and joy, “I am dust and to dust I shall return, but today… today is the day of my salvation.” 


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Perfection, I quit you

Back in the office now after the Big Event 4.0, a RevGalBlogPals continuing education event, I'm a little overwhelmed by all I learned. I'm trying to absorb, to let things settle into my guts, but it's hard to do as I run full tilt into Ash Wednesday.

I met women whom I'd only previously "known" through their blogs. I laughed, cried, pondered, and wondered how to bring this good news back, to translate these lessons of hope and grace, how to make change into freedom.

And I'm still jet-lagged.

I had hoped to do another complete month of blogging upon my return, but I missed two days because I was tired and nothing I typed made sense. (This may well still be the case.)

So, I was catching up on my podcasts and I heard this poem on The Writer's Almanac for 27 February and now I know what to give up for Lent.

Perfection, Perfection

("I will walk the way of perfection." Psalm 101:2)

I have had it with perfection.
I have packed my bags,
I am out of here.

As certain as rain
will make you wet,
perfection will do you

It droppeth not as dew
upon the summer grass
to give liberty and green

Perfection straineth out
the quality of mercy,
withers rapture at its

Before the battle is half begun,
cold probity thinks
it can't be won, concedes the

I've handed in my notice,
given back my keys,
signed my severance check, I

Hints I could have taken:
Even the perfect chiseled form of
Michelangelo's radiant David

the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is
"Perfection, Perfection" by Kilian McDonnell, from Swift, Lord, You Are Not. © Saint John's University Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (Permission for The Writer's Almanac only). 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday Five: Lent Edition

lent12367083783.gif.pngFrom RevGalBlogPals, kathrynzj writes: This Friday Five posts the day after my return from a phenomenal BE 4.0 experience. I am so thankful for the women who pursued the idea of this virtual community, continue to keep it vital and active and had a vision of creating space to meet in real life (irl) and made that happen too!

Because of the lateness of Easter this year the end of our BE time together has dropped us off on the cusp of Lent. My calendar taunts me with the schedule I'm supposedly going to keep. There are extra Bible studies, evening gatherings and worship services all crammed into a six week period of reflection and contemplation (ha!). But there are some things I truly love about the season of Lent even if I don't get in as much reflection and contemplation as I would like.

What about you? What are some things you appreciate about the season of Lent? Perhaps you would share 5 of them with us. And for your bonus question feel free to share one thing you could do without.

I'm sitting in the Seattle airport and awaiting the last leg of my trip home. I'm trying to think about a sermon for Transfiguration, the layout of a children's service and the opening questions to start a Lenten series on prayer. A little Lenten reflection seems just the thing to get some of the Spirit connection flowing. 

In Lent, I appreciate: 

1. Songs in a minor key. I'm a first soprano, so there's very little that's beyond the range of my voice in the high-pitched Easter/Christmas hymnody, but Lent lets me put aside my Jessye Norman and channel my inner Mahalia Jackson. Nothing thrills me like the rolling of "Come Ye Disconsolate" or the gentle slant of "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross". I wish we sang some of these more often because their message of consolation is gracious and true, but we tend to look for things to be a little more upbeat during the rest of the church year. (And how can a hymn become a classic unless we sing it?) (And, for the record, I'm only Jessye or Mahalia in my head.)

2. The absence of Hallelujahs. The fasting makes me look forward to the feast at the resurrection celebration. It's worth considering how often we say "hallelujah" and what it really means.

3. The focus on the body. Too frequently, our spiritual practice doesn't line up with our physical selves. However, in Lent, a time of fasting, coming together more frequently, ashes, death and anticipation of life to come- we cannot escape (I think) the connection between the mutual salvation of our bodies AND our souls. God created, loves and saves both. We may not understand the resurrection of the body, but our hope for it reminds us that God does not despise our physical selves. 

4. The appearance of fish sandwiches. I wouldn't eat a fast food fish sandwich if you paid me, but I love when they suddenly appear on the advertising boards. I assume they're there because someone somewhere remembers the idea of "fish fridays". It makes me remember that a holiday (in this case, Easter) can become very secular, but the religious aspects sneak in around the edges. I also like surprises about people who observe or remember Lent. One Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), I mentioned to my Starbucks baristo that I was giving up my drink for Lent. He said, "See you at Easter!" :) 

5. The chance to do something different in worship. I learned that if you want to try to introduce something new, give it a whirl during Advent or Lent. You'll get a feel for reactions and then be able to make a decision at the end of the season. One year, I moved the baptismal font toward the door of the church, symbolizing entrance to the community, for the season of Lent. On Easter Sunday, I received no less than 5 requests that it remain there. And so it does, 2 years later. 

I could do without pretending that Easter hasn't happened. Even in Lent, we remain Easter people, people living in the post-resurrection light and hope. I don't like to pretend like that hasn't occurred. I like to use the phrase, "As we await the Easter celebration..."

Thursday, March 3, 2011


I like words and I recently discovered Save the Words, a website which allows you to adopt words that have faded from the English lexicon and are endanger of being dropped from the Oxford English Dictionary.

When you adopt a word, you agree to use it in conversation and writing in an attempt to re-introduce said word back into regular usage.

It is exactly as geeky as it sounds.

And I love it.

A latibule is a hiding place.

Use it in a sentence, please.

After my son goes to bed, I pull out the good chocolate from my latibule and have a "mommy moment".
The perfect latibule was just behind the northwest corner of the barn, where one had a clear view during "Kick the Can".
She tucked the movie stub into an old chocolate box, her latibule for sentimental souvenirs.

I like the sound of latibule, though I think I would spend more time defining it and defending myself than actually using it. Come to think of it, I'm not really sure how often I use the word "hiding", so the occasions for working latibule into conversation are probably few and far between.

Nevertheless, it's worth thinking about words and their lifespan. They come into being and are used for a few years or decades or centuries and then fade away.

In a book I was reading recently, the author used the words "forestall" and "pitfall" in their medieval contexts. When people were lined up on market day, occasionally they would conduct their business in the line and then leave. This was "forestalling"- they did the business before they reached the stalls, thus depriving someone (somewhere) of the taxes or additional profits from the sale or trade. A pitfall was dug between opposing armies, probably under the cover of night, so that the charging army would stumble or fall during a charge at the light of day.

Those words are used in entirely different contexts today. (But they're still in use, unlike poor latibule.)

Can words be "saved"? (A unique use of that word on this blog.)

Should they be?

We know that our language evolves based on usage, changing definitions, and different linguistic needs. And other parts of our lives do as well.

There is no latibule big enough to keep change out, away or from happening. How do we handle it?

Is there anything that doesn't change?

Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever. Hebrews 13:8

There's no latibule to keep him out either.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Today the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) released its decision in Snyder vs. Phelps. The case featured the father of a fallen Marine (Snyder) who claimed distress when members of the Westboro Baptist Church (Phelps) held a protest rally of sorts at the funeral of his son. WBC holds signs that say “God hates f*gs” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”. Snyder asserted that their presence at the funeral caused emotional damage to him.

I have no doubt that it did. I have NO doubt that it did. Even if he barely noticed them on the day, but saw the footage later, I’m sure it only enflamed his grief and pain. I do think what Westboro does is morally wrong. It’s not considerate of others, it does not spread the love of Christ, it does not bring people into a deeper understanding of the grace of God (except inasmuch as God does not smite them, in my opinion).

However, what they do is not illegal. That’s the hard part, but that is the side on which the Supreme Court came down today.

The New York Times summarized the majority ruling, written by Justice John Roberts:

Chief Justice Roberts wrote that two primary factors required a ruling in favor of the church. First, he said, its speech was on matters of public concern. While the messages on the signs carried by its members “may fall short of refined social or political commentary,” he wrote, “the issues they highlight — the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military and scandals involving the Catholic clergy — are matters of public import.”
Second, the members of the church “had the right to be where they were.” They were picketing on a public street 1,000 feet from the site of the funeral; they complied with the law and with instructions from the police, and they protested quietly and without violence.
“Any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “rather than any interference with the funeral itself.”
All of that means, the chief justice wrote, that the protesters’ speech “cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”

This is a hard thing to swallow for many, many people. Angered and hurt by Westboro’s actions, people wonder if the law cannot do anything about them, who can? Many states have created buffer zones around funerals to attempt to prevent distress to families- a distance at which the protestors must stand. However, the people of the WBC were compliant with those rules in Maryland where the funeral took place.

There was a bit of a hubbub following the shootings in Arizona of a few weeks ago, in which there were rumors of the WBC protestors coming to the funerals of some of the victims. People in Tucson joined together and some planned to where outsized angel wings to block the views of the grieving families. WBC never showed.

I loathe what WBC does with the fire of a thousand suns. I hate that their behavior is extrapolated to churches in general. I detest that they prey upon situations of grief and distress. I thoroughly dislike the cultish nature of the church and completely disagree with their Scriptural interpretation.

But the First Amendment protects them. And I want it to, because I want it to protect me. If the SCOTUS begins to clamp down on the First Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens, even though their words hurt, then you or I or organizations we support could be next. We cannot allow our freedoms to be restricted because some people can’t handle them.

Roberts argues that Westboro’s signs bring up issues of public importance. That’s not the point. They could be carrying signs that “Jelly beans are better than spice drops” or “Down with Polyester Cruelty” or “Peace Now”. We would think they were amusing at best or kooks at worst, as long as they remained within the law.

Instead, they take advantage of media coverage and the gathering of people to spread inflammatory messages, but they’re not illegal.

If we stop them, we’re all in danger.

If we ignore them, they won’t go away.

If we try to reason with them, they will say that they KNOW they’re right.

So, instead, we must use our freedoms in the same way that they’re using theirs. People can gather to block the views of families. People can hold counter-protest signs. Choirs can gather and sing over their ranting.

Goodness is stronger than evil, but we don’t ask SCOTUS to uphold goodness. We ask them to uphold freedoms and so they have.

It’s up to the rest of us to exercise our freedoms with as much vigor as do those whose message we believe is wrong. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


I’m at the Big Event 4.0 with the RevGalBlogPals and we’ve been discussing how to define “church”. As you may guess, most of us write blogs, among other things, and we’ve noted that our blog traffic isn’t limited to the people whom we see in our places of worship.

Knowing that we don’t want to limit our audience (really!), then we’ve been trying to figure out what to call the people with whom we converse through electronic media, but whom we do not see in the pews.

In other words, are the electronic spaces “church”? 

What is church?

There is something to be said for the face-to-face interaction, the bodily presence together, sacraments experienced in the flesh, the sharing and mutual hope for God’s peace.

On the other hand, there are people who have been hurt, who struggle with doubt, who cannot yet step into a sanctuary precisely because it does not provide sanctuary (as it were). Yet these brothers and sisters have something to contribute to the community of believers.

If we limit the definition of “church” to the space inside a building that occupies a specific address, that is too fine a point. Nevertheless, we cannot dismiss the importance, even the longing for, interaction in person.

The Incarnation, that is God among us in Jesus, helps us to understand our need for interaction and congregation in the flesh. Even the most introverted among us longs, occasionally, for the consolation of company.

Electronic church is real and cannot be dismissed. The bounds of electronic church demonstrate the need for fellowship, collaboration, support, debate and exegesis that define some of the best parts of the Christian faith.

So many words in that last sentence need defining: exegesis, Christian, faith, fellowship. We argue about what they mean and does a particular word mean to me the same thing that it means to you?

And, I think, that’s one of the best definitions for church: a place where one gathers with others and knows the love and presence of God, through the indescribable means of conversation, shared burdens, and the Spirit.

Sometimes that happens in the church and sometimes church happens.