Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Presents We Remember

"What did you get for Christmas?" We can hardly help but say it. "What did Santa bring you?" we ask the little kids. They give us a list of toys, scooter, bike, Wii, guitar. . . while older and wiser voices say, "Santa brought me you, all of you here for dinner."

What Christmas gifts do you remember best? Were they your first bike or the surprise visit from a family member? Was it a hand-made item like, "A Christmas Mix for Mom" -always my favorite cd of the year, or a hand-made candy dispenser from someone's wood shop? Often we can list unique gifts we've received but even more we remember those special gifts we've given. If you've spent weeks knitting the perfect gift, creating a scrapbook of an event to give, finding just the perfect addition to someone's collection, or making a recipe box down to the sanding and stain, then you are likely to remember a gift you've given more than one you've received. What was the best gift you ever GAVE?

For all the gifts we give and receive we often get the greatest joy for the ones we've given away. We may not even know how they were received but remember all the effort than went into finding or making it perfect. There is great satisfaction in knowing you gave just what was needed. That your work brought surprise and joy into someone's life. On those occasions we touch the joy God must experience each time we give thanks for Christ's birth. 

This most wonderful gift, a life lived among humans that blessed all generations is the best Christmas gift ever. Jesus came, not to die, but to teach us how to live. Every time we listen and follow his WAY, God's gift is received again and it blesses the earth with shared love just as God intended it.

In this Christmas season I hope you remember the gifts you've given and those who gave to you. I hope you look back with long perspective and forward with the hope for love that continues to give itself away. Then you will be a living Christmas gift.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Greatest Story

The Christmas story is the 'greatest ever'. So tonight we will tell it, listening to it from each character's perspective and singing all the additional pieces authors have imagined over the years. Tonight we will hear and see the characters that inhabit the ancient town of Bethlehem. We will feel the cold night air outside of town and be surprised by the voices of angels. Tonight we will look on the child with the same wonder as his parents first did as we enter the story as if for the first time.
Joseph is a righteous man. Perhaps it was his sense of God’s supreme justice and working in the world that allowed to trust his dream and obey.
Mary said “yes” to God’s messenger despite all the improbability of Gabriel’s words. Despite all the unreality of what was being promised. Despite all the odds that were against anyone believing her, she said ‘yes’.
Was Elizabeth surprised to see Mary? How she must have felt to have a companion to share her story and her pregnancy. How wonderful to know it was all really about to happen.
THE MOMENT COMES – All the waiting, the fears and anticipation, the wondering and the traveling have brought Mary and Joseph to this night. For every parent the moment of birth comes and is surprising, remarkable, scary, and wonderful all wrapped up in one. This is the night we celebrate with song.
Angels, no matter where we think we’ve spotted angels, a heavenly host singing glory to God is, well, incredible. What would you do if they hovered over you…tonight?
Surprised, blinded, wondering what just happened? All these things are likely what the shepherds experienced but instead of sitting around the fire and talking about it, they WENT, they went to see for themselves. Travel with them tonight.

May you be blessed in your services, your travel and in your celebration. Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth PEACE!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Seized By Life

Pregnant by surprise - surely no one in all of humanity was more surprised by the news than Mary. "Shadowed by God's Spirit" with words like that it was no wonder Gabriel had to say, "Be not afraid."
The roots of words contain interesting and sometimes enlightening information as to their eventual translation. Looking at Luke 1, the root words that are translated conceived are "seized in the belly". That's pregnancy, isn't it? All of one's being is contorted and transformed into growing a new human being. Nourishment produces cells that will differentiate into gray matter and bone. And when the first kick is felt, well, 'seized' is a good way to describe it.

We need not be pregnant to be seized by life, tho. Everyone who opens the door of the heart to God is seized by the ONE who creates life. The amazing event is that this Almighty One waits for our consent. Can we say, "Let it be with me.." Are we willing to be seized and transformed so much that we too can give birth to new life?

What would it mean for you to say yes to God so that all of your day, every day revolved around a new mission, birthing. Church would no longer be events on your calendar and prayer a new-year's resolution waiting to be fulfilled. God chooses US, not just Mary and awaits our consent to be seized by life. BE NOT AFRAID.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Identity and Vocation

What questions would you ask me to know who I am? 
  • What do you do for a living? 
  • How many children do you have and how old are they?
  • What do you like to do with your time off?
  • What's your favorite book or favorite theologian?
And my answers; pastor/2/college-age/ski or golf/depends/Tillich, give you a glimpse of a slice or two of my life. It's a completely different answer from that which John, the one who baptizes, gives in John's gospel. When folks (oi Ἰουδαῖος) 
ask John identity questions, he never gives any personal vocation information, he tells only about Jesus. He's the voice, a mouthpiece that points with his words and his life, to the One Who Comes. 
     It's unnatural, in this day, to be so selfless to the point of disappearing in favor of someone else. John challenges his society and when he gets people's attention, he points. It is a challenge to unite our voice and action in a direction that points so definitely away from self. Some of us can talk, and others just do, but few seem able to pull off a 'John' and point with both our voices and our lives to someone else. Yet its the job description of Christ's church, isn't it? To be pointers so that others may "Know and believe that Jesus is the Christ" as John says. Its a calling, a vocation for sure, and a challenge. Perhaps its time to review our job description.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Do you believe?

"We watch for advent" is the theme of this week's worship. Isaiah 40 promises an end to the watching and waiting and names the awaited hope, "the Lord God comes with might. . He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms. .in his bosom." Can you believe it? Do you?

How easily we suspend our reliance on what is possible at Christmas and believe in angels- breaking out in song on a starry night, shepherds- entrusted with the good news, and even a virgin birth. But when we walk out of the sanctuary doors, what happens to our belief? Do you still believe that goodness and mercy is in the world? Can you see it as you drive to work or watch the news? I've read 2nd Isaiah 40:6-8 at gravesides, "all people are grass. .and the grass withers, the flower fades. . .BUT the word of our God will stand forever." How is it we believe in God's possibilities when we stand at a friend's grave, but struggle to see God's goodness in the news? The Israelites deliverance was not based on human possibility but on God's action.

This year we should promise to watch for God and believe that God's advent is now and possibilities are endless. AND that God can and does use us to make the impossible happen. May the valleys in our lives be lifted up and the mountains leveled for nothing is impossible with God.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Focus On Waiting

Life moves fast. Christmas is less than a month away.

I hate overly busy days. I miss so much when I careen from activity to activity. I find it beneficial to take a few extra moments in the morning to set the pace for the day and I miss it when I'm pushed to 'do' something rather than 'be' someone. A time to focus allows me to remember my priorities, to spend time with scripture, with God and to read the words of others who are guides on my journey. This time to focus allows me to hear God's call. It's a time of waiting and listening. It takes time and I have to put off the things that beckon me to hurry and get on with the day but it's well worth it.

This Advent I will add a special devotional and try to spend more time in silence. I hope that I can focus and find focus so that I will be ready for the One for whom I wait.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Dump Sheep

Ezekiel 34
Shepherd and sheep on Christ the King Sunday is a surprise, but in my ‘less liturgical’ setting we might choose to look at this fascinating passage and the verses excluded from the lectionary. Whenever I hear about sheep I think of the stories my husband tells of the days he managed a small farm. “Sheep are dumb!” he says, if their afterbirth wasn’t bright orange, they’d walk away never knowing they’d given birth.” Sheep may know the shepherd’s voice but they’ll pretty much follow another sheep anywhere, even off a cliff. I wonder when Jesus self-describes as the good shepherd, if he was implying that we’re typical sheep, its not very complimentary.

Ezekiel 34 offers us lovely images of well cared-for sheep, reminding us of God’s meticulous care. Yet, in one of the verses skipped over by the lectionary, there are less calming images. The accusations of verses 18 and 21 hold true today.

As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

Must we foul the water to which we have been led preventing others from having the same satisfactory and life-giving drink? Have we not butted with horns to get to the front of the line when it comes to world resources? Whew, I stand guilty using more than my share of fuel in the plane in which I sit as I write this. And I’m headed back to a warm house (electricity) and a wood fire (pollution) and a full (hopefully?) refrigerator that has food trucked in from long distances (fuel again) and likely harvested by low-paid workers, possibly grown under environmentally destructive conditions. I stand convicted and all I’m doing is coming home from a conference.
I sit here wondering where’s the good news in this passage? My hope and trust is in the shepherd. That if I follow the good shepherd and ‘lay down in those green pastures’ to which the shepherd leads I will be following a path that is gentle to the environment and sustainable for others in the herd. At this point in our environmental mess, following the shepherd, closely, always, and not wandering off, is our only hope.

For a good sermon on Matthew 25, go to http://rj-whenlovecomestotown.blogspot.com/ and scroll down to Faith, Doubt and the Via Negativa.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Dealing with Fear

The lectionary texts for November 16 remind me of how our lives are influenced by fear. Our instinct is to withdraw or to hedge our bets and to act in self-preservation. Judges 4 has Barak hesitant to go on the offensive alone, not completely trusting in Deborah's oracle. 1 Thessalonians 5 contains words we read at funerals as does Psalm 90. Words intended to stop fear's damage, to put a halt to our tendency to react to our fears with careless abandon of responsibility or focus. We even lose our focus on God, the only One in whom we can trust.

5:5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
5:6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober;
5:7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.
5:8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Thess 5:5-8)


How wonderful and appropriate that these texts arise in a season of world fear. Certainly there is a level of hope following an American election at which the 'hope' candidate won. Still, watching the markets instills fear and we quickly lose any long-term perspective. Like the Thessalonians we forget that we belong to the day and need not live in the fear of the night.

The investors of Matthew 25 act out our fear on stage, each reacting in different ways and being rewarded or punished for faith (or lack thereof). How easy it is to read these texts with judgment and say, "Foolish men, could you not see the Lord's hand at work?" all the while we act in our own foolish ways. I worry about tomorrow, I watch the retirement balance fall, I change plans that sound too risky and I circle the wagons of projects and plans to return to a safe and defensive stance.

How very hard it is to walk in faith without sight. I know until I step off the cliff and place my weight onto the foot suspended in air, that I can't see God's bridge coming up to meet my foot. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade image.) Still I hesitate to take the step - for fear. Interestingly, we only get better at faith by practice. The reckless stepping off of cliffs and trusting in God's bridge or hand to be there, is our calling. Recklessness and Christianity no longer go together like they once did when one risked their life to follow the WAY of the Lord. It's time to pair them up again.

I guess I'd better start with me

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pentalog

An unusual post today as I'm using this site to post a video I made for the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence presentation next week in San Diego.
I'm hoping this will allow a few preview of our work on the question,
"How do image, story, and place create an opening in us for transformation?"

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Promises, promises

Joshua 24 is about the transition of power, as textweek.com defines it. I'm living in the struggle to be in the present moment while planning for the future and learning from the past. There are lessons behind us that we must not forget; lessons of which Joshua reminds the Israelites; lessons of which bloggers are reminding America in light of the historic election of President-elect Barack Obama. (See www.shorpy.com)

These are lessons from the Israelites which we still struggle to learn two millennia later. Joshua told them they must choose and decide to leave their idols behind, just as Jacob said generations before Joshua. And like the Israelites we promise to bury our idols. We choose God with all the enthusiasm of the moment and with good intention. It's just that lives are full and intention gets put behind the demands of the day. Commitments, transportation, traffic, appointments, conference calls, the list is endless and it demands our time and sucks away our ability to act on intention. We really do mean to keep our focus on God, to maintain priorities, just as soon as we get through this project deadline. And so it goes.

We face the same struggle in all important relationships, the challenge of really being present to someone else. Listening to and really hearing someone, their words, their body language, their feeling, is the greatest gift we can give another person. One can spend hours in counseling just to learn this 'secret'. But when it comes to God, it is no secret only the heart of the first commandment; to love the Lord with all the heart, soul, and mind.

How do we do it? Well, Joshua says we can't. It is impossible to truly 'serve' the Lord with our complete devotion, and yet, God demands nothing less. Are we set up for failure? No, we are 'set-up' for a lifetime of relationship. We are to 'serve' or be devoted to God, not as an accomplished fact, but as a commitment to maintain constant communication. In our attempt to be faithful, to at least stay conversant, we experience God's grace as the Holy One recognizes our inability to be completely devoted. It's a circle of promise from the God who loves us.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

New




I had the opportunity to listen to some new music this week. The cd, Going Up by ZEHNDER was different, there was something about it that made me want to listen again. So I did, I listened again and again and I loved it. The music is unique and new. It's music for emerging worship and I can't imagine using it in the current congregation I serve, but I wish I could. I love the use of psalms and scripture. I love the feel of modern music with 'sacred' lyrics. In some ways the sound is simple and I find it calls to me. (Visit their site at www.ztheband.com)

It reminds me of first learning Greek. It was different, vastly different than the way I was used to reading scripture. But once I began to learn, I discovered I could 'hear' old scriptures with new ears. The stories with which I grew up now had new meaning and I hung on every word. Even now, returning to the original text brings new life to stories I used to think I knew well.

Maybe that's what we all need to keep from falling into the habits of the Pharisees in tomorrow's gospel text, Matthew 23:1-12. They listened to the law again and again and had come to focus on the literal interpretation; 'church tradition' and to emphasize the external showing of obedience. Jesus calls us to really hear the law and scriptures and in them discover the promise of God. Sometimes it takes new ears, old language, or new music to open our ears. Praise God for breaking into our sedate worlds with ever new ways to hear.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Last Question

In Matthew 22:36, Jesus is asked the last and 'greatest' question. His challengers don't know it will be their last question. They merely await his answer, possibly smug, once again thinking they have trapped the rabbi into a no win scenario. They do finally learn that with Jesus, the only limited situation is the one he chooses to accept.

Jesus is a scholar of the Psalms. He quotes from a psalm of triumph and victory in this passage. By doing so, I think he is not just handing his accusers a tricky question of their own, but by referencing the Psalms, he offers a source, an example of following the 'greatest' commandment. In the Psalms, God is praised from joyous hearts. God is petitioned from tear-full souls. God is cajoled by angry voices. God is the one to be bargained with, promised, traded, petitioned, subjected to, praised, honored, and worshiped. ALL of life is under God's hand and in the Psalms we hear ALL of life presented to God, the good, bad and ugly. (Ps. 137:9) What better example could there be of the first and greatest commandment?

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Then just so we know that Jesus is more that your average Shema singing rabbi, he grafts in the holistic intent of the Law from Leviticus 19:18 which is the centerpiece of his ministry of integrity. One can't just know the Law, or spout the Law, but one must be able to live the Law, right down to the neighbor's welfare.

I guess I've watched too much news this week to have much hope that we will ever get this life of integrity straight. Then I open my favorite copy of The Psalms (BCP) and read from my heart using the psalmists' words

Come now and look upon the works of the LORD, what awesome things he has done on earth. It is he who makes war to cease in all the world; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire. Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold." 46:9-12
"Give thanks to the LORD, for the LORD is good; God's mercy endures for ever." Praise God!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

God's Call

One's personal life is all consuming it's without a doubt. In recent days I've noticed the stock market roller coaster ride and I've seen most debates, some baseball playoffs, and know of the Redskins win. But I missed the Blog Action Day, I'm behind on my Women's Retreat preparation, and I didn't finish reading today's headlines. All because I've been focused on the process of being called to a new congregation. Certainly it's been a self-focused experience in some ways and an 'other-focused' experience in another way.

My D.E. used the phrase, 'lean on the door' to describe the discernment process. He said, "Don't make any decisions, just lean on the door and see if God's spirit responds. See if it opens." I love the expression and the image. I leaned, it opened, and December 1 I begin as pastor of the Arlington Church of the Brethren.

Change is never easy so telling the youth of the congregation where I currently serve is the hardest. Implementing transitions and leadership will be plenty of work. Finishing, without trying to do everything, will be a challenge. Preparing for Advent while getting up-to-speed on a new congregation will be - well I don't know what it will be like, but I'm looking forward to it none-the-less. Perhaps best of all is the feeling that I am following God's lead. Certainly it serves me well because it is a unique opportunity for me to lead and be in partnership with a great group of people who are also following God's lead.

"God's Will" is a concept that is often used to explain the misunderstood or justify self-interest. It's important to me to declare my self-interest in this call while recognizing that there is more to it. Because God is able to use us - anyone, anywhere - if we are open to the Spirit's leading and willing to 'lean on the door'. Rather than getting too busy with details while moving away from one call and to another, the challenge will be to discern the faithful path and remain honest about the pleasure and pain I incur. The challenge is to keep leaning and listening all during the busy transition, always discerning the call of God which never ends.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What Then?


Matthew 22:15-22
How easy it is to let something you enjoy get left behind when life gets busy. It seems blog-writing is one of those things, along with the all-time 'left-behind' activity - working out at the gym. As important as these things are to me, I get focussed on what is right in front of me and nothing else. It's tunnel vision in tight little compartments that blocks out parts of my life, even parts I like.
Compartmentalizing is both necessary and dangerous. How easily we divide our civil life from religious life. Like Luther's two-kingdoms, we separate church and state, school friends from church friends, street language from "polite-company" language and on it goes. There are so many ways in which we divide and wall off one part of life from another.  These coping mechanisms (as they might be called) are just what allows reasonable people to do unreasonable things. 
Dexter, (Showtime series) is a great brother, a conscientious employee of the police department, he is great with his girlfriend's kids, and he soon will be a father. He is good at compartmentalizing, he says, for in his weaker moments, he's a serial killer. He kills according to his code which supplies justification for this compartment of life.   It's fiction, but the news in December 2002 told of  a "kid-next-door" who used torture and humiliation as a military officer when the compartment with priority was labeled 'terrorism abatement'.  
Jesus said to return to the emperor what is the emperor's and give to God what is God's. So which of those mental compartments are God's, which are ours, which belong to the government, which belong to someone else? Can we continue to separate parts of our lives to such an extent that we can justify behavior in one compartment that would be horrible in another? I don't think tax money is the only thing to which Jesus referred. Is it not obvious that all of life belongs to God? And yet if God-time is merely one compartment of our life, perhaps "that which belongs to God" is a but a small portion of the whole. Who are we kidding? When life is done and breath is gone, compartments will vanish and there will only be God. What then?

Friday, October 3, 2008

"Mine!"

Last night I did my usual stint as pre-school "rap" leader at our mid-week program. During the course of the night there was a scuffle over a toy. "Mine!" one toddler yells and an intervention was called for. It is a typical scene in early childhood and I think it is a behavior we never overcome. Dreams of ownership begin early. I had the radio on a lot this week and several advertisements caught my attention. "Make sure your grass is the greenest in the neighborhood." "Act now to own your home." "Update your Will so that your money stays in your family." Ownership and the focus on ours and mine seems ingrained and constantly reinforced.

I've been spending time with the 'Wicked Tenants' this week since I wrote the previous post. I believe that we share their problem of desiring ownership. It goes far beyond a temptation. It's a goal of life, admired, understood and shared by people of every social class. We are conditioned to work toward ownership; owning is better than renting. We even get tax breaks for ownership. "Accumulate, store in barns" are all part of the same pattern of greed that grows out of a desire to provide for ourselves and make a safe future. Yet the ownership issue is in a slightly different category. We understand greed as over-providing, far beyond what is needed. But ownership is just a good step along the path of self-sufficiency. What we don't see is that even our desire for self-sufficiency is bad when it is raised to the level of a 'god' an ideal and idol that must be achieved. 

How can we identify with the tenants? We understand them. They want only to own what they have worked so hard to achieve. Perhaps similar to colonists who work and develop a land and then desire to make it their own. Oversimplification? yes, perhaps but if we really look at the tenants, their desire is our own. It is all about ownership; to have stock in and gain the profits from our work. And we call them "wicked tenants" because their desires led to violence and violence soon led to death, just like in our world. No matter how I look at it, it does seem that they are us and we are they

Monday, September 29, 2008

We Are They

Matthew 21:33-46

The wicked tenants invoke no sympathy from me. It is easy to see their evil intent, their possessiveness of property that is not their own. Then they "Kill the Messenger" (thanks Jack's Mannequin) first abusing the slaves and then killing the son. Certainly these tenants deserve no pity. In fact, I almost wait for the owner with anticipation that they will 'get what's coming to them.' Until I realize I am they. (thanks Clergy Journal for this thread)

Yes, in spite of my self-righteous judgment of their abusive actions, I have to realize my own greedy nature does the same thing. I consider this earth my own, "my" property and I should be able to do what I want on it. At least on "my" three acres. Yet when I decide to be a caretaker of creation, I want everyone to join in. Such contradiction. I can be shortsighted enough to forget that I am always a caretaker, a steward of God's world. I am just passing through, here today and gone tomorrow. My legacy only extends to what I leave for the next generation.

I am a tenant. I hope to be a better caretaker, to watch for God's messengers and welcome them. To turn over the profits of my labor for the owner's use and the leave the vineyard well cared-for in order that the next generation of stewards may work diligently.

Now, to keep that perspective for more than a minute..

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Your Comfort and Mine

How uncomfortable am I willing to be to make you more comfortable? Paul writes in Romans and Corinthians about the importance of putting others first. "We do not live to ourselves." (Romans 14:7) If I am to live 'to you' then I must not only accept your ways, (religious customs and law ) I must modify my actions if they disturb you to the point of impacting your faith walk. What does that mean in daily life?

A few years ago, I attended my first Love Feast with a congregation where I was new. I entered the room which was set up for the meal early while the (mostly) women were completing preparations. Love Feast consists of a time of confession, a meal of simple food, feetwashing, and communion. I had never worn a prayer covering. I read the Corinthians texts related to coverings to indicate they show a man's authority over the woman. As a pastor, it seemed incongruous to wear a prayer covering and hold a leadership role or  'authority' in the church. Yet I knew that one day, I might be challenged by women for whom the covering holds much deeper symbolic meaning of piety and faithfulness. This was the night of challenge and it came as a simple gracious offering of a prayer covering.  

I believe it was offered in hospitality that the new person, arriving without a covering, might feel at home and be loaned one to wear. I knew my reply might challenge this sister's faith and understanding of tradition. When she offered me a cover, I declined saying, "I choose not to wear a covering, but if it offends you for me not to be covered, then I will be happy to wear one." The sister let me wait what seemed like an hour while she gave it serious thought. Someone interrupted her thinking and asked, "Well, does it bother you if Nancy doesn't wear a prayer covering?" Finally, she said, "No, actually, I've been at other Love Feasts where women didn't wear the covering. I guess I'm fine with you not wearing one." Whew, what relief. (I can still feel the sweat on my neck.) I thanked her and we went off to the sanctuary together, she with head covered and me uncovered to pray and be reconciled to God.

That day I made the right decision and was met with openness for a different way of being. I have not always managed the right response, nor been greeted so graciously. And someday, I'll be challenged on this or a similar point and then, what then? Who will be the one "weak in faith?" and Who will be living to Christ?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Critical Mass


I went to my first Washington Nationals baseball game last week and expected to walk out into that glorious feeling of a stadium crowd anticipating the words, "Play Ball!" Instead, I found a sparse crowd, open holes in the seating with plenty of comfortable spots available. (And they ended up winning that night!) Every preacher knows the feeling of looking out on the congregation from the chancel on a holiday weekend and seeing far too many empty pews. Such a view can dash one's spirits and impact the delivery of a well-crafted sermon.

Why is it that we are so effected by numbers? In youth gatherings we try to reach "critical mass" that number of teens that makes games fun or even possible and lends a feeling of being part of a group. Humans judge success by quantity. From the estimated crowd size at a D.C. protest march to the number of popped kernels in a bag of microwave popcorn, we look for quantity to determine value. Sunday's gospel text in Matthew points us to a different set of integers; 2 and 3.
"19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18:19-20)
Initially it appears that Jesus is valuing the few, even the single individual who joins with another in reconciliation. It's true that each one of us is important and of great value. We know the shepherd leaves the 99 to go after the 1. Yet there is even more to this passage than the value of the individual. Matthew 18 is about reconciliation, a key activity which is commanded for Jesus' disciples. The two coming together in agreement may be two having experienced broken relationship or severe disagreement. When they come together to address the issue between them they are building a relationship. However awkward, difficult, and uncomfortable it is, it is relationship. The power of honest discussion may be all it takes to overcome conflict. There is no substitute for going and speaking to the person with whom you disagree or who has injured you. Matthew assures us that when we approach our adversary, Christ is there with us.

Why is it so important for two to reconcile? With all the people in the world, would it not be easier to 'get over it,' make a new friend and just leave the difficult relationship behind? But for Christians, community is of greatest value and restoring that community through reconciling work may be our highest calling. We are called to community. Mathew 18 gives a whole process for reconciliation in a community and what to do when disagreement is so strong it retains the brokenness. It begins with just two.

There is a natural desire to judge the health of community by its number, as long as we don't take it too far and make it our only criteria. More importantly we should remember that the health of community is based on relationship, beginning with the smallest quantity; the relationship between you and me. When we come together, Christ is there with us. It's an awesome promise and awesome responsibility.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Power Promise


Ephesians 3:18-22
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.
I love this passage because it is a reminder of the promise we have of God’s ever-present and all-powerful LOVE. And then we get the bonus promise of strength, and empowerment.

It's a sticky-note reminder of whose we are and that we live within the love of God. We are granted this Great Power to use for others.

We do all things by Christ’s power at work in us;
It gives us the power to forgive.
To reconcile the worst offender.
To forgive even ourselves.
To take on the most impossible situations in the world in trust.

How does a church remain faithful over decades, providing a sanctuary for worship, proclaiming God’s grace year after year, extending a helping hand to neighbors, and being a light that shows another way to live?
..by Christ’s power at work in us.

When we realize, and get a glimpse (Ephesians says comprehend), of the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, it should rock us back on our heels. It should crack us open a bit, enough to pause just sit in awe before our Creator.

Have you heard the song, Breathe?
This is the air I breathe This is the air I breathe Your holy presence living in me This is my daily bread This is my daily bread Your very word spoken to me And I'm desperate for you And I'm lost without you

It is a song of dependence on God. Breathing – in God’s Presence- is the pause we need to feel the touch of the Spirit, stirring within us,
desiring more for us,
asking more of us and
offering us the power to partner with Christ to accomplish all things.

It is no small thing we do. We are sent TO the world in Christ’s name. It’s an awesome responsibility but we have the greatest power and most filling promise there has ever been.
We accomplish this by being open, dependent, trusting, and filled with divine power.
By the power at work within us, WE ARE ABLE to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine!

Wow, what a promise.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Rocks & Matthew 16:13-20

When I was in high school my nickname was 'the Rock'. In the context of this text it sounds like a great name, but I confess the name had more to do with the gift of a stable body than my faith. Still I listened to every text that mentioned Rocks with great interest. It was many years later that I understood the text in a historical context of the hierarchical Christian church. Today's challenge, everyday's challenge, is to hear the text in our own context while maintain the integrity of its original meaning.

Jesus is creating something new beginning with Peter's confession of faith. Matthew's gospel is clear in making the connection between Jesus' and the prophetic tradition of Israel. It is also clear that Israel's leaders of Jesus' day do not accept the connection. Jesus is not limited by limited human vision and starting with Peter and the disciples, HE will build the church. It is this tradition and promise that we have inherited.

I wonder if in this day, after 2000 years of 'church', if Jesus is creating a new thing once again? It certainly feels like we need it. Creation is groaning with the weight of human domination. Humans seem no closer to living in peace than ever. It would be easy to be discouraged and wonder when the stones themselves will start taking over 'kingdom work'? Then I hear small stories of hope. Children who get inspired to action that grows and blooms into a huge effort. (See Pennies for Pills and Joseph's work to help aids patients in Africa.)
It is then I realize that Jesus is still building His church, it just doesn't always look the way I expect.

Yes, rocks make a good foundation. They are also an impressive base when they stand alone against the tide of impossibility. Joseph is a rock and on this rock and those like Joseph, Christ continues to build.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The dogs of Canaan



Great faith is demonstrated by those having no other options. In Matthew's gospel the Centurion (ch. 8) could have watched his servant die. He could have stopped at worry, cries, and mourning. Instead he turns to Jesus in hope and trust. Peter's family could "accept" his mother-in-law's fate and watch as her fever raged through her body - yet by inviting Jesus into the home a trust is implied and Jesus fulfills expectations.

Jesus always chooses (Mt. 8:3) to heal us and put our broken pieces back together. We must choose to invite him; to petition him to come, touch us and heal us. Extending the invitation is harder than it sounds for we get used to our sick rooms and comfortable with prescriptions that numb- but don't remove the pain. It is easier to stay as we are; "accept our fate" and even invoke the curse called "God's will" to explain our situation. We usually see out-of-options as a dead end.

The Canaanite woman was also out of options. The God she trusted was not open to her people, or so it was thought, yet she believed this God would not desire a life a torment for her daughter. She was out of options for she could not watch her beloved daughter suffer any longer. She was out of options--save one; to risk humiliation, to suffer rejection (and she IS rejected, repeatedly) and to be a pest, while firmly believing in One who could heal IF he chose. Such faith, such determined action which throws every dignity to the wind and risks it all; this is great faith! This is the legacy of the unnamed Canaanite woman.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Women and Men


As I listen to coverage of the presidential race I hear the comparisons between race and gender discrimination. I can't help but look at it from my perspective and suspect that we are each biased by our own experience. So how do I get beyond the feeling that gender equality remains an unreachable goal in my lifetime?

I listened to a NPR show where women who had experienced both gender and race discrimination spoke to the reality that the gender discrimination was deeper and more pervasive. How very discouraging to hear such experiences! I know that even I, as a female professional, have deep conditioning based on how I was raised and what I experienced as 'norm'. I can only hope that my children experience a greater diversity and that their norm and their children's norm will be different. And I can continue to offer them and myself opportunities to experience diversity outside of the norm of my childhood.

Join me in listening to the continuing discussion on NPR. Maybe we can not only change the world, but we can change ourselves.

Monday, August 4, 2008

When The Spirit Shows Up

Sunday morning I preached on Isaiah 55. I did some reading and thinking during the two weeks prior, but last week I co-lead a junior high workcamp full of 18-hour days. That left Saturday to get my thoughts on paper and add some pertinent illustrations from the workcamp experience. Only Saturday afternoon I also needed to be 'mom' and travel with my daughter to the likely spot of her wedding next year. She is moving to the south in one more day(!) so some things need to be looked at now.

Having said all that, the sermon was complete about 11:30 pm Saturday, very late for me unless is was the um-teenth draft. As I walked into worship I chatted with a retired pastor in the congregation and told him I was counting on the Holy Spirit to show up. I knew I had some kernels, but the transitions from ideas were rough in places and sometimes the connection to the over-arching theme was weak. And yet, as people left, two in particular mentioned how the sermon spoke to them. I knew for sure it wasn't me. It was comforting to know that with me or in spite of me, God's message can come through.

Trygve David Johnson writes at Theolog
Revelation is why we keep preaching. God uses the spoken word to reveal the living Word. This is an event that can’t be teased or manipulated by technique. Even a bad sermon can be used by God to reveal God. That is the hope of us who preach. Revelation is always gift—always grace. On this grace Christianity stands or falls.
The Spirit showing up is a gift to the preacher and the congregation. Thanks be to God we can count on it.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Working Beside God


This week I'll be coordinating a Church of the Brethren workcamp for junior high youth. All the planning that goes into the details can be exhausting and yet it will all be worth it when the group comes together and experiences the joy of giving. We'll have days of working with Together We Stand, a group working to empower people to take ownership of their city and improve community. ($10/year and 10 hours of volunteer service.) And we'll play in the parks we've helped to spruce up and swim in the river. We'll go to a ball game and visit the state capitol and the Black History museum. A ghost tour is even in order. The learning opportunities will range from history presented 'museum-style' to sociology studied up close. Relationships will form and friendships will continue past the week if all goes well.

Workcamps are amazing. People are helped, yes, but the real change comes in the workers. It is a strange thing but workcampers become service volunteers for life and their perspective on the world is changed forever. God's Spirit is certainly at work alongside us and in us as we serve. Praise God for that!

While I'm driving to worksite, counting heads, and buying enough food for our meals, I'll be giving thought to Isaiah 55 and how God desires joy for creation and how desiring God brings us joy. There's much to think about but that's the heart of where I'm going for now. As usual Textweek.com will be at the center of my work. I'm hopeful (and almost certain) that the week will lend insight to the text as I too am changed. Today we sang Teresa's Prayer; God be in my heart... my hands... my living. It should be a good week of heart and hands working beside God. How very exciting to anticipate the experience of tired, sweaty, bodies along with the stirring of the Spirit. What learning is in store for me as I work with the kids? What stirring will come from God's spirit?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lament


I'm using some space to refer you to another blog. "When Love Comes To Town"
Here you will find a reflection on God's people encountering God in places of pain, in places not expected. Even by the Waters of Babylon!

How is it that we think God is found in white-walled sanctuaries and that we meet God best in our clean "Sunday clothes"? Where is the mystery of God when the only surprise in worship is the attendance?

I will yet look at the lectionary texts for this or next week. Meanwhile, I will muse on people who are hurting around the world encountering God in more surprising places than Sunday morning worship.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How could we sing the LORD'S song in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. Psalm 137: 3-6
Listen on Youtube.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Today's text was "wheat and tares" as the old story goes. I heard a good sermon on parables as puzzles and Jesus as the 'box lid' and I read several good commentaries on the text this week. I've been thinking about planting and wondering just how much of growth is God's responsibility. We work so hard to maximize our potential and our possibilities, trying to do everything we can to enhance our growth. I wonder if all growth isn't the responsibility of God; the One who sends rain on the just and unjust.

John Ballenger of Baltimore (Woodbrook Baptist Church) writes in Clergy Journal the following good point:
The parable offers the opposite advice from the adventure movie line, "Kill them all, let God sort them out." Jesus in effect says, "Care for them all, let God sort them out." In forbidding the servants to root out the weeds, the householder, in effect, commands that the weeds receive the same care as the wheat until the day of harvest.
In that case the farmers are responsible for tending and God is responsible for the final result. I am struck by the willingness to let the good wheat and the weeds share the precious water and nutrients of the soil. I guess if we are thinking we're wheat, we're not so special after all, but as in so many parables, if we are the weeds, we have much for which to be grateful.

My husband always says, "a weed is just a plant or even flower, growing in the wrong place."
Looking at responsibility, and accepting that God has the ultimate responsibility, perhaps ours is to recognize the flower mistaken as a 'weed' and share this space with a different crop. Then when all is said and done, ultimately that is, God will do any necessary sorting.

Monday, July 14, 2008

No Beard, No Prayercovering


How very good and pleasant it is when 'brethren' live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes. Ps. 133
Brethren, of both genders and several denominations, have gathered together in Richmond this week. It is the first time that the Church of the Brethren and the Brethren Church have joined together for Annual Conference since the split in the late 1800's. That in itself is an amazing event. What is even better, and always amazes me, is the diversity within our denomination. Here we sit, thousands strong, and some women wear prayer coverings, others are in shorts and sleeveless tops. Some men are in plain clothes, others are in plaid shirts, shorts and sandals. Somewhere in there is my colleague in his suit and me in a skirt, along with our congregational members in a variety of styles. It is a beautiful thing to see and of which to be a part.

Even more amazing is the diversity of theologies. You hear it in the preaching and in the comments made from the floor mics to business items. We are all different; a large group of individuals. Yet, when the singing starts the unity of the brothers and sisters can be heard, loud and clear. We don't all sing the same parts. I sing a plain soprano, but all around me are the four parts sung as one beautiful hymn that resounds even stronger when the instruments stop and just the voices fill the coliseum. As is true for any symphony, the variety of complex and different parts is what makes the music so grand. We are never as beautiful when we are uniform in style and sound as we are when our differences are pronounced. It's an old saying and oft repeated concept. Yet it is when you are sitting in the midst of sisters and brothers that the reality can be felt, heard, seen and tasted. It is now, when 'brethren' worship and serve together, that the Body of Christ is most alive.

How good it is!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Wide-eyed Wonder

This week deserves an extra post; its Vacation Bible School! While some pastors and educators dread this crazy week, and I've been known to celebrate it's completion, I really enjoy the kids in this different and personal setting. For the last few years, our congregation has employed centers each with a different focus. My center has been story telling. Thanks to using Group and Cokesbury curriculum in past years, we have created a series of props, wall hangings and costumes to really create the Bible story. Taking off on the creativity of these publishers, this year we have written our own scripts for the Augsburg Rainforest curriculum. Each story has a personal angle and every day we spend hours building a new set. For instance, Monday was the story of Ruth and Boaz, we had a simple field scene and the opportunity for the kids to accompany Ruth while she gleaned from the field. Today Elisha's servant encountered the kids outside Elisha's house at a well. (Real water of course, and real sand to walk thru on the way to the well.) The servant shared Elisha's story and the real fear that the 100 people making noise (sound effects cd helps) in the house, were going to riot when they discovered 20 loaves weren't enough. After checking on the party, I, I mean Elisha's servant, came out and told the kids with great surprise that the bread fed everyone and there was even enough left over for them and gave them a loaf to tear apart. A fun day.

My favorite part is the look on the kids faces when they come into the room. Our backdrops, painted scenes, colored lighting, and key realistic props make each day an adventure. The look of total wonder and surprise when they walk into the story, is worth all the hours of set-up. They remember these stories because they have lived them. They have eaten bread with prophets, caught fish (real fish of course) with disciples, crawled thru the caves outside Rome with persecuted Christians, and been caught praying in Daniel's apartment. They have even crawled into the empty tomb and found the folded linen cloths before meeting Jesus in the garden. How could the effort be any more worthwhile? It is a privilege and a delight to be part of VBS storytelling.

Tomorrow we enter an elaborate garden (real plants lined a path surrounded with soil) and see what grew from the mustard seeds the gardener dropped last year. Then as the kids sit up in the tree house, they'll hear the words of Jesus about mustard seeds. I wish everyone had the opportunity to sit on the floor in sand with children and tell stories or come join us on Thursday and you can stomp grapes with the kids while we tell the story of Jesus, the true vine!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Yokes We Choose


I had a unexpected stay at the hospital this week following a Sunday that felt like someone had kicked me in the gut and then hung around to squeeze my stomach with endless rhythm. The doctors, nurses and technicians cared for me with great care. They dispensed relaxing pain medicine while they looked for gall stones, kidney stones and anything else that seemed amiss on my insides. The doctor decided to treat me for stomach acid and a possible infection. Thanks to all that good care and a restful private room with a view out towards the Virginia Piedmont, I returned home feeling much better. So today I went to the office to get some things done. Within a couple hours the mysterious ghost had a grip on my stomach again and was starting to squeeze. There was nothing major going on, no crisis, just a simple writing assignment, some phone calls and organizing, a drop-by visit, some calls on my cell, a couple family questions to deal with or pass on, a call from the doctor to clarify my prescription and a few well wishers who had heard of my illness. Nothing particularly stressful; just the normal routine.

It is interesting the yokes we strap on. Others may see the extent of the weight but from the vantage point of underneath the load, I guess we just can't see it. Or maybe it's that we take a certain pride in carrying so much. Like at the gym; "I can press . . ." After all, 'no pain, no gain' right? Maybe that's why I read Jesus' words in Matthew 11:30 with two different ears of understanding. On one hand, the light burden sounds good, just like that quiet hospital room with the lovely view that removed me from the deadlines and calendar on my desk. On the other hand, I'm not sure I'm ready to let go. I mean the word for light in v. 30 can also mean insignificant or limited in extent. I don't want to be insignificant and I don't want to be forgotten while I rest away at the hospital. Ministry is too important for me to take it that lightly.

Just maybe I need a third ear to listen to Jesus; one that is willing to admit that it is not my ministry, but his and the work really can go on without me. Yet maybe, in all that insignificance I can also hear his care reaching out for me with hands like the E.R. nurse, saying, "Let me help your pain." "Let's get you settled and comfortable while we look at your problems." Maybe I can find a way to hear those words that remind me that I am significant in Christ's eyes, not for what I do, but just for who I am.

Maybe its time for the yoke to go. And seriously, won't I look much better without it?

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Binding of Issac

I have been "listening" in on lectionary discussions this week regarding the Genesis passage chapter 22:1-19; the "binding of Issac". As preachers we tend to avoid this text. As teachers, we never want to teach it to children. (and surely never show them the pictures!) Perhaps this text doesn't stand alone in scripture as much as we think. Last week's gospel pericope included the following:
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 37-39)
It is hard not to be grasped by the child binding (to use the Jewish phrasing) and to not be horrified by a father willing to kill his child. We are so accustomed to reading horror like this in the newspaper that we forget we are to read scripture in a different manner and mindset than the daily news. If we set aside the graphic details and look deeper, we see that Abraham is promising with his actions that nothing will get between him and his God. Abraham is living Jesus' words which come so many generations later. Abraham is about to give up, to lose his very life because in that day, one's life is only continued thru offspring. Abraham is willing to end even his link to 'eternal' life thru this son (given by God) because he trusts in the promise of the hesed God, the Steadfast One.

The details are not the focus of this story. We recognize it's parallel to Jesus' carrying the cross, as Issac carries the wood. We hear the appropriate response of Abraham, "Here I am." We should also note that Issac disappears and is not even mentioned coming down the mountain. Issac is a very 2-dimensional character at best in the Genesis story. He gets us from one generation to another, often thru fumbling efforts. To focus on Issac and what he is feeling or thinking is to miss the point entirely.

We admit that none of us have the level of trust Abraham shows. That none of us could raise the knife. Thank God, we are not asked to. This story shows the ultimate level of commitment a human can have. This story shows how one man, so committed to God's promise, could begin a salvation history in humanity that continues to this day. A salvation history, in which we participate. If we make a commitment, in any small beginning way, and trust in Abraham's God, the One who delivers.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Carpenter's Apprentice

Matthew 10:24-25 "A disciple is not above the teacher nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher and the slave like the master."
Mr. Ryan knew how to keep a kid out of trouble so when I kept hanging around the barn he was renovating into a church, he gave me a job to do. I was 10, maybe less, and my dad had been called as the congregation's first pastor. They bought a small farm making the farm house our parsonage and the barn would soon to be a sanctuary and classrooms. I was out of school for the summer and nothing was a tempting as the nearby work site. Instead of telling me to stay clear and be safe, Mr. Ryan set me to pulling nails out of a supply of used firring strips. He gave me a hammer and showed me how to use the claw end and how to wedge my foot as a brace without putting a nail into it. Then he left me to my work. I was the apprentice for the summer.

Discipling youth should be a similar task for us a teachers and preachers. Yet we are more often found instructing and questioning; asking if our words are understood and requiring repetition of key phrases and important scripture concepts. When I think back to Mr. Ryan, I realize that he didn't ask me how I was going to pull out those nails, nor did I reply to his instructions with details such as, "I'm going to take the claw and put the tines on either side of the nail. Then I'm going to pull with appropriate force until the nail is freed from the wood. . ." No, I simply put my hammer in the right spot and pulled. If the nail didn't come out, I pulled harder. Mr. Ryan showed me how to use the hammer head as a lever and once he saw that I could get a nail out - with some effort - he left me alone to work. He was never far away and called me over from time to time to snap a chalk line (the highlight of my day) or see something new he was doing. But he didn't hover over me, or inundate me with questions. I had been shown the way, it was my turn to do it.

We hear a lot about what Christian education programs should and shouldn't do. We certainly try a variety of plans and programs. Yet there is no substitute for a master's teaching and there is no better way to learn than to be an apprentice. One willing and open learner with one patient and loving teacher. Soon there is one more accomplished disciple in the world ready to take on another apprentice. Such a simple equation; 1 + 1 = 1 more.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Twelve

The twelve inspire me on days like today because they often seem clueless. While that seems to occur most often in Mark's gospel, even here in Matthew the Twelve are sent, but never seem to go anywhere. Perhaps that's the best I can say today, called but stationary. I'm blaming it on my ankle for the immediate future which is stiff and sore and slowly recovering from an injury. That's what I get for playing games in the dark with youth at a lock-in. If I look closely at my work for the week, I wonder how much of it qualifies with Matt. 10:7-8's list? Here's one writer's take on it.

Matthew 10:8
[8] “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give.

“A Disciple’s Task List”
Is your calendar a little full this morning? Have you checked it to see if it meshes with God’s agenda for your day? In between, writing letters, making phone calls and stopping at the store—did you also put in; “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons?” Source: Jerry Goebel: 2007 © http://onefamilyoutreach.com.

Perhaps I should review my job description and my life with this list in mind. It puts life in perspective, doesn't it? Proclaim the good news comes first, not teaching, nor programing, but proclaiming. I wonder where flashlight tag fits in?



Thursday, June 5, 2008

Who me?


Pastors get surprised by biblical texts too. I've stared at Caravaggio's "The Calling of St. Matthew" so often that I'd forgotten how short the scripture citation is.
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him. Matthew 9:9

Ever since I first saw 'The Calling' I've imagined the internal struggle of Matthew; "Who me?" he seems to say with one hand on the coins and the other pointing at self. In this very moment he considers the call. It had to be that understanding of the individual moment of call that so interested the five women clergy standing in front of the picture in Rome. It has to be why that picture continues to fascinate me, a year later.

Clergy like to speak of calling; the calling of vocation, the call to ministry, and the call to follow Christ. In fact, everyone responds to a calling, of some sort, others just don't use the term 'call' to describe it. God calls us to many things, but mostly into Divine Relationship. There is no higher calling and no other answer is as important. It matters much less what we do, as long as we are in relationship with God. It is that relationship which requires the decision to commit your very life. Today we think of being called to a vocation, Matthew was called away from one and into the relationship of true living.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Almighty? Noah vs Evan



Noah is quite a different person than Evan and it is a different world. We do longer live on a flat plain surrounded by waters above and below. We no longer live on a piece of dry land with water at all edges. We are 'enlightened' and have seen the earth from space and know it is a beautiful blue, white, green and brown ball spinning at 1,000 miles an hour at the equator. This ball travels around the sun at 66,600 miles an hour. I find it incredible that we even know this. How far we have come since the time of arks made of wood and pitch.

But this week I listened to NPR 's story about supervisors who covered up risky bank loans.
The story left such a 'bad taste in my mouth' that I thought, perhaps God should just cover the earth with water again and humanity should start anew. My next thought was, "We are doing that too, with global warming we may flood ourselves our of existent as the polar caps melt." Is destruction, whether human or divine, really what this week's lectionary texts are about?

The Psalm provides a different view.
"Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me. O LORD, faithful God." Psalm 33:5

Holly Hearon in Proclamation writes, "Despite depths of despair, the psalmist rejoices in the surety of God's presence." I cannot begin to imagine how to grab hold of such surety if my house was devastated by tornado, earthquake or flood. I do believe that with God, any attempt to trust is met with more than enough surety on God's part to make up for my own lack. I like to think that is why Jesus quoted this passage from the cross. Perhaps we have to get to the place where there is nothing else in which to trust, to let go and let God. I believe if we turn and trust, and "commit" that the One in whom we trust is faithful.

We must also try to look beyond ourselves and remember that God is concerned with all, make that ALL, creation. Kate Huey reminds us of this in the UCC lectionary reflection for the week.

While I am concerned about my family, house, and property, God is too, but the great Creator cares for far more than just me. Perhaps that perspective is as eye-opening than the view of earth from space. Yes, God is a faithful God, steadfast, hesed, and this means I'm included in a vast creation for which the Almighty cares. Answers to the 'why' of disaster? No, just trust in that to which I commit my ALL. (picture thanks to NASA)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Where Mom has gone before.


Number One daughter texted from train on way to Firenze this morning - well her morning, my middle of night. . . The "3forItaly" should be in that beautiful city and I just know that Florence will rival Rome for her passion. How strange for me to have been there before her; the art history guru. I've become accustomed to following the kids in discoveries. After all, many of the bands I like, I've heard about from Number One Son. The baroque artists were a gift from daughter. Isn't life interesting that we raise our kids, introducing them to our loves and passions like the outdoors, reading, etc. Then they grow up and begin to introduce us to their loves and passions.

Does the same truth apply to religious faith? We introduce children to our belief systems through Sunday School attendance. I wonder if we clearly convey our passion for the faith and our love of God. Is it just the American "hands off religion" that makes me feel it is so personal? Yet how I want them to experience the intimate relationship with the Divine that is open to everyone who seeks.

The lectionary texts have not been on my plate this week since I'm on vacation, but Acts; as in the Acts of the Apostles, has. It is a record of the journey of the early church as it passed on the faith to succeeding generations and passionately shared faith with friends and strangers alike. It is more than information on the practices of the early church and the travels of Paul. There is real insight into how to share faith and it comes from listening to the heart and spirit. So, I'm reading Acts and grabbing a hold of the holy wind as it blows because passion is more important than planning when it comes to sharing what we love.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sabbath Vacation


How many times have I seen articles written to clergy on taking sabbath? I read them, or I hear a sermon in a seminary setting, or I hear a reminder from a friend. Then I go back to work.

This weekend I saw friends that I haven't talked to in years. Catching up included the question, "How many hours a week do you work?" When I replied, their response was, "Oh" spoken very sadly. There was no badge of honor for my extra hours. There was no competitive bid countered to ante up to my schedule. Just sadness.

It was a mirror for me to see the madness of life lived too much for work. Even work that is wonderful and fulfilling and needed. My friend just expressed sorrow in her, "Oh" that I am living that pace. Even sadder is, I am not alone. So many colleagues live similar lives that I wonder what are we doing? Are we actually helping anyone? Is this the way ministry should be?

It's like every article I've read on sabbath; we are poor models for our congregants and poor stewards of our time. And I haven't touched the observation of the fourth commandment. . .

One year ago on a study trip, we (five clergy women) took sabbath. The trip was a sabbath of sorts, but we also took a day of pure sabbath rest. It was just as refreshing as we preach it should be. The memory comes back to me this week while I'm on vacation. I've already done some work of necessity. I hope to really take sabbath the rest of the week, not just doing nothing, but creatively resting; restoring my body and soul, and finding times of worship.

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." A worthy vacation goal - for me.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Trinity Sunday Final Exam


Trinity Sunday is here. Many lectionary preachers will take on the creation story. I'm going with Paul's "fifth" letter; 2 Corinthians 10-13, specifically 13:5 ff. Do I like contentious dialogue? No, not at all. But I find Paul's letters fascinating and full of insight for living.

We can find all kinds of list in Paul's letters; things to do, not do, avoid, etc. Here in 2 Corinthians, at a time when Paul is trying to reestablish good relations with their community, he also offers a few lists. There are "boast lists" in chapter 11 and into 12; a "weakness list" in 12:10; and a "wish and no wish list" in 12:20-21 all before the "farewell list" in v. 11-12. Yet when it comes to Paul's final exam, he reminds the Corinthian Christians of only one thing, "Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?" No multiple points needed here, no long list of test questions, just "is Christ in you, in me, in us?"

The Church of the Brethren is 300 years old this year. In 1708 five men and three women went in to the Eder River in Schwarzenau, Germany and were baptized. Our anniversary theme is, "surrendered to God, transformed in Christ, empowered by the Spirit." What better way to examine oneself to see if 'Christ is in me?' than to ask,
"Am I surrendered to God?"
"Am I transformed in Christ?"
"Am I empowered by the Spirit?"
It seems the ultimate trinitarian formula that details the spiritual life. Each line is a giving over of self in order to be filled with the Creator's presence as found in one of humanity's experiences of God. Paul's single question is the perfect examination. And if this is our test, it is a final exam with promise!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Holy Mother Spirit on Pentecost

The combination of Mother's Day and Pentecost intrigues me. I've never thought of the Holy Spirit as mother; giving birth to the church, yet is is so appropriate. The tongues of flame alight on each one birthing in us new life, energy and hope. That new life went forth from a room in Jerusalem to give birth to a full movement in the world. Each place the flame of new life touched, gave birth to a new congregation. Each congregation is a womb in which lives are touched by that same Holy Spirit, giving birth again and again to life, and so on. It comes to us, this Spirit, having birthed in us the desire to respond to Ultimate Love with a life of our own.

We are each mothers then, responsible for nurturing the life we've been given. Each congregation receives the spirit as did Mary at the annunciation. As a whole Christian people we respond, 'Let it be to us, according to your word.' When we do so, we can be used as mothers, to give birth, with God's very spirit, to new life in this world. Christians, congregations, loving acts of kindness, I guess they are our children.

Pentecost IS Mother's Day.

(Thanks to Quaker Pastor for 'birthing' the idea in me.)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Pentecost: What to do when the wind blows

What to do when the wind blows:

do we run like crazy against it, trying to escape?
maybe run with it, letting it push us along to our intended destination
does it blow us down, flattened and destroyed like homes in a tornado?
does the wind-blown howl scare us into covering our ears so we won't have to listen?
is there any chance we might greet the holy wind like a child; allowing it to carry us down the beach, down the street, across the lawn, into a neighbor's yard, 'anywhere the wind blows.'

Could I let go of my planned destination and let the spirit wind blow me where it will?
Can I?
Will I will God's will?
and let it blow?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Looking Into The Fog

http://www.picture-newsletter.com/index.htm
". . as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight." Acts 1:9

Nanette Sawyer's Theolog post got me thinking about clouds and fog as I read the Acts passage for this coming Sunday. When we speak of being in a cloud, it's a foggy reference where things are not clearly seen or we are confused, even lost. Yet the word ascend brings almost opposite images to mind of rising above the fog. Jesus rose into a cloud. Perhaps Sawyer's references to previous clouds of Holy Presence are most appropriate. We may also need to look more closely at our actions when we are in a fog.

Years ago I was a driver on a Girl Scout ski trip to WVA. We drove out route 50 and up into the mountains and hit a thick fog. We had too many girls in our caravan to stop and look for alternate accommodations so we pressed onward thru the fog. (Remember that bumper sticker?) Visibility got so bad that we had to get a girl in each vehicle to hang out the passenger window and tell us where the road-side line was so we wouldn't drive off the side of the mountain! "Line, line, no line, go left, line, line. . ." It was a long and slow drive where every silence resulted in braking to a stop, for I couldn't continue to drive if I didn't know if I was on the road. My focus was right in front of me, all the way up and over the mountain.

Perhaps the gift of Christ's ascension is one of perspective. For just a moment we look up, following him into the cloud, hearing words of commission and apostolic sending. For that moment we get the big picture of divine grace that is meant for all the world, to the ends of the earth. While our eyes are uplifted we are promised the power of the Holy Spirit that will come to our aid and carry us through every trial. Then we are brought back down to earth by the men in white who remind us that our calling is here, back down in the fog. So we return to what is right in front of us; the daily grind, but we remember the higher calling and hold a vision of Christ's perspective.

The actions that occur right in front of us make a difference, even when our vision is limited by the fog of daily life. There is a greater perspective from more lofty heights and in moments of ascension we too see that vision.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Climbing the hill to the Acropolis




"Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, Athenians, . . . " So we, five clergy women on a SPE trip, began the walk up the hill from our hotel in Athens, one year ago this week. I never made it to the Acropolis. My desire to see Athens and it's people was stronger than my wish to stand where Paul stood. Maybe I was following Paul in my own way.
"For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.'" (Acts 17:23)
As I went up the hill I found the Church of the Transformation.
It drew me in because I knew the word, metamorphosis. And it drew me in because we were studying how "Story, image, and place create an opening in us for transformation." The doors were locked, but there was a fascinating pillar outside with a picture of Mary(?) holding the Greek evil eye; or so it appears.
Take a look:
It was faded and weather-stained, but there was a bench right by it so I sat and contemplated the meaning. Perhaps you will shed light on what you think you see as the eye looks back at you.

I let the group go on without me and I began to explore this hill of Ares. It is interesting what you find when your eyes are open to seeing. Perhaps that was Paul's gift, to see budding faith, right in front of him. The Athenians were seekers and open-minded at that. In order to speak their language he paraphrases their poet, Epimenides (6th century) with a quote we still hang on today. "In him we live and move and have our being."

My seeking took me around a corner and into a Greek Orthodox church where a special service of healing was about to begin. I took a seat in the small sanctuary and listened to the lectors chant back and forth across the front of the church. It was an eye-opening experience. My limited Koine Greek left me clueless for most of the service. But I didn't need the language to understand the act of worship and I could join in praying and standing in reverence as the gospel was read. The fascinating part was the continual stream of people coming through the sanctuary, right during the service, to venerate before the icons. Each one set down a briefcase or shopping bags, to pray, kiss the icon, cross themselves, then leave. It was an act of worship as part of everyday life. Like Paul's observation, they groped for God and found God and no worship service, or clergy could get in the way. These people were living and moving and having their being in God.

This church on the hill of Ares was a place of transformation for me as I sensed the unity among all people who worship God. It is a picture that my mind won't soon forget. And it is all about a story, of One who changed lives. Metamorphosis.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Soft as a Rock



It is a week to be glad I'm not preaching, too much to do! Still I spend time with the texts and while the John 14 text has many interesting dimensions, the 1 Peter 2: 2-10 (or 1-10) brings an image to my mind. A year ago I stumbled off a plane in Milan about this time, with four other women pastors at the start of a two-week-Lily Funded trip to Italy and Greece. In Milan there was INCREDIBLE coffee (true thru-out all Italy), in Florence we met an angel at the train station, and in Rome we saw "Living Stones".

Cold hard white stone stood in every corner of the Borghese Galleria. The stone looks so cold from a distance one can imagine all the warmth being drawn away from the body if one were to lay on a slab. Yet the sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, crafts the heat of violent action into his work. Proserpina struggles desperately to get away, pushing hard again Pluto's face and creasing it. Pluto reacts with a stronger grip on his prize; digging his fingers into the flesh of her thigh. Muscles ripple in his body as he holds fast and tears stream down her face. The wind blows Proserpina's hair away from the body held tight in Pluto's grasp. All the while the three-headed dog, guardian of Hades, barks loudly underfoot. I stood before it breathless looking at LIVING STONE!

The myth of 'Pluto and Proserpina' is a welcome spring-time reminder that life is a mixed blessing. The earth mother welcomes her daughter Proserpina's return for half the year with blooms and flowers. And yet she is returning from being abducted by Pluto, god of the underworld. A reminder that death and life are part of the same cycle. The gift of Bernini's work is the same promise of 1 Peter; stones can live! Death is not final - at the end of human existence NOR during it. No darkness or earthly defeat can keep us from the life-giving God who is present in Jesus the Christ. We are "God's own people" called to "proclaim the mighty acts of the one who calls us out of darkness into divine and marvelous light." (v.9)

God calls, God breathes, stones live, and so do we.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Post Sermon Debriefing

With my colleague on vacation, I'm left without a debriefing partner so bloggin is' it.' The canoe story from summer camp worked as an example of community as seen in the Acts 2 text. It was easy to make comparison (altho rather light) with being taught to canoe; "devoted to teaching", breaking bread e.g. lunch on the river, and sharing all things in common. The most comments came from canoe folks and summer campers. I suspect it was just a nice story for others. Hopefully they (someone?) heard the challenge to build community by meeting the needs of the people who come to us. "God IS adding to our number; opportunities."

Anyone who has been to camp knows there is no better example of Christian community than that which forms in a week's time at camp. My stories of caring behavior and remarkable changes are numerous so I try to use them sparingly as to not overload.

As for the sermon, if I just think about the nice comments, I'm ok. But if I remember that my litmus test person didn't even go out my door... well, then I'm more discouraged. Oh well, for what it's worth, I felt good about it and there were enough thoughtful comments to help my post sermon blues.

AND the children's story worked; even if it was put in to fill space then left in even after the extra music was added. BTW, the special music, "The Lord's Prayer" sung by Mandy and Sean North, was incredibly moving. It was a little hard to come out of that special place of prayer.

So it is finished. Now all the stuff piling up on my desk can return to priority status. I've been treading water on much of my work and its time to catch up. Visits are up to date and assistance calls have been very time consuming. We shall see what this week brings.

Rambling for my own sake today...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Holy Math

I've been thinking about the early church as I prepare for the sermon. My narrow focus is "And day by day God added to their number those who were being saved." (Acts 2:47) It seems natural to contrast that sentence with the North American protestant church which is dwindling in numbers. But as I contemplated an Invitation to Give for the offering time, I thought instead about the number of opportunities God gives us.
People come first as opportunities and they are not just pleasant visitors walking thru the church doors because they've seen our ad in the newspaper. More often the "opportunity" is someone in need of help. When I think of "those being added to our number" lately, they are people in need of financial assistance, someone in need of compassion, one who needs to tell a difficult story to a listening ear, someone who needs to be believed, someone who needs to be recognized instead of dismissed, one looking for other people of faith who do not demand uniformity of belief, one following their child's request to come and learn with other children, someone looking for community after losing their spouse of 40 years, and others, each with a special need and unique story. "Opportunities" that take work and care and people to share the love and compassion of Christ.
I used to wonder how it would feel to sit back and enjoy God's addition. It appears that God adding to our numbers is going to take a lot of work. Praise God for Holy Math.