Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Holiday soon?

True confessions...

I am not feeling the gratitude or the holiday cheer.

With finances looking funky, a new seep in the basement during yet another Nor'easter, kids haggling over who will sleep on the couch and why, an unset coconut cream pie and awareness that food does not bring joy, my head is spinning with a bit of sadness.

I am not sharing all of this at the front end of a post that will look rosy and bright at the other end. I am sharing because confession is good for the soul and I need accountability partners through this season.

The holidays have a history for me of bringing out my material worst. It's not that I am a big gift-giver...I feel woefully inadequate at that. I am guilty of feeling trapped by the expectations of society--I feel like my efforts to give or entertain will be judged inadequate, and I desperately want to please. On the other side, I an cranky and critical about other's efforts. I try not to be constantly sizing up the other. I try not to see the downside...I try. 

So I am headed into advent with trepidation. I feel like light won't show up unless I really work on my heart. I am due for an abrupt of those where my heart of stone is replaced by a heart of flesh...or like the Grinch's heart growing three sizes that day.

Please? My prayer is for softening. For unclenching. For unconditional love. Please?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In our United Methodist wilderness, a voice might be crying out...

3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lordshall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (from Isaiah 40)

It slammed into me as I pulled dinner components out of the freezer today.

Part of the reason every fiber of my being is saddened by the persecution of homosexuality and non-conforming gender in the United Methodist Church is because it violates a truth taught to me by my childhood pastor. God’s grace is for everyone. Our job is to love, not judge. God loves us (and forgives our sins) SO THAT we can be light for others.

When I was 15, my father was diagnosed with cancer.  It was 1985.  I was a sophomore in high school. Initial pathology reports were very, very grim.  Cancer was such an enigma -- in the current science of 1985 and in my little corner of the world.  In the days that unfolded from initial results, my parents pursued second opinions. There were teary conversations and brutal, brutal chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  There were flaring tempers driven by fear and pain and nausea and discomfort.

One day, in the midst of it all, I found myself in Rev. Berg’s office.  Rev. Berg baptized me and confirmed me.  He taught me how to cook food over a campfire in ways the Girl Scouts never did.  He made corny jokes.  He loved those little picture riddles that illustrated a common word or phrase (imagine the word sand drawn inside a box – sandbox).  He was an adventuresome driver (politely put), and he loved taking the youth into Chicago.

Anyway, you get the picture.  I sat on his couch, which in my memory was enormous.  I am pretty sure he sat across from me, possibly with his short arms crossed over his ample belly.  What did I want to talk about?

I wanted to know what was going to happen to my dad when he died.  You know…was he going to heaven or to hell?  You see, my dad was a good person, but even without really knowing what his sin had been, I knew even at 15 that he had some pretty heavy sin in his life somewhere.  I grew up in a predominantly Catholic community.  I had spent more time at age 15 talking about venial and mortal sin than I had about prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace. I wasn’t quite sure of the nature of my father’s sin…but I felt heavy about it.  Respecting my confirmation, probably with some confidence in his own work of teaching, Rev. Berg didn’t just answer my question.  He asked what I thought the answer was. 

I told him that I didn’t believe a loving God would torment sinners for eternity.  I told him that I believed no sin was too big for God to forgive.  I told him I believed that my Dad was loved by God.  And he agreed.

In the United Methodist Church, we are grappling with a very complicated set of circumstances around homosexuality, gender identity and gay marriage.  This is all wrapped up in clergy roles and rules and the global church and power and authority and voting rights and money. Yes…it’s wrapped up in institutional sludge that is old and interwoven and intercultural and complicated.  We have a rulebook that explicitly singles out homosexuality as a sin.  We have a rulebook that outlines a process for what happens when a member of the clergy breaks rules in the book.  We have a trial system with prosecutors and defendants.  We have juries and penalty phases.

And we claim to have a God who loves us and forgives us even before we know we need that forgiveness. 

Something is not right.

At the heart for me is a question very similar to that I asked my childhood pastor.  Essentially it is a question about God’s love and judgment. 

I have engaged in plenty of “dialogues” with people very familiar with the rulebook and seemingly familiar with the bible that point to words on a page and say… If you can’t live with it, you should go somewhere else.

It’s not quite that easy. You see God keeps landing me BACK in the United Methodist Church.  I was born into a Methodist family, the grand-daughter of a Methodist Elder who was the nephew of a “shouting Methodist” street preacher from Chicago at the time of the Great Awakening.  My father didn’t go to church, but I was delivered to church regularly for Sunday School, youth choir, MYF and summer camp.  I left the church through college and my early young adult years, but was called back post 9/11.  And when I returned, I fell into a United Methodist congregation with a sweet older pastor on the brink of retirement.  He called me to come work for the church, recommended seminary classes and offered to pay for some.  Through a nasty divorce, I was hired by a United Methodist seminary and I’ve now been there 7 ½ years and completed my MDiv.  I left the candidacy process but returned despite all odds.  Even during some rough years as I put my life back in order post-divorce, the multi-denominational church that embraced me used the familiar red hymnal.  Believe me when I say, God keeps putting me BACK in the United Methodist Church…because the Book of Discipline sure isn’t responsible.

I am at a point in my life and in my calling where I keep saying to God, that if it is God’s will, make a way clear.  And the way continues to be in the church of my childhood, the church of my heritage.  My care and concern for the institution is beyond rationality.  It’s God.  It’s God troubling the waters…and to what end I am still not sure.

This much I know.  I grew up and was shaped as a disciple in the United Methodist tradition.  And I still think that we should allow our gay brothers and sisters to marry within the church.  I still believe we should be able to fully include our gay brothers and sisters in the life of the church community.  I believe clergy in loving relationships, whether gay or straight, are entitled to be ordained and to work in our churches. 

The world is changing.  We know more about biology, psychology and frankly, theology.  United Methodists are swimming in waters first tested by a reformer named John Wesley who knew that our life experience informed our theology individually and collectively, who understood that tradition needed to be tempered by lived experience.  In the Book of Discipline reads “While highly theoretical constructions of Christian thought make important contributions to theological understanding, we finally measure the truth of such statements in relation to their practical significance.  Our interest is to incorporate the promises and demands of the gospel into our daily lives.”  Further, “Since all truth is from God, efforts to discern the connections between revelation and reason, faith and science, grace and nature are useful endeavors in developing credible and communicable doctrine.”

The promise of the gospel is that we are, each of us, beloved children of a forgiving and merciful God.  God’s demand is that we love God and one another and live our lives in ways that express that love.

So I keep praying.  And I keep living. And God keeps troubling the water, pointing to injustice and suffering and pain.  And as a church, we are currently contributing to that injustice and suffering and pain. 

A practical reality: The United Methodist Church is aging at an alarming rate.  And young people today have been raised in the bosom of diversity recognizing the gifts of everyone around them regardless of faith, race, gender, sexual preference, intellectual ability, economic background.  The voices of the next generation of leaders are becoming louder and stronger.  They are not unanimous, but the growing majority seek justice for their gay and gender non-conforming colleagues, peers, friends, family members.

Lately the hip-hop artist Macklemore has wormed his way into my ear.  One of my favorite running tunes is “Can’t Hold Us.”  There is a fabulous refrain that goes like this:
Can we go back, this is the moment
Tonight is the night, we’ll fight ‘til it’s over
So we put up our hands like the ceiling can’t hold us
Like the ceiling can’t hold us

It’s a mantra that has stolen its way into my psyche.  This is where we are.  The ceiling can’t hold us.  A new generation gets grace in a way we older folk may never get it.  Praise God.

The same artist has this winner too:
“When I was at church they taught me something else…if you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed.”

And while it was slamming into me as I pulled the components for dinner from the freezer, I was overcome, too, by the prophecy of Isaiah 40.  We may be in the season of our own John the Baptist, preaching a message we cannot fathom because it doesn’t fit the rule books.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

When worship is...

Today, I was with my KC family as they observed All Saint's Day a week late. As a church that lives in the lectionary cycle, they kept the appropriate readings for this date, just used them as the leaping off place to honor those who have left this earthly life. I appreciated the worship experience on a number of levels - it was meaningful ritual, it was the right observation in the rhythm of the year, it was authentic. 

As I let hymns and prayers and responses and candlelight wash over me, I pondered why this feels right to me.

And I recognized this: I am a creature with rhythms. I sleep and wake in rhythm. I eat, exercise, work, recreate in rhythm. The seasons change around me in an observable pattern. And from a faith perspective, my relationship with God is rooted in a story that has a rhythm, seasons, holy days, rites for times of life and times of year and days of week and times of day.

And I am grateful for that rhythm. 

Here in the time of year when the days shorten and the air grows cold, I know that I will recognize the power of life over death, the reign of Christ over the reign of any human-alone, the power of watching and waiting and recounting the story of a prophecy and a young girl and a frightened fiancé, of a baby born who would and continues to change the world with love and a vision of how it can all be different.

And maybe rhythms don't matter to everyone, but they do to me. Today at KC, Carol played familiar hymns on the piano and I knew where the highs and lows would be, I knew the words, in some cases I knew the harmony and the descant, and all of that was comfortable and comforting and allowed me to be fully present with God and those that surrounded me. The preaching was prophetic and scriptural lay rooted and sound. 

I think we learn from and are shaped by rhythms and patterns, and that good formation is rooted in patterns that we can rely upon while we move out from a comfortable center to explore our growing edge. I pray for the centeredness and vision to help others find and celebrate rhythm and form in a life-giving, meaningful way.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Expecting God

This weekend I worshipped at Hughes Memorial UMC, which if I have my geography straight, is barely in Northeast and barely in DC, nearly in PG county. I don't know the history of the community -- today it is an African American congregation.

I was stepping out of my comfort zone attending. My congregation is far from "diverse," but it is multi-ethnic. At the seminary, I have been in community with lots of different ethnicities, denominations and traditions. That I was a stranger was not what was intimidating. More intimidating was the knowledge that I would be "other." The anxiety of being a visitor for me was amplified by the knowledge that I would be obviously different...obviously out of place...

But wow...what a worship experience it was.  These people showed up expecting to meet God in worship. They showed up expecting to move God with their prayers and praises and petitions. These people knew there was heavy lifting to do and they knew that THEY ALL would be doing it. This was the people's church and the people's worship, where many hands made "light" work (by light I only mean diffuse...there was no simplicity or lack of real effort...whether making announcements, reading liturgy, praying, singing, being summoned to stand with others during the altar was all intense and real and powerful).

There is a classic Annie Dillard outtake that goes like this:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

At Hughes, I am pretty sure there were life preservers and signal flares under the pews. 

It was an experience that made me long for worship that invokes the true presence of God and evokes our genuine response in relationship to the divine. Maybe it's a midlife thing for me...On my yoga retreat in September, I became aware of the powerful embodied presence of God in yoga as prayer. And sitting in the pews at Hughes, I was once again aware of the tangible desire for God and the faithful influence that draws God near. Prayers in this place were heard and answered. It wasn't the pastor telling you that (I will point out that the pastor, Rev. Constance Smith, did not speak until about 70 minutes into the service [yes, 70 minutes in...and no one was checking their watch but me]). It was knowable in the deep reverence, in the praise, in the unvarnished petition, in the ways that brothers and sisters in Christ stood with one another during the altar call. 

I know not everyone wants to lift their hands in praise or shout amen. But I hope that when we show up in worship, we really do expect God to show up. That is our work as beloved children of God. The responsibility of both expectation and response rests with the gathered. God's waiting for US to show up.  Not the pastor. Not the organist. Not the choir or band. Us. All of us. With expectations and willingness to do the hard work.

How does this happen? I don't know the history or the operation at Hughes. But I am pretty sure that it happens because people have expectations, and they expect to participate and feedback, name their needs and dive in to helping one another. They clamor to share their news during announcements, to share the Word during the scripture lesson, they expect their brothers and sisters to share in their petitions, they are truly giving a portion of what God has given.

Is this a big church? No. A rich church? No. Do they pay 100% of their apportionments? I don't care. Is it a vital church? By my count, yes. An alive church? Yup. A church struggling to keep the next generation? I would guess yes. But I witnessed young people request and receive powerful prayer. They know there is living water in this place. Living. Key word

I pray that when we show up in worship, we can feel our role in that place. I pray that we feel the need to be present with one another in our joys and our concerns. I pray that we see the space and place and tone and theme as ours as community. I pray that we all know this church and these prayers and hymns and and litanies and even messages are our work. Our praise. Our hope. Our expectation. Our offering. We are the church. Worship is our work. We are fed and comforted and refreshed SO THAT we can go out and love the world with God's love.

Let it be so.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Living WORD: seeking welfare in the midst of exile

29:4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

29:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.

29:6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.

29:7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

This is one of my favorite passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is instruction to the Israelites in a season of exile. It does not encourage lament or mourning or wringing of hands. It does not encourage  rebellion or discontent.

No. Quite the opposite. It encourages living a full life (which in the context of the day, was potentially a peaceful rebellion I suppose). It encourages building communities, growing families, tending crops. And perhaps most importantly, it encourages seeking the welfare of the very place into which you have been exiled.

Recently, I have felt winds of exile. It touches me in a couple of different realms. With our government in deadlock, with our political system log-jammed, with strident critique from differing perspectives that seems to be focused on creating greater distance rather than finding common ground, I feel like my call to shed light in dark places is fruitless. What difference can I really make? There doesn't seem to be much room for listening or speaking truth.

Similarly, the church feels more and more at odds with the world. It feels at times like institutional preservation has overtaken the mission to make disciples by sharing the love of Christ in tangible ways. And I see it both in the church as a whole and in my local congregation. Cannibalizing our faithful because we can't agree on common ground seems to be the way of the world.  As a person who has spent the past eight years preparing to serve the church, I suddenly feel shut out by a rigid, distracted, quarrelsome environment.

And so the words of Jeremiah give me hope and direction and purpose. How can I encourage others, stay in dialogue with those with whom I disagree,that I hear them as multi-dimensional people who are similarly called to serve? What does it mean to build community in this time? To invite people to break bread, to listen to one another, to really seek understanding, to pray individually and communally for wisdom and vision and grace?

We are at a tipping point, both in the church and in American society. Change can feel uncomfortable, exclusive, exiling. I feel shut out sometimes. But here's the deal. I am here and was created and called for a purpose. And so were you. So in the midst of change, there is no hunkering down and hiding. It is time to gather community, to be fruitful, to love generously, and to seek the welfare of the time and place in which we find ourselves.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pursuing Faith and Gentleness

I was feeling untethered this morning.

Sundays have become like that. Worship is hard amidst the chaos of change and church politics. There is just a vibe that keeps me distracted.  Maybe it is an excuse.  

And so this morning, I felt a nagging need to do something else with God.  And in the midst of it all, I felt like I was wavering. Like I wasn't quite sure why some things matter. I was having a mini crisi of faith.  

I set out, about 25 times, to sit with scripture.  To be in the Word even as the community around me was entering worship. But I was anxious and distracted. Looking at he lectionary, I was stressed that I couldn't quite remember what cycle it was. (Year C. I know. It was a brain blip.). But it felt like I was lacking I was a half-beat off.

I turned my anxious thoughts elsewhere. I made a triple batch of laundry detergent (seriously -- pennies a load). I made a quiche. I tended to needs around the house --  laundry and sheet changing and shuttling girls where they needed to be and being present with crisis an emotion when it showed up. I ate froyo and colored in my mehndi coloring book.  I took a nap, addressed a card, went for a 4-mile run, ate dinner with my family and breathed.

And just now, getting back to this week's lectionary texts, I read hoping to find a glimmer of faith...a reminder of the power of being connected to God.

And in 1 Timothy, there was this:

6:6 Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment;

6:7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it;

6:8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.

6:9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

6:10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

6:11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

6:12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

Yes. Yes, please. Stop looking so desperately for the "right" way or the "best" way. Live. Fully and with a commitment to righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

Amen. That was my day...particularly the pursuit of faith and gentleness.

And this is my prayer for the week to come.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Life Lessons in Surprising Places

One of my father's pet peeves was the sound of shuffling feet. 

While I was growing up, vacations were about traveling with a pop up camper, enjoying the US by way of state and national parks. When we weren't driving, we were often hiking.

And it was when we were hiking that my dad was the most grumpy about my shuffling feet. 

"Stop dragging your feet!" he would bark at intervals on the trail. He never said much about why I should stop, other than to point out when I tripped in what I now understand as very normal per-adolescent clumsiness, that it was far safer to pick up my feet when I walk.

I carry this criticism with me in my cell memory. Sometimes living with my dad was difficult.

This weekend, on silent retreat, I was hyper-aware of the sound of people's feet as we shuffled through quiet woods to meditate, to mindfully take in beauty, to pray and be centered.  I was also aware of my ability to move through the woods nearly silently.

I wish I could say it was a skill instilled by my father. 

Not true.

Doug Jordan, infamous band director at Lake Central High School for many, many years, knew how to move a corps of 175 students out onto a field smoothly, silently.  We diligently learned to pace eight strides for every five yards on the field. To this day, I can march or walk off five yards with measured accuracy. Muscle memory is powerful.

Because you see, I didn't stick with marching band past that first semester of high school. I was bored. Or intimidated by other's talent. Or afraid of my own shadow. Or afraid of Doug Jordan, who like my dad showed loved and affection sometimes with criticism and volume.

But also like my dad, Doug Jordan had spent years admiring the pristine beauty of Canadian wilderness. When he taught us as squirrelly freshman the fine art of corps stepping out onto the field, he explained the purpose of rolling our feet, controlling our heel strike and rolling forward from the back of the foot, through the arch, through the ball, off the toes. Silently. I think he must have actually spoken of using this skill in the woods, of Native Americans silently padding through the woods long ago -- because that is lodged in my cell memory in a non-specific way.

At some point in my adult life this life skill came rushing back. I began to really pride myself on swift silence on the trail...even in big clunky boots.

And every time I take one of those silent walks, I remember the source of unexpected wisdom, and I am grateful.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Entering Silence

I don't do silence very well. Neither do I do strangers. So what am I doing at a silent yoga retreat this weekend? It sounded like a good idea at the time. I was on a yoga jag and I desperately needed retreat when the email showed up in my inbox like an answered prayer. Perhaps it was.

But time passed. I am on a running jag this month. I have spent the past five days in varying states of anxiety about strangers, close spaces, intimate poses, and crushing silence.

I arrived here about 2 pm. The earliest we were encouraged to arrive. I have taken this day off for self care, to find my way to this glorious mountain top and to ease my way into something settled. The instructions encouraged us to bring something to leave on the prayer table. Something that represented our intention.

Ok, so I have obsessed about that a fair amount too. My yoga practice is deep enough that I do set intentions, for my practice, for my day, for the way yoga will infuse my life beyond the mat. And so, here goes. My intention for this weekend is to open up. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. 

I slouch, my shoulders drawn toward my ears, my chest closing in on itself. At the end of a run, I feel myself slouching as I slog along. When I take shivasana, it is hard for my shoulders to rest flat against the ground. A friend noted that in tree pose, I need more distance between my ears and my shoulders.

It isn't just a physical carriage. I struggle to be open emotionally with others. I struggle to name my stuff, claim my needs, say how you make me feel. Sometimes I forget to breathe. 


And I feel like God is really calling me out of this exoskeletal rolly bug attitude...out of fetal position.

Called to love others, to walk with Jesus, requires turning myself inside out, sharing myself and letting others in. We talk at the seminary about turning the church inside out. I feel like a call to ministry requires a parallel action for individuals.

I wonder if Jesus felt the same emotional and bodily resistance to others. Before you scoff, think of how often scripture describes Jesus taking himself out of the fray to be with his Father, to pray, to rest and to be silent.  And he generally emerged from these retreats to do something significant. 

For some time, the lotus blossom has been iconic for me. Lotus blossoms open briefly in the sun, full of radiance and beauty. There is my open like a lotus blossom, to know that opening does not last forever, to recognize the cycle of bloom and to seek awareness of that moment of full openness. To recognize how deeply and profoundly oxygen pervades the cracks and crevices of my whole being, energizing the extremities for fruitfulness and shared beauty. And to know that the closed up moments are also part of the process...but rather than seeking the closed moments, to reach more eagerly for the open ones.

And in that open moment to be fully present to the world, a source of love and light and nourishment and beauty.

So here goes. First gentle yoga session in 45 minutes. Three part breathing. Chest and hip openers. My body unfolding and bringing my heart and mind and soul along the way, muscle memory forming and returning.



I guess I have never loved my body much. Taking that from a societal place, I have never felt like I had the body the market driven economy celebrates (yes, we could go on about the validity of that celebration....but this really is not so much about that).  One of the joys I take from running is sort of a body joy, a hey-lookie-what-this-body-can-do kind of pride.  And I recognize that ability as God-given. I am grateful.

Similarly, I spent a lot of years sort of non-plussed by my body as something to share in intimacy. My own insecurities about my physical self, paired with a lot of lifetime messages rooted in Puritanism, seasoned with some relationship woes make for something of a lackluster sex life. Frankly that didn't enhance my understanding that this body is beautiful, unique, wonderful, created for purpose.

This weekend has reminded me of the joy and opportunity of being embodied. Today, we set yoga to a piece of praise music (please take that descriptor as it is meant - a piece of music focused on praising God. Period. The end. No genre cliche implied). I found myself crying. I have never felt the freedom or the call, come to think of it, to embody praise. And doesn't that possibility turn worship on its ear in the average mainline Protestant church! 

Now I "know" this on some level. I "know" that worship well-planned engages people's hearts, minds AND bodies. 

And I know that the ability for an entire congregation to embrace any single physical form of worship is limited, possibly impossible.  

But I was transformed. I suddenly "got" liturgical dance. I understood in a whole new way how my body was an expression...of love, of joy, of power. And sometimes of grief, anger, or fear. And I think I have spent far to much time inside a body trying to hide or better at expressing fear and pain than one expressing joy and thanksgiving.

So bring it on. This body is made in love, for love, for the good of the Kingdom.

Thanks be to God.

The people who shape our lives

I feel like I have been in the presence of Charlie and Nan this weekend.

For those of you that know Charlie and Nan, that will come as no surprise.  I am pretty sure Nan, in particular, can make her presence felt whenever she desires.  For those not in the know, Charlie and Nan are deceased...not breathing on this earth. 

But Nan was pretty confident that this would not keep her from being present with people. 

I am at Rolling Ridge, a retreat center co-op thingy in which a number of churches and organizations are involved. Like Kittamaqundi Community Church and Sojourners.  Nan and Charlie loved retreats, and I am embarrassed to admit that I am not even sure Nan ever mentioned being here to me (I think she did...). But Charlie talked about it. 

Anyway. Nan was with me on the deck this morning. And Charlie was with me by the waterfall. Seriously.

All that being with them has me thinking about the people who make us what we are. In every life, there are a few game changers...people who alter our path for the rest of time. They are with us at forks in life's road. Elbert was the person who was with me as I moved from Southern Indiana to DC. Charlie and Nan scooped me up like a wounded animal and nursed me back to health and wellness. I wouldn't be here at Rolling Ridge, I probably wouldn't have finished seminary...I am not sure I would be married without their appearance in my life.

Charlie and Nan were the hands and feet of Christ to me. So was Elbert.  These kinds of life-changers meet us in a ditch on the side of the road, or miraculously restore our sight, or tell us baffling parables to decipher.  And I have made it this far with their abiding, unconditional love. They are the cloud of witnesses...saints in the flesh.

I hope I can be that life-giving presence for stand beside them at the fork in the help them determine the way or just to be with them in their journey.

It's who we are called to be.

Charlie and Nan would want it that way.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Year without Self-care

About this time last year, I started a bit of a tail-spin. My oldest left for college and I had decided that this was the year I would finish my degree. And re-engage in the candidacy process for ordination. And take a part time job as the assistant pastor of my local church. And of course be a wife, mother and full-time development professional. At the same time, I was bearing a lot of grief - still mourning the loss of my father, watching my darling boy go away to school, grappling with the grief of divorce, rebuilding, joint custody, being far away from my mom and my siblings, watching friends move on to other things.

In retrospect, I am not sure what I was thinking. It started with desperately wanting and needing to be finished with my graduate studies. Eight years is quite enough, thank you. Somewhere something else took over. Maybe a desperate need to prove something to the world. But I think the greatest sin was pride... You know, "I can do this." Maybe it was a belief that if I piled enough on, I wouldn't feel any pain.

I remember thinking at one point that I was going to have to let go of my own needs and just put my head down and muscle through. In my head that was a practical response - there is no time to exercise, no time to plan for nutritious, healthy meals, no time to read for pleasure, no time for vacation, no time to indulge my love for good food prepared from scratch with love. It wasn't so much a choice as a necessity as I plowed ahead.

I know now how untrue that is. I did have a choice. It was a choice I was unwilling to make. It was a choice to protect myself, my health, my body, my heart, my very soul that I set aside for other things. I've made bad choices like that before. I guess I am grateful for the ability to see that choice, to see it's impact. And to correct my path and move ahead.

I am grateful that my MDiv is complete. I am grateful for the hands on experience in the local church that now undergirds my understanding of my call to ordination AND to the work of seminary education. I am grateful that I had opportunities to preach and to teach, to lead and to counsel. I am grateful for God's presence and protection along the way.

And I am grateful to have reassessed. I am grateful that running 3 miles is once again a great joy. (Someone call me on that after I try to do 5 miles an hour tomorrow morning.)  I am grateful that on any given day, I have four books in process...books that I have chosen (they might still be theological in nature, but I chose them). I am grateful that I have rediscovered the Joy of Cooking - the act and the book.  In the midst of it all, I have found by core, my breath, my spirit.

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Living WORD: Knock and the door will be opened

I love when the lectionary dwells in the likes of Hosea and Amos...such angst and teeth gnashing and condemnation.

And the risk is that we read through the readings assuming that the Gospel is corrective commentary on the Hebrew scripture. Not so. Really.

This week I am sitting with the well-known verses from Luke - everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Perhaps because this was the theme verse for the last VBS I ran, I tend to see this verse in a simplistic way that edges on prosperity gospel - the better you are, the more you will get.

But this week I am holding Jesus in tension with a couple of weeks of the prophets. It sure can feel like God is absent amidst the chaos that is our lives, the economy, the domestic agenda, raising teenagers, driving in rush hour, pondering the justice system...  Oh, yes, you probably get the point.  

But Jesus is reminding his followers in Luke's gospel to keep showing up even when it seems to be getting no response. And I feel like this is less about asking and more about being present, seeking to be in relationship with the living God.

As July ends, I am winding down a period of intentional discernment. No longer working for a church, I am seeking a clear understanding with God about what is next. This amidst some tumultuous family times has made for a deeply unsettling season.  I have been stewing.

Yesterday, I tuned into NPR for my drive to the seminary where I work. A local reporter did an in-depth piece about how babies get left in hot cars. The segment included a very poignant interview with a mother (who sounded amazingly average and responsible) who lost a child after forgetting to drop him off at daycare. The story was dramatic and included the sounds of the 9-1-1 call that was made when she realized 7.5 hours later what had happened.  

At about three points during the story, I thought to should turn his off. You do not need to listen to this. But I did not turn it off.  I felt heavier and heavier.  Like I was coated in the slick oil that drowns birds after an oil spill.

I have been reading Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Unbelievably Close. It is heavy, walking through generations of complication brought to a climax on 9/11. The main character references his depression as having "heavy boots."

Life is heavy and hard sometimes. I believe that the Israelites in exile knew that well...felt the weight of missteps, political upheaval, occupation, changes in the family structure. It must have felt like God was absent.

It does sometimes, doesn't it?

And life has proven time and again that even the most fervent prayers of request don't result in dreams fulfilled.

Our Father in Heaven, your name is Holy...
May your Kingdom break through on earth as in heaven.
Give us our daily bread and forgive our sins as we strive 
To forgive the sins of others.
And keep us from the time of trial.
The Kingdom, and the power and glory are Yours
Now and forever and ever.

But what if the point is showing up? Not so much asking for things but asking for relationship? What if the point is being God's? What if part of it is letting God be God too?

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.

They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.  (Hosea 11: 8-11)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Living WORD: Mary, Martha, oh the irony... (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C)

So I am trying to adopt a new habit of blogging about the lectionary again, this time not from the perspective of preparing to journey with the text, but rather from the space of living with the text after hearing or reading it on Sunday. You know, sort of where God has taken me as I live with the text each week...

I was beating myself up this week for having procrastinated about this for the entire month of July... There is always something else to do - my last online course to finish up for ordination requirements, kids' schedules to manage, food to cook, bathrooms to clean, dog hair to vacuum. Next month my attention will turn to refining my ordination papers and the back-to-school parenting chaos, as well as the fall cultivation rush at work.

And that's so sad, because this week's selections were rich - the prophet Amos wringing his hands over Israel's failures to pay attention and love God first and God's response - to leave them in the dust of exile.  Jesus familiarly chastising poor Martha for her misplaced busy-ness.

Oh, wait a minute.  Spirit you are a sly one.  Therein lies the rub. Sitting at the master's feet requires setting things aside, making relationship a priority. 

If only it were that simple.

Aren't we glad then for grace?  Because when I can catch myself, remind myself, ignore the dog-hair induced dust bunnies, God is still right there waiting for me.

And I think he might be chuckling at my antics.

I know that might be an offensive gender-specific anthropomorphism (c'mon, Laura, use a normal word -- PERSONIFICATION) of God.  But in this situation, with the backdrop of what is a somewhat troubling tale of Jesus scolding a woman for providing nurture to him and his uninvited entourage, it's what I have. It's not a gender neutral story.

But maybe my songs are turned into lamentation and my joy to weeping by my own distraction.

And so this week, here on Friday, I give up. And do what I am called by a creative and imaginative God to do - to set things aside and remember whose I am and what I am to do.

I will thank you forever because of what you have done. In the presence of the faithful, I will proclaim your  name because it is good.

The lectionary readings for this week, beginning Sunday, July 21 are:
Amos 8: 1 - 12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1: 15 - 28
Luke 10: 38 - 42

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bounty emerging

We are in that strange in-between time when the garden is lush and pregnant with possibility, but the cool weather crops are finished and high tomato season hasn't yet arrived. The tomato vines and pepper plant hang heavy with blossoms and I ripened bounty. You can see the onslaught headed our way. But beyond a stray squash (they have been destroyed by fungus) and beautiful handfuls of purple runners, the daily haul seems light. 

We supplement with a CSA, so we have plenty that is locally sourced. Our neighbors have space and time for some crops that we don't. So we do have a bowl full of squash and cucumbers, cauliflower and red cabbage to put to good use. 

But in the resourcefulness of this thin week in the season, there have been some brilliant surprises.

The rhubarb is fighting the heat and yielded a modest fourth picking. That became rhubarb chutney to accompany a cauliflower dal.  

The cilantro has gone to seed, but the sun has not yet toasted the coriander seeds that follow. Like bright green to yellowish-green berries, when crushed they emit a lovely cross between the brightness of fresh cilantro and the warmth of coriander.  They went into the dal, rounding out the curry and giving the whole dish a new profile.

The dill is slowly going to seed. There is something deeply satisfying about gathering up the seeds, knowing that while the volume is small, the harvest will season a range of things throughout the year.

An immature jalepeno added the right flavor to a coconut fish curry for last night's dinner. Round that curry out with some ever-present zucchini and the remaining Thai basil from this week's CSA and some purple opal and sweet basil from our own front herb bed and...yum. Just yum. Even better today as a lunch leftover.

The neighbor's cucumbers met with more of the opal basil and a fig balsamic vinegar we bought in Maine. Topped with some feta, I think I could make a meal out of the dish. And maybe I will tonight!

The blackberry canes are yielding about a cup of bright berries a day...perfect for yogurt in the morning.

Tonight's food adventure must necessarily address cabbage. I wish I'd planted potatoes. I am seeing some rift on new potatoes, braised cabbage and sausage. Goodness.

There is so much joy in maximizing the possibility...even in the thin weeks awaiting tomatoes, pasillo, jalepeno and Anaheim peppers, figs (!!!!), blackberries, eggplant, grapes....


Friday, July 12, 2013

Always a strong mountain...

I have been medication free for three weeks.

It feels good. Even though emotional swings and tears are back, moments of breathtaking anxiety surface, the desire to curl up in a ball occasionally to sleep away the stress, I feel better knowing where the highs are and where the lows are. And perhaps most importantly that these are only temporary places.

It snuck up on me. I sent my oldest off to college last fall and found myself in a stupor...tears, exhaustion that drove me to sleep in the middle of the day, anxiety pressing in about a litany of small things that would mount to untenable fear.

It has always been hard for me to just "be." I am wired to do, and specifically to do what perhaps others should. I can't leave the dishes in the sink. I can't see the counter tops cluttered. Dog hair on the staircase haunts me. How do people move through their day oblivious to these distractions?

Lately, I have been trying to meditate, trying to focus on the present, trying to let others do, practicing letting go, returning to my yoga practice where things are sorted out on the mat through a series of poses and balances.

I wanted the medicated haze to end, and to end well. I wanted to return to experiencing the highs and lows. I want to rely on myself, the gifts of my heart and body and mind, to recognize what I can and cannot control, who I can and cannot be. This is for me in part about letting go of what I cannot control and trusting that God is present and at work, and that no matter what shows up, it will be ok.

Matt and I are in Maine this week on a getaway. One side affect of weaning myself off meds has been a return of long-standing neck and back problems. Clearly I carry my stress in my spine, and this past few weeks, I have let a build-up of unmediated stress park itself along vertebrae high and low. I can hear things crunching from my shoulders to my hips. Sleeping in a strange bed with a strange pillow exacerbates the does knowing there is a "problem." So I have been treating my back gingerly. And trying to remember that pain is a moment, not forever.

On Wednesday, we circled the entire island on foot. The weather was misty and windy but not uncomfortable. After a day of adventure we headed out to search for sea glass. The beach was full of rocky obstacles and we traversed broad swaths that were slick with green moss and peppered with snails. In my jeans and handy all-terrain sandals, I found myself recalling mountain pose with each footfall. I would step forward across a slippery expanse, plant my foot anew and align the rest of my body with loving care, finding a strong center, a tall mountain in spite of the slick spots.

Instinctively, I was protecting my back, seeking balance and alignment, afraid of spending my vacation in bed with ice and anti-inflammatory meds.  But I realized quickly that this is also how to protect my soul, finding my tall mountain with each step on the changing terrain. Beginning with where my foot lands, how my legs line up over that foot, where my hips square while I begin to prepare to move the other foot, where my breath is. Just like on the mat.

Suddenly this week I am powerfully aware of my yoga and its daily - minute by minute impact - on my life.

And so I begin each moment anew.

I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Postcards from Vacationland...

We are on Peaks Island, an island three miles from downtown Portland. We arrived yesterday, having shuffled luggage and coolers and miscellaneous bags from the car, hustling about 5 blocks downhill from the county parking garage just outside the courthouse, where we boarded the ferry for a 20 minute cruise to the island. The temperature dropped as the mainland slipped into mist.

We are staying at the 8th Maine Regiment Lodge (and Museum). Not a Bed & Breakfast, it is more like a camp from years gone by. The building is massive with a common hall that comprises the main level. A broad wraparound porch circles the entire building. Below the common hall and porch is a pseudo basement, above grade at the back where four simple bedrooms run along the oceanfront. We ar I. Room 104 -- quaint and a little claustrophobic...

But clean and refreshingly simple. This hallway of rooms is just off a crazy dining room/kitchen space. The dining room has about 14 kitchenette stations, each with a cupboard and a two burner gas hot plate thingy. The dining room regulations require that your table is always set. We were assigned table four and station 4 upon arrival. We have space in refrigerator 2, located in a line up of 8 refrigerators that serve guests by room and kitchen assignment.

Upon arrival, Steve gave us a quick tour of the kitchen which is stocked with more pots, pans, plates, glasses, mugs, gadgets, tea towels, etc. clean up is an honor system, with three sinks for washing, rinsing and sanitizing. We didn't really come expecting to cook...  But now that we know the lay of the land, attempting a meal seems like part of the adventure. As I type, we are sitting in a parlor located in a massive turret on a corner of the wraparound porch, facing the ocean. We emerged into the upper hall from an afternoon nap after walking the entire island earlier in the day. Books in hand, we were ready to curl up, watch the fog and read.

But as we neared the top of the steps, we were surprised to find a ballet class taking place in the hall. As surreal as it seems, it also really fits...quirky, opportune, practical -- a place for adolescent girls and women who are probably vacationing for an extended stay with parents and grandparents to get away and try something new or reconnect with an old skill (think Dirty Dancing and the ballroom dance lessons....). (Parenthetically, the woman teaching dance just explained within a single story that she studied for a year at the Ailey School and that she is a plumber.)

Amazing stuff.  It would be great to bring the family, in part because it is so different from typical vacation expectations. Simple, lo tech but not wireless, ocean but not beach, gourmet but not restaurant soaked.... Right now we can't even see the Casco Bay for the fog, but we know it is there.

Tonight, crackers, wine and cheese and figs with the sound of the ocean, good books and fog as a backdrop.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Saving the next generations...

Once there was a man who did and said such amazing things, people simply wanted to be with him. One day, they asked him who he was, and he answered them, "I am the Light of the world."

This is the way that storytellers begin stories about Jesus in the tradition of Godly Play, a Montessori-based Christian education program for young children. Helping children discover God through creative storytelling, art and imaginative play, children are not told so much about God as discovering God throughout their own experience.

It is a beautiful method. 

I like to begin worship with children or youth. It is a beautiful way to begin the Great Thanksgiving.
I light a candle as Jesus answers them, "I am the Light of the world."

I had a stunning epiphany this week.

I desperately want to save my kids from the church.

Sounds drastic. Even to me.

I want them to know Triune God. I want them to know Jesus and want to live the way he lived. I want them to feel the Spirit drawing them toward places where their gifts and graces make a difference. I want them to love God and their neighbors. I want them to know the Light of the World.

I don't want them to know how petty, how hateful, how merciless the church can be.

I don't want them to have to dig through the rubble of a disintegrating institution to find God.

Because God isn't in the rubble.

Back in college, I took a class in bureaucratic theory (riveting, I know). I had never seen the word "bifurcate" before. That semester, I read it about a thousand times. To bifurcate is to splinter into two. think about what has happened to the church, from early communities that shared all they had including a profound witness for what Jesus had done in their presence, in their lives.  We are destined to build and divide and splinter and compartmentalize until the purpose of the institution is fractured  and indistinguishable.

I want to save my children from having to sort through all the pieces, trying to find the real meaning.

What if we could help younger people navigate past our bifurcations.

I was lovingly reminded by a friend that every generation reforms the church to meet its needs and expectations. Each generation clings to its reformed church, afraid that the next generation will destroy the church for all time.  But with the expansion of technology and the resultant shrinking of the global society, the distance this generation has to reform to find relevance is light years more than any generational leap before it.  Let that sink in...  

What if some of us are called to reach out to that younger generation with hospitality to help the uncover the living God and their role in God's unfolding story? What if we are willing to stand with them as they seek God's relevance in the world they have inherited? Instead of assuming we had it right or best, what if some of us had real faith that God is bigger than any generation and let the story continue to unfold in the hands of the next generation, encouraging, supporting, empathizing? 

What if we focused our efforts on saving this generation for relationship with God rather than for the survival of the church? That might mean rescuing them from our institutions, helping them find new growth and light than shines out in the world instead of in buildings or programs or models.

What if?

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Faithfulness - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8)

2 Kings 2: 1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Like 9: 51-62

There is a thread that runs through this week's lectionary that touches on faithful, true, disciplined action.  The stories may seem odd to us, and as I read them, I wonder if we as a species have lost the ability to faithfully abide.

Elisha is devoted to Elijah and while Elijah is moving toward the end of his life, Elisha keeps diligently sticking with him. Elisha asks for a double inheritance of Elijah's spirit, and it seems that by his faithfulness, he is granted that request. When he dons Elijah's stole and strikes the Jordan, the waters part just as they had for Elijah.

In a strangely similar but different way, Jesus is moving faithfully toward Israel, where Luke's author suggests he knows he faces the end. Along the way, the disciples, out of there misguided sense of faith and devotion, keep suggesting some pretty stupid things. Like the basis for a Monty Python sketch, James and John suggest that they call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritan village that has failed to prepare for Jesus's visit. One after another, Jesus seems to be rejecting their passionate response while hoping for and encouraging something more deeply rooted in faithfulness.

I think it is harder by far to faithfully say and do the right things...especially when that means setting aside our passions. It is so much easier to be angry at someone who has hurt us for the umpteenth time rather than pulling out our very best love and mercy.  Maybe that is where we bear fruit though. Maybe we only encounter the fruits of the spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control - by diligent, disciplined faithful response to the world.

It's ironic to me then that self-control is a fruit of the spirit. Seems like the more we have, the more we get. For exercising it regularly! What do we do with that? It reminds me a little bit of my yoga practice. Balance comes from balance, breath from breath, centeredness from the center.

And so this week, I wonder if I can find it in myself to reject the fast paced distraction to be faithful, true and love God and my neighbor above all else. To be God's at every turn...


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Because people keep asking me...

Yes, the United Methodist Church currently has language in its book of discipline that condemns homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching.

And it is also true that a unique mark of the United Methodist Church is connection and holy conferencing. That means that we value one another enough to stay in dialogue, to explore our agreements and disagreements, to recognize the Holy Spirit is present, to invite the Holy Spirit in, to acknowledge the Christ in each person. We work to stay in connection even when we do not agree. This is how Methodism was born, how it came to America, how it has evolved and how it continues to take shape.

And so, I believe that the Spirit is present in the dialogue the United Methodist Church is having about homosexuality. To those who will point to the book of discipline for the sole purpose of naming chargeable offenses and ways of achieving absolute authority, I call foul. That's not who Christ calls us to be. That's not what John Wesley built. It's not black and white. 

There is deep division in our denomination about this issue. There is language that governs our current authorities, and there is an on-going, thoughtful, passionate and spirit led dialogue that continues. If we care for our foundations of social holiness and justice, we will keep the dialogue open. We will not exclude dissenting voices. We will respect the movement of the spirit...which we sometimes may want to label as secularism out of fear of change.

I have chosen to heed a call into this communion called United Methodism, and I have been given a voice and a heart for radically inclusive love. Here I am, send me.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Life Chaos - Proper 7, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Kings 19: 1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Psalm 42 & 43
Galatians 3: 23-29
Luke 8:26-39

I always imagine summer will be peaceful, a time of rest, recovery and idyllic family time.  Vacations, days at the pool, picnics...

And somehow life always delivers if it is known that because there is more space in summer, I can somehow handle more crazy. Not.

In the lectionaries this week, Elijah discovers God not in the wind or thunder or earthquake but in the stillness.  I have to remember as life is spinning out of control that unless I take that deep breath, unless I ground myself, unless my feet get firmly planted in mountain pose while my diaphragm expands with a deep breath, God is elusive. And that probably has little to do with God, and more to do with me - with my attention, my focus, my presence in the everyday moments.

The demoniac story is always intriguing. Like something out of a cheesy horror movie, Jesus casts out a legion of demons, causes them to possess a herd of swine which then drown themselves in the sea. And in the afterglow, the man formerly possessed is sitting at Jesus's feet, taking it all in - no longer possessed by chaos, he listens, praises, grows.

In the crazy of the summer - in the fiscal year-end, in the divergent kid schedules, in the idyllic dreams not achieved, I pray for moments of peace. Even fleeting, I pray to find myself grounded in mountain pose, connected to the earth and to the God who created me, embraced and healed by the calming presence of Christ, awed by the sheer silence. 

Let it be so...