Monday, July 31, 2006
Lynn and I took her son Eli out for lunch and a few hours of galavanting around tiny North Manchester, which is the home of my college alma mater and short 40-minute drive and I still can't get over the utter joy of having her so close, a mere 40 minutes away (which sure as hell beats that expensive plane ticket to upstate New York and the cost of the Xanax I need to take to get on the freakin' plane). I still can't get over the delight in having someone who knows me so well that they roll their eyes when I order the same exact thing I always order at Subway.
My women friends have been scattered across the country for so long now, that I forget the easy comfort that comes with someone who I simply feel that easy familiarity, the comfort in having someone you don't have to hold in your stomach around, the understanding of someone who can finish your sentences and who can properly identify exactly what small object of which you are referring when you say, "You know...hand me the 'doo-hickey'..." The person with whom you lie awake laughing hysterically at 3:00 a.m. and the person who holds hope for you when you feel utterly hopeless and barren.
As we were finishing our North Manchester adventuring, we drove by my old house in town, a beautiful brick English cottage built in the 1900s where I lived for six years. I prided myself on the cottage garden which had been started by the former owner, and which I enhanced. I spent hours pulling leaves and pruning trees, and lying on the ground under the french Lilac tree in the spring waiting for a soft wind to blow those deep, deep purple blooms down into my hair. A church (a fundamentalist church which doesn't allow women to be pastors, not that I'm bitter) has bought the property now after my friend Lee (who bought the house from me) married and moved out a few months ago.
I mourned when I drove by the house today and saw that my beautiful day lilies and my fragile lady's mantle, my butterfly bush and my wild roses have all been torn out to make more space for what I can only assume will be pavement, else why would my plants be so cruelly treated?
I said in a dramatic fashion to Lynn's almost-3rd-grade son, Eli who sat quietly in the backseat, "Eli, can you believe what happened to my beautiful house and my beautiful gardens? Do you remember coming here when you were little?" Eli looked out the window solemnly as we crept past and said, "Look how different it is!" "I know, Eli," I said. "And I hate it...it's so ugly now..." There was a moment of quiet mourning until Eli, who had just received a new pad of drawing paper piped up, "Kiki! [his nickname for me], I know...let's start a demonstration! I have paper here already, all we need are some sticks and we can make some signs. We can stand outside on the sidewalk and tell them how unfair it is!"
I looked at Lynn and said, "You're raising him right, Lynnie. How's that for a nonviolent response?!?" Lynn smiled knowingly. She's not surprised. She's supermom.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Saturday, July 22, 2006
The book of Mark is the most terse of the gospels. Mark is a writer who believes in getting to the point. He doesn’t spend much time elaborating on the details, he doesn’t tarry over the small touches. Instead, the book of Mark reads like a grocery list of healings and sayings, moving quickly from story to story, almost as if Mark wanted to make sure he didn’t miss out on any point of his inventory. Mark is a “just the facts, ma’am” kind of writer. He’s not prone to fancy flourishes.
In the midst of Mark’s retelling of all those healings, in the midst of all the activity, after Jesus had commissioned his disciples and John the Baptist has been done away with, there is this beautiful little interlude before Mark launches into the next section of miracles. Some commentaries call it a “transitional point.” There is a space of about four verses that seem very “Un-Mark-like.” They are verses that share a bit more intimately about the quiet side of Jesus, about the more contemplative side of this prophet, and so often they seem to be words we spend very little time pondering.
In the sixth chapter of Mark, in the thirtieth verse, there is this line: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and told him all they had done and taught.” When I hear this verse I am reminded of how excited my step-daughter, Brynn was coming home from summer camp last year. There were so many important things to tell us, about the wind storm which knocked over trees, and about the tie-dye shirt she made, and about how if you got more than five letters a day you got thrown in the lake. We spent all evening listening to every little detail of the week, and she replayed all the funny stories, and retold all the camp legends. No tidbit was left behind in her excitement. And this is how I picture the apostles gathered around Jesus. Children around their caregiver who don’t want to miss out on sharing any of the juicy details of their wanderings and seeings.
And then, the writer of Mark tells us, Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile,” because there were people all around them, coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat a meal. I think perhaps we should rename this, “Jesus’ first commandment of self-care.” Come away. Come away by yourself. Rest. This man of action, this man who gave of himself constantly, knew the simple need of rest. And so, Jesus invited them all into a boat, and he moved them away from the shore to a deserted place, a place alone.
But the pericope does not stop there, because the action continued on the shore. The people continued their searching for this one who they had heard about, this one who offered miracles, this one who traveled with his own posse who could get things done. Word got out about where Jesus and the apostles had retreated to, and the crowds arrived there, and Jesus saw them and offered his compassionate wisdom.
The action, of course continued, miracles filled up the verses that followed, but that’s not where I want us to go this morning. Not yet. Not for now. Let’s save that for another Sunday. Instead, I’d like for us to pause on the words given to the apostles about finding quiet places. For it seems that sometimes we’re so busy looking for the action in this story, that we forget to tarry on the quiet pronunciation right before it. The call to come away. The call to rest. This quiet simple vignette is a critical one for all of us to discover.
When I began to look at this scripture last month in preparation for this Sunday, I was sitting on the porch of my in-law’s quiet retreat-like farm in Texas all by myself, my family inside having breakfast, and I looked out across the field and realized that it was the first time I’d settled myself in quiet in months and months, I realized that the quiet moments, the sabbath moments, the “come-away” moments are few and far between in so many of our busy lives, and so perhaps this was a scripture on which I needed to preach.
One of the things I learned in seminary was that we shouldn’t take words out of context, we shouldn’t preach on only part of a text without elaborating on the rest. And so, I’ve often felt as if I shouldn’t simply preach on this encounter with the apostles, without then telling about how Jesus came back and fed all those around. But, I was surprised to learn that in the lectionary, these verses are listed alone. The story of the feeding of the five thousand, which occurs next in the scripture, are to be preached about at a different time, on a different day. And I marveled, that I’d never heard a sermon about this before. It seems as if being commanded to find a quiet place, the command to “be” rather than to “do,” isn’t as valued by the church. Taking care of ourselves, reconnecting to the quiet presence of God can sometimes take a backseat to all of the action we are called to do in our service to the world. Finding our way to reconnect in the silence seems self-indulgent perhaps. Feeding ourselves, when so many others cry out for our feed may seem selfish. And yet, this story gently seems to ask us, “How can you feed others when you’re not fed yourself? How can you speak a words of God’s peace and love, when you have no connection to it in your own life?”
I’m not implying that there is a dualism between caring for ourselves or caring for others. I believe to be whole that both are necessary. I’m simply inviting each of us to follow Jesus, the one who has called us clearly to come away to deserted places when we need to be refilled.
There was a moment when I was reminded of this call quite clearly, and the image has stayed with me for several years. It happened one afternoon when I was pastoring at the Manchester Church of the Brethren. I was driving on a country road near South Whitley, Indiana, taking a shortcut, on my way to visit one of my parishioners at the hospital in Fort Wayne. I was tired. It had been a long week and it was a Thursday afternoon, the day before my weekend began. That trip to the hospital was my final task before I had time to rest and, as someetimes happens when I drive on a country road, and no one else is around, I was going a teensy, tiny bit too fast. Now, I want to be clear about this. There was no emergency I was hurrying off to, this wasn’t a desperate situation that I had to attend to immediately. I was just feeling frazzled. I was just feeling frantic. And, as often is the case with me, that can translate into my foot pressing itself with a little more force on the accelerator. You can imagine what happened next. As I sped over a hill, I quickly noticed, the presence of a black and white police car waiting patiently on the side of the road with a radar aimed directly at my Honda. The police officer hadn’t even needed to turn his lights on and start the engine of his cruiser before I had pulled over in a confession of guilt. I knew I had been speeding, and I knew I had been caught, and I knew that it was completely and utterly my fault. The officer sauntered over to my already rolled-down window, and I had already gathered my license and registration and I held them out the window, practically forcing them on him. He greeted me, took my documents, quickly scanned them for my name, and said politely, “Mrs. Miller, why are you in such a hurry today?” I said, quite bluntly, “Actually Officer, I’m on my way to visit someone in the hospital, but it’s not an emergency, and I had no business driving this fast on a country.” He asked who I was visiting, and I told him it was one of my parishioners. And he said, “Oh, you’re a pastor?” And not wanting to exploit my status as clergy, as I’ve seen some other pastors do, said, “Yes, but I want to be clear. This isn’t an emergency. I’m just speeding.” Perhaps that was my cry for help. The officer smiled at me, handed me back my license and registration, and looked into my eyes and said gently, “Pastor Miller, if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be there to take care of anyone else. If you have an accident, who will visit your parishioners? I’m not going to give you a ticket or a warning, just take care of yourself.” And with that, this saint of a man turned and headed back to his car and I rolled up the window and burst into tears. Tears which lasted all the way to Fort Wayne, and tears which I can easily conjure as I recall the grace I was granted by that officer who acted as Christ for me that day. The Christ who reminds us to come away, come away and rest. The Christ that reminds us that we cannot feed others, unless we slow down and feed ourselves too.
My fervent prayer for this body of believers is that we may be Christ for one another. That we may understand that to do the work of God demands that we quiet ourselves to find God first. And that we might come away to those quiet spaces to breathe deeply of the God who calls us to renewal. So, come. Come away to a deserted place. And may you find in that rest, strength to fill others from your own abundance.
Friday, July 21, 2006
As I've often alluded to, I'm being treated for all sorts of invasive fertility procedures. And, I've become accustomed to them, so much so that I have become a mainstay in 'ole Dr. B's office and can call all the nurses by name and even know the names of their children, and animals and favorite local eateries. My favorite nurse, though, is Shelby. I love, love, love Shelby not only because she seems to be the one who does her work with the least amount of pain, but because she is always so hopeful, and because in a private conversation, she has confessed to me that she changes the doctor's choice of radio station music from the contemporary Christian variety to 80s rock on the days he's not in the office. Shelby's a rebel. We speak the same language. And our language doesn't have any breathy "Oh Jesus..." refrains, nor does it use the words "majestic" and "Lord" in the same sentence.
Well, this morning, after downing the good drugs, and lying on the paper-covered doctor's table, Shelby and I started chit-chatting about her life. Seems she's getting married soon. Seems she's looking for a minister to officiate. "Do you ever do that kind of thing?" She asked, while snapping on her rubber gloves. "I'd be happy to for you, " I said. "Really?" she asked, clearly pleasantly surprised, "That would be so great! I'm so touched!"
The procedure went as anticipated. Shelby left the room so I could lie quietly on my back and contemplate the wonders of the universe, and enjoy my Xanax induced calm for the next twenty minutes. And then something occurred to me with clarity, a moral lesson society repeats to all its responsible youth in issues of sexuality, and I turned to a loving and devoted R. who sat holding my hand and slurred assertively, "Hell, if Shelby knocks me up, the least I can do is marry her."
And, damn if that comment still seems like the funniest thing I've ever said.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Sunday, July 16, 2006
I have accepted that I am not the "alpha dog" in this house. This was further reinforced by Maisie walking across the kitchen table in full sight of me, even though she knows that toy dachshunds are strictly prohibited in this home from setting even one paw on the kitchen table. And the whole time she merely looked at me proudly as if to say, "Look at me, aren't I so tall up here on the table, where the alpha dog won't let me be?"
I have accepted that I am not the "alpha dog," but I still grapple with the fact that apparently I am, yay, merely the "omega dog."
The most commonly heard phrase in our house is this, spoken by one weak and flailing omega dog voice..."R., will you call/tell/yell at/inform/punish/ Maisie? She isn't listening to me, instead she is peeing in her bed/chewing her bone/sniffing the cat's butt/eating a spider she found on the floor/chasing a fly." And R., the one who wasn't entirely sure about having a dog in the first place merely has to enuciate the word, "Maisie..." (he hits it really strong on the "M" sound...)and she submits. Literally, she pauses and cowers at his voice.
Secretly, I whisper to her sometimes, deeply into her soft floppy ears. I murmur, "I'm the one who wanted you. If it weren't for me you wouldn't be here...I can be both alpha and omega to you, for I am a minister and understand these Biblical phrases." But this seems to do little to reinforce my status in the dog hierarchy.
I simply get no respect here on Strathdon Drive.
Saturday, July 15, 2006
When I was a seven or eight year old, my bedtime ritual seldom strayed from the routine. And the routine was this, both my parents would come upstairs with me to tuck me into my antique spindle bed in my pink-painted bedroom, each sitting on either side of me. My mother would kiss me goodnight, remind me of the special events the next day, and tuck me snugly under the covers. And then she would leave the room, graciously allowing my father and me our Daddy/Daughter time. And thus, the highlight of my evening ritual would commence, the telling of the nightly story. Now, I know many of you probably had people read bedtime stories to you, but I would wager a bet that few of you could say you had a bedtime stories as outrageous as I, for I had stories of the Finkelstein family. The Finkelstein family was my father’s own creation, a brainchild perhaps of his hippie seminary years, and what was fascinating about the Finkelsteins was that each and every one of the family, right down to the family ferret, Farcus, had names that started with the letter “F.” Moreover, the family, that would be the parents, Frank and Francine and their children Freddy and Freida, and we dare not forget the fluffy Farcus, only ate foods that began with the letter “F,” which limited their tastes to frankfurters, Froot Loops, Fritos, and the occasional bowl of fettucini. Each evening I waited in anxious anticipation to see what those funky Finkelsteins would be up to, were they going to a football game, or playing Frisbee on the front lawn, or learning to dance the Funky Chicken? Often, I would contribute to the Finkelstein story, inserting my own dialogue, or adding a few more colorful details to the Finkelstein epic. Through this continuing story, a story which grew richer and more complex each evening, my father and I would weave a world, a world where we could work out the problems of my own life, such as the day Freida was made fun of by friends at school, or the day the family ferret got sick and they had to take it do Dr. Flugelheimer to be put to sleep. I learned in that nightly ritual what it meant to allow a story to shape you, and I loved a good story.
The fourth chapter of Joshua tells a story of its own. It is the story of a posse of vagabonds looking for a home. It is the story of a people making their way toward the land that their God has promised. And while it doesn’t have the illiterative appeal that the Finkelstein Fables had, it has a hearing far broader than the writer of Joshua ever could have imagined.
Ever since I first read the story in Joshua I have always enjoyed it. How Joshua came back from chit-chat with the Lord, how he had each of the twelve tribes send out one man, how he gave those select men special instructions. He said, “OK, men, I have an important assignment here so I want you to listen up good. What I want you to do is, I want you to put on your hip boots and I want you to wade out there into the Jordan River. Now, I know you’re all busy, and I know the wife and kids have other plans for you, and I know you don’t want to slop around in all that mud, and I now you’re going to get all wet, but you have been chosen for something special. I want you to go out there and bring back a stone. Now, I don’t want something that looks like a wad of chewing gum. I want something large. I want 12 big bruisers. Now Know that there are some nice-looking specimens right here along the shore. But I don’t want them. I want stones from right out there in the middle of the river, where the water is the deepest and the current is the fastest. And I don’t want 11 and I don’t want 13. I want an even dozen. And once you get back to shore, what I want you to do is, I want you to plan on carrying them around with you every day as we travel. Now you don’t have to carry these pet rocks around with you forever, of course. I’d say it wouldn’t be more than, say 20 or 30 years.” Now you and I know from our perspective in time that Joshua new what he was doing. He was creating a memorial. He was creating a ritual. He was coming up with something to tell around the campfire at night, as the people sat with their heads perched against those rocks. Something that became part of their history. Something for the little ones to notice. Something for them to point at and say, “Why do you always lug those things around with you?” Then the elder could say, “Well, these stones are memorials. They help us remember something. One time a bunch of bad guy were chasing us and we came to this very wide river and we didn’t know how we were going to get across…” And the tale would begin to be told and the children’s eyes would grow wide.
The stones served as a reminder to the people, never to forget, never to allow themselves to dismiss the story of their lives, and the one who gave them that story. The stones served as a Godly whisper which said that it was not just a matter of wisdom to remember, but a sacred duty, a trust to hold on to the stories of the past, for by retelling them, by honoring them, the people could be brought forward into the new creation. And those stones stood, ultimately, in that new land…the Israelites lived within sight of those stones, a constant reminder of their past, and of their good God.
Part of the reason that I am a preacher is because I love a good story. Henri Nouwen claims that the great vocation of the minister is to continuously make connections between human stories and the divine story. Eugene Peterson, one of the foremost writers on the vocation of pastoral ministry, writes to all new clergy, “Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit.” And as the interim pastor here, I want to hear your stories. I began ministry, and I stay in Hospice ministry, because I like to listen to the stories, and because I long to tell the story of God’s love, and of God’s mystery, and of God’s compassion, and of the presence of the sacred in the profane. And it is such a sacred task for us all, for we are all called to ministry. We are called to hear our brothers and sisters into speech, to know the twists and turns of their own journeys, to find out the ways in which their story intersects with the story of the Huntington Church of the Brethren, and the larger narrative of God’s story for our world. Each of you have been given the holy vocation of listening, and it is our duty as brothers and sisters in this community to minister to one another by telling the story, and asking the questions, and pointing to the stones, and asking what they mean.
It is said that when the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the great Rabbi Israel Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, he celebrated Maggid of Mezritch had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the sacred fire, but I am able to say the prayer,” and again, the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go to the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the words to the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell, four generations later, to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient. For it is said, God made humanity because God loves a good story.
In time, when your children ask you, “What do the stones which created the Huntington Church of the Brethren mean?” What will you tell them? Will you tell them of the faithful hours spent rolling out cinnamon rolls in the kitchen? Will you tell them about the light in the eyes of the children of Nicaragua when you took that trip to Tisma? Will you tell of the countless hours spent in this sanctuary? Or of the way someone embraced you after church when you were feeling so lost? I invite you to begin to tell those stories again, to one another, or to me, or to God in prayer, remind one another of the stones which sustain this faithful body of believers, for in telling the stories you begin to cast a vision of what you want as you continue the journey together, and you uncover anew the faithfulness of the God who has accompanied you.
Our call is clear. It is the same call Joshua pronounced as the words of God thousands of years before and the call is this: wrap yourself in your stories, each of you and all of us, and know that it is the stories what will call us home, right smack dab into the arms of our faithful and loving God.
And all God’s people said,
Friday, July 14, 2006
- I am a pessimist. I assume many negative outcomes so that I don't have to be disappointed (See objects A-E)
- Object A: "I'll never get pregnant."
- Object B: "My step-daughters will never think I'm a good parent."
- Object C: "R. will forget to tape 'Footloose' despite the fact that I think every pre-adolescent girl should idolize it and memorize the dance steps and love it forever and ever and remember the night their stepmother introduced them to the wonder that is Kevin Bacon as Ren at 20ish years of age trying to act as if he were 16. "
- Object D: "My Alberta dwarf spruce which we planted just last weekend will die."
- Object E: "Cooper and Moses, my fat boy cats will forever pee on the floor right next to the litter box even if there is only one measly turdlet in the litter box to which they seem to object even after I have saturated the @#$% floor with Enzymatic cleaner."
- Object F: "My dog, who is no MENSA candidate, will never learn to drop the freakin' ball and let me throw it so we can play catch like a real owner/master, but instead will forever treat me as if I were the heathen trying to collect the holy grail from her sacred jaws."
- Object F: "I will never score over 15,000 in Snood."
Today, someone said to me, "I think it's time you have faith in something. You're a minister, right? That's what you do?" Oh, yeah.
But I see so much bad shit...people dying young, children left without parents, beloved cats dead on the side of the road, panicky old women who feel powerless in their nursing homes, sad old men left to wallow in their disposable diapers. It's hard to feel hopeful.
Rabbi Kushner says in essence, that if you expect God to make all these things better, if you blame God for all of the wretchedness in the world, that you disconnect from the compassionate and all loving God who desires intimate communion with you in your pain.
Can I bear to give up my fascination with the negative? Can I leap off the cliff and assume that God's compassion is enough to nurture my fear?
I'm counting on it. Because I'm tired of being sure of the worst.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
I dunno. I'm in a slump. Not a big slump. Not a "I hate my life slump," not a "Oh-woe-is-me-kinda slump," not a "I wish my life were different slump." As a matter of fact, I like my life quite a lot, and life is pretty generous to me which is why the slump is so mysteriously slumpy. I firmly believe that fallow time has something to teach us, and so, I'm waiting patiently for what this fallow time has to tell. I'm sitting quietly and I'm pausing thoughtfully and I'm wondering, "Hmmm...what am I needing to learn here."
And hopefully it will yield some sort of fruit.
Monday, July 10, 2006
My most common Freudian slip topic is the wedding/funeral one. I often confuse the two. I'll say, "Yeah, I'm officiating the funeral for that delightful couple..." and then pause and say, "Whoops..." And it's weird, because I don't think of marriage as a death. I adore being married. In many ways, a new world opened when I married R. (yes, join with me now in the Disney theme, "A Whole New World..."). It's weird, I tell you. Weird.
And it happens in reverse too, I often confuse a Hospice patient's funeral for a "wedding." I like this slip better, though, as it's sort of like an ethereal wedding and there's union, and bliss, and good stuff...
Today, as I was driving to yet another funeral (where, egad, the church WASN'T air-conditioned), I was thinking on the number of weddings vs. funerals I've attended or officiated. I'd say, given my profession, the ratio is about 1 to 30. I was thinking today, how much I'd really like a few more weddings...so much more celebratory, and so much more good wine. I was lamenting on how now that I'm a ripe 'ole 34, most of my friends are married, and there just aren't that many more weddings to attend. I was calculating how old I'll have to be until their kids get married, and there is a whole slew of weddings as there were that summer of 1994, when on one Saturday in June I was invited to 3 weddings!
I sighed a big sigh in the car (where else can you get the satisfaction of a really big sigh without getting an eye-roll from someone?). "Alas," I thought, "I don't know when I'll dance at the next wedding." And then I went to work and went to another funeral (where, did I mention, it was hot?).
AND... I got home, and wonder of wonders, there was a wedding invitation in our mailbox! For Labor Day weekend! A wedding I completely didn't expect to be invited to! A wedding where I'm actually so-very-happy for the couple, and not thinking, "Well I hope they can make it!" Ah! The joy! The rapture! R. said, "Do you want to go?" And I said, "Yes, yes, yes!" And he said, "Good! Me too!" And I almost danced a little jig on the kitchen tile floor for the delight of it all.
And now, I should say something witty and connected to the Freudian slip thing so I can draw this essay all full-circle...but, nothing is coming...and there's part of me that thinks perhaps it's appropriate with an essay on Freud to not come full circle as he deserves that, because his whole "penis envy" thing...well, utter shit.
How's that for a closing line?
Saturday, July 08, 2006
The story, for those of you who are not familiar with the musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo, centers around a man named Jean Valjean who has been arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. He is convicted of the crime and forced to serve nineteen years in a grueling chain gang. Because he is unable to begin a new life with the stain of his “crime” on his record, he breaks parole. He disobeys the rules which govern the land. A prominent man in town, Javert, the parole officer and constable, a man familiar with the law and a man wanting to follow the rules, searches for Valjean, eager to do his job. Valjean eventually, because of his changed identity becomes mayor of a nearby village. His government is characterized by kindness and justice. He rescues the child of a factory worker who has been killed. He raises the child as his own. His loyalty to his adopted daughter, Cosette, is tender and true. He follows the call of his God, a God of love and grace.
And Javert, the constable, loyally searches for the parole-breaker. He follows the call of his God, a God of justice and righteousness who wants laws upheld, who wants every “t” crossed and every “I” dotted. While it is easy for some to point fingers at the constable Javert and to exclaim passionately that God’s love is more powerful than the legalistic rules of a government in the midst of revolution, I find myself wondering if there might be more to the story than this.
Listen to the words of Javert from the musical, “There out in the darkness/ A fugitive running/ Fallen from grace/ God be my witness/ I never shall yield/ till we come face to face/ …Mine is the way of the Lord/ And those who follow the paths of the righteous/ Shall have their reward/…God is the sentinel/ silent and sure/ keeping watch in the night/…Lord let me find him/ That I may see him/ Safe behind bars.”
Both men in this story struggle to do what they deem morally right. Both men want to please God. Valjean take risks, impulsively resisting arrest and yet rescuing and freeing those imprisoned in their own lives in various ways. Javert stays the course, compulsively follwing the rules of his job and his life. Two men. Two different ways of being loyal. Two different ways of interpreting what God they believe God asks of them. Neither is wrong.
In the gospel of Mark, we find a story with similar tensions. On one hand, we have the disciples, who appear, at least in this story, diligent and earnest in their concern over the teachings of Christ. They yearn for the God of justice. The trust the God of justice. On the other hand, we have the unnamed woman, who in an impulsive moment of love pours a jar of expensive nard and anoints Jesus with a spontaneous act of great sensuousness and reverence. She trusts the God of love. Two followers of Jesus. Two different ways of being loyal. Neither is wrong.
Jesus was traveling in Bethany two days before the last supper. This pericope, in fact, is set right before the writer of the Gospel tells of Judas’ scheming with the high priests to have Jesus silenced. And so, the writer of the Gospel of Mark is preparing us for Jesus’ death. Jesus was sitting at a table in the house of a leper. He was perhaps finishing his meal, with his disciples close by. And the gospel recounts, “as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.” The gospel doesn’t tell us whether she is a guest at the home, or whether she has a previous relationship with Jesus. We are not even sure of the woman’s name. What we know is what she did. The woman took the jar and poured the oil slowly and sacredly on the head of Jesus. In the Middle East, where the weather is scaldingly hot and dry to be soothed with oil is a luxury beyond measure, a loxury this woman wanted to extend to her teacher and friend.
The woman in the story took a risk. Did she think about the implications of what she was doing? Did she imagine the uproar and the upbraiding that she would receive for her act of love? Did she wonder how Jesus would accept her gift? I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the woman would have carefully and compulsively analyzed the repercussions of her act. Would she have gone ahead anyway?
As I picture this unnamed woman in my mind’s eye, I see a woman of passion, a woman perhaps stirred by the heat of the moment, a woman who could think of no more fitting way to demonstrate her love for this prophet than to provide him some small measure of relief. And the fact that the woman did this in front of others is stunningly brave as well. She seemed to instinctively trust that Jesus would understand her gift. She trusted that she would be accepted and understood completely. I wonder if I would have the courage to seek Jesus out in this same way. Could I walk before the followers of Jesus, men well-traveled and articulate? Would I be too intimidated? Would you? This unnamed woman seems brave beyond mention.
As she broke the jar and poured the oil there was surely murmuring and muttering around the room. And some sort of chaos must have ensued. The scriptures say, “But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’” A point well-made indeed. Wasn’t Jesus preaching the upside-down kindom? That the first should be last and that the responsibility of his followers was to minister to the outcasts? Did Jesus not call his followers to serve a God of justice? A God who wanted money and resources equitably distributed?
I can almost imagine myself sitting at that table quibbling and muttering with the disciples myself. Those compulsive disciples who wanted clarity on the rules, who wanted Jesus to verity who’s right and who’s wrong. Perhaps their words to the woman were said lovingly, as they patted her on the shoulder and whispered discreetly, “Ma’am, we’re afraid you’ve misunderstood. We know you want to support Jesus. We welcome your support, but how about finding a more appropriate way.” Perhaps they scolded out of concern, maybe they even wanted to protect her, assuming Jesus would be angry. We can surmise, of course. We can postulate, but we will never know for sure what happened in that room over two thousand years ago.
Two different factions. Two different ways of viewing the teachings of the Christ. Neither is wrong.
I see myself often as being in two opposing camps in this story. These words have become personal for me. For there is a part of me, earthy and passionate who resonates with this woman. It is this part of me who runs in the rain with no thought of being soaked to the skin. It is this part of me, who, craving freshly baked bread, starts baking at eight o’clock in the evening knowing full-well that with the rising of the yeast it will not be done until the wee hours of the morning. It is this part of me who weeps sometimes when I watch my step-daughters dance, and who takes long baths by the light of candles, and who pauses in awe while noticing that her lilies have bloomed. This impulsive woman with the alabaster jar who lives within me. She teaches me to experience the creation of God. She connects me to the root of the root and the heart of the heart.
And with my other foot, I am firmly planted in the land of the disciples, for they have a voice as well. I understand their conventional practicality and yearning for the disciplined way to adhere to the social teachings of Christ. I understand their need for a God of justice who makes complete sense at all times. I have learned, especially as I continue to age, that there is nothing wrong with the heady, compulsive part of myself that searches the scriptures for truths. It is this part of me that budgets money to be given to charity and makes sure that my elderly neighbors have their prescriptions on time. It is this part of me that googles Biblical interpretations as I attempt to exegete the gospels. It is this part of me who appreciates the way committees can make things happen and understands the importance of some forms of bureaucracy so that hungry bellies can receive food, and hurricane victims can receive FEMA trailers. The concern that the disciples raise is often my own when I ask, “Why should we have a community beautification project if people in the community have no food or work?” The disciples questioning lives within me. They connect me to the wisdom inherent to critical thinking and logical questioning and thoughtful investing.
Two ways of being. Two different interpretations of life. Neither is wrong.
The New Testament is filled with parables which offer hints at “right living.” Jesus is full of tidbits of advice for those seeking the kindom of God. We have the sermon on the mount as our guide. We all have tattooed on our brains the saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kindom of God. One would think these rules for living were rigid and secure. But then a story like this bursts into our world and we are reminded that the importance seems to lie more firmly in the spirit of what we do. The unnamed woman here was not “politically correct” and yet she was understood and she was praised.
After the oil was poured, and the muttering of the disciples had quieted. Jesus spoke. His words were these, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for it’s burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
And here the story ends. We are left wondering what happened to the woman, or how the disciples responded.
Surely Jesus was not saying that we should not continue our outreach to those less fortunate than we. Surely Jesus was not admonishing the disciples for their concern for the poor. Rather, I believe Jesus was addressing the narrow and rigid rules that the disciples were using as a yardstick to judge the woman. Perhaps if there is a lesson to be learned from this story, it is that there is more than one way to express ourselves as followers of Christ. There is the way of deep passion and personal relation and there is the way of community outreach and social action. Two ways. Two approaches. Neither is wrong.
Within all of us there lies the Javert and the Valjean, the disciples and the unnamed woman, the two interiors of our own lives. As a church, we have too often ignored the extravagant deed of this woman, too often ignored the spontaneous sensous gifts of the mystics. Jesus’ promise is that wherever the gospel is told, she will be remembered for the conventional way of the disciples is not enough. There is more to embrace. And we are called to fulfill the promise of remembrance.
It is not too late to honor the unnamed woman in our own souls. By balancing the impulsive with the compulsive, the passion with the logic, the grace with the justice, we find that true path to discipleship. May we learn to integrate the two ways within ourselves, for neither is wrong, and in embracing the whole we find that it is absolutely right. Amen.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
But we wonder why the CoB fails to attract younger people and our church isn't growing?!?
"Youngsters had fun engaging the central scripture of Gather 'Round, the new Sunday school curriculum from Brethren Press, by applying temporary tatoos of the Shema."
I mean, temporary tattoos...good idea, yes? Hey, I got a packet of temporary tattoos with my Subway kid's pack recently and T., B. and I sported them proudly (of course we were on the way home from a long car trip) but a temporary tattoo of the Shema? I don't get it...I mean, isn't that antithetical to the Jewish idea of idolatry?
Look out Des Moines...they'll be errant youth searching out tattoo artists all over the area.
"Can I get a Shema permanent tattoo?"
"What? I dunno, but if you meant 'Shamu,' I got a good whale right here..."
I never considered it an asset.
Yes, friends, today, I won the step-mother of the year award for empathy and compassion, because it seems we may have another hypochondriac in our house, in the form of a 13-year-old and I, being an overreacting worrier, am in the best position to handle the situation. I am the superhero of imaginary illnesses...the queen of panic...the empress of empathy.
When T. came upstairs to talk with R. and me and had a worried look in her eye, I just thought maybe she'd forgotten to tell us about a ballet rehearsal, but lo and behold, that worried look was the beginnings of a hypochondriacal worrying. She said, "I have this pain in my neck it just started while I was working on the computer!" (She'd been sitting there for over an hour in one position, crooking her neck to see the screen). "Do you think it's a tumor?" R. said something rational about it being a crook in her neck, but rationality gets you nowhere in hypochondriacsville. In the village of hypochondriacs you need reassurance, dammit. You need familiar reminders that life is a good place and all is well. You need security and love and understanding. And so I jumped in, my moment in the sun. I said, "Oh, sweetie, no! There's no way it's a tumor. Here let me massage it for you. See, it's just from sitting that way too long. It's a neck spasm. I get them all the time..." She looked at me with her beautiful brown eyes and said, "Really? Because it really hurts and I've never had one." We got a heating pad. We massaged some of the cramping away. She took some Junior Strength Motrin. She repositioned in front of the computer in a more ergonomic position. I promised we'd watch a family movie after supper. She took a deep breath.
As I walked back upstairs I thought, "Christen, you worry about never being good enough. You recognize you're always second best. You doubt you make a difference in their lives. You constantly compare yourself to others. You panic about how they view you. But today, well, today you found your calling, at least in this one area of parenting...at least you've got the hypochondriasis covered."
And that's something. At least for today.
Tomorrow: fear of spiders.
Monday, July 03, 2006
When I worked at the hospital, a kind nurse would come into a patient room occasionally and ask the patient, "How do you rate your pain?" And then he or she would show the patient a little laminated card which had teeny people faces...a smiley face for "0" and a grimmacing face with tears for "10." And the patient would mumble or scream an answer and that was how they knew how much of the good drugs to give. Today as I was driving from house to house to visit patients (my God, I had no business driving as I could SO not look left and was relying on my peripheral vision prayer ["Please, God, don't let me miss seeing a car in my blind spots as I am out here doing Your will and am a good person and I looked as far as my neck could reach...]) I was repeating to myself, "It's not a 10, it's not a 10...keep driving...these people are dying...your neck is NOTHING...it's a negative number compared to them...carry on...it's not a 10."
The neck is an old car accident whiplash injury (or at least that's what the osteopathic doctor who I went to in seminary told me)...a stupid, minor nothing car injury which we (i.e. the passengers of all three cars involved) were all very lucky to walk away from (including the stupid-assed drunk driver who created the chaos in the first place by running a red light). But, occasionally it rears its ugly head and I find myself cringing.
I've tried to pacify it with a glass of wine (and a few baked doritos, 'cause they're manna from heaven). And before bed I'll bring out the big guns and take one of my nifty muscle relaxants prescribed for exactly this type of reoccurence.
The other day my mother asked me, in essence, if perhaps blogging wasn't just a narcissistic call for attention (she didn't mean it about me, as my mom is a good and kind mommy, she was asking it hypothetically about the internet generation), and so perhaps this is my narcicsstic moment. My neck hurts. Ouch.
Sunday, July 02, 2006
I confess that I’m feeling a bit of pressure as I preach my first sermon as your interim pastor at Huntington Church of the Brethren. There’s always that sense that your first sermon in a new place had better be a good one, because it sets the tone for your future and if your congregants feel their eyes getting a little heavy in this sermon on this hot summer morning, than it’s all over for you on any other day…
I am glad to be here. I feel blessed to be called as your interim pastor. I am astounded at your grace in allowing the ex-wife of your former pastor to serve you. While my position here is temporary, and my hours here are limited, I deeply desire to know you and listen to your stories, as we place them in the context of the greater story in our call as those who do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. I thank you for allowing me to walk the journey with you for a few miles.
The person who wrote Psalm 130, over 2000 years ago, was one whose story many of us can recognize, for in many ways it is the story of each of us. It’s a relatively straightforward plea. The plea of one who calls out to God, who calls out for that sense of peace and healing presence that only communion with the creator can offer. There isn’t a lot of fancy exegetical work that we have to do to uncover the meaning here. In essence it is this: God help me. And further: I will wait for you.
Many of us associate waiting with the Advent season. We’re accustomed to the anticipation that builds with each passing week as we prepare for new life, as we prepare for the arrival of the Messiah. We know the outcome. We know that that for whom we wait will arrive, that the expected will come to pass. We know it’s simply a matter of patience. Just as I knew this week in my waiting that ultimately Tess would emerge from her ballet lessons, and that my car would eventually be repaired, and that Robert would eventually finish lecturing, and that my meeting would eventually begin.
But the waiting in Psalm 130 is a little different, for it is a waiting for which there is no immediate assurance, and it is a waiting which begins in a deep place. The psalmist cries from the depths, from the deepest place of himself or perhaps from the lowest point in his life.
The psalmist’s words are the words of the cancer patient who doesn’t know how soon their treatment will be effective. It is the call of the young woman who doesn’t know if she will ever become pregnant. It is the wondering of the unemployed father, who doesn’t know if a job will ever be available. It is the helpless prayer of the hungry refugee who wonders whether food will ever be brought to her tiny village. It is the yearning of the torture victim who asks whether justice will ever be done. Psalm 130 asks, “How do we wait, when we don’t know if we will even receive our desired outcome?”
I do not understand God’s timing. This week I have been consumed in my work as a hospice chaplain with the tragic case of a young woman, a young mother who is dying of cancer far too young, and in an agonizingly painful way. Every morning this week, I have begun my day driving out to the small farm south of Fort Wayne and sitting by Sandy’s bed. I hold her warm hand tenderly and I sing hymns softly in her ear and I assure her of God’s extravagant love. And one morning after I walked out of Sandy’s bedroom her husband stopped me and said with tears brimming in his eyes, “Why does this dying take so long? Why does she have to keep waiting in pain?” And I had no answer, for I understand waiting as little as the psalmist did. But I know that this young husband’s words echo the words of the psalmist who called from his depths.
I do not understand God’s timing. But, I have come to believe that this isn’t necessarily what this scripture is about. Perhaps it is not so much that we receive immediate answers, but that we trust that God is with us in the waiting.
I believe the crux of this psalm, the real meat of it hinges more on the sixth verse of the psalm, a verse so important that the writer echoes it a second time. “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.”
And perhaps this is what needs to sink into the very marrow of our bones. The waiting can be a dark place, but it is only in the darkness that we can truly prepare for the light. Perhaps our call is to embrace the darkness for exactly what it is that we may know more fully the light whenever and however it arrives.
We know that seeds need the dark, cool, damp to gestate. We know that babies need the warm, dark to grow in their mother’s bodies. We know that our bodies need the dark night to rest. Our waiting, while dark, can still be a time of growth, even if it feels lonely and isolated. And breathing softly in the dark shadows, is the breath of the holy spirit, who never abandons us, but sits quietly with us in the stillness.
The writer Anne Lamott, in her book Traveling Mercies, tells the story of discovering faith. She had led a wild life—was a self-proclaimed alcoholic and frequent user of drugs. She was pregnant with the baby of her married lover. She had alienated many of her friends, and even her family was turning away from her. On top of all of this, her best friend was dying of cancer, and Lamott felt more alone than she ever felt in her life. One night, realizing the depths of her despair, Lamott lay on her bed and inventoried her sorry life and she was devastated by what she found. I share with you her words immediately after recognizing the depths to which she had fallen:
After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me,
hunkered down in the corner…The feeling was so strong that I actually
turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there—
of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew
beyond any doubt that it was Jesus…I felt him just sitting there on
his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with
patience and love.”
Anne Lamott’s story, that of knowing a presence in the dark, of recognizing the one who waits to offer us patience and love, is the reminder of the psalm, a reminder that we can be found even in our waiting.
The mystic Sue Monk Kidd has written, “Waiting is a passionate and contemplative crucible in which new life and spiritual wholeness can be birthed.” These words ring truth to me, as I consider what Psalm 130 is all about. Waiting as passionate and contemplative crucible.
My prayer for each of us, and for this congregation as a whole, is that we may embrace this gestational time. That we might know that in the darkness new life is being created, even if we have no idea what form that new life may take. That we may echo the words of the psalmist and proclaim our faith as we watch for the morning, and that we may quietly sense the movement of the one who waits patiently with us in the depths of our own night.
In the name of this breathing stillness which we name as the living Christ, may it be so.