Friday, March 30, 2007
She got a tractor
because she likes to shift,
chug, chug, driving it in unending
S-curves, back and forth
across her family square of field
lustily singing old hymns
How Firm a Foundation and His Eye is On the Sparrow
often belting tunes that Eva sang
at Blues Alley. She plants
flowers: pungent marigolds, vibrant zinnias,
coneflower and Susans for the butterflies
globe thistle for the honey bees
roses because Maria in Nicaragua has to
puts them in with her
vegetables: voluptuous tomatoes, regal corn,
fragrant basil for pesto,
rutabaga for a grandfather,
lima beans because she likes the sound of ‘succotash’
—a bright wiggly patch among
the huge quilt of farms.
As she mucks barefoot through
the sodden field, her
painted toes give a
flashy red smile in
the dark earth.
She turns and laughs
at her footprints,
the curve of her arch
leaving puddles shaped
like her garden rows.
She composts, hauls
in manure, piles on
dead leaves, plunges her
hands till she comes up
with worms. She looks
at death and says, “Now.”
At harvest she
shares a tenth with her
neighbors but with
the rest she feeds the
poor at her table
and fills nursing homes
with the scent of flowers.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
A mother voices her fear about her young adopted son, that he's so friendly, he goes up to anyone. I hear her worry; I have two daughters myself. But welcoming a child molester does not mean we abdicate our role as parent. It means sitting down with children and having a review of 'stranger danger'. It warrants the church developing a safe church policy, something every church should do. It means every adult keeping watch and also trusting God to be acting within this person. From what I heard of the story he seems to have an honest desire to be part of a faith community so that he might become a better person. He knows that to be isolated would mean only trouble for him.
It's a dicey call, but when do we start taking the gospel seriously? Doesn't a sex offender deserve the opportunity to practice resurrection just like the rest of us Christians?
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
The mistake I made was believing this conference to be comprised of open-minded, theologically-expansive Christians. Not so. My paper, entitled "...that they may all be one: The Physics of the Body of Christ" was applauded by some and ripped to shreds by others. I was even declared a heretic! I was also too green in my burgeoning process faith and so did not possess enough fortitude to defend myself properly.
Every year since they have sent me a brochure for the current year's colloquy. There's no way I'm going back but this year's question is worth struggling over, especially since it bumps right into process thought: "In a world of violence and suffering, how can we believe in an Almighty and all-loving God?"
Simply put, we can't. An all-powerful God who chooses not to use that power hardly seems all-loving. But then, that's too easy as well, too easy to dismiss a God like that and just give up all together.
"...it seems pretty obvious that if words like good or loving apply to people, then God must want to prevent broken arms, cancer, and rape as much as we do--indeed, far more because God's love is greater." (C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction)
God wants to prevent suffering but cannot. Indeed, God suffers the pain of all creation, in every molecule, fiber, and emotion. But God's role is persuasive rather than coercive. God has no hands but ours, to quote Theresa of Avila. God does everything within divine power to ease suffering and prevent evil, but then there's us with free will and the consequences of that will. We cannot expect God to be the only one who is all-loving and exclude ourselves from that equation. Jesus gave us the command to love: love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves. If love is limited, it is limited by our weakness and fear. If for no other reason, we need to believe in an all-loving God to help us to love all, by being in relationship with God and with one another and the creation.
As for power:
It's a different conception of power. It's power with rather than power over. It's solidarity and relationship and creativity and imagination and persuasiveness--all that relegated-to-the-feminine stuff (OMG!).
"If God has perfect unilateral power, then God is utterly unaffected by the world--perfectly unchangeable. ...If God cannot suffer, cannot be affected in any way, then God cannot love. To love is to be affected. But perfect unilateral power is the power not to be affected. ...To love is to feel all the passions of joy, sorrow, grief, fear, hope, and triumph that bind us to each other, that make life so dynamic and changeable. But perfect unilateral power is the power to be unaffected by such changing passions. A God with perfect unilateral power cannot love in the sense in which we love." (ibid.)
When I was a young mother to an energetic toddler, I needed a God who was going to keep me sane and keep me company. I wrote this out of my need:
A new creed
She sits with me
at the kitchen table
Her eyes brighter than mine
She drinks tea, listens, waits
for me to speak
She is in the oven
in the juices, the rising bread
Her heat under the boiling water
When I burn my hand
we both say “Damn!”
She is in the dirty bath water
the soiled sheets
and the bottom of the diaper pail
When my child whines, cries “Mommy”
for the umpteenth time that hour
She becomes the strong steady nerve
I didn’t know I had
She understands when I lose it—
she soothes my guilt
She’s in the whisper, my daughter’s
warm hair smell, the squeal of delight,
the “hopping frog” through the kitchen
that rattles the cupboards
She is Mother
full and empty
silence and clamor
peace and fury
sweetness and shit
She is not too much God for all this
to be beneath her
Oh no. She is beneath me
further descending beyond
anything I dare
She has saved me more times than I can number
That is power, that is love.
So is it ethical for a priest to rescue the holy host from a set of bosoms?
As for the post-baptismal fountain, if the priest were also a dad, he would have seen that coming.
And the hand-slap was from his mother-in-law (she was sitting on the bride's side of the aisle)! What a way to start off that relationship!
I need to get back to work if only to be a part of the ruckus once more.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Our sense of smell is one of the most potent of the five senses, because it has the power to bring us back in time to a place, a person, an experience and make it real for us. For instance, I love the smell of celery and onions sautéing in butter because it reminds me of my mother making her Southern cornbread dressing and of her cooking in general. The aroma of coffee brewing and bacon frying takes me back to my grandparents’ house in Mississippi when I was a little girl. Whenever I am in an office supply store, the smell of Scotch tape and ink and paper remind me of my childhood church and the office that contained a mimeograph machine on which the Sunday bulletins were printed.
Human beings can recognize more than 10,000 different scents or odorants. We have hundreds of olfactory receptor neurons in our nasal passages, each receptor encoded by a specific gene. If we do not possess a certain gene, then we have difficulty picking up particular scents.
The sense of smell is an important character in this passage and in the one leading up to it. In chapter 11 in John’s gospel, Jesus arrives four days too late to save his friend Lazarus from death. When he asks to have the stone taken away from the tomb, Martha, the sister of the dead man, says to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” The body has already begun to decompose; according to belief, a sign that the spirit or soul had left the body and resuscitation therefore impossible. But for Jesus, with whom nothing is impossible, this permeating odor of death is but a mere whiff of the perfume of resurrection to come. He then prays to God and calls forth Lazarus, who emerges from the tomb, the smelly graveclothes still clinging to his face and body.
Now, in this morning’s passage, the scene has changed completely. Lazarus now washed and clean, is host to Jesus and his disciples for dinner. His sister Martha serves the dinner but not contentiously as she did in the Lukan story between her and her sister Mary. There is no resentment about serving this time; the Greek word for ‘serve’ is used in the tradition of a deacon. There are the pleasant aromas of roasted meat and bread and wine and the air dense with the emotions of contentment, joy, and the intense feeling that very soon it is all about to end, for in raising Lazarus, Jesus has signed his own death warrant.
Into this charged atmosphere enters Mary with a jar of perfume made from pure nard. The word ‘nard’ comes from spikenard, a flowering plant that grows in the Himalayas of China, India, and Nepal, which explains why it is so costly. Its underground stems can be crushed and distilled into an intensely aromatic, amber-colored essential oil, very thick in consistency. It was a luxury item in the ancient world, something that would be used to anoint the head of a king; perhaps the body of a beloved brother but not the feet of a poor itinerant rabbi. To anoint the feet would be part of preparing a body for burial. And to wipe Jesus’ feet Mary lets down her hair, something a woman would do only for her husband or in grief.
Mary, sister of Lazarus, is the prodigal in this story. In her whole manner we see wasteful extravagance. She unleashes the potent fragrance of love into the dinner banquet, disrupting the heady scent of the meal and the mood of Judas, who reeks of stinginess and the betrayal to come. She does not use ordinary oil but one that is costly and pungent: the whole house is filled with its perfume. She lets loose her hair, like a lover would, as a spontaneous gesture of her gratitude for her brother and a sign of her exuberant affection for Jesus. She does not wait for his burial to give him her best but anoints him now, alive in her home, where she can enjoy his company and presence.
This lavish act of extravagant love is Mary’s prophecy of Jesus’ death: God’s lavish act of extravagant love in human flesh. Jesus’ death is indeed wasteful extravagance; there is nothing prudent or economical about God’s love on the cross. And there is nothing prudent or economical in Mary’s discipleship. In her unrestrained display of devotion we see the portrayal of supreme faithfulness. While Judas plays the role of bean counter (and not a very honest one at that), Mary in her filling the whole house with the fragrance of her love for Jesus fulfills the role of one passionate in love and service. The smell of death may be on the heels of Jesus but Mary witnesses to the overwhelming persistence of God’s love, that God’s love smells sweeter and stronger than death itself.
But I wonder: does God’s love always smell pleasant and sweet? Can God’s love smell like the sweat of migrant workers picking coffee, oranges, and grapes; the sweat of day laborers mowing grass, laying brick, tarring roofs? Can God’s love reek of a person who hasn’t bathed in days or months? Can God’s love stink of prison cells and tenement hallways and dingy nursing homes, battlefields and refugee camps? Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us but not always him. What did he mean by that? Do not all of us deserve a roof over our heads, health care, nutrition, clean water, clean clothes, clean hair, teeth and bodies, to know that we will never have to question these things?
Monday, March 19, 2007
****** Congregational Church, Bridgeport, CT
March 18, 2007
A few weeks ago at our church's jr. high Pilgrim Fellowship meeting I was introduced to a great book entitled More Would You Rather?: 465 More Provocative Questions to Get Teenagers Talking. Some examples of the questions: Would you rather pet a porcupine or lick a cactus? Wear platform shoes or 6" stilettos? Get locked out of the house naked or trip and fall at your wedding? Spend a night in a bed full of itching powder or wear a poison-ivy suit for a week? Stuck in a mental institution surrounded by patients or in an elevator with a dozen therapists? A bullet to the chest or a knife in the back? A quick, painful death or a long boring life?
The questions are “either/or” to get us thinking. Neither answer is better than the other, but how we answer sheds some light on who we are and on perhaps the person we’d like to become. I’d like to use some “Would you rather…?” questions about the gospel lesson to start off the sermon.
Would you rather sit at table and share a meal with tax collectors and sinners or would you rather stand with the scribes and the Pharisees? Would you rather eat with a prostitute, an arms dealer, a terrorist, a thief, a gang member, and a child molester with Jesus at the head of the table, serving and smiling at everyone? Or would you rather be with the local clergy association who are meeting with a group of lawyers to make sure that their liability insurance is up to snuff but can’t keep their eyes off Jesus and the folks he is eating with?
By associating with the outcasts of his day, in plain sight of the religious authorities, Jesus is asking this question of those present: would you rather join me or stay where you are? And he answers the question by telling three stories, one of which is the story of the prodigal and his brother.
Who would you rather be? Would you rather be the younger son in the story or the older son? Would you rather be selfish, have the time of your life only to wind up homeless and hungry, repentant and willing to be a servant in your father’s house, then be forgiven by your father and have a lavish party thrown for you? Or would you rather be faithful, diligent, self-sacrificing, live a comfortable life, have your father’s constant love, but be unable to forgive your brother, possibly miss out on his homecoming party, and be estranged from your loving father?
Since this is a parable, the story can be read on several levels. At its simplest, the story is about birth order, about an oldest child and the youngest child, one the hero, the other spoiled. Or is it good kid/bad kid pitted against one another to see who gets the father’s attention?
Freud might characterize the father and two sons/brothers this way: The younger son represents the id, that part of us that is about self-gratification. The older son represents the superego, the conscience, knowing right from wrong. The father represents the ego, the reality test that mediates between the id and the superego.
At a faith level it is a story about Israel’s children to whom Jesus was sent and the Gentiles who were coming into the faith before and during the time this gospel was written, around 70 CE. There were serious questions referring to the Jewish purity laws, about what food was allowed; was circumcision required; what kind of lives had the Gentiles led before committing themselves to the Way of Jesus. We can hear the voice of Jewish Christians in the elder brother and his refusal to accept his younger brother of the faith, these Gentile Christians who do not appreciate the history and relationship of God with the Jews. How can a covenant with God be shared and include those who may have no idea what it means to live in covenant with one another? How can the prodigal Gentile, those were once unclean and considered to be depraved, be called brother, sister?
Who can tell me what ‘prodigal’ means? I had thought that it meant ‘lost’; in some translations of the Bible, the story is entitled “The Parable of the Lost Son”. The word ‘prodigal’ has been used popularly to mean ‘one who has strayed and has now returned’, perhaps with the connotation of repentance included.
Wanting to be accurate, I looked it up in the dictionary. What I found surprised me; it means to be wastefully extravagant, to squander, to lavish. In fact, I think it would be very difficult to be frugally extravagant. It is easy to see that the younger son was wastefully extravagant and foolishly so, but truly both were prodigal sons. The younger son was prodigal of the flesh: he was wastefully extravagant upon himself and the pleasures of the flesh. The older son was prodigal of the spirit: inwardly he starved himself of joy, squandering his father’s extravagant goodwill and generosity by never asking for that party with his friends, which his father surely would have given him.
At its deepest level, this story is about Jesus as the ultimate prodigal son and his ‘older brother’, the tradition of the Law and the Prophets from which he came yet he seemed to flout again and again. Theologian Karl Barth depicted Jesus as the one who left the Father to travel into the far country to share tables with sinners, loving wastefully and extravagantly. It was Jesus who said, who reminded those who kept the Law, that the Law could be summed up in two commandments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. And the second is like the first: you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10: 27).
This story is the heart of the gospel, the Good News of Jesus in a nutshell. This and the parable of the Good Samaritan are the most well-known stories and teachings of Jesus among both churched and non-churched folks alike. It is the central message of the whole New Testament, the essence of the Christian faith. Simply said, it is this: God is love: wasteful, extravagant, unconditional love. And Jesus is the embodiment, the incarnation of that love.
Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong puts it this way:
“God is the Source of Life who is worshiped when we live fully. God is the Source of Love who is worshiped when we love wastefully. God is the Ground of Being who is worshiped when we have the courage to be.”
Jesus loved wastefully and extravagantly when he sat at table with sinners AND when he included the scribes and Pharisees in the telling of his parables.
I had asked you whether you would rather be the younger brother or the older brother. We usually tend to think in either/or questions, but God’s love is a both/and answer. It doesn’t matter whether you are the younger son or the older son, God wants everyone at the lavish party of reconciliation and forgiveness. It doesn’t matter whether we are Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, sinner or righteous, wasteful or frugal, lost or found—God wants all of us, no matter who we are. God is wastefully extravagant, for we can never squander God’s love; there is no end to it. To be sure, we can suffer when we turn away from that love; we can abuse God’s goodwill but God will always be there, waiting for us to come to ourselves, to come to our senses, to repent and turn to find God running toward us, God waiting for us to join the party.
And in the end that is what the story is really about, what the true title of the parable should be: The Waiting Father.(1) This story gives us the whole picture of who God is and thus, what we are called to do and be as God’s children. We are called to love wastefully and extravagantly and lavishly, especially those whom society would call outcasts, especially those who are not sure they are welcome at God’s celebration, at God’s table. We are called to forgive one another and search out the hurt and forgotten as God has done with us. God is the seeking and yearning one who comes offering a restored relationship. We who have been restored and raised to new life worship God when we offer those gifts to others unrestrainedly.
And so I ask you, ****** Congregational Church, what do you seek, what do you yearn for this Lenten season? How are you wastefully extravagant with the inheritance and blessings that God has given you? How does this community of faith see itself—as the younger brother or the older brother or both? What would help you in your striving to be the forgiving father? In what ways do you need to come to yourself, to your senses, to repent and turn? What has been your experience of church tradition meeting new interpretations? When was the last time you had a party together and truly enjoyed each other, inviting any and all to the celebration?
Jesus’ greatest gift to us is that he invites us “to step into [our] own humanity so deeply that [we] will find it a doorway to God”.(2) We step into that depth of humanity when we love as Jesus loved, that is, extravagantly and wastefully, so much so that he gave his life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) Helmut Thielicke, German theologian and preacher.
(2) John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
My direct supervisor is Sr. Victoria Nolan, a Sister of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul--retired from the pastoral care staff but now a volunteer, 88 years old with macular degeneration and a joy to be with. We usually eat lunch together and she tells me stories about her career as a nun. What a life she is living!
Today, just a few funny things happened that made the day interesting:
Before I went upstairs to visit folks, I went to the ladies room. As I was sitting 'doing my business' I looked over at the stall next to mine and saw two feet pointed the other way! Whoever he was, he finished quickly and left before I could ask him why he had to invade my privacy.
At the behest of a spouse of a patient, I went down to Security to ask about a parking pass. I was waiting behind a group of students. One of them, a man in his late twenties, early thirties said, "Let the young lady go ahead of us." That's nice coming from someone older than you, but younger it sounds like kissing up or just plain stupid. I wish I had had the nerve to ask him just how young he thought I was.
Lastly, I went into a patient's room, he was on the phone, I said I was from pastoral care, should I come back; he said "no", he didn't need a visit. When I reached the hallway, I heard him say into the phone "It was the Church!", like you would comment about something else pointless, unnecessary and irksome. ...And I'm racking my brain trying to think of something as universally pointless and irksome as the Church is to a lot of folks. Let that be your challenge for today. I'd like to know what you come up with.
Also, I'm reading a very funny teen book entitled An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. It's about a high school prodigy named Colin who is disasterously attracted to girls named Katherine. He's just been dumped by K-19 and goes on a summer road trip with his friend Hassan ("I'm not a terrorist."). If you like anagrams, a smattering of math, and quirky humor, you'll love this book. If you're thinking of recommending it to a young person, ages 13-17 would be appropriate (the word "fug" is used quite a bit; something I would not want my 10 yr. old picking up).
No parting words come to mind. Ciao!
Friday, March 09, 2007
Though the film is about William Wilberforce, who instigated the abolition of the British slave trade, many viewers will focus on its theme song and its author/composer, John Newton, a former slave trader. This hymn has become an anthem for our nation. It was included in the hymnals of Civil War soldiers. During the 1960's it was sung during civil rights protests. It was the most performed song in the memorial services occuring after 9/11.
It's a song about grace, that divine gift of unconditional love and acceptance, one that we wholeheartedly claim for ourselves but have difficulty sharing with others. Notice that the lyrics are written in the first person singular:
"Amazing grace/how sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me/I once was lost/but now am found/Was blind but now I see".
The only inclusive verse is the last one, which was added from another hymn in 1790, eleven years after Newton penned his faith:
"When we've been there 10,000 years/bright shining as the sun/We've no less days to sing God's praise/then when we first begun".
A few years back I was writing a sermon based on the flood narrative in Genesis when I came upon another hymn of Newton's, "The Hiding Place". One verse in particular illuminated this man's faith and the faith of the Church at the time of King George III:
"You have only to repose/On my wisdom, love, and care/Where my wrath consumes my foes/Mercy shall my children spare/While they perish in the flood/You that bear my holy mark/Sprinkled with atoning blood/Shall be safe within the ark."
The ark was the Church, that hiding place for those who bear God's holy mark, i.e., baptism and the blood of Christ from the cross. Grace was for those who realized their sinful ways and turned; those who did not turn faced God's wrath. The theology of grace had not yet progessed to its inclusive, universal vision, at least, not in England.
Those who read this blog who are Unitarian Universalists know far more about this than I do, but Universalist thought in Christian theology dates back as far as St. Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century. Universalism emerged in the American colonies as a denomination in 1793. Universalism rejects the notion of eternal damnation; instead it declares the existence of an all-loving God, who welcomes the whole of creation into redemptive relationship.
Grace isn't only about me or you; it's about us, all of us on this earth in need of forgiveness and right relationship with one another and with the Mystery that created all that there is. It's about community: inclusive, ever-widening, extravagant community.
The movie's website also lists a mission called The Amazing Change Campaign, which seeks to end slavery everywhere in the world. While ending child slavery and debt slavery is very much a justice issue that needs to be dealt with, there is another slavery that we see every day and it's called poverty; its slaves are the working poor of our country. If we're going to end slavery in this world, let's includes all the slaves, including each of us and the ways we are chained to the powers that be in this world. Free others, and free yourself in the process.
The Church is not a hiding place and neither is God. God and the Church may be our refuge for a time, but eventually we are called out into the world to share the love and redemption we have received so that all may know the freedom of grace.
Friday, March 02, 2007
A blog with help for those in desperate need of style! If you thought the devil wore Prada, the clergy wears what PeaceBang says we should wear! She's a petite fashionista, with a dash of Linda Richmond and dimples. And she's also going to be featured on Nightline tonight, so tune in.
In PeaceBang's words: "Because you're in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good".
P.S. This entry may seem to be a stark contrast to the one below but I also realize the value of good humor and not taking things too seriously, especially myself. And let's face it: we live in a body with all manner of idiosyncracies and peccadilloes of its own. As Dolly Parton said in Steel Magnolias "It takes a lot of effort to look like this". PeaceBang has an eye for the bargain and for items that will last over the long haul. She also lives and works on the south shore of Massachusetts where I grew up, the milieu of my people, as it were. Just fun stuff.
More magical thinking from the world of self-help. Apparently the "secret" to getting everything you want is "ask, believe, receive", the shorthand form of words of Jesus but taken entirely the wrong way. Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace said much the same thing but with an eastern twist: Where you place your focus determines your reality. Still, he wasn't talking about material goods either.
I agree with the premise that the mind and its thoughts and intentions are a source of great power but a power that we are much too immature as a species to use wisely (see Global Consciousness Project). There may be indeed a law of attraction whereby events, material goods, health, and other desirables gravitate towards us (or us towards them). But do we ever consider how all these things come to pass? Sure, a new BMW parked in the driveway would be great, we think, but it didn't just poof, arrive out of nowhere. Resources and materials were culled and assembled, mostly likely at the environment's expense, by many persons with many different lives and contexts, often not paid a living wage. A great amount of fuel is used to ship automobiles to their final destination. Whatever we want, it almost always involves other people and the life of this earth. Do we ever take into consideration how what we want will affect those whose job it is to produce it?
In a most marvelous book, Mutant Message Down Under, the Aborigines in the narrative always begin their petitions to the divine with the words if it is in my highest good and the highest good for all of life everywhere. You'd think this would be our heart's desire but we do not trust the divine to know what our highest good is, not really anyway.
Some would say that human beings are naturally selfish, that it is part of our biological heritage, a survival tactic but something we have to live with and try our best to overcome. I don't believe that. We are selfish because we learned as a species to be fearful that there isn't enough. And so we hoard and stock up, separate ourselves from the earth and from each other, thinking that we are safe, that it is because of our efforts that we have enough. Most of us have more than enough and can afford to live with less, yours truly included. Poverty is not a judgment on the poor for not trying hard enough but on everyone else.
Having faith, whatever it is you believe in, implies an ethic, a certain moral behavior, unless what you believe in is only yourself. What is the point of faith, of belief, if it doesn't pull you out of yourself, your little corner of the world and cause you to grow and better the world around you? And not bettering the world by Oprah-fying it but by leaving as little a footprint on the earth as possible and a huge impression upon the lives of others.
P.S. Here's what Barbara Ehrenreich had to say about The Secret.