Friday, June 27, 2008

Going with God

Tomorrow I am headed once again to Oaxaca, Mexico with 14 adults and college students for our church's mission trip to Casa Hogar. If you'd like to see what we're up to, click here to see daily photos and blog posts of our goings-on. Our main project will be building a cinderblock home for one of the 33 families that lives and works at the Oaxaca garbage dump. Last year we built the first one; this year we're on #16. We'll also be visiting, playing with, and eating with more than 70 children at Casa Hogar.

It's a week like no other, very full with the power to empty my mind of all its pettiness. Well, most of it. I ask your prayers for the safety and well-being of our group and prayers for the children and their caregivers and the resident workers at the dump. And for Kristen and Bryan, fearless leaders of Simply Smiles, Inc. who introduced us to Casa Hogar. When we return late on July 5, we'll be leading worship the next morning. Dios te bendiga.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Dobson's choice

from CNN:

Evangelical leader Dobson accuses Obama of 'distorting' Bible

Ironically, it seems James Dobson can't decide if he'd like to be the pot or the kettle. Take a look at this excerpt from his criticism of Obama's efforts to gain evangelical support, aired on his radio show yesterday.

Dobson took aim at examples Obama cited in asking which Biblical passages should guide public policy — chapters like Leviticus, which Obama said suggests slavery is OK and eating shellfish is an abomination, or Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, "a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application."

"Folks haven't been reading their Bibles," Obama said.

Dobson and [Tom] Minnery [senior vice president for government and public policy at Focus on the Family] accused Obama of wrongly equating Old Testament texts and dietary codes that no longer apply to Jesus' teachings in the New Testament.

"I think he's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology," Dobson said.

"... He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter."

It sounds like Dobson is saying that certain Old Testament texts that no longer apply are not equal to Jesus' teachings. Which would those be? It's okay to eat shellfish but we should still stone homosexuals? It's legitimate for Focus on the Family to pick and choose which verses in Leviticus are valid but not Senator Obama? Dobson could take his statements about Obama and level them squarely at himself, pointing his wagging finger in the direction of his mirror.

Besides all that, Dobson has chosen not to support McCain because he is not far enough to the right. In fact, he may not vote for a presidential candidate at all.

As the poet John Lydgate said: You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The day the funny died

Heaven is now a place I definitely want to be in. The saints in light have called home the funniest, dirtiest old man on earth: George Carlin, thus making what might have been just clouds and harps the biggest belly laugh in eternity.

I learned how to swear from dear old George. When I was thirteen, my mother enrolled me in a sex education class taught by a married couple from our church. One evening, at their house, a recording of George Carlin was played for about 10-12 seventh and eighth graders to initiate us into how most of society talks about sex. We heard the classics "The Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on Television" and "Sex in Commercials" from his collection on Indecent Exposure. You can imagine the effect it had on our prepubescent sense of humor.
When I was in seminary I listened with great regularity (and hilarity) to A Place for My Stuff. "Ice Box Man", "Football and Baseball", and the title track were priceless, sometimes laughing so hard I thought I would pee my pants.
As I grew older, I developed a fondness for George Carlin the actor. In Outrageous Fortune he played a nutjob of a desert guide. In The Prince of Tides he played the fun, thoughtful gay neighbor to Nick Nolte's suicidal sister. In Dogma he showed up as Cardinal Ignatius Glick, the Church being one of his favorite targets as a comedian. And he lent his vocal talents for the character of Fillmore in Cars.
In tribute to this singular voice, here is a video of "Football and Baseball", which also explains why many pastors are baseball fans.

Baseball and Football - Click here for more free videos

Monday, June 23, 2008


Matthew 10: 24-39; Romans 6: 1b-11
******** Congregational Church
June 22, 2008

Back in 1989 the cable channel MTV started a new series entitled “Unplugged”. Rock musicians were invited to play their well-known hits but with a catch: no electric guitars, no keyboards, no special effects—just acoustic guitar, the musician, and an intimate audience. The music was no longer frenetic but had more the pace of a relaxed heartbeat. Musicians had to reconsider their arrangements of songs, to keep the same energy and focus but in an acoustic setting. The song “Leila” by Eric Clapton now sounded like the love song it was intended to be. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with rock n’ roll; in fact I love it. But there are times when it is good to be challenged by letting go of the way things are, by letting go of what we are used to. Often, new life springs forth.

In recent years, especially since the boon in cell phones, Blackberries, ‘texting at the table’, and video games, families have been encouraged to take time to be “unplugged” in another way. Over a year ago I heard a story about families in Lexington, MA who organized one day to be unplugged from the 24/7 of all the craziness. All afterschool activities and homework were cancelled. No civic or religious meetings for the adults. Families were to make a home-baked pizza together, eat it together, play board games or an outdoor sport together, to take a break from the driving to and fro, from the video games, the computer, the TV, the MP3 player, the cell phone, and just be together, listening to one another without the help of electronic devices. This is not for the meek. Believe it or not, this is harder for some than for others. But in my house it’s called Sunday.

What society or culture calls getting back to simplicity, or being unplugged, is what our faith calls dying to self. We all need to be reminded of the backbone of our tradition because some of it is a lot harder than we’d like to think.

Today’s scripture from the lectionary is no exception. This is the kind of scripture, that when its turn comes up in the preaching cycle, causes the preacher to remember that we are not in the pulpit to be popular, funny, or comfortable. To be sure, those things can happen but they can’t be the source we rely upon for our preaching energy. There has to be substance, which comes from God. Scripture like this makes a preacher get out of the way and let God do the talking. We die to self in passages like this and thus are reborn in our connection to the text, to the congregation, and to God.

In fact, in order to understand these passages, especially the one in Matthew, we need to unplug ourselves from our assumptions and our fear. We need to let go of our resistance to sayings like, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather be afraid of God, who can destroy both body and soul in hell” or “I did not come to bring peace but a sword” or “Whoever loves his father or mother more than me is not fit to be my disciple”.

First, Jesus is not ushering a call that we alienate our families in order that we may follow him. In the Middle Eastern or Semitic perspective a result was viewed as the purpose as well. The division of families was indeed a reality, a result of the Jesus movement within Judaism. The religion of the head of the household dictated the religion of the whole house: spouse, children, servants—everyone. If anyone chose to follow Jesus and to break with this tradition it caused great strife in the household. The thinking was: if families are divided then this must have been Jesus’ purpose.

Second, Jesus was not challenging the least and weakest of claims on our loyalties but our strongest ones, our family ties. He offered himself as an alternative to the best society had to offer, not the worst.

And it is precisely what we think is the best way we can spend our time, our energy, as the church, the body of Christ, but also in our lives as Christians, that Jesus tests our discipleship against. We can easily abandon our failures but can we also let go of our successes in order that we be faithful? Can we let go of what we think constitutes success, of what we think makes for failure? What model of our faith can we look to, to help us with letting go, with dying to self and finding new life?

In Paul’s letter to the early church in Rome he speaks of being baptized into Christ’s death and into Christ’s resurrection. In baptism we are buried with Christ and we are raised with him as well.

We who practice infant baptism have difficulty thinking of a baby needing to die with Christ in order to be raised with him. But in the early Church the practice of baptism reflected this dying and rising very vividly.

Those who wished to prepare for baptism were given instruction about the faith beginning in Lent. Then on Good Friday these converts, called catechumens, were baptized by immersion into the death of Jesus. As they were submerged their old lives were left behind in the water. They emerged as new persons, new creations, and thus were naked, like a newborn baby. They were then clothed in white and given a meal of milk, honey, and soft bread: baby food, really. They then stayed in the empty church, buried with Christ, until Easter morning when they were presented to the congregation as new members in the faith, now being baptized into Christ’s resurrection. It was an incredible experience of death and rebirth.

But how are we to enter into such an experience, we who have been baptized as infants? How are we to die to self and rise with Christ?

One way is through extended periods of silence, as we will practice in a few minutes during this morning’s prayer time. In silence we release all the thoughts in our mind that seek to fill the emptiness. We empty ourselves of our schedule, our list of things to do, our worries, the past, the unknown future, those things that please us, our friends and our families—we let go of all of it. In silence we are filled instead by God, by the power of pure love. In silence we find freedom from all that distracts us: we find Spirit.

When I was in seminary, every year I would go on a silent weekend retreat in Gloucester, MA. The participants could talk during dinner the first night but then after that we were to be silent all weekend long. Meals were taken in a dining hall that faced a beautiful cove inhabited by seals and seabirds. We listened to meditative music as we ate facing a wall of windows with a view of the cove. When we passed each other in the hallway there was no need for greeting each other except by a look or a smile. We respected each other’s space and each other’s encounter with God in the silence. Then Sunday, after the celebration of the Eucharist, we would eat lunch and could then share with one another what the weekend had been like for us.

In the church we are rarely silent. In many churches the prelude is often treated as background music to our conversations, as if we were at a cocktail party. Fellowship is good and has its place in our life together. But when we come to worship it is the time that we become unplugged from our lives, when we leave them at the door because they’ll be waiting there for us when we leave. Worship, and especially silence, is when we are called out of ourselves that we may be in Christ.

We are more than just a body of Christians; we are more than a group of people with a shared common interest. We are the body of Christ; through baptism we have union with the living Christ. Our identity is joined to Christ, taking primacy over any other identity we may have. Through baptism we participate in, not merely reenact or imitate Christ’s death and resurrection.
But our baptism as infants is not our only baptism. John the Baptist said that he baptized with water but that there would be one, Jesus Christ, who would come after, who would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit.

Baptism by fire: it’s a phrase we use when we are thrown into a situation and forced to let go of all we think we know and learn anew our dependence on God and on each other. Often I think of these times as Christ leading me to something new, to some awareness about myself or others and to reliance on God’s very real and powerful presence.

In the time of Jesus there was a Jewish sect who called themselves Essenes. John the Baptist was one of them. It is thought that Jesus might have also been an Essene. They left Jerusalem to live in the desert because they believed that Jerusalem had become too worldly. In the early Church we have our own desert fathers and mothers from the 4th and 5th century who sought God through prayer and meditation, patience, poverty, humility, and obedience. These are strange words to us in the 21st century. These monks and nuns “stepped off the world”; they died to themselves that they might find God in a way that would be more real than anything they thought they could experience by living an ordinary life.

St. Francis of Assisi practiced this dying to self in this way: his spiritual companion was Sister Death. Whenever he was troubled or confused or worried or impatient, he would consult Sister Death. Then the trouble or confusion or worry would seem not so important and he would be able to be patient.

The paradox of the believer is this: If we want to live a life that is full we must surrender our lives. As in the words of the Call to Worship, if we want to know how to live, we must learn how to die. The Christian faith began in a way as an act of subversion. Being “unplugged”, “stepping off the world”, being silent, dying to self, surrender, knowing death as a close friend, baptism: all these are acts of subversion to the status quo for they lead to resurrection, they lead to new life; new life not of this world but of the kingdom of God; new life not of the flesh but of the Spirit.

How might this church step out of itself, die to its past and its future, that the present might become alive? What are your failures, your successes, that you need to let go of in order to be faithful? What is it about the Christian faith that confronts the claims of loyalty in your life? How costly is discipleship in this church, in your life? How has this church, how have you, experienced the cross? Does the idea of silence in worship beckon you or challenge you? How can this church walk with death, be baptized with fire, be subversive, that new life, resurrection may come?

In the words of the poet Wendell Berry: So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. …Practice resurrection. Amen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Will they or won't they?

Yesterday, at my local library, I found the newest publication in a series of mysteries, I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer-Fleming (see Novels of Faith and Murder under Places to Go). It's the sixth installment of the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mysteries that take place in the fictitious Adirondack town of Millers Kill, NY. Clare is an ordained Episcopal priest and a captain in the National Guard flying helicopters; Russ is the chief of police in this would-be sleepy little town.

(I picture Julianne Moore and Robert Patrick playing the two of them in my mind's eye.)

The two friends end up solving murders while their friendship evolves into something more. At the end of book five, All Mortal Flesh, things get pretty complicated between these two engaging characters.

A few chapters into I Shall Not Want the two of them seem like they are finally going to consumate this long-standing passion between them when they are, of course, interrupted. It got me thinking about this ancient story formula, the journey to the lovemaking bed.
Whether it's in soap operas, books, movies or plays, the force behind the lovers is the physical consumation of their love, not a church service. The wedding/marriage is also desired by the audience but only secondarily to the bodily and spiritual joining. The promises made in the marriage covenant are an outward sign of an invisible reality, that the two are one. How can one make such promises without ever experiencing the actual joining itself? The physical joining binds us to one another in a way that words can only try to approach. But the ritual is necessary to declare to the world that our reality has changed, that where we were one, now we are two; where there were two, now there is one.

In my parents' day, if you had sex with someone, you married them: a poor excuse for marriage if ever I heard one. What I'm speaking of is lovemaking, a mystical union of flesh and spirit. I'm not advocating having sex with every person we find attractive. But when a relationship has progressed to a certain point, when two people begin to intertwine their lives in such a way as to say "I want to grow old with you", then yes, the physical, mystical union occurs before the promises.

It's like waiting to take communion until you've been confirmed. How can one confirm something they've never experienced?

When I counsel a couple for marriage who have been living together, I ask them, so what difference will a wedding, a piece of paper make? Usually, they answer that they want to commit to this inner reality they've been experiencing, that they want to acknowledge their union in front of family and friends--and God, and declare it real. Experiencing that kind of union can be kind of scary, to admit that we need another human being in our lives so we can give someone our inadequate, imperfect love. I don't blame them for waiting and wanting to see how it goes before they make their promises.

As for me and what I did? That's private business. But it intrigues me, this heart-pounding, wrenching pull toward this physical union, as ancient as David and Bathsheba, and older, that compels to us to read a story as in no other way. Will they or won't they? How? And how will it change the relationship and the story? That's the real mystery, isn't it?

Monday, June 16, 2008

From the Sunday bulletin

This was used at the end of a litany to recognize the graduates in our congregation. These words were theirs to close the time of celebration.

Eternal light, shine in our hearts.
Eternal goodness, deliver us from evil.
Eternal power, be our support.
Eternal wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance.
Eternal pity, have mercy on us
That with all our heart and mind
and soul and strength we may seek your face
and be brought by your infinite mercy to your holy presence.
(Alcuin of York, 8th century)

And this was our call to worship:

Leader: The sinners, the saints, the broken, the whole...
All: We all come to this place seeking grace and hope.
Leader: The doubters, the devout, the wonderers, the wanderers...
All: We come yearning for justice and hope for all God's people.
Leader: The hesitant, the heroic, the grandparents, the little children...
All: We come to listen for the songs of joy and sing our thanks for the gifts of life, love and peace!

This was Strawberry Festival Sunday. Every year around Father's Day, when the strawberries are ripe, our church puts on a festival that Saturday and Sunday, serving strawberry shortcake, smoothies, homemade jams, pies, breads, and of course, chocolate covered strawberries. But the best part is the Sunday morning worship before we start working again. Our church band, Don't Be Alarmed, plays fantastic music. The whole congregation is awash in a sea of red as we wear our festival t-shirts. It's one of the most Spirit-filled services during the year. In a way, it's our Pentecost. We welcome visitors and crafters from all over to our town and our church. Everyone works together and pitches in, whatever can be done. The music is lively and so are we.

To quote a song we sang:

Leader: God is good...
All: All the time
Leader: And all the time...
All: God is good!

Our church band, Don't Be Alarmed

Friday, June 06, 2008

It's all George Carlin's fault

You Are 75% Pure

You're pretty pure, and you have no plans on changing that.

You do have a devilish side though... and it will probably get the better of you.

No questions about impure thoughts, though. George Carlin, where are you when we need you?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

That '70's girl

(It's scary how true many of these are. This is you or your sister or someone you knew from the '70's. In the comments, tell me who this resembles.)

You had that Fisher Price Doctor's Kit with a stethoscope that actually worked.

You owned a bicycle with a banana seat and a plastic basket with flowers on it.

You learned to skate with actual skates (not roller blades) that had metal wheels.

You thought Gopher from Love Boat was cute.

You had nightmares after watching Fantasy Island.

You had either a 'bowl cut' or 'pixie', not to mention the 'Dorothy Hamill'. People sometimes thought you were a boy.

You had rubber boots for rainy days and Moon boots for snowy days.

You owned a 'Slip-n-Slide', on which you injured yourself on a sprinkler head more than once.

You owned 'Klick-Klacks' and smacked yourself in the face more than once!

Your Holly Hobbie sleeping bag was your most prized possession.

You wore a poncho, gauchos, and knickers.

You begged Santa for the electronic game, Simon.

You had the Donny and Marie dolls with those pink and purple satiny shredded outfits, or the Sunshine family.

You spent hours in your backyard on your metal swing set with the trapeze. The swing set tipped over at least once.

You had homemade ribbon barrettes in every imaginable color.

You had a pair of Dr. Scholl's sandals (the ones with a hard sole & buckle). You also had a pair of salt-water sandals.

You wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder really bad; you wore that Little House on the Prairie-inspired plaid ruffle shirt with the high neck in at least one school picture; and you despised Nellie Oleson!

You wanted your first kiss to be at a roller rink.

PONG! ('video tennis' ) was the most remarkable futuristic game you've ever heard of!

Your hairstyle was described as having 'wings' or 'feathers' and you kept it 'pretty' with the comb you kept in your back pocket. When you walked, the 'wings' flapped up and down, looked like you were gonna 'take off'.

You know who Strawberry Shortcake is, as well as her friends, Blueberry Muffin and Huckleberry Pie.

You carried a Muppets lunch box to school and it was metal, not plastic. With the thermos inside some were glass inside and broke the first time you dropped them.

You and your girlfriends would fight over which of the Dukes of Hazzard was your boyfriend.
YOU had Star Wars action figures, too!

It was a big event in your household each year when the 'Wizard of Oz' would come on TV. Your mom would break out the popcorn and sleeping bags.

You often asked your Magic-8 ball the question: 'Who will I marry. Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett, or David Cassidy?'

You completely wore out your Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and Fame soundtrack record album.

You tried to do lots of arts and crafts, like yarn and Popsicle-stick God's eyes, decoupage, or those weird potholders made on a plastic loom. You made Shrinky-Dinks and put iron-on kittens on your t-shirts.

You used to tape record songs off the radio by holding your portable tape player up to the speaker.

You had subscriptions to Dynamite and Tiger Beat.

You learned everything you needed to know about girl issues from Judy Blume books. (Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret?, It's Not the End of the World, Deenie.)

You thought Olivia Newton John's song 'Physical' was about aerobics.
You wore friendship pins on your tennis shoes, or shoelaces with heart or rainbow designs.

You wanted to be a Solid Gold dancer.

You drowned yourself in Love's Baby Soft - which was the first 'real' perfume you ever owned.

You glopped your lips in Strawberry Roll-on lip-gloss till it almost dripped off.
This is me, circa 1983, after I recovered from the '70's. I had had the Dorothy Hamill look; also the pixie. Yes, I did look like a boy in 1978. I got my ears pierced just to confuse people. But then came the '80's when we needed to recover from mall hair, shoulder pads, and gaudy jewelry. The '90's and the '00's have been pretty cool as far as fashion goes (except for the thong and refrigerator butt - blech!). Which means we are due for another decade from which to recover. I think war, recession, global warming, and the Bush administration are enough, don't you?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Are you there, God? It's me, the Mom.

This past Saturday, after losing a wrenching soccer game (final score 5 to 1), my first baby girl got her period at the tender age of 11 1/2.

It hadn't been a great morning. I was tired: my husband had been out of town for most of the previous week, he and I had had a tiff before I left for the game, and I was ready for a break. So when she yelled "Mom, come up here quick!" from the bathroom upstairs, I mumbled to myself, "Mom is unavailable at the moment".

But then she yelled again, "Mom, I really need to you to see this!" I went upstairs and knocked on the bathroom door, poked my head in and said, "What is it, sweetie?"

"Is this blood?"

"Oh, my God, it sure is! Oh my goodness, you've got your period! My little girl, wow, this is the beginning." And she started to get anxious, saying "Oh no" over and over.

"It's okay, honey," I intoned. "This is wonderful! You're growing up!"

Then she started to laugh, giggle, and cry all at the same time, as if the faucet that opened the way for her hormones and her blood unleashed her all at once. Then I got her a pad and a clean pair of underwear, put the soiled ones in the sink with some cold water, made sure she knew what to do, then left her alone to finish up.

Since then we've had a few brief discussions about swimming, tampons, how often, how long, and that it is indeed natural and not disgusting. Funny how that particular stain still seems so indelible even now. I've told her that I would like to celebrate with her, perhaps have lunch just the two of us; buy her a special piece of jewelry at the Strawberry Festival at our church in a couple of weeks. She's all excited now. My mom took me out for lunch and bought me a ring and a necklace, both now lost.

There are times I wish we lived in a culture that saw this as magical and wondrous, as a time for gathering women and girls together, and that she and I would take some of her blood and mark our faces like warriors, priestesses, leading all assembled in a dance to drumbeats, lit by a bonfire and starlight. Instead we have replaced all this with the blood of a innocent man, shed by violence, his body given that we might be saved.

In truth, it is my blood that saves me every month, that gives me time to myself, apart from men, to reflect and own my truth. Through the blood of our mothers we were all nourished, their bodies given that we might have life. And my firstborn daughter is now part of that long line; the beginning of her relationship with the mysteries of living.

This is a poem I wrote for her not long after she was born. It still holds true.

If Jesus Had Been a Girl

If Jesus had been a girl
we would await the birth
of the newborn queen,
Queen of the Jews,
like Esther, who saved
her people by sacrificing
and risking more than
just her lovely face.

If Jesus had been a girl
there would have been
no presentation in the
temple, no lost child at
the center of attention
with learned scholars.
Herod would not have
cared had she been born
—no threatened, paranoid
ego, no slain babies, no
kings from afar.

If Jesus had been a girl,
she would have been
our sister, but no one
would have listened.
And she would have
lived to a ripe old age,
begging at the temple
gates, speaking of God’s
radical, amazing love,
many thinking she was
crazy. End of story.

Yet you, little one, were
born a girl and I know
I have seen the salvation
of my soul. For God’s glory
is revealed in your face and
in the face of every baby.
To see your face is like
seeing the face of God.

Joy to the world,
for you have come to earth
and given me a second