Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Which theologian are you?

You Scored as Jürgen Moltmann

The problem of evil is central to your thought, and only a crucified God can show that God is not indifferent to human suffering. Christian discipleship means identifying with suffering but also anticipating the new creation of all things that God will bring about.

Jürgen Moltmann 60%
John Calvin 53%
Paul Tillich 53%
Friedrich Schleiermacher 33%
Karl Barth 33%
Martin Luther 33%
Charles Finney 20%
Augustine 20%
Anselm 20%
Jonathan Edwards 13%

Take the quiz at QuizFarm.

It's funny--I've been told this before, that my theology is similar to Moltmann's, years ago when I attended a theological colloquy on Cape Cod. And no, I didn't read any of him when I was in seminary or if I did, I've forgotten it. In fact, I made every effort to get through Systematic Theology without having to read everything assigned--there was just too much. Theologians can be quite long-winded, which you know if you've been reading this blog. So I've asked the local library to request some titles of his so I can do the reading I should have done 20 years ago in order to legitmately claim that my theology is akin to Moltmann.

P.S. Charles Finney? Any relation to Lt. Commander Ben Finney?

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Language of Longing

Story of the brazen serpent in the desert

Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
******** United Church of Christ

March 22, 2009

Earlier this week, as I was about to start writing my sermon, the doorbell rang. It was the FedEx guy with an envelope for my husband. As I opened the door and signed the electronic pad, I asked him, “How’s it going?” He replied, “I’m hanging in there.” I said, “I guess that’s what we’re all doing these days.” He shot back, “Yeah, it’s about all you can do in this freakin’ world.”

In his voice of complaint I could hear the longing: longing for better days ahead, for a time perhaps in the past when things didn’t seem so complicated, longing for change right now, this minute. And these days, there is much to complain about.

We’ve all heard the news about the incredible amounts of bonus payments given to AIG executives, money that was supposed to be used to bail out the ailing corporation. Edward Liddy, AIG’s CEO, was asked two and three times to release the names of these executives to the House Financial Services Committee. In an effort to protect his employees, Liddy cited that death threats had been received regarding his executives and their families, and he pleaded for confidentiality.

The atmosphere of complaint in this nation has turned vicious and violent for some, harkening back to the days of revolution: not freedom from tyranny, but the poor and middle classes raging against the rich, when a dictator’s empty promises were preferred over a messy, sometimes ill-conceived government of the people.

Our deep longing, our rising complaint reveals our desire for rescue, for someone, anyone to take us out of our painful circumstances and set us down gently in that bright land of plenty, health, and wholeness.

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this land of woe
But there’s no sickness, toil or danger
In that bright land to which I go.

The Israelites wandering in the desert thought that their rescue from Egypt would be better than their life of slavery. But appearances can be deceiving. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” We can hear it in their voices: they would almost rather go back to Egypt, back to the Pharaoh/dictator who ruled their existence than trust this Moses, an Egyptian-raised Hebraic stuttering sheep-herder, who looked both ways before he killed an Egyptian, whose life was now sought by Pharaoh. Yet Moses was also the designated mouthpiece of God.

This rescue doesn’t seem to be going very well. It’s hardly a magic carpet ride through the desert: there is no food, no water, and the miserable food—the manna from God—is unacceptable. The people have been complaining continually, and then it gets worse. Poisonous, or fiery, serpents are sent amongst them; they bite the people and some of them die. Their complaint bites them back.

God sends snakes to bite people just because they don’t like his food? Sounds a bit ludicrous to me. My kids sometimes complain about what I cook for dinner but snake bites? Jesus said “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7: 9-11) God gives good things, not snakes, right?

But if you look in the notes of this Bible passage, another word for fiery serpent is seraph, as in the seraphim, celestial beings in the court of heaven. In early Judaism these were six-winged flying snakes, demonic creatures really, but who also sang the praises of heaven. Literally, seraph means ‘burning one’. These were the angels who touched Isaiah’s lips with burning coals in order to purify his speech. Those who looked upon the seraphim directly would be incinerated due to their intense brightness and heat.


God sent these fiery serpents to remind these poor wayfaring Israelites that what they longed for was not what satisfies the stomach but what satisfies the soul—God. Sometimes what we long for the most, we also avoid the most. We long for closeness with God but we also fear that intense brightness and heat that cuts through our despair. Like Dante, many of us only seem able to find heaven by traveling straight through hell.

I know dark clouds will hover o’er me
I know my pathway’s rough and steep
But golden fields lay just before me
Where weary eyes no more shall weep.

So what’s the cure for complaint, the cure for our circuitous route through sickness, toil and danger, the wilderness of life, the cure for sin? God has Moses construct a serpent made of bronze, to resemble those fiery ones, and set it on a pole, that those who have been bitten will look upon it and live. They will look upon the instrument of death and they will live.

Brazen serpent sculpture, Jerusalem

Worship is a cure for the sickness of sin. And we have our own pole to look upon, this brazen cross of death and resurrection, that we might remember the burning heat of Jesus, how he came to bring not peace but a sword; remember his intense brightness, making blind those who claim to see and freeing those who live in darkness.

Worship, like complaint, is another language of longing. In worship we give voice to our desire for wholeness, our longing for healing, our hunger for justice and peace. We listen to the old, old salvation story told again and again as we make our circuitous way through our own wilderness. God’s rescue, even that one offered to us in Jesus Christ, does not lift us out of our painful circumstances but gives us a way through them. That brazen cross looms not only over our individual lives but over every person, every community who dares to love.

But worship does not take place solely within these walls. Worship is anything that pulls the focus off of us and onto God and our neighbor. We worship when we serve others, when we give our offering, when we teach Sunday school, when shelter meals are dished up, when youth are greeted with smiles and open arms at True Colors, when jr. high kids gather and talk and have fun together, when we wait with a friend for test results to come back, when a “Thank you, God” escapes our lips.

In these moments the old, old salvation story is told through our story and through the story of this congregation, that story of not of rescue but of a way through. We remember, in the words of the psalmist, God’s steadfast love and God’s wonderful works to humankind, even to us, offering thanks and singing songs of joy. We remember that God seeks not to gratify our immediate wishes but to satisfy the longing of our hearts.

I want to wear a crown of glory
When I get home to that bright land
I want to shout the salvation story
In concert with that angel band.

Ultimately what we, and those Israelites, long for is home, that promised land where all God’s children are beloved and live in peace, where weary eyes no more shall weep. Death and resurrection are not the only absolutes of the Christian life. They point to the highest truth which is love. And love is home; God is home. We long for those many rooms, those many mansions Jesus prepares for us, those places of acceptance, trust, forgiveness, mercy, healing, compassion, justice and peace.

We are always living in an in-between time, between what was and what will be, a time that will never come again. And like the Israelites it seems we must take the long route through the desert to find our way to that promised bright land.

Today we begin an interim time, a time of transition, a time when we wish for what was known in the past, when we desire the resolution of our future, when we long for anything but the present unknown. We will wrestle, we will struggle, and yes, we will complain. Whenever we go through a time of uncertainty, little things that bother us will seem like big things and big things will seem overwhelming. And that’s okay. It will feel like we are wandering through the desert, but at least in this church, we won’t complain about the food!

The desert has a purpose. In the desert God made a community, one that would listen to God, no matter who God spoke through. Everyone leaves—everyone, one way or another. Moses was an interim minister himself: he never got to the promised land—he only saw it from a distance. Jesus, too, was a transition man, between this world and the next. But God’s love is steadfast.

What we need to remember in this interim time is that we’re all longing for the same thing, and our complaining, our worship, and this house of love will remind us of that. We’re all longing for home.

I’m going home to see my Savior
I’m going home no more to roam
I am just going over Jordan

I am just going over home.

"Wayfaring Stranger", words and music traditional

(My first Sunday went very well. I was welcomed with roses and a well-chosen greeting card. When I whispered to the deacon seated next to me how touched I was, she replied, "Get used to it." )

Monday, March 16, 2009

Rush is in the Bible!

The other night, in my devotional reading of the psalter, I came across Rush Limbaugh in the Bible! But please don't tell him--it will only swell his oversized head.

Psalm 52 (KJV)

Why boastest thou thyself in mischief, O mighty man?
the goodness of God endureth continually.
2Thy tongue deviseth mischiefs; like a sharp razor,
working deceitfully.
3Thou lovest evil more than good; and lying rather than to speak righteousness.
4Thou lovest all devouring words, O thou deceitful tongue.
5God shall likewise destroy thee for ever, he shall take thee away,
and pluck thee out of thy dwelling place, and root thee out of the land of the living.
6The righteous also shall see, and fear, and shall laugh at him:
7Lo, this is the man that made not God his strength;
but trusted in the abundance of his riches, and strengthened himself in his wickedness.
8But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God:
I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.
9I will praise thee for ever, because thou hast done it:
and I will wait on thy name; for it is good before thy saints.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A working girl in process

You may remember a previous post in which I compared my latent feelings about supply preaching to a one-night stand. Though I am still ready for a full-time commitment, I have accepted a part-time position as the interim pastor of a local church. This is a church I have worked with before when their pastor was on sabbatical.

When I interviewed with the interim search committee (all familiar faces, by the way--I even remembered their names!), I explained these feelings as part of an answer to the question, "How have you changed in the last three years [since you were here last]?" The chair of the committee asked, "But this is still a temporary position. How would you describe this relationship, if we were to call you as the interim minister?" And another committee member responded, with all due respect, "A love affair?"

Yes, a love affair. With a church. With God. What a wonderful way to heal, to grow, for both of us to move forward. Now, don't get me wrong--I don't have on my rose-colored glasses. I know things will be rocky at times, stressful--I'll get some grief hurled my way. Really I'll be more like a midwife attending the birth of something new and wonderful. But this church will also midwife me into a new chapter as well, without their even knowing it.

The sad part of this, though, is that I will be away from my home church whom I dearly love. In fact, I fell in love with my home church, which is what has made it wonderful and difficult when I had to return after serving in another church. It was wonderful to be home, but it was difficult to be in love and yet not be their pastor, to be in relationship but only so far. This coming Sunday will be my last for quite a while. This interim position could last as long as two years. My emotions have been running in all directions: grief, joy, fear, excitement, doubt, hope, you name it.

I have so much to do: resign from the board of Trustees in my church and from volunteering in the thrift shop and the Jr. Pilgrim Fellowship, the upcoming tag sale, find people to fill in for me in a few places. Visit the matriarch of our church who holds a special place in my heart (she calls me "Trouble"). I have to sign my contract, get keys, meet with the Pastor and Personnel Relations committee, meet with the moderator and the chair of Deacons. Oh and write a sermon every week. I haven't worked like this in twelve years. Plus take a three-day course of interim ministry training in PA, which is the only amount of time I can be away, since I am still the primary caregiver for my girls.

In fact, they hired me even though I didn't have the training; it was their only concern. So I asked the chairperson, didn't they interview other candidates with interim training? Yes, they did. So why did they hire me, even though I am not trained in interim ministry? She said it was because of the answers I gave in the interview that were not like the answers of the other candidates. They prayed about it, struggled with it, but in the end they felt that I would be best for them. And I am humbled.

So dear blogfriends, pray for me. Pray for this church. Hold us in the light. And fasten your seatbelts...it's going to be a wild ride.

Friday, March 06, 2009

These shoes were made for walking

from NPR.org - All Things Considered, March 5, 2009

Indian Company Buys Gandhi's Belongings for $1.8 M

The man who had Gandhi's personal effects in his possession, James Otis, claimed he was selling the items to raise money to promote pacifism. He had offered to give the brass bowl and plate, eyeglasses, pocket watch and sandals to the Indian government but with two conditions: that the Indian government increase its spending on health care for its citizens and that Gandhi's things be sent on a world tour. The Indian government, threatening legal action before the auction, rejected the conditions (claiming their rightful sovereignty), saying that they would bid on the items as they are part of India's heritage. In the end they were purchased by an Indian businessman, who then donated them to the Indian government.

What gets me is that James Otis, an avowed collector of items pertaining to nonviolence, does not view money and the selling of a modern saint's modest possessions as part of, or contributing to, violence. As it was, he started a fight. If he truly wanted to promote nonviolence, he would have given them to the Indian government with no fanfare, no publicity, no strings attached ...anonymously.

I think Gandhi would have preferred that his things fade into obscurity, performing their function for someone who needed them. Now they'll be treated like holy relics.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Education = Opportunity = Freedom

from Newsweek - March 9, 2009

"If we give the money to the widows, they will spend it unwisely because they are uneducated and they don't know about budgeting. But if we find her a husband, there will be a person in charge of her and her children for the rest of their lives."
--Mazin al-Shihan, director of a city agency in Baghdad that plans to pay men to marry Iraq's war widows.

Why not then take this money and educate the widows? Then she can be in charge of herself and of her children. Imagine being married to a man who was paid to be your husband. This world will not evolve toward peace while women are still being treated as chattel.

Monday, March 02, 2009

A third way

Genesis 9: 8-17; Psalm 25: 1-10
********* Congregational Church
March 1, 2009

When I was a little girl, I would look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, and think to myself that I was the only person who had to use a mirror to see my face and my body, as I looked out on the world from within my small frame, from behind my eyes, and that no one else was like this.

As I grew older, especially into adolescence, it was always my view of reality, of events, my emotions, my perspective that was the most important, the only framework on which I based my values, my decisions and my ideas of “The Way Things Are”. In a nutshell, I was the center of my universe.

That is, until I had begun my habit as a serious reader, until I had formed friendships in earnest. Through my relationships with books and with peers and adults, I discovered this whole new world of other people’s opinions, thoughts, feelings, points of view, which were entirely different from my own! Now I had to find another path of negotiating the world in such a way that would honor not only my own selfhood but that of others as well.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Third Way philosophy of politics. It is a term used by centrists as a synthesis of capitalism and democratic socialism, using elements of both of these divergent methods of economic governance. It has also been known as the Radical Center. FDR’s New Deal is an example of this Third Way politics. The Third Way rejects both pure socialism and laissez-faire capitalism. Instead it focuses on social justice as well as the development of wealth and technology. Both laissez-faire capitalists and social democrats feel betrayed by this Third Way, because of an all-or-nothing adherence to their own positions.

To help move beyond this culture and political war we’ve been engaging for the past half century or so, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank by the name of ThirdWay.org was launched in January 2005. They take their motto from the eighteenth verse of the first chapter of Isaiah: “Come, let us reason together.” Working on security, political and cultural issues, this team of leaders is working with elected officials, candidates and advocates to create progressive policies, to change the climate of debate from one of fear and anger to that of reason and respect.

Anytime there is more than one person in the room, there is going to be a difference of opinion of some sort, therefore, a need for a third way: not my way, not your way, but another. That is why when two or three are gathered, Jesus is in the midst of them: not as a benediction for small gatherings but because in the Church, Jesus is our third way of being in community with one another.

Lord, dear Lord above: God of mercy, God of love,
Please look down and see my people through.

Every relationship must have a third way if it is to be an enduring one: not a compromise but an altogether different way of living, creating a new being, a third entity. Marriage is a perfect example. Each person in the marriage has an independent life, with their own work, interests, desires and hopes, yet together there is also an interdependence which helps to create shared hopes and interests, giving a kind of synergy to each partner, shaping this third entity, a marriage, a covenant.

Of course these are the best intentions in a relationship. Often it is difficult for us to find this third way. We can be hopelessly wed to our own opinions and attitudes, believing that it has to be my way or the highway. We perceive a threat, we think a conflict is at hand, the fear is rising in our throats, and instantly our bodies and minds react in the ancient way: fight or flight. We come out with our weapons ready or we run away to a safe place to hide.

I believe that one of the next stages in human evolution will be to evolve beyond this “fight or flight” reflex and to find a third way of being in community with each other. When we were hunting saber-tooth tigers and mastodons, perhaps even up to when we were pioneers in a new world, we needed that ready flood of adrenaline that would literally save our lives and the life of whatever community we lived in. It was absolutely necessary that our weapons were ready or that we had a safe place to hide.

But throughout much of our modern history most of that which we perceive as a threat will not lead to loss of life. To be sure, many people, groups, communities, and nations are convinced that this is “The Way Things Are”: that we cannot live side by side with those of another skin color, religion—including those of the same faith but different interpretation of scripture and tradition, sexual orientation, or political viewpoint, therefore we must fight until one of us has conquered the other. And flight doesn’t seem to be an honorable option anymore.

Lord, dear Lord above: God of mercy, God of love,
Please look down and see my people through.

A third way beyond “fight or flight” would be compassion. When we perceive a threat to our beliefs, to our viewpoint, it is a signal that this is the time for listening compassionately to another’s beliefs, another’s viewpoint, another’s pain of feeling as alone and lost as we are. It is easier for us to be flooded by our fear and anger; after all, compassion requires real work of the soul. But this is why we have the forty day journey of Lent: that real work would be required of our souls, because our souls need to be hearty when we come to Holy Week and for the living of our days.

In the Hebrew scripture lesson we read that even the Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth and of every creature and every living thing has found a third way to be in relationship with the creation. Before the flood God was the Creator, whose spirit moved over the face of the waters, set lights in the heavens, separated the waters and made the dry land, put plants and creeping things and animals upon it and birds in the sky, finally crowning creation with those made in God’s image, male and female, and gave them dominion over the created order. And a voice proclaimed everything good.

But the creation had become corrupt. Blood had been spilled in a jealous rage between Cain and Abel, opening a Pandora’s Box of violence. The inclination and the thoughts of the hearts of humankind were continually evil. And God was sorry that he made humankind on the earth; it grieved him in his heart. And so with the decision to flood the earth, to blot out human beings from the earth along with every living creature, God was not only Creator but also now the Destroyer. Yet because of God’s decision to save Noah and his family, along with pairs of every living thing, there was hope for God yet.

The third way of God was covenant, and the one with Noah was the very first one of many. Through this covenant with Noah, his family, his descendants, with all creatures and every living thing, for future generations, God became the Redeemer of creation. Rather than an endless cycle of creation and destruction, God chose to redeem the creation through relationship, through covenant, and invited humankind and all life on this earth to be a partner in that relationship.

This was over and against the gods of the time that Genesis was written and edited. God’s people were in exile in Babylonia, around 500 BCE, with a remnant left behind in Israel. It was essential to write the ancient stories during this time of turmoil and fear so that the people would not lose faith, that they would remember that God remembered them. The Babylonian creation story was one of creation through destruction: the god Marduk kills his sea goddess mother Tiamat and with her body he establishes the earth and the sky, with bars to keep the waters from escaping.

There is debate over which creation story was written first, but it is the differences rather than the similarities which are important. The Hebrew God hung up his weapon of destruction, his bow, in the sky as a reminder to God that never again would God destroy all life with a flood. Never again would God enter into battle with creation. Never again would God give up on us. Only through relationship, through covenant, through compassion and community, only through this third way could God’s creation be redeemed and saved.

This is no easy path to take and so God takes the first step. God takes many steps to be closer to creation and to humankind, as many that will lead to a cross and to death, in the covenant established in Jesus Christ.

But it seems God can only come so far; we must be willingly to turn and come close to God ourselves. But as Psalm 25 illustrates for us, coming close to God is not easily undertaken; it is not for the faint of heart to come closer to the heart of the Holy One of heaven and earth. Our fear, our pride and our inability to trust constantly get in our way. Yet we do not need to be afraid of this God. We are assured that “grace is never lacking/And that strength and courage will be bestowed.” This God is in covenant with us and desires only that we move closer in relationship; not only as individuals but also as a community, as a whole creation that includes every living thing on this earth.

God has chosen the third way of covenant and peace and thus, is ever striving to redeem this creation. By establishing this covenant with us, we are invited to join God in striving for this third way of peace, compassion and mercy.

How is it difficult for you to trust God, both as individuals and as a covenant community? Which areas of your life and your life together become easily flooded with fear and anger? When have you experienced the redemption and grace of God and what changes did you live through as a result? Is prayer for you a time to be brutally honest with God or to be good and find the right words? What real work is required within your soul and within the soul of this church? How do the ministries of this church connect with God’s third way of compassion and redemption?

At times this human life can seem overwhelming, full of storms, struggle and suffering. Yet God has made a promise to us, never again to blot us out from the earth but instead to enter into relationship with us, that we would never again be alone. We covenant with one another to journey toward this God of peace and justice together, that we might participate in the healing of the earth and all living things, that we might be people of the Third Way, of the Radical Center. Sounds like Jesus to me.

I believe God is now, was then, and will always be.
With God’s blessing we can make it through eternity.

Lord, dear Love above: God of mercy, God of love,
Please look down and see my people through.
Please look down and see my people through.




1. “Come Sunday”, words and music by Duke Ellington.