Thursday, May 21, 2009

Justin Case: A Fingers-Crossed-Behind-His-Back, Well-Meaning Christian

Because his church is Open and Affirming, guess who 's nice to everyone 'cause he might have to spend eternity with them, even though he isn't sure there is a heaven...or that other place?

...Justin Case.

"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold or hot. I wish you were either cold or hot." --Rev. 3: 15.

Monday, May 18, 2009

I am who I am

Bravo, dear blogfriends, bravo! Author, author!

Many entries gave me a laugh:

Calvin Himmelfahrt: Humanity is a damned mess, with a German 'heaven by way of gas' inference.

Donald Spare-de-Rod: Scottish Presbyterian humor, I'm told, with a proverbial-French motif.

Aloysius B. Right: Name recognition thanks to the movie "Doubt" and would make the Car Talk guys envious.

Harold B. Thyname: Wonderful harkening back to those childhood interpretations of the faith.

And the winner is....(drumroll, please)....

Saintly Ramblings with the entry Justin Case: beautifully astute, pithy, and punny. So be looking for our friend Justin to show up now and again, with commentary that will hopefully live up the reputation of his name.

Kudos to all who entered and many thanks to MadPriest who sent folks this way with their creative guns blazing.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Who am I?

I would like to use this picture, this character as a regular feature on this blog. MadPriest on his blog had a bloke similar to this one whose name was Athanasius Smallwick, who had a very dour, harsh view of the church.

This fellow would also provide commentary on church life and all things spiritual, but I don't know what to call him.

So I invite you, dear blogfriends, to suggest names: witty, poetic, theological, historical, whatever frame of mind you happen to be in--just keep it clean. The author of the name chosen can claim pride of place on this blog whenever our friend here shows up and spouts off.

I can't wait to see what you come up with...

Monday, May 11, 2009


1 John 4: 7-21; John 15: 1-8, 16-17
******** United Church of Christ
May 10, 2009

When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter I had vivid dreams about what being a mother was going to be like. The dream I remember most clearly took place underwater, in a vast ocean. I was in an undersea residential research station, like something out of “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”. I could sense a collective intelligence in my surroundings as hundreds of scientists and researchers buzzed about me discussing data and research options. Suddenly the atmosphere became charged with fear as the research station came under attack. A giant alien creature with far-reaching tentacles seized the research station and wound itself around and through the structure, sending millions of gallons of water rushing into the research station, instantly drowning all personnel.

So one could say I had some feelings of being overwhelmed as a new mother. Who was this creature growing inside me, alien and unknown, with her far-reaching effects that would reverberate throughout my life? In Fruitful, a feminist memoir about motherhood, author Anne Roiphe recalled these thoughts as she went into labor: “I felt a moment’s mourning. This was the end of self as I had always known it. This was the beginning of my destiny.”

After her daughter was born she experienced a temporary state of bliss, transcended by reality: “…I hardly noticed…that I would soon lose…my time for myself, my ambition, my freedom to go wherever the mood took me and stay as long as I liked. I was no longer the subject of my own days. …I had given up my boundary, the wall of self, and in return had received obligation and love, a love mingled with its opposite, a love that grabbed me by the throat and has still not let me go.”

In my experience, the complex feelings of becoming a mother, becoming a parent, are not unlike those emotions we might experience as a follower of Jesus. As followers of Jesus we arrive at the end of self as we had always known it and begin as a new creation. We are no longer the only subject of our days; our days are not our own but God’s. The developing relationship between mother and child is very similar to the vine and the branches, this intertwining umbilical cord, this irrevocable heartstring, this dwelling within one another. I am told that even if mother and child come to each other by way of adoption or foster care, this mystical union still weaves its way into spirits and hearts, even as we have been adopted and fostered into the heart of God.

I heard my mother say,
I heard my mother say,
I heard my mother say
Give me Jesus.

And like all relationships, our love for Jesus can often ‘mingle with its opposite’ especially when we hear him say things like “Love your enemies and pray for them”, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor”, “Forgive one another as I have forgiven you”, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” Even with all his love for us and our love for him, Jesus still has the ability to grab us by the throat and not let us go.

I do not have many romantic sentiments about the mother/child relationship or about following Jesus. As wonderful and life-giving and enriching as both can be, they also come with their fair share of heartache and pain. As much as we would like to be close in either relationship, sometimes we find ourselves estranged and distant, unable to disclose what is in our hearts, fearful that our desire to trust just might be the path toward our destruction. Sometimes it seems as though it would be easier to live without either of them than with either of them because of the work both relationships require. Yet once they are a part of our lives, once that vine has given of itself to the branches, once the earthy fruit begins to grow, we find within us that irrevocable heartstring, and we pluck it even if it hurts, even if the note it sings is sad. In both mother/child relationships and in our relationship with Jesus, we discover a yearning…a yearning for wholeness.

I heard my mother say,
I heard my mother say,
I heard my mother say
Give me Jesus.

In the first letter of John we read that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” We know that children who experience authentic, genuine love from their parents do not fear punishment but those who live in constant fear of parental judgment and punishment often have difficulty learning how to love and how to express love in ways that are healthy. When we learn to love authentically, fear’s grip on our lives is lessened. When we are able to give of ourselves with love we increase our God-given ability to affirm life in all its complexities and imperfections, with joy and expectancy.

The perfection in love that John speaks of is not a love without any room for improvement; it is not a love that has learned all its lessons. The Greek root for the word ‘perfect’ is telos, which means ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ or ‘maturity’, and it includes a reaching, a striving toward that completeness or wholeness or maturity, as fruit that ripens on a branch. Perfect love that casts out fear is one that strives for maturity, for wholeness, that seeks to grow in fullness as fruit that ripens on a branch.

Both of my daughters were born in the fall, when ripened fruit makes the branches grow heavy, pulling the branches toward the earth with the inexorable force of gravity that ultimately pulls us all back into Mother Earth from which we came. Every year our family honors their birthdays by going apple picking. Sometimes my mother will be visiting when we make this trip to the orchard. And there we are, three imperfect generations slogging through mud or sweltering under the Indian summer sun, competing with the honeybees for some Ida Reds or Jona-Golds; picking apples I don’t always have a plan for except that we pick them together, snack on one apple as we go, and help each other carry the heavy sacks on the way back to the car.

Maybe they’ll turn into a pie. Perhaps an apple crisp or cobbler. Maybe a few will rot on the kitchen counter. But by making an effort to abide with one another, to strive with each other, God promises to complete something wonderful, in us and through us. By seeking to mature in love, by endeavoring to follow those difficult sayings of Jesus, by remaining close to Jesus, God promises to reveal the fruitfulness that lives within us. God discloses all of the holy heart and trusts us with Jesus, the Child of ultimate love that lays down life for the sake of love, this love that calls us to be friends, disciples, servants, children of God. And the fruit of this love is even more love: complete, whole, mature love, ripened in closeness to Christ.
This is a Mother’s Day poem that had been entitled “Before I was a Mom”, that was sent to me via email, that I have altered to reflect how knowing Jesus changes our lives much in the same way becoming a parent changes our lives:

Before I knew Jesus,
I never thought of bread and juice as something other than a snack
or remembered all the words to a cherished hymn.
I didn't worry whether or not my personality was a problem.
I never thought about infecting others with love.

Before I knew Jesus,
I had never been asked to wash 75 sets of silverware, plates and glasses.
Or form an opinion on glass or plastic cups.
I had complete control of my time
and what I thought was important.
I slept all night.

Before I knew Jesus,
I never sat next to a screaming child
in order to give comfort to its mother.
Or father.
I never looked into teary eyes and cried.
I never got gloriously happy over a simple thank-you.
I never gave money away without wondering if I’d done the right thing.
I never sat up late hours at night
praying for a friend to make it to the next morning.

Before I knew Jesus,
I never held a child in my heart that lived several thousand miles away.
Or right next door. Or on the streets of my town.
I never felt my heart break into a million pieces
when I couldn't stop the hurt.
I never knew that something so invisible, so unreal, so mysterious
could become visible through me.
I never knew that I could love someone so much.
I never knew I could pray for my enemies and love them too.

Before I knew Jesus,
I didn't know the feeling
of having my heart outside my body.
I didn't know how special it could feel
to feed a hungry person.
I didn't know that bond
between the vine and the branches,
between my heart and the holy.
I didn't know that something as simple as forgiveness
could make me feel so good and joyful.

Before I knew Jesus,
I had never gotten up in the middle of the night
because I felt like God was speaking to me.
I had never known the warmth,
the joy,
the love,
the heartache,
the wonderment
or the fulfillment of knowing Jesus.
I didn't know I was capable of feeling or being so much.
I didn’t know what it meant to be fruitful
before I knew Jesus.

Give me Jesus,
Give me Jesus.
You may have all of this world,
You may have all of this world,
You may have all of this world.
Give me Jesus.


[i] Roiphe, Anne. Fruitful (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), pp. 3-4.

"Give Me Jesus", African-American traditional.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Baby greens

I love spring as much as autumn for the same reason: the different colors of the leaves.

As much as I love the fire reds, the golden yellows, the burnt and bright oranges, I love the greens of spring.

Lime green, bright green, brownish green, yellow green, deep green, pale green, soft and tender green, the dark green of the conifers, plus the burgundy of the Japanese maples, the radicchio of spring leaves. There aren't enough greens in the crayon box for spring.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A church of one

Psalm 23; John 10: 11-21
******** United Church of Christ
May 3, 2009

I grew up in the United Church of Christ, in a congregation on the south shore of Massachusetts that was a new church start in the mid-sixties. It was and still is a very unusual church, from its architecture to its mission and energy. It was there that I began to hear the call to pastoral ministry.

During the time that I was there, from nine years old until I my second year in seminary, my pastor was the Rev. David Nordstrom.* Like the meaning of his name in Hebrew, he was nothing short of beloved. He was a charismatic preacher, an exceptional storyteller, a compassionate pastor who knew how to listen and how to give counsel, and an engaging person of faith. He knew how to inspire people, how to raise up leaders from the congregation, and how to build a community of transformation. Just by being in his presence you knew you were valued and loved.

It was a heady time for this church. During his 19-year tenure, membership increased from the original 151 charter members to over 600, requiring a doubling in size of the physical church. An Associate Pastor, the Rev. Judith McConaughey, was called and added to the growing staff of the church. When I was in the high school youth group, it reached an all-time high of over 100 kids. Mission and service were our fruits of the Spirit, forming hands-on connections to inner city missions, Habitat for Humanity, Alcoholics Anonymous, a mission in Mound Bayou, MS, eye care clinics in El Salvador and more. In that church people felt like they could accomplish anything.

The church had, however, become dependent on this gifted, spiritual leader without even knowing it. He was the apparent center from which the congregation’s energy emerged. When he announced that he would be leaving for another church in the Midwest, it was as though he had said he was leaving us for another woman. The church’s grief was palpable. He hadn’t been just our pastor but a fundamental aspect of our experience of God.

The anger at his leaving came during the interim period, when the church called as its interim pastor, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Evans, a former president of the United Church of Christ. Hurting with rage for their former pastor, the congregation devoured this gentle, learned leader with such force that he stayed barely a year. Judith, the Associate Pastor remained at the church, now as Pastor. Soon a young graduate from Andover Newton, Doug Johansen, who had been a seminarian at this church, temporarily joined the staff also with the title and role of Pastor. Within two years, a settled senior pastor, the Rev. David Stromberg, was called. But as one might expect, the church still not having a proper interim period, there was conflict between the congregation, the new Senior Pastor and Judith, who had assumed the role of Pastor quite well and did not wish to be an Associate again. The church devoured David Stromberg and he also stayed only for a year.

David Nordstrom resigned in 1988. It was not until 1993, after Judith had resigned as well, after another interim pastor, that the church would finally be able to deal with its anger and grief and move on to a time of healing with the Rev. Susan Stone as a settled pastor. For the past ten years the church has been thriving under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Chapman Gardner.

I share this story with you to demonstrate how very common it is that congregations who allow themselves to become dependent on their pastors, that when the pastor leaves, grief, anxiety and anger are to be expected, even when the pastor was greatly loved, perhaps even especially then. It can feel as though the bottom has dropped out of the church, that, in the context of the scripture readings this morning, that the shepherd has left the sheep to fend for themselves. Or that the shepherd was really only the hired hand, who ran off in search of other sheep to tend, in safer, more greener pastures.

The word ‘pastor’ is, in fact, defined as ‘herdsman’ or ‘shepherd’. It goes along with that old joke that ministers don’t retire, they just go out to pastor. And a pastor is a shepherd of sorts, guiding the congregation as though it were a flock of sheep, through the dark valleys and rocky climes to those places of spiritual nourishment and fulfillment. Lately though, leading a congregation, whether by lay or ordained leadership, has been referred to as ‘herding cats’, those independent creatures with minds of their own, who will do what they want to, when they want to and not when it’s your idea.

But in truth, the reading from the gospel of John is not speaking of pastors. The Good Shepherd is Jesus the Christ, the crucified and risen One. The shepherd is the owner of the sheep as well as their manager. The simplest of covenants is this: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” And it is through Christ that we know this claim upon our lives, my life as well as yours and our life together as a church. We do not own the church, we are not the head of the church—the church is Christ’s and we belong to him. We are his stewards, his caretakers, as well as his sheep. Sometimes we can behave like the hired hand who is not as invested as the shepherd, and we run when faced with thieves, bandits and wolves who would take the sheep and scatter them. Sometimes we act like thieves, bandits or wolves in our fear and anger, dividing and scattering the flock, devouring our leaders and each other, especially when it can seem as though the shepherd has abandoned us. And we are also sheep, who just want to be loved and cared for, in safety and peace.

The word ‘sheep’ is the same for both singular and plural. We can’t refer to one without referring to all. The welfare of all the sheep hangs together. When we act or when we pray or when we speak, we do so not as one individual but for the benefit or harm of the whole flock. And so often we can be like sheep: stubborn, timid, easily frightened, with a herd mentality, following one another into dangerous territory when we wander away from the voice of our shepherd.

Often in the church we talk a great deal about communication: about how we need to communicate better with one another, get the news out to everyone so no one is left out of the conversation. What we don’t talk about as much is forgiveness when that communication inevitably breaks down. Jesus came to teach us how to love and how to forgive. He did not come to teach us how to communicate, but how to have communion with one another, and not solely this sacred meal.

Indeed, Jesus, our good shepherd, our Lord, continually prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies—and our enemies aren’t other sheep. Our enemies are self-absorption, self-deception. So often are we at the center of our awareness that we forget that others see themselves as the center of their awareness. Many times those around us are on the margins of our awareness.

In order to have communion with one another, ultimately we must be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of others, to place our focus on the welfare of all and to surrender to Christ’s claim upon us. Being a church is supposed to turn our bent toward politics on its head: rather than what’s in it for me and my cohort, following the other sheep and their fears, how can I listen to the shepherd’s voice and be of service to the shepherd and to the flock, the church, the wholeness of all? We are one not because we are sheep or because we are united in what we believe but because we are loved by one willing to lay down his life for us, that we might know how rare and precious we are, claimed and called as children of God.

At the end of the day, what we’re all about is the care of souls in a way that is safe and trustworthy for everyone. This church may be Open and Affirming, but is it a place where everyone is listened to with equal weight, where all feel safe to voice their opinions and feelings? The interim period can often bring out the worst in a church, because the church feels lost and insecure without a settled pastor, one who is as invested in your future as you are.

My role as interim pastor is to observe how you are a church, to perceive and to inform you of the patterns of dysfunction that are preventing you from being an effective witness to the risen Christ, the good shepherd. I am also called to be a non-anxious, loving, compassionate presence to guide you and build you up. I am invested in your future but only to encourage you to be even more invested in your own future as a church.

Sadly, sometimes thankfully, pastors come and go. But the Good Shepherd, Jesus the Christ, the risen One, is constant and his love for you never ends. Let this love enfold your grief, your anxiety, your anger. Allow this love to shape you, guide you, sustain you and hold you together. Any action, any word spoken that does not come from love can only serve to divide and scatter, to devour and ultimately, hurt. Love one another as Christ has loved and continues to love you. In this way will you find the right path, the green pasture, the still waters, the restoration of your souls. Surely then will goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life and you will dwell in the house of the Lord your whole life long. Amen.

*All names have been changed, with the exception of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Evans, who passed away April 2008.