Friday, September 30, 2011

What is Education, Alex?

In Jeopardy style, the answer is:  In 1963, what did the Finnish Parliament choose as its best shot at economic recovery following decades of war, civil unrest and virtual economic collapse?

The question?  What is education?

What does Finland’s “investment” in education look like?  A mix of national curricula, local application and freedom within individual classrooms to apply it all in everyday education; increased levels of education for teachers across the nation; and a national ethos dedicated to educating the young.

The results?  Finland has a great educational system.  But how’s the economy doing?  Did the “investment” work in terms of economic recovery?  The Finns think so.

Investment as a concept is about more than money.  In church, we call it stewardship:  where we dedicate our time and talents, our focus, as well as our treasure.

So as a nation, where do we “invest” our focus?  Where are the majority of our collective time and talents as well as treasure land?  More than our words, it is where our investments rest that tells the story of our priorities.  

As Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  --Matthew 6.21 & Luke 12.34

Where is ours?

What is  . . . . . . . . , Alex?
SOURCE on Finland’s investment in education:  Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Color of Loss in Iraq

During a recent visit to NYC with friends, we walked past a startling visual display along the fence line of Marble  Collegiate Church.  I had a pretty good idea the ribbons signified something about desires for peace amidst our conflict involvement around the globe.  There was a sign that explained:  It's a visual prayer for peace commemorating those who have died in our war against the people of Iraq.  (NOTE:  The peace sentiment is theirs; the characterization of our war is mine).

Having spent time in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) engaged in efforts towards peace, I was immediately saddened by the visual.

You see, the yellow ribbons represent, by name, all of the American service personnel who have died in Iraq. Each individual has a ribbon with their name, rank and age affixed to their ribbon.  The blue ribbons, on the other hand, represent "prayers for the families and friends of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have lost their lives, and for all who have been wounded . . ."  Marble Church Prayers for Peace Fence

Here's the problem:  the Church has grasped the importance of individual loss in commemorating the American dead one by one, name by name.  But the Iraqi dead, number not in the tens of thousands, as their web site says, but in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.  Iraqi Dead

The visual impact of the ribbons conveys the message that American dead outnumber Iraqi dead by a margin of something like 1,000 to one, when in fact, the truth is the absolute reverse, particularly if the wounded and displaced are included in the calculus.

Why should this matter?  Isn't it important that the faithful of Marble Church are praying for peace?  Of course it is.  Aren't the ribbons a good thing, in that they remind passers by to do the same thing?  I'm not so sure, especially when the visual message is that our suffering, as Americans, is so much bigger, and thus so much more important, than the suffering of the Iraqi people, whose land was invaded and remains occupied, whose lives were upended in ways we cannot begin to imagine unless we've seen with our own eyes, and who, to this day, struggle to find ways for we Americans to understand that their land is not ours, that their suffering is not ours, that their way to peace is for them, and not for us, to determine.

If we would convert our prayers for peace from self-interest to mutual interest or even better, other interest, we must begin by telling the story as it actually is:  for all we have suffered; they have suffered thousands of times more.  With such an understanding, maybe we in these United States can move from generic prayers for peace in our public spaces to prayers of repentance and guidance that will make the pathway to our part of the peace solutions and grant space for others to make their own pathways as we make our own.

When you see the ribbons at the Marble Church, remember that the yellow ones are lost in a sea of black, for black is the color of loss in Iraq.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!

Whether you understand the title tells alot about your age, as it comes from a 1960's sci fi show featuring a campy tin-can robot who alerts the boy Will Robinson to impending disaster by arm-waving (well, dryer vent hose waving, actually) and the verbal alert.  Of course, if you're a hacker, you'll also know what it means.

Yesterday the inevitable happened.  With information already in hand, I have delayed and delayed and delayed getting a new computer, even as my old lap top has gotten slower and slower and s. . .l. . . o. . . w. . . e. . . r. . .

The old gal made my decision for me.  With much alarm-bell beeping (look up "motherboard alarm codes" online if you want to know what those ominous beeps actually mean), my laptop was practically waving its arms at me -- STOP RIGHT NOW!

Of course I didn't listen.  I just kept rebooting, hoping against hope that something magical would happen within the mysterious (to me) innards of my lifeline to the outside world.  Alas, it was not to be so.
There won't be a funeral as such, but it's safe to say that the old Dell has gone the way of such creations, far too soon to suit me, but well past her MLS (median life span).  From the way those more conversant in the ways of computers tell it, I'm guessing she was about 60 in computer years (having bought her in 2005).  I should be grateful she lasted so long.  And I am, sort of.

I appreciate the incredible technological advances, the leaps forward.  But I resent, more than a little, planned obsolescence.

But even as I say that, I have to smile.  After all, aren’t we human beings planned for obsolescence from the very beginning?  Everything and everyone has a shelf life.  Maybe what I don’t like is that my own is winding down.

One of the most grace-filled things I have ever heard came from a professor at Johns-Hopkins on NPR a while back (sorry can’t remember his name and am too lazy to search out the link).  Speaking about the burden of perpetual memory, in light of things like FB pages and e-mail maintenance accounts for the dead, he reminded his listeners, me among them, that when we die, it’s out duty to exit gracefully from the stage and allow the living their turn, rather than to seek some false version of immortality by seeking to require future generations to maintain our web presence into perpetuity.

I like very much the idea of exiting from the stage gracefully.  It’s freeing, really, to allow myself to allow others to simply let me, all of me, go. 

Dylan Thomas was wrong, I think.  It is not rage that we should carry into our dark nights.  It’s gratitude.  Gratitude for the time.  Gratitude even that the time has passed.

And thus do I say a grateful good-bye to my faithful computer, even as I know that some day, those near and dear will say such farewells to me.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

When Even Heaven is Not Enough

[Cliff Notes version of Sunday's Sermon on Matthew 21.23-32 - Jesus is challenged by the chief priests and elders and gives them a parable about two brothers to chew on]

When I first came to Highland, I went on Map Quest to get directions to Harrisonburg from McDowell, which sent me to Monterey, then to Franklin, West Virginia, and from there, on Rt. 33, to Harrisonburg, almost doubling the distance.  Now, Map Quest would have gotten me there . . . eventually. . . but somewhere in the mountains, I would have begun to wonder if I’d taken a wrong turn and long before I got to Harrisonburg, I probably would have turned around and gone back, believing myself hopelessly lost.
That’s the problem with the view of God and faith as a matter of prescribed rules . . . there are so many rules, so many obstacles, so many ‘long-way-around’ directions that, if you didn’t already know the way, you’d feel yourself hopelessly lost, and, chances are, turn around and go home, giving up any thought of ever getting to “Harrisonburg”, or if you kept at it, you’d be so exhausted by the journey that you’d probably wonder why you even bothered.
From the outset, the chief priests and elders  refuse to believe that they have anything to learn from this Jesus guy.  They understand his object lesson.  It’s obvious.  But instead of repenting, instead of allowing themselves to be changed, instead of even allowing for the possibility of another, easier, way, they react in anger.  By golly, they knew the way to Harrisonburg and nobody was going to tell them any different!
Jesus isn’t tricking the chief priests and elders and he isn’t damning them either.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t say they won’t get into God’s kingdom.  He says that others will get there before them.  It’s a sort of last-ditch shock-therapy approach by Jesus, who is trying, desperately, to move them . . . to turn them . . . to get them to turn themselves in another direction . . . that’s repentance . . .

Turning . . .

Away from the direction of bondage
into the direction of freedom
Away from the direction of self
into the direction of God . . .

One brother changed his mind
the other brother changed
and the chief priests and elders didn’t change at all.

They’re all kingdom-bound.
I wonder if they’ll be happy there.
I wonder if even heaven will be enough.

If you'd like to listen to the sermon or read it in its entirety, click on the McDowell Presbyterian link on the right and go to 'Podcast' for the audio or 'Sermon of the Week' for the text.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

So Much Better than Fair

[Sermon excerpt on Matthew 20.1-16, the parable of the day laborers all paid the same no matter how long they worked]

A day laborer is someone who works one day at a time, with no guarantee of a job or work from day-to-day.

When the trucks come, I imagine it’s a very desperate kind of beauty-pageant atmosphere . . . Standing straight and tall, trying to look bigger, stronger, tougher, more able, than you really are, hoping and praying . . . pick me, pick me, please, oh please, oh please, pick me!

Real people . . . tens of thousands, if not millions, live this life every day. It’s hard. It’s desperate. It’s ugly. And it’s very competitive. . . literally, if you are picked it means that I am not. If your family eats tonight, mine will not.

How very sad Jesus must have been when he saw that his own followers, after all they had seen, after all they had been through together, still imagined the Kingdom of Heaven as an agribusiness and still saw themselves as competing against others to get in.

But . . . Jesus is not chastising the disciples for being jealous . . . he is pleading with them to understand. . . the Kingdom of Heaven . . . God . . . is the landowner who pays more not less . . . the landowner who seeks more workers, not less . . . who ‘upsizes’ rather than downsizes . . . who fills rather than empties . . . who brings all to the table . . .

We are all but day laborers in the Kingdom of God. . . but we are day laborers invited to a party . . .

When it’s a party, we aren’t sorry that some come late . . . we’re just glad they could make it . . . glad to see them . . . enjoying the good fun with everyone else . . .

But when it’s ‘work’, suddenly we’re all certified accountants, counting, measuring, making sure it’s all ‘fair’ . . . to us . . .

How could the first workers have missed that the last workers were the ones no one wanted? That they were not ‘hired’ because they were deemed somehow ‘not good enough’? That unless the owner of the fields went and found them, they would have had no work at all?

Expectations are the problem - they know what they’re getting, but suddenly, it isn’t ‘enough’. Is it that they want themselves to get more or their compatriots to get less? Either, I suspect, would do, so long as it was ‘fair’.

But would they, would we, really argue to take money away from the poor day laborers at the end? Would we really urge the landowner to give them so little that they couldn’t feed themselves, let alone their families, just so it would be fair?

What do you suppose the landowner God in Jesus’ parable would have to say about that? I’m guessing that God would say “come on in” to everyone, no matter how late they got to the party.

But, but, but, we sputter . . .it wouldn’t be fair for me to devote my life to Christ and have someone who never even gave Christ a thought to inhabit the same cloud as me, now would it?

How can that be?

Where is my better cloud?

Fair requires hell. . . on earth as in heaven . . .

Fair requires hell.

But the question is, does God?

Here’s the thing . . . what God offers . . . what God provides . . . is so much better than fair . . . for you . . . for me . . . for us all . . .

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Where I Live

Where I live . . .
     You can buy your eggs (fresh from the chicken) at the Post Office
     Your fried chicken (really the best around) from the gas station
     And drop off your dry cleaning at the Court House . . .                 Or the bank . . .

Where I live . . .
     Until recently . . .
     There were no stop lights . . .
     Only one blinking light in the whole county . . .
Then we got a temporary light during some bridge work . . .
     It’s so unusual, that a deputy sheriff actually had to tell someone yesterday . . .
     Yes, it’s a stop light.
     When it’s red, it means you have to stop.

Where I live . . .
     A one-finger salute by a motorist is not an insult . . .
     It’s a friendly, laconic wave to passers-by . . .

Where I live . . .
     The trees are turning color . . .
     The fawns too . . .

Where I live . . .
     Candidates for Sheriff come together to help out and judge the cooking contest . . .
     And raise money for the local Food Bank . . .
     And everybody (well, almost) wins a ribbon at the fair . . .

Where I live . . .
     People work hard, many just to get by . . .
     Enemies as well as friends help out those in need . . .
     Firefighters and Rescue Squad folk are volunteers . . .
And when you’re sick . . .
     Or dying . . .
     Or your house is burning down . . .
     You know the people carrying you . . .
     Calling out your name . . .
     Saving you and all you value . . .

I suspect it’s much the same where you live . . .
     Except, maybe, for the eggs . . . and the fried chicken . . . and the dry cleaning . . .

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Right Now . . .

Prayer offered during International Day of Peace Service

"We need to build not only geographical but spiritual bridges between people. . .”                                                        – UNESCO


"The International Day of Peace is also a Day of Ceasefire – personal or political. Take this opportunity to make peace in your own relationships as well as impact the larger conflicts of our time. Imagine what a whole Day of Ceasefire would mean to humankind."  --International Day of Peace web site


Right now, unless there is a last-minute reprieve[fn], Troy Davis is drawing his last breaths on earth. . .  Right now, the Palestinian people are urging the world to agree that they are a people and that they have a country and are being told ‘not here, not now’. . . Right now . . . people we know have bodies filled with cancer and the best that can be done for them is to attack and wage war against the very bodies in which they live . . . Right now . . . families are broken by misunderstanding, violence, bullying, and refusals to reconcile . . . Right now . . . churches hide their own brokenness and protect those who do the worst kind of harm . . . Right now . . . Oh God, right now, we are so broken . . . so far from Your peace . . . forgive us God, we pray . . . right now.

WE COMMIT . . . RIGHT NOW . . . 

Let us create a wall of peace, not of separation and exclusion, not of wailing and mourning, but a wall of peace . . . a visible sign of the commitment we make, right here and right now . . . the commitment to no longer be silent in the face of injustice, unkindness, and violence . . . the commitment to be God’s own peaceable kingdom . . . right here . . . right now.

Fn.  There was a last-minute reprieve, but it only lasted hours, and Troy Davis drew his last breaths at 11:08 p.m. last night, Wednesday, September 21, 2011.  Execution of Troy Davis

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I Friended God Today

I friended (don’t you love that ‘friend’ is now a verb, as in “I friended you.  Why didn’t you friend me back?”) someone today and he responded so quickly that it seemed simultaneous, the asking and the acceptance.

And I ponder prayer . . . and how our prayers are answered (whether to our liking or not is another matter) virtually as the prayer leaves our mouths or hearts . . . as if all God was waiting for was for us to ask.

Wonder what it would be like if we thought of prayer as friending God?

I friended God today . . .
and just as I hit ‘enter’
God accepted me as a friend . . .
Turns out that God had already friended me a long time ago . . .

Turns out God’s been keeping up with my status all along

Turns out God’s been liking what I’ve been up to . . .
most of the time . . .

Turns out God just loves how we all gossip about God on our FB pages
She actually reads every post
every update
checks out every link

I friended God today
Turns out we’re already friends
I don’t know how that works
but I love that it does.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Now Thank We All Our God

It’s Wednesday tea time, when some gals in the church and I gather together to pray and talk and study.  Today we’re looking at hymns, considering favorites, looking at back stories.

Angelika comes with Now Thank We All Our God.  What Angelika shared from the life of Martin Rinkart, who wrote the words to the hymn, is of a godly man living in a time of great suffering: The Thirty Years’ War was ravaging Europe; the plague had resurfaced and as the only surviving  pastor in his community, Martin buried 4,000 people; and a famine further wracked the already decimated population.

It was into that space of suffering and devastation that Martin Rinkart wrote, Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom His world rejoices.

How, in the midst of the crucible of suffering, are such words even possible?  We ponder the question together, one speaking of God’s grace emerging in ways discernible after the suffering has ended.  She speaks of the grace of hindsight, of what I think of as Joseph’s benediction upon his murderous brothers at the end of Genesis: what you intended for my evil, God used to the good.  It is the idea not that God visits suffering upon us, but rather that God transforms the suffering into something useful, something beautiful even, and in the transforming of the ‘thing’, God transforms us.

But Rinkart isn’t writing after the suffering is past.  He’s writing in the middle of the suffering, right from the heart of the spiritual and physical blast site.

And in the German, Angelika tells us, it’s even more obvious, this joy and faith-claim to God: [God], who from our childhood, has given us too much. . . 

“Too much”.  The phrase stands out so much more than the English Hath blessed us.  Even when it seems as if we have nothing, God has given us “too much”, so great is the divine blessing of relationship.

Martin Rinkart was speaking hope from suffering to suffering.  It was the benediction not of the fool, but of the experienced.  And from the experience, Rinkart does not celebrate suffering; rather, he sees through the suffering to the reality of God standing there.  And what Rinkart sees is bounty.  And peace.  And divine nearness.  And grace.  And guidance.  And perplexity.

What Rinkart ‘sees’ is God.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Things are as bad as they seem . . .

The economy continues to reel.  Cause and effect and effect and cause are continuously debated while behind the statistics and the arguments, real people search for real work and real meaning.

The earth seems to make war upon itself as disaster upon disaster are heaped one upon the other, with no relief in sight.

Things really are as bad as they seem.

Thus it has ever been; and thus, I suspect, it will ever be.

Things are as bad as they seem.  And I wonder why we are surprised.  We spend so much time preparing for the rainy day, never seeming to grasp that the very nature of the rainy day is its unexpectedness.  We prepare for floods and get droughts . . . stock up on food only to find that it’s water we need . . . set aside money only to have the value of the money turn to ash.

Things are as bad as they seem.  But so what?

It’s not Pollyanna speaking to say that acknowledging reality is not the same as being held captive to it.

We in the United States seem to be spoiling for a fight with we know not who for reasons we know not why.  I’m thinking it’s because we the people somehow believe that we were promised something we cannot recognize by someone we cannot name.  We name that something ‘happiness’ and God protect the one who would get in our way of its pursuit.

We so proudly proclaim that we are a ‘God-fearing nation’, as if that were a good thing.  Maybe, just maybe, we would do better to be God-relying, God-trusting, God-embracing.  For surely what we need is more trust in the source of our true security.  More trust and less fear, even, and perhaps especially, of God.

After all, Fear not! wasn’t a suggestion.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


A young friend sat with a new friend and heard a story of evil unspeakable.  I do not know the details.  I do not have to.

It is not to our own evil that I speak, but to the evil of others, not us, but still somehow very much us.

Being a minister, a pastor, means that people share themselves with us in ways unique . . . we walk with them through dark and lonesome valleys as much as over joy-filled mountaintops.

Their wounds are shared with us . . . and in a sense, their wounds become ours . . .

The cost of the journey to the pastor, the therapist, the professional listener, even has a name: “compassion fatigue”, as if you could become tired from caring about other people.

The name is not adequate.  It is too understated and too overstated, all at once.

It says too much to say that caring about other people makes you tired.  People are not a set of jumping jacks or a run around the track to be recovered from.  A good nap, that’s what I need . . . or so suggests the notion of fatigue.  But it says too little to say that it’s merely fatigue, this cost to my body and soul of the lent ear.

I think, perhaps, that John Donne hit closer to the mark: we are not fatigued by the pain and wounding of others . . . what we are is diminished . . . somehow made less than we were before . . .

The evil that others do to still yet others diminishes me.  It makes me less than I was.  Less sure.  Less confident.  Less important.  Less human.  Less.

In empathy, I can cry for their loss, their hurt, their woundedness, but I am also crying for my own less-ness.

Let it be said that in the listening, there is holy space.  There is room for the divine silence that is really the divine anguish, expressed beyond something as ordinary as sound.  It is the place of the rent curtain, of Rachel weeping for her children, of the earth splitting itself and the sun disappearing from sight in the sky.  It is the place beyond words where only the Holy Spirit travels, alone, comforting and comfortless.

Yet into such breaches does the pastor walk, often unwittingly, only to be blind-sided by yet another story of horror made ordinarily surreal by the comfortable living room surroundings in which the story is so often told.

Feeling helpless and hopeless, the pastor listens, nods the head, tries to seem caring and wise and come up with something important to say, something, anything, that will somehow magically change the past.  And then she remembers what she has learned time and time again . . . the past cannot be changed. . . it is the listening here and now that matters . . . there is healing in honoring the story and the teller . . . there is honor in the lent ear, reminding the wounded one that her story matters, that she matters.

It is not everything.  And it seldom even feels like enough.  But it will have to do, because it is all there is.  This ground is not the ground of redemption or purpose.  There is no purpose in the gratuitous infliction of pain and harm upon the defenseless.  There is only pain.  The pain matters because the person to whom it happened matters.  They were made less than, they were diminished.  And in hearing their pain, so am I.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

If I’m Lying, I’m Dying: Jacob & Esau & the Cost of Violence: A Conversation Between Me and Myself

Can we say that violence (always) begins with deception?    

I bracket the always, ever wary of the universal claim.

Then I backpedal, just a bit. . . 

Maybe we can say that deception is, perhaps, the most-often unrecognized and perpetrated act of violence by we humans.

Maybe?  Perhaps?  Could I qualify it into meaninglessness any more?

Deception tears us apart from within.

Now we're getting somewhere.

And deception is the handmaid of (physical) violence -- the lies we (must) tell ourselves to justify the violence we do, those particular forms of deception, are, by their very nature . . .

     unending . . .

          shocking in their daring . . .

               infinite in their scope . . .

                    abyss-filling in their capacity destroying . . .

Jacob and Esau serve as paradigms . . . but their reality is achingly human . . . achingly broken . . . achingly true . . .


The shooting and the dying continue unabated (Gunman Used AK47 in IHOP Shooting) and we tell ourselves that the profits made from the weapons of destruction have no bearing on the destruction . . . no place in the conversation . . . no impact on our ‘rights’ to be bearers of such destruction . . .(Gun Violence in NYC)

We need not be an infinite string of Jacobs and Esaus locked in eternal combat . . . like the brothers, we too can find the pathway to peace . . . beginning with forgiveness, reconciliation, and putting down our arms, our 'right to be right' . . . and embracing each other in the love and Spirit of God.

We can.  

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Where Were You?

A 9/11 Reflection

Where were you?  Who should be allowed to participate?  Who should be kept out?  Should it be a celebration of life?  A memorial to the dead?  We were forever changed!  We haven’t changed a bit!  We came together.  We’ve been broken apart.  What do you think?  What’s your story?  Where were you on 9/11?  Where were you?  Where were you?

It is as if we are asking not each other, but God.  Where, dear God, were you?  Why did not Your hand stay the course of destruction?  Why did you not save us human beings from ourselves?  It is the question believing humans tend to ask only when the tragedy happens to us, forgetting John Donne’s poignant rhetorical advice to the ages: . . .  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee . . .”  — Donne, Meditation XVII

The images of September 11, 2001 are iconic.  The sound bites endless.  And the never-ending flow of statistics both tell and hide the story in all its horrible and glorious humanity: 

Time it took to build the Twin Towers: almost twenty years
Time it took the Towers to fall: 12 seconds
Total number killed in attacks (as of 9/5/02): 2,819
Number of nations whose citizens were killed in attacks: 115
Number of people who lost a spouse or partner: 1,609
Estimated number of children who lost a parent: 3,051
Tons of debris removed from site: 1,506,124
Percentage increase in Peace Corps applications from 2001 to 2002: 40
Percentage increase in CIA applications from 2001 to 2002: 50
Firefighters & police officers of New York City represented 13% of those who died
FDNY & NYPD families received 25% of charitable monies raised

The statistic that strikes me the most is that the Peace Corps saw a 40% increase in applications, while the CIA saw a 50% increase.  People wanted, it seems, to do something.  The response, either to peace or to something more difficult to define, probably depended largely on individual personalities and convictions.  

It’s been 10 years now.  I wonder whether the increased interest in either or both held true over time.  Somehow I doubt it.  We’re a forgetful people.  Sometimes that’s a good thing.  But sometimes it’s a costly luxury, this failing to remember.

And so I sit quietly at home, remembering and thinking on scripture passages that speak of the silence of God . . . not the non-responding silence of the seemingly absent deity, but the silence of the “still, small voice” . . . the silence that begets silence as its own worship-filled response. . . the silence of my own re-write of the Psalm . . . know that I am God and be still . . . it is the enormous silence of facing my God, who in the face of my own questions (to paraphrase William Sloan Coffin), is asking me how I could have let such things happen.

Where were you? 

Where was I?