Monday, September 30, 2013


Driving home yesterday on US Rt. 250 (the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike), running along the ridge of Cheat Mountain, I entered the tunnel of trees speckled with sunshine and overflowing with the colors of fall.

Knowing this drive so well, I anticipated the turn that would bring me into the magic.  Even so, it was such a splendid perfection that all I could do was keep saying “wow” – a mantra of wonder at these mountains, this day, this gift that makes a spirit sing with the sheer joy of being alive.


Friday, September 27, 2013

9 Things I Learned About Texas

1.  Texas is not a southern state – it’s a western state. . . sorry Texas, but any state whose restaurants do not routinely and uniformly serve sweet iced tea is not a southern state – just sayin’.

2.  Texas boasts three of the 20 largest cities in the US – 2 in the top 10 – and San Antonio, at #7, is one of them.

3.  The Alamo is a religious shrine – who knew?  (I’m still trying to figure out the religion – I’ll get back to you when I do, but it’s definitely a shrine, so there’s definitely a religion there, right?)

4.  The people are nice.

5.  Almost no one wears cowboy hats.

6.  There be giants here.  I know this because the Texas-is-big-and-aren’t-you-jealous souvenir shop boasts coffee mugs and oven mitts made for the hands of giants.  I haven’t seen any yet, but I’m on the look out for the hands that’ll fill that oven mitt.

7.  Texans have a sense of humor, as evidenced by the laughing crowd at The Book of Mormon – not everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll grant, but still . . . nobody walked out – a pretty good sign, eh?

8.  It’s hot here.  I kind of knew that, but really, it’s hot.  A lot.

9.  The border and southern (as in southern hemisphere) connections make for some fabulous food experiences – and architecture . . . and everyone sharing at least a little bilingual ability . . . and lots of other stuff, but the food, oh, the food.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Hands Aloft

One of the coolest parts of my pastor job is blessing – the language and posture of conveying God’s cherishing . . . bestowing . . . graceful and grace-full . . . God-Word of love and well-being.

Celebrating their wedding anniversary, I am reminded of my step-daughter’s wedding day, she and her husband-to-be-who-now-is side by side, facing each other with the setting sun behind – and there, in one photo, am I, lodged between sun and couple, hands uplifted and curved into the embrace that is blessing.

In that picture-captured moment lie all the best hopes and dreams we who surrounded them had and have for them.

I hope I remembered that day to bless them with the ability to fly. . . to soar above the every day now and again . . . to hold tightly and loosely all at once . . . to be able to see beyond the crisis or doldrums of the next moment into an infinity of love and grace . . . to know that together they can achieve heights neither could without the other . . .


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Remembering the Alamo

A battle.  People dead.



Why “sacred”?

This is the question which haunts me as we circle the displays, the intention behind not at all rhetorical – why is being dead “sacred”?

I am moved to ask a volunteer, who tells me that the language in the bill in the Texas legislature in the early 1900's referred to the sacred deaths of those defending the Alamo.  The reason?  Because they died for Texas.

Texas is not alone in appropriating the language of the divine for its secular cause of the hour.

Sacred is defined as “worthy of religious worship; very holy”.  Merriam Webster

Secondary definitions include the notion of something worthy of respect.  But this conflating of the sacred and the profane (shedding of blood ) – in its elevation of the profane –  actually reduces the sacred, or perhaps better, twists the sacred into something unrecognizable.

At another location within the exhibit there are a series of plaques commemorating the “heroes” of the Alamo.  Missing from the list of names are those  who actually survived the siege.  When I asked another volunteer, she handily explained that the heroes were those who died.

I understand the distinction, but not the reason for it.  Why is it, at least implicitly, more heroic to have died and thus less heroic to have lived?

To die for country is not to die for God.

To live for God is not to betray country.

To live is often the most heroic thing a person will ever do.

To die is sometimes the most cowardly.

Living is more sacred than dying.

And being dead is not sacred – not holy – at all.  Whether we rise in resurrection as my faith has it or not, dead is beyond the cares and causes of this world.  It is not holy; it simply is.

What will I remember of the Alamo?

One more effort to invest with meaning the senseless violence we human beings engage in from time to time to have our way.  The ground crying out with the spilling of blood.

Nothing sacred about it.

But that’s just me.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sermon Cliff Note: The Trickster

Read Luke 16.1-8a

Jesus offers his disciples this story of a man and his wealthy master.

The man has squandered his master’s property.  The wealthy master is preparing to fire the man.

Realizing that he’s in trouble, the man calls folks who owe the master and radically reduces their debts in hopes that when he’s on the street, the debtors of the master will be so grateful that they’ll help him.

The wealthy master learns of the trick but instead of yelling at him for cheating, the master praises him.

Is Jesus saying that God appreciates thievery?  Is Jesus telling the disciples to trick people into the kingdom of heaven?

Remember: (1) Jesus and his followers are, for the most part, NOT the powerful in their society; and (2) they know what it is to be on the outside of a society looking in, where the Trickster is often the only one who gets the better of his betters.

The Trickster is a figure in literature who foils the plans of others,  deceives in order to win the day.  The Trickster is the underdog who turns  tables and brings surprise endings.  Tricksters in literature include:  Odysseus and the Trojan Horse . . . Robin Hood . . . Bugs Bunny . . . Sheherazade . . . The Pied Piper . . . Puck . . . Leprechauns . . . Jack in Jack & the Beanstalk . . . Road Runner . . . and Jacob, the best biblical example of the Trickster.

To take the story on its own terms, the first thing we have to do is forget the idea that the wealthy master stands for God.  Nothing in the story suggests this is so.

What changes when we do this?  What do we know about employer-employee relationships?  The first thing we know is where the power lies: with the employer.  That’s magnified in Jesus’ time, as the story points out: without this job, our fellow will be reduced to physical labor beyond his abilities or begging and the same of the streets.

The fact that he probably ‘deserves’ to be out on his ear is of little comfort and no practical help to someone who still needs to eat.  He is desperate.  And out of his desperation comes a creative plan: he’ll buy himself some good will with the folks who owe his boss.

Is he stealing from the boss?  Probably.  But this is not a morality play.  It isn’t about his theft anymore than Jacob’s status as father of Israel is about his theft of Esau’s birthright.

Trickster stories remind us that power is not always where it seems to be.  Tricksters show us how to think outside the box of our own fears and limitations.  Tricksters show us how to come at life sideways.

All well and good, but where on earth is the good news of Jesus’ saving grace in all this?

I don’t know any more than you do.  Really.

But here are a few possibilities to take home:

1. The powerful are not always in charge and will not always ‘win’.

2. Creativity of mind is a gift of God.

3. Maybe, just maybe, rules have to be understood in context.  Maybe, when a poor man takes a loaf of bread, it’s not stealing at all.  Maybe.

Tricksters  make us doubt . . . and in doubting what we were so sure we knew . . . invite us to see things differently . . . upside down differently. . . sideways differently . . .and be changed.

Jesus just finished telling the Pharisees and the crowds about the prodigal son and God’s extreme generosity of welcome when he turns to his disciples to tell them this story.  Like everyone else, the disciples were probably seeing themselves as righteous older brothers and asking why – why would, why should – God welcome such a one as this, to which maybe, just maybe, Jesus is answering, why not?

If the Trickster is about turning the tables, reversing the situation, making upside down right side up, then maybe, just maybe, God is rooting for the underdog, and maybe, just maybe, God is the greatest Trickster of all.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

In Theater

Another language funny . . . the time in Scotland, doing pastoral visitation at the local hospital as part of my church internship training, when I thought “theater”  was a fuzzy old woman’s misplacement of her location in time and place, instead of understanding that she referred to her roommate’s impending surgery, she having requested that I pray for her roommate, who was on her way to ‘theater’.  When I replied, I hope she enjoys the show, you can only imagine the confusion on her face – which had nothing to do with her age and everything to do with a silly American intern’s inability to speak English.

I’m heading soon to Texas – with some trepidation, I confess.  Texas is just so . . . other . . . to my life experience.  And then there’s the language thing – will they understand me?  I them?

Who knows – but it’s sure to be an adventure.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Apple is the Smell of Fall

I made two apple pies the other night.  The only reason – a friend gave me some apples.  These were not the grocery store exemplars – shiny, perfectly shaped, waxy skinned, Eve-inviting – no, these are the fallen-from-the-trees today apples . . . with insect-chewed breaks in the skin and bruises from the fall and the odd worm hole here and there – green with just a hint of red coming on.  These are the evidences of God’s bounty – food that literally falls from the trees with no effort or thought from its human and other-crittered consumers and probably not all that much thought or effort on the part of the trees themselves.

When it’s fall, apples, you see, just happen.

I wonder why autumn is variously referred to as fall and then think on the apples letting go of their tree
purchase – free fall sounding throughout the woods this time of year –

I don’t know if that’s the answer, the reason, but it delights me, this idea that we call autumn ‘fall’ because the harvest is falling into our hands.

Bidden or unbidden, Carl Jung wrote, God is present.

And so are the apples.

Why do we in the western hemisphere call this season ‘fall’?  One theory is because leaves ‘fall’ from the tree (at least in the US, we are that literal).  Another opines that this is the season when the sun ‘falls’ below the equator.  The Brits will love this one: supposedly the Americans (translate: from the US) cannot spell ‘autumn’, so opted for the easier ‘fall’ instead.  Another points out that ‘faellen’ (Old English for ‘the fall of the leaf’) is the origin, bringing us full circle, much like the seasons themselves.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

San Antonio is for Grandfathers

On a Tuesday in 1918, my grandfather Roy got on a train somewhere around Akron, Ohio and headed for San Antonio, Texas.  Army.  Basic training.  World War I was raging and he was headed to Paris.  The journey to San Antonio lasted long enough that he could post a letter home along the way.

Next week Mom and I’ll head to San Antonio ourselves.  We’ll visit with cousin Daniel and go to the theater and take in the sights.

I have never been to Texas.  Not even to drive through on the way to somewhere else.  Not even to land in an airport in between two points.  It’s quite an accomplishment to have reached the age of 58 without ever having set foot on Texan soil, particularly as I’ve crossed the country numerous times, the first when a little girl to visit my Granddaddy Roy when he lived in Arizona – a long, long time after his respite in San Antonio (if basic training in the Army can be called ‘respite’).

My granddaddy was in his late 20's when he went off to war by way of San Antonio, Texas.  Older than the 20th century by only a few years, he was sent to what was then, in his describing, a virtual desert.  I don’t think he got to the Alamo, for surely he would have said.  And I don’t know if there was a river walk then.

I wonder what he would think to know that one grandson now lives where he spent that time so long ago getting ready for war – the war that would end all wars . . . or so they said, so they believed, at the time.

I don’t know how my granddaddy felt about anything.  All I know (and it’s far too little to suit) is what he said.  From what he said, one would conclude that he was a jaunty fellow indeed, eager for the chance to fly fighter planes (he never did, although he did drop bombs from the back of the plane in France – by hand – and called it a good time).

We have so little in common it seems.  But as Mom and I walk with Daniel through the byways of San Antonio, it is my granddaddy I’ll be thinking of – as he was then – young, uniformed, optimistic – jaunty.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Moon Shadow

It’s not quite right
‘moon shadow’
but I can’t erase it
Cat Stevens is just
too loud in my memory

But as I gaze upon the 
moon-lit sky last night
and move my gaze
from sky to land
lit so bright I could 
make my way by foot
across these fields
where hay rolls lay
indolent in the night
and see trees huddling
together pretending
smiling into their
leafy hands at what
my eyes cannot see
moonlight or no
and notice the one
tree too slow or too
fiercely independent
to grow where others
are so firmly entrenched
and see its shadow cast
long across the field
longer than any day-light
shadow could hope to reach

I want to leave the cocoon
of the car and the talk of the
bridge game we old ladies
have just played and jump
into the field and dance
my own moon shadow
dance – a memorial to the 
girl who listened to Cat
Stevens with little thought
of the moon and its shadows
so long ago and so near to here

I want to, but I do not
for the other old ladies
always tenderly caring,
wait patiently to see me
safely into my house from
the safety of the car cocoon
and taking my time to dance
the moon light is to steal
her time and I cannot

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sermon Cliff Note: Sheep Lost & Sheep Found and Those Who Seek Them

Scripture:  Luke 15.1-7 (the parable of the lost sheep)

It’s a story we know so well, this tale of the one lost sheep.  The unfairness of it all – even the downright foolishness – this risking a whole group in order to save just one, arises:  Who does that?  How unfair is that to the 99?  Really?  You’d endanger 99 for just one?

These questions are the questions of the Pharisees.  They’re not bad people; they’re the good people.

And Jesus is spending time with the dregs of society.  He talks to them.  He eats with them.  He takes them seriously.  He thinks they matter.  And everyone knows they don’t – everyone, that is, except Jesus.

Instead of just going to Jesus, instead of trying to understand what he’s doing and why, the good people talk among themselves, grumbling and complaining.  They’re jealous.

At its core, jealousy is giving space to the 2-year-old who once lived inside us all.  But we’re not 2 anymore!  The time for baby talk and humoring is over – when we’re 2, it’s all about us.  But we’re not 2 anymore and it isn’t and we know it.

The problem, or at least one of the problems, is in understanding what the love of God looks like and what it requires.  So it’s back to basics . . .

God’s love is risky   God holds nothing back of God’s self in order to love and care for us.  And God gets hurt in the process.  God risks and requires that we do the same.  Was it risky to leave the 99 to look for the one?  Of course it was.  But the greater risk was to simply let the one go.  

God’s love is extravagant When I have more than I need, I can either decide even that’s not enough and demand more (the 2-year-old response) or I can share (the grown up response).  To risk the whole herd for the one is extravagant.  To risk our life together here in this church in order to love and serve our neighbors not here today is extravagant.  God isn’t always calling us to do more, but God is always calling us to be more. . . to be more loving . . . more understanding . . . more willing to risk what we think of as our ‘all’ – so that – we can come to the place of understanding that the ‘all’ we think of as all was little indeed.  

God’s love is exorbitant – God seems to think there’s more than enough love to go around.  But maybe we’re right and there’s not.  Yet even if there is only so much to go around, maybe that’s what we’re here for – to offer it all.  I doubt any of us have ever truly gotten to the end of ourselves.  But even if we have, so what?  To spend ourselves on behalf of others is why we’re here.

God’s love is seeking - God is a seeking God who calls us to be a seeking people.  God is a seeking God, searching out the lost and the lonely, the sad and the haggard, the down and out as well as the up and coming.  God seeks.  So too must we.

God’s love is contagious.  Love, like laughter, is contagious.  It spreads.  It can’t help but spread.  It’s that little light we were taught to sing as children – it cannot be hidden – it must shine.  And in its shining is its attraction.

In Jesus’ parable story to the grumblers, perhaps we, like them, are the sheep, the 99.  The question that hangs waiting to be answered is: are we content to munch our own grass?  Or are we joining in the rescue party?  More daring, are we ready to read ourselves into the story as shepherds?  For what sheep would a good shepherd leave behind?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Stuck in the Closet: It's Not What You Think

I am six years old – or maybe five.  I am at home in the apartment I lived in with my parents in Silver Spring.  They are at work and Uncle Richard is watching me.  We were born on the same day, Richard and I, fourteen years apart.  So he is still a young fellow and not all that interested in the niece who adores him and who, in her only-child solitariness, delights in a companion.

Begging a game to play, he, reading the paper, tells me we’ll play hide & seek and I’m to be the first to hide.  I am thrilled.  I’m good at this and I know just where I’ll go.  I am certain he’ll never find me there.

I go into my bedroom and even then want to make it interesting (at least that’s what I’m thinking I thought), so I lock my door (children should not have locks on their doors and I am living proof).

Then I go to hide in my closet.  It is a space jammed and crammed with little girl stuff – clothes and toy box and toys and school papers and . . . stuff.  I am not an organized child, so opening the sliding closet door is its own challenge.  After wrestling the door open just enough to squeeze in, that’s what I do – squeeze.  But the space is too small and I am stuck – jammed literally between door and door frame, unable to go either in or out.  The closet door is rock solid and will not wiggle even an inch.  Even now I wonder what had it stuck – probably the plastic hand of my favorite stuffed beloved pink monkey – it would be fitting to be caught by the monkey’s paw.  But if it was, I will never forgive that monkey – never – I’m like that about some things.

It didn’t take long to reach a threshold of panic, for no matter what I did, I only became more lodged in the secure embrace of the closet door.  It was like a living thing that would not let me go (hence my aversion to The Wizard of Oz and its grabbing trees – now that’s terror!).

I began to shout my panic to Uncle Richard.  It seemed an eternity before he came to my rescue although I’m sure it was only a few seconds (at least I hope it was – I hope he didn’t leave me in that closet longer than necessary just to keep a kid off his back.  Uncle Richard?  Did you?)

As an adult I can imagine the mounting concern Uncle Richard experienced when he tried to open the door but could not, as he hollered to me to open the door, but I could not.  Impasse.

I think I must have been able to tell him through my tears that I was stuck in the closet, but all I remember is hearing the sounds of my young Uncle, who was and still is handy, getting the tools to take the door to my room off its hinges.  Once that laborious process came to an end, my release was pretty quick as Richard dislodged the thing that kept me stuck (I wonder if he remembers what it was).

The story is shortened in family lore to the time I got stuck and Richard took the door off to rescue me to his parting shot, spoken with his boy-man grin, Next time, hide under the bed, will you?

Sometimes a closet is a metaphor.  And sometimes people must free themselves from their closets.  But sometimes a closet is just a closet and a little girl is just a little girl, glad of an Uncle Richard to come to her rescue.  Whether he ever knew it or not, my Uncle Richard has always been my champion since the day he freed me from that closet.  And we could all use a champion every now and again, couldn’t we?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Wars & World Leaders: What I Want From You

When you want to kill
other human beings
I want you to look
sad and not angry

When you want to send
our children a world away
to kill and fight and die
I want you to look
remorseful not presidential

When you make and make
possible guns and nukes
and bombs and such
I want you to look
chagrined – recognizing
the already failure of your
acts that it is instead of
gleeful at anticipated success

When the children – anyone’s
children – die, I want you to
confess instead of count
as if it were a basketball score

And speaking of the children –
when you decide it’s killing time
I want – no, I demand –
that you not do it on the backs
of dead children – they are 
beyond your saving and your
anger will not bring them back
and I care about them and all
the others and I do not need
pictures of bloody corpses
of the too-young to decide
whether the living children
can be saved by this course
and I resent and tremble in
my own anger that you would
use them to make you sleep
better at night for the children
still breathing you would risk
to avenge they who need no
vengeance for they are far
past caring about such things
I want you not to stand on
their corpses – that’s what 
I want

When the temptation to the 
killing fields comes, I want
you to eschew the language
of heroes and wonder if you
would go or send your own
beloved where you would
so easily dispatch mine

Who am I to want so much
from you?  I am citizen.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hasn't September Already Done Enough for War?

Shouldn’t September, of all months, be a month for not-war?  For staying the hand of violence?  For a respite from the spilling of blood?

September, when children return to school, running down hallways chased by the voices of cautioning teachers . . .

September, when planes became weapons and towers fell and people jumped to their own deaths rather than face the violence any longer . . .

September, when in the north, the air turns to the perfect blend of sunshining days and chill nights . . .

September, when in the United States we begin by celebrating laboring men and women and the changes to the good they have brought to all humanity . . .

September, the month of the International Day of Peace . . .

September, when the autumnal equinox bestows the sun’s light equally upon the north and south of the world for one of only two days a year as we of the world share the sunlight and the night equally with each other . . .

September, when at its beginning on an early morning in Poland World War II was begun . . .

September, when the then-USSR agreed to send weapons to Cuba, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis (or leading to the withdrawal of US missiles from Turkey, depending on your point of view) . . .

September, when Frederick Douglass began his escape from slavery . . .

September, when The Blitz began . . .

September, when Desmond Tutu became the first black head of South African Anglicans . . .

September, when the blockade of Leningrad began (ending in the deaths of almost one million people) . . .

September, when Steven Biko died . . .

September, when Napoleon first entered Moscow . . .

September, when the Phalangists slaughtered Palestinian refugees in Beirut . . .

September, when the Norman conquest began . . .

September, when the Babi Yar massacre of more than 30,000 Jews near Kiev was done . . .

Hasn’t September done enough already for the cause of war, violence and death?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Swath of Song


moving through the swath of song
that are the crickets of the nighttime
I bring silence in my wake
each stopping at my approach
courtship – such a private thing



walking into the night
away from the temporary
city light feel over the fence
at the fire department 
quickly do I leave the light
feeling behind entering into
the cocoon of darkness 
blanketing this space, this
time I call home

it is dark, but it is not quiet
as the cricket boys practically
scream their desires into the night

until, that is, I approach,
when silence happens
so sudden it’s like a switch
has been thrown

and I pause at each wave of silence
smiling a smile no one can see
waiting to see if cricket boys will
be fooled by my stillness into 
resuming their song

they’re not
as long as I stand
they watch with their 
night goggles firmly in place
waiting for me to leave

courtship – it’s such a private thing

now that’s a country song


[not sure which I like best.  What do you think?]

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Syria: When Eddie Prayed

So Eddie prayed
and today the Russians
(very tentative)
allies of thought
with the likes of 
John Kerry and
Hilary Clinton
Assad himself

seems there might just
be an alternative –
a peace way –
of coming to resolution

and all can claim victory
even the US can claim
(as Mrs. C already has)
that it was the very threat
of force that brought
about the possibility
of peaceful resolution

so you say, Hilary
and for this day
that’s good enough

but not really – for
the warp and woof of
cause and effect are
not so clear as even one
single thread in a
tapestry of events

it will do for today
this claim of victory
if it gets us there
it'll do

but how do you know
it was not the threat
of force
but Eddie’s prayers in 
the night?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Praying Syria Through the Night

The call comes early . . . a congregant – a Viet Nam veteran and enthusiast for Jesus and for life, is awakened in the middle of the night . . . he’s been praying ever since . . . praying that God intervene somehow . . . stay the hands of the ones who decide when it comes to this business of war . . .

In his humility, this man thinks it’s not much, this praying he does in the middle of the night.

But what I hear are the words of James, The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.  –James 5.16 (The Message).

Eddie reads me what he has written, for his prayers are so big they must be put to paper.

The words flow out of his heart and onto the page . . . wisdom for leaders . . . a better way . . . let the two sides sit down together . . . the unspoken words the most eloquent of all . . . help . . . save us from ourselves . . . we need You . . .

Somehow Eddie ends by thanking me, when I know it is I who should be thanking him, for I stand reminded that when the Holy Spirit awakens you in the night, it’s time to get on your knees.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sermon Cliff Note: Bible 101

School’s started.  It’s time to get back to basics.  Using the book of Philemon as our departure point, let us consider seven guidelines for reading and understanding the Bible.

1. The Bible is not a book; it’s a library.   Its contents are a compilation of many books written by many people over a period of centuries.  It was written by people doing well and people suffering; by people afraid and people brave; by people sure and by people in doubt; by the learned and the unschooled.  When we forget that we are hearing many voices rather than one, we reduce the Bible away from a story of God’s people seeking understanding of their God to a text book with rules to be memorized.  It is so much more than that.

2. Context matters to meaning  Philemon was a man. . . a slaveowner . . . a convert to Christianity . . . someone Paul believes that he (Paul) has authority over . . .  That Onesimus was a slave is important to the story.  Just as important is who Philemon is.  Their context matters.  So does ours.  What we understand about enslavement matters – more, perhaps, than what the letter actually says.  Think not?  Consider that this letter was used by both slaveholders and abolitionists in the United States during the argument over slavery.  It’s the same letter.  But what each person believed before they ever read it determined how they would hear it.

3. Not every word is for every person in every time  If you have no enemies or have long-ago forgiven them, Jonah has little to offer you.  The Bible as a whole presupposes a belief and faith in God.  If you’re an atheist, the Bible has little to say to you.  Philemon is Paul’s letter to one of his students, a convert to the Christian faith, begging him to see another convert as a brother in the faith and not as slave.  There are lessons we can learn from Philemon.  Before coming to those lessons,  we must begin with the clear understanding that this letter was not intended for us.

4. To learn a new thing, we have to listen with new ears.  (Put another way: if we already know it all, all we know is all we will ever know) Paul invites Philemon to see Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother.  The letter begins with Paul’s own condition – that of a prisoner.  Who is Paul more like – Philemon?  Or Onesimus?  What new thing do you suppose Philemon heard/learned from Paul’s letter?  What did it require of Philemon to be able to learn in the first place?  As Christians, it’s one of our jobs to always enter the world with a teachable spirit.  We have to be open to learn a new thing.  Or we won’t.

5. We don’t worship the Bible; we worship The One the Bible speaks of   A story, any story, is just one piece of the whole cloth.  The stories reflect where the people were at the time.  No less, but no more.  Thus today we can say that enslavement is wrong and not think we somehow violate the teachings of the Bible, for it is not the Bible we worship.

6. Any interpretation we give to the Bible that condemns someone else (rather than ourselves) is suspect (the Bible is not intended to be a weapon)  If we come to the Bible looking for evidence that someone else is ‘wrong’, we come in the wrong spirit.  If we come to the Bible seeking ways to prove we’re right, it’s the flip side of the same coin, isn’t it?  If, however, you read a word that challenges you, changes you, convicts you, you’re most likely on to something.  The book of Philemon is about Philemon.  Not Onesimus.  Paul is writing about Philemon to Philemon.  It is Philemon who Paul seeks to change.

7. People not like us have much to teach When the white majority in the South in pre-Civil War days read Philemon, they read a ratification of the existence of enslavement.  When African American theologians read Philemon, they read Paul encouraging Philemon to set Onesimus free.  It’s almost impossible to imagine a perspective we do not have.  So I cannot read this library with the eyes of someone who is black in America . . . or with the stomach of someone who is desperately poor . . . or with the pain of someone whose life has been nothing but despair . . . and I cannot imagine it on my own . . . but if I listen to them – to the others who are so different than me, I can learn much.  I can see and hear these blessed texts in a whole new way.  Conversely, if all I ever listen to are people who think just like me, then I’ll end up with a Bible that looks and sounds . . . just like me.

The challenge is to be open to listen for a new word, a new understanding, for Christ has said, I am making all things new (Rev. 21.5).  And that includes our ideas of how things should be, especially when it comes to the story of God.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Of No Reputation

We humans, and particularly we Christians, spend (translate: waste) an awful lot of time when we worry about our reputations.  The King James version of Phillippians reminds us, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:  Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:  But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men . . .”   –Philippians 2.5-7 (KJV).

Jesus has absolutely no concern about his own reputation.  If he had, he would have avoided many of those with whom he consorted.  And not just the obvious ones like the women everyone loves to paint as whores.  The fishermen added nothing to Jesus’ gloss.  They brought nothing to the table in terms of Jesus’ cred (well, except for his street cred, of course – in some places, fishermen are cool).

If our ‘credibility’ as a nation is in the top 5 reasons to bomb Syria (and it is: recall the ‘red line’ language – the President is challenged to bomb because he said he would; and he has responded that he will because he said he would), we’re in big moral trouble.

As I’ve quoted before from an old-timer in AA, what other people think about me is none of my business.

To kill other people, to destroy their homes, their possessions, their land, for the sake of what other people will think about me (whether I be an individual or a nation) is nonsense of the basest kind.

It is factually flawed, for it presumes that the destruction will shape the opinions of others towards me in the direction I intend (which almost never happens).

It’s the childhood myth that I am center stage and that I control the thoughts/choices/actions of others in the drama of events that I (mistakenly) believe I can control.  It grants no freedom of choice/action/thought to the other, whoever that may be – the intended ‘target’ of my action.

It’s the unwillingness to even consider changing my mind or admitting I made a foolish commitment in the first place.  Or to borrow from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

It is to presuppose that I can measure such things as reputation, which I cannot.

It is to presuppose being of my word to be more important than the lives of others. [Read the story of Jepthah and the sacrifice of his daughter for the sake of his (unsought) promise to God in Judges 11 for a heart-breaking lesson in kept promises].

For those among us who claim to follow The Way, we forget Jesus’ example of discounting his reputation for the sake of others at the peril of being not followers of His Way, but of our own.

Friday, September 6, 2013

I Will Never Leave Nor Forsake You

Hebrews 13.5: I will never leave nor forsake you.

So I read in preparing for prayer over Syria last night, this God promise the writer of Hebrews sets forth – the context far different as he (presumably) writes about leaving aside the fears and desires created by a lack of material goods.  Or is it?

Was he writing to people starving to death?  To people running for their lives?  To people aching with the fear of never having enough?  to people whose fears had good cause?  I suspect so – there is no need to preach freedom from worry to the rich, the safe, is there?

So maybe this is a word of the Lord for the people of Syria today, this God promise of safe haven and deliverance.  But what can it mean in the midst of real violence, real destruction, real lack?

I cannot presume to say.  Yet the promise stays with me and becomes my prayer for these strangers who are my kin so far away.

Then, perhaps subconsciously harkening back to where the promise is first uttered (in Deuteronomy 31), I think of Moses, his arms uplifted, held in place by Aaron and Hur at his side when he grew weary.

But I mixed my images, holding the Moses image together with the demand that his people be released from captivity.  I forgot the context.  God didn’t, but I did.  Deuteronomy 31's divine promise of eternal presence is in aid of the conquering of the promised land and Aaron and Hur hold Moses’ arms up because his upraised arms assure battle victory to the Israelites.

I cannot escape the imagery of war no matter where I turn.  The irony is lost on me, but perhaps God appreciates the joke as I use these images of battle victory to pray for a turning of hearts and minds away from violence and towards just peace.

There are real combatants on battle fields all over the world today.  Maybe it does make sense to offer prayer for both sides to all these conflicts, prayer that they recall the divine promise to never leave nor forsake. . . maybe were all to remember this God promise, the lasting victory whose name is peace would become real . . . maybe it becomes impossible to lift weapons when, eyes downcast, it is remembered that the ground stood upon is not holy because of the blood shed there, but rather is holy because of the God standing there . . . maybe the feared, implied threat of divine abandonment is so real that it is necessary that we pray that none be left or forsaken . . .

Lord, whatever You do, do not leave them . . . do not leave us.

In Your mercy, hear this prayer.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Syria: Prayer to Thought to Action

Last night, I kept an appointment I made with God and prayed for and about Syria.  What it mostly brought are tears.  But God’s Spirit, as well as opening my heart to the pain of so many, also nudged me to actions – small, one person actions, but actions nevertheless.

And so I returned and promptly wrote an e-mail to all of my elected officials (shout out the Presbyterian Church for making that easy) giving voice to my own concerns about our proposed course of action in Syria and asking them to consider alternatives that would, I pray, bring genuine help and change to the lives of so many there.

And I’ve committed (but not yet done – hold me accountable) to send money to UNHCR for the refugees of Syria.

I don’t know if the letters will make any difference, but I know the money will – even drop-in-the-bucket money helps, even if only for a day, even if only for a moment.

That’s the thing about prayer, isn’t it?

Prayer isn’t wish-fulfillment.  My desires for Syria do not become reality merely because I speak them to God’s ear.  God may move in miraculous ways or God may not (at least not in ways I might recognize).  But always, God will move my own heart whenever I enter the divine presence with heart, eyes, ears and hands wide open.

Always, God will remind me of what needs doing in the my-own-small-part of things.  Always, God will give me the desire as well as the ability to do that which God would have me do from where I stand.  And always, God will sit back and wait to see whether I respond to God’s own promptings.

The trick, the only trick, for me, is to keep those stubborn, self-willed eyes, ears and hands open to the God promtings sent my way.

Sometimes they emerge from within, but just as often, they emerge from the voices of other people.

And most of the time, I won’t even recognize God’s voice as God’s – at least not until later.

But saying yes to God is one of the greatest privileges of being alive.  It is the privilege of being a servant of The One Worthy of Being Served.

For that, I am so thankful.

I’m praying for and about Syria again this evening at 6 p.m.  I hope we’ll join our prayers together.  And who knows what God will have to say to us?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Syria: To Bomb or Not To Bomb

The President says it’s punitive.
The people hear that it will save lives.

The President says it’s to protect Israel.
The people hear that it’s to protect Syrians.

The President says it’s to challenge Iran.
The people hear it’s to challenge Assad.

The President says it’s not about regime change.
Senator McCain hears it’s about regime change.

It is my own view that one of the biggest problems we citizens of the United States have when it comes to political interactions is that we do not listen to our leaders.  We do not hear what they say; we hear what we want them to say.

The second largest problem is that when it comes to contemplated military action, our Congress as a whole debates not whether to but how to.  And as Congress goes, so goes the press by and large.

Thus we are right now in a situation regarding Syria of taking the fact of a strike against that nation as a virtual given, arguing only over the details, when in fact, the whether to at all question is actually the important question of the day.

And thus we are right now in a situation regarding Syria where President Obama is actually being very clear; unfortunately, his citizens are not listening to him.

1. It’s punitive.  Let us take the President at his word: his reason to seek military action against Syria’s government is punitive.  He has actually used the word ‘punitive’.  There are several problems with such an approach:

a. it’s a do-what-I-say-and-not-what-I-do approach to world affairs; and as any (good) parent knows, it’s an approach doomed to fail, for those following and even those not seeming to be paying attention will inevitably do not as we say but as we do.  We supported the use of chemical weapons by Iraq against Iran in the 1980's, to the point of remaining silent in the face of Saddam’s turning those same weapons against his own citizens, the Kurds of the north.  We used white phosphorous on the civilian population of Fallujah.  We will not sign treaties that seek to ban cluster bombs and certain types of land mines.  And even when we do act to oppose such weaponry, we are strangely silent about the manufacturers and holding them accountable.  To claim the moral high ground, it’s axiomatic that one must actually be standing on the moral high ground at the time.

b. If it’s punishment we’re after, there are a whole host of remedies in the international arena.  The International Criminal Court provides a venue for the prosecution of crimes against humanity and what we term war crimes.  The United Nations has vehicles for other remedies, including sanctions, the sending of peacekeepers and inspectors.  In fact, the UN did send inspectors.  Their report has not yet been produced.  Their testing is not yet complete.  To circumvent the United Nations yet again is to effectively say to the world that the United States does not even believe in the possibility of international law and action.  The lone wolf mythology we cling to is costly beyond our ability to imagine, I fear.  And punishment is a poor substitute for a just peace, especially a punishment that seeks to say that killing in a particular way is wrong by killing in a different way, but killing nonetheless.

2. It’s about Israel, not Syria.  The fear about chemical weapons is as much, if not more, about our concern for the people of Israel than it is for the people of Syria.  It is commonly accepted (although not publicly stated) that the source of information/ intelligence about this most recent attack is Israel.  Given its geographical proximity and their historical hostility, Israel is right to be concerned.  Whether Israel’s concerns and ours align in this particular instance is something that should be discussed.  It’s not.  The President has named the concern.  But no one else seems interested in discussing, weighing and evaluating it.  And remember point #1 – this is about punishment.  The President has said so.  There is no goal to save Syrian lives.  There is no reason put forth that the contemplated action by the US will reduce violence in Syria.  Many believe it will have the opposite effect of escalating an already violent conflict.  When acting pre-emptively on behalf of a party such as Israel, we have to at least admit that we’re willing to sacrifice Syrians to do it.

3. Challenging Iran.  Secretary of State John Kerry stated that one reason to strike against Syria is to send a message to Iran, North Korea and others that chemical weapons may not be used with impunity.  Setting aside the cruel irony of the US telling Iran that it will not tolerate chemical weaponry when it was the US that enabled Saddam to use chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980's war (by providing Saddam with critical intelligence on where and when to launch his attack (Democracy Now), are we really going to kill Syrians in order to teach Iran a lesson?  Are we, in so doing, going to ignore the mutual-defense pact between Syria and Iran?  Are we really going to provoke Iran and its allies, drawing them into (or further into) this conflict?  Did we learn nothing about how global conflicts begin from World War I?  Are we really interested in restarting the practice of proxy wars we retired with the Cold War?  Are we really ignoring Russia and China in all this?  Are we really so immature as to believe that to explore alternatives to military air strikes is ‘doing nothing’?  Is our press so ineffectual as to ignore these vital questions?

4. It’s not about regime change.  President Obama (who will be making the decisions, no matter with whom he consults) has been very clear: he is not seeking regime change.  Senator McCain is not listening and insists that regime change is what must occur.  The problem I see is that following the course of either man does nothing to reduce or eliminate the bloodbath that is Syria today.  We the people would do well to remember that we’re not in this to save the Syrians.  This is not the good guys versus bad guys stuff of movies.  This is exactly what our President is saying it is: killing some Syrians, destroying some territory, to show the Syrian leadership that doing what we’ve said not to do will cost him because we said it would.  It’s a penalty.  No more, no less.

What might we do instead if we’re really interested in helping Syrians?

1. If you’re a praying person, pray.  One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about prayer (wish I could recall the source) is that God does not reverse the past.  What has happened already has happened already and it will not be undone.  Prayer, effective prayer, deals with the present and the future.  For those of us in the United States particularly, we might pray for wisdom, patience, forbearance, and mercy on the part of our leadership.   We might pray that our own eyes be opened to new pathways of peace and the strength, courage and dedication of resources to make them happen.  Weaponry as a problem-solving technique has become too easy in our time.  Military solutions are our go-to position all too often, ironic given its largely ineffectiveness at meeting our stated goals of peace.  This praying isn’t about patriotism.  It isn’t about having our own way.  It isn’t about undoing the past.  It’s about being empowered by the God of all to do right in the world and by the world.  The work of doing right is hard.  It takes lots of time and effort and money.  And it doesn’t often get a parade at the end.  And sometimes it gets a cross.  For a Christian at least, that shouldn’t be a surprise.  So let us praying people pray like we mean it and live like we believe it.

2. Invest in peace and the ways of peace.  We might marshal our impressive resources in the cause of just peace -- for at no time in our nation's history have we dedicated the resources for peace preparedness that we do to war preparedness. What might we do now?

a. we might pony up really big money to make refugee camps and other sites genuine places of safe haven.  On an individual basis, we might donate money to UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) to provide for the masses of Syrian refugees (shout out to Jon Stewart on the Daily Show for highlighting this issue and way to help on September 3's show).

b. We might mobilize massive numbers of trained peacemakers, mediators and folks trained in the ways not merely of conflict resolution but also of building a civil society based upon universal humanitarian goals. We mobilize our military - why not our non-military?   And there are Syrians who are trying desperately to build and rebuild their own civil society.

c. We might ask our elected leadership to stop any support for the rebels in Syria unless and until they attend peace talks in Geneva.  We might ask other nations supporting the Assad regime (Russia and Iran) to do the same.

d. We might start punishing those who produce chemical weapons in international tribunals.

e. When it comes to the dedication of troops, we might use the United Nations - peacekeepers from the UN actually have a pretty good track record - a fact that gets overlooked. (and yes, I remember Rwanda).

f. We might wait for the UN inspection team to come back with its report/findings. I am no fan of Mr. Putin, but he actually asked a pretty good question - why would Assad use chemical weapons exactly when the UN inspection team was in country? Assad might be a monster, but is he really that much of an idiot?

g. If the goal is punishment,  we might treat this as a crime.  If so,

(1) proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required. Shouldn't we have the same level of proof for the killing of many as we do of the killing of one? and

(2) there are already processes in place in the international community for that. So charge Assad with crimes against humanity and prosecute him for them.

(3) If, on the other hand, the goal is to stop or reduce the numbers of civilians from being killed, we have to remember that this is a civil war and all sides are armed to varying degrees and all sides are using violence to impose their will both upon the civilians as well as the opposition. The only thing I know to change that dynamic (other than a clear winner, which rarely happens) is negotiated peace. The bottom line for me is that the answer to grab our guns just hasn't been effective, ever, at reducing or eliminating the numbers of the dead -- it's only been effective at giving one side or the other clear victory after the bloodbath.  Isn't it well past time to commit , really commit, to the ways of peace?

(4) A side note worth remembering: the other day NPR interviewed 2 sisters in Syria - they were of opposite opinions. Family. One favored the rebels and hated the Assad regime for its cruelties. The other feared the rebels, particularly as a woman, certain that her own life would not be worth much if they were to prevail. When I jump into someone else's fight, I'd better have a good idea about all that's at stake. Ask the Iraqis.

When I take up a gun, a bomb, or any instrumentality of violence, I am not stopping people dying. What I'm doing is simply changing the cast of characters who will die.

And logically, if I am 'letting' people die by not bombing Syria, am I then responsible if the bombing results not in less deaths but more, if Assad increases rather than decreases his attacks on the civilian population?

We can't predict with certainty the outcomes of actions because we're not in control of the universe of possibilities. That doesn't mean we do nothing. But it does mean that we dare not act surprised when our efforts to 'help' backfire with more violence that we participated in escalating.  ( See Slate report on the increase in civilian deaths in which other countries intervene in armed conflict.)

But I remain stuck in pondering whether it really is the best we humans can do when children are dying to drop more bombs that risk killing more children? Why can't we create safe havens for them to run to? Why can't we teach their parents a better way? Why can't we spend the money on things that actually work? I wish I knew.

Other posts I've written about Syria:  There's a War a CominJumping Rope in the SandCandidate Questions on Foreign Policy, and Grading the Debate.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Unboxed Memories

As I’ve written before, I am a woman meant to travel.  In spiritual terms, it’s called being a pilgrim.  We’re all pilgrims to one degree or another.  And this week, my pilgrimage was to that elusive place called home.  Home to West Virginia.  Home to old friends.  Home to the me I used to be.  Home to family.  Home.

I don’t know about you, but most times I bring back more than I took.  This time was no exception.  I left behind wonderful garden tomatoes – I am the greengrocer of good tomatoes, carrying what I did not grow from place to place like the abundance they are.  Tomatoes left, I bring back a storehouse of thoughts and new memories – treasures that require no box for safe-keeping.

My new unboxed memory treasures include the sublimely ridiculous as well as the merely sublime –

. . . listening to Jason Isbell on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air sing his heart and rediscover music in a way I haven’t heard in a very long time.  I’m definitely adding his new album Southeastern to my playlist

. . . family will always try to make the best of your worst failed recipe experiment and even offer to eat what’s left tomorrow – that’s love

. . . learning anew that a little boy’s heart is a tender thing and a little boy’s tears will break your heart

. . . friends of long ago and far away are treasures to rediscover

. . . my presence makes a difference and so does my absence

. . . Cuban pork sandwiches are pretty tasty

. . . family really is glad to see you even when you come empty handed (but you wouldn’t want to make a habit of it – the empty-handed thing)

. . . sometimes the things your kids didn’t tell you were really important

. . . it takes our children a really long time to figure out that our choices, our mistakes, are not their fault or their burden

. . . Seamus Heaney died and I remember hearing his voice, learning his words, at a poetry reading at Princeton years ago – the one I tell where I went to a poetry reading with Toni Morrison – I never really did – she was there as was I and that was it’s own warm feeling, this rubbing air with the good-famous – and now, in the obligatory lauding, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing is read and the words, I live here too . . . scream out of the radio landing into my soul and the words reverberate around and through and in me . . . I live here too . . . this place that is war – this always-has-been-always-will-be place where so many I’s live here too . . .

. . . and so it is that Seamus and a 6-year-old-boy-of-my-blood teach me anew that some people have perspective, whether age 6 or 60, and some never do – and I know which I am and I am humbled

. . . sometimes we’re just too busy enjoying life to go to the bathroom – and that’s okay

. . . Mumford & Sons are really cool even if I have no idea who the sons are (well, there aren’t any ‘sons’, are there?  And yes, Ian Brennan, they’re privileged – I think it’s a hoot that you think that’s worth remarking – just sayin’)

. . . little boys will always follow bigger boys – and that’s mostly how it should be

. . . family is a fluid thing and always has room for just one more

. . . sadness is contagious

. . . visiting is good

. . . things change

. . . and they don’t

. . . when you’re small you always know where you are in the picture

. . . and the bombing/invasion/attack/punishment – take your pick – of Syria is the rough backdrop to it all – invading my memories, my home, and I secretly resent it, this intrusion – can’t you just recess your warring ways for just a few days, just this once?  Can’t we have a break from caring so much just this once?  – heavy in import, with the river of Jason Isobell’s voice running through it, and it is not good.

But it is – because a better tomorrow is better than a wish . . . and family and friends matter . . . and little boys still show us the way.