Thursday, October 31, 2013

Am I Who I Was?

Time passing inspires a bit of reflection on things and people gone by – it’s inevitable, isn’t it?

In my own case, I live in a slow land, so there’s a bit more time for reflecting.  And of late, I’ve reconnected with folks from various stages in my own past – e-mail, FB, lunch get-togethers on a recent trip back home and even the forgetting of my fellow high-school classmates (who didn’t invite me to the reunion, forgetting that even though I have moved quite a bit, my mother still lives in the same house I lived in way back in high school) – all these connections draw me back to different stages in my life, from high school through seminary.

Most days, I’m not much of a look-back kind of gal.  My kids remember details from our lives together that have long ago slipped my mind.
Me with Judge Handlan - early 1980's

So it’s a rare treat and challenge to look back and see myself in the eyes and hearts of others with whom I was so bound once upon a time.

The question arises: am I who I was?  And if not, who have I become?

Some answers are obvious; some obscure; some, I suspect, I’ll never know.

Some life lessons are apparent:

1. Nothing is forever.  All those times, those epochs of my life, seemed at the time to be the endless horizon of what my life would be – but horizons are tricky things and every thing does pass away, sometimes with startling suddenness, just as often like the proverbial thief in the night, but slip away they do.

2. Things and people actually do change.  We’re not the same – not as each other and not even as ourselves.  There’s enough resemblance to connect, but change is integral to the body human.

3. For my own part, I am nicer than I used to be.  Much.  Which is not to say that I am nice – far from it.  But it’s a journey and I’m good with that.

4. I wouldn’t go back even if I could.

5. It’s okay to be forgotten.  I’m just not that important.  And that too is okay with me.

Some lessons aren’t so obvious:

1. The child I was still inhabits this old-lady skin and she can take me by surprise sometimes – usually in a good way, but not always.

2. High school is nothing like real life.  Never was, never will be.

3. We are our families and yet we are not.  Mysterious, that.

4. Some people, as well as some things, are better left in the past.

5. The ever-shrinking list of those who were there, those with whom we share the memories, is, all by itself, a cause for sadness, as the ones who can know and understand the scrapbook of a life gets smaller and smaller.  Telling is not the same as remembering.  Sometimes you really did just have to be there.

Am I who I was?


And no.

And that’s okay with me.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

An Unsolicited Job Reference for Arlene: What You Should Be Wanting in a Pastor

Seminary buddy Arlene shares on FB her journey in seeking a call with 7+ years of experience as a solo pastor under her belt.

Arlene reports some of the reasons she’s been given for not being called:  shoes, hair, laugh (not sure if was that I did or that it was too loud), age, my voice . . . 

Here’s what I know about all this insanity:

1. It’s easy (for me) to reduce this to sexism (I firmly believe it is that, but it is other things as well).

2. There’s a harsh irony that lives within me that ‘appreciates’ the honesty of these folks – would it be kinder or smarter to keep that nonsense to themselves?  I think so.

3. I am learning from Arlene’s experience: should I ever be in another job interview situation, I think I’ll just take it straight on with something like this: some of you may not like my hair – or my voice – or my style of dress – or my laugh – that’s okay – I don’t like yours either, yet here I am, still willing to be your pastor . . . or something like that – ‘just being honest’ (which is vastly different than truth telling) can be a reciprocal thing – how quickly we forget that.

4. Some of us are taking ourselves wayyyyyy to seriously if another’s laugh brings discomfit.

But I didn’t write this for them.  I write this for Arlene.  And here is what I would have you know about this dear friend, beloved by so many:

I met Arlene in the summer before our first ‘official’ semester in seminary.  We, and a whole host of others, were getting a head start by taking Greek in the summer semester.  Within a few hours spent in her company, I was astonished to observe the interactions of others with this woman I barely knew.

Strangers would, within a few minutes of sitting beside her, begin to unburden themselves uninvited on her – sharing their pain and sorrow, seeking solace in the gentling of her presence.

She’s that gal – the one you can tell anything to and know that somehow, you don’t know quite how – she will hear and understand.

I realized then that Arlene already was a pastor – all she needed was the paper to make it official.

I don’t remember her shoes, but her feet are walking feet – feet that go the extra mile simply to sit with a friend or even an enemy, in need.  And they’re feet that know how to jump and dance and live.

Her laugh is contagious, inviting everyone in on the joke.

I’m not sure what the hair thing is about – all I can draw from there is my own experience, by which I continue to be surprised at how invested congregants can be in how I choose to style my hair.  It’s a bit flattering and more than a little weird.  Even my mother doesn’t have that much to say about my appearance (and believe me when I tell you that she is not silent on the matter).

Arlene points out that the reasons that she’s been given have not included anything about her pastoral skills, her theology, her preaching (silly us: that’s what we thought it was all about).

I wish churches had the wisdom of 12-Step programs, which say something like this: although you may not like all of us, you will come to love us in a very special way, the same way that we already love you.

When it comes to church, I can truthfully say that I have seldom cared much about being liked; but I care very much about loving and being loved.

Isn’t that our business – loving?

Can’t we do better than this?

Consider how my sister in the faith concludes her own musings on the hurts she has sustained:  . . . all will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well (borrowing from Julian of Norwich).

That’s Arlene in a nutshell.

You may not have any idea of the life journey she’s had.

It isn’t necessary that you do.

But know this: whether you love her or not, she already loves you.

And by my reckoning, that makes her someone you would be damned lucky to have in your church.

*I asked Arlene for permission to publish this, as it is her story, her experience.  She agreed, hoping that someone might draw solace and healing and perhaps feel less alone in what can be a very painful journey in seeking a call.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

There Just Isn't That Much Skin

I wonder
if God
within –
the right
to capture that
Father &Son are one
thing?  I wish I knew]
the human
the incarnate one
got claustrophobic?

God taking
human form
[whatever words
describe the full
fully-humanness of it all]
seems like
trying to
bind the

there just
isn’t that
much skin

is there?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Praying Another's Tears

gracious . . . glorious . . . groaning . . . God
collect her tears
in the bucket of Your love
water the garden
of her life
with them

that these tears be absorbed
into the fabric
of time and space
real and present
a life
by the power
of You

from pain and loss
to nourishment


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sermon Cliff Note: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda

SCRIPTURE READING:  Luke 18.9-14 (the Pharisee & the tax collector)

It’s Reformation Sunday.  The Reformation wasn’t all good – Protestants were burned at the stake for their faith, but lest we get too sentimental or judgmental about that, remember that the early Protestants did their own share of burning and killing too.

That said, I would turn our focus to the Reformed churches in particular, for that is what Presbyterians are, part of the family of reformed churches.

The ‘reformed’ bit comes from our motto:  ‘Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda?’ [Translation: The church reformed, always reforming, but, per Anna Case-Winters, the better translation is The church reformed, always being reformed].

What does it mean to say that we are reformed, always reforming or being reformed?

The church reformed, always reforming according to the word of God and the call of the Spirit is a church that understands, proclaims and lives the realities that:

1. God is a living God, speaking into every time and place.

2. Our understanding of God and God’s ways is always an imperfect thing.  We don’t always get it right.

3. The church is not a static or dead thing: it too lives, in every time and every place.

4. Sometimes reforming means going forward into something new, but just as often, it can mean going back into something quite old – the original church, the original teachings.

Jesus’ parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee is a teaching on prayer, focusing on humility.  We might think of it as a story about being re-formed.

The Pharisee was speaking the truth to God about what he did.  He was a godly man.  And still he didn’t get it right.

The point was never about being better than the next guy.  This perpetual temptation, to always score each other as if life were a football game, is, for John Calvin, the father of the Reformed family of churches, the principal human sin or error, for pride misapprehends the true nature of things.

The true nature of things, as Calvin would have us understand, is that God is the source of everything – everything without and everything within.

Thus it is that any good that we do rests at the feet and originates in the heart of God.

Why does it matter that we get this?

Simply so that we avoid the temptation to believe that it’s about us . . . so that we avoid the toxic thinking, that we are the center of the universe.

Reformed and always being reformed is the recognition that change is a central part of being a Christian – if I am the same person when I leave as when I came, if I am not challenged to grow beyond myself by opening myself to God and God’s ways, then I am but a block of concrete good to no one, not even myself.

This idea isn’t about change for its own sake.

But it is about being open to God’s Spirit moving and working in our lives.

And therein lies the central difference, I suspect, between the Pharisee and the tax collector: both believed in God; both prayed; both came to the place of worship to do it.

But only one came in truth.

Only one came with ears open to a new word.

In reality, the other wasn’t talking with God at all: he was talking only to and for himself.

The one who came to be re-formed knew something the other had forgotten: to stand before the throne of God is to stand in the broken place . . . to see everything from God’s point of view . . . to know one’s self within and without . . . to have nowhere to hide . . . and to own the brokenness, the hurt, the woundedness, the failings, without flinching, without lying, without comparing to others – but to simply stand there, ready at the last, to be re-formed.

John Calvin’s seal was a hand holding a heart aloft.  The explanatory motto for the seal went something My heart to thee, O God, willingly and sincerely.
like this:

When we stand worthily before our God, we rest assured that the worth as well as the offering rest in the heart of God’s own self.

There, we are re-formed . . . again and again and yet again.

And that is a good thing.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

In the Frame 2

I love pictures – the capture of a moment in time that somehow looks nothing like the movement of the moment into the next and the next, but still catches something – elusive.  When I see other folks’ pictures, I often try to guess at what’s going on, like people watching at the airport and trying to guess what they’re about.

So here’s one for you.

There’s a woman on her knees with three dogs around her.  She smiles, holding a piece of paper in one hand and leashes in the other.  It’s a beautiful day of sunshine.  In the background are stacks of long weather-worn wooden planks, a couple of plastic lawn chairs, a fence.  On the other side of the fence stands another woman with a folded flag draped over her left arm, peering into the frame.

Write or imagine your own story about the picture.  Who are the women?  What is the woman doing with the dogs?  Why is there a piece of paper in her hand?  What are the wooden planks for?  And what of the woman on the other side of the fence?  Why is she on the other side?  Why is she holding a flag?  Why isn’t the other woman acknowledging her?

What on earth is going on here?

[Your imagining]

So here’s the story of the picture – it’s pretty prosaic, really.  But when I look at it, backing away from what I know, I am struck by the positioning of the two women with the fence between them.

On a warm October Saturday, Rhet was at the Post Office, filling in for Glenna, as is their Saturday custom.  It’s getting toward the end of her Saturday shift at mid-day and Rhet has come out and taken the flag down for the day.  Still carrying it, she walked across the parking lot of the Post Office and then across the only partly-mown field beside it to stand at the fence that separates my back yard from the field, flag still cradled in her arm.  

We are having our annual Animal Blessing Service and Dot Terry sits on the ground with some of her dog buddies, reading from a piece of paper I had given her earlier – a scripture, a reflection, on the blessings bestowed by God upon all creation.

It is a beautiful day and we have done this eight times now, but this year is different – we had a parade through town, which set a light-hearted tone to an already celebratory event – folks move about and Dot sits and frolics with the dogs and all is well.

What’s outside the frame are the other folks calling out to Rhet to come and join us and Rhet saying she can’t yet – her shift isn’t over.  What’s outside the frame is Rhet coming a while later into the church parking lot after most of the folks had already headed home, with a dog in her truck beside her to be blessed – this dog one she’s caring for as part of her new business venture.

Dog blessed, shift over, Rhet heads home, but not before she got captured in the frame, even from the other side of the fence.

It was a good day – might have been perfect, but Dot reminded us that the dogs were pretty upset that they didn’t get communion.

Next year.

Friday, October 25, 2013

No, Mark Driscoll, God is Not a Pacifist – That’s Our Job

In his article (sermon) titled Is God a Pacifist?, Mark Driscoll rhetorically asks whether God should be considered a deity of peace.  My own, equally rhetorical, response:  of course God is not a pacifist - God is peace itself.  We, as the followers of, the practitioners, if you will of God and God's ways, are the pacifists – or not.

Driscoll bases his conclusion that God is not a pacifist (implying that nor should we be) on the commandment regarding killing or murder in what he calls the Old Testament and the book of Revelation.  Driscoll says, “In effect, the sixth commandment should be understood to prohibit murder, manslaughter, violent and unauthorized killing, and killing for personal vengeance”, going on to assert that all other forms of killing are apparently all right with God.

The question begs to be asked – unauthorized (as in ‘unauthorized killing) by whom?  Since this is the 10 Commandments we’re speaking of, isn’t it at least inferred that the ‘authority’ for killing (of any kind) is God?

And since the 10 Commandments were given at the time when God spoke rather more directly to God’s people than is most often the case today, might we not surmise that killing, always the exception rather than the rule, is to happen when and if and only if God so ordains?

Driscoll references wars as justified or permissible in God’s eyes using the Augustinian language of ‘just war’ as if it were biblical.  It is not.  Look high and low and you will not find the phrase there.  I’m not a literalist, but Mr. Driscoll seem to be.

So if just war is biblical, where do we find the warrant for that?  None of the wars of invasion for the taking of the Promised Land were based upon just war theory.  They were based on direct divine command.  So, to be quite literal about it, when and if God directs us with a clear voice from the sky, with a pillar of fire and a cloud of smoke to lead us, then might we go into battle assured of the justness of our cause from the divine perspective – or so the stories of our faith, if taken literally, would tell us.

But that really isn’t the point, is it?  It’s not Driscoll’s point to ‘prove’ that violence is biblically motivated or sanctioned.  Rather, his point seems to be to prove that Jesus is an Bruce-Willis-Die-Hard kind of guy, as evidenced by his claim in all caps:   “JESUS IS NOT A PANSY OR A PACIFIST”

Wow.  Really?  Really?  To be a pacifist is, in Driscoll’s eyes, to be a ‘pansy’?  Really?  And what does he mean by that, exactly?  That Jesus wasn’t a purple flower?  That Jesus wasn’t gay?  Wasn’t a ‘girlie boy’?  Was a real man’s man, whatever that may mean for him?  Or just that pacifists are cowardly, cry-baby scaredy cats?  Yeah – that one, I’m betting.

News flash, Mr. Driscoll: if you think pacifism is the same as being a pansy, however you may interpret that particular epithet, I suggest you give it a try.  Try standing before someone who means you harm and refuse to return hurt for hurt, jab for jab.  Try stepping into a violent situation in order to change or turn the course of events.  Go and live where the violence is and try to model a different way.  Think about whether you’re as willing to take a bullet as to give one.  Then you might have something to tell me about pacifists and pansies.

You actually gave me hope – for just a second there – when you referenced God’s coming kingdom:  “One of the defining attributes of God’s coming kingdom is shalom—perfect peace untainted by sin, violence, or bloodshed of any sort.”

But then you went on, “Such a kingdom is only possible if an all-powerful, benevolent Authority vanquishes his enemies. In other words, the Prince of Peace is not a pacifist.”

Really?  Why?  Because you say so?

“Such a kingdom is only possible if an all-powerful, benevolent Authority vanquishes his enemies.”  Well, let’s take that on at face value (I don’t agree, but let’s just take you at your word, for now).  The problem is that your next statement: “In other words, the Prince of Peace is not a pacifist” does not flow from the preceding statement.  It doesn’t flow logically, spiritually, biblically.  It doesn’t flow simply because you assert that it does.

Let’s simply review Jesus – I presume we would agree that Jesus actually is “the Authority” since he is the “Prince of Peace” to whom you refer.

What did Jesus do when it came to enemy vanquishing?  He did nothing.  Not in the terms you mean, anyhow.  For what he ‘did’ is actually what was done to him: he died.  Check the Greek in your gospels: the cross event was not something Jesus did, it was something that was done to Jesus [Then they led him away to crucify him.  Matthew 27.31.  And they crucified him . . . Mark 15.24. . . . they crucified him.  Luke 23.33.  There they crucified him . . . John 19.18].

Even the resurrection is something done to rather than by Jesus – the direct references to resurrection biblically are in the passive voice (as in Jesus was raised, rather than that Jesus raised [himself] – see, e.g., Acts 4.10, 5.30, 10.40, Matthew 20.19, 17.23).

Jesus is murdered (killed, by your reckoning – after all, he has been found guilty by the appropriate authority of his day) by humanity and resurrected by divinity.  He shares in both, yet when it comes to the dividing moment in history as understood by Christians, he is acted upon rather than acting.

It’s the jujitsu moment of Christianity and I can’t believe you missed it: Jesus took what was done to him (both humanly and divinely) and turned it into a gift he bestowed upon the world.  Jesus “vanquished his enemies” by turning them from enemies to beloved friends.  You read Jesus and hear a vanquishing general.  I read Jesus and experience a converting friend, a saver, a savior.

Peace does not come by force.  It’s a simple concept, really.  Chickens give birth to chickens, not to cows.  So peace gives birth to peace and war to war.

Peace comes by conversion, change.  After all, that’s the inherent meaning of ‘repent’ – the turning back to what we once knew (even if only from before the womb) and have forgotten – the peaceable kingdom is not pie in the sky – the peaceable kingdom is now because Jesus is now.

I’m very clear that God does not wish me to kill anyone.  I don’t know what God has in store for you.  Maybe my understanding is a universal truth; maybe it’s just my own calling.

But we must not put our human misbehavior on the back of God.  It just won’t do.  Recall that God has also said that God’s ways are not ours.  I take from that that we are not to presume to be gods.

As, perhaps, a side note, an anecdote about your exegesis of the words ‘kill’ and ‘murder’:  Dr. Bruce Metzger (considered by some to be one of the most influential New Testament scholars of the 20th century), who chaired the work that resulted in the NRSV, professor emeritus of Princeton Theological Seminary (now deceased) was once sitting at table in the dining hall and I was privileged to join the group listening to him.  He mentioned the murder/kill commandment and this is what I remember him saying: there were two working groups – one for the Old Testament and one for the New.  The Old Testament scholars translated the phrase as “do not murder” and the New Testament scholars translated it (for as you note, the command is quoted and referenced in the New) as “do not kill” and Dr. Metzger as the chair had to settle on a choice.  Dr. Metzger chose “murder”.* After lunch, I was sharing the story with a friend while standing on the porch outside the dining hall, when a rabbi (whose name I cannot recall), scheduled to speak to a class later, joined us, having heard what we were talking about.  The rabbi agreed with Dr. Metzger, believing the best translation to be “murder” and gave us a short treatise on why this should be so.

In the space of an hour on a sunny day in Princeton, New Jersey, I was privileged to hear the thinking of some of the greatest minds of the time dive into this translation question.  It didn’t make the issue clear or settled for me; what it made me was humble.  And that’s what I remember most about what Dr. Metzger had to say: he himself was not absolutist.  He allowed for the reality that reasonable and intelligent minds could and did differ.  He was simply the one at the time who had to choose and choose he did, based on his own best understandings at the time, while acknowledging that it was a close call and not at all clear cut.

In that same spirit, I allow that you may be right: the best translation for the commandment in question may be “murder” rather than “kill”.  There are sound reasons for that understanding.

But I am left wondering whether you personally know any Christian pacifists or have read any seminal Christian works on pacifism by pacifists.  Because here’s the thing: Walter Wink doesn’t base his theology on the 10 Commandments.  Nor does Dr. King.  Nor do any other scholars with whom I am familiar.  The commandment, however it is translated, is not the bedrock for my own tending-to-pacifism theological understandings.  (I would self-describe as a pacifist in progress – it’s what I believe, but my practice, my actual living out my faith in this regard has a long way to go).

I note with regret that in your exegesis, which takes you from Exodus straight to Revelation, that you do not stop for at least a pause in the gospels.  Matthew’s recounting of the Sermon on the Mount, at the least, warrants a glance.

But I digress.

If you want to engage in a meaningful discussion about the call (or its lack) to pacifism, you have to engage pacifists and you have to engage us not based on the 10 Commandments, or not them alone.  You have to engage us with the Jesus event – his life, his death, his resurrection.  You have to engage us with the practices of the early church.  You have to engage us with the entirety of scripture in the realities we are living today.  Or not.

The same is true for me in engaging you.  I have said what is not true, from my point of view.  And here, in a nut shell, is what I understand to be true: Jesus Incarnate is God embodied, fully divine and fully human. . . fully human.  Thus does Jesus Incarnate show me what a full human being is to be like and act like.  Thus violence in my understanding is not merely being human; it is actually being something other than human, for the Prince of Peace engages in physical violence only once, in the money changer episode, which is told with wildly varying levels of violence in the gospel accounts.  And that violence involved no killing, if we’re going to be quite literal about it.

More importantly, Jesus encounters his enemies with truth, not strategies . . . with creativity, not the same old stuff . . . and thus does he take a self-described murderer like Paul and make a new man, really human for the first time, who surrenders everything of himself to follow The One in The Way.

Thus does Jesus take a betrayer like Judas and hold him close . . . thus does he take a thug like Peter and change him into the father of churches . . .

We may give up on him, but he never gives up on us.  Doubt it?  Recall the story of the (alleged) adulteress in John 8.1ff?  In bringing her to Jesus, the Pharisees actually name her outcome: if guilty, she is to be stoned (capital punishment).  What does Jesus do?  You know what he does:  he ‘buys’ her life with his wisdom.  But what was his motivation?  The story does not explicitly say.  Could it have been mercy?  Or was this just a vehicle for Jesus to show his smarty-pantedness to those tricky Pharisees?

And when you speak of the divine wrath promised in Revelation, did it never occur to ask what occasioned the predicted wrath?  Did it never occur to ponder whether it is our own failure to act our Jesus’ own peace that invites the divine winnowing?

Did it never occur that when it comes to separating sheep and goats, pulp and pith (pick your pairing), that the process won’t be separating one person from another, but rather one aspect from within each person from the other aspect?  In other words, did it never occur to think that the Revelation promise of destruction of all that is evil is the same process as the refiner’s fire (removing the dross and leaving the gold) as described in Malachi 3?

Or perhaps most important of all, how do you claim the divine prerogative of wrath (even if it be as you describe) as the prerogative of humanity?

On the particulars: implicit in the command’s permissive killing (as you view it) via capital punishment are the (unnamed by you) aspects of: (1) justice; and (2) mercy – hence the numerous biblical references, Old and New, to God’s justice (Amos’ promise of justice rolling down like a flood is but one example).  When it comes to capital punishment, it must be presupposed that it be done justly.  The most basic component of justice when it comes to capital (or any) punishment is that we got the right guy.  And too often, as the Innocence Project has demonstrated, we have in fact not gotten the right guy, nor have we administered the punishment justly by any measure – for surely it cannot be just as God would have us understand the word to have one standard for one group of folks and another for another, and yet we do – thus it is that a disproportionate number of people of color end up sentenced to death for offenses that get life sentences for the white folk.

It just won’t do to say that the Bible requires/authorizes/mandates capital punishment as a warrant to disregard a call for peaceful alternatives because ‘the commandment says so’.

And then there’s mercy – God also established cities of refuge for those actually guilty of capital offenses.  Where are our modern equivalents?  We don’t have any.  The issue with the cities doesn’t seem to be guilt or innocence – the cities are safe havens for the guilty.  The issue actually seems to be mercy – the allowance for a second chance to get it right.

You see, mercy in the eyes of the pacifist reading of scripture is not the opposite or negation of justice; rather, mercy is the fulfillment of justice.

You see pacifists and think of cowardice and weakness and refuse to have your Jesus associated with such.  But here’s the thing: Paul writes about Jesus as the one who counted his reputation as nothing, even to the point of a death on the cross.  Paul goes on to compare himself to that Jesus – the one who cares not what the likes of you and me think of him – and calls everything but his faithful following shit.

What I would hope and pray you might come to know about we pacifists is that it is neither cowardly nor weak to take the beating and not return it in kind.  But even more importantly, I would have you know that, if scripture is to be believed, Jesus cares not one whit whether you or I or anyone else think he’s a pansy . . . or not.

Finally, I agree with you: God is not a pacifist.  God does not practice peace.  God is peace.

*In the NRSV, “murder” is used with a footnote that reads, “or kill”, reflecting the division among scholars reflected in Dr. Metzger’s story.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

In the Frame

Local librarian and FB friend Tomi posted two pictures of sunset (or was it sunrise?  sometimes it’s hard to tell), one zoomed out, the other closer in, of the same scene – the Highlands in the quietude of day’s end (or beginning), mists clinging even as they dance and shift.

Tomi’s own take on the contrast between the two pictures is that the wider perspective includes more color and less drama.

My own response is to think that perspective makes all the difference in life as well as in the photographic images we create.

It’s the same scene, but our focus changes everything, so that the fallen tree trunk in the foreground of Tomi’s photographs takes on mystery or sorrow or loss or ominous threat or curiosity in close-up, but disappears into a morass of other details blurred from a distance.

Both vantages are in the frame.

Both are true . . . simultaneously.

A tree fell in the field one day and for some time and some time yet to come, there it lay, and will, always in the frame, but seldom remarked upon.  Does it need noticing in order to be?  No.  But in the noticing, something changes in me.

Photos by Tomi Herold

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On God's Word*

A thought – perhaps God’s word is more comparable to food than to knowledge.

Knowledge, once you ‘know’ it, is yours, filed away in the data banks of the mind.

But food – that must continuously be consumed in order to live.

Thus understood, God’s word is our nourishment, not our encyclopedia.

*From my prayer journal entry of October 14, 2008.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Nihilists Among and Within Us

I am aghast at my own interior question as I read a comment on a post about Wendell Berry.

I’m a fan, so I bring my own prejudices and presuppositions as I read.

But I’m also a fan not just of Mr. Berry, but of my species.  Turns out I’m not alone in that, but also turns out that not all of we humans feel the same way.

So I read a comment from (I am guessing) a young man with only some identifying initials as his tag, a comment that suggests the earth will only be safe from humans when (a) there are less of us and (b) a tyrant with the vision and will to impose it emerges who will force us to submit to the author’s vision of what it will take to save planet earth from us (including, apparently, making plans for the lessening of us).

Why am I so aghast with myself?

Because the hubris attacked is the hubris displayed and my internal reaction is to invite the author into his own logic, which is a form of invitation to his own suicide.

For if one really believes (or so I am thinking) that there need be less of us, should not the proponent of the lessening go first, lead the way, annihilate self to save earth?  Does not the one who suggests tyranny as a form of problem solving inevitably see himself either as the tyrant or on the tyrant’s side?  When does the proponent of tyranny ever volunteer to be on the losing side of the tyrant’s rage?  When someone suggests destruction as the solution, when do they ever imagine it as their destruction or their destruction alone?

I have no patience for the illogic of the one who would claim to solve any problem by killing simply because they never seem to simply go quietly into their own good night without wanting to take a whole host of the rest of us along for the ride.

All of that gets wrapped in a nanosecond of a kernel of a thought in my own head, none the kinder for its locus – the thought that he who would wish for the end of his species is more than welcome to go first.

And I am aghast.

For I am not the young man I presume to be writing.

His view is not my own.

Yet how easy to succumb to the death view of things even in my own thinking.

One cannot taunt someone into suicide and think one’s self civilized, let alone godly and loving.

How easy it is to allow the anger of the other to infect my own thinking.

I am aghast.

And the enemy – well, she is me.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Good News Clock

Friend Hank sent me this link today – it’s a clock – well, sort of.  I mean, there is a measure of time, but it’s
Doomsday Clock
not really measuring time, this internet ‘device’ – it’s measuring the annual accumulations of the world in numbers . . . people born . . . people dying . . . (both at least implicitly seen by the counting creators as bad news) . . . murders . . . fuel consumption rates . . . how we’re dying . . . what illnesses are piling up on the collective body human . . . extinction rates . . . how much we’re consuming . . . well, you get the picture.

What grabbed my eye, however, is the category Smile (it ain't all bad news).  I’m not sure what I expected, but beyond ‘# of 1st kisses’ (which I keep wondering how on earth they claim to measure), I find their categories pretty depressing: # of divorces . . . beer (and wine) consumption rates . . . cars purchased . . . Coca Cola’s drunk . . . and # of Google searches.


Even tongue-in-cheek, this is the best you can do for smilie-good news?

In the tongue-in-cheek mode (or not), how about # of FB friends made . . . or # of blades of grass growing without human help . . . or # of cat videos posted on YouTube (you know you watch them – and hey, if someone’s making a cute cat video, chances are they’re not up to mischief – a good thing, I’m thinking – and yes, on a scale of the good, I put cat videos ahead of drinking a Coke) . . . # of Top 10 lists posted . . . # of times people turned off their computers . . . # of good dreams (I’m guessing if they can measure first kisses, dreams wouldn’t be much of a stretch) . . .

Or better yet, if it’s a measure of genuine good news we seek, how about measuring and reporting on the number of new species found . . . trees planted . . . hungry fed . . . those who went to bed safe the night before . . . have adequate clothing . . . found shelter . . . received needed medical attention . . . went to school . . . have loving parents . . . were not murdered . . . lived to a ripe old age . . . heard a kind word . . . spoke a kind word . . . read a book . . . created something . . . preserved something worth saving . . . had an idea . . . served someone . . . loved . . . worshiped . . . praised . . . laughed . . . danced . . . enjoyed the sunshine . . . were brave . . . got their dream job . . . or just got a job . . .

It’s another day on planet earth and there are those among us who count and measure the passing time by what’s happening.  I wonder why so many of our professional counters measure to the doom, without also including the many bits of good news.

I’m no Pollyanna, but it seems to me that we’d be far better off as a species if we remembered not only the bad news, but also the good; and there is actually quite a lot of good to remember.

And that’s a blessing.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sermon Cliff Note: In the Meantime


Before our reading, the Pharisees have been asking Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming.  Jesus tells them that it is now but suggests to his disciples that the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth awaits his return, which will be sudden, but which may be a long time in the coming.

The parable of the widow and the unjust judge, as a teaching on prayer immediately follows:  Jesus is talking about the work of his followers ‘in the meantime’ and suggests that it is to his followers that the story is told.

In the meantime, just like now, there will be injustice.

In the meantime, even, and perhaps especially, the chosen of God will suffer.

And in the meantime, just like now, they are to pray. . . A lot.

In the meantime, they are to keep the faith. . . Always.

In the meantime, they are to not lose heart, that is, not to despair. Ever.

We are an ‘in the meantime’ people, living in the space and time between Jesus’ going and coming.

And the meantime matters.

Jesus is concerned for his followers in his absence: he worries that when he’s gone in the body, they will lose heart, for to lose Jesus is to lose our very hearts, our center, the place from which all things flow.

He compares his disciples to the powerless and downtrodden by comparing them to a widow – a woman without a husband in Jesus’ society is a defenseless non-person.  Without Jesus standing beside them, they would be like her: defenseless, non-persons.  Or so they might believe.

That can be so hard for us today to understand sometimes.  Or maybe not.  It’s about being invisible.  And having to shout to be heard.  To have to slam on doors over and over and over again before anyone will even notice.  It is to demand justice for one’s self and for others as no more than what is due.

That’s what our prayers are to look like: like the demand to be heard.  Really?  Well, isn’t that the point of persistence when we pray? Or doesn't God hear us the first time? What's the difference between persistence and vain repetition/many words, which the gospel of Matthew warns against (Matt.6.7)? What is the connection between persistence in prayer and the quality or strength of our faith?

God’s chosen ones stand in the place of the widow - defenseless, powerless – really?  Jesus intends the ones to whom he speaks to identify with the widow woman – reminding them they are chosen by God and they are not powerless, for in their crying is their strength, their power, for God hears their cries.

It’s not about whining and nagging God into submission.  It is about maintaining a prayerful spirit, a confidence in believing, despite all temptations to succumb to despair.

And it’s about a particular kind of prayer – the prayer for justice.  This is the prayer of those treated oppressively and unjustly.

It’s about naming the wrongs and not backing down.

It’s about reminding God in order to remind ourselves of the covenant in which we live with our God.

It’s not about stubbornness.

It’s not about stamping our feet to get our way.

It’s not about losing faith because things didn’t go the way we expect they should.

It is believing, as Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently described, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice – always.

It’s about believing that another name for God is justice.

It’s about joining God in the striving, always, towards the just.

It’s about persevering as we live out our lives in this in the meantime time.

It’s about prayer.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

To an Atheist on Why I’m a Christian

Some time ago, I exchanged some correspondence with a young atheist about what it means to say that I am a Christian and whether that path is one worthy, let alone true, for any human being (the conversation was largely framed by his questions and challenges – it’s not where I would have started if the choice were mine).

Pondering yesterday’s beautiful, if gloomy day-time skies and last night’s wowing full moon, I was reminded of our conversations, a part of which on my end went like this:

If you and I stood side by side at a sunset, we would both be moved.  
Even if we were both thinking on the dust particles that caused what we saw, the beauty of what we saw would move us emotionally or spiritually or both.  Even if no words passed between us, we would still have shared and communicated something of great value. 
I experience that beauty of shared experience with other Christians almost every day – in prayer, in holding the hand of the dying, in watching my aunt Bonnie slipping so quietly and graciously from this life, in a marriage ceremony where two lives are joined together as one, in songs of praise, in laughter and in tears.  
Why am I a Christian? Because I have stood on that holy ground time after time after time, knowing that God was there with us.  As I said before, I'm a lucky gal.

Friday, October 18, 2013

9 of My Favorite Color Moments

I don't have a (as in one) favorite color.  Color is my favorite color -- all color.  Here's my list of some favorite color moments.  I wonder what your favorites are?

1. Green as in the greening of my world when the spring and summer rains come and the grass and leaves and flowers and bushes burst with green.  I live in a bowl of green

2. The orange of fall leaves and pumpkins and curry spice in the market and the scarf Anna gave me

3. The blue bookends of sky and ocean from an airplane

4. The yellows and golds of the pine boards of my bedroom floor reflecting the shades I choose to be surrounded by

5. The brown of fresh-baked bread and crunchy dead leaves underfoot

6. The red of fireworks and tomatoes and that favorite dress and my too-fast car

7. The dark almost-black brown of the rain-soaked earth

8. The white of a wedding cake and sheets hanging on the line and cloud kangaroos and unicorns on a clear day

9. The kaleidoscope of color that is love – the grey of my Grandma’s hair, the brown of my son’s eyes, the same brown as my own, the black and tan Guinness and my dog Scruffy (may he rest in peace), the peaceful blues my mother is surrounded by (they match her eyes so well), the white stripe on a skunk’s back, the clever and amusing design of a God more creative than my imagination can embrace, as peaceful alternative to confrontation, warning all comers that there’s a cost to getting too close, for that, too, is love.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

How Would a 3rd Grader Get Folks to Church?

She’d draw them a picture of her church and the smiling people there and proudly give them her picture to hang on their refrigerator to remind them to come when it’s Sunday

She’d grab their hand and pull them along with her so they could go meet Jesus with her

She’d tell them about the parts that for her are like recess, like when there’s candy

She would promise to stay with them the whole time so they wouldn’t have to be afraid

She would offer to share her own favorite musical instrument she gets to play during hymn sing so they could play too

She would show them where the chalk is kept for drawing on the sidewalk and take them outside so they could draw with her

She would make them a card to invite them to come, like it’s a party

She would tell them that it’s okay to talk out loud or get up and go to the bathroom any time they want in her church

She’d tell them about praying and share a time when she prayed and she just knows Jesus heard her and helped her and would promise that Jesus would help them too

She’d offer to have her mom or dad give them a ride

I think she might be pretty wise, that 3rd grader, don’t you?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Crayon Box of Trees

in the cut
marking the boundaries
of the gap we make for our
day-to-day nice necessities to travel
from here to there and beyond – utilitarian
utilities and poles to hold and bear
them – there – in that space
place the flying saws
make are the
left and
left behind
soldiers in form
formation attention
no at ease for these watchers
who watch only each other and wait
for nothing – perfect in their
one-sided symmetry
a crayon box of

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

When We Were Nomads

No man ever steps in the same river twice.   –Heraclitus, 5th century BCE

Checking out the map showing all the rivers in the United States, I got to pondering water, thinking that the United States could be called instead the land of many waters, which reminded me of the Heraclitus quote above.

I wonder if Heraclitus, a stern philosopher of his own time, ever pondered the good fortune or divine providing, depending upon one’s point of view, I suppose, of living in a land plentiful with water, for only a people well-provided with water would understand an axiom predicated upon standing in a river and contemplating the passing of its collection of droplets as it swirled on its way between and around his legs.

When considering the planet as a whole, we have indeed been blessed with an abundance of water, but not so in many particular localities, where water is so scarce it’s but a dream on a wisp of a cloud in an otherwise cloudless expanse of sky, where it’s a thing fought for and over, where ownership is claimed and contested, as if the truth of Heraclitus’ observation could be subverted and the claim made for this drop of water be made universal to every drop this way comes.

I wonder, thinking on such things and want to create, at least in my own imagining, a world where nomads wander freely with the waters and where, because of such mobility of purpose, there is no strife, for there is always enough, if one has but legs to get him there.

But that’s a dream and I know it.  In Iraq a few years ago, there was such a drought (it may continue, I do not know) that shepherds walked their flocks from southern Iraq ever northward into the higher elevations, seeking water.  What could seem a pastoral story of the struggle for survival became something uglier as fights and violence broke out between the southern Arabs on the move and their northern Kurdish neighbors over grazing and water rights and one shepherd was killed in the fighting.

I dream sometimes about peace in the Middle East being tied to the international development of desalination on a large scale, solving the problem of water scarcity.  But friends are always quick to point out that whatever is offered for free or the common good is all too often exploited for the good of the few.

It’s enough to make an optimist despair, this unwillingness or inability to even imagine that there might be another way.

Life was harder in many ways when we were nomads.  But the desert rule of hospitality, of the welcome of the stranger and even the enemy, was born in the hearts of the nomads, who well knew how essential such reciprocity was.

How have we lost that?

Was it always only a myth?

I don’t think so, for I have been on the receiving end of the hospitality of enemies, sharing their table out of that ancient idea and custom.

When we were nomads, we well knew where the waters lay.

But now, sedentary people, we forget that the rivers move and nothing is forever.  We forget that the blessing of many waters we may enjoy in one region will move with the sands of time to another.  We forget that blessings are for a season.  We forget at our peril.

And so it is that in our forgetting, the Colorado River no longer flows into the Pacific as it once did via the Sea of Cortez, because of the many dam projects in the US when the Colorado ran plentiful and there was no drought.  PBS

When we were nomads, we knew the blessing of standing in the river and we knew it was a different river than the ones in which our ancestors drank and washed, even as their feet and ours touched the same bedrock.

We knew some things when we were nomads.

I don’t know if it made us kinder or better, but in many ways, I think it made us wiser.

Monday, October 14, 2013

12 Reasons Not to Come to My Church

Churches these days, in the United States at least, seem to desperately seek out new members.  That makes sense spiritually as well as practically, for Christians are called to evangelize, that is, to spread the word of God’s love to the world.

And in the face of dwindling numbers, as a church professional (translation: I’m a preacher/pastor), my FB page is full of posts about how to attract more people into the church, how to go where the people not in church are, how to be ‘relevant’ to the unchurched, how to market one’s church, etc., etc., etc.

But every church is not for every person.  So if you’re thinking about or looking for a church community to call your own, be warned: this may not be the church for you.

My own list of 12 reasons why you might not want to come here:

1. We’re small. . . really small . . . tiny even.  And small ain’t for everyone.  Because here’s the thing about small: it really is up to you.  So if you want a church where you can plug in to what’s already going on, slide in and slide out with little fuss, well, we’re just not the church for you, for the fact is that if you’re coming to this tiny church, you will be called on.

2. As a corollary to #1, there is no anonymity here.  There’s nowhere to hide, to be invisible, in a church this size – there just isn’t.  You will be noticed.  You will be welcomed.  And hugged.  And while hospitality is a good thing, not everyone is comfortable with being noticed.  That’s okay.  We’re just not for you.

3. Another corollary to #1, if you’ve got a great idea but no time or energy or interest to implement it, this place is definitely not for you.  This pastor loves new ideas and most times, we’ll all jump in behind someone who’s got one – but, and it’s a big thing – really – if it’s your idea, it’ll be up to you to make it come true.  We’ll help you.  But if it’s yours, baby, you run with it or it won’t happen.

4. If you insist that the church you attend have a predictable ending time, you really need to go somewhere else.  You can stare at your watch all you want; you can even install a clock where the preacher just has to see it (trust me, it’s been done) – it will make no difference.  Services end when they end.  It’s not an all-day thing, but I’m told it can feel like it.  So if you need an hour a week and no more for your spiritual sustenance, you really need to be somewhere else.

5. If you don’t want to hear about money, or be asked to give of your money, go somewhere else.  Enough said.  (I can give you the longer version some other time, but chances are if this is a deal breaker for you, we won’t get that far in the conversation, will we?)

6. If it’s all about you and your needs, please do me the favor of going somewhere else.  I have neither the time nor the energy nor the ability to meet all the needs of all the people all the time.  And it’s not my job.  Nor is it church’s job.  So you’ll just end up disappointed and angry and who needs that?  You don’t and neither do I.

7. If you need things spiritual to be clear cut, with no room for differing views, this is definitely not the place for you.  Doctrine and dogma may have their place, but we’re a rag tag bunch of current and former Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Unitarians, Reformed and Presbyterians, gathered under the Presbyterian umbrella.  And most of us are just way too old to want to arm wrestle ourselves into one worldview.  We’re pretty content, most days, to make room for each other.  We’ll make room for you too.  But none of us get to design the room alone, so it can end up looking pretty funny after awhile, with windows where there should be doors and vice versa.  If you need certainty, we are certain of a few things, but they are very few and everything else is up for discussion.

8. If you’re offended by laughter, you’d better just keep on driving when you get here.  We’re the kind of folks and I’m the kind of preacher, who like to laugh.  We celebrate communion sometimes with chocolate.  We come to the table joyous.  And we like it that way.

9. If a woman preacher is a problem, better keep moving.  Isn’t it obvious?

10. If you require entertainment, this place is not your place.  While I think I’m pretty witty, nobody is that entertaining week in and week out.  I know I’m not (and when I forget that, the folks here are quick to remind me).

11. If you’re just not that interested in things spiritual or consider yourself ‘spiritual but not religious’ - definitely give us a miss.  People come to church for all kinds of reasons.  No one here will judge your reasons.  But we are definitely about our Father’s business.  If that’s of no interest to you, there are civic clubs and groups and volunteer organizations that can better feed your desire to be of help to the world.  If you’re looking for friends, there are better places to find them.  We’ll do our best to make you feel welcome, but we won’t always get it right.  We’ll make room for you, but not always in the ways you would like.  And we are unapologetically religious as well as spiritual, spiritual as well as carnal.

12. If you think politics have no place in church or church in politics, you will not be happy here.  This is not a church that preaches on who you should vote for, but its preacher is definitely one who will challenge you to think about and enact your understanding of God as the Lord of all in the entirety of your life, which includes your life as a citizen.  So if it’s personal piety to the exclusion of public concerns that you seek, this is not the place for you.

If you’re someone living in the mountains of western Virginia and seeking out a church, I hope and trust you’ll consider McDowell Presbyterian Church and Headwaters Chapel.  We’re charming.  We’re historic.  We’re (mostly) pretty nice people.  We love Jesus and follow him the best we can.  We get mad at and fall in love with each other over and over again every day.  We’re part of the body human and the body divine.  And we’d love to have you.  But please, oh please, do think about whether you’d really love to have us too and if not, really, do give us a miss.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sermon Cliff Note: Claiming Freedom

SCRIPTURE Luke 17.11-19

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus often finds himself in the in-between places with the in-between people.

That’s the kind of place where these men and the people like them are forced to live . . . in the place where no one lives, because, very simply, in their own cultures, they are no one.

So complete is their exclusion that even when Jesus approaches them, they keep their distance . . . even as they seek his help, they withdraw themselves from him.

Jesus, when he saw them, and in response to their cry for his help, orders them to go and show themselves to the priests.  And they do.  All of them went.  All of them proceeded out of the no-mans land together . . . all of them obeyed Jesus . . . and in their trusting obedience, which, as far as they knew, placed them in the very real danger of being killed by the guards of their borderlands . . . they went . . . and in the going, they were healed, made clean . . .

They weren’t healed by a simple word from Jesus . . . in this case, it seems Jesus wanted them to understand that their healing was their freedom . . . they would know that in their heads, but they had to know it with their feet as well . . .

They had to understand that their being made whole again meant that they were free and that they were free meant they were made whole . . . the lesson of freedom is one that we humans can only know in our feet . . . for our heads will keep us captives every time . . . captives of our old fears. . .

And here, perhaps, is the lesson of the tenth leper . . . the one who turned back . . . the one who actually went back into the no-man’s land of his own captivity, but as a free man . . .

The other nine kept going in the direction that took them as far away from their prison as they could get.  The healing is enough for them . . . and really, who can blame them? . . . they aren’t just healed of a dread disease, they are restored to their community . . . Jesus’ command that they go to the priests is in accord with the law of their time . . .before they could go home to their families, they had to be judged to be genuinely safe to the community by the priests. Who can blame them for not turning back in their haste to get home?

But by keeping on their course, they remained as captive to their disease as if they still carried the sores on their bodies . . .

Only the tenth man knew that he had been freed from all of that . . . only the tenth leper knew he was a leper no more . . . only the tenth man knew he had been freed from the fear and bondage of living in prison . . . for friends, only a free man dares to revisit the site of his own imprisonment and proclaim it to be holy ground . . .

Only a free man turns back to his prison in order to give thanks for the very freedom he now enjoys . . .

Ten were healed, made clean, that day, but only one was made whole . . .

Jesus can heal us, but it remains to us to claim the freedom that healing brings . . .

Jesuit priest John Kavanaugh thinks about it all this way, “And Christ, having healed ten, saw something greater in the one Samaritan who made time to come back, fall at his feet, and praise God. He saw the splendor of a human heart that believes it is loved, that accepts the gift. Such faith . . . is the gift back to God, so enchanting that God would die for love of it.”

God would . . . and God did . . . Let us claim this truth for ourselves and live as the free people . . . the beloved people we are.  Amen.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Artisanal Jesus

I’ve been having lots of misreads of late – those eye-to-brain glitches when somehow even context doesn’t save me, so that ‘paying’ becomes ‘praying’.  If there’s a neurological malfunction going on, I’ve got to say it’s the first one I’ve known with a sense of humor, as in the most recent misread:

I read ‘artisanal cheeses’ and hear in my head ‘artisanal Jesus’ . . . Artisanal Jesus?  What?  Really?  I actually make myself laugh aloud at that one.

Exactly what or who is an artisanal Jesus?

Is artisanal Jesus



Is artisanal Jesus for only the truly appreciative?  Is artisanal Jesus a boutique Jesus only for the select, in-the-know few (sounds a bit gnostic for my tastes)?

Is artisanal Jesus more flavorful than any other Jesus?

Maybe artisanal Jesus is actually made of cheese.

What would Buddy Jesus make of Artisanal Jesus?

What would an Artisanal Jesus action figure look like?  (I’m guessing pretty much like the figures we have in our imagining today, when robes and beards and sandals signify to the hopefuls a character of distinction, separate from the crowd).

All this meandering of mind brings me back to the original – artisanal cheeses – wondering whether a cheese made by hand is really better than one made any other way . . . whether the ways we’ve left behind are really worth going back to . . . whether I really want my cheeses to be unique and distinct from yours and if so, why . . .

So if you want to know what at least one lady preacher does for fun on a slow day, there you have it . . . artisanal Jesus indeed.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Rock Outcroppings

Rocks seem to hang in mid-air
but they only seem to
for there, hiding behind the
trees lies a mountain
of rock solid
that merely deigns
to show us
an ankle here
an elbow there
such a flirt
the mountain
I love that about her

Thursday, October 10, 2013

To Fall


to fall
and falling things
leaves wafting
odors mixing
earth with dead things
a last blast of life
before the tides of winter
with that white blanket
of quiet and disguise

the perfect high dive
from the heights of summer
where the moment is
held captive to eternity
and all its blaze


*An exercise in reflecting on the wow of the seasons, inspired by Anne Lamott’s lovely book Help, Thanks, Wow.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Alarm Clock Ballet

In this second career of ministry in a rural setting, most days I no longer have to live by the alarm sounding time to get up . . . most days I just get up when I wake up – a lovely gift of living to the rhythms of my body and the world around me – most days.

But some days an alarm is required – like today.

And can I just say how demonic I think the inventor of the snooze button is?  Who came up with that nefarious idea that we can somehow buy ourselves just a little more sleep by the hit of a button?  Really, who?  You can tell us.  We won’t hurt you – well, maybe only a little.

But I digress.

I put my alarm just out of reach so that I actually have to get out of bed to turn it off.  Otherwise me and snoozie just sleep on into the day 5 minutes or so at a time.

Even that doesn’t work for this deep sleeper, though, as I’m fully capable of jumping out of bed, hitting snooze and going right back into the warmth of the covers for those precious 5 more minutes.

Usually the maneuver looks like a fish jumping from the water and plunging back in again with that slight hesitation at the top of the arc.

But some days, waking happy if sleepy, I do the alarm clock ballet:

Jump from bed

Land on one tip toe

Straighten knee

Hit snooze with one delicate pointed finger


Fall gracefully


It’s my own personal alarm clock ballet, this move, proving to myself that I can still dance, even if it’s in the morning when no one else can see, even if the grace of the move lies only in my imagining, and yes, it is good and smiling, I plunge back into my dreams.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Shutting Down

Does a body ‘decide’, like a government, when to shut down?  Is our own physical shutting down, slowing down, winding down, a decision or something that merely happens to us, like time?

If bodies, as my faith teaches, resurrect, do governments?

If we’re sitting on an ash heap, what phoenix-like new thing will emerge?

Metaphors only take us so far in our understandings, don’t they?

So mostly today, I am left wondering.  And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  As poet Rainer Maria Rilke once pointed out to a young would-be poet (I’ve always wondered whether his promise every bloomed into something I may have read*) . . .

I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
 And because it is a wondering day, I am also wondering how someone with the pen of a Rilke could also reportedly have said that fascism is a source of healing and Mussolini its bringer.  And then I wonder what questions another might have when looking into my life at such a distance.  It is not forgiveness, exactly (for that is not mine to offer or deem necessary), but the question stays a question, at least for now.

*It seems history does know the young poet, but mostly only via this correspondence.  Wikipedia.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Pajama Day Sabbaths

Sabbath – the notion of holy rest – is one fraught with avoidance.

The nearest I come are my pajama days – days when I literally do not get out of my pajamas.

The telephone goes unanswered.

The dishes unwashed.

The laundry unhung.

The news of the day unknown.

Pajama days in my house are un- kind of days – when nothing (or nothing much) gets ‘done’.

Sometimes there’s a book I’ve been wanting to read.

Sometimes not.

It’s a challenge to do nothing in a do something world.

For many, sabbaths include the social – spending time with family or friends.

But not for me – a genuine introvert of the Myers-Briggs kind – for me, sabbath is a no-people day or it’s not sabbath – except with my kids – when they were younger, we’d do pajama days together, exuberant in our indolence.  The house was usually a total wreck after, but that was okay.  And we had nothing to show for our time, but that was okay too.  I miss those days sometimes.

Sabbath, you see, is a day when I require nothing of myself or anyone else but to be.

I confess my best sabbaths don’t have much deep thinking to them either – no pondering on the deeper meanings of life, the big questions are left for another day.

It’s hard sometimes to explain pajama day to others, like the day when a congregant invited me to dinner.  I responded, sorry, I can’t – it’s pajama day, to which he responded that he didn’t mind if I came over in my pj’s, which begged more explanation than I had the energy to give at the time, so I simply said I’d have to take a rain check.

Today won’t be a pajama day, but the fall rains are here (perfect pajama days) and I’m hoping for one soon.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Praying for Our Nation's Leaders Today in Church

Dear Leader,

Today in the small village of McDowell, Virginia, we gathered at the usual time for worship.  At the beginning, as is our usual custom, we lifted up our prayer concerns, which included you.  During worship, we prayed our concerns for our nation’s leaders out loud and included our blessings for you in those prayers.  It went something like this . . .

Gracious God, 
We pray for the leaders of our nation.  We ask that You grant them all spirits of honesty. . . hearts of reconciliation and conciliation . . . perseverance in the face of challenge . . . lives lived and decisions made which follow the leading of Your Spirit . . . ears to hear the will of the people and wisdom to know when that will should be ignored in favor of what is best . . . 
And we pray that You grant our leaders showers of Your blessings . . . the blessings of good health and wellness . . . loving family . . . safe haven . . . happy lives . . . love and forgiveness . . . renewed energy for the task at hand . . .and inner peace – that peace which surpasses all human understanding . . . 

This is the prayer I will send to our nation’s leaders from one small congregation in the western mountains of Virginia.

It took some getting to, this prayer.  There were jokes and sarcasm, despair and disgust, prayers for our own individual and particular political agendas, and a very difficult time in naming blessings as we grappled with the brokenness of our political process in this particular season.

The preacher (that’s me) got a little crusty with the congregation (shame on her) in the grappling.

This is at the core of my own preacherly struggle: when is it good, necessary, right, important, to create space for the naming of frustration, anger and just good old-fashioned venting of spleen – especially when it comes to praying?  And when is it time to let go of all that and genuinely pray for the good of the other, even and especially another with whom we are angry, frustrated, etc.?

Can I genuinely pray these blessing prayers equally for Ted Cruz and Barak Obama?  If not, is that about who’s right or wrong?  Or is that just about my own unwillingness or inability to let go of my own judgments even on the holy ground that is prayer?

I tend to think it’s the latter, but then that puts me in the place of judging others who think differently.

Turns out it’s just as hard, if not harder, to pray our politics as it is to live them.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Who is Blessed in the Blessing?

Today in the splendid fall shining, 18 people . . . 3 cats . . . and 19 dogs (and leashes) . . . one french horn . . . one banjo . . . and lots of blessings, gathered for a parade (for you religious folk, that’s a procession) to the grounds of the church I serve where we then had our annual blessing of the animals service.

This year’s service was the least formal (and hence my favorite) of all we’ve had so far.  The dogs barked their greetings at each new arrival . . . folks got up and moved about with their animals . . . people commented on the readings . . . and a wee boy of 3 named Braiden walked alongside me to offer the blessings, Braiden offering his own special blessing, “Jesus loves you, Amen”.

The best bit was the first time, when after the blessing, Braiden told the doggie it was now time to go to bed – after all, when Braiden says his prayers, bed time follows, so it follows that it was now the doggie’s bed time too.

Then there was the moment when all the dogs stood up in the middle of the service and began to bark their greetings over the fence at Rhet, who came during a break from work to be a part of it all.

Blessed to be a blessing, so God promised to Abraham, so it is for us too.


Shout out to the Highland Sheriff’s deputies David Neil, Gary Hull and Ronnie Wimer and Sheriff Duff for making our parade possible . . . to G. W. Obaugh for loaning us the use of his parking lot as our jump off point . . . to Will Crisp for making sure we had ads in the paper and helping out in so many ways . . . to Samantha Blagg for her french horn playing (beautiful, fabulous) . . . to Jeanne Lou and Dot and all the others who work tirelessly (and tiredly) to make sure all pets are loved and find good homes . . . and to dear departed friend Ann Swain, whose teddy bear legacy to me bore witness that she is missed and stood in for all the animals who couldn’t make it today but needed their own blessing. . . and to God most of all, for all the blessings -- thank you.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Woman Dies By Cop and I Am Left Wondering

Yesterday while the seat of government wound inexorably on inside its marble cocoons in Washington, a woman apparently tried to use her car as a weapon and ended up, all-too-predictably dead.

And I am left wondering.

Lawyer me wonders whether police who, during the government shut down,  aren’t being paid,  are still police and what that might mean for the potential financial liability of those doing the shooting.

Preacher me wonders about the well-being of those left in the aftermath: the now-motherless baby . . . the officer or officers doing the shooting . . . the family and friends of the woman who died . . . the first responders . . . a nation already on edge . . .

Peacemaker me wonders about choices made in the moment and why it’s easier or first instinct to shoot the person rather than the tires of her car when standing right beside the vehicle in that split-second moment of committed decision.

Citizen me wonders how many of us – probably in the thousands – a woman with serious problems must have walked, run and driven by on her way to her own death without us noticing, caring, acting, or knowing what to do to change her course.

Woman-of-faith me wonders if this woman whose name I do not even know is finally at peace.

Human me wonders what it takes inside a person’s body chemistry, history and decision-making places to use a car as a weapon of destruction when she could well have had that omni-present ‘baby on board’ sign in her back window.

I read today from the blog Everyday Grace about the prayer to be enabled to see others as God sees them and gingerly, ever so gingerly, I offer up the same prayer.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Where I Live: Can I Pray for You?

Dear friend and congregant Laura had to go to the emergency room the other day.  She was having some pretty scary and painful symptoms, so her husband Les (also a pastor) had called the rescue squad to come.

Almost as soon as Les hung up the phone, there was Craig at their door.

Craig isn’t with the rescue squad – he’s a volunteer fireman.  But when he heard the call, he went, just to see if he could help.  While they waited, Craig moved some furniture out of the way to make it easier for the squad to get in and out once they arrived.

And then he sat beside Laura and asked her if she minded if he prayed for her.

She didn’t.

And he did.

Simple as that.

Where I live, when the call goes out, friends and neighbors come just to see if they can help.

And they stay to pray.  Sometimes they even do it out loud.

And it is good.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Distribution of Wealth: Is the Game Rigged?

I read about the wide disparities in wealth distribution in these United States these days and I am chagrined.

The old arguments about how things have always been (as if that’s conclusive proof that they must ever be thus, as if slavery wasn’t abolished, as if women weren’t once chattel and now independent agents, as if change has never happened on this planet) are like dust in my mouth.

When it comes to economic inequality, what I’m thinking is this: can things be this uneven without the game being rigged?

Don’t statistical probabilities argue against that?  Maybe not.  I can’t say for sure.

But a rigged game is something we all understand.  And hate.  At least when we’re on the receiving instead of taking end of the rig.

When it’s the other way around, the thinking seems to be:  I got mine, you get yours.

That’s not theology.

It’s crap.

Because, first of all, you/we didn’t get yours/ours.

Not you-all-by-yourself-you anyhow.

Secondly, it isn’t ‘mine’.  Never was.  Never will be.

Thirdly, if you think it’s about merit and facts and not advantages and perspective, try this one on for size:   1 in 5 families in the United States receive food stamps.  Washington Blog

What’s your own reaction to that?

If you react with distrust and the assumption that a whole lot of folks must be milking the system, I’m guessing that you don’t receive food stamps or have a family member or friend whom you both love and respect who does.

If you react with sadness that there should be so much want in our country, I’m guessing that you either receive or have received financial help yourself in the past or present or have a family member or friend whom you both love and respect who does or has.

It’s the same fact.

But the conclusions we draw from it vary widely based on our own worldviews, formed by our own experiences.

It’s the same fact.

If you view this fact as evidence of individual moral failure, I’m guessing you’ve been raised on the idea of self-sufficiency, which carries with it the assumption that the need for help is a matter of personal failure and a matter of individual shame.

If you view this fact as evidence of collective moral failure, I’m guessing you’ve been raised on the idea of communal sufficiency, which carries with it the assumption that the need for help is a matter of collective failure and a matter of collective shame.

It’s the same fact.

No matter how you understand or interpret it, it is the same fact.

Which teaches me that I need to listen to others more if I would even begin to approach meaning and understanding, for the same facts bring forth a myriad of conclusions and opinions.  Our conclusions and opinions are not facts.  They may have value, but they are not immutable.  They do not stand as laws of the universe.  And unlike facts, they can change.

Thus it is my worldview, but not necessarily fact, that the disparity in wealth in the United States today suggests the ‘game’ of wealth accumulation is rigged.  That conclusion shapes how I understand my own wealth as well as yours.

It makes me cringe, since I am largely on the receiving end of benefits I did not earn, privileges I do not merit.  It makes me challenge myself since God repeatedly reminds me that to whom much is given (and I am one to whom much has been given), much is required.  It makes me question my ‘kind’ as I listen to the language of possession be translated to the language of entitlement.

But what if I’m wrong?  What if the ‘game’ isn’t rigged?  Does that change anything?  Does it make me more entitled?  Less?  Or, I suspect, not entitled at all?  Does my earning or merit, should it exist, lessen my duty to my fellow creatures to share the bounty?  I suspect not.  (No, I know not).

Because worldview or no worldview, the fact is that my very possession suggests that the ‘game’ actually is rigged – whether it’s by accident of birth, divine providence or unfair advantage, to paraphrase John Donne, whenever the bell tolls for thee, it also tolls for me.

It might be (I stress the might) different if there weren’t enough to go around.  But there is.  And that fact alone stands as an indictment when the reality is that ‘it’ is not going around.

In that reality, I stand indicted, convicted, guilty.  How could I be otherwise?