Friday, January 31, 2014

There Was a Boy Who Bumped His Head

For my grandson on the occasion of falling off his sled -- a little humor from your Gran

There was a boy
who bumped his head
it was no joy
when he rode his sled
for the boy
who bumped his head

He rolled in the snow
and he cried and he wailed
it was a hard blow
he felt he failed
the boy
who bumped his head
when he rode his sled

he got snow in his eyes
and snow in his snot
yes, you heard me – 
yes, snow in his snot
was what he got

so he cried and he cried
and he cried some more
so he did, this wee poor
boy . . . 
for it is no fun to have
snow in your snot
but snow in his snot
was what he got
when he rolled in the snow
from such a hard blow
the boy who bumped his head
when he rode his sled

when all of a sudden
his snot got froze
right there on his face,
right there on his nose

so crunchy and crumbly it was
that he made a snot snowball
it caused quite a buzz
turns out it can be fun
to have snow in your snot
when snow in your snot
is what you’ve got
when you roll in the snow
from such a hard blow
from bumping your head
when riding your sled

that you just have to 


the end

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Making Do

There was a funeral – a memorial, really, the other day.  The sister of a dear congregant had passed on and family were to gather to speak their memories and bid a shared good-bye.

Having no duties, I debated whether to go or not, as this was more a private affair.  But I finally decided I would, simply to be present.

Over Jack Mountain I went to the church in Monterey where all would gather.

It was cold.  Really cold.  And as time passed, it became clear that the church’s furnace wasn’t working.  So we retraced the path back over the mountain to the church I shepherd, merely because it was available and the furnace was still going (never a sure thing on days like this one).

Where I live, when the furnace breaks down, you just bundle up and head to another church and make do, as family simply roll with the punches.

A son and a daughter, aided by their own families, crafted a gathering of much love and laughter and unabashed tears and made do.

A pastor whose furnace had broken just got in his car and trekked to another space and made do.

Mourners waited patiently to see what would be decided and made do.

A pastor wanting to help, calls a congregant (because it’s the only number she can remember) who calls the post mistress next door to the church who runs over and turns up the furnace so it’ll be warm when the mourners arrive from over the mountain.

We were all making do, and it was fabulous, as Jane’s son Mike, through his own tears, laughingly ‘accused’ his mom of breaking the furnace from the great beyond, to have her final say about being sent off without any fuss, as all nodded their agreement that Jane had made them make do.

That’s where I live.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Good-bye Thelma Jane

Yesterday I attended the memorial for Thelma Jane Armstrong, 80+ years strong when she left this earth, a woman I never met this side of heaven, and for once, I was simply there, with no duties, able to listen and take in a bit of a life well-lived as shared by those she loved most.

And so I learned about her pet names, an unquenchable zest for knowledge and love of life, her warmth and welcome, the importance of the family circle and laughing talk into the summer nights, and am still left wondering why the mention of Florida makes everyone laugh.

Memories are the shape and meaning and texture of a life and Jane’s is a patchwork quilt of love and laughter and that famous Highland stoicism, not grim, but merely accepting, of the challenges life throws our way.

And I am minded of someone recently reminding me at a church meeting about the importance of geography.  I tend to be dismissive of the church building when thinking about our mission, our call, our work in the world.  But when we were doing some dreaming about the future, one fellow said, “I know the building isn’t the point, but Beth, geography matters.”

Bill is right: geography matters, as I was poignantly reminded yesterday when Jane’s brother Charlie stood to speak.

Slow-talking words freighted with the loss of a beloved sister and forced out through years of reticence in the way of the farmers here not accustomed to speaking before others, thoughtful, weighing each word as if it mattered (because it does when it costs so very much), Charlie spent much time and loving detail describing the family home he and Jane and the other kids grew up in.  I can see the bedrooms and the fireplaces, the barn and the fields now but a memory in Charlie’s minds’ eye.

Geography matters, and here was the geography of a childhood shared between brother and sister, navigated through one bedroom to get to the next, ringed in with the warmth of fire on cold winter nights, surrounded by the land, marked by a barn where childhood adventures and the hard work of farming come together as one, all bounded by the soundtrack of a life loved, a surprise of blues and jazz as the voices of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World blend into Billie Holliday’s I’ll Be Seeing You finally sails softly into Kamakawiwo’ole’s gentling Over the Rainbow.

Good-bye Thelma Jane.

How I wish I had known you.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

When Did Barboursville, West Virginia Turn Into Baghdad?

In Baghdad, one of the innocent bystander victims of the violence there was a man on his roof (the roof is like an extra room to the house).  He peered over the roof to sneak a peek as U. S. soldiers on patrol were ‘sweeping’ the streets (I always thought that an odd turn-of-phrase) and one of them shot him, fearing, I suppose, he was a sniper.  He wasn’t.  He was just a man on a roof and he is dead.

This past weekend, in Barboursville, West Virginia, two brothers were killed as one showed the other the piece of property he had just bought in order to build a home for his family one.  As the property-owning brother unlocked the shed, his ‘neighbor’ shot and killed them both with a long gun of some sort from his own bedroom window.  The shooter told the police the men were on his property, entering his shed.  But they weren’t.  They weren’t on his property and it wasn’t his shed.  WSAZ

But even if it had been, when did Barboursville, West Virginia become Baghdad, where the order of the day was shoot first and ask questions later?

Our mistrust of others is a problem worth considering that I think is actually (or should be) part of the gun conversation in these United States.

What is wrong with us (or at least some of us) that we think our assumptions about people are so certain that we are 'free' to take deadly force to act out those assumptions?

When did we approve a world in which shoot first is even a possibility?

What on earth are we so afraid of? Statistics actually show crime rates going down.

Barbooursville, WV (like a lot of other places where this happens) isn't a particularly dangerous place. Why on earth have we nurtured a grudge-culture that assumes we are under attack all the time? When did the crazy lie become our defining reality? I know all the usual suspects. What I'm curious about is what we, the so-called ordinary citizens are doing to either feed or squelch the beast?

For the fact is that we do not live in Baghdad.  So why do so many act as if we do?

Ah Lord . . .

Monday, January 27, 2014

To Fox News on Pope Francis: Every Disagreement Is Not a War

Adam Shaw, an editor for, a self-identified Catholic who writes about Anglo-American and Catholic issues, posted to Fox News’ site last week his take on Pope Francis and capitalism, Pope Francis' War on Aspiration.

Here follows my response to Mr. Shaw.  Fox’s site doesn’t allow for comments, so you won’t see it there.  But I did send it to Mr. Shaw as an e-mail.  I have yet to receive a response.

In your post, you say, "The pope’s snub of the struggle for prosperity is a typically derisive attitude toward the American quest for self-development, and an attitude that is often encountered among rich European liberals, or, in this case, clergymen who have not had to work to provide a better life for their families."

While your next paragraph clarifies that you focus on the family part (as opposed to the "Clergymen who have not had to work" part), the facts suggest otherwise when it comes to whether this pope 'had to work' or not, knows privation or not:
1.  The Pope was born in the 1930's.
2.  He has described his own family's loss of everything during that time, in which his own father had no money and no job prospects.
3.  He worked as a janitor and a bouncer, as well as a chemical factory worker before entering seminary.
Not a Catholic myself, I am no defender of the Pope as pope.  But to dismiss his thoughts and views because he does not have children to support, while perhaps noteworthy, is not dispositive.  Even you do not think so, or you would not study the teachings of anyone who did not share your own life experiences, which would mean that you could not be a Christian, Jesus himself having not had (at least to our knowledge) a family himself.

Did he have 'credentials' necessary to speak about that which he did not know from personal experience?  The problem I see is in your logic more than in your own personal conclusions.  Agree with him; disagree with him, but it's problematic, I think, to dismiss Pope Francis because he does not have the life experiences you deem necessary from which to draw.

You then accuse him of 'blundering in', implying that his writings on capitalism, socialism and poverty arise in a vacuum of ignorance.

Consider, please, that the very dismissal you accuse him of you do yourself:  ignoring his context as you say he has ignored yours.  This pope is a man of South America.  Liberation theology, coming specifically out of the Central and South American context, did not arise in a vacuum.  It arose out of the context of massive exploitation of the peoples there economically, socially, politically and spiritually.  This pope speaks the language of liberation theology, a theology that is explicitly about experience.  His people have experienced capitalism first hand in a radically different way that we living in North America have.  It is from that context that he makes his conclusions.  They need not be yours.  But dismissive insults do little to further the dialogue.

Further along, you state, "Yet it is those evil capitalist Catholics who pay for the churches, fund the hospitals, the schools, the soup kitchens and everything else that allows the Church to actually help the poor."

I have to admit that one stunned me.  Having visited Catholic churches around the world, I have observed every stripe of believer, from every type of country with every type of government, contributing to the church and its work.  That includes 'capitalist Catholics', but it also includes non-capitalist Catholics.  To infer that somehow, the Catholics of the United States (which was how I 'heard' what you said) are THE source of the wealth and largess of the Catholic church is to (a) ignore history -- a whole lot of that wealth is compounding interest on the investments of centuries and (b) succumb to the pride of the wealthy -- where would you be without me?  (as a citizen in these United States, I consider myself to be one of the wealthy, so I'm speaking from inside the ball park here).

Finally, your closing quote, "Francis must stop making broad judgmental statements about those striving for success and bring himself back into conformity with Catholic social teaching and reality."  makes me smile -- sadly, but smiling I am.

'Francis must . . . bring himself back into conformity with Catholic social teaching' -- what on earth are you talking about?  I, for one, would really like to know.  You're surely not referring to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement.  Or the Nuns on the Bus.  Or the Berrigan brothers.  Or Oscar Romero.  Or Gutierrez.  Or Lech Walesa.  Or St. Francis himself.  Or Claire.  Or virtually any of the medieval monastics, who themselves eschewed wealth.  So really, what 'teaching' are you referring to?

You call the pope back to 'reality'.  What I hear (and this is speculation on my part, admittedly) is a young man in a capitalistic country who feels personally attacked by the words of the principal spiritual as well as earthly leader of his faith.

As a person of faith myself, might I offer some unsolicited advice (trust me, it's biblical):  when something said by another of faith makes me angry or uncomfortable, my first steps should not be to tell them why they're wrong.  My first steps should be self-examination (think plank and mote here), as I ask myself why these words spark such a negative response in me and seek out my own fault.  It's perhaps the hardest thing for any human being, including we Christians to do:  to intentionally engage in a wee dose of humility.

Because you are a fellow Christian and because you have such a broad public venue for your own thoughts and musings, I beseech you to do that work first.  It might just take you to a different place.

I know it smacks of pride on my part to presuppose that you haven't prayed, meditated, reflected, listened, etc. before coming to and publishing these thoughts of yours.  I make that inference based not on what you said, but based on what you didn't say, for you did not say anything about his context, except in dismissive tones.  You did not say anything about the southern (hemisphere) context out of which he comes.  You did not acknowledge the journey, let alone the autonomy and context, of the other.

I pray that in future, you will.

Yours in Christ,
Beth Pyles

[And what I didn't say then]  This should have been the main point rather than a post-script.  My lapse.

Living in the United States and having a job, family or no family to support, puts you and I ahead of a healthy percentage of the world's population.  It is, may I gently suggest, a bit presumptuous for either you or I to speak 'on behalf of'' the poor or identify ourselves as such, as you at least implicitly do when you refer to your challenges in providing for your family.  That is not to say you don't have challenges.  It is to say that those challenges are nowhere near the challenges of poverty and it is less than honest to say or think that they are.  That life may be difficult does not make one a victim.  That life's difficulties are unjust and threaten to take away life itself does.

Alas, and not surprising, a quick Google search revealed no quotes, comments, articles, blog posts, or analyses of Pope Francis' take on economics by anyone who is actually poor.  I wonder what they make of your Pope?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Privilege of the Gentle Ones Among Us

SCRIPTURE READING: Matthew 5.5: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

The Privilege of the Gentle Ones Among Us

Today we consider Jesus’ blessing of those we call ‘the meek’, asking who are the meek and what is the nature of their blessing and if we’re not ourselves meek, why we should care.

A clarifying moment is called for to consider the differing approaches to the beatitudes themselves.  As I’ve alluded to before, the predominant view throughout history is to take the list as a list of virtues – character traits to strive for and improve within ourselves.  I find this view problematic:

1. Jesus is making a statement of fact rather than an exhortation. In grammar, we refer to this as a declarative statement.  A declarative statement functions in a number of ways.  One is command, as in thou shalt go to the store . . . now!  Declarative statements are also used to reflect reality: it is snowing.  It’s not a debate or an opinion: it either is or is not snowing.  This is the manner in which Jesus is speaking.  So a statement of fact says, It is . . . they are . . . An exhortation (a call to change or improve something) says You should . . . They must . . . exhortation speaks to what is not true but should be.  It’s all the difference in the world:  what is versus what should be.  Jesus is speaking to what is – some are poor . . . some are sad . . . some are meek . . . and so forth.  Grammatically, Jesus is not telling people what they should be; rather, he offering a word of promise and comfort to people who already are these things.

2. Jesus speaks in the present (rather than future) tense – blessed are . . . rather than blessed will be . . . yes, the promises have a future sense, but the state is a present one.  This is not so much a call to become meek as it is a promise that things are better for the meek than they or the world might think.

3. The list as a whole makes it clear this is not list of virtues: it is not a virtue to be persecuted.  The thing that prompted the persecution might be a virtue (or it might not), but the experience of persecution itself, which Jesus blesses, is not a virtue.  It is the experience of injustice.  Being poor is not a virtue.  It’s not a vice, but it’s not a virtue.  It simply is a state of economic being. Being sad isn’t a virtue.  It’s an emotional response.

4. The form of the sentences suggest these are not virtues but states of being that are often accompanied by both a state of felt helplessness within those experiencing them and a sense of judgment by the world.  Jesus seems to be more speaking into the helplessness and judgment than telling folks how they ought to behave.

5. For those in that particular state, it would be cruel to understand these statements as exhortations to more: already broken hearted?  Well, break your heart a little more, won’t you?  Come on, you can do better at getting beat up by the world, I know you can!  That hardly sounds like the Lord of Love we follow, does it?  We must consider to whom Jesus was speaking.  If Jesus were speaking to the wealthy, the comfortable, the fat cats, it might make sense to understand the beatitudes as a list of virtues, a sort of ‘get down off your high horse’ sermon.  But those weren’t the folks in Jesus’ audience.  The folks in Jesus’ audience were first the crowds – the Bible’s way of referring to the general population, the riff-raff, as it were.  Then he is speaking to his own disciples, his followers – remember them?  The not-very-special of their society – the reputed prostitutes, the unwashed and uneducated.  Jesus wasn’t in the business of putting them down by telling them how they had fallen short.  Rather, Jesus spent a lifetime lifting them up where everyone around them had put them down.

6. Finally, in this particular beatitude, Jesus is drawing from Psalm 37, where the psalmist sings words of comfort to those who are downtrodden, promising that things are not as they seem, proclaiming that the successes of the wicked will not last.  Who needs such words?  Obviously the ones who need to hear this are the ones being downtrodden already.

The point is simple: this is not a list of things we’re to do in order to receive the blessings.  This is a list of blessings for those who are these things which society condemns and scoffs at.  Why, then, would that matter to those of us who are not, for example, meek?  As with all the blessings, I am minded of Genesis 12 where God promises Abraham blessings in order that Abraham can be a blessing to the world.

If I am meek, this blessing is for me.  If I am not meek, that the meek are blessed works through them as a blessing for me as well.  My part, as one of the not-meek, is to understand how very cherished by God the meek are.

So what on earth does it mean to be meek?  The Greek word, praeis, from the noun praus, refers  to someone who is not overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, someone who is gentle, humble, considerate.  As a verb, the word is used of horses and other domesticated animals, to refer to the process of taming or breaking them.

The word ‘meek’ in English comes from an Old Norse word, mjukr, meaning soft or gentle.  In Middle English, meoc, came to mean courteous or indulgent.  Thus in our time, ‘meek’ means  gentle, quiet, unaggressive; benevolent, kind; courteous, humble, unassuming, modest.

As used in the Hebrew Scriptures and Apocrypha, ‘meekness’ refers to persons who are downtrodden, in need of rescue or help from the Lord: Psalm 10.7: O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart . . . Psalm 37.11 (which Jesus is drawing from in the beatitudes) but the meek (in contrast with the wicked) will inherit the land . . . Isaiah 11.4 - but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek; Isaiah 29.19 - The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.

A word about Psalm 37.11: in English, the verse has been translated:  But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.  But more literally from the Hebrew, it reads:  But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.  The word translated ‘prosperity’ in English in the Hebrew is shalom, meaning peace, wholeness.  In Greek, the word is iranas which also means peace.

From this context, we can deduce that the meek ones are the ones being beaten up by the world, who have no say in what happens to them, who are in desperate need of rescue.

The usual translation of the beatitude into English reads: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Literally from the Greek, Privileged the meek ones because they shall be tenanting the land.  Perhaps we might better understand it as:  Blissful the tamed ones broken by life: in God, they shall always have a place to work and dwell.  This completes the sense of land as a source of safety and providing and peace.

Beatitudes are not laws – that is, rules to be followed.  Rather, they are pronouncements – statements about the nature of reality.  The point is not to try to be meek.  The point is, if you already are meek, the lessons of the world – that you are trash – are nonsense, for the true reality is that if you are meek, in God’s view of things, the world was made for such as you.  The world is yours.

In God’s view of things, the poor man on the side of the road is a boon companion rather than a burden . . . the sad ones are doing work for all of us in mourning the state of things . . . the meek peasant of any society is the one we should be asking from, as in ‘won’t you share with me?’  For theirs truly is the world.  Theirs to own.  Theirs to share.  What we have, we take on sufferance from the meek and we take it on loan.  We, the not-meek are the true tenant farmers among us.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Leadership: I Feel Better

I just read a series of blogs on leadership problems, and I have to admit, I feel better.

Maybe it’s self delusion; I hope not.  But the list of signs of controlling leadership styles did not fit me at all.  That’s not to say I am not of strong opinion or will – I am.  It is to say that disagreement and conflict do not rock my world – they don’t.  And apparently, that’s a good thing.

Then there was the post on burn out.  As I checked through the list, at first fearing the worst, I was gladdened to see that none of them fit me.  Do I get tired of it all?  Sometimes.  Has it made me into a secret-hoarding withdrawn paranoid monster?  Not so far.

Then there was the post on the weak leader.  That one scared me the most.  Effective leadership is such an amorphous thing that it seems virtually impossible to measure unless one relies upon the world’s standards of success: increased numbers, financial vitality, etc., and that is not the story in the church I pastor.

Is it me? is a common question I ponder.  The corollary: is it them? walks alongside.  Then I remember the words of a usually-quiet parishioner one day: We’ve been through this before.  People come and go.  More will come along. (with a shrug): Well, they always have before.

Her unspoken counsel to patience was a wake-up call for me.  Sometimes, it might be me.  I might actually be the problem.  Or ‘they’ might be.  But just as often, there might not be a problem at all.  The people who are here may simply be the people who need to be here.  It might not be about fault at all.

So, at least according to one blog guy, weak leaders are the ones who are indecisive, cave in because of conflict, pass blame, pretend to be in control, and avoid difficult choices.

Definitely not me.

In all this back patting, I may simply have missed the list that applies to my own particular foibles.

But for today, I’m taking on the affirmation of negation: because I am not these things, I feel better, mostly because I feared I might be.  It’s hard to know sometimes, so those silly check lists can come in handy.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Would-Be Poet's Corner: The snow winds are blowing

The snow winds are blowing
giving texture to the usually
unseen – leaving morning-
weary eyes to wonder – 
how does wind blow across
a landscape in opposite 
directions at the same time?
Left and right, up and down
the wind-carried bits of snow
go, as if entering a room left
wondering what task first
brought them there – like that –
with full-stop mystery of 
stillness as the mind ponders
the question with elusive non-
answer – forgotten – 
wind gone, snow settled 
until the next time

Thursday, January 23, 2014

9 Misconceptions Non-Believers Seem to Have About Christians

1. Only stupid people believe in God.  Yes, there are people of not much intelligence who believe in God.  And there are people of stellar intellectual brilliance who do not.  But there are bright people who do believe in God and not-so-bright people who don’t.  It’s not about intelligence, so get down off your high horse.  Need some examples?  C. S. Lewis.  J. R. R. Tolkein (you know you love his books).  James Polkinghorne (physicist).  Jesus (pretty significant philosopher and teacher in his day).  Immanuel Kant.  Galileo.  Pascal.  Descartes.  Newton.  Francis Collins (genome project).  Martin Luther King, Jr. All Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc., etc., etc. 
2. Religion (particularly Christianity) is responsible for the ills of the world.  Really?  And I thought you were bright.  It’s never that simple, is it?  People manipulating others to their own ends and to great destruction happens through the agency of religion, yes.  But would you really assert that the religion is the cause (as opposed to the means)?  To so hold, you must actually believe that but for Christianity, Adolph Hitler would have been a nice guy or that there would have been no Holocaust.  And then, of course, you’re left to explain the holocausts visited on their peoples by Stalin and Mao (avowed believers in no religion or god).  The role of religion in doing harm should never be taken lightly.  But it’s a bit glib to simply blame religion as a way of understanding the ills of the world.  God or no God, we humans have proven very capable of all kinds of horror.
3. It doesn’t make any sense.  I’ll grant you that: faith doesn’t make much sense.  But you say that as if we (practitioners) don’t know that.  It may or may not be news to you, but Christianity’s founding documents (the New Testament) include statements to the effect that the claims about Jesus are nonsensical by the world’s standards  by one of its premier thinkers (and most prolific writers of the texts we have today): Paul calls the Christian’s claims about Jesus and the cross to be foolishness to those who do not believe it (1 Corinthians 1.18ff), inexplicable to the ways and wisdoms of the world (1 Corinthians 2.14); and says that if we’ve gotten it wrong, we are the most pitiable of all people (1 Corinthians 15.19).  
4. There is nothing good about it.  We might argue about ‘good’, but I’m going to take as a given that we probably agree on some things.  So consider: the next time you visit a hospital whose name contains the name of a church or synagogue or the name of a saint or person of faith, that hospital was begun by people of faith because of their faith – that is, because of their faith in God, the people who began that hospital were moved to provide care for the sick, especially those who were poor, when no one else was.  Do you think universal education is a good idea?  A fundamental right or privilege of living in a free society?  Thank a Christian.  Universal education was born out of the Reformation idea that all should be allowed free access to the holy text of their faith.  In order to do that, all had to be taught to read.  Universal education was brought about so you could read the Bible for yourself.  The Civil Rights Movement was born in the African-American churches of the day.  The movement and the way in which it was conducted were based on scripture.  Dr. King was a prophet preacher.  Every word he spoke he understood to be divinely given.  Every reference he makes that so stirs even today comes from his interpretation of the biblical texts he often quotes.  
5. Social justice happens in spite of and not because of the church  Seeking to change the world is one of the great contributions of the church to the world.  Missionary women (and yes, missionaries have much to answer for, but you already know that.  What you may not know) in China ended the practice of foot-binding and in India the practice of sati (the wife being thrown upon the fire at the death of the husband).  They brought hospitals and books and perhaps most of all, the idea that universal education is for girls as well as boys.  So when you’re standing at an Occupy protest or fighting for the Imolakee tomato pickers or marching against war, or donating to Amnesty International, look around – chances are a bunch of the people there alongside you or who got there before you are people of faith who are there because of their faith.
6. Christianity squelches creativity  Much of the great art of the western world is inspired by, thematic of, and paid for with the dollars of Christians.  Maybe that’s a mere accident of history.  Maybe it’s because the artists were grappling with big issues.  Maybe it was God-inspired.  But like it or not, there is no running from the great tradition of Christian art.  
7. Church makes everyone be just like everyone else  Church is an institution.  And it has all the problems and foibles of one.  They are not inconsequential.  But there is something in the very structure of that peculiar institution that breeds protestors and world changers too, even as it would attempt to squash them.  
8. Church is a tyranny  The structure of the Presbyterian church was the model for our form of government in the United States.  If we appreciate that model, we must appreciate from whence it came.
9. Church uses laws to force its ways on others   Sometimes.  And sometimes that’s a bad thing – a very bad thing.  But sometimes it isn’t.  Do you think child labor was a bad thing?  Thank a Christian that you don’t have to go to work at age 6.  Think prisons should be humane?  Thank a Quaker.  Think the Magna Carta (as a check on royal power) was a good thing?  Thank the Archbishop of Canterbury.  
It’s one thing to have examined the ‘evidence’ and made your own clear-eyed conclusion.  It’s quite another to engage in the very same small-mindedness non-believers so often accuse believers of having.  Ignorance is ignorance, regardless of its peculiar bent.  And many non-believers I encounter who carry bitterness, anger, or garden-variety resentment are speaking not out of a general belief that religious people are perpetuating a harmful myth so much as out of the effects of a negative encounter in their own personal journey.

Those negative encounters matter.  But here’s my problem with negative encounter being dispositive of the question of God or no God for anyone: I don’t know about you, but I’ve had at least my share of negative encounters with all kinds of folks: teachers, physicians, lawyers, journalists, and yes, even church folk.  But those encounters did not make me stop ‘believing’ in or seeking education, health care, justice, freedom of expression for everyone, or God.

So if you’re someone who’s had a negative encounter of the religious type, I am sorry – sorrier than I can put in words – that such happened to you.  I do not take such things lightly nor do I suggest that you should.

That a religious or spiritual journey was made unsafe for you is unconscionable.

But please, please, please remember that the person or persons you encountered in such a harmful way are not themselves God.  Nor are they representative of God.  They should not be allowed the final word when it comes to faith and things religious any more than the physician breaking his or her oath should have as to things medical.

For my own part, I will share, debate, wrestle, with you any time you care to, but I will not proselytize.  If I have anything of value to share when it comes to the life spiritual, you will know it by the fruits of my life.

In short, I will refrain from sentences that begin with “All atheists . . .”  Won’t you do the same for me?

If it weren't for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, 
I wouldn't want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.
                                                                        –Kurt Vonnegut, author and secular humanist

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I Confess My Unsettledness

I am older than Dr. King
not older than he would 
have been but than he 
was or ever got to be

How is it, then, he seems
so much older than me?

I think it must be the 
wisdom in those eyes
and the jam-packed life
filled with centuries
more than most folk
get or have or do
in just one time round

I confess there is an
unsettledness in this
older but not wiser than
state of being

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Place Worth the Standing

Standing in the middle of the fire
there – in Spirit land – there,
where God dances – whirling
dervish God who spins
planets and hearts
into a tale worth the telling
a life worth the living
a place worth the standing

Monday, January 20, 2014

Science is Not My Problem, Dr. Tyson, but You Might Be*

When a scientist in the United States posits that religion is just wrong – always has been, always will be – they’re usually referring to Christians of the fundamental persuasion in our time and place.  They’re usually referring to literal interpretations of texts such as the creation narratives of Genesis that insist on overlaying these texts of faith upon current scientific understandings.

Physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson is no exception.**

And fair enough: the conservative voice insisting upon literalism is the most prominent voice one not in church on Sundays is likely to hear.

The problem is that this voice is not representative of the full panoply of Christian voices in this point in time, let alone the history of Christianity, or of the religions of the world.

Moreover, and I say this with a great deal of humility, having never succeeded in high school science classes: in holding that science and religion are irreconcilable, Tyson’s definition of science may be too narrow.

If memory serves, some in science refer to fields of study outside the material world as ‘soft sciences’ (as opposed to the ‘hard sciences’ of physics, chemistry and biology, for example).

But in seeking intersections between faith or religion and science, what of the social sciences?  What of their conclusions that we humans are better in quantifiable ways when we give to, think about, take into account, the other?

What of the science of philosophy?  And its sub-set, logic?

To hold that there is or can be nothing outside the universe smacks to me of pride, but more, of a broken logic: if there is an inside, is there not logically, an outside?  Or what of the logic proposition that we cannot know what we cannot know?

On a practical level, the laws of the hard sciences aren’t (necessarily) logical, that is, they’re not ‘discovered’ through inductive and deductive reasoning.  They’re often discovered not from reasoning at all, but from trial and error (experimentation).  In fact, the greatest discoveries seem to have come from what are called leaps of logic (which aren’t logic at all – that’s why they’re leaps).

And that’s probably my biggest argument with the practitioners of the hard sciences in our time when they seek to use their discipline (science) to invalidate mine (religion): they don’t actually use their own discipline to do it.  They don’t use astro-physics to disprove God.  What they use is what they call ‘reason’ by which they mean logic.

Hypothesis: scientists are poor logicians.

The problem in any debate is that the debate must begin with some givens, some things that are taken as true, or given, between the parties to the debate.  That’s much harder than you might think.  And it’s the problem here: this is not a debate between religion (of the conservative persuasion) and science, because neither side has agreed to any set of givens, each rejecting all the givens of the other.  That process is not the discourse of debate: it’s the process of competing monologues.  There is no engagement, no clash of ideas, no meeting of minds even on the givens.

That’s a problem in any discussion; it’s a fatal flaw in the discourse that is debate.

My own observation is this: when it comes to anything in the body human, and here, when it comes to science and religion (as propounded by the scientists in question), the whole Genesis discussion is a straw man.***

Why do I say that?  Do not ‘creationists’ (whatever that may mean) argue from Genesis?

Yes they do.  But they are beside the point.  Here’s why: your opponent does not frame the debate any more than you do.  The debate (that is the argument/discussion/reasoning our way through an issue) is framed before you come to the table by some consensus of the issue to be debated.

No consensus of the issue?  No debate.  Argument, perhaps.  Diatribes, often.  But no debate.

Here’s an example of the straw man non-debate exercise by Dr. Tyson – a man with a wonderful, incredible mind and body of knowledge who apparently spent no time on a college debate team:

TYSON “Figurative interpretations” came “after” science.

Here, Tyson seems to mean that Christians like me who understand the Genesis narratives of creation to be figurative or better, explanatory of the human experience of God (as opposed to explanatory of the hard-science processes of how we came into being), are some sort of post facto apologists for what was originally intended by the author(s) of Genesis.

If that was his intention – to dismiss even ‘liberal’ Christian understandings of Genesis as some sort of wishful thinking with this after-the-fact reinterpretation, there’s a problem: it’s not true.  Not even a little bit.

In debate, as in the hard sciences, facts matter.  And Dr. Tyson’s suppositions are just that.  And they’re wrong; a quick trip to that (not-so) obscure source Wikipedia proves it:
Some Jews and Christians have long considered the creation account of Genesis as an allegory instead of as historical description, much earlier than the development of modern science. Two notable examples are Augustine of Hippo (4th century) who, on theological grounds, argued that everything in the universe was created by God in the same instant, and not in six days as a plain account of Genesis would require; and the 1st century Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria, who wrote that it would be a mistake to think that creation happened in six days or in any determinate amount of time. [emphasis mine]   Wikipedia
The allegorical treatment of ancient biblical texts is not a modern phenomena: it even happens in the New Testament, as in Galatians 4.21-31, wherein Paul expressly treats the children of Hagar and Sarah allegorically.

3rd century Origen of Alexandria treated texts allegorically, noting three levels or layers of meaning, not all of which are present in every text, because, quite simply, “ sometimes the lessons could only be taught through stories that, taken literally, would "seem incapable of containing truth.” De Principiis IV.15

Origen specifically speaks of the creation account as allegorical rather than literal:
For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? And again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.  De Principiis IV.16

Medieval Jewish scholars, such as Maimonides, Zohar, Nahmanides, and Gersonides argued for an allegorical or symbolic understanding of the Genesis creation narratives and some for the insistence that biblical understandings must conform to scientific knowledge (that is, interpreters must not interpret the sacred writings in a way that contradicts current knowledge of the way things work).

The problem isn’t that Tyson doesn’t know his science – it’s that he doesn’t know religion.

I am not a Christian apologist (defender of the faith).  I believe a faith worth having requires no defense.  It simply is – kind of like gravity.

But I am right weary of scientists (who should know better – they’re pretty bright folk, after all) of the atheist persuasion telling me what the holy texts of my faith do and do not say or do and do not mean.  I am weary of it because they speak from the very thing they eschew in people of faith: ignorance.

So I’ll make a pact: I won’t argue science if you stop arguing religion.  Neither of us are really up to the job, now are we?

But because our disciplines do differ in substantial and meaningful ways, I can accord you a freedom you can not and should not cede to me: I’ll grant you the freedom to have your own understanding of God/no-God and live it accordingly.

Just stop telling me why I’m wrong for the decision I made.

Really, trust me – you don’t know anything about it.

*The title is provocative.  I wrestled with a title and am not very satisfied with this one.  How to convey in ten words or less the issue I take with Dr. Tyson’s dismissal of religion based on false predicates?  The recurring problem of bright (thus far men) of science who eschew religious belief based at least in part (if we take what they say as representative) on their ignorance of religious teachings?  To challenge the best and brightest of the other side of the question to give me the same courtesy they demand for themselves: intellectual integrity?  Believe or do not believe.  But being a proselytizer brings with it a concomitant duty to fairly represent both sides about which one speaks.  I find that largely absent in the discourse of well-known scientists and others of the atheist persuasion when it comes to the teachings of my faith and the exercise of logic (which is not a discipline of their specialities as a general rule.  Christopher Hitchens may have been an exception).

**Dr. Tyson recently appeared on an interview with Bill Moyers, during which he opined that religion and science essentially are irreconcilable.

*** ‘straw man’ – an argument put forth for its lack of merit, in order to strike it down to (seemingly) prove one’s point.

Moyers-Tyson interview

Moyers-Tyson clip on religion and science

Sunday, January 19, 2014

MLK & Happy Mourning

Considering Matthew 5.4:  Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

We might translate this passage in various ways:

Blessed the mourning ones among us, for they shall  receive comfort and their mourning shall not have been in vain – consolation, the full realization that what they mourned has passed away, shall be their knowledge, their joy.

Privileged are the broken hearted among us:  they shall know the consolation of change.

Blissful mourners:  in your mourning lie the seeds of change, which will be your consolation.

O the blessedness of the mourning ones!  Consolation is yours!

Comfort, consolation, here has the sense of God as companion, for the Greek word means coming alongside.  So we might say:

Privileged mourning ones!  God walking beside you – comfort!


In the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness, the chorus’ 2nd line: morning by morning, new mercies I see, came to me today not in terms of the morning dawn of each new day but as the sorrowful, grieving mourning, “mourning by mourning, new mercies I see” – as one sorrow takes us to the next and the next and the next . . .

Tomorrow is MLK day, when we remember the work and sacrifice of Dr. King.  He began working for his own people: the people of color in Montgomery, Alabama . . . but he was moved from there to a movement that embraced the entirety of the South and then into the north . . . and from there to the vagaries and violence of the war in Viet Nam and from there to the conditions of poverty throughout our land . . . from there to standing alongside the sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, where he would be killed so we cannot know where he would have gone from there . . .

But virtually his entire ministry was encompassed by a movement from mourning to mourning, from cause for sorrow to cause for sorrow, yet moving in the sure and certain and true conviction that consolation was always present . . . not fully realized, but always present.  

This consolation is easy to understand (when you’ve experienced it) but right difficult to explain:  it’s the knowledge of the grieving mother that she will see her son again in the sweet by and by . . . of the soldier standing on the field of battle surrounded by the fallen dead at the moment when the victory is won . . . of the moment when a lawyer pleads with an opponent to understand that this is wrong and sees a glimmer of understanding in their eyes . . . change hasn’t yet happened, but it is coming and mourning and promise stand together, hand in hand.

The mourners among us are the ones who see things as they are and know they do not have to be thus . . . sorrow is their response.

Blessed are they, for they do not mourn in vain.

This is not merely the sorrow of inevitable loss, such as death.

This is the soul-invading Spirit sorrow at a world gone awry.

This the praying, beseeching, pleading sorrow of a saint on his knees before his God. . . the sorrow for the hunger of children she’ll never meet . . . the broken tears shed for a world that cannot, that will not, imagine another, better way.

Put another way, Jesus might have said . . . consider yourselves lucky for the pain-in-the-neck cry babies among you . . . the ones always reminding you about Somalia and Syria and Israel-Palestine and Congo and Iran and Iraq . . . the ones whose tears never end and who insist that things not only should, but can, change . . . lucky you to have such people living among you – for they will make you better and in the making, God will comfort them.

On the night before he died, Dr. King spoke of hypothetically being given the chance by God to choose in which time he would live and in his choosing, said this, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy." Now that's . . . strange . . . the world is all messed up . . . Trouble is in the land. . . . But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a away that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. . .

Using the parable of the Good Samaritan, Dr. King made the point that the question is not: if I help this man, what will happen to me?  Rather, the question is always, if I do not help this man, what will happen to him?  

Dr. King concluded the last speech he would ever give famously and prophetically saying, Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  

The mourning ones among us, like the rest of us, live as long as they live.  They eat and drink, they laugh and make jokes.  They watch tv and read the papers and go to church . . . or not.  They raise their families.  And they watch and see and read the signs of the times.

And in their reading live their tears, which God has blessed for the benefit of us all.

For them, there is special blessing – the blessing of knowing the right question to ask (what will happen to them?) . . . the blessing of a heart able to break over the things that should break a heart . . . the blessing of seeing the land of promise and like Moses and Dr. King and so many others, that is enough and more than enough.

God walks alongside the mourning ones among us, whispering the comfort that will be theirs: O blessed are they!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Them with Eyes to See

I watched the NYT Op-Docs "Notes on Blindness" recently.  It’s a moving visualization to the words of John Hull’s audio diary on his own loss of sight.  His reflection on rain – its sounds creating a symphony of bounded space to navigate in a sightless world – is one of the more powerful images I’ll carry with me.

The most keenly felt, however, are the descriptions of loss – not only for John, but for his family as well – the loss of seeing and being seen in the exchange of eye contact between two people.

Not to see again is surely loss, but so is not to be seen.

How special, how precious, to be simply beheld . . . to be held in the gaze of another.

We punish each other sometimes with the temporary withdrawal of our gaze.  Without a word spoken, we speak volumes merely by refusing to look at the other.

Young men, particularly young men of color, avoid eyes as they walk the streets and one day it struck me that they were afraid of what they might see in my eyes.  That was the day I began saying hello in a friendly voice – just so young men I’ll never know would realize that they could look safely in my eyes and find no fear, no rejection, there.  It was the only gift I had.  And it’s not nothing.

For that was the day I realized that God has given me these eyes so that I might actually see.

Seeing is part of my job as a human being.

The birds are back in the forsythia.  I can hear them.  I wonder if I’ll see them?

Friday, January 17, 2014

10 Ideas on Church Tweeting (tongue firmly in cheek)

I read Social Media: 40 things your ministry can do and for some reason (maybe it's obvious), I am amused.  Hence my own (very silly) list of 10 things a church can communicate in 140 characters or less:

1. Send emoticons to depict the ‘mood’ of the church at that moment – for those who keep track of such things and even for those who don’t.

2. Tweet who to vote for on American Idol (and all the other singing realities) based on scriptural analysis of the ‘best’ candidate.

3. Tweet a flash mob time and place for something really cool that turns out to be . . . well . . . a sermon.  It’ll only work once, but every preacher deserves to have an audience of thousands of young people at least once in her life . . . doesn’t she?

4. A popularity poll for the preacher – yeah, that’ll be great.

5. A contest for those actually in church that week, to see who can do the pithiest, most clever distillation of Sunday’s sermon (140 characters or less, of course).  For the brave, might even make that the church’s sign for the week – connecting various media is always a good thing.

6. (I don’t tweet with any regularity and then only from my computer, so I don’t know if this can be done, but if type size can be adjusted . . .) Weekly message from very tiny type, larger until it fills the screen . . . Jesus is coming!  (Going from whisper to shout with type size is always fun).

7. Preview Sunday’s sermon theme as if it were gossip using the looked-for abbreviations . . . “ICYMI” [in case you missed it . . .] “OH” [overheard], etc. – might look something like this: ICYMI I OH @ JC bout u!  Ck out Sundy my plc  (“In case you missed it, I overheard at Jesus’ web site [something] about you!  Check it out Sunday at my place.”

8. Just to see who’s paying attention, tweet a scripture that doesn’t exist – might actually get a conversation going.

9. And to drive everyone to distraction, tweet your entire sermon in twitter speak, one message after another – it’ll take a lot of time, but it might be fun.  And not to worry – tweet death messages are just symbols of words, so you should be okay.

10. And even for those (like me) who don’t believe in it, tweet like the rapture’s already here, just falling off in the middle of your message.

Remember: we of the larger social media world are bombarded daily with messages from friends and strangers and only a very few have the time, stamina and interest, to go the distance.  The rest of us tune out in defense against the sheer volume of it all.  So here is my serious recommendation for tweeting, fb’ing, etc., etc, etc.: Only say something if you really have something to say that someone else might actually want or need to hear.

Now there’s a thought.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Bit of Creating History?

Written in Advent, the pondering on our role, our place, in the creating of God, seems topical on any given day, as I wonder whether we're just along for the ride or making a bit of creating history ourselves.

Whose hope
whose peace
whose love
whose joy?

Yours, Lord?
Yours to offer
ours to receive?

Or does it stop being
Yours and become ours
as we take and receive?
As the ‘it’ passes from
You into the cosmos
there for all if we but
had the eyes to see?

As author, does the story
remain always and ever
and only Yours – we but
the readers of the words
You wrote in the skies
before there were such
things as skies?

Or is this a story we help

Do we ride upon Your back
like the whale riders of
New Zealand . . . 
like a kite on the wind . . . 
dandelion seedlets on the breath of a child . . . 
a snuggled baby on its father’s back . . . 
the thought of a babe in its mother’s womb
a fleck of skin on the arm of an old man who 
carried the seed of it from his own mother’s womb?

Are we merely along for the journey?
That would be all right with me.
It’s scarier to be a co-author – then I’m 
even just a tiny bit responsible for the 
outcome, aren’t I?  

Maybe, just for now, in this advent season of waiting, 
I’ll just be along for the ride, if that’s okay with You, Lord.

I’m left wondering if there are days when You yearn likewise –
to just be along for the ride.  I want to tell you that’s okay too
and as You have carried me so long, I will carry You for a time –
I’d like to, but I am awfully afraid I’ll drop You – 
and then where would we be?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

17 Things Easy to Forget When You’re the Pastor

1. I like me.  You should too.  If you don’t, we can both let that be okay.  Really.

2. I am doing the best I can and most days, that’s actually pretty good.

3. I am no one’s savior.

4. Everyone isn’t interested in God . . . or Jesus . . . or church . . . even among those who come every Sunday.

5. The fact that others think the minutia of my life is of interest doesn’t mean that it is.

6. The fact that others think the minutia of my life is of no importance doesn’t mean that it isn’t.

7. The same God that adores you adores me too.

8. This job ain’t for sissies.

9. I take grace seriously and that’s a big deal.  A very big deal.

10. I really do know stuff and sharing it is my job.

11. The fact that some will avoid me like the plague does not mean that I am socially unacceptable.

12. Even when I’m operating from a script (like a sermon), chances are you aren’t.

13. It is not my job to explain myself (grace is as much for me as for you).

14. Chances are if I’m doing my job, I will not be the cool, the popular, kid.  The reverse is also true:  if I am the cool kid, I’m probably not doing my job.

15. I am actually allowed to have a life outside of church, but never outside of God.  God and church are not the same thing.  One is merely an instrumentality (even if an embodiment) of the other.

16. Your discomfort may mean that I got it wrong.  But it might also mean that I got it right – or more accurately, that the Holy Spirit did.

17. Some think this is just a job.  They’re wrong.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

First Times

The best new thing (for me) just now happens to be hitRECord – wow.  I marvel at the creativity and community and the outcomes, like the making of a movie from the sharing of a young woman about the first time she saw the stars.  Moving from her story to the collaborative vision of that story from the hands, voices and hearts of thousands is moving from glory to glory.

Which led me to contemplate first times . . .

The first time I won something – when was it?

The first time I danced with a boy – I really don’t remember.

The first time I drove the car by myself – I stalled it on a hill and had to call my dad for rescue.

The first time I argued a case in court – strained by nervousness, my voice went so high I think it left the register of human hearing behind.

The first time I danced with a love in the London tube station – when the first time was probably the last too – ah, love.

The first time I cooked a Valentine’s meal – for my parents and my dad made a joke and 16-year-old me ran crying from the room, totally missing that teasing was how he showed his love.

The first time I made fudge without my dad – I don’t remember the time that was first, but they’ve all been sad for the missing.

The first time I rode my bike without help – dad then too – what a happy day.

The first time I wrecked that same bike – I don’t remember the first, but I do remember the wreck of wrecks – with ER visit and stitches and a milk shake reward for my bravery (aren’t parents generous?)

The first time I wrecked the car – well, someone wrecked into me and my mom was with me (isn’t it good to have your mom as your witness in court?)

The first and so far only time I said I do – even then I knew I probably shouldn’t.

The first time I lost a tooth, got my hair cut, cried, laughed, loved – all are lost in the fog of history to me.

The first time I saw my son walk, comforted him, sent him to the corner, hung his drawing on the frig, went to his school conference, watched him play soccer – they too are lost to conscious recall.

So many firsts constitute a life, most lost to memory, but most one of a whole series of moments remembered in a collage of living history.

I don’t really have a first-time story to share, but I’ve had more than my share of first times.

Grateful I am.

Monday, January 13, 2014

I Judge: #1 in My Ongoing List of Things that Irk, Annoy and Irritate (in case you didn’t get the point with the first verb)

This is probably more a pet peeve list, but I’m thinking about the assumptions I make, which do, in fact, constitute judgments – speculative – but judgments nonetheless, so here is my first installment in “I Judge”:
1. Parking sideways – a corollary to but even worse infringer than the double-space parker: on observation (at least where I live), cars don’t do this, even vans generally don’t:  it’s the SUV-Jeep-Suburban drivers among us who park sideways, taking up three spaces or more, as if parking in these United States were not considered a cooperative endeavor (it is); as if there were no cultural norms about such things (there are); as if to convey cool (it isn’t).  I behold and judge: front-end in parking is the easiest of all, so what’s your problem?  Can you simply not be bothered?  Or did you never learn how to navigate that boat-mobile in reverse?  Are you phobic about going backward?  Are you a member of Starsky & Hutch and just didn’t have time to park, simply abandoning your vehicle wherever it stopped in your hurry to save us from the world?  
But as I said at the beginning, this is about my judging, so some truth-telling of my own is in order, I suppose: where I most commonly view this phenomena (in fact where I am looking upon it right now) is from my office window upon the church parking lot during the week (which means it is usually empty, save the random non-parking parker such as today’s guest).  The funny part is that I would even notice or care.  The interesting observation part is that even with an empty parking lot, the cars almost always park as if they’re at Wal-Mart: they pull in front first.  And I suspect that the big-vehicle sideways folk do the same when they’re at Wal-Mart: take up three spaces by going it sideways.

But no one else is in the parking lot, so why should I care or even notice?  In my defense, if parked in the usual way, I scarce take notice of the vehicle as lots of folk commute together from the juncture of this church parking lot, which is a fine use of a largely empty space designed for the purpose (of vehicle leaving).  The sideways car, outside the norm, draws my attention, keeps me wondering and watching to make sure no one has need of the preacher (or more often, tour guide to our little country church with a bit of local history to claim).

And, I admit, the assumption of the other, a traveler I discern from the carry-all on top, that the space won’t be needed; that there won’t be a Monday gathering with a little old lady left to cross the road because two extra spaces were taken up by our unknown big-vehicle driver, galls me – it’s an accurate assumption, but it galls nevertheless.

When did I become such a law & order gal?  When did observation of cultural norms become such an obsession with me?  I don’t know.  All I know is that I’m trying to do a bit of work on a day off and that blasted SUV there at the edge of my peripheral vision drives me to distraction.

Silly me.  I wonder: what are you judging today?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sermon Cliff Note: Blissful Are the Poor

The Literal Sentence (from Matthew 5.3)

Privileged the beggars the spirit, because of them is the kingdom of the heavens.

Some alternatives:

Beggars make happy the spirit, for because of them is the kingdom of the heavens.

Beggars be happy in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.

Beggars are blessed by the spirit . . .

Happy beggars to the spirit, because of them is the kingdom of the heavens.

Because of them is the kingdom of the heavens, [so] blessed [are] the beggars [for/by/with] the spirit.

My two suggestions:

(1) The beggars [among us] are blessed by the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.


(2) Blessed, privileged the spirit of the poor ones, the beggars among us: because of them is the kingdom of the heavens.

It requires a bit of linguistic twisting, but the second one is where I land – I remain unconvinced that ‘poor in spirit’ is correct, thinking that the poor and the spirit are two separate things given the grammar, but I bow to the vast weight of scholarly consensus to adopt the idea that the spirit here is the spirit of the poor, but decline to agree that it’s ‘poor in spirit’ as opposed to the spirit of the poor.  There are problems both ways, but no one really has any idea what ‘poor in spirit’ means, so it makes sense to me to adopt the obvious solution: the blessing is for the poor, but it is a spiritual (rather than material) blessing of which Jesus speaks.

Either way, however, the question that begs to be asked by the clear language of the last part of the sentence is this: what if it’s that the kingdom of heaven has its existence among us precisely because of the poor?  What if the kingdom is the gift of the poor to all of humanity?  What if it’s not the poor in spirit who are blessed, but simply the poor and that what they receive is the spiritual blessing of knowing that because of them, the kingdom of heaven is at hand?

So imagine yourself driving to Staunton and coming to a stop at which stands a man with a sign begging for money.  You are Jesus sitting in the car, so instead of just sitting there and pretending not to see him or slipping him, somewhat guiltily, a little bit of cash, or even getting out and taking him with you for a meal or to find a job, you jump out of the car, unmindful of the blocked traffic, hug him, and declare what a great day this is that the two of you have met up, telling him as you hold him in your grasp, I am so glad I got to see you today!  You are such a blessing!  Thank you!  Thank you for bringing the kingdom of heaven with you!  Thank you for being here!  I’m headed into town – you want to come with me?  I want all my friends to meet you!  You have helped me so much today – you don’t even know.  Is there anything I can do for you?  What a lucky day that we met!  I can’t believe my good fortune!

So what if this is what God is actually thinking:

Oh how lucky you are, oh, the bliss God has in you and has in mind for you . . . you who are poor, who lack, who must beg for what you need . . . without you, there is no kingdom . . . you in all your need, make it possible . . . and your God is grateful for you . . .

You, who don’t know where you next meal might come from . . .

You, who have to beg the kids to call or visit . . .

You, whose family is ashamed to even admit they know you . . .

You, who don’t know what to do without the one you always counted on to be there . . .

You, exhausted by the demands of surviving . . .

You, who crack the door open for others to help and God to enter just by being here  . . .

You, who challenge the rest to change the world simply by your very existence . . .

You are the kingdom bringers, the God bearers, the very image of God in our midst . . .

And you are blessed. . . not your state . . . not your misery . . . not your poverty . . . but you.

The poor have much to teach.  And friends, I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a lot to learn.


Saturday, January 11, 2014


dis·cern·ment (noun)

1. the ability to judge well.

2. (in Christian contexts) perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding.  Google

The two are related, aren’t they?  For the Christian seeking God’s will in any given situation, one must be able to judge well (even in the absence of judgment) whether the understanding and direction received or indicated is, in fact, that of God.

Here, I do not mean so much God versus evil, however we may name it, so much as God’s direction and guiding versus my own inclinations, so easily substituted for God’s voice in my head.

When an idea percolates within me, is it God?  Or is it me?  The me idea isn’t necessarily bad, but it isn’t necessarily of God either.

It’s the distinction between the good and the best.

And given the dearth of burning-bush moments in my own life, it’s not always as easy to tell as one might think.

The journey towards discernment, at least for me, is a delicate thing.  It takes patience.  And time, so much time that the pace of the snail seems warp speed in comparison.

Until, that is, the clarity arrives.  When it does, suddenly there is no time; there is only moving forward along the path that in hindsight appears to have been there all along.

Between the two poles of waiting and acting, there, in that space, prayer is the only effective language I know.

Lord, in this precipice moment, one of perhaps so many before, or maybe it’s a new one – whichever, Lord, grant me the understanding You would have for me, the judgment to distinguish Your voice from so many others, including my own.  Help me in the not judging place to judge well.  Amen.

Friday, January 10, 2014

On Praying

I prayed with friends today.  We held hands in that unselfconscious way you do when you’ve done this before.  One voice blended into another and when we raised our heads after the last amen, all our eyes were leaking our tears.

The tears of prayer mostly take me by surprise, for they are not evidence of sadness, but of presence – God’s and mine – met in the wellspace of gathering – a grace, somehow, of the God who deigns to show up simply because hands are held and voices raised.

Why do I pray?  In the wish and hope that something will change or more, be changed, of course.  As an act of obedience – God said to and so I do.  Sometimes as an act of desperation, when all my own efforts have failed.  Sometimes as an act of gratitude, a pouring forth as joy oozes out of me.  To catch up with my best friend.

Mostly I pray because there is that thing in me which leans ever into the divine being, wishing to draw nearer, seek more, be more.

Whatever draws me to prayer in the first place, I leave it quieted.  Always.  In a good way, always.  I don’t know how God’s Spirit does that – quiets me – but she does.  And somehow, always, whatever the bringing need or desire, the quietening is my answer and it is enough and more than enough.


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Praying on the Impoverishment of My Generosity

Rereading me some liberation theology – condemned, as always, but this time, struggling not to be bogged down in guilt (that I am not poor, but wealthy, very wealthy, by the standards of the world) – I stand indicted by some of the first words of the original Introduction to Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation: “My purpose is . . . to let ourselves be judged by the word of the Lord . . .”


And yet I recall to memory that to stand in judgment before my Lord is not to be bent down as a broken and caught-out criminal, but rather to stand in glory side-by-side with all, claimed, loved, redeemed, set and sent for purpose, fulfilled and unfulfilled, and that judgment this side of heaven is not my rod so much as my guide.

Yesterday we marked the anniversary of the declaration of war on poverty.  It sounds a bit ridiculous, all this war-declaring we seem to like to do.  But the impulse (I leave to others far brighter than I to judge sincerity of intentions at the time) to eradicate (at least some of) the problems associated with poverty – economic, educational, and health care lack – is a good one.

That the conditions of poverty are (often if not always) institutionally created, it also seems good to me that we endeavor to address them in institutional ways, ever mindful of my far more progressive friends’ mistrust of all things institutional.

But if dismantling is not to our liking, maybe what we need is more mantling – more cloaking, but with what?  Perhaps with righteousness – an unpopular word in my time and place.  But even more, perhaps, with love – the act of actual care, of walking alongside, of doing better at doing better.

This, then, in observing yet another anniversary of human (claimed) desire to eradicate the misery of poverty, oppression, injustice, is my prayer . . .

Lord, I hear You telling me that sitting at table together, being the guest rather than always the host, matters.  For the gifts I have received from those with so much less in a material way than I, I give you thanks.  For the lessons in humility, I give you thanks.  For Your ways not being our ways, my way, I give You thanks.  For Your not-always obvious or even apparent ways of blessing the poor, I give you thanks.  When I have trivialized Your beatitude bestowing upon them by trying to make it about something other than genuine material lack, I regret.  When I am impatient because the solutions are hard and often not obvious, I regret.  When I am tempted to judge the worthiness of another before I bestow Your graces shared with me upon them, I regret.  Help me to do better at doing better.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Baby It's Cold Outside

The forsythia branches are bare of the little birds who inhabit them in winter.  I wonder where they go when it’s too cold even for them?  And why, when they’re wise enough to go to deep cover, I or anyone would do otherwise.

Imagine my fingers, literal and proverbial, being pried from the door jamb by my will, personified as a strong counter-force of some sort, as the one I refuses to go outside – it’s cold out there! – and the other insists, reminding me that but for church, I have been a house potato for a week and that pajama day might turn into pajama lifetime if I’m not mindful.

Will the car start?  I confess I do not know and am filled with mixed hopes – let it . . . don’t let it . . . and I don’t much care who wins . . . cos baby, it is cold outside!

With water lines no longer frozen and heat working, why would I want to go outside?  Life, it seems, demands it.

I’m off.  Wish luck – for me and the birds.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Polar Vortex: A Foolishness

I do not even like 
the sound of it
the feeling of
the words upon
my tongue
imagines itself
stuck to the pole 
of my own foolishness

it doth not bode 
well for we 
dwellers of land 
best kept from 
vortices of any 
kind, let alone 
the polar variety – 
no cute and cuddly 
polar bear plushies 
here in vortex world

that there is a name 
for it brings no comfort
we do not name that
which is not – 
there is no need
yet how can a not-ness

They know of the
whirling nothingness
of things
in the midwest
but I am of the mountains
where we eschew such
for winds are direction-
bound here in the heights
of things – they do not,
they dare not – wander
about aimless, for 
the mountains would quick
rebuke them
and right so
for who is the wind
non-thing thing
to do thus?
The mountains
and I would very
much like to know