Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What happened yesterday...

I don't know if this had anything to do with it.

I had a little headache on Sunday afternoon and felt a little blech. But by evening I was feeling much better.

I had a hard time sleeping Sunday, was up at 4:00 a.m. knitting, of all things. Then I went back to bed.

Since my husband was still feeling sick, I was planning on a lazy day, working on a piece I was planning to do for a Healthy Communities meeting tonight. I had a few notes, was a little anxious about it, but pretty confident that as I journaled on Monday, I would come across the thing I most needed to say. I was going to call a few leaders, too.

At about 9:00 I had a feeling of foreboding. Things deteriorated rapidly after that. I hadn't had much to eat, but it didn't matter. I don't want to go into details, but at 2:40, I asked my husband to call 911. I had talked to a friend a while earlier, and she said that I sounded dehydrated, and I should go to the emergency room. I said that I didn't think I could get in the car. So I waited.

At 2:40, I got a ride in an ambulance.

It seems embarrasing to say this now. But I really didn't think I could stand up. The ambulance crew said that my blood pressure was very low. They started an IV with saline water, and that seemed to help some, although I still felt very achy and tired.

My husband said I looked about as white as a sheet.

I didn't have to stay overnight. I was sent home at 6:00 p.m. with a couple of prescriptions. Unfortunately, I waited so long to pick them up that my regular pharmacy was closed. The next pharmacy I went to didn't have the medication. At the third one I waited so long I almost started crying.

To be honest, part of me wanted to stay overnight in the hospital, because I have never stayed overnight in the hospital. But, part of me wanted to go home. I still hoped I could speak my piece at the meeting tonight.

It was a Healthy Communities meeting; did I say that? It was to be about Health Care, but more than that, about Health -- about how our communities promote our health, or not; about caring about not just our own life, but our neighbor's, too. It was for a hope for communities which care for and empower all people.

I'm not there tonight.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Red Scarf, TV Dinners, Ben Hur

This evening I spent a little time knitting the famous Red Cable Scarf. I feel like I'm making progress now, although I'm not nearly as far along as I would like to be. I figured out that, along with my own ignorance of the dreaded braided cable, the instruction book itself had a mistake in one row. When I figured that out, I felt quite brilliant.

In the background I watched and listened to a little bit of the movie Ben Hur. I hear it's quite good; four stars and all, but I don't think I've ever watched it from beginning to end. I get snatches, here and there: the old magi Balthazar, reminiscing about his trek to Bethlehem many years ago; Judah Ben-hur's mother and sister, hiding in the shadows, because they have leprosy; the famous chariot race (I just hear the sounds of it, though: I'm not paying attention then.)

In the bedroom my husband tries to feel better. He's barely eaten all day. I keep asking him if he wants anything; he usually says no, although I did get him several glasses of water this morning. Finally he had a teeny bit of jello.

I was worried and distracted earlier this evening because I thought I had lost something important. I kept going through pockets and re-tracing steps, and looking under car seats. Then suddenly, I took a deep breath,reached into a crevice in my purse, and found it. (My dad's voice, "Why is it always in the last place you looked?")

My mind is going back and forth between many things, important and mundane: a thoughtful meeting with a public official yesterday (He's a genuinely good person, I thought, while we were talking; he's talking about community solutions and deep democracy and innovation and justice); our first communion students, all lined up in the chapel to taste a bit of wine for the first time; bananas and white toasted bread and chicken soup; taxes and exercise and cholesterol; marigold seeds and containers for a children's sermon; the grain of wheat falling into the ground, disappearing from sight, and the trust it takes to let go of that seed, to let it fall and trust that it will bear fruit.

I think of the seed of myself: here I am, a woman of a certain age, married with step-children and a dog, and wondering if I can believe that if I throw a certain seed into the ground, that later on, it will be a marigold, or carrots, or tomatoes, even. What more is there inside me, even now?

It's late and I should be in bed. The red cable scarf is on the sofa, waiting for me to stitch the next row; the children will be waiting tomorrow with their hands cupped in anticipation; other children will cup their hands and look at tiny seeds -- "Go and plant them," I'll say. "They'll grow. I promise."

And then I'll take the invisible seeds I am so afraid to spend and I'll toss them into the wind, and whisper to God, "Go ahead. Use me too."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Book #13: The Cape Ann

Book #13 for me was our March book group offering The Cape Ann. Although this book has been around for many years, and has been well-regarded, I had never read it. Our book group read another, shorter book by Faith Sullivan several years ago, one called What a Woman Must Do.

Like last month's book, Little Heathens, this novel is set in the Great Depression. But while there are moments of simple pleasure in The Cape Ann, the book most clearly depicts the grim reality of how desperate that time was for many people. The young heroine, Lark, at times seemed to me almost a little too wise beyond her years; other times her words and thoughts were pitch perfect.

The common thread between The Cape Ann and What a Woman Must Do is the theme of a strong woman, doing what is hard but necessary. Lark's mother is portrayed as a larger-than-life character: smart, strong, resourceful, and compassionate: she won't give up her dreams. Many heart-breaking events happen in the course of this story. In our meeting last night, we were struck by the absence of strong male characters (although we all liked Father Delias, when he forgave Lark's sins, but not when he refused to bury Hilly.)

Here is my favorite quotation from the book:
After Lark's confession: "When I thrust aside the curtain and left, my feet were as weightless as I imagined Fred Astaire's to be. I floated down the aisle in a gauzy haze of light and lightness. In my life I had never felt such disencumbrance. If I lifted my arms, I would float up to the dark beams and along the ceiling, and my new innocence would hold me aloft. This was how angels felt."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Potpourri

Yesterday at church there was a big "handicap parking" sign in the sanctuary, as we were encouraged, in the sermon, to consider the differently-abled, and how we are all, in one way or another, differently-abled. The congregation at 10:00 is coming along nicely learning our sign-language prayer:

God, be in my head, and in my understanding,
God, be in mine eyes, and in my looking,
God, be in my mouth, and in my speaking,
God, be in my heart, and in my understanding,
God, be in mine end, and in my departing.

I am growing to appreciate the poetry of American Sign Language. Did you know that the sign for "end" (death) is the same one that is used for baptism?


****

After church a few of us viewed an episode from the PBS Series "Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making us Sick?" The episode yesterday was called "Becoming American." New immigrants from Latin America are among the healthiest members of our society, according to this episode. Even though they often come from places of fear and grinding poverty, they come here in better health than most people who have lived here all their lives. But within a generation this changes.

As I was listening and pondering as to why this should be, I was doodling on my note pad. I wrote the word "HOPE" in big letters as I listened. And sure enough, a sense of hopefulness, a sense of possible opportunity, was one of the reasons for the good health of these new immigrants. As well, they often come with strong family systems and ties. But, as they stay, most of them experience a grinding away of their hopes and opportunities, as they also learn to work long hours and experience social isolation. Social isolation is another cause of ill health in our society. And, the program said, ultimately, family is not enough. We need community ties.

As I listened, I thought of the church, the body of Christ, the community that gathers and is sent. I thought: in this day and age people are less and less tied to a Christian community, and less and less able to see the value in that time spent together. But there is value: actually there are many values -- a strengthening of our common hope, an encouragement as we life out Jesus' values in our lives and in our world.

We come to worship to be fed and lifted up. But we also come to encourage and lift one another up. We receive and we give. And we are sent -- for the same reasons -- to comfort the grieving, to lift up the weak, to do justice, and love kindness, to walk humbly with God through all the week.


****

Today at breakfast, I saw a man reading the morning paper. The front page was vivid with the news of the trial for the Craigslist murder. It was a particularly senseless crime: the murder of a beautiful, intelligent, talented young woman for no apparent reason.

The thought went through my mind: The resurrection, in the beginning, was really about justice.

When the idea of the resurrection of the dead developed in Judaism, it seems to me that in part it was to answer the question: if God is just, why do the wicked prevail sometimes in this life? Why do the just die without being vindicated?

As I looked at the newspaper picture of the young woman, I thought about the justice we can do in this trial by rendering a particular verdict. And then I thought: Real justice would be for her to get her life back.

That would be justice for her -- and justice for us, who will miss her gifts, and all that she would have done in and for the world.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Richness

Today I was up early for a Saturday. Our church council decided to meet in order to do something beyond our regular "Yea" or "Nay" meetings. We decided we really wanted to brainstorm about who we want to be and what we want to do. Two outcomes: whatever we do, we want to deepen our discipleship and build relationships (especially integenerationally) in our congregation. So we will look at everything we do through this lens.

Then I went to coffee with a young woman from our congregation. Wonderful conversation -- and we both commented on the lovely spring weather blooming. Such richness.

I stopped in at the hospital before racing home, as my husband had special plans for us. We went out for a quick (and late) lunch, and then visited a place I had heard about for many years: The Pavek Museum of Broadcasting.

I felt that I had stepped back in time, into a large and wide version of my father's old TV Sales and Service Shop. There was a faint smell of wires and picture tubes, old signs that flashed "Philco" and "Zenith" and "Crosley". We learned about the history of the phonograph and of radio waves, and I remembered how my dad tried to help me understand the difference between AM and FM Radio Waves (Amplitude Modulation and Frequency Modulation -- I think that's right.) We saw a brief movie of a strange instrument called a "theremin" -- (you can hear it in the Beach Boys' song "Good Vibrations".)

Later on, it was still light, still warm, so I took Scout on a brief walk around the neighborhood, where she got some good pets from a friend. Such richness.

Good vibrations. Radio Waves. Conversations. Brainstorms and Visions. Waves and ways of hearing and seeing.

Tapping into the Spirit. Such Richness.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Five: Signs of Hope

Songbird over at Revgalblogpals writes:

My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. Song of Solomon 2:10-13

In the late, late winter, as the snow begins to recede here in Maine, we begin to look almost desperately for signs of spring, signs of hope that the weather has turned and a new day is on the horizon. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Easter and Spring twine inextricably, the crocuses and daffodils peeking through the Earth as we await the risen Christ.

Share with us five signs of hope that you can see today or have experienced in the past.

1. Unfortunately, the early-week thaw has given way to lower temperatures and general greyness. Yesterday and today I was unpleasantly surprised at the temperature drop when walking the dog. But do you know what? I heard birds singing: lots of birds, mocking and chirping and talking to each other.

2. Most of the snow is gone from the ground right now, and,except in the early morning, the ground is mushy, soft, ready for something new to spring up.

3. I no longer feel alone in the justice work that I am doing in the congregation. Building a team is slow and hard work, and I need to be much more vulnerable than I had ever imagined. But I feel that in some ways the ground here is also ready for something new to spring up.

4. We are unfortunately in the kind of climate where crocuses end up martyred to a late frost. I have rarely seen crocuses as the true prophets of spring that they are. They proclaim from the pots in the grocery store, rather than from flower beds and lawns. But I will always remember one unusual spring, an unusually warm spring, when the crocuses came up all over the lawn surrounding the college chapel. It was a riot.

5. I heard an interview with local poet and activist Julia Dinsmore two nights ago. I heard her say "It was the Lutherans who said they want to end poverty in Minnesota." Crazy talk. Hopeful. Like crocuses in February.




Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Three Tamars

I can't quite let Tamar go yet. I preached about David's daughter, Absalom's sister, last Sunday, but I keep thinking about her: and her name.

Names are important.

There are three women in the Bible named Tamar. The first one is Judah's daughter-in-law. You can read about her in Genesis 38. She was first married to Judah's oldest son Er, but he did not find favor with God, and he died, leaving Tamar childless. According to the custom of the day, she was next give to Judah's son, Onan, who did not want to bear a child for his brother. He died too. Next Tamar was supposed to marry Judah's youngest son, Shelah. But Judah was afraid his youngest son would die too, so he withheld his son from Tamar.

So she needed to find a way to fulfill the custom, and have a child. To make a long story short, with Judah's unwitting help, she did. At the end of the whole soap-opera-style story, Judah says of Tamar, "She is more right than I am." By the way, she is named as an ancestor of Jesus by the gospel writer Matthew.

It occurs to me, thinking about this story, that the same could be said about David's daughter, Tamar. She is more right, or more righteous than any of the male characters in the story. She is more righteous than Amnon, who deceives and rapes her. She is more righteous than David, who is angry but does not punish his first-born son. And she is more righteous than Absalom, her brother, who avenges the crime against her by killing Amnon, but then goes ahead in trying to usurp the throne from his father.

She is more righteous than any of them, but what does she get for her righteousness?

She becomes a desolate woman in her brother's house: a woman of sorrows, despised and rejected.

Does she remind you of anyone?

I don't want to take this analogy too far, because too often in the past abused women have been urged to go back and "bear their cross". Somehow, they have been told, they can redeem their husbands by their obedient suffering. That is protecting the strong at the expense of the weak, and it's exactly the opposite of what Jesus did.

Oh yes, and the third Tamar? The daughter of Absalom.

Absalom had three sons. We know none of their names. He had one daughter, and named her Tamar.

Perhaps Tamar wasn't totally desolate. Even though she could never marry, she did have a namesake.

I didn't want to leave her without saying these things.

Lenten Offerings from CC Blogs

Don't Eat Alone The Connection Pastor's Post
Faith at Ease Holy Vignettes I-YOUniverse
Where the Wind As the Deer The Other Jesus
Mark Powell Getting There Ellen Haroutunian
Theolog Welcoming Spirit Living Word by Word
Where the Wind Faith in Community When Grace Happens
Theophiliacs J. Stambaugh Theophiliacs A. Hunt Everyday Liturgy
Available Light Work in Progress Allan Bevere
A Diner at the End of Time The Painted Prayerbook Just Words
The Church Geek Breaking Fast on the Beach The Pocket Mardis
Reflectionary One Hand Clapping Unorthodoxology

Monday, March 16, 2009

Today is My Day Off.....

It's warm and lovely today here in the Twin Cities: it feels like spring, although it's not officially spring until the weekend. And by the weekend, who knows? It might feel like winter again. We took advantage of the day by taking Scout on a little afternoon walk nearby. (We took her to the bank too, but just to the drive-through window.) Our back yard has a mini-lake right now, in the far back yard where the tall, old pine trees are. Scout isn't quite sure what to make of it. She's used to running in circles around the pine trees. She's only dipped her paws in so far. We can only hope that the lake dries up before she decides to go for a stroll, or a run.

Otherwise, it hasn't been a noteworthy day: we went out to breakfast, did laundry, worked on taxes, bought a few groceries. I also read a few pages of the book Chains. The reading pace has fallen off considerably since Lent began. I'm okay with that: more than the number of books read, I've tried to be intentional about actually finishing books that I begin reading. Half-read books is a bad habit for me. I'm also very comfortable with reading a book of poems, or a children's book (or two or three) if that's what takes my fancy.

I've also lost a knitting needle, and am stuck right now on the prayer shawl I've been working on. Where can you lose a knitting needle? The red scarf still plods along. Not even half-done yet, but I am making progress.

In fact, "half-done" seems to be a theme and a bad habit for me. I need to get back to my story-telling series (the true ones), as well. How many things in my life have I started, and left half-done? I blush at the thought.

When I wrote stories as a girl, I did leave some undone (as well as done, but half-baked), but I finished some, too. I never finished a pants outfit I started as a teenager, but I did finish a nice pair of knitted slippers and a cabled hat.

I still use a journal sometimes, and I am just a few pages from finishing one. I am so anxious to begin a new journal (I have a pretty one waiting in the wings) that I am filling up pages with nonsense, and tempted even to tear out a few. What is it about the promise of starting a new project that is so appealing?

The dog is outside now, but just sitting on the porch, looking out at the backyard and the lake. She looks like she is meditating. Oh! I just heard her husky "yodel" sound, which means she misses us and is anxious to come in.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Sermon

Tamar: A Violated Woman
2 Samuel 13:1-22/John 2

The story we just heard from the Old Testament – the story about Tamar – is not a "good" story.
Like last week’s story as well, it’s not a "nice" story – it doesn’t even, really have a happy ending.
It’s a story we might not even think belongs in church, even though it’s in the Bible.
It’s more like something we would expect to find in the newspaper. It’s a story about a crime.
So in more ways than one, it’s a true story, it’s a real story.
And -- like the story of Jephthah’s daughter and the story of Hagar – it’s a story of one who was neglected, of someone we don’t hear about, of someone we don’t notice.
And this Lent we are taking time to ‘Notice the neglected’ – we are noticing some neglected stories, and we are noticing some neglected people.
And today’s story is particularly difficult to talk about.

Lent is a season of reflection and repentance, a time when, I think it is appropriate to look at some of the hard things of life,
to look at the suffering in the world, and in individuals, and ask God what we can do about it, how we can do things differently.
Lent is a season when we feel God’s sorrow over the things that are, but should not be – poverty, suffering, pain – abuse.
So today we turn to the neglected woman Tamar, to find out who she is, to really look at her.

What do we know about Tamar?
We know, first of all, that she is a princess, a daughter of David the King.
She is not an outsider like Hagar, she is not an unnamed daughter.
She is royalty.
She is also full sister to David’s son Absalom, and half-sister to his son Amnon, who is the prince and next in line to the throne.
We know from the story that she is virtuous, and I think we can even say courageous – she speaks her mind in a dangerous situation, even though Amnon doesn’t listen to her.
So we know that she is virtuous, she is beautiful, and she is innocent, and we know that she is betrayed by people who should protect her
– her father David, who unwittingly sends her into harm’s way, and her brother Amnon, who deceives her.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Tamar, however, is not her beauty, not her status, not her dress, not even her speech, but the fact that no one really listened to her.
Certainly not her half-brother Amnon, who ignored her protests, both before and after.
Not her father David, who seems more concerned about both of his sons than about his daughters.
And even her brother Absalom, who seems concerned and protective of her, but who counsels his sister not to "take this to heart, for he is your brother."
How can she not take this to heart?, we might wonder.
She has been used and then been thrown away, treated as if she were an object instead of a person.

It seems to me then, that the first step for us to take, is really to listen to the voice of Tamar, really to listen to the voice of one who has been abused.
A young woman from this congregation works as a counselor with victims of sexual violence, and she shared with me a story of a woman who she called "Julie", which I would like to share with you:

"I saw Julie", she writes, "for 10 counseling sessions at a non-profit agency.
She was 35, lived in a middle class Minneapolis neighborhood, and was single parent to a 10 year old daughter.
During our first sessions she told me that she was raised in a small town in Minnesota and had four siblings.
Then, with anger, shame and grief she shared that from age 10 to 16 she was sexually abused by her older brother.
Her father was physically abusive to Julie, her sisters, and her mother. Her parents and four siblings lived in a small town in Minnesota.
Julie explained that her parents knew about the abuse, but chose to ignore it and pretend they had a ‘perfect family.’"
"At age 16 Julie developed a trusting relationship with one of her teachers and told her about the horrible abuse happening to her at home
.....until recently she had had limited contact with her family and resented her mother for not speaking up about the abuse
...but now, Julie’s mother was dying, and she felt torn between wanting to return home, and hating her family for the trauma, pain and suffering she had experienced
....she was depressed (felt worthless, decreased energy)... and was having nightmares and flashbacks as well....."

This sounds a lot like Tamar, doesn’t it?
The story from the Bible is true to the stories of violence we hear today.
And the first thing that is necessary for us, as people of God, is to hear it: not to turn away, not to ignore or neglect, but to hear Tamar’s story, to notice her, and to notice her pain and suffering.
We need to know that there are people in our community, and even in our congregation who have wounds, deep wounds.
There are people in our community who need healing.
The woman who shared the story with me also shared a few statistics: one of 4 girls, she told me, is sexually abused before the age of 18.
One out of seven boys is assaulted before the age of 16.
And in 89% of assault cases, the offender is either a relative or person known to the victim.
As well, young people often feel so afraid and ashamed that they tell NO ONE of the abuse – not even a friend or a sibling, not even someone from their church.

Why do you suppose this is?
Why is it so hard for them to tell us?
And why is it so hard for us to listen to these hard stories?
It is hard for us to acknowledge the strength of human sin and evil in the world, hard for us to listen to stories about it.
Many abuse victims have the experience of being dismissed, having others make excuses, and pretend not to notice.
Why do we do this?
And I have one more question – a question about the story of Tamar from the Bible –
Why did her brother Amnon think he could do this?
Certainly, he had his crafty friend Jonadab to help him, but what made him think he had the right to do this to another person
Could it be his own father David’s bad example had an effect on him?
David’s story is more well-known to us, but it is similar – except for the repentance.
So Amnon the prince follows David the king, abusing his power – and the cycle of violence continues.
And this happens not just in the Bible but in families now, too.
And it has happened in the past that we have turned away, ignored or not seen the suffering of Tamar.
We have forgiven sinners, but not offered healing to those sinned against.
Why? Perhaps when we hear these stories, we are confronted with our own wounds, our own need for healing, the evil or grief we have seen or experienced or know.
It is painful, and so we turn away.

But when we turn away, we are also turning away from Jesus.
He is the one who stared evil down, who looked sickness and pain and injustice in the face – and healed it.
He was a king, but he did not take advantage of his power, did not return evil for evil ,
but in his own body broke the cycle of violence.
He held hands with the dead, and raised them to life. He looked at lepers honestly, and restored them to community.
he empowered the poor and fed the hungry.
In our gospel for today, he saw injustice and greed in the temple, and he drove it out.
He was filled with zeal for God’s truth, and he was filled with love for God’s people
– and he was wounded and suffered because of his zeal and because of his love.
– He came to stand for us – and he came to help us to stand, as well.
And he did not neglect or ignore or turn away from those who were weak, who were suffering, who were violated.
He listened to them. He looked at them. He heard their voices. He healed them.
And he raised them up.

Do you wonder what happened to "Julie"?
My friend tells me: "our therapy together focused on giving Julie a voice and validating and honoring her diverse emotions (anger, guilt, grief, disgust, shame).
I helped her to remember that she did nothing wrong, did not deserve what happened to her, and that she was a beautiful, kind, loving, and strong individual.
We worked through the grief and loss she continued to experience from not having her family’s support.
And she became a more active leader in the fight against childhood sexual abuse and gender inequality."

You know, the story of Tamar does not have a happy ending.
At the end of her story, Tamar is a desolate woman, an isolated woman.
She is a woman of wisdom, who has spoken courageously.
But she will live alone with her shame for the rest of her days.
But for us – it can be different.
But for us and for Tamar, there can be new life, there can be healing.
Here in Christ’s church, we can make a stand for all people, weak and strong, old and young, to be protected and valued.
Here in Christ’s church, we can make a stand for all people’s voices to be honored, to be heard, to be respected – and for all people to be empowered.

For Jesus, the wounded one walks the earth with us, not turning away, but raising us up.
He heals all of the wounded ones, and says to them:
"You are a beautiful, beloved child of God. I have borne your shame; You now bear my life."
You – and Tamar – are a true child of the King, risen to live in mercy and work for justice.
AMEN

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Lenten Fire

In the small town where I used to live, the fire department would occasionally burn down one of the houses for practice in fire-fighting. To be clear, these were not houses where anyone lived; they weren't good houses; they were houses that had not been inhabited for a number of years, and were falling down. There weren't a lot of them in my very small town, but there were just a few. There were a few falling-down houses with roofs or floors perhaps beyond repair. One was just down the street from me.

The town I lived in had a glorious past. Once upon a time there were four churches in town; there were two railroads bringing people to visit; there were the Norwegian farmers and the Bohemians, some of whom came to work on the railroad. I heard that the main street was filled with cars on Saturday nights, back in the day.

The Great Depression was the first blow to the town. The end of the railroad era was another blow. The rise of larger and larger farms perhaps plays a part. (Someone told me once that it takes a certain number of farmers to support a small town.) But the church across the street put in a lift while I was there, so that a teenager in a wheelchair could be a part of the fellowship events in the church basement.

One evening I returned from a dinner out with friends to find a message on my answering machine. It was one of the volunteer fire fighters, letting me know that they were burning down the house near mine. She thought I might be interested in the spectacle. (Yes, the head of the volunteer fire department that year was a woman.)

Shortly afterward, she and her children appeared at my door. I had missed the fire, but not quite all of it. There were still burning embers, and she wanted to know if I would like to roast marshmallows with her family.

We all found sticks and gathered at the foundation of the house. I knelt by the warmth of the embers, making s'mores while the house turned to ash.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

But who knows what new life will spring up after the ashes?

We don't have so much practice any more, in our urban lives, of throwing seeds away, into the ground, and believing that something will come forth and grow, and bear fruit. We don't have so much practice, looking death in the face, and trusting that life will somehow spring up, though we know not what it will look like, or be. We don't have so much practice roasting marshmallows in the embers of burning houses.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and hoping against hope, that the house burned down is not the last word.

Roasting marshmallows is not such a bad way to start.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Book #12: Arc of Justice


"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."--Abolitionist Theodore Parker, c. 1850s


Arc of Justice won the national book award in 2004. It tells the tale of an African-American doctor, Ossian Sweet, and his wife Gladys, who bought a house in a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925, when neighborhood segregation was just hardening and the Ku Klux Klan was in its ascendency in the north. The story is fascinating for its depth, attention to detail, and background. Some of the details:


1. The emergency of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination in the aftermath of the civil war, specifically dedicated to encouraging the newly-freed African Americans to work hard, prove to their white neighbors that they were worthy of the freedom they were given. Yet their efforts were made almost impossible by the continous institutional racism they encountered.


2. When you hear the word "race riot", what do you think of? Detroit and Los Angeles in the 1960s? Yet there were many race riots at the turn of the last century, when frightened whites rioted in the aftermath of real or alleged crimes, often burning down whole african-american sections of town.


3. The emergence and role of mortgages and mortgage lending in the growth and hardening of segregation. Before the 1910s or 20s, most people bought land and built their own house, or saved and bought a house outright. But business practices changed, and made this impossible. It was an effort to keep certain classes of people (not just african-americans, but immigrants) out of the markets. It also made people more afraid of losing their investment, since they had take out loans.


4. The cameo role played by a young pastor, Reinhold Neibuhr, as he spoke out against racism in his Detroit church in the aftermath of the shooting at Ossian Sweet's house, and the trial that took place. It made me muse on what it would take for me to be a prophetic pastor in my time and place, and what is the great issue God might be calling me to weigh in on.


You will have to decide for yourself, after you read this book, whether the quotation at the top of this post is true.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A List I'm making on vacation

I usually don't make lists on vacation, but here's an exception:

Some things I want to do someday (some sooner/some later):

1. Go to the Revgals Event in April (if it is still possible)
2. Do a retreat at the Benedictine Center in St. Paul.
3. Take a summer writing class in Iowa City someday (I have wanted to do this for many years)
4. Go on sabbatical (right now, I'm thinking that my sabbatical theme might be Art and Spirituality, especially looking at folk art, things like the medieval books of Hours, Santeros, and other things. What do you think?)
5. Go to one of those camps where dogs and their people can go together and learn and have fun. (Has anyone here heard of them?)
6. Go back to Paris, and/or go to London (maybe the fast trip like last year, with lots of down time).
7. Publish a memoir, or a book of reflections.

Right now we are still on the little break. We just got back from swimming. We have massages later today. We thought we had made the appontment for yesterday, but were mistaken. We've otherwise just been relaxing and reading and I've been trying (without much success) to write a little. I have a little half-done poem that I'm working on.

Good news: the sweater we thought we had lost at the YMCA has now been found. Bad news: it's raining. But maybe that's not such bad news? It is March, after all.

I'm not being totally successful at forgetting about work. But I'm dreaming, a little, and that's a good thing.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Worth it

Yesterday I went to the 8th grade confirmation retreat. Today I came home with a migraine, and one that didn't respond to imitrex or the nausea medicine I have but hardly ever use.

It wasn't that the retreat was so difficult. They're a good group of young people. They are 8th graders, which means giggling is mandatory at times, but they are very earnest and serious students, and, for the most part, they support and encourage each other as well.

I did a little session of "Praying in Color" with them this morning.

But that wasn't the main point of the retreat.

Our 8th grade retreat theme is "Holy Week." We have a Palm Sunday Parade with whatever we can pick up off the ground. We have an interactive teaching regarding how subversive Jesus' teaching really was: why was it that the religious and political authorities were so angry and afraid of him? We wash each other's feet, and, on Saturday evening, we put Jesus on trial. Everyone takes a part. There is a prosecuting and a defense attorney and witnesses for the defense and prosecution. Everyone spends time studying their part from the Bible.

One young woman played Simon Peter. She's a witness for the defense, of course, but her part secretly instructs her that she must deny Jesus during her cross-examination. She really struggled with this. When the time came for the prosecution to questions her, she ended up saying, at one point, "I didn't really know him very well."

The defense objected. (They had to be told that you can only object to the questions, not the answers.) At one point they looked at each other and said, "She turned on us."

Betrayal.

This morning we read all of the resurrection stories, from all of the gospels. The first story was from Mark: The messenger said: "Go tell my disciples and Peter that he is not here; he has risen." The students noticed right away that that seemed odd. Why do you suppose the messenger announced it that way?

Maybe because Peter, or the others, didn't consider him a disciple any more. Maybe because Jesus wanted Peter to know that despite his betrayal, he still wanted Peter to follow him.

We all got one less hour of sleep on Saturday night, of course; maybe that was the reason for the headache. I don't know.

But now that I'm feeling better, and I remember that one statement. I think, despite the pain, it was worth it.

He still wants me to follow him, too.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

My (Very) First Lenten Sermon, circa 1989

Preached at my home congregation before I even went to seminary. The theme (chosen for me) "Laughter and Play vs. Dead Seriousness." The texts: Psalm 104:24-26 and Psalm 98:4-8. I know, it's an odd choice for Lent.

My father taught me how to play. Oh, it wasn't that he couldn't be strict, if the occasion demanded. But he remembered how to play, and he played with us. He knew how to turn ordinary activities into GAMES. Take bath time, for instance. In order to coax us out of a hot bath, he would play a "let's pretend" game with the towel. As he was drying us off, the towel became many costumes, and we became everything imaginable from Casper the friendly ghost or Little Red Riding Hood to Superman or even an Arabian sheik.

Or, take prayer time. Sometimes when my father walked in our bedroom door in the evening, he was not our father but -- Methuselah, the world's oldest man! He could tell us stories about Abraham and Moses and he had known Jesus personally, but he had a hard time remembering some of the words to the prayers, and we had to fill them in for him. This was the way my sister and I memorized the Lord's prayer -- with laughter and imagination.

But I have a confession to make. I have grown up -- and I have all but forgotten how to play, how to imagine and pretend. Caught in my literal dismal present, I can't see beyond the nose on my face, beyond my dreary desk piled high with files, to a more promising future. I see only day after day of drudgery, work that I have to do. Like many others, I suspects, I work earnestly at a job I no longer enjoy, work earnestly at fulfilling my church obligations, work earnestly even at having fun. I have not only forgotten how to play, I have forgotten what play is. What is it? Play is what children do. It is the foolish abandonment and joy of children when given a surprise. It is the ability to play unself-consciously a game of "let's pretend." But I am an adult. I know there are no more surprises, and I am too serious about doing my work to pretend much. I have learned my lesson well. Play is for children. Work is for adults.

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time and a season for everything under heaven, for weeping as well as laughter, and the season of Lent is most often skewed toward the weeping side. Traditionally, Lent is a season for self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter, as well as remembrance and re-enactment of the life of Christ. In other words, Lent is a lot of work. As adults, we know about work. Plodding drudgery and dead seriousness. But the Scripture tonight speaks of God's work of creation as sheer delight. We see God as One who plays with, delights in, creation. Even the dreaded sea monster Leviathan is God's playmate. For God, Creation is play and we are created to play with God. But we don't, do we? We walk with our heads down, trudge along like unredeemed slaves, fulfill our obligations to God as though God were some harsh taskmaster hurling edicts from heaven. In the Nicene Creed, though, we confess that, rather than being a harsh taskmaster, God, for us and four our salvation, came down from heaven. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The early Church imagined that the almighty Word leaped down from heaven, such was God's eagerness to be among us. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are freed again to play with God.

What is our response then? Can play be as appropriate a Lenten discipline as the works of prayer and meditation, hospitality and service? Joyous Psalm 98 has a clue. We can, along with all of creation, the roaring seas, the stars, the hills, break forth into joyous song, make a joyful noise with hearts and hands and voices. We confess that it is not only our duty, it is our delight to serve and worship God. For we know the end of the story; we know the life beyond death; we know the love of Jesus Christ who was crucified and has risen triumphant. And if we do not know, at least we can imagine.

An amazing thing happened to me during a recent worship service. Me, the unimaginative one, drowning in dull repetitious days, unable to see the hope that lies in wait for me. "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of power and might," I sang. "Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory -- HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST." Suddenly i felt like I must be in one of Walter Cronkite's historical re-enactments: "You WERE there" -- and if I could stand on my toes a little higher I just might see, out in the narthex, Jesus on a donkey getting ready to ride into the sanctuary. For a fleeting moment, the work of worship became the grace of play to me, and I became aware that God was there, playing out His life for and with us -- a holy game of "let's pretend."

You don't believe me? Try it. The next time you sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God's people on earth<' sing as if you were the angels are Jesus' birth, proclaiming the good news to a bunch of illiterate shepherds. Because that's who you are. Or, singing "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation," be, not yourself, but -- old Simeon, holding the baby Jesus in his arms to bless Him, and getting a blessing instead. When you sing, "Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life," imagine that you are that rag-tag group of disciples, meeting the Lord, dropping your nets, following Him -- because you are.

Our Creator taught us how to play, but we have forgotten. We know the duty, but not the delight, and we cannot imagine the redemption of our pointless present, much less the resurrection that awaits us all. Jesus reminds us that we are children still, calls us to give ourselves to our tasks in abandonment and joy, as he gave Himself to us in abandonment and Joy. Our highest work, then, is to play -- with the One who made us, who is (wonder of wonders) also the One who saves us.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Books 6, 10 and 11 (a long story)

(If you check the other two posts regarding books, I counted wrong.)

Book #6 in my self-imposed reading challenge this year was Tribal Church. I have been reading Carol's blog for some time, and have had her book on my list. I found her discussions of young adults and their spirituality clear and compelling: it's the kind of book I would like to read and discuss with my leadership board. Especially, I found her description of fostering intergenerational connections compelling. Carol, can you come to my congregation?

I just finished Barbara Brown Taylor's new book, An Altar in the World. She describes and endorses spiritual practices "for the rest of us": all you need is your Self in order to practice things like "getting lost", "waking up", "feeling pain", "wearing skin," and "pronouncing blessings." Every chapter could be read over and over again. In fact, this is the kind of book that is not meant to be read quickly, but slowly, throughout the year. The final chapter, where Taylor describes blessing all of the rooms in a house, made me want to go out and get the Occasional Services book of the Episcopal Church, and bless all the rooms in my house.


And finally, I am wondering how it is that I got through my childhood without reading Eleanor Estes' lovely book, The Hundred Dresses. I took a couple of hours to read it Monday afternoon in the bookstore. At the end, there were tears in my eyes. I hadn't meant to, but I had to buy a copy of the book.

My friend Auntie Knickers recommended a children's book for every day of Advent last December. It would be more difficult, but an intriguing task to recommend a children's book for every day of Lent. If I were to take on such a task, I would certainly include these two books: The Hundred Dresses, and Elizabeth Coatesworth's book The Cat Who Went to Heaven. Both of them tell stories of forgiveness.


Maybe March will be children's book month for me.

Scout Is Four Today

Today we have a guest blogger, Scout, who turned 4 today.
Hello, everybody! Thank you for visiting me on my birthday! I am having a good day. My mom put a red thing on my neck this morning, and I got to go on a walk and sniff a lot of places. I even got to cross the street with mom. There are many good things to smell on the other side of the street.

It is my birthday today, but my most fun day was Sunday. We had One of My Friends over because it was his birthday. I really love him a Lot! And we had Other People there and they Paid Attention to Me. I shook hands with Everyone and they petted me and scratched my tummy and let me catch the ball. I did not jump on people even though I wanted to. But I did sniff them and showed them how much I love them. They had some good food and I even got the tiniest piece of salmon! I love Birthday! Mine and other people's too! I did not get cake this time. I am sad about that.

I am sure there will more fun on my birthday! I don't know yet what it will be! Will it be a toy? Will it be a treat? (Lamb -- yum) Will it be more ear scritches? I got lots of ear scritches this morning! I love them!

Now I am four! What can I do when I'm four that I couldn't do before? What should I do today? Maybe open the refrigerator? (No, I can't do that.) Maybe learn a new trick? (what trick should I learn?)
I just want to say that I am grateful to be here every day! I am grateful for food, for snow, for toys, for rides in the car, for aLmost eVerything! What about you?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Some Small Things

Yesterday when I got in my car to go to church, the temperature in the car read zero degrees. (Why does my car need a thermometer anyway?) As someone said to me last week sometime, as we were getting about 8 inches of snow dumped on us, "Winter just won't give up this year."

When I got to church, though, everyone was commenting on how clear and blue the sky was. "Look at the blue sky!" people said, as if there were things to be happy about, even on a cold March day.

We signed a Lenten prayer at the 10:00 service yesterday, but I didn't get to be a part of it: instead, I led my very first "Praying in Color" workshop. Response was underwhelming, but there were a couple of hopeful signs: one woman drew a manger in the middle of her paper, remembering the name for God "Emmanuel." ("It's a trapezoid!" some others informed me.) Another woman commented afterward that it helped her concentrate on God, so that her mind would not wander so much during her prayer.

At 11:15, a few people made their way to the Education wing to view part one of a DVD series: "Unnatural Causes: Is inequality making us sick?" I got to watch a good part of it before slipping out to prepare for the birthday dinner. The one statistic that stuck with me was that over 50% of households in the U.S. live on $48,000 a year or less.

Watching this video series may seem like an odd Lenten discipline, but to me it's just right: during Lent we need to look sin in the eye: both the individual things that get in our way and keep us from God, and the systemic injustices we participate in.

It's a cold day in March, but the sky is clear and blue. There is a lot to pray for, to repent for, and to work for. And there are signs of hope, for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.