Monday, December 22, 2008

God Through the Back Door

I was at my parent’s home a couple of months ago and saw the cover of the AARP Magazine featured an interview with one of my all time favorite actors, Sidney Poitier. I think he is a class act all the way around and I admire the roles he played in such classics as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, To Sir With Love, In The Heat Of The Night and Lilies of the Field. He’s now 81 years old and is still as classy as ever. He related how he first experienced racism in the segregated south when he moved to Miami in 1941. He tells the story of taking a job as a delivery man. He went up to the front door of a white woman’s house to deliver a package. He knocked on the door and when she answered it, she lit into him telling him that he had no business at her front door and to get around to the back door where he “belonged.” He was so shocked and disgusted he left the package on the doorstep and vowed to get out of the south as quickly as he could.

The back door, the servant’s entrance, the door where those of “lower social standing” could come in has been a symbol of power over others for as long as I can remember. But the back door to a house is also the “familiar” entrance – the one used by the family members for a quick entrance and exit. Back doors are not very fancy they are utilitarian and often open into the home in a place where you wouldn’t want your guests to see. Mine happens to open from the garage into our laundry room. I guarantee that’s not a room you want to see as a guest in our house!

The front entrance to the house is the one we normally usher our guests through. That’s the one I harp on my daughters to clean up when company’s coming. “Pick up your shoes,” “Hang up your coat,” “Put your backpack away” – these are all things that have to be done before people walk through the front door. We want that front entrance to be neat and tidy … we want to look good for our guests. But lurking in the background is that back door with its unassuming looks, dark corners, stuff piled up next too it, and dirty laundry on the floor. We would never want our guests to see that, would we?

And yet, isn’t the back door exactly how God came into our world on Christmas? Think about it for a moment. The immortal, invisible God of Israel could have come in great power and glory like the Roman Emperors or the Egyptian Pharaohs or Alexander the Great. Instead, this God shows up as a baby born to an unwed teenage mother and her boyfriend under the circumstances of living in a temporary shelter. If that isn’t the back door into human life, what is? Jesus comes to us not through the neat and tidy front door of human existence, but through the servant’s entrance ‘round back. And the news of Christ’s birth was not announced to the powerful or wealthy “front door types” either. It was announced to shepherds who occupied one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder. Shepherds in Jesus’ time were considered shiftless, lazy, and untrustworthy … and they smelled bad too. Shepherds were definitely “back door folks.” This God of the back door certainly doesn’t play by the world’s rules!

God’s slipping into the back door of history 2,000 years ago didn’t just happen once – Jesus continues to sneak in the back door of this world when he comes into each of our lives. You see, we all have a front door and back door to our lives. We have the public face we want people to see, you know, the face that we are in control, have it all together, everything in our life is fine. That’s the front door of our lives. But then there’s that pesky back door with all the messy issues we’d rather not deal with – our own dirty laundry in piles by the door. Pain, suffering, loneliness, depression, addiction, self-loathing, violence, fear – we stack all of that at the back door and hope nobody notices. When Jesus comes to each of us, he doesn’t enter by the front door. He sneaks in the back amidst the dirty laundry of our lives, not to judge, but to claim even those broken places we don’t want to acknowledge as his own. He comes to bind up those wounded places, break the shackles of sin and death, and set us free from the junk at the back door of our lives.

Jesus came through the back door of history because of the great love God has for us and his deep desire to heal the relationship with humanity. The mystery of the incarnation is that God is with us and loves all of us – not just the “front door folks” or the “front door face” we all try to present to the world. Jesus, God with us, is here to claim more than the superficial, neat and tidy parts of our lives; he also comes to claim and heal the messy, dysfunctional, dark and wounded parts too. Christ opens the back door of our lives to bring us eternal life.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Of holy oil and Epi-pens

We started a new healing service on Wednesdays at St. Luke's Episcopal in Baltimore. Last week it was just me and the Senior Warden. This past week, it was the two of us, our organist and one member of the congregation ... a 100% increase! Woo hoo!

I opened the pocket of my purse to get out my holy oil for the sacrament of unction and it hit me that right next to my holy oil was my daughter's Epi-pen. What an interesting juxtaposition between this ancient healing symbol of anointing oil and our modern technology of a self-injecting mechanism for delivering epinephrine to someone experiencing an anaphylactic allergic reaction.

The beauty is my faith isn't an either/or proposition. Each healing tool has its use and both work in their own ways. I don't have to accept one and reject the other. Instead, we accept both as an integrated approach to healing.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

We always begin again

I just finished reading Kathleen Norris' book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. I had heard snippets of it in my Rural and Small Church Ministries class at Gettysburg Seminary with Gil Waldkoenig. He was reading it at the time I took that class and used it for opening reflections. It's been on my shelf awhile, courtesy of a priest friend who bequeathed her library to me.

It's a fascinating book about monastic spirituality ... not agriculture. Ms. Norris is originally from NYC and moved to Lemmon SD when she inherited the family home there. Lemmon is due north from where my mother's family came from, so I felt some connection to much of what she described about living in that environment. It's hard for anyone who's never been there to really grasp how vast the sense of space is. You can stand in one spot and turn 360 degrees and see horizon in all directions. At night, the lights in the distance are towns 40-50 miles away. The sheer vastness of space is only equaled by our great deserts. It's a place where you really understand how small you are. The isolation makes you face two realities: your true self and God. Both prospects can be terrifying.

Norris talks about how she became connected to a Benedictine monastery in South Dakota. She eventually became an oblate, living the Rule of Benedict but as an outsider. Interestingly, her monastic retreat experiences and her friendship with the monks brought her back to her Presbyterian tradition and exorcised the "Monster God" her fundamentalist grandmother had imparted to her as a child.

One aspect of Benedict's rule is that we always begin again. Our lives are to be a continuous beginning again and again. I find this concept helpful when I find myself thinking I have things all "figured out." Just when I think I know somebody or something or I think I understand about the nature of God ... well, that's the time to set my thoughts aside and begin again. If I don't, I run the risk of rigidity and hubris. When I think I have things all figured out, I start to miss so many little details precisely because those things don't fit my perception of how things work. I've constructed a box that only lets some things in and leaves so much out.

Benedict's reminder to always begin again challenges me to let go of the boxes I construct and start looking at my relationships again with new eyes. Seeing others and God again for the first time is a challenge, but one which keeps me humble and sharpens my ability to get past my own filters and perceptions.

Advent is a time to begin again. It's the beginning of the new church year. I don't know where God will lead me and my family this year, but I've asked God for the grace to dismantle the boxes I've been holding on to. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Join the Conspiracy

We're entering a time of year that gives me angst. It's "the holidays." My dad calls it the National Eat-a-Thon and says it lasts from Thanksgiving to New Years. But eating isn't what gives me angst (although putting on the extra weight is getting much easier as I get older and harder to take off once it's there).

What gives me angst is the distortion of priorities that goes along with our consumerist culture. Last year, I blogged about the Buy Nothing Christmas and Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping (check it out here).

This year, we are facing a serious economic crisis caused by the false god (small "g") of consumerism. We have depended upon consumer spending (and wastefulness) to drive our economy since we shifted from an agrarian focus to an industrial one just over 100 years ago. But consumerism has failed us and now I believe we are in a place where our economy (and the world's for that matter) can no longer be sustained by shopping. I don't know what will replace consumerism, but I hope for something more holistic.

I was sent this video by friend today:

If this doesn't put it all in perspective, I don't know what does. Even in our current situation, we still live in one of the wealthiest places on earth. We have poor with us, but remember that if you have a job, access to transportation, access to health care, housing, food and clothing, you are wealthy in comparison with most other people in the world. That's right ... you are wealthy. No, not super wealthy like Bill Gates (super wealthy being a relatively recent historical phenomenon), but you are part of the "ordinary wealthy."

As Christians, I think we need to bury the god of consumerism and heed the call of the Advent Conspiracy to worship fully, spend less, give more and love all.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Vision Quest

In the Navajo culture, a young person makes a vision quest as a rite of passage into adulthood. They go into the wilderness for a number of days to spend time in fasting and prayer. This experience prepares them for their life's direction. It can involve a change of their name to one which suits their new identity and self-understanding. This is not unlike the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel at the ford of the Jabbok where he receives his new name: Israel.

I think I've finally figured out what my new name should be:

Sticks Face in Fan

Yep, that's pretty much me. It doesn't really matter where I am or what I'm doing, but a constant red thread in my life is sticking my proverbial face in the fan. This past week, I did so at a vestry meeting over the issue of facilities usage, all the while not having a clue that there had been some friction over this with a group who is using the St. Luke's undercroft. Amazing how those issues arise during the 30 hours a week you aren't "in the house!"

I'm still amazed at how people think I know what's going on when I'm not there. It's the persistent belief that the bishop conferred mind reading powers when he put his hands on my head last year. I wish he had ... but he didn't ... either time!

I suppose if I have to either fall off of someone's pedestal or shatter people's expectations of who I should be or what I should be able to do, I'd rather fall sooner than later. Maybe after that, we can find realistic ways to work together.

Sticks Face in Fan ... yep, that's me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

If it's Tuesday, I must be a Methodist...

I'm living my life in two different worlds. For those who follow this blog (all three of you ... ok, maybe four ... maybe!), you know I'm now the Interim Rector at St. Luke's Episcopal in Franklin Square. It's only a 10 hour per week position where I'm in the office on Wednesdays from about 10am to 4pm and Sundays from 8:30am to 12:30pm ... and additional hours of work from home which puts me over 10 hours per week regularly. Here's the truth, there really are no part-time calls, just part-time pay! But that's what they could afford and I do my best to keep my hours near the 10 hour mark. Things are going pretty well there. When I started, the attendance was around 18 on Sundays ... last week it was up to 25 and yesterday it was 26. In percentages, that's a pretty big leap. I'm seeing new faces too and that gives me hope.

BUT, a 10 hour/week call is not enough to pay the bills. Yes, Beloved Husband works, but working at our diocesan retreat/conference center was a huge cut in pay from where he was in the corporate world. So I need a full-time call, but being restricted geographically means I must wait for the right call to open up and hope the congregation will call me to the position. That's a lot of hopes!

So, in the midst of all this, I also was approached by the senior pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Frederick to be their half-time minister of visitation. Fortunately, my bishop was gracious enough to let me take this call, with the understanding that I would be open to a full-time call when one becomes available. I began working with Calvary on All Saints Day (11/1).

As Minister of Visitation, I get to visit with our shut-ins and nursing home residents. It's great. I bring Holy Communion to those who want it and get to visit with a whole bunch of wonderful people. I hear stories from them about Frederick county from long ago, when our diocesan retreat center was the Buckingham School for Boys, when most people still used horses and buggies to get out to the farm because the roads were still largely dirt.

I figure that going to a Lutheran seminary and serving both an Episcopal Church and a Methodist Church makes me an Episco-Luthra-Dist. The thing that's really hard is keeping things straight. I'm at Calvary on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays ... and at St. Luke's on Wednesdays and Sundays. I have to keep situations, stories and names straight between the two places and I'm struggling with that. It's complicated, but I do know that if it's Tuesday, I must be a Methodist. ;-)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Slam dancing

Last week, I went to my first poetry slam. I'd heard of poetry slams, but having never been to one was a function of timing. They rose to prominence in the cities after I left LA and moved to Frederick, MD. The closest I ever came to a "slam" was the punk slam dancing of the 1980's ... I think I still have bruises to show for the mosh pit. Anyway, it was an evening to remember and I was awed by the talent!

This slam is held at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, where I serve as the interim rector. It's called "Live in the Undercroft" and is held in ... the basement (which Episcopalians give the fancy name "undercroft" in order to make it sound more ecclesiastical). We usually hold them on the third Friday of each month at 8:00PM. Consider this an open invitation: if you're in Baltimore on those evenings, come on over and check it out.

I heard more social commentary through these poems than I had heard in a long time. Sharon launched us with "What the hell is so convenient about convenience stores?" which decried the lack of fresh and healthy food in the inner city. Stephanie Okonkwo, who I believe should be named poet laureate of Baltimore (or at least Carey Street), read several of her works and talked about being an intelligent woman and being "old school." (Stephanie has just published a book of her poetry called Far Above Rubies - check it out!). Keisha presented for the first time and her poem "I Scream" was so inspiring, I had her come and read it on Sunday to lead into my homily. Uncle Daddy called his brothers to stand for something more than the violence which claims young black men in our cities. And we even heard a poem celebrating bisexuality. The whole of human experience was expressed: hopes, fears, pain, anger, dreams, addiction, healing, and love.

I came to support the program and the poets gave me a gift in return. I've asked some of our young women to help with poems for Advent which we'll include in our liturgy ... kinda turn it into a "homily slam" of sorts. I believe our faith must be relevant to our lives and poetry is a means which can make that connection. And our gifted poets have something to say!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What really matters

I'm sensing our country is in election fatigue. Not just our candidates, but the whole of the American people. It seems like election cycles are longer and longer and by the time election day arrives, we all just want to get it over with.

It won't be much of a surprise for readers of this blog, but as "private citizen Scarborough," I'm backing Barack Obama. I joined Clergy for Obama and they published my latest post (check it out here). It is a bit strange being clergy. I now have to be very careful to be clear that who I back is not an endorsement of any church or congregation. I also am clear that I must be a pastor and priest to everyone regardless of political affiliation.

Too many times, including in this election, the rhetoric ramps up to be very negative and personally destructive. This troubles me greatly. I believe in passionately debating ideas, but I do not support the politics of personal destruction that attempts to demonize the opposition. I think part of our witness as Christians is to disagree without being disagreeable. Hate speach, ad hominem attacks, and self-righteous judgmentalism is not of God and we have to speak out against these tactics.

This election is very important, but there are things more important. I learned this morning as I was walking my daughter to the corner to meet her friends to walk to school that a neighbor of ours was killed last night. Mark Bremer lived down the street from me. He was a Frederick City police officer and was killed in a single car crash as he tried to pull over a vehicle who was evading him. He died as a result of his injuries. He leaves behind a wife and three small children. He was 39 years old ... and from the sign in his front yard, he was supporting John McCain.

Even though I barely knew him (we literally just met 2 weeks ago), I am heartbroken for his wife and family. Mark and I may have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but Mark was my brother in Christ and his death is a tragedy. Pray for the Bremer family.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Changing of the names

Well, with the new call to be the part-time interim rector at St. Luke's and a possible second call to be a part-time visitation pastor for a Methodist congregation, it looks like the Mercenary Presbyter moniker will have to be shelved. It's certainly more preferable to have a call than keep a blog name ... so here we go.

It's not original, but Reverend Mom seems to fit. The new pic is of me and our youngest daughter on the top (yes top) of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. My cousin, Maj. Gen. John Milne (ret.), is the Registrar of St. Paul's. He gave us the coolest tour of the Cathedral last summer. He had the girls undivided attention as we went up the "Harry Potter staircase," into the library, and the Grand Model (built by Sir Christopher Wren to show off what his cathedral would look like), the crypt, and finally the Whispering Gallery where he let us go up to the very top of the Cathedral. He promised a view that was "much better than the London Eye" and he was absolutely right.

Tomorrow I head down to St. Luke's again to preach on the King's Son's Wedding feast parable from Matthew 22. The Great Banquet in Luke is a much easier one of grace, but this one is full of judgment ... weeping and gnashing of teeth and stuff. It's not comfortable stuff. I have been reading Robert Farrar Capon's commentary Kingdom, Grace and Judgment: Paradox, Vindication and Outrage in the Parables of Jesus and his take on this parable. I find this to be one of the best commentaries as it isn't full of $100 theological terms and he is a pretty funny guy. His take is that judgment is always wrapped in grace in the parables. The judgment falls on those who reject the invitation to the banquet initially. The judgment of the guest without the wedding robe is another judgment of someone who got into the party, but still wanted to party on his own terms (he didn't want to put on the garment ... which was likely provided as all the riff-raff were pulled off the street just as they were). The party is on God's terms, not ours. Our only obligation is to say "yes" and join the bunch ... which includes people who we probably wouldn't like or who would be an embarrassment to us. We don't get into the party by our own merits ... only by God dragging us in by our earlobes. That's grace.

Monday, October 6, 2008


I get a kick out of how we in the church come up with obscure titles for people's positions. I mean, people understand "facilities maintenance" so why do we call that person a "sexton?" Huh? Or "rector" for the pastor or "curate" for the assisting pastor. I think we Episcopalians must have some underlying need to elevate the magnificence of things by giving them obscure names.

As of yesterday, I have been called to be the Interim Rector of St. Luke's on Carey Street in southwest Baltimore. As Interim Rector I'm there to keep the spiritual ship of state afloat, so to speak, as they seek a permanent rector. The plan is to have someone at St. Luke's 1/3 time and also be working as an urban missioner for the diocese 2/3 time.

I preached and presided at yesterday's Holy Eucharist. Speaking of obscure words for things ... Eucharist means "Thanksgiving" and I'm not sure why we call our service "Holy Eucharist" at all. Why not just "Holy Communion?" That's what most Christian churches call it. You could go with "Holy Thanksgiving" ... but that might imply we're serving turkey and the trimmings as part of the service. Hmmm ... there might be a truth in advertising issue with that option. "Holy Communion" works for me.

I'm looking forward to working with the folks there for however long I'm there. Our whole family went down to the service and our girls just jumped right into the activities with the Sunday School. It was lively ... very lively. The kids are awesome. Andre, the Senior Warden, showed me some pictures of the after school program and the poetry slams on the third Fridays in the Crypt. Andre's working to get access to the web site so they can upload the pictures and update the site. I'd like to get some high res pictures of the stained glass in the church and put a virtual tour on the web site too.
Yeah Andre, I know you're reading this and if I hadn't told you my past life as a "web geek," well now you know! :-D
Austin Jones, the Treasurer of St. Luke's (ok, fair enough - we at least call the treasurer a treasurer), gave my husband the copy of St. Luke's 100th anniversary history booklet. This congregation has a remarkable history as one of the first Oxford Movement Anglo-Catholic parishes in Maryland (back when more Puritan minded Bishops labeled the Catholic appointments in this church as "papal abominations"). One of the first communities of nuns, the Sisterhood of the Good Shepherd, was attached to St. Luke's back in 1863, and St. Luke's started four missions in the diocese: St. Mary the Virgin in Franklintown, Holy Cross on Frederick Road (the suburbs back then), Chapel of the Nativity on Pratt & Oregon Streets, and St. Stephen the Martyr at North and Warwick Avenues. St. Luke's has a long tradition of having parochial schools and supporting education - which is reflected in today's ministry of after school tutoring to the neighborhood children. There is a holy history of Christ's presence here and a challenge to bring it into the future for the community around the church.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Where do you place your trust?

I must say this election season is the weirdest one I've ever experienced ... evah! McCain runs out of money in the primaries ... then comes back ... then picks a total unknown for VP running mate ... then the banking crisis hits ... debates are off ... debates are on ... bailout in the works ... bailout tanks ... surreal interviews with a VP candidate.

Can I take a break, go down the rabbit hole and have some tea with the Mad Hatter and Alice? Please??

Unfortunately, the anxiety which was already present in our society has reached fever pitch. I just finished reading Edwin Friedman's last book, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. I highly recommend it for anyone in a leadership position (hint, all parents are in a leadership role with kids ... get the book!). Friedman talks about the emotional processes and symptomatic behaviors of highly anxious systems. Whether it's an anxious family, an anxious congregation, or an anxious country ... behaviors in those anxious systems are very similar.

Anxious systems seek to avoid pain to the extent that their leaders will run from anything which may cause pain in the system. The leaders will also adapt their functioning to the most immature member in the group. Whether it's a parent who caves in to their overindulged child, a pastor who gives in to a member who threatens to cut their pledge if the pastor doesn't do what they want, or a president who tries to push through a quick fix to cover up the failed policies of his administration - they all exhibit highly anxious reactive behaviors.

The first thing we need to do to combat this whole financial crisis is to calm down. Yeah, sounds like an easy platitude. But I'm entirely serious - everyone needs to calm down. Take a breath and slow down to get some perspective. I'm personally glad to see the congress battling this back and forth rather than cave with a quick fix that could likely do more harm than good.

Will there be pain in the short run? Yes. But some short term pain to produces a long term solution that will work is worth it. While I think Phil Gramm's characterization of the American people as a "nation of whiners" is wrong, I do believe that we have become a nation paralyzed by fear of pain and the loss of security. Friedman says fear of pain and fears around our security have stifled the creative spirit.

Our early Christian brothers and sisters were not paralyzed by fears around security and pain. They lived in a very precarious time where starvation, disease and death were everyday occurrences. They spread the Gospel even in the face of persecution and possible death. Just imagine if Paul had been as worried about his own personal security as we are. Do you think he would have planted so many churches? Sure, he probably would have lived a longer life than he did (he was beheaded in Rome for being a Christian), but would you be a Christian if he had taken the safe route?

I think our fears and our worship of security are false idols. We worship them instead of God. We let our anxieties control our decisions rather than trusting God's plans and purposes. I have observed that some of the most anxious people are those who are living on the edge - maxed out on their credit cards, living in a home with a mortgage payment they really can't afford, trying to live way beyond their means, one paycheck away from disaster. Who do they trust? Who do you trust?

I think this financial crisis is a wake up call for people of faith. Where have I been placing my trust? Has it been in my ability to accumulate the stuff a consumerist society says I must have? Has it been in my ability to earn a lot of money? Has it been through buying a home I really can't afford but makes me look prestigious? All of these are forms of idolatry - a sin of misplaced trust.

It's time to reexamine our priorities and be honest about whether or not we have put our trust in the wrong things. The good news is Jesus Christ gives us a pathway to repent and return to the LORD.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Back in seminary, I took a class called Rural and Small Church Ministries. In it, we read a book called Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano. Lubrano's book is a personal reflection of what it is like to be the child of blue-collar parents who make the transition into middle-class/white-collar life. He calls this class of people "Straddlers" and through his own experience and interviews with others who have also left blue-collar upbringings to enter the white-collar world, he examines the myth that our country is a classless one where anyone can rise from rags to riches.

I could relate to a lot of what Lubrano observes. My dad and mom both came from blue-collar families. When they married, my dad worked a blue-collar job as a glazier. Entering the workforce was really the only option for him. College was for people with money or GI's who could access the GI bill. My dad was in neither category, so he went to work in the first job he could land out of high school.

Eventually, my dad went back to a local community college to get an A.A. in business. It took him 7 years of night school while working fulltime to do this. My mom stayed home to raise me and my sister. This was back in the day when a tradesman's salary could support a family. He was the first one in his family to earn any kind of degree and he moved into operations management in the retail glass industry. He wasn't crazy about the industry, but it was what he knew and he did a good job.

In essence, my dad was the first generation "Straddler." Straddlers don't have white-collar families to teach them the social ropes, make connections for them, get them into the best school, or set up trust funds for them. Straddlers live in a limbo world where they don't have the advantages of their multi-generation white-collar counterparts and they have trouble fitting in with their blue-collar families who don't understand them anymore. Straddlers carry the blue-collar values of hard work, honesty and family loyalty. They don't understand the ground rules of the white-collar social politics and this can get a Straddler into trouble in the unfamiliar arena of corporate life and white-collar society.

I am a second generation Straddler. My folks placed a high value on education, but they didn't hand it to me. They helped me by letting me live at home and commute to school (many Straddlers are commuter students), but they didn't have the financial means to pay for my education outright. I had to work while I was in school (also common for Straddlers). Because of finances, I did not live on campus where I could make connections with my fellow students and their families. I had to work, so joining a sorority and being heavily involved in the campus life of the university was not an option either. I didn't have any special "connections" to help me get into an exclusive school or help me land a prestigious job out of college.

In contrast, my husband was definitely raised in a white-collar home. His dad was a sales manager with Anheuser-Busch for 35 years and his mom was a nurse. He was fortunate to have the option to live on campus when he attended Virginia Tech - no commuting for him. He worked, but as a coop student meaning he alternated between fulltime study and fulltime work throughout his schooling. His parents footed most of the bill for his college education. He is very comfortable in the white-collar world. Sometimes we have disagreements which are rooted in the class differences of our upbringings.

Being a Straddler can be frustrating. It's hard to live between two worlds and not really belong to either one. But, I also realized that being a Straddler is more than just straddling class lines. I've been a Straddler in more than one way. I've straddled geography by living on the west coast and the east coast. I've straddled the American sub-cultures of dynamic pioneers and settled parochials. I've straddled denominations between the Lutheran and Episcopal churches. Being a Straddler has helped me navigate all these differences and move between them. Being a Straddler has taught me there are lots of people who don't fit into nice neat categories and the necessity of seeing past the surface.

I think the ability to see past what is on the surface is crucial to being a Christian. Denying our human tendency to classify people by their class, race, gender, orientation is dangerous. If we deny these ugly parts of us, we will neither seek healing or find it. St. Paul said, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28). Human created categories are nullified by our baptism, and yet we still fall into the trap of categorizing people. This is a point of continuing repentance - I don't think we'll ever come to a point of "getting it" and eliminating our mental categorizing of people. But acknowledging it is the first step in repentance and restoration in Christ with all our brothers and sisters.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius Pilate was a governor."

This has to be the quote of the week. I was personally offended by the snarky comment by Sarah Palin taking a stab at Barack Obama by disparaging community organizers. This video is a great history lesson on the importance of community organizers to our country's history.

The National Catholic Reporter had a few choice words in response too.

Sarah Palin may be a "hockey mom," but she does not speak for this soccer mom.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When church is CHURCH

I received a phone call last week from the Senior Warden at St. Luke's Episcopal Parish in West Baltimore about their need for an interim rector and asking me if I would be interested. If there's one thing I learned from Dr. Rick Carlson at LTSG, it's talk to everyone because you never know what the Holy Spirit might have in mind. I scheduled the interview for yesterday and what a blessing it was.

I live a little over an hour west of Baltimore in a rural area and my upbringing was So. Cal. suburban, so inner city urban ministry was out of my box so to speak. Baltimore is a funny city - it's really more of a loose confederation of neighborhoods with a city limit boundary drawn around them. Technically, St. Luke's is in the Poppleton neighborhood, but the other side of Carey Street is Franklin Square.

So, off I went heading down I-70 into Baltimore, down Route 40 ... Edmonston Ave., then it becomes Franklin, then Mulberry (I think Baltimore changes street names just as a nod to their English roots) ... and then a right turn on N. Carey Street towards Franklin Square - the church is on the left. It is a beautiful old stone gothic church amidst boarded up row houses in a neighborhood where the median household income is $23,000 per year. St. Luke's looks like a throwback to another time and place.

Joann Johnson, the Junior Warden, met me at the door to the undercroft to let me in. I immediately saw signs of children ... lots of signs of children even though Joann and I were the only people in the room. There were flags hanging from the ceiling, posters, pictures of their summer day camp, poetry, a bank of computers, books ... something was going on here.

We went upstairs to see the church built in 1857. This means it is a "Whittingham church" referring to its being planted by Bishop William Whittingham, the fourth bishop of Maryland. Bishop Whittingham is a legend in our diocese both for being a long serving bishop (38 years from 1840 - 1878) and for planting a lot of new churches. Whittingham churches have a particular look - gothic architecture and built of stone. St. Luke's is an historic building (click the link for an aerial view) and the congregation and diocese are working diligently to preserve it while making it usable for the programs they are doing with the neighborhood children.

While touring the church, Andre Liggins, Senior Warden, arrived. Andre and Joann both have an infectious love of the Lord, tremendous joy and excitement for the ministry they are doing with the neighborhood children. It is palpable when you talk with them about what's going on at St. Luke's. If one just looked at numbers, things wouldn't look so good at St. Luke's. Average Sunday attendance is around 20 - 25 and the 2006 plate and pledge income was $8,000. But numbers cannot tell whole story - it takes Andre and Joann to tell about the gospel happening on Carey Street.

St. Luke's has become the safe haven for the children of Franklin Square and Poppleton. Their summer day camp was attended by 40 neighborhood children. The average Sunday attendance of 20-25 is mostly children. One Saturday a month, St. Luke's hosts "Safe Saturday" where the kids can come to the church for arts and crafts, poetry, movies and games. During the school year, St. Luke's runs an after school homework club every day during the week. Andre started a poetry slam where neighborhood youth come over and perform their poetry ... and one of them even published a book of poetry! St. Luke's is bringing the hope of God's love to this place.

Andre grew up in this church while Joann joined several years ago. It's obvious they are excited about their ministry at St. Luke's and what's happening there. Andre said, "We may be a small church, but we are a busy church!" And he's right.

I am scheduled to return on October 5th to preach and celebrate Eucharist with them. Joann said the kids will want to interview me too (of course!). The position is very part-time (2 days a week) and will run through early next year as they seek to call a priest on a more permanent basis (permanency is all relative in ministry). I'm looking forward to it.

It does my heart such good to be in the presence of people who are so obviously on fire with the Spirit and who understand what it means to be Church. Andre, Joann, and the people of St. Luke's understand that the Church exists as much for the people who are not there on Sunday as it does for those who are.

(P.S. If you want to check it out, here's the map on how to get there. Services are at 9:00AM on Sundays and there's always someone at the church during the day. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Whew! Grace happens...

This week's lectionary (Proper 12 RCL) finally gets us to Paul's core theological claim:
I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I know I am not alone in holding this particular text dear to my heart and spiritual journey (this passage is actually on the back of my Cursillo team shirt). I'm glad we finally got here ... after several weeks of Paul pounding us with SIN (capital letters intentional), it's kind of nice to know we're not left wallowing in it!

I have a love/hate relationship with the lectionary. I like the fact it forces me to deal with a lot of different texts all over the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. As a lectionary preacher, I don't have the luxury of picking my personal "text du jour" and constructing my whole worship experience around that one favorite passage (which is not to say that some of my favorite passages are not in the lectionary ... this week proves they do come around). What I don't like is that some of the readings get chopped up in weird ways that aren't always helpful and some authors (like Paul) are not good as "sound bites."

Three weeks ago, I was serving at St. Andrew's Episcopal in Clear Spring. We were squarely into Paul's rhetoric on the power of SIN (primarily in Romans 6 & 7 ... but the "front end" of Romans has a lot of "sin talk"). I told the congregation that I'm not a fan of "sound bite Paul." To really get what Paul is doing with his rhetoric here, you need to read the whole of Romans 1-8 (the second half of the letter goes into other topics). Paul synopsizes his theological point that we are justified sinners, the nature of the power of SIN as a big cosmic force, and how Jesus Christ defeated the power of SIN once for all. The problem with lectionary "sound bites" is they chop up Paul's argument so that it is hard to see his line of thinking.

Paul tends to beat you over the head with SIN to the point that when he gets to the subject of grace, it's as if he shifts gears without a clutch and grabs your attention. You're hearing:
  • SIN
  • SIN
  • SIN
  • SIN
and trotting down that rhetorical road with Paul only to be caught off guard when he opens Romans 8 with the good news,
"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."
"What??!! Huh??!! Hang on ... I thought we were talking about sin. 'No condemnation??' Now you've got my attention!!"
And that's where we are this week ... the point where Paul is persuaded that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus. I love how he says he is "persuaded." Paul didn't just swallow this story without some work. He has heard, considered, prayed over, and finally accepted that absolutely nothing will separate us from God's love.

I'm blessed to be going back to St. Andrew's this week again to preach on this text. It's like the continuation of a good story and it's nice to be able to preach on the completion of Paul's thoughts.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

In the fullness of time

Wow ... can't believe I haven't blogged in over a month! Well, it's summer and time gets even more unstructured in the Mercenary Presbyter's world. :-D Oldest daughter is at our diocesan retreat center for summer camp and Dad (a/k/a Director of Operations) is playing it cool so as not to embarrass her out of existence. Youngest daughter was at camp there last week. We'll blink and soon be back to school!

Ever had one of those weeks that seemed to encompass a lifetime? One where so much happened that you got to the end and it felt like years since last week? That's the week I've had this week.

I spent the first three days of this week helping my younger sister (who will one day be my older sister when she passes me up) move to a new home. It was not the easiest move as it entailed the emotional stress of ending a 13 year marriage. In truth, it had not been a real marriage for a long time and her departure from this relationship just took longer than any of us expected. We honestly weren't sure it would ever happen ... but it did. This change is a good thing for her and their 12 year old son ... but it is still hard and the death of a relationship is a difficult life passage.

On Tuesday evening, I sat at the dinner table with her and my parents and a friend of hers from work in her new home. She said, "Tell the truth. Who among you ever thought you would see this day?" We all laughed, but not one hand went up. She went on to say, "I know you thought it would never come, but I had to wait for the right time." The right time ... "in the fullness of time" we like to say in the church.

This reminds me of this week's Gospel reading - Matthew's version of the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (or if you like the KJV, the Wheat and the Tares). In the parable, the Master sows wheat and the "enemy" sows weeds among the wheat. The weeds in question are very specific: darnel. Darnel is an interesting weed because it looks exactly like wheat - in fact, it is called "false wheat." The only time you can tell darnel apart from wheat is at the harvest. Wheat will have full heads of grain to the point of drooping over and darnel will stand straight up.

In the parable, the servants go to the Master quite early and point out the weeds among the wheat. Their solution is to pull them up ... but that would have destroyed the good wheat and the entire harvest would be lost. Instead, the Master told them to have patience and wait until the difference between the wheat and weeds was evident - at harvest time.

Some use this parable to justify putting up with destructive behavior indefinitely within the church, our families, or our workplaces. Their justification is that we should leave it to God to sort it out. Considering Matthew goes on to provide a disciplinary rubric for the early church (see Matthew 18:15-18), I don't think the concept of putting up with sinful behavior is the point of this parable. Instead, I think it has something to say about patience.

I'm not good at patience ... it's a learned skill for most of us. "Lord grant me patience ... RIGHT NOW!" is our collective prayer most of the time. The servants, in their anxiety driven desire to fix things for the Master, offer to pull up the weeds. The Master, in his/her wisdom, rejects this idea because it would destroy the wheat crop. The Master understands that patience is called for to give proper discernment and planning for the rectification of the situation.

It is not uncommon to jump to the first solution to fix a situation which provokes anxiety. We don't like anxiety. We want to fix it. Often, in our desire to "fix it," we go into action without thinking the ramifications through completely. In the end, we do more damage rather than resolving the issue.

As our bishops gather in Lambeth, our church is facing issues which provoke anxiety. Questions of unity vs. uniformity, Biblical authority (or more precisely, "Whose Biblical interpretation will be authoritative?"), cultural clashes, ecclesiology, and others are hanging over the Conference. Our desire is for something to ameliorate our collective anxiety. But if we take this parable seriously, we need to be patient and willing to sit with our anxiety over an unsettled situation ... maybe for the rest of our lives. These questions have been around since the beginning of the Church ... and we wrestle with them in new forms anew.

"I had to wait for the right time." My sister showed me the difficulty and importance of waiting for the right time. Patience really is a virtue.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Generous orthodoxy

It's been an interesting year of ordained ministry! I believe anyone who is ordained will tell you that no amount of seminary or formation actually prepares you for what happens when you finally put the collar on. Even my Lutheran friends, who wear collars as seminary interns before they are ordained, find that things are still different after they become "pastor."

If you've never heard the song Jeremiah by Suzzy and Maggie Roche, get a copy of their album Zero Church and take a listen. The words are from God's words to Jeremiah (33.3):
Call me Jeremiah
Call me and I'll show you
Great and mighty
Things you have not seen.
How true it is for those of us who are ordained. We see things both great and mighty things ... and sometimes we see things that, if we are completely honest, we'd rather not. But God calls us to see these things, especially the painful and hard things, to witness to God's love and reconciliation in Jesus Christ.

I just finished reading Bishop J. Neil Alexander's book This Far By Grace: A Bishop's Journey Through Questions About Homosexuality. This book is outstanding for anyone wanting to understand how in the world the Episcopal Church can consecrate an openly gay bishop in a partnered relationship in light of Biblical passages which seem to condemn homosexuality.

I've read a lot of reflection since 2003 on what I believe to be our "hot button topic du jour." I say that because I do believe it's just the next round of debate on how we engage the Scriptures on a variety of topics (not the least of which was the appropriate role of women in the church ... a question which is still being debated in a number of places and which still limits where I can realistically be called to exercise my priestly vocation ... but that's another blog post for another time). There are those who take a more literal interpretation of the Scriptures within the Episcopal Church. They are hurt and frustrated about the full inclusion of gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and bisexual persons in the life of the church because they believe it violates Scripture.

Recently, our Presiding Bishop met with some clergy in South Carolina (who are more literalist and conservative in their interpretations). The question which kept being raised was surrounding the "authority of Scripture" in the Church. Literalist conservatives (and as a note, I hate labels ... but use them only as descriptors here, not as pejoratives!) accuse the Episcopal Church of rejecting the authority of Scripture. I don't believe that's an accurate definition of the issue.

If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you've probably figured out I consider myself a "progressive." Again, labels are a problem, especially since "liberal" has a whole theological connotation which is different from the political one and which is a theological position I reject. I'm not a Biblical literalist all the time. I do think there are some things in the Bible which should, and even must, be taken literally. Jesus said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." I take that literally - I'm not sure how one could take it any other way. But do we take everything literally and does every piece of Scripture carry the same moral weight? I don't think so. I truly think the prohibitions against wearing a polyester/cotton alb (Lev 19:19) aren't very important in the grand schema of the Almighty and therefore I do not assign the same moral weight to that passage as I do to Jesus' love commandment.

In the ordination service for all clergy in the Episcopal Church, we make a solemn declaration about what we believe regarding the Scriptures. "I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation." What I did not say was I believe all things in the Holy Scriptures to be necessary to salvation! There are many things in Scripture which have nothing to do with salvation. It doesn't mean we disregard them, but it does mean we need to discern their importance in light of the saving work of Christ on the cross.

The question, therefore, is not whether folks like me have rejected the authority of Scripture (as some may believe). The question is whose interpretation of Scripture will be authoritative for the community? That's a much more dodgy question because it involves interpretation which is a living, dynamic process rather than a static set of rules. Bishop Alexander says in his book that the interpretation of Scripture needs to incorporate the Jewish Midrashic process wherein we engage the reading of Scripture with scholars throughout the ages to wrestle with the questions of our time. Our question then will move from "What does the Bible say about ...?" and become "What do you believe the Bible says about ...?" I think his point is well taken.

To me, this is the generous orthodoxy of which both Bishop Alexander and Brian McLaren address from their respective perspectives. Orthodoxy isn't a rigid set of rules which become the litmus test of who is "in" and who is "out." Orthodoxy is found when we all enter the conversation to find the deeper truth that any of us alone can grasp. It's the process that allows diversity at the table and is generous in letting the messiness of that conversation unfold.

Interestingly, the word "orthodoxy" comes from Greek. "Ortho" is to be "upright," "straight," "correct" and "doxy" comes from doxa, which means "glory," "brightness," "radiance," "majesty" and "splendor." The word, over time, has been interpreted as "right belief" ... but going back to the original etymology, it's really about "right glory." How do we give God "right glory?" I believe it's by engaging others with differing insights and resisting the temptation to go for the quick and easy answer.

Now playing: Suzzy & Maggie Roche - Jeremiah
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Will preach for food ... no wait ... for the highest bidder!

I don't do unemployment very well. There ... it's out ... I feel better. ;-) There are folks who have raised unemployment to an art form - I'm even related to some of them. But I don't know how to do it very well. Guess that's the latent Lutheran, Scandinavian work ethic imbued in my DNA.

I made my resignation from Gathered by Christ official this week with a letter to my bishop. He's in hospital, but I copied all the folks who need to be "in the know." Best to make it clear to everyone involved that my call to serve Gathered by Christ is finished and to make room for the next call.

So I can't really call myself the "Virtual Vicar" anymore ... since I'm not technically a vicar of anything. The pope is the "vicar of Christ" ... not me. And does Christ really need a vicar?! Hmmm ... makes me wonder ... ah well, sorry about that ... brain sometimes goes off to the Bahamas for a minute!

Anyway, I'm now doing what we call "supply work" and it's kind of cool. I get to visit other churches while their clergy are on vacation and preside at worship. I go in, I preach the sermon, preside at the Eucharist, have some coffee and chat time with the locals, get a check and go home. As supply clergy I'm just there for the day gig so the members of the congregation are quite happy to see me come and have been very gracious and welcoming. I don't have to go to vestry meetings, get embroiled in any congregational controversy, make prophetic spiritual or moral demands on the members, or run a stewardship campaign. Nope, just preaching and liturgy and take it on the toe. It's a nice respite ... and I'm liking it. Of course, it won't sustain me financially (yeah, there's always a "down side" isn't there??). I need a call, but hopefully this will carry us through until something appropriate opens up for me.

Being a "supply clergyperson" sounded a bit boring and "unemployed priest" just wasn't doing anything for my sense of self and call. "Hired gun" was a bit too violent for a woman of the cloth. So I came up with "Mercenary Presbyter for Christ" ... a bit more joie d' vive and says it all, don't you think? :-D

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Call and cure

Lately I've been mulling the difference between call and cure. In the church, we speak of being called by God to ministry. That is true for all people of faith, regardless of whether you are ordained or not. When you are ordained, we speak of being called to a particular congregation to be a priest or pastor. But what happens when this call to serve a particular congregation goes away? What does it mean? This is where I am right now.

With the help of friends, I've come to realize that the Call (that "capital C" Call) is bigger than any one congregation's circumstances. Speaking of being called to a congregation can certainly muddy the waters of definition. Call is bigger than any one community or circumstance. I worked a Cursillo weekend (Maryland 95) last weekend. It was just what I needed to get this question straightened out in my heart and mind. It was clear that my Call to be a priest was still there and strong as ever. My call to Gathered by Christ has finished - but that is only a part of my Call.

One of our fellow spiritual advisers last weekend was the Rev. Eddie Blue from Holy Trinity in Baltimore. It's been a great blessing to get to know Eddie+ through the teaming process and we found ourselves cutting up quite a bit ... nothing like a little clerical stream of semi-consciousness humor to keep things interesting. When I said to Eddie+ that I was "losing my call" to this congregation, he replied, "You haven't lost your call, you've lost your cure." Hmmm ... hadn't thought about it that way.

Webster's dictionary defines cure as a noun in three basic ways:
  1. A remedy, healing
  2. A means to preserve meat
  3. A spiritual or religious charge of the people
I don't think "door number 2" applies here ... but maybe one of my readers will find an interesting way to do so (never underestimate the creativity of the blogosphere!). Definitions one and three have some traction though. Three describes the call to a congregation as a cure. That's the "little c" call. It's a call for a reason and a season. Some cures are long term ... others quite short. I was called to take spiritual charge of the people at Gathered by Christ for the purpose of doing whatever God wanted me to do there for God's glory. It turned out that what God wanted was definition number 1 - a healing.

Today, I returned from Diocesan Convention. This is my last official act as Vicar of Gathered by Christ. I distributed all the letters of transfer this past week to the remaining few members. The last one went to our delegate to convention ... he couldn't leave until after he finished his duties!

So I've completed my work there. Now to write the resignation letter to my bishop to make it all official. It was a cure from God ... in more ways than one.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Lead us not into temptation

This one phrase in the Lord's Prayer is troublesome for many folks - myself included. The Greek phrasing of this part of the Lord's Prayer can also be translated: "Lead us not into a time of testing." It is followed by "and deliver us from evil" or "deliver us from the evil one." It's almost as if we ask God not to bring us into testing but, if God does, to deliver us from Satan's power.

So why would God bring us to a time of testing? Doesn't that seem paradoxical? A God who is good leading us to be tempted by evil?

I was drawn to my library the other day to start some reading. With the looming conclusion of my work at Gathered by Christ, I've found myself with a lot of free time on my hands. I don't handle that terribly well. So, after the Wednesday Eucharist where we remembered Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I went downstairs to my wall of books to see if I had any of Bonhoeffer's writings. My library is largely composed of books given to me by two priests - John Keller+ and Sallie Bailey+. Both of these priests gave me gifts of friendship and care ... the books are representative of those gifts. I was looking, in particular, for the Cost of Discipleship and didn't find it. I did, however, find a small booklet entitled Temptation. I picked it up and read it last night and into this morning.

Bonhoeffer's observations are that the temptation of a Christian is the experience of Satan tempting Christ all over again. Satan failed in his temptations of Christ, even the temptation he experienced in the sense of God's abandonment of him on the cross. God is not the source of temptation; however, there are times when God abandons us to face it alone. God is silent (see II Chronicles 32.31; Psalm 27.9; Proverbs 1.28; Hosea 5.6). In that abandonment we are left only with God's Word and promise.

Temptation causes us to face the sin in ourselves - our pride, self-righteousness, and distorted images of ourselves. Temptation can lead us to either a place of false security in believing that our sins are really not that bad and God will really not judge us for them, or it will lead to despair that our sins will never really be forgiven since Christ only died for the trivial ones, not the ones we've committed.

This all rings very true for me right now. The last thing I ever thought I would face coming out of seminary is the disintegration of the congregation I was called to serve. I know this is not of my doing as the situation was quite grave prior to my arrival; however, it still hurts. I've done my pastoral duty and the members of this congregation are now in the process of finding a safe landing in another congregation. In fact, I've had area clergy contact me to see if the members were planning a visit to their churches! I asked our members how it felt to be so wanted that I'm getting calls and e-mails inquiring about their visits. It felt good for them to be wanted and needed again.

I think that's what's hurting so much for me right now. I know my husband and the girls want me and need me. Don't get me wrong - that's very important. But to not be needed as a priest just ten weeks after ordination is very painful. It is a deep temptation to question my call. Did I just get called to do this and then get dumped? At times I feel like the Israelites in the wilderness ... "Hey, Egypt wasn't so bad. Let's go back. At least we won't starve there." ;-)

The sense of abandonment is very real. Even other clergy don't know quite what to say to me. I'm living their worst nightmare, what can you say to that? Most of them are thankful they aren't facing what I'm facing ... and the loss of a call in a down economy with a geographic limitation and no prospects is truly frightening. I know I'm not the only priest to have lost a call to serve, but without a context to understand how the cycles of calls happen, the patterns that emerge, I don't have any idea what I'll be up against or how long I will have to wait. I know how these things work in the private sector. When you lose your job, you file for unemployment, start cranking out the resumes, and maybe take a temp job to generate some cash flow. But that's not how it works for clergy and I feel very lost in this system.

Bonhoeffer's words were helpful this morning. I realized this temptation has led me to despair. Bonhoeffer wrote, "... I must recognize in all this that I am here thrust by Satan into the highest temptation of Christ on the cross, as he cried: 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' But where God's wrath broke out, there was reconciliation. Where I, smitten by God's wrath, lose everything, there I hear the words: 'My grace is sufficient for thee; for my power is made perfect in weakness' (II Cor. 12.9)."

At some later time, I will be able to minister to others through this trial. For now, I just have to endure it and pray for deliverance from the evil one.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Pilgrimage ... the next chapter

We are going, heaven knows where we are going,
But we know within.
And we'll be there, heaven knows how we will get there,
But we know we will.

It will be hard, we know,
And the road will be muddy and rough,
But we'll get there, heaven knows when we will get there,
But we know we will.
These words are from a song called Woyaya. They capture the essence of being on a pilgrimage.

Our little mission congregation is on a pilgrimage. If you've followed this blog, you know we've been on a discernment journey which began in Lent (and it was very Lent-y!). I came to this congregation in June 2007 after some serious internal crises which caused great injury to the members. We had few in numbers when I began and a couple of families intentionally left after my arrival. Our average Sunday attendance is down to 18 and our current location isn't conducive to attracting new members. So it was time to lay down our agendas and listen to God's call to us.

As we listened, we considered all options and looked at the whole picture of our life together. We could not ignore that illness, age and injuries were part of the constellation of our lives. It became clear that the call of being "church planters" was no longer the call felt by the members. It was time to do something else.

But what? That's where the song comes in. Our members are now embarking on "field trips" to visit other Episcopal Churches in our county and listen for where God may be calling them to be. There is movement ...
We are going, heaven knows where we are going,
But we know within.
On Maundy Thursday, our Hebrew Scripture text was the story of the Passover from Exodus 12. In it, God gives Moses the instructions for the Passover. Part of the instructions are:
"This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly."
This made so much sense to me in light of the fact our regular worship as a congregation was coming to a close (Good Friday was our last scheduled service). We were being told through this Scripture to get ready - be ready to go! For us, it meant the beginning of a pilgrimage to discern where God is calling us next.

Some call this "church shopping" but I don't like that term at all. It plays into our worst consumerist attitudes. It turns Church into a commodity and places the emphasis on what we want rather than where God is calling us. Putting ourselves at the center of this process instead of God isn't faithful.

The Church is not a commodity - it is the Body of Christ. We are called to particular congregations to live fully into our discipleship, not because of some passing want or whim we have. We may be called to congregations we'd never consider if it were up to our own desires. I have no doubt that I was called to work with this congregation, even though I do not generally feel called to work in family sized congregations or as a mission church planter. God had a different idea and needed me to do some particular work here ... and now that work is changing and will likely come to an end within the next month or so.

And so, rather than "church shopping," I told them they were on a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages are intentional journeys and they are on a very intentional journey to seek a community where they can live fully into their call to be God's people. They will get there ... heaven knows when they will get there ... but I don't think it will take very long. With God at the center of this intentional process, they will be just fine.

As for me ... well, my journey may be hard and the road will likely be muddy and rough. Beloved Husband has just accepted his call to be Director of Operations for Bishop Claggett Center and we are both very excited about this new chapter in his life. Making this move will be a financial challenge as he is taking a 50% cut in salary to go there. This makes my having a full-time (or close to full-time) call a necessity. It also places a geographical limitation on any future call ... and right now, there are really no openings in this area. An old friend of ours, Lee Weber, said, "Well you guys are either completely faithful or completely nuts." I'm hoping it's the former and not the latter. I suppose time will tell.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

My own peace I leave with you

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; I do not give it to you as the world does. Do not let your hearts be distressed or lacking in courage. (John 14.27)
On the final night of Jesus' earthly life, he blesses his friends with these words of peace. In the Church, we speak of God's peace as that "which passes all understanding." It doesn't make sense.

We are very rational people steeped in a culture grounded in scientific facts and knowledge. We have trouble with things which are not rational. Somehow, we've mistaken rational for real. If something doesn't make rational sense, it must not be real, right?


I tell folks I've tried rationality and found it's overrated. Truth is, there are many things irrational which are very, very real. The most obvious one is love. Anyone who has been in love can tell you there is a lot about love which is irrational. It isn't logical and doesn't always make sense.

Grace is irrational too. Why would God pour out grace on us? More specifically, why would God pour out grace on sinners ... especially the "really bad sinners" (of course I don't believe in gradations of sin so that makes us all "really bad sinners" ... but that's another post for another time).

Peace isn't rational either. Most people define peace is an absence of conflict. I'm not sure that's truly what peace is. Conflict is a means for change and transformation, so the absence of conflict is stagnation. I think peace is when we can be in the midst of conflict, but do it in such a way that allows us to see Christ in another with whom we disagree ... and in such a way as to honor their humanity which, in turn, honors God.

This week is Holy Week. It's the "high water mark" of the Christian year. It's not rational at all. The idea of a crucified God is pretty weird ... not at all rational. But God doesn't have to be rational to be real ... and neither to we.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:20-22)
This is the passage from Leviticus from which we get the term "scapegoat." The goat bore the guilt, shame and sins of the people on their behalf and it was driven into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It was a cleansing ritual so that the people could go on with their lives with a sense of wholeness and a burden being lifted.

But what about the goat? Live long enough, and you'll end up being a symbolic scapegoat for something. Anyone who has been a change agent in their workplace often finds themselves playing the role of the scapegoat! The sins of past inactions, poor policies, and bad decisions get heaped on the one who is trying to make a difference until they are driven out of the group. It is certainly much easier to dump our sins onto another and then drive that person out when they begin to shed light on our sins. But, does this ever cause us to repent of the underlying sin and return to a wholeness of relationship?

One way to understand Jesus' death on the cross was as an atoning death. On him was the sin of all humanity laid and for our sins he died. We still hear language like this in the Church. Jesus was certainly a change agent and, in his ministry, he shed light on the systemic sins of his culture. "... it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed," said Caiaphas (John 11:50). This certainly bears the marks of a scapegoat.

Jesus' death was more than this because of his resurrection. The scapegoat returned! Jesus' resurrection reminds us that we cannot run away from our sins or heap them onto someone else and hope they just go away. Jesus' resurrection is God's reconciling love in action. There are no scapegoats in reconciliation - nobody is driven into the wilderness to die. Even in the midst of our sinfulness (and yeah, there's plenty of that for all of us), we are promised through the resurrection that we will be reconciled back to God ... and to each other.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Philip found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about– Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Nathanael replied, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip replied, "Come and see." Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and exclaimed, "Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "How do you know me?" Jesus replied, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel!" Jesus said to him, "Because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these." He continued, "I tell all of you the solemn truth– you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." (John 1:45-51)
So how did you come to the faith? Last week, some members of our congregation came together to tell our stories about how we got here. Each of us had a chance to tell our "spiritual biography" - a 5-8 minute story on how our journey of faith had brought us to this point in our lives. Everyone had a different path, marked with high points and low valleys. But the "red thread" which ran through each story was the importance of relationships.

Nobody is in a vacuum, we all live as part of a larger community and environment. Those of us who are connected to a faith community didn't get there because of our own volition. We didn't just wake up one morning and say, "Hey! I think I'll go to church. I've never been to church before, don't have a clue what it is, but I really need to go to one right now!" It just doesn't work that way.

If you think about your own faith life, you will see that there are key people who have influenced you and nurtured your faith journey. For me, it was my parents. For my father, it was my mother who brought him to the faith. For my mom, it was a girlfriend in high school who invited her to a youth outing (which happened to be Billy Graham's first Crusade in San Diego back in the 1950's). What's clear is nobody comes to Christ outside relationships.

That's why I love the story of the call of Nathanael in John's Gospel. Philip, Nathanael's friend, "found" him. Philip went looking for his friend and then told him about Jesus. Nathanael, urbane guy that he was, says, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Rather than be intimidated by Nathanael's sarcastic response, Philip replies, "Come and see." Philip does not engage Nathanael in an argument, nor does he chide Nathanael for his cynicism. He just says, "Come and see." When Jesus encounters Nathanael, his cynicism is replaced by trust in who Jesus is and what it means for Israel.

Nathanael only appears one more time in the New Testament - in John 21:2: "Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together." This is the beginning of the story where Jesus appears on the beach at the Sea of Tiberias after his resurrection. Once again, Jesus comes to Nathanael within the context of being with his friends. And that is how Jesus comes to us too. Through our relationships, Jesus comes to us and offers us new life.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

"Lent-y" Lent

If you observe Lent, the forty days of penitence and fasting before Easter, you'll find there are years where Lent feels really "Lent-y" and other years where it seems to slip by on you. When I was in seminary, Lent never felt really "Lent-y" to me. Not because we didn't observe the rituals of Ash Wednesday, have quiet days and retreats, take time for penitential prayers, or observe the rituals of Holy Week. More because other things from the outside seemed to press in ... little things like projects and papers which had deadlines in Lent. Hard to get away with "giving up papers for Lent" in seminary ... sometimes the papers felt like penance in and of themselves.

This year, it's as if I'm making up for three years of Lent slipping by with seminary busyness. We had our Annual Meeting today at Gathered by Christ. It was the first one they've ever had in their 10 years of existence. The former vicar was very informal and didn't really do this kind of thing. No matter, this year we had to do it.

It was not easy to look these five families in the eye and be completely honest about our financial condition. Truth is they cannot afford my services, even as a part-time priest. Not that it's ever really been part-time ... more like part-time pay and full-time work. Church planting is never a part-time proposition! Anyway, the numbers don't lie. We have to come up with a faithful response to the situation and let God lead us in where we need to go. Sticking our heads in the sand and "hoping for a miracle" isn't a faithful response. If God wants to work a miracle, God's going to do it even if we do nothing! I think God will work a miracle, but it might not be what the congregation wanted it to be.

It is tempting to rely on the "hope for a miracle." I heard people say that at the bedside of dying patients when I did my Clinical Pastoral Education. Usually when we say that, we're really hoping God will do what we want rather than being open to what God wants. "Let's just hope for a miracle" ends up being a form of denial.

But God works with us and through our decisions. That's what we believe as Anglicans. We ground our faith on Scripture, Tradition and Reason. This means we use Scripture and Tradition to inform our faith, but they are held in tension with our God-given Reason. God gave us a brain and expects us to use it. I think God wants to work in partnership with us when the going gets tough - God does not want us to shirk our responsibility for working through the options. If we bail out with the "hope for a miracle" approach, we take no responsibility for the outcome and then we can blame God for not pulling a rabbit out of the hat in the 11th hour. That sure can leave us with a damaged relationship with the Lord!

So Lent is turning very "Lent-y" as we begin a process of discernment on the Tuesdays of Lent. We will meet weekly to pray, tell our stories, contemplate specific questions about what God is doing in our individual lives and how that impacts the group. Through this process, we'll see how stories from Scripture intersect with our stories. And out of this, the Holy Spirit will be present and will begin to clarify where this is all heading.

So Lent will be "Lent-y" this year ... and resurrection will happen. It won't take the form we thought it would, but I'm looking forward to how God is going to surprise us all.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Priestly Mash

Last Saturday on the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple (Candlemas), I was ordained a priest! I know, it was Ground Hog Day too. Fortunately, I did not see my shadow, so I didn't have to remain a deacon for 6 more weeks. ;-)

It's been a long time coming and the service was amazing. Yes, it was full-throttle "smells, bells and yells" (well, not so much yells, but a little chanting from our bishop!) and the music was awesome. There were probably 250 people there - what a celebration!

The Episcopal Church follows the ancient rites of ordination which were first recorded by Hippolytus around 200 C.E. (hey, why change what works?). When a deacon is ordained, only the bishop lays hands on the person being ordained. But when you ordain a priest, the bishop lays hands on the ordinand's head and all the other priests lay their hands on your shoulders, neck, back ... wherever they can get a hand in without getting too personal. ;-) There were so many priests that the weight of all those hands was quite a mash and I'm thankful I don't have spinal compression problems! It was intense ... and very emotional.

But as is usual with me, a funny story ran through my brain in the split instant all those hands were pressing down on me. It was the story of Gregory the Great, who was elected pope in the mid-sixth century. He was a monastic deacon at the time of his election and really didn't want the job initially. So he ran away! He returned to the monastery and in time he accepted his election and became Pope Gregory I. I figured it would really be hard to run away with all those hands pressing down on me ... maybe this rite had practical applications in addition to the symbolic! :-D

It was time to do this and I had no intention of bolting for the door. I'd done the running away part for quite some time before God wore me out. Guess the good Lord gave me a gift of persistence, even when I don't use it well. Fortunately, God's more patient with me than I can fully appreciate or understand. That's grace in action for all of us.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

42 ... plus 2

It's now official, I've marked another birthday milestone. I could say I'm "Thirty-four ... teen" or count my age in hexadecimal to sound younger (but telling someone you are 3C years old really makes you a geek). I'm thinking 42 + 2. Why? Because 42 is the answer to "life, the universe and everything!" If you didn't know that, you haven't read Douglass Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series.

The premise of the whole Hitchhikers series is that Earth gets destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Earthling Arthur Dent is rescued from his home in England by an intergalatic hitchhiker named Ford Prefect (a little piece of British humor ... the Ford Prefect was a car marketed by Ford in the UK). The series is classic British humor set in a theater of the absurd, yet in the midst of all the silliness, Adams actually made some incisive commentary on the human condition.

42 becomes the answer to "life, the universe and everything" when a group of humans asks the supercomputer named "Deep Thought" the question: "What is the answer to life, the universe and everything?" Deep Thought takes millions of years to work on this question and, when he finally discloses the answer to the descendants of the original questioners (after warning them they wouldn't like the answer), he announces, "The answer to life ... the universe ... and everything is ..... forty-two!" Needless to say, this causes great consternation among those who are now responsible for announcing this great discovery. Those hearing this answer are sure it is wrong, but Deep Thought assures them he has done all the calculations correctly. Deep Thought tells them there is nothing wrong with the answer, the problem is they do not know the question!

BTW, if you want to know for sure, here's the answer to the same question according to Google.

The older I get, the more appreciation I have for asking the right questions. I care less about answers these days. Answers are cheap and everyone claims to have one (even if they don't understand the question themselves).

In the movie Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, a young Orthodox rabbi, says he has no easy answers about evil in light of the attacks of 9/11. He says the following in response to the question: Have people asked you where God was on Sept. 11? How do you answer that?

... Yes, since Sept. 11, people keep asking me, "Where was God?" And they think because I'm a rabbi, I have answers. ...

There is a part of me that wants to yell back at them, "What? You're asking now? Why now? Why didn't you ask about Bosnia or Rwanda or Hiroshima or gas chambers and concentration camps or go back through all of human history? I don't understand. Now you're asking 'Where was God?' How many people go to bed hungry every night in the richest country in the world? And now you're asking about 'Where is the God of justice?'"

I don't mean to demean their question, so I always have to kind of check myself, go back and try and understand. What they are looking for is what all of us are looking for: some way to let real life, with the pain, not blow us apart -- probably a bad use of terms. We're all looking for that.

I guess the most important part of that conversation is to begin to identify how all of us are looking for that, rather than use some notion of God or some doctrine or some religion to provide easy answers, when we know deep down they don't really exist. So I can make someone feel good for 10 minutes doing the stuff I don't believe. But I know, and they know, that 10 minutes later, the same questions come flooding back. ...

I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. ...

I think that's the point. We won't have the answers, we aren't meant to have it all worked out. We're meant to live with the ambiguity of the questions and perhaps some plausible options ... perhaps. Living with questions takes more faith than living with answers.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

"May your rest this day be in peace...

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God." So says our liturgy of commendation for the dying in the Episcopal Church. There is something so simple and yet profound about this blessing.

I read this last Saturday as I waited for the inevitable phone call. My Aunt Pat was admitted to the hospice hospital in San Diego the day before. She was in her final hours after an almost 8 year battle with multiple myeloma. Her kidneys were failing and, having seen this with my father-in-law, I knew her passing would be relatively painless. Of all the ways we can exit this life, kidney failure makes my "top ten" list of how I'd like to go - painless and peaceful.
"Depart O Christian soul out of this world ..."
Aunt Pat was an interesting woman. She was my dad's older (and only) sister being 7 years his senior. She took my dad in when he could no longer live with his parents. She really was more of a mother to my dad than his biological mom. Before my dad went to live with her, she lived in Maine and, when her first marriage ended, she lived in New York City. Eventually she returned to San Diego and remained there for the rest of her life.
"In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you ..."
I remember going to her house in San Diego (we lived about 20 minutes away). She and her husband had a pool in their backyard. I learned to swim in that pool. We moved to Northern California when I was 7, but we would return for Christmas each year and visit her. They always had an open house on Christmas Eve.
"In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you..."
When she was a teen, my aunt joined the Episcopal Church. When her children were at home, she was very active and faithfully attended. When I was 3 1/2, I served as the flower girl at her daughter's wedding at All Souls Episcopal in San Diego. We were Lutheran and I was amazed at the pageantry of the Episcopal Church. My aunt's two sons were altar boys and wore vestments. The thing I remember most is how my cousins and the priest all came out together and dropped to one knee in front of the altar ... and rose together ... I'd never witnessed precision genuflecting before. I was hooked. My mom loves to tell how I picked up the genuflect like a pro ... and used it everywhere ... in the parking lot ... the frozen food section at Safeway ... the Tiny Tots preschool program ... and ... yes ... even at the Lutheran Church (which raised a few eyebrows in my day). I trace my Anglican tendencies to my cousin Cathy's wedding - the seeds were sown.
"In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you."
She worked for the City of San Diego and was a feminist at heart. She liked to dance. My dad told me about when he and my mom went out dancing with Pat and Freeman one night. Dad was jitterbugging with her and they both reached out for each other and just missed the hand grab ... and both ended up on their keasters in the middle of the dance floor! And they both cracked up laughing.

I remember her telling me about the day she received her diagnosis of cancer. It was on her 70th birthday. The doctor gave her the news and then said, "You are the same person you were yesterday before you received this diagnosis. We'll treat it. Go live your life." And she did. She beat all the estimates her doctors had about living with multiple myeloma. Her kidneys had failed once shortly after her diagnosis - toxins from the cancer itself. She had dialysis and miraculously her kidney function returned after a few months (the doctors said there was only a slim chance of this happening). But this type of cancer has no cure and it took its toll, but she lived as fully as she could for as long as she could.
"May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God."
It's my prayer for you Aunt Pat ... until we see each other again.