Nothing Snappy about it…

My sermon regarding my experience with the SNAP Challenge a couple weeks ago…

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 “Light to Those Who Sit in Darkness”

November 24, 2013

GOSPEL LUKE 1:68-79

68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

69He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

77to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

78By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Today’s gospel lesson is the Song of Zechariah.  As you may recall, Zechariah was a priest.  One day the Angel Gabriel came to him and told him that his aged, childless wife was going to have a baby boy.  Zechariah made the itty bitty mistake of asking “How will I know that this is so?” and Gabriel struck him mute until the birth of the baby.  (Note to self:  if an angel ever gives you a message DO NOT question the veracity of the message.  They don’t like that.)

So Zechariah is mute.  His wife, Elizabeth indeed becomes pregnant.  Elizabeth’s cousin Mary also gets a visit from Gabriel and you know how that turned out.  Pregnant Mary comes to visit pregnant Elizabeth.  Elizabeth’s baby, John the Baptist, leaps for joy in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice.  Then Mary sings a beautiful song beginning with how she is blessed by God but mostly focusing on God’s mercy and justice:  God bringing down the powerful and lifting the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty, keeping God’s promises to the descendants of Abraham.

Next, John is born, Zechariah gets his voice back and he sings this song continuing with Mary’s theme of justice, God’s mercy, God’s covenant with the people.  In the song he declares John as the prophet of the Most High who will prepare the way for the Lord.  The song ends, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

I just finished the SNAP Challenge.  Sounds fun right?  Sounds like Jets vs Sharks in Westside Story. (“here come the Jets…”) Or maybe some competition for elementary students.  But…  SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps.  Presbyterians throughout the country were encouraged to join our national leadership in “choosing for one week to live on the average amount of food stamp support in [our] state. This means spending only the average allowance, per person, on everything  that [we] eat, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, seasonings and drinks.”[i]  According to the most recent statistics I was able to find, the average per person, per week benefit in the state of Washington was $29.56.  But, as you probably know, funding for SNAP was recently cut meaning approximately $2 less per person, per week.

Before I continue I want to be clear:  I am not a hero.  I am not preaching about my participation in the SNAP Challenge to show everyone how morally superior/devout/dedicated and/or disciplined I am.  While I am all those things (just kidding—I am none of those things) the real reason I am preaching about this I because I don’t want my experience to end with me.  Part of the SNAP challenge is a commitment to education and advocacy.  It’s important to me that the SNAP Challenge have meaning and value beyond my personal experience.

The challenge started last Sunday, November 17.  As the day approached, I planned my menu in my head, what I thought I could get by with on $27.56 for the week.  Fortunately, since I eat a mostly vegan diet, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to afford meat or dairy.  I would have to give up organic produce.  What little fruit and vegetables I could afford would not be organic.  I had to give up coffee, too (except for the Sunday leftovers in the church refrigerator which I rationed out to last the whole week.  Thank goodness there was a full carafe in there…)  Let that sink in:  I had to give up decent coffee.  (On second thought, maybe I am a hero…) And there was a protein problem.  I usually have smoothies for breakfast, fortified with protein powder.  But protein powder was definitely out.  As was pretty much anything else that goes into my smoothies.  I wouldn’t be able to afford nuts or quinoa, my other customary sources of protein.  At least brown rice has some protein, but not a lot.  (Brown rice:  $0.99 for a one pound/11 serving bag at Grocery Outlet.)

In my initial shopping excursion the day before the challenge began I was able to buy ingredients for all the meals I’d planned: oatmeal, lentils, beans, rice and a bag of apples.  As I shopped, I found myself longing for organic produce.  Already I felt deprived and I hadn’t even begun the actual challenge yet.  I had $12.60 left over so the next day I went on a second shopping trip and got a bag of oranges, a bag of spinach, and some carrots.

I did my shopping, first Grocery Outlet then Winco for the remaining items.  (For those unfamiliar with “Grocery Outlet bargain market”, I’m not sure exactly how to describe it…  It’s basically were extras end up, so some of the food may be close to expiration, the produce is slightly past its prime, and you never know exactly what will be available.  Winco is a giant big-box grocery store jam-packed with processed food, conventionally grown produce and, the only reason I typically shop there, a big bulk food selection.)  But here’s the problem:  as I shopped I felt like I was playing a game.  And it really bothered me that what is everyday reality for so many, was a game for me.  I worried, was my participation in this challenge simply a modern form of “slumming”?  Granted, I had not entered into the challenge seeking to be entertained by pretending to be on food stamps, and yet…  and yet…

I wondered, what was the purpose?  I first signed up to do the SNAP Challenge without really even thinking about it.  A link came across Facebook and I thought, “Sure.  Why not?”  If pressed for my reason, I probably would have come up with something about solidarity with those for whom food stamps—and the recent cuts to food stamps—are everyday reality.  But how much solidarity is it really?  I mean, is solidarity really solidarity if those with whom you intend to be in solidarity don’t even know it?  It’s not like SNAP recipients are getting a notice saying “Meghan Davis is voluntarily living off the equivalent of your benefit this week.”  And even if they did, would that really make a difference in their lives?  What would their response be?  I would think something along the lines of, Whoopdie doo!

As it turns out, I have actually gotten some positive response from people who do receive SNAP benefits and that encourages me that it is a worthwhile endeavor but still…  I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that the SNAP challenge is a fruitless exercise to alleviate the guilt of privilege.

I suppose the primary purpose is to raise awareness.  But does my awareness really need to be raised?  I mean, it’s not like I’ve advocated for the cuts to the benefits.  I already support all our social safety nets.  I already think we should be doing more, not less to help those in need in our country.  I already consider the rates of homelessness, poverty, hunger and malnutrition in this—the wealthiest of countries—to be a shameful scandal.  It’s not my awareness that needed to be raised.  It’s the members of Congress whose awareness needs to be raised.  They should be taking the SNAP Challenge.  It’s the 1% whose awareness needs to be raised, particularly those who spend thousands, even millions of dollars in the political realm to fight tooth and nail to make sure they can pay the fewest taxes possible.  They, the 1%, the ½%, they are the ones who should be taking the SNAP Challenge.  I don’t need to have my awareness raised.  And even if I did need my awareness raised, I don’t have the power to make the difference.

But I accepted the challenge, without knowing exactly why.  I planned my monotonous menu for the week.  Same thing every day:  oatmeal for breakfast, lentils and rice for lunch, beans and rice on a bed of spinach for dinner.  Maybe a couple carrots.  An orange and an apple for snack.  And I can tell you, I was hungry.  I was hungry all week.  I would eat a meal and I was still hungry.  I ate every grain of rice out of the dish.  Literally. Every grain.  And I was still hungry.  I lost 4.5 pounds. (I’m not sure I recommend this as a diet—too low calorie, too low protein and unsustainable—and who wants to eat the exact same thing every day?  Who wants to live off beans and rice?)  Actually, I was only hungry until Friday night.  I still had $5.13 left to spend so I went to Winco and bought some quinoa in bulk—I was out of rice and quinoa is a higher protein, though more expensive, alternative to rice.  And, the most exciting thing:  I bought some popcorn (also bulk) and a small bottle of vegetable oil.  (Popcorn is actually one of my favorite foods.  If I had to choose just one food that would be the only food I would eat for the rest of my life, I would choose popcorn.)  That night I had a batch of popcorn and for the first time all week, I didn’t feel hungry.

I was thinking about food all week:  When do I get to eat next?  What will I eat next? I’m hungry…  How do people live this way?

Can you imagine trying to work, trying to take care of everyday life, trying to be a productive member of society when you can barely get your mind off your stomach?  Can you imagine trying to concentrate on your school work if the growling of your tummy is drowning out your teacher’s voice?  Can you imagine being a parent and having to worry about where your child’s next meal is coming from or whether it will be enough or having to send your child to school hungry?  Rebecca is a friend[ii] of mine who also participated in the challenge and kept a daily blog.   Rebecca has children.  For the challenge, she figured if she were on food stamps her kids would be getting free lunches so she let them continue to buy their lunches during the week.  But she realized the added burden school vacations place on families who rely on free school lunches.  What do they do during breaks?  Spend much of their days in lines at food banks?  Spend much of their days hungry?  Can you imagine?

I have a pretty good imagination.  Yet, I cannot imagine these things.  After one week living on a food stamp budget, I still can’t imagine it.  Because it was all by choice.  I chose to eat less than $27.56 worth of food last week.  And while it certainly wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pleasant, while I grew tired of the same food day in and day out, while I longed for some delicious organic produce, while I heard the siren call of junk food that normally doesn’t hold any appeal for me—it was all by choice.  I knew it was only for a week.  I knew that if I blew it, if for any reason I chose to throw in the towel, I could go to Fred Meyer and go crazy.  I could fill my cart with organic produce, protein powder, nuts, quinoa, vegan frozen pizza and other expensive, yummy vegan food.  (Yes, there is such thing as yummy vegan food.)  If I wanted to buy more than I could technically afford, I could just put it on my credit card.  I can have whatever my little heart—or more to the point, my little taste buds—desire.

As a sidebar, I’d like to address what some people might be wondering: why are obesity and poverty so closely linked?  After all, I lost weight on the SNAP Challenge.  Of course, I’m not an expert but here are a few thoughts.  For one, I lost weight because I was determined to eat as healthily as I possibly could.  This meant being hungry.  This meant eating the same thing every day.  But more importantly, I was able to stick to a healthy diet because I have the time, energy, knowledge and passion to do so.  If I were working two minimum wage jobs and raising kids, I doubt I would have had the mental or physical energy required to make and execute a healthy menu for the week.  Also, I had access to Grocery Outlet and Winco—two very low cost stores.  Not everyone has access to stores like these.  Many live in “food deserts” with the closest grocery store many miles away.  Often times the closest stores have poor selection and high prices.  Many do not have transportation to go to these stores easily, if at all.  Finally, I was able to eat healthy on the limited budget for one week.  But after several weeks, months, or years, mac & cheese, ramen, and other unhealthy, processed but filling, satisfying and easy options would begin to look pretty appealing.

Recently, Linda Tirado, a woman who self-identifies as poor wrote an essay “This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense”.  The piece is brutally honest, more than a little disheartening but extremely enlightening.  While the entire essay is worth reading (if you do read it, beware there is a smattering of profanity), here just a little of what Tirado explains about food choices:

“When I got pregnant the first time, I was living in a weekly motel. I had a minifridge with no freezer and a microwave. I was on WIC. I ate peanut butter from the jar and frozen burritos because they were 12/$2. Had I had a stove, I couldn’t have made beef burritos that cheaply. And I needed the meat, I was pregnant.”

Later she writes:

“I know how to cook. I had to take Home Ec to graduate high school. Most people on my level didn’t. Broccoli is intimidating. You have to have a working stove, and pots, and spices, and you’ll have to do the dishes no matter how tired you are or they’ll attract bugs. It is a huge new skill for a lot of people. That’s not great, but it’s true. And if you [mess] it up, you could make your family sick….  It makes more sense to get food that you know will be palatable and cheap and that keeps well. Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up? We have very few of them.[iii]

Back to my initial question:  what’s the point?  Why do the SNAP Challenge?

Because the SNAP Challenge got me thinking about it.  It got me talking about it.  I’m talking about it to you now, sharing my gleanings (and you get to learn what I learned without actually having to do the challenge!)  And I’m going to keep talking about it, with God’s help.  And I will be in solidarity, not just in my thoughts, not just in my heart, but in my life.

Because I realized that it’s not true that I’m not the one whose awareness needs to be raised.  It’s not true that I’m not the one with the power to make a difference.  I do have the power.  We all have the power and when we use that power and work for change we partner with God in the in-breaking of the Reign of Christ.  We are to partner with Christ in giving light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.  We are to follow Christ’s light as it guides our feet into the way of peace.  We are help to make Christ’s Reign a reality here and now.  Because the Reign of Christ isn’t just a spiritual realm.  It isn’t some pie in the sky by and by when we die.  It is here.  It is now.  But I cannot enter the Reign of Christ unless you do.  We cannot enter the Reign of Christ unless everyone does.  We cannot fully realize the Reign of Christ spiritually until the basic physical, human needs are met for all.  God Incarnate came to Earth, took on the flesh of a human being showing us that our human flesh, our bodies, our entire beings mean something.  They are important.  They have value.  They are not separate from or inferior to our spiritual selves.  We cannot fully realize the Reign of Christ until all God’s children have access to the good things of Christ’s Reign—nourishing food, adequate housing, meaningful work, living wage, medical care, safety, peace, wholeness, the gifts of heaven, the gifts of earth, the gifts of God that God desires and yearns for us all, all God’s beloved children.  For you, for me, for each one of us lovingly created in God’s own image.  This is my prayer.  May it be so.


[i] Read the more about the PC(USA) SNAP Challenge at http://www.presbyterianmission.org/apps/hunger/food-stamp-challenge/

[ii] You can read Rebecca Barnes’s blog here:  http://www.pcusa.org/blogs/eco-journey/2013/11/21/advent-hunger/

[iii] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linda-tirado/why-poor-peoples-bad-decisions-make-perfect-sense_b_4326233.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009 (profanity warning)

SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge: some links for how you can help and learn more

Send a letter to your Senators and Representative and/or sign the letter through the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness found here:

http://www.capwiz.com/pcusa/issues/alert/?alertid=63005536&type=CO

Read the more about the PC(USA) SNAP Challenge:

http://www.presbyterianmission.org/apps/hunger/food-stamp-challenge/

Read Rebecca Barnes’s blog about her SNAP Challenge experience here:

http://www.pcusa.org/blogs/eco-journey/2013/11/21/advent-hunger/

Read Linda Tirado’s essay “Why Poor People’s Bad Desciions Make Perfect Sense” here: (If you do read the article, and I hope you will, be warned there is a smattering of profanity.)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linda-tirado/why-poor-peoples-bad-decisions-make-perfect-sense_b_4326233.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

Here’s a blog from a woman taking the challenge for six months with her family, vowing to eat only “real” food.

http://wholesomemommy.com/real-food-on-a-food-stamp-budget-the-challenge-begins/

Just for fun, try the yummy recipe for lentils I ate all week (it really is yummy):  http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recipe/lentil-chili

I skipped the red bell pepper (they’re pretty pricey and I don’t think necessary for the recipe, I couldn’t tell the difference without).

I also skipped the cilantro which is nice and all, but again, I don’t think it’s “make or break” for the recipe. (FYI if you do buy cilantro– I used to always end up throwing most of my cilantro away because it goes bad after about a day but then I discovered you can prolong the “life” by cutting off the bottoms of the stems and keeping it in a cup of water in the fridge. It lasts for weeks, but you should probably change the water periodically…)

You can use any broth and it would probably save even more money to use bouillon instead of broth (which for some reason I didn’t think of until after the fact).

I was able to find chipotle tomatoes at Grocery Outlet (in the organic/natural section) so I didn’t have to bother with the chili powder the recipe calls for.

The recipe makes about 16 one-cup servings or 8 two-cup servings. I eat it on brown rice. I got most of the ingredients at Grocery Outlet and figured with 1 cup servings + rice it came out to less than 50 cents/serving. Pretty good deal! And, as I mentioned, I think it’s really yummy…

Hope you like it!

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Dramaturg Turned Pastor

As some of you may know, I have a masters in theatre history and criticism and had a previous (albeit brief) career in theatre as a dramaturg.  (Quick definition of a dramaturg:  the nerdy side of theatre—the bridge between academic and practical theatre doing research for productions, writing program notes for audiences, sitting through the rehearsal process trying to keep objective for the purpose of giving helpful feedback to the director and/or playwright.)

The incomparable Michael Bigelow Dixon was my dramaturgy mentor with whom I worked at Actors Theatre of Louisville.  He’s doing research for an article on how theatre training prepares people for other careers and recently asked for my thoughts on the topic from my perspective as a dramaturg turned pastor.  Interestingly, after my last session with my spiritual director I had been thinking about how similar a spiritual director is to a dramaturg.  Here are my thoughts…

When I was in high school, I confided in a pastor that I thought I might be called to ministry, but I was conflicted because I also wanted to be an actor.  I thought these two loves were diametrically opposed, but she assured me they weren’t.  I never really understood what she meant until I was on the threshold of exiting the theatre world and moving into ministry.

As anyone who’s taken a theatre history class knows, Western theatre and religion have shared roots.  (The theatre historian will tell you that religion flows out of theatre, the religious historian will say that theatre flows out of religion.  Either way…)  So it shouldn’t be surprising that my training in theatre, specifically dramaturgy, has informed my ministry in multiple capacities.

The first and most obvious connection is the worship service.  As Christian theologian Søren Kierkegaard posited, the worship service is a kind of theatrical performance with all participants—preacher, musicians and congregation—as actors and God as audience.  My theatre training assists in my ability to create a worship space and plan a worship service and sermon with a theme and flow that tell the story of the worship service much as a play.

Naturally, the literary aspect of dramaturgy translates directly to biblical scholarship and interpretation.  Additionally, my theatre background is certainly beneficial to my sermon writing and delivery.  Occasionally I do “first person” sermons, taking on characters in the scripture.  These are well received by my congregation (many have told me these sermons are their favorites.)

Finally, I’ve found my dramaturgical skills of observation and analysis helpful in most aspects of ministry, particularly pastoral care and counseling.  While many seminarians and new pastors are challenged by simply listening to those seeking counseling and tend to talk too much and/or try to solve problems, after years of sitting through rehearsals as a dramaturg—observing and speaking only when necessary—I have never had any difficulty with this facet of ministry.

And of course, working at Actors Theatre of Louisville, churning out newsletter articles and program notes prepared me well for the schedule of weekly worship services and sermons.  It’s like a newsletter deadline every week!

These are just the connections of which I am most aware, though I’m sure there are more that I have overlooked.

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“Movin’ to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches …”

Peaches are not my favorite fruit. Correction: peaches have never been my favorite fruit … until this summer. For some reason, I just can’t quit eating peaches this summer.

Many of you know that one of my spiritual disciplines is to eat (as much as is possible) seasonally, locally, organically and sustainably. That means that I spend a lot of time at farmer’s markets in the summer, that I buy more than I need and that – like a little squirrel – I store things up for the winter. Already my pantry is full of luscious fresh frozen fruits, fire-engine red homemade tomato sauce canned in Mason jars, and perfectly preserved zucchini and peppers.

The store of foodstuffs that I have carefully “put by” (as we say in Southern Illinois) is a bit deceiving. You wouldn’t know from looking in my freezer or pantry that we’re experiencing one of the worst droughts on record. You wouldn’t realize that, despite a faithful regime of watering, my garden has not been as productive as I had hoped and, frankly, expected. You wouldn’t know, just by looking at my well-stocked winter provisions, that I am worried about the implications of this drought on food prices and the lives of those whose economic status is fragile at best and perilous at worst.

But then there is the paradox of peaches.

My tomato plants are limping along, my zucchini plants look great but aren’t producing much, and the beans were baked before they ever really got started. But the peaches are amazing!

It turns out that, in dry years, the fruit is always sweeter and the flavor is more concentrated. It’s sort of the fruit trees’ way of coping with the heat and the lack of rain.

Oh, that we would model our own coping strategies after the fruit trees, so that when faced with adversity, we would become a sweeter and more concentrated version of ourselves!

I have NOT been noticing an increase in sweetness lately as the sluggish economy continues to worry us, and political campaigns at every level are in full swing. But, as these local peaches find their way into supermarkets around the nation, maybe they will work their magic upon us.

As summer turns to fall and we take stock of this year’s harvest, may you become more and more deeply aware of God’s abundance. May you dive into the sweetness of the season, and get caught with it dripping down your chin!

 

(The lyrics above are from a song by “The Presidents of the United States of America” that was released while I was in my twenties. I use it as the title of my reflection, because it is always the song that is running through my head while I am savoring fresh peaches!)

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Get Used to Disappointment

Like most people, I’ve faced a lot of disappointment in my lifetime.  I feel like I’m pretty used to it.  Unfortunately, it seems like I’ve been handed more than my fair share lately.  Some of these disappointments have been major life-sized disappointments, some have been minor messing-up-my-day disappointments.  Some have been somewhere in between.

Yesterday I had an “in between” disappointment.  Even though, in the grand scheme of things, this disappointment won’t even be a blip on the radar screen, for some reason, today, even more than yesterday, it feels like a big deal.

Maybe we have a finite amount of ability to hack disappointment.  Sure, over time, it can be replenished, but if we have too many disappointments too close together, our ability-to-hack-it tank gets emptied out.  Over the past couple months I coped through a couple major disappointments with a certain amount of grace and stoicism (I like to think so, anyway).  But in doing so I depleted my ability-to-hack-it tank and now I’m left with nothing but brownies and chips from the church kitchen.  (Why people?  Why do you leave tempting food in the kitchen?)

I used the handy dandy concordance in my Bible to find something useful to get me through.  Expecting to find lots of inspiring references under “disappoint” (Psalms, anyone?) there was but one:  Romans 5: 5.  Flipping to it, I found I’d marked this lovely passage (gotta love a good long Pauline sentence):  …we also boast of our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  (In case anyone was wondering, here’s a hint to the origin of my character.  Heaven knows, I’ve got character in spades…)

I know that on the grand scheme of things, I’ve got it pretty good.  World-wide, I’m a one percenter.  Even by US standards, I’ve got it pretty good, so I question my right to even be moping and whining at all.  And yet, when hopes and dreams are shattered, it’s gonna hurt, regardless.  But hurt and disappointment do not get the last word.  My ability-to-hack-it tank will be refilled and I’ll live hack another disappointment.

Take it away, Paul:  …hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

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Jumping Off the Side of the Pool

A few months ago, I witnessed a mother with a young girl at a pool.  The mother was trying to get the daughter to jump off the side into the mother’s arms in the pool.  The daughter was afraid.  The mother assured her, “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.  I’m never going to let anything happen to you.  You know that, don’t you?”  And I wanted to yell, “Liar!  Liar!”  (a la Valerie, Miracle Max’s wife in The Princess Bride)  True, mother, you probably won’t let any harm come to your daughter in this moment when she jumps into the pool, but you will not be able to save her from anything bad happening to her ever in her life.  So don’t tell her you’re never going to let anything happen to her.  Don’t lead her to believe that she will never have anything to be afraid of.  Don’t lead her to believe she’ll make it through life without anything bad ever happening to her.  I wished she had said, “Don’t be afraid.  I’ll catch you.  Trust me.” 

Living a life of faith doesn’t earn us a protective shield against bad stuff happening to us.  God never promised, “I’m never going to let anything happen to you.”  Jesus is exhibit A for that.  And faith doesn’t cancel out fear.  Even with the strongest faith, there’s still plenty in this world that is fear-worthy.  But God does promise that the bad stuff doesn’t get the last word.  And faith in that promise is what helps us cope with the bad stuff.  Faith in that promise helps to prevent us from being paralyzed by our fear.  Faith in that promise is what helps us jump of the side of the pool when God says, “Don’t be afraid.  I’ll catch you.  Trust me.*” 

*Can’t resist the gratuitous nephew story here.  A couple years ago when my nephew was probably about 4 years old, I was trying to convince him of something and I said, “Trust me.  I’m a pastor.”  He thought it was hysterical (though he didn’t really have a clue what it meant) and repeated several times over the next couple days.  “Twust me.  I’m a pastaw.” (he couldn’t quite say his R’s back then…)

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Duck, Duck, Goose

There used to be a pair of white geese at Lake Sacajawea.   One of the geese had funky wings.  I’m not sure if the goose had been in some kind of an accident or what, but several feathers on each wing went the wrong way.  The goose didn’t seem to mind, though I am told it was known to attack small children, so maybe it did mind…

A few months ago, I noticed the funky-winged goose was missing.  The first time or two when I saw just one white goose, I didn’t think much of it.  I thought the other goose must be around somewhere.  But eventually I realized that the funky-winged goose was… no longer with us.  And I felt bad for the other goose, now all alone.

But the other goose is no longer singing, “O Solo Mio.”  In fact, the other goose has a whole new family.  Mother Goose, as I now call her, seems to have adopted a brood of ducklings.  Not only that, but she seems to be co-parenting with a mother duck.  Now, I’m no water fowl expert, but the number of ducklings seem to out number the number of ducklings any one duck would have.  Which leads to me to believe that Mother Duck had her own babies, then some other babies became orphaned (I try not to think about the particulars of how that might have happened) and Mother Goose adopted them and somehow Mothers Duck and Goose joined forces.

Sometimes nature has a way of reminding what it means to be humane.  It doesn’t matter to the ducklings that Mother Goose is indeed a goose and not a duck, much less their mother.  Doesn’t matter to Mother Goose that the ducklings are not her babies.  And Mother Duck doesn’t mind hanging out with someone else’s babies and a goose.  They’re just all one big happy family regardless of the differences that might otherwise keep them apart.  Isn’t that what family is about?  Isn’t that what church is about?

Here you can see Mother Duck, as well as Mother Goose and the gang…

Mother Goose and her ducklings. Thanks to Barb Berger for providing the pics!
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Time to Let Adam Marry Steve

Three years ago yesterday was my first day at Longview Presbyterian Church.  For reasons unrelated to this anniversary, yesterday was also the first time I donned a clerical collar.  In the Presbyterian branch of the Church, collars aren’t as common as for our brothers and sisters in other denominations.  In fact, I don’t think I even knew Presbyterians “did that” until I saw it for the first time when I was well into my twenties.  In some more formal churches, pastors wear them for Sunday worship.  Some, especially young and/or female, wear them on official business, such as hospital visits, to help stake their pastoral authority.  But in my small town, casual church, I’ve never felt the need to wear one.  My mom bought me a collar and the appropriate shirt for my ordination, and it remained in the original packaging until yesterday.  Considering I’d never even tried the shirt on, it was lucky for me that it actually fit.

So why did I finally slip that funky little piece of plastic into my shirt collar?  Just like a young female pastor making a hospital visit, I wanted to be sure to be identified as a member of the clergy.  I was attending an interfaith prayer breakfast kicking of a march from Vancouver to Olympia in support of marriage equality.  I, and all the other clergy in attendance, wanted to be an unmistakable witness in support of love, not hate.  We wanted to make sure that those claiming to be God’s mouthpiece for discrimination would not be the only representation of the God’s faithful seen by the public.  We wanted to get the word out that God loves all God’s children, without exception.

I was one of several clergy invited to speak that the breakfast yesterday.  Whenever I see a long list of speakers, especially clergy, I anticipate some long, boring, speeches.  But I was wrong.  Everyone who spoke did so beautifully.  I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of such a wonderful event.  Here is my contribution:

I remember a self-esteem poster from high school, I think it had a picture of an orangutan and said, “God made me and God doesn’t make mistakes.”  [Yes, it was a public high school.  Things were different back then…]  Though modern science and psychology affirm that people are born into homosexuality—God made them that way—to say that members of the LGBT community should not love who they love or they should not marry who they love, or to tell them that they should settle for domestic partnership, a “separate but equal” status is to say, “God made a mistake.”  Not only is this hurtful and discriminatory to an entire group of people, but is offensive to God.  I believe in marriage equality because I believe that God doesn’t make mistakes.

The late Shirley Guthrie, the highly renowned professor of systematic theology at Columbia Seminary identifies the “rule of love” as one of the rules of Biblical interpretation.  Guthrie quotes the Second Helvetic Confession “we hold that interpretation of scripture to be orthodox and genuine which agrees with…the rule of faith and love” (chap 2).  Guthrie continues, “An often forgotten rule, [the rule of love] is based on the fact that the fundamental expression of God’s will is the twofold commandment to love God and neighbor.  Any interpretation of scripture is wrong that shows indifference toward or contempt for any individual or group inside or outside the church.  [emphasis mine] All right interpretations reflect the love of God and the love of God’s people for all kinds of people everywhere, everyone included and no one excluded.”  In a similar vein, Rev. Jack Rogers, a prominent figure in my denomination who had a turn around on “the issue,” came to see that “We in the church are not living according to the ideals of our Savior and Sovereign, Jesus Christ, when we discriminate unjustly against any group of people in our midst.”

Jesus taught that the greatest commandments are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul, and our neighbor as our selves.  Scripture tells us God is love.  No qualifications.  What then, can possibly be objectionable about committed, monogamous love between two people?  I believe in marriage equality because I believe God is love.

I believe that strong, loving, committed marriages strengthen our society.  I believe that children raised by loving parents strengthen our society.  I believe that healthy, loving families give us a glimpse of the Reign of God.  And I believe that love, not anatomy, is the foundation of a healthy family.  I believe in marriage equality because I believe in family values.

And if all those reasons weren’t enough, I believe in marriage equality because I have too many dear friends, wonderful couples, in long-lasting, committed, monogamous relationships who would have been married years ago if they only could.  I had the joy, honor and privilege to attend the wedding of two beloved friends in October 2008 only to have Proposition 8 break our hearts weeks later.  Thanks be to God for the work the Holy Spirit has done this week in the court ruling in California and in the votes of the Washington state legislature.  I eagerly await the day when marriage equality is a reality for all.  May it be so.

Of course, my statement was quite typically Presbyterian.  It was very intentionally crafted, I used a manuscript (is it still a “manuscript” if it’s on an iPad?) and, of course, included academic quotes.  Probably my favorite part of the event was when I sat down after my statement.  There was a twenty-something guy sitting next to me and he leaned over and said to me, “That’s why we love our Presby friends.”

It’s so appropriate to have participated in this event on the anniversary of my call with the first time wearing a collar, in support of marriage equality.  After all, my position on equality for the LGBT community, specifically in terms of ordination standards, was an obstacle—albeit surmountable—to my own ordination.

I look forward to putting on my collar on Saturday when I will join the march for the Kelso/Longview portion.  I will attend events and I will speak on a panel in support of marriage equality, as a witness to God’s love and grace for all.  And I will continue to slip that funky little piece of plastic into my shirt collar in support of social justice whenever, wherever, however I can.  Amen.

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Creature Nature

A new dog in the house has me thinking about “creature nature” these days.  Remmie is a lab mix we adopted from the shelter; he is mostly loveable but he does have his moments.  Like this morning when I dared to leave him to himself long enough to take a shower, and he put on a blues concert of mournful howls in our front window, making sure the whole block could hear his tale of woeful neglect.  He will occasionally growl and swear at us when he feels he is not being fed or walked or played with promptly enough.  When I move throughout the house, Remmie is almost always under foot; he seems to sleep with one eye open so he can make sure he follows me from room to room.  He’s a pest at times, but I also know what this behavior is about—his thirst for attention, his desire to be cared for, his dependence on us as his caretakers and his need for reassurance that he will not be abandoned.  Most of the time these creaturely qualities of Remmie’s are also what makes him easy to love—he’s loyal, affectionate,  and obedient (not to mention awfully cute.)

He reminds me of the words of one of my favorite Psalms:  O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures…These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.   When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.  When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground (Psalm 104:24, 27-30 NRSV).”  The writer of this Psalm has imagined all sorts of creatures going about their creaturely business and lifting their faces to God for the provision they require:  various birds are mentioned, as are goats, and cattle, young lions, deep sea creatures and “creeping things innumerable…living things both small and great (v.25).”  People are there too, right in the middle of the list; right in the middle of the menagerie, seeking attention, care, and reassurance from the one who has promised to provide.  We share in the delight of receiving God’s bounty and the dismay of feeling at times that God has turned away.  It’s part of our creature nature.  Perhaps we don’t often think of ourselves this way, more inclined to consider ourselves masters over creation and our own destiny.  But as the weather begins to turn, and we’re stocking our pantry with what remains of summer’s bounty to sustain us through the barren season, I’m reminded again of my dependence on what the hand of God provides.  I’m awakened again to the needs we all share, as human and non-human neighbors.  And I’m reassured by the promises of Scripture and the gracious worshipping communities to which I belong that the One who loves me will never leave me.  I may not be as vocal about it, but it’s an assurance I need as much as Remmie does.  I suspect we all do.

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Evening Constitutional

As I walked in the on again off again rain this evening, suddenly there was a loud crackling, almost like fire crackers, and then, a huge branch, actually, half a tree fell down across the street not far from where I was. The tree stood between a highly traveled street and a school field where children of all ages were practicing soccer and yet, miraculously, no one was hurt. No one but the tree, who I regret to relate is unlikely to survive. And after everyone screamed and ran to make sure no one was hurt (which I already knew since I saw the tree fall), I turned to continue my walk and saw a huge, full, super bright rainbow.

That is all.

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Oh, for a church like Charlie’s

On Monday morning, I sit at the counter at Cheap Charlie’s, as has become my ritual.  Usually my husband is with me but he’s out of town this week, so I am here alone.  But not really.  I never really feel alone in this place.  Kristy the server gives me a hearty greeting and pours my coffee.  She asks if I want the usual.  “Not sure…How’s your strawberry pancake special?”  I know I can count on an honest assessment.  “Lookin’ real good today,” she says.  That’s what I’ll have.  While I’m waiting for my order, we catch up a bit.  She tells me about her other job tending bar in another town, I talk about my week ahead, we commiserate a little about commuting come winter and a couple other patrons drop in their two cents.  Some of this conversation takes place with Kristy half way across the restaurant.  This morning she is waiting on half a dozen full tables and carrying on as many conversations all at once, without missing a beat.  Personal details are exchanged but the talk here is always communal in some ways.  Even the youngest patrons discover this; in one corner, a couple coos and makes faces to cheer the crying toddler peeping over her mother’s shoulder at an adjacent table.

There is nothing in the aesthetics, inside or out, that would particularly entice one to come to Cheap Charlie’s (unless one would call a giant concrete pig on the roof enticing.)  When my husband and I first came, we weren’t looking to become regulars; we had never been genuine Cheers-type regulars anywhere before.  But we had heard about this place from trusted friends, we loved the down-to-earth, come-as-you-are atmosphere, and Kristy and company took a friendly, non-intrusive interest in us from the beginning.  Before we could name the major streets in our new town, we found ourselves drifting back week after week; before we knew what was happening, we were part of a family we didn’t even know we were looking for.

And since I’m in the business of helping people find their place in a family of faith, I’ve been reflecting on Cheap Charlie’s particular drawing power, and dreaming of what the church could learn from a place like this.  Imagine a church where:

–You could come as you are.  I mean really come as you are, as in just rolled out of bed, just came off the farm or the construction site, just stepped in from your morning jog.

–People are real, and they present their establishment in an honest way.  They know they’re not perfect, but they’re not ashamed to be who they are.  They know what they do well and what needs work, and they’re not afraid to answer your questions.

–People take an active interest in your life, who you are and what’s important to you, without subjecting you to an inquisition.  They try to remember significant things about you from one week to the next.  They also know when to give you a little space.  When you’re gone for awhile, they let you know you’re genuinely missed, without laying on the guilt.

–You can tell the people already there are happy to be there; they’re enjoying themselves and each other.  They have a sense of humor and they don’t seem to be in a hurry to leave.

–All kinds of people from all walks of life frequent this place, all seeking and bringing their own particular flavor.

–You come away nourished in body and spirit, grateful to be alive and part of the human community, ready to tackle the work which is yours to do.

What would it take to accomplish this?  Apparently a fancy building and an expansive “menu” are not required; you can offer standard wholesome fare in an aging edifice and still attract a fair-sized following.  It appears to be a question of spirit.  Or Spirit.  Oh that more of our churches would be grasped and shaken awake but such a Spirit, that more of the hungry may find a home.

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Tony, Frank and Jude

I would like to write a blog entry today.
But something is missing.
 
I would like to inspire with profound spiritual insights.
But I just can’t find it.
 
It’s not that I have nothing to say.
I’ve thought of wonderful topics for blog posts over the last few weeks.
I just can’t seem to remember them. 
They are, to paraphrase as Shakespeare in Love, safely locked up…
In my mind. 
If you can call it that.
 
So instead of a fabulous post about God’s grace or some such thing…
I offer this:
 
A prayer for the missing idea.
A prayer for the lost inspiration.
A prayer for the slightly-singed mind.
May God’s grace and peace be with us today…
And always.
 

(St. Anthony—patron saint of lost things.  St. Francis de Sales—patron saint of writers.  St. Jude—patron saint of lost causes)

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Shoeless M.O.

I do not wear shoes when I preach.

It started out as a theological statement: that in worship we come into God’s presence, just as Moses did at the burning bush. And in recognizing this space as holy ground, we (like Moses) remove our shoes.

But removing my shoes is not an empty theological gesture that has no consequences. On the contrary! Every week, I remove my shoes and allow my feet to be visible to all who would examine them. (And my feet are not traditionally something I am excited to show off.)

Moses removed his shoes … and then, in his encounter with God, went on to demonstrate both his best and his worst natures. So, too, do I find that God’s call utilizes my best gifts, while challenging me in those areas where I need the most improvement.

In an act that is both freeing … and slightly unsettling … I remove my shoes each week and allow the less-than-polished parts to be visible. Barefootedness is no longer just a theological signpost; it has become a continual reminder and my weekly, intentional consent to allow my vulnerabilities to be apparent, rather than hiding behind a polished facade.

This week, as Shoeless Mo (Exodus 3) appears in the lectionary, I am particularly cognizant of the unusual places in our lives that God is at work. And I am oh-so-thankful at the opportunity to remove my shoes and come into God’s presence.

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Fall’s My Spring

Fall’s my spring.  I’ve never mused for too long about why, but I’ve known it to be true for as long as I can remember.

What I mean by that is, autumn is the season that ignites my blood, that energizes my imagination, that puts me in touch with the wonder of being in the world like no other season.  I do adore the actual spring, the shedding of coats and the dressing of trees, but it doesn’t have quite the same visceral tug for me that fall does; the tug that I’ve become aware of these past few weeks as the slightest chill has crept into the early morning breeze, and I open the door every other day or so to a front lawn blanketed in birch leaves.

Maybe it’s because I’m a bookish type and fall always meant new books, new lessons, new fields of knowledge to excavate.  That, and the hope of reinventing oneself with new clothes, new hair, new classmates.  With the falling leaves, the chance (however slim) of dropping some of last year’s uncool was offered again.  And while a good measure of my personal trials and private joys took similar shape year after year, change did happen, by golly—and there is probably no more telling record of this than the photos my parents took of my brothers and me on the front step every first day of school.  I was born in the fall; and somehow, through whatever disappointments the year now waning might have brought, autumn always has a way of stripping me of my cynicism and awakening the promise of rebirth.

Autumn is dream time.  My Midwestern neighbors have helped me become more aware of this.  The dog days of summer will still be panting along with us for awhile, but one of these nights the temperature will dip into the low 60s and people will wake up full of praise for “good sleeping weather.”  This phrase was new to me when I moved here, but how true it is—there is something so satisfying about pulling up a blanket on a crisp, chilly night and harvesting dreams that have had time to ripen.

What will I let fall like a leaf this autumn?  What will you?  What new way of being will we try on?  What new insights will befall us when muggy days give way to nights of cool clarity?

Blessed be the season that brings rebirth in the midst of decay.  Thank goodness for another fall a’ coming.

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Mortified by God’s Love

Last week, while preparing a sermon about the E-word (evangelism), I explored some different reasons we (myself included) are so uncomfortable with evangelism.  I noted that proclaiming the Gospel (evangelism) isn’t about CONVINCING people.  It’s simply about sharing with people this amazing truth: God loves you!  And sharing with them what that means to you—how you respond to God’s love.  Why would we keep that a secret?

I wondered, are we ASHAMED to be loved by God?  Are we EMBARRASSED to respond to God’s love?  That part didn’t make it into the sermon.  I axed it because I thought, “Surely people aren’t ashamed to be loved by God…”  But I wish I left it in because I repeated the phrase several times throughout, “God loves us.”  And whenever I said it, a palpable discomfort swept the sanctuary.  Every time I said, “God loves us” I could feel people squirming in their seats, avoiding eye contact.

And it occurred to me that in some way, there is something about acknowledging God’s love that is awkward for people.  Like in junior high when EVERYTHING your parents do is embarrassing.  (Well, honestly, not for me because it takes a lot to embarrass me, but) I remember a friend who had her parents bring her to school super early so that no one would see her parents drop her off.  There was nothing wrong with her parents or their car but for some reason she was simply mortified by the very existence of her parents.  Does God somehow fit into the same category as a dad mowing the lawn in his underwear?  Mom going to the grocery store in curlers?  Grandma giving you a big kiss and yelling, “I love you” as you run into the school hoping that no one knows that it is you she loves?

But it is you who God loves.  God loves you.  God loves you.  God loves you.  And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  Nothing to be embarrassed about.

Or is it that we just don’t really believe it?  For some of us, do we have such a low impression of ourselves that no matter how much we hear it, we just can’t fully buy in to the notion of God loving us no matter what.  Maybe we don’t really believe that God can love us, flaws and all, and that there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s love and there’s nothing we can do to lose it.

Believe it!  It is you who God loves.  God loves you.  God loves you.  God loves you.  And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  Nothing to be embarrassed about.

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God’s Reign is like a garden full of weeds (?!)

When I finally got back to my garden after more than two weeks out of town, I was dismayed to find that weeds had completely taken over my plot.  Apparently, the weather we’re having this year is perfect for weeds, and not so great for vegetables.  It was so bad that I literally could not make out the plants in the sea of weeds.  I had to begin a long and painful task of weeding, being very careful not to “weed” plants that I intended to be growing (sadly, I was not always successful).  As I was toiling away early last week, I was reminded of this passage, not realizing that this passage was the lectionary for Sunday:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”  (Matthew 13:31-32), In Jesus’ context, mustard plants were weeds.  No one in their right mind would intentionally plant a mustard seed in a field.  It would take over the field, threatening your crop.  It would be like sowing a blackberry seed in your field.  So as I pulled weeds, lamenting the sorry state of my garden, I pondered this passage and honestly, I was a little irritated by it.  Why would Jesus liken the Kingdom of Heaven to a field full of dirty rotten weeds?

And Jesus “told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’”  (Matthew 13:33)  The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, a necessary but impure item that is not used in ritual bread.  Yeast used in a ridiculously large amount, so much that it would create more dough that the woman would be able to handle.  Just as I was having trouble handling the plot full of weeds.  “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”  (Matthew 13:44)  Kind of like the treasure of my plants, that were hidden in the field of weeds.  If only I could find them…

So what is Jesus saying here?   Why would he equate the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s Reign with things so undesirable and undignified as weeds and yeast?  Why would he say that it is a precious treasure hidden in a profane field?  Quite simply, because God’s Reign is as pervasive and unrelenting as weeds thriving a wet, cool summer.  God’s Reign is as bountiful as a ridiculously large amount of yeast, expanding dough to the point of overflowing the mixing bowl, kitchen and even the entire house.  Because God’s Reign, precious though it is, is hidden among us, in plane sight, in our everyday, regular lives.  And that is the Good News.  The Good News is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God is the Good News.

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Irises

The backyard of the home my husband and I moved into in February has a make-shift patio with a low rock wall around it, and along the wall a row containing several varieties of German bearded iris.  The blooms were magnificent, but the patio and wall had begun to tilt and crumble, and we determined the rocks needed to go—therefore, the irises needed a new home.  This wouldn’t take long, I figured, especially after the rain that left the soil nice and soft the Friday morning before Pentecost.

But it was much more arduous task than I’d imagined.  The bulbs are close to the surface of the soil, but the roots run deep.  These irises hadn’t been divided in some time, so they were stuck together in awkward clumps, with their backs (literally) against the wall, like kids at a middle school dance.  They were not easily moved.  Each one seemed to cling more stubbornly than the last.  I broke two cheap trowels in the effort before I went for better tools.

If only they knew, I thought.  If only I could help them understand that I was preparing to move them to a new place where they’d receive more light and more nourishment; that I was severing them from their tight clumps for the sake of their freedom, so they’d have room not only to thrive, but to generate more irises, as they were born to do.  (Each individual rhizome produces only one flower stalk of its own; then it devotes its energy to forming other rhizomes.)  But how could they discern my good intentions, while suffering the shock of being pried out of their home turf by the roots, separated forcibly from their siblings, given a cold bath, and left all vulnerable and exposed until their wounds scab over and they can be planted in new earth.  The experience is so jarring that some will not be ready to bloom again until spring after next.  Yes, try telling them, as they’re splayed out and shivering on the back dack, that this is a natural process, and all for their good; that I’m doing this because I care for them and find them beautiful and want to preserve their life; tell them that—not right away, but in a year or two perhaps—they’ll thank me for this.  That if I do nothing an leave them be, they will either consume all their resources and perish, or be crushed.

Are we so different?  If we know this about the rest of the natural world, that growth and rebirth and transformation often involve processes we’d consider harsh and disorienting if we were the object, why then do we assume that somewhere, or in some time long ago, or on some plane just beyond our reach, there exists a process of spiritual growth that is clear, clean, and pain-free?  Why do we imagine the apostles were so lucky?  The wind that blew through the house was a violent one, do we assume it didn’t sting?  Or that the tongues of fire resting on them didn’t burn?

The Holy Spirit did not come to make the process clean and smooth.  Mission is always messy!  The Holy Spirit comes with tools sharp enable the transplant of gospel hope from one frail, tangled, backed-up-against the wall, vulnerable human creature of clay to another.  The Holy Spirit may pluck us out of one hole only to have us dwell in a deeper one, so that—there is always this “so that”—so that men, women and children around us can learn what it means to live in God’s reign, where justice, love, mercy, grace, peace and abundance prevail.  Washing away the mud and muck of our lives has this purpose at heart.  Healing our wounds is for this reason, that we are better equipped to bear the gospel into the world as its witnesses.  Pentecost says we are the incarnation now.  Are we anxious?  You bet!

But one of the gifts we are given by the Spirit is to understand what irises can’t.  That we are cared for by a Master Gardener.  A Gardener who knows just what we need to be well-nourished, to bloom and flourish.  A Gardner who knows how much time we need to heal.  A Gardener that is patient enough to wait with us for the season in which we come into fullness.  A Gardener who knows the full glory of our potential and takes utter delight in the beauty of what we have to offer, and in the meantime is willing, with bent back and stained knees and sweaty brow for our sakes, to come right down in the mud where we are and tend to each of us with such precise and loving labor you’d think each of us were the only flower in the yard—and not one of 7 billion, equally precious.  If we knew where to look, we might be surprised to discover the soil of our circumstances under God’s fingernails, our grit rubbed into the callouses of God’s hands, and this Gardner would have it no other way.

We find ourselves anxious and undone, bewildered and afraid, and we long for a sign of the Spirit at work.  Who are we to say our fear itself is not the sign that something holy is at work in our midst, something glorious afoot, some sacred process of transformation having its slow, miraculous way with us?

The irises had no assurance of where they were being taken, only that they were being carried away by a force greater than them.  The apostles, the same.  At some point they all gave way to the unknown, let go, surrendered, let themselves be taken up.  At some point it seemed a greater risk to stay clumped and clinging where they were than to fall and follow in the direction of their fear.    No doubt they looked bulbous and clumsy as they began.  People said, “They are filled with new wine.”  God knows they were filled with something.  New life.

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Kicking good habits (it’s easier than you think)

I’ve been thinking a lot about habit forming lately.  Good habits.  Bad habits.  I think they say that it takes 28 days to form or break a habit.  I’m pretty sure it takes longer for me to form a good habit and less time to break a good one.  And bad habits?  Breaking them often seems an insurmountable task.

This blog, for instance.  I’m supposed to post a weekly entry.  Despite some reservations about my ability to do so, I was really consistent about it for the first few months.  I surprised myself by not missing a week, even when I was on vacation in March.  But then…  I gave myself a pass when I was on vacation in May.  The next week, it totally slipped my mind and here we are, a month has passed and finally I’m getting back to the keyboard, again with reservations knowing that when I go on study leave in July, I’m likely to fall off the wagon again.

But what does all this have to do with God?  Heck if I know.  If you can think of something, please post in the comments section.  (Just kidding.)  (Kind of.)

God knows this about us.  God knows that some of us (most of us?) have a hard time keeping “good” habits, and breaking the “bad” ones.  I don’t like to even use the terms “good” and “bad” habits because these terms can carry negative, moralistic and self-righteous connotations.  But there are “good” habits, those which benefit us and/or others just as there are “bad” habits that are harmful to us and/or others or, at the very least, prevent us from being our best possible selves.  Our true selves, worthy of our identities as children of God created in God’s image.  Because God desires us to be our best possible selves, God wants us to stick with the good habits and drop the bad ones.  For our own sakes.  For our own benefits.  God helps us and encourages us toward that which is good for us and away from that which harms us.

And, of course, the best news is, God loves us regardless.  Have you kicked a good habit?  That’s ok.  God still loves you and God will also help you to pick it up again.  Recently picked up a bad habit?  That’s ok, too.  God still loves you.  God helps us help ourselves, prodding us to do what is best for us and for those around us.  And God loves us all the while.

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Restoration

I’ve seen my share of flood and storm-damaged homes lately: buckled floors, moldy walls, soggy couches and ruined refrigerators.
At my own home, a leaky roof plus severe storms equals the removal and replacement of the ceiling in a couple of rooms.
In my work coordinating volunteers who come to help clean and repair flood-damaged homes, and in dealing with my own storm damage as well as my ongoing remodeling project, the question that must be answered again and again is:
Is it worth saving?
What can be restored? And what must be replaced?
As I tear out the ceiling in my family room, can I save the crown molding?
Are the water-damaged shelves able to be given new life?
If it can’t be saved, it gets torn out and thrown away. If it can be saved, it gets carefully removed, restored and replaced.
Tearing out things that won’t be saved is easy. Gently tending to the things that will be restored is slow, difficult, and tedious work.
During these times = when my hands move slowly and carefully and my brain races around for something to occupy it – I have often imagined what God’s work of restoration might look like.
Stripping away the varnish that seals off my heart.
Prying loose my damaged pieces.
Mending my broken places.
Making sure my framework is solid and sturdy.
I’m not sure why, but these imaginings give me comfort. I suppose it is the same comfort that I might have if the original carpenter who built my house came back to help me remodel it.

Posted in Meg Overstreet | Tagged , , , ,

High Water Marks

Just outside of town, the empty fields are ringed with trees that have been marked. You can see it even at a distance: a perfectly horizontal line marking every tree for miles.

It’s the high-water mark.

Above the line, foliage is green and growing. Below the line both bark and treeless branches are covered with a grayish-brown film like the haze left on the sides of a bathtub with a too-slow drain.

In a few days or weeks or months, the highwater mark will have faded. While images of the flood will remain lodged in this community’s living memory for quite some time, soon we will no longer be able to point and say, “The water got clear up to here!”

Every time I drive past these two-tone trees, I consider the high-water marks of life: the milestones or transitions or moments that marked both the beginning and the end.

Twenty years ago this month, I was graduating high school: a high-water mark, too be sure. In the fall, my twenty-year class reunion will be held – strangely enough – on the day of the my 38th birthday. There’s some strange irony in that.

In honor of life’s high-water marks, here is a quote from Scott Simon (of NPR). It reminds me that not all of life’s transitions can be marked by a cap and gown; not all of our beginnings /endings are moments for pomp and circumstance.

“Let life change you. You’ve worked hard and learned a lot. But if you live well, you’re going to know love, loss, confusion and failure—life’s truest teachers. Real life can shatter certainties like a delicate cup in a tornado. Keep learning. Be inconsistent. Don’t have a rich, full life only to wind up at 40 with the same convictions you had when you were 20. Let life in.” (Scott Simon on NPR)

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I Don’t Need a Thing

This week I’m preaching on Psalm 23, and in my preparation I found an interesting juxtaposition. The NRSV reads: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  The Message reads: “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.” 

There’s a big difference between the two … and it points to something I’ve noticed. Too often, I think we find ourselves resisting the ways in which God would care for us. We find ourselves saying the words of the paraphrase: “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.”

“God, you go on and take care of somebody who really needs you. I’m doing just fine. I don’t need a thing.”

In my interaction with folks in the area that have been affected by recent flooding, I’ve see a lot of examples of this resistance to being cared for. Too many folks resist help, resist supplies, put on a brave face and say they’re doing okay. “You give those things to someone who really needs them. I’m doing okay.” Or “we’ll be fine.”

We folks in rural areas are really good at care for others … but sometimes we’re not all that comfortable with having other people care for us.

“Oh, Pastor Meg, I don’t need to be on the prayer list. There are so many other people who need prayer more than I do.” OR

“Pastor Meg, I don’t want you to make a trip all the way down to Paducah just to see me in the hospital. You’ve got too many other things to do.”

To me, those things sound an awful lot like: God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.

Psalm 23 invites us to envision God as our shepherd: one who is with us and who is for us. But it also challenges us to give up our resistance to God’s shepherding care.  Psalm 23 challenges us to let our independence slip – ever so slightly – and to give ourselves permission to receive God’s care.

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When you reach the end of your rope

“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on!”

I’ve run across this saying a few times over the years, on t-shirts and cards and such.  It’s usually accompanied by a picture of a cute furry animal of some sort clinging to the end of the rope, looking comically frightened.  Somehow I don’t think I’m that cute and cuddly when I’m at the end of my rope.

But it sure feels like I’ve spent a lot of time there, over the years, if we think of the “end of the rope” as that place where one clings to the frayed edge of composure, one stressor away from a meltdown.  That used to be a predominant life pattern for me—tie-off an cling ‘til my fingers (and nerves) are raw, and then eventually collapse into an exhausted, weeping heap; until I could sufficiently regain my composure in order to set off in search of a new length of rope.

The ironic thing about those meltdowns is that I would fight tooth and claw to avoid them (I will not, I will not…), but once I finally did let go, I always felt better—cleansed, clear, refreshed, alive, able to laugh at myself. Invariably I would ask myself (for a little while) what all those knots had been protecting me from?  What exactly is the Great Big Deal about letting go of the rope?

Overtime, I’ve gained some courage in facing up to those things that fray my sense of peace and confidence, before I end up in a heap. This kind of self-reflecting is a hallmark of Clinical Pastoral Education (my previous field), but I’ve discovered it’s essential to my work in the parish.  My need to cling to composure and control not only makes me a pretty un-pastoral person when I let it accumulate, it also has much to teach me about the life of faith when I’m willing to get into it rather than try to stay on top of it.  For example, when I crack open the week’s lectionary texts and my reaction is “Ick. I don’t have a clue about what to say about any of these texts!” I’m often faced with a choice—do I plunge ahead with exegetical study and worship planning, tying knot after knot (after all, there’s no time to waste), or do I close the books, cut the cord, and allow myself to scuba-dive into the awful murk of my resistance.  (This is, I should point out, a little different then wallowing, although I’ve known wallowing to be precursor to the dive at times.)  Sometimes this dive takes a while.  Usually I see stuff I’d rather not know is down there.  Almost always, eventually, I emerge with a gift–a pearl of spiritual truth that hadn’t been as clearly visible to me before, and that’s usually where the sermon comes from.

But the sermon’s not really the point, as much as the fact that I am learning, slowly, to practice what I preach—to believe that the grace and mercy of God will meet me where I land and is enough to hold me up—really.  In fact, that’s pretty much how grace is
allowed to have its transforming way with me, soft and clumsy animal that I
am.  When I reach the end of my rope, and sometimes even long before when I feel another knot approaching—I’m learning more and more to let go.

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broken

A disciple asks the rebbe… “Why does Torah tell us to place these words upon your hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers… “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”

Sometimes the breaking is the result of one swift blow of a hammer. 
Sometimes it’s the ongoing, long-term pressure of a vise grip.
Sometimes it feels like our hearts have been broken to pieces.  Irreparably damaged. 
Sometimes it feels like our hearts have been broken so completely, for so long, that we may never again know what it feels like to be whole. 

 

Whatever the cause of your heartbreak, whether it is now healed with only a scar remaining or whether you sit in the ER waiting to be seen by the triage nurse, I pray that you will find comfort in knowing that it is in our brokenness that God’s Word falls into our hearts.  It is God’s love and the peace that surpasses all understanding that will make us whole again.
Posted in Meghan Davis | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Flower Power

I found my apartment on a gray, rainy, dismal day in January.  I moved in on a gray, rainy, dismal day in February.  Little did I know that, come spring, the tree outside my living room window, which I hardly even noticed due to its bare-nakeness, would explode into a giant beautiful mass of pink blossoms.  Since I live on the second floor, I have the full impact of this phenomenon.  That first April, I was amazed by the way, when the sun hit the tree just right, my entire living room was bathed in pink.

The next year, I looked forward to the blossoms but missed the peak as I was out of town for two weeks and returned to find the flowers replaced by the green leaves that follow.  This year, I eagerly anticipated their arrival.  Almost three weeks behind last year.  At one point, I was sure that a particularly hard rain had ruined this year’s crop but then…  it happened.  My window was once again filled with nature’s portrait of cotton candy.  And this year I got to enjoy the whole process:  from itty bitty pink buds to full blossoms to petals floating on the breeze, showering the sidewalk below.

I often catch myself wistfully musing, “I wish the tree could be in full blossom all year long…”  And then I realize, if my living room window were filled with pink every day of the year, I’d probably puke.  In fact, I probably wouldn’t have rented this apartment if that were the case.

I’ve never been one to subscribe to the whole idea that if bad things didn’t happen to us, we wouldn’t appreciate the good times…  To me, it leads to this vision of God, like those of Greek mythology, sitting up on Olympus, zapping us with difficulties just when our lives seem to be getting a little too blissful.  “Look how happy she is.  Maybe a little too happy.  I don’t think she appreciates how good she’s got it.  Better give her an ailment to battle…”

And yet…

It does seem that if everything were excellent all the time, I don’t think I would fully appreciate it.  It took the temporary loss of my right hand for me to fully appreciate the two, good, working hands I’d taken for granted. It took a foot problem for me to fully appreciate being able to walk without pain.  It takes bad to appreciate normal.  It takes normal to appreciate fabulous.  And as things gradually get better in my life, I do appreciate them, because I remember the truly crappy times.  And thanks the crappy times (which were once “normal”), and thanks to the not-so-crappy times that become the new normal, when everything is pink blossoms and rose tints, I’m able to recognize how beautiful and special it is.  And when it’s over, I treasure the memory while also valuing the boring old green leaves of the tree that will keep my apartment cool in the summer.  And looking forward to the next pink explosion, helps get me through the long, loooooong, gray, .rainy, dismal, bare-naked tree winters.

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Road to Nowhere

I tried. I really did.

I wanted to post a thoughtful reflection on this blog on Friday (which is my usual day to post) … but it’s as though my brain has gone all fuzzy. (It might be wrackspurts, but I don’t think so.)

Our blog is called Wholly (Holy) Ordinary … and we attempt to notice the holiness of ordinary moments. But as I look around at the floodwaters on every side, my brain just stops working.

This week – instead – I offer you a visual meditation. As I was taking these photos, the phrase “a road to nowhere” kept popping up in my head. Note that everywhere there is currently water in these photos, there is usually (completely) dry land.

(this is one of those tall roadside billboards)

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Six Words

A couple weeks ago, I was hearing a lot about the six word memoir on the radio (though for some reason, I am unable to find the recent stories/interviews online).  Apparently this is a format with a fabulous (likely apocryphal) origin.  The story begins with Ernest Hemingway in a bar (as any good Hemingway story does);  in a bar bet, Hemingway was challenged to write a six word novel.  Here it is:  For sale: baby shoes.  Never worn.

Six words.  A complete story.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this and have written and re-written my own memoir several times.  Here’s the best (fit for online publication) version:

dramaturg turned pastor.  runner turned…yogi?

But here’s my six word faith memoir:

Beloved child.  Forgiven sinner.  Redeemed.  Called.

What’s your six word memoir?

What’s your six word faith memoir?

[Wanna know more?  Google:  six word memoir

And/or check out this link:  http://www.npr.org/programs/totn/features/2008/02/memoir/gallery/]

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