Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Question on Funerals/Memorial Services/Celebrations of Life

I attended the memorial service of a friend today. She was marvelous, and the service was an apt remembrance of why we all loved her so much. Lots of music, some lovely reminiscences, the beautiful liturgy, many friends from different parts of her life. And good food at a reception afterwards.

The only slightly off note was a remembrance from a friend from her younger days, who went on and on and on and on. Unprepared, rambling, longer than most sermons...I could see the homilist getting nervous and wondering how he might gracefully bring the very long speech to an end. The other two remembrances were wonderful: poignant, loving, even theological, well prepared and delivered with brevity and grace.

And tomorrow I will be presiding at such a service, and I know there will be three remembrances from friends of the dearly departed. The widower has asked them to speak briefly. I wonder if I should have spoken to them, too...but I also wonder what I might have said to help ensure that they will be like the two remembrances that were so lovely today, rather than the one that made everyone squirmy. My liturgics prof said to avoid these eulogies at all costs, but that's easier said than done.

So, clergy pals out there, how do you address this?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Blehs

It is Friday, and cool and gray. I have worked my way through a mountain of work, of writing, of house stuff, and should feel very accomplished.

It all is for naught, because I am in Wait State. I don't do Wait State well, and PH is away until Sunday afternoon, so I am imitating a hermit, sorta. I am actually exercising daily, and cooking myself healthy food rather than simply turning into a heap o' carbs, so I'm sure that all helps.

The good news is that I'll be going to a birthday party for a dear friend tonight, whom I admire more than words can say. (If we finally pass a health care reform bill, it will largely be due to his advocacy work.) The bad news is that my tolerance for large crowds is limited when I am in Wait State, so we shall see how long I last at the party before I say "enough!" After the twelfth person says "have you heard yet from ....?" I about want to slap 'em, which isn't approved-of behavior.

Tomorrow is the funeral of dear friend R, so I'll go to a pre-funeral lunch at K's house, then go to church. Haven't decided if I will sing with the at funerals always gets to me, and this one will be a hard one. Might be easier to simply sit in the pew for this one. No icon - writing, which I could really use this week. When I get back home, I think I will work on the tracing of the Saint Nicholas that I'll be writing next...a good way to spend a rainy Halloween afternoon, before the wee goblins come to fetch candy.

And Sunday will be a very long day, indeed. At some point in my ministry, I may get over the tension that precedes presiding at memorial services, but for now, it is part and parcel of the work. May the service be a comfort to all who come, and may I not get in the way of God's work among them.

Friday Five: Lifesaver Division

KathrynNZ writes:

"In honor of BE Three I thought I'd offer up a Friday Five of lifesavers. I'm going on our cruise (are you?) because I am excited about meeting up with my blogging buddies again, I am interested in the speaker and because when I went on the first one my life was saved (okay, that may be a little over-dramatized but if you saw me getting on the boat and then the difference when getting off the boat you would know of what I speak).

I don't expect - or need - another life saving moment but I want to support the conference.Of course lifesavers can come in all sizes and with far less drama. I would readily admit that I have considered a person (children's sermon substitute), the location of a bathroom, and a beverage (the last diet coke in the back of the fridge - score!) all to be lifesavers at one point or another.

And so today I ask you - dramatic or fairly common - what have been/are your lifesavers:"

1) Your lifesaving food/beverage.

Chocolate, of most any kind, but esp. that in Leonidas' Belgian Pralines. Drink? Gosling's Black Seal Dark Rum (as in Dark'n'Stormys). But also pasta, the go-to comfort food, and a crisp glass of Sancerre on a hot day.

2) Your lifesaving article of clothing.

Spanx. Enough said.

3) Your lifesaving movie/book/tv show/music.

I do love "Truly, Madly, Deeply"/Ron Hansen's "Mariette in Ecstasy"/"Glee", with "House" running a close second, and "Mystery!" on PBS a close third/Music by Phillip Glass or John Taverner or Arvo Part or Bach or Mozart or Brahms...well, that list is way too long.

4) Your lifesaving friend.

Two: she who will tell it to me like it is, give me a hug or a glass of wine when I need it, applaud me...and PH, who truly saved my life when I didn't even know how much it needed saving.

5) Your lifesaving moment.

When the ex told me he was leaving me for another, and my mother said "don't ever let anyone be able to say that he got the better of you." Never p!ss off a mother who served in the Army in WWII...she gave me some steel in my spine when I most desperately needed it. She knew the pain I was experiencing viscerally and also knew she couldn't protect me from it; all she could do was be my buckler and shield.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mondays, Busy Mondays

Things that have gotten done thus far today:

Had my physical this morning. New doctor, very sharp and funny Indian woman - I miss my beloved Dr P, who had ably gotten me through some difficult medical issues, but she does not participate as a PCP in my new insurance. Grrrr. C'mon, single-payer system! Yes, I know, but a girl can dream. Got everything done except the mammosquish and the bone-density test, which will be next week. I'm hoping/expecting the various blood tests all look good.

Did my survey for the Second Three Years program (a continuing program of education, support and mentoring for those of us who just graduated from seminary) how do you calculate what percentage of your average week is spent being a role model? I kid you not, that was one of the questions.

Did my expense report for the trip up to the Garden State last week. It's remarkable how much just driving up there and back costs, what with tolls and all. Almost $20 in each direction for the various tolls, even with EZPass. Thanks be to God that the good people there are paying for it.

Did my suggestion list for the ordination ceremony (shhhh! we're not supposed to say the words out loud until the Standing Committee approves us.)

Sent out a bunch of emails about a whole different raft of things.

Mailed off the prescription refills and a thank-you note to the Bishop from up north.

Made a loaf of Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread. It is now cooling on a rack. It smells wickedly good. MUST.NOT.EAT.IT. (yet)

Things left to do:

Start the two sermons for Sunday (regular service, funeral).

Start the Adult Forum - lectio divina as a form of contemplative prayer.

Do a load of laundry (bless PH, who did most of the laundry this weekend).

Swap out winter and summer clothes, making a pile of that which will never fit again for Goodwill.

Finish planning prayer service for the next Fresh Start meeting (all done except the music piece).

Make order out of the chaotic piles of books and papers in the living room.

Figure out what's happening with StrongOpinions' student loan balance, which is lost in the ozone somewhere.

Make a batch of lasagna (half to go in the freezer) for dinner tonight and another night to be determined later.

Find someplace in the area which has the injectable H1N1 vaccine for me.

Update: started the laundry, made an apple pie (a form of procrastination), dealt with some bills. I think it's time to sit down and do nothing for a half hour.

I am praying for the repose of the soul of my dear friend R...still sad that she got sick and died before I even knew she was ill. A big generous heart, and a big beautiful mezzo voice, and a big prairie-wide smile. I miss her.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


It was a wonderful day at Saint Middle School, where we used Presbyterian communion wine trays effectively to ward off flu germs, once again used the "elbow-bump of Peace" for the same reason, and welcomed five newcomers/visitors to church. The dear parishioner who lost his wife to the flu two weeks ago was in church for the first time, and hung in there admirably. After church I brought communion to the family of the man who had had surgery this past week, and he was looking much improved, and his wife much relieved. There is something about communion with a family sitting around the kitchen table that just warms my heart to the core.

Then I changed into jeans and my official Saint Middle School polo shirt, on an absolutely glorious fall afternoon with 62 degree temperature and a riot of color in the fall foliage, and went to our parish picnic at a nearby farm/park with a corn maze. I passed on the massive and somewhat intimidating corn maze, but loved the delicious food. The men of the parish barbequed vast quantities of meat, everyone else made side dishes and desserts, and we all ate more than we should have. We watched an air cannon shoot pumpkins and corn into a field, wandered around and saw all the animals (peacocks, a llama, pigs, goats, various cows and bulls, guinea fowl, sheep, chickens, turkeys) and chatted amiably while some of the kids partook of the maze and the other kid-oriented activities. We got home about an hour ago, after a long drive on a sunny Sunday full of cars on the road, folks leaf-peeping, I presume.

A message awaited on our answering machine.

R, a dear friend from my sponsoring parish, died last night. No word yet on how this happened - we had seen her a few weeks ago looking hale and hearty - but a real shock and a great loss to that parish. She was a gifted singer who helped coordinate the music programs and stage-managed the semi-annual musical productions. Now she will truly sing with the heavenly host. May her soul and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.

Today's Sermon: Mark 10:46-52 “What Do You Want Me To Do For You?”

Both last Sunday and this one, Jesus has been approached by people wanting something from him. Last week, it was James and John, asking for seats at his right and left hands when he came in glory. Today it is blind Bartimaeus, ignoring those who would have him stay quietly by the side of the road, asking to see.

Both times, Jesus asks them an odd question: “What do you want me to do for you?” Certainly in the case of Bartimaeus, it’s pretty obvious. The man is blind, sitting by the side of the road, begging, the only thing he could do in that world. In the case of James and John, it isn’t quite as obvious what they will ask for…but wouldn’t Jesus know? Isn’t he God, the all-knowing one? Why would Jesus need to ask the question? Don’t we pray every Sunday “to you all hearts are open, all desires known?” Jesus must have known what their hopes and aspirations were, whether it was honor and glory or restoration of sight.

So he must have wanted them to articulate their own hopes in some way.

Sometimes when we think about our hopes, we think of them as something like a Christmas list that we send to Santa Claus, a compilation of wants and desires. I hope I get that job, I hope that boy asks me to the dance, I hope I lose ten pounds before the high school reunion.

But as we talked about last week, hopes are a little more complex than that.

Hopes look to our history as well as our future. We construct our hopes based upon our joys and disappointments. My father died when I was seventeen and he was 57 – I hoped for a long time that I would live long enough to pass those markers, to see my children grow into adulthood, and to see my grandchildren. A number of years ago, I hoped for employment with a particular company because I thought they did interesting things, and I wanted to be associated with their glory in their industry. I hoped for a husband who would love me, whom I could trust completely, after having been disappointed in love. I hoped, too, for the ability to serve God’s church, and I look forward to my ordination to the priesthood, God willing, in a short while.

Hopes sometimes come true, and that’s a wonderful thing. Sometimes, though, they morph into something else, as we get further glimpses into God’s plan for us, or as we realize that our hopes are unrealistic or silly or no longer relevant.

And I wonder what happens when hopes change – do they change because God changes his mind, or because we mature into a different understanding of our purpose in life?

Perhaps we hope for success in making money; when we succeed, are we satisfied? Rarely.

Last week’s episode of the television program “House” told the story of a wildly successful businessman who decided that his son’s terrible illness was a sort of karmic balance and that the only way to tip the scales in his son’s direction, to save his life, was to bankrupt himself. I’m not big on karma – I follow a different understanding of our relationship to the universe, and I believe that sometimes bad things happen even to our sons and daughters and those whom we love, and that our God doesn’t demand sacrifice to earn his favor. That’s what his gift of his son Jesus was for.

I suspect that hopes change when things we care about are suddenly irrelevant. The ten pounds we wanted to lose before the reunion don’t matter as much after we’ve gone to it and discovered that many of our classmates are, like us, heading into middle age with a bit more of a midsection than when we were all 16.

I also suspect that hopes change when things we want become subsumed by other more important things. That ten pounds is not my primary concern when I’ve got colon cancer. I may lose the ten pounds and even regret it then.

No, I think that hopes are not desires for our future, or redressing the sadness of the past, but perhaps a little glimpse of God in our lives, of possibilities that we can see come to fruition with God’s help.

And that’s why Bartimaeus’s response to Jesus’ question “What do you want me to do for you?” is so very interesting. Because, as is usually the case in these stories, it’s not as simple as it appears.

Bartimaeus says “ Let me see again.”

“Let me see again.”

He could have said “please cure my blindness.” But he says, “let me see again.” A phrase that is meaningful to all of us who have been blinded by hoping for the wrong things, by thinking that Jesus is simply a jolly giver of gifts. He asks to see, and we know that seeing comes in all different varieties.

“Let me see again” what is truly important, what I should wish for, by getting a glimpse of how God sees me.

“Let me see again” how the things that I do can be a reflection of my relationship with Jesus rather than simple self-interest.

“Let me see again” that what I do here, in this place, matters even more than what I do in my workplace, because it shapes how I choose to live every moment of my life.

When James and John made their request in last week’s Gospel, Jesus told them that they needed to rethink their hopes, because they didn’t understand what they were asking for. He needed to give them a further glimpse into what his kingdom would mean, not just the glory part but the work of it as well.

And I think that this is an important message for us here in Saint Middle School in this time in our lives together.

We have hopes. Clearly, we hope for a new vicar who will be a part of our lives for a long time, who will bring gifts that will keep this place healthy even as more people are brought to the knowledge of Christ. We hope for the resources to build a building on our land, to have a place to worship that will make us all proud, that will feel like a place where God invites us and others into relationship.

But we might want to be prepared for the fact that God may have more glimpses of his plan to reveal to us over time, and the evolution of our hopes is a part of our lives together as Christians.

And just as important as the fact that our hopes evolve over time, it is important to remember that time is a key part of hope. We like to get what we want, let petulant children, when we want it, don’t we? But sometimes things play out in God’s time rather than ours. Sometimes it feels like we have no hope, that we’ve run out of time, until something happens that reminds us that not only do our hopes evolve, the timeframe for them may evolve as well, and that’s a good thing.

Bartimaeus asks for something very concrete but also open-ended “Let me see again.” In this case, Jesus heals him immediately…but what about those who pray “let me be healed” and face a long course of treatment before they know whether or not they are healed? What about those whose illness is psychological, for whom healing sometimes ebbs and flows? Is it any less of a healing because it isn’t immediate, or complete?

The nature of our hope is that it is fluid, fragile, evolving, out of our control. Who better to offer the gift of our hopes than the one who has the power to ask the question “What do you want me to do for you?” And who better to trust that his response will be the right one, even if it isn’t exactly what we thought we were wishing for?

Hope, like faith and love, abides, not as a craggy rock, but as a stream. We will be washed in that stream, and our eyes will be made clear in the fresh waters…and we will see again, as Jesus wants us to see, as we were created to see. And our faith, like Bartimaeus’, will be worthy of praise.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Thousand Tiny Pieces

...of things to do. When I go out of town for a couple of days, it is remarkable how many things await me when I come home.

So today:

  • we went to the Farmer's Market and thence to the Pumpkin Patch

  • we prepared and delivered the ancient electronic equipment we no longer need to the electronics recycling event

  • I made brownies for St Middle School's parish BBQ and corn maze extravaganza tomorrow (praying for no more rain)

  • I finished the Adult Ed prep for praying with icons

  • I went food shopping

  • PH started the first of several batches of laundry

  • I did a bunch of financial things that required attention

  • I made a couple of pastoral phone calls and did a couple of pastoral emails.

And now I'm stretched out on the couch, wondering if I should get up and start dinner, or simply laze for another half hour or so, reading Family Circle after a couple of hours of wading through Ouspensky, Florenski, Nouwen, Rowan Williams, Denise Levertov, et al.

And for those who wonder about such things, the trip up to meet with Vestry and Bishop went well, I think, but I won't know anything for a bit. Thanks for your prayers!

And this is a mediocre picture of the most recent icon I wrote, Christ Pantocrator, copied from one Bishop Jovan wrote in the late 14th Century.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


or as they say in some parts of this region outside of the Beltway "taahhhhhhrrrrd." Last night was not a good night for sleep, and today has been chock full of wonderful, difficult, emotionally draining, intellectually challenging stuff.

Just got back from the viewing of the parishioner who died of flu. The parish showed up in force to support the widower. It was wonderful to see their deep commitment to him and to the memory of his wife. I heard some wonderful stories about the gifts and passions of the lady.

His plans for her funeral are incredibly detailed and will probably result in a rather long service, but if it gets him to the emotional place he needs to be, we will accomodate it. The process of planning has been a time of deep meditation for him. Please keep him in prayer as he learns to reshape his life without his best friend of 39 years.

The day was also filled with sermon writing for Sunday, a lunch meeting with a parishioner who is trying to decide where his true spiritual home is, thinking about the adult ed for this coming Sunday, thinking about the brief lectors' training I will want to squeeze in before the adult ed thing, planning my homily for the interview tomorrow night. Right now the last thing is a set of disjointed thoughts with no coherent theme. Ah well, it will be what it will be when I am there among them.

Tomorrow will be a trip up to Johns Hopkins to visit a parishioner who had surgery today, then on up to the Garden State for the vestry interview (meeting the Bishop in the Land of Spong on Friday). I covet your prayers, please, for recovery and a good pathologist's report for this young husband and father, and for safe travel and discernment for us all.

It's your church, God. I'm going to bed now.*

* The nighttime prayer of Pope John the XXIII. Works for me!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Things I Never Thought I Would Be Doing as an Ordained Clergywoman

Let it be said first and foremost that I am, in the words of the immortal and pneumatic Jane Russell, a full-figured gal. And that being a full-figured gal means that I am on a never-ending search for the perfect undergarment to keep my full figure in check.

So I heard of a wonderful lingerie shop near me and decided I needed to check them out - after all, a girl can't have too many perfectly fitting undergarments, can she?

I went down there this morning, discovered that I had committed a gaffe by not calling and scheduling a fitting appointment (who knew?), but they could fit me in. I was ushered into a fitting room with two floor length mirrors - horrors - by my fitter and her trainee assistant. "First, we would like to see you in the bra you're currently wearing," the fitter said in a very no-nonsense voice. Having given up on modesty when I gave birth to the children, I took off my top and stood there, wearing the rather expensive number I had gotten from the fitter at Nordstroms. "Hmmm," she said. As with doctors, I immediately wondered what the hmmm meant, assuming the worst, of course. Then she guided the assistant through the process of measuring me and said, "We'll be right back with some bras to try on."

In a few minutes they returned with a purple embroidered number. Lovely. Certainly not something I would normally wear, but fun. She then taught me the "swoop and scoop maneuver," a description of which I will spare you. Use your imagination, or not, depending on your intestinal fortitude. Then she adjusted some straps and voila! A well-fitting undergarment.

"Do you have anything that's not lacy or embroidered? Something that wouldn't show through a silky sort of blouse?" My query led us into a conversation of my blouses, until I finally admitted that I mostly wear clergy shirts, usually of microfiber or a rayony kind of material, so I needed something smooth. Having opened up the door to the conversation, she then wanted to know what kind of clergy person I was, what the difference between Catholics and Episcopalians were (she was Catholic), whether I married gay persons, and other odds and ends including whether Episcopalians had something equivalent to the pope. All while I was standing there either entirely topless or almost. And then she said she was going off to look for a bra with a big cross embroidered on each cup...lingerie fitter humor, I guess. Anyway, she found what I needed, it all fit wonderfully, and I left having had the odd experience of teaching theology topless.

Well, heck, if it was good enough for John the Baptist, usually pictured in a very decollete camel skin held together by a little strip of leather thing, it's good enough for me.
Picture of the beauteous and bountiful Ms. Russell from the movie "The Outlaws."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Flu Stuff

H1N1 seems to be sweeping through here in the area of Saint Middle School. Several of our youngsters now have it, and some schools are reporting between 25-50% of the students and staff are out with flu-like illness. The local hospital had 100 cases last weekend, and all the staff are gloved, masked and gowned.

We are moving into modified liturgical/pastoral procedures (no physical contact at the Peace, I will intinct the bread and give it to each person at the rail rather than having a common cup, urging those who are sick to stay home and request home communion visits).

Saying a prayer that all of our folks get through this. One death is too many.

Today's Sermon: Mark 10: 35-45 “Return on Investment”

One of the things I did when PH and I moved into seminary housing three years ago was to plant some bulbs by the front door. Daffodils, tulips, crocus…we knew it would feel a little more like home if we had those beautiful flowers coming up in the spring. We knew, too, that the bulbs would naturalize – they would continue to multiply and send up more flowers each spring, a welcome reminder of the season of rebirth and renewal. We didn’t know how many bulbs would survive the squirrels, we didn’t know if they would bloom, we didn’t know if the variety of the bulbs pictured on the front of the bag were what would actually come up, but we had hope, and we planted with the knowledge that there was a reasonable possibility that come March, purple crocus would peep up and, come April, yellow and white daffodils would wave in the breeze. And it was equally possible that two years or five years hence, even more flowers would come up in the spring. We didn’t know for certain, but we had hope.

It was a marker of hope, that planting, one that we knew might live on beyond our time in that little seminary townhouse.

In a similar way, when we saw the dilapidated condition of the so-called finished basement in the townhouse, we decided that we would refinish it. Nothing fancy: pulling off the mildewing, buckling fake paneling, painting the cinderblock walls, putting in a dropped ceiling and decent lights to replace the single lonely light bulb hanging from a fraying wire in the center of the ceiling. Why did we do that? Part of it was self-interest. We wanted a functional basement that we could use for watching TV and putting up the kids when they came to visit. But this was rental housing. Why not just put up with the yucky basement – the rest of the place was fine – since we were only going to be there three years? Well, in a way it was not just for us, but was a legacy for the next seminarian family that would live there. It was our gift, not to the rental company, but to the future seminarians who might live there, because we hoped that there would be others to follow us into that townhouse, to study and grow and be nurtured at the seminary and in that home like the bulbs we planted outside the front door.

Hope is a very specific thing. As a monk told me on retreat earlier this week, we don’t hope for the things we know are impossible, nor do we hope for the things that we can easily obtain. No, hope lives in that in-between place of possibility and expectant desire.

The apostles James and John – the Zebedee brothers – had what they thought was a hope – they wanted to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands when he came into glory. And as they asked for this privilege, the other apostles got jealous…who wouldn’t want a bit of that glory? But hope is only fully itself when we can describe the possible, and they didn’t have a clue what they were hoping for. They had picked up enough of Jesus’ teachings about what was to come to know that Jesus was saying that at a future time, he would sit in glory, but they missed the part about how hard it would be to get to that point. Their hope was only for the glory part. But Jesus taught that it took time and suffering to get there. It would not be a triumphal ride to earthly power…it would be a walk to death before the resurrection. And those who wanted to see a powerful leadership overcoming the evil forces fo the world might not get to see it in their lifetimes.

There might be glory, but it would be deferred glory.

Today we are beginning our stewardship campaign, and I’d like you to consider the hope of deferred glory as part of who we are as Christians. Michael and the rest of the Stewardship team will give you an insight into all the ways St. Middle School enriches our lives and helps us to live deeper into our relationship with Christ. You might consider that the “return on investment” model of asking for your generosity. But I’d like you to also consider a different model: think long-term. Yes, we need your help to keep the lights on, the auditorium rented, a vicar hired. But Christ needs your help to introduce him to those who have not yet heard the Good News.

The work of this place may not always be immediately obvious. Some of the results of our faithful weekly worship, our Christian formation programs, our times of fellowship and caring, may not come to fruition immediately. Someone may come once, and not come again for another six months, like a tulip bulb underneath the earth. Some child may recall a lesson she learned in Godly Play five years earlier, and it may cause her to act differently to a classmate. The first plans for a building maybe drawn up, and the building may not be completed for several years, or, like the National Cathedral, for a century!

We do these things – we support these things – not only because we ourselves benefit from them. We do them because there is someone who needs this place and hasn’t found it yet, because there is someone who is hungering for spiritual food and will eventually sit beside us, because there are opportunities to serve Christ that we haven’t even thought of yet.

So we are people of hope, and we express that hope not in half-measures, but with joyful and generous thanks for the glimpses of the possibilities yet to come, our expectant desires blooming, planted on a cool October morning, blooming in the clear April sunlight.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I've been out at our diocesan retreat center/camp since yesterday afternoon at a clergy retreat. It has been a blessing. I hadn't realized how tired I was until I had the time to stop and think. the wonderful presentations by the brothers from the SSJE gave me food for thought and meditation and some material for future sermons. Being with friends and talking about the ups and downs of the work was a delight. And having a nap on a weekday afternoon was priceless.

Saint Middle School is reeling after the unexpected death of a parishioner - the first parishioner at this little mission parish to pass. The parishioner had been in church just a week before, contracted the flu, and died in six days. We are awaiting final word on what actually caused her death. She was a dear woman who had been married to her best friend for almost 40 years. I have been spending a lot of time with her husband, trying to keep watch with him as he seeks answers for that which is unanswerable. Much sadness. He is being supported with much love and care by his friends, doing the work that we as followers of Christ are called to do. Meanwhile, we wait for her to be released tot he funeral home so we can schedule and plan her funeral.

I am doing my best to be there for him and for them, and wonder, as I always do, if it is helpful or is enough. I think I've come to a place of peace that it can never be enough, only God is enough.

And I am preparing for another trip north of here to interview with the vestry and the Bishop in a place that may call me as their rector.

So perhaps I will go to bed early this evening, and try to store up some energy for the next two weeks, which should be exhausting ones, but gratifying in a thousand ways. It will be interesting.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Today's Sermon: Mark 10: 17-31 "Answered Questions"

It is a truism of the legal profession that a good lawyer doesn’t ask a question in court unless he knows the answer he will receive. Courtrooms are a theater of sorts, after all, with lawyers each wanting to present their clients’ stories in the way that will favor them. It is also a fact of life that the rest of us rarely ask a question if we think we already know the answer to it. So I am very curious when I hear our Gospel story today, the question of the rich young man. Which side of the divide is he on?

Jesus is getting ready to head out of town, and at the last minute, this young fellow runs up to him, a question on the tip of his tongue. Psychotherapists will tell you that it is often at the last possible minute of a session that the client will stop a moment, turn and say “One other thing….” This is one of those last minute, one other thing moments.

He’s got a question, this young man. Perhaps he’s a little nervous posing it to this famous teacher, this rabbi. Perhaps he’s been weighing in his mind whether or not he should ask the question. You can imagine the interior dialogue: Ask it? Don’t ask it? Will I appear stupid? Should I bother him with my silly question, because I think I know what the answer might be, but still…”

So he poses the question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s a big question, isn’t it? Perhaps we ourselves sometimes wonder about it, or more importantly, wonder if we can ever meet the standard we set ourselves.

And Jesus tells him “You already know the answer to the question. Follow the commandments.”
You’d think that would be a comfort to this questioner, but it isn’t.

“I already do those things. I’ve been doing them since I was a boy.”

Jesus is right – the young man knows what to do. He has faithfully been following the law that he was taught as a boy. Why, then, is he asking the question?

What is bothering him? Does he feel like he isn’t doing enough? Does he still feel unworthy of eternal life? Is there an emptiness at his core, a sense that something is still missing?

He doesn’t say specifically what is bothering him, but he wouldn’t have asked this question, a question that he might have presumed he knew the answer to, a question that might make him look like someone who didn’t follow the laws of his childhood in the eyes of this teacher, if he didn’t sense that there was more that was expected of him.

And then the Gospel says “ Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” The very fact that this young man was striving to ask the harder question, to seek the deeper answer than just following the commandments that he had been taught, that fact caused Jesus to love him. To love him for seeking, for questioning, for trying to find the more difficult answer. What a comfort those words are to those of us who struggle and ask questions!

But with that love comes an answer that is shocking. Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus. And the young man, who had tried so hard to follow all the rules he had been taught, was stunned, and walked away very unhappy, because he was rich. He may have hoped that following the rules was sufficient, but Jesus, loving that he asked the question, told him the rest of the story. Following Jesus is a hard thing. It is demanding, just as being a parent is demanding, just as being a soldier is demanding, just as being a nurse is demanding, but it is all those taken to the nth degree. Following Jesus is not for the half-hearted.

Now while this whole conversation was going on, the apostles have been listening in from sidelines, waiting for it to be over so that they could head out of town, as they had originally planned. They, of course, think that they’ve dodged the problem of the young man. After all, they’re poor. They’ve dropped everything to follow Jesus. Saved, right?

Perhaps. These men have let go of the little they owned, of their families, their work, to follow Jesus. It isn’t easy, but with God’s help, it is possible, even for rich young men.

But the problem of being rich and getting into heaven isn’t just a problem for the Donald Trumps and Bill Gates of the world – it is also a problem for us. Frankly, we all have a lot, and we like what we’ve got. You don’t need to be a millionaire to be attached to your stuff.

The comedian George Carlin did a brilliant riff on our attachment to our stuff a few years ago. Because it’s pretty raw in its language, I’m not going to quote from it – go look it up in his book “Brain Droppings” if you want to read the whole thing – but his point is worth repeating: we want our stuff, all the little odds and ends that we’ve bought or that has been given to us, but eventually we end up getting ruled by our stuff. Our stuff becomes a burden, an albatross around our necks.

A little story about attachment to our stuff. My stepson B had an incredibly large stuffed bear named Tedwin. Tedwin had been a gift from his auntie M. I first met Tedwin when I began to date his dad. B was about five then, and Tedwin was perhaps twice B’s size. Because of the dog at home, and the various kinds of food that had been dropped on or rubbed into Tedwin’s fur, a large bite had been taken out of Tedwin, right in the vicinity of the armpit – do teddy bears have armpits? – and this became Tedwin’s chink in the armor. That repair, you see, regularly failed, requiring yet another “piteration,” a sewing operation to resew closed the seam where the original bite was. Tedwin was pretty deformed by these successive piterations by the time I met him and B, and many decisions we made were based on Tedwin’s condition. Should we take Tedwin on our skiing vacation? Well, he was pretty fragile. But B couldn’t conceive of going without Tedwin, even though the bear was four feet tall and the car was already pretty packed, so even though Tedwin smelled bad, he sat on the bench seat next to B. Because B wouldn’t go without Tedwin. Should we go to a family reunion in Kansas? Well, could we get Tedwin on the airplane? Our lives were ordered in some ways by this thing, this beat-up stuffed animal. A piece of stuff that took us away from the more important conversations. The irony of all this struggle over a stuffed animal is that a few years later, Tedwin was no longer the center of B’s life and was consigned to a closet in his father’s house, never to be seen again.

I tell this story not to say that stuffed animals are bad or that B was wrong to care about it, but to remind us that it is so easy to become too focused on our stuff and be unwilling to consign them to their proper space. Do you feel like your life is over if your laptop comes up with the blue screen of death or your iPhone gets dropped in the sinkful of water? Do you want to take out the shotgun when the lady in the parking lot scrapes the side of your car door with her shopping cart? Do you worry that it reflects on you badly if your lawn isn’t mowed in a perfect crosshatch pattern? It’s time for some perspective.

And that’s the real takeaway from this – stuff isn’t inherently bad – money or wealth isn’t inherently bad - it’s how you relate to it that is the measure of how you are moving toward eternal life. Do I think rich people have a hard time getting into heaven? I don’t know. I do know that the likelihood that they will have a lot of stuff, and be seduced by the value of that stuff, rather than seeing it as a mere tool for the kingdom of God, is greater. I do know that if I spend more on dinners out in restaurants than I do contributing to those who have no food, it’s not a good use of my stuff. I do know that spending several thousand dollars on a big screen TV and dropping a five-spot into the collection basket on Sunday is getting the priorities wrong, because what I get on Sunday and how I’m transformed by it is what will get me into heaven. I do know that worrying about what others think of what brand of jeans I wear, or sneakers, when not too far away some people are wearing what they’ve been able to glean from Goodwill, is a misplaced view of what is important, what Christ asks us to focus on.

Here’s the Gospel message: as we order our priorities, as we live our lives, there are some basic rules to follow, about not cheating or stealing or murdering, and so on. We know those rules. But we also need to attend to the harder challenge, to live our lives letting go of the priorities that Madison Avenue wants us to cherish, putting first and foremost the love of God and the care and love of others, both the lovable and the not-so-lovable. And this is an “all-in” challenge, not something we do halfway. All-in. Not working around how to live with one leg in the world of our stuff and one in the kingdom of God. All in, with joy and relief, letting go of that which we thought we wanted but which has become a burden and distraction. All in, and ever closer to the Christ who was all-in for us.


Get Your Flu Shot

We lost a member of Saint Middle School last night to complications from the flu. She had other medical issues that may have made her more susceptible to the effects of the flu - we will not know what actually happened until the autopsy is complete.

I spent a good part of the afternoon with her husband of 39 years, as he attempted to wrap his brain around the idea that she is gone. I wouldn't wish this kind of grief on anyone.

So get that flu shot, and if you're medically fragile, please check with your doctor about getting the H1N1 vaccine.

And may her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Thank Goodness It's Friday, Except for the Twelve Things That Need To Get Done

It has been a busy week chez Mibi. Two days of convocation at Big Old Seminary (hearing some great lectures, seeing some old friends) and then a day of Fresh Start about 40 miles south of here (an ongoing conference that meets monthly for new clergy in the diocese, whether freshly ordained or new to their calls here). Waiting on next steps for the job north of here, although I did get my background check packet from them. PH had an interview for a job possibility in that neck of the woods - wouldn't it be lovely if we both found our calls at roughly the same time and in the same area? I'm trying hard not to fantasize about the possibility, but it would be nice.

The sermon is about 80% done, and I'm still not sure how I'm going to approach the Adult Forum (I'm the middle of the sandwich of sessions that began last week and will end next week) on "Ministry is Not Just For Ministers." Ah, well, I'll come up with something.

I'm feeling sorta tired today, despite a good night's sleep and a long lovely walk in the warm-ish autumn sunshine. It may just be the thought of packing, or the thought of still not knowing what the future holds, or it may just be the reasonable tiredness of a busy week, with lots of traveling, lots of phone calls, lots of stuff to do. I will try to honor Monday as a holiday, and not fill it up with the things that need tending for the coming week, but since I will be on Clergy Retreat Tues-Thurs, it may be a challenge.

Speaking of compulsive overachievers, how 'bout that Nobel Peace Prize? Will it help Obama or hurt him? Pretty remarkable thing.

I think I'll take a nap now.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Monday Miscellany

I drove out to Saint Middle School's office in the Mother Ship today to tend to various and sundry bits of paperwork. Had a wonderful conversation, as usual, with supercompetent Heavenly Office Administrator as we got some work done, helped out a lady with some utility company issues, sent a bunch of emails, did some organizing and such. Drove home without eating at Mickey D's or Wendy's or any other sinful place. I did stop at Kinko's to copy a picture of the next icon I might do. I mentioned that the Christ Pantocrator icon is almost done - I'll post a picture of it when it is finished and varnished.

I had grand plans to get a good start on the sermon for next week, because this week is so busy. I made a tiny dent, but it is still a long way from being a whole thought, well rendered. Oh, well.

Tomorrow and Wednesday will be convocation at Big Old Seminary, and it will be good to be in an academic environment and see many of my friends again. Joy! And on Thursday, I'll be with my pals at Fresh Start.

I'm grieving the announcement that Gourmet magazine will be no more. It has been a part of my life for thirty years. I had a friend who wrote for it, I made zillions of recipes from it, I fantasized about visiting all the beautiful places described revoir, Gourmet! You were a teacher of mine.

I spent a few minutes filling out the background check materials for the job north of here. Always a thrill, remembering how long ago it was when I went for my first master's degree, how many places I've worked over the years, all the odds and ends of my life...since the background check company did another one of these just two months ago for the job I turned down, it shouldn't take them but a few minutes of xeroxing to do this one.

Dinner is cooking, PH has safely arrived after fighting his way through a massive traffic jam, I DID manage to exercise today (a 45 minute brisk walk) and the week will be busy. Life is good. Just color me grateful.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Today's Sermon: Mark 10:2-16 – “Balance of Power”

In the Old Testament reading today, God allows Satan to goad him into testing Job, a righteous man, for no good reason than to settle a bet between them. A very unpleasant view of God as a cosmic chess player, with poor Job the pawn in an awful game. It’s a tough reading – it makes us cringe.

And in the gospel, Jesus says that divorce, which had been permitted under the law of Moses, is no longer allowed. And here we sit, part of a denomination that has since its beginning shown mercy on the matter of divorce. I know it is so. I am divorced and remarried and am also ordained in this church. It’s another pretty tough reading, that some folks might use to condemn me, and the many of us in this room who have been divorced.

What’s a preacher to do?

I could punt and talk about the reading from Hebrews, which has all sorts of lofty language about how we are just a little lower than the angels. Lovely imagery. I could also use the part about us having dominion over all else that God created to talk about our relationship with God’s creatures, since this is the day we traditionally have the Blessing of the Animals and talk in warm and fuzzy language about our animal companions, and all the good things in God’s creation.

I could talk about the Psalm, about living lives of integrity as God would wish us to do.

But, no. You all know by now that I never seem to take the easy path, and the fact that these readings give me indigestion is precisely why I should preach on them. The good news is that I’m not going to try to preach on both those tough passages, just the Gospel. Because there’s nothing I’d rather talk about than divorce, right?

Last week I talked about practical theology, about taking scripture and listening to what God has to say in it to us today, so we’re going to do a little Scriptural wrestling this morning, focusing on that second reading. I’m going to put my money where my mouth is vis-à-vis practical theology.
I said last week that we read Scripture in the context in which we now live, trying to figure out how God wants us to hear it, to use it today. So what do we do with this passage in which Jesus says that divorce is out - kaput - verboten - no longer an option?

Before I can understand this in my present context, I want to know a little bit about divorce in Jesus’ time. He seems pretty adamant in this passage. What has gotten him so riled up on the subject? Is it simply a matter of being bothered by the Pharisees, who are once again testing him on matters of the law? And what does he mean when he says that Moses gave them permission to write a decree of divorce because of their hardness of heart?

So I go back and do a little research, and what I find is that one way of looking at this is that Jesus is protecting women. In reality, women couldn’t divorce men…men could divorce women. And women were left with nothing, since they themselves were chattel, mere property of their husbands. If they had no family to take them in, they would starve, or turn to begging or prostituting themselves to support themselves. They would lose their children, of course, since the children too were property of their fathers. They would be unmarriageable. So was Jesus trying to protect them from this situation, from what could be a capricious decision by a man to rid himself of a wife who had lost some of her youthful bloom, or who found her arguing annoying? A feminist scholar might portray this as a way to balance power, since under Mosaic law the man has all the options and the woman has virtually none.

To me, the key to this passage is a single phrase that got me scratching my head: “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” What in heaven’s name does that mean? Moses wrote this commandment, or God wrote this commandment? Why would men’s hardness of heart mean that the commandment had to be written….doesn’t that imply management of that bad quality in some way? And yet who got harmed in that world? Not the men. The women.

That “hardness of heart” is in Greek sklerokardian…cardiosclerosis. Getting hard, rigid, unable to beat in response to a stimulus. Something that those of us in this room who have had cardiac problems, or whose parents have had cardiac disease, have heard before. A remarkable image, isn’t it, appearing in a text from two thousand years ago? Someone becomes rigid and hard, unfeeling, and that someone breaks the covenant relationship between husband and wife. In Mosaic law, it is only the man who can do that.

And Jesus sees that, and deems it unfair to women, and more important, to God’s sense of the rightness of Creation, that people are intended to enter into a loving and committed relationship with each other, and if they do that before God, they both are intended to do their best to keep their promises. And in the best of all possible worlds, that is what happens. Jesus’ statement about divorce and remarriage indicates that both partners have an equal obligation to keep the relationship going, and both partners are guilty of adultery if they break that relationship and form a new one.

How are we to take that statement, those of us who were divorced and who have remarried? Are we adulterers?

Before we are feeling condemned, let’s take a closer look at what Jesus is really focusing on in this exchange. The Pharisees want to talk divorce…they really want to know if Jesus would approve of divorce for any reason whatsoever, or only in cases of sexual infidelity. Jesus turns the question around – he usually does when the Pharisees ask a question designed to trick him – and reframes his answer not in terms of divorce but marriage.

And marriage, in this passage, is intended to be a covenant between the partners. Remarkably, that covenant presumes equal standing. Both parties are equally responsible. God intends these covenants proceed in a particular way – these days, the church talks of marriage as having three primary ends: companionship, procreation and raising of children, and a legitimate outlet for sexual desire. In Jesus' time, it might be more about the procreation and the sex, and maybe also about political or economic matters. But even in the earliest days of the church, there is a recognition that sometimes we fail in this covenant, and when the covenant fails, it is perhaps a relationship that was not all that God intended. We enter into marriage with all good intentions, but we are human, and sometimes intentions are not enough. Sometimes one partner violates the covenant; sometimes the partners evolve in ways that make the relationship unsustainable.

The important thing here is that I believe that Jesus is talking about something more than marital covenants – he is talking about all sorts of relationships. And in all these relationships, we enter into a contract of sorts, a covenant whereby we make some promises. And if the covenant is not between equals, if both parties do not have equal rights and responsibilities, this is not a covenant as God intended when he created us as equal children of God.

No, this is not a teaching about divorce, or marriage, or adultery…it is a passage about the balance of power, the equilibrium between the parties in relationship. If one person tries to assert authority over the other, it is not as God created them both as God’s children. If one person controls all the decisions, all the assets, all the little and big things that make for a life in relationship, it is not as God created the nature of relationship as partnership in love and respect. The nature of a relationship as Jesus portrays it is one of radical hospitality, of going out of your way for your partner, of putting his or her needs and desires foremost in your mind.

Do we all achieve this kind of relationship? We may get glimpses of it, some of us more than others, and we may fail with some regularity even when we try our hardest. But there is a vision here, a vision of the possibility of a relationship that is what God intends, not the kind of legal structure that the Pharisees seem obsessed with, but the incredibly revolutionary idea that when we are in partnership, we take our partners’ hopes and dreams and needs as seriously as we hope that they will.

This is, after all, the heart of what Jesus teaches. And it is, once again, practical theology: how do we take what we hear from God and put it in action in how we treat others? And if we understand what Jesus says about the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and want to act in response to those words, shouldn’t we do precisely the same thing for the partner with whom we are in relationship?

Perhaps a little help is in order as we fallible humans struggle in our relationships with each other. Listen to these words, the second half of a prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi:

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Now that's some practical theology for all our relationships.


Poor, Sick, Happy

When I was a kid being brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, there was a lot of focus in my RC school on the saints. Invariably they were portrayed as, well, saints: people who strived to be faithful even in the midst of awful circumstances: St Lawrence being grilled (literally) on the gridiron, St Teresa of Avila suffering from what was probably epilepsy and being tormented by her superiors for her writing, St Francis giving up everything he had to follow Christ, saints who were martyrs, saints who suffered persecution, saints who gave all they had to the poor, saints who fought, saints who prayed without ceasing.

All of these stories were very dramatic, sometimes melodramatic, and they served the purpose of making me think that I could never be a Saint, because I didn't have it in me to do what they did.

One of the conclusions that I've come to, though, is that although I don't have the intestinal fortitude to be a capital-S Saint, maybe I can be a small-s saint.

So today I'm thinking about the fact that I dropped a huge sum on repairing my car, because I need it in my work, which involves a long commute a few times a week and trips to other parts of the diocese on a regular basis. And I signed on to an even larger loan for StrongOpinions' schooling, because she's brilliant and it's the right thing to do. The net result of this is that I'm feeling rather poor. Not genuinely Poor, without a roof over my head or food on my table, but nervous about money in that ongoing background murmuring way, since I'm on part-time salary right now. A little stress-inducing, but we will thank God that we can handle this, somehow.

I'm also thinking that I've had a cold for the past few days, hacking and coughing and sniffling and snoring, and today I woke up with a monster, nausea-inducing headache. Just miserable. I've dosed myself with Advil and coffee and a little breakfast, and feel much better, although not completely well. I was suffering, not like St Lawrence being grilled, or St Stephen being stoned to death, but was still feeling bad. I was grateful for the medicine and the ability to just rest today, and thankful that it is manageable and that my other chronic conditions are well-controlled. Suffering with a small s rather than a capital S.

I'd like to believe that these little problems, these little pains in a world of much larger pain, help me to be aware that my problems are very small ones indeed. My suffering is miniscule. But if I see it as a window into recognizing the things that are wrong with the world, the hunger, the homelessness, the illness, the economic disparities to exist, if I use my own problems to connect with the much more intractable larger problems in the world, then I make a small start toward being a small-s saint. That's something I can aspire to, every day.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Don't know...

...whether I made the right choice or not, but I made a choice.

I was offered a job today. I turned it down. I knew the offer was coming, and had been praying on it and meditating and gnashing my teeth for a week. At the end of that time, I came to the conclusion that, interesting as it was, it wasn't where God was calling me. Bless PH for being fully supportive of this, and for putting up with my purgatorial week going this way and that about it.

So there are two potential calls in play, one of which feels like the right one, and I have moved further along on that one. I should know in 3-4 weeks whether that results in a call. There is another which would also be a good call, a little further back in its timing, so if the first one doesn't happen, there is something else in the wings that feels good.

It actually feels like a bit of a relief having made this decision. Thank you, God, for helping me figure this out.

Friday Five: Touching Holiness

Today's Friday Five comes from Sally:

"Yesterday I was privileged to join the thousands of pilgrims who had flocked to York Minster to see the casket containing the bones of St Therese of Lisieux. People came from miles around, some with deep faith came to venerate the Saint, others with none came out of curiosity. The Christians who came represented a mix of denominations, I went because I have read her writings and out of sheer curiosity having never been to anything like this before.

To put it in crude terms I was blown away by the by the deep sense of God's presence, of gentleness, of holiness and purity. Today as I reflect upon the experience I recognise that there have been other places and other times when I have experienced a tangible touch of God. I wonder if it was because the message that Therese had is so much needed today, she experienced God as a God of love, and encouraged others to draw closer..."

Where do you find God's peace and presence; is there:

1. A place that holds a special memory?

The cathedral at Chartres. Walking in that dark transcendent space, thrown by the sense of other time and other space. The chapel at Santa Maria Della Concezione in Rome, with everything made of the bones of dead Capuchin friars: "As you are, I was. As I am, you will be."

2. A song that seems to usher you into the Holy of Holies?

Biebl's "Ave Maria," the "Mache Dicht, Mein Herzes Rein" from the St Matthew Passion. Arvo Part "Spiegel im Spiegel." Taverner...
Music takes me there faster than just about anything.

3.A book/ poem/ prayer that says what you cannot?

TS Eliot. "Little Gidding."

4. How do you remind yourself of these things at times when God seems far away?

I walk, and listen to music, or I talk to my grandchildren.

5.Post a picture/ poem or song that speaks of where you are right now in your relationship with God...

Yes, this is a pushmepullyou. Enough said.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Thrill-Filled Thursday

Well, maybe not thrills, but lots of stuff going on, some of which are bloggable and some of which are not.

I went to a great Clericus meeting for our region, renewing friendships with some folks whom I know, making some new friendships...good men and women with a heart for the work, building each other up.

I am working through some very interesting pastoral care issues, ones that I could never have anticipated I would be handling a bare four months after ordination. I am so grateful to be able to talk through some of this with PH, who has 20 years of experience as a pastoral counselor.

It looks like we got approval for the loan for StrongOpinions' tuition. A relief to get that taken care of.

Car wars continue: I have to take Saabie in for an alignment and the annual inspection tomorrow. The joy of car ownership - I'm telling myself that it is cheaper to fix it than to buy another, and heaven knows I couldn't afford another Saab these days, but the thought of a vehicle on warranty suddenly sounds very attractive.

The twelfth anniversary approaches, and I keep finding more ways why I love PH and think that I am the most fortunate person in the world.

Your prayers for me in discernment are helping: some things are becoming clearer. Sometimes it isn't about listening for the Spirit in your head, but feeling the Spirit in your gut.

Remarkable, that.

Thank you.