Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ahhh, Small Town Living

Last night we went to our favorite Mexican restaurant. As we arrived and were seated, another patron kept squinting at us in a kind of unfriendly way. At first I thought she was just being rude, but I quickly figured out she was trying to figure out who we were. How sad, I thought, she's all alone at the restaurant.

Then the staff of the restaurant began to try to gently escort her out the door. She was shuffling her feet and very unsteady. How really sad, I thought - she's obviously got a vision problem and maybe some other health concerns. And how nice that they are helping her get to her car. At about this point I began to worry about how she had GOTTEN to the restaurant with these medical conditions. Something was not adding up.

Then, the staff of the restaurant went to a neighboring table, where two couples, acquaintances of ours, were eating, and asked the men something in a quiet voice. The men got up, and one cheerfully went to the woman to offer her a ride home in her car while the other guy followed in his car. How nice, I thought. These guys are bailing out this poor, blind, shuffling (young) woman so she can get home.

As soon as it was appropriate to do so ("appropriate" in small-town lingo being approximately four seconds after the door is shut behind the woman and the two men), I asked the wives what the story was. And here it is:

Apparently the woman got so drunk from the one Long Island iced tea she ordered while waiting for her to-do order that she was unsafe to drive home, and the staff at the Mexican restaurant would not let her drive herself home. (I suspect either an underlying medical condition, a contraindication with prescription drugs, or that the woman had been drinking before she got to the restaurant, but that's really beside the point.)
It turns out that one of the guys, C, was celebrating his birthday when he got conscripted to this duty! What a nice guy! Also, because he's Hispanic, the woman he drove home assumed he was the owner of the restaurant - but at least she said nice things. *sigh* C was very gracious at all the appalling, vaguely racist things she said during the drive home. *double sigh* He also told us that she had trouble a) getting to the street she lived on, and b) identifying her house once they were on the correct street.

This tells me a number of things: 1. Have a designated driver if you are going to drink anything at Casa de Oro (or anywhere, really). 2. The staff at Casa de Oro will not let you drive home if you are drunk. They may ask other patrons to help, but they will make sure that you and your car get home safely. 3. Good people will help out drunk people in this small town - even if they are perfect strangers to one another. 4. Racism, benign though it might have been in this case, is still alive and well (not that we didn't know that already). 5. When you do good deeds, they become funny stories.
Happy birthday, C!!! Hope it got better and better as the night went on!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Good News for California Equality

There is probably nothing worse than coming down with the flu while having dinner with good friends less than a week before Christmas. I hate throwing up more than just about anything else in the world. And I really hated leaving J & T's house - it's becoming a tradition to share a meal with them and our mutual friends M & J around the holidays.

The good news is that I am on the mend - this bout of the flu appears to be brutal but quick. That's even better because I have church tomorrow, and it's the children's Christmas pageant. I really do not want to miss our children's hard work. It is the first year I am not teaching Sunday school, and this was going to be a treat for me as well as for the church as a whole. This is one of the great blessings of church growth - there are more people who are excited to take on leadership at all levels, and I get the pleasure of letting go of being "in charge" of some things.

But I am well enough to peruse the internet today, and I came across this. Apparently, California will recognize same-sex marriages from other states as "marriage" if they were performed before November 5, 2008.....and those who've been married since then in other states will receive the benefits of civil marriage, even though it won't be called "marriage" in terms of the law.

It is less than ideal, to be sure. But it is a step towards equality. Thank you for the Christmas present, Governator.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Putting the Christ Back in Christmas...

.....Because he says it so well, just go read Russell's words here. Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukah, Blessed Solstice, and Happy Festivus. (If I've missed your holiday, may it be blessed, holy and happy, too!)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Yet Another Friend of the Blog

And one whose name I get to use! I call her Pope Laura the Beneficent, because while she was a member of the congregation I serve, she had the distinction of being one of the central figures of the church. Though the UCC does not have popes, if we did, she would be the pope of our little church, at least. As a child of the church, she became a leader of the church, and her credibility spanned the generations of the church's membership. As a progressive UCCer, she helped lead this family-size congregation towards its Open and Affirming stance and gave members the courage to act on their beliefs. She also invited them to live and love graciously in the midst of difference.

When she moved several years ago, it was quite a blow to the church, and we have spent a fair amount of time learning how to reorient our leadership patterns. Yet the move was the right one for her and her family, and we are lucky enough to "get" all of them on many holidays. So it's with gratefulness and love that I call her "my pope" and celebrate the life she is living and the strength she brings to her living and to her faith. She's an inspiration. Go read her "religious blog" here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Snow Day Morning Post

Go read this. And thanks to my friend and colleague JN, from whose Facebook page I'm taking this.

Shane Claiborne co-wrote an incredible book called "Jesus for President" that I just adore. It's people like him who give me hope that evangelicalism can be more than James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and their ilk. And it's people like him that keep me hoping that Christian unity is possible.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Sabbath Rant - UPDATED

Oh, my dear colleagues! If I do not write this here, I am afraid I am soon to burst out and scream at you at a meeting, in perhaps most inappropriate language and tone - to say nothing of the screeching volume at which I would othewise deliver this screed. Unless, of course, I decide to give you passive-aggressive eye-rolling and excessive sighing.

Dear, dear colleagues, if you are at a meeting with other clergy and non-clergy - wait, scratch that.... Dear colleagues, if you are ever at a meeting with other people and the subject of days off comes up, please, please, please resist the urge to say (melodramatically or ironically), "What's a day off?" You may think that you are appearing long-suffering - and indeed, I know for a fact that some of you are extremely long-suffering - but instead you sound insufferable.

As if the work we do is SOOOOOOOOO important that we cannot possibly take a day off to rest and restore our spirits. Do you truly believe that your work is more important and pressing than God's work? And yet, in the very first chapter of Genesis we see that on the seventh day our Lord rested from all that God had made. Rest is meant to be a part of the rhythm of our lives, to balance us from workaday concerns.

I hear the response that if you do not get the work done, the work will not get done. And I say, "So?" Prioritize your work and do what you can. Let go of the rest. So what if there is no bulletin this week because you had two funerals and a wedding, plus several other crises? So what if you only get three pastoral visits in this week, and one of them was a hospital visit? So what if no one else signed up to pass out coffee after church today? Guess what. The church will survive for one week without a bulletin. The members will make do with not having to dust in advance of your visit. The coffee won't get served today.

Or - horrors - someone else will step up at the last minute! Maybe someone will offer to type, collate and fold the bulletin on Sunday before church. Maybe someone will smell the absence of coffee in the air and turn on the pot. And if they don't, they will learn to live without what is not truly necessary. If for your church it is truly necessary (and if by "your church" you mean more than the two cranks who complain about nearly everything), then make clear to your personnel team that you have too much on your plate and that together there needs to be a renegotiation of your priorities and duties. Those priorities must be communicated to the congregation as a whole by someone other than you, and your board must stand in support of those priorities.

And if you find that you're always up until Oh-God-thirty finishing the bulletin or whatever, perhaps this is a reflection of your poor time management, not how busy and important you are. Poor time management is not a source of pride and you shouldn't be going on about that as if it were. If my congregation catches me finishing collating the bulletin on Sunday, at least I'm properly ashamed of that.

Now, I know that there are times in our ministry in which we must work on Saturday, or on our other day off. Occasionally there are weeks when we must work both days. This is unavoidable sometimes, and part of the nature of ministry. We do not work a typical, 9-5, 40-hour work week. I get it. But do not make a habit of it, and then claim that this poor habit is the nature of our work. When those weeks tend to happen every week, the proper response is not to brag about how overworked you are. The appropriate response after more than 2 or 3 weeks running without a true, proper day off is to abashed that things have gotten away from you. If God can keep the Sabbath, so can we - even if we keep it imperfectly at times.

Make up for it as soon as you can, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. At the very least, take the next morning off. Sleep in late. Go home right after the funeral and assorted duties are complete. You need not balance it minute-for-minute - but you need to balance your pastoral work with your life away from the church. Do not mistake your self-imposed martyrdom for actual martyrdom - Jesus does not call you to die on the cross of church Christmas decorations that no one else put up.

Dear colleagues, you are not irreplaceable. Neither am I. And frankly, if I have packed my life so full of things to do that my ministry appears to be just another burden to bear, it is time to cut something out, not to complain about how impossibly busy I am.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Another Theologian Who (Finally) Gets It

The good gentleman at Southern Fried Faith pointed me toward this article on how one prominent conservative Presbyterian theologian has come to the side of the angels when it comes to the full inclusion of GLBT persons in the church. My very first inclination is to say, "Duh. Yeah." It is frustrating to hear it said so baldly that many of our conservative brothers and sisters in faith think we progressives play fast and loose with the Scriptures or that we don't see it as authoritative.

But that inclination quickly passes and yields to gratitude that another sheep has come home to Christ's fold. Brother Mark, thank you for your journey and for your faithful witness. We have been waiting a long time for you.

Happy Running, Kids

Mostly, I'm too mad about the Stupak amendment to write anything coherent about the health reform bill that passed the house last night. So instead you get a post about my running progress.

This spring I wrote about how I've been starting to run again after nearly a decade of practically no running whatsoever. It has been a hard slog to get back into running, but I've kept at it. Last month, when Backbencher and I went home to visit my family and friends, we did a little run at Maxwell Park, the site of most of our home XC meets in high school. While the trails have changed, the smell and the feel had not, and it felt good. Really good, in fact.

Most of you who know us in the real world know that since our return from that trip, we've been trying to get pregnant. This has had some great benefits, not least of which that I'm able to resist most fast food places, have given up caffeine and alcohol, and am highly motivated to get in better shape. This past week I managed six workouts, with at least 5 runs worked in.

Now, mind you, I am still jogging at a snail's pace and only for a maximum of 2 miles. But every lap I run is one lap I wasn't running a month ago, so it's progress. And when I go in the morning, a dear older friend Bill cheers me on as he walks his laps. Some of the other retired folk I know also give me good support.

But the Sunday afternoon crowd has a totally different vibe. Today there were a ton of high school students working out/goofing off. When I started, a young girl was running very quickly. Now, to one getting started running again, getting lapped by a kid half your age is discouraging. But I remembered my training to run my own race, my own pace, and my own laps, and got started. I quickly noticed that this girl would go very fast for about a lap and a half, then stop to chat with her friends, or look down at the kids on the basketball court, or get some water.

I suppose I could have been annoyed, but mostly I was really grateful that she never actually lapped me. She would pass me, but before she could pass me again, inevitably she would stop. I kept "running my race" and soon realized that, in terms of sheer number of laps run, I was actually ahead of her. Tortoise and hare, indeed.

She reminded me of me as a high school (and to some extent, college) runner: loving to run but not really motivated, trying to get out of as much of a workout as I could while still getting something out of the workout, looking for any excuse to delay running those laps, and frankly kind of lazy. Being between seasons, the fact that she's there running laps at all is a step above whatever I did, so I'm not criticizing her. In fact, it was very encouraging, because I realized today that I really do love running, and that today, I am running for myself and with myself. That's a big change from when I ran primarily because I loved being on a team and loved my teammates.

And, when I'm struggling in my run, it's not wrong that I always imagine Shemar Moore (from Criminal Minds) calling me "Baby Girl" and cheering me on, right?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

New Member Reception Liturgy

This Sunday we baptized several individuals and held a new member reception for three families who have made their way to our community and have jumped in like bandits! It was a joyous occasion and a very long service, though I did not hear one word of complaint about the time. In fact, I heard several times how great a service it was - and not only because of the baptisms.
Our baptismal liturgy is fairly boilerplate UCC Book of Worship stuff. The only real adaptation I make is that I baptize "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God who is Mother of us all." This is something that I understand began at Riverside Church in NYC and which I've heard used in several contexts. I believe the church should honor Jesus' commandment in Matthew 28 regarding our baptismal language, but I also believe that we should honor expansive images for God. This is a very neat, clear and placid way to do so.
But I am especially proud of our revamped liturgy for welcoming new members, or at least the questions we ask. The ones in the UCC BOW really do not speak to our experience of church, so I'm incredibly grateful to my friend Rob L., who came up with the questions and which I have only slightly tweaked. Enjoy - and if it works for your context, feel free to use!
November 1, 2009 ~ All Saints Day

We invite to come forward those who wish to affirm their baptism by uniting with us in this household of faith.
Friends in Christ, we are all received into the church through the sacrament of baptism. These people have found nurture and support in the midst of the family of Christ. Through prayer and study they have been led by the Holy Spirit to affirm their baptism and to claim in our presence their covenantal relationship with Christ and the members of the church. They are here for service to Jesus Christ, using the gifts which the Holy Spirit bestows.

You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are equally citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus along being the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy Temple in Christ. In him you also are built into that structure to be a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

Do you profess Jesus as the center of your faith?
I do.
Will you be faithful to this community?
We promise our faithfulness to this new community.
Will you challenge this community to be the best version of itself and to live up to the things we say we believe?
We will lovingly challenge this community to be the best version of itself and to live up to the things you say you believe.
Will you allow yourself to be changed, shaped and transformed by this community, living into your called identity as a beloved child of God?
We will allow ourselves to be changed, shaped and transformed by this community as we live into our called identity as a beloved child of God.
By your baptism you were made one with us in the Body of Christ, the church. Today we rejoice in the pilgrimage of faith which has brought you to this time and place. We give thanks for every community of faith that has been your spiritual home, and we celebrate your presence in this household of faith.

Do you profess Jesus as the center of your faith?
We do.
Will you be faithful to these new people as they join our congregation?
We promise our faithful companionship to these new members.
Will you challenge these new members to be the best versions of themselves, and to help them live up to the things they say they believe?
We will lovingly challenge these new members to be the best versions of themselves, and to help them live up to the things they say they believe.
Will you allow yourself to be changed, shaped and transformed by these new members, living into our called identity as a beloved community of God?
We will allow ourselves to be changed, shaped and transformed by these new members, living into our called identity as a beloved community of God.

O God, we praise you for calling us to faith and for gathering us into the church, the body of Christ. We thank you for your people gathered in this local church and rejoice that you have increased our community of faith. Together may we live in the Spirit, build one another up in love, sharing in the life and worship of the church, and serving the world for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

WELCOME AND RECEPTION (all who are able please stand)
Leader: Beloved, let us greet our brothers and sisters in this family of faith as we offer the hand of Christian love and welcome them into the company of this local congregation.
People: Thanks be to God!

Wednesday Morning Post-Mortem

Since I trust y'all to check out other sites for the political post-mortem as to how marriage equality lost in Maine, and about how it almost lost in Washington, I thought I would just offer my reflections from the morning walk.

This is a real disappointment and setback for those of us who support marriage equality. Mainers are pretty independent-minded folk, and it sounded like we were close to a victory. Which makes this a bitter pill to swallow. If Mainers haven't seen that same-sex marriage did not cause an utter moral collapse in their New England neighbors Vermont and Massachusetts, and if they were not touched by the stories of Maine couples and families whose very lives are affected by this law, then we have a lot longer and harder road than I expected. And if Washington - WASHINGTON!! - won this only by a 51-49% vote, then we have a lot more work to do.

And I must also register my disappointment with President Obama for his utter failure to speak one word of support in this struggle. I get that he personally does not support same-sex marriage - well, actually, I don't get his opposition to marriage equality, but whatever. And I continue to have the sense that he is trying to play the "long game," whereby he's looking at the big picture to shape a stronger and more secure victory for our community in the longer term. But if you only look at the big picture, you miss some important details - and that's what I think is going on with Obama. He's happy to miss the details of Maine and Washington, because that suits his own political sensitivities and unwillingness to rock too many boats. Yet he has a responsibility to support justice and equality for all Americans, even if it makes him a little uncomfortable.

And, of course, this makes it far less likely that DADT or DOMA will be repealed in the next few years, unless President Obama takes a stand in supporting their repeal. That, of course, seems very unlikely - I'm not sure how supporting this figures into his long game when supporting Maine equality is not. (Though, Mr. Obama, if you are reading this, I'd be thrilled if you proved me wrong! Seriously, if you are reading this, prove me wrong.) I guess this also means that Massachusetts, Vermont and Iowa will have to continue to take the lead on this issue. Which is good for me and for Holy Knit!, because we serve congregations in these states....but it's not so great for the people of Maine or elsewhere.

All this happens in an utterly ridiculous context in which the majority gets to determine the rights of the minority. Since when did it become our civic duty to vote on people's basic civil and human rights? And since when is it a great moral victory to vote to DENY people those rights? Something is seriously skewed in our nation's understanding of what it means to be a democratic republic.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Book Review

I waited until Backbencher finished reading "Juliet, Naked" before posting my book review. I don't know when I first became a fan of Nick Hornby, but he's been one of my favorite authors for several years now. His writing on obsessive fans is tempered with a deep understanding of why fans obsess so, and deep affection for those fans. (One is tempted to wonder if he is quite so compassionate with what must surely be his legion of obsessive fans, but I will skate over that one for now.)

Backbencher's review, which you can read here, says that "the story is about the devotion that many men have to an obscure pop culture figure and how that devotion affects there relationships." And suddenly, all my intimate relationships with males up through college becomes startlingly clear.....Yet I thought the book was about something different. I saw Juliet, Naked as a story depicting the improbable ways that people try to connect with one another, whether through art, fandom, sex, or conversation. Though the characters are clearly connected through their relationship of one obscure album, the obsessive fandom is just a symptom. However, like Backbencher, I found the obsessive fan's character to be the least developed, though his interactions with his new girlfriend reveal some panic and depth I really enjoyed. The musician and the girlfriend were by far the most interesting.

Hornby seems to vacillate in many of his novels between "angriest man in Holloway" and an attempt to find meaning and hope in imperfection. I like him best when he's a little more ambiguously hopeful. There's plenty of that here. And there's usually one or two lines I just adore - but in this book, the best line gives away the entire plot, so I won't reveal it. Perhaps the second-best line is, "The inability to articulate what one feels in any satisfactory way is one of our enduring tragedies." Marvelous, right?

Not being a musician, I was curious about Tucker's epiphany at the end of the novel, about how good songwriters have to make the present the past, to fix the present in time, as it were, in order to create good art from it. The novel also implied that the most meaningful relationships in our lives do not necessarily translate into our best artistic endeavors, and that even a shallow relationship can inspire us to make great art. As one who is constantly spinning tales in my head, this is enormously liberating. In other words, one needn't be an important figure in my life to inspire important figure in a story I might write.

While this is not Hornby's best work (About a Boy wins for sheer melancholy and hope, though it is by necessity dated, fixed in time as it must be), it is a solid and enjoyable read. If you have to slog just the tiniest bit in the middle, keep going. I found the payoff to be entirely worth it!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Vacation Raves

UPDATED to include Brenda's Soul Food....

Backbencher and I returned from vacation about a week ago. We had a marvelous time! I also have a number of raves from the trip, which I am categorizing out!

Places to Stay:
1. Jack London Lodge, Glen Ellen. If you come to wine country - Sonoma, not that four-letter town down the road - you should stay here. It's less expensive than most of the other places in town, plus it's got plenty of charm. Each room is a little different (I peeked into uninhabited rooms), but they share a certain country charm. (Backbencher wants to assure any husbands out there that it is not too frou-frou.) Did we mention the hot tub?

2. I almost don't want to recommend the Cornell Hotel to you. It's a small place, and if you are there at the same time we are, there might not be room for all of us. We don't want to be stuck somewhere else while you get the fun place. So, let's tell you that the hotel is located right next to the Nob Hill All-Nude Male Revue, featuring Mid-East hunk Adrian. And, it's kind of close to the Tenderloin, and even closer to the part of town known as the "Tender Nob." (I think it should be "Loin Hill" but no one asks me.) You probably don't want to stay there.

Ha ha! More room for us. Seriously, this place was PERFECT for two romantic travelers! It's owned by a French couple, and guests often come in speaking French. Charmant! The restaurant is the Jeanne d'Arc, and the menu looked delicious. Unfortunately, we only had one breakfast there, with a kind of spacey waitress. No matter - it was busy, she brought our food to us, and it was warm and tasty! The medium-size bedroom we had was a little bit smaller than I expected, but the claw-foot tub and the utter charm of the place more than made up for it. It is important to note that even on a first-floor, front-facing room that was literally next to the front door of the hotel, it was very quiet at night. (The loudest part of the room was the heater, which we were able to adjust with no problem.) Bottom line - this is probably the best deal you will find in SF. Stay here. The rates are extraordinarily low and the value is very high.
Good Eats:
1. Le Cheval, Oakland - Maybe it was because we were eating with my aunt, uncle, and 2 of my cousins, but this was a real highlight. (And, it's Zagat rated!) It's Vietnamese food; I don't know how "authentic" but we enjoyed the bird's nest dish immensely. Well, I say "we," my aunt and I fought over seconds of that! There was not a bad choice on the table. I even tried the Vietnamese coffee at the end of the meal - cooled and with sweet condensed milk - that could become a habit!

2. Maya, Sonoma - A guy I went to high school with, D, bought this place a few years ago and it will be a must-visit on all future returns. Not only was the Mexican dinner great (also kind of fancy), but it is made with love! We had a gathering of some folks I graduated HS with, and it was both interesting and really cool. It was also a reminder that who we are at 15 or 18 need not define us forever. There were people at that table I never thought I'd share a meal with (or would want to share a meal with), and yet it was a real blessing! Thanks, peeps!

3. Dosa, Mission District (on Valencia), SF - Another friend from HS, L, is a caterer in the City, and she has a well-deserved and growing reputation there. She and her fiance took us to Dosa, and this was a terrific introduction to South Indian cuisine. Dosas are like crepes filled with all sorts of spicy goodness; L got the habanero dosa and I got the paneer + peas dosa. The "little dosa" that came with L's fiance's meal was HUGE! Check out L's business here.

4. Foreign Cinema, SF - A recommendation by L, where we went with all three of my cousins. So named because the outdoor seating area (complete with heating lamps) points toward a wall upon which arty films get shown. Oyster bar, great drinks, swanky appetizers, every dinner dish we ordered was stupendous (yes, my people eat food off each others' plates; Backbencher does not do this with people other than me, typically, but he was very game with the fam), and I especially liked the pork chop. We also splurged on desserts - all winners there, too! AND, if that didn't beat all....Rosemary's Baby was playing on the outdoor screen. Horrifyingly compelling.

5. Brenda's Soul Food, SF - We are pretty sure this is technically in the Tenderloin, based on the number of homeless folk who asked us for money once we signed up. Yes - signed up. The restaurant seats 40, so people sign up on a sheet outside and wait to be called. The nice thing about such a system is that it favors smaller parties. My cousins recommended the place for brunch, and we're so glad they did! (Thanks, J, M and K!) It's a French soul food place, with a Louisiana flair. I had an amazing oyster scramble, Backbencher had something else yummy, and we shared beignets - something I had never heard of, but with which Backbencher is evidently quite familiar. I am always learning neat things about him! We heard that they are going to buy the dry-cleaners next door and expand, but that could just be hopeful thinking. Definitely worth the visit.

Nice memories:
1. Dinners with the East Bay family. My cousins and their parents are about the most interesting and joyful people you would ever want to spend time with. The girl cousins are artists and I felt more creative just being around them. Boy cousin makes movies and is similarly interesting and creative. And, loving and kind and all that! While you probably can't have dinner with my family, you can eat where we ate - and these two places are phenomenal! Go with people you love, and the memories will be even sweeter. It certainly was for us.

Come to think of it, you probably could have dinner with my family - they are just those kinds of people.

2. We had a delightful time with my moms and sisters at Point Reyes. Thank you, God, for giving us the ocean, including whales. And families.

3. BABIES!!! Baby X-1 is the daughter of a lifelong camp friend and her beloved spouse. Backbencher and I spent a relaxing and wonderful day with the family - my friend has two stepchildren who are well-behaved, smart and interesting. (And very funny!) Baby X-1 is a charmer and she won over both Backbencher and me. Plus, my friend's husband made a delicious dinner, even though he claims that his people, northern Italians, are not known for their cream sauces. To which we say, "You are now!"

Baby X-2 is the daughter of my dear friends from seminary. I got to hold Baby X-2 for about 2 hours in a complicated baby wrap as we wandered around a Berkeley park. Baby X-2's big sis had fun, too! Didn't really cure my baby-lust (did the opposite, in fact), but both of these kids are so easy to get along with that I was very relaxed and happy with them. And AA - that hat is coming!

4. We also enjoyed a good little run at Maxwell Park, even though my former XC course has radically changed. There's no place like home, indeed.

5. A sweet toll booth attendant blessed us as we began our travels across the Bay Bridge. How nice, we both thought.

I don't want to post our rants, but let's just say that if the worst part of your vacation is the 49ers losing badly,'s been a pretty good vacation.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Is It Wrong To Laugh At This?

Apparently, the koalas of the world are dying of a terrible stress disease. This is dreadful, and in no way do I want to minimize those deaths.

It's just that, when I read the article in yesterday's Des Moines Register (don't have the link, but a similar story is here), they went about four paragraphs before they named the disease. And then in a very offhand way. "The koalas are dying of this terrible disease that causes wretched infections. Oh, and it happens to be called chlamydia."

Yes, friends, our dear koala mates are dying of chlamydia. Which, in them apparently functions in much the same way the herpes virus does - with breakouts caused by stress. Although unlike herpes in humans, these chlamydia breakouts tend to be fatal. From the description of the koala's chlamydia, it sounds just like an STI to me - left untreated, it can lead to infertility, blindness, and even death.

The moral to this story is twofold: one, if you think there's a chance you've been exposed to any STI, GET TESTED AND GET TREATMENT! We don't want you to go blind and sterile just because you didn't want to pee in a cup. Two, you should probably get your koalas tested regularly, too. And make sure they have plenty of bamboo to enjoy, as it's the human encroachment on their natural habitats that is leading to this chlamydia outbreak.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Book Review: The Shack

I have to admit that I've been pretty ambivalent about reading The Shack, by William P. Young, for a long time. I first heard of it from a colleague who really ticks me off most of the time, and the superior way he spoke about the book made me think it was probably very hokey. Then, of course, so many evangelicals came out against it (complaining about "dangerous doctrine") that I thought it probably wouldn't be so bad.

Most recently, a friend and new member of our church talked about how great the book was. Since I really like her and trust her, and since she had pretty solid reasons for liking the book, I decided I should suck it up and read it - if only to learn more what she took from it. At the recent Planned Parenthood book sale, I picked up a used copy for $3 and got to reading.

My first impression was that while the story was cheesy and rather mediocrely written (though still better than the wretchedly written Left Behind series - to say nothing of that series' theology, those books were just badly written), I was kind of into The Shack. While there's virtually no chance that a mystical experience of God would involve three days correcting one's bad theology with the Trinity as sit around a house talking about what they really meant with all that stuff that happened in the Bible, those scenes did produce some good quotes that will be useful to me, and it made for a few thoughtful times.

So much of the book was dialogue - or more precisely, monologue on the part of God - that it made me think of those dorm room discussions we'd have in seminary (or college, or wherever) about Very Important Topics, only this time with the Authority giving the right answers. To its credit, most of the scenes in the Shack with God giving all the right answers were not too "happy-clappy," so it didn't totally turn me off from the book, even though these conversations did seem conveniently tidy most of the time.

I found myself convicted in a few places, faced with the dissonance between what I believe is true of God for other people and the impossible standards to which I hold myself - and the utter ridiculousness of this stance. I did not have a big emotional "come to Jesus" moment in the book, but I did reflect on some things, and probably will continue to do so in the coming weeks and months. That is all to the good, and I'm sure Mr. Young would be happy to know that.

The theology is your garden-variety, radical "God is Love" stuff, shocking to many who will insist on a God of Judgment over a God of Grace, but pretty basic to someone like me, who's been preaching on the radical love of God for some time now (and who's lived and believed that theology for a lot longer than I've been preaching it). I liked that this theology was getting out there. Open Theism doesn't scare me the way it does some others, so even that wasn't a muss. Having God the Father as a bold Black woman and the Holy Spirit as an Asian sprite also wasn't that shocking.

[TOTAL SIDEBAR: I do wonder, however, how African-Americans read and understand this book...does it seem like tokenism to have God portrayed thusly? A misappropriation of skin color just to make a point about upending our human assumptions about God, particularly when that skin color is appropriated without any context about what being Black in the United States is all about, socially, politically, or historically? Just a weak, cheap ploy, almost "Mammy"-ish? I found myself cringing at the representation of God the Father as a bold Black woman, there to comfort hurts and making good food, offering sweet, tender care. Either give the bold Black woman some less-stereotypically female (and particularly, less stereotypically black slave/servant) things to do, or put a male Father God in the kitchen and let Him heal through good cooking.]

Still, a lot of stuff annoyed me. There was a lot of "magical thinking" in the book, by which I mean to say a lot of magical stuff happens. This is not Garcia Marquez' "magical realism," or even Harry Potter, but more like hocus-pocus. Was this just a clumsy attempt to portray a mystical experience with God? If so, it was very poorly done. The plot was unbelievable and silly, but I wanted to give it a chance. And to be truthful, bad writing and pedestrian theology included, I enjoyed large parts of the book when I could just jump into the story. But in the end, I just couldn't make the final leap. Maybe that's because I don't have a real mystical center, much as I'd like to - but I suspect it's more because the book just wasn't that well-written. And truthfully, if this kind of story is what passes for modern-day mysticism, give me Julian of Norwich any day.

Where the book really started to lose me is when it gets deep into atonement theology - that Jesus willingly took on the punishment for our sins on the cross. In my theological understanding of the death and resurrection of our Lord (so succinctly expressed by my dear friend Legs last night), the cross and Jesus' torture and execution at the hands of the Roman authorities says a lot more about humanity - our fear, our desire for control, our bloodlust and our revenge-seeking - than it does about God. The resurrection is where God takes the worst that we have done to one another (and even to God) and redeems it. You can't have the resurrection without the cross, of course, and the fact that One is willing to be so faithful to God's message as to die for it is, indeed, awe-inspiring in the most biblical sense of "awe." But it is the Resurrection that shows God's true power, overcoming death.

It was also frustrating that for most of the book, Mack called this clearly feminine representation of God "Papa" (but at least there were female pronouns attached to her and that disjunction made good sense). Yet, what ruined even this for me is that at what is supposed to be the climax of the story, Papa appears as a man, telling the main character that "You are going to need a father today." Puh-leeze. The climactic scene (which by the way was so totally obvious you could see it coming a mile away) was not very dramatically written, nor did the main character break down in such a way as to need the healing love of a perfect Father. Papa as a bold Black woman would have been just as effective - and even more dramatic.

What this says to me is that, in the end, in the hardest things we have to face in this life, nothing is good enough as a male Father God to do the job. So, in the final analysis, William Young did not upend our assumptions about God the Father, but reinforced the masculine portrayal as the truest and deepest understanding of what it means to be divine.

And finally, the book's ending is so very pedestrian. What happens to Mack after he leaves the shack is given short shrift - as if Young realized he had to end it somehow and just threw in another dramatic scene, this time set in the real world. Then, let's wrap up all the other details and put a shiny bow on it! Sorry, life, and the aftermath of violence in a family does not end so neatly, even with a mystical experience accompanying it.

Even as the book tried to talk about the hard road of faith, grace, and forgiveness - and brothers and sisters, if you take nothing from the Gospels, you must know that the road to which Jesus Christ calls us is full of hardship and heart-pain as we embody faith, grace and forgiveness to those who have hurt us most deeply - even as the book tried to talk about how hard it is to "let go and let God," still, in the end, Mack is rewarded with a sugary, happy ending in the "real world." Happy-clappy is really the best way to describe it. Was Young trying to make a parallel to the Job story? If so, it was as saccharine and neatly-tied-up as it comes - and therefore utterly unrealistic. Even the ending of Job offers a little more substance and ambiguity.

So, I can't really recommend this book, but even with all my complaints about it, I don't think I will condemn it, either. Like my evangelical brethren say (but for very different reasons), "Read it carefully and with a discerning heart," take from it what you can, and let the rest go. If it gets you thinking about God and God's activity in the world, if it invites you to trust more in the Living God, and if it inspires you to live a more grace-filled, forgiving life, that's all to the good.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Yet Another Friend of the Blog

When I first moved to this fair town, I did not expect that the first minister to welcome me to town would be the Baptist minister down the street - especially not when I learned he was a Southern Baptist (the church is affiliated with the ABC). But that's exactly what happened.

From the beginning, RC and I approached our friendship not as a way to change or convert each other, but to learn and grow together. Sure, we had very spirited conversations about theology (we both like to argue and win!), and sure, there were significant differences. But in our very first conversation, he shared with me that while he was not convinced that women should be ordained, his heart was slowly being opened to that possibility because of a very gifted Presbyterian pastor in town. (And for good reason - she was theologically conservative in that thoughtful, Fleming Rutledge sort of way. I miss her!)

Well, as these things go, the church spit him out before too long, his personal life became somewhat of a mess, and his theology was pretty shaken. But, he'd been a good friend to me, and so I committed myself to continuing our friendship. He's a decent fellow and has a good heart. He's since moved on, and actually just took a job in Houston, TX. But we manage to stay in touch, and recently he told me about his new blog. It's very personal much of the time, but it's fun to read nonetheless. Like a little peek into his brain.

And no, I have no idea why it's named what it is. You'll have to ask him.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Introducing the Rev. Geoffrey Black...

....the General Minister and President-Elect of the United Church of Christ. Don't take my introduction - go read about his hopes and dreams for our denomination for yourself.

As I think I mentioned some time ago, I had the privilege to meet Rev. Black at the UCC's 2030 Clergy Network pre-Synod event this summer. He's a genius, and more importantly, a man of deep and vibrant faith, with a desire to listen and hear those who would speak. I have a great deal of admiration for him and believe he is more than capable of meeting the challenges our denomination faces in the next several years.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New Friend of the Blog

I found this fellow while perusing a colleague's Facebook page. I find him interesting and provocative, and while I don't always agree with what he writes, I find we're really on the same page most of the time. Isn't that funny how that happens? It's not so much about agreeing on the goals or the vision but differing on how to get's more like we are looking at the same piece of cut glass from different sides, so we prioritize objectives differently. He makes me think, though, and I like that.

Plus, progressive Christians in the South need all the love and support we can give them. (That goes for you, too, Lucky Fresh!) Plus, he's interesting. Go forth and read.

Also, keep on the lookout for another Friend of the blog post, which is coming soon, from a former colleage here in Iowa now embarking on a new adventure in Houston. Houston, we have adventures! (Sorry, RC, couldn't resist!)

Friday, September 11, 2009

News From the 'Net Has a New Home, and an Update

Do any of you read Street Prophets?  Well, you should. (check the link to the side) But these days, one of my favorite parts of SP has moved to another site, and you should DEFINITELY check that out.  Again and again, in fact.  Russell King is, well, awesome.  He reads all the right-wing websites so we don't have to - and he gives us the highlights (or lowlights, as it were).

Plus, he may be the king of snark.

Sorry I've been so absent of late.  This is the downside of preparing for 3 Sunday school classes this fall.  That includes figuring out the room arrangements, getting those rooms in some sort of shape, buying a gazillion supplies....oh, and shaping a curriculum.  That's actually my favorite part of Sunday school prep - and the teachers are already excited and making their own additions to the work I've done, which makes me feel like letting go of the teaching aspect is going to be okay.

That's right.  This is the first year since my time here that I will not be teaching Sunday school.  We just have too many classes, and we also have some very gifted people who stepped forward to teach (and a couple of very gifted people who said no this year, but that is okay, too).  Since I'm still writing/adapting/shaping the curriculum, it's like I'm teaching.....only with better teachers actually doing the work and adapting as needed.  If it goes well, we may explore sharing it.

We also have at least two students who I think maybe experiencing a call to ministry - whatever that looks like for pre-teens in a mainline context.  (What does that look like?)  At least, they seem to exhibit some definite interest in the work I do and some definite gifts that would make ministry a good fit for them.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The MotherShip

Sorry to be absent for so long, kiddos.  I was in Cleveland at the MotherShip for a few days this week, utterly swamped with meetings.  Actually, it was just one long meeting, with nine other Presidential Fellows - part of a pilot fellowship within our denomination.  

Let me just say this has been an exercise in taking it to the next level in a serious way.  I was in a room with conference staff, senior pastors, other fantastic clergy doing all manner of amazing things - all age 40 or younger.  I had a hard time remembering that the work I do as a missionary - spreading the good news of progressive Christianity in rural areas - is just as impressive and amazing.  Some people seriously went to bat to make sure I was at that table, and I intend to honor their belief in me by taking myself a great deal more seriously from now on.  

This meeting was probably one of the most intense and rewarding experiences I have ever had in my profession.  And it was exhausting!  In the best sort of way.  I can't wait to see everyone in January.  In Savannah!

So, pray for us as we go forward in faith in this new adventure, and pray with thanksgiving for those who have invested so heavily in all of us.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Tornado is God's Message to the ELCA to Repent? Really? That's What You're Going With? Interesting....

So, I don't know how it is for other people in seminary, but while I was there I made a ton of great friends, and two extremely close friends.  So close, in fact, that I've become life-long friends with their families as well, and thanks to the wonders of the internet, we all still stay in fairly close touch.  The younger sister of my friend, let's call the sister K, messaged me on Facebook today to ask for a firm rebuttal to this article.

I was only too happy to help.  Now, I should start by saying that in these kinds of cases, I seldom find it productive in any way to argue that homosexuality is not a sin (at least, not at first).  I find that that argument gets really intractable, really quickly.  They aren't going to change my mind, and I am not going to change their minds.  But if you want to act like homosexuality, mentioned at the most 9 or so times in the Bible, is more important to God than hunger, failure to show hospitality, and the oppression of God's people ... well, I'll play *that* game.

Here's what I said:

Oooh, let me rebut those ridiculous points, also one by one:

1. We all have sins we practice daily and unrepentantly. Yours may not be a "sexual sin," but if you are going to say "all sin excludes you from the Kingdom of God," well....maybe you should examine self-righteousness, pride, and lack of hospitality within yourselves, 'cause it seems like you might be guilty of at least those three sins. You may say that you repent of these, but if so, why do you keep practicing them?
Oh, and my passage for this: "For while we were sinners, at the right time Jesus died for the ungodly." Romans 5:6

2. You seem awfully concerned with dealing with "homosexual sexual sin." Even if GLBT persons make up 10% of the population, that leaves 90% of them heterosexual. Why aren't you up in arms about all the heterosexual people having sex before or outside of marriage? Why aren't you proposing resolutions that censure or defrock straight clergy who engage in such behaviors? Since that affects a far greater number of people, I should think you'd want to be proportionally concerned about that. Also, Jesus explicitly preached against divorce, though he never spoke about homosexuality. Why aren't you focusing your attention on THAT sin?*

3. What's evil is discouraging loving and holy relationships among consenting adults, and expending so much energy lambasting gays and lesbians. Didn't Jesus also say to feed the hungry, and proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners? To clothe those who are naked and to bind up those who are broken in body and spirit? Maybe you need to refocus your priorities to the things Jesus actually condemned - injustice, hunger, illness and oppression.
In fact, do you want to know what the real sin of Sodom was? Check out Ezekiel 16:49 - "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." Nothing there about same-sex love.

4-5 - Considering how the vote turned out, perhaps a more appropriate passage to use is, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." IOW that tornado was an opportunity to see God's works revealed in the gathered assembly.

6. Sensuality is very much a part of the Gospel, and is not antithetical to salvation. Or do you not put much stock in the Incarnation? 

Oh, and one other thing, if this was a sign to the ELCA, to whom was the tsunami in Asia in 2006 a sign, and for what? It must be nice to know for certainty the mind of God - something the prophets and even Jesus didn't always know! (Just look at him in the Garden of Gethsemane....)

FWIW, the Bible never explicitly condemns the sort of loving same-sex relationships we see today. Most of the condemnation of homosexual behavior has to do with temple prostitution, lack of hospitality, or some really misogynistic understandings of sexual behavior.

Later, I commented to K that it never fails to amaze/shock/horrify me that people seem to think that proclaiming God's so-called "justice" is far more important than demonstrating God's mercy and compassion.  How does that passage go again... "Judge not, lest ye be judged"?  I am sure I read that in the Bible somewhere..... 

* Heh heh heh, I got a perverse little joy out of that, given that I myself was divorced from my first husband.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bread and Wisdom

This is the sermon I preached on August 16, 2009, using John 6:51-58 as my text.

Just as Jesus can’t seem to stop telling us that he is “the bread of life,” so it seems that we cannot escape this metaphor. We’ve been here for a few weeks already…And this week, it gets personal. Fleshy, even, as Jesus tells the Jewish leaders that “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This is, for so many of us, dangerous language, even bordering on assault. It certainly offends our modern sensibilities that tell us the Gospel should be sweet and safe and not conflict at all with our mainstream, middle-class and largely Anglo ideals about “goodness.”

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” It’s about this place in the Gospel reading that I start thinking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Twilight series – about a young woman who falls in love with a vampire. Mostly as a defense mechanism, I’ll admit, against having to deal with the powerful and uncomfortable images of this text.

Protestants generally eschew the Roman Catholic belief of “transubstantiation,” whereby the elements of the Eucharist (or Communion) are literally transformed into Christ’s actual body and blood in the sacrament. But beyond that, there’s a whole lot of different beliefs among different Protestant Churches about what Communion is or is not. At some point in our collective history, Communion became a celebration of Jesus’ sacrificial death, often couched in terms of “dying for our sins,” but in the beginning, the early church celebrated this meal as a feast of the resurrection, of Jesus’ conquering of death and of our sharing in the “shalom” life, the “kingdom life” the “basiliea” of God in the here-and-now.

Certainly, even within any one congregation, you’d be hard-pressed to find a unified theology of the Table. Some of us believe that Christ is spiritually present in the meal, somehow. Some believe that the community sharing in the meal is what sanctifies the elements and the people who share them. Some of us believe that this is a memorial meal, done to commemorate what Jesus did in the Gospels and to obey his call to “do this in remembrance of” Him. Some of us, it must be fairly said, just like getting to eat a little something at church. Some of us have no idea what goes on here.

For some of us, nothing “happens,” but the rite is simply what is done periodically in the life of the church. Some of us – and this is especially true of newcomers to most churches, I’ve learned over the years – care deeply about respecting the views of the community in this sacrament and want to make sure their beliefs are either in line with the prevailing wisdom or that there is room for divergent views. Some of us believe that you must be “right with God” in order to come to the table, and some of us believe that you come to this table precisely so that you may have the opportunity to deepen your relationship with God. I am certain that others of us have different views – views which may vary on the day, the person presiding at the table, and what has happened in the morning before church. Almost all of us, I daresay, take the ritual very seriously.

Certainly there is no condemnation here for any of the ways that you understand what happens at this table. However, the repetition of Jesus’ insistence that he is “the bread of life” has been rattling around in my brain for the past few weeks, and it’s been an occasion for me to reflect on what I see happening in this ritual.

We very celebrate with a single loaf that is not cut, and some grape juice. We use juice partly out of tradition, and partly out of respect for those who cannot or choose not to consume even the tiniest bit of alcohol. We do have gluten-free wafers for those who don’t eat gluten products. These are two ways we can lower barriers that may prevent people from coming to the table. We also are clear in our bulletin that we practice Open Communion, meaning that all are welcome to share in the feast. We don’t require that you pass a test or belong to a church, or even that you’ve been baptized. We believe, in short, that it is God in Christ who invites all people to this meal – so who are we to deny anyone an occasion of grace to which God has specifically invited us all?

And people typically come up to the front and tear a piece of bread from the loaf and dip it into the cup. For me, this is really where it gets interesting. For in the tearing of the bread, we are quite literally enacting the breaking apart of Christ’s body. The obvious symbolism – that we are all participants in Christ’s death, sacrificial atonement, and so forth – is less interesting to me in that moment than the less-overt symbol. By tearing this bread apart, we embody at this altar what we often do in life: tearing apart the Body of Christ by our failure to love our enemies, our comfort with our own privilege in the face of others’ oppression, and all the other ways that we sin against each other. We tear apart Christ’s body in much the same way we tear each other apart – like greedy wolves anxious for more, desperate to ensure we get at least our share (if not more!).

And, sometimes we tear the loaf carefully, tenderly, knowing we are causing some pain but unable to stop ourselves. We hope the small tears will hurt less; we think we don’t deserve anything more than just a little bit, or we want to make sure there’s enough for all, and we are willing to sacrifice our part for others. And all this for what? A broken piece of Christ’s body and a leftover carcass on the plate for others.

And then there is the blood, the life force of all creatures. How do we even begin to talk about that?

If this were all we did here, you’d be right to be disgusted and never want to share in the meal again. But the amazing thing to me about the Eucharist is how much more is going on than just the tearing apart of bread and the sharing of juice. The pieces that we tear off, whether greedily or tenderly, huge chunks or tiny crumbs, yet somehow remain part of one, unified and unbroken whole – Christ’s body. As we take a part of that whole into ourselves, even as it becomes a part of us by nourishing us and being digested by our bodies, we become a part of IT. We who are many become one in the sharing of this meal. That bread, though it is torn apart, yet makes us whole and one with each other. We may try to tear it into small pieces, but instead it knits us together as One, binding us one of another, parts of one piece, members of one Body – Christ’s Body – the Church!

In addition to making us One all together, this ritual makes us whole within our very selves, for we are sharing in the feast of the life of the One who came to heal and restore us to our human glory. We are becoming one within ourselves and one in the mystical body of Christ. What a great mystery this is!

And as we come to appreciate the paradox that is the Eucharist, a ritual of breaking apart and of making one, we come to know other deep truths – that we are called to be a witness for peace in a world of war; that we are called to be bearers of Shalom – God’s holy and equitable peace – even to our enemies; and that God is within us and strengthening us when we challenge the systems of oppression in our world.

This is the mystery Jesus was getting at when he challenged the religious leaders of his day with those words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Remember that these leaders themselves lived a tenuous existence under Rome’s empire, that whatever religious freedom they had came at the pleasure of an emperor who was not known for consistency or generosity of spirit or tolerance of diversity. These leaders, quite simply, were terrified that Jesus, in empowering and challenging the people, would incite riots that would destabilize the only world they knew.

But Jesus did not come to earth to give us surety or to banish ambiguity from our lives, however much we may desire certainty and answers. He wanted us to wrestle with meaning – he wanted us to explore the mystery of our earthly, fleshly lives, and what it meant that God Most High was willing to share in that earthly, fleshy existence. Too often for our tastes, Jesus does not comfort us. (In fact, in this particular exchange, he does not suggest that Communion is meant to be comforting, however comforting and renewing some of us may find it.)

Instead, he invites us to lean into the unknown, to trust ourselves in the presence of the Unknown, to trust our own flesh and bones to an unknown future – just as Jesus himself trusted his flesh and blood to a future he did not always understand or like terribly well. This is the peace Christ promises. In the uncertainty of Communion, Jesus invites us to find true life, a life that endures, a life that never ends – even if, at some point, our own flesh is torn and our bodies broken by the slings and arrows of this life.

So I think it appropriate that we share this meal together now. It is not our “normal Sunday” for Communion, but then again, we have never been people who worried terribly hard about doing things differently than “normal.” And I invite us to share in this meal in a new way. Normally, we come forward to meet God – or ourselves – or the Spirit – or whatever – in this ritual. But today it is important that you know that God also wishes to come to you, that the point of the Gospel is not the world coming to God, but God coming to the world, and so today this meal will be brought to you. Receive it as you will, by communing with the elements, by asking me for a blessing, or both. And may you receive Christ’s mysterious presence and the Spirit’s most gracious wisdom in these moments.

I will ask our musician to play our next hymn, #421 We Gather Together, and for you to remain seated and sing it together. (Do note that the tune for this hymn can be found on the previous page)

Then we celebrated Communion together, with me serving each member. Following this, I offered the following prayer:

Solomon, on the occasion of his ascension to the throne of Israel, prayed to God for wisdom instead of gold, holy knowledge instead of worldly power. May we who share in the feast of God’s presence also seek – and find – that same wisdom. Amen.

Parents and Children

This is the sermon I preached on August 9, using the text from 2 Samuel 18
The lament is one of the most famous, immortalized in novels and movies: “Oh, Absalom! My son, my son, Absalom! Would that I have died instead of you!” King David’s grief for his son and how he ended up belies a larger story, of how cross-wise parents and children see the world!
It is one of the oldest stories in the book – figuratively and literally. How children so often disappoint their parents, frustrate the plans parents have for them – and yet how parents persist in their love of those same children! Poor David was cursed with not just one son, but two, who end up breaking his heart. First there is Amnon, firstborn of all David’s children. First-born sons have special importance in the Biblical narrative, and in the cultures from which it emerged. They are inheritors of the largest share of the family’s fortune, and they were the ones who were expected to carry on the family business, whether it was tending sheep or leading a nation.
Amnon, beloved of his father, becomes obsessively infatuated with his half-sister Tamar. Enlisting his father’s unwitting help, he contrives a plan by which he takes by force what has been forbidden to him by custom. Having satiated his base desire, he has no further use for her. He sends Tamar away, compounding the shame of the rape with his casting her off like so much old clothing.
David, hearing the scandal, refuses to punish Amnon, because after all, he loves his son and he is the first-born. Who would not want to protect their child, even in the face of such a hideous crime? The relative worth of sons and daughters in the Old Testament, and even, it must be said, the New Testament and much of the past two thousand years of church history, is so taken for granted that it is not even mentioned in the text. When the victim and the child are both one’s children, well, David has chosen his allegiance.
And in choosing Amnon, David loses not only his daughter Tamar but also his son Absalom, who contrives a plan not only to kill his half-brother but also to usurp the throne. Can you not see Absalom’s point of view? From Absalom’s perspective, David is allowing his own daughter’s rape to go unavenged, and worse yet, actually protecting the rapist! Absalom cannot understand why a father – his father – would not respond with all the power and authority of one’s position if that father learned the identity of his daughter’s rapist. While King David can only see his legacy potentially destroyed, Absalom can only see the pain of his sister. Ah, how cross-wise parents and children see the world!
They cannot find a way to each other. And yet, when Absalom the usurper is killed, David is ripped apart with grief: “Oh Absalom, Absalom – my son Absalom!” All could be forgiven, if only Absalom were not dead.
Marilynne Robinson describes this grief and the sorrow of parents so well in her novel Gilead, as one elderly man speaks of his best friend love for his wayward son: “And old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound, and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having. If Boughton could be himself, he would utter pardon ever transgression, past, present and to come, whether or not it was a transgression in fact or his to pardon” (p. 238).
This son, this utter mystery and disappointment to his father, source of his greatest sorrow, this Jack, fails at his every attempt to succeed in his father’s eyes. This novel, and its companion Home, tell the story that if only these two men could know each other as each wishes to know and to be known, what reconciliation and what life could come. But of course, one of the great mysteries of life is that we do not always know each other as we wish we could, and we are not always known by each other in the deepest and truest ways.
Jack cannot stay, though his father is dying and his family needs him, because he has another
family who needs him. It is the early 1950s and his wife and son are black. In rural Iowa, then more so than know, such a match would be scandalous. In Jack’s eyes, the scandal would be too much for his family to bear, and in his day and age, it is sad to say that he is probably right. Even if the family welcomed this wife and son, the community could not.
So in order for him to do right by the family he has made, the family who has healed him and matured him and made him into a man – in other words, to live up to the responsibilities as his father raised him to do, Jack must betray the family who has loved him and nurtured him through all his prodigal years. In order to stop being a prodigal to this wife and son, he must remain a prodigal in the eyes of his brothers and sisters and father.
Oh, how cross-wise parents and children see the world!
Last week, I met with a newcomer to our town, who wanted to know where the “gay community” was here. I had to tell him something he had recently figured out on his own: that such a thing does not exist here. Yes, there are gay people in this community. Yes, there are same-sex couples in this community. Yes, our church is an oasis of welcome and hospitality for many who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. But no, there is no gay community to speak of here. Or, not one that I know about, anyway.
He related to me that he had heard of many gay and lesbian children of Red Oak, sons and daughters of prominent and average families, who have left this place because they had no welcome here, no place to be who they truly were. It is a story I have heard many times. The truth is, this community is not as welcoming as we could be of different people and their gifts, as accepting of the different ways our sons and daughters see the world and their place in it, nor as open as we sometimes profess. It is not always about sexual identity, either, but about all the ways that our children become so different from their parents.
Though we see ourselves as a community that is “a shade better,” though we try to make this place as idyllic as possible for our children, though we want to believe that this is a great place to live, raise children, and to have our grandchildren grow up, the truth is that this community can be intolerant of “outsiders,” that it can be challenging to feel safe if one thinks differently, loves differently, or lives differently than a narrow view of what is considered acceptable. Our children see this, and for their own emotional or physical safety, or in their desire to live openly and with integrity, they do often leave. And we wonder why.
And though we may ask why, we seldom do the work necessary to change the answers. We know why – our children tell us. They fear for their safety, often for good reason. They are teased and bullied, often mercilessly. They decide that putting some distance between themselves and their hometown is better than remaining hidden within a closet. They simply do not think they can change a community’s attitudes. And often, the parent’s response is not to help create a new future safe for all children, but to try to protect one’s own. One’s own heritage, one’s own story, one’s own reputation.
Diana Butler Bass, in the book we’ll be studying together this fall, Christianity for the Rest of Us, related a story about how the community in which she grew up has literally vanished. The buildings are still there, but the people who made up her childhood are no longer there. She does not, however, waste a lot of time pondering why this is so. She knows that for some of us, that question is never-ending and ultimately, never-answerable. We cannot always know why our world changes; but we know that it always is.
The questions we must be asking ourselves, Butler Bass suggests, are not questions that ask us to look back, or to become mired in a past that once was (or maybe only exists in our memory), but to ask how we might create a new future. We must do what David did not, and listen to our sons and daughters as they tell us how they see the world. We must empower them and ourselves to work for the justice and the hope made known to our children in the Gospel, and, speaking the truth in love, we must be more than an oasis of welcome, but rather a beacon of God’s liberation for all of God’s children. We must rise up out of ourselves and our pasts to become who God has called us to be – loving, forgiving and forgiven, blessed by God to be a blessing to the world.
Then it may be said that while parents and children often see the world cross-wise, still we work side-by-side to heal old wounds and make new the hopes of God’s people. Thanks be to God for different visions that lead us to God’s promises, fulfilled for all. Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Man on Fire

Does anyone out there really understand the movie Man on Fire with Denzel Washington?  I've seen it all the way through once, and found it incomprehensible but compelling.  

Now I've seen it several more times in parts, and it is equally baffling.  Tonight it is on Telemundo, and curiously enough, it is no more baffling than in English.  Perhaps it's because the story takes place largely in and around Mexico City, so there is already a lot of Spanish in the film (though on Telemundo, there are no subtitles and the English parts are dubbed into Spanish).  

I really want to like the film - who doesn't like Denzel?  who doesn't like Dakota?  But I'm finding it really hard to figure the whole thing out.  Is it just a bad film?  Am I just not getting something about it?  Please, do let me know your impressions of the movie.

Holy Church Service, Batman!

A year ago at this time, I was planning Sunday School lessons for two fourth-graders.  This year, I am shaping a curriculum for two classes of students who range in age from 3-12.  Up until this morning, I was expecting that between the classes, we might have 8-10 students on a fairly consistent basis.

After today, it is entirely possible that we will have 15 in the classes.  Fifteen.  Regularly.  We had nine visitors in church today - including five fantastic kids!  Since our worship attendance is normally about 25-35, the addition of nine people is significant and marvelous.  There were 46 of us today.  And I do think our visitors will be back.  (I sure hope so!)  

It's also fabulous in that there was a diverse group of folk who joined us for the first time - a mom with a toddler daughter, a mom with four kids, an older couple, and a gentleman who is planning to run for U.S. Congress in our district.  Plus a larger-than usual group of "regulars," who are themselves a heady mix of families, widowers, widows, older couples, and same-sex couples of a variety of ages.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that church growth happens when that new and exciting minister comes to town, and I expect there are places where that happens.  But in smaller communities, or at least in this one, even dynamic ministers really have to build trust in order to impact a community - and that comes with time.  I think it also helps that over the past few years, I have built real friendships with a number of the people who've ended up coming to church in the past year.  They have seen that I am their friend and that my relationship with them has nothing to do with church.  They know that I will be their friend if they never come to church; and they know that if this church community is not for them, we will still be friends.  

Of course, I will happily navigate the challenges of friends joining the church I serve, and if this is a good fit, nothing would make me happier than friends finding a home in the church I love so well.  In fact, I rather like the way we've rather unconventionally grown and the ways that this growth is emerging and taking shape in the life of our church community.  

This is a big of rambly post, I know - but I'm still riding the "high" from worship and fellowship time today - and I can't wait to start my work week!  Thank you, visitors, friends and members!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Adventures in Bathroom Redecoration

This week I went to an unnamed and terrible, terrible store to do a little research for my educator job and ended up killing a little time there.  And, of course, giving money to the terrible empire.  But this is not a self-flagellating post about giving money to terrible multi-national corporations who pay crap wages to their workers, resist union organizing, and destroy local industries.

This is a post about the marvelous shower curtain I bought there.

We have not done much to redecorate the house we own.  That includes the cloth shower curtain in the upstairs bathroom.  It was a deep maroon and lovely enough, so I kept it.  But recently I noticed that it was in desperate need of replacing.  Not cleaning, mind you - replacing.  As some of you know, I'm kind of lackadaisical about housekeeping and don't enjoy shopping all that much.  So it hadn't really been on my list, but hanging around in my head.  

When I went to the terrible store this week, I cruised past the bathroom wares and saw a rather nice cloth curtain at a reasonable price.  It doesn't really match the rest of the "decor" in the room - it was striped in a variety of shades of blue - but I liked it.  So I bought it, and this morning I installed it.

Oh.My.God.  All of a sudden I realize how terrible and dark the shower has been for the past six years.  This morning I had the most delightful shower, because the curtain was light and airy and beautiful and actually let in light!  Backbencher, who got the first shower today, is in for a BIG surprise tomorrow.  Shhh!

So now, we redecorate the bathroom to fit the curtain.  

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

World Friend Collision Events

This is my new expression for those times when friends from your different "worlds" come together in one event.  So, if my sex educator friends, a couple of clergy colleagues, a few parishioners and my drinking friends get together for a party celebrating the release of a CD by a friend from college (whether he's there or not), that would be a World Friend Collision Event.  Or, if while visiting NYC with Backbencher, we dine with folk from Marble Church, Broadway UCC and NYU, that would also count.  You get the idea.

Like many folk, I used to get worked up about these kinds of events, hoping people would connect and trying to find some of those points of contact in advance so that I could have some ways to direct conversation.  And, I don't know, sometimes that worked.  But more often, people found other cool stuff in common and bonded over that, without my help, or I learned all sorts of new things about all kinds of friends....or it just didn't work out.  My friends didn't bond.  In which case, Apples to Apples seldom lets me down.

But part of being a recovering perfectionist means I try letting go of outcomes around these sorts of things.  If I think people would mesh well together, I try to bring them together and let stuff happen.  If I don't think they mesh well together ... well, that's why we have different circles of friends.  I guess.  I kind of like it when my worlds collide, overall.  I think it has something to do with wholeness and integrity of self.  Naturally, I don't expect all my friends to be friends with each other, but I like when points of contact and relationship between mutual friends (that don't put me at the center of the relationship) emerge.

Weddings and funerals don't count as WFCE's - but lunch at India Star in Des Moines this Friday does!  If you're in the area, come join us at 12:30ish.  I have a board meeting in the morning for the Iowa Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies, so I'll be all fancily dressed, but you can wear your casual clothes.
See you at WFCE '09!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Oh, Absalom

I'm reflecting on Absalom this week.  His death is the lectionary text for this week, and I am pondering the complicated journey of his life.  His first real appearance is when he avenges the rape of his sister Tamar by his half-brother Amnon.  And I've been wondering, how does one go from being what we may legitimately call a hero to a usurper of the throne, killed ignominiously by his father's friend and general Joab as Absalom's head is caught in an oak tree?  

This story is about David, too - about his love of his firstborn son Amnon and his excusal of even the most hideous of crimes, about how his love of Amnon and the memory of this son (a crass and callous man)  blinds him notions of justice, and to the political intrigue brewing right under his nose.  David, too, bears some responsibility for how Absalom turns out, as any parent does.  And yet his grief for his traitorous son is no less than that of his first-born.  Curious, the relationship between parents and children.

Anyway, these are the thoughts rattling around in my head today.  I will probably be more coherent tomorrow at church, when I preach on parents and children.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Once Again, Iowa Is on the Forefront

Only this time, it's about texting to 911.  Cool, huh?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

This One is For Sleazy Nate

Ah, Sleazy Nate.  Where would I be without the endless stories and laughter he has provided over the years?  I dated Sleazy Nate for a few months in college, until the utter disregard with which he treated me (which can be summarized by the phrase "three other girls in three other states") finally reached a tipping point with my self-esteem.  I suppose I *could* have dumped him earlier .... but we know that sad story.  The good news is, eventually I did get my act together and break up with him, and it made for some hilarious moments later on down the line.  Plus, he has the BEST nickname of all my exes.

Now he's a rather famous "artist," and I only use the quotes because he's an artist who makes things out of Legos.  Yes, Legos.  He took the fantasy of an eight-year-old and turned it into a career.  He gave up a law career to become a master builder at Legoland, and now makes ungodly sums of money creating life-size "sculptures" of various things.  He's not bad, actually.  But, God, he's (still) pretentious - bless his heart.   The weirdest thing was seeing him on Letterman with my then-father-in-law Si.  How do you say to your FIL, "Oh, I used to [ahem] go out with* that guy?"  (You don't.  You tell him you knew him in college and leave it at that.)

Once, at a bar (I wasn't drinking, Ma, I swear!), I found myself at one end of a table full of girls Sleazy Nate had either dated or hooked up with.  SN was at the other end of the table.  I called out to him, let my eyes gaze along the length of the table, and looked back.  He almost walked out with his then-girlfriend.  Apparently he's not so sleazy not to be shamed by some things, anyway.

I swear, though, no matter how sleazy Nate was, I never, ever, ever even considered this kind of plan.  Ladies, ladies, ladies - the best revenge is living well, not Krazy glue + genitals.  

* I was going to say "schtup" but apparently, one person does not schtup another.  Two (or presumably more than two) people schtup together.  Thank you, Urban Dictionary!  Plus, I'm pretty sure my in-laws read this blog....

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Babies, babies, everywhere!

Babies are a terrific way to encourage me to knit.  So, to all my friends out there, keep having them!  I am in the midst of a multi-hat project for all the babies coming into my life these days.  Here's where I am so far:

 The pattern is quite simple - it's free (and here), and it only takes me about two hours from start to finish (including weaving in ends, adding the ear flaps and braiding the ties).  I'm rather a slow knitter so a focused person could probably complete it in a little more than an hour.

This one

is for Baby Girl D.M., who is expected to arrive in mid-August to parents K and A.  K was my matron of honor and A played at my wedding.  The purple one is for my college roommate M and her husband T's baby girl, and I'm yet to figure out which other babies get which hats.  If you have ideas .... let me know.  

In a week or so I'm planning to try to adapt it for a) knitting in the round, and b) adults.  Surprisingly, my knitting confidence has dramatically increased since Synod - that's due to Pope Laura the Beneficent and Holy Knitter.  Thanks, gals!  If I manage to create a workable pattern, I'll post it here with credit to the good people at Lion's Brand.

In other knitting news, I also finished another project last night - the infamous purse.  It turned out fairly well, considering I forgot the last piece of instructions, which was to take it out of the dryer while it was still a bit damp in order to shape it.  (Any thoughts on how to correct that?)  I was just so happy to be finished that when I was felting it, I just put it in the dryer last night and went to sleep.  Still, I'm pretty glad with how it turned out:

It's not perfect, obviously, and if I were doing this again, I would be a lot more careful with the pattern part (which was a little tighter than the plain brown sections).  But, I learned I can take on a sort-of challenging pattern and it can turn out well!  And I also learned that felting covers a multitude of sins.

Thank God for these great little projects!  And, of course, for babies. We can't wait to meet you!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Oh! One More Gem From Yesterday

I forgot to mention that I spoke to one of our local magistrates about the change in Iowa's marriage laws. Turns out, this magistrate has already presided at a same-sex marriage. The magistrate's exact words to me: "I thought the court made the right decision."

Who knew the allies we have in our midst? We won't know unless we ask. And I think I've already noted the kindness and utter professionalism of our county recorder's office. I have no idea about their personal views, but really, it doesn't matter. They are doing their job graciously and effectively, as they always have.

I am really proud of this little community, and so happy to call it home.

"Pastor, What Do You Do About ..."

A few times now, gay or lesbian couples have come to my office to ask me what I do about those troublesome verses in the Bible that appear to condemn homosexuality. Not surprisingly, they often come from a variety of evangelical and/or fundamentalist traditions, and they are seeking assurances that what I am telling them is Biblical. Or maybe not. Maybe they just want to know that I've actually thought about it some.

In general, I'm not a big fan of "giving answers" to people. We here in the congregation I serve really are about the journey together and about wrestling with this stuff, not being spoon-fed answers. But, as it happens, I do have some thoughts about those troublesome verses. And here is what I've told the folks who come to my office:

1. All of us Christians are selective literalists. We are literalists in that we all have passages that we believe to be "literally and for-all-time true," and we are selective in that we prioritize certain passages over others. I am yet to meet a Christian who takes the whole of the Bible fully literally and lives faithfully by the commandments contained therein. Slavery? Stoning of children for disobedience? Levirate marriage? Didn't think so. Even the most fundamentalist Christians I have known talk about "cultural" laws that may have been for certain times (but not now), and "moral" laws that stand for all time. It's funny, however, that the commandments they consider "moral" are usually the ones that don't affect their lives in significant ways, while the "cultural" commandments might require some real sacrifice on their part. But I'm sure that's just a coincidence. Right?

The point is, all of us Christians pick and choose which portions of the Bible we read literally. Some Christians pick out the nine or so verses that "deal" with "homosexuality" and make them the center of the Gospel message. (Curious, that, as Jesus never spoke of homosexuality, but I digress.) Some Christians pick out the hundreds-to-thousands of verses that speak to caring for the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the otherwise marginalized, and make them the center of the Gospel message. Some Christians pick out the hundreds or so verses that speak to creation care, and make them the center of the Gospel message. And so on.

I myself believe that when Jesus said, "Feed the hungry, visit the sick and those in prison, give clothing to the naked" and the like, that he literally meant for us to do those things. But hey, that's just me.

Maybe you noticed: this methodology I'm proposing does assume that we prioritize the message that we think is "literally" true. Is this a nod to the fundamentalists? Is it an acceptance of literal truth as having the highest priority for our faith? Hardly. It's an acknowledgment that for many of the people who come through the doors of the church I serve, literal truth is still very important to them. My job is about meeting people where they are, opening the door to some understandings and experiences of God that may be new for them, and helping them grow in faith. So if people start with the literalist interpretation of the Bible, that's where I start, too. But I don't stay there. There's a whole world of allegory, metaphor, parable/story, and loads of other ways to interpret the Bible that faithful people may utilize.

2. Now, that doesn't really answer the question. Those verses are still there. There may be only a few of them, but they are there. So what to do about them? I can exegete many of them away - the sin of Sodom, according to Ezekiel, was not the man-on-man action desired by the men of Sodom, but rather that "she and her sisters has pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." (That's Ezekiel 16: 49 for all you sword-drill types.) By the Bible's own wording, it was Sodom's lack of care and hospitality that led to their downfall, not the fact that the men of the town wanted to rape the visitors to Lot's house (though I don't imagine God was overly pleased about rape, either....) That 2 Kings passage is about temple prostitution. And so forth. I sometimes also mention that in Biblical times, there weren't a lot of faithful examples of lifelong, committed same-sex couples (though you may want to read about Jonathan and David's relationship - even if it was not "sexual," it was surely far more intimate than any relationship David had with a woman), so the writers of the Bible had little to go on.

I myself have known many committed same-sex couples in whom the Holy Spirit was clearly at work. The fruits of the Spirit were alive in their relationship, their love radiated outward to others, and clearly they knew they were children of God. How can we deny that kind of evidence? We can't.

3. At our church, we take the Bible seriously but not always literally. I don't actually spend a lot of time on Biblical self-defense, mostly because it's simply not in my makeup. I grew up in the UCC, and while I hold the Bible in very high regard, I have always felt free to wrestle and argue with it. If the Bible can't withstand my questions.....well, it's not much of a holy text, then, is it? Furthermore, I don't feel the need to come up with "the right answer" to respond to a troublesome text, because there isn't a single right answer to counter troublesome texts. Sometimes they are just plain troublesome. It's a mark of faith to admit that.

I don't mean that I just throw out the stuff I disagree with. We must wrestle with challenging texts - that is how we grow and mature in our faith. And if, after a night of hard wrestling, we are unable to continue because of a hip joint that's come out of place.....well, there is blessing in that, too. We can be troubled by the texts of the Bible. It is good that they trouble us.

What I worry about is that we let the wrong passages trouble us. We should be more troubled by our casual acceptance of war and poverty in this nation than we are same-sex marriage. We should be more troubled that we are facing the judgment in Matthew 25 for not clothing the naking, feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, and caring for the sick and those in prison. Why don't such passages trouble us more?

4. The Bible should be thought of as a library of books, whose authors do NOT speak univocally regarding God's nature or activity in the world.  For a good example of this, just go read Job, then read Proverbs.  Do they sound like they agree with one another?  

5.  I usually conclude by mentioning that, oh by the way, I'm a Christian Universalist.  Meaning I believe that Jesus lived, died and rose for the salvation of all of humanity, and that in the fullness of time, all of humanity will be fully reconciled to God.  Look, either what Jesus did worked or it didn't.  If it worked, it worked for all of us.  And if it didn't work for all of us ... well, maybe we should reconsider calling Jesus the "Savior of the World."  And, fair warning: if you try to convince me that humanity's stubbornness can overcome or ultimately thwart the will of God, well, I will just point out that your God seems pretty weak, small and puny compared to the One who will persistently seek us - in all the ways God can imagine to reach us - and, in the end, redeem even the worst that we can do to each other.

And all God's people said "Amen!"