Monday, December 31, 2007

Off to Africa

I am leaving tomorrow for about 10 days in Africa. No good works--just seeing gorillas. We had planned to spend a couple of days in Nairobi before going to Rwanda and Uganda. Yesterday I tried to change our tickets so that we could fly into Entebbe (we are flying out of Entebbe) and I was told it would cost $2000 for each of us to change the tickets. After finding what news I could (there is a curfew in Nairobi), I decided that I'd bite the bullet and pay the difference. After an hour on the phone a nice agent managed to change our tickets for $200. I'll be able to sleep tonight.

Before I travel, I am always anxious. As much as I travel, one would think I wouldn't be anxious, but I am. I have to finish packing and organizing my carry on.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Jesus' People (Sermon)

Jesus’ People
December 30, 2007

Scripture: Matthew 1:1-17

For many Americans genealogies are not important. For most Americans a genealogy is simply a list of ancestors. It is unimportant to who you are. What is important to many Americans is what you yourself have accomplished. Southerners know different. A genealogy is more than a list of ancestors. It is a story of who the ancestors are and, as such, who your are and whose you are. A genealogy tells stories of possibilities, of success and failures. It tells of your place within the nation, of history. It ties you to the broader sweep of time than simply the present. And so, tracing ancestors has become a hobby for some. My brother is the one in my family that draws our family trees, adding leaves and branches as he finds an ancestor here and there in his search. I looked at his work one day and realized that is was only the males he traced. Yes, women appeared, but as wives and mothers. Their lines were never traced back. I don't think it is male chauvinism on his part. I think it is just the way that the records are kept. It is hard to find the records of women's lives. Their names change when they marry and so it is difficult to follow their lines backwards. And this is the way it is in the scriptures as the writers traces the lines of kings, patriarch, rulers back. The end of Ruth contains the genealogy of David. No women are included. In II Kings, the recitation of the line of the kings rarely includes women.
Matthew begins his account of Jesus' life with the heading,” An account of the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Inexplicably, he includes four women among Jesus’ male ancestry. Each of the women, Tamar, Rehab, Ruth and “the wife of Uriah” are foreign (or in Bathsheba’s case, identified with a foreigner) and were involved in “sexual irregularities.” The usual quick explanation is two-fold: Matthew includes them as a signal that the kingdom includes gentiles and as a way of countering rumors of Jesus’ illegitimacy. If the answer were that easy, then why does Matthew include four women? One would have accomplished both goals. Because Matthew liked doubles, two would have been sufficient. Four is overkill and leads to the question, what else did the inclusion of these four women in the genealogy accomplish.
A closer look, rather than a quick dismissal, may provide insight into Matthew’s objectives in writing the gospel. So, what are the stories Matthew wanted his readers to remember or the listeners of the genealogy to ask about? A clue may lie in the very inclusion of women which is so quickly dismissed. The inclusion of women in a Jewish genealogy is unusual. As already noted, the four women are either foreign or identified as foreign. The four form two pairs. In the first pair, Tamar and Rahab, one woman acted as a prostitute, the second was a prostitute. The second pairs a seductress, Ruth, with a woman seduced, Bathsheba. The first and the last are coupled with great names in the Jewish lineage: Judah, from whom those who are left in Judea trace their ancestry, and David, the great king.
Let us begin to examine the stories individually to see what they may show us. Tamar, the first woman mentioned was married Er, Judah’s son. Er died before fathering sons. As was the custom, Judah ordered his next son, Onan, to go to Tamar so that Er might have sons. He did not. His actions displeased God and so God killed him. Judah then told Tamar to return to her father and wait until his third son was old enough to father children. After a while, Tamar, seeing that this son was now grown, and that Judah made no move to send him to her, took matters into her own hands. She dressed as a prostitute, and waited for Judah. Judah accosts her and negotiates a price for her favors. Tamar agrees to a kid in exchange for her services. Judah does not have a kid with him and so Tamar asks him for tokens as a pledge for the payment. Judah agrees. In a few months, Judah hears of Tamar’s pregnancy and decides to have her burned for her adultery. She sends the tokens, he realizes that she was the one he thought was a prostitute and takes her into his household.
Judah, the ancestor of the Jews, breaks the law by not giving Tamar his third son. Tamar acts to secure offspring for her husband (and herself). It takes a trick for Judah to realize his wrong. Tamar, by acting as a prostitute appears to be behaving with less regard for the law, is in reality acting within the spirit of the law. Judah, who was ready to enforce his property rights over Tamar (even though she remained in her father’s house), is caught in his hypocrisy.
The second woman did not play the prostitute, she was a prostitute. Rahab hides the spies whom Joshua has sent out. She recognizes that God has given the Israelites the land. She understands and obeys God’s will. She is rewarded for her faithful actions.
The second pair of women also function as a doublet: a seductress and a woman seduced. Naomi, Ruth's mother in law, moved with her husband and her two sons to Moab during a time when there was drought in Israel. There, her sons grew up and married, but had no children. As time went on, Naomi's husband and her two sons die. She decides to return to her family in Israel. Her two daughters in law try to go with her, but she sends them back. She tells them that she will not be able to find them husbands. One daughter in law returns, but Ruth does not. She tells Naomi, "wherever you go, I will go and your people will be my people." Ruth follows Naomi back to Bethlehem. There they settle. Ruth goes to gather grain in the fields and meets Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz. He has heard of her kindness to Naomi and treats her well. On the night when Boaz will celebrate the completion of the harvest, Naomi advises Ruth to go to him where he sleeps on the threshing floor and “uncover his feet” and lie there. Boaz awakens. He is taken that the young woman has come to him and not “gone after young men, whether rich or poor” (Ruth 3:10). He tells her that if her nearest kin will not act as such, he will do so. Ruth’s obedience to God, her humbleness, her kindness to her mother-in-law are all rewarded. Likewise, Boaz shows humility, kindness and obedience to the law.
The final woman is Bathsheba, named as the wife of Uriah, though at the time of Solomon’s conception, Uriah had been killed. The story is a familiar one. David sees Bathsheba bathing, sends for her, seduces her. Bathsheba becomes pregnant. He has committed adultery with the wife of one of his commanders. He orders Uriah to return so that David may cover up his sin and hide the fact that he is Bathsheba’s child’s father. Uriah returns, but does not sleep at his house. He explains that while all of Israel are fighting for David, he will not sleep with his wife. David then has Uriah killed in battle. David tries to hide what he has done, but Nathan indicts him. Here David, the royal king, has broken the law and acts with hypocrisy. Uriah, on the other hand, the foreigner, acts with more righteousness than David, the king.
The outside stories, then, are stories of the men, two of the giants of the tradition: Judah and David. Each broke the law and tried to hide it. They try to hide behind hypocrisy. The middle stories are the stories of the women, foreign women, among the least of these. In contrast to the great men, they acted with faithfulness to a God they did not fully know. They acted with humility and obedience to that God. They, without being schooled in the law, act with righteousness.
Matthew included these four women not simply to show that gentiles are included in the kingdom or to counter rumors of Jesus’ illegitimacy. He had a larger purpose. He intended to teach the members of his community what it meant to be a Christian, how even the giants among the Jewish ancestors could fall short, but how the least, even gentile women could keep the law.
These are themes that we will encounter in the next year as Matthew's gospel will be the lectionary gospel: Humility and obedience to God, the importance of righteousness.
And so, as we end one year and begin another, it is good to ponder humility and obedience to God. Take time this week to think about these stories. Take time to remember that the outsiders are included in the family of God. Take time to remember that those who are thought to be the most Godly may be the ones filled with hypocrisy.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

I am absolutely exhausted and I have to preach tomorrow. I facilitated a planning session last night and this morning. We accomplished a lot. I still struggle with two session members who don't get spiritual growth. I am also trying to explain small spiritual formation groups. Those who have been a part of a group understand the importance of these groups in our spiritual growth; those who haven't don't understand why going to church on Sunday and a once a month Bible study isn't enough. I don't sense a lot of spiritual hunger. I sense a lot of desire for fellowship. I try to listen and hear what these two are saying: God speaks through those we don't want to hear, too. I feel like I am swimming upstream through jello. I have to remember to focus on those who get it and pray that I am on the right path and that others will understand. One member said, well, session is a small group. Now, I have been trying to move us to more of a place of sharing and spiritual growth, but it isn't a spiritual formation group. Some are just satisfied with where they are.

On the other hand, I keep saying "God, I don't want to fully commit to this: I want to keep traveling. I want to focus on photography. I want to not have to give so much. I want a life."

Friday, December 28, 2007

Last Friday Five of 2007

It is hard to believe, but 2007 is about to be history, and this is our last Friday Five of the year.

With that in mind, share five memorable moments of 2007. These can be happy or sad, profound or silly, good or bad but things that you will remember.

Bonus points for telling us of a "God sighting"-- a moment when the light came through the darkness, a word was spoken, a song sung, laughter rang out, a sermon spoke to you in a new way--whatever you choose, but a moment in 2007 when you sensed Emmanuel, God with us. Or more particularly, you.

In no particular order:
1. Visiting Sarmakand, the legendary stop on the Silk Road. Besides the spectacular architecture, it was amazing to remember that in the period from about 1100-1400 when Europe was plunged into darkness, Central Asia, the Middle East and Islamic Spain were centers of great learning. It was there and then that great strides in mathematics, astronomy and medicine were made.

2. Gathering with friends in my new backyard this summer (before it got too hot and buggy). I love to have people over and don't do it enough. I wish I would do it more.

3. Going to the Arkansas Blues Heritage Festival with my son. Spending two and a half days in the hot sun listening to hot blues along the banks of the Mississippi.

4. Visiting Pompeii. I think I was most affected by the casts of the victims, particularly one person who was squating with his/her hands over her eyes. Death.

5. Our services of wholeness and healing. It is profoundly moving to have people come forward for prayers and annointing. To look in their eyes and see the tears. A woman who rarely attends said to me on Christmas Eve that the service she had attended had been so meaningful and important to her.

Glimpses of God. I usually think I see God most when I am in the mountains, under water, hiking around Phoenix Lake, but this year I had two profound experiences of God. In both situations, I believe God worked through me to bring healing to two members of the congregation. In both cases, it was pure happenstance that I was there when I was needed. (Happenstance=God's amazing presence)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bhutto is assassinated

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated today. I am filled with sadness at the senselessness of her death.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

Would I be tarred and feathered and rode out of town on a rail if I admitted I don't like Christmas? (I don't like Easter either, but for entirely different reasons. I'll probably post a rant about Easter sometime in March!)

I used to love Christmas. But that was before I became a pastor. Well, let me take that back. After I started going back to church (I had no interest in Christian stuff: I had been raised in the south in a Presbyterian church and I had had enough being around judgmental people. Actually, I just liked sleeping in on Sunday morning and reading the NYTimes and doing the crossword puzzle. I actually was fairly good at it for a while. Well, to get back to my parenthetical, my son was in boy scouts. The boy scouts are big on the God-thing and so he asked me to take him to church, because we were Presbyterians (at this point I think the kid, then 12, had been in a Presbyterian church once, to be baptized, unless my parents took him at some point). And so off we went to the nearest (I thought) Presbyterian church. I got hooked on God. That's another story.) Back to this story. My increasing involvement in things churchy included visits to Nicaragua back during the contra war (no, for you youngins, that has nothing to do with Scottish dance). I visited the north Atlantic region where the indigeneous people didn't even speak Spanish. One year, I went in December. I came back from a land where people had nothing, but were ready to give their best to strangers to a land where the Sunday morning newspaper was about six inches thick, mostly with ads for things no one really needed. Then Christmas and the greed involved made me sick. Not that I didn't enjoy getting and giving presents. I loved choosing the right present. I loved Christmas Day when we'd open the presents and find that we had all chosen the same present for each other! I finally came to terms with American Christmas when I realized there were two holidays with exactly the same name. One is secular Christmas: filled with Santas and presents and food and revelery. One is the remembrance of the time when God chose to be incarnated and live among us.

But, now, Christmas is again hard for me. It is a time filled with too many things to do; to many expectations to fulfill, usually too many sermons to write (this year a reprieve, no sermons to write). But I have to be somewhere and I have responsibilities to fulfill and a role to play. Jesus came as a servant, but I have a hard time being a servant. What should be a joy is a burden. What should be a privilege is hard. It is a time when I ask yet again, am I really called to this? Do I really believe? I mean really? Is there really a God? I'm back to the age-old question of a loving God in an unloving world.

I sit in a warm house. I look out the window at the sun beginning to warm the cold day. It's 29 degrees in Memphis. I sit in a warm house, but I know there are men and women who sit on the street this morning who have slept outside during the night. Where is God? Where is God in a city where everyone goes to church (or synagogue or mosque) and yet the homeless shelters charge $6 a night? Where is God in a city which has more "Christian" schools than I can enumerate and the African American children struggle in underfunded schools? Where is God when I sit and rant on my computer and do nothing about any of this but wallow in my self-pity? Where is God when I try to lead a congregation out of self-concern and into concern for others, out of a focus on themselves, their music, their building into a focus on the needs of the wider community.

This is a season for hope. Hope is the expectation of things unseen. Hope undergirds our faith--trust--in God. Hope. We have hoped for two thousand years. Christmas is a reminder of hope. That God's grace is sufficient for all. That God will change us and transform us into the people God wants us to be. That God loves us just as we are; but loves us too much to leave us just the way we are. (I don't know who said that, but I really love it.)

Merry Christmas. May those who lead others to the Christ child tonight find God's love and grace. May those they lead see God's love in them. May all of you be blessed by the celebration of God's grace incarnated in this world.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Grinchy, II

is a bit grinchy. I am feeling a bit that way, too. Our choir cantata was today. The music was OK, but the narration was awful (the narrators spoke well, the works stank). Didn't do much for telling the Christmas story or put the music in context. The pieces were mostly original compositions which bore no relationship to Christmas (the piece about Mary was called Silver Wings) with endings of familiar Christmas carols. At the end, the music director stood up and gestured towards the choir (as those do at the end of secular musical productions) to elict additional applause. It's not a performance. It's a way of worshiping God. (Note to self: stop ranting)

The music director never has time to meet with me. I am saddled with (with two different groups of people) negotiating a salary for her and negotiating a position description to move her to permanent from interim. We have four singers who are paid. When I question this, I'm told that otherwise we wouldn't have a choir. My position is that if we didn't have paid people, folks would feel less intimidated. The worship committee chair wants us to have really, really good music (she sings in a professional group). We should have Bach, etc and lots of organ music.

We have a budget of over $200,000. (Some of the funds are from building usage fees.) We spend less than $6000 a year on benevolences. We spend $16,000 on singers. We don't have a regular organist, but will pay one to play at a service more than we pay a preacher who substitutes for me when I'm gone. The worship committee chair's method of getting enough money in her budget to pay the organist was to use a woman from the congregation who is planning to go to seminary to lead worship in my absence and not pay her. There is something wrong here.

It's gonna be a long, slow slog.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


I'm a believer in self care. But. . . Sometime this week on NPR there was a story about spas for children. A woman who was taking her SON to the spa for a manicure said it was important for him to learn how important it is to take care of himself. Exercise, prayer/meditation, eating good food, getting enough sleep: those are the things I think are important for taking care of myself. I will admit to being self-concerned, but it is amazing to me how self-centered our American culture has become.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Friday Five

My traditional Advent Open House was tonight. (Two years makes a tradition.) The congregants have left. A couple stayed and cleaned up. I never know what to do when someone takes over and starts cleaning up. My kitchen isn't big enough for two (and it's an open plan you have to go through to get to the den, so everyone sees it.).

So, I'm winding down, glad it's over for another year.

Friday Five
  1. What was one of your favorite childhood gifts that you gave:
I was not a very imaginative child. Mom got Evening in Paris until I got older and she decided she loved Shalimar. I can't remember what I gave my Dad: socks? a tie? My sisters and brother? I just don't remember. I'm sure I did give them something, but hey! that was 50 years ago.
  1. What is one of your favorite Christmas recipes? Bonus points if you share the recipe with us.
Let's see, my traditional Christmas party food: cheese ball (my mother's recipe: cheddar, cream cheese, blue cheese in about equal portions, cayenne pepper, worchestershire sauce),
crab spread (8 oz cream cheese, 6 oz can crab, I clove garlic crushed, onion (about 2Tbls minced), 1Tbls prepared mustard, 1 Tbls powered sugar, 2 Tbls sherry. Combine everything but the sherry in a pot, heat. Add sherry when ready to serve. Works nicely warm or cold.) Serve with little cocktail rye bread slices.
killer brownies (Duncan Hines brownie mix prepared according to box; 12 oz Nestles semi sweet morsels) fantastic warm
punch: 2 l club soda, 1 can frozen cranberry concentrate.
  1. What is a tradition that your family can't do without? (And by family, I mean family of origin, family of adulthood, or that bunch of cool people that just feel like family.)
I live by myself. Right now, I just don't have any traditions. When I was part of a family, going to the movies on Christmas Eve. I always want to open the presents early, so it's a great way for me to be patient.
  1. Pastors and other church folk often have very strange traditions dictated by the "work" of the holidays. What happens at your place?
This year, I get to plan a retreat Christmas Day. At least we are doing a Cantata on Sunday and Lessons and Carols on Monday and I'm recycling the following Sunday. Usually, it's the luxury of just not having to do very much at all. The church office is closed between Christmas and New Years; no one expects me to show up. I work on a sermon, try to look ahead until Lent, just chill.
  1. If you could just ditch all the traditions and do something unexpected... what would it be?
I want to go to England and go to Christmas Eve services at Kings Chapel (in Oxford or Cambridge or wherever it is). Or somewhere similar. I want to go to Rome and go to Christmas Eve mass at St. Peters.

Miscellaneous Musings

Somewhere I read that during this time, women pastors drop off in blogging, men continue at their usual rate. I wonder why. (Irony here.)

NPR had a piece on the $1000 bagel. I know about the $1000 martini. There are people in this country who are hungry and homeless and people spend that sort of money for status. On the other hand, I spend money on travel which I am sure many folks would see as senseless and better spent on helping the poor.

This afternoon is my open house for the congregation. I am exhausted. I stayed up until 11 last night cooking and cleaning. I still have more cleaning to do, but my body aches.

I asked people not to bring food. Last year, I had so much left over and much of it was stuff that wasn't good for me. I am worried about not having enough food now.

It is really raining here. I bought beautiful luminaries to put out. (We'll use them for Christmas Eve at church. Last year the worship chair threw my luminaries away after the service.) The bags have a sleeve that has a cut out with a star on it. It's really neat looking. (It's the last one on the top row, not the featured one on top.)

Off to work.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Friday Five RevGalBlogPals

Friday Five from RevGalBlogPals: Can you believe that in two days we'll be halfway through Advent? Gaudete Sunday: pink candle on the advent wreath, rose vestments for those who have them, concerts and pageants in many congregations. Time to rejoice!

Rejoice in the nearness of Christ's coming, yes, but also in the many gifts of the pregnant waiting time when the world (in the northern hemisphere, at least) spins ever deeper into sweet, fertile darkness.

What makes you rejoice about:

Boy, it's a lot easier for me to think about what I don't like about these!

1. Waiting? I like the calm of waiting.

2. Darkness? I used to live in Cleveland, Ohio where in December darkness began around 4:30. I loved the Christmas lights shining in those long, dark nights. I went riding about a couple of nights ago looking at Christmas lights here. I really love to see the different decorations ranging from the really humorous to the elegant.

3. Winter? I like the snuggly parts of winter: wrapped up in fleece and sipping hot chocolate. (No fire here, I don't want to clean my fireplace and I hate artificial logs and besides I really like pointsettias in my fireplace.) When I was in Cleveland, I loved the crinkly snow when I could go cross country skiing at night. The favorite place was a local country club. With the snow reflecting whatever light there was, there was enough light to see to ski. It was so quiet and usually there wasn't much wind. It was magical! Or skiing in one of the state parks. There were long curvy downhills that I'd never make and then I'd have to untangle myself and try to stand up. It was always good for a laugh.

4. Advent? I love the idea of Advent. Preparation, quiet, wondering, waiting.

5. Jesus' coming? Again, I love the idea of Jesus' coming: peace, enough for all, justice. Hmmm, I'm not so sure the reality is one I'm totally comfortable with. What will I give up? Privilege, power, prestige. It's like much of what I struggle with. Yes, I'll use compact florescent bulbs, but don't ask me to give up air travel. I'll walk when it's comfortable, but don't ask me to walk in the cold, rain. I'll give money to feed the hungry, house the homeless. I'll even work for Habitat for Humanity, but don't ask me to give all my money away. Not very impressive for a preacher, is it?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Do Christians Really Need This?

1st Session
H. RES. 847

Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith.


December 6, 2007

Mr. KING of Iowa (for himself, Mr. AKIN, Mrs. BACHMANN, Mr. BAKER, Mr. BARRETT of South Carolina, Mr. BISHOP of Utah, Mr. BOOZMAN, Mr. BRADY of Texas, Mr. BROUN of Georgia, Mr. BURTON of Indiana, Mr. CARTER, Mr. CONAWAY, Mr. DAVID DAVIS of Tennessee, Mr. DOOLITTLE, Mr. FEENEY, Mr. FORTENBERRY, Ms. FOXX, Mr. FRANKS of Arizona, Mr. GINGREY, Mr. GOHMERT, Mr. HAYES, Mr. HERGER, Mr. ISSA, Mr. SAM JOHNSON of Texas, Mr. JONES of North Carolina, Mr. JORDAN of Ohio, Mr. KINGSTON, Mr. KLINE of Minnesota, Mr. KUHL of New York, Mr. LAHOOD, Mr. LAMBORN, Mr. LAMPSON, Mr. DANIEL E. LUNGREN of California, Mr. MCCAUL of Texas, Mr. MCINTYRE, Mrs. MCMORRIS RODGERS, Mr. MILLER of Florida, Mrs. MUSGRAVE, Mrs. MYRICK, Mr. NEUGEBAUER, Mr. POE, Mr. SALI, Mr. SHADEGG, Mr. SMITH of Texas, Mr. STEARNS, Mr. TERRY, Mr. TIAHRT, Mr. WALBERG, Mr. WELDON of Florida, Mr. WILSON of South Carolina, Mr. DAVIS of Kentucky, and Mrs. DRAKE) submitted the following resolution; which was referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs


Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith.

Whereas Christmas, a holiday of great significance to Americans and many other cultures and nationalities, is celebrated annually by Christians throughout the United States and the world;

Whereas there are approximately 225,000,000 Christians in the United States, making Christianity the religion of over three-fourths of the American population;

Whereas there are approximately 2,000,000,000 Christians throughout the world, making Christianity the largest religion in the world and the religion of about one-third of the world population;

Whereas Christians identify themselves as those who believe in the salvation from sin offered to them through the sacrifice of their savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and who, out of gratitude for the gift of salvation, commit themselves to living their lives in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Bible;

Whereas Christians and Christianity have contributed greatly to the development of western civilization;

Whereas the United States, being founded as a constitutional republic in the traditions of western civilization, finds much in its history that points observers back to its roots in Christianity;

Whereas on December 25 of each calendar year, American Christians observe Christmas, the holiday celebrating the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ;

Whereas for Christians, Christmas is celebrated as a recognition of God's redemption, mercy, and Grace; and

Whereas many Christians and non-Christians throughout the United States and the rest of the world, celebrate Christmas as a time to serve others: Now, therefore be it

    Resolved, That the House of Representatives--

      (1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world;

      (2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide;

      (3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith;

      (4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization;

      (5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; and

      (6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world.

      You can find the original here

Preaching and the Supremes

"When I first began preaching, I wanted each sermon to be a powerful and transformative experience. I wanted it to be exegetically and theologically sound, even while it was painting new pictures and inspiring new metaphors. I wanted people's lives to be changed and the reign of God to come.
"Now, after almost 20 years of ministry, I just want to have it done by Friday. It's apparent to me that God is at work in the preaching event in a way I can't anticipate or create. I can simply put my best work forward, and the Spirit will craft the gospel with what I've put on the page."
Interview with Bradley Schmeling in The Christian Century, dated Dec 11, 2007.

In other news, the Supremes ruled yesterday that appellate courts should not second guess lower court judges on sentences. This is a decision I want to read. It goes completely against all my preconceptions about this court. I would have guessed a 5-4 one way or the other. The fact that the majority was seven justices is interesting. I would also like to know the race of the appellee. The appellee was a veteran who sold a little bit of crack. Selling crack has carried heavier sentences than selling powered cocaine. This has racial implications because crack is more often used by African Americans and powered cocaine by European Americans.

Monday, December 10, 2007

"For the Pastor's Wife"

I was looking on Rick Warren's site because I knew that he had sermons there. I would like for my sermons to be more applicable to life today. That, I think, is my weak point: specific application. And I think those on the more evangelical side than I am tend to focus their sermons more on facing today's problems. So, I thought I would read a few of Warren's sermons. While I was there, I noticed a sidebar link "For the Pastor's Wife". I clicked on it and found first Kay Warren's work with AIDS in Africa (Hurrah, for her by the way). Then I found videos and so forth for pastor's wives to encourage them in their ministry as a pastor's wife. I remember reading "The Purpose Driven Church" in seminary and Warren's focus on the husband in evangelizing. If you got Saddleback Sam, Saddleback Sally would follow (at least that's how I remember it).

So, what does that make me, chopped liver? Are women in Warren's mind just adjuncts to their husbands? (I suppose that is Biblical.)

In other news, I was listening to Mississippi Public Radio this morning. There is a small town in Mississippi which has a ballot measure to legalize sales of beer and "light wine" in the village (or county, not sure which). I think that hard liquor is presently sold there. The pastor of the local Baptist church (which has taken out ads against sales of beer) was on saying that he just wanted the village to follow what scripture says about drinking beer.

Now, I could be wrong; I haven't read the entire Bible from cover to cover since I was twelve, but I sure don't remember anything in the Bible about beer. And as I recall, Jesus' first miracle, according to the Gospel attributed to John was turning wine into water. (One explanation I have heard is that it was nonalcoholic wine.)

I did spend lunch today with a parishioner talking about how we need to focus more on our own shortcomings than criticizing others. (She was actually talking about it more than me. I like having lunch with her because she is interesting and talks the whole time.) Oh well.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

What Are We Waiting For?--Part II/sermon draft

What Are We Waiting For?—Part II
December 9, 2007

Isaiah 11:1-10 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Romans 15:4-11 4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; 10and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; 11and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; 12and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I’m showing my age, but do you know the old Dusty Springfield song:

Wishing and hoping and
thinking and praying,
planning and dreaming
each night of his charms
that won't get you into his arms?

I have been thinking about hope this week. And wondering about the difference between wishing and hoping. How would you explain the difference between a wish and a hope?
I have been mulling over these passages and another one in Romans about faith. Paul says For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:24) And in Hebrews, the writer describes faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1)
Hope plays a major role in our Christian faith because fundamentally we believe the world is not as God would have it. Our world is a world filled with violence. Wars abound. Our world is a world where so many do not have enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, clean water to drink, while others waste money on that which does not satisfy. Our world is a place where some people have access to the finest medical care, while others die because medicine is too expensive and they cannot afford it or they live in a part of the world where there simply is not medical care. Our world is a world where the wicked seem to prosper while the good shrivel up. If we are honest with ourselves, we are not the people God wants us to be. We are self-centered. We want our own comfort. We are concerned about our own safety. We are concerned about our own financial security. We are concerned about our own desires. We are filled with fear.
And so we hope. We hope for the time when the world will be the world God wants it to be. We hope for the time when wars cease: when the lion and the lamb will lay down together, when we won’t study war no more. We hope for the time when all are fed. We hope for the time when all are sheltered. We hope for the time when all have clean water. We hope for the time when all people have access to good medical care. We hope for a time when the wicked will be punished and the good flourish.
Isaiah promises such a time. A bit of a history lesson may be in order here. Long before Isaiah’s time, the Israelites decided that they wanted a king like the other countries around them. Samuel, who was a holy man warned against having a king. But the people believed that with a king they would become a powerful people like those around them. And so, Samuel reluctantly gave them Saul and then David. And Samuel’s warnings came true. Even with David, whom even the scriptures idolizes as the ideal king, was not. He imposed more taxes and forced the people to work for free to build his palace. Solomon was even worse, imposing heavier taxes and more forced labor. And the kings after Solomon were even worse. In fact, Solomon’s son was so horrible he cause the northern tribes to rebel to form the northern kingdom. In the time Isaiah is prophecsying, the Assyrians are threatening both the Northern Kingdom and the Southern. Eventually the Northern Kingdom falls to the Assyrians. And so, Isaiah tells of a time of an ideal king in an ideal time.
We hope, sometimes, for the time when our lives are transformed. We hope for the time when we can let go of our concern for ourselves first. We hope for the time when we can let go of hurt. We hope for the time when we can let go of anger. We hope for the time when we can trust again. We hope for the time when we are not afraid, when we can trust God. Paul promises that the God of hope will fill us with hope so that we may experience joy and peace.
So, what is the difference between a wish and a hope, at least a hope in the scriptural sense. First, I think a wish is a desire for something that we have no assurance of its coming to pass. For example, I often wish to win the lottery. I pass the lottery sign on the Union-Walnut Grove fly-over that tells what the lottery pay off is. As I pass the sign, I think about what I would do with the money if I won: hmmm, so much to this charity and that, so much to my friends from seminary who are in poorly paid calls, so much for the seminary for support of foreign students, so much for Buntyn, of course. And then figuring how much is left for me. It’s a great day dream and wish. Of course, I’m like the guy in the joke who kept praying to God that he would win the lottery. After hearing his prayers for days on end, God responds and tells the guy: “Help me out a little here, buy a lottery ticket.”
Hope is an expectation, the assurance of things unseen. I think hope is like faith: it is essentially trust. We trust that one day these things will in fact come to pass. Faith is trust in God’s presence with us, here and now. Hope is trust in God’s presence in the future. Hope is trust that God’s promises will be fulfilled.
Archbishop Oscar Romero voiced that hope. Monsignor Romero had been a bookish priest, one known not to be interested in the political situation that battered El Salvador in the 1970s. In 1977 the pope appointed him archbishop. His appointment was viewed with elation by the conservative forces in El Salvador and with disappointment by the priests who were known as followers of the ideas of liberation theology. Soon after his appointment, a friend a fellow priest, Rutilio Grande was assassinated along with a seven year old boy. Grande’s murder changed Romero. Romero began to speak out against the violence of the Salvadoran government against the peasants who were pressing for co-operatives and a fairer distribution of land. At the same time, he clearly spoke out against the Marxists who were choosing to use violence against the government. In the year after his appointment, over 75,000 peasants would be killed in the fighting, more than one millions fled El Salvador and another million left homeless. The population of El Salvador was only five and a half million.
Romero could not promise the people and end to the atrocities, only that the church of the poor would continue. A few days before his death, he said to a reporter, "You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish." On March 23, 1980, in his radio broadcast, he urged the peasants in the army to lay down their weapons against their fellow peasants. The next day, as he ended his homily and prepared to celebrate the Eucharist, he was murdered.
Romero lived in hope. He lived in the hope of the resurrection. He lived in the hope that God’s promises and desires for God’s children would be fulfilled.
Hope is our confidence that God is with us and that God’s promises to us will be fulfilled. Our desires may not be what God is promising us. God does not promise that we will have all we want; that we will get our way; that our dreams and wishes will be fulfilled. God does promise us joy and peace in this life. God surprises us if we dare to see God’s fulfillment of God’s promises.
The signs of God’s fulfillment of God’s promises in our daily lives gives us hope that God will fulfill God’s promise of a day when the poor will have enough food and water and shelter; when justice will reign and when peace will prevail. God calls us not simply to trust in that hope, but to live into its fruition. Each day as we are transformed more and more into followers of Christ, we are a part of that promise being fulfilled. Each day as we follow God’s call to us, we are a part of God’s kingdom coming, God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

What I Learned Last Night

Last night a couple gave a Christmas party for their Sunday School class which is attended by most of the oldest members of the congregation. As I said to one of my clergy friends at lunch yesterday, it's work for me and they think they are doing a favor for me. But, I got dressed and went. And I had a good time. One man said something about baptizing a dead child and that it was against the Book of Order (if you're not a presby, that's half our constitution). I said sometimes the Book of Order is wrong. We talked a little about the perception that baptism is somehow "magic". A former Catholic mentioned that he began to question the church's teachings in the third grade when he learned that unbaptized babies went to limbo (which no longer exists). Then one man talked about his grandchildren who attend with their mother (his daughter) a more conservative Presbyterian congregation. The mother has not moved her membership, though. The oldest child (the baby had not yet been born) was to have been baptized at our church a few years back but an ice storm caused the service to be cancelled. He was worried about the children not being baptized. Without dimishing the importance of baptism, I told him that it was a sign that the child was a member of our family, the family of God's children. I then told him that the children should be baptized in the congregation they attend because the congregation makes promises to help the child grow up. He agreed. (One less worry. I said that if his daughter wanted to have the children baptized in this church, I would advise her to have them baptized in the church they attend.)

Then as I left, a woman who is "difficult" came up to me and hugged me and told me how much she loved me. This is the same woman who was peeved because I told her at a session meeting that the heat in the volunteer room was not a matter for the session.

What I learned. This is a group of people who need most to be loved. It is a dying congregation, focused on self, interested in their own comfort. I am impatient for change. We are at least tutoring in one of the poorest schools in the city. But they are hurting. There is so much pain and ill health in the congregation. I want to have small groups. I don't want to spend my time visiting shut ins. But they are hurting. I want people to come and find a home here. But the ones who are already here are hurting. (I began to do a healing and wholeness liturgy at the end of the service once a month and about a third of those in worship come forward for prayers and annointing--and this is a Presbyterian congregation.) They need most to be loved.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Friday Five

Here then is this weeks Friday 5:

1. You have a busy week, pushing out all time for preparing worship/ Sunday School lessons/ being ready for an important meeting ( or whatever equivalent your profession demands)- how do you cope?
Friday is the day I do no work ever (except for funerals). When I was reading about Sabbath, somthing someone wrote make an impression on me: we keep Sabbath as a way of reminding ourselves that we are not in control; that God is. The work will get done somehow, someway. I need rest and to spend time with God. Last week I did a graveside service and didn't get Friday and I really needed it. As I look back on the last week, I'm noticing that there were times when I wasn't as present as I would have liked to have been. So, I do need that time.

2. You have unexpected visitors, and need to provide them with a meal- what do you do?
Eeeekkkk! I never have extra food in the house. Just Lean Cuisines. If I had any hamburger and Ragu I'd invite them in the kitchen to chat while I cooked spaghetti. Otherwise, I'd suggest we go out and eat at one of the restaurants around here. I'm am blessed to live in a part of the city that has wonderful restaurants of all price ranges (and only a couple of chains) within walking distance or a five minute drive. If that wasn't appropriate, I'd call a friend and ask her to get some hamburger and we'd be back on Plan A.

Three discussion topics:

3. Thinking along the lines of this weeks advent theme; repentance is an important but often neglected aspect of advent preparations.....
Very apt question for this week's Gospel lectionary reading (which I'm not preaching on).
I think repentence is an awareness of our sinful nature. Sin with a captial S. I'm a Calvinist in that I do believe we are born into a state of sin which I understand as recognition of our worst traits as human beings. (I'm reading an article in Time, don't know which issue as I'm always behind about the biological origins of good and evil in humans.) We must be aware of our dark side as the Jungians might put it and our helplessness before it as Paul might put it before we can see our need for salvation. I believe faith and salvation are trust in God's love and grace today and how we live our lives today in response to that love and grace and hope for tomorrow. So, it seems to me that repentence is a foundation of trying to live one's life as a follower of Christ; being aware of our need for grace.

That being said, I am not in contrast to other years and other places mentioning repentence this Lent. Almost every family in the congregation I pastor has been touched either by enormous pain and grief or deep disease and dysfunction. The depth and breadth of this pain is amazing to me. So, I am focusing on what we are waiting for in Christ's advent, not a cute little baby but the Son of God who is the Prince of Peace.

4. Some of the best experiences in life occur when you simply go with the flow.....
I'm trying to be open to the unexpected, the wondrous. A small group of us were hanging the greens last Sunday. One of the youth, about twelve, was in the choir loft messing around with the organ. I was waiting for someone to tell him not to play the organ. (Some voice in my head says that it will hurt the organ if you touch it and you don't know what you are doing. I can't place it in my childhood or the church where I was an elder for many years.) No one did and he began playing Halloween music. Then one of the young adults tried to get him to play Carols. He played a little and then began playing What Wondrous Love Is This? He will be playing that for our Palm/Passion Sunday service as the last hymn. (Yes, the music director was excited about this.) As far as I know, he's had no organ lessons though he plays at the piano and plays the tuba.

5. Details are everything, attention to the small things enables a plan to roll forward smoothly...
I am not a detail person. Details make me anxious. Details are important. When I was working before seminary, my staff took care of the details. I hired three detail-oriented people and it was wonderful. One of the things I am going to have to do in the coming year is work more closely with our ministry teams to help them organize. I am not looking forward to this, but it has to be done.

Bonus if you dare- how well prepared are you for Christmas this year?

The house is decorated. I'm having an open house for the congregation on 12/20. I haven't begun to plan for that. My son is coming to visit on Wednesday. I have bought no presents. I will be spending Christmas Day working on a session retreat for the following weekend.
I hope to take a half day on Christmas to pray, to give thanks, to read scripture and to be.

Monday, December 3, 2007

How do pastors with families do this?

I'm having a quick cup of coffee before I head out to the hospital to get there around 5:45 to be with a parishioner who is going in for tests. I spend last evening at church, decorating for Advent. I didn't get Friday off because I did a funeral. And this is only the beginning of Advent. I hate Christmas because I never get a chance to enjoy the season. I'm single with a grown son. I don't know how clergy with children get through this season. Or those with parents who need care. My prayers are with my brothers and sisters in this season.

This is the hardest job I have ever done. And I think most folks think it is easy.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Waiting for the Prince of Peace

What Are We Waiting For?—Part I
December 2, 2007

Scripture: Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Matthew 24:36-44
Romans 13:11-14

Jerusalem sits on a hill, surrounded by the dusty Judean plains. Even today, every building in the city is made from Jerusalem limestone, a yellowish colored stone. In the early mornings and evenings when the sun hits the city just right it shimmers as if the buildings were constructed of gold. Sitting high on Temple Mount, the site of Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple that Jesus walked through is the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites. The Dome is covered with real gold and so it sits at the highest point in the city gleaming in the sunlight. The old walls surround the ancient city. Entering by the Lion’s gate, you come quickly to a house which is home for both David’s tomb and the Upper Room of Jesus’ last night. As you walk down from this building, you may find yourself at the base of the Temple Mount. As you look across at the foundation stones, you immediately know why the disciples said to Jesus, “what huge stones these are.” They are huge, about 4 feet long and weighing at least two tons. Jews are praying at the Western Wall. As you descend the steps to the base of the wall, you see that they are divided into two groups. Men are praying on one side and women on the other. You wait patiently for a place at the wall to open and you walk reverently to the wall, pray and touch the old stone, remembering the Jesus might have stood in this very spot.
You can continue your journey in the old city, walking down the via dolorosa, the way of sorrows, the path that Jesus followed, carrying that heavy cross, to Golgotha. The way twists and turns meandering through the bazaar. Even though you are trying to feel God’s presence through the hustle and bustle of the shoppers and tourists, pilgrims and city dwellers, a velvet dress, embroidered with sequins catches your eye and you stop to bargain with the shopkeeper. With the dress tucked into you carry-all, you continue your journey.
Finally you reach your goal-The Church of the Holy Sepulchre: The buildings that house both Golgotha and the tomb in which Jesus was buried as well as the rock on which his body was prepared for burial. The church is jammed with tourists and pilgrims and various officials trying to keep some sort of order in the small space. There is only one entrance and exit, so even getting in is difficult. Finally you arrive. There is a long line to see the sanctuary housing the tomb, and so you stare a bit at the stone of the anointing, where Jesus body was prepared and then walk into the largest sanctuary, which surrounds Golgotha.
Here in this holiest of holy places for Christians, you begin to consider the Prince of Peace. You might consider the words of the psalmist:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” (Psalm 122: 6-8)

This place, this church, is a center of strife. It is overseen by three different denominations and three more have rights to various parts of the church, rights threatened by other groups. In 2002, a Coptic monk, who sits in a particular place to claim Coptic rights to an area occupied by the Ethiopian church, moved his chair a bit to catch the shade. In the resulting fracas, eleven people were hospitalized. Two years later, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. Interpreting this as a sign of disrespect by the Orthodox, the Franciscans objected and a fistfight ensued. Though several arrests followed, no one was seriously injured. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
The Prince of Peace is worshipped in this place and yet his followers cannot seem to follow his teachings of peace. And in Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine as a whole, it is even worse. Jews, Christians and Muslims follow the same God, but like the various Christian sects at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre cannot find their way to peace. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
Imagine Google maps for a moment. Imagine zooming away from Israel Palestine, to the Middle East as a whole. The region has known little peace. We are at war in Iraq. Thousands of our young men and women, sent to fight in that war, have lost their lives. Thousands more innocent Iraqis have been killed in sectarian violence or by mistakes by allied soldiers. The number of lives lost is staggering. Whether you believe the war was the best decision of the Bush administration or a foreign policy disaster, we can agree that the loss of lives is sad. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
As we zoom out a little more, to take in more of the world, we see more war, more violence, more bloodshed. Sudan, Burma, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan. Where is the Prince of Peace? Why two thousand years after his birth and death is there still war?
What are we waiting for? The Prince of Peace to return. To judge and to bring peace to this war-torn planet. Advent, this season we are in right now, is a time of waiting, of yearning, of hoping. We await, not a sweet baby, but the return of the Son of God who will bring peace to our world. The church and American culture are out of sync at this time of the year. And we Americans are so often guilty of confusing American culture with Christianity.
American culture tells us that this is the time of year to celebrate by buying as much as we can. I was watching an ad on television, back before Thanksgiving. A woman was wearing a red dress, trimmed in white fur. On her head perched a Santa Claus hat. She was extolling the gifts one could purchase at whichever store she was pitching. She talked about finding gifts for sisters, brothers, children, spouses and then at the end of the commercial, she leaned in towards the camera and said “and especially for me!” We wear ourselves to a frazzle. We have to buy Christmas presents, send Christmas cards (or at least email messages), clean house, buy a tree, put up the decorations, go to and give parties. Christmas carols have been ringing in our ears since right after Halloween. By the time Christmas actually gets here we are so tired that we are glad that it is over. Thank goodness, we can finally get back to our normal lives. When I lived in Michigan I was surprised by how quickly after Christmas the decorations came down. Most were gone by January 1. I think this was simply a reflection of the overload of the season.
For the church, Christmas doesn’t even begin until the evening of December 24. The time leading up to Christmas is a time of reflection, of preparation, of quiet. The Christian message is not how much will I get, either from others or as Christmas presents to myself, but how much can I give. The Christian message is not how busy I am, but how much can I be with God and truly present with others. The Christian message is how at peace can I be and how much peace can I share with others.
We are waiting for, hoping for, yearning for the Prince of Peace. We can see signs of his coming. We see signs of his coming in the nonviolent justice movements of Dr. King and Nelson Mandela. We can see signs of his coming every time a family reconciles. We can see signs of his coming every time we work for justice, when we tutor in the Memphis schools, when we share the good news of the gospel with others. The signs are there. Throughout the scriptures, God gave small signs that pointed to the greater signs of God’s covenant with Israel. God gives partial fulfillment of God’s blessing. God promises Abraham that he will be a blessing to all people. Jacob brings that blessing to his cousin Laben, Joseph brings that blessing to Potiphar and to Pharoah. Jeremy Begbie notes that the partial fulfillment implies also partial nonfulfillment. But partial fulfillment should not kill hope. It should spur us on to hope all the more. He continues to notice that in our contemporary culture we live with only small hopes, one day at a time. We dare not hope for anything in the long term. “To be drawn into the waves of God means that our lives are set in the context not of a linear path...but of a multileveled hope that covers a huge range of timescales.” We live in the confidence that God’s promises will be fulfilled and that our lives can be a part of that fulfillment. We wait, hope, yearn for the Prince of Peace. May our lives reflect his coming. Amen.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Where are the boundaries?

I'm in a clergy group, all women. We meet about once a month with a therapist. This is not a therapy group. We meet to talk about issues relating to our call. I am new to the Presbytery (one of the most dysfunctional organizations I have ever encountered, BTW). The other women have known each other for a number of years. One of the women members ("B") is my predecessor at the church I serve. She has suffered bouts of depression. I'm not sure where she is today.

So, we met yesterday. During the course of our time together, B asked whether this would be a group where we could "grow". She then mentioned a group of clergywomen that she has decided to leave becasue they want to stay the same and not grow. We talked for a while and then another member, "G" responded that she was upset that B had characterized the group in a particular way. It turns out that both "G" and "L" are members of the second group. B began to cry and say that she just wanted a place where she could be herself and be accepted for herself. And then she left the room. (She did have a funeral she wanted to attend.)

So, the question I am struggling with is one of boundaries and Christian identity. After B left, G was quite clear that she did not want to be in a group that was focused on dealing with B's issues. Where do we, as Christians, draw the line between loving and accepting others and having clear boundaries about who we are and what our group does? How can we be loving and accepting and yet have boundaries?