Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Year

Yesterday I read a blog by a cancer whatever (I have trouble with victim, sufferer, survivor) who spelled out what she had gained from having cancer. All in all, I'd much rather have my year back, my hair back (I have hair but it is curly, steely gray resembling a brillo pad; I'm waiting for it to get long enough to visit the hairdresser and get it fixed in some way), my toes back (I have neuropathy in both feet which causes numbness and sometimes cramps), my stomach back (I'm still recovering from hernia repair surgery), my ability to heal back (I have a skinned knee not yet healed from a fall I took Sept 12). I haven't sensed much upside from this disease. Of course, I just may not be spiritually advanced enough to see God in the suffering. Or I may just be a whiner. Oh, and though I am old enough to be covered through our health insurance until I reach medicare age even though I lose my job in the meantime, I worry about others not so lucky: those who are tied to a job for the health insurance and those who do not have health insurance.

I am just as happy to have this year over. Good things did happen this year. In January, I ventured to Uganda and Rwanda to visit with my cousins, the gorillas. Uganda is a beautiful land and seems fairly well off (for Africa). It managed not to suffer so much from colonialism and seems to have recovered from Idi Amin. Rwanda, on the other hand. . . But the gorillas were magnificent. On my first trek, we arrived at the place where the trackers said our group was near. As we set our gear down, a silverback came out to greet us. He ran not six feet from me. We got very close to the family, including a small baby. It was a wonderful experience. In July, after completing four rounds of chemo, I was off to Mongolia to experience a total eclipse of the sun. This is probably the most spiritual experience of my life. (My favorite so far must be 2006 in Libya). The day finally arrives. You wait in camp, chatting, setting up equipment perhaps (because this one was to be short, we had decided just to enjoy). First contact begins. After some excitement, you settle down for a wait of probably 45 minutes. You play around with the partial, looking at shadows that are little half moons, notice that the light is polarized: in one direction the shadows are sharp; in the other blurred. Then second contact approaches. The sun remains a thin sliver. You watch for the sun's shadow racing across the ground. The west is dark, like a thunder storm approaching, but there are no clouds in the sky. The temperature is dropping. You return to your watch at the sun. Then, you can see Bailey's beads: the sun light shining through the valleys of the moon making what appears to be small beads. Then the diamond ring: that brief amazingly bright spot of light. The diamond ring fades and a moment later the corona springs forth. You rip off your protective glasses (if you haven't for the diamond ring). A shout goes up from the crowd. You can see red flares in the corona. You look around at the stars. It is like twilight, except the light rings the horizon instead of being confined to the west. How much longer? Only a few seconds. Third contact: the diamond ring appears and then Bailey's beads. And then it is over. You talk to folks, particularly those who have never seen an eclipse before. Yes, it was all they had hoped for. An amazing sight.

At church, I have either resigned myself to looking for where God may be acting and holding that up to the congregation for them to see or given up. They are not willing to make the changes that need to be made to reach out to those who are different from themselves. They want to be left alone to die. I don't have the energy to lead them in a different direction. Perhaps that's the gift of the cancer: not enough energy to be frustrated by their self centeredness. My contract is up in September. I don't have the energy to look for a new call. And, by and large, as someone once told me all you do when you find a new call is exchange one group of dysfunctional people for another. (My cynicism is showing.)

My oncologist doesn't think the cancer will return, but I still struggle with the left overs from chemo. I'll probably always have the neuropathy in my feet. It's not bad, but it is there. I hope my abdomen will recover from the hernia repair.

The world eats at my heart: killing in Gaza, Darfur, hunger increasing in Africa. In what once was the wealthiest country in the world thousands are out of work, more hungry and homeless, retirement looks bleaker for many. Health care is not what it should be.

The sun shines. The birds still sing. The squirrels frolick. People care for one another.

People are like leaves of grass they wither and die.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I am sick over what is happening in Gaza. And if you criticize Israel, you are antiSemitic. When I was in Jerusalem eight years ago (I spent New Year's Eve in Israel), there was a tour guide who began talking about the "dirty" Arabs. His words reminded me of similar words I had heard about Jews. I didn't mention that to him, though. I am always amazed that a people who have been so discriminated against, so persecuted, so victimized can turn around and do the same thing to another group of people. My heart breaks for Israel.

It was, of course, western European and US powers that set up the situation. We simply pushed our problem onto the Palestinians. Add a bit of religion and you get a powder keg.

And I weep for the poor here in our country. I weep for heartless people. I weep for all of us who choose our own comfort over justice. I include myself in that category. My guilt doesn't seem to do much to impell me to better action.

I am going on vacation on Friday. I'm off to Bonaire to scuba dive and forget about the world's problems. I'll take in the beauty of God's world. I am always amazed at the beauty in the reef, a beauty that was invisible to people until only a few decades ago. And it is a beauty we are ruining with development and global climate changes. So, perhaps I won't forget about the world's problems.

What one small change can I make today? And then another one tomorrow?

I am as guilty as any in not wanting to give up to make this a better world.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


RevGalBlogPals today asks about tradition and the unwillingness to allow folks to change or let go. As I responded, it occurred to me that the inability to let go of tradition is a sign of death. When we are young and looking toward the future, we readily let go of traditions and forge our own new traditions. In fact, the young may worry older folks with their disdain for tradition. But as we face death, we hold tighter to our traditions because they represent life to us. I think this is true of organizations as well as individuals. We individuals and institutions become ossified and less flexible as we age. Organizations can live only if they return to their earlier flexibility.

"The War on Christmas" has fascinated me. For reasons that escape me the use of the phrase "Happy Holidays" has become the focal point of all that is wrong (according to some) with society. I walked out of Kroger a couple of weeks ago behind some teenagers (who are not immune from ossification of just not thinking just because they are young, my prior statement to the contrary notwithstanding). The young man was railing against the clerk who had wished him "happy holidays". I wanted to catch up with him and wish him "happy Hanukkah", but didn't. The congregation I pastor is unwilling to let go.They are too small to do what they have done before, but can't let go. Perhaps letting go is a sign to them of their death. I realize that is a contradiction, but life is paradox.

The particular circumstance cited in the RevGalBlogPals entry was a church that decided (I think) not to put up two tired artificial trees. And that generated criticism from the community. So, why do people feel free to criticize others for letting go of traditions? How does that impact them? And why this need to hang on to what are, at base, pagan traditions. A Christmas tree has nothing to do with the Christmas story. It is a pagan custom. As are our lights at the soltice. What matters is our hearts and our hopefulness in the face of God's unexpectedness.

Our God is a God who does the unexpected, the unimaginable. Our God does not seem to be bound by tradition, or by human ideas of who God is, what God should be doing. Why do we feel the need to be so bound?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Thoughts on Cancer, people with cancer, people without cancer

There is an ovarian cancer website I visit from time to time. A woman posted a question about a Breuss (I think) fasting diet as a cure for cancer. Hadn't heard of it, so I googled. It's a seven week (yes, 49 days) of nothing but vegetable juice (beet and other strange roots) and strange teas. The theory is that cancer needs protein to grow and so if you don't ingest any protein you'll kill the cancer. Whether or not you will survive in the meantime is open to question. A woman responded that the original poster should not get taken in by quacks and then someone else posted that the second poster should not have posted what she did; it might work. Then the NYTimes had a blog post on lean muscle mass and cancer survival rates. Evidently there appears to be a correlation between the percentage of muscle mass and cancer survival, even among obese patients. That linked to an earlier blog article on cancer. The comments were bizarre.

I've decided that there must be more crazy cancer patients than in the normal population. Do you suppose cancer makes you crazy? I can see where it would. You're young and you've been handed a death sentence when you never imagined you'd have cancer.

I don't think medicine has all the answers. I imagine that there are things that might work. (Interestingly, when I was in Alaska, an Inuit said that he had cured his cancer by taking one of the folk remedies. He said that his tribe had found it by following snails. The snails had signs that they were dying but when they ate leaves from this particular tree, they lived. I had just finished my chemo which was partially taxol made from the Pacific Yew. I have no idea if it is the same tree but it is an interesting intersection of legend and fact or fact and fact.) But I also know that cancer goes into remission for no known reason; that it fails to respond to cures.

The idea that exercise (which would lead to increased muscle mass) would increase survival rates drew interesting comments including the idea that the suggestion that cancer patients should exercise was a form of blaming the victim. What the statistics evidently showed is that if cancer patients had exercised before they had cancer they would exercise afterward; if not, then they would not. Cancer doesn't change lifestyle. (Except in prostate cancer patients for some reason.) I wonder whether heart attacks and strokes change lifestyle. I don't remember ever seeing any studies on that.

On the other hand, I wanted to slug one senator with cancer who said he played racquetball (or something similar) everyday, including the days he had chemo. The message seemed to be anyone can do that. Unfortunately people are different; chemos are different; people react to them differently. It's a strange world I now live in. A year ago, I would never have imagined I would be writing about cancer from the perspective of a person who had cancer. (If you read the tortured prose here, you will note that I am having difficulty deciding what to call a person with cancer. I don't like survivor; I don't like victim; I can't find a word I like. I don't have cancer now, to the best of anyone's knowledge, but I might. There could be those cells lurking in my body waiting for a chance to spread and grow. Of course, those cells could be in anyone's body waiting for a chance to spread and grow. I could go on with this, but you get the idea.)

The final irony is that I have been musing on death for a long time. One thing I read characterized cancer cells as eternally young. They don't "grow up" and behave like other cells. What an irony: cells with the possibility of eternal life kill you. The most bizarre form of you have to be careful what you wish for.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Blogger Envy

I read other people's blogs and I marvel at their insight, their depth. I just whine.


A parishioner died yesterday. She had wanted to; she didn't want to be in a nursing home waiting for death, with no hope for change, no hope for health. A parishioner's sister in law died this week, she was 40, had battled cancer all her life. A parishioner's mother died two weeks ago. It's a long, dark Advent.

I am feeling old. I am glimpsing what old age may be like. I am tired almost all the time. I have awful pain from time to time. I can't tell if it's lessening or not.

I love traveling the world. I love visiting other cultures. On my trip to Mongolia, I had the sense I was a tourist, not a traveler. It was much like watching it on TV, not being in the country. It was because, I think, I was on a tour and interacted more with other Americans on the tour rather than interacting with Mongolians.

To some extent, my journey with cancer has been like the trip to Mongolia. I haven't really experienced it. I don't know whether it is denial or something else. The fact that my prognosis is quite good and I don't face never ending treatment may be a part of it. I feel as if there is some great truth, some great shift in my life that should come from the cancer. It hasn't happened yet.

The current journey, the one through death, doesn't feel like a TV journey. The parishioner was a woman I loved, I enjoyed being with. I will miss her. I am beginning to see death more clearly. It is final. It is permanent. It is unavoidable. It is. Perhaps I feel this more keenly because of my experience with cancer (I am not immune; I am not immortal; I am finite; I am fragile), but I'm not sure. I realize this sounds like a contradiction from the previous paragraph but it feels true to me.

It is sunny and cold today. I love the sun, on this the day of the year with the least sun. The sun returns. Life goes on; not on an individual level, but life continues. It is good.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Five

From Songbird at RevGalBlogPals

There are only five full days before Christmas Day, and whether you use them for shopping, wrapping, preaching, worshiping, singing or traveling or even wishing the whole darn thing were over last Tuesday, there's a good chance they will be busy ones.

So let's make this easy, if we can: tell us five things you need to accomplish before Christmas Eve.

1. Quit crying. Or maybe continue crying. A parishioner will in all probability die between now and Christmas. I cried with a son and daughter yesterday. She is making an intentional choice to die, or at least not to continue to linger and if she gets better then spend the rest of her life waiting to die in a nursing home.

2. Quit resenting the fact that I never have Christmas. I preach, like most solo pastors Sunday, Christmas Eve and the following Christmas. People keep asking if family is coming to be with me. I wouldn't have enough time to enjoy them if they came. I don't know how solo pastors with children still at home or in college manage this time of the year.

3. Start exercising every day. I was in a fair amount of pain this morning. I did Pilates yesterday and then walked for half an hour. Pain is tiring. But if I don't get back to walking, I'll look like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, right down to the nakedness, cause I AM NOT GOING TO BUY BIGGER CLOTHES despite the fact that I have three outfits I can wear right now. Not having anything to do with Christmas.

4. Write my Christmas Eve sermon. 'Nuff said.

5. Email my sis explaining that I haven't managed to get her Christmas present, even though I have sent her husband his favorite Christmas gift. Find a gift for a friend who unexpectedly gave me a regifted item for Christmas.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


So, my parishioner who wants to die is now off medication. She is drinking Ensure, but not much else. She wanted to see me today, so off I went. I spent some time with her and then talked to her son for a while. We're going to do a Memorial Service MLK weekend (unless she goes before I leave for my vacation). I'll do the graveside if I'm here; if not someone else will. When I left her room, her daughter and son were sitting in the hallway and I sat with them for a while. And cried. I'll be out there tomorrow and then every day or so until the time comes.

I don't like death.

In other news, I have got to diet. I can't find a pair of wool slacks that I can wear. I am not going to buy bigger clothes. I did go to Pilates today and I got out and walked. I'm dog sitting (actually the dog is visiting me) for the next 12 days, so I'll get out twice a day to walk him. I walked him more this afternoon than he is used to and he had collapsed on the floor. I'm trying to eat more healthily: fewer carbs, no sweets (well not very often), no white flour. No fun. I am saute-ing six chicken breasts. I'm used to tiny chicken breasts and these are huge. They are about twice what i'm used too. I'll freeze them and then I can put them on a salad. I've got a ton of spinach, am getting used to eating that for salads. I also bought 6 ounces of coho salmon which I had them cut into two filets. I'm trying to focus on what I can eat, not what I can't.

And I have to find a present for my sister and for my friend for whom I'm dogsitting. Do you know a week from today is Christmas?????

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Very Good Day

Gannet Girl and I had coffee this morning. It was fun meeting her. We have a lot in common: she's in the Presbytery I was active in before I went to seminary and we did CPE at the same hospital. And we both wear incredibly boring shoes in the winter time.

And I saw my oncologist today. She said she didn't think the cancer would return. It was caught really early and then I did chemo. I asked about staging and she said that they really hadn't done a proper staging. The surgeon didn't remove my appendix or lymph nodes, so it wasn't possible to tell if the cancer had spread there. She told me that my hernia repair will take much longer to heal than I had thought and that the inside heals much more slowly than the outside. She did think I was healing nicely, though. So, I'm relieved and happy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins

I visited a parishioner this morning. She told me that she is ready; that she is tired; that she doesn't want to spend the rest of her life in the hospital. I cried and we prayed that God would do what was right. (I asked if the mother had talked with her children about this and she said no). Then I went to a funeral for a parishioner's mother. Then I came home and the volunteer receptionist at the church called to say that the first parishioner's daughter called and said that her mother "had given up" and would I talk with her. I wasn't sure whether the mother or the daughter. I have left a message for the daughter to call me. I don't know the daughter. I don't know whether it is appropriate for the mother to give up. I don't know what her prognosis is; whether they will get the medicine right.

I am supposed to be packing to go to Cleveland tomorrow to see my oncologist. It is raining and raining and raining. It is dark and dreary.

I read a quote on Sunday to the effect that the problem with man is not that he is finite but that man doesn't believe that he is finite. I don't think it is quite the same idea as Hopkins. We are finite, mortal like leaves of grass, we wither and die (a misquote from Isaiah last Sunday and I think from Ecclesiates not that I can spell). We die, those we love die, people we have never met die.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday Five

From Sally at RevGalBlogPals The intro post is beautiful. I commend it to you.

Five things I long for this Advent:

1. That my congregation would understand my longing for Advent and not Christmas in these weeks before Christmas.

2. That the reign of God might be seen in more places; that justice would roll down like waters, righteous like an ever flowing stream. I weep over Zimbabwe, Sudan, Darfur, Africa in general, Mumbai, hatred. I weep over our hard headed ness that refuses to see our part in the hatred in this world.

3. That those who grieve will be comforted. That those who hunger will be fed. That the homeless will have shelter.

4. That I will learn to live each moment consciously.

5. That the darkness will envelop me, the quiet bring peace to me, and the coldness of the season warm my heart.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My pcp just called with my CA 125 blood test report. It was 9 three months ago. It's 24 yesterday. 35 is the top limit for normal, but mine was 34 when they found my tumor. (Some women have levels in the 1000s when they are diagnosed.) Generally, what is important is how the levels move. Down is good; up is bad. Inflammation can cause the levels to rise and I'm still sore achey from the surgery. In all probability it's from the surgery, but I'm just a little nervous right now.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Your Life in Six Words

I was listening to the radio coming to church this morning. Someone was reading a review of a book which asks people to describe their lives in six words.

My six words: Dared, Risked, Had Fun; No Regrets.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A new quote from Barth

It was Barth, I believe, who said we should preach with one hand on the Bible and one on the newspaper. Perhaps we should preach today with one hand on the Bible and the other on the blogs.

Monday, December 1, 2008

You'd think I'd know better

On Saturday I visited a parishioner in the hospital. She said something about dying and I said something dismissive. And then, later, I said I thought she looked good. At least then, I immediately said how much I hate it when people tell me that.

Not terribly present to others. Haven't come to terms with death yet. Can't believe I was so unconscious.

I really like this woman and don't want to lose her. I just lost a parishioner I really liked in late October. Need to find a spiritual director soon or quicker.

A sigh of relief

I went to see the surgeon who did my hernia repair today. I said something about being concerned about a recurrence of the ovarian cancer. He checked his notes and said that he hadn't seen anything that indicated a return. I go in for my CA-125 test on Wednesday (it is an unreliable blood test for ovarian cancer). I was worried. Just because I'm a hypercondriac doesn't mean I don't have cancer.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Krispy Kreme Kristmas: Sermon for Advent 1

Text: Isaiah 64:1-9
When I was in high school, our youth group and various clubs at high school had fund raisers. We did lots of things: washed cars, sold cookies, held dances. The most successful fundraiser was always selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Now, this was before Krispy Kreme went public and showed up in every grocery store: before they became the Starbucks of doughnuts. Back then, back in the day, you had to persuade a parent to get up really, really early on a Saturday morning and drive an hour to Charlotte, to the Krispy Kreme bakery there. The lucky parent would fill up the back of the station wagon with boxes of doughnuts. Most of the time it was just the plain glazed ones, but some times, not often enough, the doughnuts included my favorites, the chocolate ones. I’m not sure whether it’s just nostalgia, but the doughnuts just tasted better then.
But, I remember biting into that wonderful doughnut. It was light, so light that picking it up would dent it. The glaze would melt with the heat of your fingertips. The first bite would dissolve in a cloud of sweetness and fat. Hmmmm. I’d eat one and another. They were so good. I’d sneak a third a few minutes later. After all, by tomorrow morning, they wouldn’t be nearly so good. After about the third, though, I’d get a little nauseated. A bit too much sugar, too much fat. And, though I’d consumed 750 calories, I’d still be hungry. I’d eaten three of the most wonderful, light, fluffy doughnuts, filled with calories and though I was a bit sick to my stomach, I was still hungry.
Christmas has become a Krsipy Kreme doughnut. It is a light, airy, fluffy thing. It is sweetness, sometimes a syrupy sweetness. Christmas has expanded and exploded. I was in Cokesbury, a Christian bookstore before Halloween, before Halloween, and I noticed a clerk beginning to string fake evergreen boughs on the stairway railing. Lit snowflakes appeared on Poplar the week before Thanksgiving, at least that’s when I saw them first. In the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, we will fill ourselves with enough sugar to give the entire world diabetes. There will be parties and gatherings, special television shows and theater presentations, not to mention all the musical productions. By the time Christmas Day comes, we will be filled with sugar, people and more than ready to say, “Enough! Enough!” And sometime in January, we’ll open the bills and wonder what on earth were we thinking. I was listening to interviews of shoppers on Black Friday and heard that most of the shoppers were buying for themselves. Even in this time of economic crisis and downturn, we’ll turn to shopping. We deserve a new whatever the toy we most want is just for living through this crisis. Sugar, sugar and more sugar. Whether the sugar be actual sugar, the sugar of shopping or the sugar of busy-ness and parties, we want that sweetness that hides for a moment our real lives.
William Willamon, the Methodist bishop, recounts a the story of a friend who had been invited to preach at a large church whose services were televised. The person who picked Willamon’s friend up at the airport told the friend, “People worship with us in order to feel good about themselves. Therefore, don’t mention the cross in your sermon. And don’t dwell too much on sin. And don’t mention [politics].” Willimon suggests that television limits preachers, but the spirit of our age does too. People come to church to be inspired, to be comforted, to feel better about themselves. People don’t want to be weighed down by their own sin, by what’s wrong with their lives, by the awfulness of the world. Willamon suggests that the preacher should be pitied this Advent. “Sunday after Sunday, it’s Isaiah and John the Baptist. Not the Isaiah who sings so well in Handel’s Messiah, but the Isaiah of chapters 63 to 64, who laments the fate of the Jewish exiles in Babylon. It is the raging plaint of a homeless people in a Babylonian death camp. They cry:
Thy holy people possessed thy sanctuary a little while;
our adversaries have trodden it down.
We have all become like one who is unclean and all our righteous
deeds are like a polluted garment.
thou hast hid thy face from us,
and hast delivered us into the
hand of our iniquities [Isa. 63:18, 64:6-7].”
It’s not a jolly old man with whiskers, ready to grant our every wish, who peeks from the pages of scripture. It’s a people who have been downtrodden, who were stripped of their homes, their possessions, their lives and taken to Babylon and who now, returned to their homeland a couple of generations later find the fabled Temple in ruin, nothing but ruin surrounds them. And they wonder where God is.
If we are honest, this Sunday morning, we must also wonder where God is. Over a hundred and seventy people murdered in Mumbai this week. A young store clerk trampled to death in the rush to buy, buy, buy something, anything at a bargain price. A fist fight in a children’s toy store. Cholera in Zimbabwe, that country already devastated by a selfish ruler who refuses to put the people of his country first, instead focusing on enriching himself and his cronies. Darfur, Chad, people starving. All over Africa and South America, a lack of clean drinking water. A planet we are destroying. Ice packs north and south melting at furious paces. Here in Memphis, children grow up without their parents. They are desperate to be loved and have been abandoned.
And in our individual lives, don’t we wonder where God is, if we are honest with ourselves? Thanksgiving is a family holiday and a time of happiness and yet, we remember our family members who are not with us. Daughters, husbands, wives, gone from our lives. We look around at our children, our friends, those close to us who have made horrific choices and devastated their lives. We face old age and sometimes feel abandoned. Our savings that would cushion our retirements have evaporated and the people who caused this mess retire with millions and millions. Where is God? Where is God?
A couple of weeks ago, I preached a sermon on joy. I talked about how we could choose our attitudes. And that it true, but it is also true, that sometimes, we are faced with incredible sadness and loneliness. We yearn for God and yet God seems far away. Paradoxically, the road to joy comes through our sadness and loneliness. As with our tendency to choose negativity and not joy, we choose to cover over our feelings of sadness and loneliness. We choose to put a band-aid on our wounds, put on a happy face, and pretend that all is well. We reach for another doughnut, filled with sugar and fat to cover over our emptiness. Unless we can experience all the real emotions in our lives, the ones we want to avoid, as well as the ones that are pleasant, we can not really experience the joy in our lives, either.
Several of you have commented on the joy you hear each Sunday from the [African American] worship services. Many African American churches embody that paradox of sadness and joy. The African American experience is one of immense sadness. Like the Jews ripped from their homeland and sent off to exile, African Americans were ripped from their homeland in Ghana, in Benin, in other west African countries and sold in to slavery. Worse though, families were torn asunder, children sold away from their mothers. The spirituals sang of their hope of liberation, their hope for freedom. The spirituals cried of their loneliness. After slavery ended, African Americans remained segregated, their options limited. The blues reflected their sadness. And yet, church services remained places of joy and yearning for the Promised Land. C.S. Lewis has noted” The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy, but it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”
Isaiah cries out for God and then admits the sin of the people. Part of our despair must be a recognition of our sin, our brokenness, our need for God. Like Isaiah, we must submit ourselves to God so that God will mold us into God’s people.
Bishop Willamon reminds us: “That’s why the church generally refrains from singing Christmas carols during Advent. That’s why purple, the color of penitence, adorns our altar and the neck of your preacher. We dare not rush to greet the Redeemer prematurely until we pause here, in a darkened church, to admit that we do need redemption. Nothing within us can save us. No thing can save us. We’ve tried that before. No president, no bomb, no new car, no bottle, no white Christmas can save. No! to all false consolation, we say. No! to the empty, contrived merriment of a terminal world. Our hope must be in someone out there who comes to us. We find our way only because One comes, takes our hand and leads us home. No thank you, we shall wait here, in yearning and silence, in darkness and penitence, for that One. “In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” (64:5). Wait. Wait and see what is to be born among us. God grant us the honesty and the patience to wait long enough to find some real salvation.” Amen.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Sermons in the Movies

I like to use illustrations from the movies in my sermons. On the other hand, I stopped reading "good" literature and seeing "good" movies. That is, heavy with themes of depression, dysfunction, etc. I have too much of that in my own life right now, thank you very much. I don't need Marianne Robinson writing about an alcoholic son returning home with the sins of the father visited upon the sons even until the second and third (or was it third and fourth ?) generations. Sorry have that in my congregation, in my life. So, there have been a paucity of movie illustrations in my sermons. (Sunday will have to do with Krispy Kreme doughnuts)

I'm not sure that this movie will make it into my sermon, but there was food for thought in an unimaginable place. At least for me it was surprising. Quantum of Solace (does anyone else think Daniel Craig resembles Steve McQueen, especially in those tight chinos he seems to favor which I think are out of style, but if it gets women into the movie theater, why question wardrobe choices?)

In an early scene, the villain is talking with a potential client in Haiti. He mentions how Aristide was planning to raise the minimum wage from 30 cents a day to a dollar a day and how the villain's associates took him out. The people who elected Aristide were punished because the companies making tee shirts and running shoes went elsewhere.

Then, of course, a very real villain is the CIA (not Felix, he remains a good guy, maybe). The CIA is being pragmatic, working with people whether they are good or bad. This is old news. The CIA has managed to take out democratically elected officials (usually by assassination or sometimes just a coup) when the people's choice didn't suit the US (Iran, Chile, to name only two). It's well documented. Of course, the Brits don't come off much better, either. One Secretary (I think or perhaps just an assistant to the PM) tells M that if the Brits didn't work with villains, there'd not be a lot of people to work with.

And I love Judi Densch as M. It is so great to see an old, powerful woman.

Food for thought behind the boom-booms.

Got home and watched Wall-E. With Isaiah coming up in the lectionary, I thought this movie might be relevant to the Jews returning home from exile. Earth has been ruined and people have escaped on space ships. Plant life is found to have returned and so people who have been away 700 years return. The earth is a mess, full of trash, utterly destroyed. I thought about how the Jewish people must have felt returning to Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Unfortunately, Wall-E is a kids movie with a happy ending and people return and the earth blooms. I would have liked to have seen some disappointment about what the world was like, but there was none.

Also in my quest to watch trashy movies as I read trashy novel, watched Tropic Thunder. Funny movie. Yes, I know it's not PC.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Blogging the same old thing: life and death

I had an email yesterday from a friend who said the husband of a mutual friend had died of pancreatic cancer Sunday night. He is a couple of years younger than I am. I think I have survivor's guilt when I hear of people who have died from cancer. Why them?

I came across a longevity calculator. I took the test and found that I should live to be 97. I can increase my longevity by one year by cutting my LDL. There were a couple of other ways I could increase my longevity by six months or a year. At that point, is it worth it? What was interesting, was the test didn't ask about occurence of cancer. It asked if any first or second degree relatives had cancer. I think it asked about heart disease and not just familiar occurence of heart disease. I'm not sure why I take those tests, but they are interesting. And irrelevant.

It seems to me that I will always have the spector of cancer hanging over my head like the dust cloud that hangs over Pigpen. Because it did happen. Because I can't say "it won't ever happen to me." On the other hand, my first check up was clear. I have my second in a little more than two weeks. I'll have my blood checked (not a great marker for ovarian cancer, but the only one there is).

I think I'm going to do Thanksgiving today. My son is here and we eat out a lot because we both love food, really good food. But I think we are both tired of eating out. I may get another veggie. We have spinach and sweet potatoes. I had wanted to do a road trip to New Orleans (because I love food, did I mention that?) but I am too tired for that. So, I made beignettes yesterday. I'm still woozy from the sugar. Lemon tarts are on the menu for Thanksgiving, but those may wait a day or two.

I did walk 1.5 miles yesterday (sounds more impressive than I walked for half an hour). We're going to try for 2 today. I'm going to start with weights next week after I check with the surgeon. He said I could go back to whatever I was doing before after two weeks, but I'm still sore and have difficulty bending. Hope to start jogging again next week too and swimming.

It will be a beautiful day today. Sunny and warm, high 50s. Maybe even up into the 60s.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blogging towards Christmas

I was grumpy the other day and a friend told me I was the grumpy care bear. I hadn't realized there was a grumpy care bear. How wonderful.

And I am grumpy as we look towards Christmas. I checked the calendar, Thanksgiving did not sneak up on me and pass me by as I slept. It is still not yet Thanksgiving and, yet, last night, the snowflakes were lit on their poles along Poplar; huge wreaths adorned one mall. I was at Cokesbury before HALLOWEEN and they were decorating, wrapping fake evergreen around the stair railing.

We have lost all sense of proportion. And time. Christmastide is expanding. Soon, it will begin after July 4. It is no wonder people in their Christmas fatigue rip down the decorations on the day after Christmas or even Christmas afternoon heaving a sigh of relief that the season is now over. They are ready to get on with their lives, get back to the real world, be rid of the incessant round of shopping, decorating, partying, sending Christmas cards.

Where have we gone wrong? How did all this happen? Our pilgrim forebearers didn't even celebrate Christmas. It was simply another day of the week.

While some Christians argue that we need to take back Christmas by aggressively greeting everyone, Christian, atheist, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist with "Merry Christmas" at this time of the year, I suggest we need to take back Christmas by avoiding the secular madness and perhaps adopting our puritan ancestors approach. How about some peace and quiet and reflection about what this time really means.

But then, I'm the grumpy care bear.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Five

From Songbird at RevGalBlogPals

1) Do you have a food processor? Can you recommend it? Which is to say, do you actually use it?
Nope. But I have a processor attachment for my blender. I bought it on a lark when I bought the blender.
2) And if so, do you use the fancy things on it? (Mine came with a mini-blender (used a lot and long ago broken) and these scary disks you used to julienne things (used once).)
I have used it to try to cut up veggies, but it doesn't work well. But it makes the greatest shortbread crust for my lemon tarts which I love and which I should avoid.
3) Do you use a standing mixer? Or one of the hand-held varieties?
Hand held. My mom had a standing mixer. I suppose it's more powerful, but I don't bake or cook that often.
(And isn't that color delightfully retro?)

4) How about a blender? Do you have one? Use it much?
I have one. Used it a lot during seminary for margaritas. I learned three things in seminary: to drink good wine (San Anselmo is a great location for that), to make really good margaritas and I've forgotten the third.
5) Finally, what old-fashioned, non-electric kitchen tool do you enjoy using the most?
A wine glass? As you may have gathered, I'm not much of a cook. I love the idea, but cooking for one is uninspiring and for more is too much trouble. I love good food and love to eat out. My duty in this economic crisis, at least while I have a job is to keep my favorite restaurants open by patronizing them as much as possible.
Bonus: Is there a kitchen appliance or utensil you ONLY use at Thanksgiving or some other holiday? If so, what is it?
As someone said, my oven? That's probably it for me too.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Phil Gramm and Calvin

I've been thinking a lot about this lately: Phil Gramm and others that worship at the altar (or drank the Kool-Aid, depending on your metaphor) of free markets. Gramm is unrepentent that no regulation of markets, especially derivative markets is the way we should live. Of course, Gramm famously said that we are a nation of whiners as the depth and breadth of the recession became apparent.

So, the piece of me that remains a Calvinist is Calvin's insight that we are all depraved. At our core, we are selfish, greedy self-centered people. The founders of this country understood this and created a government of checks and balances.

I suppose free marketeers believed that markets are somehow not human institutions and subject to human sin. That's the only way I can figure out the stance of these free marketeers.

We need free markets; markets are too complex for us to manage perfectly. We need regulation; humans and human institutions too easily manipulate and make bad decisions.

I don't know if Gramm is a religious or philosophical man, but I wonder where his idea of free markets fits with his ideas of humanity. Does he think that markets are divorced from the humans who create and operate them? That they exist independently of humans?

When I was in law school there was an "efficient market" theory. Basically, the price of any stock has already included all available information. Therefore, the role of the regulators is to make sure that all relelvant information about a stock is available to investors so that the stock is fairly priced. I tended to be a bit amused about this because it seemed to assume that all investors were unemotional automatons: that there were no psychological influences over the price of a stock. We're seeing how fear influences the price of a stock. Humans, it seems to me, are an integral part of markets. Because we are selfish and greedy markets must be regulated. Markets need rules and boundaries as much as people do.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Miscellaneous Musings

Well, I am out of bed and not in too much pain. I had laproscopic surgery on Tuesday to repair a hernia from my abdominal surgery. Silly me, I thought it would be a piece of cake. I have five holes in my tummy and multiple bruises surrounding those holes. I also have a huge piece of mesh trying to hold my insides in. The swelling has gone down substantially and I actually walked around the block yesterday. I had hoped/planned to go home after surgery on Tuesday. The docs wanted me to go home on Wednesday. I made it home on Thursday. Lots of time to think at first in the fog of pain killers, then amid the fog of pain.

I understand why people give up. Sometime on Tuesday afternoon, I felt so awful, I just wanted to die. Had I not been convinced that it would get better and had someone given me the choice I would have chosen to die, right there and then. Too much pain.

I never quite get it that I am not superwoman. I assume I can breeze through surgery and get up and jog the next day. (Not that I'm a great jogger, but still. . .) This despite the fact that I am only four months past my last chemo. Generally everything I read says it takes six months to get back to normal in terms of energy, stamina, ability to recover and so forth. Oh, I understand and there are times when I realize that there is a difference and that I understand my mortality and weakness, but the superwoman is so ingrained in who I am that it is so hard to let go of. It is an unconscious understanding of who I am.

During this enforced time of rest, I've been reading mysteries. Mostly Elizabeth Peters (Vicky Bliss who I have just begun reading and Amelia Peabody). I came up with a plot for a murder mystery with the protagonist being a female minister. I wrote about four pages. Then last night I realized that the protagonist was simply boring and I wasn't interested in her. Since, of course, she is my alter ego, I began to wonder what that meant about me. Not that I think I'm boring, but the public persona seems to me has to be boring.

I have to work today. I need to put together a sermon for next Sunday. I am fairly sure I know what I am going to preach on--the story of Paul Farmer. Tracy Kidder wrote about him.

I also need to put together my Advent liturgy. I think I'm pretty sure what I'll be using for the basics. My music director assures me she has an advent wreath lighting hymn if she can find it. (I'm not sure I like advent wreaths, but I shouldn't think about that) and I'll reuse last year's communion liturgy, so it's mostly a matter of hymns, etc.

I'll be preaching on Isaiah during Advent. My first sermon is Krispy Kreme Christmas (do I dare use Kristmas?). I've preached on pimento cheese sandwiches, so preaching on Kripsy Kreme doughnuts isn't too bad.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A veil

Last night, it came to me. A separateness I feel from most people, from the way I used to be. There is a filmy veil that separates me from others. I know that I am not invincible. I know that I am vulnerable. I know that I am mortal. I like to deny it, but underneath it all, I know that difference between me and others who don't know that.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I don't like to admit there are any positive side effects of having cancer. Everytime I hear that good comes of this disease I want to punch the bearer of those particular tidings (and I want to punch the parishioner who keeps reminding me that attitude is the most important thing). But, one thing that has changed is that I'm more sympathetic (or is it empathetic--I can never remember the distinction between those two words) than I was before. I read about people who are dying of cancer and weep. I read about people who have debilitating diseases that will never go away and weep. Life is short and most often just not fair.

Friday, November 7, 2008


Has anyone read Kathleen Norris' new book, Acedia? I checked it out from the library and am having a tough go of it. It is boring. Oh, wait a minute it is about being boring. It is boring.

Should I keep at it, or should I just assume I am bored reading a book about boredom?

Friday Five

From Presbyterian Gal at RevGalBlogPals

1. What was your favorite comic strip as a child?
I can't remember! It's been so long. I think probably Beetle Bailey.
2. Which comic strip today most consistently tickles your funny bone?
An unfortunate consequence of getting my news from the net instead of hard copy is that I don't read the comics. I used to get a few but I think when I moved got out of the habit. I used to read Doonesbury (but it didn't always tickle my funny bone; it made me sad with the truth). I liked For Better or Worse and Dilbert and Cathy.
3. Which Peanuts character is closest to being you?
I suppose Lucy. I am mean, nasty, judgmental and will snatch your football away if you let me.
4. Some say that comic strips have replaced philosophy as a paying job, so to speak. Does this ring true with you?
Since I read neither philosophy or comic strips I can't really say. ;-)
5. What do you think the appeal is for the really long running comic strips like Blondie, Family Circus, Dennis the Menace as some examples?
Again, I can't really say because I don't like those strips. It seems to me they appeal more to my parents' generation than to younger folks (and bear in mind that I'm in my 60s) Since my parents' generation may be the last generation to buy newspapers, then that's probably the reason.
Bonus question: Which discontinued comic strip would you like to see back in print?
Calvin and Hobbes: the greatest strip ever. And the Far Side.

I seem to be a little snarky this morning. Not sure why. Probably because I have more to do than I can get done (memorial service tomorrow; preaching Sunday, messy house I want to clean before my sister comes Monday and of course, not to forget surgery on Tuesday. And the preschool director wants internet and no one else seems to be able to mess around with the routers and I get that job. But I've just said no to any more messing around than I have already done.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I Remember

I remember my Dad's colored waiting room.

I remember the colored waiting room at the bus station.

I remember the colored drinking fountains.

I remember the colored section floor at the hospital and the colored nursery for new borns.

I remember my father saying that our "nigras" would be OK if it weren't for outside agitators.

I remember hearing about the sit ins in neighboring Greensboro.

I remember sitting outside Duke Chapel listing to Dr. King.

I remember when JFK was killed and classmates shouted with glee.

I remember living in one of the first successfully integrated neighborhoods in America.

I remember the years I spent working for integration in the suburb I lived in.

I remember saying on the 25th anniversary of integration in our neighborhood saying that I was concerned that 25 years from then, we would still be working to make sure the neighborhood was integrated (and they were).

I will remember last night.

I will remember that the state I grew up in, the state of the first sit ins, the state of Jesse Helms, apparently voted for Obama by a slender 15,000 votes.

Praise Jesus!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Community Reinvestment Act is NOT the cause of the economic crisis

There is a video making the rounds that accuses the Democrats and Obama of causing the subprime lending crisis through the Community Reinvestment Act. I haven't watched the entire video (I simply don't have the patience to sit through ten minutes of nonsense), but I did hear someone make the same argument on NPR the other night.

Please, this is total and complete BULLSHIT.

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) is an act to encourage banks to make loans in low income and minority areas, areas that these banks had redlined, refused to make loans in, not because of credit considerations but because they were bad neighborhoods. "The only enforcement mechanism in the CRA was when the banks decided to merge or acquire another institution. Folks could go in and say, this bank has not been making loans in these areas. In my experience, most of the time CRA compliance didn't matter one bit. There is nothing in CRA that encourages making loans to people with low credit ratings. There is noting that encourages banks to make loans toloans to people with no income.

Here's what caused the mortgage meltdown. Lenders no longer service the loans they make. They slice and dice the mortgages and sell them to investors. The lender gets an immediate return and so doesn't care whether the borrower sinks or swims (this makes renegotiating bad loans really difficult). The sliced and diced mortgages become opaque so that they are impossible to value. Credit agencies stopped caring about whether their ratings were accurate because if they rated an offering of a sliced and diced mortgage poorly, they wouldn't be hired again. Lenders didn't care about the borrowers credit because they could make money with no risk--the risk went with the sold mortgage. It's pretty clear from what I have read that brokers (sellers of sliced and diced mortgages) didn't want to hear about risk. House prices would continue to rise so even if the mortgage went bad, the house price would have risen enough that they would make a bigger profit.

My background? A number of years as a corporate lawyer where I represented banks; a year volunteering for a fair housing agency where I monitored banks compliance with CRA and filed complaints when the banks wanted to merge.

And the video blames the Dems for stopping Republican sponsored legislation during the Bush administration (when the Republicans were in control of congress, the last year cited was 2005; the Dems didn't get control until 2006).

This American Life did a great radio program on the mortgage meltdown. If you want real answers, go

Don't let misinformation keep you or your friends from voting for Obama.

Sermon for this time

Psalm 107

How many of you plan to vote on Tuesday? How many of you have already voted? I have. I voted last Tuesday. I waited in line with lots of other people who were doing their civic duty. We live in a democracy and we have been given the power to elect our representatives: those who will govern us here in Memphis or in your suburb, those who will make laws for the state of Tennessee and those who will enforce those laws, those who will make laws for our country and the man responsible for leading our country for the next four years. It’s been a heated election. The last few elections have been heated. They have been full of vitrol and emotion. John Oliver of the Daily Show did interviews with people attending a McCain rally. Everyone he interviewed, at least those that they showed on television said that they were afraid for our country if Obama were elected. The Apocalypse would be upon us. It would be dreadful. They were trembling in fear. Then Oliver went to an Obama rally. There the people were full of fear: that McCain would be elected. It would be, they said, the end of the world. They could not imagine a more dreadful event in our country than for McCain to be elected. I read that in West Hollywood, California, someone had an effigy of Sarah Palin hanging from a noose. Here in Memphis, I have heard Barack Obama referred to as the AntiChrist.
These are not Christian responses to an election. No one should use a candidate for vice president as a Halloween decoration. No one should suggest that the candidate should be hung. No one should suggest that a candidate is the AntiChrist. No Christian should be encouraging hatred and fear. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. How much more should we be doing for those who are not our enemies, those who are fellow citizens, fellow lovers of our country.
Just before I sat down to write the sermon, I read a book review of a book Electing Not to Vote: Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. I have never considered not voting. In fact, when I went to vote last week, I felt sad that I was not out there working the polls as I did every election day when I lived in Ohio. I was there, holding a sign for one candidate or another, or for one ballot issue or another, or driving a candidate around, or serving coffee and doughnuts to workers, or even gladhanding voters myself when I ran for city council. Not vote? The only greater sin I can think of is to kill someone. I haven’t read the book and I have little more than two reviews to go on, but why might a Christian choose not to vote?
One reviewer summarized the arguments: “But for the Christian committed to Jesus's radical message of nonviolence, there are other reasons for abstention, and the authors in this volume explore them with grace and insight. Voting in federal elections is a gesture that can implicitly acquiesce to the powers and principalities of the world, violate Christ's counter-cultural resistance to Caesar, and promote a most unChristian adversarial spirit among those who get swept up in partisan wrangling. . . . Voting can also be a secular analog of cheap grace, providing voters with the comfortable impression that they've done their bit simply by pulling a polling booth lever, and thereby discouraging imaginative alternatives to social change.” (
The psalmist who penned today’s scripture might be more concerned about voting than I am. He writes about four situations: a people wandering in the desert, lost, hungry and thirsty; prisoners who have rebelled against God and who sit in their cells; people who have been made sick by their choices in life; sailors who have seen God’s power in the storms at sea. In each case, the people have tried to make it on their own: they have tried to live by their own power. They have tried to live without God. And they have not succeeded.
How much are we like people who wander in the desert? We look for saviors. Obama will make the right decisions, get the country back on the right track. No, McCain has more experience. He can get us through this mess we are in right now. We become so sure that we have aligned with the right savior that we call the other candidate names, utter death threats, assume that if we lose then the world will end. Literally end.
We are like people who have made foolish choices and have made ourselves sick. We watched in glee as the values of our houses skyrocketed. We watched in glee as our retirement plans grew in value. Oh, we might be concerned that the very rich were getting more and more wealthy while the poor among us just got poorer, bridges collapsed, schools got worse and worse. We may not have made foolish choices by ourselves, but as a country we have made foolish choices. We have made ourselves sick.
We have seen the deeds of the Lord, God’s mighty works in the sea and yet, we have destroyed the sea. We have used it as a dump and as a place where we could fish forever, removing important parts of the food chain with what we thought was impunity. Scientists are more and more alarmed about the damage being done to ocean stocks of fish. In many parts of the world, the fish populations have declined percipitously.
We have rebelled against God. Over and over again, we have. And we find ourselves imprisoned in chains of our own making. We do not look to God first. We deceive ourselves. We have other priorities.
God loves us. God cares for us. God expects that we will love and care for each other. We must understand that God’s priorities for the world are based in love for all God’s children. Every Single One of them. Neither candidate running for president is a saint.
I believe there is a place for Christians in a democracy. It is to put God and God’s kingdom first. It is to use our power as citizens to vote not for saviors but for those we believe will choose actions that are more consistent with God’s desire for the world God created and the children God loves. No one is perfect. No secular ruler can bring the kingdom. No secular ruler will make the right choices all the time. No secular ruler can save us.
A Christian who has influenced my life is Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero is often protrayed as a liberal, but the reality is far different. Romero put God first. Romero was not a partisan, but a Christian. He was a quiet, scholarly, rather conservative priest when he was tapped by the Pope to become Archbishop in El Salvador. He accepted the role reluctantly. As he saw the murders in his country, the murders of innocents, he began to speak out against both the Marxist rebels and the conservatives military factions governing El Salvador. Romero emphasized that Christ calls us to love one another, not in a self-righteous hate-the-sin, love-the-sinner mode, but in a true love and compassion for the other. He said “I don’t want to be an anti, against anyone. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us.” As we think about voting, let’s remember these words of Romero:
“We must overturn so many idols, the idol of self first of all, so that we can be humble, and only from our humility can learn to be redeemers, can learn to work together in the way the world really needs.
And :
“[T]this is the hope that inspires us Christians. We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.”

Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday Five

From willsmama and RevGalBlogPals

And so I offer this Friday Five with 5 quick hit questions... and a bonus:

1) Your work day is done and the brain is fried, what do you do?

Is a pastor's workday ever done? If my brain is fried, then I usually sit with my laptop and trash tv. I'll do sudoku from indigopuzzles. If my brain is not so fried, I might read. I try to read a bit before I go to sleep anyway.

2) Your work week is done and the brain is fried (for some Friday, others Sunday afternoon), what do you do?

Friday is a wonderful day for me. I never, never, never work (unless I'm doing a funeral or something on Saturday). It's a day for me and relaxation. Today I'll go swim sometime this morning (if I get moving that soon), then because it's a nice day, I'll begin to fertilize my plantings and lawn for fall and I hope plant bulbs. I'm trying to do a project of some sort every Friday. I may go out to dinner or catch a movie, I haven't decided.

3) Like most of us, I often keep myself busy even while programs are on the tv. I stop to watch The Office and 30 Rock on Thursday nights. Do you have 'stop everything' tv programming or books or events or projects that are totally 'for you' moments?

Nope. I even have the laptop on my lap when I watch 30Rock. Actually I usually watch 30Rock on the laptop because I forget when it's on. On the totally for me, that's Friday. All day. I highly recommend it.

4) When was the last time you laughed, really laughed? What was so funny?

This Friday Five is scary: making me think about changes I need to make in my life. I think laughing was during Read This and Burn (or whatever the title of the Clooney/Pitt comedy this summer or early fall). I like going to movies by myself because then I don't embarrass anyone with my laughter. I laugh at things that don't strike other people as funny. I obviously need to laugh more, particularly at my lovely, but rigid, older congregation. (Did I say they are inflexible?--this is why I do yoga--I don't want to be that inflexible when I get old.)

5) What is a fairly common item that some people are willing to go cheap on, but you are not.

I like really good food. When I go out to eat, I don't go to Applebees or Outback. I do like PF Changs and California Pizza Kitchen (none of the latter in Memphis yet), but other than that, it's mostly local really good restaurants. When I'm on a tour (which I try to avoid), I will whenever I can eat at local restaurants instead of the tourist restaurants that tours (even the best) go to. It is really frustrating to me that I have a very hard time convincing people to come with me, even though they are complaining about the food. In fact, that's something I don't understand. People on tours will complain, but when given the option to do something to make it better won't. When I was in Iran, we camped out three nights (sleeping on the ground). We were told that we would be given mattresses. We were, but they were about an inch thick. So, when we were in a small village, we went by a mattress shop with foam mattresses about 3 inches thick. My son and I bought one each and a pillow each. The total price was $15. We tried to get folks to go to the store and buy a set and no one else would. Boy, my son and I slept so well. We gave the mattress to the bus drivers who were pleased to get them so they had something nice to sleep on (there as a space under the bus where they slept; I think it might have otherwise been a baggage area).

Bonus: It's become trite but is also true that we often benefit the most when we give. Go ahead, toot your own horn. When was the last time you gave until it felt good?

One of the things I miss about being a pastor is that I don't regularly volunteer. Before I started chemo, I was volunteering at a hospitality house for homeless people. When I started chemo, I stopped because I just didn't have the energy and I needed to avoid people two out of the three weeks. I haven't made it back because I'm still trying to get my work life organized. I do need to go back there.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Preaching Politics

Not me, I'm chicken. But I am going to use the election as the take off point for my sermon (I think). I'm preaching on Psalm 107. For reasons that escape me the lectionary doesn't include the entire psalm and even the parts that are included omit the ending verse(s) of the stanza (or whatever they are called). I don't preach on the psalms much. In fact, I think I've preached on the psalms once. I don't read them much either. I'm not much into poetry and so on.

But this psalm is perfect for focusing on ourselves or others than God to solve our problems. And it is full of give thanks to God for God's steadfast love.

Anybody out there gonna mention the elections Sunday?

Jesus and Obama

From Stanley Fish who I think leans right. Fish compares Obama to Jesus in Paradise Regained. It reminded me of the oft quoted "unanxious presence" that pastors are supposed to be, particularly in times of congregational distress.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Another reason to switch to Apple

$100,000 contribution to the anti-Prop 8 forces in California.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Five

From Singing Owl at RevGalBlogPals

Tell us about the five favorite places you have lived in your lifetime. What did you like? What kind of place was it? Anything special happen there?

For someone who at age 50 thought she had lived in only two places in her life, I've lived in a lot of places. Actually, even at age 50 I had lived in five different areas and in 9 different houses/apartments, not counting college dorms. I have only one favorite place though.

I went to seminary in San Anselmo, CA. It is a magical place, or as the Irish would say, a thin place. A lot was the geography. I am an outdoors person. The seminary is located on the edge of a series of parks that go south to Mount Tam and then the Marin Headlands (and including Muir Woods) and west to the Pacific ocean. Immediately behind the seminary was a huge hill. From the top (for me about a 45 minute walk up, up, up and up) you could see the seminary and San Anselmo, Fairfax, Corte Madera spread below you. A little further on you could see the Bay and the Richmond Bridge. On a clear day, Mount Diablo over across the Bay would peak out over the fog that engulfed the East Bay. You could see the Bay bridge and parts of San Francisco. The Golden Gate was hidden by the top of Mount Tam. My favorite hike was up to a series of small lakes (dammed by the Marin Water District) hemmed in my the mountains. There used to be an annual seminary to the sea hike where we would leave from the gate of the seminary and hike over the Mount Tam ridge to Stinson Beach. I usually did at least one long hike a week and often several short hikes in the week. I biked along Corte Madera creek to the Bay, just below San Quentin.

I took classes in Berkeley and loved the drive over the Richmond Bridge. I might go to a Farmers Market in Sausalito, another magical place. My first two years I worshipped in Marin City with Anne LaMotte.

It was wonderful living in community. I lived between two good friends and could always sit down with one of them and share my troubles. We ate together, celebrated together, mourned together. Other friends lived in the same building.

I'd love to live there again.





Monday, October 20, 2008

Some Advice, Please

Now that I am more or less healthy, I am making some decisions about my ministry at my church. One decision I made was to let go and let God. The LOLs (not laughing out loud by any means) are too resistant to change and have too many supporters for radical change to occur. (Actually, I'm not sure that it is the LOLs that are resistant to change, but their supporters.) I am focusing much of my time on preaching and I am getting better. I had fallen into a spell of IMHO awful preaching (though parishioners say it was not awful). Improved preaching means more time in prayer, reflection and study. I'm also trying to be more diligent in visitation, though my proposed visitation schedule is trashed because I believe a parishioner is dying and I'm trying to visit her at least every other day. She has no children, though lots of friends and other family.

And so I move on to considering more modern means of communication. The Alban Institute magazine this quarter is devoted to web means of communication. Our new moderator has said (I hope I am quoting accurately) that about 40 per cent of his pastoral care is by email. Our congregation as it presently is, is not tech savvy. In fact, there are session members without email (drives me crazy). In rural Michigan, I could understand, but this is urban Memphis for Pete's sake. So, I am thinking about redoing our web site which is has not been updated since March, I think. Our previous "webmaster" resigned. I would like to take on the task for a couple of reasons. I think it would be fun. The web site would reflect my sensibilities. I wouldn't have to tell someone their design stank. I'm thinking more of a static site at first, with mostly the calendar. (We have dropped our newsletter because no one wants to do it. We do one quarterly with a monthly calendar available on the web and in hard copy in the narthex.) I'm also thinking of a blog that is openly "mine" and considers more theological/biblical reflections, perhaps looking towards the lectionary passage for Sunday. I'm also thinking of a listserv for the congregation to spread news. The leaves out a lot of members. We could also do a Face Book page (I don't have a Face Book page, because I don't have any friends that I know of on Face Book).

So, given our demographics, we are older (shoot, elderly) like most PCUSA congregations, in a city, two blocks from the University of Memphis. We do have young people: recent college grads who still attend, a youth group of six kids, a young couple has begun attending with two sons. We have about three young families who also attend sporadically. Most of the members are connected by long membership and friendship.

So, I would see the website and my blog as mostly outreach, a presence on the web. The listserv would be great if enough people were interested, but I don't know whether we have that many folks. (We could also do a devotional on the listserv is anyone wanted to do it) The blog could be open to other members too. So, whaddaya think?

Well Worth a Read

A doctor blogs on suffering.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Musings on a Couple of Books

I finished Home by Marilynne Robinson last night (too late unfortunately). I have complained about Jan Karon's Mitford series because it is so sappy. Nothing is ever that pat, that sweet in a minister's life (at least no pastors I know). And Philip Gulley I think has an equally sweet series. I want someone to write about a pastor's life as it really is. Home is a follow up to Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. But it is the most depressing book I've read lately. There is a glimmer, a brief glimmer, a possibility of grace and happiness at the very end. My life is filled with too much sadness: a parishioner with no children dying alone in the hospital, a marriage torn asunder by the husband's misdeed, alcoholism, (to clarify, neither mine) a dying church unwilling to change, friends with crippling diseases, growing old myself, the specter of cancer returning. I have decided I really don't want to read any more books that describe life as it really is. I'm back to my murder mysteries. Crossan and Reed's In Search of Paul is next on my nonfiction reading list.

I was reading The Shattered Lantern which someone's blog recommended this afternoon. I was struck by the author's insistence that one must enter the dark night of the soul in order to enter into God's presence. To do that, one must give up sensual pleasures. I may be misquoting or misunderstanding, but the idea of aestheticism bothers me. Jesus was not an aesthetic. He loved life; he loved eating and drinking; he loved being with people. He must have experienced God in his life. So, how do we square the need to become aesthetics to properly experience God with the model of Jesus? I think that God created the world and all that is in it. I believe God created the world so that we can experience God's presence through the world. I believe God reveals God's self in creation. I believe God gave us good food to enjoy. I believe God gives us relationships and joy. So, the aesthetic troubles me. It seems to me that it is denying God's gifts. On the other hand, I could just be wrong.

Who Do You Belong To?

Matthew 22:15-22

He was the Son of God.
He was the Prince of Peace.
He was the Divine Caesar. And he ruled the world, at least the western world. Peace, though came at a price. The Romans were determined in their drive to enforce peace. Disturbers of that peace, even alleged disturbers were dealt with harshly. The Romans held no trials. They had no bill of rights. No rule against self incrimination. Punishment was swift and cruel. Crucifixion served many purposes. A warning to be sure. But crucifixion also erased the person from memory. One hung, sometimes for days, on a cross, slowly suffocating. When death came, the body remained for the vultures to pick at. Bones fell and turned to dust. No one came to lament the death. No one came to claim a body for burial. No one remembered the terrible death.
And taxes. Taxes were levied to support the soldiers who enforced the peace. Taxes were levied to support building projects. Taxes were levied to support a life style that Wall Street barons can only envy. And so, they lived under Roman rule. Some chafed under the harsh rule. The Zealots wanted an armed rebellion. The Herodians preached accommodation. There was no way to defeat the might of the Roman Empire. They counseled going along, getting along, making the best of a bad thing. The Pharisees believed they could change God’s mind if only they were good enough. And so they followed the holiness code imposed upon the priests. If the people were holy, God could be appeased and the Romans would go away somehow. The Pharisees were even concerned about carrying Roman money. It was a violation of the law. Roman coins bore the image of the Emperor, the son of God, the one who was a god. Jewish law was clear: there was no God but God and to carry an image of a god was a violation of the law.
So, the Pharisees gather and plot. They bring the Herodians into the plot. Neither the Pharisees or the Herodians as a group particularly liked Jesus. He threatened them both. He was a loose cannon. He, like the other putative Messiahs wandering around Galilee, could bring down Roman wrath on them. And so they ask him a question, one that can only trap him. If he answers one should pay taxes, he has played into the hands of the Pharisees. That will anger their followers and most of the people. If he says one should not pay taxes, he is immediately labeled an enemy of the Romans. It’s a no-win position, they think. I can imagine their laughter as they imagine their trap.
And so they ask: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor. They have him, they think. But Jesus outsmarts them. He is quicker than they are. He asks for a coin. And someone obliges him. First mistake. They have admitted that they violate the law. And Jesus asks, “whose image is on the coin?” The answer came quickly, Caesar's. And so Jesus says, "Give Caesar, that which is Caesar's." He adds, "and give to God that which is God's." And they go away.
For years, these words of Jesus have been used to justify a sort of two state world: the religious world, God's world, and the secular world, Caesar's world. We navigate between the two worlds, determining which is Caesar’s world and which is God’s world. And it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our Monday through Saturday world is the secular world. It is a world distinct from our Sunday world, God’s world. The two worlds might even never need to meet. We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and we give to God, perhaps a little grudgingly the small part, an hour or two on Sunday, a bit of our income, a little more of our time for mission or bible study. God’s world becomes a narrow world of personal piety, of going to church on Sunday, of reading the Bible and praying.
Jesus and those who walked away from him, understood something much more profound in his words. They did not walk away because Jesus had beaten them at their game. They walked away because Jesus had said something really important that brought them up short.
Because they were steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, the word "image" would have popped out at them. Whose image is on the coin? It is a coin made by Caesar and bears Caesar's image. Jesus has said we should give what belongs to Caesar to Caesar. We know what belongs to Caesar because it bears Caesar's image on it. Jesus says we should give what belongs to God to God. We know what belongs to God because it bears God's image. They would have heard the word image and remembered Genesis, when God says let us make humans in our own image. It is humans that belong to God.
But Jesus really doesn't make it clear what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. He leaves it ambiguous. That's one reason they wander away. They are thinking. What is Caesar's and what is God's. What does it mean that we are made in God's image?
We still struggle with that question today. We are made in God’s image. We belong to God. We are God’s. What does that mean? What difference does it make in our lives? It is so easy to get trapped in the world. We are afraid. We seek security in money. We seek security in power. One need only look around and see how fleeting those things are. Our entire financial system is being brought down by those who believed that more and more and more and more money would bring them security. And people are so scared they will lose everything, they are exacerbating the meltdown by drawing money out of the market. We think we can find security in power. We are or we were the most powerful nation in the world. And yet we are frightened of a man who sits half a world away, who even after seven years lives in a cave somewhere and has not been brought to justice. We see our might sneered at. We see other countries come to power.
It is no accident that Christians identified Jesus as the Son of God and the Prince of Peace. Those titles were consciously used to contrast Jesus with Caesar. They claimed a ruler who was radically different from Caesar. They claimed a ruler who had no money, no power; a ruler who came as a servant. They knew what it meant to be made in the image of God. They knew it meant to live as one in the image of God.
I worked for five years for Habitat for Humanity and volunteered with them many years before that. The founder, Millard Fuller, was a man who found what it meant to live as one in the image of God. Not perfectly, for none of us is perfect, but in the image of God. I don’t know if you know Millard’s and his wife, Linda’s story. Millard was a young lawyer, a partner of Morris Dees down in Mississippi. They made more money continuing the business they had started when they were in school. They sold cook books as FHA fund raisers and hats and tractor seats as FFA fund raisers. Both were millionaires before they were 30. Now, this was more than forty years ago when a million dollars was a million dollars. But, Millard spent most of his time working. He was devoted to Linda and showed it by the things he gave her: a huge house on a lake, a big Cadillac, everything she wanted. Everything but one thing: his presence. He was so busy working, he never had time for her or his family. Linda was miserable. She had been young when she married Millard and not particularly well to do, but the wealth didn’t make up for his absence. So, she went to New York City to meet with a religious mentor. Millard followed her there. Together they made a decision that would change their lives and the lives of over a million people. They decided to follow what it said in the Bible, sell all they had, give it to the poor and follow Jesus. Can you imagine? Millard had put his faith in Caesar, in money. And he reaped the broken relationships that happen when we worship the wrong god, when we give to idols what belongs to God. They spent some time with Clarence Jordan, who deserves several sermons of his own, in Americus Georgia, at Koininea Farms. There Linda and Millard began to work with folks who were living in shacks, to build decent houses. Then they began to pray about this work they were doing. They thought maybe, just maybe, God was calling them to work overseas in helping poor people in other countries have decent houses. So they moved their family to Africa and built houses there. It worked. And they began their organization: Habitat for Humanity. They envisioned an organization that would work overseas. God had other plans. The idea caught on in the US. People began local Habitats. God does amazing things when we remember that we are made in God’s image. God does amazing things when we remember that every person who is on this planet is made in God’s image. Every one of them. Every one of us.
We are called to live as if we bear God’s likeness in our hearts and on our faces. Because we do. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, shows us how we can reflect God’s love in our lives. The dilemma is not what part of our lives belong to Caesar and what part belongs to God. Our entire lives, hearts, minds and souls belong to God. The challenge is how do we live out our lives, belonging to God, finding our security in God and not in this world. Amen.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday Five

From Songbird at RevGalBlogPals

1) When was the last time you flipped a coin or even saw one flipped in person?

I can't remember.

2) Do you have any foreign coins in your house? If so, where are they from?

In my house, in my car, everywhere. I have a 20 cent euro piece on the floor of my car because I haven't picked it up. I have a bag of euros (currently my best investment, though it is losing value) from my last trip to Europe. I have left over coins (and lots of small bills) from Uganda, Khazahstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyrstan, Mongolia, Korea, some from non-Euro northern European countries. Everywhere I've been in the last four or five years. I even have some pre-Euro francs. I have a sheaf of small bills from all over the world. I don't throw them away, I'm not sure why. I think I keep hoping I'll find a child who likes foreign money.

3) A penny saved is a penny earned, they say. But let's get serious. Is there a special place in heaven for pennies, or do you think they'll find a special place in, well, the other place?

I'm not sure why we still have a penny. Mine pile up in my coin drawer in the car, in the bottom of my purse and in a drawer where I put loose change until I roll the coins up and take them to the bank.

4) How much did you get from the tooth fairy when you were a child? and if you have children of your own, do they get coins, or paper money? (I hear there may be some inflation.)

Oh, the tooth fairy. I think I got a quarter, which at the time was a lot of money. The tooth fairy forgot one night and my Dad said the fairy left the quarter at the breakfast table.

5) Did anyone in your household collect the state quarters? And did anyone in your household manage to sustain the interest required to stick with it?

I have a bag of state quarters. I last put them in a binder when I moved two and a half years ago. I suppose sitting in a bag is not the best thing. They roll around in the bottom of my purse until I clean it out and throw them in the bag.

I was in Alaska when the Alaska quarter came out. Clerks were complaining that they had not made their way down to Juneau (they had been introduced at the state fair somewhere up north). I haven't seen one down here yet.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

I get stuff on Google Reader. Two CNN headlines one before the other

Probe as Muslim family burned alive (A family of Muslims was burned alive in India)
Indian Christians celebrate first woman saint

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Five

Here's the Friday Five from Mother Laura at RevGalBlogPals

So for today's Friday Five, you're invited to share your experiences with the exciting, challenging world of business travel....

1. Does your job ever call for travel? Is this a joy or a burden? The only time my current job calls for travel is when I go on study leave. I get to choose where I go. I try to get something at San Anselmo because that place is magical. Not this year though. When I worked for Habitat for Humanity, I traveled to almost every small town in Indiana and Ohio. By car. Actually I liked it.

2. How about that of your spouse or partner? Not got one.

3. What was the best business trip you ever took? For study leave (does that count?) to San Anselmo. I love to hike up Baldy or up to some small lakes. From Baldy, you can see Mt. Diablo (on a clear day), the Richmond Bridge, the Bay Bridge and parts of San Francisco. You can't see the Golden Gate Bridge, though. I did a mission trip to Nicaragua when I was first out of seminary that was great. Another woman and I spent a week with a family in a tiny village. She didn't speak Spanish and mine is passable (or laughable as I found out).

4. ...and the worst, of course? I can't think of any.

5. What would make your next business trip perfect? Oh, to be able to travel on business with time to explore. Travel to Europe or neat places in the US. But air travel is getting to be less and less fun. It used to be fun. Now it's a pain. Take off your shoes, take out your laptop, take out your liquids. Oh, we have to run your briefcase again without those pesky electronics. We've cancelled your flight and you're being rerouted, so you're SSSSed and get that special pat down. You can't take that empty water bottle with you. Get on a crowded plane with no leg room for a 5'5" woman. What do 6 footers do? There's no overhead space cause it costs to check a bag. Someone just hit you with his oversized backpack. But I still love to travel. Am hoping to pull off a trip to Guatemala at Thanksgiving if I don't have another surgery this fall. No, it's not a mission trip.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Obama the Muslim

So I visited an elderly couple today. I don't usually talk politics. But the wife asked me about the election. I was non committal and tired to change the subject. She said she just couldn't see a Black and a Muslim as president. I said that Obama was not a Muslim. She replied that she thought so. I said that I knew he was a Christian. In fact in stretching the truth a bit, I said I knew his preacher, the Rev. Otis Moss, III. I said I knew his father and grandfather from Cleveland and that he was a fine Christian man. Actually, I have met either his father or grandfather. They are renown in the African American community in Cleveland. I do not know the son, actually. She said several times, nice Southern lady that she is, that she thought he was Muslim and I said (bitchy spent too long in the north to be a southern lady that I am) that I knew Obama is a Christian.

I just haven't faced outright lies before. I'm sure she is sure she is right. I'm sure nothing I said will cause her to change her mind. But, I can't let a lie stand. What if I were a McCain supporter? Would I have been so quick to correct? What if she had said something wrong about McCain? Would I have been so quick to correct? I don't know. I hope so.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


The Advent wars have begun. Every year, the worship chair wants to start Christmas on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. She wants to sing Christmas carols. We have the same discussion year after year. Since I choose the texts, hymns and sermons, I win. But, of course, it is a hollow victory.

So, I am beginning to think about Advent. What are we waiting for? When I was thinking in terms of the incarnation, it was easy. Advent is a time for us to prepare for the incarnation. We need to think about what difference the incarnation means. Which has always meant that we need to realize that we are sinners and need Jesus for salvation. (Advent=penitence).

I believe the church should be counter cultural when the culture is against Christianity. I believe cultural Christmas is not Christian. I believe it is a symptom and sign of the culture's idolatry of materialism and greed. So that makes me an even stronger opponent of starting Christmas at Thanksgiving (gee, can we start after Halloween, that's when the stores put out their Christmas displays).

Now, though, I am beginning to wonder. What was the meaning of Jesus death? I don't buy substitutionary atonement for lots of reasons. I don't believe God sent Jesus to earth so that he could die on a cross. I think death happened (the same way it did for Dr. King and Msgr. Romero). I think the church tried to understand Jesus' death and its meaning. So, if the early church understood the meaning of the resurrection as Paradise being here and now (or the realm of God being here and now), then what of Advent?

"Our understandings are always provisional." An OT prof would say.

At least I have a few weeks to begin to parse this out. (I have a feeling it is the work of a life time.)

Monday, October 6, 2008


Last night I got to have dinner with Rita Nakishima Brock. An interesting part of the conversation was atonement. She talked a bit about Dennis Weaver and his attempt to shift from blood and sacrifice to Christus Victus (or is it Christis Victis). As I recall the conversation, she talked more about how the early church emphasized Paradise and the church as Paradise. (Paradise, she empahized is not free from evil: the serpent was there before Adam and Eve sinned.) She talked a bit about Paul's struggle with the meaning of Jesus death. She sees the Passion stories as lament. She pointed out that crucifixion meant the elimination of the person. After the torture, the body was not buried: it was devoured by vultures and then simply disappeared into the dust. Crucifixion was so shameful that people did not talk about the dead. There was no memorial to the person. It was intended to erase the person from the memory of his friends, family and followers. Jesus overcame that erasure. Death did not win.

In my study group for Mark, I asked people what they thought of the first line of the gospel: the beginning of the evangelion of Jesus [son of God]. I explained evangelion means the good news of a battlefield report. I hope that they will come to a deeper understanding, as I hope that I will. I have seen the good news as the victory of Jesus over evil. Now, I see the victory as Jesus victory over death.

So, what is the meaning of Jesus' death. Or is the important question, what is the resurrection?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Today's Sermon--Freedom!

Exodus 20:1-20

We are going to have a test this morning. A pop quiz. You’ll find paper at the end of the pew and pencils in the pew racks. OK, first question. What are the ingredients in a Big Mac? You’ve got 30 seconds. Second question: List the eight states that border Tennessee and their capitals. 30 seconds. Third question: List Santa’s reindeer. Fourth question: List the Harry Potter books. Final question: List the 10 commandments.
How did you do on the 10 commandments? A couple of years ago, the Supreme Court ruled on two cases involving the public display of the Ten Commandments. Justice Scalia noted that he thought that while 90 percent of Americans probably believed in the Ten Commandments, he doubted that 85 percent of us could name them.
“Last year Promenade Pictures released the animated movie The Ten Commandments. As part of their marketing, they commissioned Kelton Research to poll 1,000 people on their recall of Big Mac ingredients vs. Commandments. It appears that Ronald is keeping Moses in bondage. Eighty percent of Americans knew the Big Mac had two all-beef patties while just over 50 percent knew “Thou shalt not kill” was a commandment. Only 14 percent knew all 10. Even those who attend church or synagogue at least once a week have a bit of trouble naming them all. The top two mentioned commandments — Thou shalt not kill and Thou shalt not steal — were recalled by 70 percent and 69 percent respectively. The Big Mac was more memorable — 79 percent knew of its all-beef patties and 76 percent knew it came with lettuce. Religious people get all bent out of shape if the Ten Commandments are pulled off courtroom walls, but they aren’t able to pull up the Decalogue themselves. ” (Quoted from Homiletics at
The confusion doesn’t just include the contents of the commandments. Roman Catholics and Protestants count the commandments differently. Roman Catholics view the first commandment as including all the words from “I am the Lord your God” , “you shall have no other gods before me” and “ you shall not make idols”. Protestants separate the words about having no other gods and not making idols into two commandments. And, in the Jewish tradition, these are not commandments, but the Decalogue, the ten words. The Jewish tradition begins with the first word “I am the Lord your God”.
So, it’s no wonder there is so much confusion about the meaning of the commandments, if Christians can’t even agree on which ones are which. It gets even more complicated when one begins to consider grace and the role of grace in our salvation. If we are saved by grace and not works, do these commandments even have a place in our lives? Because we are saved though God’s love, does it matter what we do. Since we can’t possibly do enough good works to save ourselves, then why should we try at all.
If we begin at the first word, we can find an answer. God begins by introducing God’s self to the Israelites. God says “I am the lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God did not introduce God’s self by telling the people God’s name. Moses had asked for God’s name and God replied “I Am who I Am” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be”. God didn’t tell the Israelites God’s name. God also didn’t say that God was the God of their ancestors, of Abraham and Sarah, words the Israelites often used to identify their God. God says that God is the one who brought them out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. God identifies God’s self as a God who liberates people from slavery, a God who frees people. Now, that is certainly an interesting way to begin a set of rules that takes away our absolute freedom, our freedom to do as we please, to worship as we please. God liberates us from oppression, but then God gives us a set of rules that God expects us to live by. What is that about? Talk about giving with one hand and taking away with the other.
Glenn McDonald, the author of a book I am reading begins his book by telling of an experience. His parents decided to celebrate their wedding anniversary by taking all their children and grandchildren on a cruise. The parents who were experienced at cruising excitedly told the author that on the second night of the cruise, they would be able to shake hands with the ship’s captain at the reception. The author confidently told his wife that he would find a way to get out of that bit of folderol. As the author slept on the first night on the cruise, he was awakened by the loudspeaker. It was four in the morning, but the captain’s voice blared over the speaker. “We think that someone may have gone overboard. If you are not in your cabins, please return there and make sure that everyone in your party is present. If someone is missing, please let us know immediately.” The captain continued that they had alerted the Coast Guard and were turning the ship around to return to where the person was thought to have gone over. A while later the captain came back on to announce that there were two people unaccounted for. He announced their names and asked them to report to the staff if they were on board. Several hours later the captain announced that the missing man had been located by the Coast Guard and had been taken to a hospital. Evidently the man had entered a restricted area and had climbed on the bow of the ship so he could pretend he was king of the world as the actor in Titanic. While the author drew a different analogy from his experience, it reminded me of our need for rules to keep us safe. We need limitations on our freedom so that we can live in relationship with one another.
Imagine if there were no laws or rules as there are in some places. Imagine if you could not go outside without being afraid that someone would kill you. Imagine if you could not leave your house without being afraid that someone would break in and steal everything. Imagine if you could not trust your spouse to be faithful to you. These commandments provide a structure for us to develop relationships with one another. They provide trust so that we can build relationships with each other.
Almost every society provides rules like the last six commandments: honor your parents, don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t covet, don’t lie because any society needs rules like these so that people can live together. What the Decalogue provides is four more rules. These are the first four rules that tell us where God’s place in our lives should be. We need only this God to care for us. We do not need other gods. We do not need the god of money for our security. We do not need the god of status for our security. We do not need the god of popularity for our security. We do not need the god of busy-ness for our security. We need only this one God. God does not want us to make an image of God. Our images of God, whether they are painted, carved, sculpted, or remain in our imaginations are ways that limit God, that constrain God to be either what we want God to be or only the little we can imagine God to be. God tells Moses God’s name: I Am who I Am; I Will be Who I Will Be. Humans cannot constrain our God. Humans cannot fully imagine who God is. God is bigger than we are. God is mysterious. We are to remember that our God is sacred, holy, awesome. And we do not need to work 24/7. Our God provides for us so that we may rest one day a week.
God is a God of freedom and liberation. Judge Moore, the Alabama judge, was a defendant in one of those two Supreme Court cases two years ago. Thomas Long notes that after he lost his case, Judge Moore carted his stone monument of the 10 Commandments around in a flat bed truck. The monument weighed 5280 pounds. Long notes this is more than 500 pounds per commandment. And this, he says, is how most of us think of the 10 Commandments: as burdens, as heavy burdens, as very heavy burdens. They are not burdens, but means of liberation and signs of liberation. We are liberated to worship a God who is in control. We are liberated to live with one another in peace and harmony. We are freed. Long describes the freedom of these commandments
“The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results. If we want to symbolize the presence of the Ten Commandments among us, we would do well to hold a dance. The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.” ( Amen