Wednesday, December 09, 2009
I have a hard time balancing what I want to do with what I have to do and what needs to be done. Bake cookies for my friends, no problem--that's fun! Take the donated coats to the neighbor church, who wants to do that? (Hint: not me)
Thursday, November 26, 2009
A pastor friend of mine wrote this on his FB page: "[The story of Thanksgiving: Native] people give food to dumb starving white people...white people kill them. Neat story" And my response: "...and so the white people give thanks by staying home and gorging themselves while millions in our country still starve every day."
And so perhaps not so strangely, this year, I didn't stuff myself as I have in years past. My mind was on those who wouldn't be having much if anything to eat today. I thought about the entire town near our own whose very existence is in question after the shut-down of a factory that employs nearly 1/8 of that town's population as well as quite a number of ours. What are they giving thanks for today?
And so I count my own blessings. I have a job, my spouse has a job, we are healthy, I have family that I love, I have in-laws who like me... I could fill a whole page with trivialities. But mostly I am thankful that I am able to find my security not in those things, but in my faith in God. For that, I am truly thankful.
Saturday, October 03, 2009
Both kids have been sick in the last week, both with fevers and ear infections--though L's hasn't been diagnosed yet, since she just today started to complain about the ear. May try a homeopathic drop I saw before hitting the doctor's office since she can be a bit dramatic sometimes. It may just be that her head is stuffy.
Otherwise, I'm glad that my dad is here for the weekend and next as well, and we might take an evening and drive out to the beach to visit with him and his friends and let L play in the sand.
Monday, September 21, 2009
But what it comes out of is differing views of what a pastor should be doing. This group feels that my ministry should be primarily inward focused--HUGE amounts of pastoral care and visitation. They had a single older gentleman pastor several years ago who focused ALL his attention on the church people. "So we've come to expect that level of care from our pastors. In other words, "because we've always done it that way." Not that I don't provide PC & V. Hospital visits, shut-in and nursing home visits, calls when folks are gone for a few weeks w/out notice, calls when we have new visitors, calls when the deacons share a need, etc. I'm there!
But questions like, "do you keep a log of visits and calls? do you turn it in to anyone?" um, no and no. Am I getting a grade on this? I got the impression that they literally wanted me to go down the directory list (maybe as often as once a month!) and call every person just to say "hi!" 'Course, I assume they also want me to continue to preach, teach, and outreach.
There's the kicker--time. I ain't got that much. I realize that they have never had a young pastor with a young family. Previous pastors who made phone calls at 7 or 8 at night didn't have kids to bathe and get in bed.
So really, what's going to happen is I'm going to have to hold a "come to Jesus meeting" with this committee and hash out where I need to focus my energy. Right now, it's outward--and good things are happening in this church! There is more energy, new members are coming to join us, people are excited about ministry again. So as I type that, I wonder if some of this visitation crap isn't somewhat about fear of change. Make the pastor care for us and maybe the new people will drift off or not come at all. Hmm, something to think about.
Monday, September 14, 2009
I was rather surprised that the verses from James were the ones that the lectionary used for the Sunday that is the kick-off for the Sunday School year for the majority of mainline denominations. What? Are they trying to scare off the few people we have who still want to teach? Here we are celebrating our teachers and James is giving them a stern lecture, warning them how careful they must be about what comes out of their mouths.
But the more I thought about it, the more it does seem appropriate. After all, Jesus has told us that it is not what goes into our mouths that defiles us, but what comes out. There are all kinds of sayings about watching your mouth so it won’t get you in trouble. And because our teachers are leaders to whom we look for example, surely they must be particularly cautious. James had obviously been having some trouble with the leaders in the congregation to whom he is writing. He is well aware that those people in positions of authority must watch what they say, because others are looking to them and trusting them as leaders.
See, words have incredible power. Pastors more than most have a deep and difficult understanding of this, I think. Yet we all face it, any time we open our mouths and let words spill out. And it’s not just the words we say, but how we say them—inflection, timing, and so on. Admittedly, that’s one reason I’m not much of a texter. Not only do you lose inflection, you even lose the vowels! Without the modulation of voice, I would worry that jests might come across as serious or sympathy as sarcastic or any number of other misunderstandings. And yet it is a powerful way of communicating for an entire generation. One teen I asked about it said that they prefer it because you can hold conversations with many people at once and that there are no awkward silences. I argue that it takes away the personal aspect, though for some I suppose that might be a draw. James knew the tongue was a dangerous body part; I wonder what he would say today about the thumbs?
In this information age, words bombard us constantly—texting, voice mail, email, advertising, radio, podcasts... But we’ve come to expect everyone to have an agenda. We expect misinformation and deceit, even from respectable and reputable sources. In fact, we only consider a source reputable and reliable if we agree with it. That is why teachers especially have to be careful in their words. We have to keep our reputation for wisdom in our words, for truth in our speech. As Paul reminds us, we are to “let no evil talk come out of [our] mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” It is the job of teachers then, to teach others how to think for themselves and discern what is evil and what is useful, what is truth and what is deceitful. It’s not simply a relaying of information to be spat back at the appropriate time. This is a foundational belief of Presbyterianism, and one that has not always been popular with the general public. There are many people who do not want to have to think about their faith. They want it in black and white, rote answers that they can indeed spit at people who do not agree with them. Their tongues become weapons, using proof-texting and verse-citing to provide evidence that they are in the right (and of course, in converse, that others are wrong.)
When we speak aloud, as James so adeptly points out, our tongues, so small in size, can create large-scale disasters. It’s a daunting thought. I can feel the sweat on my brow bead up as I go on. The tongue, so small in size, can be like the tiny spark that sets off huge forest fires in the
In the recent movie ‘Doubt,’ starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Streep’s character, the principal of a Catholic parochial school, goes on a crusade to expel the popular parish priest played by Hoffman, based only on the rumors of a young idealistic fellow nun that the priest has taken a special interest in a young boy student. She takes that to mean something more than it perhaps should. Rumors are spread, lives are destroyed and words do irreparable damage. There is a scene at the end, where one of the characters is seen taking a pillowcase of feathers to a rooftop and releasing them into the wind. They represent the words that were spoken and can now never be retrieved, no matter how sorry the speaker is for saying them. At the end of the movie is Streep’s character, dour as ever saying, “I have doubts.”
How often does it seem like our tongues have minds of their own, speaking even if our minds have doubts? I remember, as an impulsive child, being reminded often to think before I spoke. We all have times when we wish we could chase down the feathers that have floated off, out of our control. Growing up in the deep south, I learned quickly that words were never to be taken at face value. So often, what might sound like a compliment, was meant to be the opposite, yet said with a syrupy sweetness that belied the gall underneath. How many of you have ever used the duplicitous phrase, “Well, bless her sweet little heart?” Yeah, you know what it means, what it really means.
James knew well that no matter how much praise you offer a person, the one harsh word spoken, even in a heated moment, will be the one remembered. He knows full well that none of us can control our speech at all times, otherwise, he says, we’d be perfect. But that is why he warns us to constantly be careful of letting our tongues wag, lest we wish we could take back the words spoken. It can both bless and curse, he says. But he also says that this is not the way it should be. Should a spring yield both fresh and brackish water? Of course not! Our language says so much about who we are inside that what comes out of us represents what is in our souls. The same is true of the church. What people hear us say, and even the way we say it, represents who we are when we are inside these walls.
Even today, the most frequent reason cited by those who steer clear of churches is the duplicity of Christians. Hypocrites is the word used most often. “If God’s word does not show up in the flesh of a congregation—if those who hear the word do not also incarnate the word—then the tongue has worked a wicked spell on them.” But we also must be careful not to indulge in glib speech in the church, making what is difficult sound easy, or what is mysterious sound plain.
Whether we mean to or not, we construct worlds with our speech. Describing a world we see, we often mistake it for the whole world. Like the three blind men describing an elephant. It is hard and cool and smooth, said the one feeling the tusk. No, it is warm and wrinkled and tough said the one feeling the leg. No, no, it is rough and hairy and keeps moving, said the one feeling the twitchy tail. Yet we still make meaning of what we see and proceed to conflate this with God’s meaning. Then we behave according to this world we have constructed with our speech, even when that causes us to dismiss or harm those who construe the world differently.
For teachers and others in authority, the danger lies in the perilous combination of authority on the one hand and misused, damaging speech or erroneous claims on the other. The reason James aims this cautionary text at teachers is because teachers and other leaders will be held liable not only for their own follies but also for the errors that their students assimilate and pass on. The more authority the person speaking has, the more likely that people will take their words for truth and also pass them on to others as such. If we as teachers and leaders are not careful in what we say, can we expect that those of whom we teach and lead will be any better?
Our words let people know how we feel, what we think, what we believe—well, at least sometimes. Presbyterians do fairly well at living in a Christian way most of the time, but much less frequently do we do as well talking about our faith and beliefs. We love to tell people that we’re different due to our government or our worship style or how welcoming we are, but rarely do we love to tell them what our confessions say and what our doctrine declares. That’s the hard part about being a teacher, for as powerful as words are, sometimes finding the right ones to articulate the mysteries of God and our faith prove immensely difficult.
We say that we’d rather live our faith than speak of it; we say that actions speak louder than words, but truthfully, not much when it comes to our faith. It is James who says several times that faith divorced from works is useless. But works without faith is just philanthropy. And this isn’t just an internal faith, this is a shared faith, a faith that uses words to communicate with others what we believe and how our lives have been affected by our faith in Christ. See, the tongue, for as much trouble as it can get us in, can also be useful for building up. As far back as the garden of Eden, the tongue was meant for praising God. And as people made in the image of God, I’d go so far as to say it was meant for praising each other as well. But as James points out, in the same breath, we can sing praise to God and demean those made in God’s likeness.
It is easy to see why James has such strong words of warning against the tongue. Forget karate chops and judo kicks, the tongue is the body part that can do more damage more quickly than any other. Yet, “if we dedicate our tongues to the language of God, our actions will follow. Our tongues, which bless and curse, can also ask for forgiveness. Teachers are not perfect, but must choose words carefully, because God has given us authority to build up for the body of Christ.”[i] And make no mistake, we are all teachers in the priesthood of all believers. So let us choose words that are useful for building up, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Amen.
[i] Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4, p. 66
First week of school went great. L doesn't even say 'bye to me, just goes right to her seat and talks to her friends. Honestly, that's the way it should be. She's not timid about it at all. Or really about anything. She continually amazes me.
A friend/colleague and I are starting up a lunch for the women ministers in our presbytery this week. Can't wait to see who comes and how it goes. Hope it fun! ('course, we're meeting at a beer garden/restaurant, so it can't go too terribly bad!)
Saturday, September 05, 2009
Starts back in May when I take L's forms and such to her school to register her for Kindergarten. Have to take in a medical form with physical and shot record. Ok, got it from her pediatrician, good to go. They take it. I leave, believing all is in order.
Fast forward to this past Thursday. It's orientation day. We go meet the teacher, find her room, etc. See a note on the door with kids who need to stop by the nurse's office. My kid is on that list. WTF? Ok, we go, we wait, we get our turn. They want a more up-to-date form or supposedly she can't come on Tues. Wait. It's Thursday, you want it by Tuesday and Monday's a holiday. WTF?! Every parent in the school with a kid who has a summer b-day is probably in the same boat. Why the hell didn't you tell me I'd need a more recent one when I was there in May? You looked at the date on it, you could have said, "she'll need an up-to-date form before school starts." I'd have asked for the form when we were there to have her check-up, no problem. That gives them time to fill it out.
Well, I'm a little unhappy, to say the least. especially having only 1.5 business days notice to fix this issue. But, we stop by the doctor's office on the way home to request the form, I explain and the nice lady behind the desk says it's usually a 72 hour turn around for med. forms. I try not to cry, and politely ask if there is a way to hurry this, as I would actually like for my child not to miss her first day of school (ok, so I would have taken her anyway and let them figure it out later) but she says I can check back at the end of the day on Friday.
So I do. I'm polite and kind and I guess that is not something that a lot of parents have been to those ladies that day. What do I get for keeping my head and using some manners? A nurse staying a few minutes late to complete the form for me and I walk out the door with form in hand on Friday. Totally worth it. :)
I just don't know how single moms do it. I've only been sans hubby for 2 days and I'm already going nuts. Even just the few minutes here and there of relief he provides from a 5 year old who can't.stop.talking or giving the baby her bottle when my hands are full, well, I'm grateful.
To top it all off, I'm super low energy, having been diagnosed with walking pneumonia the day before he left. I can tell the superdrugs are working since I can breathe a little deeper without it hurting now, but the lung capacity is still lower than usual and it takes more energy to walk up and down the stairs, much less carrying an 18+ lb. baby chubbette in my arms.
Laundry is trying to take over the house. Can't seem to make it go downstairs by itself either. Gathering up L's laundry is like a scavenger hunt. I don't remember what color the carpet in her room is these days. I try to get to pick up a bit every night before bed, but it just explodes again during the day.
I am so anxious about L's first day of school. She's super excited--it's my own childhood anxieties surfacing that make me nervous. You know, the old mess-up-in-school-and-flush-your-life-goodbye sort of worries. We got a Tinkerbell backpack and a Barbie lunch bag, all the other usual school supplies. Then we had fun decorating her pencil box with jewel stickers and glitter letters for her name. We bought her a first-day-of-school outfit, though what she'll decide she wants to wear that morning is anybody's guess. Can't wait to see how she does. I think she'll have a great time and love being with the other kids and learning new things; she's certainly a smart girl.
Saturday, August 01, 2009
"We Want More!"
A sermon on the gospel lesson for Ordinary 17, Yr.B
“There was a name in nineteenth-century
Obviously this is not a new phenomenon. Ever since Jesus miraculously fed the 5000 seated on the hill, he has had this crowd of people following him around, rather like a pack of stray dogs hoping for some stray crumbs to be dropped. They are fixated only on where their next meal will come from. Rather odd, wouldn’t you say, for people who had just witnessed such a miracle as the one they themselves were part of. “But these were the ones who saw the feeding miracle as an end in itself rather than the sign it was meant to be...”[ii]
They don’t realize that this miracle points to something beyond itself. Upon first witnessing the miracle feeding, they want to haul Jesus off and crown him king. THIS was what they wanted in a Messiah, someone who could feed them, make it so they wouldn’t have to work for their food, make life a little easier. They have been satisfied physically and so their eyes are fixed only on physical things. They have no idea that there is much more at stake.
Jesus and his disciples have finally gotten a much needed break on the other side of the sea when the crowd realizes he’s slipped off. They go searching for him and when they find him, they complain that he has left them. “When did you come here?” In other words, “Why aren’t you where we left you, so we could find you again?” But Jesus knows they have not come to find the one who could fill their souls. They have come to find the one who had filled their bellies.
It is a slavering beast, this crowd. Hunger in their eyes. The hungry crowd wants more. More bread. More to eat. They are worried more about the immediacy of their stomachs than the future of their spiritual lives. But Jesus tries to explain to them that they are merely wasting their time coming after him in this fashion. “You’ve followed me around all over the countryside, hoping for more bread and never realizing you’re going after things that will mold and spoil. Don’t follow me around for barley loaves that merely fill you, follow me for the bread that will fulfill you, not just for a few hours, but for eternity. This is the bread that God has sent to you”
Well, they hear ‘follow,’ and ‘God,’ and thinking they have the right idea, want some clarification, just to be sure. “Ok, how can we follow God?” or as John puts it, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” They are so eager to please their Master that they don’t fully listen and understand what he is saying before jumping in with more questions, entirely missing the point of Jesus’ words. Now, from everything I’ve read, I’m pretty sure that Jesus was a really patient guy, but I think he must be rolling his eyes at these folks about now.
So, he tries to put it as simply as possible. “The work of God is to believe in him whom God has sent.” Couldn’t be easier, just believe, right? Their eyes brighten at this thought. “Oh! We can do that,” they think. “And then maybe he’ll give us more bread.” They want to get it right, I really think they do. They just don’t know how. Their eyes were just not opened to the higher meaning in Jesus’ words. So they eagerly ask him, “What sign will do give us so that we can see and believe?” Then the synapses fire and they remember another time when God had sent food for their people. And wanting to show off their smarty pants, they remind Jesus, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat,’”
I can’t help it, but every time I read about Jesus telling someone, “Very truly I tell you,” I picture him doing a big ol’ forehead smack. It always precedes something that should be painfully obvious, but that the listener in the story just doesn’t seem to get. A lot of Christians today actually miss that the ‘he’ who gave the manna to the people in the wilderness was referring to Moses, not God in that verse. That is why Jesus points out to them that it was not actually Moses who gave them the bread, but God. “It was God who gave the bread that satisfied their hunger for one day only. The same God now gives them bread from heaven that will satisfy forever.”[iii]
Forever. That’s a hard concept to wrap our heads around. And bread that would satisfy forever. There must have been more than a few bemused souls in the crowd that day, hearing about bread that would last forever. Perhaps even many of us are still a bit befuddled at the idea. But this line is just the beginning of John’s exposition on what it means for Jesus to be the bread of life. We’ll hear more about this in the next few coming weeks. But in this passage, Jesus just introduces us to the idea. Plants the seed.
“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” he explains. This isn’t just manna. It’s far more than food we can chew and swallow and eat our fill of. It even goes beyond the miracle of the food that lasts only a day, that no one can hoard. It’s very appropriate that the Israelites reaction the first time they see the bread from heaven called manna is to say, “What is it?” It’s quite a similar reaction to the one people have when first meeting the bread from heaven named Jesus. “Who are you? What are you?” There is a distinct lack of understanding that God is providing for them exactly what they need at that time. The Israelites needed food for their bellies and God provided manna in abundance. The Jews needed food for their souls and God provided Christ in abundance.
We who already know the story understand that Jesus was sent by God to fulfill God’s promise of everlasting life. We know that his body and blood are the food and drink of eternity. Yet in the text for next week we will see the confusion deepen as Jesus tries to explain this to the people and they can not get past the literality of seeming cannibalism—with a couple more, “very truly” forehead smacks from Jesus thrown in.
Miracles, in the Fourth Gospel, do not easily bring faith to those who witness them, but more often confusion, division, and hostility. These ‘rice Christians’ following Jesus that day are more than a little confused. They want the free food, the handouts. They think they understand about the manna when Jesus brings up bread from heaven. Ah, now we get it. Miracle food, or dare I say it, “wonder bread.” He’s got their interest. But they’re so sure they’ve got his number that they don’t really listen to the rest of what he says. “It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Yes, yes, they think. Bread coming down from heaven—that’s manna, we know about that, we get it. That’s what we want. Never have to plant or harvest or knead or bake again. But they miss the essential word, the last word of that phrase. This bread gives life to the world—not just a few, not just Israelites and their descendants—the world. Yet, thinking they’ve got this mystery sewn up, they get a little ahead of themselves. “Sir,” they say, “give us this bread always.”
What we know that they don’t know is the cost of eating this bread. This crowd that is so enthusiastic about following Jesus around when they think he will feed them with barley loaves and fish, quickly disperses when thing heat up with the Pharisees. Fair weather friends, indeed. And as we know, even Peter will deny Jesus three times when the going really gets tough. Yes, eating the bread of heaven is harder than it sounds. Towards the end of chapter six, even Christ’s closest disciples admit that these teachings about the eating the body and blood are difficult. Many more people turn away from following him at this point, shaking their heads as if to release these difficult and perhaps dangerous teachings they’ve heard.
But today, this crowd is still eager, wanting this bread that they think Jesus is offering to them. But he has one more curve ball to throw at them. A crux so important that the lectionary pulls it back in as the first line in next week’s text. He tells them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Now whoever chose to stop the lectionary here must have a flair for the dramatic. It just stops right there at one of the most well known verses in John or even in all the gospels. Can’t you just hear the collective intake of breath as what he’s just said sinks into the minds of the crowd? We’re left at this cliff hanger, not knowing what the reaction of the crowd is to such an astonishing statement. It’s an outrageous claim.
And of course, they still don’t really understand. Perhaps they think they misheard him. “I am the bread of life? No, he must have said, I have the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry. That makes much more sense.” Their misunderstandings will be clarified next week, when we find out just, in fact, how difficult they begin to realize his teachings are.
So difficult that even John does not attempt to explain them in full. He lets us linger in the mystery of the body and blood for about half of this long chapter. John knows that to endeavor to explain this mystery would be to do it a great injustice. As John Calvin once said when asked to explain the Eucharist, “I would rather experience it than to understand it.” And indeed, “to feed upon the truth who is Jesus Christ, to find primary sustenance in him, is better even than to understand him.”[iv]
So we are left at this climax. The crowd who has been seeking out bread for their bellies, believing that they have witnessed the same sort of manna miracle as their ancestors, now get the shock of discovering that Jesus himself is the bread that they seek. Will they be ‘rice Christians?” Or perhaps “barley Christians” would be more apt. Will they simply drift away as so many of us do when the good feelings aren’t there anymore, when our own wants and desires aren’t being fulfilled, never mind what it is that we truly need.
Or will they stay, will we stay, and learn more about what it means for Christ to be the bread of life? Will we stay to hear more about how we can be fulfilled, rather than just filled, never to hunger or thirst again? Will we stay and feast on this bread of life? I invite you now, come to the table, come and feast! Amen.
[i] Sparks, O. Benjamin. "John 6:24-35, Pastoral Perspective" Feasting on the Word. Year B, Vol. 3.
[iv]Willimon, William H. "John -35, Homiletical Perspective " Feasting on the Word. Year B, Vol. 3.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
We all need a break, especially those of us in ministry. Just like sleeping babies, we need to 'sleep' so we can grow, turn off from the (over)stimulation of the world, and awaken hungry again. Being passed around from person to person, having to constantly adapt to new faces and situations is tough and emotionally (and even often physically) exhausting. People constantly getting in or putting things in your face to get a reaction out of you (good or bad)--it's a lot to deal with. We need to rest.
Conversely, it's the people following Jesus around who are like infants insofar as they are needy and helpless, crying out for healing. And just like a mother feeding her child in the middle of the night, no matter how tired she is, she can't resist (or tune out!) the child's cries of hunger and need. Jesus would no more ignore those people's needs than a parent would ignore their baby's. No matter how dirty the diaper, it has to be changed!
The line that struck me in my original reading was the line "...there was no time even for them to eat." Yeah, I so know how that feels. I don't even have a school-aged kid until the fall, but all of our comings and goings make it hard to get everyone around the table at once.
I remember from elementary social studies, the 3 basic human needs--food, clothing, & shelter. Food, a basic human need, and yet we so often put it off for other things. I could go off on a whole 'nuther rant about our Fast Food Nation, but I won't. You can see where it would head from here, I think.
I want to explore in this week's sermon the way the feeding of the 5,000 is sandwiched by this week's reading. Mark is actually quite the literary genius, leading us into this massive feast of loaves and fishes with the disciples lack of time for a meal. I imagine they were quite cranky and tired, having also just come off their journey made in pairs to the outlying regions. I know I get cranky when my blood sugar is low; I know my baby girl doesn't like it when her feeding gets delayed for whatever reason. How must they have felt to see Jesus delaying again, even though it was getting late?
It is hard to form a sermon without wanting to say, "This is what being a follower is all about, putting aside our own needs for those of others." Well, yes, but... But we need to have a time for rest and renewal. Even Jesus had to get away at times (napping in the boat, alone in the garden, etc.). We can't do effective ministry if we aren't getting our basic needs met, if we aren't at least rested and well-fed. And like babies, we will better thrive if we are also loved and hugged and adored occasionally.
Take a minute for yourself this week, don't put off caring for others, but do try to find that moment of peace. Let yourself be cared for like a small child, for we all are children of God.
Monday, June 15, 2009
Disclosure: This title is shamelessly borrowed from a children's story written by Sandi Eisenburg Sasso
Scriptures: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, 2 Cor. 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34
Have any of you ever grown mint? From seed? The mint seed is the tiniest seed that I’ve ever come across. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mustard seed to compare it to, but mint seeds are very, very tiny. Now if you’ve ever planted mint, even from an already started plant from the store, you know how invasive it can be, taking over everything if not kept in check. It becomes a wild, untamed mass of fragrant green leaves, invading spots you had saved for other plants. All from a seed about the size of one of the periods in your bulletin. Or think about a baby. My pediatrician said that babies M’s age gain half to one ounce every day! It is certainly a miracle to watch her grow and change. You all here in -- don’t seem to have much kudzu, but in --, we couldn’t get away from it. Someone once told me that in the heat of summer, kudzu can grow up to 18 inches in one day. You could almost sit and watch that kind of growth take place right in front of you!
This unbelievable, miraculous kind of growth is what Jesus is talking about when he references the mustard seed. This tiny seed, growing into a shrub almost tree-size. Birds can build nests in it and animals can find shade under its leaves. And this, he says, is like the kingdom of heaven. The evidence starts small, but with God’s care, it grows into a huge, sheltering, nurturing tree. One that provides nourishment and security. God takes the smallest seed and transforms it into a great plant that provides sustenance for all.
I’ve heard plenty of pastors use this parable to encourage evangelism and growth in their churches. “Go out, make this seed grow,” they exhort. But I actually think they’ve missed the point. Jesus isn’t talking about earthly things here. He’s talking about the kingdom of heaven—that part, at least, he says plainly. But if we look at the mustard seed parable up next to the parable of the farmer that Jesus tells in conjunction with it, we see that the farmer doesn’t even know how the seed grows. The farmer has so little to do with making the seed grow that in the parable the farmer sleeps through the process of sprouting and maturation.
But truthfully, we don’t need to know how. We just have to trust that God is doing what God promised (and God always does!). While in Matthew, we are admonished to have faith the size of a mustard seed, Mark makes no such admonition. In Mark, the parable is, plain and simple, about the kingdom that provides saving space way beyond our imagining. The parable is not about us, but about the grace of God. “We are freed from the burden of determining the harvest, of assuming that our successes or failures hasten or deter God’s plans.” We plant the seed and reap the harvest, but God does the ‘in between’ work. No matter our efforts, the harvest will come. We have to depend on God for germination, water, sun, etc.
As with the mustard seed, the smallest seed becomes the greatest shrub. In order to be fulfilling its mission, the church must produce some sort of growth, though that doesn’t have to be measured in numbers. Some people think the only way to measure a church’s growth (hear ‘success’) is by new members. I disagree. It can be measured by the church’s outreach, if they are adopting new programs, if they are increasing pledge gifts, if they are getting out more in their community, if they are finding new ways to spread the word about God’s coming kingdom. All of these are ways to measure church growth and success. We start these programs and trust that God will bring them to fulfillment in making new disciples.
The initial evidence of the kingdom may seem small, but the ultimate results are great. If we believe that this is how God does things, then what do we do? We will begin to look for the mustard seeds. We will look for the first signs of the kingdom with faith and optimism. We will not be too quick to dismiss the small and insignificant. We will not give up on ourselves, on others, on the church, or even on the world just because we see many signs of sin and brokenness. Rather, we will believe in God’s possibilities even if the evidence is as tiny as a mustard seed.
Consider David, youngest of Jesse’s sons, so insignificant that his father didn’t even call him in from the fields when a convening of his sons was requested by Samuel. He wasn’t the eldest, he wasn’t the tallest, or even the fairest, yet he was the chosen. He becomes one of the greatest and most beloved kings of
God sees in us what we cannot see from the outside. Turns out, it’s not a beauty pageant. And we see that displayed in the life of Christ. Jesus always sees the potential in others. Their potential to be healed, to be whole, to be redeemed. Intimacy with Christ grows in us as certainly and effortlessly as seeds grow. We have so little to do with Christ’s nearness to us that we can just go to sleep as the gardener did. This trust, so deep that we can sleep without anxiety is much more useful to us than fussing over the little seed: dousing it with pesticide, repotting it, clucking anxiously over the amount of sun it has. The kingdom is like this sleepy, restful trust.
Trouble is, we like to be busy, productive, to feel like we’re being useful. Being busy and dogmatic makes sense to us. It fits with our normal way of being human. We achieve all sorts of goods by working hard and committing ourselves to our values. These are mostly reasonable things, and certainly nothing useful would happen if we did not work for it or if we remained indifferent to moral and political issues. It’s just that this way of operating is not like the
God will not fail to fulfill the promise of salvation. It is already coming to be in this world—like the seed sown in the earth, or the remarkable growth of the tree from the mustard seed, silently but powerfully coming to be. The harvest will happen in God’s way and in God’s time. Meanwhile, we plant the seeds and wait for them to grow. We watch with patience and marvel at the first sprouts. Then we pray for rain and sun from God’s hand and joyfully reap the fruits of the harvest when they are mature.
As Paul tells the Corinthians, we walk by faith and not by sight. Or at least we try to. It isn’t easy for humans to hand over all control of the outcome. Yet faith demands that we do just that. Once we plant the seed, we can’t see what happens under the ground, we have to wait until we see the first sprouts. But we trust that God is always at work, even inside that tiny seed, planted deep in the dark earth.
It is yet another of God’s mysteries, like that of the Trinity, which we spoke of last week. This parable reminds us that God is full of mysteries and surprises. And in an age when we learn more and more with science and technology, all of the mystery and surprise seems to be getting squeezed out of our collective consciousness. If it isn’t tangible or quantifiable or calculable, it must not Be. But Jesus asks us in this parable not to close our imaginations too quickly.
Think about seeds he says. You don’t know how they grow into grain or fruit or trees or flowers. You just plant them and leave them until harvest time. It’s a mystery, an amazing mystery. Or the tiny mustard seed. How does that teeny, tiny seed grow into such an enormous plant? We can’t understand the
So pray now that our eyes can be like the eyes of God, that we will be able to see the potential in all of God’s children and welcome them into the corner of the kingdom that we have right here at SPC. The kingdom will come, in God’s time and in God’s way; we believe that God will do the ‘in between’ work, allowing us the planting and the harvest. So get your gloves on, grab your trowel and rake, and… wait. Wait for the miraculous potential to break forth from the power of God. Amen.
Not to say that I'm not keeping busy. Summer is usually a slow time of year with people going on vacations and such, but right now I'm looking at planning for the officer training and retreat at the end of the summer, and best of all, welcoming five new members and officiating a couple of baptisms. What a joy!
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
I myself have been feeling so off-kilter after this news. Perhaps it is because I'm carrying a healthy baby girl. Perhaps it is simply the bond of motherhood. But whatever it is, I too am keenly feeling this loss. Tears pop up at unexpected moments. I pray constantly for them, wondering what they must be going through, losing one--sadly, due to the life of the other. Doctors say they think the boy was just taking all the nutrients and the girl couldn't thrive.
I think that would probably be the hardest thing if this were me. I think I might always have some small feelings of blame toward the surviving child. But again, I've not been in that situation, so I can't say for sure. How difficult it must be to walk in and see two of everything... to see the blue next to the pink...
These friends are a part of my Tuesday lectionary group. For obvious reasons, we're not having that today. I will instead be holding a prayer vigil during our normal meeting time. If you are so inclined, between 1:30 and 3 p.m. EST you can join me in prayer for them. I will not name them for privacy, but God will know.
Friday, March 13, 2009
So here, about two weeks away (give or take) from giving birth, I have a funeral to do. And it's of a person that has been sick most of the time I've worked here, suffering from Alzheimer's, so I really have very little of a relationship with her. Her family almost never darkens the doors. Funerals stress me out. I mean, I know some colleagues who think they're pretty easy, but I feel like this is a time of huge responsibility on my part. I get one chance to make the last memories of their loved one special.
But really, while I'd love to believe that God has supreme confidence in my ability to handle this, I'm thinking it's more like a divine joke at my expense. I mean, I can barely remember my own name these days. I'm barely keeping my head above water trying to get ready to go on leave (right before Holy Week and Easter I might add) and now I get to add a funeral of a person I barely know. Some things (many things) are about to fall through the cracks.
Anybody want to send me a sermon for Sunday? Anyone?... Bueller?
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Thursday, February 05, 2009
On a totally separate note: Go over here and join in the discussion about confession and reformed worship. Lots of great musings!
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
Walking, or rather marching, in my door-
"I'm very upset."
"Would you like to tell me why?"
"Oh, you know very well why! You know why I'm here!"
(Oh boy, I have no idea what's going on.)
"I'm not sure I do. Can you..."
"You know very well why I'm upset!! Don't pretend you don't know!"
"Why don't you tell me anyway."
(I'm pretending pretty well to be calm so far. Not really feeling it though.)
At one point she pulls out the "How dare you!" at me. (not really sure what I was daring, but...) Well, as unpastoral as it was, I stood up and pulled one right back. Hey, I'm a pastor, not a doormat. I find it pretty unfair of her to fling her misunderstandings at me as though they were intended.
Well, it was about what I mentioned above. Didn't know this at the time, since I thought we'd gone over it the day before. She'd seemed satisfied at the time. I thought I'd pretty straightforwardly asked her if she would like to play the hymns while the family member played the solos--she apparently didn't hear that. I think she'd already gotten her feelings hurt (something, I think, about not seeing her name in the (unfinished version of the) bulletin. And tuned me out at that point.
As we went on, I discovered we'd both made some erroneous assumptions. I said so. She looked at me as if to say, of course I had, but she was in the right all along.
So she flung a few more accusations at me and I did my best pastor imitation and said I was very sorry for handling things so clumsily and I never meant for her feelings to get hurt, I was sorry for not being more clear the day before, I was sorry she misunderstood my intentions, I wished she'd have let me know at the time, I would love if she'd reconsider and play the hymns as was intended,(eat crow, swallow pride, etc.)
Well, she'd have none of it. As she was ready to leave, I said, "I truly hope you can forgive me. I'm very sorry." (Looking as contrite as possible--and actually meaning it. I DID feel bad that things went wrong. I'm not sure I'm ready to accept ALL the blame, as I feel she didn't really listen to what I was saying the day before, but I'm ready to admit I could have handled it better--live and learn. And in case you're wondering, no, our church has no policy about these things, I have to make it up as I go.)
Well, she just waved and walked out. Not even acknowledging my apology. Now THAT is why I'm venting.
Of course, now the family member is asking her to play for part of the service since she (the fam. member)feels she might get a little emotional, so we'll see how that goes over.
Please pray that she can keep her venom contained and not do something to hurt the family. She's a well-practiced southern belle, knowing the fine art of the back-handed compliment, the brittle rejoinder and the acerbic gratitude. But if, on the other hand, she spills/throws punch on me tomorrow, I'll have a great story to tell!
Sunday, January 11, 2009
“Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…”
If you’ve been keeping up with my newsletter articles, you know that we have finally come into the Year of the Steward. The session and I decided to devote the entirety of 2009 to a deepened understanding of stewardship. Each month, or in most cases, a pair of months will be devoted to a way that we are stewards. Had I thought of it sooner, I’d have put in the January newsletter the breakdown of what each topic would be and when. That will come next month, along with a brief description of what the current month’s topic will be.
This month though starts us off with the most basic and fundamental stewardship principles I think, that we are called to be stewards of the gospel. I recognize that stewardship has gotten something of a bad rep in most churches, since just about the only time that word is used is in conjunction with asking for money. Turns out, (and you’ll know this if you’ve read your newsletters) that stewardship actually has absolutely nothing to do with giving anything. For those of you into etymology, that is, the origins of words, ‘steward’ comes from the old English words that meant ‘sty warden.’ That’s right, the pig keeper. Now don’t start thinking this is makes it a dirty word, oh no, this was one of the most responsible positions on the farm. Pigs were valuable sources of meat, manure, and they were easy to keep since they could live on scraps. They were very important. Being the sty warden was very important. But notice that the warden isn’t the one giving anything. He is responsible for the pigs that have been handed over to his care. His master has trusted him with this important position and allowed him to take over the management of the pig keeping.
Over the next year we will examine a number of the things that God has given over to our care and what our responsibilities towards them are. We are stewards—care takers, not just givers. God has already given us everything we need, everything that we have. We are entrusted with its care. Sometimes being responsible caretakers does mean giving away part of what we have. But as we will see, different things are cared for in different ways. Sharing our gifts, no matter what form they take, is often part of this responsibility, but not always. We are caring for what we have already been given. We have the responsibility for the care, management, and utilization of things that do not belong to us. Do recognize that being called to be stewards implies a level of trust and partnership on the part of the owner. That’s right, God trusts us enough to call us into stewardship of all that we have, all that we can see. Kinda makes you wonder what God must have been thinking, yeah?
As I said, this month we are looking at our responsibilities as stewards of the gospel. Being stewards of the gospel is the prologue and presupposition of all of our other practices as God’s stewards. This is where it begins. If we aren’t being faithful stewards of the gospel, we can’t be faithful stewards of any of God’s other gifts to us. It is from the gospel itself that we learn of our call to stewardship, that we learn of God’s generosity to us, learn of the responsibilities of our role. Being a steward of the gospel can be equated with being a disciple, of course. Discipleship is following Christ’s teaching and God’s will for our lives, which, of course, we discern from the gospel. It is also the sharing of the things we learn in the gospel, which is, I think, more of where the stewardship aspect comes in. Discipleship is not only following but sharing. We have been entrusted with the gospel’s message, we care for it by following it and by sharing it with others so they in turn can care for it by following and sharing God’s word.
If I’ve made it this far and you haven’t asked yourself why I’m preaching this sermon on a Sunday when we honor the Lord’s baptism, you’re either not paying attention or you’re very trusting that I’m going in the right direction. And if it’s the latter, so as not to violate that trust, I’ll go ahead and tell you that our call to stewardship begins at the moment of our baptism.
Baptism provides us with our identity, just as it did for Jesus. God’s voice comes to him and declares him God’s beloved son, giving him his identity as such, and it also marks the beginning of his ministry. Our baptisms do the same. They mark us as beloved children of God and it marks the beginning of our ministry as stewards of the Gospel, as disciples, as Christians. This is absolutely crucial to Mark, so much so that we’ve already gotten here within the first eleven verses of his gospel. This is the very first place he takes us, this is what he sees as the beginning of it all. And as Christians, we too see baptism as the beginning. The very start of our lives—at least our lives as they were meant to be led as beloved children of God.
By examining the baptism of Jesus, we can see the perfect example of what our own baptisms are meant to symbolize. The empowering by the Holy Spirit into the ministry of God’s word and as God’s own beloved children. “Jesus did not receive the Spirit in order to enjoy privately its spiritual benefits, but rather in order to pass it on.”[i] This is the beginning. In Mark’s gospel, it is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of his identity as the Son of God, the Messiah. For Mark, there is nothing before this. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, there was nothing,” says Genesis. The earth was formless and void and God’s spirit swept over the waters. Yet from that nothing, God created everything. And here in Mark we begin once again with water and nothingness and from that begins Jesus’ ministry on earth. For it is only when the spirit descends that formation and identity begin, for creation, for Jesus, and for us.
When the Spirit moves over us, we begin to take shape. We begin to take shape as Christians, as disciples of Jesus, and as stewards of the gospel. Before that moment, our lives may as well have been formless and void. For it is in that moment that our identity is confirmed, our identity as God’s beloved. Though Presbyterians believe the water to be symbolic, for it is the Spirit that does the actual baptizing, it is easy with the small bowls and fonts used in most churches to lose the element of danger to be found in large bodies of water. One of the theological reasons for immersion is that in going totally under the water, it is symbolic of dying, and coming up from the water is symbolic of rising again to new life. Presbyterians tend more towards the theology of the water being symbolic of washing away our sins, thus the amount is not significant, especially as I said, since the Spirit is the one doing the actual work.
If that’s all the theology lesson you want for today, let’s have Mark bring us back to the earthy side of baptism. We have John wearing scratchy camel hair clothes, eating bugs, wading into a muddy, mucky river to dunk the poor converts into its cold and murky depths. These images remind us of how human our baptisms really are. Babies crying, drops of cold water running into their eyes, parents tripping over the name of their own child, adults more concerned with not getting their hair wet than with receiving the Holy Spirit, ministers forgetting the words. Yet as human as the ritual is, the Holy Spirit still comes. And of course if there is any doubt that this is truly what God wanted and intended, just remember John’s words that Jesus is indeed “the Word made flesh.” This is indeed the beginning of God creating something new and wonderful in Jesus Christ. At our own baptisms we are made new and wonderful through water and the spirit.
Our call to stewardship is just one aspect of our baptisms of course, but as I said before, being called as stewards of the gospel is the prologue and presupposition to all the rest of our acts as God’s stewards. At the time I needed to have the bulletin ready for printing, I didn’t have a catchy title for it, but as I was working on it later, I decided I’d have given it a title inspired by one of my favorite movie musicals, calling it, “Let’s Start at the Very Beginning,
And so it is here that we start our year of the steward as well. With a remembrance of our own baptisms, our own call to be God’s stewards, God’s caretakers of the Word, a responsibility bestowed upon us with trust, for some of us, even from our infancy. Through water and the Holy Spirit we are entrusted with God’s word, to care for it, use it wisely, and share it with others. It is truly a great beginning, to the year and to our lives and to our calling. What a very good place to start.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
I've got a pretty good one in the works right now I think, which I really should be working on instead of posting, but I needed a break. We've made 2009 the Year of the Steward, so at least once a month I'm working on a sermon to go along with different themes of stewardship, like stewardship of the gospel, of the earth, of relationships, of community, of finances, etc. Each month (or often a pair of months) has a different theme, and at least one Sunday each month will have a sermon related to it. I'm trying to make it the second Sunday, so as not to interfere with communion on the first Sundays. We'll see how it goes.
Baby (or as P calls her, "the parasite") is making it quite uncomfortable for me to sit and write. She seems rather riled up at the moment and is kicking my ribs on one end and punching my bladder on the other. The trials of being short-waisted--both this one and her big sister were already up into my ribs by about 6 months. She really likes her space and does NOT like to be squished up at all. She prefers to stretch out and move around as much as she can. L was like that too. She never wanted to be swaddled as a baby either, hated to be confined.
Well, now that both cats are here, lying all over my books and papers, I guess I'm ready to get back to it...
But, and I can't remember if I said it in the last post, I am comforted in the knowledge that my session (minus Ms. Gossip), and most of my members understand her ways and pretty much all of them have my back. Dad's been through this sort of thing a number of times and had some good advice too. It always helps to hear what other people have been through and done at times like these.
Thank you all, dear friends.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Apparently, my mind reading skills were off right around Christmas and I did not receive the telepathic communications from a member that she needed to be contacted or visited every single day during her (not-so-serious) illness. Her symptoms were not serious (mostly fatigue in a woman who was usually quite active, and loss of appetite); she never had to go into the hospital; I did make contact by phone a couple of time and knew that my deacons were on top of things, and since I'm sounding defensive anyway, I'll add that it WAS right before Christmas. I tried as hard as I could to make myself available with as little effort as a phone call. Was I right or wrong? Don't care, can't change it.
What I care about is that about a week later I hear she's bitching to anyone with ears (except me!) about how I didn't meet her needs, didn't do this or that or the other. (Aside: though I didn't know it at the time, I was supposed to speak to her before church last Sunday. Well, normally, before worship, I'm so focused on preparing that I don't really talk to anyone. Again, mind reading not so good these days. This caused a whole new round of slander. I actually intentionally sought her after the service, but she and her family apparently were so mad about the other perceived slights that they left early to avoid me.) The person who approached me about the situation was very kind about it all and let me know that, apparently, this whole family has a history with the church of what she called, "Entitlement syndrome." Wish I'd known that BEFORE all this went down...
What's worse, she's an active elder on my session. We have a pastor/parish relations committee under the communications team for EXACTLY this sort of situation, which, as an elder, she should have known and utilized. Not to mention that, as a Christian, she should know that talking about someone rather than to them is NEVER the right thing to do. Have I mentioned how much I hate, loathe, abhor gossip (and especially when it's about me)? Yeah, well...
Good news is that when I heard about it third hand, I did go to the p/p relations comm. and the chair is going to sit with us as mediator to help us work this out.
If I've ever needed prayers, it's tomorrow around 10 am. That's when we'll be sitting down to work this out. Trust is diminished, pastoral thoughts are tough to come by, and of course, feelings are hurt. Let's hope my inner sixth grader stays home.