"Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises.... Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting."

Frederick Buechner

Saturday, January 24, 2015

By Instinct or Intent, Our Identity in God

 Epiphany 3B: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Cor. 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Ollie is a big goof of a dog, a large Weimaraner, my daughter’s dog. He’s been with us since Christmas, on an extended visit. This is nothing new, he has stayed with us in the past. When the three dogs are all together they act as though their pack is now complete, life is how it ought to be. Whether here, or at home with our daughter, one of Ollie’s favorite past times is looking out the sliding glass doors and watching the yard full of squirrels and rabbits and deer. 

The deer come almost every night and eat from our bird feeder, tipping the feeder until the seed pours into their mouths like candy. Granted, Dan entices them by filling the feeder just after dark when he knows that the deer are off in the distance, waiting for him.

We’ve taught our dogs to be quiet and watch the deer, but sometimes they can’t help themselves and have to bark. Ollie is certain that if we let him out he could take one of them. However, if he actually encountered the huge buck with the giant rack of antlers he’d quiver to the ground in total submission. I know, because he does that with other dogs, too. He comes off all big and tough, but he’s really a baby. 

The squirrels aren’t so sure of Ollie’s timidity. And to be certain he would easily capture a squirrel, given half a chance. The squirrels in our backyard hang around the bird feeder, eating seed that falls to the ground, or appreciating the handful that Dan throws down for them. These squirrels are particularly attuned to Ollie’s presence. I am sure that when he’s around they all start griping, “Oh no, not HIM again.”

Ollie will bark to be let outside for the sole purpose of chasing after the squirrels. They, being hyper aware of his presence, bound off for the tree, before I open the door. Ollie charges out and makes a bold attempt to climb the tree, certain he can get the squirrel. Because the yard is not fenced, the dogs are attached to a long lead-line, that gives them a wide range of mobility, but still limits how far the can go. 

The squirrels know just how high they need to go to be out of Ollie’s reach but still be able to effectively taunt him. Which they do incessantly - an angry chatter fills the air as the squirrels chastise the dog and bemoan his existence. Before long Ollie grows bored with squirrels and comes back inside, only to repeat the pattern again and again. I’m not exactly sure what triggers the timing of when he has to go outside. He will sit and watch the squirrels for hours through the sliding glass door, and then, for some unknown reason, he just can’t take it anymore, and has to go out after them. And, because this is a lifelong habit that my daughter has tried to break him of, I want to be clear that we do not endorse it, no matter how amusing it is to us.

All of these animals are driven by instinct. Perhaps they have some conscious awareness and some ability to determine their behavior, but most of it is instinct driven. Surely the deer know even as they lay in the snow, with their eyes attentive to our door, that the dogs are leashed and cannot get them. The squirrels and rabbits know it too, for they will often stand just outside of the reach of the leash, and not even move when the dogs race out. But most of the time they act and react out of instinct, predator and prey.

Our faith can be instinctual as well. Often we live our lives, and even practice our faith, based on motivations that are just outside of our conscious awareness. Sometimes we try and are able to articulate why we do what we do. Sometimes we can describe our experiences of God and how God has acted in our lives. But often we cannot. 

Over the last couple of Sundays I have shared some stories from my spiritual journey. I’ve reflected on the lives of my ancestors and wondered how much of their faith lives on in me, wondering if my call to be a parish priest resides in my DNA. You may wonder the same thing - how much influence have your ancestors had on your life? 

Last week I spoke about the years when I left church and how I found my way back; how my return to church had the marks of God all over it, although I didn’t know that at the time.

It is in retrospect that I am able to see where God was working in my life. But God has been at work often enough that I now trust that God is doing something even when I have no idea what or how. 

The same is true for each of you and for this church. Christ Church has been a part of Dearborn for nearly 150 years. Over this span of time God has been instrumental in shaping our parish community. From the first fifty years when there was great uncertainty over whether the church would survive, to its heyday in the 1950’s, to now with our many missions and ministries, God has been with us. Fifty years ago we were a large parish that was the hub of Episcopal life in Dearborn. In the 1950’s and 1960’s we launched three mission churches in the area: St. David’s in Garden City, St. Andrew’s in Livonia, and St. John of Beverly Mission to the Deaf. We supported St. Bartholomew’s mission parish in the 1920’s and when it closed in 1931 we welcomed their parishioners into our community. In those days Christ Church was how a man climbed the corporate ladder and found career success. Here a woman climbed the social ladder, made life-long friends, and found her work in guilds and clubs. Children attended dances and Sunday School and learned about religion.

Now Christ Church is smaller and our stature in Dearborn may be less prominent, however our vitality as a people of God remains strong. We continue to listen to God and follow the nudges and signs of God’s presence and interpret these into active mission work and ministries. We are smaller, but we remain strong and clear on who we are as a people of God. 

Part of the clarity that has formed our recent sense of identity came from the tremendous work done by the Charrette groups in 2010. It also comes from the wisdom of that time to recognize that more development was needed, and it would happen over time, with the calling of a new Rector. In my four years here we have done just that, developed a clear sense of mission and ministry, grounded in the that early work, but intended to carry us into the future. The work we have been about, discerning, clarifying, and listening, guides the process as we claim, and live into, our identity as a Community-Centered Church.

Whether we anchor our reflection this morning on the reading from Jonah or 1 Corinthians or Mark, the point remains the same - God claims us, calls out to us, leads us, has our back, and will never let us go. Our identity as individuals and as a congregation are found in God, whether we are actively aware of this or not. Through out the history of Christ Church in Dearborn, our instinct has been to make a difference in the lives of people. Right now, in particular, we are developing what this means though the Liberia SCHOOL Project, Blessings in a Backpack, dance lessons, music and voice lessons, Martial Arts, AA, the exterior plaza project and many creative ideas of how to use it, the labyrinth, the community garden, the memorial garden, the pet memorial garden, and soon, our plans for a 150 anniversary celebration. 

Today is our 148th Annual Meeting. We will review the mission and ministries of the year past, celebrate our Vestry and our Commissions, Committees, and Ministry Teams. We will elect new members to the Vestry and we will share a meal. It’s a time to rejoice and give thanks to God for God’s faithfulness to us and to thank the leaders of this parish who continue to discern God’s call to us, shaping and forming how we express our identity as Christ Church in the world. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

God Calls Us to Our Truest Self

A reflection for the second Sunday after the Epiphany: 1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-6; 13-18; 1 Cor 6:12-20, and John 1:43-51

Many years ago I left the church. I left it and didn’t look back for sixteen years. At first I rejected all forms of religion. I scoffed at religious ideas and practices. I was a seventeen year old, and fairly typical of a skeptic in the 1970’s. Eventually life became more complicated and demanded more of me. I started to look more deeply within my self and outside of my self for some direction. I yearned to understand the meaning of life and what my purpose in it might be. Who was I? And more importantly, “what was I supposed to do with my life?” College, and the years post college, were filled with these existential questions. Eventually I began trying on religious practices from other faith traditions. And I say trying on the practices because I didn’t join any religious communities nor did I invest in learning about the tradition, I just learned enough to take on the practices. I learned meditation from Buddhism, practiced contemplation of the beauty of nature and adopted some new age distortions of Native American ideas around spiritual healing using herbs, and gemstones. I was clearly yearning for something spiritual in my life. 

One day, while in the middle of meditating, I found myself ruminating on the dilemma of how to anchor the many loose threads of spirituality that I was exploring. It suddenly occurred to me that I was feeling a renewed connection to Christianity. I had started attending Christmas and Easter services in the Roman Catholic church. I was drawn to liturgy, to the rhythm of worship, to music and prayer. But most of all I was drawn to the incarnation and the resurrection, although I would not have used those words back then. In hindsight I would say that I was drawn to the mystery of the spiritual life that Christianity engages.

At the time, this idea, that I was drawn to Christianity was absolutely startling. When I left the church I thought I was leaving it for good. I turned my back on the Christianity that I knew, narrow-minded and full of certainty. I didn’t know, even when I had this startling awakening, that there were forms of Christianity that would speak deeply into my yearning and allow me to enter into the mystery of faith, living with the questions, without platitudes and simplistic answers.

The idea that God spoke to me that clearly in that moment has stayed with me. It is probably the only time I have heard God speak that directly to me. All the other times when I think God has guided my life have been slower processes of revelation. But thank goodness I was listening that day, took notice, and did something in response.

True, it took me another three years or so to find my way to the Episcopal Church. But even that was a journey of preparation and maturation. I got married, bought a house, had a baby, and then went back to church. I’ve been here ever since. 

Its been over thirty years since that day when I head God speak to me, and since then I’ve learned a few things about Christianity.  Returning to church was crucial to my formation as a Christian, its not something one can do on one’s own. The practices I took up when I was searching were meaningless because I had not entered into community, nor formed meaningful relationships with the other people. Meditation was solitary. Exploring new age spirituality revealed an anything goes set of ideologies and practices that left me feeling untethered and confused. The church brought me into community, into relationships with friends, clergy colleagues, and parishioners, and into a history of Christian tradition, beliefs, and practices that have shaped and formed me ever since. I found tradition without being stuck in traditionalism. 

When I reflect on the readings in the Bible like today’s reading from Samuel and also from the Gospel of John, I totally understand how Samuel felt, and how Nathaniel and the other disciples felt. I understand the urge to get up and follow God’s call. 

Samuel’s call changed forever the nature of priest and the role of prophets in the Jewish tradition. The house of Eli, where Samuel lived, had broken down and failed in its ability to do God’s work in the world. Through Samuel God initiated a new approach to faith,  justice and equality. 

Our Psalm this morning offers us a vision God, as a being who is intimately involved in creation and in our lives. Six times the psalm tells us how God molded creation, shaped and formed us and knows us more deeply than we could ever know ourselves.

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians broadens the description of our identity, of who we are as God’s beloved. He is responding to the church in Corinth, where the people are behaving poorly. Corinth was a wealthy seaport city, with lots of influence from merchants and travelers. It had a high standard of living and a lively social structure. The people in the church in Corinth thought that they could behave any way they liked because Jesus had done the hard work of saving them from their sins, so what they did wouldn't actually matter. Paul reminds them that it does matter. Most of all, how they treat their bodies, and the bodies of other people was crucial to their spiritual well-being. Our bodies are the vessel through which we reveal God’s presence in the world. Our bodies - hands, heart, feet, brain, and spirit work together to bring forth God’s desire in the world. Treating others as if they don’t matter, having empty physical relationships, failing to respect the dignity and integrity of another, is not living as God desires. Paul calls the people in Corinth to a higher standard, a better sense of their identity as a Christian community. 

In the reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus is revealed as one who is so filled with God that people are automatically drawn to him. In response to his words, and even in response to his presence, they drop everything and follow. It’s as if in the person of Jesus, the early disciples sense a connection to their true identity, a bond with God that speaks most profoundly into their deepest sense of self, and they are compelled to listen to a call from God that resonates deep within and follow. 

God reveals God’s self to us in words, in visions and images, in the world around us, in other people, through one another, in Jesus of Nazareth, in the Word made flesh, in the resurrection, in the Holy Spirit, in the Church, in music and art and nature. In all these ways, and more, God reveals God’s self to us, shapes and forms us in our identity as a people of God. God calls to us, speaking deep into our souls, addressing the pervasive emptiness that is symptomatic of  living an inauthentic life. God yearns for us! God knows us inside and out and wants only the very best for us. God calls out to us, and our natural response, whether we know it or not, is to follow. Because following is the only true response to our deepest yearning. Following enables us to know our selves in such a way that our lives have meaning and purpose. In following God, we find our most authentic sense of self and our true identity as God’s beloved.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Five: Baby it's cold outside!

Jan, over at the RevGals invites us to reflect on five ways we cope with the cold:

1. I drink lots of hot beverages, tea and coffee.

2. I eat wintery meals - pot roasts in the slow-cooker, soups and chili. My favorite soups are lentil, white bean chicken chili, beef stew, and chicken vegetable. I make up my own recipes, make everything from scratch, and no two are ever the same.

3. I exercise in-doors using a stationary bike and yoga classes.

4. When I have to go outside, I bundle up as much as possible, leaving very little skin exposed.

5. I light a fire in the fireplace, drink hot tea, and read a book.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Into the void: chaos, God, life....

A reflection on Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11

In 1904 a Swedish mathematician named Helge von Koch created what has become known as the Koch snowflake. Koch was trying to work out some principles in chaos theory called “fractals.” Fractals are self-repeating elements that recreate themselves in a similar manner over and over ad infinitum. Fractals are complex and occur in nature such as trees, rivers, mountains, and so forth.

However, unlike Koch’s snowflake, which created the same pattern in each of his snowflakes, nothing in creation is ever created exactly the same as another. No two trees are exactly the same, no two rivers are exactly the same, no two humans are exactly the same. 

Chaos theory is the science of things that are nonlinear and unpredictable. Most science deals with predictable elements like chemical reactions or gravity. But chaos theory delves into those places that exist between predictability, the space where transition happens. Some of the common descriptions of chaos theory include the butterfly effect - that a butterfly flapping it’s wings in one part of the world will impact the weather on the other side of the world. Chaos theory attempts to describe the transition between order and disorder and a return to order.

For example, we know that weather patterns are unpredictable. Slight changes, on a molecular level in one place, will completely change the weather pattern. Computer projections can only give us approximations of what might happen, but nothing can predict with absolute certainty what will happen. 

Uncertainty is not a state that human beings appreciate. We like to know what the weather is going to be like so we can dress appropriately. We like to set our budget and feel comfortable that we can live within it. We like to rest in assurance. But the truth is, there is no assurance of the future and nothing is predictable, even though we may try to be prepared for any eventuality. 

Thankfully the science of biology teaches us that a little chaos in creation is necessary for life to continue, to prevent stagnation and death. Chaos is generative.

One way of considering the unpredictable nature of life is that it keeps us on our toes. Unpredictability and randomness and chaos force us to rise to the occasion and tap into our most creative juices. Of course we have a choice. We can choose to be creative or we can choose to become stagnant.

This time of year the staff and Vestry are spending time thinking back over the last year in preparation for the Annual Meeting. As we prepare for the meeting we always take a count of the deaths, weddings, and baptisms in this church. We realized that since June of 2011 we have had 37 funerals. 

No doubt the loss of so many beloved parishioners in just three and a half years has impacted us financially, spiritually,  and emotionally. With so much loss, death could easily be the place where we put our emphasis and focus. Certainly taking time to remember those we love and those we have lost, and to grieve is important. But allowing death to define us, any one of us, or all of us, will truly limit our ability to follow God. However, facing into death can open us up to possibility. Facing into death reminds us that we cannot postpone living.

It’s good to remember that in the same time frame, since June of 2011, we have had 16 baptisms, 10 weddings or commitment ceremonies, and 29 new members pledging their support to the mission and ministries of this parish. 

Since June of 2011 we have launched many new ministries. These include the Liberia School Project, the building now 50% complete, and already being used in a variety of ways. The people at our sister church, Good Shepherd in Paynesville, Liberia have inspired us with their faith and trust in God!

We have also launched Blessings in a Backpack, remodeled room 213 to make it a more viable dance classroom and children’s prayer room, and we’ve opened a food pantry that feeds over 23 families each month. We have almost completed the pew project increasing our wheel chair and walker accessibility in the church, and we’re working on the exterior plaza project, opening the front of the church to greater use and offering a gathering place for our neighbors and friends. We increased the size of our community garden and built a gorgeous fence that won us an award from the city of Dearborn. The Holiday Market, which started in Nov. 2011, has become our primary social event of the year as we open our church to artists and the hundreds of shoppers who attend. We continue to be a home for AA, Boy Scouts, Martial Arts, dance classes for adults and kids, yoga classes, voice and music lessons, and Creating Hope International - an organization that aides in educating women in Afghanistan. We offer office space to the League of Women Voters and AAUW, the American Association of University Women. Chapel Day preschool, one of our primary ministries, is still going strong after fifty years. Our Summer Arts Camp merges faith and the arts and feeds the creative sprits of young people every summer. 

We are a community centered church making a difference in the world because we have been willing to be creative and take risks to follow God’s call to us and live into our mission.

One aspect of the pew project that is still under consideration is the baptismal font. When we removed it in October in order to lay the new floor and adapt the pews for wheel chairs, we put the font in the entrance way, where it was originally placed when this church was built. The font itself was constructed sometime between 1920 and 1924 in honor of a member of this parish who was a civil war veteran.

When we first moved the font, we had no baptisms planned for the foreseeable future. But in the nature of unpredictability, since moving it, we have had three baptisms and one more planned for next month. Thankfully we have a small portable font that matches our architecture which can be easily moved into this space for the baptisms.

Our hope is that the big font can be put onto a base that will make it portable. The font is in three pieces, weighing over three hundred pounds each, that sit one on top of the other, held in place only by their weight. It’s a big project, but no doubt, with time, we’ll solve the dilemma of the font, as we always do. 

The point is, just like chaos theory, a little change in one place can have a huge impact elsewhere. The pew project has been both a practical solution to a problem and a source of creative inspiration as we consider how to use our space and our baptismal font.

As the list of all of our ministries reminds us, death is not the dominant fractal of our reality, our story. We have clear evidence of amazing creativity and new life springing forth from us, thanks be to God. 

Each of our readings this morning describe God’s creative and redemptive action in the world.. Through Jesus, God has revealed God’s desire to work with us, with human beings, to transform chaos into new life. With God, we can face into the chaos that will surely come, although we know not when, or how, it will appear. Baptized into the life of Christ we can walk into the waters of life, be they turbulent or calm, and trust that the only predictability in life is that God is with us every step along the way. 

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Friday Five: Random, New

MaryBeth, over at RevGals offers this "random" Friday Five with a theme of "New."

1. If you have one, what is your new resolution? I don't make New Year's resolutions. But I do make efforts through out the year to improve myself. Last May I went on a health kick, eating less carbs and sugar and more veggies and protein. I lost some weight as a result, although that wasn't exactly what I was going for. Now I find, ironically that I have to add those carbs back into my diet because I have developed reflux and seem to need a more a simple and relatively bland diet. Eating more simply, along with some medication, seems to help. Also, as I always do in the winter, I am trying to keep up with my exercise. We bought a recumbent bike and I use that for cardio and then my usual go to yoga as much as possible. Yoga has made me stronger. A lot stronger. Also, I am a Spiritual Direction intern, so I am working on the spiritual side, too. And I am taking classes with the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and learning more about myself, my family, and how to be less anxious and more self-differentiated. So, no resolutions per se, but always working on myself. 
2. Many folks choose a new word for a year’s beginning, as Marci’s congregation does with StarWords. Some let their word choose them, like Christine at Abbey of the Arts. Do you have a word for the year? I tried the starword with my church last year but it didn't really take hold with us, or me, although I still like the idea. So, no. No word for the year.
3. What is your new favorite exclamation/phrase at times of joy or frustration? Uhm. I'm not sure.I am over "awesome"...and not sure what is replacing it...
4. Do you have a new favorite food, or an old one you are newly enjoying? I'm making pasta with a tomato cream sauce and turkey meatballs more often these days. I can't eat regular tomato sauce these days without my reflux acting up so I make a cream sauce and add diced tomatoes to dilute the cream a little. Do you think the turkey meatballs offset the fat in the cream sauce? lol
5. Finally, in general: what is your new favorite thing? I am doing a lot of new things but not sure if any one of them is my "favorite"... although I must say I love riding the bike while reading a book. I have a difficult time just sitting and reading, unless I am on vacation and have resolved to do nothing. So riding the bike is doing something (an hour of something) and I get to read too.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Into the thick darkness

A reflection on Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

Over the Christmas break I found myself doing some research on the genealogy of my family. It was easy research because several family members have done extensive work on each of my grandparents and posted them on public sites through Ancestry dot com. One person, some distant relative I do not know, has traced my paternal grandfather’s mother’s family, back to the early kings and queens of Scotland. Apparently I am related to William, known as the Lion King of Scotland, who reigned in the 13th century as well as all the kings of Scotland back to Kenneth in the 9th century, and his family members back to the first century.

 As someone who has spent most of my life outside of Utah and far from my family I value this research and the way it sparks my imagination. 

I often wonder about my family members who left England and Scotland, traveling on rickety ships over turbulent waters, to come to this country. Whether it was family members escaping the Puritan controversy in England in the early 1600’s or family members seeking renewal of faith through the Mormon church in the 1800’s, it appears my ancestors were an adventurous lot, willing to take great risks to follow God’s call to them. This leads me to wonder about the DNA of religion - is it possible that what ever provoked my ancestors to follow their faith is also alive in me - that there is literally something that is part of my genetic makeup? Why did I discern a call to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church when all the rest of my immediate family members are either not religious or active in the Mormon church? What about you? What is your religious DNA? What journeys of faith have you or your ancestors made?

Questions like these are appropriate for this time of year, as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany and the journey of the Magi. I love, in particular, the phrase from Isaiah this morning about being in “thick darkness.” The word for this comes from a Jewish term that is associated with the divine presence - being in thick darkness means to be in the presence of the divine, wondering how one is being called to respond to God’s invitation to follow. Surely the Magi had a sense of being in thick darkness? 

The Magi travelled a great distance, guided only by the trajectory of a star shining brightly in the sky. But these astrologers or astronomers knew the significance of a bright star and its call to them. The Orthodox tradition understands there to be as many as twelve Magi, possibly men and women both, from places far from Israel. 

Our Western understanding of the story tells us that there were three magi, based on the three gifts offered; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Despite following a bright star, the Magi, however many of them there were, had no clear idea where they were going nor did they know exactly what they would find. Following God is often a journey into the unknown, a thick darkness, indeed. Journey’s into the unknown, especially when following God, are often mysterious, requiring us to take challenging risks which carry no guarantee that the outcome will meet our expectations. 

I’d like say that everything worked out well for my family members who took the risk and left home to travel a continent away for their faith. But it didn’t always work out. At the very least they faced harsh weather, poor housing, difficult financial situations, the death of children, and the lack of extended family support.

All of my life I’ve thought of myself as someone who comes from pioneer stock -  hearty strong women - adapted for hard work. It’s a bit startling to think that I might also come from a long line of queens and kings of Scotland, earls and nobles in England, whose children’s children ended up in Massachusetts and then Utah. I have a Roman Catholic, Baptist, Puritan, Church of England, Church of Scotland, Mormon, and Christian Scientist religious heritage.

Clearly, following God, one never knows how the journey will unfold. The Magi travelled far but when they encountered Herod the journey offered a fork in the road. What if the Magi had ignored the message they received in a dream? What if they had returned to Herod after finding Jesus? What if Herod had managed to kill Jesus as an infant? How then would God’s story have unfolded?

A journey into the thick darkness is always filled with risk, with forks in the road, with discernment, and decisions to be made. 

As Christians we understand that God has chosen to work in and through human life. This is a risk God takes, choosing to work in and through human beings. We all know how fickle we humans can be. Anyone of us can easily change our minds, change our direction, and go against God’s desire, without even being aware of it. Anything can happen. However, story after story in the Bible reminds us that God perseveres, the Holy Spirit keeps working, until all things come together for the good. God puts God’s trust in us and hopes we will take the path that leads to hope, new life, and faith. God never gives up. 

The trajectory of our lives has led each one of us to be here in this place on this day. Our combined religious DNA converges in this place. Thus, we are all here, a community of faithful people seeking to know God more fully in our lives, striving to live faithful lives. We come and gather, pray, share a meal, grow together as a family of faith. We are on a common course, a path of following God. Sometimes our shared journey is sure and certain and other times we are lead to take risks into the unknown.

I imagine each of us wonders how this year will unfold. What will God call forth from us in 2015? What risks are we being asked to take? What kind of stamina will it require? Will we have the fortitude to persevere? Will we have the courage to take risks? Will we have the wisdom to discern in such a way that we can keep open to the Holy Spirit but are still able to be recognize foolhardiness when it strikes? How might the opportunities, whatever may come, open us to new ways of seeing God? 

Thankfully, whether you are a risk taker or someone who proceeds with caution,  we face into the thick darkness together. MayGod’s light shine upon us and show us the way.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Friday Five: Living the Questions

3dogmom over at the RevGalsBlog offers the Friday Five meme this week, reflecting on what one hopes to accomplish in 2015. She has a list of projects for herself, but also suggests we consider Parker Palmer's questions posted on Krista Tippets blog for "On Being."  He began with Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:

....be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves...do not seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you then, gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day, into the answer.

Then Palmer offers these questions:

What can I let go of in order to find aliveness?
What is my next challenge in daring to be human?
How can I open myself up to the beauty in nature and in humans?
Who or what do I need to learn to love next?
What is the new creation that yearns to be born in or through me?
rough me?

These are the questions I am pondering for 2015. This is the year that will mark fifteen years of ordained ministry. It is the year my husband and I will celebrate 30 years of marriage. It is a year of importance in that regard. I turn 58 this year and am pondering what I am being called to do with the remaining years of my life. What will I do after I retire - and I have at least nine years before that is possible. Can I take a sabbatical? And if so, what would it look like?

I have no answers for this Friday Five, just more questions.

On the other hand, I did spend most of December cleaning my house and cleaning out areas of the house. That was a great accomplishment. So I can rest with these questions in a clean and organized space.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Light

Although I grew up in a dysfunctional family system, my parents usually managed to make Christmas special. I remember falling asleep to Christmas music from vinyl records playing on our stereo Hi-Fi. Two particular records were played over and over. One had all the famous artists of the day, Rosemary Clooney, Burl Ives, Robert Goulet, Christy Minstrels, and others,  singing songs like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Suzy Snow Flake and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. The other album was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing traditional Christmas songs. 

The music filled the house, softly serenading my brothers and me. My bedroom glowed from the lights on the Christmas tree as the twinkling colors filtered through the small house. My mother would stay up late at night baking cookies and fruit breads. The house was filled with the aroma of Christmas spices. As I drifted off to sleep, all of my senses were soothed with the comfort of home, family, love, and the expectations of Christmas morning.

Almost a hundred years ago Christmas trees and homes were lit with candles. The idea of using electric light was just being born, and it was met with resistance. Who would want a constant source of light? Who would want light that bright? But the protest was short-lived. Before long every house and business was lighted by electricity. Gone was the old way of living, of going to bed early, when darkness prevailed. Gone was the time when long hours of being unproductive encouraged us to be present to the mystery of darkness. 

If one looks up at the night sky, one sees far more darkness than light. Most of the universe is dark, with a few stars and planets dotting the darkness. We humans are born in darkness - the womb is a dark place where we are formed into tiny humans. Darkness is fertile and rich with possibility. Darkness invites us to ponder life, God, and hope. Darkness points the way to light and new life. 

As Christians we celebrate the coming of the light as the birth of Jesus. The mystery of this night is that Christ is born in us. The light of Christ, God’s pure love, works from the inside out. Spiritual transformation is interior work that becomes exterior action. 

When the circumstances of our lives leave us feeling dark and bleak, God searches for a way to fill us with light, to work on us from the inside out, transforming our darkest night into the light of hope. Like Gabriel’s invitation to Mary, to birth the Christ Child, God invites us to let God into our lives. God waits expectantly for us to open our hearts to God’s love. Most often it is in the darkest places of our lives, when we are most vulnerable, that we open our hearts to God. Then, darkness becomes the womb that gives birth to hope. Emmanuel is with us. The Christ child is born anew this night in each and every one of us. 

This is our Christian story, of God active in the world through the birth and life of Jesus, and thus in us, too. Jesus is God’s love manifest in human flesh. God has chosen to work through human beings, to restore order out of chaos, to heal broken places, to soothe sorrow, to be present to despair, to love as God loves. God does not move into our lives and magically fix all the problems. God works through us, at our pace, to bring hope and well being.

In this Christmas season may we know God’s abiding presence of peace and love. May God’s peace and love transcend every challenge we face. May God’s love be birthed anew in us. Like a burning flame reflecting warmth and light into the world may we be a God-given ray of hope, peace, love, and joy to all the world. May our light be the light of Christ. Through this light, may we work together to heal the broken places of this world. And, may the flame of God’s presence sustain you all the days of your life. 

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mary, strong and sure

Many years ago I received this book, “Meditations on Mary”,  by Kathleen Norris. Norris was a popular author at the time, influencing many of us with her books on life and faith. This book is filled with beautiful photographs of famous painting and sculptures of Mary. In the book, Norris offers meditations on the basic Christian teachings about Mary: as the Virgin, the Annunciation - when the angel Gabriel visited Mary and told her of God’s favor toward her, and the pending birth of Jesus to which Mary responded with beautiful poetic words that have become known as the Magnificat. Norris writes about the Incarnation, of Mary as the one who birthed God into the world in human flesh. The Greek Orthodox tradition calls Mary - Theotokos - God Bearer. Other meditations in the book include thoughts on the Assumption - when Mary ascended into heaven; the presentation of Jesus at the Temple; and thoughts on the Virgin. 

Other traditional descriptions of Mary include:
the greatest of all Christian saints. 
The Virgin Mother 

the daughter of Sts. Joachim and Anne. 

cousin of Elizabeth, aunt of John Baptist. 

Mary initiated the miracle at Cana, telling to Jesus to turn the water into wine. Mary was present at the Crucifixion in Jerusalem, and there she was given into Johns care. 

According to one tradition, she went to Ephesus. Another tradition states that she remained in Jerusalem. The belief that Mary’s body was assumed into  heaven is one of the oldest traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. The feast of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15. 

The feast of the Immaculate Conception is not a celebration of Gabriel's visit to Mary, rather it is a celebration of when Mary was conceived, and comes nine months before her birthdate, which is Sept. 8. Gabriel's visit to Mary is called the Incarnation, although we tend to think of the incarnation as the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25. 

All-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady are other terms people use to describe Mary.

Mary’s influence has infiltrated India, a nation known for its reverence of women saints.
Like other Hindu goddesses, Mary is viewed as a saint who will fulfill the aspirations of people and answer their prayers. People in India, Christians and non-Christians, pray to Mary for divine assistance when seeking a job, conceiving a child, or alleviating an illness.

But, of all these titles and images, perhaps the most fascinating are the images of the Black Madonna. Famous Black Madonna’s can be found all over the world. Many of them were created between the 12th and 15th centuries. Some newer images have arisen as cultural expressions of Mary from African or African-American people. Some Black Madonnas were created using dark pigment or stone. Some of the Black Madonnas have turned black with age and patina. Some were created black to represent the woman from Song of Song’s a book in the Bible that compares the love between two people with the love of God for humanity. In the Song of Songs the woman is described as “I am black but beautiful.” Some think that the Black Madonnas have a historical link to pagan goddesses of the earth - the rich black soil of the earth transfers into the Madonna as the one who birthed God into the world. An ancient Eastern Orthodox Eucharistic Prayer uses these words:

I am the bread of life, said Our Lord.
From on high I came to earth so all might live in me.
Pure word without flesh I was sent from the Father.
Mary's womb received me like good earth a grain of wheat…
(from http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/blackmdn.html)

One of the primary images of Mary portrayed by the Christian tradition is that of a poor, submissive, passive girl. This image has been used as a model for feminine virtue through the centuries, not a very useful model for real human beings. However, if one really listens to the story in Luke, one hears something quite different from Mary. She is brave and confidently takes on this task asked of her by God. She accepts the role of birthing God into the world, despite a very uncertain future in doing so. She stays with her son, God in the flesh, to the very end, despite the dangers of being at the foot of the cross where she too could have been crucified for treason just because she was there. This Mary is hardly weak, hardly submissive, hardly passive.

Our readings this morning tell the story in reverse order. In place of the Psalm we have the Magnificat. This poetic piece is often sung and is one of the standard offerings in morning and evening prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. In the Gospel of Luke the Magnificat comes after Mary is pregnant, when she travels a distance to see her cousin Elizabeth who is about to give birth to John the Baptist. Mary and Elizabeth represent the miraculous way God breaks  into the world - an old woman, long past her prime is about to give birth to a baby boy, a prophet who will pave the way for Jesus. Mary, a young girl is pregnant too, and she will give birth to God in human flesh. Both women are favored by God - not so much because they live exemplary lives, although they may have. Rather they are favored by God because they are lowly. In a world where human beings honor great leaders - kings and queens or athletes or movie stars, or artists or business people - God works in a different way. God works in unexpected ways and as a result sometimes the world is turned on its head.

God has worked in unexpected ways in and through us, too. A few years ago we had no idea that we would help build a school in Liberia, create an exterior plaza that will be a welcome place of respite for humans and animals alike - not to mention a great social venue as well. We had no idea that we would become immersed in Blessings in a Backpack, feeding hungry kids on the weekends during the school year. We had no concept of a food pantry in the church nor of our ability to feed over 23 families on a monthly basis, And, although we have talked for years about increasing the wheel chair accessibility in the church space, we had no plan and no idea how we would do it. But in the last three years, God has stirred our hearts and inspired our spirits, and we are working on all of these, and more!

As we come to the end of Advent, with Christmas just around the corner, let us give thanks for the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit. For in breaking through into our lives God helps us, leads us, guides us, in doing more than we could ever imagine. With God’s help we are able to make a difference, to impact the world around us, to transform pieces of this broken world and make them whole. For, as we learn from Mary, although nothing is impossible with God, God chooses to work in and through us, to bring forth God’s kingdom, here and now. 

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Awake, Aware, and Wild-eyed

A reflection on Mark 1:1-8 for Advent 2B

The Shoshone are a diverse tribe of indigenous people who inhabited parts of California, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho and Utah. One particular Shoshone tribe lived in  the mountainous  region of what is now southeastern Idaho and northern Utah. A peaceful people, this traveling tribe of hunters and gatherers, found themselves struggling for food and land as European settlers moved into the region. In 1862 one settler discovered a horse missing and accused a Shoshone boy of stealing it. The boy was convicted of the crime and hung. The Shoshone retaliated by killing a couple of the settler’s relatives. Anxiety escalated among the settlers who requested that the US government intervene. Col. Patrick Connor with an army of 200 volunteers from California was hired to intervene. 

Before sunrise on Jan. 29, 1863 Col. Connor and his volunteer army waged an attack on the Shoshone tribe as they slept in the homes near Bear Creek, just a few miles north of Preston, Idaho, which is where my mother was born. The attack was brutal and resulted in the deaths of 450 Shoshone, many of them children. The women were raped, beaten, and killed. The men were tortured and then killed. The hundred or so who survived struggled to rebuild a life.

Ten years later the remaining members of this Shoshone tribe initiated a working relationship with local Mormons. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Mormons had a peaceful relationship with the Shoshone. In response to the request for help Brigham Young sent George Washington Hill, my great grandfather five generations back, to work with them. 

George learned their practices and their language, built mutual trust and respect, and created an English-Shoshone dictionary to help with communication between the Mormons and the Shoshone. When the government wanted the Shoshone to move to the Ft. Hall Indian reservation the Mormons intervened. Some went to the Reservation, while other Shoshone chose to keep their land, although they had to be members of the Mormon church and pay taxes to the US government in order to do so.

I imagine the Shoshone would tell a much different version of this story than my Mormon family genealogy. They would tell a story of white settlers taking over the land, using up all the resources, and marginalizing the indigenous people who had lived on the land for generations. They would tell a story of violence and poverty and degradation. My grandfather is considered a saint by the Mormons, but I don’t think that the Shoshone people feel the same way. 

Conflict between people who are different from one another, whether by skin color, ethnicity, religious beliefs or gender and sexuality, is as old as time. The Bible is filled with stories of genocide and war. Current news reports cover a multitude of stories on violence, of one people killing another simply for being who they are.

We are not immune to it here in Dearborn nor in the metro Detroit region. Tension around race, religion, and human sexuality define us, too.  No doubt in recent years the people of Dearborn, and we at Christ Church, have worked hard to grow in relationship with our sisters and brothers of all colors, religions, and genders. Nonetheless, my clergy colleagues, people of color, upon learning that I live in Dearborn, tell me that to this day they will go out of their way to avoid driving through Dearborn. This is residual reactivity from the days when the phrase “Keep Dearborn Clean” was not about litter or untidy yards, but about persons of color. My very first day here in Dearborn was marked by Terry Jones’s visit to the Islamic Center of America where he intended to burn a Q’ran. Many of you were part of a protest movement against Terry Jones, in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters. Far from perfect, we are making an effort to live our baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of every human being. This is an ongoing process and requires us to be ever mindful and action oriented. 

Our readings from last week, the first Sunday of Advent, called us to stay awake, or in other words to be aware and attentive to how God is acting in the world around us and how God is active in and within us. This week the readings build on that theme and ask us to be aware and to repent. 

Repentance is one of those words that make me cringe, from misuse and abuse. Used as it is intended, repentance is an important word in Christianity. Repentance is an interior process of looking at ourselves as individuals and as a society with a keen eye for the ways in which we are hurting others economically, socially, spiritually, or physically and then doing something to change our behavior. Often the way we hurt others is hidden from our understanding, lost in the complexity of our social and economic institutions and systems. The challenge of determining who should be held accountable for the deaths of young black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice leaves some enraged and others perplexed. Disputes over how justice should be served as a response to these killings bring out strong emotions on all sides. The New York Times runs daily articles and editorials on the “chasm” between races, our legal system, and the difficulty for white Americans to grasp the depth and breadth of institutional racism. There are similar struggles with religion and human sexuality. 

Ultimately we are all subject to the consequences of systemic racism - some of us live in daily fear for our lives, others of us live in denial that racism still exists, some of us are mute because we cannot understand the way racism continues.

Robert B. Moore wrote a popular essay about the subtlety of racism through the use of language. He writes, “An integral part of any culture is its language. Language not only develops in conjunction with a society's historical, economic and political evolution; it also reflects that society's attitudes and thinking.” He asks people to rewrite a paragraph eliminating the 30 uses of racist language in it. Here is a portion of that paragraph:

“Some may…accuse me of trying to blacken the English language, to give it a black eye..… They may denigrate me by accusing me of being black hearted, or having a black outlook on life…which would certainly be a black mark against me….I may become a black sheep, who will be blackballed by being placed on a blacklist in an attempt to blackmail me to retract my words. But attempts to blackjack me will have a Chinaman’s chance of success, for I am not a yellow-bellied Indian giver of words, who will whitewash a black lie…..”

Have you ever thought about how the words we use perpetuate racism or sexism or prejudice of any kind? 

Today’s text from the Gospel of Mark makes reference to Isaiah chapter 40 and Malachi chapter 3. Both of these Old Testament readings ask God to deliver the people from suffering, but with the caveat that the people must first look at themselves and understand their role in causing the suffering. 

In this context repentance means becoming aware of and having the ability to tell the truth about ourselves in order that we can redirect our lives toward God and God’s desire for us. One way we can deepen our awareness is by paying attention to the words we use and whether those words build up others or whether those words in some way disparage others. 

So whenever find yourself beginning to say something like “black-sheep” or“blackballed” or “Indian-giver” stop and think about how those words perpetuate the undercurrent of systemic prejudice in our language and consider what you might say instead. I guarantee you will find the process of considering the words you use to be eye-opening and transformative and grace filled in a kind of John the Baptist wild-eyed way, preparing your heart to open even more to the love of God in Jesus and leading you to an ever deepening and more authentic love of neighbor.