"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, May 09, 2015

The Holy Spirit, An Agitator for Justice

A reflection on the readings for Easter 6B

In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday of May as the national day of observance for Mother’s Day. However, the history of Mother’s Day is much longer than the legislation of a 101 years ago. The ancient culture of Greece and Rome, out of which our Christian faith grew, worshipped the female goddess Rhea, who was the mother of all the Gods. Christians have worshipped Mary, the mother of Jesus, and held her up as a model for womanhood and motherhood. In the 17th century England created Mothering Sunday designed to allow working people to have a day off in order to travel home and spend the day with family. Woodrow Wilson’s declaration was the result of the efforts of two women, Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis. 

You might remember that Julia Ward Howe, following a visit to Civil War battlegrounds in 1861,  wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The hymn’s theology is based on the Book of Revelation. Then, in 1870, in response to the fractures left in this country by the death and violence of that war she wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation. The proclamation asked for women to work for peace, to create a  time when no mother’s son went to war and no mother’s son killed another mother’s child. Howe used her own funds to support Mother’s Day observances which continued for about ten years after her death. In 1908 Anna Jarvis picked up the practice of Mother’s Day by petitioning the church where her mother had been the superintendent of Sunday School for twenty years, to observe her life and ministry. Thanks to her efforts, on May 10, 1908 two churches, one in West Virginia and one in Pennsylvania honored Mother’s Day. Six years later these observances led to the legislation that President Wilson signed. 

Clergy and worship leaders around the country are concerned about what to do with Mother’s Day now that it is viewed as primarily a secular Hallmark card holiday. Now that we are more sensitized to the hurt inflected on women and men who may have had abusive mothers or the pain that women feel when they can’t have a child - Mother’s Day is complicated. We have lost the connection of this day to its roots in the church and its hope for justice for all people.  That our readings this morning from scripture focus on love, justice, and equality, is perhaps, not a coincidence.

Every year, throughout the Easter season, our readings reveal the Holy Spirit as the active energy in the formation of the early church. First we have Peter and Paul in Jerusalem debating before the whole church whether or not circumcision should be required for membership. The argument was, if circumcision was a defining characteristic of a man’s identity as a Jewish Christian should it be necessary for the Gentiles? Could the community embrace members who were different in a basic aspect of their identity? In the end James settled the debate by determining that circumcision was not necessary and Jews and Gentiles, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, could be equal members in the Christian Church. The first great conflict was managed and the church opened its boundaries, coming to understand God, community, and human beings in a new, more expansive way. Other conflicts arose - last week Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, breaking open the boundaries of race and gender, God’s church  is meant for everyone, equally. This week another action of the Holy Spirit, breaking open boundaries as Peter baptizes a Centurian, a Roman soldier.

Although the readings are essentially the same every Easter season, it seems to me that this year they are hitting a universal nerve that runs through the current of our society, as if the Holy 

Spirit is stimulating the electrical charge. From the public accounting of the deaths of black men and boys, shot by police officers; to the suicide of teenagers, many of whom are transgender, children who are taunted and bullied by their peers; to the baby in Florida whose baptism was initially denied because he has two fathers for parents; television and the internet are reporting on the many ways we are struggling to understand who we are to love. Social media is in an uproar as petitions for justice circulate. Clearly, this love, that the Holy Spirit calls forth in us, is not the sweet romantic love we tend to identify with. The love that the Holy Spirit calls forth is a verb, an action, trying to provoke us to be like James, Peter, and Philip, like Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis, seeking to inspire us to love others as God loves us. It’s the Holy Spirit calling us to live the greatest commandment as Jesus taught it: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. 

No doubt there are many days when I wish Jesus had not laid down that commandment. I do not want to be challenged to love others in this way. I want someone to blame for the anxiety in our world, the anxiety in my life. But, Jesus reminds me to take the log from my own eye, learn to understand myself better, and respond to others with maturity and wisdom instead of anger and blame. This love that God commands is hard work. 

The good news is, we don’t have to do this by ourselves. Thank God, the Holy Spirit is present, guiding, sustaining, and supporting. When I consider all the things in the world today that make me anxious, whether it is health care or marriage, baptism or race, gender, violence, guns, our roads, our government, terrorism, the economy…..regardless of how I view these realties of the world, if I trust the movement of the Holy Spirit, I do not need to live my life being anxious. I do need to be proactive for what I believe in, working for justice as I understand it through the lens of my faith as a Christian.

The readings tell us that the Holy Spirit stirs things up, is an agitator for justice, inspiring humans to work to break down the barriers that other humans have imposed in the name of God and religion. We also hear that the Holy Spirit is the stabilizing energy in this force field of anxiety. She stirs things up and yet she stabilizes the energy by pulling us to Jesus.The Holy Spirit is the center of gravity that pulls all things toward God’s love, striving to bring balance and prevent us from going off course. 

Allowing the Holy Spirit to anchor me to Jesus and to God is an intentional act on my part. Through prayer, worship, and life in community, I learn, over and over, that God will push me to be the best version of myself that I can become, push me to love others with an open and expansive heart, push me to put this love into action, but God will also provide me with the wisdom and the stamina and the courage to do so. 

Again, the Battle Hymn of the Republic comes to mind, and I realize that whether I go or not, God’s truth is marching on. No anxiety on my part will stop the Holy Spirit from advancing God’s desire for love and justice. But, this does not really let me off the hook, it does not release me from the push and pull to do my part. 

Though my eyes are often closed if I but open them I will see the coming glory of God and if I but have a little courage I too can join the march. May I follow in the footsteps of Peter and 
Philip, Julia and Anna, being lead by the Holy Spirit, into the truth of God’s desire for all creation, that we love one another as God loves us. 

Glory, glory hallelujah!

Saturday, May 02, 2015

The Holy Spirit, an Equal Opportunity Lover of People

A reflection on the readings for Easter 5: Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 7:7-21; John 15:1-8

The other day I had a conversation with someone about their childhood and whether or not faith was an active part of it. This person shared stories of growing up in a church with a progressive priest who took the confirmation class to Detroit to participate in the civil rights marches in the 1960’s. It was the first time this person had been in a crowd of black people, and, as an adolescent, the experience made a life-long impression on her.  She was in Grant Park in Chicago during the Democratic Convention of 1968, another transformational experience. Racial and gender issues have defined her life.  Deeply invested in the causes for equality for all people, she said that living a life of privilege pushed her to become of aware of and re-evaluate her assumptions. As a person of privilege she had to unlearn assumptions about the economy and its impact on poverty, race, and gender. She has had to unlearn assumptions about education, employment, family, marriage, and even faith. 

I had another conversation with someone very different, a person who grew up without the assumptions of privilege that come from being part of the dominant culture of our society, who did not have the benefits of being white and upper middle class. The ancestors of this person walked the Trail of Tears from Mississippi to Oklahoma.This person grew up on a reservation but the stories he told were not stories of despair or poverty, which is my impression of life on a reservation. Rather he spoke of importance of family and community. He said that what Native people want today is not a return of their ancient land or other forms of material reconciliation. What Native people want is the opportunity to be who they are, to retain their identity and culture, their values and beliefs and spiritual traditions. This person comes from a long line of people who practiced Christianity and Native spirituality from which he learned to understand the value of unity in diversity; that justice for one segment of society deepens the potential for justice for all people.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning highlights these themes of privilege, race and gender and the breaking down of our assumptions. The Eunuch is wealthy and educated, riding in the queen’s chariot and reading scripture. The Holy Spirit tells Philip to go to the Eunuch, and Philip does without hesitation. Which is really amazing - because the Ethiopian Eunuch, by virtue of his race and gender, breaks the purity laws of Moses and pushed every assumption Philip had about life. Based on what he learned as a person of faith, Philip should walk by this Eunuch, keeping a good distance between them. Instead, the Holy Spirit directs Philip to do something he would have found quite radical, and he did it. Not only did Philip speak to the Eunuch, but he baptized him, breaking old religious barriers into new paradigms of the community of faith. 

The Holy Spirit is an equal opportunity lover of souls who does not recognize divisions of class, race, or gender, imposed by humans in the name of God and religion. 

Over the last year Maryjane, the Vestry, and I have studied and discussed Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory. The theory focuses on understanding how the underlying emotional processes of an individual is connected to the way one’s family managed anxiety. Patterns of emotional process which become anxious result in a need to either pull people together and  find comfort in all being alike, or they pull people apart and  ease the anxiety by distancing or cutting individuals off from others. 

Unfortunately trying to ease anxiety by either too much togetherness or by distancing or cutting off, does not ultimately end the anxiety because it just rears its head in other ways and other relationships. Family Systems Theory strives to help people become aware of the emotional patterns learned from one’s family of origin and to work toward a more neutral emotional place regarding those emotional patterns. One may acquire a more neutral emotional stance by becoming clear about who one is; learning to manage one’s emotions and anxiety while staying in relationship with others. Managing one’s anxiety means that when somethings arouses a knee jerk reaction in me  I am able to be aware of it and maintain a more neutral emotional stance. So for example I am not managing my anxiety when my elderly senile old dog looses bladder control in the house and I impulsively yell at her and herd her outside. This tends to cause even more loss of bladder control and I end up feeling like a fool because I’ve yelled at my old dog who can’t help herself. Then, if I were really feeling anxious and reactive I would yell at my husband or son for not letting the dog out, as if it’s their fault she is old and senile and sometimes can’t recognize her own bladder sensations. Emotional reactivity and blaming others for my anxiety are key symptoms of family emotional processes. One could also blame others, withdraw, hold it all inside, distance or cut off from others. The solution, which in my better days I manage, is to let her outside frequently enough that we avoid accidents. And recognize that when it does happen it's because I have been too distracted by my own life to pay attention to the needs of my dog. I take responsibility for myself rather than blaming others. 

This is what we are hearing in the reading from the Gospel - pruning ourselves of all that keeps us from being in authentic relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others. In particular pruning ourselves of our reactivity to anxiety, which limits our ability to think creatively and respond with wisdom and maturity. Pruning in order to grow more mature as Christians and as human beings. Pruning out the assumptions we have learned and opening the way for new, deeper understandings of who we really are as beloved people made in God’s image. Each and every one of us, regardless of color, race, economic class, gender, or age, is equally beloved and made in God’s image. 

The point of this is to remind us that the primary value we are asked to live by is love. God is clear about what this love means. It is not an emotion or a feeling; rather God’s love is a verb, it’s an action. We manifest God’s love when love others as God loves us: when we take responsibility for our emotions and actions first instead of blaming others, when we consider our own anxiety and work to navigate it in mature ways, when we break down the walls of our own unseeing, when we work to unlearn our assumptions about life, self, and others. We love as God loves when we love ourselves and others authentically, for who they really are; another human being made in God’s image.

Our readings today remind us that the Holy Spirit is an equal opportunity lover of souls and the fruit we are called to bear is to do likewise, loving others as God loves us. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Five: Whatcha Hauling?

Deb, over at the RevGals offers this Friday Five:

Sometimes, as pastors, chaplains, moms or just itinerant workers, our purses and backpacks do become “carry-alls.” So this made me wonder: what are you carrying around that perhaps you could unload or set aside? Please share
Physical: What do you ALWAYS carry in your purse/wallet/coat pocket/backpack? I always carry chapstick. I use Burt's Bees pomegranate. 
Whimsical: Is there a surprise inside? What’s among the unusual items. No surprises, but among the usual - lipsticks (a variety of shades and brands), the chapstick, receipts for various things, sometimes my Kindle, keys, business cards.
Practical: As a chaplain, I always have some breath mints and tissues. How about you? Yes, always. The tissues, however are for me and my perpetually runny nose, although I'd offer a fresh one to anyone who needed it. 
Spiritual: Share a question or lesson from your spiritual life that you’re puzzling about. I have taken hours and hours of workshops on Bowen's Family Systems Theory this past year and particularly how Family Systems relates to my life as a parish priest. What I am pondering is the role of faith and spirituality in Family Systems theory. There is a proposed 9th Concept that Murray Bowen was working on when he died, which dealt with how spirituality fit into the theory. I am considering how faith and religion, God and spirituality, are foundational in my experience and understanding of Family Systems. It will be some time to think it through. No doubt I'll be blogging about it along the way. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Five: Taxing Edition

Cindi, over at the RevGals offers this post-tax day Friday Five:....
Taxes: What events do you find “taxing”..... I am taxed when life throws me endless demands and I have to switch up my schedule, over and over, to meet them. Often this means that the things that keep me calm and healthy, like yoga and other exercise, fall by the wayside. Eventually I get back on track but it's ironic that when I need those practices most, I am unable to engage in them..
Withholding: Aside from money, what do you put aside for when you need it? During those unplanned demands that happen from time to time, and soon as I can, I take some time to rest and renew. Sometimes this means reading a novel while riding the exercise bike (two birds with one stone...). When the weather is nice I walk to yoga, again two birds...
Exemptions: What things do you do to take some time off? I like to go away to visit family in Chicago or Utah or go off with my husband to a quiet place in the country to renew and refresh. He and I have not gone away in a long while, but we hope to do something this summer for our 30th wedding anniversary.
Deductions: What things in your life help you get through trying times? Yoga, meditation, and reading good fiction, going out to eat with my husband, or enjoying a glass of good wine. 
Refunds: How do you realize the benefits of what you do all year? When Easter Day is over, and I have completed the "Liturgical Crunch Season" (All Saints' Day to Easter), I can look back at a year well done and look forward to a slower liturgical season from summer through the fall. I also look forward to warmer weather when I can just slip on shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals, and off I go.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

I will, with God's help....

I was baptized when I was nine years old. I have vivid memories of the baptism because I was terrified as I was fully immersed three times in a deep pool of water, and relieved when I did not drown. But I have no memory of any preparation for that baptism. I don’t recall anyone talking to me that morning or the day before about the meaning of baptism and how it would impact my life.

In the early church people spent two years preparing for baptism. Then, only adults were baptized and the two years were spent unlearning one way of understanding the world - particularly that the emperor was God - and replacing that worldview with an understanding of who Jesus was and the Christian understanding of God.

Now, when I prepare a person for baptism, or meet with parents and Godparents of a child or infant who is to be baptized, I spend about an hour in conversation with them followed by a rehearsal. 

Baptism is the beginning of one’s journey of faith. The first thing baptism does is “name” us. In the month leading up to a baptism we pray for the individual by their first and middle name. We do not use their surname. Who knows why? Because in baptism we all share the same last name, “Christian.” In baptism we are named and become a member of the family and body of Christ.

One learns what it means to live as a Christian through being part of a faith community and through facing the challenges of life, making decisions based on the values of the Christian faith. In the world today it can be confusing to know what Christian values we are to live from. The baptismal covenant in the Book of Common Prayer offers Episcopalians some clarity on this. 

The covenant asks a number of questions including: Will you share? Will you treat others with dignity and respect? Will you learn about the Christian faith and will you worship in community; and our response is, “I will with God’s help.” We are not asked to journey alone, we are invited into a community of other people of faith and supported throughout our lives by the presence of God. Everything we do, we do with God’s help.

The conversation I have with people preparing for baptism covers three renunciations and three affirmations. Each person preparing for baptism is asked to renounce evil and affirm a new way of life. My hope is that people have a good sense of what they are renouncing and affirming in these vows. The first question I ask is, “What is evil? What does evil mean to you?” To a person this question, the idea of evil, is challenging. We live in a world that is full of evil but we are losing the ability to talk about evil from a spiritual perspective. This is because what gets defined as evil is culturally bound in time and place. Binding evil within the confines of a culture and a time tends to minimize evil and eventually, as times change, people reject that which has been defined as “evil.” 

In baptism we are reminded that evil is a spiritual force that pulls us away from God, causes harm to other people and causes harm to ourselves. I define evil as that which causes broken relationship in all its forms - broken relationship with God, broken relationship with the earth, broken relationship with other people, and a broken relationship with ourselves. How are you living with and struggling through broken relationships like these? What does it feel like when you are living with a broken relationship with God? What does it feel like when you are living with a broken relationship with another person? In what ways are you broken within yourself? How do you feel bad about who you are? Can you think about these broken places and recognize the evil spiritual forces at play in your life? Growing into being a mature Christian requires that we think about the broken places in our lives and work to heal them and make amends. 

Secondly, the baptismal candidate or the parents and Godparents on behalf of the candidate, are asked to affirm a new life in Christ. What does this mean? What does “savior” mean to you? Again, “Savior” is one of those complicated Christian words that gets culturally bound up in time and place. The end result may diminish the meaning of savior in one’s life. I have often said that I think God called me into the priesthood in order to save me. By this I mean, God was saving me from myself, from my own propensity toward self destructive ways of diminishing myself. As a priest, as a wife, as a mother, I have felt called to do the hard work to be the best person I can. I have worked to have greater self-awareness of what pushes my buttons and how I can be more reflective and responsive and less reactive and emotional. I have gone to therapy and spiritual direction and worked to recognize my feelings and use them appropriately. Years ago, disenfranchised from church, I chose to return to church for the specific reason of having a community with whom to grow and mature as a person of faith. One cannot be a Christian by one’s self. One needs to be in relationship with a community of people who are facing life’s challenges so that we walk the journey together. Becoming a mature Christian and working to have healthy relationships is the bedrock of Christianity. 

This is why we baptize people on a Sunday morning in the primary worship service - so that baptism is central to our lives, central to who we are as a community, and so that the person being baptized understands that they are being welcomed into relationship, into community. 

In a few moments we will baptize Alexander Frank and welcome him into the body of Christ. Alexander’s father was raised in Christ Church. John and Suzanne were the first couple I married when I arrived at Christ Church. John’s parents have been members for a long time and even though they have moved away and spend part of the year in Florida, Christ Church is still their spiritual home. Today we baptize Alexander Frank into a family, into a history, into a faith community, and he takes on our name, Christian. May we do everything we can to support Alexander in his life in faith, as we have done for his parents and grandparents and for one another. May we do all of this with God’s help. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Friday Five: Adieu Karla.....

RevKarla, over at the RevGals blog offers this, her final Friday Five meme after 8 years of hosting the game (thank you Karla!):

1.  What are you wearing right now?  (a question from my first FF play.) I bought a new pair of jeans the other day, a pair that actually fit me, so I am wearing them along with a black cotton turtleneck and a sweater, and a pair cute sketchers shoes. 
2.  What are you having for lunch (or dinner)?  (another question from my first FF play.) I will probably have carrot/ginger soup for lunch with toast and peanut butter. Dinner will be left overs: ham, smoked polish sausage, homemade potatoes au gratin, salad (finishing off the belated Easter dinner). 
3.  Share an experience of community that was transformative or precious to you. Being part of church communities for almost thirty years has certainly influenced my life. Thankfully my first adult experience of church community was a gift and a blessing of other young families with children, offering me companionship and playdates when I was raising children. That experience  eventually led me to embrace God's call to become a parish priest. 
4.  Describe your favorite mug or glass. A number of years ago I bought a huge coffee mug at a Starbucks in a hotel I was staying in while attended a convention. It's white with swirls of lavender and lime green, I've never seen another one like it. I put it away when I pulled out the Christmas season mugs and this reminds me to look for it....(and put away the Christmas mugs, lol). (yes, I have so many mugs I have to cycle them in and out of use)....
5.  Give a shout out to a friend or colleague! A number of my seminary friends and colleagues from around the church world are RevGals - and of course I have a number of RevGal friends whom I have never met in real life. Love to all of you!

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Signs of Easter

Although the weather suggests otherwise, spring has arrived and Easter is here. We’ve made it through the long, cold, winter and the dry barren season of Lent. Now we rejoice and celebrate God’s love in the world, made known to us in the hope of the resurrection and the promise of new life.  As Christians we have adopted a number of symbols to help us celebrate the day, celebrate spring, and celebrate new life. For example, we have the Easter bunny, Easter eggs, and my favorite, jelly beans. 

I can say with certainty that the Easter bunny does not make an appearance in any of the stories in the Bible. So, how rabbits came to be a symbol for Easter is a bit of a mystery. Some suggest that it has to do with ancient fertility rites. Rabbits are very fertile, which made them a natural symbol for new life to ancient people. Later, Christians adopted the rabbit as a symbol for the new life of the resurrection. The tradition of an egg-laying rabbit came to this country by German immigrants in the 1700’s, who settled in Pennsylvania. The children made nests in which the creature could lay colored eggs and they left carrots for the rabbit in case it got hungry. Eventually the tradition of the rabbit and the colored eggs spread through the country. 

Easter eggs are also a symbol of new life which were used by ancient people in festivals to celebrate spring. Christians adopted the symbol of colored hard boiled eggs to symbolize Jesus’ emergence from the tomb and his new life in the resurrection. You can see that symbolized here at the altar. During the season of Lent, the box, which we call a tomb, held the alleluias that the kids made. Now that box, that tomb, is tipped on its side, and the alleluia’s have been released and are on display in the hall outside this door. Colored eggs now pour out of that tipped over tomb of a box. 

Decorating Easter eggs dates back to about the 13th century. Then, eggs were a forbidden food during Lent. At the end of Lent eggs were decorated and then eaten to mark the end of the Lenten fast. Every year on Good Friday we offer a Stations of the Cross for children. It’s a fun event and very popular with kids and adults as we learn about Jesus’ last hours in simple child appropriate meditations and prayers. We move around the building, each place representing part of Jesus’ last day of life. We learn about foot washing and the last supper, about being kind to others. We talk about the pain of being teased and bullied and the importance of saying sorry when we’ve hurt someone’s feelings. We talk about spring and new life, and God’s love. The final station is the coloring of Easter eggs, symbolizing new life.

Easter eggs hunts and egg rolling events have become popular Easter traditions.  The White House Easter Egg Roll is a race in which children push decorated hard boiled eggs across the White House lawn. It takes place on the Monday after Easter. 

The first official White House egg roll occurred in 1878, when Rutherford B. Hayes was president. The largest Easter egg ever made was over 25 feet high and weighed over 8,000 pounds. Someone constructed a steel, egg-shaped frame and then covered it with chocolate and marshmallows.

Did you know that Easter is the second best-selling candy holiday in the United States, after Halloween?  Chocolate eggs, which date back to early 19th century Europe are favored by many of us.  Another egg-shaped candy, the jelly bean, my personal favorite, became associated with Easter in the 1930s. The jelly bean’s origins may, however, date back to a Biblical-era concoction called a Turkish Delight. Over 16 billion jelly beans are made in the U.S. each year for Easter. That’s enough jelly beans to fill this entire church space.  The top-selling non-chocolate Easter candy is the marshmallow Peep, a marshmallow bird covered in a sugary casing.  A Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based candy manufacturer called, “Just Born” (founded by Russian immigrant Sam Born in 1923) began selling Peeps in the 1950s. The original Peeps were handmade, marshmallow-flavored yellow chicks, but other shapes and flavors are now available. 

Although Easter has not quite become a secular holiday like Christmas, there are clearly some Christian Easter traditions that have become part of the culture at large. It’s helpful to remember that rabbits, and colored eggs, and egg-shaped candy, all have a link to what we are celebrating this day, Easter, the resurrection, and the many signs of new life God offers us in creation. 

Life always throws us curve balls,  unexpected challenges, but, sometimes, within the challenges we can also recognize signs of hope, love, and new life.

Regardless of the challenges that life brings my way, I am learning to trust God. It’s a lesson I have to learn over and over. Somehow, when I am really willing to try, I feel deep within or just on the periphery of my being, that God is present. I can sense God’s presence because even in the midst of anxiety, I might feel peaceful. I might feel hopeful. I know that all things pass in due time and the challenges of life serve to help me grow as a person and in my faith. 

This is the journey of Holy Week into Easter - the journey of life through the challenges that come my way, moving through them into a new place of wholeness. Jesus’ death on the cross is transformed by God into new life, like winter is transformed into spring, like even a bad day can hold within it something good. Because God’s love always has the final word. God’s love prevails. Rabbits, colored eggs, and candy are just symbols of the creative, life-giving, sweetness of God. Our delight as we enjoy these symbols remind us of God’s abiding presence and never ending love for us, today, and every day. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Five: Whatcha Reading?

MaryBeth, over at RevGals invites to write about what we are reading for this week's Friday Five meme:

1. Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
2. Women and Redemption by Rosemary Radford Ruether (only about 25% through this book, will take awhile to finish it; very good).
3. Radical Wisdom by Beverly J. Lanzetta (I've finished this one, but still thinking about it, excellent book!)
4. Real Simple, April edition
5. Absence of Mind by Marilynn Robinson (I finished this, but still thinking about it. Very thought provoking.)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Five: Signs of Spring

Jan, over at the RevGals blog invites us to name five signs of spring:

Baby bunnies in green grass

Dogwoods in bloom

Planting the garden

Spring flowers in bloom

Easter egg hunt

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Of snakes and vulnerability

A reflection on Lent 4B  - Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21.

When I was a little girl I used to visit my great-grandmother who lived outside Pocatello, Idaho, in a big yellow house on a family farm. My great-grandfather, and his parents before him, farmed the land. The front of the house was on a dirt road with a deep ditch that ran between the house and the road. I remember playing in the front yard of this house where my brothers and I would find frogs and garter snakes near the ditch. I had no fear of snakes and would readily pick up a  baby garter snake like I’d pick up a kitten. 

Years later, as a college student, I lived near several beautiful national parks in southern Illinois. These parks were prime hiking areas through rugged terrain, the remnants of glaciers which left huge rocky bluffs, dark forests, and deep freezing cold lakes. This was a natural habitat for venomous snakes; rattlers and black water moccasins, among others. The distinctive noise of a rattle snake always gave me fair warning, but water moccasins were more subtle, one had be attentive to avoid them. 

Now I rarely encounter snakes, but when I do I am extremely cautious around them because I can’t identify them, and I never know if a snake is poisonous or not. 

Some people are terrified of snakes, and for good reason. Statistics list a fear of snakes as one of the greatest fears people have. Certainly the Hebrew people were afraid, as we heard in our reading this morning from Numbers. The people were weary of walking and eating badly and never having enough water and they were really afraid of snakes. God heard their complaints and grief and responded by turning the very object of their fear, snakes, into a source of healing. Moses’ snake on a stick became a symbol of God’s healing grace to the Hebrew people. 

Many times in life, that which causes our greatest grief and sorrow is also the stimuli for our deepest spiritual growth. Looking back, we might consider Moses’ snake stick to be a metaphor for spiritual growth and maturity. The paradox of illness that brings healing, of vulnerability that brings security, of death and new life, is a theme in our chapter this week in our Lenten book, “The Restoration Project” as we consider what it means to be stripped. 

In “The Restoration Project” the author aligns being stripped with deterioration, with the process of reversing the deterioration of DaVinci’s famous painting of The Last Supper by stripping away years of dirt as well as paint from previous attempts at restoration. We humans deteriorate too from unhealthy behaviors such as feelings of entitlement, prejudice, and judging. Jesus reminds us that we are not behave this way; we are not strip others of their basic human right for dignity and integrity. 

And yet people are stripped all the time. People are stripped of life - think of those murdered or under the threat of terrorism and war. Stripped of hope, think of those in poverty or war torn regions or deeply depressed. One can be stripped of integrity, think of those who are raped, abused or belittled, those who have suffered decades of racism or sexism or genderism. One can be stripped of responsibility if one is fired or laid off or in other ways deprived of meaningful work. One can be stripped of one’s identity by abuse or oppression or imprisonment. One might be stripped of one’s name, sold into marriage or kidnapped or trapped into sex trafficking or human slave labor. One might be stripped of one’s knowledge by disease or an accident. There are countless ways that one can be stripped. 

On the other hand, stripping can be paradoxical. When one is intentional, one can  be stripped of the behaviors that limit our ability to grow in relationship with God. Stripped of envy, greed, gossip, complaining, or a failure to embrace our true self-worth as God sees us. These may be unconscious; learned behaviors from our family system, or socially reenforced values that emphasize the individual at the expense of everyone else.  No doubt there are behaviors and values from modern society that we need to be stripped of. Stripped of these so that we can recognize the ways that God is active in our lives. When we are able to truly embrace the depth of God’s love for us we find we have no need for envy, for greed, for self-aggrandizement, for belittling others, for belittling self. As one develops a sense of self grounded in God, one also forms with in one’s self a deeper level of self-awareness and other awareness, of compassion and acceptance of others for being who they are.

When I was growing up my role in my family was to support my mother’s version of her self and the world around her. This was a subtle, unconscious process between my mother and me, as most interpersonal family dynamics are. As a young adult I wasn’t able to sort out what I really thought about anything, my sense of self and every opinion I had were wrapped up in my mother’s definition of the world. Confused and depressed, I sought help by going to therapy. It took a long time for me to reorganize my interior sense of self. I had to strip away the false identity I had acquired from my family system, and grow a new sense of identity as my own person within that family system. Therapy was the process that helped me look deep into myself. But I was able to be vulnerable and do that deep work because of my prayer life and relationship with God. God pushed and prodded me, whispered into my soul, and sustained me through all my struggles, into a truer sense of self. Becoming a mature Christian is a lifelong process. I have been blessed to grow in my faith and in my personhood because I have been a member of mature Christian communities and thus with other people who are on a similar journey. 

The Gospel of John reminds us that God’s love, expressed in and through the life of Jesus, is expansive. Jesus shows us how to be mature Christians. I lose sight of what Jesus teaches when I put limits on what God’s love is like. But I have tried to strip away those limitations I’ve placed on faith, placed on God, placed on love, placed on other human beings. No doubt doing so has left me vulnerable. But, much like the people who encountered Moses’ snake on a stick, God’s grace was able to work through the most vulnerable aspects of my life, transforming them into healing and wholeness.

What is your snake on a stick, your vulnerable place, that is longing to be healed?