Saturday, November 17, 2007

Marriage is a Vital Social Institution

This past Saturday I had my first opportunity to officiate at a wedding. That it was the marriage of two people who have become dear friends was, I now realize, a great gift for me. That it was a celebration of marriage equality was a great chance both for ministry, activism, and for community and family bridge building. It may not be the most diverse wedding I'll ever officiate, but it was an opportunity to minister across the –isms, and that was incredibly powerful as/because it worked: two lesbians, one black, one white, with a twenty year age difference, some class gaps within/between families, and one family running on military one hour early time and part of the other family (with the opening musical soloist) running 15 minutes late (worth waiting for...).

My own theology of marriage is formed by growing up in a farming community and by participating in churches where community is an action verb. A marriage must be supported by the community: by family, friends, colleagues and neighbors, or the two partners in that marriage face an uphill battle to make their relationship work. This was a participatory wedding. I called for family, for friends, and for community to stand and to pledge their welcome, love, acceptance and support of this couple. I am not very romantic about weddings. This wedding ceremony wasn't romantic, although it was incredibly moving, but rather it was pragmatic--a ritual designed to ensure the strongest layering of personal commitment, family, community, and traditional support for the relationship in marriage that began that day.

The relationship, of course, didn't begin on Saturday, and each step of the wedding preparation took us to a closer look not only at the relationship that my two friends have been building with one another, but also at their relationships with family and friends. I said that I thought the day should reflect why they wanted to marry each other, and one of the most powerful, and untraditional, moments in the service was when I asked each of them that question and they answered it, looking out at the gathered friends and family who witnessed the depth of the joy, love and bond that these two women have together. For some members of their families, in particular, this was an education about marriage equality. For everyone there, it was a powerful reminder about the need for mutual respect, the human capacity for determination and joy, the ability of two people to inspire and boost each other, and the strength of love.

For me, it was an affirmation of my call to ministry. There were a lot of opportunities for ministry even on a joyous day: the pre-wedding time of deep breathing and meditation to calm nerves while we waited for late arrivals, granting the opening for all present to feel and express their own emotions as my voice broke after the first five words, the reading and preaching about commitment and love, the conversations at the reception with married, mostly straight, couples about their own love and vows, the affirmations of marriage equality, human dignity and the universality of love with those who hadn't quite gotten that idea prior to this wedding. I told my friend that we had perhaps set a gold standard for wedding ceremonies. I cannot imagine that I can ever participate in a less intentional way or officiate in a perfunctory manner at a wedding after this.

So, I pray blessings on those who chose to get married, that they explore and understand why they want to get married, and that they ask for and get the support, acceptance and love from family and friends that they need to make a healthy relationship work.

One of the people at the wedding was attorney who has handled a fair number of divorces, and she said the wedding gave her hope for the institution of marriage because of the intentionality of the service. Of course, the next day, two friends at church reported that they were getting divorced, and I know how hard that must be for them to have made vows that are now breaking. So, I also pray blessings for those who are not happily married, whose marriages are unraveling or have dissolved, for healing and support.

And just for completeness, I pray for those who are happily, or unhappily, not married whether in a loving intimate relationship or in a state of uncoupled single-hood; for those who seek changes in relationship status; and finally for all of us that we might find and know the blessing of relationship with the Other, a relationship beyond ourselves.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Postures of Prayer

For those of you who don't know me in prayer, I'm fairly restrained in my physical demeanor. In public prayer, it's probably hands at my side, or maybe on the pulpit. In private, prior to the last several months, prayer at home sometimes happened at the table as I read a table blessing, in bed at night with the lights out, or on the run. I would not have said that any particular posture was conducive to reminding me to pray.

At the end of my field education experience I got a gift of a set of small ceramic praying hands from a woman who was the sole attendee at my Thursday night experiment in Song and Prayer. We had some wonderful prayer time together. Now I'm not much of a brick-a-brack person, and hope not to inherit my mother's set of highly glossy glazed bigger than life size set of praying hands, and these white ceramic hands are nothing like Irene's beautiful chocolate colored hands, but I put the hands up on the corner of the mantle.

I've started a regular set of morning stretches, mostly to deal with the plantar fasciitis and leg cramps that are exacerbated from sleeping in the air conditioning. And it was coincidental that when I got to the one where I take my left foot in my right hand and stretch it up while using my left hand to balance, that I ended up using the end of the mantle with the praying hands and the mantle clock. For all of the other stretches I count the seconds that I'm stretching, but for that one since I'm standing and looking at the clock, I don't need to. Since I'm also looking at the praying hands, I was reminded one morning to pray for Irene. This was occasional for a number of days, and then I realized that this was a wonderful time for prayer.

So now when I say to someone you are daily in my prayers, it means that while I'm standing on one leg, I lift her or him up in prayers on my list for the 20 seconds of each leg. You can pray for a lot of people in 40 seconds, standing on one leg. I am stretching more than my legs; I'm part of stretching the opening of the world for God's presence to be with us. I commend this posture of prayer to you--at least in the privacy of your own home. It is apt to work for flexibility and balance and to stretch with compassion while praying--a good practice for the rest of the day.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Confronting Doubt

I have always thought that doubt is a necessary element of faith, rather like darkness is a necessary complement to light--how do you know it's light unless there has been darkness? Similarly, how can you know you have faith unless you doubt and question?

The article on Mother Teresa's doubts in Time magazine, and the book of letters that prompted the article,
Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light compiled by Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, which I have not yet read, give us a deep look into doubt, deeper than most of us are willing to acknowledge or speak. Based on the excerpts in Time, it is no wonder she wanted the letters destroyed. I hope to find time to read the book if only to see if it gives a clue about how she kept on going, doing the work she had been called to do, while being in such a state of doubt. Many others of us, when we doubt or question, just throw in the towel and think that it's not worth it--why didn't she?

In A Hidden Wholeness, Parker J. Palmer
(p. 82-83) talks about the need to hold paradoxes as both-and, not either-or:
"Spring is the season of surprise when we realize once again that despite our perennial doubts, winter's darkness yields to light and winter's deaths give rise to new life. So one metaphor for spring is 'the flowering of paradox.' As spring's wonders arise from winter's hardships, we are invited to reflect on the many 'both-ands' we must hold to live life fully and well--and to become more confident that as creatures embedded in nature, we know in our bones how to hold them.

The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love. But in the spring we are reminded that human nature, like nature herself, can hold opposites together as paradoxes, resulting in a more capacious and generous life."

I would guess that Palmer would suggest that Mother Teresa began with a very deep faith and had a long and excruciatingly difficult period of doubt as the paradox that she had to hold. May our own paradoxes be as fulfilling, so that despite the possibility of doubt, despair and pain, we can move toward faith, hope and love.

Monday, September 3, 2007


The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says, "Clutter [late Middle English] started out as a verb. It is a variant of dialect clotter 'to clot,' influenced by cluster and imitative Old English word clatter. See clot." Clot: "Old English clot(t) is Germanic in origin and related to German Klotz. With reference to a person, a clot was originally (mid 17th century) 'a clumsy person' but it came to be associated with stupidity."

I spent Labor Day weekend getting rid of the clutter in my study, currently defined by the dictionary in my version of Microsoft Word as "noun: 1) an untidy collection of objects; 2) a condition of disorderliness or overcrowding; 3) images on a radar screen that hinder observation; or as a verb: to make a place untidy and overfilled with objects." There is some clumsiness involved in getting rid of clutter—we were tripping over piles and on boxes that are in different places. I think I've cleared paths now through the bags and boxes waiting to be taken to Goodwill or to the curb. On this side of the weekend, I am thinking it's a harsh, but perhaps accurate, judgment to regard clutter as a form of stupidity. What else can you call having had a space so full of paper that there are now twelve grocery bags of recycling waiting to go out? That doesn't count the boxes of things that have been organized, consolidated and trashed.

Several years ago, I read an article in the Boston Globe about the FlyLady. She's all over getting rid of clutter and I have to say that her clean sink trick is very helpful to me in knowing where to start in the kitchen or how to keep the kitchen clean: spend a few minutes to make the sink clean and shiny. For the office, FlyLady recommends Chaos Control. Of course, I just discovered that after spending all weekend at this task. My office at work is not quite as bad as my study was, mostly because it's smaller and because other people need to access the paper, so it stays more organized. But while not berating myself, how does a single room get so bad? ...

For those people who keep Sabbath in the letter, not the spirit, I would guess that my weekend cleaning and clutter-removing binge is not Shabbatful. Sometimes, however, spaciousness comes from our work to clear space. My long weekend's work now brings Sabbath and readiness for the coming school year. There is empty floor space and desk space and shelf space and drawer space, and plenty of paper and pens and pencils and binders, once lost in clutter, now found and accessible.

The spirit of the Sabbath is to set aside time to prepare yourself to emulate God's work of creation—sometimes that's rest and reflection and relaxation, and sometimes it's clearing out the space to allow creativity to happen. Just now, I'm going to bask in the emptiness. I have to say that I feel more joy looking at my clean study than I might after a worship service, and joy is quite central to Sabbath. This is holy and blessed time indeed.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Leadership for the long haul vs KISA

People often come to me to fix their problems, particularly at my work place. Sometimes they just need a decision and don't want to or can't make it themselves. I try to encourage my managers to come to me with a proposal and often all they get is my blessing to go ahead. When I have additional information, though, I can suggest modifications to their proposal, and it will be a better solution.

The line that struck me most in reading Ronald Heifetz in
Leadership without Easy Answers was on p. 87. "First, an authority figure exercising leadership has to tell the difference between technical and adaptive situations because they require different responses. She must ask the the key differentiating question: Does making progress on this problem require changes in people's values, attitudes or habits of behavior?”

I think we treat far too many issues as technical and not adaptive, and I wonder how it is we can learn to distinguish the two? All too often we think that our credibility, and thus our informal authority, depends on having the answer. We have to change our own habits and ways of thinking so that we know we don't always have to be the expert.

The other thing that struck me was that the people need to learn, and we must empower them to do so. I once fired a manager who could not learn how to learn--well, it's a longer story, but in this context, he just could not do adaptive work and his technical expertise was a hammer in a place that sometimes needed a screwdriver or a sponge. It was enormously difficult because he had been quite a good hammer, and then things changed.

A friend in my leadership class was describing a situation where his inner KISA (knight in shining armor) was tempted to step in and fix everything. Adaptive work takes time, and is not conducive to easy fixes. In technical work the problem is clear and so is the solution and what is required is expertise in a leader. In true adaptive work neither the problem nor the solution are clear and both require learning on the part of the leader and those being led, but the greater responsibility lies with the people. One of the keys to good leadership in these situations is giving work back to the people at a rate that they can stand.

My fantasy series recommendation to my friend was the Valdemar series by Mercedes Lackey that starts with
Arrows of the Queen, Arrow's Flight, and Arrow's Fall. In it the heroine learns the differences, and the consequences for each, between leaders (Heralds in Valdemar) who plunge into the rescue, save the day, and ride away, and those who have to stay there day after day and deal with the results of their actions.

But I like the metaphor of the knight or herald as leader because at least you can get off your high horse sometimes and let people do their own learning, even though, of course, you might be able to do it so much better...

Monday, June 11, 2007

The spiritual practice of napping

Yesterday afternoon I took quite a lovely long nap instead of reading my assignment. I've come to regard naps as a spiritual practice, particularly those that overtake me on Sunday at 3 p.m. after a busy week and a full Sunday morning. I acknowledge the nap as a spiritual practice of leadership, or at least as a consequence of leadership.

Of course, one of the twentieth century’s great leaders, Winston Churchill, was famous for his naps, in case we need a role model--not that we need justification for naps.

Napping is also one of my most authentic Sabbath practices as a Christian I suspect.

It’s something that can happen even on those Sundays where I haven’t been playing a leadership role at church on Sunday mornings. In those semesters where I don’t have a lot of theology to read (history or ethics also work well), I miss that Spirit-led drifting off on Sunday afternoons after too many late nights of staying up to finish “just one more thing.” Drifting off while reading a mystery, science fiction or fantasy doesn’t have the same spiritual feel. :-) Leave the computer now and head to your couch or recliner with a good, but thin, book of theology. It will refresh your spirit, if you actually get any reading done, or even more, if you just nap.

Why a thin book of theology? It doesn’t wake you up when it hits your chest or the floor. I won’t make public recommendations for authors beyond that.

Happy napping.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Leadership and Charisma

I am taking a class on Leading from Within: Spirituality and Leadership. We’re reading Ronald Heifetz’s Leadership without Easy Answers and Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers.

I was hanging out with my daughter in the Young Adult section of the library and checked out The Will of the Empress by Tamora Pierce to read this weekend, which as it turns out makes a wonderful fiction companion volume to Heifetz and Wink this week on domination. The empress in this case is in a very hierarchical empire where everyone knows their place and everyone bows to the empress' every whim (deference). Of course our heroine and her friends do not. While this is not subtle it is an excellent overt overview of power in action.

In our discussion board someone asked: How much of leadership is simply about charisma? In this book, the Empress is quite charismatic, but she's not being a good leader for all of her people, only for the ones who agree with her. Hitler was quite charismatic, they say, and I think that one can argue that he was not really a good leader, if leadership is defined as Heifetz and Wink do. I would also say I have known or read about bad leaders, but I think the word "leader" has an unspoken inference of doing good, but that is not always true.

Without allowing for the possibility of bad leadership, we have no cure, no recourse. If we have a strong leader in place, with a lot of vision, does that mean that the organization will survive? Perhaps, but it does not mean that all of the people in the organization will survive. Does leadership mean finding a solution that works for everyone or does it mean finding what works best for most people with the least harm to others? But where does it tilt, when leaders are doing what’s best for a progressively smaller and more elite subset of the organization, until leadership is perfectly selfish?

In a representative democracy, whose interests are the leaders representing? This would apply to the deacons elected by a congregation, as well as state representatives and members of Congress. Is it such an elected leader’s responsibility to speak up for one who can’t speak for herself or safeguard the rights of the oppressed or of the many? Their very charisma means that we will just assume that they’ll be acting on our behalf, because we “like” them. These are questions that we must ask those who want lead so that we are clear about what we will get from the leaders we choose.

And if we are leaders in organizations, for whom do we speak? What deference do we ask of others? What deference do we give? What good do we do? What harm do we prevent? Whom do we help? Whom do we harm?

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Listening: a.m. symphony of place

I've been reading The Listening Book by W. A. Mathieu in the morning.

He has several wonderful exercises about being aware of sound (p. 10-11): "Get a pencil and paper. Become aware of all the sounds you are hearing now, this moment, as you read. Make a list of them. Close your eyes from time to time. Swivel your head slightly to change the mix. Make a sweep from nearby sounds to distant sounds. Fall into the distance. Become transparent. Now fall into the nearness. Make a sweep from the highest sounds to the lowest ones. Disappear into the stratosphere, reappear underground. If your space is quiet enough you will hear your own internal sounds: breathing, maybe your blood in your ears. Or the subtle sounds of cloth against cloth, skin against skin. Count everything; write everything down. Use words economically. Later, if you like, you can set the scene and go into detail."

Here is mine this morning:
computer humming
car swishing by
clatter of keyboard as I type
deep breath
cracking joints as I roll my shoulders
scuffing shoe on the floor
plane flying overhead
creaking chair as I sit back
twittering of bird outside
fabric rustling against my hands
distant humming of cars on the parkway
scratching of skin
ticking of clock in the other room
the neighbor's wind chimes
the dripping of the water fountain
the call of the morning dove

Time to go for now, but I feel much more in the present, aware of my surroundings, and conscious too of how bombarded by sounds we often are. No wonder it is so hard for us to sit in silence to find God. We cannot find silence, and the associations that we have with each of these noises takes us away to some place or time, not here, unless we come back, paying attention just to the now. Perhaps this is where God is. "Be still and know that 'I am'--God."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Home Again?

Dear Fox, old friend, thus we have come to the end of the road that we were to go together. My tale is finished--and so farewell. But before I go, I have just one more thing to tell you: Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: "To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth----Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, towards which the conscience of the world is tending--a wind is rising, and the rivers flow."
You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe

In this increasingly mobile society, we do a lot of leaving home. And in leaving home, we attempt both to define and find home. In my own life, I left home at 17 to go to college and went home most summers. But by 22 I never spent much more than a week at a time there, because, like Thomas Wolfe, I also found: you can’t go home again. Sometimes it is because you grow, sometimes because it shrinks, sometimes both you and home change. Sometimes you may discover that if “home is not where you live but where they understand you” (~Christian Morgenstern), then you realize that they don’t or possibly never did understand you. That is most likely why I live where I do, and my blood relatives live where they do. I love them, and while love in many cases may not require being understood, being home does.

I acknowledge in myself a strong nesting instinct: I stay in jobs a long time, and in houses and apartments for 7-10 years at a stretch. Home is where you make it your own place, perhaps? Still I’ve left jobs and moved out of houses and they are no longer home either. Home for me has also been a function of community, not just of blood. “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” (~Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man) When I started seminary, one of the things that I could not quite envision about the call to ministry was leaving my church home. This past year in my field education internship, I missed those familiar people and ways of doing things, and I brought a lot of those familiar things to my internship church as gifts and ways of being connected home. Somehow though on the last Sunday I knew that this community where I’d been a student pastor also held a piece of my heart in its care. Is that also home?

This past Sunday after finishing my internship I came back to my “home” church. It was a joyful, hug-full and sobering experience. I spent the afternoon looking up the quotes about “you can’t go home again” and creating a play list of music (see below) that reflected my very mixed feelings. Almost home, you can’t go home again in jazz, country, R&B, rock, gonna feel like heaven when we’re home, sometimes I wonder if I’m ever going to make it home again …

from The Odeon by Neil Harding MacAlister
Somewhere between the smiles and tears
A childhood gets misplaced;
The landmarks of our younger years,
Torn down without a trace.
Nostalgic hearts seek what is gone,
Reality explains,
She gently chides, the curtain's drawn;
The show is over. Run along.
You can't go home again.

Growing in faith and following our call is a journey that takes us away from home and to home again. The tricky part is that those instances of home may not be the same. Thomas Wolfe’s eloquent description of that growth: leaving the life, friends, home you love for greater knowing, learning, and a new place “more kind than home, more large than earth” is poignant and true. I am not the same person after this year of learning and claiming my call, and while I was gone the folks and church at home changed too.

What it teaches us, this going from and coming back to home, is that home is really something we carry within us. “Peace - that was the other name for home.” (~Kathleen Norris) When we pray, for example, we welcome God into the world, and God in turn welcomes us home, into and as ourselves, both fully inward and in the world. Home then is not the destination or the building, or even the people, but the journey, the learning, the knowing, the centeredness, the peace we come to. Hopefully, the place we rest our head, the people with whom we live, work and/or worship do support that for each of us, and sometimes we call what we know there “home,” but it is really what we move toward, both inside and outside ourselves.

Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration. ~Charles Dickens

You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it's all right. ~Maya Angelou

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Driving Habits

A woman was being tailgated by a stressed out man on a busy boulevard. Suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of her. She did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though she could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection.
The tailgating man hit the roof and the horn, screaming and swearing out the window, yelling threats and insults at the woman in front of him because he missed his chance to get through the intersection. He was still ranting when he heard a tap on his window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer.
The officer ordered him out of the car with his hands up. He took the man to the police station where he was searched, finger printed, photographed, and placed in a holding cell. After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. The man was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with his personal effects.
"I'm very sorry for this mistake," said the officer. "You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn and swearing at the woman in front of you. I had noticed the 'Choose Life' license plate holder on your car, the 'What Would Jesus Do' bumper sticker, the 'Follow Me to Sunday-School' bumper sticker, and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. So, naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car."
From Ralph Milton's RUMORS, a free Internet e-zine for Christians with a sense of humor.

I don't know whether the moral of the story is not to have bumper stickers, or perhaps ... to watch our driving habits.
I find that in a crowded grocery store where I can still smile at someone who is trying to push a cart through me, it seems to help lighten the mood and remind people of common courtesy. (I went to the grocery store at prime time this week.) But in a car, it's as if we're in our own little bubble, and we think we can do anything. I do still look for the little thank you waves from car to car and try to give them as people let me through, but the kind of behavior described in this joke is not so unusual. Why is that?

A good friend of mine was in a car accident recently and fortunately is okay, although the other driver's car was totaled and hers needs major repairs. Could a smile and a little less rushing have made the difference? Something for all of us to think about as we drive, maybe especially as we drive home from church or to work ... :-)

I am remembering the son of a colleague at work was called by one of his friends two years ago this weekend to the scene of an accident where 5 of his friends had been drinking and then were driving at 85 mph down at 40 mph road and rammed into a tree--two killed, one in a coma, other two thrown clear. He could have been there if he hadn't been at work. And he got to identify the bodies.

Something for us all to pray about as we drive, particularly as we go out this coming long weekend.

Take it easy out there. Drive carefully and prayerfully too.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Listening in ministry

I've been thinking about the dialog of preaching and of ministry.

I was reflecting, as my time at my field education site draws to a close, that ministry, at its best, might be described as a series of dialogs, and outside of field ed, we don't get much instruction or guidance in ways of opening up those dialogs—with God, with colleagues, with congregation members, with ourselves. In field ed, there has been attentive listening and conversation in reflection and supervision sessions, and with the teaching parish committee there has been feedback, listening and conversation built into the structure.

But we don't appreciate enough the gift of listening, I think, either in the giving or the receiving. I looked to my bookshelf and found two books on listening that I bought and never fully read, that I think I'll peruse over the summer: The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music by W. A. Mathieu (Boston: Shambala, 1991). The cover says it is "about rediscovering the power of listening as an instrument of self-discovery and personal and personal transformation." We've got two ears and one mouth, the old saying goes, so that we should listen twice as much as we talk.

The second book is The Third Ear: On Listening to the World by Joachim-Ernst Berendt (New York: Henry Holt, 1986). Berendt, according to the back cover, is the author of the international best seller The Jazz Book and has done a lot of work in organizing jazz music festivals. "He uncovers startling evidence that suggests dominance of the ear is directly linked to compassion and peacefulness, while reliance on the eye produces divisiveness and aggression. At the core of almost every spiritual tradition—from the West, East, Middle East, Africa Pacific Islands, and the Arctic—lies the knowledge that the world is made of sound and that the way to wisdom lies through the ear."

What the ear of the jazz musician knows or learns is how to hear the way through. If the listening goes awry, then jazz gets derailed, and it's obvious—sort of what happens to the rest of us in life a lot of the time, but we don't get that it's because we weren't listening enough and paying attention. It is so rare that I feel really listened to, rather than that a person is just planning their response while I'm talking. We need to give the gift of time in our listening as well, and not expect immediate response, or perhaps train ourselves to give time to listen in our dialog before we respond.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


Originally posted at

Hard to Count
Every day as I drive my daughter to school I pass by a lawn sign about half way there. Today it said 3253. According to tonight's news, they will need to change the sign, and I'll see if it is different tomorrow, because the count of American military deaths in Iraq is now three higher. When I drive by I often think that perhaps they need more signs, because counting only the American deaths does not tell the whole story of what is happening. The counts of wounded Americans can also be found on those sites, and the number of Iraqis who have lost their lives, is a much larger number.

Of course, this is not the only place in the world with deaths and tragedies to count--Darfur is another. These are hard numbers to count.

Easier to Count
In our adult ed class at church yesterday we were finishing our series of lessons on our Music of Faith and Songs of the Soul with a selection of songs on blessings, and I included an adaptation of the chorus of the hymn "Count Your Blessings" that I wrote as a children's counting song when my daughter was small. The visiting four-year old sitting on his daddy's lap particularly enjoyed the song. So for all of you with young friends who are learning to count, I offer this way of counting:

Count Your Blessings
Count your blessings, name them one by one.
Count your blessings, see what God has done.
Count your blessings, name them one by one.
Count your many blessings, see what God has done.

Count your blessings, name them two by two.
Count your blessings, hear what God can do. …

Count your blessings, name them three by three.
Count your blessings, for earth and sky and sea. …

Count your blessings, name them four by four.
Count your blessings from God that we adore. …

Count your blessings, name them five by five.
Count your blessings, be glad that you're alive. …

Count your blessings, name them six by six.
Count your blessings, you are part of God's good mix. …

Count your blessings, name them seven by seven.
Count your blessings, you are on your way to heaven. …

Count your blessings, name them eight by eight.
Count your blessings, God is never late. …

Count your blessings, name them nine by nine.
Count your blessings, God is with us all the time. …

Count your blessings, name them ten by ten.
Count your blessings, and then sing them all again.
Count your blessings, name them ten by ten.
Count your many blessings, and then sing them all again.

Blessings are easier to count, and I encourage you to do so often. I do it as a daily morning practice. I write down five things that I am grateful for to set the tone for my day. It always makes the day a little easier.

Easiest to Count
This week at First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain we will have a Maundy Thursday service at 7 p.m. and we will be focusing on the new commandment that Jesus gave the disciples. Maundy is from the Latin mandatum (like mandate), meaning commandment. The new commandment is found in John 13:34-35: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Thinking of love and counting reminded me, of course, of the famous poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that starts, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…" When it comes to the ways we are loved by God, and the ways Jesus showed his love for us, perhaps these are the easiest of all the things we might count.

Somehow, though, it seems to me that we cannot count the ways God loves us, or our blessings, unless we also count each death, and unless each death or wound also counts. Surely, when we come to this week, of all weeks, where we remember the wounds in Jesus' hands and side, and his death, we must count all wounds and deaths, and begin to count the ways that we love one another, and more importantly, the ways that we show that love. Love counts.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Silence and Sabbath

Silence is scarce.

As I start to write this, wanting to write on our congregational experience during Lent of sitting in increasing amounts (a minute increasing by a half minute each week) of silence, my daughter is in the room next to me watching a re-run episode of "The Lucy Show." Somehow it seems like a fitting dose of reality. How hard it is to find quiet time, time to sit in silence. This Sunday, it seemed to me as if people were sinking into the silence. There didn't seem to be the shuffling and rustling that we've had in previous weeks. Note to self: don't announce the amount of time that we'll have and then people don't wonder when it's supposed to be up. But there was a power, an enfolding or upholding of the gathered community as the silence deepened. I think we were making space for God.

Even early in the morning, in my supposed quiet time, it's hard to find silence or space for silence. The kettle whistles, the furnace clanks, refrigerator whirs, the computer hums and cars swish by. Even now, although it is quieter since my daughter went upstairs, my chair squeaks and I hear the clock ticking as my fingers are tapping. Why is it easier to find God in the silence than in the busy-ness and noise? I'm not denying that it is—I'm just wondering why we're not wired to find God in rush of everyday?

I read somewhere recently that Sabbath is the most radical contribution of Judaism to the world, or maybe it was the most radical contribution of any religion to the world in 4000 years. Not that Sabbath is always silence, but it is holy time, and it seems to me that we were achieving holy time on Sunday in our silence. Somehow in my mind I equate the spaciousness of Sabbath with the quality of silence we had.

My calendar popup reminders intrude as I try to sit in silence again. And I suspect that if I close my eyes to sit in silence now, I may be asleep—restless night from aching shoveling muscles last night.

If we lost scents and ritual in the reformation, it was a much bigger loss to have lost Sabbath keeping, whenever it was that we did. Blue laws, that remnant of Puritanism, really didn't ensure Sabbath, although the laws helped to control the options. How hard would it be to buck the tide and keep a day of Sabbath in a Christian tradition? How hard is it to find 3-4 minutes of intentional silence? Yet, what an absolute blessing it is when we do.

I tried yet again to sit in silence, and my mind has too much chatter just now. So, there it is. Yesterday I felt enfolded by others around, like being wrapped in a communal blanket of silence. My mind was not nearly so noisy.

I'll miss the silence during service when Lent is over. I'm not sure that I've made enough space for God, but it's been a special part of the season, not a giving up, but a getting.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The scent of God?

I've been mulling about the sermon I'll be preaching on March 25. I have been thinking that I'll be improvising the sermon—that is, not writing it down, or at least not standing at the pulpit reading it, but one of the things that has drawn me about the gospel text, which is the woman anointing Jesus, is the fragrance.

Last night I found a place on-line (after looking unsuccessfully in several places locally) that sells essential oils and I ordered some spikenard, as well as frankincense and myrrh, among others. I'll hope it's here by March 25. I went rummaging through my drawers and crafts bags for fragrances this weekend. My daughter's Christmas gifts several years ago were potpourri boxes and sachets, and we had fragrance oils for those, and I had gotten some fragrances to add to massage oils, so I have quite a few essential oils around for one reason or another. I'm thinking that this might be a fragrant service. I have a lot of smells captured in bottles. The children will enjoy that...

Smell is the sense that is most primal and I'm wondering why we don't make more use of it in worship. Other than the smell of the coffee brewing—which actually isn't very strong, we don't do smells in Protestant churches. Is this another thing, like ritual, that we lost/threw away during the reformation?

Nard or spikenard was used in preparing a body for burial. I figure that's a coded way of saying that it's a potent enough scent to cover up the scent of a decaying, no—let's be blunt—a rotting body. If so, what primal associations would nard have? Yet, it's referred to as well in Song of Solomon: "While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance." It's originally from India, and we know from the gospel that it was costly then. Was it a scent the poor would have known? Currently it's not as expensive as myrrh, and it's recommended for rashes, wounds, and tension, and is known as a very spiritual fragrance, apparently just from its historic association with the anointing of Jesus. Is that cause or effect now? If I didn't know it was nard, would I be affected spiritually?

So am trying to think of how to use fragrances in a sermon, especially since we have a hospitality theme going on… Bring my bread machine—baking bread is a current fragrance of hospitality. But apparently nard had an association with welcoming guests as well…

Where is God in all this? What is the scent of God? The scent of redemption? The scents of love and welcome and acceptance and hospitality? How can/do we think of those? If we make worship more sensual, with more subconscious or primal connections, what might happen? There are ways to have anointing as movement as a part of the service, because it wasn't just that the fragrance was there, but that it was lavishly used, and anointing was a limited act—by priests for kings, for example. So what radical notion is it for a woman to anoint an itinerant teacher/prophet/social reformer? But it was also love and recognition, captured in the scent and in the act. How might that be translated into worship/a sermon and for this particular congregation? And we are told in Matthew and Mark that wherever the good news is told, her story will always be a part of it in remembrance of her … should we re-enact it? There is an interesting echo "in remembrance of her" with communion …

Maybe when I actually get the nard and smell it, I'll decide that there's a different way to go for this…. In the meantime, thinking of the unusual sparks creative possibility.

What is the scent of God? I asked my girlfriend as I was writing this: My answer: the smell after a rainstorm on a freshly plowed field. Her answer: the way the house smells when you are cooking, preparing for company. What's your answer?

Thursday, March 8, 2007

What is Creativity?

Creativity is us.

We are creative, creating beings, almost by definition: the Creator created us in the image of the Creator.

Creativity is as natural as breathing. We block our creativity in the same way we become toxic or in the same way we sin: not having space or time or beauty or care for ourselves or care for the rest of creation. If I'm not feeling creative, it's because I'm tired and I am not eating well, exercising, making love, being present/mindful, laughing—and finding things to laugh about and people to laugh and play with, or seeing or hearing or making beauty through art or movement or music or nature. Or I'm doing things that are soul sapping: work that does not bring me joy, or I've let my life and space get cluttered with junk.

Sort of like what happened this week. Finally had time to sit and play some music and pray, but before then it was about wanting to drop kick the computer at work into the bay while it was tied to all of the people who were being especially irritating.

Thank God for music and prayer, and the end of the workweek.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Preaching or writing about the body

I have been thinking about the body, how to write and talk about the body. Particularly approaching Good Friday, particularly thinking about the Incarnate One, being able to capture and evoke the sensations of the body seems important.

Woke up this morning, early, my back sore and tight. I'm attributing it to hunching in from the cold and too much computer time. My right foot also suffers with plantar fasciitis, where tendons are very tight after a night in the same position, so getting out of bed is a slow, deliberate process. My initial descent of the stairs to the kitchen can mean really holding onto the rail, because I don't really trust things to flex and bend the way they ought to. Yet, going down the stairs is exactly the stretching motion required to loosen it up, so that once I'm downstairs usually my foot is okay. Am going to think more about how to describe those sensations and try to write them down (again?).

In Imagining A Sermon, Thomas Troeger captures such a picture of Joseph's exhaustion: "Joseph sits a few feet to the side. A walking stick props up his right knee, which props up his right forearm which props up his drooping head. If a wind blows through the stable and topples him over, he will go on sleeping in the same posture on his side." (p. 62).

Here's a body vignette from my week:
The young person picks her way slowly up the hill, bowed under the weight on her back. She is still a girl, perhaps not yet a woman, her loose clothes giving no clear sign of breasts, as she is bent by her pack. She concentrates on where she puts her feet, carefully stepping around the slick places, and clambering over the rough spots on the path. Still she is alert to her surroundings, stepping aside as others push by, and looking up to see if her ride is waiting. She is bent by the weight of a backpack filled with textbooks and homework, a child of privilege, wearing fashionable glasses, with a gleam of orthodontic retainer when she gets closer and smiles.

Yet looking at her bent back as she climbs the icy sidewalk up the steep hill, I think that this is how a peasant girl would look carrying a load of wood or shopping up the hill from the village. Perhaps that would have been what she would have been doing if I had not traveled to China twelve years ago. Even in her bent posture there is suppleness in her movements, the possibility of springing back, of jumping from a snow pile, that would not be evident in an older woman similarly bent with osteoporosis.

As she jumps, her long hair lifts and falls in the breeze, a long, shiny, rich dark brown swirl. Perhaps it is how Mary, who was just slightly older, looked as she walked on the road to Elizabeth's house carrying her belongings for a stay with her cousin in the middle of her shame, confusion and wonder, bent slightly with the weight of more than just belongings, intent, yet alert, open to possibility, moving on to new things.

Still in the young woman, bent, it is possible to imagine the bending that might come with other burdens, with age, with sorrow—but that is yet another story.