Monday, October 24, 2011

Vulnerability: Challenge & Joy

This is the sermon I delivered yesterday:
Vulnerability: Challenge and Joy
A Sermon on 1 Thess 2: 1-8 & Matt 22: 34-46
October 23, 2011

So in today’s gospel story, we see the Pharisees working to entrap Jesus, just as the Sadducees before them had. No surprise here, we’ve seen it all through the gospels. The two groups were working hard to stop Jesus, to discredit him. By the way, this, you should know, is kind of akin to the Tea Party folks and the 99% folks working together to stop someone. The two groups were not generally in alignment, were, in fact, usually in direct opposition to one another. This tells us how dangerous Jesus was to the status quo, to the people who were interested in keeping things comfortably as they were, that these two groups would come together with the common goal of eliminating this threat.

The Pharisees are trying, here, to trick Jesus into heresy. Jesus, however, goes with tradition and says that, of course, the most important commandment is to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Like any good Jew, he is quoting directly from Deuteronomy 6:5, part of the shema, the closest thing Judaism has to a creed & something that pious Jews recited every morning & every evening. Then, before the lawyer querying him could respond, he tacked on a second commandment, taken from Leviticus 19:18, to love your neighbor as yourself, and equated it with the first. He says that not only are these two commandments above all the others, but that they basically cover everything that is written in the Law and in the Prophets. In other words, all the most important Jewish scripture hangs on these two things. Rabbi Hillel, one of the most influential scholars in Jewish history, born about 100 years before Jesus, said, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it." This saying was well-known among Jews of Jesus’ time.

If Jesus had been talking about a touchy-feely, mushy version of love in which love is merely an emotion that you feel, this would not have been a dangerous thing to say. If it was all about warm fuzzy feelings about everyone and maybe hearts in our eyes like Pepe LePew, this commandment combo would have been robbed of its power to frighten the power structure. However, in Jesus’ time, the heart was considered the center of will and action. What Jesus was talking about was love as a choice, love as an active verb, love as active mercy. Love, for Jesus, wasn’t a passive emotion that one feels but a way of acting toward someone. In his culture, you simply didn’t act in a loving way toward just anyone. There were rules to be adhered to, standards to be upheld, class distinctions to remain in place. The culture of the 1st century was very strongly based on in groups and out groups. Just like in middle school, if you wanted to remain in the in group, you sure didn’t sit at the table with someone from the out group. But this Jesus guy? He insisted on doing it all the time! The nerve!

And, honestly, whether we are comfortable admitting it or not, we still have in groups & out groups. While the lines are not nearly as rigid as they were in Jesus’ day, and the consequences of breaking across the barriers not so severe, we can definitely see the lines. We can see it when a white person driving on Gettysburg locks their doors when they might not do so on Xenia Ave. We see it when a poorly-dressed person goes into an upscale store and is immediately followed by security guards who would not follow someone clad in Prada and Chanel. We see it when writers of daily devotionals take on the “spiritual but not religious” and speak of them with a contempt that would horrify them in another writer who was writing about Muslims. Much of this division is unconscious, driven by what seems like good sense. I’m not saying never to lock your car doors. But I want you to consider, as you do so, what it might feel like to the person on the outside of the car, hearing your defenses click into place at the mere sight of him. It may be funny when comedians like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock joke about it, but imagine what it feels like to be a 15 year old boy who knows you are so afraid of him, without even knowing him, that you lock your doors when you see him.

These automatic responses, enculturated in us from when we were tiny kids, are some of the things Jesus may well have been calling us to notice and challenge in ourselves. One of the women in my ecumenical educators group is a tax collector and every time she introduces herself as we sit down at table together, she makes a little joke about it. But for a good observant Jew like Jesus, sitting down at table with tax collectors was a revolutionary thing to do. Now, I don’t know about you, but being called to act in a revolutionary manner doesn’t sound very comfortable to me. It’s so much nicer just to sit in a cozy chair with a mug of Earl Grey and a Nevada Barr mystery novel. Or to spend the afternoon baking and decorating cookies. Or to chat about travel and t.v. shows instead of addressing issues. I’m only one person, anyway, so what difference can I make? Besides, I have responsibilities. I can’t be a revolutionary.

The trick is, though, that we can all be revolutionary. We all should be revolutionary, if we are to name ourselves Christians, for it is to being set apart from the culture of division that Jesus calls us. Jesus reminds us that we are all deeply connected. Last week at the annual conference of the Great Lakes Association of United Church Educators, the keynote speaker was Steve Clapp, an expert on church vitality & congregational life. His topic was “The DNA of Inclusion” and he shared with us a number of ideas to make our churches more welcoming places both to visitors and to long-time members. I really appreciated his talk because I want to be the pastor of a congregation that is truly welcoming to all, regardless of where they fall on any number of scales by which we measure one another, you know the ones: political spectrum, color of skin, composition of family, economic class and so on, ad nauseum. I was speaking with a regular visitor to our church at Coffee Shop Hours on Wednesday & she commented on how lovely the diversity at David’s is. It made me proud. I don’t want a homogenous church or even a church where everyone agrees with me. What I do want, what I think Jesus calls us to be, is a church where everyone celebrates differences, learns from one another and treats one another with respect, with love.

Steve shared with us a number of ways in which we can be that church. He talked about the attractiveness of facilities, about friendliness of members, about the importance of watching our assumptions. I’m happy to say that we’re already doing a lot of the things he recommends. But what really stuck with me was a story he told. When Steve was a parish minister, he had an octogenarian parishioner named Louise who came to him with a concern. A new family had moved in next door to her. They were an unmarried, interracial couple who had 6 kids. As a gesture of welcome, Louise had taken them a plate of cookies. They reciprocated the following week with a pie. The exchange had gone back and forth and Louise was getting to know and really enjoy the family. The trouble was, she wanted to invite them to church because she loved her congregation so much and felt they would, too.

However, she told Steve, she was worried that they might not listen to her or be willing to come because she was old. She worried that they might find her irrelevant because of her age. And, really, some people might have. Age is another of those terrible –isms that is entirely too prevalent in our culture. People treat children, teenagers and old people as though they couldn’t possibly have anything of value to contribute. But that’s another soap box for another day. The important thing here is that Louise was worried they might think this. Steve said, “You’ve taken them cookies, Louise, they’ll listen to you.” So, Louise decided to invite them. They didn’t come right away, but Louise kept inviting. Perhaps she knew the classic marketing Rule of 7, that people have to hear your message at least 7 times before they take action. Finally, maybe after the 7th invite, the whole family came. They received a generous welcome, much like what you might expect of David’s. Not only were they greeted warmly by ushers and greeters upon their first visit, but people throughout the church continued to include them and show hospitality. The family became very active in the church and enjoyed it so much that they began inviting people. Steve said that because of this family, 26 other people have become members of the church. All because of a revolutionary plate of cookies made by an eighty-something woman. Bring a Friend Sunday is November 6th, so keep Louise in mind. One person can make a difference. Small acts of kindness can make a difference. By sharing herself, not just the Gospel, Louise made a tremendous difference. This is how we show love. This is how Paul showed love.

When we love our neighbors, we are also loving God. And one of the main ways we can show our love is by sharing ourselves. Who Louise was, at least in part, was a friendly old woman who liked to bake cookies. When she shared herself, and got brave enough to make herself vulnerable to rejection when she tried to share her church, what a difference it made! Perhaps you are good at fixing things. Share that with your neighbors by offering your assistance. Maybe you’re really good with dogs. Take that out into the community by sharing your well-trained dog with people who need the comfort of a four-legged in their lives. Look at who you are and see how you can share the best youness with other folks, as a gesture of love.

But remember, it’s not just our best we are called to share. We’re called to be utterly vulnerable and share our worst. How terrifying! When I was growing up at Westminster Presbyterian in Xenia, I always assumed that I should put on my church face when I went to worship or any other activity in the church, for that matter. I didn’t think anyone there wanted to know all of who I was, flaws and strong opinions and sadnesses and all. I smiled and was polite and said what I thought my Sunday School teachers, my pastors, my elders wanted to hear. I was afraid they would reject me if I allowed myself to be vulnerable, allowed myself to show them the real, imperfect Daria.

Finally, after years getting my spiritual nourishment from places outside the church, years of being “spiritual but not religious,” (and by that I mean quite dedicated to God and to neighbor in practice and in heart, but not affiliated with a religious body because they felt either hypocritical and judgmental or irrelevant to me) I decided to return to church. Jeannene and I, after all, had two boys who needed some religious education. I started back to regular attendance with my church face firmly in place. I soon began to tire of that, though. I finally decided I was just going to venture my opinion in Bible study and if everyone thought my answer was stupid, so be it. I was going to disagree in committee meetings and if everyone got mad at me over a refrigerator, so be it. I was going to be all of who I am. Was this scary? You bet. Did I get a lot closer to folks there when I admitted my shortcomings, my doubts, my fears, as well as my joys and faith? Absolutely. While I had to leave the PC(USA) when I was called to ordained ministry (ironically, because I want to be honest about all of who I am), I maintain a great deal of respect and love for folks from Westminster with whom I could be vulnerable. I was unquestionably hurt by the church but I also received deep nourishment from them. And still do.

Because I am committed to love, which means sharing who I truly am, I am committed to working hard not to wear a church face here at David’s. I invite you all to drop yours, too. Come to church when you’re utterly delighted and floating on the ceiling. Come when you are so depressed you can hardly get out of bed. Come to church when you can be one of the biggest givers. Come when you need to receive more than you can possibly give. Come to church when you feel like everyone here is family. Come when you’re so angry with people here you could spit. Come be the church, the body of Christ. Come be vulnerable. Come be love. For, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Love God. Love your neighbor.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Weddings & Fireworks

I love weddings. I have always loved weddings. I remember dancing & eating wedding cake & being completely dazzled by the bride at every wedding I ever attended as a little kid. I don't remember the pastors, however. Many pastors I know are annoyed by weddings, hate weddings, in large part because they dread Bridezilla Syndrome, but also because they deplore the way the reception is generally put front & center and the actual ceremony sometimes seems like little more than an afterthought, a necessity to get over with before the fun of the reception. I don't think that's true, though, or fair to brides and grooms. Sure, there are some for whom the ceremony itself matters little and is a necessary evil. For most, though, I believe it matters deeply. It's just that the reception is more hands-on planning. The service is, in most churches, in the hands of the pros, ministers like me who know what works and what doesn't.

Whatever the reasons people don't like weddings, I say anyone who doesn't want to perform one can hand it my way! I spent a good chunk of my holiday weekend at a wedding rehearsal (Friday night) and then a wedding & reception Saturday. My senior pastor is away at our denomination's big national assembly, so I got to do the wedding. He was chagrined at the timing, as was my secretary, who is on vacation and also had to miss it. The couple who were married are simply lovely and their families delightful. The wedding itself was the picture of simplicity, aside from the large number of attendants. The groomsmen wore attractive tuxes, the bridesmaids gorgeous hot pink dresses accented with luscious orange. Some very appealing tattoos were on display and a tiny, cherubic girl served as flower girl. The music chosen was fun, popular music (including the Glee version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow") with nothing traditional at all, not even for the bride. The programs were made by the bride, orange paper fans adorned with hot pink organza ribbon, and the bouquets were also of paper, just stunning. You couldn't tell they were paper until you got up close. The service went beautifully and Sam & Stephanie seem like a perfect couple.

Jeannene and I had a grand time at the reception at Carillon Park, meeting some really cool people, talking with really cool people I already knew from church, listening to great acoustic guitar and singing by the groom's uncle. The cake was utterly lovely, but didn't manage to outshine the beautiful buttercream & sugar-flower-topped cupcakes scattered all around it. They were delicious, too. The groom's cake was very sweet, created by the grandmom of the groom. When we were through dancing and visiting, we exited into the beauty of the night, with crickets singing and fireworks off over the Dayton skyline. We'd had a full day, including a visit (by just me) to one of my parishioners, who just had a knee replacement, an exploration of the shops at The Greene in pursuit of the perfect summer suit for Jeannene & lunch of a gorgeous plate of mozzarella di bufala and heirloom tomatoes with a balsamic drizzle and pizzeta bianca (me) and arugula di limone (amazingly delicious & Jeannene's lunch) at Joya's Bistro. So, after pulling over to watch the fireworks from afar for awhile, we returned to my auntie's. She'd been nice enough to give up her bed & make the doggies sleep in the hallway so that we didn't have to spend the money for a hotel.

Sunday morning, I was in charge of everything for worship. My sermon seemed to be well-received and I didn't spill communion wine on anyone, so I consider it a success! We drove out to Yellow Springs on a whim for brunch at The Winds. It was either that or Ruby Tuesday. Jeannene had corn cakes with avocado salsa, served with grilled veggies & fresh melon. I opted for the summer croque monsieur. Dessert was a delicious lemon verbena tart with red currants. Then, we poked around the shops for awhile (spending entirely too much money at Sam & Eddie's and Urban Handmade) before heading back to my aunt's to grill some tilapia. Jeannene topped it 3 different ways: lemon pepper, bbq (too spicy for me!) and with a sort of salsa-y marinade. We served it with corn, watermelon & some shrimp kebabs pre-made by Kroger. We fully intended to make it out to the Cityfolk Festival, but by the time we had cooked & found parking in Dayton, it was getting close to time for the fireworks. We spent some time lolling about on a blanket on the Dayton Art Institute grass before moving to the steps area to see the show. It was spectacular, including some fireworks that looked heart-shaped that neither of us had ever seen before. Great night!

Monday, we had plans to head to Wilmington and cook breakfast out at Cowan Lake. My auntie went early and secured the last picnic table for us. Sadly, it started to drizzle and a big front of thunderstorms was forecast, so she came home. Jeannene & I went to get some Starbucks and took a wonderful walk in Oakwood. Afterward, we picked up more avocados to adjust the too-salty guacamole I made Sunday (every time I use her Lawry's garlic salt to make it, this happens...lucky that we can simply add extra avos & remedy the problem). We had burgers with my aunt, my cousin & his friend before Jeannene & Jeff had to leave for Cleveland. I hate that part, especially on long weekends when I've really had time to savor Jeannene's presence. But hopefully, this separation will end soon & we'll be living together again.

After they left, I had some downtime just to mess around on the computer. Then, me, my aunt, my cousin & my aunt's friend, Carl, went to Gaunt Park for the fireworks. There's nothing like being in my hometown for the fireworks. Unfortunately, everyone in the world seems to have realized this because the place was teeming with people, tons of them from out of town. In the firework fog afterward, we were scared we'd run into someone. I got to see a lot of fun people, including old friends Charlie & Carmen, with their respective small people, Georgia (whom I had never before met and who is absolutely delicious) and Solomon (who cracked me up by telling me, "You! Go back to where you came from!" in as stern a tone as a tiny boy can muster) who all sat with us. My aunt had sent me out with the request that I bring some cool people back to sit with us & I fulfilled that. I hope I can start logging more time with them soon...great women!

Passionately in Love with God: A Sermon on Song of Solomon 2: 8-13

Ah, love! Everything is beautiful, flowers are blooming outrageously, birds burst into song every time your beloved walks in the room and your heart beats a quick little pitty pat in time with the Disney-esque twirlings of adorable mice. Heck, you might even have a fairy godmama or two whirling around with her magic wand while glitter flutters down upon the two of you. You walk around feeling like you’re in a Julia Roberts movie. No, not “The Pelican Brief” or “Sleeping with the Enemy.” If your love feels like that, come see me and we’ll talk about a good divorce attorney. For now, I’m talking “Notting Hill.” You know the way everything seems luscious and grand when you first fall in love. The writer of Song of Solomon captures that newly-smitten feeling gorgeously in today’s passage, so popular at weddings. We didn’t read it yesterday at Sam & Stephanie VanHouten’s wedding, but that same kind of giddy excitement was in the air and the atmosphere at Carillon Park during the reception certainly reflected that natural beauty spoken of in the scripture. I’m going to read the passage again and ask all of you to close your eyes while I read, reflecting on these words and your own first weeks in love.

8The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. 9My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. 10My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 11for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 13The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

Now, think about your relationship now. I don’t mean to dampen the mood of wedding excitement, but probably by their 10th anniversary, Sam and Stephanie won’t be giddy in quite the same way. Usually, we settle into routine and, while our hearts may still dance in the presence of our darlings, work, kids and so many other things compete for our energy and enthusiasm. So, by the 10th anniversary dinner, while you may still deeply appreciate that your sweetie butters your bread for you, it probably won’t send the same thrill through you as it did at first. Oh, to be cared for so well! I would argue that there is definitely something to be said for the mellow patina of years of love and trust, but it doesn’t feel all ripe-figgy and scented-blossomful the way it does at first. A gazelle or a young stag might not be the first animal that comes to mind when your love arrives home…on occasion, perhaps a bear or a crab would be more apropos? And there is certainly rain and even winter. Bitter winter. It can’t all be dusky summer twilights alive with fireflies, the scent of wisteria on the breeze, juicy tomato and corn and watermelon dripping down your chins as you giggle together.

If you’re lucky (and I am), you’ll still get amazing arrangements of flowers on a perfectly ordinary day and go off on weekend adventures just because you can. If you’re smart, you’ll dust off the glitter jar and get the magic wand down from the attic every so often so you can feel the sparkling glow of that first blush of romance all over again. The glitter doesn’t have to be a diamond ring. The wand doesn’t have to whisk you off on a cruise. A candlelight dinner on the porch and a few moondances to Van Morrison can be just as effective. If you keep that up, always having the glitter jar close at hand, you may well end up like my grandparents. The first year Jeannene went to the fireworks at Gaunt Park in Yellow Springs with us, she was charmed by the sight of my grandparents, 60 years married at that point, holding hands under the spangled sky. They remained madly in love the entire nearly 65 years of their marriage.

It’s the same way with our relationship with God. I’ve been pretty attached to God my whole life, so I’ve never felt the dizzying swells of love and rapture (no, not the kind where your car & your pets get left behind) of a born-again experience. But I have seen newly-converted people weeping and dancing and waving their hands in excited joy at the God they have found. I have known friends in this new rush of relationship who have stayed up half the night exploring their God, have had relatives who couldn’t stop talking about Jesus, as bad as I was when, as a teen, I couldn’t stop gushing about whatever crush I had at the time. I had a patient mom, I’m telling you. My friends and I would tell stories late into the night about our crushes and new converts get like that about God. They look about them for signs of the Holy Spirit, getting as excited as I did as a young woman when I would hear a motorcycle & rush to the window just to see Steve Allison ride by my house. Oh, the swooning! Oh, my poor stepdad.

And, you know, all of this excitement seems, I think, a little much to folks in mainline churches, folks who have been going steady, as it were, with God for years now. It seems perhaps a little juvenile, a little put-on, a little…well, just a little silly. We are settled comfortably into our routine lives with God, no longer flying to the door to greet God at the end of the day, but waiting in our chairs in front of the t.v., continuing to help the kids with the homework, immersed in just another little bit of work on the laptop we tote back & forth with us, chopping carrots in the kitchen…and calling out a hello from where we are. Sometimes, we have even entered into a chilly silence with God. Sometimes we yell at God. “Why didn’t you fix this? Why didn’t you handle that? Are you just completely going to ignore my honey-do list???” It’s okay. It’s okay sometimes to be mad. God can handle it. God can handle being ignored, too.

But we can’t. It’s not good for us only to rage at God. It’s not good for us only to hand God a list of chores and never a bouquet of flowers. It’s not good for us to get so focused on our own concerns, our busy lives, our never-ending “to do” lists, that we don’t take the time, make the effort to let God know how appreciative we are. God’s not going to ask for a divorce because we take our relationship for granted. God’s still going to bring us flowers. Have you seen the lilies everywhere? I love those bright yellows & oranges! God’s still going to adore us. But when we refuse to take (make) time for God, when we neglect to be intentional about our relationship, we suffer. A love relationship that is being tenderly maintained by only one partner cannot help but become hollow, no matter how hard the one partner works at it.

“Okay,” you may ask, “so what do I do about it? It’s not like there are Marriage Encounter weekends for me & God. If I called a couples counselor to help me & God learn to communicate better, I’d definitely get a notation on my file that says nutcase.” But, really, God asks very little of us in the everyday. God just wants to know that we care about the same things, that we notice all the glorious gifts we are given, that we try in our own ways to scatter joy in the world and that we love God right back. It doesn’t have to be all breathlessness and adoring googly eyes and non-stop chatter about this God with whom we are passionately in love. It can be as simple as making sure people are fed, the way my grandmom always carried dinner in to my granddad during hockey finals. When we feed others, we are nourishing God and ourselves.

But sometimes a little flushed excitement, a little fidgety waiting for God to gaze in at the windows, to look through the lattice is a real thrill. There’s no reason good UCC folks can’t engage in some shameless flirtation as we respond to God’s call to come away. Come away is a constant refrain in love songs. Norah Jones beautifully sang about this the first time Jeannene and I saw her opening for the Indigo Girls at the Fraze many summers ago. You don’t want me to try to sing it, you really don’t, but I want to read you the lyrics of this gorgeous song. Imagine God singing it to you:

Come away with me in the night
Come away with me
And I will write you a song

Come away with me on a bus
Come away where they can't tempt us
With their lies

I want to walk with you
On a cloudy day
In fields where the yellow grass grows knee-high
So won't you try to come

Come away with me and we'll kiss
On a mountaintop
Come away with me
And I'll never stop loving you

And I want to wake up with the rain
Falling on a tin roof
While I'm safe there in your arms
So all I ask is for you
To come away with me in the night
Come away with me

God does call us to come away in the night, to fall into peaceful sleep knowing we are cared for and loved, safe in God’s arms. God does write us songs. I’ve been hearing some beautiful insect & frog music in the evenings lately. Going away with God where you can’t be tempted by lies? What a splendid idea! Perhaps a trip to a retreat center away from the media lies that everything here on earth has gone bad and there is no hope. Maybe a weekend media fast can help us hear the truth of goodness God whispers in our ears. The verse about walking with God “where the yellow grass grows knee-high” took me back to the labyrinth at Bergamo last Tuesday afternoon. As part of the spiritual formation portion of the SALT summer activities, we are studying and trying on various spiritual practices. For our field trip on meditation in motion, Nico, Geoff and I, along with Pastor Brian, headed over to the retreat center on Shakertown Road to walk their meadowsweet labyrinth. Made up of tall grasses and wildflowers, the labyrinth is one of the best places I know in the area to get away with God.

God does kiss us, brushing our cheeks so gently with feathery lip touches that we mistake it for the breeze. While we don’t have to go to a mountaintop to be with God, the peace of Ruby’s Hill, on the way back my mama’s lane, is another beautiful place to fall in love with God all over again (once I can stop huffing enough from the exertion of getting up there and if I can stop dreading the rest of the hike back to the house). I have been known to go to Gaunt Park hill in the dark of the morning on Winter Solstice to greet the sunrise with exuberance as I connect with my beloved God. No matter the way we discover is best for us to come away with God, God will never stop loving us.

For all the millennia that people have been, some of us have been head-over-heels, crazy-in-love with God. Regarded as fools by some and holy fools by others, scripture and religious history are full of those who have been passionately in love with God. From the writer of Song of Solomon, who wrote so beautifully about human love, to medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote 86 sermons on Song of Solomon, to modern mystics, people have lavished much attention on God as the Beloved. I don’t think it would hurt us to try the same approach. Why not revel in romance?

So, let God lure you from your closed-off world into the world of sensual delights and deep connection that has been prepared for us. Revel in the mutuality of relationship with God! Look for God bounding over the hills, ever approaching us, wishing to bring us flowers and share with us the best fruit. No distant clockmaker, our God, but overflowing with love and throwing pebbles at our windows in an attempt to get our attention and show us all the lush beauty and enlivening passion available to us. Make the time to come away with God. Why save the Song of Solomon for weddings only when we are invited to live it out in our own relationships with God?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fanning the Flames

Today, I went to the Light the Fire church renewal conference at United Theological Seminary ( The keynote speaker was Leonard Sweet ( We had three keynote segments and a couple of workshops, along with worship at the end. It was an interesting day, with some good food for thought and good company in the person of my seminary buddy, Stacy. While the content and tone was overwhelmingly Wesleyan (not surprising for a United Methodist seminary), I felt there was much that applied quite nicely to the UCC.

I think one of the most helpful things for me was Sweet's characterization of social media (he was speaking of Twitter in specific) as being like the modern-day (postmodern-day?) village green. No, the posts aren't necessarily serious or deep (although sometimes they are). That's not the point. The point, in the case of the village green and of social media, is that we are touching base during our days. That base-touching, regardless of how light the conversation may be, builds community. I have often heard that Facebook is simply fluff and not worth the serious person's time. I haven't had a good argument to use when speaking to these (usually solidly modern, post-Enlightenment thinkers) aside from, "Well, we have to go where the kids are if we want to reach them" or "But it's really fun!" (I still think fun is a good reason to do just about anything that doesn't cause harm to people) Sweet pointed out, though, that people on the village green didn't engage in serious debate on things philosophical. They chatted with one another about daily life.

I think Sweet's point about how images are the new language, how we are missionaries to the new culture and how we'd better learn the language was very well-taken. He asked, "How many of us are being trained to exegete images?" Hmm. Not many, but we should be. He also spoke of how we need to be reading the Bible for the stories, for the songs, not being subject to verse-itis (being so stuck on the chapter & verse that we miss the whole point of the story). He commented that we want to live a "well-storied life." I agree. Stories are delicious! I also really appreciated Sweet's point that we are not summoning young people to help us in the church. We need young people, but we forget that they actually have a whole lot to offer.

I also found the workshop on social networking for ministry helpful. I remain unconvinced of the need to tweet (they didn't really talk much about Twitter, but Sweet did) or to create a wiki, but I feel better informed about what works with blogs & Facebook and I feel like I might even have something to offer to a conversation about podcasting/vodcasting. I'd never even heard of vodcasting before today. Now I am thinking my senior pastor would be well-suited for such a thing.

Jason Vickers' session on the theological grounding for church renewal didn't take me much further than his Intro to Church Renewal class and I probably should have taken Lori Reiber's class on utilizing media in worship & involving youth, but I didn't see much immediate hope of application for that one, so I skipped it. Vickers did give me some new kinds of church renewal movements to think about. Who knew there were such things as Liquid Church and Sticky Church? Must Google.

After the closing worship, I hung out in the lounge & read the foodie issue of Bust Magazine until Stacy was ready to go to dinner. Over Kung Pao and stir-fry, we discussed where the Spirit has been leading us, our lives, taking time for Sabbath and so forth. It was a grand time. I've missed our dinners and discussions. Tomorrow, another conference, this one on Emerging Church.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Foy's & Florists

My dear friend Bunnie is blogging now & it reminded me that it's been simply ages since I blogged. I've been meaning to get back to the page, so here I am. I probably ought to be sleeping right now so I can be bright & perky for Camp Sunday. I spent the morning of this chilly, rainy day finishing the Dorothea Benton Frank novel I've been reading. Then, I made myself venture out into the nasty, grey day to get lunch and Mardi Gras party supplies at Foy's. Foy's is best known as The Halloween Store, but what people don't realize is that not only do they sell Halloween costumes all year, but they also function as a cool five and dime of the sort that is very seldom found today. Website is if you want to check it out.

I started my outing with a drive through the countryside, choosing the backroads instead of the highway. Then, a cheeseburger and chocolate malt at Foy's Grill, where there is still a counter with spinny stools, a menu on the wall and a 3 p.m. closing time. It's almost a reasonable replacement for Dick & Tom's. Then, I went next door to pick up 30 masks for decorating tomorrow night and a few dozen strands of Mardi Gras beads to give out at our Family at Five Mardi Gras party, to which people are encouraged to bring a New Orleans style dish to share. I'm picking up a couple King Cakes at Dorothy Lane Market after church, then going home to make pastalaya. After we eat (to a New Orleans soundtrack), we'll make masks and watch "The Princess and the Frog." Should be good fun! I was tempted to go to the library while I was right there, but I already have a big stack of books next to my bed. While I was on my outing, Jeannene had taken Pie and Bubbles to the pottery place to decorate some dishes. She was not happy with the outcome of her glaze session. She never is, expecting perfection. But I love the peace lizard plate she did. I can't wait to see it after it's fired.

Tonight, I'd been invited to dinner at Richard & Geoff's house of kitties. I thought about things to take, although I'd been told just to bring myself. I considered wine, but wasn't sure if they drink it. I thought about dessert but thought they'd probably have it. I knew it would be folly to bring flowers to florists, so that thought only flitted briefly across my mental screen. Surely enough, they had not only dessert but a beautiful collection of pink tulips & roses with white daisies, which they sent home with me. Aren't I a lucky girl? Not only did I get sent home with flowers and a great story to read, not only did I get to pet kitties, not only did I have a magnificent visit with two of my favorite people, but I also had a delicious dinner. I'd thought we were having LaRosa's pizza, which would have been fine by me. But then Geoff decided to make dinner for us instead, so I was treated to a yummy salad and a gorgeous steak and baked potato. Dessert was a pear & banana crisp. Sumptuous! I'd planned to swing by the church on the way home to write out tomorrow's prayers, but I was feeling a little creeped out and decided instead to write in the comfort of my room at home and send them to myself instead. I am not normally wigged out by being there alone, but something in the air had me spooked a little. I sound like a big 'fraidy cat. Hee hee!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hippietown Photography & Musings Upon Being a Pioneer

Friday about noon, J called to tell me that she & Pie would probably be able to come down after all. I was thrilled because it was the weekend of my installation (making my pastorship at my church official) & we'd thought she would have to work Saturday & not be able to come down. About 5, she called to say they'd arrive about 10 or 10:30, with Pie's girlfriend, Bubbles, too. I finished up my hospital visits & went back to my office to finish some paperwork for the weekend. I got back to my aunt's about 10:45 to find Pie & Bubbles playing video games, J asleep on the other couch & everyone else asleep in their bedrooms. My aunt usually lets us sleep in her double bed, but she has been so busy with work that I think she forgot J & the kids were coming. Since we get so little time together these days, we decided both to sleep in my twin bed. That was not a very restful way to sleep!

Saturday morning, we took the kids to a place called Young's Dairy that has a restaurant & goats & cows you can pet. It's just outside my hometown of Yellow Springs, a town the kids love (Pie has dubbed it Hippietown) & want to live in when they are grown & married. We had breakfast, then went out & fed & petted the goats for a long time. On the way back to town, we saw a huge sunflower field. People were stopped by the side of the road taking pictures, so we decided to stop, too. Pie had a photo project for his photography class & I've just been into taking pics lately. J snapped a really good one of me. Then, we went & poked around my hometown, taking photos, reading the paper (I was on the front page of the paper for being the first openly lesbian pastor to be installed in the area...I was informed that I'm a pioneer...I think that's such a small part of who I am, but it was a good article) & people-watching. There are a bunch of cool little stores there & we checked out the latest arrivals in them, too. The kids wanted to go to the playground at the elementary school, so we did that, then we took them to get vegan ice cream. We dropped them off with my aunt, changed clothes and headed out to a spaghetti dinner and to hear Phillip Gulley speak at the church where I did my first internship. It was really fun to see all the people we used to go to church with and Gulley was a terrific speaker (probably his most well-known book is "If Grace Is True"). The pastor there is a friend of mine & he made a big deal of the article in the paper, spending a good 5 minutes introducing me, too. It was kind of odd, but nice, too. I also connected with a friend who is running the youth program there & we are planning to do joint events with our youth groups. J & I slept in the twin bed again. Sigh. This is getting kind of old. I hope she gets a great job down here soon so we can be in our own place. I adore my auntie & have a lot of fun with her, but my own home would just be wonderful.

J slept in while I went to the early worship service. Our attendance was down because most of the early folks waited for the second service so they could be there for my installation. The second service was pretty full and very lively! Our choir director had selected all the choir's pieces based on my musical tastes. That was sweet. He & his partner gave me a lovely glass cross as an installation gift. The installation went smoothly, as did my commissioning of this year's church school teachers. Some friends of mine from the church I grew up in came for the celebration, which was a great surprise. We also got several visitors due to the article in the paper. There were a couple of men I assume are gay, who are church shopping right now, and a woman came & told me that she hadn't been to church in over 30 years & came Sunday because of the article. Good stuff. My parishioners were all very congratulatory & joked with me about my new celebrity status. After worship, we headed across the street to the house our church owns for the celebration picnic. We ate great food, talked with great people & dedicated our peace pole, fire pit & new electronic sign.

After the picnic, I went back to my aunt's with J to see her & the kids off. It's always hard to watch her go. Luckily, I get to go up there on Wednesday for a few days. After they drove off, I worked on youth group planning, then went & got doughnuts & met the Jr. High kids for the first youth group meeting. I'd been told I'd have no one at youth group until December or January, but I had 3 Jr. Highs & then 4 Sr. Highs for their later group! They even talked! Yippee! We talked about what we want from youth group, but also about the faith practice of hospitality. We did a little Bible study, some word association poetry, some talking about how people in other cultures show hospitality & some talking about how we can show hospitality. For their "homework," I assigned them to each write down 5 ideas for random acts of kindness they can do between now & the next meeting. They are supposed to do them & report back to the group on how it went. Great group of kids! I am truly blessed to be where I am!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Working for the Good of All: A Sermon on Galatians 6: 1-10

When I was preparing for this week’s worship service and discovered that one of the lectionary texts was the Galatians passage you just heard Mike read, I had to laugh. In addition to preparing for today’s worship service, I was preparing to accompany eight senior high students and two other chaperones to Norwalk, Ohio for our mission trip. For the past six years, David’s UCC has taken a group of youth to Norwalk to work on a Habitat for Humanity build. This trip is all about working for the good of all.
Now, I’d been on a few mission trips before and already had some expectations for what this trip might be like. I was the only newbie this year and I figured that the kids wouldn’t be returning if the trip weren’t deeply meaningful for them. But I didn’t realize what kind of dedication these kids were showing by heading for Norwalk each year. On my previous mission trips, the accommodations have included beds and the work schedule has been fairly lenient. The tasks have been significantly lighter than those required by home-building. I have painted dorms at the Appalachian Folk Life Center in Pipestem, WV and stained wood siding at a UCC camp in Ripon, WI. I’ve sorted through a storage area at a women’s shelter to discard unneeded items and cleaned preschool chairs and tables. I’d never eaten breakfast before 8:30 a.m. on a mission trip and the supervisors have always been keenly aware that our group consisted of novices, both teenagers and grown women.
The Habitat trip is nothing like I expected, even with the fear of drywall laid upon my heart. This is serious, hardcore mission work. We were awoken each morning at 6 (before that on Friday) by Jim’s electronic rooster and we hit the floor. After a quick cereal breakfast, we tied on our nail aprons and climbed into the van to head to the work site. No lazybones 8 a.m. wake-up for us! At the jobsite, the kids amazed me with their willingness to get right to work and with their wide array of construction skills. Now, y’all don’t know me very well yet, but Jeannene and I hire just about anything related to home repair out to professionals. We have been known to hire a handyman to come hang pictures for us. I had a serious learning curve all week. For the kids, getting up on the roof and doing shingle work was nothing. Snapping siding into place and nailing it in? No biggie. Ascending towering scaffolding to enable soffit work? Sure, no problem. Insulation and drywall? You can count on them! Even in the face of the most curmudgeonly of Habitat supervisors, the kids maintained their cool. Being required to shower at the rec center, in bathing suits, without being offered a refreshing swim didn’t seem to faze these teens one bit. It’s just what you do at Habitat.
I can’t say I remained as cheery. To be honest, by Wednesday, I was berating myself for having ridden up in the van rather than driving myself. On Friday, I very nearly quit altogether, fantasizing about sulking in the van with my book for the rest of the day, after having my first close encounter with the formidable Roger. I am convinced that had he been there all week and had there been another female chaperone, I would have been calling my aunt and begging her for a ride home, despite how much I was enjoying getting to know these very cool kids.
I was basically a big baby about the whole experience. The kids, they took all the hard work in stride. I honestly didn’t hear anyone seriously complaining about getting up at the crack of dawn. And when Roger sniped at them, it rolled off their backs like water off a duck. You always hear adults in churches and out in the wide world talking about how lazy teenagers are, how hard it is to communicate with them, how kids these days don’t care about anything but their own wants and desires, kids these days are all wrapped up in themselves. I have always argued against this assessment, but I just got a whole week of ammo for my defense of teenagers.
The teens at David’s Church go on this mission trip not because it’s a chance to visit an exciting new place. Norwalk is lovely and the glossy black squirrels are most impressive, but it’s certainly not Myrtle Beach or Colorado or Maine, where colleagues of mine took their youth this year. They go not because they get to do all kinds of fun activities. Yes, they went kayaking on Wednesday, but for the most part, they worked. They just worked hard and rested. They go not because they have nothing better to do. They are each giving up opportunities, opportunities for summer leisure time, opportunities to work for pay, opportunities to go to camps, all sacrificed to do this work. They go because they feel this call of which Paul speaks, to work for the good of all and to help others carry burdens which have become too heavy to carry alone.
Over the years they have been working together, they’ve developed a kind of easy rapport and a knack for working well together. They extend their gracious approach to newcomers, as well. The kids showed a remarkable lack of judgment for deficiencies (especially mine), instead working to teach the deficient person (and I hope you’re hearing that as “Daria”) how to do something correctly. I can’t say that for all the adults on the scene, but the kids were remarkably gentle with one another and the other chaperones were patient, as well. When I was hammering and hammering and getting nowhere, Rachel gently advised me to hold the hammer closer to the bottom, explaining why this would be a help. When I wasn’t strong enough or skilled enough to complete a task, one kid or another jumped right in to help carry the burden. When I was in tears after being not-so-gently corrected by Roger, more than one member of the group approached me to offer encouragement. When the teenagers are ministering to the pastor, you know this is a special group of kids. This is a group of kids living out Jesus’ teaching, a group of kids following Paul’s advice to the Galatians, working for the good of all.
I was especially impressed with the group after we met the homeowners, a Muslim couple and their four kids. In the current climate, one might expect a Christian group to be turned off by the idea that their labor would be for the benefit of a Muslim family. When I was in Santa Fe for a two-week trans-cultural ministry class, I had the opportunity to see anti-Muslim sentiment up close. Our group had been invited to visit with a Muslim couple in their home in Abiquiu. They were such gracious hosts, offering us tea and pastries, making certain we were comfortable, engaging in dialogue with us about the commonalities and differences in our respective religions and worldviews. Honestly, I found that we had more in common than different. However, three members of our group opted not even to enter the building, instead sitting on the front porch in the hot sun rather than deigning to enter the home of a Muslim couple. These were supposedly mature Christians, failing to show the love of Christ. The group from David’s, on the other hand, didn’t show a bit of surprise or dismay upon discovering that they were helping a family who practice Islam rather than Christianity. It made me proud of them.
Compassion trumps judgment. We could have looked at the Muslim family, seen their difference and chosen not to work on that house for them. However, it is not our place to judge the religion of another. That’s between them & God. It is our place to work for the good of all…and that all sometimes includes people who don’t feel like “ours.” However, in the excited videotaping of the homebuilding, the interactions between parents and children, the breaking of bread together, we saw the sameness beyond the difference.
Today we are celebrating our country’s evolution from being under British rule to becoming the great nation we are today, honoring the sacrifices that have made that transition possible, enjoying all the amazing freedoms we Americans have. One of these freedoms is difference. In the midst of the fireworks and festivities, the parades and the pies, I’d like us all to take a few moments to think about freedom the way Paul would have thought about it. For Paul, and for all who would faithfully follow Christ, our freedom is not in place so that we might indulge ourselves and use it for selfish purposes. We have been given freedom in order that we might use that gift to serve one another. When we use our freedom wrongfully, as the popular culture would have us do, we are not truly free. It is only in the service of others that we can be free. We are called to be an alternative community, not treating one another as the world would, but with true kindness. The power of the Holy Spirit working in us makes this possible. A life of service and kindness is a truly radical thing in this world. We are called to be set apart from the world, to embrace this radical notion of sharing burdens and being gentle in correction.
We are also not meant to compare ourselves to others, either for good or for bad. We are all given grace and faith in different measures, we are all given different gifts for ministry. The church ladies who brought lunch to us on the job site were in ministry just as faithfully as everyone toiling with the roof shingles or the insulation. We can all lift burdens in different ways. Perhaps we can build a house. Maybe we have been blessed with money with which to support the work of charities. Some of you have musical gifts, others listen with great attention and empathy, still more are amazing cooks. We don’t all have to work for the common good in the same way. What’s important is that we are listening for God’s voice imparting our own particular gifts, looking for opportunities to help shoulder the burdens of others and always, always working for the good of all.