Thursday, March 31, 2011


This lovely goldy-yellow rose is Crepuscule, a noisette.  It grew quickly in the two years after I planted it and I trained it up the wall and over my front door.  I had always wanted this - a yellow rose (yellow being my favorite color) arched over my red front door.  It was so pretty.  And it happened so fast.

And then the rose died.  The whole thing.  Just like that.  One day I noticed a branch seemed to be drying up and within a week the entire shrub - all 15 or 20 feet of it - was dead.  I never figured out what killed it.

Things change and sometimes the change happens quickly and without warning.  Life can turn on a dime, for better or for worse.  It's unsettling and in the case of "for worse" we can spend a lot of time going back over and over everything, trying to understand what happened.  Wondering if there was something we could have done differently.  Regret and guilt and self-flagellation.  We don't do that so much when the change is "for better."

Sometimes I struggle with figuring out when it's better to just let go of something and move on and when I need to look inside myself to see where my own culpability or complicity lies.  One can so easily slide off into self-recrimination when really all one wants to do is take responsibility for one's own faults and/or to learn from one's mistakes.  It's important to learn from our mistakes - or we are doomed to drag our issues around with us into the next thing and the next if we don't acknowledge them, own up to them, and perhaps exorcise them.  But it's also true that sometimes one just needs to let things go and move on.  Either because our own part in what went wrong is going to have to come upon us slowly and over time or because we really didn't have much if any culpability.  Sometimes stuff happens and we're there when it happens but it's not got anything to do with us.  Sometimes we just need to move on.  Figuring that out is hard.

The other side of that coin is the refusal to take responsibility for our actions, much less learn from our mistakes.  And as I said, we just make the same mistakes again until we wake up to our own part.  As they say, "denial is not just a river in Egypt."

Either way, reflection goes on and on.  It doesn't happen, nor is it over, quickly.  Nor should it be.  But reflection is a whole 'nother animal from denial or self-recrimination.  It's how we make sense of things and how we gain wisdom.

Meanwhile, it's been three years since my rose mysteriously died.  I think I'm finished mourning.  Perhaps I ought to plant another.

Morning Prayer

Blessed are you, Lord of the Universe,
who heard the cries of your people
and brought them out of slavery.
Bring us out of our own bondage,
our own darkness,
and help us to see
without fear
the grace with which you have showered
your whole creation
to make things new
and to make things right
for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ,
our Savior.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Life in the Wilderness Doesn't Come with an Itinerary

Sometimes it amazes me that we have the temerity come up with our own Lenten disciplines.  As if we can decide in advance of the season what it is we need to work on.

Don't get me wrong.  I think we should do that.  Many of us do that.  I'm all for it.

But more than once has God sent me another assignment in the middle of Lent.  Apparently my ideas could use some improvement.  Perhaps this is just me.  But as I ponder the story for Lent IV next Sunday - Jesus heals the man born blind - I am thinking that developing the eyes to see what actually needs attention is what Lenten discipline is all about to begin with.

Ironically, this means that my prayer life has changed.  The Daily Office is still there in some form or another - priests vow at their ordinations to pray the offices - but now my prayers have evolved and are more along the lines of what Anne Lamott says are her two best prayers:  "Thank you, thank you, thank you" and "Help me, help me, help me."  I think this is probably an improvement, to stop making even mental lists of things to pray about and just throw myself on God's mercy.  To stop trying to influence God to make things go the way I think they should go.  "Thy will be done" is what we say but we don't always mean it.

This is life in the wilderness, I guess - it's not a planned-ahead tour with detailed itinerary.  But there are signposts, pointing me toward some things I know I need: giving myself over to God and letting go of my tendencies toward self sufficiency; humility; being present to others; reopening my eyes to wonder; rekindling my curiosity.

Lent is only halfway through and I've got plenty of work still to do. I won't be finished by the time Lent is over, either.  I am glad for it; Easter will be all the more mysterious because of this time.  While we were yet sinners....

Morning Prayer

O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear us;
and grant that we, to whom you have given a fervent desire to pray,
may, by your mighty aid, be defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities; 
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(Lesser Feasts and Fasts, Wednesday in the Third Week of Lent)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rock the House!

As we move deeper into Lent, I am more and more unsettled.  It happens every year.  This is one of the reasons why we observe Lent - we need to be unsettled periodically and if it takes being scheduled to do that via church season calendar, so be it.  Not many of us would do it on our own, otherwise.  Not many of us would consent to having our foundations rocked, at least enough to loosen up the junk that clings like barnacles to our exteriors.  The stuff that needs to fall off because it's either sucking the life out of us or holding us back from being who we were made to be.

As Irenaeus said, the glory of God is a human being fully alive.  That's what we were made to be - fully alive.  If we are fearful, stingy, grasping, morose, filled with anxiety - you know the list and can add your own - we are unable to be what we were made to be.  We may have seasons of fear and doubt, but we are not fully alive if we decide to live there permanently, no matter how comfortable we have gotten.

As I said yesterday, growth is wild and unpredictable and sometimes it hurts in the middle of the night.

Most likely, only you (and God and possibly your therapist or spiritual director) know what it is that's holding you back; only you know what you need to shed and you may need to wake up in the middle of the night and have an "aha moment" in which you realize that there's something you just need to give up/let go of.  I find that at the beginning of Lent, when I am figuring out my Lenten discipline, I may not know what it is yet.  I go ahead and start the season with a plan, and then maybe I adjust as I go along, setting one thing aside (this year, a book that just wasn't speaking to me) while taking something on something else in my prayer life that comes to light or changing something about my habits or activities.  This is hard work; it's easier to give up chocolate for six weeks than to attempt to look at myself without blinders every day.

So, instead of chocolate (which is simply a given, I'm afraid), what's my real temptation this year?  As someone embedded in a family (aren't we all?), daily I need to determine where my responsibilities ought to be and where they ought not to be.  We may be called to bear one another's burdens and yet that is a dangerous activity.... when we think we are following Jesus but we are really taking responsibility that rightly belongs to others.  When we think we are being generous but we are really stunting others' growth.  When we think we are helping but we are really enabling.  I need to be mindful of the difference between "responsible to" and "responsible for."  This spring we have lots of activity in our family (don't we all?) and I am getting to practice (with mixed results) this discipline.  We are all growing, and at our best, we watch our own growth as well as the growth of others with delight.  At our worst, we are afraid of where that growth might lead us; we fear change even as we clamor for it.

Growing can be painful but growing is what we are called to do. We grow physically and we grow in faith and in love and in knowledge.  We grow into what God calls us into.  And we don't do that alone - we do it in community.  All of us need to be accompanied on our faith journeys, and there are times when we will need to lean on the faith of others to get us through some rough spots.  And to take our turn being the one leaned upon.  But it is important for all of us to know that eventually we will be ready, and will be required, to stand on our own two feet again.  With God's help.

And when we do, all the angels will rejoice.

Morning Prayer

Creator God,
We give you thanks
for bringing us in safety to this new day,
announced by the dawn chorus
and greeted by the warming sun.
Look with compassion on those
who have to find their own shelter
day after day,
for those who are sick
in body, mind, or spirit.
Inspire us to see them as our own kin
and to care for their welfare
for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.

Monday, March 28, 2011

March Lionery

According to an old saying, March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.  It feels this year as if it came in like a lamb and is going out like a lion - our warm temperatures have plummeted and sunny skies are a distant memory, and several friends in other areas of the country are reporting snow these last days.  We have had several rounds of really loud thunderstorms here in the last couple of days (especially during the night!), with intermittent periods of showers and thunderstorms predicted for the rest of the week.  It has often been windy, too; the neighbor's wind chimes clang and whirl like dervishes (especially during the night!). More lion than lamb, certainly.  And so if March is going to go out like a lamb, it had better get on the stick.

In the midst of all this, the landscape is greening, quickly.  Redbuds and Dogwoods are in full bloom against the new spring green leaves of the other trees and shrubs.  Hostas are unfurling from their underground lairs.  With all the rain, the colors of the tree trunks darken, which makes the green stuff shine out like beacons.  Stuff is just bursting out all over the place.  The wildness of the storms and the wind are intensifying the already incredible displays of fecundity.

I kind of like this wild and woolly spring, even if it means sweaters and coats for a little longer.  This kind of explosive growth ought to be accompanied by swirls and howls and loud crashes (I could do without the hail, though).  Growth is like that.  Wildly abundant and not really very controlled.  Like the Spirit it blows where it will.  Bucolic is nice but it belies the powerful bursting-out-ness that's really going on with the metamorphosis from winter to spring.

All of this reminds me of our own personal growth, and how we try to be polite about it when really it makes us want to run and shout, sometimes for joy, sometimes in fear; it brings us troubled dreams and daily ups and downs that flip flop between true gladness and fears of inadequacy.  Remember when you were young and you had growing pains in your legs?  All the thrill of getting older, getting stronger, getting bigger were accompanied by those wake you up in the middle of the night throbs and aches.

Growing is like that.  It's not always gentle.  Sometimes it's ferocious.

Morning Prayer

I will kindle my fire this morning
In the presence of the holy angels of heaven,
In the presence of Ariel of the lovliest form,
In the presence of Uriel of the myriad charms,
Without malice, without jealousy, without envy,
Without fear, without terror of anyone under the sun,
But the Holy Son of God to shield me.
Without malice, without jealousy, without envy,
Without fear, without terror of anyone under the sun.
But the Holy Son of God to shield me.

God, kindle Thou in my heart within
A flame of love to my neighbor,
To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,
To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall,
O Son of the loveliest Mary,
From the lowliest thing that liveth,
To the Name that is highest of all.
O Son of the loveliest Mary,
From the lowliest thing that liveth,
To the Name that is highest of all.

(The Celtic Way of Prayer, 30)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Are We Glad When God is With Others? (A sermon about the woman at the well)

The Israelites traveling in the wilderness were thirsting to death, and they cried out, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
And Jesus said to the woman at the well, I AM.
Seven times in the Gospel of John does Jesus say, I AM.  This is the first time.  
I AM is what God told Moses when Moses stood before the burning bush and politely asked for God's name so that Moses could casually drop that awesome moniker before Pharaoh in the course of suggesting that Pharaoh might ought to let the people go.  "Whom should I say has sent me?" Moses asks God.  And God said to Moses, "I AM."
Now we hear Jesus say it as well.  Unfortunately, our translation has supplied an extra pronoun so that it reads "I am he," but in the Greek, Jesus simply says to the woman I AM.  He will go on to say I AM six more times - to the disciples when he walks on the water to their boat; three times to the Judean people who challenge his testimony and try to stone him for blasphemy; to the disciples again, after he has washed their feet; and to the soldiers and Temple authorities who come to arrest him at Gethsemane.  
Jesus also uses the I AM metaphorically throughout this Gospel.  I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the vine, the good shepherd, the resurrection, the gate, the way the truth and the life.  In each of those situations, Jesus is showing us who God is and testifying to everyone so that they might come to God through his testimony.
So while in the Gospel of Mark Jesus goes to great length to conceal who he is, in John he uses the divine name for himself all over the place.  And the first time he does so is here, to this Samaritan woman whom he meets in the heat of the day at Jacob's well.
What an extraordinary encounter this is. This woman is a despised Samaritan; an outsider and an outcast, apparently having lost to death and/or been abandoned by several husbands, who comes to the well at noon, when nobody comes to the well; who is well versed in her tradition's stories and history; who actively engages Jesus in a theological discussion; who recognizes Jesus' calling himself by the divine name and rushes off, leaving her water jar behind, to offer urgent testimony to her city; and through that testimony she brings others to Jesus. 
Through that testimony she brings others to Jesus, and they see for themselves, and they believe.
In the Gospel of John, this is the point.  The whole Gospel was presented as testimony, given so that people would believe, and through that belief have abundant life.  This unnamed Samaritan woman who was not a 21st century celebrity who controlled her own destiny, able to marry and divorce as she pleased, but was a first century woman entirely dependent upon men who had apparently repeatedly cast her aside - she, not the upstanding Jewish community leader Nicodemus we met last week, shows us what a true disciple of Jesus is supposed to do.

Finding herself accepted, loved, given the dignity not afforded to her before, she is inspired to go off and share what she has found with others.
We should also notice that it isn't just evangelism that is being praised here.  The Samaritan woman sees (which is terribly important in the Gospel of John, seeing) that Jesus is some sort of prophet - a holy man - and so immediately engages him with the pressing theological question of the day:  where is God?  Samaritans say God is over here, in our territory, at Mt Gerazim; but Jews say that God is over there, in Jerusalem, in your territory.  
But Jesus answers her:  God is here, with you, in front of you, at this well.  
The conversation echoes what we hear in the Exodus text:  Is the Lord with us or not?  Is the Lord with us Samaritans, who are despised by you Jews?  Is the Lord with me, a cast off with no dignity left?
And Jesus answers, I AM.  I am, with you, right here.  That's what you need to know.
And then the disciples come back from their shopping trip, and they see Jesus talking with the woman, and they know better than to say anything.  Perhaps they are thinking, "There he goes again."  Or, "Oh, Jesus, what are you doing now?"  But they know better than to say anything to Jesus about breaching custom and tradition, breaking social rules, about offering comfort to the enemy, for God's sake.  
They are learning to live as if the Lord were with them, which of course he is. And they are learning to see that it doesn't necessarily follow that if the Lord is with them, then the Lord can't be with someone else who is different, someone with whom they don't usually associate, someone who they think the Lord ought to ignore.  They can rejoice in their being loved without begrudging that love being given to others as well.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could rejoice that God is with us without feeling an urge to keep God from being with someone else?  Without feeling that we need to protect God from people we think are unworthy?  Even if we are astonished to find Jesus hanging out with people we think are inappropriate, couldn’t we figure out a way to wait and see what fruit comes from the association?  Come and see! Jesus says to his first disciples.  Come and see! they say to more disciples.  Come and see! says the woman to the Samaritans.
The disciples manage to stand back and let Jesus do his thing, and see what happens - and lo, this woman brings to Jesus a harvest that had nothing to do with the disciples.  She invites new Samaritan believers to come to partake of the living water that never runs out, and they come.  
There is enough of that living water for all, and yet it seems so hard for us to be willing to share it with all who are thirsty.  Just as the woman first questions Jesus about his ability to provide water without a bucket, we might also misunderstand his meaning about living water.  We might confuse it with the water that comes from wells in the earth and therefore think that it is limited or needs to be managed.
Last Tuesday was World Water Day, and through education by charitable organizations working to bring clean water and sanitation to places where people, especially children, are still dying of water-borne disease, many of us understand water to be a limited resource.  It is precious and life-giving, but something that must be managed so that it doesn't run out, doesn't become contaminated, doesn't become diverted away from those who need it most.  In dry places like the Middle East and parts of Africa, in the American west, and in overcrowded urban slums in Asia and South America, water is a precious commodity and people fight over it.  Heck, here in Georgia we've been fighting over it for years with our neighboring states.  
These charitable organizations want those of us who don't even have to think about water - we just turn on the tap and out it comes - to see that in many parts of the world, lack of clean water is still a major cause of death among children.  It detrimentally impacts education, economy, and health.  
Even people who are surrounded by water need  clean running water to live, as we are  seeing in the wake of both the recent earthquake in Japan and the one last year in Haiti where cholera, a water-borne disease, continues to kill.  There is no question that we need to be concerned and involved in the efforts to bring clean and safe drinking water to everyone, for life.  There is more than one way to think about having life abundant, and having clean water is one of those ways.  Remember the Israelites in the wilderness thirsting to death and perhaps you will be inspired to do something about providing clean water to those who are dying for the lack of it.
So yes, we all need water to drink.   And also we need salvation.  And with the Samaritan woman we begin to understand that when Jesus says living water he is not talking about running water but about eternal life, the life abundant in the here and now that comes from the presence of the Spirit of God.  Having received the life that Jesus offers, knowing that the Lord is among us, providing for us, the Spirit overflows within us so that we can then become sources of life, sources of that living water for others.  There is no limit on this water, no need to conserve and manage it.  We don't have to fight over this water.  It gushes everywhere and there is more than enough for everyone.   
The Samaritan woman, assured in the knowledge that God is with her, goes to tell others, to bring them to Jesus, and they come to know salvation, too.  The living water is given to all who come.  And the disciples, who are still practicing living in the knowledge that the Lord is among them, see the good fruit borne of that one unlikely encounter.  
I hope they were glad.  

Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saturday Afternoon Movie: Vocation

I remember when I was discerning my call to the priesthood, our group had an interesting discussion about vocation and whether or not "vocation" was a "technical term" in the church (we all felt that it is often used that way) or if it could also be used to talk about someone's calling to any career or way of life.   In typical fashion, we discussed it as an either/or instead of a both/and.

Since then, I have become more clear that all of us have a vocation, and limiting that term to ordained ministry unfortunately reinforces the notion that being called to Holy Orders is somehow more, well, holy than being called to lay ministries of every sort.  Frederick Buechner described vocation as the place God calls us, where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.  Where our passion can be lived out in God's world among God's people.

Here's a great short video from the Fund for Theological Education about the both/and definition of vocation.

What do you think?

Morning Prayer

God of creation,
savior of the world,
we thank you for giving us life
and for your loving care.

Keep us in your sight
as we wander far from home
and invite us to return to your safety
again and again.

Help us to see you
in the faces of those around us
and inspire us
to love them as you love us.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Young Jewish Girls Named Mary

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day in which we commemorate the encounter between a young unmarried Jewish girl named Mary and a heavenly messenger from God, the Archangel Gabriel.   During this short conversation as recorded in the Gospel of Luke (here) the angel announces to Mary that God has chosen her to be the bearer of the savior of the world.  The angel approaches Mary, reassures her, (fear not!) tells her of the plan, patiently answers her questions, and hears her response - yes, I will.  This poignant intersection of humanity and divinity has inspired some of the most beautiful visual art and poetry ever.  I bid you to visit Grandmere Mimi's blog, Wounded Bird, to read the lovely poem by Thomas Merton here; read a good sermon and see four fantastic paintings at Padre Mickey's Dance Party here; enjoy Denise Levertov's poem accompanied by He Qi's evocative painting at Nancy Wallace's blog Seeker here.

Today is also the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, the horrific industrial disaster that claimed the lives of 146 young girls, most of whom were Italian and European Jewish immigrants.  Among the dead was another Jewish Mary, Mary Goldstein, 18 years old.  Her picture adorns her gravestone in Staten Island (see that here; see the names of all the victims here.)

The fire started at the end of the work day on March 25, 1911; company policy demanded that doors on each floor be locked; elevators only held 15 passengers at a time; 500 people were employed at the factory; the fire department's ladders and hoses only reached the sixth floor of the ten storey building and the factory was located on the eighth through tenth floors.  Even without reading the informative article about the fire and the many expressions of commemoration of it that will be happening in New York today and into the weekend online at WNYC's (New York's public radio) newspage  here, and at The Velveteen Rabbi's blog here, which includes a video trailer from an HBO documentary about the fire, you can put these facts together yourself and imagine how it turned out.  You can imagine that people were unable to get through locked doors and that many of the deaths were the result of young girls jumping out of windows, hoping that someone would catch them.  You can imagine how many horrified people stood by, desperate but unable to help.

The fire prompted new laws and regulations about fire safety and employment of women and children as well as serving as an impetus for garment worker organizing and intensifying discussions about women's rights.  And meanwhile, as was reported in the Jewish Daily Forward (see it here), "[t]he entire neighborhood is sitting shiva.  Every heart is torn in mourning.  The human heart is drowning in tears.  What a catastrophe!  What dark misfortune!"

This is a mystery to me: Of what primordial, celestial stuff, stardust and earthdust, are we made that the human heart is able to bear the presence of death and yet also the divine?

Morning Poem: The Annunciation

Mary, did you marvel at the sight of an angel,
did you find the hair on the nape of your neck standing on end
in fear, in dread, in fascination, in tender curiosity?

Did you consider saying no?
Did you blush or panic
or wish
that you could rush out the door
into the cool spring breeze
and forget it ever happened?

Hail, Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee,
he said in his angel voice
that must have sounded like heaven
in your maiden ear.

Did you think your life was over
or just beginning
at the news of your impending motherhood?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Who We Are vs. How We Do Things

I was reading the other day about the characteristics of companies that are long-lived (over at Elizabeth Drescher's blog, here), which Dr. Drescher suggests could be helpful to consider in the church and seminaries/future of theological education debate.  I began thinking about churches and change and also families and change.  This paragraph in particular stood out to me:

Tolerance and decentralization - Given a strong sense of shared identity, sustainable organizations have much greater tolerance for risk-taking, integrating the perspectives of those on the margins, of outliers, and experimenters without a great need for centralized control.  This characteristic allows them to adapt to change on an ongoing basis, constantly reshaping and expanding their boundaries and avoiding panicked responses to new events.

Change is scary and risk-taking is something we often think of negatively.  (What if it doesn't work out?  Then you, the person who wanted to take the risk, will have to go to the woodshed.)  And yet change is not only inevitable, it is life-giving.  Often, it is embracing change that (sometimes finally) allows us to flourish instead of being stuck and kicking against the goads.  

The key I think is the "strong sense of shared identity."  Who We Are is different from How We Do Things.  Sure, how we do things expresses who we are.  But our core selves, our core identity is not put in jeopardy when "how we do things" changes.  

In family therapy, one often looks at the history of how the family does things.  Sometimes children (at any stage in life) feel, as they begin to be conscious of how the family does things, that they are faced with a dilemma:  If they want to be different (say, not an alcoholic; or an artist instead going into the family business), they have to break connection with the family to do so.  Because the family will be threatened by a member who does not behave - do things - in the prescribed manner of the family and will pressure the person who wants to be different into the margins or out of the family altogether.  The different person will become the black sheep, an outlier, or a persona non grata - sometimes just because they have a different sense of how they want to live their lives.

This is true in churches as well.  The church can become rigid about how it does things and send out the message that anyone with a different idea really needs to go to another church where they already do things differently.  Because the fear is that the church's identity is being threatened by a suggestion of doing things differently.  "That's not how we do it here," along with "that's the way we've always done it," are sometimes called The Seven Last Words of the Church.

This is a delicate dance.  I love tradition and traditions and like many people find comfort and joy in knowing that I am participating something that generations of people have done before me.  And yet, if we can allow there to be different expressions of the core tradition, the church, the one family, we are all enriched.  We can do things differently but still be a family.  We can be children of God but enjoy different kinds of worship experiences, find different expressions of mission and ministry, dress differently, hold differing opinions about all sorts of things and stay connected and part of something bigger and deeper.  This makes the family, or church, or other organization stronger if it can find a way to accept and embrace change - to be able to adapt to change on an ongoing basis, as the article says - instead of spending all its energy defending perceived challenges to "how we do things" as if changing how we do things threatens its very existence.

So it seems to me that we first need to know that our core identity is not fundamentally expressed in "how we do things" - at least not all things - because in truth how we do things always changes, even if we won't admit it.  We have to find ways to make room for new ways of being, which often only comes after a disaster and we have to change or die.  

During Lent, I am aware that there are changes I personally need to make and embrace - changes in how I do things - and pray for the wisdom to see that those changes will make me more of who I am, not less.

Morning Prayer

Keep your Church alert, Holy Spirit,
ready to hear when you are calling,
and when you challenge us.
Keep us hopeful, Holy Spirit,
knowing that Christ will come again.
(A New Zealand Prayer Book, 641)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Performance Anxiety

There was a short article in the New York Times today about an experiment at Yale Law School in which a sweet, hypoallergenic therapy dog named Monty will be available for students to check out from the library for 30 minute segments.  (Read it here.)  The idea behind the "dog lending program" is to provide students with an antidote to the stress of being a Yale Law student.  The law school will be looking for feedback from students after a few weeks to see what they think of this initiative.

Animal therapy is not new, even for universities (the Times article mentions the University of Wisconsin as another dog-lender-for-stress school).  Therapy animals (usually dogs, but not always) visit hospitals and nursing homes and work with autistic children as well as emotionally disturbed children and adults.  Studies show that petting an animal lowers blood pressure and brings on feelings of well-being.  As I write, my cat is curled up beside me, purring, without a care in the world.

People are stressed out in our society, that's for sure.  I see it in my own family - my mother frequently tells me about people who live in her retirement complex who spend a great deal of time worrying.  Worrying about their health, about mobility issues, about adjusting to living without a car, worrying about money.  I know she worries about those things, too.  Our children worry about school performance and the pressure to decide what they will be when they grow up and worry about their relationships with friends and family.

The pressure to achieve in school, to get into the right classes and the right programs that will lead to the right college and the right graduate program starts at the pre-school level and goes on for twenty or so years.  It is the rare young person who can remain relaxed about school and performance pressures while still being engaged in his or her own life.  More often they become either caught up in the pressure or decide to reject the whole program and drop out or deliberately underachieve to get the monkey off the back.

I wish that I were seeing the church playing a larger role in this major life issue for young people, but then again church often doesn't play that large a role in their parents' lives, particularly if it is seen as a "membership" issue rather than a community of and for transformation.  For some kids, church does offer an alternative story and the opportunity to just be instead of to perform or compete.  But I often see kids who sign up to become acolytes or sing in the choir because they are "resume building" for college, not because they find peace and pleasure in serving during worship.  Sometimes I hear about a teen who went on a mission trip and came home having had a truly transformative experience; more often I hear about how someone's mom or dad made them sign up for the mission trip.  There is a tension here as well - serving during worship, going on trips, activities through youth group require showing up, knowing what someone wants you to do and doing it - and yet just "sitting and being" is likely to be characterized as boring.

Life is both being and doing, of course; the wise person knows that both are part of life and can discern (often with help) which one is what's called for at any given time and place.  Lent is a good time to think about that.

Taking the dog out for a run is a good thing to do, as is lighting a candle and sitting in the dark listening for God, as is being in relationship with others who help us find our way through the stress and fear and the confusion.  I'm glad that the folks at Yale and other schools are trying to assist young people in finding ways to counteract all the pressure they feel.  But I can't help but wish that our world (and I must include myself here) were not so bent treating on performance and achievement as its savior.   We work so hard for it and yet it will not love us.

This is another thing I repent this Lent - my own buy-in to the performance/achievement model.  Living into what God made us to be is not the same as climbing the ladder to success, even if some of the steps look similar.  God grant me the wisdom to know the difference.

Morning Collect for Wednesday

God of light and life,
bless our continuing Lenten journey.
Assist us with your grace and comfort
as we strip away the stuff
that keeps us from being
who you made us to be.
Help us to remember that we have nothing to fear.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

World Water Day

Today is World Water Day.  March 22 was designated as World Water Day back in 1992 by the United Nations, and we are more than halfway through the UN's Decade of Action for Water for Life (begun in 2005).  I didn't know that - did you?

YouTube's blog today is featuring videos about water made by groups such as, Charity: Water, One Drop Foundation, WaterAid, and others.  Some are funny, some are thought provoking, most are under five minutes and a few under a minute.  Almost all of them are made for an American audience in mind and they challenge us to notice how much water we use every day and how we take it for granted that we can just turn on a tap and get as much clean water as we want.  Many of the videos then go on to tell the stories of people in Haiti, India, and some African nations where the lack of clean water and education about hygiene is an urgent issue.  

For instance, Charity: Water reports that there are 42,000 deaths every week that result from dirty water and unsafe hygienic practices and that 90% of those who die are children under the age of five.  They also note that women and children are the ones who have to walk to find and carry water, which has an impact on both their physical health and their access to education. 

Many of these organizations are involved in helping those in underdeveloped nations drill wells and undertake other water projects as well as working with local people to train them to educate their families and neighbors about water and sanitation.  Other organizations work to raise awareness in developed nations about the world water issues.  (One Drop Foundation was founded by the guy who started Cirque du Soleil and focuses on using the arts to promote education and community involvement in water issues worldwide.)

This coming Sunday in church, we'll be hearing the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.  They will talk about water - Jesus will ask her for a drink of clean water and he will then offer her a drink of the living water that he wants all people - even those who are considered enemies of his own tribe - to have access to.  We would all do well to learn more about the issues - spiritual and physical - around water and the people who have it and don't have it and about those who spend their time seeking it, not only in Jesus' day but in our own.

Take a few minutes to go to YouTube's page and watch some of the videos yourself.  (Click here and you'll go to the page where the videos are all gathered together today.)  

Morning Collect for Tuesday

grant us your peace
and inspire us to be peacemakers.
Grant us your mercy
and inspire us to be merciful.
Open your hand
and inspire us to be generous.
Shelter us
and inspire us to provide sanctuary.

Monday, March 21, 2011

All the World's a Stage

So, when it comes to your spiritual life, are you a player, or a watcher?  Are you on the mainstage or in the audience at this point in your life, this Lent?

Obviously we play different parts, are in different realms in the various areas and arenas of our lives.  In different seasons we do different things.  And it takes both actors and audiences to make the experience real and complete.  One is not better than the other, provided that you aren't always in the same mode, day in and day out, year after year. 
I remember a time when I just sat and watched - many more times than one time, really - and that was what I needed to do.  I didn't have enough emotional energy, enough water in the well, to do more than sit and let others' prayers wash over me and hold me up.  I needed to see how others were living out their faith so that I could be assured that yes, it's possible and here are ways people do it.  They pray, they read the Bible and devotional materials, they come to church, they walk the labyrinth or go to Taize services or attend quiet days.  They participate in foyer groups and book groups and do popcorn theology at movie night in the parish hall.  They hike.  They go to a retreat center and be quiet for a few days.  They walk on the beach.  They write prayers and devotions.  They visit people in the hospital, build Habitat houses, feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  And they care for others and allow others to care for them.

I have learned so much from watching others and especially from allowing others to show me what their faith looks like without my getting competitive about it, without my needing to do what they do as well as they do it.  We extroverts sometimes have trouble with this.  We want to be in the middle of everything, doing, being busy, acting, talking, playing.  

And so at first during those dry spells, I felt like a failure, a washout, spiritually weak.  I used to feel that I always had to be "on."  I'm not sure what I thought would happen if I were "off" - perhaps I'd just not exist any more, I don't know.  Perhaps it was a vestige of my religious upbringing, from which I got the message that if you weren't "feeling it" then perhaps you were backsliding.  And we all know where that leads.

But allowing myself to be in the spiritual audience has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life, including after ordination to the priesthood.  I had to face the fact that not only is everything not up to me, but that this is the way it's supposed to be.  We are the Body of Christ and that means all of us have our parts to play, together.  It's not a monologue, a one woman show, a series of scenes in which I play the lead or even the only faithful sidekick.

What a joy it is to let that go, to journey together with others in whatever formation seems appropriate at the time.  Sometimes as leader, sometimes as follower, sometimes as bit part, sometimes just sitting there watching, grateful that it's not all up to me.  

Jesus was in the wilderness, not getting away from it all but wrestling with Satan, with temptation, with God only knows what.  And when he was nearly all spent, he was ministered to by angels.  So I figure, if it's good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for me. 

Morning Collect for Monday

O Lord God,
creator of the universe,
and of the flower,
create in me a clean heart
that is filled with love and hope.
Open my eyes
to your mercy all around me
and walk with me again today.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Sermon

Sometimes the Bible is funny.  Like today, in the story in the Gospel of John, where Jesus and Nicodemus engage in a sort of abbreviated first-century Greek version of “Who’s on First,” the famous Abbott and Costello routine.  
It’s an odd little scene to begin with - Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews, a Pharisee, meaning that he is dedicated to studying the Scriptures in conversation with others and tries to interpret and apply the Scriptures to how he lives his life.  But he comes to Jesus at night, which in the world of John is a clue that he knows he is doing something wrong.  Night is when you do things you wouldn’t do in the light; night is when Judas goes out from the table after the last supper and betrays Jesus.
Nicodemus greets Jesus by saying that he, Nicodemus, and his folks know that Jesus is sent from God.  Now perhaps Jesus becomes a little amused at this assertion, for being “sent from God” is the same thing that was said about John the Baptizer at the beginning of this Gospel.  “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.”  All of the Gospels go to some length to differentiate the Baptizer from Jesus, and it’s no different here.  
Jesus is not just sent from God.  As we heard in the first verse of this Gospel, Jesus has been from the beginning a resident of the kingdom of heaven and is on earth for a little while before he will return to God.  And so he responds to Nicodemus by saying something about himself, but he does so by using a word that has more than one meaning.
You know, like mouse.  There’s a mouse that has a tail and scurries through the meadow, and there’s a mouse that’s connected to your computer.  You would be surprised to hear someone talking about a great new mouse she uses for her work if you are only thinking about a mouse that is in your kitchen cabinets which causes you to stand on a chair when you see it. 
Or rock, which is a thing you like to do in a chair on the porch but is also a thing you find outside on the ground.
We don’t get this in our English translation of the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, but in Greek, one of the words that has two meanings is anothen.  It means either “again” or “from above.”
When Jesus starts talking about himself as one who has been born anothen, he is talking about being born from above, being descended from heaven, which is his unique identity.  Nicodemus, however, hears Jesus say anothen and immediately thinks about being born again.  Hence his incredulous question about entering a second time into one’s mother’s womb after one is grown, which he knows is impossible.
And Jesus doesn’t exactly labor to set Nicodemus straight.  He seems to be having a little gentle fun with Nicodemus, who comes in saying that he knows all about Jesus already.  He knows he is a teacher who performs signs and is sent from God, which was true of many people in that time and place.  
But clearly, he doesn’t know all about Jesus.  By the end of the Gospel, Nicodemus will return to the story as the man who comes with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body with spices and lay it in the tomb.  By the end of the story, Nicodemus will understand who Jesus is.  But today, he hasn’t gotten it yet.
And so Jesus talks about himself to Nicodemus.  Now, John’s Jesus tends to speak in fairly long discourses instead of pithy one-liners, and so while Jesus is waxing eloquent about the mysteries of the kingdom of God, and the way the Spirit moves through and around us, and how we don’t see the Spirit but we see the fruits of the Spirit - poor Nicodemus is still sitting there thinking about the mechanics of childbirth.
What Jesus wants to get to in this discussion is about his part in God’s plan of salvation.  He’s aiming at a verse we all know:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  

In other words, the gift of God for the people of God.
But many of us are less familiar with the verse that comes next:  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  The world was made through Jesus, as it says in John and we affirm in the Creed, and the world is also saved through Jesus.
Like Nicodemus, we think that we know all about Jesus because of John 3:16 - we know the verse so well that we don’t even have to say the actual words, we can just use the shorthand “John 3:16” and everyone knows what that means.  
But do we know what that means?  "Believe in him” is kind of vague, not spelled out - what does that mean, to “believe in him?” to believe he existed? like unicorns or Santa Claus? or is it about something else? Sometimes we end up thinking the verse says “so that everyone who believes what I believe may not perish but have eternal life.” This is one of those verses that is used as a way to say “I am saved and you are not.” That I am going to heaven and you lot who don’t “believe” the things I believe are going to be punished.  But is that what Jesus is really all about?
As I said, in John things are not pithy.  It takes a while to get the whole story.  And so we don’t understand the meaning of this verse 16 if we don’t hear the next verse as well.  A verse which says, Jesus did not come to condemn the world.  For John, “the world” has a particular meaning  - "the world" is all the people who are actually hostile to God and Jesus.  Remember at the very beginning, from the wonderful prologue of John - “In the beginning was the Word ... and the world did not know him.” The world did not accept him.  And yet Jesus says he came to save the world.
So look how this changes what we thought we knew about the purpose of Jesus.  Jesus came to save even those who are hostile to him, not to condemn them.  They may condemn themselves, he will go on to say, but he did not come to condemn them. This is the same Jesus who did not condemn the woman caught in adultery later in the story. We might wish to remember that if Jesus doesn’t condemn someone, then perhaps we ought not to condemn them, either.
We think we know what Jesus is all about, but then like Nicodemus we find there’s more to it than what we thought.  
As we look around at what’s happening in the world in these last few days, we might recognize other examples of words having different meanings.  Let’s consider the phrase “acts of God.”
Some contracts use the phrase “acts of God” as a way to identify things that are outside of human control - floods, earthquakes, lightning strikes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis - usually in an effort to limit liability for damage caused by these events.
And a few Christians have been known to assert that things such as earthquakes, floods, tsunamis are indeed acts of God, violent and destructive acts that are deliberately meted out against humans as punishment for behavior that makes God mad.  To those Christians, these so-called acts of God are God’s way of getting rid of people who oppose God and Jesus.  Getting rid of parts of “the world,” as John uses the term.
But possibly those Christians haven’t read further, they haven’t considered John 3:17.  “For Jesus came not to condemn but to save the world,” even those who may be at odds with God.  Those Christians have misunderstood both John’s definition of “the world” as well as the term “acts of God.”  Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods - geologic destruction - are not acts of God.   They are acts of Earth.  
As one of my clergy colleagues says, “Earth happens.”  And when Earth happens, we misunderstand if we think this is God’s work.  When Earth happens, God is not meting out revenge but abiding with those who are perishing, present with those who are grieving, comforting those who are bereft, living up to God’s promise that God is with us in our fears, in the fire, in the water, in the pain.  That’s where God is when Earth happens.  
But I do want to say that there are some “acts of God.”  All four of the Gospels were written to try to say something about those acts of God, which we often call mysteries, things we are not able to understand rationally.  The movements of tectonic plates that result in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and the principles of atmospheric pressure that give rise to hurricanes - those things we can come to understand with our intellect, our sense of reason.   
But the mysteries are things that we apprehend spiritually and we have to live with them for a while so as to grow into our understanding of them.   
Like Nicodemus, we may misunderstand at first.  We may need a while to think about and watch for how God works in the world, as Nicodemus did before he finally came to understand who Jesus was after Jesus’ death.  Lent is a good time for us to think about who Jesus was and what that has to do with us in our own lives here and now.
As I said, there are acts of God.  The whole incarnational cycle - the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus - that’s an act of God.  A gift from God. When I have trouble thinking about the resurrection with my rational self, I remember to think of it instead as an act of God.  During Lent, my prayer life is often centered around simply opening myself to such mysteries.
God acted in history! God sent his only Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it.
This is the Good News!  This is what we are called to believe.



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