Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Pursuit of Peace

I went to visit my good friend and seminary classmate Will in the blogsphere today and found a remarkable and yet not-well-known speech by MLK. I had been thinking about some of the ways the twin themes of light/darkness have been coming up during our lectio divina in the Bible 101 group and how strong allusions to peace/war (particularly the current war in Iraq) were tied to those themes for several in the group. Well, if you want to take that thread and tie it onto something solid, try this speech on for size. (How's that for a mixed metaphor?) You can follow this link for the whole speech - an excerpt follows below.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence
By Rev. Martin Luther King
4 April 1967

Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City

"...I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood."

Sunday, January 28, 2007

It's Greek to Me

So, today I was on the rota to lead children's chapel. This happens as the kids are dismissed from church - post-communion, pre-sermon - and before they go to Sunday School. Chapel is just for kids in grades 4-6 so it's a pretty fun group to talk to and wonder about things with. My task for today's chapel time was to engage them in a brief conversation about how worship is not a spectator sport, but something that requires participation by all of us. I decided to teach them the Greek word, leitourgia, from which our word liturgy is derived. It means "the work of the people" and I knew where I was headed with my "talk."

Well, I thought I knew where I was headed. As a potential illustration, I asked how many of them had seen the movie, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Over half the kids raised their hands so I proceeded. I asked them what they remembered about the movie as far as the Greek language was concerned. One kid, named Nick, remembered how all of the men in the family were named Nick. Another kid remembered what I was hoping they would remember which is that Mr. Portokalis was utterly convinced that every English word was derived from Greek - and he routinely set out to prove it. I was thinking of the scene where a smug friend of his teenage daughter challenged him with the word "kimono." So I asked the kids if they remembered the "part in the movie where someone tried to trick him by giving him a word that would be hard to translate." One young lady in our group raised her hand and said, "Oh, yeah...that was the word that meant something like, "I have three tenticles!" [For those of you who haven't seen this delightful film, my young friend was remembering an entirely different part of the movie where a non-Greek fiance is tricked into saying in Greek "I have three testicles!" to the family crowd gathered for a big engagement party.] My two 6th grade sons and two of their friends heroically did all they could to contain themselves from dying of laughter and embarrassment simultaneously. One of the adults in the room nearly spewed his coffee through his nose. I made a quick recovery and moved on to make my point, thanking her for her involvement and trying not to laugh.

Gracious God, I thank you for the innocence and earnestness of that child, and for the humor and humility it called forth in all of us who were present.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

God's Country Club

Last Sunday after preaching at the 9:15 family service, my husband came up to me and with a smirk on his face said, "Well, somebody really woke up on the wrong side of the pulpit this morning!" I didn't think I had slammed the sermon that hard, but, well, let's say I was a bit passionate about the subject. I won't retell my sermon here (if you want to read it you can click here and do so). But, here's the gist of it: According to Pauls' letter to the Corinthians (12:12-31) being the church means recognizing that God gives people gifts, that God calls people together with their gifts and assembles them into being the church, and that when we are assembled together and are exercising/manifesting our gifts, then we become ONE body - and that body is the way that Christ is manifest in the world today.

OK - sounds simple and straightforward enough - so at what point did I go from preaching to meddling? Maybe it was the part where I said that being the church meant more than just showing up occasionally, more than just simply showing up at all. Maybe it was when I said that when people are absent we all lose out. Maybe it was the part where I said (taking off on Paul) that when we are really the church there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither child nor adult, neither black nor white, neither gay nor straight, neither republican nor democrat, neither "in the social register" or "not in the social register." Maybe it was when I said that if in fact we are the Body of Christ then we should be able to stand up as Jesus did and say "The Spirit of God is upon us because he has anointed us to preach good news to the poor." I said more than that, but the thing I was getting at that I didn't come right out and say is this: You can't preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free when you're trying to do that from within God's Country Club.

Now there are some preachers out there who favor a prosperity gospel- a get rich quick scheme version of Good News - "Just give us your money and you'll receive unexpected money. Just pray harder and give more and you'll get more." Personally, I think that's really bad theology and I'm not one of those preachers. Don't get me wrong - I don't have anything against good financial management. And I certainly don't have anything against giving money to the church or preachers asking folks to do so. It's just that I don't think that tithing makes God see you differently. I DO think that tithing - or giving proportionally - will make you see God differently. And that's more to the point here.

How we see God (as the giver of all good gifts), how we regard the gifts that God has given us (as puzzle pieces that are to be matched up with others to get the bigger picture), determines greatly our relationship both with the church and with the world. So that leaves me with one of my all time favorite quotes. William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury back in the 40's during WWII, said this when talking about what it means to be the church: "The church is the only society that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members." 'nuf said.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tom-Tom Theology

This Christmas, my husband gave me one of those portable GPS devices for my car to aid me in navigating more efficiently around our metropolitan area. I really LOVE using it and am quickly becoming dependent on it. The kind he got me - a Tom Tom - has different voices and languages to select from - I chose Tim. I like Tim. Tim talks to me in a very suave British accent. Tim doesn't get impatient or yell at me. Tim gives clear progressive directions saying, "In 800 yards, turn left...Take the next left...Left turn here." And then, when I cruise right past the left turn I was supposed to make, Tim very calmly announces something like, "In 400 yards turn right and then take the next right." I could miss my left turns thirty times over and Tim would continue to speak to me in that calm, suave, clear voice. And what Tim doesn't do or say is most impressive. Tim doesn't snipe angrily at me. Tim doesn't yell, "WHAT ARE YOU? BLIND? I SAID TURN LEFT YOU PRAT!" But best of all: Calm, clear, suave Tim is at my beck and call. Did I mention that I really, really like Tim?

It truly is an amazing little piece of technology. If you're not familiar with these gizmos, basically the way they work is that a few satellites get a read on where you are. You tell the GPS, through touch screen menus, where you want to end up. It puts all the pieces of intelligent information together and tells you the best way to get where you want to go. First it shows you a "big picture" route map and then, once you start driving, it gives you turn by turn instructions to get there. Frankly, that's how I'd like God to work in my life. And, in reality, that's very much how God does work in our lives.

But lately life's been complicated. I've been feeling a little bit adrift, a little bit restless. I've been wondering how to make the best decisions about what ministry "opportunities" to take on, what new initiatives to support and follow, what current ministry engagements to let go of. Now, in my experience, when that restlessness begins to overtake the sense of settled inner peace, it's God's signal to start paying closer attention. It's like God is saying, "You-hoo, Reverend Mother, too much going're getting too distracted with too many're veering off course." So, I begin to look for signs that will point to a clear direction. In these times, I really become dependent on my spiritual GPS - the Holy Spirit. I pray more and I listen harder for the calm, clear voice that will spell it all out for me: "In exactly 17 days, leave this bit behind and then take the next right turn to follow that path." But there's one problem. Usually when I'm in this more-restlessness-than-peace place, the picture just isn't that clear.

The other day I was heading out and was a little bit under the gun timewise. So, naturally I wanted to know the route I should take to get me to my destination via the quickest route with the fewest problems. As I reached the top of my driveway, tapping in the destination on Tim's touch screen, I realized that the picture on the GPS wasn't so clear. It was darker than the normal bright colors and the picture was incomplete. I checked to make sure that I didn't have it set for "night colors." In checking I saw the little memo floating across the screen: "Please wait - searching for more satellites." I sat there paralyzed for a moment and then I realized that I had two viable choices: 1)I could continue to just sit there patiently and wait for the signal. That way I wouldn't risk losing precious time or have to turn around in case I set out in the wrong direction. 2) I could begin to guess which way to go, head out, and if wrong, turn around when the route was spelled out more clearly. I wasn't too worried - I knew it would just be a matter of time. And I knew that when the GPS picked up those missing satellite signals the way would become clear and I would have a dependable route to get me where I was heading.

That is the way the Holy Spirit seems to work. We might think that the Spirit is at our beck and call, but sometimes we're simply not in the right place to get all the signals, to have the right connection. But we always have options: We might decide to go ahead and set out, trusting that in moving we'll get closer to where we're supposed to be and then the signals will get stronger and we'll get those clear, calm turn-by-turn directions. At that point we might either discover that we're on the right path or be told "at the first opportunity, make a legal "U" turn." Conversely, we might decide to just sit and wait until the satellites reposition into a place where the connection can be made and then the path becomes clear before we set out. Either way, the point is that the satellites are there, they can eventually get a fix on us, and we will get the direction we need. All we have to do is make the decision to turn on the GPS: whether we wait or whether we set out knowing that we might have to change course is up to us.

This is also the way the Christian life works. There are an infinite number of routes we can take to get where we're headed. However, not all of those routes are good choices - some are long, some have roadblocks, some will take us through unsafe areas and, sometimes we might luck into a pretty good route. But early on, we can make a decision to engage that Spiritual GPS. Once we do there are still going to be choices for us to make, but they are clearer and shorter term with more reliable outcomes. They will also each have their own consequences so we have to decide which consequences we can live with (e.g. waiting longer or turning around?). Basically we must decide how we're going to position ourselves as we wait for that full connection with God. But, once the connection is established the way becomes clearer and clearer. And God is so gracious - God never snipes, or yells, or calls us names. But here's what's really cool: Always, even before we're connected, God is there patiently waiting for us to engage.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Triple Threat : Triple Promise

Today was truly a wonderful day in so many ways...

My husband managed to get our firstborn out the door to his commuter school in DC without waking me once. I woke up and realized that I'd gotten a good hour and a half more sleep time than I'd expected to.

I managed to get the other two up and bathed and dressed and fed and to school on time without one bit of hassling from them.

I took the dog for a decent walk, albeit in the rain, but also in solitude and had time to clear my head and pray and think about the day ahead.

I made it to the grocery store to pick up some snacks and beverages and back home in time to get ready to greet my guests for the inaugural Bible 101 class.

And then....Triple Threat.

You know, I learned long ago in seminary, that when you're on the right path, doing the right thing, following what you're pretty sure you're called to do, and doing it in the light, that some kind of darkness will try to invade that space. Now, I didn't learn this in any class per se, but it was a common experience duly noted by seminarians. If you ever wanted anecdotal evidence for a spirtual force of darkness, just ask your local clergy if anything bad happened to them in seminary. So, I should have known, but I just wasn't expecting it.

In the hour leading right up to the Bible Group's start, I got three phone calls:

Phone Call #1: My eldest saying that he was in the school clinic and could I please come pick him up because he had a headache and stomache ache and just didn't feel well at all. (Now, keep in mind that it would take more than an hour to go pick him up, check him out, and drive him home.) "Honey, I can't. I've got about ten people showing up here for the very first Bible group in one hour. There's no way." The dark clouds begins to gather as I feel an assault on my parenting while explaining to the school nurse that I'm sure it's psychosomatic because he is not looking forward to dealing with a conflict situation with a sports instructor at the end of the school day....right???

Phone Call #2: My rector (the lead priest with whom I work) calls to tell me the very sad news that a much beloved parishioner has died. The same parishioner whom I was not able to go see the day before because of some family scheduling conflict. I'm sure I just heard the rumble of thunder up in that ever darkening sky as my priesthood and pastoral abilities are now at issue. And with folks arriving, I can't start crying now. I just can't.

Phone Call #3: The Honda dealership. "Yes, ma'am, our techs were able to take a look at your van and sure enough, your transmission is dead. We also noticed that you need two new rear tires, a new engine mount because yours is broken, a new battery and you're due for your 90,000 mile check up." Gulp. I distinctly heard the crack of lightning. How much gloomier can this day get? Now, I'm being hit in the wallet and in the realm of stewardship. This sucks.

But then, people begin to arrive. I didn't break down, I didn't once cuss or say something mean and nasty to those who brought bad news. Somehow, a sense of being cared for and being on the right track despite the triple threat prevailed and we were off to a cheerful and yet careful start with our group. The women gathered here were wonderful. Each and every one of them were engaged, open, and carefully listening to and honoring the others. The time went according to plan - nothing left out, nothing crammed in. Just right. And the end of it all spent in directed meditation of a passage from Isaiah 9:2-7 was fruitful. I'm thrilled.

But what of the Triple Threat? Well, there were some benedictions that came out of those moments, too. I think because of the Peace that pervaded the time with the group, I could see the Light emerging out of the darkness.

For instance, I called the school after everyone had left and the nurse assured me that I had made the right choice. "No symptoms - no fever, no vomiting - had manifested," she said and went on to tell me about the conversation she had with my "wonderful son" (her words) about how stress and worry can make you feel that way too. I knew by how she described her conversation with my kid that he had been ministered to by someone other than The Reverend Mother, Thanks be to God!

And I remembered from my earlier conversation with my rector, that he said that when he had visited our beloved parishioner the day before, this kind gentleman thought that I had been there one day prior. In actuality it had been a week since my last visit where I took communion to him, but somehow in his mind, he had my visit closer in space and time - and so my fears of not having been present enough were somehow unfounded.

And then, the delightful surprise came in a voice mail message that had come in during the Bible Group time. The Honda guy called to let me know that he had talked to his manager and the regional rep. and they had decided that since I'd had some recall work done on the transmission and since I'd had the regular warranty service work done, that they would replace the whole transmission for free and give me a discount on the other items as well. Man! You go Honda guy!! Woo Hoo!

So, yep there was a triple threat - which only convinced me more that I'm on the right track in offering a home-based community for spiritual growth and learning. But what was really cool was the Triple Promise - you know, the part where the light overcomes the darkness and the path gets illuminated? Did I mention that when we started the group that the weather had been cloudy and raining and when we finished the sun was out and shining, drying up the rain puddles? It's true. No really, it's true.

Monday, January 1, 2007

There's Something About that Name...

Happy New Year! Today is the First Day of the New Year 2007. Hard to believe...whew! Another year gone by. But that is not all that today is. In the Christian Church calendar, today is a special day of Devotion, a Feast Day. And on this Feast day we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. This Feast Day occurs on the 8th day of Christmas. You see, eight days after the birth of Jesus, he had his bris. Like every devoted Jewish mother and father, Mary and Joseph presented Jesus on this day for circumcision and naming. (It was quite a celebration as a bris still is today.) And he was named Jesus as the angel Gabriel had instructed Mary nine months earlier (Luke 1:26-38,2:21) and had explained to Joseph that this child was the promised Messiah who would "save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21)

Have you ever wondered where the name Jesus comes from, or what it means? The name Jesus is from the same Hebrew root name as Joshua - pronounced like Yeshua - and it means "savior" or "deliverer." You might remember the Biblical story and children's song about Joshua who "fought the battle of Jericho...and the walls came tumblin' down..." One girl at a youth group meeting several years ago confessed that as a young child she thought the words to that little ditty were "Joshua bought a bottle of cherry coke." But I digress...

Anyway...Joshua delivered his people, the House of Joseph, and other tribes of the Israelites, from 40 years of wandering in the wilderness into the Promised Land. He finished the job of the Exodus that Moses had begun but was prevented by God from completing. Alas, the Promised Land was not to be a forever thing. Eventually the Israelites end up dividing their kingdom in two, getting into some battles with the Babylonians and Assyrians and having many of their people dispossesed of land and tribe as they were exiled by the Babylonians.

The Biblical book of Isaiah is filled with prophecies of hope and expectation for the lost, exiled and eventually repatriated Israelites. It is here in Isaiah that we hear of the Good News prophecy of the Savior: "For a son has been born for us, a son has been given to us, and dominion has been laid on his shoulders; and this is the name that he has been given, "Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace..." [New Jerusalem Bible translation]. Fitting, isn't it then, that the one who receives the Holy Name of Jesus (Yeshua) is in fact the Savior foretold in Isaiah and the one who finally and decisively fulfills the Promise of Release (exodus). "Then as now, people longed to be freed from evils: political, social, and spiritual. The name of Jesus calls to mind the true freedom which is ours through Jesus the Christ."*

Jesus, Mighty-God, lands us in that place of Promise and restarts that work that was begun in the beginning in creation. It is through the Name of Jesus that we can be released from oppression in our own lives. It is through the Name of Jesus that we can be made a new creation.

So, Happy New Year! Celebrate the fullness of this day. And claim the potential fullness of the coming year. Let's celebrate the end of this first day of the new year with this prayer: Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen."*

*Both the prayer and the quote are from the Episcopal Church's Publication, "Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 1991"