Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Now that it's Christmas, it's liturgically correct to say so. :) Enjoy this second day of Christmas with friends and family.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

In the Wake of Tragedy

Like many of us across the nation, I'm feeling pretty flattened after the news of the shooting in Newtown, CT last week. I don't have a lot of emotional energy to write, or do anything else other than go to rehearsals for this Friday's concert by my choir. So here's a round-up of some of the best blog posts and reactions from around the internet:

What We Parents Must Do - Jim Wallace at Sojourners
Children's Sermons RE: Newtown Tragedy - Jeremy Smith at Hacking Christianity
Religious Leaders Push Congregants on Gun Control - New York Times
God Can't Be Kept Out - Rachel Held Evans
God is Here? - Michael Hidalgo, Newtown resident

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Advent: Pregnant with Possibilities

Advent is my favorite season in the liturgical calendar for two reasons: it spotlights incarnational theology (my favorite!), and the readings lift up women and women's bodies as integral to the story of God's salvific work in the world. Jesus' coming heralded a new possibility- a new reality- for the relationship between God and humanity. Mary, and to a certain extent Elizabeth as well, brought forth this new reality when they gave birth to Jesus and John.

Recently, many of my friends have been becoming pregnant, being pregnant, and giving birth to new babies. Following their Facebook status updates, I've realized just how tiring this work can be. By the end of the 36-40 weeks, my friends are tired, cranky, and ready to be done being pregnant. Imagine how Mary must have felt having to deal with a donkey ride on top of all that! But once she gave birth, the work and the sleep deprivation were just beginning. Silent night? Hardly!

By now, it seems like the Christmas season is descending into craziness. The number of social engagements, which once seemed like such a great idea, are now taking up all of our free time. For some of us, the pressure is on to produce beautiful meals and desserts for our loved ones. How on earth are we going to get it all done? We blink through bleariness to light Advent candles. Peace, love, and joy? That's not what we're feeling right now. All of usual din of the holiday season often makes it difficult to remember the meaning and miracle of the Advent season. Although we're aware of Advent (at least once a week), the Prince of Peace isn't here yet, and it's hard to keep our Christian charity in the midst of all the hustle and bustle.

But under the surface of our everyday lives, God is transforming the present. Quietly, gradually, God's grace is working in our hearts, just as little ones grow in the womb. Before we know it, the time to celebrate God's coming is among us! And we might just be caught a little off-guard because our focus has been elsewhere.

I think that's OK. When Mary and Elizabeth were pregnant, it was hard work for them. They might have been kind of cranky. They might have wondered why God picked them. I am reminded that work of transformation in our lives, and in the world, is not always easy. Sometimes I wonder why God picked me to be about the work of God's Kingdom in the world. It's hard to pay attention to the still, small voice when advertizements clamor and Christmas remixes blare. That's why we have traditions like lighting the Advent candles on the Advent wreath. It helps us to remember God's work of grace in our lives, and in the world, even in the middle of everything.

The significance of Mary's lived experience for our spiritual lives, I think, is that Mary shared our experience. Like Mary, we labor to bring about God's Kingdom, and sometimes we just labor to get through the next few weeks until it's time to rest. In the midst of seasonal commitments and stress, I try to remember that Mary's reality wasn't always sweetness and light either, but she stuck with it. Those small moments of remembrance are the little bit of Advent in my heart.

How do you keep a little bit of Advent in your heart, despite the trappings and demands of the "Christmas season"?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Tale of Two Concerts

Well, it’s officially the Christmas season, and the weekly overabundance of concerts is upon us. This week I’ve already been to two, one as an audience member and one as a singer. The experiences couldn’t have been more different, but they certainly cast the entire season in perspective.

Last Sunday, someone at church announced that she was unable to attend a performance of Handel’s The Messiah by Handel and Hayden Society that afternoon, and asked whether anyone would be able to take her tickets. Since it’s my favorite musical work, of course I jumped at the chance! After Brunch Bunch with the Young Adult Group, I headed straight to Symphony Hall. It was wonderfully decorated with garlands and ornaments. My seat was in the center of the first balcony. Even from the back of the hall, I could recognize my friends in the group when they came onstage. While it was hard for me not to sing along, H&H’s incredible crisp constants and shimmering tone had me rapt. The conductor, Harry Christophers, is eccentric and demanding, but brilliant; his animated body movements enlivened the experience of watching a live performance. The accompaniment by the H&H period orchestra was flawless, with precise but expressive bowings by the strings and an overall interpretation that was flowing and effortless, but also lively and inspired. I got chills more than a few times! As I sat listening to the familiar-but-fresh performance of some of my favorite biblical texts, I found myself writing sermons in my head… or else reminding myself of the authorship, contexts, and redaction history of the various texts being sung. This year, I was especially touched by “Comfort Ye, My People,” “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted,” “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and “Worthy Is The Lamb.” Here’s a clip for the last one, and “Hallelujah”:

Of course, everyone stood for the Hallelujah Chorus and applauded afterward. I thought the crowd’s appreciation was impressive then, but that was just at the end of Part 2. When Part 3 (and thus the concert) concluded, everyone leapt to their feet, cheering, and demanded multiple bows from the choir, orchestra, and soloists. Yes, I felt the entire place was bursting with joy.

 The next day, I headed to Watertown with Chorus Pro Musica to sing at the Perkins School for the Blind. The Perkins School began serving only blind children and teens, but it has expanded to include services for kids with multiple and varied handicapping conditions. Although we were under rehearsed, the kids and their families were so happy to see us. We sang six or seven songs for them, and they weren’t our hardest repertoire, but the audience cheered so loudly for each one, it was almost raucous. Sometimes Betsy (our conductor) would introduce a song and one kid would shout “my favorite!” When she introduced “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” she asked the kids to sing the “five golden rings” part and said we would sing the rest. “Good luck!” quipped a teen. Given that we had not had a great rehearsal, we had to laugh, because we needed it. The spirit in the room was just as joyful and exuberant as Symphony Hall the day before, if not more so! I was impressed with the amount of noise! And, it seemed, we hardly did anything. When the secondary school choir sang “Sleigh Ride”, our basses, tenors, and altos filled in the chords underneath them. Sharing the evening and the stage with these special kids and their families was certainly a contrast to the day before. While the concert and audience were hardly refined, Christmas joy abounded there, too.

In liturgical time, it’s still Advent, and many of my colleagues and acquaintances don’t know that. But I think that the secular preemptive celebration of Christmas helps me to prepare the way for the Christ child in my heart— through art and charitable work. When I open my heart and give of my time to people like the disabled kids I met on Monday, the inside of my heart becomes a little roomier. ‘Tis the season indeed. Would that we could all be this generous and inclusive throughout the rest of the year.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Advent Conspiracy

This year, we have a week in between Thanksgiving and the first week of Advent. Advent is theologically and liturgically my favorite time of the year. I’m getting excited just thinking about it! This year, my Junior High Sunday School class is going to use the Advent Conspiracy curriculum. The Advent Conspiracy was begun by five Evangelical pastors who were sick of their holiday- and their faith- being hijacked by consumerism. The whole idea is to "turn Christmas upside down" by making the best (free!) things in life the focus: worshiping God, giving to others (without spending on excessive material goods), and loving everyone. Here's their promo video:

Like the video said, it can really be difficult to open our hearts to God when we're over-busy, stressed from cooking and cleaning, and generally partied out before we even get to Christmas day! I'm hoping that engaging the kids with the Advent Conspiracy will help me to be mindful even in the challenging moments. Christ's coming was actually a subversive event. No one expected God's Messiah to come as a helpless baby. In a sense, Jesus infiltrated the Jewish community he was intended to transform by being one of them right from the start, growing up among them. He resisted the moneyed and powerful Roman officials, along with their worldly values, from the beginning of his life to the end. Mary praised God for defending those who are weak and needy in the Magnificat, her prayer upon learning that she would bear the son of God:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. 
The Advent Conspiracy makes me feel subversive, too. Our culture- no thanks to the corporations- has commodified Christmas, making it about wish fulfillment and attaining material goods. When we remember the only God brings true contentment, and not things, we re-orient ourselves to the miracle of Jesus' incarnation. This year, I'll continue my tradition of giving to UMCOR in lieu of giving lots of expensive gifts. My wish is that all people everywhere have their needs met, and I'm doing my small part to make that happen. Whether or not I will be able to keep the meaning of this liturgical season in view through the entire four jam-packed weeks of Advent remains to be seen. But I'll certainly try. I hope you will too.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks

Tomorrow's Thanksgiving, and I'm pausing after baking a couple of pies. I'm feeling grateful and slightly guilty for the things I often take for granted:

- food and shelter
- friends and family
- my local church
- freedom
- this country

On Thanksgiving, it can be difficult to reconcile our day of thanks with the actions of our ancestors toward the original inhabitants of this continent, the Native Americans, after the first Thanksgiving. Well, I found a great article on the Sojo blog that addresses this issue with grace: The Truth About Thanksgiving: Why You Should Celebrate. It encourages us to "Celebrate the fact that we are beginning to tell our history in an honest and inclusive way, because only by telling an honest and inclusive history can we have an honest and inclusive present." Amen to that.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Trouble in Texas: Church in Peril or Germination?

A minor earthquake occurred in the world of United Methodism this week when the Judicial Council overturned the action of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference that placed Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe in involuntary retirement. Jeremy of Hacking Christianity wrote this quick summary of the saga for those not in the South Central Jurisdiction:

1. Bishop was first one elected in 2008 and assigned to the North Texas Conference. He originally came from the Texas Annual Conference where he was a District Superintendant.
2. Four years later, North Texas Annual Conference was doing well numerically (rises in professions of faith and worship attendance) but lots of clergy discontent regarding lack of leadership presence, cronyism, and some mishandlings of large-church appointments. Bishop does poorly on his evaluations so the Jurisdictional Episcopal Committee (JEC) calls him forth.
3. JEC offers Bledsoe to voluntarily retire or else they will involuntarily remove him due to effectiveness. He agrees to retire, but then at Annual Conference he decides not to retire and will fight to keep his position.
4. South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) meets in Oklahoma City and the JEC votes to involuntarily retire him. The gathered SCJ affirms the vote by a 3:1 margin. Bledsoe is involuntarily retired, and that leaves an open Bishop's seat in Southwest Texas/New Mexico conference. Two retired bishops chosen by the Council of Bishops to share the responsibilities until 2016.
5. Bledsoe appeals the decision to Judicial Council, and they just ruled that due process was not followed (still reading exactly what that was) and that regardless of whatever private evidence they had, the process was not followed so Bledsoe is to be immediately appointed (which means 99% likely the South West Texas /New Mexico conference).
6. Options now are that the Jurisdictional Episcopal Committee can follow the private process and try again, bring Bledsoe up on charges and have a public trial, or give up and let the Bishop serve a conference until the next South Central Jurisdictional Conference in 2016.
7. Basically, a mess.

I read the entire decision, which was posted here. Judicial Council's ruling was based on two things: a) due process was not followed; b) the South Central Jurisdiction removed a bishop based on "effectiveness" without developing an understanding of what "effective" means or any objective measures of effectiveness. I believe it is the second objection that is most important. I believe the most significant paragraph of the decision is this:

"A review of the transcript of the hearing did not reveal any standard of “best interest” that questioners were lifting up to the bishop. There was no discussion of church growth, worship attendance or numbers of profession of faith. There did not seem to be any place where “best interest” standards were articulated nor was there a statement presented that held up a vision or goals for ministry against which all bishops would be held accountable, let alone in this instant situation."

This paragraph confirms what I've been saying for a long time: if we cannot, as a church, develop a definition of "effectiveness" and objective measures by which we gauge it, we cannot apply it to clergy evaluation. To do so leads to mayhem, which we are now seeing. Apparently this mayhem is not new. The United Methodist Interpreter reports: "
the Judicial Council underscored what many rank-and-file United Methodist clergy have experienced for years: the denomination has no truly fair, objective and transparent process for evaluating the performance of its ordained ministers."

Perhaps it's cynical of me, but I think one of the reasons we have avoided defining the term "effectiveness" is that it's a byword of the latest church fad (church metrics). Once you scratch the surface, it really means very little, as did "servant leadership", "relevance", and "passionate worship" before it. We absolutely must examine our methodology for renewing the church before we enact it, and examine the rhetoric of that method, before we actually enact it. 

While the Interpreter article referenced above views the removal of the bishop as the right thing to do, and the JC as an impediment to doing the right thing, I believe that this entire saga illustrates the exact opposite. If we fail to define, as a Church, what we expect of our pastors, the task of holding them accountable can easily become arbitrary and random. While the Interpreter writer suggests that we must throw out the entire Book of Discipline, I am grateful that it prevented our denomination from wounding one of our own by ruining his career and reputation without a well-documented reason. That would have undermined our integrity as a denomination and credibility as Christians.

The answer to our "problems" (if that is what we want to call them) as a Church is not throwing out any pastor who doesn't hit the numbers we want. The answer is engaging in mission and recovering our prophetic voice in this culture. Adopting the latest ideas from the corporate world will not "save our church." Being authentically Christian will.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"Grandpa Joined the KKK and Grandma Joined the UMW"

This week, in the midst of all the the election rabble rabble rabble, a story of racial justice caught my eye. Jim Winkler of the General Board of Church and Society writes about his grandparents, who each took different routes when faced with the issue of race in America. While the partisan factions of our nation have made choices toward divergent ideas of what America should be like, Winkler reminds us that there is room in the Church for everyone, imperfect though they are.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Election Day Comm(union)

America has election fever, and when I visited Ashland this week, I discovered that I am not the only one who is sick to death of the election and election ads. In the midst of all this divisive rhetoric, I recommend a taking a break for a moment with the Spirit. When you make your plans for election day, of course, make plans to vote. But you might also want to make plans of another sort. Election Day Communion is an initiative for Christians to engage in a powerful act of unity: the Eucharist. While I'll be at my 9-to-5, I hope you'll find a local church participating and join in!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Biblical Interpretation and Christian Charity

Rachel Held Evans is a fantastic woman of faith and prolific writer, speaker, and blogger. Recently this outspoken Evangelical has been embroiled in what can only be described as a sandal in Christian circles. Her book was dropped from LifeWay, the main gatekeeper publishing house for the Southern Baptist Church, because it contained the word "vagina" in reference to her True Love Waits pledge. Both religious and non-religious news sources have picked up on the "vaginagate" story (at here and here). Rachel has recently written some blog posts in response, and there's one I particularly like, "When our interpretations differ..."

I want to re-post the full text of her post because she says everything I have wanted to say for a very long time. It's not long. I hope you'll read it. Here it is:
As we discussed last week, the Bible is an eclectic collection of letters and laws, stories and songs, prophecies and proverbs, philosophy and poems, spanning thousands of years and multiple cultures. And as such, it lends itself to multiple, competing interpretations. It always has.

I believe that all Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, challenging, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the people of God are equipped for good works. I acknowledge and submit to the authority of Scripture, even though I often wrestle with it, even though it frustrates and confuses me at times.  And I try to read Scripture with ultimate deference to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who said that all of its laws and stories and prophecies could be boiled down into two principles: 1) love God, 2) love people.
The fact that the Bible lends itself to competing interpretations should be cause for celebration rather than dismay, for these competing interpretations among people of faith who love and value Scripture help bring us into relationship with one another and with God. They bring us into conversation.  They remind us that faith isn't simply about believing something in isolation, but about being part of a community.

What is perhaps most frustrating about engaging in such conversations within the evangelical community in particular, however, is that differences regarding things like Calvinism and Arminianism, baptism, heaven and hell, gender roles, homosexuality, and atonement theories often disintegrate into harsh accusations in which we question one another’s commitment to Scripture.  In some cases, folks are so committed to their particular views on these issues they seem incapable of making a distinction between the Bible itself and their interpretation of it, and so any critique of that interpretation is seen as a critique of Scripture itself!  And so we miss one another entirely. Instead of a lively, impassioned debate about the text, we engage in lively, impassioned debates about one another’s commitment to the faith. 

Now, just because I have observed this phenomenon does not mean I am immune to perpetuating it. Often I find myself questioning others people’s motives; often I find myself assuming the worst; often I am too lazy (or threatened or fearful or angry) to hear my fellow Christians out. But the fact that someone interprets the Bible differently than I do does not automatically mean that the person does not love or value the Bible as much as I. It doesn't mean they are trying to hurt me, or hurt women, or hurt Christianity.
For constructive dialog to happen, Christians must stop conflating differences in interpretation of Scripture with differences in commitment to Scripture.  We must respond to one another’s questions, arguments, and ideas in kind, with more questions, arguments, and ideas, rather than avoiding the conversation altogether by dismissing one another as unfaithful.  

I’ve seen this work in beautiful, constructive, and God-honoring ways…and I’ve seen it fail miserably. Interestingly, it seems to work best in communities that also value gathering around The Table for communion—perhaps because The Table reminds us that it is our shared brokenness and our shared healing through Jesus that ultimately unites us as brothers and sisters in the faith.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Methodist Pie! ...and a teaser

And now for something completely different...

I found this video surfing the Internet this week in The Massachusetts Observer. It's a song from the days of Methodist camp meetings and it happens to combine the twin Methodist loves of singing and eating. The music has an Appalachian feel:

Went down to camp meeting just the other afternoon
Just to hear 'em shout and sing
For to tell each other how they love one another
And to make the hallelujahs ring
There was old Brother Daniel and Cousin Ebeneezer
Uncle Rufus and his lame gal, Sue
Aunt Polly and Melinda and old Mother Bender
Well, I never seen a happier crew

Oh, little children, I believe
Oh, little children, I believe
Oh, little children, I believe
I'm a Methodist till I die
I'm a Methodist, Methodist, 'tis my belief
I'm a Methodist till I die
And if you want to hear my holler like I found a silver dollar
Just pass that Methodist pie.

Well they all go there just to have a big time
And to eat their grub so sly
Have applesauce-butter, sugar-in-the-gourd
And a great big Methodist pie
Well you ought to hear the ringing when they all get to singing
That good old bye and bye
See Jimmy McGee in the top of a tree
Saying, how is this for high

Then they all join hands and dance around a ring
Just a-singing all the while
You'd think it was a cyclone coming through the air
You could hear about half a mile
Then a bell brings loud and the great big crowd
Breaks ranks and up they fly
While I took board on the sugar in the gourd
And I cleaned up the Methodist Pie

Now I kind of want some pie! I can't figure out what on earth sugar-in-the-gourd is. I Googled it and came up with old-timey Appalachian fiddle music. Clearly not a dish. This song makes me want to go back to the old Methodist camp meetings as a fly on the wall- er, tent. They were an important part of American spirituality. Can Methodism take on that role again in the 21st century and beyond? Join me as I explore that question next week!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Immigration Round-Up

Immigration is one of the less-important issues in the election this year, but it shouldn't be. This issue actually has a lot to do with the economics of our country, and lax labor laws in certain parts of the country that negatively affect citizens and non-citizens alike. Sojourners sent around an email recently highlighting some key stories on immigration and our economy recently. I recommend checking out one or more of them.

New York Times on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals:
Undocumented Life Is a Hurdle as Immigrants Seek a Reprieve 

NBC on trends in industrial farms, which are huge employers of undocumented immigrants:
The Farm Labor Crisis: Imagined or Real?

Time Magazine, also on farm labor:
Bitter Harvest: US Farmers Blame Billion Dollar Losses on Immigration Laws

Sojourners blog on how our rhetoric affects immigrants:
Dropping the "I" Word

Friday, October 5, 2012

Broke vs. Poor: Continuing the Conversation on Poverty

As some of the members of CUMC have said on our Facebook group, it's important to understand what we mean when we talk about poverty. I suggested that I might be considered "almost poor" when I realized that I qualified for food stamps. But Christian Piatt over at the Sojourners blog has made a distinction between "broke" and "poor." He writes,
"Broke is a short-term condition; poor is an inevitable way of life. Broke is asking friends or family for help; broke is having no one else around you in a better state than you’re in to even ask. Broke is buying ramen and rice for a while; poor is imagining what it would be like not to feel hungry or worry about having enough to feed your kids, every day of your life."
I think Christian's distinction is great, and I think it's what we were trying to articulate in our Facebook discussion. Based on his definition, I'm considered broke and not poor. But I would shade it even more. For instance, I have a friend who is poor and homeless. She lives in a trailer parked in her friend's driveway. She doesn't necessarily go hungry, but she does eat very cheaply (no meats, few produce, ect). Her son often asks why there are no meatballs in the spaghetti. And yet she doesn't qualify for food stamps. Her car insurance and gas eat up a huge portion of her income. My friend tells me her parents won't help her. But if I offered to give her some of the canned goods in my pantry, she wouldn't take them.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that socioeconomic status, like gender and race, is socially constructed, and therefore is not a static thing, that is, it's "fluid." What makes a person poor? Who is poor and who isn't? The answer to these questions is situational more often than we would like to admit. The way to respond to poverty is not to dissect it, it's to do something about it. Sojourners suggests we should get political and press our politicians to address the issue of growing poverty in America. For some, it's more up their alley to take action locally, by donating food to a food pantry, serving at a soup kitchen, or donating money to local charities. But for all of us, we must first respond with compassion and care for those who are poor. As God cares for those who are poor, hungry, disabled, and elderly, we must care also. The first step is to care enough to do something about it. The next step is to actually do it.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Body of Christ: Rethunk?

After a week absolutely deluged in work, I've hardly had enough time to eat, let alone think and reflect. But I managed to take the time to read this article over lunch today and it blew my mind: What Shane Claiborne (and Mother Teresa) Got Wrong About the Body of Christ. In it, Ellen Painter Dollar suggests that a rigorous practice of self-sacrifice might not be the best way to live out our faith in Christ. What a concept. Till next week, I encourage you to check it out.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Wheels on the Bus

I ride the bus to work. I take the 8:27 to Watertown each weekday morning. The 70 route is one of the busier commuter routes, and it's usually crowded. All manner of random, chaotic happenings slow the bus down, like construction, bad weather, and crazy pedestrians who do don't use crosswalks. And the people on the bus range from friends and coworkers to loudmouths yakking on their cell phones in other languages, people with stinky food or stinky clothes, people whose profane music is far too loud, disabled people, and even homeless people. It's a pre-coffee menagerie. From time to time, I have been known to feel annoyed at teenagers and senior citizens, who don't have to get to work on time. They can just take the bus in another 20 or 30 minutes and be out of the way of suit-wearers. Sometimes I think, "I just want to get to work, people."

One day last spring was particularly crazy. It was raining, and the bus windows were steamy so that I couldn't see in, and the people inside couldn't see me. I got on and sank down into the last seat left. The bus is always late when it's raining, and that day was no exception. I tried to breathe and read from my devotional book on the way. When the bus reached the first large intersection after my stop, one of the people boarding the bus tried to load his bike into the front bike rack. The bus driver began to yell at the man, saying, "You're not getting on my bus!" She got off and tried to make him take his bike off the rack. He yelled back. She stormed back into the bus, closed the door, and put on the parking brake. Then she called the transit police, telling the person on the other end of the radio that she felt threatened by him, and that he had provoked her before. The whole thing took 15 minutes, and the 8:37 bus had just passed us. After a week of construction and bad weather, that was the icing on the cake. I muttered, "This bus route is bull." The bus driver heard me, disengaged the parking brake with a clang, and screeched through the intersection. I watched the man, standing in the rain, become a smaller and smaller dark spot as we roared away.

Since then, I've seen that man on the bus many times. He always has his bike. He has curly hair and paint-stained clothes. He speaks Spanish as well as English. He's outgoing and sometimes has an attitude. But he's polite and always offers me a seat if one opens up. More recently, I went into work on Labor Day. It was crowded again- the bus only comes once an hour on Federal holidays. I sat in one of the seats along the side of the bus that faces inward. The man boarded the bus at his usual stop. He stood directly in front of me and held onto the bar over my head. There were his paint-stained clothes, the baggy jeans and the old t-shirt. Around his neck, he wore the Ecclesia cross. It, too, was spattered with paint.

As I've mentioned before, the Ecclesia cross is a gift that can only be received by a member of  Ecclesia Ministries or the Cambridge Outdoor Church. Members of the community are homeless, have been homeless, or pastors to those who are homeless. It's the same cross I wear when I give out sandwiches once a month in Central Square. My sleepy-headed thoughts were arrested.

I had been so angry at him for disturbing my commute and filling the bus with his loud Spanish, with tiny syllables that flew out of his mouth like bullets from a machine gun. I had narrowed my eyes more than once when he entered the bus. And now I realized: he and I are connected. We are part of an extended community. If he is not homeless now, he used to be homeless, and Ecclesia Ministries has probably been a powerful part of his life. In that moment, it dawned on me that his clothes were not dirty and covered in paint because he's a sloppy bum. It's probably because he's a house painter, trying to earn a living on low-wage work.

I wanted to introduce myself. I wanted to tell him that I am part of the web of relationships that is Ecclesia and the Outdoor Church, and to express goodwill. But I couldn't, not after I had quietly resented him for almost six months. Sure, this man had inconvenienced me multiple times on my commute. Being annoyed is one thing, though, and sitting there glowering is quite another. I quickly realized that I had been un-Christian. I took the side of the bus driver on that rainy day, despite the fact that I do not know his name and I've never spoken to him. He has no idea that I resented him for six months and he has no idea who I am. But God knows how I felt. God knows that I sinned in my heart against a man who's probably had more than a few hard knocks in his life. I ought to be ashamed of myself, and I am. The person I hurt when I committed the sin of resentment was myself.

Our God is a God of second chances, however, and God has given me the chance to turn all of this around. I've actively tried to be more patient with the crazy menagerie with whom I ride the bus each morning and evening. That's about all I can do. The damage that was done was to my heart. I can only pray for mercy, try to love others more, and ask the Holy Spirit to heal me. So I do.

Friday, September 14, 2012

White Knuckles

Recently, I have experienced some upheaval in my life. Type-A person that I am, I respond by writing lists, making new goals, charting tasks, and the like. But during this time, my spouse has started talking to me about meditation more and more. He tells me that my hyperactive brain needs to do less, not more, if I am going to stop stressing out. I have heard him saying such things before, so I filed that under "things to put on the backburner" in my mental filing cabinet. Then I stumbled across some articles that brought me back to some of the same ideas.

Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest, posted an article on the Sojourners blog, "It's Time for Baby Boomers to Cede Control." A Boomer himself, he writes about how Boomers' failure to share power with younger generations may be tied to a fear of aging. Behind the fear of aging is fear of loss of control, loss of independence and self-sufficiency, and ultimately fear of death. As a young person living in a church full of folks who are older than I am, I have sometimes felt resentful of those who would not share responsibilities and decision-making with me. Now I see that some of this behavior is motivated by existential fear. I can give a lot more grace to others, because I know that I share the same fears, even if I don't know it yet.

Another article caught my eye this week. It's by Star Foster, a pagan blogger featured on the well-known religion blog central, I was surprised by the title, "Reducing Stress, Increasing Joy: The Stoicism of Epictetus." Stoicism isn't known for being the security of philosophies. But she boils down this ancient Greek philosopher in a way that really put things in perspective:
"There are things you can control, and things you cannot. Happiness comes from recognizing this, and from letting go of that which you cannot control while taking charge of the things you can control. Do well, expect the best, do not worry about what you cannot change, and master yourself."
Wow. Most of this is what my spouse, the sage in basketball shorts, has been telling me the entire time. If I want to transcend my stress and find happiness in the midst of the storm, the solution is not white-knuckling life. Clinging desperately to a few details that are insignificant in the long run only creates the illusion of control. The best thing I can do is let go: of other people's actions and attitudes, of realities I don't like, and I especially must let go of the future.

Letting go of control- or really the illusion of control- feels a lot like the first time I let go of the trapeze mid-swing as a child. But in reality, it's less like a shock of complete terror and more of a gentle release, like letting up on the final note of a piano piece into perfect silence. Perhaps there's something to this meditation exhortation after all. If I gradually let go of my thoughts, especially the ruminating ones, I may be able to release myself from the psychological prison of stress and worry.

Perhaps this insight can be generalized for those living in the grip of existential fear, facing aging and death, moving and upheaval, and even just the chaos of life in this entropic universe. It is not only important to learn to stop white-knuckling the details and sweating the small stuff in life. It is also important to stop white-knuckling life itself. If we cling to life, and by extension to illusions of youth, self-sufficiency, and control, we never fully live. Trying so hard to avoid death, and everything that symbolizes death to us, prevents from truly enjoying the beauty of life in the present.

Our American culture, unfortunately, makes it difficult to release our fears. It conflates busyness with personal importance, values an extreme version of self-sufficiency, and idolizes youth. All of those attitudes and values make it difficult to see our fears what what they really are and release them. Learning to see those values as false and to critique those attitudes is the first step to resisting them. Then we can start to set priorities, including spiritual practices that help us to release our death-grip  on life. God made life for us to enjoy it. It's time we got off the hamster wheel and did just that.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The SNAP Challenge, Part 2

“One great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it- and then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart.” -John Wesley 1786

Two weeks ago, I was taking the SNAP Challenge: a charge from the Sojourners blog to live as if we were on food stamps. I did quite well on sticking to my 54ish dollars' worth of groceries. But I ended up eating out quite a bit, and it could be said that I did not keep to a SNAP-worthy budget. I attended a birthday party for a friend at a favorite local restaurant and ended up spending $25 on dinner. The next day, my husband insisted we go to the home of our friend, Calvin, for a barbeque. When I arrived, bunch of my friends from different parts of my life were assembled in the living room. In response to my look of confusion, they shouted, "Surprise!" It was a surprise birthday party for me! We had a feast, topped off with ice cream cake and much merrymaking. Technically, I'm supposed to count the cost of my share of the meal into the weekly total, even though it was given to me.

On Sunday, I headed out with the Harvard-Epworth UMC Young Adult Brunch Bunch. A generous donor from our congregation has given funds so that we can all go our to eat after church. We each put in $5, and the church covers the rest. It is so gracious and a hugely important social time for the grad students and young professionals of our church. $5 is definitely a more reasonable amount to pay when going out, but it was not the true cost of my meal. All in all, I spent nearly as much eating out in 3 days as I spent for the rest of the week's groceries.

One the one hand, I could feel guilty about spending so much on eating out, and chastise myself for not sticking to my own monthly budget, let along a SNAP-worthy budget. But on the other hand, I had had two downright rotten weeks at work and needed more than a little cheering up. Friends and food often go hand-in-hand, and I needed my friends more than ever that weekend. I can't allow myself to feel bad about going out, because I would have come out of that week much more demoralized without them. Our emotions and perceptions affect our qualify of life as much as the food we ingest.

Yet again, reflecting on my life circumstances reminds me that the features of socio-economic status and class-based privilege unfold like lettuce leaves, slices of privilege and lack thereof interlocking continuously. I qualify for food stamps and live on a shoestring budget, but I live in Cambridge, in proximity to friends my age and free arts programs. I have access to nutritious food, even if it costs a lot. I come from a genuinely middle-class background and live a mainly middle-class life here... barely.

I'm also reminded that while the privilege of wealth separates people of different classes and backgrounds, our needs are the same. Everyone goes out (or stays in) with friends when they need a little cheering up. Income simply dictates the venue. Perhaps if I were not from a middle-class background, I might have gone to a lower-priced bar and eaten cheaper food that Friday night.  If I had been at a dive bar or a neighborhood bar, instead of a popular restaurant, my meal would almost certainly not have been as nutritious. We need relationships and good food as much as we need clothing and shelter.  I have seen this on the street with Cambridge Outdoor Ministries. A social network exists on the street just as it does among housed people. We need one another, and God provides for us through one another. The gift of a birthday barbeque was a powerful one for me.

What does it mean to be a Christian and walk this economic tightrope? I'm still figuring it out. But I am reminded that I am not the only one. So many in this country need help to buy food for themselves, and the number of those receiving SNAP has grown steadily since the recession started. They are in our churches, in our workplaces, on our city buses, and they may even be us. God especially cares for those who need help to meet their basic need (theologians call this care God's "preferential option for the poor"). Likewise, we ought to care for their well-being and see that their needs are met. "They", "the poor", might just be us.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"We Are Not Christians"

The SNAP Challenge Part 2 will have to wait, since I am in the middle of a crazy week! In the meantime, here's a story that has me riveted: "Amish Beard-Cutting Trial Attracts International Attention." It's absolutely incredible to me that: 1. an Amish person has to be put on trial for a hate crime; 2. said trial is taking place in Cleveland. I'm particularly arrested by the quote from the defendant's son, "We are not Christians." Ouch. Well, at least someone is honest about the nature of the behavior this group- and its leader- has exhibited. They know better. We all do.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The SNAP Challenge, Part 1

I've discussed hunger in this blog before. I've told stories of hungry folks I meet on the street through the Outdoor Church of Cambridge. And there was that one failed attempt at fasting in solidarity with the poor. Now, another opportunity has arisen to be in solidarity with those who rely on public assistance for food (but without the dehydration headache). Last week, Christian Piatt over at the Sojourners blog issued the SNAP Challenge: to live for one week, Aug. 20-26, as if one depends on food stamps. Of course, I decided to join in, and I'm learning some interesting things. In case you want to do it, here's how it works:
“SNAP” stands for “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” which is the new name for food stamps. Basically, families receive $4 a day per family member to cover food costs, so the SNAP challenge is pretty simple (in theory, at least): Live on the same amount with your family for a week.
For a family of four like us, this means we’ll have $112 to spend on all groceries for the week. If you’re single, you’re stuck with living on $28. Couples get $56, and so on. And there are a few ground rules:
  • You can’t raid your existing food in the fridge or cupboard without counting that toward your weekly total. Condiments and spices are an exception, though use them sparingly to be fair.
  • If you go out to eat, the whole ticket amount counts, including tax and tip.
  • If someone brings you a meal or buys you a meal, you have to count the full cost of it as if you had bought it yourself.
Some of the folks in the comments section have suggested some other requirements: you have to look for sales and use coupons, you have to go to the grocery store with a list, and keep in mind that most people on food stamps are working, and therefore have a little bit more to spend on food that the stamps by themselves.  One person wrote, "The SNAP challenge is not too far from daily reality for many. Please don't assume that poor people and people living near poverty by choice or circumstances aren't reading your articles."

Her point really hit home for me this week as I dove into the challenge. Since I already use coupons and sales, and I already use lists and a bottom-line tracker when in the grocery store, I thought it would be, well, a snap! Only three full days in, though, I have learned a few things:

1. Prices are really high here in Boston, MA, and that is very true for food. I spent $54.67 in one trip to the grocery store on Tuesday, most of this week's theoretical EBT card. Granted, I bought a lot of produce and meats. It's possible that many who are poorer than I would spend a lot less on produce here in the city. That may be different in Ashland, where produce and meat are both cheaper because they don't have to travel as far from the farm to the fridge. I don't think I have ever missed Gerwig's White Barn so much in my life.

2. I decided to check online and see what it would take for our family (my husband and me) to qualify for SNAP in the state of Massachusetts. Turns out... we do! We both work full-time and we still qualify for SNAP, mainly due to how much we spend on rent. It appears that the evaluation is based on how much money we have to our name, and we don't have much because our rent and educational bills eat it all up. We wouldn't qualify if we lived on this much in Ashland. Interesting: I myself am now a classic example of those who qualify for government assistance and do not use it.

3. Even when you're "grown-up" and you have a "real job," ramen noodles are still a cheap and legitimate meal when paired with protein and a fruit or veggie... if you're willing to consume more than half your day's sodium in one sitting.

4. The SNAP Challenge doesn't work out well for those with food allergies/ restrictions. I downloaded the Food Stamp Challenge Recipes PDF found here, which are nutritionist-approved. I found that most of the recipes were vegetarian, relied on legumes like beans and nuts, and often used cheap meats like canned tuna or turkey instead of chicken breast.  Since my spouse is allergic to all legumes and fish, a good 75% of the recipes were a no-go. I tried one of them already, a vegetarian one, and while it is delicious, it didn't fill me up for very long. Those with allergies, restrictions like Crohn's Disease or Celiac, or those who are anemic can't eat the cheapest foods... and those who can may be hungry or turn to junk food when between-meal cravings inevitably strike.

5. I already live the SNAP Challenge every week, for the most part. We spend an average of $65-68 on groceries per week. That's not too far away from the $56 allotted in my theoretical EBT card. And like the comments said, this is supplemental assistance, meant to help those who already have some other type of income. But my life is very different from some others who use SNAP, who have to go to food pantries, like this mom working for minimum wage. Not only do we not go to food pantries, but we probably eat out more than most folks on SNAP.

So what does all this mean for my life as a Christian? Well, so far I have realized that I should not be so hard on myself over my food budget. Reading the comments has made me realize for the first time that those who can afford it are much more haphazard with their choices in the grocery store! Some people aren't kidding when they say they don't pay attention to how much they spend on food. By contrast, I'm constantly keeping track of how much I spend on food, which food, and when. Since I already live the SNAP Challenge, and although I qualify for SNAP I don't use it, I realized that the face of near-poverty is... me. Wild.

I have also realized that socioeconomic privilege is a complex and many-layered thing. Last weekend, I went out to do the sandwich ministry with the Outdoor Church of Cambridge again. We took ~40 sandwiches, as usual, and there was so much demand, we ran out within 10 minutes! I strategized with Pastor Jed regarding how to get more sandwiches to hungry people on weekends. Looking back on only the first few days of the SNAP Challenge, I recognize that I am the working almost-poor who takes time out of her schedule to feed the destitute. That means a few things: 1. circumstances can always be worse; 2. even those who think they have next to nothing can still give to those who have even less; 3. God cares for us, whether or not we are educated or resourceful (or in the case of my neighbors on the street, sober) enough to obtain public assistance. Certainly my homeless neighbors qualify: they make about $600/ month on the street, but they have no address at which to receive SNAP and no kitchen in which to prepare food. Still, God cares for them, through me and through everyone else at the Outdoor Church, the local shelters, and area soup kitchens.

It's only halfway through the week! Stay tuned for the conclusion of the SNAP Challenge Cambridge-style. If you're interested in trying it, follow the links I provided above and jump in!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Potpourri: Social Justice, Theology, Pop Culture

I'm just back from vacation, so I haven't done much writing... but I have done a lot of reading! Here's some of what I've been mulling over recently:

Immigration: human rights offenses on the US-Mexican border
How Do You Call the Cops on the Cops?

Gender equality: why do the women's sports featured on TV always involve leotards and bikinis?
Women and the Olympic Gaze

Original sin: theology meets pop culture in The Dark Knight Rises
The Worst Hell is Hope

Creation care: our Amish neighbors are an example of holy living
Ten Ways to Live "Almost Amish"

Life ethics: changing opinions on abortion in the US
Pro-Life or Pro-Choice? Many Are Saying Both

Worship: a reflection on the controversial hymn"Onward Christian Soldiers"
The Absurd in Worship

Worker justice: US Conference of Catholic Bishops addresses national silence on the working poor
Labor Day Statement 2012

Technology: a new survey reveals who talks about church online... and who doesn't
Few Americans Use Social Media to Connect with Their Churches

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Solidarity: Mary, the Mother of Jesus and Dvorak's Sabat Mater

On Friday night, I performed Antonin Dvorak's Stabat Mater with the Harvard Summer Chorus. It's a rather depressing piece because the poem, "Stabat Mater," is about how Mary felt when she looked upon Jesus hanging on the cross. Since it's such a downer, we really didn't talk about the meaning of the piece much as a choir, but I thought about it a lot in the 6 weeks we rehearsed it.

Dvorak wrote the piece in stages, each one at a time of personal grief. He began writing it when his daughter Josefa died after living for only two days. Two years later, he came back to it after another daughter, Ruzena, got into some poison in the house, drank it, and died. Less than a month after that, his son Otakar died of meningitis. While Dvorak and his wife had more children later in life, they were completely childless for a time after Otakar's death. It is not surprising that Dvorak worked on this piece at such times: while the music he wrote is often uplifting, the "Stabat Mater" poem is unrelentingly gloomy. Here are some of the opening stanzas:

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.

Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.

Not exactly cheerful, is it? What struck me are some of the last stanzas. The author is asking Mary to help him/her grieve as she did for Jesus: 

O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord...

Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;

Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.

These stanzas really stood out to me because of Dvorak's losses at the time he wrote this piece. It's one thing to lose a grandparent or someone else who is older. It's another thing to lose a child too young. And to lose all of your children practically at once? The grief must have seemed overwhelming. He may have wondered how he could go on with life. In a sense, Dvorak may have viewed Mary as the expert in grief for one's child. She watched her own child tortured and executed in the most excruciating way possible. Perhaps Dvorak was asking her to help him learn to grieve for his children.

Another possibility is that Dvorak saw Mary as standing in solidarity with him as he endured unimaginable tragedy. Surely Mary understands what he was going through, even when many of his friends and family may not have been able to understand. I think this is important to remember for those of us who are performing and experiencing this work, never having had to grieve such profound losses. For many years, women have viewed Mary as standing in solidarity with them. Women have, historically, borne a disproportionate share of the world's grief. In many cultures, their worth is tied up in their ability to bear and nurture children, especially male children. Women who are infertile, who cannot nurse, or whose children grow up to be mentally ill or psychologically disturbed are often blamed as failures. Traditionally, they have watched their husbands, fathers, and sons go off to war and have grieved when they did not come back alive. Mary became, and still is, an important spiritual resource for women because she endured some of the tragedy that is unique to women's experience.

It's important, when experiencing this piece, to remember that it isn't about the blood and gore of the cross and the whip. It's about human experience of loss, and that is something we all share. The most exciting part of the entire 10-part work is, in my opinion, the final movement, which is a plea to go to heaven and be with God at the time of our own death. That is a prayer we can all pray. Here is a video of it, so that you can enjoy some of Dvorak's incredible writing:

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Spiritual Endurance

The 30th Olympiad has been open for two days and already Facebook and Twitter are on fire with both criticism and praise for the opening ceremony and NBC's coverage of the events. I have always loved watching the Olympics and I don't know anyone who doesn't. Whenever I watch any Olympic sport, I always think of some of the Scriptures that use running metaphors. Of course, there's Hebrews 12:1, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..." But St. Paul's admonition to the Corinthians really grabs my attention:
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (I Cor. 9:24-27)
Only one runner receives the prize. Run in such a way that you may win it. That certainly discourages spiritual couch potatoes, doesn't it? Of course, we see in this passage Paul's ubiquitous focus on self-control, particularly with regard to physical discipline. Paul is not encouraging self-control and self-denial for their own sake.  He has a goal in mind. What goal, exactly, is that? Paul's immediate goal was evangelizing his Jewish brethren. But what is our goal? What are the benchmarks that tell us we are living a life of faith and will not be "disqualified"?

I think John Wesley's three general rules for Methodist societies give us excellent benchmarks:

1. First, ...[do] no harm, avoiding evil of every kind.
2. Secondly, ...[do] good, by being in every kind merciful after their power as [you] have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men.
3. Thirdly, ...[attend] on all the ordinances of God; such as:
    The Public Worship of God
    The Ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.
    The Supper of the Lord.
    Family and private prayer.
    Searching the Scriptures, and
    Fasting or abstinence.

What I love about Wesley's general rules is that they aren't rigid. Wesley never expected class members to do all of these things all the time. And he doesn't say, "do no evil," or, "if you do evil, you will not be saved." He says, "avoid evil." Wesley knew that we're not perfect, and we can't expect ourselves to be at our best all the time. Sin happens. But he gave us ways to grow in faith through, as he called them, the ordinances of God and doing good in whatever ways we can find. Wesley's goal-setting was a lot more realistic than Paul's, in my opinion. As long as we try our best to do these things, we qualify to compete, so to speak. Maybe one might not have the constitution to fast much, but there are plenty of other ordinances one can practice instead. 

It occurs to me that, at the Olympics, who qualifies for the final and who wins a medal ultimately comes down to how each individual athlete competes on any given day. Sometimes an athlete has a bad day. Even if s/he is the world champion in the sport, that title doesn't matter. It's about what happens now, in this moment. Likewise, we get another chance each day. How we succeeded or failed in the past doesn't matter. It's about how we make our choices in each new situation. Our goal is simply to live in a more Christlike manner every day. It's hard to do, and it requires endurance. Being a Christian isn't a one-time visit to a soup kitchen or a 6-week Lenten Bible study, it's a lifelong practice. It's important to push ourselves and one another spiritually, just like an athlete needs a trainer to push her/him to achieve more. Like being an athlete, continually pushing ourselves spiritually each day is what will make the difference to win the race in the end.

How do Wesley's general rules push you? How do they affirm what you are already doing? Do you have a spiritual friend who can help push you to be more Christlike?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Body Talk: Health, Hatred, and Healing

 Recently a synchroblog captured the attention of the Internet, or at least, my corner of it: "A Love Letter to My Body." Women wrote letters to their bodies, apologizing for hating them. A friend of mine wrote an awesome one. About the same time, I saw this article, "Is Hating My Body A Sin?" on the Sojourners blog. I've long believed that is the case, but I never really put it in those terms before. Rachel Stone writes,
"Hating one’s body is the disrespecting of the body God has given us, which in itself is worthy of respect and honor, being made in God’s image, the fulfilling of desires in ways God not intend, to believe lies about human bodies in general and ours in particular, and to covet for ourselves a body not our own... Hating one’s body usually involves sin: a distortion of the relationship God desires to have with us, and the relationships God desires for us to have with others and with creation. And, like any sin, hating our body means a loss of freedom and liberty that God desires for us."
As Rachel points out, when we hate our bodies, it is a failure of incarnational theology, that is, it does not respect God's good work as the Creator and God's dwelling within us through the Spirit. This mistake is easy to make because we as Christians have a philosophical legacy of dualism, thanks to St. Paul. All throughout his writing, we see a divide between the spiritual and the carnal, or bodily, self. He often sets these two dimensions of self at odd with one another. Thus the "spiritual" has come to represent that which is better, or preferable, to the sinful "flesh." It becomes "of the spirit" vs. "of the flesh." This terminology is just one way of talking about our own good and sinful tendencies, but it has become a dominant mode of thought.

So when marketers try to sell us products to make us look more conventionally attractive in our culture, it's easy to buy into their lies. They convince us that we have to sanitize and starve our bodies in order to make ourselves presentable to the world. The truth is that health has little to do with outward appearance, and a healthy body can look unattractive (again, by conventional cultural standards) as compared to the rail-thin models and ultra-muscular men that appear in our TV, movies, music videos, and magazines. Impossible standards for both women and men can make it easy to fall into the trap of hating our bodies.

Rachel gives several suggestions as antidotes to this sin of self-hatred. I particularly like her suggestions of gratitude to God for one's body and kindness to oneself. Especially when we have such nice weather outside, a good start is to just sit outside and enjoy the sunshine, the breeze, and the sounds of birds or crickets chirping. Noticing our senses can help us learn to be grateful for our bodies. So can singing our favorite songs and dancing to our favorite tunes. Being kind to ourselves can be harder, because we have to reverse bad mental habits of being constantly self-critical. Once we learn to see ourselves through God's eyes, not the world's, it can be easier to give ourselves grace. God wants us to be healthy and happy, and we should strive toward health and happiness, or at least peace, for God's sake.

When is it hardest to respect your body as God's creation? When is it easier?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cleaning House... and Sweating the "Stuff"

Back in late April, when I'd originally planned my Spring Cleaning for 2012, a number of things prevented me from actually doing the cleaning I had planned to do. And once my schedule cleared, I kind of put things off. So Spring Cleaning has become Mid-Summer Cleaning, which certainly makes one sweat a lot more. I scrubbed the entire kitchen and pantry from top to bottom and re-organized most of their contents. My spouse helped me clean the bathroom, though a little bit accidentally, due to a leaky bathtub. And I finally rotated my wardrobe. In a sense, I've been cleaning house mentally and spiritually as well, shaking the cobwebs out of the corners of my brain and shooing dust bunnies from my heart. 

I wouldn't say that I've learned any new spiritual insight, necessarily, or that I've gained special understanding. I've just taken stock of where I've been for the last year and where I'm going in the coming year. Sometimes it's good to get one's thoughts and feelings in order before a time of transition: to remember the good times in the last few years, take an inventory of relationships, and to acknowledge fears about the future.

This weekend, it's been incredibly warm. I was liturgist today at church, and H-EUMC doesn't have air conditioning. My colleague, Pastor Lisa, was preaching. Just before we processed in during the opening hymn, we looked at one another and noticed sweat on each others' brows. Lisa said, "I'm glad you're up there with me today." It was good to be present with her even in the stickiness. As I heaved aside appliances and scrubbed the kitchen floor last week, and as I did the same in the bedroom earlier today, I became very sticky. It was as if I was purging myself of all the "stuff" of the last couple of years. It's good to release some of the mental and emotional clutter, as well as the physical clutter, in preparation for the deluge of new experiences and relationships to come.

Right now, CUMC's Bridge Builders is in North Dakota on mission among the Lakota Tribe. I'm sure that they are sweating through their work as a mission team, and they are probably spiritually taking stock, too. A mission trip will do that to you. It gives you perspective on where you've been and where you're going, and it gives you a new context in which you can come to understand your own identity and spiritually. Sometimes a change of pace and a little hard work is all it takes to spiritually "clean house." I hope that, whatever they're up to right now, they are learning and encouraging and being encouraged. And I hope that they're releasing some of the "stuff" they've accumulated in their hearts to make room for more people and more of God in their lives.

What do you do when you become a little mentally and spiritually "overfull"? How do you find ways to "clean house" in your mind and heart?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Another Potpurri Post

Right now, my spouse is in the thick of his application process to Physician Assistant school (a master's program), and I'm a bit busy helping him. OK, I'm more than a bit busy. More like a bit obsessed. Since I have no thoughts other than making sure it gets done, here's some interesting things to read until I my brain comes back from application-land.

This one's been making the rounds on the Internets recently:
10 Cliches A Christian Should Never Use

An entry from Rachel Held Evans' Women in the Gospels series:
The Widow's Mite

Yet another way in which Catholic Sisters (Nuns) are awesome:
A Catholic Nun, A Teenage Girl, and Climate Justice

Another good one from Sojourners:
Everything You Wanted to Know About Higgs Boson Particles But Were Afraid to Ask

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Busyness: Industry or Self-Deception?

Today an article was published in the New York Times: "The Busy Trap." It's about how we Americans live overly-programmed, overly-stressful lives, and we're all very, very tired. I highly recommend reading the entire thing. What really gave me pause to think was this paragraph:
"Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day... More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter."
Wow. Does what I do for a living really not matter? I like to think that I'm helping others as a customer service representative. But am I really doing anything of consequence for 8 hours each day? That's a tough question to answer, and I think, part of why I have never given up on my calling to become a United Methodist Elder. Once I become ordained, then I can really make a difference, I tell myself. Is that true? But for now, while I immerse myself in church work and singing here in Boston, am I pursuing my passions or just trying to avoid the fact that my current day job has less meaning than the one where I eventually see myself?

At Harvard Divinity, the spiritual formation class for future ministers is called "Meaning Making" (BU's less inventive name for it was Pastoral Spiritual Formation). This name reminds me that we make our own meaning in life as we interpret our lives' events through the lenses of the Bible, Christian tradition, and our past personal experience. In a sense, things mean what we make them mean. If I think my current job is meaningless, then to me, it means nothing. But if I find a way to make meaning around what I do for a living, then it has significance for me.

Perhaps becoming more aware of the ways in which we make meaning can help us not to fall into "the busy trap," as the author called it. If we know in our heart of hearts that we are important and valuable to God and to our families, there is no need to try to tell people how important we are by bragging about our busyness. If we know why we make the choices we do regarding voluntary commitments, and we have our priorities straight, then we can choose to say no to things that are less important or meaningful to us. Reflecting on the meaning of our daily activities can take time- and guts. It's hard to face the way we use our time and how that reflects what our priorities really are. But if we choose to it, we can stop avoiding the emptiness of the rat race and start enjoying the little things in life, like sweet tea on a hot summer evening.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"I Don't Want the Body of Christ!"

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a training on pastoral care in the context of outdoor ministry among our homeless neighbors. It was basically Pastoral Care and Counseling 101, but it's always good to brush up. I really enjoyed the stories folks shared about things they did to help their homeless neighbors that they didn't know would be helpful but that actually made a big difference in their lives. My friend, Lane, went to a service of the Cambridge Outdoor Church on Sunday and had a similar experience. He wrote about it on Facebook. Here is his witness:

Every Sunday afternoon Rev. Jedediah Mannis, Episcopal deacon Pat Zifcak and volunteers with The Outdoor Church hold a worship service on the Cambridge Common, within sight of Harvard Square and my church, Harvard-Epworth United Methodist. Anyone can join, but the brief liturgy and Communion are meant for street folks.

The Outdoor Church provides sandwiches, juice, water, socks and toiletries for the homeless as well. A group from Harvard-Epworth takes monthly turns with other congregations for Saturday food handouts to Harvard Square and Central Square. Jed and others do the walk-arounds on Sunday -- after worship. The Outdoor Church is first of all what it says it is -- a church, for some of the most broken jars of clay in God's kingdom. The homeless men and women offer the prayer requests. The week's Gospel lectionary is usually read by Chris, a bearded, middle-aged man who's considerably better-educated than his appearance might suggest.

Jed, who's a United Church of Christ minister, had just begun the Communion liturgy when Sunshine arrived. I'd met Sunshine the day before, when a young-adult couple and I did the Harvard Square handout. Sunshine is slender, with dark blonde hair. If he were healthy, not high or hung over and sultry instead of truculent, he'd have looked like a fashion-ad surfer dude. Sitting on the brick pavilion away from everyone else, head lowered, he looked like he'd just wandered over from wherever he'd slept the night before.

As Jed blessed the Communion juice and wafers, Sunshine murmured, "Jesus wouldn't do this." Moments later, Pat took the elements to those sitting along the curved stone pavilion bench, and then to Sunshine.

"I don't want the Body Of Christ!" he snapped. "I want something to eat."

"We'll get to that," Pat said. Others were still waiting for Communion as much they were for the sandwiches they knew would follow the benediction. But Sunshine stood up and stalked away.

A few minutes later he was back. He took a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches and a drink like everyone else, and wolfed down the first sandwich as he walked off, without saying a word.

Jed wasn't fazed. He's seen such behavior and worse many times, at services as well as on the walk-arounds. Sharing food for soul and body is the point, not compliments, and a lot of people like Sunshine show up again some Sunday later on.

"You never know how they're going to remember this," Jed said.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In the meantime...

This week, I'm getting ready for Meghan and Ken's wedding, as I mentioned in my last post, so I haven't had time to think of anything new to post. In the meantime, here's some wonderful wisdom from Sojourners blogger Catherine Falsani that pertains to United Methodists' recent infighting and obsession with numbers:

Rob Bell: "Surrender the Outcomes"

Deliver Us From Smugness

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


These last few weeks have been a long string of goodbyes for me, as friends graduate and move away. Brother Anthony has recently moved from Brooklyn, NY to Victoria, KS en route to Santa Inez, CA as part of his journey into his novitiate year of formation into a friar (he blogs about it here). My friend, Jeremy, is moving from Tulsa, OK to Portland, OR. Another change is coming for me next weekend as my friends Meghan and Ken wed. Meghan will be moving away from Boston to Western MA and starting a new job. Their relationship will enter a new dimension of existence. And although, as the soloist at their ceremony, I have been preparing for it for months, it's going to be an adjustment not having them in Boston as much. Since I've been thinking so much about change, and on the God Talk blog we talk about- what else?- God, my thoughts have turned to God and the concept of change.

A common assumption about God in Western Christianity is that God does not change at all, that is, God is immutable. One of the most famous Baptist preachers of all time, Rev. Charles Spurgeon, preached that God is immutable in several ways: 1. God's essence (substance) does not change; 2. God's attributes (qualities) do not change; 3. God's plans do not change; 4. God's promises do not change; 5. God's threats do not change (yikes!); 6. God's love for us does not change.

While I certainly do not dispute numbers 1, 2, 4, and 6, I take exception to numbers 3 and 5. First of all, regarding his fifth point, I am not a fan of fire and brimstone. I don't believe that God calls us into personal relationship with Godself by threatening us with hell. Instead, the Holy Spirit beckons us with promises of God's love and mercy. Second of all, regarding his third point, as a Methodist I don't believe in God's plans in the way that Spurgeon, a Calvinist, believed in them. God's dreams for our lives are intents and purposes, not marching orders. When I was young, I worried that I would somehow mess up God's plan for my life by doing the wrong things. My mom explained to me that God, as the Great Creator, is infinitely creative. If I messed up in my life, Mom said, God would creatively find ways around the new situation I had created and eventually wind my path back where it's supposed to be. Wesleyans like United Methodists believe that God allows us free will to make our own choices. While God would like us to do certain things and become more like Christ, God will not force us into it.

Spurgeon's main theological move in his sermon, however, is not about the finer points of Calvinism. He suggests that God is not God if God can change- that if God changes, then God is not perfect or infinite. Spurgeon can't conceive of a God that changes. In fact, he calls the concept "madness"! But why is he unable to think that way? I didn't consider that question until I got to seminary and studied early Christian theology in the Greek tradition like that of Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysus. I was told that the idea of immutability was carried over from Greco-Roman paganism, and at first I was skeptical. Then I stopped to consider Scripture.

In the story of Abraham and Sodom, God decided to wipe out the city and Abraham pleaded with God not to do it. He convinced God not to destroy the city if 50 righteous people lived there, then 45, then 30, then 20, then 10. Although the city was ultimately destroyed, Abraham succeeded in convincing God not to go through with the original plan. Think of the story of Noah. God wiped out the entire earth except for Noah and his family. Afterward, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a promise never to do that again. Note the story of Jonah, in which the city of Ninevah was about to be destroyed, and then God commanded Jonah to go there and prophecy judgement to bring about the people's repentance. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), in order to reconcile with God and have one's sins forgiven, it was necessary to sacrifice an animal. Then God sent Jesus, so we no longer have to make sacrifices.

I realized that in many cases, God decides to do something different. And this has been a pattern throughout Scripture. Spurgeon asserts that Jacob believed in a God who never changes, but based on what we've seen of Scripture even at the time of Jacob, I'm not convinced that's the case. In fact, after the episode with the golden calf, the Scriptures say that Moses asked God to remember God's promise to Abraham to multiple his descendents, "And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people" (Ex 32:14). I realized that ancient Israelites didn't have any qualms about a God who changes, and I began to see how immutability as an attribute of God creeped into our theology with the Greeks and their philosophy.

One thing I noticed, though, is that there is a pattern to all of the stories I just mentioned. God makes a plan to destroy sinful humans, and then a prophet convinces God not to do that (or God decides not to do it). This pattern highlights God's mercy and love for people. While there are many instances in which God seems to evolve or reverse course, that happens because God lives in relationship with us. God loves us and wants to forgive us. And when we have personal relationships with Jesus, we show the Godhead why we do what we do. This requires God to adjust to us! Think about it: as a married person, I love my husband and live my life in relationship with him. When he does things that are unexpected, surprise me, or with which I disagree, I have to adjust who I am and how I behave. If he is having a rough time, then I suffer with him. I change the way I live so that his needs are met. Likewise, God adjusts to us and to our experience of suffering. If it were not so, we would not have complete freedom to act. God doesn't control us or solve our problems for us. But God will be there to help and save us when we need it.

Despite my objections to Spurgeon, I agree with him in that God's attributes do not change. I would suggest that God's essence and attributes do not necessarily depend on God's immutability. God may adjust to us, and respond to our suffering, but God is loving and merciful- and always has been and always will be. Even as the circumstances of our lives change, and our relationships change, God is there with us. God is operating within our new circumstances and finding new ways to comfort us. Whatever happens, we don't face it alone. God is with us.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Post-Weekend Potpurri

Lately I've been making a lot of posts about church polity and ecclesiology, which can get a bit dry for those who aren't major Metho-nerds like me. The Methoblogosphere's been pretty intense. Fortunately, this past weekend was the first in awhile in which I had nothing to do. I feel as if all the stuff that's been crammed into my brain for so long slowly dribbled out. Today I have no new thoughts to share with you, but here's some interesting stuff I've been reading:

The Mainline and Me 
- a prolific young Evangelical blogger shares her experiences in mainline churches

- a compassionate but honest piece on how our undocumented sisters are being treated at work

Beyond Death and Crisis Metaphors for the UMC... (please?)
- a must-read for those following the post-GC2012 conversation (sorry, I had to!)

Agape Doesn't Mean "Potluck" 
- long-winded but worth it, this article challenges us to be a channel for Christ's perfect love

Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is
- the basics of social privilege explained using video games

Nuns On the Frontier
- a look at the real lives of sisters in the US in the context of their treatment by the church hierarchy

A Priest is Like Mary Poppins
- What do pastors do all day? Find out here!

And just for fun, some randomness... remember Psalty? Turns out he's got a website and it's 90's-tastic.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

UMC Post-General Conference: What Now?

The last few posts I've made about the General Conference and the way the UMC conducts its business have been sort of like peering into a sausage factory- messy and a little bit shocking. The analogy of making sausage has been making its rounds in the Methoblogosphere: we like to eat it, but we don't want to watch it made. We may be grossed out by some of the political wheelings and dealings, but now that GC is over, what are we going to do about it. I've waffled back and forth for the past few weeks between despair and hope for our denomination. But slowly, I have begun to lean closer and closer toward hope. A few things have helped me do this.

1. The #DreamUMC Tweetup was truly a Holy Spirit wave! It was incredible to "meet" so many wonderful new friends in the UMC from all over the country. They all had wonderful things to say about moving forward from here. Another Tweetup is planned for Monday, 5/28, at 9 PM EST. You can go to Twitter and pull up the #DreamUMC hashtag to "lurk" and just see what people are saying, or you can get on Twitter and participate!

2. Last Sunday was Boston University School of Theology commencement. I have always been invited to sing with the Seminary Singers, and this year was no exception. A friend of mine, Rev. Victoria, leaned over to me and told me that her glimmer of hope in all of General Conference was my (OUR!) generation. I realized that it's our generation's turn to really do something for the Church, and that's energizing!

3. There's a new Facebook group known as Vaguely Progressive United Methodists. It's a "secret" group, so if you want to join, let me know and I'll invite you. There a conversation going on there right now about the differences between what happened at GC2012 and the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention of 1979. My pastor jumped into the discussion and wrote:

I can understand the discouragement with the General Conference, but I do not share your perception of a "takeover." If it was taken over, I don't know by whom. I will grant that the human sexuality votes, with the exception of the Hamilton/Slaughter amendment, followed that 60/40 pattern, largely as a result of an infusion of 16% more African delegates than were present 4 years ago. With that new conservative voting block the right only managed to maintain the same margin they had 4 years ago. This means that the American middle has moved considerably. But who won? The bishops lost their set-aside bishop and their Call to Action plan; the Plan UMC folks were trumped by the Judicial Council; the right held fast on incompatibility but lost every other initiative they brought to GC. We are certainly a church in disarray at the moment, but we may also be in the midst of a moment that can shape the future. For me the key issue is regionalizing in a way that will allow much more liberty than we have had before. I think we may have unexpected allies in this conversation if we get our act together.

Thank God for Scott. He reminded me that it could have been a lot worse than it was. Then somebody else who was familiar with the inner workings of the SBC takeover said:

What GC 2012 looked like to me was a stalemate. One of the beautiful things about Methodist polity is how hard it is to take over. One of the frustrating things about Methodist polity can be how it is slow to change. Its a double edged sword.

The SBC takeover happened because of a polity of participatory democracy. Conservatives literally organized busloads of people to throw the vote. First they purged the liberals with strategic votes that divided moderates from liberals (which became Alliance of Baptists in late 70s). Then they purged the moderates (which became CBF in late 80s).

If the UMC were taken over like the SBC, it would be because either 1) conservatives formed a center/right coalition (something they've failed to do) or 2) progressives and moderates get fed up and check out (either by leaving the UMC entirely or just retreating to local church and not participating in denom b/c its unpleasant and people are mean). 

And there you have it, my friends. The hope of the UMC is us. We are the ones we have been waiting for! No one is going to swoop in and "save" our church, but I'm not really sure it needs saving in the first place. And if it did, the only One who could save it is God. No, we are not here to do institutional maintenance. We are here to be the people of God and do God's work (not the work of people, the work of God). We are here to love others. We are here to bring others into relationship with Christ Jesus and with one another. We are going to "save" the church by being the church.

It is time, friends, to participate! Whether conservative (10% of us), moderate (80% of us), or liberal (10% us us), all of us make the UMC who it is.  We may be in a mess, I concede that, but the only way to get out of this situation is to band together despite our differences and get to work! Who's with me?