Thursday, December 12, 2013

A carpenter's shop, family baggage, and the thin places of prayer

It's funny how prayer changes what we see and how the mind wanders in response. I've been keeping a number of folks at church in prayer a lot recently. Several have lost parents, which is like living in whirlwind. Others are becoming parents to their parents. The ground shifts. Everything changes. Nothing remains the same.

I've been keeping them in prayer partly because it's what I do, and partly because this season the space seems very thin between life and death, past and future, where our wounds and wonder dissolve into one another and we don't know what shape the future brings. Naming the feelings that rise up as generations shift and change can be like identifying ghosts in a wispy harbor fog.

I went to Jody's shop in Farmington today. She rents space in a larger building that looks a bit like a long metal barn or airplane hanger. It's divided up into various workshops to house the tools, equipment, and work space of machinists, cabinet makers, and carpenters. Jody is working on some remodeling for the church, some of it literally (she's building kitchen cabinets), some  figuratively (she's introducing me to a simple, effective model of consensus decision-making).

Two observations struck me and led to two thoughts.

The first observation: I saw new material in all the workshops. Some was on the floor, some stacked on shelves and pallets, all clearly intended for specific projects in progress. What got my attention, though, was all the scrap. In every workshop there were discarded pieces and parts of old projects sitting around. 

I realized it was those pieces of accumulated stuff, useless in their current form, that would be repurposed to make the new material fit together. An old cabinet door gets cut up and starts over as a smaller piece of cherry, on its way to becoming a drawer front.  A cast-off piece of metal gets turned on a lathe and is reshaped into decorative cribbage board pins. A piece of scrap Silestone miscut for one project and left out in the elements can be recut, smoothed, and shaped into a beautiful countertop for an island for the church kitchen.

The first thought that wouldn't let go came filtered through the prayers I've been praying. It was about how we accumulate scraps of family patterns and habits for generations. A grandmother's china is one thing, but a family structure, value, or prejudice is kept in a different kind of cabinet. Moreover, it's on display everywhere we go. 

I'm sometimes tempted to think we are inevitably just the accumulation of all our past experience, good and bad, our genetic predispositions, our inherited physical, behavioral, and emotional characteristics. There's probably a name for that, but using the language I know better, it's essentially a psychological sort of predestination. 

Jody's shop gave me a visual reminder of grace. 

We may not have a lot of choice about what scrap we inherit from our family of origin, but we have a choice about what we do with it. It's hard to toss out family baggage, but it really can be done. Nothing is unflushable. Some may require a plunger, or in some cases a shovel! And a cousin or sister might get upset. Nevertheless, there's no healthy way to hoard everything we inherit. Some of it must be thrown away.

Thankfully some of it is made of strong stuff that may be useful, even if not in its current form. With creative visioning, careful planning and measuring, cutting off the edges, drilling the right holes, rescaling it in the right way, we can do something good with it. 

Of course, until it's reshaped or repurposed, some of our family baggage has to stay up on a high shelf where it doesn't get in the way. Then, when the time and circumstances are right, we take it down, trim off the parts we do not need, and reshape it into something new and good. It's hard work, but in the right hands, with skill born of practice, prayer guidance from God's Spirit, and a tenacious, creative vision, our lives really do become new. 

What's more, we aren't limited to the scraps we inherit. We can work with some things that are truly new.

Long thought made short: we may be predisposed to walk certain paths, but it's not predetermined that we must. Metanoeia is real. We really can change direction. Even the direction of generations. In fact, we must, if we trust the future is not completely determined by the past. But we will have to reshape some of our inherited raw material to do so.

The second observation: One spot in the the shop especially intrigued me. It's where they spray the rubber cement onto wood countertop pieces before they attach the laminate veneer. The platform the material sits on has accumulated a good 2-3 inches of rubber on one end where I assume the sprayer begins. It looks a bit like a long, yellowish sand dune.  You wouldn't think such thin layers could accumulate so deeply. Occasionally, I suppose, the shop owners just go in and cut all of it away to level the surface again. 

My head was already on its way to my heart, when I saw this part of the shop. I'd been thinking of several people in the church who, for various reasons, are noticing the cumulative layers of their ancestry and experience and wondering how to reshape the landscape of their lives.

So, the second thought: I wondered at our adaptability. We adapt to the emotional and spiritual layers that gradually accumulate on the surface of our soul. Some of those layers were sprayed on when we were too young to notice, and like our own physical growth, were noticeable more to others than to ourselves. Some layers were laid down generations ago.

Layers of religious upbringing are there, surely, blended with atomized relationships, friendships, loves, the shades of meaning gleaned in school classrooms, playgrounds, failed experiments and successful ones, too. Layers of decisions and values are there, along with rules of thumb and habits of the heart. 

Mostly, I suspect we don't even notice the growing dunes. We just adapt. They become our "normal." They become the ground we walk on, wearing paths we begin to assume are the only acceptable ways to go.

What happens, I wonder, in that thin place by the bed of a parent who is dying, when we really notice the accumulated layers beneath our spiritual feet? When we honestly face the struggles our forebears faced, and now are holding on to what matters most while shackles of past determinations fall away, as one friend recently said, like Marley's chains? What happens when we start cutting away what we assumed was our foundation? 

Can we revisit our deeper bedrock, and then with care and determination map out new contours, new paths, that will lead us places our ancestors never could have imagined we would go? 

I'm short on answers today but long on prayerful wanderings that are rising up to mingle with the shapes I see in the thin places of this season. 

May your prayers rise in wonder. 

Blessings and Peace,

Thursday, October 3, 2013

God, We're Supposed to Be Better Than This

A prayer of confession (or is it lamentation?) is all I can muster today.

God, we're supposed to be better than this.

As of Monday night, we've shut down the federal government of the United States because we can't stop arguing about health care. Yes, we. We're in this together, Democrats and Republicans, and sadly, when it comes to offering people access to the private health insurance market, we don't work together very well. Your Son called us to heal the sick. Ok. But we'd rather argue about how, who, whether, and how much. And it's not like you need our help, do you? In case you hadn't noticed, we're busy right now.

God, we're supposed to be better than this.

We confess that we haven't just gone on some crazy government "slimdown" fad diet. We're not even fasting. That would show spiritual discipline. Instead, we've told our Representatives whose health plans we pay for to shut things down and grandstand for the cameras. After all, we'd rather argue than serve. We confess we would rather stage photo-op raids on closed monuments on the National Mall than keep children in Head Start. We confess that we're okay holding our poorest citizens hostage while we fight about ideology and money. We also confess we're okay stringing along our military veterans' widows' while they wait for their nursing home claims to be processed. There are so many sins of omission and commision we can't even name them all, not that we even want to. Now we're hearing shots fired at the Capitol, asking a skeleton crew of "essential" security to lockdown the city center and protect us. If they don't, you will, right?

God, we're supposed to the better than this.

We say we care about financial markets, but we confess we don't. We'd rather shut down the Labor Department so Friday's jobs report won't be coming now. No matter. We don't mind. Maybe this way Wall Street will learn who butters their bread. And who needs to count the unemployed anyway? It's not like they count to us. Lazy bums. If they don't work they shouldn't eat. You said that, right? So you understand. Oh, and those trying to buy homes with federally guaranteed loans (FHA, VA, and others) will just have to wait. You'll cover them with your sheltering wings while we work this out, won't you, dear Lord?

God, we're supposed to be better than this.

Please be with Ted Cruz, even though we'll pay for his doctor's visits, and John Boehner, too. In your mercy and justice, we know you'll be with them. And if you could, please also watch over the people who really are getting sick and going hungry and getting behind on rent, and also those we're making work without pay because we think they're essential. It's not that we want them to suffer (we're not monsters), but surely they'll understand that we can't just offer anyone food stamps anymore. The leeches. You are so good, God. We don't know what they'd do without you.

God, we're supposed to be better than this.

But we're not. If you can forgive us, you're better than we are. Amen.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Independence, Interdependence, and Utter Dependence

I love my country. With each acrimonious debate, each filibuster, each letter to the editor, and even each notice of a new leak or protest, I fall more in love with these United States.

Sounds odd, doesn't it? I was that kid in the parade with streamers woven through my bike spokes and trailing from my handlebars; the Boy Scout bugler playing Reveille in the morning, To the Colors at the raising of the flag, and Taps at night. I was the pastor meeting on Sundays over pizza after worship with the God and Country class, and offering the invocation at the small town Memorial Day service in central Illinois.

With no cognitive dissonance whatsoever, I was also the college student riding the Homecoming float calling for nuclear disarmament, the student who tried to talk my university's chancellor into divestment from South Africa, and the south suburban pastor testifying for marriage equality before the MN Senate Judiciary Committee. 

All of these are ways I love my country. In celebration and in protest, I love my country for giving me a voice.

When Katy and I lived in Switzerland for the better part of a year, we were wowed by the chocolate, the local wines, and the on-time trains. But we were stunned that women were only just getting the vote in one canton in the early 1990s, and that conscientious objection from military service was illegal: every man spent time in mandatory basic training or he spent it in jail. That vaunted political and military neutrality? It is physically enforced by tank barriers built into the mountains to protect from invasion. And everyone pays voluntary taxes to support their canton's official state religion, either Roman Catholic or Reformed Protestant. Whether they are Christian or not.

Every Fourth of July, for years before Jackson was born and every year since, we have tuned in to NPR for the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence The various reporters each take a sentence or phrase. Nina Totenberg, who covers the Supreme Court, always gets the phrase about the Judiciary. It's a powerful reminder of the freedoms and responsibilities of citizenship

Independence, though, while a precondition for a just society, is only part of what it means to be fully human and fully in community. I'm glad to have a voice.

But we are also Interdependent. Our lives intersect. Other people's voices matter, and they shape and challenge mine. Commerce is only one sphere, but it is the clearest, easiest example: those who sell need those who buy, and each needs the other to state their needs. Our complex economy depends on a whole host of interdependencies to function. A well-regulated free market is not an oxymoron. It is  necessary for freedom and mutuality to connect each of us to the goods that help us flourish and thrive. We then live into relationships that are fair and just, at best, not only for our own freedoms and desires, but for the common good. And when relationships are less than just, we have not just a right but a responsibility to speak out.

Theories of communitarianism, libertarianism, socialism, capitalism, and more continue to animate us precisely because we depend on each other in this diverse environment that is political society.

But for Christians, and I suspect for people of several other faiths, independence and interdependence are not enough to give life its fullest meaning. We are also utterly Dependent on processes, forces, absences and existences that are not in our control. These may go by many names, but commonly we conceive of them as something sacred, holy, divine. Not necessarily supernatural but possibly so. In certain traditions these point us toward God. 

There is room, it seems to me, in our Independent American hearts for an awareness of our Interdependence on others. Or patriotism celebrates such diversity, revels in the clash and contrast of ideas, dances to the competing tunes of liberals and conservatives, and cherishes the liberty and dignity of each woman, child, and man. As such, we maintain secular structures that neither hinder not enhance religion. 

But what makes life meaningful in its largest sphere, and this means it goes beyond American borders both physical and philosophical, is the Utter Dependence we have on a God whose mercy transcends every boundary, who infuses justice with love, and who inspires compassion that takes us beyond ourselves. It's the God who gives others a voice, to which I must also listen, the God who lifts up those whose voices are too often silenced, the God revealed as Word that is other than my own.

Contrary to those who would equate being Christian with being American, I think the genius of the American philosophy of governance is that a freedom of and from religion sets the stage for the flourishing of any religion that keeps its constant focus on broadening the voices that articulate the common good. We are "free and independent states," to be sure, but we are also free to depend on each other and free to be utterly dependent on a God who is still speaking.

The Fourth is coming. I hope it's a good opportunity to reflect not just on our nation's strengths and shortcomings, but also on the ultimate source of freedom we find in faith. 

Wishing you good words, blessings, and peace,

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Moving with Jesus

Moving from Virginia to Minnesota is no simple thing. And I don't just mean the climate changes. There's the physical stuff: packing boxes, sorting stuff. Every item came into our lives somehow, and usually there's a memory attached. So there's emotional baggage to sort through, too. As boxes and tape run out, memories renew.

Don't get me wrong. The physical work means inhaling insulation from the attic, stiff muscles in the morning, multiple showers throughout the day. And emotional work is significant. I found myself nearly in tears while disassembling Jackson's loft, which was made from the bunk bed that was his first "big kid" bed, the site of countless nights of story, prayer, and song. 

But I'm thinking tonight of the spiritual work of moving. The part where you look for Jesus and wonder about what it means to follow someone who you know is only going to take you to the cross. Sure, there will be wonderful encounters where wholeness happens, when there's room at the table for a stranger to become a friend. There will be water into wine, explosions of extraordinary grace and joy. And there will be moments that go the other direction and turn wine into ordinary water. Sad but true

Moving is essentially a spiritual activity. You trust that someone, even God perhaps, is walking with you. You discover in someone else's kindness, which in your emotional limbo you're fairly sure you don't deserve, a good you don't expect is there.

You develop a healthy relationship with stuff. A kind of unattached attachment. You like the things you call your own, but discover you can live without them. You're glad to have the comfort of a familiar tie or painting, but realize it doesn't make you who you are.

Jesus was a wanderer, it seems, itinerant. He called disciples who wouldn't stay one place for long. Did he anticipate our consumer culture, when he told his followers to take nothing with them (advice I'm not sure how to follow)? And what of his admission that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head?

There's something to this journey that is decidedly uncomfortable. I want to grasp the future, hold tomorrow in my hand. But in my day-to-day discipleship I marvel at the trust it takes to walk with Jesus, ours in him of course, but also his in us. 

In between...

Blessings and peace,

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The morning after

Now that Governor Dayton is about to sign into law the bill that includes same-sex couples in the state's definition of marriage, a lot of us are celebrating. The roar in the Capitol rotunda on Monday was amazing! It could be heard in every back office and conference room on every floor of the building. It's a beautiful day when God's eternal grace breaks through the particularity of our time. Moments like these are pure crystals refracting rainbows of light into every dark corner of the world.

I want to bask in the glow for a while.

The thing is, I'm not very good as basking. I can't shake the conversation I had on my way up the Capitol steps. I had dropped Jackson off so he could get in the middle of it all while I went to  park. As I crossed the street, I came up alongside a woman who glanced at my blue "Vote No: Don't Limit the Freedom to Marry" shirt left over from the amendment campaign in November.

"I like your shirt," she said. 

"Thanks," I said, "I'm so excited about today. As a pastor, I'm really happy we're about to do the right thing in this state."

She looked at my shirt again and must have realized the No on it was about last fall's amendment to limit marriage to one man, one woman, not on the marriage bill that was about to pass.

"You're a pastor?" she asked. I nodded, proudly. Her voice turned cold, "Then how can you possibly support this sin?" Yow. That was when I realized she'd misread my shirt.

By now we were at the steps of the Capitol building. She launched in. "I don't know how the gays can adopt the rainbow as their symbol. You know what it stands for?" As I started to reply, she continued, "God was so mad about sexual sins, corruption, perversity, and disobedience that he found the one righteous man living and saved him from the flood." I tried again to interrupt, but she kept going. "The rainbow is the sign of God's divine judgment on their sins and a warning against those who keep sinning."

I replied, "Don't you think the rainbow is a sign of God's promise never again to destroy creation? Isn't it a sign of unconditional love and grace?"

"How sad that you're a pastor," she said. "Satan has blinded you to God's word. Just wait. God has terrible things in store for us. You'll see God's judgment coming on us soon."

We parted ways.

Business professionals tout the benefits of the walking meeting, and Aaron Sorkin popularized it on his TV show West Wing. Decisions are made on the fly. Dialogue sparkles. But the walking meeting is a lousy way to listen to each other and discover in the conversation someone's true humanity. It lends itself to stating opinions and positions. It doesn't help anyone connect.

I kind of wish the two of us had given time and attention to each other, but of course that's not why either of us was there. I was there to celebrate, she to chasten, to pray for what she would have considered a miracle, and perhaps to mourn. 

In the weeks and months to come, I trust that many of those who mourn what Minnesota did yesterday will come to see marriage equality as the blessing it is. I have no doubt the light of love will shine.  But for now I wonder if I missed an opportunity to experience God's grace in the dignity and integrity of a genuine connection with a hurting human being. Did I miss the chance to embody and experience God's love by listening to another person's anger and pain? The chance will come again, no doubt. 

For now, I really am basking in a great justice being done. This is a banner day for Minnesota, as the Governor prepares to sign full marriage equality into law in a few hours. I am proud to be a pastor who serves a church that speaks out for the fullness of human dignity for everyone. I only hope I won't let basking turn to gloating. I can rejoice in the good we've done without taking joy in someone else's pain.

I just heard last night that a group of pastors is planning to assemble on August 1 to officiate at free public weddings. I hope to join them that day in the warmth of the sun and the rainbow refractions of God's unconditional love.

Blessings and Peace,

Friday, May 10, 2013

Marriage and Mother's Day: Witness for Peace

It isn't common knowledge (but it should be) that Mother's Day came from the women's anti-war movement. After the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe called on mothers to organize a World Peace Day, a  feminist clarion call to teach every mother's son the ways of peace, not prepare them for the carnage of war.

Anna Jarvis' mother worked to promote Howe's vision, and when she died in 1905, Jarvis honored her mother's work by promoting Mother's Day, leading to Woodrow Wilson's declaration of it as a national holiday in 1914. It morphed quickly into something other than her founding vision. She so opposed the commercialization of the holiday she created that she was arrested in 1948 protesting it.

We do well to remember the holiday's origins: mothers working for peace. Daughters honoring their work. All of us, born from the womb, to witness to peace..

I am deeply moved each time I read Julie Ward Howe's words:
Arise, then, women of this day! 
Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears! 
Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. 
From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice." Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. 
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace, Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God. 
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask That a general congress of women without limit of nationality May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient And at the earliest period consistent with its objects, To promote the alliance of the different nationalities, The amicable settlement of international questions, The great and general interests of peace.
It is peace that I pray for on Mother's Day, recognizing that each of us who was carried in our mother's womb has within us more innate capacity for love than for violence, more inner craving for relationship than for isolation.

As the Minnesota legislature sandwiches its votes on marriage equality around Mother's Day, I am especially moved to think of the mothers who soon will be able to marry their partners and model for their children even more fully and with public and cultural support the ideals of love and relationship. Maybe someone will even design Mothers' Day cards (note the position of the apostrophe)! Peace modeled in families of every configuration has the potential for even greater witness to world peace.

How much greater our capacity for peace when we proclaim a justice rooted not in violence or exclusion but in love! How much deeper our reservoirs of compassion when children raised in same-sex couple's homes can, without fear of reproach, talk with friends about "my moms"! The personal becomes political. Peace privatized is not really peace.

The vision of peace we see today is not the same as the vision of Julia Ward Howe. It is deeper, richer, broader, greater, certainly more diverse. Yes, our capacity for violence has grown. But so has our awareness of our responsibility for the world's divisions and our commitment, I hope, to reconciliation. 

Howe may not have been able to imagine a day when a mother would be the chief diplomatic officer of the United States, but surely she would be pleased to see how Hillary Clinton helped negotiate an end to several overseas wars. She might not have imagined a world where same-sex parents could raise children together, but surely she would be pleased to see children raised by families of any stripe as long as they were grounded in love.

I am grateful to God for my mother, Jeanne, for Katy, the mother of Jackson, and for the ongoing witness of all those who stand up to violence in ways that give birth to peace. May each of us live to see the day when our families—yes, gay and straight, mothers and fathers, mothers and mothers, father and fathers—will all be models of an inclusive and powerful love that shows the world the ways of peace.
Blessings and, yes, Peace to you this Mother's Day.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Names on My Heart

When Katy and I first married, we lived in a parsonage. Our bedroom window looked out at the church's stained glass. The living room was brightly lit by a picture window. Anyone walking down Center Street could tell if we were watching TV, two-stepping, or having a guest for dinner. It was a classic fishbowl, and we couldn't afford curtains. You could say we were exposed.

It was one afternoon in that bright, open living room that a clergy colleague in our cluster of churches came out to me. He wasn't out at his church. But he could talk, and I could listen and learn about the hurts and hazards of serving God while hiding an essential part of yourself from  God's people.

His name is the first one I wrote on my cut-out heart at the marriage equality vigil last night at the Minnesota State Capitol. Other names quickly followed.

  • a gay college friend who married straight but couldn't keep up the facade
  • a classmate from divinity school who never went into ministry
  • Michael Kinnamon, who showed me at the beginning of my ministry the risks and courage of publicly being an ally
  • Roger Weddell, who hosted the first local chapter meeting of GLAD I ever attended
  • Mel White, who let me be his pastor for a time, but who, in that relationship, taught me more about the power of public witness than anyone I've known
  • Audrey Connor, with whom I was honored to serve on staff in Lynchburg, and who helped me be honest about my convictions out loud
  • Dan Adolphson, with whom I'm walking as he journeys toward ordination
  • The names of every same-sex couple I've married in church but whose licenses I couldn't sign
In the rain, their names washed off my paper heart, but they are indelible on mine, even as they are eternally on the heart of God. 

They and others are on my heart today as I head up to the Minnesota State Capitol for what looks like a historic vote for marriage equality.

My prayers are rising up today with the names and faces not only of friends and allies in ministry but of those whose only fear of exposure, as their relationships begin, should be a few curtainless windows, not the baring of their identity or the stripping of their soul.

Blessings and Peace,

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

National Day of Prayer Misunderstands both Nation and Prayer

I've been getting email encouraging me to support local National Day of Prayer events two days from now.


Don't get me wrong. I believe deeply in the power of prayer to transform lives. I pray for our nation that it will protect the weak, serve the poor, promote justice and peace not through strength but mercy, and that all people will be recognized and honored with dignity and grace.

I pray for our nation for all I'm worth.

But I chafe at the government telling me I should pray.

National Day of Prayer has become nothing less than a religious-right attempt to eliminate true freedom of religion in the United States. It threatens the religious liberty that is at the heart of the First Amendment. And it does so as a wolf in sheep's clothing—by claiming that it is promoting religious liberty.

Who gave Congress permission to mandate that the President declare a day when Americans should pray? What part of "make no law respecting an establishment of religion" do we not understand?

Go to the website of the National Day of Prayer and you'll find a specific prayer the organizing committee, chaired by Shirley Dobson, is pushing on local observers nation-wide. It is written by an evangelical megachurch pastor, and it prays in specifically Christian terms and forms, even though Jesus is not mentioned by name.

Worse, it promotes the false idea that our nation has removed "Your Word" (by which the author of the prayer appears to mean the Bible, even though the Christian gospels consider Jesus to be God's Word) from our classrooms, courtrooms, and culture. As if it were government's role to promote religion! Then it calls on God to bring a spiritual revival that will turn the country once again back to God and thus heal our land.

I'm all for revival and healing, but I don't accept the vision Dobson and her crew promote. I do not begrudge anyone the right to pray as they see fit. I'll defend their right to the grave. But I also refuse to be complicit or silent when our nation sacrifices the very freedom on which we were founded to promote a narrow, misleading, sectarianism of any sort, mine or anyone else's.

We're a better country than this. And as Christians, we should be grateful for and not ashamed of the secular structure of government our founders envisioned. It's that very neutrality in matters of religion that guarantees our freedom to pray or not, as we choose.

I'm proud of the God and Country award I earned as a Boy Scout. I'm also passionate about preserving the freedom of those whose religion is different from mine as well as of those who profess no religion at all.

We Christians don't need a National Day of Prayer to work together for the people Jesus called us to serve: the poor, the hungry, the sick, the disabled, and the oppressed. We need a government that protects religion without promoting it, ensuring all of us the freedom to pray or not as we please.

National Day of Prayer misunderstands who we are as a nation. It also misunderstands the source and power of genuine uncoerced prayer.

Pray for our nation if you like on Thursday. I will. But don't do it because Congress passed a law requiring the President to tell you to do it. Pray because prayer is something you are already doing. Pray not because you must but, if you so choose, because you can.

Blessings and Peace.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A day in the life (or at least a morning)

5:00 a.m. Alarm. Calendar check. Big day ahead. Gotta get Katy to the airport and Jackson to school in time to finish homework, then arrange lawn care and landscaping for the house nobody has bought from us in Lynchburg, and get myself to the Capitol in St. Paul. The Marriage Equality Lobby Day and Rally is today. Must remember my stole.

6:00 a.m. Morning rush was compressed. Fast showers, lunch made, school things gathered, coffee poured, weather checked. We're nearly ready to get out the door. Last minute didjas (didja take your allergy meds, didja get money for dinner, didja...) done. C'mon! Let's go!

7:00 a.m. Both drop-offs went cleanly. Airport, school. Checking in now on Foursquare at Dunn Brothers Coffee. Time for another calendar check. Then a moment to explain.

Here we are, nearly 24 years into our marriage, with fifteen years of parenting and several moves under our belts. Each day we three depend on each other. It's like a dance where we've learned the steps by doing them, stepped on each other's toes more than once, and once in a while stepped back to listen to the rhythm of it all. It's what families do.

By now, Katy's settling in at the gate waiting on her plane to board, Jackson's in the school library printing out his homework, and I'm taking a few minutes to collect myself. Each of us is launching into the day. And the foundation of it all is the mad rush of the family dance.

There are some things we count on as we navigate the next steps:

  • each other's trust and unconditional love
  • the support of our wider family
  • gainful employment
  • a loving, safe, Open and Affirming church
There are other things, of course: breathable air, clean water, healthy food, stable government, good schools... We don't take any of these for granted.

But the thing that holds together the dance, that gives our steps purpose and meaning, is the church. As Open and Affirming, the church is the community that shares with glbtq families as it does with allies like us the good news that, no matter what, we are loved and accepted. For all its faults, the church is where we hear the story that God loves us, treasures our good relationships, encourages in our own busyness and in our ministry with others. It's where we know people will be there for us, and we'll be there for them.

We usually take this for granted, as much as any pastor's family can. But many families cannot.

That's really what being Open and Affirming is all about. Not just tolerating each other's existence or grudgingly acknowledging someone else's rights. It's about standing up for each other because Christ stands up for us. Honoring each other's journey. Resolute in faith and trust. Vulnerable yet strong. And in all things, all things: Love.

When the dance spins wildly and the day seems out of control (here comes Katy's text: flight delayed, ugh), we know we're part of something larger than ourselves. We need to know this, deep in our bones. It's become unfathomable to me how any church can still deny that every family, every individual belongs.

8:00 a.m. Still, there's work to do. It's time to call Virginia Garden Supply for bedding plants before the next open house back in Lynchburg this weekend. Then I'm off to the Capitol in St. Paul to stand with other clergy in support of a marriage equality bill moving through the legislature.

It's good to know Spirit of Joy doesn't just tolerate what I do but sees my advocacy as part of its ministry. Our family depends on such love and trust. We're grateful to be part of it. After all, it's what Open and Affirming churches do.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wisdom from Gordon Cosby

I just read Gordon Cosby's last sermon at Church of the Saviour, preached two years ago, where he and Mary gave their lives for 60 years. Such wisdom! The church lost a great man yesterday. And yet, he is not lost.

The best preaching I ever hear is the kind that launches me into an internal dialogue with the preacher. I might not be able to tell you what the preacher said, but I can tell you about the journey we've been on.

Fortunately, I have his sermon in writing, so I can tell you what he said. Here's a bit of my journey through Gordon Cosby's final sermon...

"Most of us don’t live as if we believe. Jesus asked us to take care of him, feed him, visit him in prison, but many of us don’t really know one poor person or one prisoner in any deep way."

I'm learning to believe all over again... not in some otherworldly heaven but in a this-worldly one, a kingdom that is really kin-dom, where the insecurities and fears that keep us apart fall like Jericho's walls. I'm learning to believe what Jesus believed, that God calls us to be for and with one another in love, and that love guide all we do. But do I know any prisoners? Do I know anyone Jesus calls me to serve in a deep way? I may not believe as much as I think I do.

"If we do believe, there are ramifications. The first is that we are going to have to know the bad news—and it is everywhere. Until one really embraces bad news, one cannot live into any authentic good news. For Moses, embracing the bad news meant going into the heart of enslaved Egypt."

This takes me out of myself. I tend to think bad news is bad because it's bad for me. My own struggles with health or money or snow on the ground in March are not bad news. Embracing bad news isn't about naming what's wrong in me. Or how I've been inconvenienced. How individualistic! It's about the injustices and hurts of the world.

"The scale at which God has to think if we are to have the kind of human family that God desires is both small and immense. We likewise need to think on both ends."

I'm tempted to think either small or large, not both at once.

"Older people are often too willing to step aside and let young people take over, but younger people have not gone through disillusionment—and dis-illusionment (the release of illusion) is essential. Disillusionment allows us to be detached from outcomes. It frees our ministries of ego deeds. (Many, many things come from our egos rather than God.) Disillusionment teaches us not to care too much if something we are investing in is not going well, and has to be laid down. It pushes our creativity."

I wonder if younger people know a different kind of disillusionment, not the sort that releases illusions, which sounds liberating, but the kind that tears them away, which sounds like it hurts. Maybe they're the same thing, one just coming with practice.

Can I lay down a project I've poured myself into and walk away, letting go without myself dissolving? Not if I've mistaken what I do with who I am. To be creative is perhaps to gain a little distance from one's creation.

"I no longer try to judge things. God is a forgiving God who can forgive big stuff. I don’t have to prove myself every day. I don’t have to be a great, successful Christian. I can be afraid, because I have a God who deals with my specific fears."

It's that large and small scale again, isn't it? My fears seem as nothing compared with global problems, which i am all too willing to judge. Can people like me with all our tiny fears and judgments really band together to bring about the kin-dom God is calling forth? I wonder. And hope.

"I need to cultivate not worrying. In a culture as addicted to knowing and doing as our own, this is difficult. We all want to know what we are to do. Most everyone I know is too busy. I’ve reached the point where all I’m interested in doing is being—and the knowing which springs from that being; the doing rooted in that being. I aspire to live the goal-less, purposeless life: a life of being."

This may be the most difficult of all. I don't know how to live without goals, and thus without worry. That would mean living without direction or control. It seems irresponsible not to worry. Do we have enough money, people, or motivation? Will the project get done on time? ... Too busy? Ouch! I wonder what it would be like to slow down enough to focus first on being, and then on the knowing and doing that arise from being. It's not about achieving goals, then. It's about being authentic to the source of existence.

"This is the nature of God. His intentions become ours, and we become one with the totality of creation. This is something we could not ourselves achieve."

Thank you, Gordon Cosby, now one with the totality of creation. May it be so.

Blessings and Peace.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

To the MN Senate Judiciary Committee: Support Marriage for All

I just had the opportunity to testify before the MN Senate Judiciary Committee along with other pastors, business leaders, Republicans and Democrats, couples and adult children of gay couples, in support of the legislation that recognizes marriage for all. The testimonies have been poignant and moving.

Here's what I said.

Mr. Chair and Members of the Committee, it is an honor and privilege to testify in support of legislation to recognize marriage for all loving, committed couples.

I serve as pastor of Spirit of Joy Christian Church in Lakeville. For 23 years, it has been my deep privilege to officiate at weddings for loving couples in every church I've served. It is a humble joy to stand with a loving couple as they commit themselves to one another in love. I look forward to the day our 14 year-old son meets someone he chooses to marry—just not yet!

Five years ago in Lynchburg, Virginia, two young women who met in my church came to me asking to marry. I considered their request as I would any other church members. Of course the church would bless their covenant of love and mutual commitment.

In our months of premarital counseling I saw first-hand just how much pain we inflict on a minority of loving families when we deny them the privileges we gladly grant others. I realized just how very many privileges my wife Katy and I enjoy simply because we are married.

For 23 years, Katy and I have shared the good, hard work of life together "for better for worse, in sickness and in health." We have been blessed with opportunities, privileges, and responsibilities because we have the freedom to marry.

No pastor, church or religious institution can ever be forced to solemnize a union they do not support. I have said no to couples before, as have many pastors. But many congregations, like mine, yearn for the day we can say yes to all loving, committed couples equally, not only as a church but as a wider society.

I urge you to support this legislation that affirms what we already know: not only that marriage is good, hard work, but also and especially that it is rooted in love, commitment, and responsibility, and it is a benefit to society. It is time to end the discrimination and honor loving, committed, same-sex couples with the same freedoms and opportunities as the rest of us.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Widow's Mite

Some have lost what they never had
And yet gave all.
All that they had, though it was nothing.
God saw, and it pleased him.
He read their hearts aright.
He didn’t take their offering at face value.
Why do we – why do I?

I thought I gave all and yet it was nothing.
Now I want all and have nothing to give.
I give my nothing.

Help me to open my heart and
my hands to receive your all
– or your nothing.

Community of the Sisters of the Church

Saturday, March 2, 2013

How to Follow Jesus

I saw this today at

How to Follow Jesus
Catherine Doherty

Arise--go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor.

Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.

Little--be always little. Be simple, poor, childlike.

Preach the Gospel with your life--without compromise! Listen to the Spirit who will lead you.

Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me., never counting the cost.

Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.

Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbor's feet. Go without fear into the depths of human hearts. I shall be with you.

Pray always. I will be your rest.

Source: The Little Mandate

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Taxes for the common good

I was called last night to testify at the Minnesota Capitol at hearings on Governor Dayton's budget proposal. I was supposed to speak at 8:30. At midnight, I was finally at the head of the line when the chair of the committee adjourned the hearing.

Here's what I had planned to say.

Mme. Chair and Members of the Committee:

I'm David Cobb, pastor of Spirit of Joy Christian Church in Lakeville. I also volunteer with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition. JRLC is supported by 79% of Minnesota's faith communities, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, in every legislative district in the state.

I am here as a person of faith to speak up for those who often have no voice. They can't get off work to care for their children, let alone to come to a hearing. On their behalf I commend the Governor's goals:
  • To raise revenue adequate not only to balance the budget but to meet human need
  • To tax fairly, calling on more from those of us with the ability to pay
  • To promote public stewardship and serve the common good
Our church meets half a mile from $300-400,000 homes to the west, and just across Cedar Avenue from a trailer park community. Some of our members are independent contractors; some work for large companies, some in retail, education, public works, social services. Some are unemployed or retired. Some are disabled and rely on state assistance. One of our newer members lives in the trailer park.

She came through our doors last year because we changed her oil when she couldn't afford to. It's such a simple thing. But it makes a difference. Twice a year single moms bring their cars, many of them rusting out and on their last legs, to our parking lot where we offer them what for most of us is routine maintenance. An oil change can feed a child for a week. Some have to choose.

We collect food for the Lakeville food shelf. We serve meals at St. Stephen's shelter. We do what faith communities do every day: we identify and meet the subsistence needs of those who struggle. We do it without fanfare. It's what neighbors do.

But we only answer part of our calling if we do not work to correct the systems that cause poverty in the first place. Our regressive tax system causes poverty.

According to the MN Revenue Tax Research Division, the lowest 10% of Minnesotans earn under $11,298 annually. These families pay an effective tax rate, counting state and local taxes, of 30.5%. Afterward, they live on $654 a month. They'd have an extra month and a half of income if they paid what those of us in the middle pay, 12.1%. The top 1% earns over $472,626 and pays an effective rate of 9.7%.

The widow's mite may not be much to me; it's everything to her.

I urge this committee to raise revenue fairly with the poorest among us in mind. The human heart beats with the rhythm of the common good. Revenue must be adequate, it must be fair, and it must be more progressive than it is right now.

Listen to to the better angels of our nature. Measure the common good not by the good it does for those who take their oil changes for granted, but by the good it does for those who can't. Please ensure that this budget serves the common good.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Sunday prayer for hope

God who brought us into being
and who calls us by your promises,
we place our trust in you.

From the depths and darks of mystery,
to the glorious visions of love and light,
you call forth from us the best of your creation.

Show us the wonders of life transformed,
the calm that follows storms,
and also storms that call from us our greatest strength and courage.

Show us in each other the tenderness of care,
barriers overcome, intimacies unimagined.

Show us your vision of how the world can be,
how our lives may be a blessing,
our imaginations sparkling with creativity and light.

We are aware of injustices that oppress,
of complexities murky, challenges hard.

We see the effects of injustice
in hunger, poverty, and homelessness,
and in the -isms of prejudice around race, gender, money, and sex.

We are not unaware of our role
in the degradation of our environment,
and we are grateful for the calling to which we have been called.

So empower us and strengthen us
for the healing of the nations,
for wholeness in relationships,
for love to overcome,
for the breathing of your Spirit in joy and hope.

Gather these and all our prayers
in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus,
for it is in his name we pray. Amen.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Thinking of Dad, on the anniversary of his death

Dad died 26 years ago today. I don't always remember the date, but his memory is rarely far away.

Is funny how we measure ourselves. We check out our neighbors' homes, yards, cars, clothes. We try to fit in, mostly. There's a magnetic pull toward common values, a common language of sorts, so we listen to the same songs on the radio, cheer for the same teams, pledge allegiance to the same flag.

We want to live a shared story, where there's a place for each of us, and no one is alone.

On the other hand, we want to be noticed when we excel, when we stand out for achievements that stretch us. The captain of the team, the spotlight center stage, All-State band, the promotion, the scholarship, the award.

I find myself, fairly or not, measuring myself against my dad. When he died, he was only a year older than I'm about to be. When he was my age, he and Mom had two kids in college, one in high school, and one in elementary. He'd been a college chaplain, church choir director, college professor, and Dean of Faculty, and Vice President of a college. A year later he'd become President of one of our church's divinity schools.

I don't feel as old now as I thought he was then. But when I look at his pictures, he looks younger and younger. I'll outlive him in another year and a half. And in some odd way, even though the things I've done are different than his, and he's been gone more than half my life, I feel closer to him now than ever.

Instead of measuring myself against him, as if it's a competition, I'm measuring the space between us. And it's shrinking. I'm feeling more connected to the church he loved and served, more a part of something larger. I wonder if he felt these things as he got into his late 40s. Perhaps.

Dad, I miss you. But I'm glad I'm part of Jackson's life, and Katy's, and I'm glad to call myself your son.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A favorite poem on shoveling snow

I shoveled the driveway this afternoon and couldn't stop thinking of my favorite snow shoveling poem. It's by Billy Collins. Enjoy. Or not. Your call.

Shoveling Snow with Buddha

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Walls fell today

Spiritually speaking, today was a watershed. I did things I haven't done before. I learned to see people in public service as real people doing their jobs and not just abstract positions or roles. Walls fell.

You'd think this would be old hat for me. After all, I've prayed at candlelight vigils for death row inmates at the hour of their execution, marched and mobilized against nuclear war, lobbied my university's chancellor to divest from South Africa during apartheid, written letters on behalf of political prisoners for Amnesty International, and worked the Vote No phones on the marriage amendment.

I am no stranger to political activism.

But today was different. I was with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, an interfaith group representing Christians, Muslims, and Jews from every legislative district in Minnesota. Eight hundred of us met with all our legislators in person, one at a time, to talk about how they could pass legislation that benefits people in need.

I talked with my senator about sex trafficking and asked her to support laws to treat girls picked up for prostitution as victims in need of treatment, not criminals in need of jail time. Did you know Minnesota has one of the worst records in the nation on sexual slavery? Turns out my senator went to school with Jeff Bauer. She's already signed on to the legislation.

I got to talk about the Governor's tax proposals with my representative who used to be a Republican and now is a Democrat but isn't party-line either way. I learned a thing or two about where we differ, and I believe he heard me.

I said walls fell. These were internal barriers. I'd always thought of political leaders in terms of their roles, their public personae, their sound bites and positions. Today I saw them in their offices, running to and from meetings, and listening to constituents. Ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there—giving me their attention.

I heard them think out loud about things the way we would at church in a discussion about some theological issue where the stakes are high.

And I wondered: why have I though of politicians only as abstractions, not people? Lord knows I've known enough of them when they're not at work. But in this environment, they were real people doing real, meaningful work. And that work meant listening to us, to me.

And then I wondered some more: how many people look at churches and pastors the same way I've looked at lawmakers? What walls do people see when they look at a church, assuming the people inside are a particular way, have certain prejudices and ideas? What do they see when they look at me, a pastor? Do they assume I'm as unapproachable or set in my ways as I assumed my legislators to be?

I'm in a different place spiritually now than I was when I woke up this morning. I feel like my voice was heard, like it matters, like I've made a difference as a person of faith in a political world.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Get ready to rumble!

Well, maybe rumble is the wrong word. Grumble? Mumble?

For those of us studying together at Spirit of Joy on Wednesday nights, it could be all of the above. But I doubt it. Instead, I expect some deep conversation about how we think about God, Jesus, the Gospel, who we are, and who we are called to be. 

Starting next Wednesday night, we'll begin a series on Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke's second edition of How to Think Theologically. The schedule and ordering information are here

Stone and Duke haven't written a systematic theology, but they have done something far more clever. They've provided tools for us to explore our own understandings and beliefs. 

The book started over a cup of coffee between the authors. We'll study it following dinner, and you can be sure the coffee will be fair trade, locally-roasted, and hot.

I've still got to come up with the right word for what I'm really getting ready for. Humble? Yeah, that's it! I expect I'll be humbled by the stories shared and lives interwoven as we equip ourselves to do the deeper work of public theology. That's just how it goes around here.

Join us if you're in the Twin Cities area. We're about 25 minutes south of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How I can tell if God is calling

I'm feeling a bit reflective today. So this is less explicitly parable and metaphor and more  theological musing. 

Several folks at church have shared with me that they suspect God is calling them to a particular ministry. It's not mine to share what they are hearing. It's theirs, and if the call persists, they'll each test it in the wider congregation and we'll seek fuller guidance together.

What's so remarkable to me is also not the ministries themselves—even though they are remarkable—but that in the busy lives we lead any of us can hear the low whisper of God's call. I'm convinced God does call us. But I'm not sure we all hear that call the same. "Tune my heart to sing thy praise," an old hymn goes. Our hearts are tuned differently, based on our embedded ideas of God.

My embedded theology, that is, my ideas of God that go deeper than conscious thought, the assumptions I live with day-in and day-out and make sense of my experience, begin with something so simple I don't even know if I could make an argument for it: God calls us to love and justice. 

We each have some sort of ground-level assumptions we use to make sense of everything else. These are mine. I would doubt a nudge to be from God if it led me toward something unloving or unjust. If, on the other hand, it leads me toward love and justice, then even if the path is rocky and the mountain steep, I have to pay attention.

I bring this up because I might be tempted to test the call by measuring it with someone else's stick. I might, for example, decide something is from God based on whether or not there are obstacles in the path. I've heard some say that they know a particular path is from God because all obstacles fall away,and if there are stumbling blocks, it's God telling them it's the wrong path. But I don't buy it.

There's not a person in scripture whose call made their path easy. For most it made it more dangerous. I'm hard-pressed to find many outside of a few warrior-judges and kings who didn't call people to create a fairer, more just, more faithful and loving community. 

What about you? What are your ground-level, embedded ideas of God, the ones all the others depend on? And how do they help you discern if you hear God call?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Peripheral spiritual vision

When I learned to drive, I learned to adjust my side view mirrors so I could just see the backside of the car. While listening to Car Talk, I found out I had been doing it wrong all this time. It really does create dangerous blind spots.

To eliminate the blind spots, Click and Clack said to move the mirrors farther out. That way as cars pass from my rear view mirror, they appear in the side mirror. I did this two days ago. I must say, it's taking some getting used to. But the cool thing: the blind spots are gone!

It has me wondering where the blind spots are in my spiritual life. What do I not see because my vision isn't broad enough? Is my image of God too narrow? Are "objects in mirror closer than they appear"? Will I "cut someone off" because I can't see where they're coming from or where they're going?

I must say, it's a bit strange not being able to see the sides of my car. But, I already know where I am on the road. Now I can see others better, which will make me a better driver. If I can figure out how to broaden my spiritual vision, it may make me a better human being.

Blessings and peace.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cleaning House

When a new boss cleans house, it's scary. When it's just Katy and I, cleaning house can be quite satisfying.

Still, it's daunting to face stacks of paper in the study and partially-complete projects upstairs. Filing has never been my strong suit. Sometimes whole rooms are out of sight, out of mind.

But taking the vacuum to the dust bunnies under the chair, I feel like Don Quixote defending Dulcinea's honor. As Katy sorts Keepers from Recyclables, we both feel better. And by the time I take the last box to the attic and reunite that lost glove (now found) with its mate, a sense of accomplishment and calm settles in. Dishes are put away. Surfaces are scrubbed. Order returns.

If we can do this with clutter, gloves, dishes and dust bunnies, maybe there's a chance for some Lenten house cleaning in my prayer life, too.

For me, it means slowly reading out loud a scripture passage that has nothing to do with Sunday's sermon, perhaps also reading a poem, and humming a Taizé chant I know by heart. However it happens, I clear my mind of distractions while simply being in the moment. It doesn't take long, but it centers me, helps me feel connected, whole.

Things will no doubt get cluttered again, both in the house and in my spiritual life. Still, it's good to take the time Lent brings to put things in order. Without a strong interior journey, the outward journey suffers. I might even find that missing sock.

Blessings and Peace.

Friday, February 15, 2013


Talk about a loaded word! What comes to your mind when you hear "judgment"? A court settlement? A line call on the field of play? Some sort of final exam for life?

I'm entering the wonderful world of speech tournaments. It's one of the perks of being a parent. Jackson made the school speech team, so Katy and I have volunteered to be judges.

Good judges, as it turns out, have some pretty hard work to do. It's not nearly as hard as the work the competitors are doing, but to honor these students, I have to be honest, attentive, careful, deliberative, and a good interpreter of rules. I also have to be willing to make a decision. Somebody in each round did better than all the others. My job as a judge is finally to make constructive comments to help each competitor get better next time, and then to rank them.

One thing I'm learning from the students is that they expect and deserve good judgments from the judges. The critique sheets they receive are like gold. They take each one seriously and use the comments to improve before the next competition.

What they don't deserve in any way is to be treated judgmentally, either by their teammates, their competition, their coaches, parents or, yes, by their judges. And they learn how especially important it is not to be judgmental toward themselves.

There's a difference between judgment and judgmentalism. The -ism is a form of condemnation. The other is an act of life-changing grace.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Taking stock

I heard an interview last night on Minnesota Public Radio with a man who works in Antarctica. He talked about the long winters. But what really intrigued me was when he talked about preparing for trips. One trip he took inland was for three months. He had to choose everything he would take, including every toiletry item and every meal he would eat, for the full time he was away. Choosing from canned and frozen goods, he would need to decide how many meals would require frozen hamburgers, scallops, chile rellenos, soft drinks, coffee, etc. He said taking stock was the hardest part of the trip. But he had to do it. His life depended on it.

Taking stock spiritually rarely seems like my life depends on it. But what if, as I suspect in my more reflective moments, it actually does?

So here's a start. My spiritual inventory for Lent 2013:

  • Strong relationships with Katy and Jackson. These are my primary bonds where I feel love and acceptance.

  • The ability to trust. This is the hard-won rock on which everything else is built. It's what makes me generous toward the humanity of others, but it's also where I can be most vulnerable to disappointment.

  • A reasonably well-trained, critical intellect. This is where hard questions come from. It houses my hermeneutic of suspicion, and allows me to hold in tension both a radical iconoclasm and a deep respect for ritual and tradition.

  • Thirsty curiosity. Not the same as being nosy, it leads me down new paths where caution would keep me away.

  • Self doubt. I see this as a strength, not a weakness. It means I could well be wrong, and if I am, I'll kick against it for a while, but eventually admit it.

  • Passionate conviction about the subversiveness of scripture. Unlike most official history that's written from the perspective of the victor, scripture is written from the underside, speaking truth to power. And anyone who dares to use it to oppress others had best beware the sword that turns back on the one who wields it.

  • A growing conviction that Jesus really is God's Word. I mean this in the richest, mytho-poetic, metaphorical, and thus meaningful and powerful sense that in Jesus I "hear" something that "speaks" my life and the world and relationships we all inhabit into being.

  • Spirit of Joy. I'm part of a community of faith that encourages and treasures each person as God's beloved gift to the world.

I'm sure there's more. A fledgling prayer life. A healthy heart. The use of all my faculties and abilities (even if my eyes need help). A basic assumption about the goodness I'll find in others.

But this is a start. For the 39 days (not counting Sundays) that remain in my journey toward Easter, I think I'm pretty well-provisioned. Now to see what comes next!

Blessings and Peace.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lead us not into temptation

tempt (v.)
early 13c., from Old French tempter (12c.), from Latin temptare "to feel, try out, attempt to influence, test."

Temptation. It sounds so, well... tempting. After all, it's not like I'd ever really choose something i felt was really wrong.

But the real temptation isn't sleeping an extra few minutes, or a decadent dessert. Where temptation gets tricky is when I see so many ways of doing good. Isn't it good to push limits, to make a difference? Surely there's nothing wrong with that.

The first Sunday of Lent is coming, and the story is about Jesus in the wilderness, a liminal space, nowhere in particular really. Wilderness isn't just desert or desolation. It's that pause between one way of being and another. Adolescence can be a wilderness. So can the time after the last kid leaves home. A relationship ends, or a job. Wilderness.

We have plenty of "in between" times when we know just what Jesus is feeling. There are choices to be made, directions to set. New paths to travel. Good to do.

But how to choose? So many paths are tempting.

Temptation is rarely about choosing good vs. evil. I don't know of anyone who seriously chooses what they think is evil. We are tempted by things we see as good. Stone into bread? I see the good in that. Make me ruler of the universe for a day? I'd set a few things right.

Sometimes it's better to follow the advice our mothers never gave: "Don't just do something, sit there." It takes a certain level of trust that the universe will survive without me. First trust. That's what I see Jesus doing into wilderness. Faced with temptation of multiple goods, he remembers first to trust in God.

Lord, lead me not into temptation. I can find the way there very well all by myself. Help me instead, when faced with so many choices, good choices, so many possibilities about how I might make a difference in the world, first to place my trust in you. Lead me through, then out of, the wilderness with a new sense of humble purpose and hope.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Love and Welcome Build the Church

While getting ready for Sunday's sermon on the love chapter in 1 Corinthians, I ran across Amy-Jill Levine's notes. She suggests something I hadn't thought of before. Paul probably had in mind the incredible image of Gentiles and eunuchs (who ordinarily would be cut off from worship) gathering as part of God's beloved community. The image comes from Isaiah 56. It's a great image of church: outcasts who do justice and love are as welcome, perhaps more so, than anyone else.

The LORD says:
Act justly and do what is righteous,
because my salvation is coming soon,
and my righteousness will be revealed.
Happy is the one who does this,
the person who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not making it impure,
and avoids doing any evil.
Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the LORD say,
“The LORD will exclude me from the people.”
And don’t let the eunuch say,
“I’m just a dry tree.”
The LORD says:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
choose what I desire,
and remain loyal to my covenant,
in my temple and courts, I will give them
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.
I will give to them an enduring name
that won’t be removed.
The immigrants who have joined me,
serving me and loving my name, becoming my servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath without making it impure,
and those who hold fast to my covenant:
I will bring them to my holy mountain,
and bring them joy in my house of prayer.
I will accept their entirely burned offerings and sacrifices on my altar.
My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples,
says the LORD God,
who gathers Israel’s outcasts.
I will gather still others to those I have already gathered.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Deliver Us from True Believers

Maybe you can help me think something through. It's about True Believers in politics and religion, and the need to be delivered from them in both.

First, politics...

Eugene Robinson in this morning's Washington Post quoted Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on the GOP:

We’ve got to stop insulting the intelligence of voters. We need to trust the smarts of the American people.

Makes sense. Robinson, now:

If they want to attract minority support, Republicans will have to take into account what these voters believe on a range of issues, from the proper relationship between government and the individual to the proper role of the United States in a rapidly changing world.

That's a great insight. But it's going to take a special effort "to take into account what these voters believe," because voters are people, and people are more complex than politics allows.

That's why Democrats have won a majority of votes in five out of the last six Presidential elections. It's not tactics, messaging, or race, and it's not any single issue. Democrats are marginally better than Republicans, at least in our current climate, at acknowledging the pluralism and ambiguity we experience. Oh, they still polarize. But their leadership pays just a little bit more attention to the complexity of what we believe.

This is not the same as paying attention to True Believers. Parties, be warned! True Believers are those ideologues who hold onto their policy proposals so tightly they believe they are first principles. It makes them quotable on cable. But it's only in the minds of True Believers that things like lower taxes and less government are the answer to every question, and not simply tools, like hammers, that are best used when what you really want to do is drive a nail.

Most people aren't True Believers. We carry more tools in our bag. We expect our leaders to, as well. Try cutting wood with a hammer. You can do it, but it makes a mess.

To pay attention to what voters truly believe, the parties each have to recognize voters live in a world of complex celebrations and struggles, aspirations and relationships, not some oversimplified fantasyland where everything is black or white, either/or, true or false, hammer or nail.

You see why I think we have to turn to religion...

There are True Believers in religion, too. Fundamentalists come to mind. "The Bible says it, I believe it," is enough to make it true. But there are also those who agree religion is exactly what the fundamentalists say it is, but because it doesn't pass muster intellectually or morally, it all has to go. True Disbelievers. Hi ho.

Pace Jindal: We've got to stop insulting the intelligence of Christians and pay attention to how the people in our churches truly believe.

Here's the thing. We who call ourselves pastors and teachers have done the church no favors by doing all our theological heavy lifting in the privacy of our studies. Or worse, only in seminary. By taking the deeply spiritual, intellectual, and emotional work of deconstructing and reconstructing faith, and then hiding it, we've been faithless. We have not trusted the people we love, people who live and serve, suffer and thrive, and get sick and die in our congregations, to wrestle with meaning. We delude ourselves thinking that if we do it for them they won't have to. Or that they aren't already doing it. Of course they are. And they find it strange that their pastor or teacher doesn't talk about it.

Why? Maybe we want to look like True Believers. Or, more likely, we remember the crucible of our own faith crises and would spare others the searing flames of the day we learned the creation stories in Genesis won't reconcile on a time-line. We remember the day we noticed the fingerprints on the Pentateuch don't all belong to Moses. The day it dawned the gospels give us more than one Jesus. The day we realized Paul's letters don't fit the chronology of three journeys in Acts. What's more, they're not all by Paul. And the ground began to rumble!

We remember when our naïveté exploded, and we blindly pulled the Philistine walls of our earlier faith down upon our heads. Yes, it hurt. In our defense, we would spare you that.

But at what cost? A little condescension on our part, certainly. It takes arrogance to believe you can protect the faithful from ambiguity, mystery and spiritual pain. But it costs even more. In trying to save people from faith's trial and crucifixion, we deny them not only the truth of their experience but the joy of a new faith resurrected and shared. Save us, Lord, from becoming pastors who would protect the church like that!

I believe it's actually a good and helpful thing, to accept the call with Jeremiah, "to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.” Note the ratio of deconstruction to reconstruction. It's 2:1. That fits. For True Believers it's 0:0. When you don't dig up the soil, you also don't plant.

How much better to wrestle with beliefs articulated in the beautiful simplicity of a creed or lifted up in the moving lilt of a familiar hymn, by taking seriously what was at stake when the words were written! By taking seriously what's at stake now.

Scripture itself formed out of the refining fire of political, social, economic, and yes, spiritual unrest. To read it sanitized, cleansed of its messy origins, is like trying to make bread rise without the violent biochemistry of yeast. It remains flat and bakes up hard. You can stay alive on it, but you'll never flourish or thrive.

Here's the theological point. There's good reason Gnosticism was considered heresy in the early church. It denied Incarnation, not because God couldn't do it but because God wouldn't stoop so low. The dualistic either/or God of True Believers could not imagine both remaining God and also becoming one with this ambiguous, convoluted, silly-good, messy riot of a world. How sad.

Incarnation means at its very least that God is here not in spite of the messy, riotous violence, the raucous ecstasy, and the occasional, dull throb of being human, but gladly, lovingly, redeemingly, in the midst of it all. Thankfully, that's where we live. Pastors and congregations together not as rigid True Believers but as communities learning to trust that God is here with us, and it is good.

So... my prayer for the church today:

Deliver us, Lord, from True Believers in politics, yes, but also and especially in the church; from leaders who mistake the naive for the profound, the simplistic for the simple, and the neat and tidy for the good, and who in the name of protecting us from the evil of spiritual tear-downs prevent us also from building a living faith flexible and fit for today. Help us see you in the messiness of human needs and ecstasies alike, that we may meet the world with eyes open, resolve strengthened, and hearts and minds renewed. Amen.