Monday, June 10, 2013

Book Review: The Midwife

Hello folks!  I had to take a couple months off from the blog as I had a temporary job with a lot of overtime.  But I'm back now, and happy to share this book with you!

The Midwife, by Jennifer Worth, is the first of a trilogy about her days as a midwife in the dock areas of London in the fifties while living in a convent.  It's recently been made into a popular BBC TV series, which is how I heard about the books.  I enjoyed the first episode of the series, and decided I wanted to try the books.

I've noticed over the years that when birth is portrayed in movies or on television, the overwhelming emphasis is on the pain involved.  The whole process is perceived as alien (indeed, very similar to *that* scene in Alien) and bizarre.  The TV series Call the Midwife didn't do that, the emphasis was on the mother and the family situation.  The midwives are a calming presence in the room and connect with the family in a way not shown in modern medical dramas, and I found that fascinating.

But there's another thread going on in the book that is much more applicable to this blog- the setting of the story is in a convent, which comes as a surprise to the main character, who calls herself Methodist at the beginning but doesn't claim to believe in much.  As the book continues and she gets to know the nuns at the convent (also midwives) and hears their stories, she sees faith in a new light.  She comes to understand more about what Christianity can really mean through watching the midwives' ministry in the area and talking to them about why they're doing the work.  And unwittingly, she enters a faith journey of her own along the way.  It's a well-done, subtle subplot- but since this book is autobiographical, it's also the true story of a person's journey to faith.

I recommend this book enthusiastically to anyone with an interest in history, in autobiographies, or in real-life medical practice, and I think it would make a fascinating choice for a church women's group.  There are occasional graphic descriptions, but nothing worse than you'd find in any normal paperback this days.  This is nothing less than a true-to-life description of what life was like in urban poverty in the days when the Pill didn't exist, feminism was still in the first wave, and women didn't have a lot of options.  It may disturb you, but it will move you.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Dr. John Gottman has been studying the interactions of married couples for about two decades in his lab in Washington state.  In this book, he compiles his best advice for what skills and habits are most useful to make a marriage work.  He points out that most books on marriage will point out what not to do, and unlearning bad habits, which are certainly helpful, but without good habits to replace them with, progress can be difficult.  He also states that communication, while valuable to any married couple, is not a magical talisman that will remove all problems from the marriage. 

Some of his advice is a little more gendered than I'd like, and he certainly has quite an ego.  Also, this books is written for heterosexual couples, but most of the advice is certainly applicable to any relationship.  In fact, I know a few families who could use this book outside of marital relationships all together.

This book is also not a magical talisman for fixing any marriage, but I did find the exercises in it to be realistic and potentially helpful.  He addresses a wide range of possible issues, their causes, and even accepts different levels of success.  He also acknowledges that not all problems are solvable, but that marriages can survive unsolvable problems in many cases.

I will probably be keeping a copy of this book around, to plan premarital counseling sessions with and to loan out.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Rachel Held Evans is a popular Christian blogger, and I've mentioned her blog here before.  She grew up in a conservative evangelical environment, and, for example, she expected to have a "complementarian" marriage when she got married, but she and her husband were somewhat surprised to fall into egalitarianism almost by accident.  She hosts careful, intelligent discussions of controversial topics on her blog on a regular basis.  So I knew going in that this book was going to be well written.

The impetus for the book was her experience with the woman of Proverbs 31, a short poem that describes something like the biblical ideal of a wife.  She'd found that poem turned into a "to-do" list by one too many people over the years- especially publishers of Christian women's self-help books- and wanted to look at what the real ideals of "Biblical womanhood" were.  So she took a year to examine a dozen virtues that the Bible associates with femininity, and to look deeper into a variety of ways that people have and do understand "biblical womanhood".  Included in the book are experiences and conversations she had with the Amish, the Quakers, an Orthodox Jewish woman in Israel, and a retreat to a Catholic monastery.

It is a very readable book, lots of variety in what she addresses. She looks at so many items that she doesn't get very in depth about many of them (but I acknowledge my definition of in-depth, having a master's in the subject and all, may not be normal) but what she does cover is generally thoughtful and carefully written. There's a good dose of humor throughout the book, but it's never directed at the Bible, and it's almost always directed at herself.

She did receive a bit of push back for writing the book, and she wrote a lovely response to one of her more popular critiques here.  I think it outlines her intentions and her faith beautifully.

Great book for a woman's Bible study group, actually. I'll have to start suggesting it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Blog Review: Slacktivist's Bonfire/Quilt/Mosaic

In the world of Facebook and news sites and RSS feeds, it's becoming easier and easier to surround ourselves with people and information we find comfortable and familiar.  But as far as I'm concerned, getting to know people who are different from me is a matter of faith- I feel called as a Christian to truly get to know people from all walks of life and to recognize their status as a beloved child of God, equally worthy of God's love as I am.

And in this world of mass communication on a scale never seen before, the Internet is a great place to do that.  Blogs in particular offer a chance to get to know the authors rather well.  But the Christian blogosphere can start to feel a little stuffy after awhile, and there's a lot of feedback.  And it overwhelmingly feels dominated by straight white men.

Which is why, a little while ago, Fred Clark of Slacktivist put together three lists.  The Bonfire is a list of Christian blogs written by women.  The Mosaic is a list of blogs written by Christians who aren't white.  And the Quiltblogs are written by Christians who aren't straight.

I know I got really tired of reading the horrible things a lot of powerful dead men had to say about women long before I finished seminary.  So seeking out living Christians to counter those dusty voices has been an ongoing process.  Because the Holy Spirit is active in the world, God is with us, and is speaking through people we'd never expect (as God always has).

I'm proud that this blog is listed on the Bonfire.  It's no mark of distinction- all I had to do was to tell Fred I'm a Christian woman writing a blog, and he added the link- but seeing this place listed with all those other Christian women is a strong reminder of the community I'm a part of- of all the Christian women who have gone before and who will come after me.  Thanks be to God!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Lutheran Look: Suggestions?

I have plenty of ideas for these posts, but due to not currently being in a ministry position, I don't get asked questions like these as often as I used to. So, since I want to post on topics that interest people, do you have any suggestions?  Questions you've always wanted to ask?  Offbeat topics you'd like to see addressed more often?

Ask away!  I'll try to link to this post every so often to keep the suggestions coming.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Lectionary Post: 3/24/2013- Palm Sunday (C)

Prayer of the Day
Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

On Palm Sunday we are surrounded by joy and triumph, but we know what's coming.  We've known since the beginning of our Lenten journey where we are going, On this Sunday, we turn the corner from Lent into Holy WeekThis Sunday, the story is about to change.

Procession with Palms - John 12:12-16
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

Jesus enters Jerusalem, triumphant!  And yet humble, riding on a simple donkey rather than a warhorse or a more noble steed.  He's surrounded by adoring crowds, shouting "Hosanna!" and calling him King.  Though this is not the Messiah they were expecting- the Old Testament is full of talk about the Messiah, and most of it involves expectations of war and conquering and probably a certain amount of riches.  Jesus has avoided conflict, gathered no armies, and lives simply.  For that matter, Jesus doesn't really sound like the kind of savior we'd expect today, in our culture that worships wealth and popularity.

If this were a movie, we might expect this part to be the ending- Jesus was born, grew up, started his ministry, wandered around Judea for a few years healing people and performing miracles, gathered some followers, got a lot of death threats.  And finally arrives triumphant in Jerusalem, surrounded by cheering crowds!  But we who know the story, we who have been here before, know otherwise.  The story is about to turn.

Isaiah 50:4–9a
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear
   to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious,
   I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
   he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

As Christians, we often see this passage as a direct reference to Jesus.  After all, we have a teacher whose words bring comfort and who speaks with God.  We have a person who does not rebel against God and who practices nonviolence- the parallels to "turn the other cheek" are obvious here.

So the next few lines are rather surprising- if it's Jesus we're talking about, he was not disgraced?  He was not shamed?  We aren't to the crucifixion yet, but we know it's coming, and it was the most disgraceful and shameful way a person could die in that time- so much so that full citizens of the powerful Roman Empire could not be put to death that way.  It tells us something about Jesus' death, and his path to it, that there is no disgrace or shame involved, no matter the intentions of the other people involved.  And what an appropriate ending line- who will declare Jesus guilty, indeed?

Psalm 31:9–16
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief,
   my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.

I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.

But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’
My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.

Here we have a Psalm about persecution, one which reminds us of what kind of situation Jesus really is in.  Because while he was welcomed just a few minutes ago (in the service) into Jerusalem to the shouts of crowds, in a festival atmosphere, in less than a week the crowds will turn on him.  We are on our way to Good Friday, and this is a Psalm written by someone who understood what it meant to not be able to trust the people around you.  Soon people will flee from Jesus in the street, the whispers all around will come.

And yet, in the end, we will find parallels between the Psalmist's reaction, and Jesus'.  But that's next week.

Philippians 2:5–11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

This text is commonly known as the Christ Hymn. As I mentioned earlier, during the processional text, Jesus did not fulfill all of the expectations of the Messiah who would save the Jewish people.  He was humble where sovereignty was expected, he was peaceful where war was expected, and his parables never quite meant what the disciples first expected.

Here we also have a bit of the "first shall be last and the last shall be first" theology that we're going to hear about much more in the Easter and post-Pentecost Sundays. But Palm Sunday, a day of reversal, is a very appropriate time for it.

(Luke 23:1-49)
This text, when I was a kid, was strictly understood as optional on Palm Sunday, because this was before the whole Passion Sunday idea became a... thing.  It's become more encouraged to do this text as well (or an even more extended version!) in addition to the processional text as the years have gone by.  But I won't do it.  No.  I refuse.  See, if you look this text up in the Bible (which, by all means, I encourage!) you'll notice it's the Passion story.  It's the crucifixion.  And the idea that's been getting more popular these days is that lots of people won't come to the Three Days services (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil/Holy Saturday) so you may as well tell the story on this Sunday too.

And that's the kind of thing that gets right up my left nostril, frankly.  I don't think I could keep it up for the entirety of Holy Week, but I would rather hold a Good Friday service every two hours until past dinner on Good Friday, than to tell the Passion story on Palm Sunday.  Because it messes with the narrative, and it messes with the Lenten journey, and that's not something I'm willing to do.  We've spent weeks upon weeks getting up to this point- I'm sure there were a few Christmas sermons that mentioned this, so months of time, getting to now- and I will not ruin the journey we've been on this whole time right at the end.  If a movie messed with pacing like this at the very end, after a complicated and riveting plot, you'd leave disgusted, wouldn't you?  I won't do it.

So, read this text, certainly, please do.  Study it, pray with it.  But I'm keeping Palm Sunday about the procession, here- there's plenty of sermon there, lots of both Law and Gospel, it's a necessary part of the journey.  I will not skip it.  We will get to Calvary at the proper time.

Go in peace, remember the poor.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

I've always made a point of getting to know people who think and believe differently than I do, and reading about a variety of people and belief systems.  The reading in particular was always mainly the cheaper option to international travel, but now that I'm entering the clergy, I'm taking it more seriously as a part of my call to the ministry, because more and more I find that reading and learning about things I disagree with helps me clarify my own beliefs and understandings.

Which was why I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw Lawrence Wright (the author) interviewed on the Colbert Report a few weeks back.  I'd heard a few things about Scientology over the years, but nothing really concrete.  I wanted to learn more about it, but what little I did know led me to take the things the "church" said with a large grain of salt.

So, having read it: I think this book was very carefully researched and written- everything is cited, every piece of information the author gives you, he tells you where and from whom he got it.  Every item that has been denied by the people or groups involved, he tells you that, too.  There are a lot of footnotes (though most of them are very short).  I found this book very readable- the chapter that's essentially the biography of L. Ron Hubbard drags a bit in the middle, but the rest is all vivid and suspenseful.

It paints a picture of an incredibly disturbing cult- one that involves child abuse, indentured lifetime service that essentially turns into slavery, forced divorces and abortions, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse, and an incredible amount of in-group-out-group pressure.  It painted such a disturbing picture, in fact, that afterward I did a little digging on the Internet to do a bit of my own fact checking.  Scientology has its own website, which I won't link to, but you can find if you're interested.  Those of you who have some experience with psychology, sociology, or just weird group dynamics will probably find it fascinating in a bad way.  I also found a website called which has a lot of information as well, from another point of view.

And if you're looking for just one fact to check up on- Scientology has had one leader since L. Ron Hubbard died.  That leader has been married to the same woman since before LRH died.  She has not been seen in public since her father's funeral in 2007.  Missing persons reports have been filed to no avail, and her husband won't talk about it.  Does that sound healthy to you?

So, certainly a fascinating read and a well-researched piece of journalism.  Thanks to reading this book, I'm going to be adding a few things to my list of ideas for future posts- including how to recognize a group or a leader as just bad news.  And add a few things to my readings list.

Which reminds me: seminary friends, I remember there was a book on cults and how to recognize them that was very popular in seminary, and I think came out either while we were there or just a few years before.  I had a chance to browse it in school, but never actually read it, and always wanted to.  But I can't remember enough of the title to find it now.  It had five or six primary characteristics that each had a chapter focused on it.  Can anybody help me out?  Thank you!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Lutheran Look: Why membership?

My apologies for missing the lectionary post this week, life has been unexpectedly hectic (in good ways!).  Back on track now, though.

I've been asked this question a lot: Why bother being an official member of a congregation?  What's the point?  In today's world, where you can sign up for social media in a minute with an email address and a password, why bother with the actual paperwork it almost always takes to sign up for church membership?  (I think a lot of congregations could change the paperwork part up pretty easily, but adjusting to technology in a systemic fashion like that is hard.)  Especially since you can attend services just fine without.

There are a lot of reasons for church membership, though.  I think a lot of reasons for it are implicit in the differences between spirituality (and its growing popularity) and religion.  Both seek a connection to the divine, both explore what's beyond our immediate senses- but spirituality is inherently individual and ultimately isolating, and religion is naturally communal and relationship-based.  Therefore religion is messier than spirituality- when your relationship with God is tied up with your relationship with a bunch of other people, none of whom are perfect and perhaps quite a few of whom you don't like, keeping up a relationship with God is harder, because you also have to keep up your relationship with those other people.

And yet Christianity insists on community- where do you think the word "Communion" comes from?  We are called by Christ in the two great Commandments to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love one another as God loves us.  We see God in each other, because we have each been created in God's image.  The Bible is filled with stories of community and rules for community and illustrations of faith through community, and if all that weren't enough, God came down and was one of us to be in community with us, as Jesus Christ.  We cannot separate our faith from our community with one another, no matter how hard we try.

So, in recognition of that, we gather in community together in congregations, and we publicly acknowledge our commitment not only to God, but to each other, by maintaining membership in our congregations.  By doing that, we acknowledge our needs for mutual support and instruction, care for young and old, sick and downtrodden, and relationships which comfort us in our grief and celebrate with us in our joy.

However, if you prefer a short, practical list of what membership does, here goes.

  • Public affirmation of faith.
    • To the congregation: by becoming a member, you are telling the other members that you want to worship with them, and you want to support them and be supported by them.  There may be some days when you arrive at church and find yourself nurturing someone, there may be days when you're the one being nurtured.  By seeking official membership, you're signing up for this.
    • To your community: this tells your family and whoever else you tell (coworkers, friends, random people in the grocery store who you're inviting to join you for services- you do that, right?) about it that you've made a decision about your faith, what kind of faith community you want, and where you're going to go (well, one of the places) to grow and mature your faith.  Congregations are often known for various traits in a community; often, telling someone where you go to church will tell them quite a bit about your priorities.
  • Planning for the larger denomination.
    • Membership Numbers:  knowing how many members each church has determines a lot of things.  The ELCA is broken up into 8 regions; those regions contain 65 synods around the country (and the Bahamas); each synod is broken up into conferences, all for infrastructure and planning purposes.  Membership numbers help the ELCA keep up with population trends, and what areas will be needing more pastors soon, and the like.
    • Financial Planning: as mentioned below, the denomination has many ministries going on at any one time, and having an accurate idea about membership (and what that membership is interested in!) helps plan the future of those ministries.  Some of that planning is, by nature, financial.
    • Decision Making:  Membership helps the ELCA keep the conferences and synods approximately even in population, which helps when it comes to choosing delegates for the General Assembly.  The Assembly makes the major decisions about the direction of the church, and each conferences selects a delegate to go.  The delegates vary each Assembly, and are about 40% clergy and 60% lay people.
  • Planning for the congregation.
    • Time and Talent: look, the Sunday School teachers, ushers, lectors, and committee members have to come from somewhere.  You didn't think that worship service or Bible study planned itself, did you?  The members of a congregation drive its mission, and its ministry.
    • Financial Planning: we get nervous talking about this part, but membership also helps the congregation know where it's going in terms of financial planning.  Often, congregations ask members to "pledge" their giving (which just means the member tells the congregation in advance how much they expect to give each year) so they know what resources they have to devote to various ministries in advance.  Just as you wouldn't get in the car without your GPS (or a map, at least) for a cross-country trip, congregations can't plan their next few years without an idea of what their budget is going to be.
    • Recordkeeping: congregations also keep track of church records- including attendance, funerals, weddings, and other special events.  These church records are hugely popular with genealogists, but also used for more prosaic purposes as well, by the congregation itself in understanding their history, and by churchwide in knowing what congregations are up to.
    • Decision Making: members can vote in annual and special meetings.  These meetings often make major decisions in the life of a congregation, such as which pastor to call, other church staff hiring decisions, and decisions about which ministries to support and how to run them.
I hope that helps in understanding the point of membership in a congregation.  Community may be messy at times, and a denomination as large as ours does require some pretty prosaic infrastructure, but when we put all those members and all those ministries together, we can do enormous good in the world, and spread the love of God to all people.

Go in peace, love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Podcast Review: Day1 Weekly Radio Broadcast

So, I currently have a temporary position at a company that shall remain nameless, which allows me to listen to my mp3 player (which won't remain nameless for reasons I'll expand on in a moment) during my shift.  So as you might imagine, I've been exploring podcasts a lot lately.  I've run across several I enjoy, some of which are religious in nature, and I thought I should probably add them to my list of reviews, in case others are also looking for audio content.

So, Day1 is a website that's fairly well known among the clergy I know, and it turns out they have a podcast.  Their website has a lot of sermons, based on the RCL, from various mainline Protestant pastors.  Once a week, they do what they call their "Radio Broadcast" (I dunno, perhaps it does go on the radio somewhere, but the Christian radio stations I know wouldn't touch it) and that is available for free online:  It is also available for free on iTunes, which outs my mp3 player as an iPod.

I've looked at the Day1 website on a regular basis while prepping sermons for some years now, and I've been listening to this podcast for a few weeks.  Each sermon I've heard has been brilliantly written and stirringly preached.  There's also a time before we hear the sermon when we hear the pastor talk a bit about their context, history, and current charity work and ministry, and then a time afterward when we hear about their preparation process.  Also, the text the sermon is written on is always read, by the pastor, before the sermon as well. 

All in all, it's a wonderful resource, and I've found it devotional as well as good background for sermon prep.  I would absolutely suggest it to both pastors and lay Christians who are looking for a little extra reflection on the week's reading.  I hope you find it helpful!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Lutheran Look: Do I really have to honor my parents?

And what does that mean, anyway?  The Forward Thinking prompts over at Love, Joy, Feminism by Libby Anne seem to be great starts to exactly the postings I want to do anyway, so you may start to see them regularly here; fair warning, we'll see.

I find this is exactly the kind of post where you have to state your own context up front, so: I love my parents, they have always loved and supported me, they always believed I could do anything I put my mind to, and they took the trouble to get to know me and tailor their parenting styles to me, which helped a lot, being an only child and all.  Parts of my childhood were less than ideal, but not the parts that involved them, and they got divorced in the middle of all that, so that's saying something.

That said, I know perfectly well how lucky and blessed I've been.  I have friends, and I know other people, who were not so blessed.  Whose parents didn't see them as potentially independent adults, but rather extensions of themselves and their desires.  Or tools to their own ends.  Or decorations for their lives.  Who did not recognize their humanity, and their rights, and their status as a fully formed child of God who deserved their love and the very best of care.  And, yes, I know a few whose parents saw them as punching bags.

Which is why I hope to never be one of those pastors who falls back on the easy sermon on Mother's Day weekend, or Father's Day.  Which is why I do not talk about the universal characteristics of a mother's love, or the protectiveness of being in a father's arms.  Because we live in a broken world, and there is nothing universal about parenthood except that the parents (or guardians) are, for a few years at least, in absolute power over the child's life.  And you know what they say about absolute power.

And to those who would say that speaking of such things speaks against family values and traditional Christian understandings of the world, I would say that Jesus spoke very strongly for the powerless, not the powerful.  And if they wanted an example of "traditional" understandings of family, I have a number of Bible passages to point them to.

So, what do we owe our parents?  What does "Honor thy father and mother" truly mean?  Well, being Lutheran, one place I might start is Luther's Small Catechism, which discusses each of the Commandments, among other things.  However, both there and in his Large Catechism (written for pastors, whereas the Small is written for everyone) he starts from the assumption that all parents wish their children well, are loving and nurturing toward their children, and never ask their children to do wrong.  These days, we're more willing than Luther was to acknowledge that that isn't always true.  But life has changed a lot since Germany in the early 1500s, and many of his views on authority also require us to remember that there was no such thing as democracy at the time, and Divine Right of Rule was still an accepted concept.

In the end, Luther's explanation of the Commandment boils down to a few main points: don't abandon your parents when they're elderly, even if they have dementia; don't beat them up; treat them with basic respect; and when you're a child, obey them.  The first three points I have no problems with: Christianity instructs us to care for the helpless and treat all people with basic respect, which certainly includes not beating people up.  The last point, however, has some potential problems.  So, to examine that more closely, let's have some case studies, and talk about what "honor" means in each case.  All of these are based on real life situations I've run across (none of them happened to me).

Case Study A: Alicia, an adult who has moved out of her parents' home but still lives in the same town as them, has recently noticed that her father's driving is getting steadily worse, but her mother isn't willing to confront him about it.  His driving is beginning to get dangerous, and she's worried not only for her parents' safety but the other people on the road. Should she:
  1. Respect her father's wishes by not doing anything about it.
  2. Go down to the local precinct and start the process of having his license taken away without consulting her parents.
  3. Sit down and have the difficult discussion with both her parents, after having done some research, and talk about alternate transportation ideas that won't put anyone at risk.
Case Study B: Brandon, a 10 year old, is in the checkout lane with his mother when he sees her put a pack of gum in her purse without paying, and motions to him to hide some candy in his jacket.  The cashier hasn't noticed. Should he:
  1. Steal the candy like his mother told him to.
  2. Ask "Mom, why did you just put that gum in your purse?" really loudly so the cashier will hear and his mom will have to put it back.
  3. Refuse to take the candy and try to return the gum to the display rack, and then talk about the incident later.
Case Study C: Carly, in her early teens and starting to think about what she wants to do with her life, tells her dad she's thinking about being a pastor.  Her dad tells her women can't be pastors, and walks away.  Should she:
  1. Put the idea of being a pastor out of her mind forever.
  2. Yell at him a lot and cut him out of her life as fast as she can.
  3. Try to maintain a healthy relationship with her dad while growing up, and then, if she is so called, becoming a pastor once she's an adult.
Case Study D: Danielle, an adult, is just starting her career and also getting married.  Her parents offer to help pay for the wedding, but after having given the money without mentioning any strings attached, start adding their friends to the guest list and insisting she follow some wedding traditions she can't stand because they're helping to pay. Should she:
  1. Have the wedding her parents want: they're paying.
  2. Have the wedding she wants: it's her wedding.
  3. Sit down and talk all this out with them, perhaps making some small, reasonable concessions but also explaining that it is her wedding, and perhaps offering to return the money. 
These multiple choice options are simplistic, I know, and certainly do not address the complexity of human relationships, let alone parent-child relationships which are usually more complicated than your average one anyway.  But I'm trying to use them to illustrate a larger point- what does honor mean, anyway?  Mindless, thoughtless obedience?  Knee-jerk contrariness?  Or something a little more... mature?

See, as far as I can tell, not being a parent myself, the baseline goal for parenting is getting the kid to a point where they can function on their own as an independent adult.  Now, sometimes those goalposts move- in cases of severe mental of physical disability, for example, or deeply communal cultures where independence is not as prized as in American culture.  But most parents I know personally try to get their kids to a basic level of resourcefulness, "common sense" and knowledge of the world where they can live on their own if they have to.  Or at the very least expect their kids to get there without the parents having to put in a lot of effort at it.

That requires a certain amount of critical thinking, and the ability to make judgment calls, and to have an opinion.  None of those are well fostered by either blind obedience or blind rebellion in the childhood and teenage years.  The ability to hold a reasonably polite, rational conversation about a difficult topic with people you care for deeply requires all of those in large amounts.

So, let's turn this around: when a parent honors their child?  It's most often by treating that child as an adult.  As a person who is capable, mature, and trustworthy.  Why shouldn't that be turned around?  Certainly, with younger children who don't yet understand all the forces at work around them, the scales tip more towards obedience- especially in emergencies.  With adults the scales tip more towards independence, and the sometimes-difficult teen years are often centered around this very balance.  But if the child treats their parents (within  reasonable bounds of safety according to the situation) as a capable, mature, and trustworthy adult?  That sounds like honor to me.

And sometimes, when we're interacting with capable, mature, reasonably trustworthy adults?  The best way we can honor them is to share our opinions, our concerns, and to follow our own conscience, even when it does lead to disagreement, or worse.  But I have to believe that sometimes, honoring one's parents means confronting them about their lies, their bigotry, or their criminal activity- because all of those things are done by parents, somewhere, and if the alternative is ignoring or enabling it, well, those don't sound very honorable to me.

So: following this commandment may, for many people, be more complicated and difficult than we'd think at first.  But ultimately, are the ways in which we honor our parents going to be all that different than the ways we honor our friends, our mentors, our coworkers?  Perhaps not.

God bless.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Lectionary: 3/10/2013- 4th Sunday of Lent (C)

Prayer of the Day
God of compassion, you welcome the wayward, and you embrace us all with your mercy. By our baptism clothe us with garments of your grace, and feed us at the table of your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

This week we continue talking about how God's ways are different from ours.  We particularly examine how God's concept of forgiveness is strange to us in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  There are theme of coming home and trust that expand on this as well.  Also, we have some hints that Easter is coming!

 Joshua 5:9-12
The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

The first couple lines of this reading sound odd and disconnected to our ears, so they require a bit of explanation.  The word "Gilgal" is a name, which sounds very similar to the Hebrew phrase "I have removed".  (And no, I'm not going to try to sound that out for you, my Hebrew is legendarily terrible.)  This happens a lot in the Bible, all sorts of places get named after things that happen there, but it's harder for us to tell because, of course, those names are in Greek or Hebrew.

This reading is from the end of the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness.  40 years before they had been enslaved in Egypt, until Moses led them out (through the Red Sea), and they wandered in the desert for a few decades for reasons that would take awhile to explain.  During this time, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God, and the Israelites complained about not having enough food for long enough that God started providing them with manna every morning- food that appeared miraculously on the ground every day but the Sabbath.

Anyway, the Israelites have now arrived in Israel, they have raised a set of crops, and they have, for the first time, eaten of those crops.  So this is officially the end of their wandering- they are home.  And God recognizes this by ending the manna, because, not being wanderers, they don't need it anymore.  It's also interesting to note that this happens as they celebrate Passover, which, if you remember the ten plagues from their time in Egypt (or it's easy enough to Google), that is the remembrance of the last plague, that of the first born, which is what prompted their leaving Egypt.

Psalm 32
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding-place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

There are some lovely themes in this story, but the one that strikes me right off is the implicit trust in God.  We can be honest with God about our sin, because we trust God.  We can take shelter in God's love, and find God as a refuge, because we trust God.  We can be glad and shout for joy, because we trust God.

And near the end- we find that God contrasted with a "bit and bridle".  It sounds to me like the Psalmist is saying that God is not controlling us, as an unthinking animal must sometimes be controlled.  Rather, we are capable of (some amount of) self-control, and because of that we have a different kind of freedom.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Here we have a bit of Easter come early (of course every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, even during Lent) with all things being new in Christ.  And in this passage we're given a short, pithy definition of Christian belief and practice: just as we have been reconciled to God by Christ (that is, our relationship with God has been made right by Christ), we have also been given the "ministry of reconciliation"- we also seek to make relationships right, as Paul says, as ambassadors for Christ.  We are forgiven, and so we forgive; we have been appealed to, and so we appeal.

The concept of reconciliation and "do-overs" is going to get a bit of a workout in the Gospel text.  But I will note here that the "all things being made new" is also a theme that pops up in the book of Revelation, and if you connect it to what's being said here, and has been said elsewhere, it sounds a lot less scary than what some people I've heard of have tried to turn it into.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:  “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” 

Every time I say this, I am met with blank disbelief, but here we go again: I almost kind of hate this parable.  It drives me up the wall.  Often, when I've heard it preached, it turns into some kind of morality tale about the purity and strength of a parent's love, and that makes me recoil in horror.

Look, I am not about to discuss my family's personal history on the Internet, but let's just say that from the very first time I heard this story, which must have been about age 6 or 7 at the latest, I found it perfectly right and natural to side heavily with the older brother.  Not so much about the "I want a party too" part, but certainly about the "You're celebrating this guy's return? Seriously?" part.

This is the kid who, by asking for his inheritance early, was asking his father to sell half of all he owned.  And his father did it.  And then this kid went into town and spent everything, and came back.  And the father celebrates this?  This is not an example of good boundaries, of healthy relationship, of a parent teaching a kid anything about the world, or indeed parenting.

So being lazy about this parable is one of the fastest ways to get me to stop listening to you.  Because what few people mention, is that this is not an example of good parenting, or indeed what we're supposed to be like.  This parable is surrounded by others where what's happening is bizarre or unthinkable.  We do not throw an expensive party when we find a quarter we lost, we do not risk our entire livelihood when we've lost one small part of it.  And so, when someone has shown themselves to be incapable of planning, budgeting, or in fact basic people skills, we do not throw more money at them and have parties when they show up.  This is not who we are.

Jesus tells story after story of bizarre reactions for just that reason: these stories (and by all means, look them up, this is by far the longest) sound weird and strange to us.  We don't operate that way.  But God does.  This is not a parenting lesson, this is a lesson in how different God's ways are from ours- seems to be an ongoing theme this Lent, doesn't it?  With God, we are home as the Israelites were when they no longer needed the manna.  With God, we can trust and be honest and sheltered as the Psalmist sings.  With God, all things are made new in Christ.  With God, we are forgiven and welcomed, whatever the reason for parting.  All of these sound strange to us, because they aren't what we're used to, or how we're used to working.  But God's ways are strange to us.

Go in peace, love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Blog Review: Rachel Held Evans- Sunday Superlatives

I'm not actually going to review Rachel Held Evans' entire blog here- for one thing, she is incredibly popular already and probably doesn't need my help getting new readers.  But she has a habit that I've especially grown to appreciate- every Sunday she posts a list of "Sunday Superlatives", the best posts and stories from around the Internet she's found (or been recommended) about a variety of topics.  The posts she lists, always with a little context, are from a variety of viewpoints and are written by people from all walks of life, but they have one thing in common- they are always well-written.

If you want to think about current events from a point of view you never considered before, wander over to Rachel's blog on Sunday nights.

If you want to see faith journeys and encounters with God that you'd never manage to imagine for yourself, check out these weekly posts.

If you want to find new blogs to read, new thoughts to consider, new people to meet, this is a great place to go.

I know other sites and blogs that do posts like this on a regular basis, but this one is different.  On many of those sites and blogs, there's a streak of anger and cynicism that touches every list.  And the anger is certainly often justified, and the cynicism sadly is too, but that emotional tone tires me out after awhile, and I find I don't go back unless I'm looking for something specific.

This list is different.  The Superlatives, while, yes, sometimes include an angry or cynical post, consistently have a thread of life to them we often forget.  There is always room for hope in these collections, and that's what brings me back week after week.  Thanks be to God.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Lutheran Look: Why the lectionary?

So, most congregations in the ELCA choose their Sunday Bible readings according to the RCL, Revised Common Lectionary, which is a three year cycle of readings chosen in advance for each Sunday of the year.  It's designed to give congregations a chance to hear a good variety of Bible passages, and so that each Sunday has readings relevant to that time of the church year (hearing the Christmas story on Christmas, for example).

The name of the lectionary tells us a couple things- it's been revised, and it's shared in common between a lot of Christian denominations.  The earlier Common Lectionary had an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading for each Sunday, the RCL has added a New Testament reading as well.  This Lectionary is used by a lot of denominations, including the Episcopalians, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Reformed churches.  The Catholic church uses a slightly different one, so that very often they will have the same readings as the RCL, but occasionally will have a one that's different.

If you've ever mentioned to a friend, "Oh, my pastor preached on this story last week" and your friend said, "Hey, so did mine!" it's very likely thanks to the RCL, or another lectionary.

So, why the lectionary?  Well, it does a lot of things.

  1. It saves time.  Most pastors I know take about one full day out of their work week to write their sermon as it is.  Choosing texts on the fly would make that a lot harder.  Also it helps a pastor keep track of what sermons they've preached where, so they can keep some variety going.
  2. It makes sure readings fit that Sunday.  The Bible is a very large book, as you've likely noticed, and choosing three related readings and a Psalm that also flow with the church year, what was read last week, what will be read next week, and everything else is a complicated project.
  3. It keeps pastors from fixating on one topic for too long.  There's an old legend I heard once, which probably isn't true, about a newlywed pastor who preached for three straight months (about a hundred years ago) on what made a good wife.  I can't even imagine being that wife (or, for that matter, that pastor!).  Pastors are as likely as anyone else to get a "bee in their bonnet" and this keeps them from obsessing too long on one thing in the pulpit.
  4. It does a pretty good job of cycling through the Bible, and so helps educate the congregation about the Bible.  Like I said, it's a three year cycle- each year focuses the Gospel readings on either Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and readings from John are spread through all three years.  The other readings are also varied.
  5. Professional discussion.  Many pastors take part in weekly Bible studies, where they look at the readings for that week and talk about what they plan to preach on.  For many pastors I know, this is a necessary part of their professional growth, a great networking opportunity, and also a deeply appreciated social outlet.
Of course, if there's good reason, a pastor can certainly change a reading here or there.  And the RCL is not the only lectionary going- there's increasing interest in a variety of Narrative Lectionaries going around, and the Eastern Orthodox churches have their own lectionaries as well.  Essentially, a lectionary is a useful tool for congregations, but is not a rule so much as a guideline.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lectionary: 3/3/2013 - 3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

Prayer of the Day
Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

This week there are certainly themes of nature, and "bearing fruit", and that our actions have consequences.  But the one that came out the strongest for me is the differences between our ways and God's ways, and how our forgiveness and God's are so very different.  This is especially interesting after last week's text where a Pharisee warned Jesus his life was in danger, and in light of next week's text of the story of the Prodigal Son (and Jesus as the Good Shepherd!).

Isaiah 55:1-9
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

What a wonderful dose of good news and grace!  Hang on to it, you're going to need it later.  There are three notes here I want to comment on.  First, we are invited to do the impossible; second, God's love for sinners is steadfast and sure; and third, God's ways are not our ways.  The first thing we're told to do in this passage sounds impossible.  To buy without paying, to purchase without cost?  How could that work?  The Old  Testament is full of carefully constructed rules and systems to help society function, if society worked this way, how long could it last?  What is this impossible idea Isaiah invites us into?

And yet that's just what God's love is like.  Isaiah assures us that God's love for David (a sinner- adulterer, murderer, and occasionally just plain didn't listen to God) was steadfast (constant) and sure.  The wicked can be pardoned their actions and the unrighteous their thoughts.  In this Lenten season, as we wait for Easter and the new life Christ brings, here we are reminded that not only eternal life, but new life in the here and now is always possible.  Redemption is never truly impossible, and no one is beyond God's grace.

Finally, God's ways are not our ways- and we certainly know that.  Redemption is always possible with God, but we are not always so forgiving.  True forgiveness does not include whispered rumors and gossip.  True forgiveness does not include grudging resentment and latent anger.  Sometimes we simply cannot forgive, we do not have it in us.  But God, we are assured, has different ways than we do.

Psalm 63:1-8
A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

There are so many ways we seek God- in prayer and meditation, in our last thoughts of the day, in action and joyful praise.  And yet we continue seeking, because as Isaiah just reminded us, God's ways are not our own.  We will always be seeking God, because we will always continue to thirst.  (I am not terribly impressed with people who say they find God in a sunset.  Anyone can find God in a sunset, that doesn't involve looking very hard at all.  You want to impress me, look harder.)

Interesting note on the Hebrew- the word translated into English as "soul" in the second line is one of those words that has two meanings in Hebrew.  The other possible meaning besides soul (or "essence", really, rather than "spirit") is the face and throat area of the body.  So when the Psalm speaks of the soul "thirsting" for God- that word wasn't chosen idly.  It is a very apt way to talk about it though, isn't it?  Sometimes we are as desperate for God as we are for water at the end of a long walk.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. 

I'm going to try not to do this to you very often, but do me a favor real quick- scroll down a bit to the reading from Luke, read the last half or so of the first paragraph, and then scroll back up here.

Back?  Okay- what you just read down below?  Was from Jesus.  What you just read above? Was from Paul.  Anyone who disagrees with me that Jesus outranks Paul by kind of a lot, you want to go have a chat with your pastor.

And yet, what Paul just gave us here was a wonderful example of a way in which our human ways are different from God's.  It is absolutely our way to "blame the victim".  How many times have you heard someone say that poor people are poor because they're lazy, or fat people are fat because they aren't healthy, or the survivor of a sexual assault must have been asking for it?  And yet we know perfectly well that there are plenty of hardworking poor, and plenty of healthy people who are overweight (and also that the BMI index is terrible for making judgments about individuals), and that it is literally impossible to "ask" to be sexually assaulted.  God's ways are not our ways.  God does not make the judgments we make.

Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ 

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’ 

The first thing I'd like to say about the first half of this passage, is that this ends all the arguments for "God punishes the wicked" or "God rewards the holy" forever and ever, amen.  Yes, all of them.  Yes, even that one.  (Now that you're paying attention, you will be stunned, as you go through daily life, how often this comes up.  It is a constant thing.  It certainly comes up often enough in the Bible.)

However, what is going on with the very last line of this part?  What is Jesus talking about, how is he not contradicting himself?  But when we think about this further- look, spoiler alert, but we are all going to die.  None of us are immortal.  So when Jesus says "perish as they did"- I don't think the dying is what he's talking about, because of course we're going to do that whether we repent or not.  These people he's talking about were sinners, just as we all are.  I think the difference he's talking about is that a sinner is separated from God, by sin which is a chasm between us and God.  But a repentant sinner is, like the Psalm above, thirsting for and reaching for God.  We are all separated from God, but some of us are facing towards God and reaching out, and because of that we both live, and die, somewhat differently.  The sermon linked to below on the text from last week really digs into that.

As for the second half of this passage, well, that's a little more complicated.  Next week we'll be hearing the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Everybody has that one story or passage from the Bible that makes their head explode, and that's mine, so I'm going to try to keep from getting into it now as well.

I don't read this, as others often have, seeing the vineyard owner as God, and the gardener as Jesus, with us as the fig tree.  God promised Noah to never destroy the Earth again, and I don't believe Jesus is all that's keeping God from breaking that promise.  (Not to mention that they are of course also one and the same, along with the Holy Spirit, so reading it this way just feels odd.)  Not to mention quite a few of us do bear fruit, and no one suggests getting rid of a kid if they don't "bear fruit" after three years.

So perhaps this story is simply suggesting that yes, we can set safe boundaries in our lives?  And yes, while there's room for grace and freedom, there's also no reason to throw resources away where they won't be used?  I'm pretty sure I'll be getting into this more deeply next week, so stay tuned.

I don't really plan on doing this very often, but yesterday I happened to listen to the weekly Day1 podcast, and I heard a fantastic sermon on the text from last week, which I think addresses a lot of important issues.  So, if you feel like being challenged, I suggest reading The Fox Is In The Henhouse, a sermon by the Presbyterian Rev. Joseph Evans, from Tennessee.

Go in peace, love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Blog Review: Everyday I'm Pastorin'

There are two comments I get about public Christianity on a regular basis.

1. Where are all the progressive Christians?  Where are they talking, where are they sharing, where are they in my town, where are they on the internet?

2. Aren't there any Christians who have a sense of humor?  At all?

In the interests of addressing both questions at the same time, I'd suggest taking a look at this blog: Everday I'm Pastorin'....  Fair warning: this is actually a Tumblr account, and it is full of GIFs (or moving images).  As you might imagine from those two descriptors, it also isn't a place for deep and involved theological discussion.

There are plenty of places like that, and I'll be pointing them out soon enough.  But a lot of people asking me those two questions up there tend to sound kind of desperate, at wit's end, and very harried.  So frankly, I think I'll start off with a tension-breaker.

This blog is, as far as I can tell (I don't spend a lot of time on Tumblr) as anonymous as they can make it.  And while it isn't entirely aimed at laypeople, as the voice of it is definitely clergy-based, laypeople will certainly get the jokes.

What does this blog do?  It illustrates the point of view of progressive Christian clergy with GIFs.  Often of cats, or bits of scenes from geeky TV shows.  It's ecumenical, it's hilarious, and it's very much tongue-placed-firmly-in-cheek.

Because progressive Christians really are all around.  And we do know how to tell a joke, especially when it's about us.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Lutheran Look: How does the church year work?

Great question!  The church year has several "seasons", just like the calendar year has spring, summer, autumn and winter.  They come in an order, they acknowledge and celebrate different things, and they even have their own colors!  Lutherans are pretty enthusiastic about following the church year, but there are also plenty of Christian traditions that aren't so big on it.  Personally, I appreciate that the seasons help us to focus on different things and appreciate the variety of the faith.

So, here's a basic rundown for you.  The church year starts in Advent (generally just after Thanksgiving).  There are also a bunch of holidays throughout the year that I'll do separate posts on one day, so I won't be focusing on those so much.

Time: 1st Sunday of Advent through Christmas Eve
Themes: Waiting for the Incarnation- we wait for God to come to us, we are expecting celebration, this is also the traditional time to examine Mary and Joseph's lives (blue is traditionally Mary's color)
Color: Blue (or Purple, if you don't have blue)

Time: Christmas Day until the Sunday before Epiphany
Themes: Celebration of the Incarnation- God has come to us, and we celebrate that God has so loved the world as to give God's only Son, Jesus Christ
Color: White and Gold/Yellow

Time: Epiphany through Transfiguration
Themes: Epiphany of the Incarnation- we come to terms with what it means that God loves us so much to have become incarnate, we are enlightened (light is a major theme)- this is the most forgotten season, and is the only one named after something we, the people of God, are doing
Color: White/Gold on Epiphany, Green during the season, White/Gold on Transfiguration

Time: Ash Wednesday (just after Transfiguration) through Easter Vigil/Holy Saturday
Themes: Waiting for the Crucifixion- Jesus Christ is going to die for our sins, this is a time of penitence and repentance (two very different things), of self-sacrifice and self-examination, suffering for the faith and death are also examined- we put away celebration and Alleluias for this time (though Sundays are not technically part of Lent)
Color: Purple through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday does not technically have a color and that tends to extend to Holy Saturday

Time: Easter Sunday until the Sunday before Pentecost
Themes: Joyous Celebration of the Resurrection- this is a time of celebration of new life, victory over the grave, unexpected reversal and forgiveness- the happiest time of the church year, everyone is encouraged to wear bright colors to church during this season especially in celebration
Color: White/Gold

Ordinary Time
Time: (Pentecost Sunday) through Christ the King Sunday before Advent starts
Themes: Various- often focuses on the earth and harvest because it takes place during summer and autumn, but the varied readings and sprinkling of holidays throughout make this the "catch all" season of the church- the first Sunday is Pentecost and is it's own thing, very nearly a one-day season, a celebration of the Holy Spirit, and often involves images of fire, doves, and wind
Color: Red on Pentecost, Green during most of Ordinary Time, aside from various special days, White/Gold on Christ the King

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lectionary: 2/24/2013- 2nd Sunday in Lent (C)

Prayer of the Day
God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

As reflected in the prayer for the day, the themes for this week's readings center around God's promises to us, especially to remain present with us.  All of the stories in the Bible center around this one covenant, that we will not be abandoned.  In the journey of Lent, while we walk with Jesus towards the cross, that is the promise that we cling to in the darkness.

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
 Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.  When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates...."

This is the great covenant (promise) that God made to Abraham.  This is one of the great beginnings in the Bible.  The Creation stories are one, God's covenant with Noah not to destroy the Earth again was another, and of course each of the Gospels start with one.  This is the beginning of God's special relationship with the Jewish people, which is a theme found all over the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.  When Esther saves her people, it's a demonstration of this covenant.  When Jesus speaks to the Syro-Phoenician woman, it's a surprise because she is not party to this covenant.

God's promises to Abraham here are fairly simple- many descendants and a land for them.  The promises we will see implied in the other readings for this Sunday are a little more complex.

Psalm 27
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; 

I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek. 

Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

I hope that I will never have to fear what the author of this Psalm apparently had to fear.  But I certainly have fears nonetheless.  And the author is seeking safety and refuge with the Lord- a theme we've seen before, and something I've certainly done myself.  But what kind of safety?  People who trust in God die every day.  Tragic things happen to both good and bad people.  The author of this Psalm can't possibly be saying that if you trust in God, nothing bad will happen to you- right?

Which brings us back to God's covenants with us, and here we see what the author seems to be seeking.  The kind of safety the author's hoping for is certainly physical safety, but that doesn't mean it's the kind that's expected.  What's sought after here is not physical but spiritual safety- to be with God, to be acknowledged by and loved by God, to be surrounded by God.  There are some requests of protection, certainly, but the requests that are most emphatic and emphasized are those that have nothing to do with physical safety.

As Abraham and his descendants eventually found out, the covenants that God has made with us do not always mean prosperity or safety- but they do mean we're not alone.  They do mean God is always with us.  We are not and will not be abandoned.

Philippians 3:17--4:1
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Occasionally Paul gets on my nerves- besides some of the things he's said about women, I'm just not too fond of people who say that others should imitate them.  Someone who's an authentically good example to live by doesn't usually have to tell others that.  But here he's reinforcing what's been talked about in the previous two readings.  We certainly have promises and covenants with others, and of course we honor them, but we also remember that "our citizenship is in heaven".  That is where our true allegiance lies, with God.  All else may fail us, everyone else may betray us, but God remains with us no matter what.

There is some troubling language in this passage that I would like to address, but to be honest I don't believe I currently have time to do it justice at the moment.  I'm sure it'll come around again, though, so I'll ask for your patience on that.

Luke 13:31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

This is one of the passages that I wish people would read more often, because it comforts me, somewhat, to know that Jesus had a temper.  If Jesus did, then perhaps God understands my own as well.

And yet, even in the midst of this temper, in the midst of sparring (verbally) with the Pharisees, Jesus will not abandon his ministry.  Jesus will not abandon his journey to the cross.  Jesus would gather us as though under wings, which I think is one of the loveliest images we're given of God's love.  Jesus does not abandon us, and though it's not phrased in a very cheerful manner, at the end he also gives us the promise that we will see him again.  The covenant, again spelled out that God does not leave us alone, we are not abandoned, come what may.

Love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Blog Review: The Velveteen Rabbi

So, it's about time that I expand my Monday posts a bit (especially while most of my library is still packed away until I have a call).  So, this week, instead of a book review, I'll be doing a blog review.

The blog I want to talk about today is called the Velveteen Rabbi, written by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.  I was wondering which of the many blogs I enjoy I should talk about today until I saw her post from this morning, Every body is a reflection of God, and knew that this was where I should begin.

Rabbi Barenblat has been blogging since 2003, began her rabbinical studies in 2005, and was named one of Time's top 25 blogs in 2008.  I enjoy reading her writing for a number of reasons- her poetry is very moving, the way she speaks of her work with her synagogue is the way I look forward to talking about my own ministry, and each post is heartfelt and often funny.  But that post I just linked you to is an example of the strongest reason.

Modern media gives us very few examples of competent, benevolent clergy (all the fictional ones on TV tend to be incompetent, evil, or both), and far fewer examples of female clergy of any type.  In fact, the Vicar of Dibley is the only one I can think of offhand.  And yet we exist, across faiths, denominations, and the globe.  And we're telling our stories, but it is still sometimes difficult to be heard, and sometimes it seems even more difficult to be able to listen.  I have learned a lot about faith and being clergy from men, and I value their experience, education and wisdom, but sometimes, frankly, I just want to listen to someone who is like me.  Not someone I have to translate in my head.

I am not Jewish, a mother, an East-Coaster, or a native Texan.  And yet very often I feel more at home reading her blog than reading one by a Midwestern ELCA male pastor (gentleman pastor?).  Her post this morning illustrates one reason why- I have been there, I have had that conversation with myself, I have fought that fight against American mass media in my own head. We both speak "clergy" and "woman" fluently, no translation necessary.

Certainly I have had the same feeling of "home" on men's blogs, as well.  But this is the kind of "home" I don't get to feel very often, so I value it even more.  We come from different backgrounds- ones that have fairly ugly history together, in fact.  But she's right- every body is a reflection of God.  Hers, mine, yours.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lutheran Look: Sexual Ethics Education

I'm willing to bet that title causes some surprise.  So, let me introduce this post a little by sharing a link to Love, Joy, Feminism, a blog by Libby Anne, who was raised in an evangelical Christian household that encouraged the Christian purity culture and practiced "traditional gender roles".  (I can't stand that term.  Traditional for who?)  She's since left that tradition, and her focus is talking with others who have as well.

She explores a variety of issues in the blog, but in this post she points out that while Christians generally have very strong opinions about sex and sex ed, one way or another, we don't do a lot in terms of talking about sexual ethics with our teens, in terms of how to do things right.  She offers one central question:

What would you tell teenagers about sex?

My short answer? A lot.  When in doubt, I believe in education.  My parents did not censor my reading- though we discussed what I read regularly.  I learned early how to use a library, and have been on the Internet since I was 12.  I am an unabashed nerd, and my answer to nearly every concern or project I run across is "more research!"

And I was not the only teenager like that who I knew, when I was that age.  Oh, they might not call it "research", but anytime you deny information to a teenager, they are going to go looking for it.  (My English teacher once ensured our entire class would read "The Wife of Bath" tale from the Canterbury Tales by saying he wasn't assigning it because it was too lewd.)  And on this subject, my thoughts may well be influenced by the fact that I went through a full sex ed curriculum in my health classes in middle and high school that contained the anatomical information, as well as details on how STDs are transferred, what the symptoms are, and how the more common varieties of birth control worked.  This happened just before the rise of "abstinence only" education, and I'm extraordinarily thankful for it.

Now, when it comes to anatomy, STDs, and the chemistry of birth control, I don't know that church is the appropriate place for that- unless, of course, it isn't offered in the local schools.  In which case, where would you rather your kid learn about these things- in church, or from unreliably informed friends?

I wish the ELCA had something like the UCC's "Our Whole Lives" curriculum, which deals with so much more than just sex ed.  Failing that, however, I think there are certain major subjects that do need to be addressed by the church, with confirmation students and youth groups.
  • What does the Bible actually say about sex, marriage, and love?
    • Quite a bit of what the Bible says on this subject has certainly been influenced by the culture of that time's treatment of women (as property) and understanding of marriage (as an economic contract).
    • Take that away, however, and you are still left with firm stances- rape is bad, and adultery (that is, breaking a vow of fidelity) is bad. 
    • And sex? Every time the idea of "sexual immorality" is brought up, it always centers on taking sex lightly, not valuing it for what it is- a unique connection between people, a show of trust, vulnerability and honor.  Jesus told us to love one another as God has loved us, and sex is just one way to show that love.
  • How do we make decisions about sex, marriage and love, both including and excluding the religious aspect?
    • Separately from the Bible, we can recognize that our relationships (romantic and not) are healthy when they build us up; involve respect, admiration, and trust; and provide us with support and love.
    • We recognize that having sex is the most physically vulnerable you can be with another person, and that it is tied into emotions and relationships in a unique way.  As a comparison, it's sort of equivalent to asking someone to hold your wallet and cell phone in the middle of the Mall of America for two hours, and trust that they won't spend all your money and post all kinds of things to your Facebook.
    • Also, we can recognize that sex involves a lot of risk, especially when approached without the right education or with a lack of trust.  STDs and pregnancy are certainly part of that, but also a relationship that involves sex is necessarily deeper and more complicated than one without, and breaking it more painful.
    • Given what the Bible does say about marriage, many people do still choose to wait until marriage to have sex.  On a side note, it is required of ELCA pastors, and those studying to become pastors, that they only have sex with the person they're married to.  (Since 2009, we have acknowledged that legal marriage is sadly not an option for everyone, and a somewhat-equivalent system has been set up for homosexual pastors with partners.)
  • What are ways that sex can and has been misused?
    • Rape and Incest- I put these two in the same category because incest often involves one partner being underage, and therefore unable to consent.  The Bible does have stories of rape and incest in it, and sadly does not approach them with the pastoral ways we would today- because then as now most people being raped were women, and in that time the suffering of the woman was secondary to how the rape "decreased her value" to her nearest male relative- husband, father, or brother.  However it does clearly state that both are crimes, and that sex should always be entirely consensual.  (And the Song of Solomon is a lovely celebration of what that consent might look like.)
    • Pornography and commercial sexuality- Any time that money enters the equation when we're talking about sex, it degrades both the act and the people in it.  What should be a situation of completely free consent has added the coercion of financial incentive.  What should be an act of trust and love between two people has become a financial transaction.  The value that each person would hold for the other is removed and only the value of the money matters.  The people involved become bank accounts, objects, and that is not following the commandment that we are to love one another as God has first loved us. Pornography in particular adds to the objectification of others (and therefore not loving them as God first loved us) by having nothing to do with who they are as people, but only what they look like and what they're willing to do on camera.  In addition, pornography is often connected to sexual trafficking and those involved are often forced to participate.
  • How do we approach the decision making of people with different points of view than ours?
    • With grace, education, and open hearts.  We acknowledge that all people are the beloved creations of God, and that we all fall short of God's hopes for us.  We, as yet, see as through a mirror, darkly.  One day, when, we do not know, we will all join in celebration together, at one with God.  Until then, we encourage respect and honesty wherever we can.
For further information on what the ELCA itself says on related matters, there is the 1991 Social Statement on Abortion, the 1996 Social Message on Sexuality, the 2001 Social Message on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, and the 2009 Social Statement on Sexuality.  (Social Messages are a bit shorter and less thorough than Social Statements, and only have to be voted on by the Church Council, rather than the entire General Assembly.)  All have subject headers and are reasonably skim-able for those truly interested.  You can also see something of a journey that the ELCA has made between the 1996 Sexuality Message and the 2009 Sexuality Statement.

So, why wait until your wedding to have sex?  (You didn't really think I'd finish this post without asking that, did you?)

Well, this article from A Practical Wedding is a wonderful list of reasons to wait- from a completely non-religious point of view.  That's right.  There are reasons that don't have to do with the Bible.

On a more personal note, I'll add that yes, I waited until I was married.  Partly because I've known I was going to be a pastor for the ELCA since I was 15, and I knew that rule going in.  But mostly?  Not so much because of that.  And it wasn't really because I wanted it to be "special", either.  And hellfire and damnation didn't really enter into it.

I mostly waited because I couldn't (still can't) imagine wanting to have sex with anyone I wasn't married to.  I am a deeply and naturally monogamous person.  Like I've said, sex involves a lot of vulnerability, and I wasn't interested in being that kind of vulnerable with a person I hadn't already said I'd spend my life with.  Touch has always mattered to me- I like hugs, but it took me a lot time to get used to them from people that weren't family.  My husband occasionally gets me flowers, but only occasionally, because I honestly prefer just having his arm around me as we watch a movie.  I didn't want to share that kind of physical affection with anyone else.

So I recognize that not everyone's wired that way, and your reasons for waiting may be different from mine.  But I will mention this: I've spoken to a lot of women (and a few men) who have told me that they wish they had my "excuse" for not having sex before marriage.  Who said they wish they could just sweep that option right off the table in any dating relationship right away, because of the pressure and the complications of when and why you make the decision to have sex.  You may find dating a lot easier if you tell people right off you're going to wait until marriage for sex- it certainly helps weed out the ones who aren't really interested in you as a person.

One final note: you never "have to" have sex.  You never owe it to anyone.  I don't care if they paid for dinner or helped you move or you've been dating for a year and they're ready.  I don't care if you've had sex before with someone else or even with this person.  You never owe anyone sex, ever.  And if they're not willing to wait for your enthusiastic consent, then they are not worth your time, trust, and certainly not your love.  You deserve better, you are a beloved part of God's creation, and you do matter.

God bless you all.