Sunday, December 27, 2009

Grounded in God

"Grounded In God"

Broadway Presbyterian Church, New York City

texts: 1 Sam 2:18-26
Luke 2:41-51
Colossians 3:12-18 (see below).

The story about Jesus getting lost in the temple is one that only the gospel of Luke tells… no other gospel has anything between the birth story and jesus’ appearance as an adult at the Jordan river. None of the other three gospels even seem to care about Jesus’ life as a child, an adolescent, an adult – nothing until he came to be baptized and begin his public years. But Luke gives us a few extra stories, both around Jesus’ birth and around his earliest years. Curiously, we find that MOST of them are in or around the temple in Jerusalem: there is this scene of the 12-year old Jesus getting lost in the temple, earlier there’s the story of his presentation as an infant, when the prophets Anna and Simeon meet him in the temple and bless him, and the whole gospel starts in the temple, with Gabriel appearing to Zechariah who would be the father of John the Baptist. For Luke the story of Jesus was centered around the temple in Jerusalem. On the human scale, Jesus has important conversations and confrontations there, but on a deeper level we also see the curtain in the temple torn in two when Jesus dies, symbolically transforming the relationship between God and humanity. And Luke’s gospel ends differently too. Whereas other gospels talk about the fearfulness after the resurrection, and how the disciples would gather in locked rooms, Luke says that after Jesus’ ascension, the disciples quite openly go back to Jerusalem and that they “were continually in the temple blessing God.” The temple is not just an important location for things to happen; it is the narrative anchor for Luke’s plotline, the fixed point -- around which -- the story of Jesus Christ turns and weaves and unfolds. In this way Luke roots the new story of Jesus in the old traditions of the Jewish people.

Now you may also know that there are certain other Christmas stories found only in Luke. Gabriel also comes to Mary only in Luke’s story, and Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is only found in Luke. And if you look closely at Mary’s song, “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” you will find that it is patterned exactly on another song sung by the mother of a miraculous child… by Samuel’s mother. Her name was Hannah, and she was barren until she prayed for a child and her prayer was answered. And in return she promised to devote her child to God. This is how the little boy Samuel came to be serving in the tent of meeting with the priest Eli.

So Mary sings a song on the pattern of Hannah’s song... Therefore. Literarily. Mary is connected back to Hannah; and Jesus is therefore connected back to Samuel.

This is important because, well, we just read two seemingly disconnected and irrelevant accounts of little boys growing up, and other than that “they’re both in the Bible,” we really should figure out why the two stories come as a package deal. Looking closely we find that it’s because Luke connected them for us. He writes this in for us as plain as can be. If you listen closely you will hear almost the same words in both stories. Samuel, it says, “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people.” And Jesus, Luke writes, “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in divine and human favor.”

So with just a few words Luke has painted a picture of the boy Jesus, in the pattern of the boy Samuel. He has rooted the new story in the old story.

Now in most aspects Jesus’ and Samuel’s lives were probably not that similar. Samuel was steeped in the prayers and sacrifices and vigils that priests did, he must have known the prayers backwards and forwards. He was near the altar and the ark and all the holy things 24/7. The most famous story of him being called by God takes place when he is lying down at night inside the tent of meeting… he hears a voice in the middle of the night, and it’s God calling to him.

Jesus may not have spent all day and all night by the altar saying prayers. Most days he probably spent much more time learning a trade from Joseph than hanging out with the priests… so he was probably not familiar with the sacrifices and the service of the temple. He knew the Scriptures, somehow... we can only guess how he learned so much, whether someone taught him, or whether he just understood it right off the bat. But however it happened, Jesus was able to plug right in. He just clicked into place in the temple debates, as easily as someone like Samuel who had been there all their life long.

From a young age both of these precocious boys were rooted in the Scriptures. They were able to speak firmly and seriously about things of God. I hope that you take time to listen to your own children who we have here; they seriously do have an understanding to impart to you, not just because they have that cuteness of simplicity, but because God blesses them with understanding as well, especially when they are grounded in Scriptures.

It’s a wonderful thing to be grounded like that. I myself was very securely rooted here, as many of you know who saw me grow up in this church. I knew it was my church. There were days, when we were working on something with the Thesbyterians, when I spent more hours at church than anywhere else but in bed asleep. This was home to me. And I commend that to you all. When we baptize our children into the community we commit to raising them in the faith; giving them a place in God’s house and letting them know it is theirs too; giving them something important to do here; and also encouraging them to be familiar and fluent in the scriptures, in the stories of our faith.

I commend it to adults as well. Build it for yourself. Anchor yourself with constancy and commitment to this place, to our holy Scriptures, and to the people of God. Commitment is not just good for the congregation; it’s good for you. We all need a solid foundation to stand on.
But I know at times that this is not enough. I can tell you, and tell you, and tell you until I am blue in the face that we all need to be anchored; and sometimes life rips up our anchors.

My first real story of having my anchor uprooted was when I was a camp counselor. I went to Presbyterian camp as a kid, down in Virginia, and I felt I was living in God’s house itself, out under the trees and the night stars, singing, playing, and worshipping God with cool teenage counselors who inspired me. I held onto that; my life’s ambition, for a while, was to be a good camp counselor when I grew up. I did everything I could to prepare myself for the task, and my first summer as a counselor was excellent. But the next summer the hard times were harder and the support was less supportive, and I burnt out. Suddenly the rug was torn out from under me; there was no more magic in the night stars, no more happy campers, and I learned the horrible news that the camp site itself would be sold the next year. My castle had been destroyed. What of my ambition to be a professional camp counselor – forever? I had nothing to hold onto for the next summer, or the next, or the future.

Sometimes our anchors are torn out from under us; sometimes we need to let go of our anchors and look for others. I met a teenage girl on Amtrak last week who was traveling alone for the first time and really wanted to talk... She started out by telling me about her dysfunctional family, and the way they fight every Christmas. She is the youngest by many years and never gets to really be herself… she remembers her Uncle, whom she calls Scrooge, looking at her as a child who wanted to play with him, and asking the adults – what is she doing?? Why is this kid trying to climb me like a tree?? And she told me her memories of saying “I love you” to her family members, and getting an “okay, Maggie” as the answer. She does not cherish this family anchor at all. But this year there has been a change; Uncle “Scrooge” married a nice woman with young kids, and they invited Maggie to come spend Christmas with them. She saved up her money for the ticket, and she was finally on her way. She was completely agitated by excitement and wonder… what was it going to be like? Was he going to be Uncle Scrooge still, or would he love her for who she is? Would she get to play with the new little kids? Would he have a Christmas present for her? What is his new wife like? This young, hopeful girl was just completely open and vulnerable, uprooted from one anchor, looking everywhere for the next thing to hang onto, an anchor to hold fast, a family to call “home” for a while.

Sometimes we are forcibly uprooted against our will, and sometimes we uproot ourselves for good reason. Our situations can become so unbearable that we rightly have to separate ourselves and go out looking for a new home. No matter why and where we uproot, it is hard to live without an anchor. Our culture these days is particularly rootless, but it is not unique to us. The Bible stories testify that for as long as there have been homes, there have been people leaving home. And the search for a new home, for something to hold onto, is as old as the human race.

So in this season, whether we are as grounded as the little children who know God’s house is their home, or whether we are as uprooted as Maggie on the train, searching for a new family home, I want to encourage us all to take in an internal anchor. Too many of our external anchors get taken away from us; we need to find something to hold onto that will not leave or forsake us.

Hear these words from our final lectionary passage, Colossians: beginning@ ch3 vs12

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

I encourage us all – you and me both – to take these words to heart:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

I am going to uproot myself from the pulpit and the script and the position of implicit power that i have by being up here – and for the rest of the sermon I just want to focus on those words:

let the word of Christ dwell in you richly

Now “dwell...” “Dwell” is one of those old church-words that no one uses in conversation anymore but it is really a very beautiful word. It can mean to linger, or spend time on something, but the primary meaning here is to actually live somewhere, as one lives in a house; to inhabit, to take up residence within.

Let the word dwell in you richly, not in fits and spurts, not in bits and pieces, not “only-when-i-feel-like-it,” not in momentary quiet times and then being abandoned when the clamor of the day comes by. A great temptation in the age of Twitter is to take God’s grace in bite-size chunks. Our attention span is shortening every day. When I was a child we watched Sesame St, which became a very controversial show because everything was in one-minute or two-minute sections, and we learned to have a short attention span – it’s just been getting worse since then, 140 characters is the length of a single Tweet. So this is how we treat one another...

We pray until we feel a little relief, get in quick touch with God, and then we quit. Why would we do any different? This is how we’re used to treating one another– a brief encounter, and then we’re looking at something else. We are easily distractible. And this is how we treat ourselves, and it’s how we treat God.

Let the word dwell in you fully.. not in bits and pieces, but in its fullness.

So instead of darting from thing to thing let the word LINGER in you; let it STAY. Not to leave, not to be pushed aside by anything else. Let the stories and poems and prayers of the Bible become your internal anchor, making of your hearts a temple and a sanctuary and a home.

Now in terms of letting the word really Stay in our hearts... I have to say at this time that I am almost done with Christmas... and one of my best friends, Luke, always gets on my case for that. Christmas is TWELVE DAYS LONG, he always says. They start 12/25 and go until 1/5. So are you going to miss out on eleven of the 12 days of xmas? But hey... i mean, we pastors and seminarians and elders and other serious church-people spend so much time in preparation... by the time we’ve survived the season – greened the sanctuary, done the advent calendar thing, reflected for four weeks of advent, practiced our choir songs, prepared our Scripture reading for Xmas eve, lit all the candles, done the light show, not to even MENTION the gifts and cards and Christmas dinner and FAMILY – i shouldn’t speak for others, but for me, by the time boxing day rolls around, i am so done. If you remind me of baby Jesus in the manger I will probably snap something sarcastic back at you.

And that’s where the word “richly” catches me. Let the Christmas story dwell in us RICHLY? Let it dwell in us FULLY? Can we do that? Can we keep our attention on it even when we’ve just been overwhelmed? Can we clear out the clutter and make room for Christ? Can we keep repeating the story of Christ’s incarnation, so it doesn’t go by in one quick blaze of glory, can we let it move from our lips to our heads to our hearts as we quietly remind ourselves of what really happened 2000 years ago? Can we let it move from our hearts to our hands and feet, putting it into action, following in Christ’s footsteps?

By God’s grace I pray that we can... because it is not by our own power that Christ takes up residence within us. We don’t have to DO it, we just allow it to happen. I think that Christ is longing to become flesh again – but not in a baby this time; this time, within you and me, in our lives, in our hearts, and our hands, and our feet.

So make the time... make the space... invite Christ to live in you, inhabit you, STAY in you, and not to leave when distractions call. This is better than any external anchor we could ever have. This is holding fast to something that will never leave us; and it allows us to grow in maturity, as Jesus did, as the little boy Samuel did; we grow in wisdom, in God’s favor.

Take a moment now to think of how you might be able to do this. Maybe pick the verse or song that has meant the most to you this Christmas, that really touched your heart, and plan to read it or sing it every day until the 12 days of Christmas have FULLY been celebrated. Maybe take an action you feel God is calling you to do, and make it a prayer – a living prayer. How has the Word spoken to you this Christmas? How can you speak that Word, enact that Word, become that Word?

I invite you to take a moment to think about that. Grab a little pencil in the pew and write yourself a note. How can you let the word dwell in you?


Word of Christ

Living Word of Christ

Dwell within us fully

Find in us a home

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On Tantalization, or, why I will not post pictures.

Many of my trainmates clicked their cameras away during our trip, especially crossing the Seirras and the Rockies. I however took not a single picture. Neither will I consent to write a book about my Amtrak experiences.
It's not that I object to pictures in general. I dislike seeing the world through the tiny lens, but I'll do it for a purpose. When I have been in exotic places like Prague, Uganda.... and Lostine... I post prolifically, because I know many of you will not get to travel there.
Amtrak? You can take it. I'm serious. Yes, it takes a little more advance scheduling, but usually no more money than a plane ticket. It goes many places you might want to go, and if you don't know any others you can always call and visit ME.
Now you might not be about to wear clericals. Granted. Some of you are not even remotely about to be ordained to anything, and some ordained persons are anti-clerical-garb. But I'd estimate that roughly 93% of my experiences had nothing to do with that. You don't need a special costume to strike up conversations with truckers, artists, students, vegans, libertarians, pot farmers and shroom aficionados, and even with Amish folks (who I'd assumed unapproachable but found quite friendly).
You too can scale the Sierra Nevadas without getting out of a comfy recliner. You can go through Ruby Canyon on the Colorado River, without rafting (still the only other viable access route). Go North, you can go straight through Glacier National Park.. there are many amazing routes, and many amazing people to meet.

I wonder sometimes if I'm a better evangelist for Amtrak than for Jesus. The more I talk about how great my trips are, the more friends start taking them too. At least I think this is how evangelism should take place: not through me yelling at people who fly, but expressing the awe and wonder in which I revel, while crossing mountains with cafe cars full of new friends. If you have not yet read it, I commend to you Shane Claiborne's recent letter to non-believers regarding fascination. I do believe that this is how we can best communicate that which we love and believe in.

So if I have not yet convinced you that Amtrak is a fascinating, awesome way to travel, I can only say in the words of wiser sages "come and see." And if my sixty-something-year-old counseling client with Parkinson's and a bum hip can manage to brave a daylong trip in order to see some of the wonders I have seen......... YOU CAN TOO.

Clericals extended

When I got back my dad congratulated me on my clerical-wearing adventure and said "that's something you'll be able to look back on for many years."
Oh. Let me explain...
This was not a one-shot fun thing. I'm considering repeating this transgression of pastoral comfort level on a regular basis.
I have always been slightly infatuated with the concept of obvious clerical garb... priests in robes, monks in sackcloth or whatever, nuns in crazy wimples especially... and although I have tried other methods, collar-wearing in ridiculously public situations is the first scenario that has come close to satisfying my infatuation.
I've worn crosses, all kinds of crosses, taize crosses, Jesus fish, and only gotten a few comments. The Jesus fish are so trendy, and so teenager, and the crosses are so ubiquitous as jewelry. The Taize emblem gets a few people who recognize it, and a few who ask what the heck it is... I've worked up a little speech explaining Taize in less than a minute, but usually the conversation goes no further. The word "monastery" might be an off-put.

But this collar is something I like. It gets the quizzical questions, of course, the "are you a.... priest-..ess??" which are usually more about my gender than about the possibility of me being religious. It also gets the matter-of-fact "so you must be a pastor" comments, and the thirty-second conversations that end with me and my work being "God-bless-ed" by the initiator of the conversation.

I saw a teenage girl dropped off by her mother in the Chicago station. It was her first time traveling alone and she was quite nearly panicked. Mom found a young Navy sailor in uniform, traveling on the same train, and charged him with making sure the daughter got to her station and met her uncle okay. I saw him checking on her that evening; he joined her in the cafe car, made polite conversation, and in the morning he carried her bag to her uncle, shook hands goodbye, and got back on the train.
To me that's a great example of wearing a uniform in public, or a visible symbol of your occupation. The same girl glommed onto me in the cafe car, asking me about my collar, and proceeding to tell much of her life story. She made an outright confession to me about a raccoon she'd accidentally killed a few years ago (and all the guilt she carried from that!) I simply told her that it sounded like she'd done her best to save his little life, and that we can never do better than our best efforts. She took this to heart, thanked me, and said it was good to hear that "from someone who's -- um -- who's basically almost a priestess already"

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Amtrak report

Wearing clericals on the train was, in fact, as much fun as I expected (demanded?) it to be. I never really have trouble getting into conversations with strangers on Amtrak -- it comes with the territory -- but our conversations took a decidedly more theological tone given the talking piece I wore.
The first comment I received was "oops, I'll have to watch my language around you ma'am." This from a truck-driver who professed later that my collar had "scared the hell out of him -- aah, sorry again." His vocabulary was indeed colorful but it was nothing I hadn't heard before. Despite saying he was scared/shy, he talked a blue streak to me, eventually progressing from saying "ma'am" to "hey, rev," to even "Talitha." His theological concept was clearly and solidly of God as a finger-wagging Santa's helper, looking out for the bad and the good, keeping lists and demanding good deeds to "balance" his bad ones. I tried to share my alternate views, perhaps to mention grace... but he had his mind made up. He did, however, have something to teach me: "you GOTTA use real-life stories in your sermons, cuz how else are you gonna make it make sense to guys like me?" I did heed his warning, and pricked up my ears around me for stories.
I was prepared to be completely ignored by some non-religious people, in deference to the collar, but found this didn't happen -- at least not as far as I could tell. I was still able to strike up friendships with my age-group peers, and was even asked by three fraternity brothers if they could share a table with me in a crowded cafe car.

I got a few completely absurd collar-questions, one notably while brushing my teeth in the larger dressing room downstairs of the Zephyr. I spat, answered with my identity - i'm a seminarian studying to be a pastor - and thought i could get back to brushing but was asked "so what do you have to do to be saved?" which I tried to answer quickly in small words without using churchspeak (grace, faith, repentance). I don't know how well I did, but I certainly feel prepared for my CPM examination on Monday. Going through Colorado there was a young experimental musician who sat near me and fired obscure questions over at random intervals. It was a fun challenge!

I got a few amazing connections because of the clericals -- a Presbyterian elder who serves on a CPM two of my friends are or have been under care of... and in the Chicago amtrak boarding line, I was approached by a fellow-traveler and fellow-PCUSA-blogger, who had read my blog, knew I'd be traveling around the same time as he, and asked if I was madame future moderator!!! What a shock... what a small world!

All in all, it was super, I'm tired, and I'll write more later =)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Amtrakking it with a collar on

As I have mentioned before, everyone says you should never wear Clerical Collars on public transportation. But I have discovered that everyone seems to have different reasons for this statement. One is that "you'll never get a moment alone" busy helping people in existential crises. The other is that "everyone will avert their eyes and avoid you" noting the baggage that church service carries with it. Between these two extremes there must be some reality, and I'm out to find it. I am also anticipating that wearing the collar will (1) convince people I'm older than twelve (yes, an issue), and (2) increase my self-consciousness as a Christian leader.
I do, for various reasons, take Amtrak, and even across the country. I'm departing today and will arrive in New York on Saturday. I have four shirts with tab collar slots in them, thanks to Goodwill and a sewing machine. I am going to wear these for the next few days and find out what it does to me.
I was going to tweet the episode, considering that twitter is BUILT for these kinds of interactions, but then I was added by several people who have upwards of 11000 friends and who constantly tweet coupons and special deals... and so I said, says I, this is bunk, I'm just going to use Facebook Mobile. Facebook friends, stay tuned! And I promise to summarize here at the end =)

Monday, December 14, 2009


Today I spent way too long in five lanes of traffic moving at 20 mph.

All I could think was "where are my green pastures and still waters?"

And I missed Lostine, where the sole highway had one lane in each direction, and three cars behind a slow truck was considered a jam. In the past year I had been in only two genuine traffic situations there: one on the 4th of July following the fireworks, and the other after the rodeo.

Bike lanes, here we come. When I get back from my epic train trip I will get that bike back out again.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

(having left): Arriving

There was really not much that could excite me about leaving Lostine. It still is quite a lamentable absence for me. There were trails unhiked, snowshoes never worn, sermons left unpreached, songs that hadn't been sung... but one particularly dear old lady always said "we're gonna miss you like heck, but you gotta go and be with folks yer age."
Now they may not all be my age group, but all my fellow-students are definitely my peers. And seminarians are GREAT to be with. In the three days I've been home, I've gotten into soteriology at the dinner table, denominationalism around the fireplace, and the Pauline flesh-spirit dichotomy (with dances and shrieks of delight, no less) in the kitchen. All these BRAINS all around me, I love them!
The other new development is that my community house, while it has never been likeminded on all things, is currently likeminded on one big topic: music. Last night was our designated bonding time, and after we'd eaten, decorated everything decorateable (six ladies, cumulatively, result in a large collection of xmas ornaments to be hung), affirmed one another, sang and prayed ---- then we kept singing. I had my guitar out and expected that when we hit the Indigo Girls songs, signaling the end of formally-designated-bonding-time, the group would disperse and leave only a few with me. I assumed that what I wanted to do was not what the other folks wanted to do... an experience I've had often in my life... and I guess I looked a little silly with my mouth gaping open when I realized they all wanted to go through my music notebook and sing my favorite songs with me all night. We kept at it for a few hours!
It was also great to go to my home church St. Andrew Presbyterian, and to be INVITED to play tambourine (I missed that this year) and to belt as loudly as I could.

I guess the thing that's hitting me is... there IS a group of likeminded people, more or less gathered around me here, and the experience of being with them is a precious and wondrous thing I missed (for the most part) during my year living alone in Lostine. I have learned to appreciate the richness of a group gathered together, not to take it for granted as I used to. In fact I learned that lesson about many things. For example, there is live music every night of the week in Fairfax here, and I never used to attend much. Out in the mountains of Oregon, you go to live music whenever you can, because there may not be any next week, much less every day. I hope that I have learned to prioritize better, and one of my priorities for the rest of my time at seminary is to APPRECIATE these fabulous brains and souls gathered around me.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Really Leaving Part I

Worship was awesome this morning. I played arco bass on "Of the Father's Love Begotten" and on "Gather Us In" -- plainchant-old to very-new (well, new enough to use the word "light-years"). I also played a handbell for the first time ever, by special request a few weeks back. The plan for the day was to keep all children upstairs instead of sending them out for Sunday School. This meant that Steve and I had to keep the whole service as interesting as possible... so we all acted out Zechariah's story, and had a dialogue sermon that kept many people laughing as we bantered back and forth. We called for "Amen"s and "Hallelujah"s and got them, exuberantly. We celebrated Communion and the kids got to "watch and learn." The whole place was bright with greens and Amahl's starry sky.

In the middle of that they called me up for gifts. Although they'd already done the prayer shawl, with laying-on-of-hands, well, there was more. Today I got a quilt, with an image of our church building applique'd on the center, and an extremely generous check for "books, travel, whatever you need," and a basket full of variously meaningful Wallowa County stuff and children's art. And a pasta maker! For me to keep up with my growing repertoire of domestic skillz.

We had a potluck with a gorgeous chocolate cake which was decorated in Talitha Colors (i.e. green, brown, leafy, hippie nature girl) with hazelnuts and acorns adorning it to remind us of Julian of Norwich.

I had dinner last night with a friend who asked me "how does it feel to be leaving the county?" My answer was, in a word, "wrong." It still grates at me -- it is so artificial for me to be called away from a place that is such a perfect fit. Artificial it is, but CPM and seminary call. I am grateful to the congregation for helping to push me out of the nest, saying their goodbyes, celebrating my time here, and stopping by with boxes for packing up. The rituals of goodbyes help a lot. The weather is also helping. What with sunset around 3:30 PM and daily temperatures getting up near 20 at the heat of the day... it is hard to drag things out.

Here's a picture of what "freezing fog" does to a bush. no those are not thorns... just ice-prickles. In California I will have fresh lemons on the tree, and persimmons. I'm not saying this because I want to leave, but I have to look at the bright side of it to get my tail in gear, and comparing frost prickles to lemons and persimmons DOES do the trick.