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October 2007
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December 2007

Advent 1

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Surely you’ve seen the bumper sticker celebrating 1/20/09, the date of the next presidential inauguration. We know that on that day, we will have a new president. But what do we really know about that day? Some of us have a vision that it might be better (more peaceful, more open, more collaborative and cooperative). The only thing we can be certain of is that it will be different; but we do not know the whole story.

Today, most Christians are convinced we already know how Christmas turns out. We know the beginning and the end of the story. We already know that this is our Savior who will fulfill his purpose on a humiliating cross one spring after being born in the requisite humble manger in the cold darkness of December. But is that really the whole story?

Looking at the lectionary texts for the first week of Advent we find writers who did not know the whole story. They had different images and processes that they were hoping for…they each had their own ideas of what a better life (their salvation) might look like. Each reading this week is written in a different historical context, and each of them seem to be looking toward a future day when things will be different (presumably “better”) for the people of God than they are today. It reminds us of lines in Reid Bush’s poem “Unforeseen”: “It's hard to know when you need to / what it is you're going to want.”

In Psalm 122 we find a poet that could not be a bigger fan of Jerusalem. This writer is so happy that she has had the chance to spend time in “the house of the Lord”.  Jerusalem
is the place that gives all of Israel a common history and a current common location to “give thanks to the name of the Lord”. She prays for its peace, its prosperity, its security, and its goodness. The writer of this psalm is hopeful that the future of Jerusalem will bring more of the same success and power and glory it has already enjoyed in the past.

Isaiah shares with us his idyllic vision that one day Judah would be the nation held above all other nations—the Israelites would determine how everyone else acted and lived. He saw an especially nationalistic vision of the law governing the world coming from Zion—the word of the Lord would flow from Jerusalem and the God of Israel would teach everyone how to live together. It was a dream and hope and prayer of how the future would turn out.

Paul takes it a bit further and offers more explanation and direction. He has the luxury of knowing the history of Israel. He knows the story of the temple being built and destroyed and rebuilt, he knows the national history of Israel and its sporadic fidelity, and he knows the Psalms and the visions of Isaiah. He saw the life and death of Jesus play out in front of him. And he had his own intimate and dramatic and powerful connection with Jesus through his own call experience. As he writes to the new community of Jesus followers in Rome,
he does not emphasize national salvation and glory, but instead puts much more energy toward how the individual believers should live so they could be ready. He does this because he, like Isaiah, sees “being saved” as imminent: “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

But in Matthew we find Jesus setting a different tone. His vision of the future…of the coming of the Son of Man is not as rosy. He talks about unknown hours, about women being swept away, about people disappearing, about thiefs in the night, about keeping watch at an unexpected hour—these are much less comforting and welcoming thoughts than those of a great nation rising to the top of the world. He does not explain what “the coming of the Son of Man” will mean or look like…only that we must be ready because it will happen. Jesus is pushing toward something more than national power. He seems to be speaking more directly toward the individual listeners present. He turns the other three texts on their heads. He reminds them all that we do not know when or where or how “this” will happen—he only assures folks that we must be prepared.

Today many of us hope the future will be better. We remember how good things were and hope those days will return. We dream, hope, and pray that our world will somehow get its act together and all of our humanitarian and ecological problems will be solved and we will be “saved.” We think that because we can look at the whole Christian story found in the bible we know exactly what we are getting when we pray “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” We assume, like the Psalmist, Isaiah, and Paul, that we know what it means when we ask for Jesus to be born in to our hearts again this Christmas season.

So often the theme for the first week of advent is “watchfulness.” Unfortunately, we spend a lot of our time watching only for things (events, solutions, scenarios) that we want to see. We are a society focused on products and outcomes. We have goals and we benchmark our progress toward those goals.

But the reality is that like the psalmist, Isaiah and Paul, we don’t know the whole story. We’re watching for something that we can’t see quite yet. We’re racing toward a finish line with an unknown location. What if we were, instead, mindful…mindful of what we do not know and faithful in our prayer that God’s will be done and that our hearts and minds and hands are prepared as instruments in the construction and realization of the Kingdom?

What if in our mindfulness, in our understanding that we must be ready, we ask ourselves some guiding questions:

+How do I expect the story to end?
+How am I prepared to participate in the story?
+What do I need to move toward a reality that I cannot fully understand or imagine?
+Am I willing to let God’s story prevail over mine?

O come, Desire of nations bind all peoples in one heart and mind. From dust thou brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.



Preparing for the Shopocalypse

Yesterday was a busy day for Rev. Billy, and this morning, the Washington Post has a great story about his attempts to warn the shoppers lined up outside of Macy's in Midtown Manhattan about the dangers of the cult of consumerism which takes our country by force this time of year. I particularly appreciated this article today as a small counter-balance to all of the news coverage this time of year about the rate of consumer spending. Apparently, it wasn't quite as "good" a start to the holiday shopping season as expected, meaning of course that people didn't spend as much.

I'm glad there's at least one person out there doing what I've often fantasized about--standing in front of stores with a megaphone, shouting that it is possible to live a different way. If you haven't heard about Rev. Billy before, check out his website, or go with me to the movie "What Would Jesus Buy" which is opening at the Charles Street Cinema in Baltimore on November 30th. Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggemann also wrote an article about him in the November issue of Sojourners Magazine, pointing out the similarity between Rev. Billy's work and that of the Biblical prophets.

Now keep in mind that Rev. Billy is a performance artist, not an actual Christian minister. He's using the manners and phrases of Pentecostalism as part of his performance. But like Brueggemann, I find myself wondering if he actually gets it more right than most Christians do this time of year. Every Christian minister I know--heck, just about every practicing Christian I know--speaks disapprovingly about the comodification of Christmas. But for most of us, the solution to this problem is to spend more time emphasizing the spiritual aspects of the holiday and suggesting what's "really important" are the gifts we receive from God. In other words, at Christmas, we make the church into a refuge, a place that offers an alternative ethic, but one that is essentially separate from the world.

Rev. Billy doesn't do that. His church is on the street, on the stage, or even in the board room. He's on to something, and if you ask me, we should be there too.

Together at the Table

Yesterday, sitting down to Thanksgiving with family in Springfield, Massachusetts, I was remembering the very first time I had dinner at that table, nineteen years ago, I think. I had been dating Danny for just a little over a year, but we were certainly Serious, so it seemed right to both of us that we would be celebrating holidays together. Our romantic vision of a lifetime together (already firmly in place) drew us to each other's families. I wanted to know Dan's aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents in large part because I wanted to know him, more and more deeply and fully.

And so, nineteen years ago I sat at the table of Dan's aunt and uncle, and watching and listening, trying to figure out what was going on. It was like walking into a movie a half hour late--there was already so much story underway, so many important characters had already been established, that it was hard to keep up. I dipped into one conversation and out of another, and then, over pie, a raging argument between Dan and his grandfather Bernie caught my attention.

Dan had been taking a class in college called "The History of the International Communist Movement", and he felt like he had some facts on hand with which to challenge his grandfather's unwavering affection for the Russian communist state. But Dan only had to mention the invasion of Hungary, when Bernie cut him off. "The Hungarian people objected to the Russian presence very briefly," Bernie said, "but when they found out what the Russians were all about, they welcomed them. That should be obvious to any student of history. If they wanted the Russians out, they would have fought, just like the Vietnamese."

Dan was shocked, and launched back into the argument, but I was speechless. I had never, ever met anyone like Bernie Greenberg. My parents were certainly members of the political left, but actual communists remained charicatures to me, some combination of Ernst Blofeld and Boris Badenov. I had seen "Reds" in high school but that movie was my only keyhole into why anyone had ever embraced the Russian communist state.

That conversation with Bernie was, for a long time, a bit of a family joke, one story among many from both our families which we told as illustration of the quirkiness of our families. But recently, I've been seeing that conversation, and the life Dan's grandfather, a bit differently. I've been thinking that I need to tell his story, not just to snicker at his blindness, but to preserve a history of the twentieth century that's in danger of being forgotten.

My children, just like me and my parents before me, learn first of all the history of war. We celebrate the end of war, of course, and Veteran's Day is just that, the day when World War I ended. But reading Andrea Barrett's "The Air We Breathe" and re-watching "Reds" over the past few weeks has me thinking of another part of the story of World War I--the massive resistance to the U.S. entry into that war, the massive resistance to the draft of U.S. soldiers to fight in that war, and the large scale mutinies within European armies during the war, resulting in the end in the Russian revolution and Russia's withdrawal from the war.

Dan and I have this blessing among many others to be thankful for as we re-gather this time of year with our families. We have another story to tell--a story of dreams and ideals and aspirations for something other that a history ruled by militarism and might. And while telling that story also requires a confession of blindness and human falibility, it is a story that I am still proud to tell my kids.

Isn't It Just Like the Lord to Put Me Next to You?

A number of years ago, I was sitting in LaGuardia Airport in New York, preparing to take a flight to Sweden. I knew the flight was going to be a long one, but I was ready for it. I had just started a great novel, and I was looking forward to some quiet time to collect my thoughts and get ready for my Big Adventure Abroad. As I was getting ready to board, I noticed with some amusement a woman with way to many carry-on bags and a huge black straw hat with a pink polka dotted ribbon fussing at the agent at the desk. She seemed like a real handful.

When I got on the plane and settled into my seat, I looked up to find the movie screen and saw her coming. I froze with panic--surely she wasn't going to sit next to me? I prayed silently that she would sit down far behind me, but no, she plopped down next to me, looked and me and smiled, and started talking. Within the first half hour, I heard her entire life story. Only then did she pause to inquire about me--what did I do for a living? I sputtered for a moment, trying to think of a good lie, but nothing came to mind so I had to say it--I'm a studying for the ministry.

"OOOOOH!" she squealed in delight. "Isn't it just like the Lord to put me next to you?"

And for hours to come, she talked to me about her take on religion, her interpretation of key Biblical passages, various churches she had attended, the reasons she had left each one. I finally had to pretend to sleep in order to get her to shut up--and then she talked to the flight attendant and all the other people around us. As I sat there with my eyes closed, I had to have a serious talk with God. Did you have something to do with this? I wondered. If this is the kind of thing you orchestrate, you have a really sick sense of humor.

I was on my way to Sweden to reconnect with my long-time Jewish boyfriend, Dan, who I ended up marrying a couple of years later. The following year I got ordained as a minister, and no, Dan didn't convert. And no, we haven't worked it all out, harmonized our differences, issued joint statements on the Meaning of Life. And no, that's not always easy. But when I'm start to really wonder how we ever ended up together, I think about that flight that preceded our reunion. I can diffuse a lot of situations by saying to Dan, "Isn't it just like the Lord to put me next to you?"

I thought of that story again today as I looked through the list of people signed up for our annual retreat this weekend. At the retreat, we talk about what it means to make a commitment to our community, and then we invite everyone there to consider whether they feel called to make that commitment this year. It's a pretty amazing group of people on that list, but it's not necessarily a harmonious group. If we agree to all be together this coming year, we are, in part, agreeing to be in conflict with each other. To have differences of opinion. To wonder why we even ended up in the same place.

But when I read Paul's letters to the early churches he planted, it's clear that we're in good company. This is, I'm pretty sure, how the Lord tends to place us. Right next to someone different from us. I'm not always sure why, but I'm quite certain that's how God works.

Behold, I Stand at the Door

One of the benefits of pastoring a 38-year-old church is that we haven't collected nearly the amount of bad art that inhabits most older churches. Many of the pictures hanging on the walls of old New England churches of the sort I first served were put there by people who died shortly after hanging the picture (or so it would seem) and as a result, the picture can never be moved.

One of the most common is this one, called, "Behold, I Stand at the Door and Knock". It always amused me because Jesus looks so polite in the picture. I used to imagine a reinterpretation entitled, "Behold, I am climbing in through the window because you haven't answered the door."

So, the nob on KC's front door is acting up again. Sunday evening, as I was leaving the church after Candlelight Evening Prayers with Normale, Anne and Greg, it looked a fair amount of wiggling and jiggling to get us out. We were joking that if Jesus were to come to our church, he would say, "Behold, I stand inside your church, trying to get out the door."

Hmmm. There might be something to that....

Veteran's Day Reflections

I have mixed feelings about Veteran's Day getting play in the course of Christian worship, stemming from my days as a Congregational minister in New England. There, where the separation between church and state was late in coming and never really integrated into the culture, we would occasionally get a call from the VFW or the American Legion informing us that the veterans would be at our church the following Sunday to perform a flag ceremony. Their arrival always felt like an invasion--it was impossible to integrate their presence into the rest of the service, it seemed to me to have nothing to do with Christian worship, and they sometimes carried guns. My Quaker ancestors were certainly rolling in their graves.

And yet, it was through church that I began to understand what it meant to be a veteran. Through my relationships with people at the church, I learned what it was like to be alive during World War II when every single American was challenged to sacrifice in some way to support the United States involvement in the war. How different, I thought at the time, from my generation who was able to watch our country wage "surgical strikes" and even invade countries, and never see or feel any affect on our own lives.

Now, well into the fifth year of our war in Iraq, all that has changed. I think Americans are increasingly aware of the cost of this war, both in the Middle East and in our country, most especially in the lives of the veterans who serve there. My own awareness of the experience of veterans continues to develop. I have become convinced that veterans serve an essential role in our society--not just because they are models of self-sacrifice on behalf of their country, but because they return from their involvement in military conflicts with a clear understanding of the real cost of war. Veterans, it seems to me, are the most effective advocates for peaceful solutions to conflicts.

As FDR says (in a quote engraved on his monument in Washington, D.C.) "I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded . . . I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed . . . I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war."

This past Sunday, our Worship Task Group led a worship service which was all about the Gospel, focused around the lectionary texts for that Sunday, and not about Veteran's Day. We decided that we would have a prayer for veterans, but as we developed the service, we decided to pray at our tables, holding hands. So, in the end it was up to each table of 6-8 people to pray for veterans, as we do most Sundays.

But when I walked downstairs to get the program Sunday morning, I was greeted by a dashing man in a military uniform. Frank, our greeter for the morning and a veteran himself, decided to come in uniform, he told me, "to honor our men and women in uniform." My Quaker relatives probably rolled in their graves again, but I was immediately struck by how right it felt to commemorate Veteran's Day this way. Frank is a treasured member of our community, and he was there among us, holding together his military service with his Christian faith. I respect him for that.

I felt like it was an honor for us to have Frank at our door on Sunday, greeting everyone who came in. And I felt like it was a good reminder to me, and to everyone there, to invite each person in our community to bring their whole selves into their relationship with God, and let God connect to each part of our lives.

Problems With Choosing Civility, Part 2

The Choosing Civility campaign arises from an observation that the unpleasant encounters we have in public spaces--people cutting us off in traffic and flipping the bird to other drivers, people cutting in line or acting snotty in the food store, people letting their dogs poop on the sidewalk--have a big impact on our happiness. P. M. Forni, the author of "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct", is undeniably onto something important when he writes in the last chapter of his book, "Just about the most important thing we do in life is interacting with other human beings.... A better quality of human interaction makes for a better life--a saner, more meaningful, healthier, and happier life." Who could disagree? I certainly don't.

But how do we achieve a "better quality of human interaction"? Dr. Forni suggests we do so by emphasizing 25 (or more!) rules for behavior. This is where he and I part company. While I know that rules can force us to act "civily" towards each other, I think they can actually undermine the quality of our interactions. To really improve our behavior we need something much deeper, something that observing rules can actually impede.

This may seem like a strange point of view for a Christian pastor. I mean, what's the point of religion if it's not for imposing rules? Well, that turns out to be a point that Jesus has a lot to say about. Although you wouldn't know if from a lot of the Christian rhetoric that gets spouted today, the main thing that ticked Jesus off was the hypocritical behavior of religious rule-followers.

Take, for example, the story of the Good Samaritan, one of Jesus' best known parables. Jesus tells that story in order to answer the question, "Who is my neighbor?", so the parable is really a commentary about choosing civility. He describes a scene where a man has been attacked by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite walk past without helping him, but a Samaritan, a social pariah, goes out of his way to help the hurt man.

This story is not really about how the Samaritan understands the rules of civility and the priest and Levite don't. The whole reason why the priest and the Levite don't stop is because they are following rules, religious rules that specify that touching a bleeding person will make them ritually unclean. The people who are following the rules stay separate from their neighbor in distress, and the person who doesn't give a rip for the rules is the one who is able to respond with spontaneous compassion.

That parable has had a very strong affect on how I understand what motivates moral behavior towards others. If I go out into the world with rules on my mind, the first thing that I will notice about someone is whether or not they are following the rules. If they aren't, I will, without thinking about it, judge that person as part of the problem. I'll distance myself from them, emotionally and almost inevitably physically. Like the priest or the Levite, I'll cross to the other side.

But what if I go into the world like that good Samaritan? Which is to say, what if I go into the world with a sense of myself as someone who's entitled to nothing, someone who's entire life depends on grace? Then I discover that there is grace in my heart for other people, and room in my world for them too. Then I find my life expresses Forni's most important rules: I pay attention to the world around me (#1), I acknowledge others (#2), and make room in my life and world for them (#3, #4, #5).

Choosing Civility (Or Not) in Oakland Mills

For the past several months, our local libraries have been handing out free magnetic bumper stickers that say "Choose Civility in Howard County". Apparently this isn't just an attempt to distinguish our county as more civilized than barbaric Montgomery County or seedy Anne Arundel County (I keep imagining signs at the county line saying "You are now leaving Howard County--please feel free to act like a jerk.") but rather an attempt to bring back a code of conduct in public spaces that seems (to some people at least) to have eroded over the past several decades.

The "Choose Civility" campaign got its inspiration from a book by P. M. Forni, founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project. As part of the initiative, there have been a number of discussions of Forni's book, including one tomorrow in my neighborhood, Oakland Mills. On Wednesday, November 28th, our church will also host a discussion of the book as one of the options for our Spiritual Education Evening. So, to get the conversation rolling a bit, I thought I'd post of a few of my thoughts about civility here over the next several weeks. It also occurred to me that blogging about the topic in advance might help me be...more civil during the book discussions. There are a few things I need to get off my chest.

The fact of the matter is, this campaign drives me crazy. The main reason for this is the subtitle of Forni's book: "Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct". I (#1) don't really think "rules" are the best basis for moral conduct and (#2) twenty-five is just way too many.

Before I get to my more serious point #1, I can't help but linger for a moment on #2. Twenty-five rules?? Have you seen how small the print is on the bookmark the library is handing out with all 25 listed? I bet most people don't read past #4. This might not be such a bad thing, since I personally think the most important rule is #1 ("Pay Attention"), but I wish Forni had stopped there. I wonder if he could site them all with his eyes closed? And once you read the book, you realize there are actually way more than 25 rules. Most rules have sub-rules--just look at #11, "Mind Your Body". I was trying to count the rules in that chapter, but lost track because by the time I got past 20 (no sniffling??) I had to throw the book across the room.

If Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, sponsor of a bill to post the Ten Commandments in both houses of congress, couldn't list more than three of the ten, what's the hope for us?

More thoughtful critique to come....

The Grace of Emmanuel Pahud

Last night, Dan and I went into to DC to hear a concert by "one of the world's greatest flutists" (according to the program), Emmanuel Pahud. The concert was in the music hall of the Phillip's Collection, so The Repentant St. Peter hung behind the pianist (Eric LeSage) and the works of great French impressionist painters hung all around. Add to that a stop at Teaism for tea and a salty oatmeal cookie both before and after the concert and needless to say it was a wonderful night.

Pahud is a brilliant player, even better in person than on the recordings I've heard. He was technically perfect and his pitch was impecable in every register (not an easy thing on the flute). When he played low, his flute sounded as resonant as a cello, and his highest notes were still rich and full. My flute teacher, Carrie Rose, put it this way: "Everything had a color, everything had an idea. The entire night was riveting."

But what stayed with me all day today was the experience of hearing and seeing someone do something very difficult with so much grace and mastery that it looks easy.

Watching him play reminded me of the time I watched the Boston Marathon at the top of heartbreak hill. The people at the front--the people who were going to finish the race in two hours and change--looked relaxed and smooth as they ran past. Three hours later, there were still people running past, but those people looked like they were exerting themselves to the point of near death.

When I run a race, I tend to cross the finish line red-faced, drenched in sweat, and unable to move again for the next 20 minutes or so. If I ever run a marathon, I am pretty certain I'll one of those people who look like every step is a struggle. And I'm well aware that my flute playing can have a similar feel--I squeeze my right hand hard to get the low notes to come out, and squeeze my mouth to get the high notes.

But here's the puzzling thing--in order to play like Pahud, or to run like Robert Cheruiyot, you have to be willing to exert an enormous amount of effort. You have to train, to practice, longer and harder than anyone else around you. Then, somehow, all that effort becomes invisible, and something easy and fluid emerges.

That's a miracle that I never stop wondering about. When I do something that takes a lot of effort, I want people to know about all the effort I'm putting out. I don't usually go around saying "This took me hours!" but I am deeply satisfied when people see something I've done and say, "That must have taken you hours!" I guess I figure that if my results aren't that beautiful, at least I'll "get points" for effort.

But listening to Emmanuel Pahud makes me reconsider that habit. I don't want to just be a hard worker--I want to be easy and graceful and fluid and loose. The more I've met the Holy Spirit, the more I want to live my life with openness and invitation. I want Carrie's lessons on openning my throut and relaxing my hands to be lessons for life--so that not only will I fill my flute with open, easy breath, but that God will find me to be a ready instrument, ready to be inspired.

P.S. To get a sense of Pahud's playing, check this out.

Limiting Options

When our twins were around 18-months to 3-years old, I could clearly understand the case for corporal punishment. They were able to do things that seriously endangered their life (like run out into the street) or the well-being of their family (like constantly bite their twin) but were unable to listen to or learn from my explanation for why they shouldn't do these things. It seemed obvious to me that spanking was the only way to change their behavior.

But when I discussed my conclusions with my husband, Dan, to my surprise he didn't agree. "I just don't think it's ever right to hit someone who is smaller and weaker than you," he said. And when he put it that way, I had to agree. Once hitting was off the table, we discovered there are all sorts of other ways to correct your toddler's behavior. I hadn't considered these options--I hadn't bothered to investigate them, to learn about them--as long as I was willing to consider spanking.

This experience taught me first-hand one of the fundamental insights of non-violence. Because we are humans, violence is often our gut-level response to any problem. It is easy to convince ourselves that it is the only response to a problem because it is the easiest one to think of, and it has a funny way of crowding out other solutions. But when we take violence off the table, when we eliminate violence from our possible responses to situation, we discover a whole world of other options. Our creativity steps in to build a world of solutions as soon as we take violence off the table.

I'm reminded of a story told at the wedding of dear friends. The groom's brother, an artist, described an exercise in a painting class where the students were instructed to paint using only one color. At first the project seemed impossible, but then, the creativity of the class exploded. Somehow, by limiting options, imagination found new and fertile ground.

I don't, of course, know anything, really, about the work of professional interrogators. I don't really want to know more about their work than I already do. I understand the impulse to let they have all the tools they could possibly need to do their job. Let them decide--they are the experts. I really don't need to know. (And here the closing scenes of Munich are haunting....)

But in my gut, I know this response is a cop out. I do know something about violence--we all do. I know that when the "last resort" options are no longer options, we find other ways to act, other ways to work. And I am heartened by the many testimonies by former interrogators I've read over the past year who have quite clearly explained that there are other options--many of them more effective, all of them more humane. The article in the Post's Outlook section today by Judge Evan Wallach ("Water-boarding Used to Be a Crime") is just one more voice in a growing chorus.

We've sold our car with the bumper sticker that read, "Who Would Jesus Torture?" But I feel more strongly than ever that this country needs to be clear with itself and with the world that torture of prisoners is not an option. Attorney General nominee Mukasey may be able to slither past this issue, but as a Christian, I know I can't.