knitting on the front lines of life

Sermon: Will there be any side dishes served with this Bitterness?

Alex really enjoys American television, and my first week in Italy helped me understand. They have significantly fewer channels, and, worst of all, there is no equivalent to Food Network. He loves Food Network. I can stomach Iron Chef and Chopped, but I get annoyed with Rachel Ray’s voice, Emeril Legasse makes me jump, and if I happen to see Giada Delaurentis, I am afraid her head is going to fall off her tiny little body. But every time a new food network show premieres, Alex wants to watch it. When this season of “The Next Food Network Star” premiered, I protested our recording of it. Alex said, “you’re just bitter.”

And I have to admit, I am. A couple of seasons ago, I saw on Facebook that one of my Chicago friends was congratulating the new star, and I realized… I know her. I went on vacation with her. She was the good friend of some good friends… she had been on Food Network an entire season, and I had completely missed the boat. The one time I could have watched someone I knew compete on national TV… Yeah, I’m bitter.

But Alex wanted to see the premiere so he could see what he was missing in my bitter refusal to follow the show, and after the premiere, he announced that I need to go on the show. As the proposed host of “church dinner winners?” I asked. Or maybe as “the grain-free goddess” or “the sugar-free sorceress”?

“No,” he said. “You could do that trick you do with random stuff in the cupboard.”

When my brother or other family members go to my parents’ house, Mom has all of the meals planned out in advance, shopped for, prepared, and frozen. When I come, she might have one idea for a meal… Maybe. She makes breakfast for her and dad, but I do the rest with what she has on the cupboard. Give me four ingredients from my mother’s cupboard, and I can make a decent meal. A decent vegan meal. A decent grain-free vegan meal. It won’t be spectacular, but it will be acceptable. It’s my gift.

Every time, my mom says, “I don’t know what there is to eat, but I’m sure you will come up with something again.” My mom’s “I don’t know what there’s is to eat” is code for “I only have five of everything.” Olives? 6 jars of green and 5 cans of black. Beans? 20 cans total of four different kinds. Frozen vegetables? A deep freeze full. Tofu? Which firmness? The content of my mom’s “empty cupboards” would completely overfill my kitchen and refrigerator. Twice. If there was a natural disaster at the Lake of the Ozarks, my parents could last a good five months on their empty cupboards alone. And yet, she’s never sure there is anything to eat. Where my mom sees scarcity, I see abundance. While she always says she’s sorry there aren’t more prepared meals, I’m always grateful there are so many ingredients.

Jesus meets ten lepers on the road. If you were here last week, you know that Jesus was in a border land, that lepers were people who had any serious skin disease, that they were outcasts from the community, and that a priest had to declare them clean again for them to reenter the community. Ten of them left his presence, ten of them were healed in the road to the priest, 9 of them went ahead and made it to the priests to be declared clean, and one of them turned around and went back to Jesus. The leper threw himself at the Lord’s feet and poured out gratitude.

Jesus asks where the other nine are. Easy answer: not there. They went on with their lives. Probably, they were declared clean and went home, went forward. This one guy came back. Nine went on like there was no tomorrow, no time to stop and say thanks. One went back to say, “thank you for giving me a life worth living.” Nine were made clean, but only one was made well.

The best lesson I ever learned about gratitude happened at Safe to Sleep. I made stuffed potato skins for dinner from scratch. Potato skins… A cheap way to feed a bunch of people. Lots of work, but not a lot of groceries. A little cheese, a little sour cream, a little bacon, a little green onion, and a bag of potatoes fed 20 women to stuffed. Not the healthiest meal ever, but lots of protein, some carbs, some fiber. They went nuts. None of them had ever had them before… Do you know why? Because they’re an appetizer. Appetizers are a luxury, restaurants that serve appetizers are a luxury. They felt so special to get to get full on an appetizer and fresh oranges. One of the ladies asked to speak to me in private. “You know,” she said, “you have the easiest nights here. Nobody ever fights when your church is here, everybody goes to bed on time, everyone’s cheerful in the morning because you feed us like we matter. We feel special and we act right. Thank you for good nights.”

But the lesson in gratitude came when I remembered to save the bags the groceries came in. Walmart bags. In the morning, following the good nights sleep that only a full and satisfied stomach can bring, they were met with clean Walmart bags. I had finally remembered not to throw the ones I’d brought with me away, so four women got new plastic bags for the day. And they were do grateful. I went home, looked under my sink where I stuff my plastic bags, and I cried.

I forget to be grateful… That I have a home, a job, a good education. I forget to be grateful that I have great living parents, that I can use a bank instead of a check cashing place, that I don’t have to worry about the utilities being shut off, that I have Internet. I forget to be grateful that I can turn off my mind for an hour and watch tv, American tv, Food Network if I want.

It is easier, somehow, to think in terms of scarcity than in terms of abundance, to think in terms of what we don’t have than in terms of what We do have.

I just got healed… I need to get on with my life, who knows how much time I have? Or… I just got healed. I’m going to take the time to go back and say thanks. I have plenty.

God provides abundance. Humans think it is not enough. We think in terms of scarcity. Look no farther than the scriptures we’ve studied in the last few weeks. Feeding of the thousands. The disciples freaked out at the second feeding of thousands just like at the first because they thought in terms of scarcity while jesus operated in terms of abundance. Then the disciples when the disciples freaked out about the fact that they had forgotten to bring bread on a boat ride right after Jesus had fed all those people on a hillside… Twice? He went nuts. Wine at the wedding at Cana, the people of the exile feeling sorry for all they’d lost… God operates in abundance. When we operate in terms of scarcity, we are operate outside of the gospel message of abundance. When we dwell on what we don’t have, we’re being the nine lepers who went on with no time to lose. If we’re living into the gospel message of abundance, we go back, throw ourselves at his feet and say thanks.

Yet another part of the gospel message that changes lives. Think of the difference it would make in your life to switch from our natural human tendency to see scarcity to seeing the world in God’s terms of abundance. “Dinner would have been better if it had been steak” changes to “thank God we could afford hamburger.” “I wish my job paid better” becomes… In this economy… “thank god I have a job.” there are reasons to strive forward, but there are more reasons to go back and say thanks first.

This is not just a lesson about financial considerations like jobs and food and possessions. Learning the hard lesson of seeing the world in gods terms of abundance and gratefulness will effect to our families, our friends, how we treat people, and how we pray. It’s not about money really. It’s not even really about priorities. It’s about how we see the world.

Here I have banned the watching of most of Alex’s entire favorite network because I missed the one time I could have seen someone I know conquer it. That’s scarcity thinking. Instead, I should get over it and thank god i have a tv to relax in front of occasionally… And food network… And so many fabulous people in my life that I’m sure to watch someone else’s rise to fame. Now that’s seeing the worlds through abundance.

This week, when we catch ourselves longing or wishing or wanting or missing, let’s counteract that worldview with gods vision of abundance, and go back to jesus, throw ourselves at his feet, and give thanks. And if you look in your cabinets and don’t see a meal, call me and I’ll come over and shoot my audition video for food network. Amen.


Sermon: Grapes, Castro, and Lonesome Dove

A couple of weeks ago, i decided i wanted to download my very favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude by columbian author gabriel garcia marquez, and read it again. Has anyone else ever read that book? I’m never sure i get that book, but i love reading it every couple of years. So i went online only to find that it is not available in ibook or kindle format. OMG. I have to buy a paper book?

I could not do that at 11 pm in my pajamas. Instead, I downloaded a new biography of the author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, thinking that maybe if I understood him, I would understand the book. A few days later, I downloaded a book by another author the biography mentioned, which led to another book, and another. And one night, Alex asked me what I was reading in bed, and I answered, “a biography of Fidel Castro.”

“FIDEL CASTRO?!” alex cried. “WHY in the WORLD are you reading a biography of Fidel Castro?”

“The crazy thing is NOT that I am reading a biography of Fidel Castro,” I said calmly. “The crazy thing is that reading a biography of Fidel Castro helps me understand Lonesome Dove.”

“You are NOT going to preach about Fidel Castro,” Alex said.

“”No,” I answered. “I am going to preach about Lonesome Dove.”

What does Fidel Castro have to do with Lonesome Dove?

The more important question is… What does Jesus have to do with Lonesome Dove?

Lonesome Dove is an 8-hour miniseries about Texas rangers turned cattlemen who leave the dusty town of Lonesome Dove, Texas with a bunch of cows to go North. It has a few bad words used copiously so you don’t get a clip.

And there is no doubt in my mind about who selected this film or where they sit at breakfast. It was the Curmudgeons, the Grumpy Guses, the self-appointed Pastoral Harassment Committee, what I call the Peanut Gallery, a.k.a. Bob and Aubrey and Jerry Mason. And friends, unless they each voted twice.

I’m going to let you in on a big secret: those sourpusses don’t pick on me when they’re alone. Ok, Mason does. But Aubrey and Bob are more like Susie Mason’s german chocolate cake than her gooseberry pie when we’re one-on-one. But get ’em together and give ’em an audience, and, boy, here it comes.

So I asked Bob what Jesus had to so with Lonesome Dove, and he started quoting lines from the movie that he sees as life lessons. He quoted the main characters, Woodrow and Gus, and then he mentioned Jake Spoon. And I told Bob, if I have to preach about Lonesome Dove, I’m going to preach about latin phrase on the sign.

The sign at lonesome dove both starts and ends the story. It hangs in front of the ranch, identifying it as the hat creek cattle company and livery emporium. It lists the names of the main folks and the animals they rent or sell, excluding pigs. Here’s what the book by Larry McMurtry says about the sign. (highlighted passage)

When asked about the meaning of the Latin, Gus answers, (highlighted passage).

But the sign gets forgotten as Jake Spoon returns to Lonesome Dove. Jake was an on-again, off-again compadre who was more concerned about appearances than reality and more concerned about gambling and women than about cows. When he is with Gus and Woodrow Call, he’s a pretty good guy. When he’s away from them, he always gets in trouble. When he parts company with them in the story, he ends up getting mixed up with, and hanged as, a murderer and a horse thief.

And that, of course, brought to my mind the latin phrase on the sign. It is really the only unexplained thing in Lonesome Dove. Even when it is placed as a cross on Gus’s grave by Woodrow, there is no translation, but here it is: “A grape only changes color in the presence of other grapes.” Thats what the Latin on the sign means, and it makes me think of Jerry and Bob and Aubrey graping it up during breakfast.

It made me think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the other authors of the Latin American literary boom and how their philosophies and literature changed after the Cuban revolution and friendship with…Fidel Castro. They were all friends, and they changed color together (my dad would say those were definitely RED grapes), and most of the, went on to win Nobel prizes in literature, not because of their friendship with Fidel Castro, nor despite it. I have to understand the company they kept to understand what they said in their books, but its more important that I understand their roots.

But this Latin phrase, uva uvam vivendo varia fit, made book critics think of John 15. As it suggests that we are affected by the company we keep and where we choose to be rooted.

The Bible seems to have two streams of opinion on this issue of what company believers should keep. On the one hand, we’re told to be equally yoked in our relationships and to spend time with other believers. On the other hand, we see the model of Jesus, who spent a lot of his time with tax collectors, partiers, and, as Lonesome Dove calls them, “sporting women.” He was criticized for this by the religious authorities of his day, but he defended it by saying that he came for the sinners, not the righteous. He hung out with us. We are the company he keeps.

This passage is not about who our other friends are, whether they are communists or Christians, cattlemen or horse thieves, saints or sporting women. Rather, it is about what we are so ultimately connected to that we can’t see ourselves as separate from. “i am the vine, you are the branches.” Jesus says, “remain in me” and “remain in my love.” in other words, don’t just bump into me and move on. Stick with me, be rooted in me. “you’re not my servants, you’re my friends.”

So wherever you are, whoever you’re with, Jesus can be there. He chose you, but its your decision whether you remain in him.mBecause you’re there, and you remain in him, he’s there. Thats the kind of relationship Jesus wants with his followers. He wants us to choose to be inescapably his. He doesn’t want followers who sneak off from him to go play cards. He wants those that remember they are his disciples as they cut the deck. He wants Guses that read their Bible while they’re feeding the pigs, not Jake Spoon who blow in the wind like they are connected to no one and nothing but would read the Bible in public if it would get him something. Get it?

Christ offers us connection. Connection to each other, connection to something bigger than ourselves. If we stick with him, we are less likely to turn into an off-colored grape, because we’ll obey his commandments out of love. Its not so much about what color grape we are as about in whom and in what we are rooted. christ invites us to be his friends, to be the branches of his vine, to be connected.

The next time you watch Lonesome Dove, you will be one of the few people who know what the sign means. And you’ll see how the characters are changed by the company they keep.

More important, we’ll remember the next time we’re with our drinking buddies, our playground chums, our coworkers, or our dysfunctional families… That the company we keep matters, but what matters more is the vine from which we branch and sticking to it as closely as he sticks by us. Amen.

Sermon:The Godfather & The Gospel: Going to the Mattresses

Alex and I received a letter this week with the date for our interview for his permanent resident status and work permit, which basically means official US government recognition that we are, indeed, a family. It will mean he can work, it will mean we can travel abroad, it will just mean so much. We will probably be able to go to Italy near the first of the year, and I have no doubt my mother in law will greet us with, “finally! if only you’d been here three months ago when I really needed you…” because she’s Italian.

I meet people all the time who say, “Oh, I married an Eyetalian, too!” Really? Does your Eyetalian laugh at every fancy cheese selection in every supermarket everywhere? Does your Eyetalian own a 16′ red, white, and green flag? Does your Eyetalian mock Olive Garden and roll their eyes anytime anyone calls anything “Tuscan?” Can your spouse give you a calm socio political explanation for the rise of the mob? ‘Cause I didn’t marry an Eyetalian. I married an Italian.

And everybody knows that what Italians know best is… Don’t say fashion. And everybody knows that what Italians love best is… Don’t say pasta. And everybody knows what Italians revere most is… don’t say the Virgin Mary or the Pope. And everybody knows that what Italians value most is…Family.

But I’m American. Family genealogists have not found a drop of Italian blood in my line. And I come from generations of Protestants, which means I have a small family spread all over the world that sometimes connects on Facebook. I love my parents and my brother, but I don’t share the same sense of family that Alex was raised with as an Italian.

And Jesus has something to so with that. There is tension in Jesus’ view of family. The same guy who chastises Jewish leaders for not properly honoring their fathers and mothers says things like today’s scripture. The same guy who hands off the care of his mother to a disciple as he is dying says things like, “Who is my mother, who is my brother?” when his family shows up while he is working. When people talk about Jesus being all “family values,” I always raise an eyebrow. Jesus values family, but there were times when it was not his first value. There were times when his work came first, and he wasn’t apologetic about it.

Jesus wasn’t Italian, but there was a Mediterranean influence in his life. His country was run by the… italians. I mean, they were Roman, but where is Rome? Italy.

So when I was watching/reading The Godfather this week, I wasn’t totally surprised when I found something that illuminated something Jesus said…. Something that kinda doesn’t make sense to us but might in a more Mediterranean culture. And its an odd thing… Something I heard all my life but never understood. It’s about ‘going to the mattresses.’

If you’ve never seen The Godfather, well, my goodness. Mario Puzo, the author, had written two critically acclaimed books with horrible sales when he decided to quit worrying about Art and write a bestseller. And he did. Launched on the crazy America of 1969, The Godfather was a book for a changing culture. And the movie, two years later, launched the careers of three unknowns: author Mario Puzo, director Francis Ford Coppola and actor Al Pacino. It was a movie about family, in both senses. It was about a family, and it was about The Family. Images like the horse head in the bed and phrases from the movie became just understood parts of American life. If you know what it means when I say that somebody sleeps with the fishes, thank the Godfather. And if somebody tells you, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” and you know you should be concerned… Thank the Godfather.

But I’d never understood the lines in the movie about going to the mattresses. Every time there’s some kind of trouble, somebody asks if they’re going to the mattresses. What? And then I read the book. (Passage from the book.)

Oh, now that makes sense. And here, from this glimpse of an old school Mediterranean culture, is that same tension over family we hear in Jesus’ life. Going to the mattresses is not about keeping their families safe, its about keeping The Family safe. And thats weird, because Italians value family above everything. But in these intense troubles, they leave their families for the concerns of their mission.

And, yes, I get the irony that Jesus’ mission involves saving people and The Corleone’s mission is more about.. Not saving people. But its a little more modern glimpse, more graspable slice, of a similar old world Mediterranean culture. And it can help us understand and live in the uncomfortable tension between Jesus’ values of family and his mission. We don’t need to ignore the weird scriptures in which Jesus downplays family values, we can simply understand that there are moments when the needs of his mission temporarily outweighed his need to be with family.

The Gospel of Mark, in particular, raises the idea that Christians, when we come together in shared belief and love of Jesus Christ, can be a new kind of family. One drawn together by love of Christ that magically makes us love each other. And your church family can drive you crazy… Just like your real family can drive you crazy, right? But when you go through something rough, your church family is standing right beside your blood relatives.

Yesterday at the auction, Cecelia sat and cried, one hand in her daughter’s, one hand in mine. Family.

One night when Charlie was in the ER, I came back to see him, and the nurse stopped me and asked if I was family. As I wavered in my answer, because I really wanted to see Charlie, he pipes up with, “That’s my preacher. Of course she’s family!”

We may not be family, but we’re Family, you know? Although our loyalty is not to a Godfather, but to.. God the father. And when you go through something rough, your church family is standing right beside your blood relatives, because sometimes shared mission temporarily trumps blood.

When Alex (and his family) proposed to me, I gave a tentative yes, and his mom hugged me and said, “benvenuta in famiglia.” welcome to the family. I think all of the color drained from my face. Alex asked me what was wrong, and I whispered, “that’s what they say in all the mob movies.” Alex poked me and whispered back, “She IS a Bonanno.”

But it was days later, when I got up from my bed to get a glass of water in the middle of the night and found her crying in the kitchen…and Alex was asleep in his room, and there was no computer with google translate available. And my experience with The Family took over, and I held her hand like I hold yours when you cry, and she poured out her heart to me, like a parishioner and a pastor, like a mama and her daughter. And we cried together as she spoke of her past and her future, her fears and her anxieties, her worries about Alex and her husband… Her hopes and dreams for us.

And even though she spoke Italian, I understood everything she said. And she realized I understood everything she said. It was then that I realized that families bound together by blood, adoption, marriage, or love of God, they can all have the same love, especially if God’s Spirit is welcome in those bonds. It was then that i realized that being part of this family has prepared me to be a part of their family, and that the mission that keeps me going and the family they expect me to be… They can all be even though they have to exist in tension, you know… Like a family.

May God the Father have your loyalty, may the mission of Jesus Christ be your work, and may the Spirit of God be present in all your families. Amen.

Sermon: Post-Election Breakdown, part two

The Apocalypse, Lincoln, and God’s View of Things

Ecclesiastes 3:9-13

Alex and I went to see our friend, Brett Miller from Springfield band Brother Wiley play at Lindberg’s on Friday night with Jody Bilyeu from Big Smith. It was just the two of them, and they were the opening band, so it was an early show.

Now Brett sings a Bruce Springsteen song every time he performs that mentions a preacher, and when I’m at a show, the preacher in that song goes from a he to a she. We walked in just in time for the switch, and Brett broke into this huge grin as he sang. After the song, he said, “Well, there aren’t many of us, but now we have a music teacher and a golf pro and a chemist and a counselor and a preacher, so I guess we have everybody we need for … The apocalyse.”

You know, since the idea of apocalypse first arrived on the scene, about, oh… Let’s say roughly 200 years BEFORE the birth of Jesus Christ… Every generation. Thats a lot of generations. Every generation has believed that they were the worst, most evil generation that has ever been and that surely they would see the apocalypse. The invention of the bicycle, with people going around in wheels showing their legs, that was named as an end times sign. So was the establishment of the state of Israel. As was every natural disaster ever. But you know, all those generations were just being silly and kinda arrogant, because clearly WE are the worst people ever, what with our cell phones and 24 hour news cycle and Facebook and these kids today.

To tie into last week’s subject, its kinda like elections. I cannot tell you how many people told me that this was the most crucial election in our history as a country. Someone told me that the other day, post-election, and I went all Lincoln on them. See, Alex wanted to go see Spielberg’s new film, Lincoln, on Friday night, after we saw Brett and Jody play, and all he knows about the civil war he learned from Gone with the Wind and the tiny civil war museum in Carthage, MO. So I suggested we watch the Ken Burns documentary on the civil war first. I don’t know what he learned, but I learned a lot. I learned, for example, that the word “contentious” does not even apply to elections any of us have seen when compared to the US election of 1860.

Lincoln’s party, the Republicans, didn’t even campaign or hand out ballots in the South so that people could vote for Lincoln. It wasn’t that he was left off the ballot as is sometimes said. It was that the party gave you a ballot to use to vote, and the Republicans didn’t even bother in the South. Kinda weird considering the location of red and blue states today, but THAT was a divided US. He took the electoral college but only had 40% of the popular vote. Between his election and his inauguration, 7 states seceded from the union and the seeds of civil war were starting to sprout. Now that’s a crucial election. Then he published the emancipation proclamation, seizing presidential power no one had even tried before, and 18 months later was reelected. That was also a critical election.

But you know, the next election is always the most critical, and it is always about to be the end of the world for human beings. We are people not on the edge but who perceive a precipice right at the edge of our next move.

Thats the macro scale. The micro scale is like a high school or a nursing home, which are actually quite similar socially because the people in them spend so much time there that it begins to look and feel like the whole world and small things become unrealistically huge. And parents look at their teens and at their parents or grandparents and think, “why do you think something so small is so big?”

God has dealt with humans since we came around, and God has dealt with this human tendency to shrink our worlds and go onto a nonexistent edge and believe tiny things are big things. Noah saves the animals and his family from a flood and then gets drunk and starts a family feud. God promises Abraham a kingdom and descendants but Abraham spends a bunch of time fussing over his wife’s griping and ends up getting their employee pregnant and causing, you know, just the Middle East crisis of the last thousands of years. Moses is in the desert, leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom, he is changing the world as we know it, and he spends his time griping at God about how annoying the people are.

And Jesus… Man, Jesus gets a rough deal. Because he shows up when the Romans are in charge and everybody is so excited because he is the messiah, the anointed one, and he is going to kick the Romans to the curb and make the Jewish people powerful again… And, um, Jesus? When you gonna get around to kicking out the Romans? When are you going to unleash your mighty power and unsheath your messianic sword, and… No, seriously. Quit preaching and healing and stuff. Kick out the Romans already! thats why you’re here. Whaddya mean thats not why you’re here?!?! I don’t wanna hear all that love God junk. Quit telling me my religion isn’t right. Just kick out the Romans. Dude, thats what matters. Thats the most important thing in the world. How bout less “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and more, “get off my daddy’s property!?”

We can see, in hindsight, how silly Noah and Moses were. We can see the disastrous consequences of Abraham’s hasty actions. We can see the ridiculous lack of sense of the residents of Jerusalem and Galilee in Jesus’ day. But can we face that we do this stuff every day, making big things small and standing on imaginary precipices?

The good news, and what I am most thankful for this Thanksgiving, is that God has a bigger picture than we will ever see. There is no collection of books I can read (and I’m trying to read all of the good ones) that will let me know all God knows. God’s understanding is deep. There is no amount of history I can study that will let me understand all that he understands. God’s timeline is long. The precious hours that we live and share are seconds on a much bigger clock. It is not that what we experience doesn’t matter, it is that it happens in a much bigger world, a much longer timeline, and a much deeper reality than we can understand. At least, thats what Ecclesiastes tells us. And if we look through scripture, we see people making mountains out of molehills and God pushing for a larger, more long-term agenda of love than they could grasp.

We may not get it all, but we can get this. God sees a great big picture on a great big timeline with a deep, deep understanding… And he invites us to be a part of that picture, part of his long-term agenda of love. Eat, drink, be merry, don’t sweat the small stuff, stop and smell the roses, pick a cliche. Chill out a bit. Get off the edge. God knows it isn’t real. Our days be as eventful as they will be, but if they are spent with God, they will be small pieces of a bigger, longer, deeper picture than we can imagine. Amen.

Sermon: Post-Election Breakdown, part one

As a candidate under 35 for becoming a United Methodist pastor, I was required to get a 3 year Master’s degree, an M.Div., which included studying subjects like pastoral care, theology, Christian history, Bible, and ethics. But to do that, I had to have a bachelor’s degree, which I did… l have a bachelor of Science in Political Science. My dad was very disappointed when, after my first semester, I couldn’t tell him when the civil war ended. But after a couple more, I could give him a very balanced analysis of why civil wars start which I felt was much more important overall. Political science is not political history. It is a study of public policy, political theory, government systems, public opinion, and mathematics.

With my degrees in political science and theology, count your blessings that I don’t talk politics, because I’m not fun to talk politics with. Ask my dad. Ask my buddy Jake. But don’t ask Alex, because he loves that I talk system and trend instead of feelings and ideals. So we watched the election coverage, for Alex.

I am no expert, but I am a student of our political system, so I was looking for two pieces of data to call the election for myself: Rate of voter turnout and the results from the state of Massachusetts. But if it had been lower voter turnout than 2008 and Massachusetts had gone for Romney, I would have said, “Romney for the win” and gone back to my book. But since voter turnout was high and Massachusetts went to Obama, I said, “Obama for the win,” and went back to my book.

But Alex was mesmerized by our different election system and reporting, switching between Twitter, NBC, CNN, and Fox News for hours. And it was a good thing he did, because If he hadn’t, I would have completely missed the fact that, in this election, both parties, both campaigns, both candidates truly believed that the data showed that they were going to win the presidential election. Both of them. And that outcome would have been impossible. Because all we really knew, laying aside poll results, trends, opinions, and feelings… all we could say was absolutely true going into election night was that either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama was going to be elected the next President of the United States. That was, truly, the only truth, whether you were a true believer in one of these candidates or an analyst of the system.

But, you know, that’s not what anyone wanted to hear when they asked you who you thought was going to win the election. They wanted you to stake a claim, argue facts, make a stand. They didn’t want to hear “Obama or Romney, for sure.” But that’s all we knew, the absolute truth. The rest was conjecture or emotion because the facts weren’t in yet.

Please note: I have just talked about politics for 5 minutes without endorsing a candidate or a party.

Jesus was constantly asked questions. “Are you a king?” “Are you a Samaritan?” “Are you demon-possessed?” “When do we get to see your dad?” and Jesus responded by talking about truth. “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,” he says to Pilot in today’s second reading. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” he said to his Jewish followers in the reading of a couple of weeks ago. And in the earlier reading from today, he says to his questioning disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

And yet… If you want to see partisan political discussion, you need look no further than Jesus’ own disciples. We are far more partisan than our country’s political parties, arguing about who gets to heaven and if there is a hell, and who gets communion and if its bread or human flesh when we take it. We disagree about who is in and who is out, whether we are talking about the kingdom or the pews, and who gets what and how much and why and when and if… And my mansion is bigger than your mansion and are there mansions and is there a hilltop and will we have bodies and will my shoulder still be busted and please tell me the people I don’t like won’t be there and that my Catholic husband will and also my dog, and what a bunch of unholy crap! This is why we fought wars and burned people at the stake, and we’re not even stepping into our forays with people who call God by a different name.

And this is why a lot of people give up on Christianity altogether. Because we spend a lot of energy and anger disputing facts not yet in evidence, looking for coded truth in a document that we don’t even know was coded.

I have two truths for you, and the odds are good that you are not going to like one or both of them, but the odds are also good that hearing and understanding these truths may bring you some peace.

Truth #1: looking for facts in the Bible is like looking for facts in a campaign ad. Neither one was built to be a fact-bearing vehicle.

Let me explain. Campaign ads are created to cause emotion in the watcher. A list of facts would not do that, so they are left out… All parties, all ads. Even if it looks like there is a fact, be sure it’s been spun as much as cotton candy. You want facts? Read a peer-monitored scientific journal. You want emotion? Watch a campaign ad.

The Bible is different, but the premise is the same. It is incredibly important to remember that the Bible was written before our scientific revolution when suddenly facts were what we were looking for, data, things we could hypothesize about and theories we could test. That was when human beings started looking for their own truth.

Before that they found it in stories. There was no search for facts. There was a different sense of truth. And we still maintain some of that today. Say your kid comes home late and gives you a reason. You hear their story, and you instantly know if you need to fact-check or not, because you can either hear the ring of truth in it or you don’t. You know when you are hearing a story that has Truth in it.

The Bible is the collection of stories about God and God’s people that were judged to have the ring of truth in them. Lots were rejected, but these were kept by the faithful for the faithful. Nobody sat down and said, “So Joshua blew a horn and the walls of Jericho fell? Let’s go dig up Jericho and see if we can find scientific evidence of that” when deciding whether that story said something important about God and God’s people and needed to be preserved. NOW, we have this crazy thing called Biblical archaeology, and we are missing the point if we need to see the ark to appreciate the story of Noah. Because the story has value. It wasn’t written when people needed facts to recognize truth.

And if this election showed us anything, it is that sometimes facts can be misread, and its the story of the event that will last.

We believe God inspired the scriptures we have and that they have meaning for us as people of faith. If you need facts from scripture, you might want to rethink your thinking. Because there is Truth in the Bible even though there aren’t a lot of what we would call facts.

Truth #2: Jesus claimed truth for himself, but he didn’t lay out a must-believe-or-you-go-to-hell checklist. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one gets to the father except through me” should be taken on its face, not read into and lists added. I argue neither for universal salvation nor for salvation limited to people who believe just like I do. I think scripture says Jesus gets to decide. I am saying, Jesus didn’t answer that question, so we probably need to quit asking him. Because most times someone asked him a really specific theological question, Jesus didn’t lay out a list of facts, he told them he was the truth or the bearer of the truth (truth #2) or he told them a story (back to truth #1).

So just as the only thing we could truthfully day before the election was “either Romney or Obama is going to be elected,” the only thing we can truthfully say in most theological debates is, “its going to be up to Jesus.” Part of believing in Jesus is trusting him to make some decisions. Part of faith is believing that he will take care of it and that we don’t have all of the facts in evidence. It’s going to be up to Jesus.

And I know that is not the answer people want to hear. They want us to stake a claim, argue facts, take a stand. And we do… Right behind Jesus.

That is our place. That’s the truth. He is the way, the truth, and the life. Our job is to believe… In Him. Amen.

Sermon: Mark’s Jesus: Undercover God

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we will prepare our hearts and minds for the arrival of Jesus Christ, the child God, into our midst. But as you learned last week, if you were here, each Gospel of Jesus Christ contained in the New Testament has a different focus on Jesus. Sometimes the differences are minor, but the overall picture provided by each one is a different picture. So we will be preparing our hearts for Jesus by learning about the different aspects of him provided by the four gospels.

Mark, as I have told you, is the breathless, rushed, first written gospel, and in it, Jesus does many, many things immediately. Like 40 times, Mark uses the word immediately to describe Jesus’ actions. immediately, Jesus went here. Immediately, Jesus did this. Immediately, Jesus took some immediate action. This is a busy, busy, busy, Jesus. Besides being a busy guy, who is Mark’s Jesus?

Alex learned a lot of his English froM American television, and he is hooked on a few shows that I just will not watch. But this week, he managed to get me to sit down with him and watch an episode of the reality show Undercover Boss. Have you seen it?

The premise is that the CEO or President of a large American company gets disguised and spends several days training with his or her employees under the guise of another, false reality show. So the employees train him or her, thinking it is part of a reality show on who is better, men or women, etc., and the producers set the bosses up with people in the company who deserve attention, usually because they are really struggling or because they share common backgrounds with the boss, or because they are just so awful. Occasionally, things are so bad, that the undercover boss has to reveal himself and then swear everyone to silence. Then at the end of the show, there is a big reveal, when the boss reveals his identity to the employees and dishes out some rewards, anything from a few thousand dollars for the grandkids’ college funds, to backpay and promotions, to homes and franchises. And then he meets with his company and cries and tells them what he has learned.

So we watched one, and I fell apart. I cried like a baby. I don’t cry.

Then we watched another one. I cried again. And then all of the sudden it hit me: THIS IS MARK’s JESUS.

We miss it, we miss it, we miss it, because we have heard it and heard it and heard it. You know all those weird passages where Jesus does something for someone and then tells them to keep a lid on it? mark 8: 32-37.

That all comes from Mark. And then Luke and Matthew took it. But it Mark, there’s a point to all the hush hushery.

Jesus doesn’t call himself savior, Lord, messiah, the son of God or anything special at all in Mark. He calls himself the Son of Man. The Son of Man. Just a guy. Jesus the carpenter, Joe the Plumber. Anytime someone calls Jesus something else, as in Mark 8:27-30.

he tells them to shut it. why? because he is The Undercover God. And the big reveal is here, before the Jewish Chief Priest.

MARK 14: 60-64

This guy gets who Jesus is, and this is the aha! moment. Oh, that’s who Jesus is! But all of this is kinda old news to us because we have heard the story before. What if it was fresh, and Mark’s reveal of Jesus’ was a huge one?

We would be saying, How did God become man? And how was a man God? We were the first religion (and still the only one) who has this idea of an incarnation, that God actually took human form.

Theologian Karl Rahner struggles with this idea in such a beautiful way that I have to share it with you. ( Passage from Karl Rahner not included )

The hidden God, clothed in humility, looking up at God and saying, Why? And looking at the people like him and saying, what can I do for you?

Just like in the television show, a powerful figure steps into the guise of a regular guy and gets watched as he tries to do regular things. But this guy is special, and when people figure out who he is, he has to hush them up until the moment when all can be revealed. Then he rewards the people that deserve his grace. Then he steps out in front of all and says, I have learned so much, and now I want to give you all something.

But in this episode, Mark’s episode, it is not a better boss, it is a better life. He lived like a regular guy. He knows what it is like, and he says to those beneath him, you know what? i want to give you all something. I called myself the son of man, but I am the son of God. so let me give my life. Thats what I can do for you. Now that I know what it is like to be one of you.

Mark’s gospel originally with an empty tomb, not a group of reappearance stories. Half a chapter was added later with those stories. And that always bothered me. But in meeting Mark’s Jesus again, and seeing this undercover God revealed, I find the ending easier to swallow. It’s not about what happened after for Mark, it’s about what happened for the brief period when God was man. Mark is the tale of the undercover God: his life, his teachings, his ministry, his reveal, his death, and his resurrection.. May we be ready for the undercover God, and may his big reveal be in our lives. Amen.

Sermon: I wish you a Mary Christmas

I Wish You a Mary Christmas

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:26-38

This holiday season fell on me like a ton of bricks. One minute, I was telling Alex it was too early to listen to Christmas music in the car, and it seemed like just a few days later it was time to wrap the presents. Even before Thanksgiving, my neighbors had already spread their roofs with more light wattage than you have in your house, and it is now too late for me to do anything to avoid being the black hole in my neighborhood. Inflated snowmen and light up reindeer stood watch in their yards, and I just let the dog in and out, let the cat in and out, and tried to ignore the fact that my neighborhood is packed with Christmas light viewers. In Louisiana last week, I donated to Salvation Army ringers, but, in my mind, they were jumping the gun. I have been in denial that ’tis the season. There it didn’t, but here it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas… And I’m not ready for it to be now.

I should be. We are four weeks into the season of Advent, the season of introspection and preparation for the birth of our savior. Here, we do so quietly, with carols and scripture, greens and dignity, and a hush falls over us as we are reminded that this season is His season. Oh yes, we say when we’re here. These are not just the holidays. These are the holy days. We light the candles and remember the reason for the season.

And then we go back to our real lives, the lives lived between what is commercial and jolly and what is sacred and hushed, in that place where we know what is possible and impossible. In that place in between what is commercial and jolly and what is sacred and hushed… that’s where we need what is coming. That’s where Mary had Christmas.

It’s a story that should be completely and utterly disturbing, but somehow it isn’t when its spoken in worship. It is a sacred story. In the commercial world, it is another nativity set to buy and display. In between those two places, there is the real life Christmas of Mary. An unwed but engaged teenager is visited by an angel and told that she has been chosen to give birth to the King of Heaven and Earth.

When the voice of God spoke to Moses through a burning bush and asked him to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, Moses sad something like, “yeah, I bet the Hebrews are going to buy that.” He asked, “Why me?” He said, “but I don’t speak well.” He asked, “Can’t you send someone else?”

When the voice of God spoke to Mary through an angel, saying, “Okay now, teenage girl, God likes you and thinks you’d be a great mother for his only Son, so get ready because you’re going to you give birth, and you’ll be giving birth to God,” Mary simply asked, “How?”

And when the angel told her how, she said my very favorite line of scripture in the whole Bible: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be with me according to His will.”

Mary was not told that someday she would be the most displayed woman in the world and that her image would sell like nobody’s business. Mary was not told that she would be revered and loved as the sacred mother. In her real life, which was about to be turned upside down, Mary asked, “How?” and then said, “Whatever God wants.”

I struggle with this. I would need much more information and at least a little input. I would probably need to build a timeline and talk it out with my Mom. I would definitely ask for some identification and I’d roll my eyes at least once. I mean, come ON… in my real life, where I know what is possible and what is impossible, it would take me a bit to wrap my head around this. But Mary asks one question and then agrees to something that will mean total upheaval in her life and in her family’s life and in the future of the world. Wow.

Why? Because she believes the angel. Because she believes him when he says that nothing will be impossible with God. Because she believes, deeply. Because Mary let God come into her real life and bring Christmas to the world.

While the holiday season crashes around me, hollering, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!,” I am stopped in my tracks by Mary’s Christmas. I want that kind of Christmas. I want a Mary Christmas. I want a Christmas that will turn my world upside down. I want that depth of faith, that down in my belly, deep in my core belief that nothing is impossible with God. I want to be pregnant with his possibilities, not just in a hushed and worshipful church and not around my Christmas trees with presents. I want to be ready to give birth to Jesus Christ in my real life, in that space between what is commercial and jolly and what is sacred and hushed. I want God in my face and on my mind. I want to find God in unexpected places, in times when I’m not prepared to face Him. I want him shoved into that space between what is commercial and conventional and what is holy and surprising, in my life, in my every day, in that area in which the real me finally comes out. I want to be so dedicated to God that when God shows up in my real life and asks me to do something, even if it will turn my life upside down, I want to say only, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.”

I want a Mary Christmas, for you and for me.

I want him up in your business, not just in your Sunday. I want God to show up in your real life and in expected and unexpected times and places. I want him in your Advent and in your Christmas, in your New Year and in your golden days of yore. I want him in your face and on your mind and so deeply imbedded in the fabric of you that when he comes to you this Christmas, you say “yes” to him in a way that you never have even felt invited to before.

And I absolutely believe it’s all going to happen, not because the stockings are hung by the chimney with care in hopes that our savior child soon will be there, but because NOTHING will be impossible with God.

Nothing will be impossible with God. Not for God. Not by God. With God. With God.

Nothing will be impossible with God. Are you with God? You down with God? At church? When you string up lights so your house isn’t the only one not celebrating his birth? Or in your real life? In that place where you know what is possible and impossible, are you with God? Will you let God into that place in your life where what is essentially you really dwells and where your real decisions are made? In between ideal and fun?
Will you let God’s light shine even there? Are you with God?

This is the season of Advent, His season, time to say “I wanna be WITH God, and I give up knowing in my real life what is possible and impossible. I wanna be with God in my real life, and I want him to turn all impossibilities into possibilities. I want God to destroy my limitations. I want God to use me how God will. Behold, the servant of the Lord.”

Advent is a time to get pregnant with all possibilities. Advent is a time to prepare to give birth to Jesus Christ in our lives, in the world, a time to say “YES!”to whatever God asks of us, a time when our only question to God should be “how?”. We don’t have a lot of time left in Advent, but God only needs a moment to rock our worlds.

May God find his way through all our expectations and into our real lives this season, and may we have a Mary Christmas, a Christmas of possibilities, a Christmas of light, a Christmas of yes. I wish you and me a Mary Christmas. Amen.

Safe to Sleep

In August 2011, I received an email that was soliciting help and prayer for a new ministry in development in Springfield from my friend Tom. The ministry came out of a sad reality in Springfield, MO: there was no place for women alone to go for safe overnight shelter. This weighed on my heart. After thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I asked my congregation if anyone was interested in joining me to work at this shelter, and it was not an easy task to ask others to do… We stay up all night to let the women sleep in the knowledge that they are safe. In other words, if there is a problem in the night, volunteers are awake and ready to deal with it so that the residents can get a secure and healthy night’s rest. Three people came forward to join me, and we began with the launch of the shelter in October 2011.

We started in a small apartment near Commercial Street. On our first night, my fellow volunteer and I had just two residents to keep safe. As the homeless women of Springfield, assistance agencies, and the police department discovered us, we moved to larger quarters. We spent the winter at Pathways UMC, the Spring at East Sunshine Church of Christ, and the summer in a new facility. We move every few months and are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a longer-term facility in which we can truly make ourselves at home.

By home, I actually mean home. Safe to sleep is like a family with revolving members. There are the long-term residents that we know and love as well as new residents each week. The ways they care for and support each other are more family-like than I ever envisioned. Sure, there are squabbles occasionally, but families squabble. This morning, a resident with back problems decided on her own that she would go break down the bed of a less able-bodied resident without being asked. Then she took over another woman’s chore without complaint because she felt the other resident had taken on too much. The last time I was there, about two weeks ago, she was a new resident who was only interested in getting her own bed set up.

I have to admit: being a pastor volunteer has its challenges. Because I work with church members (our church now has 5 regular volunteers, 2 pending paperwork, and 2 more considering training), I do the regular volunteer duties and then spend intense one-on-one time being a pastor to the other volunteer. As the women get to know me and what I do, I do more pastoral care with the residents. Honestly, it is the single most exhausting thing I do, and I have moved from once a month for six months to twice or more a month this summer. It is hard to limit myself to only once a month because I feel so out of touch when I arrive. I miss the people I know and getting to see their move to greener (or otherwise) pastures. By being there every two weeks, I had a better connection with the resident while still maintaining the energy level I need to pastor my congregation.

It took me nine months to come out about my work at Safe to Sleep. I think It has taken me this long to process why it is so important to me and why I will continue to do it no matter the drain of staying up at least half the night to be the awake female volunteer. Instead of attempting to put a deeper meaning out, let me simply tell you the story of last night.

I arrived at 6 pm with an 18 year old soon-to-be college freshman. Another member of our church, a strong, active, wise woman from our mature adult Sunday School class was already there. It was her first time to stay the night, and she hadn’t been sure she would come. But there she as, in capris and a camp shirt, setting up chairs and tables with a resident while some women of the church prepared a sit down dinner for the residents and volunteers. Then our two other volunteers arrived, a college sophomore ready for her third night and another college sophomore trying it for the first time. The church was using a bit of the facility and there was a fancy dinner, so we were a bit off schedule… And it was laundry night for the bedding, so we broke down bags of pillows, pillow slips, sheets, and blankets from women who had been there during the month but weren’t there last night.

The bus arrived at around 7, and residents trickled in until about 10 pm, for a total of 18 or 19 by the time we turned the lights out. They arrived hungry, tired, sunburned. Two had been to the hospital that day. One probably needed to go back as she couldn’t keep any liquids down. I set up her bed with one of the girls while another volunteer cared for the sick resident. As I taught the potential volunteer how to set up the cot, the girl and I discussed her strategy for school in the coming year, and I was able to express some college experiences as well as my hope that she would apply herself. One of the residents heard us talking and jumped in, giving the girl sound advice from her experience as the parent of teenagers.

Yeah, there was a little drama during the evening that I was able to deal with easily because I had experience with the actors, but there was way more beautification than drama. One of the college students brought in her extensive collection of nail products, and we did nails (and laundry). One lady slept with her hands hanging off the bed so that she would make sure she could keep her gorgeous manicure as long as possible. After all, she had spent the entire evening hearing from the girls that they were completely jealous of her gorgeous nails and that she could be a hand model!

When the lights went out, the volunteers (count ’em: 5) went to a lighted area, and I made bracelets to order for the girls while our more mature volunteer heard more information about those girls than she probably ever wanted to know. And she saw all of their tattoos… No matter where they were. When she laid down to sleep, we went to another area, checking in on the residents and making sure the doors were secured about every half hour. I had some quality time with each girl and got to watch them bond as students and potential friends. We talked about the future and the present. The “tragedies” of the past get reframed by the experience of the shelter. We talked about boyfriends and church, school, and parents. And then I went face down into a pillow at 3:00, only to wake up at 5:45 for the work of the morning. And all of this came after a normal Sunday morning’s work.

It is now Monday night, and after napping most of the day, I am ready for bed. My hips hurt from the floor and I could go a week without doing another load of laundry. My heart, though, is full to bursting from the triumph of love over desperation and poverty, the hundred tiny threads of grace woven together in the night among women who used to be strangers to me and to each other, and the safety of an evening in my home.

The Kid Lace Slouch Hat

Slouch away with this free pattern from Yarns of Italy. Here’s the file:  thekidpattern

You can find pictures of finished versions of this hat at:


This Cat is Not Playing

At 5:30 yesterday morning, thunder and lightning woke us up, and Alex and I realized at the same moment that his cat, Mr. Fu, was outside in the storm. We opened the back door to holler for him, and a minute later he answered with his “let me in” scream.

Since we got the robot vacuum, Mr. Fu pretty has adjusted his schedule to avoid it. He pretty much comes in to eat, use the litterbox, and nap. Roomba or no, he was coming in out of the rain yesterday.

He ate and then he wanted to play with one of his fuzzy glitter balls. I threw it, and both he and Emily went after it. Emily won. Mr. Fu was not pleased. In fact, he seemed kind of dazzled by the surprise turn of events. What dog plays with little kitty toys? What is the dog going to do with it? The dog is not batting it around like you’re supposed to? And by the way…why was the dog even awake? It’s not even FOOD time yet. Fu seemed totally confused.

Emily usually plays with bones, wanting you to take them away from her and then throw them (yeah, not a great idea.) Once she hit 9 years of age, the vet suggested no more frisbees, so she’s kinda stuck with bones, balls, stuffed toys (which she destroys), and the occasional (in a hushed voice) pig’s ear.

Once she had the kitty’s toy, she wanted to play. In typical boxer fashion, she turned her head from side to side, trying to tempt Mr. Fu to try to take it from her.

When out of the blue, comes that little killer’s paw, and snap, the game was on… for like two seconds. After huffing and puffing and looking interested, Emily had to face the fact that she had a silly cat toy in her mouth and the cat was not interested in trying to take it back.

The cat was so completely over all of it that he just went to sleep on the other couch until Roomba began its scheduled maintenance of the living room carpet.

Mr. Fu has lived with me and Em since Alex went to Italy for four months last year, and he and Em have still not quite figured out how to play with each other. They snuggle, they do tricks together (oh yeah, I said that), but they can’t quite figure out how to play together. They play separately in the same room, occasionally knocking into one another and then not quite finding the way to interlock their games. The cat’s claws come out or the dog steps on the cat’s tail, and it’s game over.

This morning at 5:30, thunder rumbled, and I heard a strange “Eow” at the door. There was no “m” in that “meow,” but I just thought he was insistent. Yeah, no. Turns out he was howling around the live bird in his mouth. Okay, a semi-live bird. As soon as he deposited the bird on the carpet, he let out a yowl of triumph, which, of course, brought Emily running in to see what was up with that. Mr. Fu looked nauseatingly proud of himself, and Emily looked… impressed. She seemed totally into the cat’s suggestion that she jump in on this half-dead animal action. Just as Emily was starting the boxer prance dance to begin the  game they really could play together, Alex (my knight in shining pajama pants) arrived with a spatula and delivered the bird back to the great outdoors. Then he lectured the cat on the difference between killing to eat and killing for fun while I yelled “cat assassin” in Italian.

Ick. Ick on so many levels. Ick. Even Roomba can’t clean that image from my mind. As soon as Alex re-wakes up, I will let Roomba clean the living room carpet, no matter what the cat thinks.