Saturday, November 17, 2012

Did you find my new website?

Hi friends! Just making sure you've found my blog in its new (very beautiful) location at faithandwater.com. You'll also read updated information there about workshop opportunities, books, and where to find me writing around the web! Be sure to bookmark it so you can come back often!

Friday, October 5, 2012

I'm Moving!

Follow me over to rachelhackenberg.com to find the continuing posts of Faith and Water; to learn about my workshops, retreats, and speaking; and to sign up for my weekly prayer-writing prompts. See you there!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Considering the Other

Before we read Mark 9:38-50, let's reflect on today's reading from James: "Are any among you suffering? You should pray. Are any cheerful? You should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? You should gather with the elders and pray over them. The prayer of faith will save the sick; the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." (James 5:13-20)

Now I have a chip on my spiritual shoulder that impacts my approach to these closing paragraphs in James. My chip is finally shifting and healing, but I still notice it and I have to think through it. I share it with you in case it resonates with your own spiritual chip-on-the-shoulder about prayer. Two experiences color my perspective on this passage:

(1) First is simply that all-too-common experience of someone saying, "I'll pray for you," in such a way that you think they may not actually pray for you ... or you suspect their prayer for you might not be your prayer for you. Certainly "I'll pray for you" is often sincere, but sometimes it functions as a religious cliche that someone says because they don't know what else to say. James 5:13-20 can sound like that condescending cliche: "Are you suffering? I'll pray for you. (hug) Are you cheerful? I'll pray for you. Are you sick? I'll pray for you too. (pat pat)"

(2) When I was in college, I was part of a charismatic Christian student fellowship. Our group went on retreats with other college Christian groups during the school year, so we were always meeting other Christian students and talking about faith. On one retreat, I was in the women's restroom washing my hands and another young woman came in, started washing her hands. There were many groups attending the retreat that particular weekend, so I didn't know this student. But we made eye contact in the mirror and she said, "So, has God spoken to you yet this weekend?" To this day I have no idea how I responded to her question; I only remember my shock that (a) prayer was a bathroom topic and (b) that she had nailed me on my greatest insecurity in faith -- prayer.

The irony of having written books about prayer is that I always struggled with prayer. The letter of James says, "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective," but I had no illusion that my prayers had that kind of impact. My time in prayer was full of spiritual dead silence. It's wonderful that my college peers on these retreats heard God's voice; it's wonderful that Elijah could pray and stop the rain, as James notes -- but clearly I missed that lesson in Sunday School!

So I have to wade through my "stuff" when I read James' exhortations on prayer, and maybe you have to wade through your stuff too as you think about prayer.

But -- having noted our doubts and insecurities about prayer, having looked at them and now setting them down for the time being -- it's important to notice that James isn't approaching prayer as an individual spiritual exercise or as a supernatural encounter. James is showing us that prayer is an attitude of community and prayer is a perspective on God's presence in life. Prayer holds the perspective that God is in all things and amidst all circumstances -- suffering or joy, sickness or discord. And prayer assumes the absolute necessity of community for the sake of healing -- when there is sorrow, gather together; where there is brokenness, call the elders; when there is a reason to celebrate, call the whole community!

In our lives, sometimes we maintain a disconnect or discrepancy between aspects of our lives without realizing it; the same is true in our spiritual lives! We often say that we believe God is life and God is love. But we can forget God as life and God as love when we pray, instead approaching prayer as a feat of spiritual athleticism, like we're climbing a rock wall to reach a faraway God. And we're contorting ourselves in every way to reach the top but entirely missing the fact that God is the rocks we're climbing and God is the air we're gasping and God is the climbers beside us on the wall.

Prayer shouldn't forget that God is life and God is love and God is presence in its pursuit of ethereal heights; prayer should draw us closer to God in life and God in love. Prayer should draw us closer to the activity of God in the world and in community and in us. Prayer should draw us closer to the Other, teach us to recognize God's presence not only moving in our own lives but moving in all life. Prayer should change our hearts by keeping us attuned to God's heart beating through life. Prayer should heal our hearts, heal our lives, by stretching our hearts out from our own chests to meet the heart of God in another's life.

There was an awful story in the news this past weekend that revealed too vividly what's at stake in our collective ability -- or inability -- to recognize the heart of God in one another; what's at stake not just in being able to recognize God here and there, but in practicing at every moment the recognition of God in others. In a small town in Connecticut, in the middle of the night, a man received a phone call from his sister who lives next door. She thought someone was trying to invade and rob her home, so she called her brother for help. The man grabbed his gun, went outside. There was someone between the two houses, wearing a mask, carrying a knife. The man shot and killed the person in the mask. It turned out that the person in the mask was his son.

Life is at stake in our willingness to recognize God in others. Prayer, James says, is a spiritual tool for training our eyes and our hearts to recognize God in another life, even in a life that is hidden behind a mask.

The disciples came to Jesus: "There's someone we don't know, doing things that we don't understand. He's casting out demons and saying your name, but we don't recognize him so we're suspicious -- we think he shouldn't be trusted." Jesus said, "Don't stop him, just because he's going about his work differently. He's not your competition or your enemy. The cup of water that he shares is just as valuable as the cup of water you share.

"In fact," Jesus says, "let me go a step further. Not only should you not interfere with his work of healing -- I'm holding you responsible for his well-being overall. I'm holding you responsible for recognizing that his life is sacred too. If you cannot recognize God's life within this man, it will be as if you are choosing to drown your own life.

"If your hand cannot extend in welcome to a stranger, it would be better for you to lose your hand than to miss encountering God in that stranger. If your foot refuses to cross a border or to walk on the other side of the tracks, it would be better for you to cut off your foot than to let your spirit be corrupted by your foot's inability to recognize God's presence in foreign and unfamiliar territories.

"Likewise if your eye cannot see God -- living and breathing and dying -- on the other side of a mask or hijab or uniform; and if your tongue cannot consider greeting God in the life of the other; it would be better to lose your eye or cut out your tongue than to live in the hell of the heart that has not learned to meet God in all of life.

"What good is salt that has lost its saltiness? What good is life and community if not to experience God?" (Mark 9:38-50)

Prayer is not about our individual efforts of spiritual athleticism. It's not about what Herculean effort we make on the strength of our own spirits to reach God. Prayer is about considering the community and maintaining a perspective on God in all of life.

Prayer keeps us salty by putting us in a space where we must give God and give the Other as much attention as we give ourselves. The practice of prayer is the practice of considering more than just ourselves in this life. The practice of prayer gets us in the habit of recognizing God amidst all life. The practice of prayer gets us in the habit of considering God's presence in one another -- in community -- over and over and over again until we see past the masks and the assumptions and the stereotypes and the judgments. The practice of prayer changes us -- heals us -- by continually exposing us to the heart of God in all moments of life.

The alternative, if we take Jesus seriously, if we take the news seriously (not just this story out of Connecticut, but every story of war and abuse and violence) ... the alternative to recognizing God's movement through all life, the alternative to acknowledging God's presence in others, the alternative to prayer, is death. Prayer keeps us from the death of self-consumption -- prayer keeps us salty -- by putting us in a space where we give God and give the Other as much attention as we give ourselves. Prayer gives us life by keeping us in community.

So pray for one another: through suffering, through joy, through illness, through wandering. Expect prayer to tune you in -- perhaps to God's voice -- but most of all to God's movement! Give yourself the grace and the peace of not having to make some spiritually athletic effort to reach up to God; pay attention to God where you are, with the understanding that God will start to show up in more places, in more faces, than you anticipated as you pray. Let prayer be the space where the heart of God changes your heart and gives you a heart for others. Amen.

Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 9/30/12.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Cut Off My What?

The disciples came to Jesus: "There's someone we don't know, doing things we don't understand. He's casting out demons and saying your name, but we don't recognize him so we're suspicious -- we think he shouldn't be trusted." Jesus said, "Don't stop him, just because he's going about his work differently. He's not your competition or your enemy. The cup of water that he shares is just as valuable as the cup of water you share.

"In fact," Jesus said, "let me go a step further. Not only should you not interfere with his work of healing, but do not be a detriment to his well-being at all. I'm holding you responsible for recognizing that his life, too, is sacred. If you cannot recognize God's life within this man, it will be as if you are choosing to drown your own life.

"If your hand cannot extend in welcome to a stranger, it would be better for you to lose your hand than to miss encountering God in that stranger. If your foot refuses to cross a border or to walk on the other side of the tracks, it would be better for you to cut off your foot than to let your spirit be corrupted by your foot's inability to recognize God's presence in foreign and unfamiliar territories.

"Likewise if your eye cannot see God -- living and breathing and dying -- on the other side of a mask or hijab or uniform; and if your tongue cannot consider greeting God in the life of the other; it would be better to lose your eye or cut out your tongue than to live in the hell of the heart that has not learned to meet God in all of life.

"What good is salt that has lost its saltiness? What good is life and community if not to experience God?"

Mark 9:38-50

Friday, September 28, 2012

Expanding

I stretch my arms wide -- wider still, opening my spine --
feel my feet reaching their roots into the rocky ground beneath,
breathe in the mountain air on the edge of this upstate New York valley,
and invite the spectacle to embrace me with its demonstration of holy life.
If its beauty was a wave, I would be drenched right now -- joyfully soaked!
When I turn away from the gift of this panorama, back to my daily living,
O Resplendent God, keep my heart wide-eyed in deep appreciation of
the breadth and depth and diversity of your essence in creation.
Surely your goodness extends beyond what my eyes can see,
is more than what my soul can begin to comprehend!
O Holy Expanse, expand me by your sheer glory!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

What God Can Do

I want to be great. I want to be great at everything I do, and I give myself a hard time for not being brilliantly excellent 100% of the time -- as a pastor, a preacher, a mother, a writer. I long to be stellar ... and not just to be stellar, but to be known for being stellar. It's entirely vain of me, and I want to repent of it as soon as I see it glaring in front of me. But the desire always returns. I'll see news on Facebook about a clergy colleague's invitation to the White House, or about another mother who is teaching her children how to cook five-star meals after they finish their homework each day, or about a writer friend who's on his fifth book ... and the demon wells up again: "I want to be great too! I want people to see that I'm great."

Of course, it can be tricky to recognize ambition as a demon, because it's often disguised with good intentions. Like the disciples in Mark 9:33-37, arguing over greatness. It's not that they want to skip past the discipleship and get right to the glory of who sits where in heaven -- they have genuine intentions of striving to be good disciples. In fact, they want to be great disciples for Jesus! They want to be the kind of disciples that other people look up to, the kind of disciples leaders turn to for advice, the kind of disciples who will be solicited to write memoirs one day when they retire from discipleship. They want to be the kind of disciples who keep famous company and are seated at the head of the banquet table. They long to be the kind of disciples who will one day be the kind of saints that people pray to, because people will know that these saints can bend Jesus' ear in heaven. It's not vanity, it's spirituality! They just want to be great at it.

In a similar vein, we tell ourselves it's not vanity or ambition -- it's faithfulness -- that we want our individual congregation to stand out and be known for its ministry. We like being distinguished among our denominational peers as one of the churches that is growing. We like being known among churches in the region as an inclusive congregation of diverse theologies, diverse families, diverse loves. That's who God has called us to be as a congregation; that we are well-known for it is just a perk! And we long for that perk to multiply! We want our church's reputation to pack the pews and boost our budget and raise our new roof. We want this church to be great...

...but if you haven't already caught the hint of it, there's a very delicate line between ministering greatly and desiring greatness. Between doing great work and being known for our great work. Between great discipleship and great ambition. Between desiring righteousness and desiring reputation. Between assessing our greatness in light of our call (individually and congregationally) and assessing our greatness according to our kudos. A delicate line that requires diligent mindfulness!

Jesus says (Mark 9:33-37), "You want to be great? Keep company with the least of these, with the powerless, with the disreputable."

James says (James 3:13-18), "You want to be great? Show your greatness by your works of gentleness and generosity."

God says, "You want to be great? Live with humility, and let me be what is great about you. You want to be great? Keep doing the work of your call, keep blessing your community, and I will show you what I can do through you and within you. You want to be great? Make room for me to be great!"

Now by some necessity, especially when we're embarking on a new project or mission as a congregation, it is useful to generate group enthusiasm and pride. It's helpful for the task at hand to have a collective positive energy for who our church is, how our church impacts our lives, and what our church represents within the wider Church and community. It's helpful for the task at hand to believe that our congregation is great, and well worth our investments of time and talent and treasure!

Nevertheless, the ultimate success of a congregation's new project or mission is not about whether we believe that our individual church is great. The success of the new venture is about whether we believe that God is great, and whether we are willing to make room for God to do great things! And I don't mean, "Keep doing business as usual and see what miracle God can work with the same-old-same old." I mean, "Lay everything on the table and leave no stone unturned" to make room for God to do great things! And that means making room for God to change our minds! That means making room for God to change our minds about money -- about our personal budgets and assets as well as our congregational budget. That means making room for God to change our minds about time -- about whether we fill up our days darting around with a "to do" list rather than discerning the moments of God's movement.

It means -- ultimately, fundamentally -- making room for God to change our minds about the greatness of God's grace, about whether our experiences of grace are such sufficient evidence of God's greatness that we are finally willing to yield our vain desire for greatness by ourselves, willing to unclasp our tight-fisted need for control in this life, willing to give way finally to peace ... and possibility ... and gentleness ... and generosity.

We have received grace upon grace in this life -- full & unconditional love from God, and the nurturing love of those who have gently guided our journeys.

We have received grace upon grace in this life -- the breath of God within us to inhale the autumn air, to exhale with laughter, to sing with joy, to pour ourselves out in sobs.

We have received grace upon grace in this life -- confidence and sustenance by God's mercy for those days that we thought we couldn't get through, for those trials which seemed too stormy to survive, for those moments when it seemed that beauty might shatter our hearts.

We have received grace upon grace in this life -- and this is evidence of the greatness of God! It is not the greatness of us. It is not the greatness of this church.

So with gratitude for grace upon grace, with the confidence that God's grace is sufficient, we will step aside from being great. We will set aside our vain hopes that others will see us as great. And we will make room for God to be great -- we will risk making room for God to be great and to do great things -- in our lives and in our congregation.

Amen.


Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 9/23/12.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Looking into a Mirror

Have you had the experience of looking into a mirror, checking yourself over, walking away ... and then returning to the mirror, because you don't remember checking your hair or necktie? Perhaps you've had the experience of checking yourself in the mirror and starting your day, only to realize later in the day that you missed seeing your mismatched shoes or open zipper!

Congratulations, James 1:19-27 is using your (and my!) absent-mindedness as an example of how not to live out one's faith!

James says, "Just like sometimes we look in the mirror and forget what we've seen, sometimes we hear the lessons of faith, sometimes we read and speak the words of faith, sometimes we sing the glorious refrains of faith ... but we still forget to put faith into practice. We fail to take the words and do what they say. We faith to show what we believe."

We say "Do unto others," but we snap at the grocery store clerk or at the neighbor. We say "Love everyone," but we're suspicious of anyone who doesn't speak English fluently or who lives in a part of town that we avoid. We say "God is grace," but we can't forgive our own imperfections and we hold grudges against others. We hear words of faith, but we fail to live consistently with faith. We look in the mirror, but we forget what we've seen.

James is very simple and direct in his challenge: Are we living out our faith, or are we merely giving lip-service to faith?

And James isn't measuring whether we're polite to others more often than not, whether we come to church more Sundays than we sleep in. If we read his entire letter, we hear James addressing the whole breadth of our lives: our impulses for instant gratification, our envy of wealth, our lack of care for those less fortunate, our gossiping, our hypocrisy and double-standards, our manipulation in relationships, our egos! James is not only saying that we can't look in the mirror and forget what we've seen -- he's also pointing out that we shouldn't look in the mirror and only see part of the picture.

We've got to look in the mirror from head to toe! We've got to look at and allow faith to impact every aspect of our lives! How are our relationships showing our faith? How are our words showing our faith? How are our finances showing our faith? How are our daily activities, our work, our church participation, our hobbies, our time, and our volunteering all showing our faith? Or are we just looking at one part of the mirror -- one part of our lives -- and neglecting to examine the whole picture of faith?

There's an interesting twist in verse 25, which points us in the direction of integrating faith throughout the whole of our lives and also gives us a clue for being more mindful than absent-minded about doing what we say we believe. In the NRSV, James 1:25 reads, "Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act -- they will be blessed in their doing." The same verse in The Message says, "Whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed council of God--the free life!--even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a person of action who finds delight in doing."

It's hard to catch the twist -- the insight -- of verse 25, because James doesn't explicitly continue his mirror metaphor in this verse; we have to continue that metaphor ourselves. James has been challenging us to remember what we see in the mirror, and to see the entire image in the mirror. In verse 25, James subtly adds the point that we cannot see only ourselves in that mirror!

Consider an obvious fact: when you look into a mirror, you see yourself, right? Verse 25 says that those who are mindful and put faith into action throughout the whole of their lives are the ones who do not look into a mirror focused on themselves but who look into a mirror focused on "the perfect law" -- it's those who look into the mirror and glimpse God's wisdom. Those who consistently put faith into action are the ones who look into a mirror and don't see only themselves: they also see God and they see others. To do that, to see more than ourselves in a mirror we have to step back from the mirror, maybe tilt it a bit to one side or the other, so that when we look in the mirror we see what's around us and who's next to us.

James isn't only critical of us when we forget what we see in the mirror, when we forget to do the faith that we talk about. He also indicates that we shouldn't see only ourselves in the mirror; we shouldn't live faith as though it's all about us. The life of faith is about love of God and love of neighbor, and we can't see God and neighbor -- we can't love God and neighbor -- if we keep the mirror of faith smack in front of our own faces!

Seeing beyond ourselves is perhaps the hardest and certainly one of the most consistent challenges of faith, because we experience life in the first-person. We are always inside our own heads. When we have good news, we want the focus to be on us; when we experience pain, we want the focus to be on us. Attention feels good -- we even want God's focus to be on us.

James pull the mirror away from us, challenges us to step back and look at the whole picture of how we live out our faith, by refocusing the mirror on God: seeing God in others, seeing God in our lives, seeing God for Godself.

So the next time you check yourself out in the mirror, stop. Take a few breaths. And after checking your hair and your teeth and your outfit, check to see where God is in your life.

Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 9/2/12.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Groovin'

My daughter prefers that I keep my dancing to myself
but -- O my God! -- I've got to dance because you are so good!
I'm gonna tap my toes with the joy of knowing
that your Spirit is on the move!
I'm gonna shrug my shoulders and lean my hips into
the rhythm of this noisy suburban traffic song,
glad in the knowledge that you are the substance of this life!
I'm gonna nod my head -- with terrible, white girl obviousness --
in agreement with the tree boughs nodding in the breeze
to the beat of your glorious refrain!
I'm gonna crank up India.Arie on the car speakers
and swim my hand through the passing current of air
because your mercy was new with today's sunrise
and your lovingkindness will last beyond tonight's sunset!
I'm gonna swing my arms high (not while driving)
and throw off the tensions and strains --
remembering that clouds change,
the tides pulse and
the seasons turn,
but your grace remains forever!
Your blessing beckons me to shed my stress, loosen up,
and groove with a dance of thanksgiving! Watch out!


What's your dance today? "God has turned my mourning into dancing..." (Psalm 30:11) Write a prayer that dances with joy!

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Front Porch on Martha Street

I'd like to introduce you to a virtual front porch on a beautiful space called Martha Street! Recently launched by an online (and now in-person) friend and colleague, Andrea Pitcher, Martha Street is a gathering place for women seeking spiritual refreshment and fellowship.

Andrea particularly has a heart for women in global missions, women in ministry, women in the military or in military families, women who are providing often-constant spiritual support for those around them but whose own spiritual lives need nourishment & renewal. At Martha Street, Andrea provides warm online community, faith resources, recipe ideas, and even counseling (she has a Master's Degree in Clinical Psychology).

I'm especially pleased to be a contributor to Martha Street, sharing my weekly prayer-writing prompts (like this one) with the women gathered there. Would you take a moment to visit Martha Street, say "hello" to Andrea, and recommend this site to someone you know who may be blessed by the fellowship at Martha Street? Thanks!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Taste and See!

MORNING CAFFEINE
Sear my tongue like freshly brewed too-hot coffee,
O burning Spirit, for the sharp heat relaxes my soul.

GARDEN TREAT
Bring me home, O nourishing God, with the warm
earthy taste of a tomato ripened in the summer sun.

VIETNAMESE NOODLES
Make me dance, O enlivening Spirit, like my taste buds
frolic between the spicy broth and snapping vegetables.

LATE NIGHT
Laden my tongue to silence the way that bitter chocolate
interrupts my senses with its dry heaviness, O complex God.

Taste and be delighted by God's goodness -- in each bite, each meal, each sip you take today! Let your mouth be amazed by the bounty of the earth, and grateful for the labor of hands that prepare the food. Then put your delight on paper by writing a descriptive prayer of thanksgiving to God for the delicious amusements of your taste buds.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Remembering To Breathe

Because your world, O God, is bigger than mine,
I will remember to breathe and open my eyes.

Because discovery is delicious to the soul, O God,
I will remember to breathe and be inquisitive.

Because humanity is both brilliant and destructive
-- and because we both know that I can be too --
I will remember to breathe and not just barrel along.

Because dawn is ever merciful and life is always full,
O God, I will remember to breathe and take my rest.

Because the ancients and elders have much to teach us,
O God, I will remember to breathe and listen closely.

Because tomorrow beckons and I forget to be present,
-- because I get wrapped up in my life's unfolding --
O God, I will remember to breathe and laugh and love.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Hell on Earth

"I've come to believe that the differences among American Christians can be boiled down to one fundamental theological difference -- about hell. Specifically, do you believe that hell is a matter of the afterlife, or do you believe that hell is a reality in the earthly life?

"The practical implication of an eternal hell is the earthly responsibility to manage life according to moral codes that ensure one's acceptance into heaven rather than hell. The practical implication of an earthly hell is the conviction to prevent or resolve tangible hellish circumstances."

Continue reading my article for Huffington Post Religion here.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Letting God Be God

"Then the king gave the command, and Daniel was brought and thrown into the den of lions. The king said to Daniel, 'May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!' A stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet. Then the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no food was brought to him and sleep fled from him. Finally at dawn, the king got up and hurried to the den of lions. When he came near the den, he cried out to Daniel, 'O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God been able to deliver you from the lions?' Daniel replied to the king, 'O king, my God sent his angel and shut the lions' mouths so they would not hurt me.'" (Daniel 6:16-22, adapted from NRSV)

In the morning, King Darius comes rushing out to the den of lions. He hasn't slept all night, he's been riddled with guilt for letting himself get tricked by the courtiers who are jealous of Daniel. Darius has the stone removed from the mouth of the den and he calls out, "O Daniel, has your God been able to deliver you from the lions?" To which Daniel replies, "My God did just fine with the lions. I'm okay too, thank you for asking."

Of all the things to say to someone who has spent a night with lions! King Darius doesn't ask, "Are you okay? Are you exhausted from fighting off the lions all night? Do you need first aid -- did the lions eat your arm or nibble your toes?" No, King Darius says, "I feel guilty for putting you in a life-threatening situation, but I'm really much more curious about what your God did!" If I were Daniel, coming off of a terrifying night of sitting sleepless in the same space as lions, and someone asked me "How did it go between God and the lions?" I would be sooo inclined to say, "This is not about God this morning! This is about me, and I would like everyone to focus on comforting me and doting over me because I just managed not to get eaten!"

But Daniel knows it isn't about him; it isn't about whether he manages to survive in a lions' den. This whole event is about God's ability to be God, no matter the circumstances. Remember, this is a time when the diaspora of exiled Jews are experiencing a theological crisis: wondering whether God abandoned them when Jerusalem's temple was destroyed, doubting if they'll ever be able to find God in these foreign lands, questioning whether perhaps the Babylonian gods might not be stronger than Israel's One God. In the midst of this collective faith crisis, here is Daniel confidently trusting that God can still be God -- that God can still do God's work -- even without a temple, even in a foreign land, even in the crisis of a lion's den.

And really, who else are you going to trust in a lions' den? Daniel is a prettyboy who says wise things to kings and lives a pampered life. Wrestling lions is not his gift! But this is not a test of what Daniel can do, and Daniel knows that it's not his test. Not every crisis that comes is a test of our own strength or survival or endurance. Not every conflict is a test of our wisdom or faith. There are moments -- and Daniel can tell us it's usually the terrifying, heart-wrenching, soul-splitting moments -- that are all about what God can do.

And yes, your life might be at stake in that moment,
our lives and livelihoods might be at stake,
Daniel's life was very much at stake...
and still this moment isn't about Daniel, it's still not about us.

The thing to watch for in those moments
is not your own bravery or sheer willpower;
the thing to watch for in those moments is God at work.
The thing to wait for in those moments is God being God
instead of rushing in and straining to be God ourselves.

And sometimes these moments aren't crisis moments. They can be beautiful and awesome moments -- like having a new baby or committing to a new relationship -- when we pause to say, "God, this isn't about me. This is about you doing a new thing that I have the opportunity to be part of." So we set our egos out of the way and let God be God, and we let God do God's work.

Not every moment in this life,
not every battle or crisis or stress that comes to you is yours to fight.
Not every battle or crisis or stress that comes to you is about you,
or about your tenacious ability to plow through and survive.
There are battles and crises and stresses that come to us
which are about God's ability to be God,
about God's ability to rescue
and to foster life in ways
we haven't even envisioned.

It doesn't mean it's not a crappy night in the lions' den.
It means you can let yourself off the hook of playing God in the lions' den
-- because it's God's turn to do the work of being God.
Scary, perhaps, but also incredibly good news:
it's God's job to be God.

This is God's work.
This day is God's mercy.
This life is God's possibilities.
We are called to be part of it but
not to lose sight that it's not about us.

Watch for God at work.
Wait for a vision besides your own.
 Let God be God.


Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 8/19/12.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Cicadas' Psalm (on Jeremiah 31:4-5)

"Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O daughter Israel!"
Again you shall take your tambourines and join the dance of the merrymakers!
Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains and enjoy the fruit of your labor!"
(Jeremiah 31:4-5, adapted from NRSV)

Again...and again...and again...and over again, you will experience God's goodness! Again and again and again you will dance with joy for God's unfaltering love! Again and again and again God will harvest for you a bounty of grace from life's hardship! Let this refrain -- "again, again, again" -- inspire your pen's prayer.


"Again,again,again,again,again,again,again,again"
the cicadas buzz discordantly.
They are insistent enough
to command a paused ear
in the peak of August.

"Again,again,again,again,again,again,again,again,
let God's grace soothe you."

"Again,again,again,again,again,again,again,again,
let God's strength sustain you."

"Again,again,again,again,again,again,again,again,
let God's magnificence unsettle you."

"Again,again,again,again,again,again,again,again,
let God's breadth invite you to the edge."

"Again,again,again,again,again,again,again,again,
let God's holiness bring you to wholeness." 

"Again,again,again,again,again,again,again,again,
let God's restoration surprise you."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Daybreak over the Bay

Still.

Still.

Still.

Let my soul be as still as the egret
roosting in the red cedar tree
while I wait for God's guidance to dawn.

Still.

Still.

Still.

Let my soul be as still as the bay grasses
when the wind has stopped its fussing,
so that I wait without distraction for God's peace.

Still.

Still.

Still.

Let my soul be as still as the soaring osprey is patient,
hovering and watching for a glint of fish below;
let not my soul be discouraged as it strains to see God.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

O my God, I wonder why you tolerate us.
Today we have reached into the stars...
and we have killed our brothers in prayer.
We have tested our strength in sport...
and we have hoisted our power in war.
We preach your holy insistence on love...
yet we insist foremost on our love of self.
Will you now harden your heart against us
and hide your eyes from our vain misery?
Let the cries of the dead and the abused
bear witness against our masochistic ego.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

David and Goliath

You know the story: David triumphs over Goliath. Small topples big. Confidence conquers fear. Shepherd beats warrior. Faith wins over strength. Trusting in the limitless possibilities of God far outpaces, outweighs, outshines trusting in the limited possibilities of oneself.

We know the story. The question is, why don't we live like we believe the story? Why don't we live -- in our relationships, in our work, in our rest, in our church, in our finances -- as though trusting God has a tangible impact on our lives? What holds us back from living with complete peace and deep confidence in the knowledge that what God can do & imagine for us is better than what we can do & imagine for ourselves?

Why do we live (consciously or unconsciously) with the constant underpinning of fear that someone or something might cause us to fall or break or lose or destabilize or die at any time ... so that the fear of change and disaster compels us to create and hold onto as many securities as possible? Of course, something can cause us to fall or break or lose or destabilize or die at any time. The story of David & Goliath doesn't dispute bad things happening and tearing us down. The story of David & Goliath disputes living in fear and lack of imagination for how God can bless our lives, for how we might be built up, for how we can triumph and even thrive no matter the losses or the suffering.

Of all the Bible stories about David, this one might be my least favorite because it challenges me the most. Give me a story about David after he becomes king: when he's arguing with God's prophets, or when he's picking up women inappropriately, or when he's dancing naked; give me a story about David running for his life from Saul or from his throne-envious sons. Give me these stories of David being a flawed human and I will nod my head: I get these stories.

But the story of David & Goliath! This is a story of a human not living out his flaws but living out his beyond-belief possibilities through trust in God. This story doesn't invite us to identify with someone's flawed life. This story invites us to accept the challenge of living our flawed lives without fear, invites us to let our trust in God define us more than our fears of everything else:
more than our fears of others, more than our fears of heartache,
more than our fears of financial needs or health needs;
letting our trust in God define us more than our fears of suffering,
more than our fears of uncertainty, more than our fear of fear.

How would we live differently if we believed the story of David & Goliath? I don't know what the exact details of "living differently" might mean for you, but I know that it's time. It's time to practice trusting God in all things, in all moments, in all of life. It's time to remember God in all things, in all moments, in all of life -- daily, hourly, with each breath and each decision and each interaction.

Trusting fully in God, trusting boldly in God, let us not be afraid. Amen.

Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 8/5/2012.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Let No One's Heart Fail

Ah, Spirit!
I'm afraid I've lost you.
No -- I'm afraid I've lost myself,
because my heart feels unfamiliar and
the terrain of my soul is desolate wilderness.
I am seeking a rock to get my bearings...
encountering only wind and silence.
It doesn't matter that I know you to be
both Wind and Holy Whisper;
here in the vast space of
nondescript rustles and eerie quiet,
what matters most to my soul is that
I cannot grasp you when you are so nebulous,
cannot cling to you as my hand longs to cling to a Mountain
or as my foot hopes to hold onto a Rock beneath it.
Spirit, strengthen my heart to keep wandering.
Do not let my soul give up its willingness
to endure the Absence
and the Mystery.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

About a Gate

Swing,
creak,
open reluctantly,
close unreliably,
dear wooden gate.
Shed your layers of paint,
let rust have its way with your springs,
tell long stories about years of treasured use
to your perfect plastic cousins:
of kids running through
and lovers walking out,
of wild fields entered and
vegetable gardens protected,
of roses blooming in manicured trim
and stray vines climbing your posts.
You have been the welcoming mat of homes
and the prosaic entrances of pastures.
You have hidden mansions and bungalows,
perched in decorative purpose among daylilies,
guarded raucous chickens and yipping dogs.
Stand tall, lean precariously,
sag on your hinges in age,
but never fail to watch
for the guest and the stranger
and the weary traveler
returning home.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Penn State, Presbyterians, and Our Institutional Identities

The sighting of a "We Are Penn State" bumper sticker recently started me thinking: Every sticker, paw logo, and Nittany Lion golf club cover reflects Penn State's success in building people's enthusiasm for branding themselves with this institution. It's considered an honor to support the university, to promote publicly, "I love Penn State!"

But as accusations, convictions and cover-up details have unfolded in the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the wider Penn State community has had its sense of branding shaken. What does it mean to identify oneself with Penn State now, in a time when the university's character reeks more than usual of cronyism and a distorted perspective of "humane" action?

Read my full blog on The Huffington Post here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Boxing

Dear God,
I'm discouraged and
I've been taking it out on you,
making you the divine punching bag
at which I direct my hurt and uncertainty.
(No wonder my soul aches from so much fighting.)
Help. Please. Teach me in the ways of
making peace with the unknown.
Train my restlessness
to have focus.
Amen.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stretching a Stiff Spirit

"What is common to all of us is the spiritual block: the experience of spiritual stiffness, the soul's standstill in the midst of life's unfolding, that place where the air is stale except perhaps for a recurring mirage. The reasons for finding ourselves in such a place are many, but we have in common the experience of wrestling through it. When we do not engage or contend with our spiritual blocks, stiffness sets in. At that point for me, writing becomes necessary to stretch my spirit, to pull against the paralysis, to feel the burn of easing those tight places."

Continuing reading my reflection for Weavings' blog here.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Five Reasons...

...to order Writing to God: Kids' Edition today:

1. Because fall is coming, and your Christian Ed committee is looking for new resources.

2. Because you want to encourage your grandchild's or niece's or nephew's prayer life.

3. Because The Midwest Book Review called Writing to God: Kids' Edition "the best news for church educators, parents, and kids since Sunday school picnics were begun" in its April 2012 issue of Children's Bookwatch.

4. Because you're looking for some creativity and playfulness in your own prayer life.

5. Because you're a pastor, and you can tell from the book excerpt that Writing to God: Kids' Edition can inspire many ideas for leading Children's Time in worship.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Diurnal Flower

I watch the tiger lilies
hide their faces to sleep,
and so goes my heart:
curled up in protective silence
against the approaching night.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sunday School Stories: Rebekah

To place the story of Rebekah within the narrative arc of Genesis, let's go back a generation: You remember that Abraham and Sarah (originally Abram and Sarai) left their homeland because God called Abraham to settle in a new place. Abraham and God had a covenant between them -- a promise that Abraham would follow God and that God would be Abraham's God. The consequential perks of this covenant would be family, fame and fortune for Abraham (that is, a large family with generations multiplying like the stars, a good name that all people would know, and land to claim as his own).

There was some drama about the "family" part of God's promise. When Sarah couldn't conceive, Sarah's servant Hagar gave birth to Abraham's first son instead, a strong boy whose name was Ishmael. In the long run, Hagar and Ishmael were sent away because they attracted Sarah's ire, and Sarah gave birth to her first son -- Abraham's legally-recognized heir -- Isaac. Rebekah's story begins in Genesis 24, when Abraham sends a servant back to his homeland in search of a bride for Isaac who has grown old enough to have a wife.

The servant wants to find the right bride, so he arranges a sign with God: whichever young woman lets him borrow her jar at the local well for a drink of water and offers to water his camels too will be the right woman for Isaac. Sure enough, a young woman named Rebekah shares her jar and waters the servant's camels. The servant asks to meet this girl's family, and -- wonder of wonders -- Rebekah's grandfather is Abraham's brother Nahor! (While the close blood relationship may strike us as odd, in ancient times kinship was an assurance that these were good people.) The servant offers gifts of jewelry and clothing to Rebekah, kicks back a beer with Rebekah's father Bethuel and brother Laban, then travels with Rebekah back to the new lands of Abraham where Isaac falls in love with his bride-to-be.

Rebekah and Isaac have twin sons, Esau and Jacob, who fight together even before they are born. Esau, the firstborn, becomes his father's favorite; Jacob becomes his mother's favorite. The boys grow up trying to best one another at every turn. Esau is stronger, but Jacob is more clever. One day when Esau returns to the tent from hunting and working in the field, he asks Jacob to share the stew he is making. Always trying to gain a leg up, Jacob barters: "Give me your birthright in exchange for the soup; I want your privileges as a firstborn son." Esau agrees so that he can eat ... and maybe Jacob wins a day of playing firstborn, but technically only the patriarch Isaac can bestow the birthright on one of his sons.

So Rebekah hatches a plan [Genesis 27] to ensure that Isaac does give the birthright to Jacob instead of Esau. On the day when Isaac decides to officially pass the inheritance to Esau, to make his firstborn son the new head and leader of all Isaac's property and servants and family, Rebekah intervenes. She dresses up Jacob like Esau (because Isaac is nearly blind and has learned to recognize his sons by touch and smell), covering Jacob with furs and goat skins to imitate Esau's rough and hairy skin, and Jacob goes before Isaac to receive his older brother's blessing.

Just like that, by the quickness of Rebekah's switcharoo, the younger Jacob -- instead of firstborn Esau -- receives the blessing and inheritance of his father Isaac: all of Isaac's property, his wealth, all of the sheep and goats, all of the land that was passed on to Isaac from his father Abraham now belongs to Jacob. Even the covenant with God, the distinguishing relationship first established between God and Abraham, that sacred trust with its promise of fame, family and fortune, even those promises now go to Jacob! Esau is entirely cut out of the faith lineage, out of the whole inheritance, because Rebekah deceives Isaac to obtain the blessing for Jacob.

So then: what faith lessons are we meant to learn from Rebekah? What do we think of Rebekah and of her deception? Was she faithfully playing her role in God's plan (because God did tell her when she was pregnant that the elder twin would serve the younger)? Or do we fault Rebekah for playing favorites between her sons? Was her deception part of God's working, or was she wrong to connive against Isaac? Was she doing good? Was she being manipulative?

Or was she simply human, very much like any one of us, assessing her life situation (as a woman without authority in a patriarchal society, whose well-being was at the mercy of her husband's and then her sons' familial & financial & political planning), and deciding to do what was needed to squeeze out of life the best that she could hope to get? 

Because even though Rebekah didn't have authority over her own life, it didn't mean that she lacked the power to do what was needed. Right or wrong, what Rebekah needed was for Jacob to be the head of household when Isaac died. Maybe it was because Jacob was her favorite, maybe it was because she saw in Jacob better management skills or a more caring spirit. For one reason or another, Rebekah trusted that Jacob would take care of her as she got older, Jacob would make sure the family's wealth and holdings grew, Jacob would make wise decisions for the whole family ... while Esau was just good at chasing rabbits.

So Rebekah did what was needed. Given her best estimate of how life would unfold along its traditional course, she imagined a possibility that was outside of the norms, and she made it happen.

We do what is needed. Given our assessments of relationships & finances & health, given our experiences of life & death & pain & hope, weighing the ways in which life's systems are stacked for or against us, we do what is needed to work the best out of life that we can hope for. We do what we need to do to keep life going. Sometimes we're proactive. Sometimes we're defensive. But we're all Rebekah: working to get the best out of life that we can, whether we're improving upon a life situation that is already comfortable or we're fighting for basic food-and-home stability.

I appreciate Rebekah saying to herself, "Life's not going to be handed to me on a silver platter, so I'm going to work it out as best I can." I believe that's true of life, and so often it's true of our behavior...

...but I wrestle with whether it's true of faith, whether it holds true for living with faith. Without moralizing "right" or "wrong" about our actions of necessity, I wonder whether it's faithful to approach life saying "I'm going to do what it takes." While I think that's how Rebekah was responding to her crisis (because Isaac's approaching death was a crisis) ... and I know that's how I respond to crisis ... still I wonder, how are we relating to God when we assert, "I'm going to do what is needed to get the best out of this situation"?

Maybe Rebekah's story doesn't provide a clear-cut moral lesson for our lives, but certainly her story gives us helpful clues for how to wrestle with life in hard times, through faith:

1. Doing what we need to do -- within the life of faith -- requires a "big picture" perspective. It requires asking not just "What do I need?" but also "What do those around me need?" (like Rebekah asked not only what was best for her own life but also what was best for the collective life of Isaac's whole clan). It means having the presence of mind to ask not only "What do I/we need?" but also to assess "What are the options?" (because options in life or in crisis can indicate privilege, and remembering our privilege should helpfully and critically inform our understanding of need).

2. Especially when life knocks the wind out of us, it can feel like the world is barreling along its course in one direction -- with or without us, but certainly without much opportunity for changing direction. Living with faith means living with the deep confidence that life holds creative possibilities, no matter how hard or fast the world's barreling begins to spin! And yes, it takes some conniving to change courses and shift perspective ... but we follow a God who is the biggest conniver of all! God connived with the waters and the winds to shift the Red Sea out of its place so the Israelites could cross to safety as they fled from Egypt. God connived around the systems of economics, food and power in order to feed five thousand (plus!) people on a hillside without spending a dime. God even connived to undermine and upset the natural laws of death! There are creative possibilities in life for us to see and seize when we need them most.

3. But regardless of how well you are able to shift perspective and connive for new possibilities, when you hit that rock-bottom place of worrying "What's needed to keep this life of mine together?" know that God knows that the air has been knocked out of you. Know that God knows how much you need a salve for your wounds, an unexpected option to meet your needs, a new way where there seems to be no way. God knows, and God is there, and God's conniving is surely greater than your greatest need.


Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 6/25/2012.