Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Preaching this week

What started as a post on the Narrative Lectionary Facebook group has just gotten too long to put there.  I'm trying to figure out what to do with the text this week - - Acts 16:16-34

Still not totally sure how I'm going to go this week, but more and more I'm being pulled (that's not even a strong enough word) by the Spirit to lift up the horror of these Nigerian kidnappings.  I don't know exactly how to relate it to the text; there are some connections that seem to work, others that are stretches, many that are in the middle (work to a point, but then fall apart).  I've decided to give myself some grace on this.  I am an extremely textual preacher.  If this one deviates a little in order to say what needs to be said, I'm going to be OK with that. Some ideas and (possible) directions are below.

|1.  We have the ability to project on our walls during worship (or order of worship goes there).  During the sermon I'm going to make a slideshow displaying each of the known names one at a time, 4 seconds each.  Unknown names will be listed as "Daughter of God #1, etc)  I understand 30+ more girls may have been taken from another village.  I need to try to find that info again.

2.  I am drawn to the idea of the slave girl having no name and the drive to make sure these girls' names are known (with all the complexity that comes with that in terms of confidentiality).  It's not as easy to forget someone whose name is known. This works a little better if the texts that are read are the Lydia and slave girls stories, not so much if it's slave girl and jailer, since his name isn't known either.

3.  There seems to be something important here about follow-through in ministry/mission.  We don't really know if Paul's "exorcism" in the end was a good thing.  He certainly did it more out of annoyance than concern anyway.  We don't know if making this slave-girl less useful to her masters freed her from much.  It may have made her more disposable, and without any kind of lasting relationship with her, Paul may have done more harm than good.  There's a real good warning in this to what happens after (God willing) these girls are released.  The outrage better turn into some real support in a responsible way for these girls and change in the larger system that allows stuff like this to happen.  (Education, education, education - - not seeing people as property or a means to an end like in the story of the slave-girl in the first place)

4.  I only slip in Mother's Day stuff when it actually makes sense with the sermon.  This time it might.  We have mothers, fathers, families, communities weeping over what is going on.  The tag line might "#BringOurGirlsBack" pull the baptismal connection.  Although, since this is a school with girls of mixed religious backgrounds, "our" might go all the way back to our shared heritage in Abraham or even just simply our shared humanity.  Side note: The "our" has been a little disturbing to me personally.  It sounds too possessive for me instead of uniting like it's intended to me.  Were they our girls when they were studying?  It works great for the actual families and villages.  Feels colonialist coming from Americans.

5.  The other Mother's Day connection I fear, but don't think I can speak out loud is the idea that some of these girls are likely being made mothers against their will as we speak.  It makes me sick.

I don't think I'm much closer in figuring out how I'm going to preach this Sunday.  In fact, somehow I'm just ending up more pissed at Paul and his selective use of influence.  There might be a sermon in there somewhere, but I'm not convinced the text is saying that.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What's next?

The Enneagram work I did on the RevGals Big Event 7.0 (whew - - there were a lot of links there!) has been more and more amazing for me as time goes by.  I'm always kind of interested in these personality things, from Myers Briggs Personality Type to "Which Downton character are you?" (Mr. Bates, in case you care.)  I had heard about the Enneagram, but I didn't really get it the first time around.  More and more, though, in the time leading up to the trip, and I mean even in the 12-18 months before the trip, I have been trying to figure out what makes me tick.  Why do I act the way I do?  Why are some things easy for me that seem like they should be hard, but other things are practically deadening to my soul that seem like they should be easy?  And a LOT of the latter things are things that are pretty important for my vocation as a pastor - you know, like talking to people that I don't really know well or have a purposeful working relationship with or being able to follow through with an idea I dreamed up.  I was getting frustrated with myself (and sensing frustration from some in my congregation) about things that are related to my personality.  The enneagram came at just the right intersection of rising frustrations and my desire for things to be different.  And hey --  A new thing to learn about? "Sounds cool.  I'll try anything once," said your resident 7.

About the 7 - - So, some of the things I learned about myself as a 7 are that I have a hard time following through with things usually because my brain is looking forward to the next thing I can try that might bring enjoyment or excitement.  I am pretty easily distracted.  I love learning about new things and can be legitimately researching for something I need and get pulled into 542 other things that catch my attention and inquisitiveness on the way.  My "sin" is my desire to acquire - experiences, things, knowledge.  Some of those sound worse than others, but ultimately it can be problematic because I use this acquisition to try avoid feeling and dealing with pain.  It is all fascinating.

Somehow knowing that this tendency to be distracted and scattered is part of what makes me me makes it something easier to deal with.  It had been driving me crazy more and more lately, and somehow finding the source of it has given me new energy to try to curb it a little.  I don't want to get rid of it all together, because it's part of who I am, but I do need to put some reins on it in order to live more fully into my calling and family.

So, with that background last night I wrote out a plan for "productivity" that I'm going to try.  I know there are all sorts of systems to read up on or buy into.  They sound great.  But let's be honest, there's no way I'm going to be able to keep my attention on a book telling me how to pay attention.  It's laughable.  So, I'm writing my own and I'm trying it this week.  I have done VERY minimal reading about Pomodoro that I liked, so that certainly has bled into my thoughts and plan somewhat, but otherwise I'm sort of piecing this together on my own.

Here are my "Productivity Principles" I'm trying this week in no particular order:
1.  Only sign into email twice a day (likely 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.) and answer or compose emails for only an hour each time AT MOST.  This might mean making more phone calls to try to cut down on stupid email time.
2.  9:00-9:30 is for making my daily to-do list and making sure it includes the reminders that are already programmed on my phone.  Part of making the to-do list is prioritizing the order of the events.
3.  Set non-negotiable times for things that need to happen away from the church building (hospital visits, other errands).
4.  Use Pomodoro 25 minute work periods and 5 minutes "rest" periods to work through the list.  This even applies to the 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. email hours.
5.  Facebook and internet use are only OK during the 5 minute rests, except for when it comes to sermon prep days when I hit the preaching blogs and FB groups. This is going to be hard to navigate, but I'll try it out more tomorrow.
6.  This is sort of based on a Pomodoro thing - - When an interruption has to occur, I will need to decide immediately if it's time sensitive enough to deal with on the spot or if it can just be added to the list in an appropriate spot.  If it needs to be dealt with, I've got to not let myself get derailed by it entirely so I can come back to the plan.
7.  I've got to try to keep a clean office.
8.  One thing at a time.  If I think of another thing that also needs to be done, write it down, and prioritize it a the next break.  One thing at a time.

So that's the plan for a little while.  I'm going to try to work it and tweak it and see how it goes.  Some of it seems ridiculously normal for the rest of the world, but for me it's going to be new.

A question I have for which I am seeking input, particularly for minister-types, but maybe there's more overlap with other vocations than I'm imagining - - How do you decide "what's next"?  What helps set your priorities for the day or week?  A couple criteria I'm sort of bouncing around right now that relate to my 7-ness and some growing edges I need to work on:
1.  Is someone else waiting for me to finish my piece so they can do their piece?
2.  What tasks will help me make and nurture personal connections with other people?

Enneagram photo credit: Grace Commons (Wicker Park Grace) via photopin cc

Clocks photo credit: FJTUrban (sommelier d mojitos) via photopin cc

Friday, February 14, 2014

Me? Praying?

Lately, I've been doing something really out of character for me.  I've been praying.  Prayer in any sort of traditional, identifiable mode has never really been the center of my spirituality or faith.  At times I've felt the need to try to identify some of the things I do as prayer, journaling, talking to myself, just watching and paying attention and wondering in order to feel like I was doing faith right.  Maybe those things were prayer for me, maybe they weren't.  I don't know.  My intent has really been to pray through them, to talk and listen to God, if that has anything to do with it.  I just don't consider myself much of a pray-er.

So, what's even more strange strange about this desire lately to mull things over with God, is that it has come at a time when I've been feeling myself grow in some ways very much away from traditional or mainstream Christian thought about things like the nature and person of Jesus (let's just throw a big one out there), God's activity and intervention in daily life, and even prayer.  I'm believing less about the effectiveness of prayer while being drawn more into it, and MY GOD it feels good.

I'm not really satisfied yet with any particular prayer practice.  I haven't been able to fall asleep in the evenings without spending time holding things and people and situations and feelings from my day in the light of God.  I just do this with my thoughts while I curl up on my side and begin to drift off.  I'm way over my 15 year old-me anxiety about falling asleep while praying.  (I used to make myself do an old school kneel beside my bed to try to stay awake in those days, but I finally quit when I woke up one night 3 hours later flopped at the side my bed with really sore knees.)  I'm OK with just holding up those things that need to be held until I am relaxed enough to rest.

On the RevGals Big Event I brought a journal I started (read: used twice) 4 years ago for Praying in Color, along with my box of fancy colored pencils. I am NOT an artist.  I'm not even one of those artists who says she's not an artist who really is.  I really do have no ability to takes ideas in my mind and visual represent them on paper.  I'm OK with that.   I'm not an artist, but I love my fancy colored pencils.  Anyway, I played in that journal one day in a way that was new to me - - not writing down things in my mind and doodling around them as I prayed them, but sort of drawing and praying my way through a Scripture passage, a psalm - answering the questions the text asked explicity, listening for questions I heard it asking that weren't right there.  It was a really cool experience I didn't try to create, but just sort of happened.  I wonder if I can do it again.

I'm not sure where all this goes.  I'm afraid I might end up to forcing it somewhere to try to fit it in some sort of official prayer "box." That would suck because I know it would kill it for me, but I also would love to nurture it and grow it because it has been so good.  I'm afraid if I carve out time, like make appointments for myself, something of the blessing of the spontaneity will be lost and it wiil just die.

 (Oh my GOODNESS, my enneagram 7 is SHOWING!!!)

I guess I'll just have to see.  It's time to go to bed now, so maybe this is something I can pray on.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Signs of healing

Struggling AGAIN with how to deal with Sunday's text choices.  The Narrative Lectionary offers up any possible combination of two stories from John's gospel - the sign that takes places at the healing of the royal official's son (John 4:46-54) and the healing of a man in the Bethesda pool in Jerusalem (John 5:1-18).  I already spent time over at the RevGals sermon discussion incoherently rambling (i.e. whining) about healing stories (which is similar to my rambling/whining about the whole gospel of John).  I'll try not to do that again.

Here's the thing - - Everything that drives me crazy about the over-personalization of every single Bible story comes to light when we come across a healing story.  I don't like it when these stories get read, and we move into a discussion that says if you just ask or pray for it, healing will come, because it doesn't.  Or it doesn't always. So then, in an effort to cover up for this God who didn't come through this time, we offer a perfectly wrapped up, individualized lesson in any number of ways:
1.  Well, we don't mean physical healing or cure EVERY time.
2.  Sometimes just asking is what makes things better.
3.  Asking for healing may have been what you wanted, but God knew better and gave you something you needed.
I don't like that.  It seems disingenuous.  Rope people in with stories about God who heals, Jesus who promises healing, then tell them we didn't really mean it.

I made my earlier rant about healing stories in the Bible, but now that I'm thinking it through, I don't think it's the stories in the Bible that are my problem.  My problem is the way we make 1-to-1 translations of things that are reported in Scripture to things we want to happen in daily life today.  Even we more liberal readers will do this literal application of Scripture thing with the stories about Jesus that we wouldn't do with stories about, say, Noah, or Moses, or Naaman.  We would laugh at the idea that we should build an ark for all the world's animal's if it looked like it's were going to rain.  We would put on a life jacket or better yet get a boat before trying to cross the Red Sea.  We'd think someone was CRAZY if they told us to put our hand in the water seven times and expect healing.  So, why is it that we would never take these pieces literally, but we read a story about Jesus healing and immediately start to figure out how to get physical healing for ourselves and our loved ones.

We do it because we want healing for them.  We do it because we love them.  We do it because we love life and we want to live it to its fullest.

And in all of this I'm not saying that healings with no other explanation than the intervention of God don't happen.  I actually think they do and they can.  I'm also not saying it is wrong to ask for healing.  I do and I encourage others to also.

I guess I'm just saying that every healing story in Scripture doesn't have to be about "how to get healing."*     Especially not in John.  Especially not when the healing is called a sign.

A colleague of mine just posted this in response to some of my thoughts that I'm also spilling over on Facebook:
"...[A] sign serves no purpose if you take it's meaning too literally.  If you refuse to move from a stop sign because it says stop, then you have taken the sign to (sic) literally.  If you expect the curves ahead to look exactly like the sign depicts then you are taking the sign too literally.  If you see Jesus' sign and think it's just about healing you've ignored the true meaning of the sign or taken it too literally."

 In John signs are supposed to point to something.  Signs aren't "the thing;" they point to "the thing."  So if we stop at the healing when we're reading a story that is called a "sign" in John, we're stopping too soon.  "The thing" is not the act of healing; "the thing" is the one doing the healing.  The sign points to the nature and mission of God (h/t David Lose for much of this), so what does this particular healing story tell us about the nature and mission of God?  And then the application, how can we join that nature and mission as followers of Christ?

I think I'm going to use those questions to write my sermon.

photo credit: @Doug88888 via photopin cc

*In fact, I'm not really sure these stories exist at all - the "how to" kind.  I think the witness exists that we can and should pray for healing, and that we may or may not get it the way we hoped.  There isn't really a witness to a sure fire way to get healing every time.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Scandalous Thoughts

The title caught your attention, didn't it?  It would have caught mine.  Let's not kid ourselves.  We LOVE a scandal.

I was watching the Kardashians last night (judge me, I don't care), and it was interesting to watch the inside version of the Kris/Bruce Jenner split. In the tabloids it was all crazy. Step siblings slamming step siblings, etc etc. Behind the scenes (giving them the benefit of the doubt in terms of reality TV), all sides of the family were sitting at one table trying to figure out how to navigate the waters so that the youngest sisters didn't get hurt by it all. We, the entertainment-consuming public, much prefer a dramatic scandal over real-life families working through their stuff as best they can. (Don't worry. My glasses aren't too rose-colored.)

Over at the Working Preacher Narrative Lectionary commentary for this week David Lose lifted up the idea that maybe we preachers have been over-scandalizing the story of Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4:1-42) for a long time. It's a good read, and you should check it out. What if it really isn't that big of a scandal?  What if she isn't a prostitute?  What if she isn't "living in sin"? What if all of the other women in town really don't care if they're with her at the well and really don't look down their noses at her?  What if there are perfectly good, non-scandalous reasons for all these things we have turned into a soap opera so that there's this great story of Jesus rescuing this dark woman from her shady past?  Because if that's all the story is, than for many of us in middle of the road America it's a pretty distant story.  It doesn't really speak to us, as we perceive ourselves, not all that sinful, fairly righteous (not saying it's true, just saying we think of ourselves this way).  It's a good story about how Jesus fixes the really bad people, but we are not the really bad people.

But what if this story isn't about the scandal of a cast-aside prostitute, and instead is about someone having a personal encounter with Jesus?  For many in our culture that would actually be scandal enough.  She doesn't just sit there politely and smile and nod.  She stops what she's doing that productive. SCANDAL!  She listens AND talks back. SCANDAL! She challenges Jesus and questions what he says.  SCANDAL! She engages him, explores what he says, and ultimately decided to believe him and tell others about him.  HUGE SCANDAL!

From several different angles, these days what she does is ultimately scandalous even for many in our culture.  The right-wing conservative Christian part of our society might be scandalized by questioning Jesus, challenging him in general, but add in her gender and there's another whole layer to it all.  Questioning God?  Thinking about things deeper than they appear on the surface?  Challenging the divine.  That's scandal.  On the other side of the spectrum, totally secular, ultra-liberal audience might find scandal in the faith she eventually professes - - faith that changes her life.  Who would believe and trust and follow anything other than herself? I love the way John lifts up, encourages and blesses even, a faith that explores and grows, a faith that isn't blind, but sees in the sense of seeking and searching until God is revealed.  It's a blessed scandal.

photo credit: NapInterrupted via photopin cc

Saturday, December 21, 2013

In the beginning

I've got a start on my sermon for tomorrow.
John 1:1-18

               Three years of seminary for me started one hot Tuesday in Decatur, Georgia, July 6, 1999.  Sixty-two of us piled into the only classroom being used that month on the campus of Columbia Theological Seminary with our blue Nestle-Aland Greek New Testaments in one hand and in our other, the hardcover, black J. Gresham Machen,  publication date, 1963, although it really hadn’t changed much at all since it was first published in 1923.  Why should it?  Ancient Greek hadn’t changed any in that amount of time.
               Greek School met five days a week for about six hours a day, and that was our first taste of seminary.  It was the introduction, the prologue so to speak.  For the first four and a half days, we memorized the alphabet of squiggly letters, from alpha to omega, the beginning to the end.  We practiced making the sounds, some familiar, some foreign.  We spent a whole day and half just on the accent system of Greek before we moved on to conjugate a few verbs and decline a few nouns. 
It was exciting to be in the classroom learning the original language of the New Testament, to begin this new step in life, following through on a calling from God, but at the same time… Well… It was also sort of anticlimactic.  “I see, you see, he sees, we see, you (pl.) see, they see”  “I know, you know, he knows, we know, you (pl.) know, they know”  It wasn’t exactly hearing the New Testament like the first Christians did.  In fact, we weren’t hearing the New Testament at all.
Until Friday afternoon.  Prof. Wayne Merritt, a white-haired, leather-skinned, salty older man, had been teaching Greek to new seminarians for decades, but we were one of his last summer classes.  It was clear throughout the eight weeks that he would much rather be out on a boat with a cold beer in the hot summer sun than in the second floor classroom of Campbell Hall with a new batch of pre-ministers.  When we came back from lunch we found Greek scrawled across the blackboard, but this time it wasn’t just six forms of the verb “to loose”; it looked like a real sentence.  The eager among started pestering Prof. Merritt, “What is it?  Where is it from?” we all asked.  “You tell me,” Prof. Merritt answered.

We wanted to turn in our Greek New Testaments to find these mysterious words and use our memories or our English translations to figure out what he said, but all we were allowed to use was our lexicon.  “En Arche” – in the beginning, “ho logos” the Word.  In the beginning was the Word.  We were doing it. “Kai ho logos” and the Word. “pros ton Theon” with God.  And the Word was with God.  We could finish the sentence from memory at that point, but figuring out the Greek, what form the words were in, why they were translated the way they were, what they meant because of their tense, became much more important to us than it ever had before.  In the beginning was the Word, and how the Word, the logos is read, what the logos says, reveals more than a memory, or written or typed words on a page ever can.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

These eighteen verses of the gospel of John are called the prologue, but I’ve been thinking of them more as a prequel.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Breaking Busy

Exodus 20:1-11
Isaiah 58:6-14

The Brothers Grimm told a story about a merchant who had done good business at the fair; he had sold his wares, and filled his bag with gold and silver. Then he set out at once on his journey home, because he wanted to be in his own house before night came. 
At noon he rested in a town. When he wanted to go on, the stable boy brought his horse, saying: "Sir, a nail is failing in the of your horse’s left hind foot.  Should I take it to be fixed?”
"Let it be," answered the merchant; "the shoe will stay on for the six miles I have still to go. I am in a hurry."
In the afternoon he got down at an inn and had his horse fed. The stable boy came into the room to him and said:  "Sir, now the shoe on your horse's left hind foot is quite loose and failing, too. Shall I take him to the blacksmith?"
"Let it go," said the man; "the horse can very well hold out for a couple of miles more. I am in a hurry."
So the merchant rode on but before long the horse began to limp. He had not limped long before he began to stumble, and he had not stumbled long before he fell down and broke his leg. The merchant had to leave the horse where he fell, and unstrap the bag, take it on his back, and go home on foot.
"That unlucky nail," said he to himself, "has made all this trouble."
As if it was the nail’s fault! The merchant and his horse could have benefited from one simple thing - - slowing down and paying attention - - and that would have made all the difference in the world!  But he just couldn’t.  The merchant was too wrapped up in himself, in his schedule, in pursuing his own self-interest of getting home to his own bed that he pushed himself and his “employee” farther than he should, and in the end it all broke down.
The history of our national Labor Day, established by an act of Congress in June 1894, is, in a way, a similar story.  Individual cities and states had been celebrating Labor Day as a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country for almost ten years at that point, but the federal government had been slower to get on board.
It came about in a time when work was hard work.  Twelve hour days and six-day weeks were the norm. Wages were low; there were no sick days, pensions or holidays. There was certainly no unemployment insurance. The business of America was business.
During the economic depression known as the Panic of 1893, workers for the Pullman Car Co., one of the country's largest train car manufacturers, walked off their jobs when Pullman tried to cut wages and fire workers, while simultaneously raising their rent in their company-owned homes.  They were joined by hundreds of thousands of workers in a nationwide walkout. In a move that some say was an attempt to appease strikers and unions, President Grover Cleveland established the federal Labor Day in June 1894.  However, just a month later, facing a strike that would shut down America's railroads, President Cleveland dispatched 12,000 federal troops in on the premise that the strike interfered with the U.S. Mail. In the ensuing violence, at least 13 strikers were killed and many more were wounded.[i]
Like the horse with a faulty nail in its shoe, America’s workers could only be pushed so far before they were broken physically, financially, and spiritually and the whole system would need an over-haul.
It’s not too hard to see yet another parallel - - a parallel to our own lives.  We live in a culture that glorifies busy.  Think about it.  When someone asks us “How have you been?” the most common answer anymore is “Busy,” and for some reason we congratulate each other for that.  Busy is equated to industrious, fulfilled, and important.  But what is busy doing to our lives?  What is busy doing to our relationships?  What is busy doing to God’s churches and God’s people?
Busy will break us.  Busy will be the loose nail that nags at us until the shoe is faulty, the foot is lame, and we find ourselves broken in the ditch.  The pressure to be busy seems to come from a few different places.  Sometimes it comes from our own desire to feel important.  Sometimes it comes out of a conscious or unconscious competitive drive.  Sometimes it comes as a result of the greed of others and our own need to work, work, work to stay afloat.  So sometimes it is a choice and sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes we are the busy ones and sometimes we are the ones making others busy.
Well, God has something to say about being on either end.  Stop. Stop being busy. Stop pushing yourself beyond your limits we hear in Exodus, and stop pushing other people beyond theirs, as the prophet Isaiah warns. God has given us the spiritual equivalent of a Labor day holiday but thanks be to God it doesn’t come around once a year; it comes around every seven days.  Every seventh day, God tells us, we can stop being busy, stop working, stop making other people work on our behalf to serve our own self-interest and just rest.  Rest in the Spirit of God.  Rest in the creation of God.  Rest in the love and presence of God, because our worth in God’s sight is not dependent on how busy we are.
We’re going to practice this together today.  We’re going to practice Sabbath where I’m not busy making noise up here.  You’re not busy listening and processing.  Maybe Jody is the only one busy playing to accompany us, but maybe even a couple of times she can drop out and just rest, too.  But let’s practice Sabbath together now, not being busy, but just letting the words of our prayers and God’s promises wash over us in prayerful song.

Horse photo credit: Thowra_uk via photopin cc
Rest Area photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik via photopin cc