Thursday, October 16, 2008

faith, change and grief

Over the past 20 years of my life, I have changed very little. If you had shown people a photograph of me at 37 when I was 17, most people would have shown little surprise. Nice, clean cut husband, cute kids, in church every Sunday. This was all expected. Even my journey to this point on paper would have raised few eyebrows. A Christian college education, 2.5 years as a missionary, a virgin on my wedding day, stay-at-home mom for my kids when they were infants and toddlers. This was the script and these were the expectations. And I have chosen gladly to do these things and am so thankful for the life I've had.

On the other hand...

Over the past 20 years of my life, I have changed A LOT. If you had told someone that I would be a Presbyterian and even more shocking, almost a Presbyterian minister, it would have been unthinkable for me at 17. I couldn't have even told you what being Presbyterian meant. I guess I could have changed more... I could have started using drugs and abusing alcohol and spending my nights with lots of different people. Yes, that would have been a big change. But for me the changes were in my approach to life, to theology, to the Bible and to Jesus. Somewhere in the last 20 years, I slowly crept over many of the lines that had been drawn for me between conservative and liberal, evangelical and mainline. The funny thing is it happened so slowly. It was always a case of me EMBRACING God, life, theology, the Bible and Jesus even more deeply, not less.

And so it surprises me sometimes that I have lost friendships because of these changes. It surprises me that others aren't supporting me without reserve. It surprises me when people don't see the continuum of love for God and desire to bless the world that has run through the last 20 years and brought me to this point. But the reality is many don't. Though I know how much I've changed and I'm well aware of how that might be threatening to those that have not made the same changes, it is still a surprise.

Some days, I take it all lightly. "I understand," I say. "I know how it must seem to them."

Other days, I am shocked, saddened and spend days, weeks, months, years grieving the lost closeness, the relationships that have been and are so important to me.

And on other days, I am hurt by the way others' beliefs exclude me. It hurts that to some, I would no longer be even a follower of Christ.

Part of me wants to stop being surprised. It would hurt a lot less. But the surprise reminds me again and again that inasmuch as I've "left" anything, it has only been a journey closer to home and closer to God. It reminds me of how deeply I still love and cherish the people, places and circumstances of my life even if I can never go back. And I hope I am learning to be thankful for all that has been and carry it with me into what will be.

And the people who love me still ask me,
"When are you coming back to town?"
And I answer, quite frankly,
"When they stop building roads
and there ain't no more highways to be found...
and all God needs is gravity to hold me down."
Alison Krauss, "Gravity"

Monday, August 25, 2008

true self, false self

In the world of spiritual formation, there is a lot of talk about true self/false self. The false self is what we put up to be accepted and valued by others. It can develop in a lot of ways. Richard Rohr says most people spend the first 35 years of their lives building up the false self and then at that point, there is some sort of a crisis that forces them to either live in defense of their false self or (preferably) to begin a journey in which they leave the false self and become their true self. Our true selves are who we are made to be, not who we become by virtue of our self-protective defenses.

This is an interesting question when it comes to the differences between men and women. When many men hear this, they think about the big ego they have put up to protect themselves and the hard wall of impenetrability. But women are usually different. My good friend Gwen has written an entire dissertation on this (someday it will be a book!) but I wanted to write about my confrontation with my true self recently which hopefully illuminates a female perspective on this issue.

When I was in high school, I spent hours up at my friend Russ and Yvonne's house. It is a tiny house nestled by beautiful hills that slope up to Mt Diablo and it is where Russ grew up. I would sit with them for hours with their kids running all around us and talk theology (though I wouldn't have called it that then). We all shared a deep love for Jesus and a deep suspicion of the church and this angst gave rise to lots of good discussion.

Well, I moved to Europe, got married and had babies and we have hardly seen each other in the past few years and I haven't been up to their house in maybe 10 years. On Wednesday I had an appointment at my new church in Clayton and so Yvonne and I got together afterwards. I went out to their house and we had another of our good chats. Russ came home about half way through and after sitting down, he got right to the point of my big shift since I've seen him... being a pastor.

I know Russ well enough to know that he and I probably have some differing views on the Bible and probably on the ordination of women so I was a little defensive. And here comes the false self... I was all apologetic, saying what a surprise it was to me of all people who had never sought this position which is true in one sense. But Russ, ever the truth-teller, looked at me and said, "Jenny, you've always pushed the envelope. I'm not surprised at all. A lot of people feel like they have to become a "nice" Christian when they follow Jesus but I think you just keep becoming more and more of who you truly are."

It's been almost a week now and his comment keep coming back to me. It is both encouraging and condemning. It is encouraging because he is right and despite what others may assume of me, I have always been an edge-dweller when it comes to theology and practice... willing to explore the boundaries, finding Jesus ever present there and not afraid of falling off some proverbial cliff into heretical thought.

But it is also condemning because I do hide behind this "I'm just an ex-fundamentalist who somehow fell into this pastoring/theology gig and I don't know how in the world it ever happened to me" false self. That has been formed in response to the expectations of women in many of the institutions I have been. It has allowed me to remain in neutral silence when I probably should speak. It has protected me from risking hurt in institutions that still struggle with patriarchy. And what is more... I have believed this to be my true self.

I think this is true of many women, particularly in churches. We are taught that we should be demure and quiet and we build up a false self around that expectation. Many of us have been denied a voice or not shown what it's like for a woman to express her true self. I don't mean that we are then loud and abrasive but sometimes it may seem that way as we begin to find our way back.

So, this is part of my hope for this next year of internship and as I emerge from 9 years of kids at home... to risk my true self and to trust God to be present there. For SHE-who-is certainly is NOT in the false self that denies who I am and hides behind the assumed expectations of others.

"I believe that we have no real access to who we really are except in God. Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are, and less than we are... All other systems exclude, expel, punish and protect to find identity for their members in ideological perfection or some kind of "purity." Richard Rohr Everything Belongs

Sunday, August 3, 2008

the gift and curse of prophetic preaching

I told Chris this morning that I wish I could make people feel a little better. You know, tell them to go out and get a massage or have a nice dinner out. But that is not what preaching is about and if you are preaching Scripture, it's probably going to make people a little uncomfortable.

As an individual, this is not my normal pattern. I like to please, say the right thing, soothe hurts, comfort and listen. But as a preacher, I can't do this. I can't get away from the radical calls of Scripture to give all we have and live in self-giving love.

So this morning's text was the feeding of the 5000. I love this story. Once again, the congregation at Ygnacio Valley was very generous and encouraging. It is amazing the life that these smaller, grayer congregations hold. Here's the text for any that are interested...

““You give them something to eat.” Of all the words of Jesus that we have memorized in Sunday School and posted on the walls of our churches, this usually doesn’t make it. We prefer other words like, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” or “Cast all your cares upon God.” This is not a sentence we want to dwell on.

However, it turns out to be the focal point of this important story. This story is in all four gospels and in Matthew and Mark, there are two feedings mentioned. One of the feedings takes place in Galilee, presumably with a Jewish crowd. The other feeding is in Gentile territory, in Tyre and Sidon. And though we rarely see it these days, the early church’s image of the Lord’s Table often included bread, wine and fish, making a direct reference to this story. The feast for a multitude where everyone was fed and welcomed was central to the early church’s self-understanding.

Walk through the story with me.

This passage opens up in a place of deep grief. John the Baptist has been murdered by Herod. Herod got caught in a display of his power and was dared to kill John. He went through with it to protect his own reputation.

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. (v.13) Jesus withdraws after hearing the news of John the Baptist. We can imagine what he is feeling. He is grieving for his friend, partner in ministry and the Bible says, his cousin. Perhaps, he is withdrawing out of fear and anxiety, seeing what happens to John who has shared his message that threatens empire. Jesus may be looking ahead at what waits for him. He takes all of these feelings and looks to be alone in a deserted place.

But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. (v.13-14) This must have been the last thing he wanted. You don’t go to a deserted place to be followed by a crowd. You go to be alone, to heal, to rest, to listen. But his compassion – his feeling with them – led him to spend the day healing rather than in solitude.

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves. Jesus said to them, “They need not go away… You give them something to eat.” (v. 15-16) Let’s stay here a minute. The disciples don’t know what’s ahead. They are tired. They are probably grieving and afraid as well. They want to rest and they know Jesus needs to rest. Isn’t it the kindest thing to do to send everyone away. Additionally, some commentators remind us that there were rules for who a Jew eats with and how they eat. How could they manage to stay kosher while feeding such a crowd?

“You give them something to eat”

Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. “Oh, they’re hungry? Well, let me just make some dinner appear and abra-cadabra, here it is!” Or, he had just cured the sick, it seems an easy task to fill the crowds’ stomachs!

The disciples would have liked a miracle right away, “Okay, instead of sending them away, you’ll take care of it Jesus? Great… we’re still off the hook.”

But no, “You give them something to eat”

See them turning their heads, looking behind them – there are probably 10,000 people out there! You want US to give them something to eat? We don’t have any food, we can’t guarantee that the meal will follow all the proper dietary laws. We have nothing.


Well okay… five loaves and two fish and we were kind of hoping the 13 of us would eat that for dinner.

“Bring them here to me.”

The disciples reluctantly pulled out what they had, their own dinner, and handed it to Jesus. Who blessed it… and somehow there was enough for everyone. “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” (v.19-20)

We see how this feast became the foundation of the early church in Acts 2:44-47:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

The early church lived in radical hospitality and generosity. They refused to make someone else’s hunger the other’s problem or even just God’s problem. No, it’s our problem. It’s my problem. It’s your problem. “You give them something to eat.”

In the contemporary church, we face the same temptation as the disciples. Some of want to make the needs of others’ God’s problem. We think God should be the one to swoop in and save in a miraculous act. Until then, there’s nothing we can do. Some of us think it’s up to others. It’s a “God helps those who help themselves” kind of attitude. Some of us are afraid that eating with someone outside of our group is going to make us a little dirty. We are more concerned with keeping ourselves clean than with feeding the hungry.

But none of these are an option in this text. Jesus looks directly at us and says, “You give them something to eat.”

This generosity and commitment to a feast for all is the heart of our faith. We see it throughout Scripture as God asks those who think they have nothing to give what they have. Moses in front of the burning bush didn’t want to go back to Egypt and make the Israelites’ oppression his problem. Gideon didn’t think he had the courage to lead God’s people in battle. David was the youngest and smallest son. He wasn’t supposed to be king. Zaccheus had been a tax collector, cheating others out of their money. Paul was persecuting the church. But God said to each of them, “You give them something to eat.” Bring what you have to me and I will bless it. It is enough.

Like Jesus and his disciples, we are often tired, hungry, sad and afraid. We are nervous about what norms we might break if we live generously. It is in those places that Jesus asks us to give what we have even when it feels like nothing. This is very gritty but it is the consistent call of Scripture and the witness of holy women and men throughout history bear witness to the power of this generosity.

“You give them something to eat.”

Victor Frankl who survived a concentration camp writes a very poignant story that sweeps away all our reservations:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number… but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of his freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’ own way. (Linn, Sleeping with Bread, 44).

“You give them something to eat.”

Jesus knew his disciples did have something. They did have the power to choose to give the little they ad. I believe that when the church begins to live like this, when we take what we have and give it to Jesus, God does bless. The world’s literal hunger for food and its spiritual hunger for meaning and for love begin to be filled. We begin to see the ancient prophet Isaiah’s words come to pass.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
(Isaiah 58:6-9)

Imagine how the disciples felt when they saw what they had given – what they said was “nothing” – was multiplied and fed a crowd. Just like Isaiah said, when we give, we find healing and blessing, not to the exclusion of others but along with them.s

You may think you have nothing. Scrounge around in your pockets and through your purse and bring what you find to Jesus and watch him bless it as you start handing it out.

“You give them something to eat.”

Monday, July 28, 2008

the first time in a long time

I preached yesterday morning at a small church about 5 minutes from my house, Ygnacio Valley Presbyterian Church. There were 40 people max there. Sweet older congregation and so encouraging!

It was the first time in 5 years that I had preached which definitely gave me cause for reflection. Five years ago Emme was a baby and I was at the front end of an emotional and spiritual transition that took so much grief, change, leaving and pain. Here I am... 70 units of graduate theological studies, a Presbyterian for goodness sake (hardly knew what one was 5 years ago!) and so close to getting my Masters of Divinity, I can almost reach out and touch the diploma.

The past 5 years have been dark, secret, hidden. For someone who has so many gifts in public ministry and leadership, it has been extremely difficult and full of questions like "am I fooling myself?" "who will ever trust me?" "am i just in this for my own ego?" God's work, as always, has not been blockbuster big but small and quiet reassurances just when I had almost lost all faith.

Preaching yesterday was both familiar and new. Yes, I've done it before but not when I was able to read the text in Greek! And thankfully... yes, truly thankful for this... I felt much less vested in my own advancement and performance. More excited to just be a part of this congregation, worshipping with them and encouraging them to live more fully in the kingdom of God.

So the sermon wasn't brilliant but it was a start. I especially loved finding the kingdom/political/national images in the OT that correlated with the parables in Matthew. Several people have asked about it, so here is my outline I preached from... thanks for reading... I just wish I could attach Audra reading the Scripture to it. She did such a great job at that!

Sermon - July 27, 2008, Mt. 13:31-33, 44-52

What is the kingdom of God or heaven like?

Believe it or not, this question was posed to Barack Obama in this week’s issue of Newsweek. He was asked what he thinks is the kingdom of God? His answer…

Why of all questions was this asked of Obama? Why not his view on who Jesus is? Or what he thinks about the “end times” ideas? Why the kingdom of God?

The editors of Newsweek understand that the kingdom of God is not just confined to religion. It is a political idea.

The idea of kingdom is dangerous because it usually means there is one agenda… the advantage of the king or the king’s interests. Kingdom usually means conquering all that is not in the kingdom and co-opting it for one’s own interests.

Understanding more about the book of Matthew highlights this potentially political message of Jesus

Most scholars assume that Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience in the period of time after the Temple had fallen. Since the temple has fallen, Judaism has lost its primary reference point and there were many voices vying to define what Judaism should be. Matthew is one of those voices. He is writing from a small minority population within Judaism making his case for Jesus and Jesus’ understanding of Judaism.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to find some echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures here and to assume that Matthew’s intended audience would recognize the allusions. And Jesus gives us a clue that we should expect that at the end of this section… “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (v.52)

Let’s start with the OLD.
The images Jesus uses here echo images in Hebrew Scriptures. They represent home, promise, longing and judgment.
- Ezekiel and the tree – Ez. 17
- Sarah making bread from 3 measures of flour – Genesis 18
- Jeremiah and the field – Jer 32

But the application here is not to a kingdom on earth, not the hope of the physical kingdom of Israel… it is the kingdom of HEAVEN.

Matthew is the only one that uses this phrase… “the kingdom of heaven” instead of kingdom of God.

At first glance, this phrase can make the kingdom seem farther off, something to hope for in the far-off future reign of God.
But these parables are anything but other-worldly. Let’s start to look at them.


What is the kingdom of heaven like?

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

There are volumes to say about each of these but there are also some commonalities.

First, all of these things are found in places that you usually don’t find kingdom.
And they are found people that usually have nothing to do with kingdoms… a farmer, a housewife, a field laborer, a merchant

This is an affront to our assumed idea of kingdom and Jesus seems to be purposely drawing this contrast. The kingdom of heaven is not found in palaces and on battlefields. It is found in the common places doing common tasks, in the smallest of things.

FAITH – you have to know something to see the potential in these small places – that the mustard seed will grow and provide shade for the birds, that the leaven will help the bread to raise and be edible for your family/friends, that the treasure is worth more than the price of the field, that the pearl is worth all you have.

None of the results of these actions were their own. The farmer cannot MAKE the mustard seed grow, nor can the woman make the bread rise… faith in the process

What is our faith in? Sometimes I think that it is hard to see beyond our small worlds… what gives us any basis of faith?

It is the vision of God in Jesus come to earth, opening his arms and declaring that God loves the world and deeply desires to be reconciled. This is the ultimate basis of our faith… a God who LOVES and is constantly seeking reconciliation. When we see this, we begin to recognize the mustard seeds and pearls among us… the small out of the way that we are asked to invest.

Richard Rohr – “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is fear.”

Second, even though each of these things is found, there is something to be DONE.
The mustard seed must be planted
The yeast must be mixed.
The treasure had to be hid so that the field could be bought at a lower price.
All other pearls must be sold to buy the one pearl of great value.

LOVE – action must be taken – this is our part. This is what makes the kingdom come alive. As Paul says… the greatest of these is love for without love.

Matthew says later it is the cup of cold water to a child, the visit to the prisoner…

Third, each of these parables contains an element of TIME. The kingdom doesn’t fully develop immediately
The mustard seed must grow
The bread must rise
The field had to be bought before the treasure could be claimed.
Likewise, the merchant had to sell everything first

HOPE –a vision of the kingdom of God… Israel called it shalom and we see it revealed in Jesus. As we will look at next week, part of this vision includes all being fed and cared for… Theologians talk about the “now and not yet-ness” of the kingdom. That it is both here and also ahead of us. That instead of moving from past to present to future, the future of God is actually pulling us forward.

Rom. 8:22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

In this waiting… it is messy and sometimes hard to see., v. 47-50 = the messiness of the kingdom

WHAT IS the kingdom of heaven?

Jesus teaches it is not attached to a political ideology or nation… but has political implications – it affects systems and the lives of others.

When we begin to act in the seeing of faith, the action of love and the expectant waiting of hope, the kingdom of God begins to grow in our lives individually and spills out… the birds find places to nest, bread is fed to the hungry and treasure is opened and shared.

The kingdom begins to grow in us and out from us when we follow in the way of Jesus– in proclaiming release to the captives, welcoming the outcast and comforting the widow.

The kingdom of heaven is found in the smallest of things, planted with courageous faith in acts of love, living in hopeful expectation that the kingdom will grow and all will live fully reconciled to each other, to creation and to God.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

what (i think) they want to hear vs. who i am

Last night my oldest daughter made several revealing statements about me.

She is at that age where she gets that it's fun to know someone's likes and dislikes and to be "in the know" on certain juicy details. And, as her mom, she knows a lot of mine.

But I don't like everyone knowing that I am really excited about the likely possibility Barack Obama will be president. Where I come from, that just about amounts to heresy. I have "switched sides" on so many things that I know what will/could be said about me if my true preferences were known to certain people.

Add to that... in my growing up, sameness and solidarity were virtues. I hardly even met a democrat until I was in college. And it is only the last few years that I have regularly known women that are in roles in the church that were forbidden by the theology of my youth. Having the same beliefs were good... it meant Dobson did his job and you had been turned into the right kind of person.

But is that what I want to teach my daughter?? Do I want to teach her that the things you believe in and that make you unique should be hidden when you're not in like company?

I believe there's such a thing as discretion... keeping your mouth shut when it's not worth a battle. But hiding and shame are different and I err way too far over on that side of things for fear that I'll be rejected and not liked and no longer listened to.

I have come a long way on this. At some point, my calling to ministry forced me to "come out" as a woman called to ordained ministry and, on the other side, with my friends who are not religious, as a person who strongly believes and pursues a Christian faith journey. My choices reveal me, certainly.

But last night, I watched myself quieting my daughter with eyes of shame for the things she revealed about me that I didn't want anyone to know. Some of it was appropriate, but mostly, I was teaching her shame.

For her sake and for mine, I will continue to grow into living confidently, boldly, courageously... trusting in the grace of God for all of us and remembering it's not about being perfect or being liked but being fully human.

"The glory of God is man (and woman) fully alive" -Irenaeus

Friday, July 11, 2008

Shalom and inclusive language

This morning Audra discovered the Hebrew word for peace/well-being/wholeness/fullness of life which is Shalom. She kept talking about it and goofing around and then asked her sister, "Emme, do you have shalom?"

Emme screwed her face up and said, "no"

And then I jokingly asked her, "do you feel peaceful?" (she nodded)

"do you feel whole?" (nodded again)

"are you at peace with your fellow man?"

She stopped and looked at me and said, "I don't think I have peace with my fellow MAN"

Ah yes... peace must extend beyond MEN if it is to be truly shalom.

Thanks for the reminder Emme. Our speech comes so quickly and easily sometimes. We have to make the effort to trip over our words in order to say what we truly want to say. And when it comes to God, we must especially trip over our words to remember there is a mystery and incomprehensible reality that will not be contained in our quick speech and gendered pronouns.