Call, If I Were Preaching

Like Mrs. K

(A not-sermon for Epiphany 5C)

This morning I got to read the scriptures, which I don’t usually do when my colleague is preaching. He felt like changing things up, and I was happy to do it. I love to read the Psalms, and the gospel lesson about Jesus and Peter is a particular favorite of mine. We weren’t reading Isaiah or the epistle, but bearing them all in mind, I stepped up to the pulpit (we have one center pulpit, no lectern) and read the passages. I hadn’t looked at them today–wasn’t expecting to read them–but I read them earlier in the week, so they had that feeling of being known, but not intimately, not recently anyway.

And it struck me, as I read them, that reading aloud from the Bible, making the stories and the songs come alive, is one of the things I do best. I find ways to make the old words new, by playing with them, or relating them to something else I read or saw or lived.

Some say I work at a disadvantage because my writing is based in that old book of violent stories, and it’s certainly true some parts of the Bible are than palatable to a 21st century sensibility. But I don’t think it’s true the stories are not relatable, if that’s a word. I find them intensely, overwhelmingly relatable, in two senses. I relate to them, and I love finding a way to relate them to others, to relate them to our lives now.

Legal Pad The texts for this Sunday all ask us to lean into the plans God has for us. Now, I’m a pretty post-theistic Christian, as I’ve mentioned before. I don’t imagine God the Father with a plan for me on his yellow legal pad sheets, spelled out with black marker.

My dad wrote on those legal pads, always. The markers that came home in his briefcase when I was a little girl were grey with a black top, and they made a satisfying squeak on the paper. When I visited his Senate office, I gasped with delight to see them all over the place, on everyone’s desks. It would be a relief to imagine God like him, making notes for my life in an intelligently illegible hand, with dashes setting off lists of what I might do, what I ought to do.

I would like that.

Some days.

But we don’t all get the specific instructions that came to Isaiah–and really, who would want his? We don’t all get knocked down on the road like Paul and sent off to the town to see a certain person.

Maybe most of us are more like Simon Peter. We go on our daily round, doing the work that life brings to us, until a day when something unexpected knocks us to our knees, even figuratively, and we are, at least for a moment, awed.

I love this encounter between Peter and Jesus. I love the way Peter begs off, and I love the way Jesus acknowledges this is a lot to handle.

“Do not be afraid!” Or “Fear not!” That’s what it says in the King James Version. I like poetry. I was an English major, I cannot help it.

My daughter is 14, and unlike her brothers, who had chosen a direction or perhaps I might better say been chosen by a passion at that age, she wonders what she will do with her life. At that age, I had no idea. I thought I would get married someday. I imagined myself with a large family, mostly because I had a lot of favorite family names I wanted to use. By 16 I thought I cared more about music than most other things, though I also considered being a writer, and I enjoyed acting. I didn’t know, really. She thinks of teaching English or music, of learning Japanese and finding a career that uses the language, of being a psychologist or a doctor. We’ve talked about all of those just in the past week.

Fear not! I didn’t know what a girl could do, or rather I didn’t know a girl could do what I am doing now. I don’t know if my Birthday Twin, DK will read this — we are recent Facebook friends — but as a very little girl, even before the markers and the legal pads, I wanted to be his mother when I grew up, to be Mrs. K. )And literally, too. I believed he would be a minister, like his dad, and I would be the minister’s wife, Mrs. K the Next Generation.)

Oh, she was lovely and smart and kind! I simply adored her. In a time when most of the mothers I knew, and absolutely most of the minister’s wives, made home and church their work, I knew very few who did anything else. Mrs. F was a painter; shocking! (She painted nudes.) Mrs. K started the school at our church; it began with preschool and kindergarten. This must have seemed acceptable. This bright young woman, and I realize now she must have been very, very young, found a way to balance family life and church and going on to get her own graduate degrees, to write books about parenting and to teach early childhood education at a university.

And I still want to be like her, even though I mean it differently. I love the way she attended to her personal life and expressed her good gifts fully with the intention of making the world a better place, by helping parents and teachers relate sensitively to children.

I have no doubt that the first step on that journey was an encounter with the holy.

District 2 001Now, just as I don’t hang onto the dream of a Big My Daddy writing out a plan for me on his heavenly yellow pad of paper, I don’t have a limited view of what it means for something to be holy. What moves you? What lights you up inside?

Yesterday, LP sang in the District Chorus Festival. It was her first time doing that kind of thing, coming together with an unfamiliar conductor and singers to make music for two days and then perform it. Because there are so many more girls than boys, they have a Treble Choir of 9th and 11th grade girls and a Mixed Chorus of 10th and 12th grade girls who sing with all the boys. That Treble Choir, wow! The conductor got sounds from them that made me gasp, that made me feel hot inside, that made the top of my head tingle! That was holy, holy, holy. In the place where ineffable graces meet human gifts expressed with pure intention, there is holiness.

I’ve been blessed to have so many of those moments with my three children, to see them act and dance and hear them sing and play music, to see them shine with a holiness that is also wholeness.

Your holiness may vary.

That’s okay. God used Isaiah’s gifts of speech and Paul’s gifts of zeal and Peter’s gifts for drawing in a catch, and our gifts will be used, too. We just have to get up off our knees and go, go out or deeper or back to school or onto the next thing. We have the gifts we need. Holy, holy, holy, God of love and majesty, All that is Good, draws us onward.

I’m hoping that when I someday look back over the long arc of my life, when I make my own list in some digital format made to look like my dad’s legal pads, I’ll be able to say I did grow up to be like Mrs. K, and like Peter and Paul and Isaiah and all the people who have been brave enough to follow,to use their best gifts in the full knowledge of their greatest weaknesses. I hope I’ll be able to say I followed.

A-Croc-Alypse Now, Call, Chez Songbird, If I Were Preaching, Interim Ministry, Ministry of the Meantime, Preaching

Saturday Night Thoughts

  • Communion WafersIt's hard to know what to do on Saturdays when I'm not preaching.
  • I wonder where I will end up next?
  • When I hear young people singing beautifully, as I did at LP's District Honors Chorus Festival today, I feel hopeful for the world.
  • When I come home and read news about the Tea Party Convention, I don't.
  • Really, it's hard to figure out how to structure my week when I'm not preaching.
  • I fear I sound whiny, which is not nice to some of my pastor friends who are between engagements, so to speak.
  • Leaving is an inevitable part of life, but in Interim Ministry, it comes with alarming regularity. 
  • Maybe I ought to be less mopey and watch TV with LP instead.
  • We have that "What Not to Wear" with the Episcopal priest on our DVR.
  • Next week I'll try to find a writing rhythm, but at the moment it feels pretty pointless because…
  • it's not for preaching or the associated preparation.
  • And maybe I need a writing project.
  • But I don't know what that would be.
  • Except I did suggest to Pure Luck that maybe someone might be interested in the story of a pastor married to an atheist, and he said sure, and I said we could write it together, and he suggested I could interview him, which is to say, do the work myself.
  • Lastly, in response to the ways we have tried to accommodate various worries about Communion (germs, gluten, etc.), LP suggests it's getting to the point we will be handing people a plastic wafer to hold, contemplate, and then return to us.

Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Faith, Grace, If I Were Preaching, Midway, Psalms

Oh, crap!

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."

The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126, NRSV)

One of the things that gives me hope is quite simply the flip side of the thing that makes me frustrated about my own life and the lives of those around me: we tend to repeat ourselves. Sometimes I wonder if I am caught in a feedback loop, and I really worry when it sounds like I am my mother or my father having a conversation with me when I so strive to be a more awake and enlightened parent than they ever were, in my opinion. Although looking back I guess they didn't do such a bad job, really–after all, my brother and I are both productive members of society, raising kids who are thriving in one way or another, smart kids with interests and talents, and even one adult among them now, gone out into the world with his own harvests to anticipate.

But I don't love it when I hear frustration creep into my voice, when my old wounds and rejections become part of my parent-child relationships.

In fact, I hate that crap.

I'm pretty familiar with crap this morning. Sam strained or sprained something the other day and has been on a regimen of Tramadol and rest since Thursday afternoon, and this has thrown off his schedule of "bidness," and this morning I came downstairs to find a big pile of…that stuff. It cleaned up easily enough, but it served as a reminder of the way we all have habits to which we return unconsciously, primal tendencies that assert themselves in moments of stress, or exhaustion. 

They're not all as charming as the way I slip back into my Southern accent at the end of a long day or when speaking to an unknown group of people.

Communities have habits, too, patterns of relationship to which they revert when things aren't going well, or even when they are going *too* well. Even churches do this. If things aren't going well, God must not care about us, we think. Or if things are going extremely well, we may neglect the life of the spirit in favor of the more visible successes of life.

This psalm provides a vehicle for getting back on track. It's a song that says, oh, yes! We have become disconnected at times, and we thought God might be neglecting us or punishing us, and we plodded along watering our work with our tears–but we came back from the field with shouts of joy!!!

It sounds simplistic. God took stuff away, then for some reason God gave it back. I sometimes think we don't give those ancient writers of hymns and psalms full credit for the ritual nature of their compositions. Come back to God, they are saying, knowing full well that even a faithful person may have a bad crop or a dry season. Come back to God, because why ever you do it, it's a good thing. Come back to God, because believing you can handle it all yourself will surely lead to saying, "Oh, crap! Why did I think that?"

Come back to God, and be renewed by the natural mystery of cycles and seasons. Come back to God and give thanks that going away was always part of the human condition. Come back to God and give thanks that it is never too late to rejoice. Come back to God and give thanks that it is never too late to return.

If I Were Preaching, Special Days

The Voice of my Beloved

My husband and I come from very different backgrounds where faith is concerned, so when we watch or listen to a church service, as we did Senator Kennedy's funeral mass today, we hear things differently. I hear the similarities to my own traditions and note that which is more, well, Catholic. I listen to the scriptures and remember when they have meant something particular to me. I attend to the sermon and feel happy that it is preached by a parish priest, not a University Chancellor or a Cardinal, and that it is well-spoken and meaningful. I connect with the Prayers of the People and repeat aloud, "Lord, hear our prayers."

Pure Luck hears something different in the gospel than I do. It is from Matthew 25, the story of separating the sheep from the goats, and I hear this:

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when
was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave
you something to drink?
38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell
you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of
my family, you did it to me.’

I hear one of the passages that most informs my faith. But Pure Luck hears this:

41Then he will say to those at his left hand,
‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared
for the devil and his angels;

What comes before, what comes after, all is lost in the idea that there is an eternal fire, that there is a sorting out in the story that ends in hellfire.

"Honey," I say to the man whose only church memories from childhood involve vain attempts to build structures with popsicle sticks, "that's not the important part. The important part is how the dividing line is drawn. The important part is that what matters ultimately is caring for those who need help the most."

Whether you're welcomed by God depends not on whether at your church you swing a censer over a casket or simply lay a hand upon it at the commendation. It does not depend on the language you use in worship or the wearing of vestments or the gender or orientation of the people who proclaim from the pulpit or serve the bread and cup or whether you use wafers or challah or wine or juice or whether you immerse or sprinkle. 

It does not depend — dare I say it? — on whether you do any of those things. You and I know, don't we, that plenty of people live within the forms laid down in various traditions without ever internalizing the underlying message of the sheep and the goats.

It depends on love.

I'm not preaching tomorrow, but if I were it would be hard to resist the passage from Song of Solomon in this week's lectionary. It was one of the readings when Pure Luck and I married almost seven years ago. My love, an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, indeed came "leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills." The voice of the beloved called me to something fuller and richer in my life, and I want to say the past seven years have been more loving because of him, not only in the sense that romance came into my life unexpectedly at age 39 and marriage even more unexpectedly at 41, but also because people who feel loved are better-equipped to share it with others.

That gift of love received expands when given away again, not just to the giver but to the whole world. It's not enough to focus on one's own relationship with a partner or with God, for that matter. Real love impels us to turn outward and love others, expansively, unconditionally, unendingly.

I find this kind of love in my life and in my Christian faith, but I would no more say that my way of finding it personally (with an opposite sex spouse and as the mother of biological children) is the only way than I would claim that my particular path of faith is the only way of getting there.

At my house a gravelly rumble answers a girlish call at the door. There are many mountains, many windows, many voices of love, many words for expressing it.  May we always hear the voice of Love.