Gospel of Mark, Lent, Love

YOU ARE SERIOUSLY MISTAKEN (Mark 12:18-37)

A colleague I admire offers her friends a space to express themselves unreservedly each week, hosting CAPS LOCK THURSDAY on her Facebook timeline. It may be only Tuesday of Holy Week in today’s reading, but it’s definitely CAPS LOCK material. We start with the Sadducees posing a word problem for Jesus about how many brothers a woman needs to marry in order to get into heaven – well, no, whose wife she will be in the general resurrection? It’s a trick question, because they don’t believe in a resurrection anyway.

Jesus said to them, “Isn’t this the reason you are wrong, because you don’t know either the scriptures or God’s power? When people rise from the dead, they won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like God’s angels. As for the resurrection from the dead, haven’t you read in the scroll from Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God said to Moses, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. You are seriously mistaken.” (Mark 12:24-27, CEB)

YOU ARE SERIOUSLY MISTAKEN.

I’ve been thinking a lot today about people who also describe themselves as Christian yet do not think about important aspects of Christian theology as I do. I’m not speaking here of practice, liturgical and otherwise. I helped create an ecumenical organization that stands on what feels true to me: all our ways of worship are good and pleasing to God, and we can understand things differently and still hold to some basics about Jesus that bind us together.

But today I have had to consider whether there is any part of the Christian theology and homeschooling curriculum that formed the Austin bomber to which I can bind myself. I’ve struggled with the way churches with an evangelical or fundamentalist bent form disciples, particularly when they define themselves by excluding and condemning people I feel pretty sure Jesus would embrace.

Jesus offered that embrace to the sick, the weary, the broken, and the outcasts. I’ve heard people minimize his openness by noting how often he said, “Go, and sin no more,” but I want to note that when he did throw down, it was most often with people of privilege, specifically men carrying religious authority. On CAPS LOCK Tuesday, Jesus deconstructs all kinds of mistaken thinking and sends the religious leaders back to the book. Don’t you know the stories? Have you not read and studied?

YOU ARE SERIOUSLY MISTAKEN!

Sometimes I wish we could have a day like that again, a day when Christ himself comes with his angels and tells the people who are in power how off-base they are. It may be that I would turn out to be wrong, that Jesus would send me back to study harder and think more deeply and reach a better understanding. But the very next thing that happens inclines me to think that even if I am missing some of the particulars, I have a firm foundation. A legal expert comes and questions him. What is the greatest commandment? I love that Mark puts the answer in Jesus’ mouth (in other gospels, Jesus asks the question): You must love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

This is the foundation of my gospel understanding. If I’m seriously mistaken, at least I’m going to err on the side of love.

When I am seriously mistaken, Lord, forgive me. Let me start again to love you with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. Amen. 


I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent and using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I also sometimes refer to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible.

You can find the full schedule here, including links to earlier posts.

Christmas, Love, Marriage, Orientation

The Gift of the Magi

If you know the story of Della and Jim, you will remember this scene.

Jim stepped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of a quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, not disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stare at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on her face. (O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi – Read the whole story here.)

Sadly, out of print.
Sadly, out of print.

A family friend, a young man who worked for my father, gave me this copy of the story as a Christmas present in 1972. I was 11, and the story made a deep impression about what it meant to love and what it meant to give. Ever since then, I’ve been a good giver, and I’ve watched and waited for others to give to me the same way. I’m not saying I always get it right, but I’ve honed my intentions and tried to pass them on to my children. I’ve watched them take pleasure in finding just the right thing for each other and for me. They would have to tell you when I’ve gotten it right and wrong, but let me tell you of their successes:

This year, Mr. Dimples approached Santa with a list in his pocket, to be sure he didn’t forget anything. kzj asked about the age when the emphasis turns away from receiving and toward giving. I reassured her that at his age, LP demanded a new American Girl doll and, even though she got Nellie as a companion for Samantha, reacted in fury when Snowman got a TV. (A TV which everyone a little older knew was less expensive than the doll, and which did me the favor of getting video games out of the living room.) It takes time and maturity; for each of them came some moment, not immediately identifiable, when giving became the better part.

How do you teach that, she wondered?

I told her what I told them about my philosophy of receiving gifts. I never look at a gift and wish it had been something else. I am the least likely person to exchange something. It’s not the material item that matters; it’s the feeling behind the gift. It matters to me that the other person cared enough to want to do something for me.

I guess I’m saying it’s the thought that counts. (And I freely confess there was one year recently I managed to make that the worst pressure of all. I am a reformed sinner.)

stockings
Our stockings

This is the first Christmas kzj and I will be together on the day. We have exchanged our greetings by phone in the wee hours of Christmas Day after finishing our work and worship for the night. We have celebrated 2nd Christmas on the 27th or 28th after long travel days and a second Christmas vigil. So rightly, this is a very happy and exciting Christmas for us! We will worship together, with our children, and we will wake up on Christmas morning and Mr. Dimples will be the Stocking Czar, and we will take our time opening and admiring all the gifts, large and small, currently secreted away in places I will, of course, not mention in this public forum.

The other night, while I wrapped gifts for the Beantown side of the family, I glanced up to see kzj holding her iPad with a look on her face not unlike Jim’s. An email informed her that an order would not be coming due to “System Cancellation.”

Erik Blegvad, illustrator
Erik Blegvad, illustrator

Jim rallied to embrace Della, to assure her that there could be nothing “in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that make me like my girl any less.” Her hair for his watch-chain, his watch for her hair combs, they gave away the treasures of their house in an act O. Henry described as “the wisest.”

It may be that tears were shed at our house about the present that will not come, but not by me. For you see, I’ve never had a surer proof of care than the look on her sweet face.

It’s the gift I’ve wanted all along.

Grace, Love, Ministry, Orientation, Preaching, The Minister's Wife

The phone call from Nairobi

Plants vs. Zombies, in case you thought I made it up.
Plants vs. Zombies, in case you thought I made it up.

We woke up in the dark on Sunday morning, because young children and old lady cats don’t abide by “fall back.” I wanted to assure the preacher next to me of more sleep, so I leapt out of bed to intervene at 5:15 a.m. with the yowling cat and the fully-dressed third grader also in full voice, singing. When the iPod Touch of the latter could not be surfaced, I retreated to the pitch black bedroom to get my phone, offering him a session of Plants vs. Zombies (Now! on your stepmother’s iPhone! How awesome is she?!?!!).

When I picked it up I saw two missed calls, which arrived somewhere between bedtime and 5:15 a.m. This is worrisome, naturally, so I put my glasses on and looked at the number more closely. It had too many digits, far too many. I handed the phone off to keep the peace, but promised myself to go back later and Google the number. Turns out it belongs to a “Christian pastor in Nairobi” who leaves comments on the blogs of Christian pastors in other places, encouraging them to call. I’m pretty sure he’s as reliable as a Nigerian prince with a legacy that needs getting out of the country, but I did follow a link or two to see who else he might be approaching.

The trail led to the blog of a retired Southern Baptist pastor, Joe McKeever, with whom I disagree on many points, although I admit he sounds moderate compared to some until you get to the more high-pitched social issues. In the post where our mutual friend from Nairobi left a comment, Joe made a reference to pastor’s wives, and since that is one of my callings now, I took an interest, and I searched his blog for more.

Joe is in his 70s. He entered ministry in a time when his wife did not work outside the home, the era of “two for the price of one.” He is transparent about his own failings as a young pastor when it came to putting the family first and has really nice things to say about his wife and the way she has been a partner in ministry. No jokes here — from him or from me. Although we are theologically different, I liked a lot of what he had to say, despite his old-fashioned ways of saying it. For instance, in reference to the church he attends now, he writes of the pastors’s wife, “what Terri does for her pastor/husband is what every pastor’s wife should do for her man.” Ack. Hairball. Cue Tammy Wynette. Close tab.

And yet…

I seldom vacuum, but I am often found wearing pearls.
I seldom vacuum, but I am often found wearing pearls.

After church on Sunday, knowing kathrynzj was tired and still getting over a cold, I watched for a break in her conversations during the reception for Consecration Sunday. I made sure she got a drink, and then another, and something to eat, too. When I took her cup away to refill, she told the guys she was talking to how good it was to have a wife.

“(S)he who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from The Lord.” (Proverbs 18:22)

No, she didn’t quote Proverbs, even sideways. I’m doing that. I admit it sounds a little Ward and June Cleaver, and I know I am in the role of June on Sunday mornings. It’s okay. I like it. Keep reading.

Because the truth is, we are both pastor’s wives. Our ministries shape differently, but we are both pastors and proclaimers of the Good News. And we both have a wife.

So hold on. I’m going to open up a post he wrote and tell you how it works for me. Here are Joe McKeever’s five points about the pastor’s wife in his post “What my pastor’s wife does for him better than anyone else.”

1. The pastor’s wife is solidly Christian herself.

Our idea of fun.
Our idea of fun.

McKeever is pretty patriarchal in his interpretation of how the will of God needs to be filtered down through the husband, but I want to say how right he is about the importance of two strong faith lives when there are ministers in the family. One of the gifts of this marriage is our mutual interest in reading the Bible, studying texts for the purpose of teaching and/or preaching them, and generally trying to stretch our understanding of God’s work in the world and the place we have in it. I’ve pushed on some of kzj’s ideas, and she has influenced me so heavily that I used the word sovereign twice in my last sermon (and meant it in a good way). But neither one of us is dependent on the other for *having* a faith life. These pastors’ wives are solidly Christian themselves.

2. The pastor’s wife has her own ministry in the church.

Now, I know you’re reacting the way I did. Doesn’t he know that pastor’s spouses have other work to do, careers outside the church?

Somewhat hilariously, however, because it’s very 1950s, I am teaching a women’s Bible Study on the Narrative Lectionary at kzj’s church. Is there anything more “pastor’s wife” than a weekday morning women’s group? I am Mrs. Pastor.

But guess what? She has a ministry in my “congregation,” too, writing for the Narrative Lectionary feature at RevGalBlogPals. We are doing things that grow out of our gifts and interests and supporting each other’s ministries while pursuing our own. McKeever writes, “God has given her a ministry.” God certainly has.

I think this one's sweet.
I think this one’s sweet.

3. One of the best things a pastor’s wife does is sit down front and support the preacher by her presence, her prayers, and her full participation.

Some of the sweetest Sundays of my life have been the handful when kzj sat in the pews, right up front, smiling while I preached. We made a point of scheduling her vacation Sundays this summer to coincide with preaching days for me, and it was a genuine loss when a situation at her church prevented that from happening on Labor Day weekend.

The best of those days ever, at a time when we were just starting to parse where our relationship might be going, came when I preached in the morning, and she preached at my Installation that afternoon. This guy is right. It’s super-special to have a loving partner beaming that love at you when you preach. I think he probably means it in a way that has to do not only with the personal support but also with the public perception, but if you really love someone, and you really love God, seeing that person proclaim God’s grace and mercy, hearing her exhort the faithful, is a gloriously joyful thing.

McKeever concludes, “God uses her support to bless her man.” I know God uses our mutual support to bless these women, even when we don’t get to hear the sermon in person. There is no opinion short of God’s that matters to me more than hers. I sit in the pew and hear her preach (sometimes twice!) a sermon I’ve already heard the night before, and it is fresh and exciting the third time around. I know everyone can see it on my face. (I do try *not* to say the words with her when I’ve gotten to know them well enough.)

4. The pastor’s wife protects his personal time.

Omigosh, this matters. We work with each other on this.

I have a call to a ministry that is 24/7 on the Internets (and at this point, still unpaid), and she reminds me it’s okay to answer that email on Tuesday instead of Monday.

I remind her that she hasn’t had a day off since…*

About Time - yes, I get it.
About Time – yes, I get it.

She nudges me about whether I’ve spent time writing, which I think of as my other ministry, and listens to me talk about how to juggle writing and RevGals. We both turn the focus to the assorted children when they need us, whether that’s reading with Mr. Dimples or Skyping with LP or #2 Son. (And if the very grown-up #1 Son ever needs us for anything, you know, we’re open.)

We both love what we do. That’s a good thing, and a hard thing, because we want to finish one more thing, respond to one more person, check on one more detail. How can we work smarter, not harder? We don’t do this perfectly, but we have each other to keep mutually honest about it.

And here’s a public pledge: we *are* going to the movies this Friday night, just the two of us.

5. The pastor’s wife prays for him better than anyone.

McKeever’s point is that no one can pray for you better than someone who really knows you, recognizing the nuances of self-doubt, the ups and downs of the preaching life, the buttons other people push or the triggers put in place by life’s past injuries. He assumes a full adulthood spent together, all the churches, the time in seminary. We don’t have that, but we do have years of friendship that created a deep bond before anything else. McKeever calls the pastor’s wife “a God-called encourager of her man.”

That resonates with me, minus the man. I feel like a God-called encourager of my pastor-wife and her ministry. I feel I have the same in her.

In case you're worried, we do get out sometimes.  Penn State game, 11/2/13
In case you’re worried, we do get out sometimes.
Penn State game, 11/2/13

I started off writing this thinking it would be a possibly ironic report on my role as June Cleaver if she were married to a pastor, but in truth, the phone call from Nairobi pointed up how valuable it is to have a partner whose faith is strong, who supports one’s ministry by having her own, who shows up and lets people see the love, who understands the big moments and the small disappointments, who calls you to account on the way time is spent and who holds you in prayer. These gifts go beyond gender and orientation. And I’m not just giving them. I’m receiving them, too.

******

I fear this would scandalize Joe McKeever, who thinks the church needs to be firm on homosexuality, so I’m not going to link to him, but I’ve used his name because I give him credit for his apt conclusions. If he should find his way here, I hope he’ll see that gay people can be faithful servants of Jesus Christ, too.

*Since Monday, actually, so this week is going well.

Love, Poetry

the heart is a muscle

the heart is a muscle
in a spasm of hope
it leaps

the heart is a muscle
at the touch of a hand
it murmurs

the heart is a muscle
in the midst of love
it pounds

the heart is a muscle
it strains
it tears
(will it recover?)

needs heat–
not ice–
for therapy

the heart is a muscle
(it throbs and it aches)
a wound inflames it

but a muscle can heal
with time
and rest

my heart is a muscle
it finds its rest
in you

— May 7, 2012

Anxiety, Lent, Love

It started in a parking lot

It started in a parking lot, behind a local tapas place where they serve a fantastic Sunday brunch. LP and I hadn’t been there for a while, and we wanted to share it with the visiting kathrynzj.

I don’t like that parking lot at the best of times, and the combination of snow and two sets of lines painted on and fading off the pavement meant cars had arranged themselves in peculiar fashion. I drive a station wagon, and in a tight parking lot, it feels huge.

I felt anxious.

It’s a familiar feeling. There have been times in my life when anxiety accompanied me everywhere, but that hasn’t been true for a long time, and it takes me by surprise when it appears now, an old frenemy.

I’ve driven that car through tighter squeezes in Boston, taking my son to college, but in the parking lot, I had that strange feeling in my chest, the one that keeps you from breathing right, and I began to do what I do when I’m anxious: I explained, rapidly. Explaining, rapidly, gets me more wound up. It’s possible I verge on hyper-ventilating.

I managed to park the car.

Disaster averted, right?

Wrong. In the tapas place, we were diverted to the bar to wait for a table, and we sent LP to sit on a bench and save us seats while we got drinks. I glanced over and saw three women move her over so far that they might as well have pushed her off the bench completely.

Really, this ought not have been a crisis. But I’m began to think, and possibly say, “everything is ruined and no one will have a good time” because —

wait for it —

I chose the wrong restaurant.

Yes, I began to feel I had broken brunch, simply by choosing the wrong place to go.

God bless kathrynzj, who made conversation with other people at the bar and got us seats there together, and shortly thereafter we got a table and everything was beautiful.

Well, when I started breathing normally again.

Then I was able to say to myself, “I remember the time I came here with someone we won’t name who made fun of the menu, and I remember times when I chose the place and other people didn’t like it, and I remember…” well, other things, verses written to the same tune.

And brunch? Was not broken at all.

And neither was I.

Grace, Love, Poetry

Get it right

A kitchen cleaned just so,
All doors closed quietly,
No sign of having thoughts at all,
She would love me if I got it right.

(Get it right. Get it right.)

He would love me if I got it right,
Made dinner to his special tastes,
Never asked where he’d been,
No inconvenient feelings shared.

(Get it right. Get it right.)

My visits timed to suit,
And sermons not too long,
Using perfect words for God,
They would love me if I got it right.

Get it right.

Get.it.right.

It beats in my head,
Pressures my heart,
A rhythm of sharp blows
They all get right.

And I could go on, always
Getting it wrong
(there was no chance
Of getting it right).

Get it right. Get it right.

Worn down, I wonder,
If I know God loves them,
Broken as they are, why
Do I have to get things right?

Am I the only one outside
The bounds of grace,
Unforgivably worse
Than everyone else?

That can’t be right.
What if it’s not word choice,
Or dinner’s presentation,
Or the way I close the door?

(Get it right. Get it right.)

What if love gets it right?
Love God, love each other,
love yourself—
that last’s the hardest.

Maybe it was never me.
Maybe the fault lies
In their measuring,
In hearts’ limitations.

(Get it right, honey.)

You show me how, hand
Protective on my back,
Every gesture speaking love.
You get it right so easily.

I’ll get it wrong sometimes.
But I want to try, to open
My heart to hopeful trust,
To love again and get it right.

~Martha Spong, October 8, 2011

Loss, Love, Personal History

Words and pictures

It’s my day off, and it’s raining, and perhaps appropriately I’m watching that very rainy Jane Austen novel adapted for the screen and directed by Ang Lee, “Sense and Sensibility.” Poor Marianne Dashwood is always taking walks, and claiming it won’t rain, and getting practically drowned not only by precipitation but her own emotions. The movie is gorgeous to look at, and full of actors I adore, but honestly, the script? Is more like what a modern reader thinks when reading the book than like Jane Austen’s words, and that is more disappointing on this perhaps 15th viewing. Oh, Alan Rickman is rich-sounding as butter tastes, but some of the lines he has to speak are painfully ridiculous. (Maybe not, “Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad.” That one’s okay. But lots of the others.) Oddly, the less important characters seem to be speaking Austen’s words more often than the major characters. And yes, I know Emma Thompson wrote the script. I love her. But, oh dear. It’s such a responsibility to take those special words and those beloved characters and put them on film. I’m aware of this because I sort of do the same thing every week when I write a sermon, when I try to take the flat words on the page and make them three-dimensional, to make the stories feel right now instead of long, long ago.

And it puts me in mind of other conversations, more personal ones, where the surroundings were right but the words felt unbelievable, out of place and time. Final words were spoken, dramatically, full of horrible and intimate detail, on the edge of the woods where the now-departed dog loved to chase the squirrels, beside the car we took on trips or to the grocery store. Shouldn’t such scenes play out on a more dramatic landscape? Aren’t dog parks and station wagons too ordinary?

Emma Thompson, in a commentary on the film, says they had to create a falling-in-love plot for Elinor and Edward Ferrars, because the book was “arcane and prolix.” (Don’t bother to look them up; she means obscure and tedious.) In fact, there are only half-a-dozen or so lines of dialogue in the whole movie that came from the book, because, she says, Austen wasn’t writing good dialogue until later in her writing career.

Well.

No wonder regular people have trouble saying things well to each other, especially in moments of great emotion. No wonder we have trouble getting the words and the pictures to match.

But sometimes, sometimes, just at the right moment, you are saying the thing you really mean, in just the right words, and there are fireworks in the distance, or the waves are breaking, and the air smells like ocean, and the scene and the time and the feelings match, just so.