Living conversion


Conversion: Turned around and upside down, it was once a house of worship, now a $$$ restaurant

I’m often amused at the way Facebook seems to create a different version of reality for each one of us, depending who our FB friends are. My virtual world appears to be populated largely by people who take photographs of flowers and care passionately (one way or the other) about the binding force of the italic print in the Book of Common Prayer.

In these last days, more than usual, it’s been all about where faith takes us, how it informs our actions and our whole lives – Kim Davis, 9/11, Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert – and I’ve been pondering these questions while working out the final details of a Sunday celebration where several members of our community will publicly affirm and embrace faith as they are baptized, confirmed, or received into the church.

Each one of these persons has taken a different path to this day, but they are all excited. The ceremony is a divide, a marker between before and after, a day they will look back on to remind themselves who they are.

Who they are, and who they are becoming.

My FB friends are deeply moved by the witness of Biden and Colbert, the men they became through faith, out of tragedy. My friends don’t even have to speak their condemnation of the misuse of faith in the destruction of 9/11. And then there’s Kim Davis. Some people lift her up as a hero while others condemn her as a hypocrite, but I see a troubled person who found consolation in faith, and empowerment to do amazing things. You only have to see a minute or two of the post-prison release press conference to see the neediness there. What wonders might the love of God have worked with the guidance of different mentors.

And that’s my point, the awesome responsibility of those of us who mentor. I’m not just talking about religious professionals, those of us who who lead people in the words of the prayerbook and make sure we conform to the rubrics. I’m talking about all of us who have known the love of God in community and try each day to live that out.

Who knows what amazing things these newly committed members of our community of faith will find themselves capable of. God give us wisdom and courage – and love – to show them the way.

Thanks be to God for the season of tomatoes


Spent my drive to church this morning dictating sermon thoughts to Siri via Apple Watch and observing that the tomatoes are finally in and little driveway produce stands have gone up all over the place. For someone like me, who doesn’t grow tomatoes, this is a true blessing. God’s abundance breaking forth miraculously. You pull into the drive, put your money in the honor box, and take your tomatoes. Take them home and enjoy them. Nothing else like it in the world, certainly not in the grocery store. I understand why Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” but “I am the tomato of life” would have worked for me.

I am the bread of life

So, fellow preachers …

I’d like to raise a question about this week’s Gospel, and to introduce it I’m going to put myself out there seeming once again to come down on all sides of an issue.

At Good Shepherd, we don’t make an open table invitation at communion. I think it devalues what we offer to suggest that its meaning is so thin, everyone present ought to just come up and get some. To be fair, I have heard some thoughtfully worded CWOB announcements, but I think others do seem to strike that note.

I have been greatly influenced in how I approach this by the reaction of my dear Quaker husband, who has attended various churches with me over the years, and says he generally experiences open table invitations as unwelcoming because they don’t respect where he’s coming from. Largely out of respect for what he understands it to mean to us, he does not want communion—although he is pleased if he’s invited to come up for a blessing.

So our bulletin includes a notice inherited from my predecessor and tweaked by me, which states the general expectation—and includes an invitation to receive a blessing—but also is vague enough, I think, for anyone who really felt they had to have the bread not to feel they couldn’t.

Theologically, I do note that Jesus spent much time in the company of sinners and tax collectors, but I mostly don’t think that’s the same as bringing them bread and wine from that table.

Except …

This week we begin the first of five weeks reading from John, which of course has no Last Supper scene. Jesus takes five loaves and two fish and feeds five thousand people who have followed him into the wilderness because they have watched him healing the sick and casting out demons and they are so hungry for what he has to offer.

He takes the loaves, gives thanks (that word εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō)) sure looks familiar), and distributes them to the crowd. The leftovers fill 12 baskets—making the point that there’s more than enough to go around.

This is as close as we come to the institution of the Eucharist in John, right? And the next day, he tells the people who seek him out to question him, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

So—at last the question!—what exactly are we to make of this?

Moving on, letting go

420 Hunt LaneMy family moved into this house in 1961. I was 10 years old, and I had already lived in four other places, but if you ask me where I grew up, I will tell you about this house. We owned it for 54 years, but as of about 10 am on Friday, it will belong to another family. This fills me with a sadness that hurts like no other grief I have ever experienced.

To a large extent, of course, this is about mourning my parents.  Dad died in 2009, Mom last November. Letting go of the house lends a kind of closure to their lives. The space they occupied sits empty; now they are really gone. Now we ourselves are the only containers for whatever it is that is left of them. The house represented their life together: the things they loved, their aspirations, their joys, and most of all, the family they made. It was the physical embodiment of our life together, our existence over time as something more than a collection of individuals who happened to share a name. It was a place where you could return to touch your past in a way that was different and deeper than simply remembering it.

Final photo of the four

Final photo of the four

One day in April, the four of us gathered one last time in that place for the sad business of making claim on some of its contents, and the silly business of having a last picture taken, lined up in a row in front of the fireplace where we were always posed.

Dad and his camera

Dad on his 50th wedding anniversary, setting up a picture

My father took hundreds if not thousands of pictures of us before age and illness caught up with him and he finally put his camera down. So many of those photos were staged in the same few places: In front of the front door (dressed up for Easter). In front of the fireplace (any other occasion, especially at night). At the dining room table, posed blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, or holding up a birthday gift.

I’ve had time over these last months to think about how much that house has contributed to my own sense of who I am, which begins with growing up in a particular place, in a particular family. The house held that reality, absorbed it in some way and maintained it, even as time passed and people grew and changed. It became a receptacle for memories forged in childhood, then reinforced, processed, and reprocessed over time. Memories, and layers of memories, with the house at the center.

The stockings were hung

One of the last big Christmas celebrations: It had to be done in a certain way, including having a Christmas stocking for every member of the family

Over the years we celebrated holidays in our own peculiar, particular way. The rubrics were written in italics on our souls, and my parents made sure we followed them.

The tiny room where four kids and two parents gathered to watch sitcoms like My Three Sons and movies like The Wizard of Oz together (how did we all manage to fit, anyway?) was also where I would sit with my infant son and talk with my father on later visits, in the early morning when we were the only ones up. The couch where my mother sat up waiting for us to come home from dates, always imagining that the worst had happened if we were just a little late, was also the place where I talked with her late into the night on later visits home.

I am more aware than ever now how much the house that sheltered us as children has kept us connected as adults, and sometimes I do worry that we will drift apart now, without that place to anchor us. At least we still have the pictures.

I turn my thoughts now to the next family that will live there. May it mean as much to you as it did to us. You don’t know it now, and maybe you never will, but we’re a tough act to follow. Blessings as you begin.

Of flowers and footballs


I took the discretionary fund checkbook around to the local Walmart (yes, Walmart; don’t give me grief) to stock up on some $50 gift cards, which I will give to people who come to the church looking for a little help. They can use them to buy groceries, or medicine, or whatever it is they happen to need.

The woman who was helping me asked what kind I wanted. At first I didn’t understand, so she said, “You know, what’s it for? A birthday, or an anniversary? What’s the occasion?” She wanted to make sure she gave me cards with an appropriate design.

No occasion, I told her, I just give them to people who show up at church needing some help. Plain would be fine.

She went away and came back to show me what she’d picked out. Several with flowers, one with a baseball design, one decorated with footballs. She thought the women would like the flowers best, while the guys would prefer the sports.

I didn’t think much about it at the time. It didn’t seem necessary, and I quickly dismissed the gender assumption.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve felt touched by this small effort to humanize the real people who will receive these cards. Sometimes my own heart is not so generous. I will be thinking of her – and remembering flowers, baseballs, and footballs – the next someone comes asking for help.

It's all about the dash


We couldn’t figure out the motto on the T-shirts the wait staff wore, so we asked.
— What does that mean, It’s all about the dash?
—You know how they write your birth date, and a dash, and then your death date?
—Well, it’s all about the dash.
(at Caffe Galleria, Lambertville)

Three thumbs down for "God's Not Dead"

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the movie God’s Not Dead since I saw it two weeks ago.

I’ve been trying to articulate even just for myself why I disliked it so much – I mean beyond the fact that the central premise is completely and totally unbelievable. No professor could get away with that kind of behavior, or that kind of teaching, in any respectable college or university, including secular institutions. I don’t accept the way his academic colleagues all react to people of faith, either.

Believe me. I worked in higher education, in a prestigious secular institution, before leaving for seminary, so I’ve been there recently. “Believability” is a basic requirement for good fiction, even when it’s explicitly intended to convince you of something.

So hear me again: That.would.never.happen.

Even beyond that central failing, though, I found the movie incredibly disappointing and off-putting. Here are a few thoughts about why:

1. All of the non-Christians are terrible, terrible people. They’re mean and selfish to the core. Is your world like that? Mine isn’t. I do know good and kind and compassionate people who don’t believe in God, or don’t believe in my God.

Don’t think this means my faith doesn’t matter to me. It certainly does. It is precisely because I try to take to heart the commandment to love that I think it’s vitally important to see people as they really are, not condemn them through two-dimensional thinking that says believers=good, nonbelievers=evil.

I simply don’t want to be such a narrow-minded, mean-spirited person and call that being Christian.

2. In the end, Professor Radisson comes to faith because he’s been hit by a car, he’s dying, and he appears to be somewhat afraid. Well, maybe sometimes that’s how it happens, but that’s certainly not the way I’d want it to happen.

Ideally, a person would come to faith because they came to see, perhaps even through my example or the love of my faith community, that Christianity offers a truly life-giving message, that faith in God answers the deepest yearning of the human heart, that our God doesn’t kill sick mothers.

3. And, by the way, how come not one of those good Christians tries to speak words of love to the deep, deep pain Professor Rarisson still carries because of that death? There’s a huge space there to talk about what faith might have to offer to someone who’s suffered such a terrible loss.

4. All the Christians are being persecuted in some way by every non-believer they meet. Is your world like that? Truly? Mine sure isn’t. Just for example: When friends whose beliefs are different, or who have no explicit belief in God, learned that I was going to seminary and then later when I was ordained, they offered loving support. Sent cards and gifts and congratulations. To a person. Without exception.

Why? Because they respect and love me, want me to have the opportunity to passionately live out the beliefs I hold most deeply, and because they are glad to live in a culture where I have the freedom to be the me I really am, just as much as they do.

5. The attempt at proving the existence of God was a little contrived, I thought, and there were a couple of claims I would disagree with, but it wasn’t so terrible.

My basic problem there is that I don’t think it’s possible to prove by intellectual argument that God exists. I think faith is an encounter, a relationship, not a system of thought. Faith is alive. It’s something you come to by opening your heart to the possibility – opening your heart to God’s grace, I might say – and embracing it. That’s not to say you can’t learn about it, but ultimately, faith is an experience, not a proof.

6. Ok, here’s the final very, very untrue thing in the movie, and to give credit where due, this is something I read somewhere else on the web. In the classroom, all of the students with computing devices are using them to take notes. No one is doing email, booking a flight home for fall break, looking on the registrar’s site for a section of the course they can transfer into and get out of Radisson’s class, messaging friends outside of the classroom, or checking Twitter or Facebook.

Hear what I’m saying: That.would.never.happen.

On preaching

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about preaching as a Spirit-led moment of encounter with those I preach to – in fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether those are even the right words to use. Do I preach to them, or is this something we do together. And if we do it together, why should I be the one who does all the talking – or at least all the talking out loud?

These days I very rarely preach from a text or any notes at all. But I want to emphasize that this doesn’t mean I just get up on Sundays and start talking at random. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into getting ready to preach without notes, maybe even more than it would take me to look at this as just a writing job and then preach from my written text.

I try to take Mondays off, in the sense that I don’t do much work for the parish, but I nearly always begin this day of relative leisure by reading the lections for the coming Sunday, and at least a few commentaries. I’ll continue this reading through the week, letting these ingredients marinate together, especially as I walk and drive and in other apparently unbusy moments.

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A reflection on Monday morning, my sabbath:

This is what I do: I take bread and give it to people. Our hands touch. I move from one to the next, making a long running seam that stitches individuals together into something more. Over and over again, literally and metaphorically, I give bread, and I connect. This is what matters.

I hasten to add that nothing tells me this vocation is mine alone. Isn’t it on all of us to bake, break, give thanks, and share? (With apologies to Dom Gregory Dix.)