Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"A Clove of Truth: Stinging Yet Clarifying"

I love to use my blog to do good and help others. So here I offer my official plug about a new online publication a friend of mine is launching on January 1: The Garlic Press (http://garlicpressnews.com).

Yes, that's right. Similar in vein to The Onion, The Garlic Press (http://garlicpressnews.com) will offer entertainment, food for thought...and perhaps a nugget of truth here or there (or so I've been told). After January 1, we will be able to savor the wit and wonder of The Garlic Press every month.

I urge you all to flood the website on New Year's Day, after suitably recovering from the previous night's festivities, of course. My friend the mad creator of this publication will not disappoint, of that I am sure. 

Even better, unlike after consuming real garlic, I ask you to open your mouth and share the wealth. Let people know about this great new thing!


The Garlic Press, http://garlicpressnews.com, January 1, 2009. 

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hair as Identity

My blogger friend PeaceBang recently posted a link to a post at another blog on her own Beauty Tips for Ministers. The posting, from the blog Search the Sea, deals with the writer not knowing who she is, and therefore what clothes to wear, as she grieves.

One commenter noted a link to self-identity and hair, that "the less sure I am of 'me' the less content I am with any hairstyle."

PB also recently posted about the politics of hair in the black church, inspired by a comment by my friend Kym (whose hair, by the way, I've long admired).

Like it or not, hair says something about identity. It can say, "I'm a radical, non-conformist half-hippie chick" or "I religiously follow what Us magazines says all the celebrities are doing with their hair." It can give off a vibrant or dowdy vibe. It can say something about your cultural background--short hair on women is unheard of in some cultures.

So what does my hair say about me? The comment on Search the Sea struck a chord. I've been thinking about my hairstyle a lot lately. This is partly because it's in that in-between growing out stage and has lots of short layers that don't always do what they should. The other morning I when I got out of bed and looked in the mirror, I thought I'd morphed into a member of an 80s hair band. Seriously.

I've thought about cutting it--I actually really liked the short, flippy style I rocked after donating my hair in 2007. It was fun and very easy to care for.

I'm kind of a ponytail type though. I love the way it swings when I go running, and how it pulls my thick hair off my neck in the summer.

Really, though, like the commenter, I think the real issue is about identity, not hair.

What does wearing my hair long say about who I am? It could say I'm young, sexy, have time to commit to styling (even if I don't actually style that much), traditional or free-spirited (depending on how I wear it), stuck in the past, girl next door, not ready to grow up, conformist.

Wearing my hair short could mean I think adult women should have short(er) hair, I'm mature, free-spirited or traditional (same as above), making a statement, short on time, independent.

If I'd had shorter hair when I guest preached, would I have garnered more instant respect? Once they knew me, did it matter?

This summer I had some thick side-swept bangs cut. I grew up with bangs, and couldn't wait to get rid of them as a teenager. Then, around age 21, I tried again...and earned the nickname Winnie Cooper. I'd sworn them off, but decided to give it one more shot. I love them, except for the fact that I can't afford to get them trimmed professionally and so attempt myself. I'm not really sure I'm doing a very good job.

So what do those say about me? Maybe I'm artsy, traditional, young, trend-follower?

I know my hairstyle now doesn't fit me. The problem is, I think I need to be more sure about who "me" really is before I know why--or what style will work.

India.Arie sings "I Am Not My Hair"...but don't you think hair is part of personal identity?

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Widow's Mite...modernized

I don't know if she's a widow, and unlike the story from the Bible, I know her name. It's Therese Currier. Really, I have no idea if she's even old enough to marry. But I think she's pretty special.

Our local paper runs a "Santa Fund" each year in partnership with the Salvation Army and the Nashua Pastoral Care Center to provide Christmas gifts to families in need. Each day, the paper includes a short profile on someone who's being helped by the Santa Fund, as well as a listing of the most recent contributions. I generally scan the lists, looking for interesting dedications--"In memory of my sweet Willoughby, the best dog ever"--or particularly noteworthy sums. There are lots of contributions of $20, $25, $50, a few $100+. The contributions over $1000 are generally from groups or companies. A local copy company recently donated $30,000, for which I'm sure everyone at the Fund is grateful.

Today, though, what caught my eye, was Therese's contribution: $3. Three. Dollars. Now, there are many who may scoff at the amount, wondering what toy or article of clothing can be bought with a measely $3? Well, in my experience, they'd be right--you can't buy much with $3.

But that's not the point. I look at all the other contributions, and I'm grateful for them, and glad people have been generous. Then I wonder how much it meant to them, and how much this $3 meant to Therese. I think of everyone I hear saying they can't afford to give as much--or at all--this year. For many that is certainly true. But again, here's Therese. No, perhaps she couldn't afford to give $20, $25, $100. Maybe she couldn't even afford to give $5. But she gave $3, possibly her only money leftover after paying bills and buying food--or maybe she even gave it knowing it'd be $3 she really couldn't afford. We can imagine it's her mite, all she had.

Alone, that $3 doesn't do much for all the families in need this Christmas. But in the city of Nashua, NH, where the paper is based, there are (as of the 2000 Census) 86,605. 68,507 are 15 or older. Imagine if they each gave $3: that would add up to $205,521. Let's even say only half of those people contributed $3. We'd still have $102,760.50 to help get kids things they need, and some things they just want, for Christmas. And that's just one small city!

So I offer that perhaps when we see an article in the paper, or receive a request for donation to a worthy cause, that before we quickly reply, "Oh, I wish I could, but..." we consider Therese Currier and her $3. We don't have to give big (although hey, if you've got some money hanging around, go ahead and be generous). Jesus--and Therese--remind us that is the act of giving that matters. And like so much else, small actions made by many people can create a big effect.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Where is God?

What follows is the transcript of the sermon I preached yesterday at the Community Church of Francestown, NH. The texts were Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; and Mark 13:24-37.

Happy New Year!

That’s right, today marks the first day of Advent, which begins a new year in the Christian calendar. We’ve come through the long weeks of “ordinary time” since the last big festival, Pentecost, back in May, and now we’ve arrived in Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas.

Usually, these are the weeks when we go through the story of the birth of Jesus: the annunciation to Mary by the angel that she was carrying a child, the meeting between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, the call by the governor for a census to be taken, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, where they found no room at the inn and the Christ child was born and placed in a manger. Then the angels announce the birth to the shepherds, and the star shines showing the magi where the child lay so they could offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In our worship services, we sing traditional songs: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” “We Three Kings.” Advent is a time of joy and happiness and the expectation of the birth of a baby.

But the birth narratives we know are found in Matthew and Luke (neither of which, by the way, has the same version). And a new church year, for those of us who follow the lectionary, means a new cycle of texts. This year, with the very creative name of Year B, we begin with Mark, and he skips the story of Jesus’ birth altogether. He begins his book with the baptism, so the Advent texts from his Gospel focus on the other part Advent, the one we often forget amid the drive—in the church and secular worlds—towards Christmas.

Our word Advent derives from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming.” Generally, we apply that to anticipation of the coming of the Christ child, but Advent is also a time to anticipate Christ’s coming again, what Mark calls “the return of the Son of Man.”

I’ll let you in on a little preaching secret—this does not make for an easy sermon, nor does this cycle of texts tend to make congregations all that happy during Advent. I’m guessing many of you here had the same reaction when Susan read the texts this morning as I did when I first looked at them.

I was excited to prepare the service for today. Hey, it’s the first Sunday in Advent! Piece of cake! Some happy “here starts the journey to Bethlehem” stuff, some familiar Christmas carols, a reminder to focus on the spiritual, not the material this season, etc. etc. And then I read the texts.

First the Gospel. Hm, sun and moon darkening, stars falling from the sky, heaven and earth passing away. Ok…not so Christmassy.
Well, surely Isaiah will be fine. We read Isaiah a lot during Advent: there’s all the stuff about a branch growing from the stump of Jesse, preparing the way in the wilderness, about the names that the Messiah shall be called. Nope. It’s all about God hiding from us. Greeeaaat.

Psalm 80? A lamentation, again, asking where God is. The passage from Corinthians? More about waiting for Christ’s return.

So my first reaction was disappointment, annoyance, confusion. This is not what I expect from Advent texts. Perhaps you experienced something similar.

But while our texts this morning are not your typical preparing-for-Christmas texts, they are suitable for Advent, and I think they can speak to us of our relationship with God just as well as the story of God in the form of a little child.

Who hasn’t, at one time or another, or even many times, wondered where the heck God is? Who hasn’t begged, “please God, come fix this!” Who hasn’t asked in prayer, “God, why aren’t you making your presence known?” Who hasn’t questioned if God even cares about us in the middle a crisis?

Personally, there are times I ask exactly the same questions Isaiah was asking. We read in the Bible of the Red Sea parting to allow the people of Israel to escape, of God’s appearance to Hagar as she fought death in the wilderness, of all the miracles Jesus performed. Isaiah pleads,

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.”

Isaiah’s saying, “Come on God. You used to do all these big things for our ancestors. Maybe people wouldn’t be sinning so much if you were doing that kind of thing now. Big gestures, that’s what we need! Mountains trembling!”

There are many times when I want a big gesture, an obvious miracle, a big flashing neon sign of God’s presence and action in the world.

Tomorrow, December 1, is World AIDS Day. 2008 marks the 20th anniversary of the recognition of the day to bring awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Now, here I’m going to admit my youth: I grew up knowing about AIDS. I have few memories before the time when AIDS was known and named. I don’t believe I ever thought it’d be the epidemic it has grown to now, however. In developing areas of the world, AIDS is destroying whole countries of people. Millions of children are being left orphaned by AIDS, and often are fighting and dying of the disease themselves. Even here in the United States, one of the most educated and wealthy countries in the world, the Center for Disease Control estimates that in 2006, there were 56,300 people newly infected with HIV. That adds to more than one million estimated people already infected as of 2003, of whom about 25% --one quarter—were unaware of their infection.

Panels are still being added to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, now over 1.2 million square feet in size. If you were to spend one minute looking at each panel of the quilt, it would take you over 33 days to see the whole thing.

Where is God?

During this past week, we watched as a tragedy unfolded in Mumbai, India. Multiple attacks were carried out, including one at a Jewish center which killed a rabbi and his wife and left their two year old son orphaned. As of the most recent count, almost 200 people have died, and more than 300 are injured.

Where is God?

Over the last few years we’ve seen people and places devastated by natural disasters: fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, a tsunami.

Where is God?

In the ongoing worldwide financial catastrophe, we’ve watched as our friends, neighbors, and family members have lost jobs, as people struggle to find work, to make ends meet, to simply put food on the table.

Where is God?


Isaiah reminds us, as he reminds God, “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Kate Huey, in her reflection on these texts writes, “No matter how bad things are, we are reminded that we belong to God, that all the earth belongs to God, and we believe that God breaks into this reality regularly.”

Isaiah was looking for grand gestures. We often hope for the same. Sometimes we get it: the end of apartheid might be one example, or the peace accord in Northern Ireland.

But more often than not, the Divine breaks into the earthly realm with far more subtlety.
This is Advent, remember? A time to remember God’s manner of incarnation. The people at the time of Jesus’ birth were expecting something big from the coming Messiah.

Instead God broke into the world through a young poor unknown woman named Mary, who gave birth to a boy-child not in the comfort of a palace as people expected, but in a stable or a cave. Simple. Humble. Unassuming.

Remember when Jesus gives his first teaching? “Who is this?” the crowds say. “Isn’t that just Joseph’s son?” Not the Messiah they were looking for, it was supposed to be someone important, not the neighborhood kid.

In the reading from Mark’s Gospel today, Jesus reminds us to keep alert, pay attention.

Perhaps this Advent there will be no Miracle on 34th Street (or Wall Street, for that matter). No angels appearing to shepherds on a starry hillside or to depressed men like George Bailey. No mountains trembling.

But, as Talitha Arnold writes, “God answered the demand, ‘Let your face shine that we might be saved,’ though not as anyone expected. Not in a return to the glory days of the past, but in the light of the Child born in Bethlehem, the light the darkness has never overcome.”

I believe that so too God will answer our demands of action, our pleas for presence, but it may not be in the way we want or expect. We may have to wait longer than we’d hoped. And in order to recognize it, especially in the chaos of the Christmas season, we’ll need to be aware, keep alert, pay attention.

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