Thursday, December 17, 2009

It Pays To Be Nice

I know often it doesn't seem that way, but today being nice saved me.

I was driving from church to the grocery store, on my way to get the last of the food for our high school youth group Christmas party on Sunday as well as lunch (which I actually ended up forgetting, go figure). Not far into the short trip, I came to a four-way intersection and stopped for the red light. There was one car across from me, with her left turn-signal on.

I felt myself easing off the brake a little, ready to go before she could turn once the light turned green. Then I noticed a few cars pulling up behind me, and decided that I'd let her go so she wouldn't have to wait for all of us to pass.

The light turned green, and I waved her on. I'm not sure if she saw the gesture, but perhaps my lack of movement forward gave her a clue that I might be letting her turn. She started to creep forward...and a car sped through the intersection from the cross street, against the red, just missing her front bumper.

No one honked as I flashed my lights to let her know I really was letting her turn in front of me. She threw me a wave, looking understandably startled. As I drove away, I realized that had I not stopped to let her turn, had I rushed to "beat" her as I'd originally been planning, I most likely would've been right in the middle of that intersection and been t-boned by the car running the red light. While he would've hit my passenger side, and so my injuries might not have been fatal, who knows whether he would've pushed my car into something else (like a tree or telephone pole or another car) that could've cause more damage to me. Either way, my (just purchased!) car would've been totaled and I probably would've ended up in the hospital at the very least.

But I managed to avoid all that, just by being nice.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

8th Graders, Retreat!

Tomorrow afternoon, I will be stuffing 13 eighth graders into a 15-passenger van, and along with two of their parents, driving down to Cape Cod for a Confirmation Retreat. This is a retreat done by our denominational conference, so will include other confirmation classes from our state (and required no planning from me other than how to get our kids there).

I'm starting to get excited for it. I'm expecting some definite community building, and hoping for at least a few "lightbulb moments" for the kids. We've had some good moments so far, but the bond isn't quite there yet, and without that, they can't start really discussing the tough, confusing, difficult stuff that makes up faith and is the whole point of confirmation class.

I know they have the questions. We did an activity at the end of our last class where I handed out index cards for them to write any questions about God, religion, death, etc on them. I got everything from "What is salvation?" to "Who is God?"

I can't give them the answers. These are the things we need to wrestle with, and that, by May, they need to at least start figuring out for themselves. It's not an easy task by any means, especially in a progressive tradition where we don't just hand out simple answers. I am perhaps even more aware of their task as I write my own statement of theology for ordination.

I can't wait to see what the retreat has in store for all of us.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

CROP walk

This coming Sunday, I (along with my confirmation students, some of my youth, and a few other church members) will be walking in the Greater Springfield Area CROP Walk. This is the oldest fundraising walk--the one that started them all! This will be the 31st annual for this city. CROP stands for Communities Responding to Overcome Poverty, and is a community-wide response of Church World Service.

I first did this walk when I was about 12, when it was 10 miles long! It's a lot shorter now, but just as important. One great thing about this walk is that a big chunk of the money raised stays in the community to addressing hunger and poverty issues locally, while still helping those worldwide, whose needs are usually even more dire.

Will you help me raise money for this great cause? I know money is tight, but every little bit helps! Please go here to make a secure online donation.

Thanks, and many blessings to you!

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

None Shall Pass...or something like it

Below is the sermon I preached Sunday on Mark 10:17-31. I had considered simply "performing" it, with no intro, feeling it would probably have more power that way, but in the end decided that speaking about my process and how the sermon came to me was good to share. The title of the sermon originally doesn't seem to quite fit anymore, but I haven't come up with a new one. This is a slam-poetry type piece (Google if you're unfamiliar with the style), although I didn't do it full-out because I wasn't sure how that would be received. In hindsight, I wonder if I should've just gone for it, if I am underestimating my congregation. Well, anyway, enough explaining--here it is!

Before I preach my actual sermon, let me give you a little intro. Perhaps some of you have realized by now that pastors cannot predict how the Spirit will move, and that however good our intentions or ideas or sermon titles, sometimes things don’t go exactly how we planned. A couple weeks ago Pastor Mike mentioned that he’d chosen his focus text because he didn’t understand it, and despite all his research, it hadn’t become much clearer by Saturday night.

A similar thing happened to me this week. I admit I chose the focus text partly because it avoided the whole wealth issue in passage. I figured I’d pushed enough with my words sermon, I might want to back off a little this month. I planned on addressing how hard it is for anyone to enter the kingdom of God, planned on talking about how the kingdom is here now and is yet to come. I thought my sermon title, “None Shall Pass!” taken from a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, was clever.

But the sermon wouldn’t come, and wouldn’t come, and wouldn’t come. Usually when I’m wrestling with writing, it’s because I know what I want to say, and just haven’t figured out quite how to say it. This week it seemed I wasn’t even sure what to say. So I finally did what I’d neglected to do from the start: I prayed. Yes, sometimes even we pastors get so focused on getting things done that we forget important things like involving God in what we preach.

I decided not to just pray for help to figure it out. I prayed that the Holy Spirit might move through me and inspire me and that I would write what God wanted me to preach. Well, a word to the wise: prayer is not a toy, should not be used lightly, and those who use it better be prepared for the answer.

I wish I could stand up here this morning and tell you he didn’t really mean it.

I wish I could explain to you this morning that it’s all just a big misunderstanding:

That the Greek word for camel is very similar to the word for rope—

so maybe it’s just been mis-translated.

That some people say there was a small gate in Jerusalem

called the eye of the needle

And camels had to be emptied of just enough baggage to get through.

I wish I could assure you this morning that he didn’t mean us,

That his message was for people who are really wealthy

like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and the Queen of England.

I wish I could tell you this morning that maybe possession is a metaphor,

a way of talking about anything we hold onto tighter than God,

anything in our lives that puts a barrier between us and the kingdom,

not actually all the stuff we own.

I wish I could talk history and economics this morning,

share that in Jesus’ time there was only a set amount of money

and selling everything to give the money to the poor really would help balance the system

but now it wouldn’t make much difference anyway.

I wish, this morning, that I could make this Word easier to hear,

remove the discomfort

soften the message

give you a simple sermon

that would explain it all away

or at least make it uncomplicated.

But I can’t do any of those things.

Looking at you, I love you, and so I say:

This is a Word to be wrestled with:

to be poked

and prodded

and pondered

and percolated


Because, see, this is Jesus, the Word of God

Who preaches the Gospel

the Good News

And Good does not mean nice

or gentle

or fun

or easy.

This story is hard to hear,

hard to preach,

hard to ignore.

We get that knot in our stomach

that furrow in our brow

that squirm in our seat

because we get it.

We get the shock and grief and the sadness the man felt.

We don’t want to give up our possessions either.

We get the questions the disciples asked.

We want to know who can be saved, too.

We get that maybe we can’t explain it away

that maybe we can’t bring our stuff into the kingdom of God,

that maybe we can’t get ahead in this life

without falling behind in the next.

We get that maybe God doesn’t like it

when some have too much

and some not enough.

We get that maybe we can’t avoid Jesus looking right at us,

and we wish Jesus didn’t demand so much.

We wish following the commandments—which are hard enough—

was enough.

We wish we could just live as we have been since our youth,

and not wonder if we’re missing something.

We wish following Jesus wasn’t so risky

so bold

so counter-cultural

and that it didn’t seem so impossible.

Impossible for us, yes

but not for God.

Now, I don’t know:

Maybe he didn’t really mean it.

Maybe it is just all a big misunderstanding

and we got the words wrong,

missed Jesus’ real point.

Maybe his message is really intended not for us

but for the really rich.

Maybe “selling possessions” really does just mean

clearing our lives to focus on God.

Maybe the change in time and economic systems

really does make the action irrelevant now.


But Jesus, looking at us, loves us,

welcomes us,

challenges us,

invites us.

But Jesus, looking at us, offers us love,


eternal life,


But Jesus, looking at us, hopes that we find the courage

to wrestle

to question

to follow.

Let us pray: Redeeming Christ, you ask so much of us, and yet we know that you give your love and grace freely and abundantly, that we never have to earn it with the things we do. Build us up with that love, that we might have the courage to risk following you into God’s realm. Amen.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Review of Find Your Strongest Life by Marcus Buckingham

Multiple studies show that though we have more opportunity, choices, influence and power than ever before, women are significantly less happy than they've ever been. Of course, there are women who are successful and happy--so what's their secret? Marcus Buckingham believes it's discovering and using their strengths, and he's developed a technique for each of us to do the same.

Buckingham has years of corporate experience and has written multiple books on leveraging strengths to get results. I haven’t read any of his previous books, but it took me a little while to get into this one. The beginning, simply put, is tedious. I felt like I was reading a book meant for teenagers. He repeats his ideas often, and provides a summary of the main points at the end of each chapter. This is certainly a book meant for the mass market.

That being said, things got more interesting in Part 2, and by the end I was glad I’d stuck with it. Buckingham has some great insight about the push for balance, the tendency to focus on and try to fix our weaknesses, and proposes some interesting techniques for investigating our “strong-moments”: moments when we feel our most alive, motivated, and fulfilled.

My advice is to not expect that this book is the magic potion that will change your whole life, but to read it with an open mind and take the time to try his exercises, as I think they are worthwhile and helpful for those wanting to leverage their strengths in any area their lives.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Words, Words, Words

I preached this sermon this morning. It was our "welcome back" Sunday--the start of the Sunday School year, and there was a picnic afterwards. The scripture texts are James 3:1-12 and Psalm 19. Comments, as always, are welcome and encouraged!

When I was in college, I took a course called “Language and Culture.” We explored language from an anthropological viewpoint, and looked at how language shapes society and vice versa. One term I particularly remember studying was “Ground Zero;” I took the class in the fall of 2001. We also studied a linguistic phenomenon that traces its roots back about half a century, but has really established itself in our lexicon and culture during the past 20 years or so: political correctness.

To be politically correct is to use the right words, ostensibly in an attempt not to offend anyone. I have often heard critics of political correctness say, “They’re just words. It doesn’t matter.”

I have heard the same argument used to try and discourage the use of inclusive language in church. “Well, when we say ‘He’ for God, we don’t really mean that God’s a man. It’s just a word.”

“They’re just words.” Are they? Are the words we choose to use really so insignificant? After all, “actions speak louder than words,” right? And “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Right?

What about what James is saying? James seems to think differently; he stresses how important words are. In his somewhat strange exposition on taming the tongue, he stresses that though a small part of our body, the tongue wields a mighty power. “The tongue is a small member; yet it boasts of great exploits.”

But how big? James writes that great forests are set ablaze by a small fire, and the tongue is a fire…but really, how big a fire can we start just by speaking? Well, I’d like to suggest that the words we use have tremendous power, and like James says, we need to choose whether we use our mouths for blessing or cursing.

The Psalm that Ken read a few minutes ago celebrates God’s creation, God speaking the world into being. This world is shaped by God’s words. We exist, as one writer puts it, “in God’s spoken world.”

Now, last week, when I did “The Box” with the children, Harmon put in a mirror, and I reminded everyone that we are all created in God’s image. During our prayer, I mentioned that as images of a creator God, we, too, are creators.

“Day to day pours forth speech,” the Psalmist writes, “and night to night declares knowledge.” God speaks, and the gloriousness of the world is created.

Like God, we create worlds with our words. We speak worlds into being. Author Dan Clendenin writes, “With our words we name the world and each other, and at least in some sense our naming creates a genuine reality. Once our speech and narratives take hold, they can have tremendous power and tenacity for good or evil. They can exclude or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down.”[i]

Words can hurt. I remember when I was a little girl, if my younger sister and I argued, I knew there was one word I could call her that would just devastate her, that would make me win the fight. I knew its power to hurt her, and I only used it when I felt I “had” to. To this day I regret it. I’m sure she remembers it just as well as I do. How many of you remember words you said, or were said to you from many years ago—for good or bad? Maybe one teacher called you an artist, and it was her voice you heard as you took the risks to create. Maybe one kid called you a loser, and you still struggle with feeling like an outcast.

Of course, there are those words that are so powerful in their hurt that I wouldn’t even consider speaking them aloud, not even to talk about them. The damage that has been done with them is too deep.

So let’s go back for a moment to the use of inclusive language in churches. At my seminary we called it Pentecost language, in celebration of the understanding that occurred between all the people from different places. Why use Pentecost language? Why does it matter if we call God “He” all the time? Because by using exclusively masculine language, we speak into being a world in which the feminine is forgotten, made second-class, or simply not “the norm.” To use Dan Clendenin’s terms, we are excluding rather than embracing.

If we look at James again, we see he particularly addresses those who would want to be teachers. Teachers are in positions of power, see. If we equate that power with privilege, we see again how this applies to our own lives. Just as teachers must be even more careful of what they say, so do we who are in positions of privilege in this society and this world. Because historically, it is those with privilege who get to choose the words, and therefore choose what the world will be like. And when I say privileged, I don’t mean “rich.” Some examples of the privileged: white, male, employed, housed, living in the northern hemisphere, Christian (in our country anyway), heterosexual, English-speaking, healthy. Just to name a few.

So how do we speak of others, particularly those less powerful and less privileged than ourselves? Do we speak a world which recognizes and affirms our common humanity, the unique reflection of God that we each offer? Or do we throw out a label, relegating them to be “other” than us? Do we allow them to name the world, to speak a reality into being?

Of course, one of the consequences of political correctness, and one of the dangers of James’ warnings is that people can get so worried about offending someone, of not saying the “right” words that they don’t speak at all. This is particularly true in race relations. The people with privilege, white people, often don’t know how to talk about people who aren’t white. Are they Black, African-American, or Afro-American? Hispanic or Latino? People of color or minorities? (Just a hint: ask, and don’t expect everyone to give you the same answer). We don’t want to offend, so we don’t talk. We act “color-blind.” We think everything is all hunky dory and wonder why people still bring up “race issues.”

Ok, well, words can create worlds, but not speaking the words does not make reality go away. James doesn’t say “the tongue can do evil, so don’t speak!” He warns caution, but we shouldn’t be so cautious that we forego the good for fear of the bad.

My senior year of college, I started a program called “Courageous Conversations.” I wanted to create a safe forum for tough conversations about race and culture and other touchy subjects. One of the guidelines was that it was ok to say “ouch.” This allowed people to speak openly and honestly, and if someone said something hurtful there could be a response as to what it was and why it hurt (instead of just “don’t say that!”)

The morning before my first meeting, I received a call from another student. The campus concert of a popular reggae artist had been cancelled by the administration after protests from the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) student organization about some lyrics in one of his songs. The student wanted to know if I would change the topic of my meeting. I agreed on the condition that it would not specifically be about the concert, but instead on the general topic of conflict between different minority groups. He agreed.

That night, about 75 people showed up, not only from my school, but from the college across the street, and not just students, but administrators, faculty, and staff, including the dean of students. The conversation lasted two hours, and there were a lot of “ouches,” some raised voices, and even a good amount of tears. But people were able to speak, and were heard. It was tough, and not everyone heeded James’ warning, but understanding arose. If people had kept quiet, the conflict would’ve festered and created more hurt and destruction.

So how do we find the courage to use words for good, to speak into reality a world of love and justice and reconciliation? Where do we get the power to allow blessings to flow from our mouths rather than curses?

To explain I need to come down from the pulpit.

We, and many other congregations, hear it every week. Pastor Mike and I offer a prayer before we preach, the prayer that ended today’s Psalm. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” We ask God for help. How would the worlds we speak be different if we said this prayer every morning before one word passed through our lips? If we stopped for a moment before a conversation?

In our worship planning meeting this week, John reminded us that the Psalms are not “lessons,” are not really meant to be just read. So, in deference to him, let me suggest you might sing this prayer as well. The groups “Sweet Honey in the Rock” sings a version of “Waters of Babylon,” which includes this prayer.

I’m getting over a cold, so I will do my best to share the Psalm 19 portion of the song with you. I’ll sing it through once, and then I invite you to join in as you learn it.

Let the words of my mouth

And the meditation of my heart

Be acceptable in thy sight, o God.


[i] Clendenin, Dan, “Taming the Tongue,” The Journey with Jesus,, accessed 12 September 2009.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Book review: Fearless by Max Lucado

There are so many things in the world that can inspire fear in our hearts: a suspicious mole, rumors of company layoffs, financial meltdowns, reports of the terror threat level. Yet how do we fight it? How do we live fully without being paralyzed by the fears?

By faith.

In Max Lucado’s newest book, Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear, Lucado reminds the reader that the statement Jesus made most often was “Do not be afraid.” Lucado invites us to consider that “invitation to courage.”

I found this book a quick ready, but I wouldn’t call it easy. The book is broken down into 13 different common fears that can take over our lives. Lucado then uses scripture, mostly from stories of Jesus’ life and ministry, along with more contemporary examples to encourage a freedom from that fear based in the comfort, protection, and strength of Christ. While Lucado presents this is a simple, understandable format, the material certainly requires pauses for reflection.

This is the first of Max Lucado’s numerous books that I’ve read, and I found his writing engaging and clear. He offers comfort, but it is not without a little challenge, something that is often missing from this “Christian self-improvement” genre. I’ll be re-reading this one.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Armor of God

I preached this sermon this morning. The text is Ephesians 6:10-20.

When I first chose this text to preach on today, like many times when I choose a text—or it chooses me—I thought I already had it figured out. As a young friend of mine used to say, “easy peezy, lemon squeezy.” Well, elements of those early thoughts certainly stayed with me and made it into today’s sermon, but the process of getting there ended up being more “squeezy” than easy.

When I first read this text, a couple things came to mind. The first was the concept of being “soldiers for Christ,” or “warriors for Jesus.” These are terms often used by some Evangelical groups, much of the time with their children and youth ministries, to try and create “God’s army,” to go out and save the world from sin. They often use just this passage as their starting point. In the film, “Jesus Camp,” about an Evangelical summer camp, they often mention joining this army.

Another movie came to mind after reading this Scripture lesson, although it is far less serious and far more entertaining than “Jesus Camp.” The movie, “Saved!” is a comedic and irreverent depiction of some students at an Evangelical Christian high school. Let me try to describe to you the scene that flashed in my head when I read these words from Ephesians.

Mary, the appropriately named main character, has gotten pregnant and is going through a crisis of faith. The principal of the school, Pastor Skip, not knowing about the pregnancy but seeing a change in Mary’s behavior, calls on Hilary, the Jesus-loving, saintly-appearing popular girl and her two friends to help her out. “I’m going to need you to be a warrior on the front lines for Jesus,” he tells them. One of Hilary’s sidekicks responds, “You mean like shoot her.”

The principal laughs nervously and says, “No, I was thinking of something a little less gangsta.” (He is constantly using slang to appeal to his young students).“I need someone who’s spiritually armed to help guide her back to her faith, the love and care that only Jesus can supply. You down with that?”

We hear these last couple phrases as a voiceover as the camera shows Mary walking and reading a book. “Yeah, I’m down with that,” we hear Hilary say. “She’s pretty vulnerable right now,” says Pastor Skip, “so I’m going to need you to be extra gentle.” His words still hanging in the air, a van screeches up behind Mary and the girls jump out and grab her, pulling her inside as Hilary attempts to perform an exorcism.

Mary struggles and escapes, and the girls begin to argue. The girls in the “posse” angrily throw phrases at her, like “Christ died for your sins,” “You are backsliding into the flames of Hell,” and “You’ve become a magnet for sin.” Mary tries to leave and Hilary pushes her, making her turn back around. “Mary,” Hilary says, “turn away from Satan. Jesus—he loves you!”

“You don’t know the first thing about love,” replies Mary, turning once again to leave.

Suddenly (and this might be my favorite part of the whole movie) Hilary throws her Bible, hitting Mary in the back, as she yells, “I am FILLED with Christ’s love!” As Mary turns around to face her Hilary says, “You are just jealous of my success in the Lord.”

Mary picks up the Bible, holds it up to Hilary and says, “This is not a weapon.”

This is not a weapon. God’s word is not a weapon. Of course not. And yet in this passage, Paul writes, “take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

What else is a sword but a weapon?

The more I read this passage, the more uncomfortable I got with the militaristic language. I kept thinking of kids dressed in camouflage shouting scripture passages and phrases like Hilary’s posse did, phrases about sin and hell and being saved. I struggled with Jesus’ good news being put into phrases like this.

Really? Are we really being told to be warriors? Perhaps it is just my liberal upbringing, the continual reminder to “be nice,” the question, “can’t we all just get along?” I’ve been laying some criticism on the conservative side, now here’s critique for some liberal Christians, who often would really like it if we just all held hands and sang “Kumbaya,” who hem and haw over the definition of “right” and “wrong” in the name of relativism. I’m certainly guilty of these sorts of things. So could that be it? Is that what makes this imagery so disconcerting, just that we didn’t want to hear we have to fight against something?

Well, yes and no. What I realized is that a lot of what made this passage so difficult is not what it says, but how those words have been used. Unfortunately, this happens fairly frequently, where a Bible passage is mis-read or taken out of context and used to support or oppose a particular viewpoint. The section just before this in Ephesians is a great example of that—it’s often called the “household codes,” and includes the decrees about wives obeying their husbands and slaves obeying their masters. The lectionary conveniently skips over those verses because of the damage that’s been done—and is still being done today—with how they’re used.

But back to this section, where Paul is wrapping up his letter.

Those images that first came to mind when I read this—the scene from “Saved!” and kids like those in “Jesus Camp”—those are really what I was struggling with. I’ve never felt those Soldiers for Christ programs were getting it right, and I agreed with the character Mary that the Bible is not a weapon, but it seemed like that’s what Paul was saying here.

Upon closer look though, we can see a couple things wrong with that idea.

First of all, there is a risk here of creating an “us vs. them” dynamic, and I think this is where many interpretations falter. We must be careful not to create a dichotomy in which there are friends and enemies. Paul says right in the beginning, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” This struggle against evil is not against individuals, but institutions, authorities, societal structures that perpetuate evil. It is against the spiritual forces of darkness—whatever drains our spiritual health: things like depression, greed, envy, addiction, you name it. I’ll get back to that notion of evil in a moment.

If we look at the rest of Ephesians, Paul focuses on breaking down barriers between people, about reconciling, maintaining unity, putting away malice and being kind. Reading this passage as drawing lines between each other just doesn’t fit. We are not to be at war with each other.

But we are called to be at war. Remember I said that maybe my discomfort could be with that notion? Well I just told you the “no, it was something else” part, so now here’s the “yes, could be it” part.

Many of us in the liberal church don’t like to think about evil, we don’t like to admit it really exists. But let me tell you, it does exist, and it is powerful. I’m not saying there’s a guy with red skin and horns running around making trouble. Evil today manifests itself in oppression, hunger, despair, injustice. When children die because they don’t have health insurance, there’s evil. When people who work hard can’t make enough to live on, there’s evil. When creation is destroyed for our convenience, there’s evil.

I may not agree with all of his theology, but there is one kid in “Jesus Camp,” Levi, who is just one of those kids with a spiritual wisdom way beyond his 12 years. He just loves God. At one point in the film, he’s preparing to preach to the campers, and he says, “We can’t just sit around on the couch all day. The Devil’s not just sitting around, neither can we.”

He’s right. Evil will not go away by ignoring it. It won’t disappear if we put our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not there. Evil is acting in this world every day, and here Paul is telling us that God has given us armor to defend ourselves, to defend the Church, to defend the world. Paul uses the image of the Roman soldier’s armor, with which the Ephesians would be very familiar, and basically says, this is what they use to prove themselves strong, to decide who wins or loses in the world. Here’s how it looks for God, in God’s world. God gives us the strength to resist the powers of evil, to endure in the times of darkness. God gives us truth, and righteousness; the gospel of peace, and faith; the promise of salvation, and prayer. And that sword—the sword of the Spirit (that’s Spirit with a capital S) which is the word of God.

Yes, the word of God can be a weapon—but not against each other. Not to pull passages out of the Bible to tell people they’re evil or sinners or going to hell. NO!

The sword means taking action. Have you heard the quote—and I apologize, I don’t know who said it or the exact wording—that those who fail to act or take sides in the face of evil or oppression are actually taking the side of the oppressor?

Listen to what theology professor William Loader of New Zealand has to say about the sword: “Christians are called not just to endure and resist, but also to engage in challenging the structures of injustice, the barriers that divide by the word of the good news, which is love and hope.”

This is God’s armor, which we as a Christian community are to put on. Parts of this armor are mentioned another place in the Bible—in Isaiah 59. But God’s going it alone in that passage. No one is stepping up to end the injustice, so God puts on God’s armor and does it. But here Paul is calling on us to take a role in that.

Putting on the full armor of God means fighting hate…with love. It means fighting violence…with compassion. It means fighting injustice and oppression…with truth and righteousness. The image that comes to my mind? Twenty years ago this June, in Tiananmen Square, China, a man stood in front of a tank. That is putting on the armor of God. There are many other examples, small and large, of big social movements and small, intimate actions.

Originally, my title for this sermon had a second part. It was “The Armor of God: Are We Called to be Warriors?” And my initial thought was to use that as a tease, in order to answer, “no, we’re not.”

But I’ve changed my mind.

Yes, we are called to be warriors in the fight against oppression, injustice, hate, violence, indifference, and all the other forms evil takes in our world. We cannot do it alone, but if we put on all of God’s armor, and stand in the strength of God’s power, we shall stand firm.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

The unexpected rainy joy

I was just finishing my run this morning when it started to drizzle. By the time I had slowed to walking, the rain was coming in steady fat drops. Soon, though I was under a canopy of trees, I was getting drenched in a heavy downpour. An unexpected sense of joy came over me, and as I continued to walk up the trail, I gave in to temptation and threw my arms open wide, embracing the rain. I tilted my head back, freeing my face from the protection of my pink Red Sox hat, and was rewarded with a drop landing right in my eye.

That's when it happened: I laughed. I laughed in the pure joy of being caught in a woodsy early-morning rainstorm with no hope of staying dry. I laughed as I twirled around, savoring the refreshing shower.

As I exited the park, I allowed myself the luxury of a few
tour jetes (a turning ballet jump) and laughed at my goofiness. I crossed the deserted street as the rain grew even heavier, and was glad no one was around to witness the huge smile of pleasure on my face as my clothes soaked through, and drops started falling from the brim of my hat.

I kicked off my sodden running shoes on the porch and as I entered my house, I laughed again, grateful for the gift of unexpected rainy joy that I'd been given.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Big News!

Whew, now that I have finally recovered (minus a sore neck/shoulder) from a spur-of-the moment trip to NYC and a big weekend (more on that in a second), it's time for the big reveal: I got my first call to a church!

Here's the back story:

After months of working on it, my ministerial profile (how we do hiring in the UCC) was finally released into circulation in March. I jumped right in and sent it off to a bunch of places, including a couple that I was really interested in. I got one packet from a church that I decided not to pursue pretty quickly, as they were clearly in a time of conflict and I didn't feel like starting my ministry in that setting would be a good idea.

Then, in mid-April, I got an e-mail from the Massachusetts conference saying they'd reviewed my profile and thought I might be a good fit for a certain position. I was pretty sure I'd had my profile sent there already, but I told them to go ahead and send it. That afternoon, I got a call from that church's search committee chair inviting me to come in for an interview. I considered this a sign pointing me strongly in their direction!

The second sign was that my mother, the search committee chair for her own church, had a candidate whose husband is the organist at the church I was interested in (more on that in a bit).

I had my first interview about a week later, and fell head-over-heels in love. The search committee was warm and friendly, and our interview was relaxed and conversational. One search committee took my on a tour around town, and I saw sign number three this could be The Place: the building at their parks & recreation department is called Greenwood Children's Center--my former last name.

A few weeks later (we're now in 2nd week of May), I went in for a second interview as one of two final candidates. I met with the director of Christian education, who I'd be supervising if I got the position, and preached for most of the committee. I also spent four hours tooling around the area with one committee member, met 5 of her 6 kids, and bonded very strongly. I left that night wanting that job so badly, but also nervous that my lack of experience with older kids and youth was going to be the kicker that kept me out.

Weeks went by. I had hoped to have an answer one way or another before my trip to Hawaii, but no such luck. I returned from my trip and got an e-mail update that they were really struggling to decide between the two final candidates, but that they were hoping for a decision in a couple weeks.

Finally, a full month after my second interview, my phone rang. When I saw the number, my heart lept into my throat. I crossed my fingers and answered. The search committee chair sounded so serious, I really thought I was getting the courtesy "it was a hard decision but" call. Instead, she said they would love to have me as their new associate pastor. I literally jumped up and down with excitement, and even got teary, which I was not expecting!

In the six weeks or so since then, it's been a whirlwind of planning and waiting and preparing. I found a fantastic apartment, but am still looking for a car and some furniture. We hashed out my letter of call, and set July 19 as Call Sunday.

So this past weekend, I traveled down there for candidacy weekend. Saturday afternoon they held a "tea" for people to come and meet me before they heard me preach and voted Sunday. Sunday was a picture-perfect day in just about every aspect. The weather was beautiful, and the church was joyous.

After the worship service, the congregation of First Church of Christ, Longmeadow, MA unanimously voted to call me as their new Associate Pastor. They clearly did not have any doubts, because when we went into the fellowship hall afterwards, there was a banner reading, "Welcome Pastor Beth!"

I am feeling so blessed to have been called to this church, and so excited to actually start doing ministry!

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

It Don't Matter if You're Black or White...or Maybe It Does

I'm already tired of the coverage. The second full day after Michael Jackson's sudden and surprising death, and it is still a half-page headline on Today's "big news?" His body has been moved to the mortuary. Really? I mean, I understand the mourning period, and he was an amazingly talented man...but the media is keeping the coverage alive simply for ratings, that much is by now clear.

And yet here I am, writing one of what I'm sure are countless blog posts regarding his passing. But mine is not to review his greatest hits or greatest dance moves or to lament the untimely loss of such a great entertainer. No, I'm interested in the reactions other people had to his death--and the differences I saw in race among those reactions.

*Disclaimer: this is in no way a scientific survey, but instead just a commentary on what I noticed on my Facebook (800+ "friends") and Twitter (following 1800+) streams.

See, if there was a news posting or Tweet that wasn't about MJ, it was in the extreme minority. Everybody was talking about it. Most were the standard: RIP MJ, etc. Basically just acknowledging it. There were those in shock, who wondered if it were really true. There were those who seemed to go into deep mourning, with messages of lament and loss of a childhood icon, a hero gone. And there were those who flat out said they felt no sorrow, who made (in my opinion) tasteless jokes, who were proud to say they were happy he was gone. The difference between those last two groups--those in lament and those in ambivilance or joy? Race.

Those who seemed to mourn the most, to enter into reflection on MJ's influence on our culture, and to appreciate what he had contributed to the world, were mostly people of color. Those who made jokes about naked children, who celebrated the "death of a pedophile," who proclaimed no sadness at the loss, were white.

I'm not sure why this surprised me, but it did. Now, I'll be the first to acknowledge that MJ had his issues. The first thing I prayed for after learning of his death was that he'd found peace and freedom from his demons. But there is also no denying what a genius--and I don't use that word lightly--he was, not only in music and dance, but marketing, publicity, and fashion (hello, one glove?).

And I'm not sure why there's such a disparity. Of course I expected a mix of reactions, given his controversial life, but to have negative reactions be on such a clear racial lines...?

Then again, perhaps it's not that only white people viewed him that negatively, but that people of color, and especially those in the black community, felt they would be lambasted if they reacted that way to such an icon.

I don't have answers, just observations. If anyone can provide insight or noticed the same, please share!

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

An African is Not Just a Brown White Person

I got all excited just now poking around Etsy, "window" shopping for stuff for my as-yet-to-be-found new place, when I came across these pillows.

I was just ready to add them to my favorites when I took a second look. Something wasn't right. And then I realized: these are not the silhouettes of Africans.
Ok, now I know that there are white people in Africa...but these silhouettes are, in my opinion, not meant to be of white Africans. They are composed of brown fabric, and the accessories are clearly meant to be, ahem, "ethnic." They are meant to be native Africans. They're not.

I know I'm probably treading into sticky territory here, but their features are clearly white. The one that clued me in first was the male. Look at his hair! All of them have pointy, up-turned noses and itty bitty mouths. Now, I'm not saying they should go overboard and end up with with the type of caricatures that commonly portrayed Africans and those of African heritage in the past, but let's be real.

The problem goes back to the fact that white people are still the standard, the norm, not just in our society, but globally. So a silhouette of a white person (since you can't see the skin color) can be made African by making it brown. Dolls can be made "diverse" just by changing the color of their skin and leaving all other features the same (if they even move beyond simply blonde hair and brown hair).

Of course, race isn't the only place where this happens. Gender, too, brings it out. Only just now are companies researching how drugs affect women differently than men--usually, women were just treated as smaller men. Um...NO.

A woman is not just a man without a penis,
and an African is not simply a white person with brown skin.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Why I Tweet

I am a Twitter user. I have an application on my computer to use it more easily than on the web. It's my second--the first one bit the dust when I accidentally turned off the power strip and therefore my computer in the middle of using it. I haven't figured out how to fix it, and so I let it go, though I miss some things it could do.

But I use Twitter. Many people, when they find this out, if they even know what Twitter is, ask me about it. Why--isn't it basically the same thing as Facebook (which I also obsessively devotedly use)? Who cares what people are having for breakfast? Doesn't it take away from "real" realtionships? So here's my explanation.

First: no, it's not the same as Facebook. There are few photos (and you have to click a link to see them), no applications or quizzes, and you are limited to 140 characters. Period. Even in your private messages. It varies from person to person, but I actually have very little overlap between my "friends" on Facebook and my "followers" on Twitter. What overlap there is generally from people I know on FB opening accounts on Twitter, not the other way around. I have one exception--a lovely woman who I "met" on Twitter who I then friended on FB.

Most of the people that are my FB friends I actually know in "real life." Most of my followers/those I'm following on Twitter I do not.

Second: Very few people I know actually use their 140 characters to answer Twitter's question, "What are you doing?" and give you a play-by-play of their activities for the day. If they do, it's because that's what on their mind at the moment and they want to share it in addition to the rest of their more significant "Tweets." People use Twitter to rally to causes, engage in discussion, network, find and give support, "meet" people with similar interests, and break news. Some examples: many people on Twitter (myself included) have bathed our pictures in green in support of the people if Iran; yesterday the Today Show was asking people on Twitter for information about the pilot who died mid-flight; when the toddler of a "mommy blogger" died suddenly of an infection, the news traveled quickly and Twitter lit up with supportive messages.

Third: These are relationships. Often I don't even know the real names of the people with whom I tweet, just their usernames, but I include them in prayers, joke and cry with them, ask and give information and opinions. My face-to-face and otherwise real-world relationships come first, as they should. But there are real people behind each avatar and username, and while there are many just on there to get as many followers as possible and feel popular, or to build and market their consulting businesses, there are just as many who are there to connect and interact, and they are all so different!

In my small corner of the world, how much opportunity do I have to daily interact with sexologists, conservative and progressive Christians, Etsy sellers, atheists, celebrities (some do actually reply), politicians, stay-at-home moms, eco-gurus, savvy aunties, news groups, activists, farmers, non-profits, and family members? The people I interact with are all over the country and the world (we often say good morning/afternoon/evening to cover the many time zones) and from so many different viewpoints and places in life, and they just fascinate me!

And apparently, I must interest some of them too: this week I surpassed 1500 followers.

So, in many more than 140 characters, this is why I use Twitter.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

You know you're really "in" something when... dream it. A Spanish teacher of mine used to get so excited when one of us would come in and say we'd dreamt in Spanish. That meant we were getting it, he'd tell us. Even if in class or doing homework, our conscious minds struggled to remember conjugations and vocab words, our sub-conscious was latching on to it and reproducing it while we slept.

This happened to me a few times in seminary when I was really immersed in something. I'd dream of a theologian, or of preaching.

And now, I feel like I'm really digging in to fabric art. My proof? I had a dream last night about tie-dying a whole bunch of fabric green.

Now, that may not seem like much, but it's about creating, about taking control of my art by not simply using fabric that's already been designed for me, but making my own. I also did it utilizing a skill I've had since I was a Girl Scout--perhaps my subconscious telling me that I don't need to go out and learn all these new techniques, that already I possess the ability to create these pieces.

This past week I finally opened my stole/liturgical "lovelies" shop on Etsy. It's wonderful and scary and feels just right. Recently I've been just overflowing with ideas for new stoles, so many I'm going to have to try them out over the course of months!

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Spring again...maybe?

It's amazing how weather really does affect mood. The last couple days have been overcast and/or rainy and cool--like barely passing 50F cool. And I've been feeling low-energy and blah. Part of that might be because I'm fighting a cold, but this morning, I woke up a cloud-less blue sky and bright sunshine, and while it's not exactly warm, the forecast is calling for more seasonable temperatures of low 70s. I feel full of energy and ready to take on the day!

Knowing how much the sun makes me happy, I'll have to be careful next week when I got to Hawaii, that I don't just fall in love with the place and decide to move there. They do have quite a few UCC churches... 

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

What's Your Real Mantra?

I read a short article this morning in the print magazine from Lumunos that mentioned mantras, and finding some that worked for you. I have a couple of mantras that I like--one of which the author of the piece mentions, Julian of Norwich's "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." A couple weeks ago when I was lying awake with anxiety, I lulled myself to sleep by praying that with a rosary. 

I put the magazine down to get on with my day, vowing that later I'd think of/find some good mantras to keep on hand. And then it occurred to me--if mantras help guide our thoughts and actions, what happens if we're repeating mantras without even realizing it?

For instance, the worry "I'm never going to find a job," while understandable, can quickly affect us negatively if it's just repeating itself over and over in our minds. The same with: 
  • "I'm not good/smart/capable/brave/[enter positive descriptive here] enough"
  •  "Everybody's judging me" 
  • "I'm fat/stupid/awkward/ugly/[enter negative descriptive here]" 
  • "I can't do that"
Maybe we don't ever say them out loud, but chances are all of us have some kind of negative mantra we've been saying to ourselves, allowing to affect our lives, without even realizing it. 

My suggestion: pay close attention in the next few days to phrases you find yourself repeating. If they're negative, find something to replace it, and repeat it three times for every one negative. If you find yourself saying "nothing's going right," you might repeat Julian's mantra. If you're critical of yourself, try "I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139). 

Look around to find some good replacement mantras--and please share them! I'll do the same.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Held in Common with Creation

Well, aren't you lucky readers! Two posts in two days! And get this--both sermons! Below is the sermon that I preached this past Sunday, Earth Day/Integrity of Creation Sunday (ugh, UCC, could you have come up with a more un-poetic name?) in the church I've been attending since the fall, in my hometown. I was a little worried it was too prophetic for a debut preaching gig, but it seemed to go over well. Oh, and the lectionary text I used was Acts 4:32-35.

"Held in Common with Creation"

Three years ago, in February 2006, I was beginning the spring semester of my first year in seminary. I was in my first session of a course entitled, “Religions in the City,” where we would study Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. Since it was a requirement for all first-year students, it was pretty big class, but the professor asked that we each introduce ourselves, in an unusual way. Our professor opened up a red umbrella that had ruffles on the edges. Maybe it was really more of a parasol. The professor explained that we were to each take a turn standing in front of the class, holding the umbrella, and after giving our name, describe our religious, social, and political beliefs in one sentence. I remember standing up there, and stating that I believed I was quickly becoming an eco-feminist, a new term in my vocabulary that had been growing on me as I took an increasing interest in ecology and our relationship with the environment and saw how it related to the oppression of women. I remember the professor, who uses that label to describe herself, cheering. I remember thinking how radical I was becoming by being an “environmentalist.”

What a difference three years can make. Later that spring, Paramount Pictures released the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which won an Academy Award and helped former Vice President Al Gore win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. All of a sudden, global warming and the effect humans were having on the Earth was everywhere—and it hasn’t let up yet. It seems that every company is spending money on advertising how eco-friendly they are. Many food companies are claiming that they are using “all-natural ingredients.” Car companies are coming out with more and more hybrid models—including hybrid SUV’s. Fashion magazines have been including articles and features on ways to reduce energy consumption and promoting “green” fashion—like organic cotton t-shirts and sheets made from bamboo. Trendy fashion labels came out with designer grocery bags. There’s even a whole cable network devoted to living green. Somehow in just the past three years, being eco-conscious has gone from being radical to being chic. Green is the new black.

While I am glad to see individuals, businesses, and government embracing the green lifestyle, I’m a little worried it’s too trendy, that it’s no more than a passing fad, that such over-exposure will actually backfire and cause people to think it’s all hype. I also worry that the green movement is very image-oriented, that many people do it just for the cool-ness factor. But most importantly, I worry that despite the increased attention being paid to living green, our culture—how we relate to the earth and to each other—is really not changing all that much.

Now, for the most part this is happening in our secular culture, outside church. So why does it matter if this eco-consciousness is just a phase? What does being green have to do with being a Christian?

Well, as Freuline Maria would say, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” Let’s look at Genesis 1:26-28:

                                    Then God said, “Let us make humankind

in our image, according to our likeness; and let them

have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the

birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the

wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping

thing that creeps upon the earth.”

            So God created humankind in his image,

               in the image of God he created them;

               male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful

and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and

have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the

birds of the air and over every living thing that moves

upon the earth.

And so it began. The use of these biblical verses as validation for the notion that humans are “above” the rest of the natural world and meant to take it as their own goes back centuries. By being created in the image of God—as apparently no other part of creation was—we assume that we are therefore more God-like than anything else on earth. We have been fruitful and continue to multiply; we have, for the most part, subdued the earth.

Our newly eco-conscious society does not seem to be changing its views on this, and I think there are two reasons for it.

The first is a view of humanity going back to the philosopher Plato, and within Church tradition to St. Augustine, which exalts the spiritual aspects of humans while disparaging the physical parts. By focusing so much on our spiritual selves rather than our bodily selves, it is easy to continue seeing ourselves as separate from—and superior to—what we call “the natural world.” However, as gardener and writer Vigen Guroian says, “We humans belonged to nature right from the start. We are not interlopers…” The passage I read from Genesis a moment ago is part of the first creation story. In the second, Adam is created out of the dust of the ground, and God breathes life into him. If you attended an Ash Wednesday service at the beginning of Lent, you might’ve been reminded of that creation with the phrase, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Just last week we celebrated Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, God-made-flesh. In the elements of communion, as we partake of food from the earth, we are reminded of Jesus’ physicality, of his body and blood. And yet we often forget this, and see nature as something other, something that does not include us.

The second reason I believe we aren’t really changing is that we objectify the rest of creation. Rather than seeing it as another subject that we can relate to, it is an object, there simply for our use. The earth and its inhabitants have no purpose or value in their own rights, but rather are valued by what they can do for us.

Now, there has been some recognition among Christians, going back to earlier environmental movements, that caring for the earth should be a part of our faithful duties. This still is mostly promoted using the stewardship model. Referring to the earlier passage from Genesis, we are called to be stewards of the earth. However, I struggle with this idea because it still doesn’t deal with the two problems I just mentioned. This idea of stewardship still places us as stand-ins for God in a position of domination (through care) of creation, instead of recognizing we are part of a greater whole, which includes the Divine, animals, the atmosphere, and the earth. It also still upholds the view that creation is there for us to use. The concept of stewardship—whether of creation or in a household—is about managing resources.

One aspect of the stewardship model that I do like, however, is that it stresses the idea that the earth does not belong to us; it belongs to God. We like to think that we own our property, that within certain lines everything belongs to a nation, and we forget that we’re simply occupants, borrowing from the true landlord.

So if the stewardship model doesn’t really work, is there another way to view creation, another way to integrate our faith as Christians with the green movement? Yes, and I think part of it is found in a little nugget from one of today’s lectionary readings.

The Acts of the Apostles is the earliest book in New Testament, and one of my favorites. Maybe that’s because it was written by Luke, my favorite Gospel writer. Really, though, I just love following along as this rag-tag group of Jesus groupies tries to figure out how to continue on without his physical leadership, how to be a community following his teachings, how to live not as Jews or Gentiles but as this new thing, Christians. In today’s passage, what sticks out to me is that by sharing their resources, by holding everything in common, all their needs were met, “there was not a needy person among them.”

I think that we need to expand that a little, from people to all of creation. See, those first Christians recognized that they were a community and dependent on each other. They were in relationship with each other. If they had maintained their independence, tried to maintain they separation between “mine” and “yours,” they would’ve fallen apart. As church communities of people, we still do this pretty well. If someone in the church has a need, the community comes together to fill it. We are in relationship with each other, fulfilling one of Jesus’ two most important commandments: loving our neighbor as ourselves. I’m suggesting that we expand our concept of neighbor to include not only people but trees, animals, dirt. Now, before I’m accused of being some kind of hippy or bleeding-heart liberal, let me say that I agree with Sally McFague, one of the leading environmental theologians, when she says that in this case, equality is not sameness. We do not treat the dog the same way we treat the tick on its body or the Lyme disease the tick carries. In that case, yes, we are called to be caretakers because we can. Choices have to be made—tick or dog? Tree or caterpillars destroying tree? Rabbits that only live in meadows or trees taking over the meadow? Those choices can be made with love, though, and as products of a common Creator.

I think the key to a long-term Christian eco-consciousness is to remember that Rolling Stones song: “You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.” There is enough room on this planet for all to get what they need; the problem is many of us are living to fulfill all our wants. And this, I think, is the biggest problem with the current green movement. Our lives are really not changing—we’re just making them slightly less toxic for the rest of the world. But we’re still consuming a lot, and still manufacturing and using resources to keep up with that consumption. Climate change is occurring rapidly, bringing stronger storms, and more extreme weather conditions like drought and floods. And the worst part is that the people most affected are the people contributing to it the least. The wealthy developed countries contribute the pollution, garbage, and destruction of eco-systems, while the poorer, developing nations suffer. In the United States, when the south suffers a drought or the Midwest floods, we have plenty to offer for help. No one goes hungry because the crops didn’t make it. Disease doesn’t run rampant when the rivers overflow their banks. The same is not true elsewhere in the world. We’ve heard a lot about pirates lately, with the heroic rescue of Capt. Phillips. But did you know where some of those ships being attacked are headed? To Kenya, where they are suffering through a severe drought and there is no food.

This, to put it very simply, is sinful. That is a loaded word, but there is really no other way to put it. This is not what God wants for God’s children or any of God’s creatures.

I’m not saying we should feel guilty every time we use a plastic bag or upend our whole lives once we walk out of here today, but we need to be aware how our actions—or inaction—affects the rest of creation.

It is not all darkness, though. This is Easter season, a time of hope and promise of resurrection, freedom from sin and fullness of grace. Let us heal our broken relationships with each other and God and with the rest of Creation. Let us live simply so that all may simply live. Let us remember that if we release our claim on creation, recognizing that it belongs only to God, and hold all in common, no part of creation will have need. Let us bless all the earth in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

A Sermon on Water

I preached on World Water Day, March 22, which happened to fall on Sunday this year. Below is my sermon. 

When asked how much water we use each day, or what effect water has on our lives, most of us would probably answer that it’s a decent part. After all, we use water to clean ourselves and cook, and of we try to drink that recommended 6-8 glasses a day. But if we stop and think about it, we might realize just how much our lives depend on water.

Let’s just take my typical morning as an example. I wake up in a bed made up with cotton sheets—water’s needed to grow that cotton. I brush my teeth, shower, flush the toilet. I get dressed in clothing that I wash in my washing machine on a fairly regular basis. I make coffee—not only do I use water right then, but the coffee plantations depend on water to run. I eat breakfast, most likely a bread product, made from grain on a farm that depends on good irrigation. Maybe I have a little bacon or sausage—meat products use a LOT of water to produce.

So clearly water factors highly into our daily earthly lives. But what about our spiritual lives?

In many world religions and cultures, the elements of the natural world—wind, water, fire, and earth—are held in high regard. In astrology, each star sign has a corresponding elemental sign. So Aries is a fire sign, Pisces is a water sign, etc. Some religions worship gods of those elements, while other people simply uplift them as the four core parts of nature.

Christianity, on the other hand, is often viewed as sacramental, rather than elemental. We like to see ourselves as being more about the unseen, intangible things like grace or the Holy Spirit, about the rituals of communion and baptism.

And yet the elements do factor into our Christian tradition quite prominently, particularly water. In our particular tradition, communion and baptism are our only sacraments. Obviously water is important—it’s what we use to baptize, whether it’s a little sprinkle on the forehead or a dunk in the river.

But water is threaded throughout the Bible, and often plays a prominent, if not the dominant role in stories.

Some that quickly come to mind:

  • Creation, which began with a wind from God sweeping over the face of the waters, and then God creating life out of those waters
  • Moses as a baby floating in a basket of reeds in the river
  • Moses parting the Red Sea
  • The flood and Noah in his ark
  • Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan
  • The woman at the well from whom Jesus requests a drink
  • The disciples and Jesus on the boat when the storm comes up
  • Jesus walking on water

There are others that perhaps aren’t remembered for the presence of water quite as quickly, but that are just as important. One that I particularly like is the story of Hagar.

It’s a story that shared among all three “people of the Book”—Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The story appears in a section of Genesis that recounts the history of Abraham and his descendants as they move from Haran into the land of Canaan and then into Egypt. Wells and water figure prominently at important points as this story follows characters back and forth from their tent community to the wilderness within a broader desert landscape.

Hagar was Sarah’s Egyptian slave, given to Abraham to conceive a child because Sarah was unable to do so. Hagar leaves their home and goes out into the wilderness on two occasions.

The first time, Hagar is pregnant and has allegedly looked upon Sarah with contempt for her barrenness, so Sarah “deals with her harshly,” as the Bible puts it, and Hagar runs away. The angel of God finds her by “a spring of water in the wilderness,” and tells her that she will bear a son to be named Ishmael, which means “God hears.” And then by that spring, Hagar does something no one else in the whole Bible does: she gives God a name, El-roi, “God who sees.” And because of this, the Bible tells us, the well where this happened is named Beer-lahai-roi, or “the Well of the Living One who sees me.”

The second time Hagar goes out into the wilderness, she is sent away by Abraham at Sarah’s request, because Sarah does not want Ishmael receiving any of Isaac’s inheritance. Abraham sends Hagar out into the desert with bread and a skin of water. Let me read to you what happens from there:

(Gen. 21: 14c-19) And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voices and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God as heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

It is this scene in particular that grabs me. I can just picture Hagar heading out into the desert wilderness, no where to go, no one to turn to, and only a little bit of water and bread on which to survive. In a hot dry desert, humans can only live a couple days without water, so imagine Hagar’s distress when the little bit of water she had was gone. She knew it meant certain death for her child, and so she put him under a bush so she didn’t have to watch him die of thirst.

I wish this was something that only happened in biblical times, many thousand years ago. If only there weren’t mothers in the world right at this moment watching their children die of thirst or disease because of lack of access to clean water.

UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, estimates that 5,000 children die every day because of unsafe water, poor sanitation, and hygiene. That means that in the time it takes for us to worship together this morning, about 208 children will die as Hagar thought Ishmael would. And that’s just children. More than 1 billion people worldwide lack clean drinking water.

For Christians, water is symbolic of our relationship with God, carrying the image of renewal, promise, and hope. It is through water that we are baptized and welcomed into the Christian community. Water is essential to all life, connects us with the rest of Creation, and is a gift from God. As a gift from God, it is meant to be shared. As one resource from the National Council of Churches declares, “We recognize clean water as a priceless gift of God, but too often we don’t realize the global water crisis is ours to reconcile.”

Isaiah says that when the poor and needy are thirsty and seek water, but have none, God will not forsake them; God will provide rivers, fountains, pools, and springs. While it may not seem like it, that is still true today. God does provide. There is enough water for all—but only if we use just what we need, and make sure that all have access. And this is where we as faithful Christians come in.

“When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink,” Jesus describes himself saying in the kingdom of heaven. “Just as you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Hear this woman’s story from Uganda:

"At the request of the community where I grew up, a church development organization funded the construction of a water well project and trained 30 villagers how to properly use and administer water resources. The effects on the community have been like ripples in a pond. Before, when I was growing up, we did not have easy access to water. With a new water point, villagers created an irrigation system that waters crops of bananas, mushrooms and vegetables. With water, it has been possible for them to raise livestock. With livestock, they have milk that lowers malnutrition, with a surplus to sell. With water, some are beginning to farm fishponds and sell fish. There is more. As they drilled and built the well, villagers discovered clay that makes good bricks. Some villagers have become brick-makers and sell what they make. Others have built more permanent housing by using the bricks instead of grass. All of them worked together to build a permanent school for their children. Water has brought surprising new life to the village."

The water debate is often about two distinct perceptions. The first understands water as a “public good” to which all forms of life have a right. One South African activist puts it this way: “I need to have water, enough even for a stranger. The one thing that I cannot do, even to an enemy, is deny water.” The community I come from has protected water and treated it as a common good that is sacred and beyond commercial value.

In 2003 the Africa Women’s Economic Policy Network did field research in Uganda

and reviewed existing government policy concerning water pricing and public utility management. Their research, not surprisingly, revealed that water privatization has already taken a heavy toll. When the cost of water is high, people who live on less than a dollar a day have to choose water over school fees or food, or find alternative ways of getting water. People resort to unprotected springs, boreholes and long-distance wells. Health problems increase from lack of clean water, including cholera, typhoid, diarrhea, malaria, intestinal worms and skin-related diseases. Alternative water sources hold not only health hazards but also physical dangers. Stand taps installed along the Nile require a fee. Those with no daily income to pay the fee fetch water from the river. Women and children have drowned in River Nile, and several have been taken away by crocodiles. When people have no money to buy water, there is death.[i]

Another story, from Vietnam:

“People of faith can make a real difference in confronting these problems. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is one of the leading causes of illness and death among people in poverty in Vietnam, where many in rural areas suffer from waterborne disease. This is particularly true in the mountains of Pho Yen district, where more than one out of four people suffers from a water-related disease. In Pho Yen, even the health clinics lack access to clean water, thus facing the double burden of treating patients suffering from water-related diseases without having their own clean water. In response, Church World Service (CWS) is helping to construct water supply facilities and hygienic latrines for three clinics, and lay pipelines for water distribution to 150 households. Training is being provided on the operation and management of the systems, on prevention and transmission of water-related diseases, and on good hygiene practices. This is an effort we can all be a part of, too. Members of the Church of the Brethren, taking part in a faith expedition in 2007, saw the situation in Ph Yen first hand. Upon returning, they worked through CWS and their Global Food Crisis Fund to directly fund a project at a local school. We can all be involved in making a difference.”[ii]

How can we make a difference? How can we offer a drink of fresh, clean water to our thirsty brothers and sisters?

First of all, we can educate ourselves. I didn’t give you a lot of facts and figures today, because I don’t think they really belong in a sermon, but they’re out there and fairly easy to find (and if you’d like me to come back some other time and do a workshop or presentation on this stuff, we can talk about that). We need to learn about our role in the global water crisis, and know what’s going on globally and in our own backyards. For instance, a cholera epidemic has been sweeping through Zimbabwe since December. As of the end of last month, over 80,000 people were infected, and 3,800 had died. When we face Jesus in the kingdom of heaven, and he asks us why we didn’t give him a drink (or why the water wasn’t clean), we cannot say we didn’t know he was thirsty or that the water was contaminated.

Second, we can conserve water and pay attention to our water usage. Are we watering our lawns while someone is forced to drink dirty water? I’m not saying we should feel guilty every time we take a shower, but we need to be conscious that our decisions and actions affect others.

Third, support legislation and governmental action that helps provide everyone, and particularly those living in poverty, with access to clean water. One thing that’s happening now is a push for the United Nations to add a 31st article to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would establish access to clean and potable water as a fundamental human right.

And finally, get involved in funding water projects. Church World Service has great projects, like the one I mentioned in Vietnam. Instead of a DVD for a gift, for $18 you can buy water jugs for three families from Oxfam in someone’s name. Want to get kids involved? Raise money to provide a community with a PlayPump—a water pump powered by children, since it doubles as a merry-go-round.

Water equals life. God called Creation out of water, we begin our lives cushioned in the water of our mothers’ wombs, our lives are sustained through water. Jesus called relationship with God “living water,” saying all who drank of it would never be thirsty again.

As I pour this water, I’ll say a short prayer, and then I invite each of you to touch the water—as reminder of your baptism, as a reminder of your creation, as a reminder of the gift of life and new life in Christ it brings. You might simply put your fingers in, you may want to trace a cross on your forehead as might have been done if/when you were baptized, maybe you want to cup some water in your hands—however you feel moved to connect with this water, and remind yourself of the life it gives.


I was pleasantly surprised that the congregation readily participated in the ritual. Sure, we did them all the time in seminary, but asking a small congregational church in New Hampshire to do it is another thing. They were game, and many said they were moved by it, so I'm glad I took what seemed like a big risk to me!

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