Saturday, July 26, 2014

grinning in place (of sacraments)

For a low-church, priesthood-of-all, non-sacramental, ambivalent-about-ordination lady, I sure do love "presiding" "over" "ordinances."

This summer has been relentless in its event-heavy travel responsibilities. I’ve trained college ministry interns, driven the giant church van filled with middle-schoolers all over Brooklyn for our workcamp week, prayed prayers and passed polity at Annual Conference in Columbus, packaged rice and beans and chicken and peaches with our Jr. Highs during Bible School, ridden insanely intense coasters at King’s Dominion, and successfully took 14 high school youth all the way to Colorado and back for National Youth Conference. The ridiculous thing is, the summer’s not even over. I head to Minnesota for a writing workshop on Monday, then spend some days with BVSers at their orientation on the Eastern Shore next week. Summer is relentless.

Along the way, in the midst of the insanity, the not knowing what day it is or which time zone I’m in, I’ve run headlong into some sacred moments. I daresay some sacramental moments. Except we’re Brethren. We don’t do sacraments. Those are for the ruling high church oppressors, eh, the ones wanting to fence people out and compel their allegiance. We’re Brethren – no force in religion, no real ecclesial offices, priesthood of ALL believers. We don’t do sacraments.

Which is just fine, you know, except that we DO.

We call them ordinances, and we’re pretty serious about the fact that they can be led by anyone at any time – no need for a special priest or consecration ritual. But we’ve got rituals, kairos-time practices, set-apart traditions…whatever you want to call them, we’ve got them in spades.

And I fell headlong into a bunch of them this summer.

I got to perform the wedding of some of my favorite people in May, people whose sense of spiritual intuition and careful worship made for a wedding ceremony more filled with joyful presence than many others I’ve been a part of. Minister is by far the best gig at a wedding – best seat in the house for the processional, the vows, the first kiss; no need to buy an expensive bridesmaid’s dress you’ll never wear again, the opportunity to bless people you love and stand there in that space where love is pouring down and around and among and between, where covenants are being spoken and consecrated, where relationships are burgeoning, emerging, binding. There’s an ineffable thing that happens in that space, a power that is more than the sum of the ceremony’s parts, and I got to stand there, smack in the middle of it all. I could not stop grinning.

At our Brooklyn workcamp, we got to wash one another’s feet on the last night. Footwashing is a tried and true tradition for us Brethren, as weird as it may be for all y’all others. We do it at least twice a year – a sign of service, of humility, of the blessed ties that bind us together in mutual mercy and care. We’d spent the entire week in Brooklyn serving through congregations and clothing closets, senior centers and salvation armies. Washing the feet of our fellow workcampers was one more way to kneel down in presence and prayer. Plus, they’re junior highs. There is no better age group for setting spiritual significance in stark relief. The boys were boys, giggling and whispering through the singing and washing – but giggling and whispering while they kneeled; refusing to allow the obvious awkwardness of the moment to prevent them from participating fully; they giggled, and then they invited their neighbors to have their feet washed. I was the last to sink my feet into the basin, and it was the dirtiest footwashing water I have ever seen. The workcamper next to me knelt down and washed my tired feet in that nasty water, and for the life of me, I could not stop grinning.

A couple of weeks ago, our congregation baptized three people, outside, in Broad Run. I’d never baptized anyone before, and the outdoor thing was a new twist – it had been a while since the congregation had done anything outside of the baptistry. The stream was much cleaner and prettier than I’d anticipated. Kids waded in and sat on rocks as people gathered. Fred and I walked in, and, one by one, dunked three people three times each. The first guy had to pause a bit between the dunk “in the name of the Father” and the one “in the name of the Son” because a train rumbled by on the trestle not 50 yards away. They held their noses, washed their souls, and we prayed over them. It was all very Brother, Where Art Thou, missing only the sirens and the banjos. Forty people stood on the shoreline, ready with towels and hugs as the newly dunked climbed out of the water. They covenanted to be the church, together, walking in the light of this new covenant with God, living as Christ’s body on earth. Dipping those precious heads under water again and again, I could not stop grinning.

And last week, during one of the massive coliseum worship services, I got to anoint dozens of people. I touched their heads with frankincense-scented oil, looked into their eyes and reminded them that they were beloved children of God. I anointed them in the name of the God who created them, in the name of Jesus who gifts them with an abundant grace, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who boldly stirs them to follow in the calling to which they have been called. Among those dozens were fellow clergy, BVS volunteers, young adults, and some of my very own youth group. That they are beloved, created and called is EXACTLY what I want these kids to know, EXACTLY what I want to be saying to them, in whatever words come out of my mouth. Anointing is, I think, of the highest order of ordinances. It makes space for simple truth – we are created and beloved – and asks for us to claim our identity, to grasp onto that calling and live into it. There are lots of crumpling faces and tear-washed cheeks during anointing. People hold so much so close to the surface, tamping down so many emotions and so much deep-seated tenderness. Anointing makes room for them to surface, asks us to allow them to peek out, invites us to be our real selves and touch – for just a moment – something even more real than we are. The kids kept coming forward, the tears kept seeping out of eyelids, heavy burdens kept appearing in front of me and for the life of me, I could not stop grinning.

Only slightly inappropriate.

I haven’t done the research or read the theological essays to write what I want to write about all of this, yet. But this summer has been relentless, and part of that unending pressure has been this realization: God may be ever-present, above all and in all and through all; all of life may be sacred and ripe with the possibilities of divine action; we may live in an enchanted and spirit-suffused world…but there is something seriously significant about the ways in which these ancient, scriptural, Jesus-led practices open us up to that Presence, the ways that they clear the space and shrink the distance, open us up and invite God into the most tender places of our lives.

It’s not about me, not about all those inadequate verbs: “presiding” and “officiating” and “performing.” It’s something more like “tending space” or “surrendering self” or “falling headlong into that space where ever-present grace bubbles up and over and cascades over all of our heads.”

The words aren’t right – they’re flimsy and lame, inadequate for what is really happening here. They make me sound like I’ll be pulling crystals out of my pocket and weaving them into patchouli-scented dream catchers at any given moment. I will not. I’m Brethren, after all, traditionally free of sacraments, ornaments, hierarchies and buttons (symbol of too much prideful selfishness, you know). But you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be accepting any invitation that comes my way to stand in one of those places and feel a room fill up with swirling Spirit.

And for the life of me, I will not be able to stop grinning.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

a prayer from Annual Conference

God, our great Refiner,

We approach you this morning with openness: open hands, open minds, open hearts, open spirits. This is hard for us, God, this being opened, being vulnerable. When we’re opened up, we’re exposed, at risk, in danger of being hurt or burned or changed. And yet, here we are. Open to you.

God, we trust you. We trust that you will hold us, hold our open hearts, in the palm of your gentle hand. We know that we are in need of refining, God, and we trust that you are the one to do it. So we come, open, before you.

There are so many pieces and parts of us that need refining, God. When we crack open our hearts we’re forced to look head-on at all that brokenness, all that sinfulness, all that failure to live up to your call upon us to be your people and share your gospel. Sometimes, the pain and embarrassment and shame of these things is just too much. We curl up, turn in on ourselves, hold tight to the safety of what we know and refuse to open ourselves to your refining fire.

But you love us, God. You formed us in our mothers’ wombs, walked beside us through all of our days, witnessed us living out our best moments and our worst. And all the while, you have called us into closer relationship with you, into a deeper union and a way of life that shines with honesty, integrity, the joy of being all of who we are with you.

Give us the strength, God, and the courage, to open ourselves to you. Be gentle with us, but don’t let us off the hook. Keep us vulnerable. Keep us honest. Keep us close. Give us the faith to trust that the things that we will lose in the process – those impurities and appendices to which we’ve become so attached – that these can all be counted as loss. Remind us that knowing you, walking in the way of Christ, is the only thing we need. Assure us that you are enough, that we are enough.

We are coming to you ready to be refined, God. Do with us what you will.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

every two-bit sparrow song

Jonathan Franzen talks a lot about birds. They’re his thing. In his latest novel-opus, Freedom, birdwatching functions as a massive metaphor for…well, you read it and tell me. He also frames his essay on the loss of his friend David Foster Wallace around a birding trip, falling far off the grid somewhere in the South Pacific to reflect on their friendship and Wallace’s recent suicide.

In the course of the essay, Franzen characterizes the final difference between his own, curmudgeonly malcontented self and his friend, lodged in the depths of suicidal despair. Wallace, Franzen says, was “utterly indifferent to birds.” Franzen would spot a rare beautiful thing and point it out; Wallace would shrug and say, “yeah.” “I understood,” he says, “the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.”

I find myself at times unable to escape myself in the joy of much of anything.  But I also have friends who suffer from unmanageable misery and know the difference between that and this, my own manageable discontent. My temporary inability to see the birds is just that – temporary. And even when it seems that it won’t end, with the gift of memory and the grace of hope, I always know that it will. My friends are not all so lucky.


My parents hung weird plastic contraptions on their back porch for the hummingbirds to buzz, hover, dip their long thin beaks into sugar-water, hover, buzz, and zip back off across the yard. This flitting iridescence always takes me by surprise. It seems too sophisticated for this tiny place at the base of the mountains, too tropical for an everyday backyard. But there they are, humming behind my head, drawn to me with just a tiny bit of sugar boiled in tap water, lured toward us with just a touch of sweetness.


While we’re on the subject of cranky modern male writers with chips on their shoulders: I just finished Dave Egger’s latest, The Circle. It’s an all-out screed, patterned around Orwell’s 1984: a cautionary tale about the dangers of social media; tech business monopolies; our dependence on cloud-based knowledge; the human desire to know all there is to know and the human inability to treat knowledge with any semblance of wisdom. Its characters find themselves drawn inexorably into the digital world of “friending,” “zinging,” “smiling,” “frowning,” judging their success by algorithmic online participation metrics called their “PartiRank.” The main character is so seduced by it all that she completely loses contact with her family, her friends, herself. Setting aside the sense one gets of Eggers writing the entire novel in a single, snark-fueled all-nighter, the dystopia is real enough to be terrifying. What AM I sacrificing for all the online investment? I finished the book and immediately shut down my Pinterest and eHarmony accounts.

And then I noted my completion of it on GoodReads.

And now I’m blogging about it.


I threw the windows open this morning, cool May air swirling through my apartment and wiping it clean of that closed-up aroma from being empty too often. I walked from the living room to the bedroom and was stopped in my tracks by an unfamiliar beeping. I looked from device to device, confused. Was my phone ringing? No. Did someone comment on my Facebook status? No. A random G-chat invitation? No. Did I inadvertently leave the iPod alarm on? No. I looked out the window. A single sparrow was sitting on the balcony railing, chest puffed out, beak open wide, singing his tiny little bird heart out to me. Or, maybe he was singing to himself, able to see his own reflection in the window. He sang and he sang and he sang and then, without a second thought, fluffed his wings, spread them wide and flew off.


Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Jesus asked that when he was teaching to a crowd so big that they started to trample one another. And then, answering his own question, he assured those thousands who’d gotten their feet stomped on and their privacy invaded and their dignity threatened just to hear him speak – assured them that yes. Five sparrows are sold for two pennies. And yet, not one of them is forgotten before God. And, you, each of you is of more value than many sparrows.

But I get lost, confusing sparrow song for the zing of digital importance. I lose myself in the business of busy-ness, forgetting to listen for the hummingbird’s buzz. I am not so good at bird-watching. I’d rather go faster than that, or slower. In order to get noticed, the sparrows have to light right there on my balcony and sing their little bird hearts out to me. Thank God I am not God. Thank God that God, counter of hairs on my head and rememberer of every two-bit sparrow song, is.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

holy saturday

Sometimes, life gets so squeezed and narrow that it seems small enough to shove into a tiny, dark tomb. This smallness takes a million forms, because there are a million ways we mess ourselves up, a million ways we screw each other over. Pay attention: narrowness is squeezing people into oblivion all around you. You don't need me to name the ways; you know all too well what they are.

The passage from John 10 has been haunting me for months, now. Jesus tells the Pharisees, who have been scoffing about his healing of the blind man, that he is the sheep gate. I don't exactly know what that means, but what it sounds like to me is that Jesus - after proving himself a healer of bodies and souls - explains to the doubting religious leaders how that is true: I am God, incarnate. I am no wizard or trickster or demon, I am God, come to be with you and live this human existence. I came through the gate, born of a woman, nourished at her breast and in the temple, grown up on the same flatbread and olives you fed your own children, suffered through puberty and growing pains, family arguments and hangnails. I am fully human, fully present here with you. And I am God.

God got small. Imagine the squeezing narrowness that took, disregarding divinity, emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. If ever a thing felt constricting, if ever a circumstance felt unending, if ever a being felt as if she were being prevented from living out her potential…God must have felt claustrophobic.

Not to mention that anytime he tried to explain himself, his very best friends and most loyal followers looked back at him with dumb expressions of incomprehension.

God got small. God GETS small. And still, even in those claustrophobic years, we know that God found potential, possibility, that God made ways, that God made waves. Got got small, and lived like a human being. And even though no one could believe it, he still acted like who he was, constantly shifting expectations and bringing unexpected newness from dead-certain circumstances. Water turned to wine, sick made well, demons cast out, outcasts brought in, empires upturned, stories untold.

God got small, and experienced all those ways we narrow ourselves. And, at the end, God died from all the smallness, suffocated from the narrow-mindedness, crucified by dearth of wonder.

We should really stop skipping over that part. God died. God got small, and turned things in our tiny world upside down, and those openings and possibilities and augmentations got God in trouble. God got small, tried to tell us how to be bigger, and we killed him for it.

It's holy Saturday, and God is dead. Our smallness killed him, kills him still. Shrinking violets that we are, we can't even imagine a way out. And I suppose that is why we avoid this day, this day when God is dead: because we don't really believe that our smallness can be overcome. We don't really believe that if we do allow for death, that there can ever be anything bigger. We think this is the end.

And, well, isn't it?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

But…WE aren't blind…are we?

Sermon 3-30-14, MCoB
John 9:1-41
But WE Aren’t Blind, Are We?

There are lots of healing stories in the gospels. When you read the life story of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the guy comes across as a troubadour, hiking from town to town, disciples in tow, freaking people out by healing women and men and children who have been sick all their lives: clearing up impossible skin conditions, stopping decades-long hemorrhages, making lame people walk, opening the eyes of those blind from birth and even raising people who’ve been dead for days. There are over thirty healing miracles in the ministry of Jesus as told in the gospels.

It’s hard to miss the miracles – there are so MANY of them, and they are so OBVIOUS.

You would think that stories like these, crazy, illogical, unbelievable healings and feedings, turning water into wine and mud into miracle drugs – you would think that these things would make us more attuned to the miraculous.

But somehow, that’s not how it works. Somehow, we miss the miracles.

We aren’t alone. The disciples missed the miracles, too. The temple teachers and religious leaders doubted their authenticity and grew afraid of the guy who kept performing them.

The unbelievable is happening right in front of our eyes, and somehow, we still miss the miracles.

This story from John’s gospel is a long miracle story. It’s just a simple healing – Jesus healed a bunch of other blind guys, and none of their stories took an entire chapter. But this isn’t a story about the miracle. It’s a story about missing the miracle.

Here’s how the story goes:

There was a man who had been blind since birth. Jesus happened to run into the guy in the course of his travels, and his disciples, who were always pestering Jesus with the wrong questions, asked him:

“Jesus, this man has been blind since birth. Whose fault is that? Is he blind because HE sinned, or was it his parents that offended God?”

Jesus, kneeling down in the mud, scoffs at their question.

“No one sinned, you guys. You should know by now that isn’t how the world works. Haven’t you been hanging out with me long enough to know that God doesn’t punish his children like that? No, we ran into this man who has been blind all his life so that the power of God might shine through his life.”

And with that, Jesus picked up a handful of brown dirt, spit into his hand and mixed it up into mud. He spread the spit and mud across the blind man’s eyes, and told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man did what he was told – wouldn’t you, given the possibility of sight? – and came home able to see.

Icon from Holy Transfiguration Monastery

His neighbors didn’t believe it. They argued among themselves. “Is that really the blind guy who used to wander around the streets here?” “Nah, it can’t be him. Must just be someone who kinda looks like him. That blind guy was so sad and aimless. This guy is dancing and singing!”

The man kept trying to tell his neighbors who he was – “it’s me! It’s really me!” But the neighbors kept asking him how it could be, how he could have suddenly received his sight, something he never had. “Who could have done that to you,” they kept asking him, and he kept telling them, “It was this guy named Jesus! I don’t know where he went, but he healed me!”

The neighbors were skeptical. So they told the church leaders, who were supposed to be in charge of all miraculous happenings in the area…or, if not in charge, at least apprised of these strange goings on. The Pharisees didn’t understand what was happening, either, so they called the man in for a hearing. “How is it that you are suddenly able to see?” they asked him.

“It was this man named Jesus,” he replied. “He made mud with his spit, spread it on my eyes, and told me to go wash in the pool of Siloam. I went and washed, and now I can see!”

The Pharisees were skeptical. First of all, whoever this miracle man was, he was healing on the wrong day – it turns out that the day Jesus healed the blind man had been a Sabbath day, and no one was allowed to do any work of any kind, including healing, on the Sabbath. Inappropriate, the Pharisees thought. But something must be up with this Jesus guy. “What do you think of him?” they asked the man.

“He is a prophet.”

The Pharisees didn’t believe him. They thought maybe the man was pulling one over on them. So they called in his parents for a hearing. “Is this really your son?” they asked them, “and has he REALLY been blind since birth?”

“Yes, this is our son,” they said, “and yes, he really has been blind since he was born. But we don’t know how he received his sight – it is a mystery to us! Ask him, he’s old enough to tell you the truth himself.”

So, completely unsatisfied and getting nowhere in their inquisition, the Pharisees called the man back into the hearing and asked him a second time: “How did this man give you your sight? He must be a sinner! He must be using evil magic!” But the man only said, “I do not know how he did it. All I know is that I was blind, and now I see.”

The Pharisees kept pushing. “But what did he DO to you? How did he open your eyes?!”

The man, frustrated by now, said again and again, “I TOLD you already! Weren’t you LISTENING to me? What, are you trying to get more info so you can follow him and become his disciples? What’s your problem?!”

And still, they protested: “Look. We follow Moses. We know how God works. We know how miracles happen – you know, kids saved for leadership by being sent out on the river in a reed basket, wooden rods becoming serpents, seas being parted. THAT is how miracles happen! None of this dirt-and-mud stuff. None of this healing on the Sabbath. We don’t know who this guy is. He can’t be working miracles if we don’t even know him!”

The man answered, “Well, isn’t that something? You don’t know this guy and yet he healed me, opened my eyes, turned my life around! If he weren’t from God, how could he heal me like that?”

But still, the Pharisees would hear none of it. “You were born entirely in sin,” they yelled, “and now you’re trying to teach us, the leaders of the temple, the teachers of the land! What disrespect!” And they threw him out of town.

Jesus was still hanging around, and he heard what was going on with the Pharisees. He found the man thrown out of town and asked, “Do you believe that I am the Son of Man?” The man answered, simply, “Lord, I believe.”

And, as they stood there, the man whose eyes had been opened worshipping his Lord, Jesus said “I came so that those who are blind may see and that those who see may become blind.”

There were still some Pharisees hanging around, and they saw the man worshipping Jesus and they heard Jesus say this.

And then, those Pharisees,

the ones who heard the story of the miracle first from the townspeople and then from the man who had been healed and then again from the man’s parents and then yet another time from the healed man a second time and finally from Jesus, the healer himself;

the ones who had every opportunity to open their eyes to the miracles that Jesus was doing right in front of them;

the ones who should have been teaching about the grace and power of God available to each and every one of God’s people and instead spent their time dragging the recipients of that grace in for interrogation and eventual excommunication;

the ones who simply closed their eyes and turned their backs to the story of salvation being enacted before their very eyes;

those Pharisees turned to Jesus and said:

“But surely WE aren’t blind, are we?”

This story from John’s gospel is a miracle story, yes. It is a healing story, yes. It is a story about Jesus getting on the nerves of the religious leaders, setting up his eventual trial and crucifixion and resurrection, playing right into the climax of the Easter story that we are on a journey toward ourselves in this time of Lent.

But mostly, this story is about the Pharisees, the ones who missed the miracles.

And it makes me wonder…how much like the Pharisees are we?

Think about it. We are some of the richest, most educated, most powerful people in the world. 

We are pretty secure in our knowledge of the world, of the church, of God’s ways.

We are pretty comfortable in our habits and our assumptions.

We are pretty insistent on checking out our sources, vetting the candidates, consenting only to trust a person or a newspaper or a bit of gossip when it comes to us by way of familiar channels.

We are slow to believe and quick to scoff.

And all that caution, all that responsibility, has its benefits.

But I wonder…how much like the Pharisees are we?

How many miracles are we missing?

Because Jesus is here among us, healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, setting the captives free.

A new world is coming, and I suspect that, like the Pharisees in John’s gospel, it is happening right here, right under our noses. A new world is coming, where everybody gets to be part of God’s people. The miracles are happening.

Do you see them?