Overcome by the Water

listen to mp3 file of “Overcome by the Water”

I Kings 18:20-39

Psalm 96

Luke 7:1-10

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

The baptismal font in which I baptized the most children (including two of my own) is in a Presbyterian church in Geneva, IL. It is huge. The font bowl, made of heavy, patina-ed bronze, is about three feet across, set in an enormous solid wood stand that adds another foot or two to its width. You can fit a whole baby in this font: it is so big that my eldest daughter, when she started to talk, called it, “the church bath.”

And one time, when I was teaching a pre-baptism class at this church, it hit me: this baptism thing is scary. Because the plan was: these parents would hand off their baby who, let’s be honest, didn’t really know me very well, to me. And then, I was going to have to lean well over that font, holding their baby in one arm, and splash three times, in the name of the Trinity (I am a splasher, not a dripper, when it comes to baptism…the more water, the better!).

I don’t know about the rest of you who have parented, but I do know that under other circumstances, I would not normally hand my baby off to a sort-of-stranger, and allow her to dangle this precious child over a three-foot wide basin of water.

Bathing is one of the easier metaphors for baptism. It easy to see when we sprinkle or splash water on babies. The church bath.

Baptism, in fact, is not entirely safe.

One of the other metaphors for baptism is death and new life. In baptism, we join in the journey Jesus took, from death to new life.

It’s easiest to see this metaphor when a baptism is done by immersion, when the baptized is taken down into the water, and then brought back out. (Incidentally, there is no theological problem for Lutherans, or Presbyterians, for that matter, with baptism by immersion…but since we more often baptize infants and children than adults, and our sanctuaries are set up for these baptisms, that’s what we’re more familiar with–adults and older children who are being baptized can also be baptized at a font, and so that’s the more common practice, for practical reasons, in sanctuaries like ours…It takes a lot of water to do an immersion baptism.)

Water has a paradoxical danger: water is deadly. But it’s necessary for life.

Have you ever heard this idea that human beings love to go to the ocean’s shore because it reminds us of life? The rhythmic pounding of salty waves, like a heart beat, like the blood coursing through our veins? And what’s the number? Our bodies are 90% water?

Sing to the Lord a new song, Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice, Let the sea roar, says Psalm 96. Maybe going to the shore is even a way of participating in that new song.

Water is life. Too little of it, and we die. But in an instant, too much water can also be death.

Water is one of those places where we have to give up control. We cannot control the riptides, or the downpours. Neither can we control the weather (though, sadly, we might influence it for the worse with our pollution and poor care for creation).

The people of the Hebrew Scriptures lived in a climate like ours, tucked up against an ocean, with wet and dry seasons, and droughts.

A drought is the setting of this story from 1 Kings. Israel has been dry for three years. The King, Ahab, and his queen, Jezebel, were pushing Israel to follow Baal, a neighboring god, who was worshipped for ability to control things like water and lightning and the seasonal rains. Some people in Israel were essentially hedging their bets. “Well, if our God, YHWH, isn’t going to do anything, maybe we should trust Baal. I mean, it is a drought…we’ll try anything to end it.”

Elijah calls them all out: which God is real? The prophets of Baal get a chance to convince their god (the one who controls lightning, remember?) to light up an altar. After hours of begging, nothing.

And then Elijah builds an altar and does everything possible to make it impossible to light. Including three dousings of water (a baptism!). But Elijah’s God, YHWH, controls water and lightning and drought. The altar is consumed by fire, and clouds rise up over the ocean and the rains begin.

Elijah knows, has full confidence: God is in control. Baal is not even a thing. And he comes at that knowledge with breathtaking confidence, with a clear sense of purpose and mission (I am in awe of him for this confidence.)

And then there’s this centurion who we meet in Luke: we have a few clues about his religious inclinations. He’s Roman, but he seems to have respect for the Jewish community. He is, by our modern standards, problematic and imperfect, a slave owner, a member a repressive military regime. He is at the same time confident that Jesus can heal his slave, but reluctant to meet him face to face. He is unsure if he deserves God’s favor. He is, for me a confusing character. But one thing sticks: Jesus says he has great faith. Somehow, he has figured out that this Jesus, among all the other religious options available to him, and in spite of all the privileges and safety nets he has as a high ranking member of society, somehow he has faith that Jesus is the one who holds back the chaos of sickness and death.

In our fear, in our worry and anxiety, we can get distracted, and we can put our hope in something that will not ultimately save us. Most of us are not erecting an altar to Baal in our backyards, but perhaps we become convinced that we will be saved by bank accounts, our educational degrees, or social status. We will make it safely through because we exercise and eat right and raise perfect children. Or, if we don’t feel secure yet, maybe we can achieve that thing that would make our life secure: a relationship, a house, the perfect car. And those things become our idols: not because they are inherently bad (some of those things have the potential to be quite good.) No, not because these things are bad, but because they do not have the power to hold us safe.

Life is scary. Ann Lamott, who you may all be sick of me quoting, wrote this about her son Sam after he was born:

Sam is unbelievably pretty, with long, thin, Christ-like feet.  I told my friend Carpenter this and he said, “It’s an often difficult world out there, and it’s good to have long, grippy feet.” (Operating Instructions)

But Psalm 96 reminds us: God’s world is firmly established. It shall never be moved.

There are days when it is difficult to believe that our grippy toes are going to hold on, when we are sure we will be overcome by the chaos….maybe not by water, or weather or lightning, but by all the other things that feel like they are spinning out of our control.

But here’s the truth: whether we come to the whole thing with a clear plan like Elijah; or whether, like the centurion, we can only send our friends and neighbors, and we’re not even sure we deserve what God has to offer, God is in control. This world belongs to God: the oceans and heavens sit firmly in God’s hand.

It all belongs to God: and so do we all. God will bring us through, and draw us out; call us by name, and invite us to service; God’s hand is holding us fast. This is love, that God is present for us whether we come with the full confidence of Elijah, or the impartial understanding of that centurion. God is present, whether we come to the waters walking on our own two feet or carried, a babe in arms. God made this world, it is firmly established. Let the earth rejoice. Let the sea roar its praises. We will not fall into the waters.

Thanks be to God.

Good Friday: March 25

It also happened in1608 and again today: Good Friday falls on the normal date of the Feast of the Annunciation. John Donne on that.

A photo posted by Erica Schemper (@eschemper) on

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

The Thursday Meal

The most I have to think about today is what to make for dinner.  (Well, that and how to get the dishes done and squeeze in a trip to the zoo because the active 5 year old is showing signs of cabin fever, or if we need to stay home because the toddler seems a little under the weather.)

Maybe we’ll make bread, so that I can at least break it at the table, and hand it out to my small congregation. I am still disoriented by a life that is not completely swallowed up by Holy Week (because that is the reality for most church clergy), but this year, I’ve got some small people who aren’t going to make it through a worship service that starts at 6:30pm. Eventually, that time will work for them.

But tonight, at least, the centerpiece of the evening at church would be the meal. And that’s the centerpiece around here anyway. The sacred and the mundane.

And besides: food is not all that mundane. I read this passage by M.F.K. Fisher this morning, handily included in readings for Maundy Thursday in this series.

People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?

They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and the fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.

I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red win in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about the people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness.

There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder , more insistent hungers. We must eat. If, in the face of that dread fact, we can’t find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we’ll be no less full of human dignity.

There is a communion of more than our bodies when when bread is broken and wine drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?

A Sermon to Myself on this Primary Season

Everyone’s weighing in on the primaries today, and honestly, I have no particular credentials as an expert on this, but I’m trying to sort it out for myself, and writing (along with a glass of milk and a pastry) helps me sort, so here goes. If it helps you, too, feel free to join me. I’m not saying anything new here, but it’s helping me to put these things together. (And it’s not really a sermon except for maybe the place where it winds up, but before that, it’s only a little bit churchy…)

Since I do know something about church leadership, that’s where I’ll start. There’s this funny thing about how churches function: when they are searching for a new pastor, intentionally or under the surface, they will often look for a subsequent pastor who is different than the predecessor. For instance, the classic stereotype is “Reverend Smith was such a wonderful people person. But we need someone this time around who can really dig into the administrative tasks of leadership.” Sometimes this is a way to make sure the congregation can work on some things that went uncared for previously. But other times it’s a reaction to something that made the congregation uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s a legitimate discomfort: “Reverend Smith never kept a close eye on the budget and we really need someone who will pay attention to that.” Other times, it’s a discomfort of the “disturbing the comfortable” variety: “Reverend Smith really pushed us to work on our relationships with each other, to the point of reconciliation. And that was hard work, and we really don’t want to do that anymore.”)

In recent article, William Saletan puts forth the the idea that while Obama has led as an “adult”, Trump’s leadership style is akin to that of a “child.”

Trump validates the maxim that in presidential primaries, the opposition party tends to choose a candidate who differs temperamentally from the incumbent. Obama is an adult. Therefore, Republicans are nominating a child.

Another way of putting this: Obama, as a leader, has the ability (not always, but often) to make decisions that don’t make everyone happy, that don’t have to follow the lead of the crowd, and that aren’t made just to help him feel “together” with the crowd he’s talking to. He stays calm and deliberate under pressure (to the point that people get annoyed with him for being too calm).

Meanwhile, Trump as a candidate seems to be willing to say whatever makes the crowd happy (or, well, worked up, but not against Trump). My five year old (who listens to more NPR in the car than I care to admit), put it pretty well the other day, “I don’t like the Trump. He’s always angry.” (The kid is wise. Maybe it is all the NPR.)

This is what Systems Theorists call “differentiation of self.” Here are descriptions of of what that looks like from The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family:

People with a poorly differentiated “self” depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that either they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform.

Trump, right?

A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality.

Obama, I think. (I know some people disagree with me on this, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.)

In addition to the pendulum shift in leadership styles, we’re also seeing a pendulum shift related to what Jim Wallis calls “America’s original sin.”Racism, and more specifically, White Supremacy, are the big lie that our country has been telling itself from the very beginning. For all the good things about this country, that’s the rotten, unseemly thing deep down in our collective heart. And it’s going to take a very long time to weed it out.

(By the way, I’m not immune to misstep of quoting a white guy on this. I wonder if there’s a person of color who has made this observation before Wallis? Probably. And, yes, you should call me out on that. As I said before, I’m not an expert in politics nor am I in race relations, but I figure it’s more important to talk about race and make mistakes than it is to just not talk about it at all.)

I remember, a little over seven years ago, sitting in bed, watching the Obamas the night of the election. I could have gotten in the car and been there in about 45 minutes, but I had a toddler and we opted to stay put. So I cried at home, because it seemed like, finally, finally, things were getting a little better in a country that is so very scarred by racism. We had a black president. Things were changing.

The last eight years have, though, seemed pretty awful in terms of race relations. (I don’t need to list it off. You know the story.) I don’t know if I’d say we haven’t made progress as a country, though. Maybe having a black president has brought racism and white supremacy up to the surface again. And, while painful, if it’s at the surface, it’s easier to see, and to point out. (I’m not saying, by any means, that makes racism OK. What I am saying is that this task of rooting it out of America’s soul is going to take a TON of work.)

This helps me understand that we’re looking at a long arc of history. Slavery is a bigger part of our history than emancipation. The relative freedom won in the civil rights era is a tiny piece of the big picture.

The pushback against Obama, I have no doubt, is at least partly (and probably more than partly) grounded in racism. Sometimes unconsciously, and often well above the surface. And so the politics of the last eight years have gotten more and more entrenched in “us and them” language, with “us” usually being white people and “them” being people of color who are threatening “the America we knew.”

Trump rips the veil right off of the “us versus them” dynamic. And white people who feel threatened by the change join in the pushback against Obama because they like that Trump “says what he thinks.”   Trump, and the racist crap that comes out of his mouth, or is implied by his actions, is the perfect pushback candidate to Obama.

I keep scanning article after article analyzing the primaries and the political state of the country for The Big Answer, because I feel like if I can make sense of this mess, I’ll feel better about it, or at least see a clear path that does not lead to President Trump. (And, honestly, I don’t care if his policies are the most moderate of any of the Republican candidates. I don’t care if he’s going to backtrack on that hateful stuff he’s pushing once he hits the general election. For one thing, a huge turn around signals to me that he’s a terribly undifferentiated leader, and he’s going to be a disaster. But the biggest thing? In as much as his hateful spew is a reflection of the state of America? Oh, no. We have got to be better than this as a nation.)

All those articles are starting to feel like a very crazy-making rabbit hole, though, and I probably won’t find an article that makes sense of this mess, so I might need to follow the example of those like my friend Liv, who says that today she’s backing away and going for a walk in the woods today, before I go completely crazy. (This might mean folding laundry for me.)

Meanwhile, I also notice that I’m thinking a good bit about American history, too. I notice that we’ve gone through some pretty awful stuff as a country, and I’m pinning my hopes, as an American, on things like the fact that the nation survived (with scarring, but still) a civil war, and the Teapot Dome Scandal, and the Great Depression. The Constitution is a pretty amazing document and I think we can get through a mess. I hope, that is.

And in an even broader sense, as a Christian, I’m thinking along the lines of Psalm 146, especially verse 3:

Do not put your trust in princes,

in mortals, in whom there is no help.

God willing, we aren’t going to wind up with President Trump. But even so, God will still be the one in charge. Regarding that walk in the woods, the third verse of “This Is My Father’s World,” for all the male God-language, seems pretty appropriate:

This is my Father’s world:

O let me ne’er forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong,

God is the Ruler yet.

This is my Father’s world:

Why should my heart be sad?

The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!

God reigns; let earth be glad!

And then, I when I get back from the woods (or the laundry)? Well, I’m not giving up. Trusting that this is God’s world doesn’t let Christians off the hook when it comes to action.

I have friends who are are good Christians, and sincere Republicans. And I hope they’re just as convinced in the meantime that the hate and divisiveness which are so out in the open in Trump’s campaign are just unacceptable ways to lead, the type of leadership that, no matter the policy platforms behind it, is no where near leadership as God intended. I know I do have conservative friends who see that already, and I am praying, hard, that you all are able to move your party around. I’m committing to deep and pretty much unceasing prayer for all of you in the next few months because you have an important job and some big decisions right now, and I don’t want your party to disappear (it takes a right wing and left wing to fly a plane, correct?).

For me, an avowed Democrat, it will be relatively easy to vote Democrat in the presidential election. I was going to anyway, no matter if it was Bernie or Hillary. But this might well be the first election when I do something like participate in phone banks. Until then, I’ll keep pointing to the stuff that Trump is doing that’s absolute crap, even if I’m preaching to the choir. And, bigger picture, it doesn’t hurt to keep poking and probing at the horrible, horrible rot of racism and white supremacy, both in the national heart and wherever it’s buried in my own.

If I am certain of one thing, reflecting on this election season, it’s this: I’m convinced that the healing of the soul of our nation could be very much up for grabs this time around.

The Stay At Home Reverend: A Collect for Sibling Rivalry

They are all still alive. Nearly to our first stop.

A photo posted by Erica Schemper (@eschemper) on Jun 16, 2015 at 5:06pm PDT

Oh Jesus, Leader and Wrangler of the Disciples,
you know what it is to put up with bickering about silly things, like who sits where, and who eats what, and gets more of the good stuff.

Help me to have patience with my own small flock: when they bellow at each other like Sons of Thunder; when they throw books at each other; when they threaten to cut off people’s ears.
Give me the strength to pry them off of each other, and the wisdom to know when it’s time to send one of them on a sojourn in the wilderness (a.k.a their bedroom) to realign their priorities with life in the community that is our family.

In the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who always get along.

Worship Together: A Confirmation Workbook for Worship

The gathered community today at HTLC. This picture is for the confirmands, as a reminder of the congregation who welcomed them!

A photo posted by Erica Schemper (@eschemper) on May 24, 2015 at 3:12pm PDT

This year, I’ve been working more closely with the confirmation process at my church than I have in awhile.

One of my concerns with confirmation is the pattern many of us in the mainline church have fallen into of expecting youth who have often been pulled from worship for a children’s time or have not attended worship much to suddenly, during their confirmation process, understand what’s going on in worship.

So, for my confirmands, I wrote a series of lessons, essentially workbook entries, that are a guide to the five major parts of the worship service: Gathering; Word; Response; Meal; Sending.

Each of my confirmands is working through one of these sections a week with an adult mentor (mentors have the same workbook as confirmands). They meet for a few minutes before worship, sit together during worship (and are encouraged to whisper to each other about the unit they are working on that week), and then spend about 20 minutes together after worship following up. (I suspect the mentors are also accidentally learning a bit about worship, as well!)

Seeing these pairs of mentors and confirmands sitting together in worship is one of my favorite things right now. I’m calling it “Worship Together.”

I’ve linked to a PDF of the materials I created for this. While it’s written for my context (a Lutheran congregation), I suspect it could be adapted pretty easily for other congregations, and even for other traditions (after all, I am a Presbyterian minister trained and ordained in a Reformed tradition…) If this might be useful to you in your ministry, please use it! I only ask that you give me credit and let me know that you used it. (It’s protected by a Creative Commons License.) If you really want to make me happy, let me know how it worked for your group!

Click here to find a PDF of Worship Together

The (Not So) Daily Office

My less-used-than-I'd-like daily planner.

This is my daily planner. It was part of a kick starter campaign and I wanted it. It integrates the church year with the calendar year, and has space for reflection and planning and journaling.

Weeks of it are blank at this point.

But there days here and there that I’ve filled in, and reflection pages that I’ve used. And when I have used it, it’s been monumentally helpful. I’ve made some really important decisions with the help of this planner.

I’m a horrible daily practice person. My current lifestyle exacerbates this. (In the world of child-rearing and keeping house, I’m much more Maria than Captain Von Trapp.) I actually mapped out, in January, what I wish my daily schedule was like. It’s wonderful.

6:00am: run or yoga

6:45am: shower and dress

7:00am: 15 minutes of devotions and previewing the day

7:15-9:00am: the morning rush (getting everyone to school)

9:00am-2:15pm: the tasks of the day

2:15-5:30pm: be present for the kids’ afternoon

5:30-7:00pm: meal and clean up

7:00-8:30pm: bedtimes

8:30-9:00pm: prep for a new day

9:00pm: reset and rest with Erik

But life around here is a moving target, and I can rarely fit this schedule into my day. Here, for example, is how yesterday went.

5:30am: Hazel wakes up

6:30am: Two more kids awake, one with a wet bed.

7:00-8:00am: breakfast and getting people out the door

8:00-8:20am: drop Zora off at school and Erik off at the train

8:20-10:00am: run errands with Abram and Hazel because Abram doesn’t have school and we need some supplies for a project to keep him occupied and we need milk

10:00am-1:15pm: crafts with Abram; making a mess in the kitchen with Abram; make dinner ahead of time; clean up after Abram; feed people lunch

1:15pm-2:35pm: get Abram and Hazel out the door for Abram’s preschool parent teacher conference, drop Abram off at preschool afternoon care, run to the post office

2:35-3:15pm: pick up Abram and Zora, get to Zora’s swimming lesson

4:30-6:30pm: learn that Zora is ready to try out for the swim team, but tryouts don’t happen until 6:30pm and if we don’t try tonight, she has to wait at least a week for another time slot; consult with Erik and ask him to meet us at the train station nearest the swimming facility; take kids out for pizza; meet Erik; play at park

6:30-7:15pm: Zora tries out for swim team

7:45pm: home and get everyone in bed

Yesterday was particularly nuts, but you get the idea.

I’m learning to live with this reality, that I don’t live in a world where everyday is able to fit into the same schedule.

And I figure I’d better extend myself some grace to live in the shape of the days I’ve been given. Which includes some grace for the fact that the blog has been sitting here for over a week.

Skipping the Ashes (Or, How the Momming Schedule is Humbling the Rev.)

New season: purples for Lent.

A photo posted by Erica Schemper (@eschemper) on Feb 10, 2016 at 7:05am PST

If you ask me, when I’m in full-on-clergy mode, I’ll tell you that Ash Wednesday is a wonderful liturgical tradition for kids. It’s the sort of church ritual that they can actually touch. Someone puts dirt on their heads. They will ask questions. You can have deep theological discussions about it on the way home. Fascinating.

The perennial problem, of course, being that Ash Wednesday never seems to fit well into the schedule of people who have other things going on.

Today, for example, I am occupied from the crack of dawn until 9:30am with little people waking up and getting a couple of them off the to school. Then the baby (who is now really toddler who naps best in her crib) needs to take a nap (she’s been deprived of a good nap time for a couple days), which I’ll have to wake her up from when I have to do the first school pick up at noon. A few hours later, we pick up the big kid from girl scouts, and then we have a weird hour and a half window of time before her swimming lesson. By then, it will be time to prep dinner, and around 6:30pm, the energetic five year old will transform into a crazy person who needed to go to bed 20 minutes ago.

Most churches around here have a 7:30pm Ash Wednesday service. Mine included. Erik and Zora will likely go. I’ll stay home with the people who are melting down at that time of night.

A few places have a noon service (note that noontime school pick up…so we can’t pull that off); and I even found a 4:00pm, but it’s during a swimming lesson.

My dream scenario is that a neighborhood pastor thinks of it to do ashes to go somewhere convenient to those of us dropping small people off at school. My perfect dream scenario is that I should be that local pastor: last year this time I was thinking that I should really talk to the school and position myself on the sidewalk wearing my clerical collar and bearing ashes. But the logistics of how I’d drop my own children off and manage that toddler for the hour overwhelmed me.

Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be, if Lent is a sort of spiritual Spring cleaning to make room for Easter. Perhaps I should have rescheduled the day, canceled a swim lesson, decided we would go without a nap, planned to retrieve people from school at a different time. I’ll admit, back in the day of full time pastoring, when I had the luxury of great childcare, and hours to devote to arranging my schedule around church, I was inclined to think everyone should reschedule their lives around the churchy stuff.

But more and more, I realize how difficult it is to break the pattern and rhythm of our own lives (and the lives, in my case, of the three small people with whom I am currently tasked). And more and more I wonder if we forget that spiritual practice has to happen in the warp and weave of the other stuff we have to do: this is so easy to forget when you’re the professional who (almost literally) lives in the church building (aka “the cloisters”). There’s a particular power about holiness that can break into the ordinary stuff.

The best we’re doing around here is lighting the purple candles on the table to mark the change of seasons. And maybe, during that nap, I’ll give myself a few minutes to read through the scripture passages I’d hear if I could go and sit through an entire Ash Wednesday service.

(Apparently, Ash Wednesday and kids has been on my mind before…)

Out of Practice

Hazel, wondering what’s going on: is Mama actually writing a (gasp) blog post?!?

A photo posted by Erica Schemper (@eschemper) on Feb 9, 2016 at 10:22am PST

This Lent, instead of taking something away I’m going to add. And take something away, sort of.

I miss the golden age of blogging (which, in my universe, was about 8 years ago). Much as I love short-form social media for staying connected, my Facebook posts and conversations are little dribs and drabs throughout the day, and I miss thinking in broader strokes. Those little dips into the adult world where many of you are thinking deep thoughts (or, sometimes, jus wonderfully silly thoughts) are a life-line for me during days when I’m mostly absorbed with taking care of my kids. This is why I don’t go in for the full Lenten Fast from Social Media: it’s how I’m best able to stay connected to friends in far flung places, and people I can’t get together with face to face more regularly because my social calendar in this season of my life is largely filled with the needs of the small people who live in my house. I’m grateful for it.

But I miss the way blogs let people interact with more extended thoughts back in the day.  And I miss pushing myself to spend a little more time thinking about something, crafting a thought, and bringing it through to it’s end. I miss the comment threads on blogs, and the way I kept up with people through their thoughts and more expanded views into scenes from their daily lives.

I miss the way that a blog post allowed me to think in paragraphs instead of sentences. My writing has gone sorely out of practice.

So, this Lent, I’m going to try to channel some of that social media time into longer form writing, mostly for the sake of my own brain, in the hopes that it will be a reminder to me of the sense of self that I got from writing more regularly. I might dip into the social media world less frequently during a given day, and channel that effort into the blogging. If you want to follow along, I’d love to have you here. (And, yes, of course, I’ll be linking it up to Facebook, maybe even Twitter!) But I’m not telling myself this will be daily: I’m aiming for four times a week.That’s a little extension of grace to myself.

The Big Ask

listen to mp3 file of “The Big Ask”

John 2:1-11

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

As we lift our faces to the sky and give thanks for the California rain

(and hope and pray that this is abundance, enough, for thirsty land)

Another story about water…

You’ve heard about the water in Flint, Michigan?

After city residents and doctors have been complaining for months,

the state of Michigan is finally paying attention:

levels of lead in the municipal water supply are high enough

to poison the children of Flint.

I had one of those moments this week when the news got personal, and shook me.

There was an interview on NPR with Rochelle Riley, a columnist from Detroit.

SHAPIRO: Flint is a majority African-American city where, according to the census, 40 percent of people live below the poverty line. Do you think that played a role in the state’s response?

RILEY: Flint is …the can that gets kicked down the road. When the car company left and all the jobs left …they keep getting hard hit. And these are strong, resilient people who are trying their best to turn the city around. I did write in the column that I don’t think this problem would have been handled this way had it been Grand Rapids in Western Michigan or any of the other small towns that are predominantly white where their representatives hear them when they cry.


I was born in Grand Rapids, MI. I lived in that city as a child, and again in my 20s.  (My Mom’s side of the family is from West Michigan…)

I’m the kind of person whose representatives “hear me when I cry.”

The people of Flint?

They just get kicked down the road.

And that’s how it’s been, for a very long time.

There might be a news story like this that hit you square in the face this week, too. Hit a little close to home; reminded you of your privilege in life; made you mutter a prayer under your breath, “Lord, have mercy…”

There are so many news stories….so much wrong with the world,

Or maybe it’s the accumulation of grief and pain in your own life,

no news reports needed.

John’s Gospel begins: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Jesus comes to a broken and hurting world, now, and then.

Back then, they had the poor and the hungry,

and unclean water and injustice;

there were sick children,

and governments who won’t listen to people’s cries.

And in such a time and a place,

the wedding feast was a little relief from real life, a celebration.

It was such a high point in that culture

that the wedding was how you talked about heaven,

about your hopes for what things would be like if the world was made whole: the Great Banquet, the Wedding Feast,

when God would make this broken world whole again.

But the wedding scene doesn’t happen at the end of John’s Gospel. Instead, it’s the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

It’s the third day, and the mother of Jesus is invited. So are Jesus and his disciples, and they go, and their journey together begins with a party.

Until the wine runs out. And Mary leans over and says to Jesus, “They have no more wine.”

And Jesus says this strange thing: “What’s that to me? Or to you?”

Bible scholars debate all directions,

up down, and sideways,

about how to interpret what Jesus says to her.

Is this a cultural thing?

Was Mary out of line?

Was Jesus out of line?

Can God change God’s mind because of our requests?

But as far as I’m concerned, the important thing here is that Jesus’ response hits at something we are all really, deep down, afraid of.

If we are vulnerable with God, does God really care?

Is this really what God thinks of our requests? “What’s it to me?”

In her book on prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow, Anne Lamott worries about this.

When I pray, which I do many times a day, I pray for alot of things…I ask for help for this planet, and for her poor, and for the suffering people in my little galaxy…

I can be big in prayer and trust that God won’t mind if I pray for [my dying cat]…Is God going to say, “I’m sorry, we don’t have enough for the cat”? I don’t think so.

And yet, she knows that after those lists we pray to God, it’s not just about the things we ask for, the specific requests. She continues:

I can picture God saying: “Okay, Hon. I’ll be here when you’re done with your list.” The He goes back to knitting new forests or helping less pissy people until I hit rock bottom. And when I finally do, there may be hope….there’s freedom in hitting bottom…relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing…this is where restoration can begin…Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through…it’s the first great prayer.

Back at Cana, they are out of wine.

It’s a big thing for the wedding.

It’s a small thing in a very thirsty world.

And it’s Mary,

the first human ever to carry Jesus in her very body

(after all, what else is a Christian

but someone who carries Jesus with them?),

it’s Mary who is open, honest, vulnerable

with Jesus about what’s troubling her.

For Mary, in this moment, this is the Big Ask.

In the midst of the party, this is a devastating development.

There is no more wine.

Mary doesn’t propose the solution.

But she lays bare the problem.

And she pushes ahead. What are those words we hear at the end of so many prayers? “

Into your hands, O Lord, we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy, through your Son, Jesus Christ our lord.

Mary pushes her concern into Jesus’ hands,

with confidence, and expectation…

despite what he says,

and tells the servants to do whatever he tells them.

And Jesus’ response to her?

It’s a bigger answer than the ask.

Water for making people clean, a basic need, a basic part of religious practice, the hum drum everyday of following God,

The water is not so much replaced as honored in this transformation into wine.

Water that was ordinary,

changed to gallons upon gallons of wine,

and not just anything,

but the good stuff.

It is more than enough.

The answer to Mary’s big ask is filled to overflowing.

It’s a huge miracle, but an oddly quiet one.

The steward never learns how this happened.

The guests continue their party.

But this is how Jesus reveals his glory to the disciples, and to his mother. They may not know what is coming,

but they see this glory:

that with Jesus, no request is too small or too great.

They might not know what it’s going to look like,

but somehow the ordinary of this world

is about to overflow with the grace and truth of God.

And maybe this is what Anne Lamott means when she talks about prayers for help as hitting rock bottom.

When we lay before God the list of things in the world, in our lives, that are troubling,

when we set them down with confidence in God’s hands and just let them be, God responds with transformation.

Friends, what will we ask? What is your prayer? It is too big or too small?

Where do you need help, for yourself, for the world, in your little galaxy of people, in our communities, in our church?

And can we ask with confidence,

not that there will be an answer of our own devising,

but that God has the world in hand?

And ask with confidence that God is working at transforming this world, beyond our wildest imaginings?

We can learn from Mary,

the first one of us who said, “yes” to Jesus,

Mary, at this wedding feast,

showing us  that we can lay our concerns open,

we can be confident that God will hear, and God will answer.

Because here, at the beginning of his ministry, is Jesus, showing his  glory: and the glory of God is abundant:

the needs of our thirsty world will be filled,

to overflowing, beyond our greatest imagining.

This is the promise of Jesus for us,

for our world,

for all of creation:

this world may be broken,

but Jesus has come to make all things new

and on the third day,

when we have come through the darkness

of the darkest Friday and Saturday,

on the third day we will have Easter,

we will know the joy of the Great Wedding Banquet,

and we will see the glory of God, in the face Jesus Christ.

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