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.

Wise Up

Psalm 1

Mark 9:33-37

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

I’ve known Psalm 1 forever. I learned a sung version of it for a children’s church musical when I was in first grade:

I’ve got roots going down to the waters, I’ve got leaves growing up to the sunshine, I’m becoming what the Lord of trees has meant me to be: a strong young tree.

Yeah. I still remember it. We practiced a lot.

Anyway, now that I spend much of my time thinking about the Christian nurture and education of children, I recognize how wise this choice of song was. Strong images for little, concrete-thinking brains to latch onto. A basic message about the way God’s world works: if we stay connected to God, and connected to God’s intention for us, we will be strong, abiding, like well-watered trees. If we don’t, we will wither and blow away like dried grasses. It’s like a first grade science experiment, where you water one plant and let another dry out and see what happens.

It’s a simple message: two paths, and here are the results of each.

Of course, as we gain life experience past the first grade, and think about it, maybe this lesson becomes simplistic? Is this really true? Do people who follow God always prosper? Do people who flaunt God’s intent for the world always shrivel away into insignificance? I mean, look what comes just before Psalm 1:

The book of Job. There it is. The answer to the quandry of Psalm 1: yes, says Job, sometimes bad things do happen to good people. And there are no easy answers in Job.

Confounding. Two texts saying different things, right next to each other. Come on, Bible! Why can’t it be easy?

Even Jesus gets in on saying these confounding things. What does he tell the disciples, as they argue, like children, about who is the best disciple? “Whoever wants to be first must be last, and servant of all.”

And then, Jesus takes a child, and makes it clear that a child is the most important of all. (Children, by the way, in that society had very little status. They were essentially property. But here is Jesus, saying that to embrace and welcome a child is to embrace and welcome Jesus himself, God incarnate.)

I’m not going to answer any of the hard questions from today’s texts. Personally, I want an answer, and so it’s hard for me not to do that today (my favorite sermons are “hard text” sermons because I love the wrestling to a resolution…) And there are so many opportunities today for wrestling. But today, no solutions. Let’s just talk about the wrestling.

As Christians, this is our book. What we believe and who we are, especially in the Protestant traditions stemming from the Reformation, is based on Word, the Word of God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and brought to us in this book. That is not a simple thing. This book is very old. It’s a collection of works. At the same time that it often makes sense to us thousands of years later, it also takes some work to live with this book.

And if a child who grows up in this congregation comes away from here with anything, I hope it is an understanding that loving, respecting, and honoring this book involves wrestling with it. Wrestling with every last confounding saying of Jesus.

Wrestling with every text that contradicts another.

Wrestling with everything that is hard for us to hear, and every text that we hear freshly and realize we totally misunderstood.

We talk about “the living Word,” and part of that life is that the Word, which was made flesh in Jesus Christ, is also embodied in this community…we are to live out this book, and stay connected to it, because that is how we become what the Lord of trees has meant us to be.

It turns out that we had many opportunities for wrestling with the text this morning. In churches that, like ours, use the Revised common lectionary, we have at least four passages to pick from every week.

In general, it works this way. One text  is a Psalm. One is a text from another book of the Hebrew Bible. Then there’s a text from the Gospels (Matthew Mark Luke and John); and finally, a text from another of the New Testament books. Sometimes there are some “alternates” (often on Sundays when one of the assigned texts is “difficult”) One of the texts that it was possible to pick as a reading today is Proverbs 31…grab your pew Bible and take a look.

It’s a really tricky text for liberal and progressive Christians, especially if we want to consider ourselves feminists.

Proverbs, one of those texts we call “Wisdom literature” has this chapter toward the end that describes “the ideal woman.”

She rises while it is still night

and provides food for her household

and tasks for her servant-girls.

She considers a field and buys it;

with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.

She girds herself with strength,

and makes her arms strong.

She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.

Her lamp does not go out at night.

Every time I read it, it makes me feel entirely inadequate as a North American Suburban Mother. Because I do not get up before dawn; sometimes the best I can do to provide food for my kids is to throw a handful of crackers in their direction; I am horrible with real estate and the stock market; my tomato plants shriveled up and died this summer; I have no intentions of running my own small business; and I have not been doing weight training like I hear a woman my age should be doing…Proverbs 31 is a totally unachievable standard.

Except, if we think this is a standard to live up to, we haven’t taught ourselves to read it correctly. Do you remember your high school English teacher making sure you understood genre? So, for example, you can’t read a satire as if it’s serious (English majors, have we got any? You remember Jonathan Swift and his satirical essay about eating Irish babies? We can explain this to the science majors during coffee hour!)

Proverbs 31 is actually a poem, an acrostic poem in fact: so think about genre. The point of a poem is not to prescribe behaviors for people. It’s art. Altogether, it makes a point. In fact, keep reading, and you get this lovely addition to the poem where this woman is a personification of God’s Wisdom. Maybe this is not so much a great housewife as a great metaphor for the work God is doing to continually uphold the world and keep things running well! One commentator points out that the key line here is “a capable wife” (and that’s a horrible translation here. It’s better as “a woman of virtue” or even better yet, “A woman of valor,” which is an enormous compliment, don’t you think? You can call me a woman of valor anytime!

Anyway, about two years ago, two of my former youth group members, sisters, decided to get sister tattoos. (Stay with me here…) I asked them for permission to tell this story today. They were delighted.

Cassidy and Maddie wanted something that went together, and honored the faith in God that is very central to who they are. They also wanted something that characterized who each of them are. But, these two are feminists to the core, so initially I was a little surprised when they posted, on facebook, that they were getting tattoos and the texts were from Proverbs 31.

And then I read more, and my former youth pastor heart just swelled with pride. They split verse 25 between them. Cassidy has “she is clothed in strength and dignity”  and Maddie has “she laughs without fear of the future” Here’s what they wrote to me about their tattoos:

We researched it a little bit. We wanted to reclaim it. People seem to be so surprised that we grew up religious and believe in God. The verse seemed to fit parts of our personalities. I don’t take the verses as something to strive for. By no means am I perfect, but God loves me anyways. I truly believe he made me in His vision. Having this tattoo is not only a bonding experience for us, but a permanent reminder to act out God’s love in my day-to-day life.

Women of valor, indeed, those two sisters, taking the Word, studying it, playing with it, understanding it,  and quite literally applying it to themselves.

This is what I want for each of us: that we know, beyond a doubt, that this book, the Word, is for us. That we know, beyond a doubt, that Jesus Christ, the Word, is for us. That we continue to wrestle and struggle, to spend our lives working to understand, to see how these words form us and shape us, how these words are a part of us.

Downstairs, on Sundays, we are working hard with the children of the congregation (and, lest we forget, as Jesus reminds us, the most important people here) so that they will have the ability to live with this Word. And here, too, every Sunday, we continue that work ourselves.

And of course, the best part of this is: God continues that work within us. Molding, shaping, carving out space in our lives. Quite literally, writing on our hearts that we belong to Jesus Christ.

Friends, this is good news. Thanks be to God.

Baby’s First Soccer Camp

Baby’s first day of soccer camp. Yes. This moment has come much later for this one than is normal.

A photo posted by Erica Schemper (@eschemper) on Jul 27, 2015 at 2:22pm PDT

Here’s Zora, on her way to her first soccer camp.

She’s 8. I saw kids there who were 4 who clearly have been doing this since they could walk.

So now I’m worried that I’ll come back in the afternoon and find her disappointed because everyone is way ahead of her. And it’s all my fault.

Here’s the thing. I’ve deliberately kept my kids out of sports, with a few exceptions. Abram and Zora take swimming lessons every week, all year, for the last two years. They’re not the cheapest lessons, but they are really well done, and I figure swimming is a life skill. Zora says she’d like to do a  children’s swim team, so we’re working toward that. She does a beautiful streamline and crawl stroke already, better than I can do (which isn’t saying much). Abram is not 100% fond of the water. But, that just convinces me even more that he needs this.

Zora takes a music lesson once a week, too. We always wanted her to take piano, but it’s guitar right now, because we have a teacher we adore for her. (Last spring, my childhood piano teacher died and I realized that it was just as much about the person teaching as the instrument. So we’re sticking with this teacher, because he’s a lovely human being.)

And that’s it. That is the sum total of the extracurriculars for my kids.

I’ve chosen to do it this way because there’s more time for me to hang out with them, we can go hiking on Saturdays or sleep in because there are no games to go to. Honestly, this is mostly about me being a bit of a lazy parent. I’m kind of protective of my schedule as much as I am of theirs. I actually think parents who have their kids in lots of stuff must have more energy than I do, and I admire them for that effort.

This week, I needed some backup for childcare. So Zora’s off to soccer camp.

And this might be the week that I discover that we are too late for her to pick up a sport because everyone else started so early. Who knows?

Or maybe I pick her up this afternoon and she has discovered a lifelong love of a sport. And we’re going to have to say “buh-bye” to lazy Saturdays.

Parenting. Such a crap shoot.

Underwater Basketweaving

listen to mp3 file of “Underwater Basketweaving”

John 15:9-17

(Easter 6B)

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

Dear Friends,

This sermon is a story about fruit, and what can happen when someone loves people enough to take care of them, and to water them with the Spirit.

Friday morning, when I had a few hours when I should have been writing this sermon, I wound up learning the soprano line of a piece called “Awake my Heart.” I got news earlier that morning that Peter Browne, my childhood choir director and piano teacher, was in a hospital in NYC, and might well be dying. Mr. Browne is 69. He found out he had bladder cancer 3 weeks ago.

When I was a kid, my Dad was the pastor of a church in the tiny town of Chenango, NY. As good pastor’s kids, my two sisters and my brother and I went to church there every Sunday. But one or two weeks a month, we’d go to the 8:00am service at our own church, and then scramble out to the car with my Mom, and hurry to Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church in Binghamton, the “big” city next to us, to sing in the Treble choir there.

Mr. Browne was one of those adults who talked to children as if they were adults, in a good way. On Wednesdays, before choir practice, he rolled up his sleeves and ate oreos at the same table as us. He knew what our hobbies were. We knew what his hobbies were (building canoes!). He expected great things from us, both musically and as people. He told us stories about church and about being a Christian. He took the choir on tours and on an annual choir camping weekend, and you could tell: he enjoyed these kids. He was our friend.

Now that I’m a parent, I understand that one of the best reasons for putting your kids into any sort of activity is the adults they encounter there. In fact, the quality of a kid’s basketball league or an art class is really not so much about the content or skill-learning, or, let’s be honest, college resume-padding, but about the adults who mentor them. As a Christian, it’s an added bonus for me when one of these adults in my kids’ lives is also a person who, openly or subtly, in word and in deed, teaches my kid what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Between choir practice and piano lessons, my siblings and I spent about 4 hours a week with Mr. Browne.   Sure, he was a great teacher. But don’t you think my parents must have known it was worth it because of the person he was, just as well?

There were a whole mess of kids in this choir with us, obviously (many also Mr. Browne’s piano students). And early on Friday morning, one of our fellow now-grown-up singers, Conrad, started contacting any of us he could find on social media with an idea. We needed to sing again for Mr. Browne. One of the grown up kids who still lives in Binghamton raced over to church and scrounged through the music room to find the right piece of music. He emailed us all a copy.

Angel, who, as a the seasoned high schooler was sort of the mama of the choir when I was a middle schooler, stood in her NYC apartment before she left for work, and recorded a video of herself conducting and singing the soprano line. She sent that to all of us. Jess, in Boston, put on her headphones, and while she was listening to Angel, she recorded the alto line. Conrad did the tenor and bass lines from his office in Washington, DC. Tim started collecting the videos (he’s a film maker) and compiling all the voices while he was sitting in an airport waiting to get on a flight. As he worked, videos came from my sister in Florida; and Lindsey in Texas; and Johanna in Berlin; and then Maya in Hawaii; and then from Athena in Singapore; and Phil in Italy. Who would have thought, when we were all lined up in our sweet little choir robes, that we would be making intercontinental music some day?

Athena looked at the list of who had sent in a video and wrote, “Wow just looked at the updated list of singers. That is the reach of a true teacher. May I contribute to so many in my life and through my music.”

On Saturday night, Angel brought the video to Mr. Browne, and his wife, and his daughter. The video of his choir singing to him was one of the last things he heard as he died.

Isn’t that, finally, what we all hope for? That what we water will grow, and things we never could have imagined will happen?

In John’s Gospel, Jesus sums up the purpose of remaining connected, interwoven, with God: to bear fruit, fruit that will last. This is what will happen when you are interwoven with the vine, when through you is flowing the good sap, the love that flows through and then out of the Trinity. We are invited by Jesus into the very sustenance of the Godself, the love that flows within and through the Trinity,

between the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit;

the Creator, the Redeemer, the Giver of Life.

This love is some powerful stuff. We are not talking about love in some sweet, sentimental way (and as a side note, can we just agree here, on Mother’s Day, that this day can be one example of the ways we simplify and sweeten the idea of love: Mother’s Day is a complex day emotionally for many people. Really for all of us. Because almost every human being has some hurt associated with the idea of mothering. None of us had a perfect mother. Not all of us have had the chance to parent in the way we wanted, and some of us don’t feel called to parent. And, even at its best, the way God intended mothers to be, the love of a mother is an intense and complicated thing…) We sugar coat so much about love, and maybe we do that because love is something that is truly raw and wild.

I once heard someone explain God’s love this way: imagine the sound of a mother’s heartbeat to a newborn infant. Multiply that by infinity, and that is how God loves us. That is no Hallmark card sentiment. That is the visceral, incarnate, blood and flesh sound of love. Biologically speaking, that heartbeat is the very sound that kept that infant alive in the womb, and the sound of comfort and safety outside.

This love of God that flows through us, it has all ferocity of mother-love (as Jesus says here, it is friendship to the point of dying for someone else).

Jesus brings up death here: according to John’s Gospel, he says all of this while sitting at a table, sharing a meal with the disciples. Eating together: the most daily of tasks. And he brings up death. With 20/20 hindsight, we know that this meal is the Last Supper, the meal to prefigure every meal we share at this table.

Earlier this week, when this sermon was headed in a different direction, I chose the title “underwater basketweaving” because I thought there were was something about the way these texts spoke of the waters of baptism, and the ways we are woven together with God and each other. I figured I could make something of that. The phrase is a joke about unnecessary college courses, the ones a student takes and his or her parents say, “well, what is THAT going to be good for?”

The surprise is that occasionally, the course that seems most frivolous to a student becomes incredibly useful. (You discover, through underwater basketweaving, a way to, I don’t know, build a better submarine …)

And maybe that’s how it is with God’s love flowing through us. Let’s be honest. We are not all going to lay down our very lives for the people around us.

The intensity and strength of God’s love, you see, is also expressed in the everyday business of living, and sometimes even in the things that might seem unimportant in the long run.

the sound a heartbeat

teaching a child how to breathe when she sings

breaking bread

sharing an oreo

telling a story

How do you produce fruit, fruit that will last? You remain connected to the vine, interwoven with the people of God, and soaked in the waters of baptism.

And in and out of daily living, those small things are filled with the love of God. we love people as friends, as mentors, and family members, as co-workers, and we, in everyday life, are the presence of God to them, the heartbeat of God’s love for them.

And it is finally that love, fierce and never-ending, that grows until the world knows this one, the one who loved us enough to lay down his life for his friends.

Friends, this is the Good News.

Thanks be to God.

Looking Out for Each Other

Following the events in Ferguson, MO, breaks my heart. Read that sentence carefully. The events in Ferguson, of course, break my heart. Eighteen year olds should not be shot by the police, ever. It doesn’t matter what they did, or what they might have done. We shouldn’t live in a time and place where that happens.

But following the events has also broken my heart. The week that Michael Brown was shot, social media feeds made it clear that we split, as a country, across racial lines, in what we give our attention to. The world’s sadness is not a pissing contest. It’s horribly sad that Robin Williams died. It’s horribly sad that Michael Brown died. But if you have friends of different races, I bet you noticed the difference in your social media feed, too.

And then, as everyone started to pay attention to Ferguson, there was some sense of shock by many white people: that this sort of thing was happening all the time.

Finally, we were all paying attention to the same thing, but here’s what I notice: in terms of our interaction online, even white Americans who are horrified by what happened in Ferguson and want to work on race relations, even these folks (and I include myself in this) are mostly only talking to other white people about it. There are lots of reasons. We don’t have many black friends. We’re scared that if we wade into issues of race, we’ll make a misstep and go under when we say something that we didn’t even realize was racist or incendiary. We’ve been burned before, trying to talk about it, and saying the wrong thing. I suspect there are reasons, too, why African Americans might be a bit reluctant to engage even well-meaning whites on the issue. (I’m sure there’s something I’m writing in this post that is somehow offensive. You know what? Fine. Please tell me what it is. But if I don’t take the chance of offending someone, I don’t speak, and silence is worse, I think, than taking the risk of saying the wrong thing.)

This thought hit me full force yesterday when I was listening to a radio broadcast of Michael Brown’s funeral. Full disclosure: I was not sitting somewhere, having carved out time to pray in solidarity…I was running errands, and I turned on the car radio and someone speaking those beautiful words of Romans 8: that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Hmm, I thought, NPR is getting awfully Christian!

It was Michael Brown’s uncle, Charles Ewing, delivering a eulogy, focused on the image from Genesis 4 of Abel’s blood crying out for justice from the ground. You can watch the full eulogy here. And as he concluded, Rev. Ewing did one of the most generous, gracious things I have ever heard in a sermon. He said:

There is a cry being made from the ground: not just from Michael Brown, but from the Trayvon Martins, from those children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, from the Columbine massacre, for the black on black crime, there is a cry being made from the ground, and God is hearing [the the voices of his slain]…God has heard the cry of the blood coming from the ground…People of God, in this nation, we must remind ourselves and look at our hearts and ask the question, “Am I my brothers keeper?”

Do you hear what he did there? It would have been so easy to name young African American men who have lost their lives to police violence. There are plenty of names. More than enough. Too many.

But in the middle of a funeral that has national implications for the state of race relations, this pastor refused to pit the races against each other. And he ever so graciously included in that list the type of gun violence that is most fearful and heart rending for white Americans: suburban school massacres. And then he asked us all to look together, and ask: are we not our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers?

I almost pulled the car over to think. Honestly, I’m at a juncture in life where it’s difficult for me to do much. I have two little kids, and a third on the way, and I’m not one of these super-energetic moms who can manage to make it to a protest in the clerical collar during the time of the afternoon when my three year old is usually about to throw a temper tantrum. (God bless those of you who are.) Maybe, I tell myself, it’s the little things, like how I talk to my children about race, and how I treat other people, and how I vote, and what I write on postcards to my elected officials.

But I’m also thinking we all need to look for ways to build more bridges. Easy ones, like this article suggests. We need to talk to our friends who don’t look like us about race, and we need to let those conversations happen, even if someone says something wrong. (We also need friends who don’t look like us…) We need to accept and affirm the pain that everyone in this country feels due to the violent nature of our culture. And then we need to do something about it, something that makes changes that prevent Sandy Hook, and police violence, and black on black crime. What else can we come up with? There’s got to be something, even small. After all, God wants us to look out for each other. We’re all God’s children.

photo credit: <a href=””>World Can’t Wait</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>

Come On In

Matthew 10:40-42

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

This past week, I’ve been living with some tension about this text from Matthew. In a few days, a good friend of mine and her husband and daughter will arrive to spend a few days with us…I want everything to be as near perfect as possible, but I’m a little worked up about this.

I love these friends, but other people will be in my house, and housekeeping is not one of my great gifts. I like to dream about housekeeping and think about home design, and I spend more time that I probably should thinking about what would make my home look nice. Someday, I figure, I’m going to declutter and minimize and have everything totally under control. But right now, I live in that part of life when deep cleaning one room of the house often means that one or both of my children have completely destroyed another room. At this point, unless I’ve got guests coming over, or a party, I tend to just let things slide. Which means I get a little anxious about the state of my house, and tend to not invite people over as much as I’d like to. I’d love to spend more time just sitting my backyard with a friend or two, casually, somewhat unplanned, be able to say, “hey, drop by, anytime!”

We’ve got a disjunct in our culture between what it means to be a gracious host…and what it means to be hospitable. A commentator I read this week pointed out that our affluent North American obsession with making our homes ready for guests and events has really done more to support the bottom line of Home Depot and Lowes than it has done to encourage hospitality.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a beautiful, well kept home. God made us with bodies…and making our aching joints comfortable, delighting our senses, meeting the needs of those bodies, is a good thing.

You know, of course, the word “Hospitality” is from the same root as “hospital.” Our model of hospitals today is based on the influence of a Christian tradition to take in all who needed shelter and care. The word “hospitality” really belongs to Christians. And it runs deeper than good home design and a great lasagne recipe and a perfect wine pairing.

This little paragraph from Henri Nouwen helps me make sense of what Christian hospitality looks like:

Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories, and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit….The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free….not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.

The first thing I notice about that quote: it’s pretty intimate. Imagine saying to your guests, “Come in, sit down.

Can you get something to drink?

And, tell me, what are the things, deep in your heart, of which you are most afraid?”

The text from Matthew actually challenges me to take the idea even farther than Nouwen does. For Nouwen, the marker of hospitality is creating space for the guest to change. Matthew suggests that it goes both ways: both guest and host make room for lives to be transformed by each other. This is part of Jesus directions to his disciples before he sends them out. He reminds them: whoever takes you in as a guest, takes me as a guest. Guests are prophets, guests are righteous, guests are those who have been sent to us by God.

And by taking in such a guest, the host will never be the same.

I want to tell you a story about hospitality, and warn you from the beginning: this story is beautiful, but it is extreme.

My parents’ friends, Karen and Bob, gave birth to three daughters and a son. They are a gorgeous, blond, clean scrubbed and successful Midwestern family. Bob is the president of a small college. Karen is a nurse. Several years ago, they announced to my parents that they had decided to adopt two teenage boys from Ethiopia. Their girls were almost all off to college. Karen and Bob knew they weren’t ever going to truly be empty nesters, though, because their son James is differently abled and will live with them for the rest of their lives. The college president’s house was big. They were reading about how AIDS has affected families all over Europe and in Ethiopia, and about older kids looking for families. James was lonely without the girls. So, why not?

Their adopted sons arrived and thrived. They are the stars of their high school soccer team. They caught up with their grade levels. James has brothers. They like to visit my parents, who live in the neighborhood in Chicago with the best Ethiopian restaurants, and immigrants from everywhere in the world. And after dinner, they go play soccer on the beach with kids from all over the place. Karen and Bob have gone back to Ethiopia with the boys and a couple of their daughters. One of the boys is starting college next year.

There’s another wrinkle to this story, though: in Ethiopia, there are a number of children’s agencies that have pioneered a way of caring for children where, as often as possible, instead of institutionalizing children, they subsidize a family member to help care for the kids. This was true of Karen and Bob’s boys: they have a sister who is about 6 years older than them. When their parents died, she was in no place to care for her brothers on her own. But instead of dropping them off at an orphanage, she got help and subsidies. But she wanted to be their sister, not their Mom, so adoption was still the goal for this family. Karen and Bob kept in touch with her after the adoption. Two years ago, they invited her to come live with them, too. She’s working hard to catch up with her brothers education-wise and become a social worker. When I visit my parents, I see them at church. James is a greeter. One of the boys was running the nursery last time I dropped my son off there. We stand in a big circle at this church to receive communion, and this family blesses me.

Last month, Bob took a new position, and they have to move this summer. My Mom was telling me about the planning. They bought a big house that was foreclosed on and has water damage. It’s a ramble-y weirdly set up house, but it’s going to be perfect for them. Bob’s dad is spending weekends fixing all the woodwork that was damaged by excessive humidity. Karen’s busy looking for a nursing position. “A few years ago,” she says, “maybe I could have retired by now…but we’ve got a lot of people to get through college. And I’m happy to do this. It’s our family.”

As parents, Karen and Bob are the hosts…their kids are the guests. In the most profound of ways.

I think about what it’s been like for them, to open their home to those three girls first, and then to James, and then to the boys, and then to their older sister. Everyone, every single person in this story, has been changed. Who is the one in this story welcoming Christ? I don’t know. They are all both host and guest of each other’s hearts.

I don’t think I will be able to do what Karen and Bob did. It might not be my calling.

But I wonder how I create the space to be that sort of host…in my own life…in my collective life with all of you…creating that space shouldn’t be completely comfortable because this is not, ultimately, about you…it’s intimate…it’s about moving over and making room for someone else, and for your own self to be challenged and changed.

Some of it is responding to where we are in life right now. There are things I can’t do because my primary task right now is to host these children of mine (number 3, quite literally for the next couple months). On the other hand, that’s not an excuse to close my eyes to the needs of other people’s children…whether that means I hand out cool cups of water, or teach my own kids to be generous, or look out for kids who are the “little ones” when I’m helping the PTA. And doing this not just because I’m a good person, but going out of my way to do these things so that there’s a little less of me and a little more of Christ.

What does it mean at church? Do we only answer the call to do things when they make us comfortable, or do we ever push a bit of ourselves aside to make some space for others? Do we leave room for the people God sends us to change us (even if they are very different from us, even if we are, frankly, surprised, that are really Jesus in disguise)? Are there people outside our doors who are so little that we forget to see them and invite them in?

You see, this is what happens to us, week after week, around this table.

Jesus Christ, the one who was a guest among us,

is invited, through the power of the Spirit, to become the host.

And so the guest becomes the host.

And once we have been welcomed, we cannot help but be changed.

Friends, this is good news: Thanks be to God.

The Stay at Home Reverend: A Travel Blessing for Escaped Toddlers

With my apologies to the Celtic Christian tradition, a prayer of blessing for all of us who have children who are adept at escaping while we are busy in other parts of the house…

May the road rise up to stop you,

May my neighbors always have my back,

May the sun shine warm on you (seeing as you got out without any clothes on),

May the older kids tackle you softly,

Til we meet again when I manage to get my shoes on and catch up with.

And may God hold you safely in the palm of his hand (if not within the doors of the house).

Christmas Break

A few years back, I had this wonderful colleague, Bart (truly the best of the best among colleagues, which is saying a lot because I’ve been blessed beyond measure in the ministry-colleague department). Bart was the other full time associate pastor at my church. He and I had this little in-joke. Associate pastors in larger churches are often spending lots of time running programs (me: youth and children; Bart: adult education and spiritual formation and mission). And, not infrequently, they get bogged down in tasks that make them feel like glorified event planners: houirs spent working up driving schedules so that every kid in the youth group can get to an event without missing out on their extracurriculars; a series of increasingly crazy-making phone calls to clear up confusion with the church’s credit card company about the sudden massive use of the card in Guatemala (which to a credit card company screams, “fraud!” but to a church simply means, “mission trip!”). And so, if one of us was hitting the frustration wall with one of these tasks, we might pop into the other’s office and say, with exasperation, the phrase that one of Bart’s friends had taught him: “Jesus Christ came into the world for THIS?!?”

I’ve been thinking about that phrase this week as I take stock of Christmas so far, and hear the stories, joys, and frustrations of others as they come into these last few days of Christmastide. Last night, our good friends came over and we took stock over pizza of what our families have been up to in the last week. I’m getting bits and pieces from friends over socaile media as well. Some of these stories are beautiful and joy-filled. But I’m hearing a significant number of people lamenting the crazy in Christmas.

To be fair, many of my friends are younger women, like me, with little kids. There’s a good argument to be made that this is the demographic that bears the brunt of holiday insanity: women are expected, during the holidays, to maintain a charming home, which they will redecorate; cook and bake extra fancy stuff; coordinate daily activities for the family in the lead up to the big day (Elves, Advent Calendars, and such); search out and buy the perfect gifts for everyone; make sure their children feel apropriately spoiled (on a budget, of course); and plan and supervise long family expeditions to the homes of their families or inlaws.

To be honest, quite a few of those friends, particularly on the internet, are younger women who are also pastors, which means they are dealing with the additional caretaking of Christmas for a worshipping community. If you’re not familiar with what it takes to pull off a Christmas Eve worship service (not to mention everything else a church does in December), just imagine that you have to throw the most artful, beatific, trascendant welcoming party for a baby ever, including at least 45 minutes of a theatrical variety show; and that there are 50 to 5000 people whose taste, preferences, and traditions for how this should be done must be catered to. Also, almost everyone who is helping you is a volunteer. And while most of them are amazing volunteers, this is the busiest time of year for them.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas. I love decorating my house. I love the moment when my kids unwrap the present that is beyond what they could have imagined (a little shout out to my Aunt Mary and Rich who annually spoil my daughter, and to my brother Mark and sister in law Alli, who did the leg work to find the most perfect ever present for a 2 year old boy). I love baking. I actually kind of love travel (even when the 2 year old gets sick on the plane). Above all, after four years of taking a different track in ministry, I love everything that goes into Advent and Christmas worship, and I actually get a little choked up every Christmas Eve because I so miss leading worship on that night of nights.

Yet I listen to friends who, less than a week after Christmas, feel guilty because they couldn’t get it all perfect, and they’re not sure they did enough. Other friends don’t feel guilty but they are so worn.

Meanwhile, this week we hit the New Year, and many of us are contemplating a resolution or two or twelve. (Let’s not even talk about my ridiculous resolution last year to to read a book per day…)

We all say it’s worth it, this crazy-making season, but I can’t help thinking:

“Jesus Christ came into the world for THIS?!?”

Friends, we need to give ourselves a break. Jesus did not come into the world to make us miserable, or exhausted, or worn (not to say that following Jesus is easy…it takes every ounce of who you are, and that will hurt a little).

So how about I give you another smart thing that Bart and I (under the guidance of our really wonderful head of staff pastor, Carl) used to do after Christmas? We sat down and reviewed the season and made notes for next year: what worked, what didn’t, where we needed more help, what we could let go of, and what we might add.

And I’ll take it one step further. See if it lines up with that question, asked with a bit less exasperation: “Jesus Christ came into the world for this?”

There are some things I wouldn’t trade from my Christmas: listening to my Grandpa, age 95, pray with his 10 grown grandchildren smushed onto couches in my Aunt and Uncle’s living room; a Christmas pageant that was wonderfully rag-tag, yet rehearsed at our church; deciding (gasp, for those of you who know what a big advocate of children in worship I am) to leave my kids with my parents, and go to worship on Christmas Eve with just my husband, which meant that I was also able to wander around a chilly downtown Chicago with him, and meet a couple of my siblings and one of my cousins for a beer or two and some good reconnecting.

There are some things that were missing: we never found our stride for Advent devotions with our kids; we never put up the Christmas tree; we didn’t do too much in the whole justice, community, and giving catagory this year (though, maybe we should just be more intentional all year through…).

We need to give ourselves a break. You know there was some good stuff that happened in the last few weeks. But there are things you could let go, and expectations you certainly don’t have to live up to. And that’s OK. You did some good work. You can try again next year, but let’s all remember that we don’t have to try so hard. Everything does not hang solely on what we can accomplish.

After all, Jesus Christ came into the world.

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