Saturday, April 13, 2013

Tastes like Grace

I recently had an unusual version of your typical peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I was meeting with the confirmation class at the Presbyterian church where I’m serving as a seminary intern.  The pastor there prepared a “make-it-yourself” lunch buffet with some fruit and sandwich supplies.  In order to create a deeper sense of community among the group of teenagers, he instructed each person to make a sandwich for someone else, based on their preferences.

I wasn’t trying to make things unnecessarily complicated, but I just so happen to like my PB&J with peanut butter on both pieces of bread.  It’s really just a practicality, as it prevents the jelly from bleeding through one side of the bread.  I was conditioned from Sunday afternoon hikes in the Adirondacks, where packed lunches were meticulously made for the best possible outcome.

Well, this was an altogether foreign concept for the young woman who had offered to make my sandwich when the confirmation class took a break for lunch.  Rather than face the peanut butter-laden pieces of bread inward, safely enveloping the strawberry jelly, she interpreted my instructions somewhat differently.

What she placed before me on the table was an entirely original concoction – an “inside out” sandwich with the top piece of bread loaded with peanut butter on both sides.  In reality she had fulfilled my request just as I had described it.  It was my mistake not to have specified that I meant to have peanut butter on the inside of both pieces of bread…

Despite the miscommunication, what this thoughtful teenager offered me was the generous gift of food made lovingly with her own unique vision.  In fact, it was the best sandwich I’d had in a while, even if it did cover my front teeth with a film of oozing peanut butter.

I was recently asked the rather unexpected question, “What does grace feel or taste like?”  This slight mishap over a simple sandwich gave me the perfect response.

Grace is that thick residue of peanut butter that will not slide off the roof of your mouth.  It lingers even after all the effort you've made to clean the slate and look presentable.  It sticks to your fingers when you try to pick the residue from your back teeth.  Yes, grace reaches there too – the hidden corners of your life and jaw line which can never be fully straightened out or neatened up.

If it's not in between your fingernails or stuck in that esophageal tube where it took a detour, the smell still hovers ever so slightly.  You hope to sneak a late-afternoon snack in your cubicle at work, smuggling a zip-lock bag with saltines and peanut butter, only to leave the unmistakable after effect of that nutty aroma such that everyone around you starts getting hungry.

But isn’t this nourishment for all to taste?  Isn’t this the offering that we all desire?  To have God’s love cling to us like thick greasy peanut butter, the organic variety with natural oils bubbling up to the surface. 

Mix it up, get your fingers in there, soak up its warm goodness and rest into the knowledge that God's grace will feed you, is already feeding you, always has been feeding you - like the one staple grocery item in your cupboard that never goes bad, and if you’re like me, you just can’t get enough of.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Before the Healing

Sermon given at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
December 3, 2012

Reading: Matthew 15:21-28 

Gringa was the name I was most often called throughout the year I spent in Peru, a general term used for white foreigner. I was also called blancita, gordita, flakita, names relating to my skin color, my size, my height - the obvious markers of my physical identity.

When I first arrived in the Andean town of Hu├ínuco as a Young Adult Volunteer, I knew I would be an outsider. So, I wasn’t too surprised when, after a few weeks, I had compiled a rather long list of local nick-names I had received. However, after settling into the small mountain town where I lived and worked, I became aware of unexpected aspects of my otherness.

One day while roaming the open air market place, I heard a term that I was less familiar with. Amidst the frantic exchange of live chickens and heaps of potatoes, a little girl’s voice cut through the busy crowd. She tugged on her mother’s traditional embroidered skirt and pointed directly at me, declaring loudly in the indigenous language “pishtaqa!”

That night, far removed from the chaos of the marketplace, I asked my host father what “pishtaqa” meant. “Who called you that?” he responded, sounding worried and protective. “Just a little girl in the market,” I replied.

He went on to explain that I had just inherited an unwelcome legacy, one that carried enormous cultural baggage between the indigenous population and its historical encounters with foreigners.

My host father explained that “pishtaqa” was used in the Quechuan language to refer to the dangers of foreign visitors. More specifically it stemmed from a local fear which had grown to a widespread myth, that light-skinned foreigners were apt to kidnap, steal and even murder local children. In Quechua, the term “pishtaqa” literally means “butcher.”

When I learned this I was horrified. How could I possibly convey such a threatening image and be connected to something so brutal? My host father reassured me that the little girl’s declaration in the market place was fairly harmless, especially coming from a child. However, it did speak of deep-seated impressions of the “outsider,” the “other” and all the fears, assumptions, and even dangers which that would entail.

Just as my identity as a white foreigner carried with it historically inscribed associations, so does the unnamed woman in our Scripture reading and her identity as a Canaanite. Rather than describe her as a Greek or Gentile from Syrophoneocia, as in the Gospel of Mark, the author of Matthew chooses a more controversial term - an ancient name that references a specific aspect of Jewish history and its antagonistic relationship with the Canaanites.

With this designation, Canaanite, one recalls God’s imperative to the people of Israel to “make no covenant with them, and show them no mercy” (Deut 7:2). The term Canaanite therefore carries heavy layers of meaning and historical baggage, not unlike the term “pishtaqa.”

My encounter in the marketplace where I first received this title made an impact on my entire experience in Peru. I was first confused, then shaken and even hurt by the implications of this name. I initially wanted to clear the record, to ensure that no one else mistakenly saw meas a threat. I wanted to convince this community that I had just entered, that I could be trusted.

In essence, I wanted to rush toward reconciliation rather than wrestle with the uncomfortable reality at hand. I desperately wanted to heal the wound of past abuse and exploitation against the indigenous community. I thought that was where the center of my story lay.

This is often how we read the story of the Canaanite woman. We admittedly don’t want to stay in the uncomfortable areas of the text - the moments when the woman is ignored and later rejected by Jesus after she asks for healing for her daughter. We’d rather not consider the possibility that Jesus, in his humanness, reverted to the social and religious prejudice of his time, reinforcing boundaries between the chosen and the marginalized.

We prefer to fast forward to the point where Jesus has a moment of transformation, when he suddenly changes his approach to the woman. By doing so, we focus on the desirable outcome of the healing that takes place, instead of acknowledging the inherent conflict in the text.

Let us consider whether Jesus’ act of healing is in fact the most profound element of this story. Is this healing the focal point of the Good News message, the reason for the story’s proclaimed hope?

Some interpretations focus solely on Jesus’ agency in this event, viewing the incident as a means for Jesus to test the woman’s faith or to offer instruction to the disciples. This perspective locates the narrative’s pivotal point in Jesus’ act of teaching.

However, if we look more closely, it is in fact the unnamed Canaanite woman who offers the most voice and action, serving as the main catalyst for change.

By hastily moving toward the redemptive moment of healing or teaching in this New Testament story, one fails to hear the prophetic voice of the Canaanite woman.

If we apply this to each of our vocations, how often do we focus on our public acts of ministry, on our active expressions of service? We want to lift up the doing, the acting, the healing. But as a result, we fail to recognize the alarming voices around us which often demand deeper realizations within our own faith.

Is not the Canaanite woman one of these alarming voices? Might she even be a prophetic voice, yet one that is often overshadowed by Jesus’ miraculous healing?

In the Hebrew Bible, a true prophet was understood as one who did not bring good news or convenient truths. As the Kingdom of Israel was being established, prophets were unafraid to speak critically of political authority, especially if there was an opportunity to avert future disaster.

In his book The Prophetic Faith,theologian Martin Buber notes that the intention of the individual prophets was to call on the Israelite community as well as its leaders to make conscious choices about present events. As Buber notes, this form of prophecy emphasized “the divine demand for human decision,” and the opportunity to repent and turn toward God.

If we look carefully at our Gospel story, this prophetic initiative is precisely what the Canaanite woman provides.

The Canaanite woman is active amidst crisis, the crisis of her own daughter’s condition as well as the crisis of an inattentive leader, in this case Jesus himself. The woman is first ignored by Jesus and urged to be sent away by the disciples. She is then rejected by Jesus in his painful declaration “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” However, the woman does not express embarrassment or anger and does not allow herself to be victimized.

In a profound moment of courage and wisdom, the woman creatively and boldly challenges Jesus’ words - revealing the injustice that she has endured. She reminds Jesus that“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” This brave and startling declaration directly challenges Jesus’ approach to ministry and provides the impetus for his profound reversal.

The woman exposes a power dynamic that is not consistent with Jesus’ teachings of compassion and non-judgment. She demands that Jesus make a conscious choice about her condition and by extension the human condition. This, I think, reflects Buber’s description of prophesy as “a divine demand for human decision.”

The woman’s voice challenges and profoundly reorients Jesus’ approach to healing. As a result, the woman compels Jesus to listen, to respond and to act on her behalf. However, the woman’s influence on Jesus does not stop here. Her urgent demand goes beyond her immediate needs and has a widespread impact on the surrounding community.

Following the encounter with the woman, Jesus leaves the region of Tyre and Sidon and rests on a mountain along the coast. It is here that large crowds approach him with a litany of pleas for miraculous healing.

Having been forever altered by his encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus does not question, resist or deny these requests. Having been compelled to reclaim his calling by the Canaanite woman, Jesus immediately heals the crowd from their various ailments.

If a true prophet is one who urges a dramatic reorientation towards one’s divine calling, isn’t this what the Canaanite woman does for Jesus? A divine calling that not only acknowledges the woman’s personal needs but the needs of the larger community.

This text calls on us to pay close attention to the voice of the unnamed woman. Rather than move quickly to the desirable outcome of healing, one is challenged to recognize the underlying power dynamics and complacent leadership. We are compelled to recognize and lift up the ways in which the woman confronts these difficult realities. We are called to see the agent of change, the agent of Good News, as the woman herself.

The Canaanite woman implores us to be awakened to the voices in our midst, voices like the little girl I encountered in the market – voices that expose systems or historical patterns of injustice. Rather than attempt to counteract the anxiety and suspicion that locals had toward me, rushing toward reconciliation, I realized there was much more to learn, more voices to consider.

Rather than brush aside this exchange as ungrounded, prejudice or merely a child mimicking culturally prescribed words, it caused me to want to understand further the historical power dynamics embedded in this Peruvian community.

Similarly, if we prioritize the moment of reconciliation that occurs in this story of the Canaanite woman, we fail to hear the radical voice of truth, the voice that demands that we look deeper, that we stay longer in this place of discomfort in order to recognize the tensions that exist. If we charge forward to the moment of redemptive healing, we overlook the real source of Good News.

Like Jesus, we are impacted and changed by our encounters with others. Like Jesus we must reorient our approaches to ministry in order to honor the alarming and even prophetic voices of those we are serving with and for. We must make room in our public ministries to lift up the truthful declarations of people like the Canaanite woman.

When we encounter individuals like the woman in this text, might their prophetic voices bring a new sense of vitality and awareness to our own spiritual sensibilities, to our own sense of call.

Through the grace of God, may we serve with such awareness and may it lead to true healing.

Faith of a Neighbor

Sermon given at Bardstown Road Presbyterian Church
Louisville, KY
Sunday, November 4th, 2012

Ruth 1: 1-18
Mark 12:28-34

Our lectionary readings today are probably quite familiar - the Greatest Commandment to love God and neighbor and also one of the most beautiful stories of friendship in the Hebrew Bible, expressed by Ruth and Naomi. 

In approaching these popular Scripture readings I wanted to focus on as aspect I was less familar with.  I wanted to look more deeply at something I hadn’t considered before.  And for me, that was Ruth’s conversion. 

I was especially interested in Ruth’s conversion experience because in one of my seminary courses we’ve been looking at the experience of conversion during the evangelical revival movements in North America.  These movements during the 19th and 20th centuries were known as the Great Awakenings, based on a new religious fervor among the laity.

The mode of worship was open air tent revivals, which stirred up waves of emotion and religious passion with thousands of people being “saved” or converted with each sermon. 

To bring it closer to home, in Bourbon County Kentucky in 1801 the Cane Ridge Revival became renowned for the massive conversion of somewhere between 10-25,000 people, each claiming a life-changing encounter with the Holy Spirit. 
On the east coast near where I’m from, a similar wave of spiritual enthusiasm spread across Western New York in what was known as the “burned-over” district.  And I love this term, it just gives the image of all this raging activity of the soul that it “burns out” the entire region.   

 I describe this period of Protestant history, known as the Second Great Awakening, because it is quite different than what Ruth experienced.  For Ruth there was no revival tent, no preacher on horseback riding from town to town, no moveable pulpit stand that you could place in a corn field, and more profoundly, there was no radical message of the blessings of the converted soul.
In fact, we don’t really hear many details about Ruth’s actual conversion to Judaism.  What we do know is that she is in a desperate place.  Her husband has died and also her father-in-law.  Only the women remain and her mother-in-law Naomi has planned to move back to her home to the land of Judah. 

Naomi implores Ruth to follow her sister-in-law, Orpah, to go back to her people and to her gods.  But Ruth is insistent about staying.  She declares, without budging, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge.”  And in a simple passing phrase, Ruth announces her conversion by saying, “Your people shall be my people, Your God my God.” 
When I hear this declaration from Ruth, she sounds so convicted and confident, self assured and self-aware.  She has chosen to not follow Orpah and return to her family, but instead embarks on a journey with Naomi to her homeland in Judah and a journey into the faith of the people of Israel. 

This extremely grounded and eloquently expressed moment of conversion is far from what was known during the Protestant revival period as the “anxious bench.” During the revival movement in North America, individuals considering conversion would be placed on the “hot seat” directly in front of the preacher, where they would be covered with prayer and a receive a high dose of peer pressure.

Ruth is obviously not affected by pressure, or else she would have followed Naomi’s demand to leave her side, and she would have taken the lead of her sister-in-law to return home.
So why is it that Ruth adopts the faith of Naomi?  Why does she convert?

I’ll ask you to ponder this as we turn to our New Testament reading in Mark.  Here we encounter that beloved passage of the Greatest Commandment.  When asked which Commandment is the first, Jesus responds as a good follower of the Torah and quotes the famous Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.” 

And of course we know that Jesus does not stop here but adds the next most important commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself.

Now, remember our question, why does Ruth adopt the faith of Naomi?  Why does she convert?
As we are introduced to Ruth’s life and her story, all we really know about Ruth is based on her relationship with Naomi.  Or you might say, we know her through her dealings with family, or more accurately her neighbor.  You see after Ruth’s husband dies, there is no longer anything binding her to Naomi.  Family ties have been eliminated, the legal marriage ties the previously bound them together no longer protect them.  

The only thing they have in common now, in addition to their shared grief, is where they live, at least for the moment.  While I would like to hope that Naomi and Ruth are indeed friends, based on Naomi’s harsh instruction for Ruth to leave, it sure doesn’t seem to be reciprocal - at least during this early point in the story.
Therefore, I can’t assume that Ruth’s conversion is based on a mutual friendship with Naomi.  Instead, I find that at best, I can assume that they, at this point, are no more than neighbors, albeit neighbors with a significant history. 

It is at this point that Jesus’ directive to love one’s neighbor as oneself becomes apparent.  Even if Naomi is unable to recognize the importance of her relationship with Ruth, it is Ruth who finds something extremely worthwhile in nurturing that bond with Naomi.  No longer bound by legal ties and family connections, Ruth continues to believe in their shared destiny.  

 Maybe this is out of desperation, economic need or sheer loneliness, someone to share in her loss.  Or maybe it is out of deep loyalty and commitment to someone who has become a mother figure for her.  We don’t quite know what Ruth’s intentions are.  But we do see that she has a vision for a shared future.  And a shared faith.
Ruth forgoes the worship of the local gods of her own people and claims allegiance to the One Holy God of Israel.  It might seem like a hasty decision, that Ruth suddenly changes her religious affiliation.  It might even seem arbitrary, considering that we don’t know her previous encounters with the Jewish faith, other than marrying into a family from Bethlehem.

Now I want to turn to all of you?  I want you to consider your own religious history, or even your conversion story if you have one.  What was it that drew you to this faith, either Christianity or specifically the Presbyterian Church?  More importantly, what has kept you here?
Rev. Lieberman recently shared with me an interesting conversion story of a long-time church member, Al Clark, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with.  According to BRPC legend, Al took a walk one Sunday looking for a church to attend and came upon our church.  Turns out he would soon meet his wife, and of course he stayed and the rest is history.  I take it that Al played this story up a bit, saying that had he been on the other side of the street that day he would’ve been Baptist.   

In many ways, my conversion story is somewhat similar.  I’ll admit that I do not have a dramatic conversion experience to share with you all.  I used to feel somewhat embarrassed by this, wondering if my faith wasn’t real or strong enough.  A few years ago, while working at a rescue mission in New York, one of my colleagues innocently asked me “so, when were you saved?” 
I froze at the question feeling somewhat inadequate that I didn’t have a fiery moment in which my soul reoriented itself, when I unequivocally accepted Jesus as Savior.  I hesitated to respond, fearing that my co-workers would think I didn’t have faith.  I had always been part of the Presbyterian Church and never felt the need to leave it.  I considered my faith journey a gradual process in which my trust and faith in God continually deepen.  No anxious bench, no crowded tent, no epic soul jumping moment. 

This incident sparked some curiosity about my faith roots.  So one day, I asked my Mom how our family became Presbyterian.  I had sort of hoped that it would involve some direct link to John Calvin, with my ancestors being courageous refugees in Geneva, Switzerland.  But my relatives were a mixture of German Lutheran, Anglican and Irish Catholic.  No long heritage of Presbyterianism to claim, which I secretly longed for.
The truth is I became Presbyterian by default, by a fluke.  You see my mother’s grandparents were a blend of Lutheran and Catholic, raising their children in Albany, NY in the 1920’s.  These blended Protestant-Catholic marriages were becoming more common, but that didn’t mean there was an obvious consensus in how to raise their children.  My great-grandparents came up with an interesting solution, with the boys being raised Catholic by their father and my grandmother and her sisters being raised Lutheran like their mother. 

The Catholic side of this equation was successful - my grandmother’s brother went to Catechism and has raised his own family in the Catholic Church.  My great-grandmother however wasn’t much of a church-goer and never brought the girls to the Lutheran church.  Her husband demanded that the girls go somewhere, and if they didn’t he’d bring them along with him to the Catholic Church.  A committed enough Protestant to not allow that, my great-grandmother scrambled to solve the problem, enlisting a neighbor down the street to bring the girls to the local Presbyterian church.
Now remember this… a neighbor.  A neighbor…

My grandmother became an active member of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, and in her adulthood was even the moderator of the Presbyterian Women.  Eventually, my parents were married in that church.  However, it wasn’t completely set that my parents would remain Presbyterian.  In fact, early in their marriage my mom began exploring my Dad’s Catholic faith. 
Once again, the question came up, how will we raise the kids?  They had agreed to raise my brother and I in the Catholic Church, something my Mom to this day says she was comfortable with.  However, just a few months before my older brother was born, my Dad, in his own moment of conversion, said to my Mom, “I want to raise our children in your church.”
There you have it.  Sounds somewhat arbitrary doesn’t it?  No long line of Calvinists, no dramatic conversion moment.  What I see in these two aspects of my faith history, is that spiritual and religious identity came through relationship.  My grandmother’s initial entry into the Presbyterian tradition was through none other than a neighbor.  For my Dad, it was my mom.  For Al, it was meeting his wife.  

This might be a new take on Jesus’ directive to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 
I think it’s so interesting that in the case of my own history and also that of Ruth, the Commandment that held the most weight was love of neighbor.  For Ruth it was her own devotion to Naomi that drew her into relationship with the God of Israel.  It was through that relationship that Ruth arrived at that first Commandment, that is to love God.  For me, it was through love of neighbor back in my grandmother’s childhood that I entered into this tradition and our love of God.
When you think about your own faith journey, I’m curious which of you has a similar convoluted way of arriving at your faith?  Maybe you’ve had a personal, life-changing moment of awareness and recognition of the Holy in your midst.  Or maybe you do have direct lineage to the Protestant Reformation. 

Still some of you have a friend or a loved one who first shared their faith with you and invited you into a relationship with God.  Regardless of how you came to your faith, I hope that you will consider how love of neighbor affected that faith journey.  What encounters have you had that allowed your faith to grow, to deepen or to change?
In what ways can we be more like Ruth?  When we have an encounter with a neighbor, or a stranger even, in what ways can we identify with their faith even if it doesn’t look like ours.  How can we affirm the many expressions of faith that we see, and maybe even take the risk of renewing or even changing the way that we see God based on our encounters with others?  We don’t have to give up our precious understandings and beliefs, but if we truly enter into relationship with our neighbor, might we be open to expanding our understanding of God?

So I challenge you today to a bit of a Scriptural reversal.  Instead of following the particular order of the two commandments prescribed by Jesus, might we to do it backwards.  Start first with love our neighbor.  Start first with learning who they are.  Start first with a curiosity about their faith journey and how they experience God.  Through this act of genuine relationship, might we encounter God in an entirely new way. 
Instead of applying our own understanding of God first, resting in the safety and familiarity of our preferred image of God, might we expand our notion of God as we encounter our neighbor.  

Rather than approaching our neighbor with an agenda of sharing Your God, or My God, may our love of neighbor allow us to share the same God, echoing Ruth in her courageous statement of faith “Your people shall be my people, your God, my God. “




Monday, August 20, 2012

Where is Your Gibeon?

Sermon given at Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church, Guilderland, NY
Sunday August 19th, 2012

1 Kings 3: 3-14
Ephesians 5:15-20

This summer I had the privilege of working with the pastoral care department of Albany Medical Center. One of the first things I learned from our supervisor, Rev. Harlan Ratmeyer, is that pastoral care is one of the most inefficient departments in the hospital. Not exactly what you’d expect the director of a department to readily admit, especially not with such pride and satisfaction.

 The fifteen to twenty chaplains, some full-time others periodic volunteers, that roam the halls of Albany Med are not known for maximizing time, emphasizing productivity or managing output. Such models of economy and success are not easily applied to this field.

 Instead, there is a more informal allocation of time and skills, a more flexible use of one’s expertise and a somewhat unstructured environment where one’s daily tasks are unordered and unpredictable. We do not attach a particular task or skill set with a desired outcome. We are, some might say, inefficient.

 We stay for hours at the bedside of a distressed patient, or play cards in the waiting room with a five year-old child whose father has just died of a heart attack. We heed the requests of family members in need of guidance in making health proxy decisions and we minister to those who disagree about end-of-life issues. We bring patients rosary beads, prayer cards, a pocket sized Qur’an or copies of the Oprah Magazine and Readers’ Digest from the hospital’s library.

 We bring our humor, our prayers, sometimes our own tears. I’ve even played my ukulele for a group of patients on the psychiatric ward. We respond to every Code Blue, but sometimes are not needed.  We might enter a room with “Hi, I’m the Chaplain!” to which the patient replies “Get Out!”

 We don’t have a script and we are often searching for the right words. At other times, we are simply lead through the day… or night, bed to bed, prayer to prayer, with God informing our every move.

 If there is no guidebook, no recognizable schedule to the day, you might wonder, how then is a chaplain supposed to operate? How is one to structure the day and prioritize one’s responsibilities? If chaplaincy isn’t like clocking in at a bank or managing a business or measuring one’s day by energy input and product output, than what is it? How does one do this job?

 How does one know that one is being effective, when there are no easily measurable marks?

To illustrate the somewhat unspecified skill set of a hospital chaplain, I return to our first reading this morning, from First Kings. I imagine King Solomon asking similar questions as he took the throne in ancient Jerusalem. He might have asked himself, “How am I supposed to do this?” We learn that once Solomon ascends to power that “his rule was firmly established.”

But I doubt that he had a clear and outlined job description or that he himself felt fully capable in his new role. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures tell us that Solomon was not the favored heir, that he had overwhelming political enemies including his older brothers, who sought to prevent his rise to power.

 As a young and inexperienced monarch, his credentials were rather weak and the tasks before him were daunting. We hear Solomon praying, perhaps pleading to God “But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties.” Such a place of vulnerability is not what one might expect from a powerful king.

 The way in which Solomon was thrown into his new role as king in many ways reflects the model of Clinical Pastoral Education. Rather than spend time preparing for chaplaincy through guided readings and training exercises, each of the chaplain interns dove in, head first, without much of a concrete tool kit.

 With only two days on the job, I was scheduled for my first overnight on-call shift, serving as the hospital’s in-house chaplain from 5 at night until 8 the next morning. I would have liked a few pointers, if not a how-to manual. But, as many other chaplains will tell you, a road map is not something you are awarded in this form of ministry.

 As my on-call shift crept closer, I could no longer contain my unease with staying over night, alone, in the hospital. I stopped by my dad’s office before he headed home that night and I think he saw the look of terror in my eyes. He immediately suggested that we get a quick snack and I suddenly let go a sigh of relief. Finally, I didn’t have to pretend that I knew what I was doing and I admitted my anxieties openly over our cup of coffee and a bag of gummie bears in the hospital cafeteria.

It is this uncertainty and sheer lack of preparation that makes chaplaincy, or any ministry for that matter, such a unique vocation. In my case, any book I read or formal training I completed could have easily provided me with a false sense of confidence and ability, preventing me from truly reaching out to God for wisdom during those first uncertain hours.

 It is this reaching out to God, in an utter state of inability and self-doubt, that Solomon so poignantly displays. In our passage, Solomon’s conversation with God is significant. His receives the ultimate offer from God when God declares, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” This is one of the rare moments when God appears to be some genie in a bottle, ready to grant the young king whatever his heart desires.

  It seems quite risky of God to make such an open-ended offer, especially if this new king was greedy, vengeful and hungry for power. While Solomon may have had these less than humble qualities in life, in his prayer he had a more modest request. “Give your servant a discerning heart,” he said, “to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.”

 To return to our earlier discussion, Solomon’s great prayer for wisdom was, well, inefficient. With an empire to secure, a palace to construct to house his administration, and a new Temple to build to galvanize the Hebrew people into a community of faith, wouldn’t it have been more effective for Solomon to ask for maybe protection from enemies? Wealth to finance his lofty projects? A long life to stabilize a still fragile monarchy?

 Instead, Solomon asks for a wise and discerning heart. And one thing that discernment is known for is taking a rather long time. Discernment is the opposite of political strategizing, of quick decision making, of orderly itineraries and to-do lists. Not only is the discernment Solomon asking for inefficient, but in this case it was dangerous. For the leader of a still unstable government, Solomon’s request for wisdom could easily have been seen as a weakness, taking time to ponder God’s will when his enemies are banging on the back door.

 Being in a place of discernment is a risky place to be. The lengthy and often arduous process of seeking God’s will, can cause fear and anxiety - some may view you as indecisive or ineffective in your job setting. Worse yet, to discern rather than immediately act might be seen as lacking in ability, or being incompetent, traits that a king, not to mention a business leader, doctor, parent or a teacher, would want to avoid.

 In our personal lives, taking time to really ponder how God might want us to act, may challenge our familiar responses to people and situations.

 Solomon’s request for wisdom and discernment was not a likely choice for the king, not the logical gift or resource that his still threatened throne would need. For this reason I think Solomon wouldn’t have been able to ask God for this gift, or even view it as a gift, if he were, well, awake. Because, remember, Solomon was asleep, dreaming in fact when God spoke to him. His guard was down, and in an entirely different mental space when he had the wisdom... to ask… for wisdom.

 Seeking wisdom, as Solomon did, is a wandering road, a road less traveled, and a road that meanders to places one does not expect. To get to the point where he spoke with God intimately and received God’s gift of wisdom, Solomon traveled beyond his usual surroundings.

 He went to a high place called Gibeon, with the intent of offering a ritual sacrifice. Scripture tells us that the most important shrine was in Gibeon, on whose alter Solomon had offered more than a thousand sacrifices. Yet in addition to this act of ritual, Solomon also rested. And he dreamed.

It is especially noteworthy that Solomon doesn’t access God’s presence through his usual daily tasks of kingdom making or even in the religious act of sacrifice but instead through dream making. This journey that Solomon went on removed him from his usual environment and tasks and transformed him, immensely. He had to stop his routine and make space for a Holy encounter.

 I think this is particularly important in our lives today. Our days are so scheduled, so preoccupied with productivity and the idea of being useful. When was the last time you stopped, slowed down and ventured to explore someplace new, to remove yourself from what is familiar, like Solomon did.

 Even our weekly act of worshiping together can become old hat - same time, same place, same pew, same order of worship. But even in such a familiar place as this church is, might you allow your mind and body to relax to the point that God speaks to you. I wouldn’t advocate falling asleep and dreaming during Stewart’s next sermon, but I do invite you to allow your mind to drift and wander, to day dream, to allow the mental space for God to speak clearly… to you.

 Where is your altar at Gibeon, your high place of communion with God? Where can you bring yourself so that you can lay down your script, relinquish your preferred role, surrender your carefully crafted skill set, and rest, dream, in a way that gives you new insight? That allows you to ask God not for what you want, but what you really need.

 In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that we read this morning, Paul writes, “Be very careful, then, how you live —not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity…do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” This is precisely the gift of the spirit that Solomon so humbly asked for from God.

 And if you too, take the risk to rest before God in a place of vulnerability, as utterly unprepared and in a state of unknowing, which others may view as a blatant display of blessed inefficiency, than you too will be filled with the Spirit.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

As my first semester in seminary came to a close, I found myself in the midst of an unexpected avalanche of tears. It wasn’t the relief of having completed my last theology exam or the sudden revelation of the mysteries of the Hebrew language. Nor was it a moment of identity crisis, which many seminarians experience when they find their concept of God has been drastically dismantled.

Instead, I sat among a circle of twenty other female students at Louisville Seminary, when a wave of emotion took root in ground that I didn’t think was mine.

We gathered in the carpeted living room of the Women’s Center, a cinder-block apartment that mirrors other campus housing. That is except for the floor-to-ceiling canvas outline of a female body, a series of portraits of each of the seminary’s female professors, a framed magazine cover honoring Rev. Katie Geneva Cannon and of course, a luxurious vagina quilt, complete with a light switch embedded in the fleshy pink fabric.

If we were in the 1970’s maybe our meeting would have been deemed a feminist consciousness raising effort. In fact, that is precisely what made the presence of women a reality at this seminary, as both faculty and students.

This particular gathering did not only serve the purpose of such consciousness raising, but also healing, laughter and advocacy, all based on the seminary’s production of the Vagina Monologues. We had gathered to read through this year’s script, each of the participants having been assigned a monologue, echoes of another woman’s voice and whose experience became filtered through our own.

When it came time for my reading, my heart began to accelerate. It wasn’t out of anxiety or insecurity. I had done this before, to a crowd of several hundred students at the University of Michigan. This, however, was entirely different.

Eight years later, I find myself more deeply aware of the painful realities of women, from Peru to Schenectady. Rape is no longer disguised by statistics or made impersonal by buried legislation. Access to birth control is not simply a glossy advertisement in a fashion magazine. Domestic violence is no longer the distant reality of a friend of a friend of a friend.

As I quietly embark on my second semester in seminary, I know there is a raging world out there. It consists of unheard screams and digging nails, glimpses of the persisting violence that continues to target women. Yes, women.

This unkempt anger and sadness, urgency and awareness is what crashed through me when I read aloud in front of my classmates. I read a monologue based on the testimony of a woman raped and mutilated by the brutal tactics of the Bosnian War. Her words are poetic and nostalgic of a youthful exuberance and sexuality, her “vagina, a live wet water village.” Her memories alternate with graphic descriptions of what they did to her “six of them, monstrous doctors with black masks…”

Reading aloud among a circle of strong, unique and passionate women, I felt safe. I felt protected to the point of utter transparency. As I read each word, my eyes welled up with a reserve of tears, more than I can remember in a long time. And I realized what the difference was.

Only now, only at this time my life, could these words be so charged, magnetized against my skin and engrained in my mind. Only now, after having sat beside adolescent girls impregnated by incest or assigning a bed in a homeless shelter to a woman with a freshly bruised eye socket.

In all of this, strangely, I do not ask “Where is God?" Instead, I ask myself, how am I positioned to change it. More importantly, how might each of us contribute to that change?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dissonance and Harmony

Liturgical dance set to Balinese and Javanese Gamelan music, during a Service of Dissonance and Harmony at Louisville Seminary's Caldwell Chapel. The service celebrated the unity and diversity of Indonesian culture and the possibility for progressive harmony in all communities.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


The past few weeks have reinforced the fact that I do not limit myself to one single faith tradition. It is not that I have studied the in-depth theologies of each faith practice and fully agree with the prescriptions of each. And it’s not that I find a glaring gap in one tradition or another, which needs to be filled, changed or altered somehow.

Instead, I feel that each expression of faith that I have encountered and hope to encounter throughout my lifetime, presents me with something worthwhile and valuable to my spiritual development.

My desire is not to meld the various spiritual paths into one cohesive, unlimited sense of the Holy… that’s God’s prerogative. Instead, I simply enjoy the fact that we all see and experience God in different ways. I take pleasure in the multiplicity of various forms of worship and prayerful communion that we have beyond our own windows of faith.

The Presbyterian tradition is one particular window or lens through which to experience God. This path offers a particular structure of worship and a means of decision making which creates order but also sustains differing points of views. There is room for dialogue and continual reformation, which was not just a one-time occasion that occurred during the 16th century.

This form of theology works well with my preference toward discipline and my tendency to color-coat my class notebooks. It’s also a very safe place in which I can explore the significance of Jesus without feeling confined by a unilateral Christology.

Despite my Presbyterian roots, according to a spirituality quiz I came across on, I espouse more Unitarian beliefs. This is not a fluke thing or the result of the some revelatory conversation that challenged my Protestant background. In fact, I think my upbringing in a social justice-minded, community-oriented faith community, appeals very strongly to the Unitarian Universalist path. And that’s a good thing!

I am proud that my church has nurtured a more progressive, open-minded understanding of God which celebrates ecumenism and the diversity of world religions and spiritual practices. Therefore, it is no surprise that I felt at home during my recent visit to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Spring.

While the structure of the service was remarkably Presbyterian, I observed some very intentional departures from Protestantism. First, the liturgy was full of inclusive language. As I’ve learned at Louisville Seminary, inclusive language is not just throwing in an occasional “she” pronoun for God. What Louisville Seminary attempts to put forth in terms of expansive language, the UU church in Saratoga has fully adopted.

The songs, prayers and sermons are devoid of any reference to God which are exclusively masculine, hierarchical or authoritative. As such, I was hard pressed to find any reference to “Lord,” or “Father.” Instead, there was beautiful imagery which immerged from the alternative words of “Source,” “Creator” and a favorite one at Louisville Seminary, “Holy One.”

All of this discussion on language and word choice can become exhausting, especially when one is really trying to say the right thing. For example, during my Introduction to Worship class, my professor asked a volunteer to open the class in prayer. It was during the first couple weeks of class and I was feeling particularly inspired. So, I proceeded to lead the class in prayer.

However, despite the emphasis on inclusive language which I heard both in class and during Chapel services, I reverted to a more conservative reference by opening with “Dear Holy Father.” I think I may have even included a few references to “Lord,” regardless of its potential reference to power and control.

I didn’t realize until later what I had done. But rather than kick myself for adopting more traditional language, I accepted the fact that those references do hold meaning for me. Rather than remove all masculine or power-based references to God, it would be more beneficial to consciously introduce additional language, further enriching one’s perception of God and the many ways God is, speaks and acts.

When I had reached my limit on the way our words limit the unlimitedness of God, it was time to just be silent. And I found that space in a wonderful forty minute Quaker meeting, which was planned as mid-week Chapel service on campus. I was familiar with this form of worship, having visited the Quaker Friends Meeting House down the street from my co-op in college.

I was aware of the Quaker commitment to silence, interrupted only by the spontaneous prayers and utterances of those present. Rather than be a time for sharing joys and concerns or the “prayers of the people” often included in Protestant worship, the words spoken had less context and were somewhat removed from the daily struggles of individuals. Instead, people shared how the spirit was moving within them at that given time, and what words God was compelling them to share.

The first student to speak simply said, “The creaking of wood in this chapel is a reminder to follow God’s path, one step at a time.” After several moments, another student shared a story of a professor she had who described our often fruitless search for God. She noted how we often act like a person desperately looking for her glasses and eventually realizing she’s wearing them. I offered a reminder to accept our wandering thoughts and not judge them, inviting them, like a busy child, to be calm and still.

The most consistent sound during our time together was the sound of our breath and the creaking and groaning of the wood rafters of the Chapel. I felt fed and nourished in a way I had not felt in a while. After spontaneously singing a traditional hymn together, we stood to exit, embracing and shaking hands in silence and walking out into a sun-filled afternoon.

As I crossed the courtyard outside of the Chapel, I felt an expanse of space in my chest and heart that was distantly familiar. It reminded me of those rare moments of clarity and spaciousness that make us feel content, healthy and alive.

While the Quaker faith connects itself to this practice of meditation, so does the Buddhist faith, just as the Christian tradition enters silence during the passing of bread and wine. Silence is the bedrock of communion with God and it is something that defies any religious identification.

Similarly, the social justice model and democratic approach to Presbyterianism is far from a unique claim to that tradition. And the Unitarian church, with its emphasis on inviting other voices and names into worship, is as much feminist as it is humanist.

As we each seek to find our own spiritual identity, I hope that we find our identity less in the names of religion and the repetition of someone else’s words and images. Instead, I hope we follow our own unique holy path, which bends and stops, waits and greets, changes and grows. And ultimately, that we find our identity through God and not in the ways we attempt to define that which is Holy.