Saturday, December 31, 2011

might I have a word?

Some of my college friends and I have a tradition where we pick a word to represent the year, as a kind of focus for meditation or reminder of something we need to work on. We don't necessarily have to think about it every day, and we might not even think about it very much, but it's been interesting to see how sometimes the words have defined my years, even if only a little bit. Here are my words for the past few years:

2009: still 
(as in, "be still and know that I am God")

2010: abundance

2011: release 
(as in, "letting go")

2009 was marked by transitions. I went from being a full-time youth and young adult minister in Omaha to a first year seminarian (a.k.a. "junior"). I chose the word still as a reminder that God was with me during this time of change.

2010 saw the end of my first year of seminary, where I had been stuffed with abundant information. The highlight of the year was the birth of Isaac and Evelyn, making me a Godmother once again. Those two bring me (and everyone else) abundant joy. 2010 also was marked by periods of loss. The year began with an Earthquake in Haiti, a tragedy personally affecting three of my friends and fellow students. I spent the summer in Omaha doing CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) working as a hospital chaplain. Being with people during intimate moments of pain and suffering was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and in listening to their stories I realized the abundance that I actually had been blessed with. Finally, in October our school chapel burned. Yet out of the ashes we arose stronger and our relationships with one another and with the Church community deepened. There was an outpouring of love from family and friends all around the country. Abundance, indeed.

2011 began with a month-long immersion in Myanmar. Seven folks from VTS traveled under the guidance of Kitty Babson, an alumna who has traveled there over 50 times since the '90s. We formed new relationships with theological students and reconnected with former VTS classmates in Yangon, were the guests of honor at a dinner in Hpa-an, rode elephants and led a retreat in Toungoo, and watched gorgeous sunsets from temples in Bagan. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed with songs and sometimes even dances! Bishop Stylo and Bishop Wilme and people everywhere, stranger or friend, showed us hospitality the likes of which I have never before seen. In fact, we were so moved by the people there that we pledged to help some of our friends with a project. Eleven months later, thanks to the generosity of friends and family all over the country, I am overjoyed to say that we met our goal! I will never forget the kindness of the people of Myanmar; they remain in my thoughts and prayers, and I treasure the memories of my time there.
Came back from the trip exhausted to middler spring semester, arguably the most difficult semester in seminary. Then finally made it to summer, where I traveled some but mostly took it easy; it was a time of renewal, of release (for more on this see earlier post). Then began my senior year, a time of beginning to let go, to say goodbye. This included giving my senior sermon, taking a class with a professor who was retiring, and taking advantage of being so near D.C., with its (free) monuments and museums. Finally, letting go by spending my last Christmas Eve at home with my family, revisiting German traditions of Advent carols, lighting candles on the Christmas tree and baking German cookies. Thanks to the magic that is Skype, we were able to connect with our cousin who couldn't come this year because of work as well as my mom's side of the family (all of whom are in Germany). One highlight this Christmas was watching The Help as a family, which led to Grandma and my aunt and mom sharing their experiences of what life was like in the South for white women. It was interesting to hear their perspectives and to learn of the relationships they had formed over the years.

And now we have come to the end of the year. Four years ago (exactly) I became vegetarian, and am still going strong. I never would have imagined I would be where I am now. I wonder what this next year will bring? Among other things:
  • GOEs (General Ordination Exams), kind of like the Div version of comps for grad students in January. 
  • Spring Break pilgrimage to Taize, France, visiting the Christian community there. 
  • Graduation in May, followed by reentry into The Real World. 
  • Perhaps even ordinations, should God be willing and the people consenting. 
  • And then there's the possibility that the world will end on 12/21/12. You never know...

In thinking about what word would be good for this coming year, I thought of hope, which, as a theological virtue, can be defined as "openness to the future" (this was me proving I've been studying, haha). This would be appropriate for what the Great Unknown that lies ahead. But the more I think about it, a different word feels better, somehow. This past year I've been coming to terms with who I am and how God made me. And in learning to love the version of God's image that is me, I have found a sense of happiness, of contentedness. I thought it would be good for me to continue to cultivate this process. And so, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my word of the year for 2012: joy.

I hope 2012 brings you and your loved ones much joy.

"For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." 
Isaiah 55:12

"This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." 
Psalm 118:24 

[side note: don't know if you noticed, but both of these verses have been put to song...]

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Here's my sermon for 2 Advent! The reading was Mark 1:1-8.

The seasons of Advent and Christmas are my absolute favorite of the year. The Advent traditions at my house include fun things like counting down the days to Christmas with Advent calendars, baking lots of traditional German cookies, lighting candles on the Advent wreath, and singing beloved Advent songs. One not-so-fun tradition in Advent is the process of cleaning the house in preparation for Christmas: picking up, throwing away, rearranging, scrubbing, vacuuming, mopping, and everyone’s least favorite—dusting. Cleaning is hard work, it’s stressful, and it often leads to at least one argument. Every year we go through this same struggle, but it’s worth it; a few days before Christmas, my dad’s side of the family descends upon the mountains of North Carolina, so that there are 13 or more people staying in the Shine household. The best way to describe it is joyful chaos. This happy time with family is well worth the headache of preparation.

In Mark’s Gospel today we hear about another kind of preparation from John the Baptist. John is a man with horrible fashion sense that is on a weird diet and makes speeches from his home…in the middle of the wilderness. He’s not exactly what we would call “normal.” But instead of staying away from this bizarre man, people are drawn to him—he’s even popular! Maybe people initially start going to him out of curiosity, but once they’re there, they get hooked, and more and more start going until virtually everyone in the nearby towns and countryside is gathering to see him. We don’t know exactly what he says, but it has something to do with preparation. You see, the people are hungry for some good news. Israel is under Roman occupation and her people are forced to pay heavy taxes to the Emperor. They are tired, poor, angry, and resentful; they want their freedom and want to be left alone. Well, John is telling the people that there’s someone stronger coming, someone who is going to change everything. But before he comes, they need to get ready; they need to prepare. And the way they are to prepare is by reflecting on their lives, repenting of what they’ve done wrong, and celebrating being forgiven by participating in a symbol of purification—baptism. So they line up to get baptized by him, awaiting Jesus’ coming with hope.

The first hearers of Mark’s Gospel are waiting for Jesus’ coming as well—his second coming. They are in a time of war and political division, of persecution and poverty; they are also hungry for Good News. In listening to this story they recognize that John the Baptist is actually dressed like one of the ancient prophets—persons with messages from God. The first words of the Gospel, “the beginning of the good news,” trigger in the listeners the memory of the loving God who created the world “in the beginning.” The setting of John’s ministry in the wilderness remind them that God brings their ancestors out of Egypt through the wilderness, and it is in the wilderness that God gives them instructions on how to love God and love their neighbors; the 10 Commandments. The mention of Jerusalem foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection, a demonstration of God’s love, reconciliation, and mercy. And in the last verse of the Gospel the mention of the Holy Spirit calls to mind Jesus’ promise of leaving behind an Advocate so that God will remain with them always. To the first listeners, this passage from Mark’s Gospel is very good news.     

In Advent we are still waiting for Jesus and are called to prepare for his coming. To tell the truth, we live in a world that could use some cleaning up. Like Mark’s first audience, we live in a time of war and political division, persecution and poverty. Our economy remains shaky and thousands of people have been taking to the streets and risking violence in order to protest the rising disparity between the rich and the poor. In this time of economic uncertainty it’s easy to get caught up with just taking care of our own, but we can’t deny the fact that there are millions of people around the world who are suffering, some of them in our own neighborhoods. We know that this is not how the world should be. 

“But it’s too big of a problem!” we protest. “How can we possibly make a difference when it’s hard enough to provide for our own families?” 

We can start by taking small steps, like reevaluating how we're spending our income. Maybe we don't need the latest iPhone, or that second coat, or a third pair of skinny jeans. To put things into perspective, according to research done by the National Retail Federation, Americans spent $52 billion on Black Friday this year. $52 billion. Compare that to the cost of providing clean water to the world, which is estimated to be between 9 and 30 billion dollars per year. That means we spent $22-43 billion more in one day than it would cost to provide clean water for the whole world for one year.

The numbers from the study are sobering, but maybe we can reframe it to see that there is also potential here. In this season we are bombarded with advertisements for gifts, pressured to put up decorations, and forced to attend way too many Christmas parties. Just imagine what would happen if everyone in this room decided next year to buy local gifts instead. Or made homemade ones. Or made donations to charities in people’s honor. It could make a big difference! Now imagine if most of the people in Alexandria did this. And then the country. And then the world. This idea may be somewhat naïve, but as we wait for Christ’s return we continuously work and hope and strive for a better world, so why not dream big? I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen some amazing things happen when the people of St. Mark’s work together.  

Every day we await Jesus’ return. In this season of Advent we are invited to prepare for his coming by reflecting on our own lives, repenting of what we’ve done wrong, and sharing weekly in a meal that renews us and reminds us of the one who died to forgive our sins. Our Lord Jesus is coming; prepare the way of the Lord! 

Monday, October 3, 2011

confidence in the flesh

Here is the sermon I preached at St. Mark's yesterday. The text is Philippians 3:4b-14.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord,  our strength and our redeemer.”[1]

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.”[2]

At first glance, today’s reading from Philippians makes Paul seem—well, arrogant. As he rattles off his résumé, I can’t help but picture him sitting there at his desk, listing off his credentials with a smug expression on his face. He sits there with his chest all puffed out, thinking how fortunate the Philippians are to have him as their mentor. Frankly, the first few times I read the passage, it aggravated me to no end, causing me to roll my eyes and shake my head in frustration. “I know he’s Paul, but, seriously, who does this guy think he is?” Maybe some of you felt the same way when you heard it a few moments ago. 

Without the back story, Paul’s message can get lost in this seemingly egotistical writing style. But perhaps our view will shift if we try to see where Paul is coming from.

First of all, Paul is writing this letter from jail. A prisoner, he awaits his trial and sentence, unsure of the outcome. However, instead of moping around his cell feeling sorry for himself, he has taken the time to write to people very dear to him. Amazingly, despite his situation, this letter is full of joy, gratitude, and hope. 

The Philippians are part of a Roman colony, in the westernmost city that Paul has ever traveled to. The Christians there have a great relationship with Paul, and it is obvious that he cares for them deeply. Apparently, there has been some division in the community, and so Paul writes to encourage them to remain unified, setting aside their differences and focusing their eyes on Christ. 

In addition to struggles within the community, there are people outside the community trying to convince the Philippians that because they converted to Christianity from paganism, they need to adopt all of the Jewish customs and practices in order to be true followers of Christ.

It is to these people that Paul is speaking in the beginning of the passage. He starts by demonstrating that he has the authority to counter their argument. He, himself, is Jewish, through and through. He comes from the right family, has grown up in the tradition, and has followed the Law, or the Torah, to a “T”. Basically, he’s saying, “I’ve been there, done that, and I am better at it than you. If the only way to achieve righteousness—to have a right relationship with God—is to follow the Law, then I have already achieved it.” 

But everything in his past changes for Paul when, in a powerful experience on the road to Damascus, he encounters Jesus Christ. After this event, he comes to realize that humans aren’t able to be righteous on their own. It is only the grace of God that grants us righteousness. Paul says the Law is important, but when we put the Law above everything else, we are missing the point.
Here Paul provides a startling metaphor: he imagines his life as a balance sheet. On one side are gains, on the other, losses. According to the world’s standards, he had it all. But he takes everything that he’s counted as gain, as part of the plus side, and places it on the side of loss. Everything he has previously thought is important, everything he has been doing to try to become righteous is rubbish, literally “garbage” and doesn’t matter anymore. He has spent his life searching for God, but instead, God has found him. On the Road to Damascus, Christ makes Paul his own, and he responds to this in kind.

Paul “presses on” toward the goal. This phrase can better be translated as “pursuing” the goal. In the past he has pursued Christians, but Paul now pursues Christ. Like a hunter, he is patient and focused on the prize. While waiting in his jail cell he keeps his eyes trained on the hope of Resurrection.  What’s done is done. What’s past is past. He hasn’t yet reached the goal, and it will not be an easy road from here on out, but—as Paul says later on in the letter—“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”[3]

So…how does this passage apply to us today? All of us are on different stages of our faith journeys. The thing about journeys is that the way is not always straight or easy. There will be hills, turns, delays, and—especially in this area—we’re going to hit traffic. Part of being people of faith means wrestling with what we believe and being willing to ask really tough questions. It means coming to worship together and supporting each other in the various stages of our journeys. Everyone’s journey is unique, and everyone’s journey is valid, whether we come to church twice a year or come regularly and serve on the vestry.   
Paul is telling us that regardless of what measures we take to achieve righteousness, God isn’t keeping score. God loves us and wants to cultivate a relationship with us, and because Jesus became human, humbled himself to the point of death, and then conquered death in his resurrection, we have been restored to right relationship with God. It is not because of anything we personally have done, but because Christ is faithful, that we have been made righteous.

Faced with this incredible Good News of God’s grace, how are we going to respond? In baptism we are united “with Christ in his death and resurrection,” born “into God’s family the Church,” promised “forgiveness of sins,” and are granted “new life in the Holy Spirit.”[4] When we take part in the Eucharist each week, our sins are once again forgiven, the union with Christ we received at Baptism is strengthened, and we are given “a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.”[5] Equipped with this “spiritual food,” we are sent out “to love and serve [God] as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”[6] We have been provided with everything we need, so “let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit!”[7]

[1] Adapted from today’s Psalm, 19:14 
[2] Phil. 3:4b
[3] Phil. 4:13 
[4] BCP 858 
[5] BCP 859-860
[6] BCP 366
[7] BCP 366

Images are a scrambling of my sermon from the site

Thursday, September 15, 2011


So, here's the sermon I preached for my senior sermon today (text was Luke 7:36-50):

"May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone."

A dignified dinner interrupted by an unwelcome guest. An intimate moment rewarded with an absolution. A lesson followed by an admonition. The verses of today’s Gospel are saturated with action and seasoned with vivid imagery. We know exactly what kind of jar the woman brings, we observe the elaborate ritual she performs, and we are even privy to the thoughts of the host! In fact, the author’s story telling provides us with so much detailed information that it is almost more than we can chew on in one sitting. But there is one ingredient that remains constant throughout this pericope: transformation. 

“A woman in the city” –that’s all we know about her. Well, that, and that she’s apparently done a lot of sinning. We don’t know what her life has been like, what her hopes and dreams are, or what exactly has motivated her to defy societal convention and approach a table with religious men. We only know that her sins are many, that these sins are known in the community, and that despite this, she has come to a stranger’s house to meet Jesus. Why does she choose this moment? Why doesn’t she wait until he leaves the Pharisee’s house? Maybe her need for forgiveness is too great—maybe she can’t stand another second living with the weight of guilt. Maybe she is just trying to approach him before she loses her nerve. We don’t have the answers to these questions, but in a particularly poignant scene we observe her tenderly serving her Lord, immune to the critical stares and whispers of the dinner guests. Throughout the passage she remains as nameless as her sins, but in the story that Jesus tells the Pharisee, we are to assume that she is the debtor who owed a lot of money. She may not be named, or even speak a word, but she is forever identified through her actions, which demonstrate a clear understanding of who Jesus is and how she should respond to him. From that point on, in Jesus’ eyes, she is known not as a sinner but as a faithful and forgiven woman.

Now let’s turn to the host of the dinner party: the Pharisee. The word Pharisee comes from the Aramaic word meaning “to divide and separate,”[1] referring to the religious group’s intention to separate themselves from sin. In a verse just before today’s passage, the author of Luke makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t look too kindly on Pharisees. In the beginning of today’s passage, he takes pains to emphasize that the host of the dinner party is one of these Pharisees. In stressing this point, the reader automatically knows not to expect too much out of him—at least, not anything good. True, the Pharisee has invited Jesus to dine in his home, but he has neglected basic acts of hospitality. Other than that, there seems to be no indication that anything is out of the ordinary. Until a stranger shows up. 

Everyone always talks about how beautiful this passage is, but from the Pharisee’s point of view I’m betting the whole situation is pretty awkward…Just imagine it: the guys are having a lively conversation and all of a sudden this woman—clearly a sinner—walks in unannounced. The men gasp and stop talking, their wine glasses hitting the table as they crane their necks to get a better look. They then begin to whisper and mutter, causing heat to rise in the woman’s cheeks, turning them a painful shade of scarlet. She pauses, takes a deep breath, and determinedly approaches Jesus from behind, her hands, clutching a jar of oil, shaking slightly. When she reaches him she looks down to see the blisters and layers of dust on his tired feet. That’s when the crying begins. And we’re not talking a drop or two running down her cheeks—it literally says she is raining tears on his feet. So, tears streaming (and nose running), she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair and anoints them with oil, all the while kissing them repeatedly. The whole situation, from the point of view of the guests, is bizarre. When the woman enters and touches Jesus, the Pharisee knows exactly what kind of woman she is, and believes that a prophet would have reacted differently, would have turned her away rather than become unclean. The separation from sin that this Pharisee so intently strives for has instead resulted in a separation from a fellow human being.

However, as so often happens, everything changes when Jesus speaks. He turns to the Pharisee and calls him by his name, Simon, which comes from the Hebrew word shemá, meaning “to hear.” It is the Pharisee’s turn to hear not the voice of self-righteous criticism in his head, but the words of Jesus. “Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ”[2] “Listen up!” And from that point on in the passage, he is no longer referred to as “the Pharisee” but is known by name. Simon, the religious leader, becomes the student, and with this shift in identity comes a shift in expectations. Simon can no longer use his title as an excuse to avoid others. “Do you see this woman?”[3] Just as Jesus looks beyond the title to the man, so Simon is entreated to see, to really look at and recognize the woman for who she has become, not the woman she has been. Upon receiving forgiveness, Simon and the woman are invited to break free from being defined by their sins and remember that they have both been created in the image of God.
Perhaps the person with the most transformation in this passage is Jesus, himself. “Who is this…?”[4] the dinner guests wonder. Today’s passage comes at the start of Jesus’ ministry—we are just beginning to learn what Jesus is all about. The scene opens with him as a dinner guest, but not an honored one. The woman recognizes his love and mercy, but Simon thinks of him as “this man” and calls him “Teacher,”[5] believing he is not a prophet, after all. Jesus not only takes on this role of teacher, but in reading Simon’s thoughts, he proves that he actually is a prophet as well. It is in forgiving the woman’s sins, however, that Jesus assumes his most important identity—that of the Son of God. Jesus, as the Son of God, reveals the nature of God. And in the parable of the debtors we learn that God is unbelievably generous. The creditor, out of his abundance, forgives the debts of both. Likewise, God, out of the abundance of God’s mercy, forgives the sins of both. The woman and Simon are shown equal compassion—the difference between them is how they react to their new status as forgiven ones.
In coming to Virginia Theological Seminary, we have all gone through shifts in identity. Students have left behind professions, internships and undergrads and have become seminarians; some professors have just received tenure while others are moving towards retirement; quite a few students and even some staff have recently become or will soon become first-time parents; and even our Dean has converted from being an Englishman to becoming an official American citizen. Today’s pericope reminds us that an encounter with Jesus is transformational. You and I are here because on some level or another we have experienced Jesus’ love and it has radically changed our lives—changed the very core of our being and shaped the choices we make and how we interact with others and with the world. In our studies and common life here on the Holy Hill, as well as in our respective parishes, it is easy to get so wrapped up in classes and church and work that it becomes our whole world, our identity. We can fall into the trap of thinking that we as leaders are the only ones with something to offer and fail to learn from the ones we serve. It is also tempting to surround ourselves only with people who are similar to us—who view the world the same way and who have the same passions and worship practices. Yet in doing this, we separate ourselves from things and people that make us uncomfortable, that challenge us. But in a post-9/11 world where wars and revolutions continue to rage on, famine in East Africa threatens to kill hundreds of thousands of people, and in our own country the national poverty rate is rising, we can’t afford to separate ourselves from each other anymore. Today’s passage is inviting us to examine our lives and to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Where are we separating ourselves from our fellow human beings? Where are we creating identities for others based on our limited information of them? How can we reconcile our differences and work together to create a better world? There are no straightforward answers to these questions or simple solutions to these problems. You and I know that Christianity is not easy—we have to travel the way of the cross before we can experience the joy of resurrection. But we live with the promise that we will get there someday. 

Throughout our lives we will continue to have shifts in identity. Those of us who go on to become priests may even experience an ontological change upon ordination. But the most important identity any of us here can ever have is actually something we share with Simon and the woman and all of humanity. We are, first and foremost, beloved children of an amazingly gracious, forgiving and compassionate God. In the face of this, how are we going to react?

[1] “Pharisaios.”
[2] Luke 7:40
[3] Luke 7:44 
[4] Luke 7:49
[5] Luke 7:39-40

Picture found here.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Okay, so in church/seminary circles, to talk of sabbath is cliche. We know it's a commandment, we know that we should be making time for it, but we secretly look down on people who take time off to just be, muttering to ourselves that if we didn't have so much to do, we could also make time for being. Or maybe that's just me.

Well, last May I finished my middler year (2nd of 3) of seminary physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. It seems that all that doing had affected my well-being. And, to be honest, I wasn't doing very well at all. Junior year had led straight to CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education, basically an internship as a hospital chaplain), which had led straight to middler year--with hardly any time in between. For someone who has trouble saying no, and, as a result, has poor time management, having hardly any breaks built into to my schedule for me meant that I didn't really take time off. And because of that, things in my life started to fall apart. Life got exponentially harder, and I began to lose sight of myself. In this dark place I began to wonder what the heck I was doing here and what the purpose of it all was. Luckily, I recognized the signs of downward spiraling before I hit rock bottom, and with the support of some friends and my family (who also recognized the signs), got the help I needed. By the time May came around I was on my way to recovery, but life still had a lackluster hue.

Whether intentionally or because they are currently in transition, my diocese does not require anything of seminarians in the summer between middler and senior years. This ended up being a gift and a much-needed blessing for me. I slept, ate, watched all the episodes of the modern Dr. Who (currently in its 5th season), read for pleasure, played music, took lots of pictures, preached some, was a camp counselor for a week, went on a mission trip, and visited friends and family. In short, I took time to do things that I loved and only did what I wanted to do. And as the summer wore on, the layers of grime that had covered up my life began to wear away, revealing a colorful mosaic beneath it. I began to love life again but more importantly, I began to love myself. I returned to campus for my final (!) year of school refreshed, my faith restored, and full of joy and a new-found self-confidence. There's a fire in my belly and a song in my soul.

Now, in all likelihood, I won't get summers off every year. So it will be up to me to sprinkle little sabbaths throughout the year, making sure I do things for me. I guess that's part of growing up--getting to know (and love) yourself well enough that you take time to tend to your own needs, because *newsflash* no one is going to do it for you. Yes, I might miss out on a group activity here and there (there will be others). Yes, I might have to let people down now and then (it's bound to happen anyway). But, ultimately, I will be healthier, happier, more whole and a whole lot more pleasant to be around. This unassuming little commandment might just be one of the most important things I have learned in seminary.

Some sabbath pictures from this summer:
 Harry Potter and the beach: a winning combination.

 Taking time to enjoy the sunrise at Holden Beach, NC...

...and boy, is it glorious

 Grandfather Mountain, Boone, NC

Butterfly Garden on Grandfather Mountain

View from the mile-high "swinging" bridge

Thursday, July 14, 2011

letting go

Letting go.

It's such a familiar phrase. It's something that I've been attempting to do for as long as I can remember. It even inspired my word of the year (release). And until recently, it was something that I completely misunderstood.

I like to hold onto things. My pack-rat-ish tendencies include pictures, stamps, movie tickets, bulletins, programs...the list goes on and on. I hold onto them so that I can remember all of the good times. I'm terrified of forgetting, as if losing a memory means losing a part of me.

But there are certain memories that I try desperately to get rid of, attempting to scrub them away like I do a stain on a favorite shirt, or to bury them like a secret treasure, one I hope no one will ever find.

These memories, however, manage to crop up unexpectedly, no matter how hard I try to ignore them. And in some cases, the bad memories are linked inextricably to good ones, so in order to forget the bad I must also forget the good.

I thought that letting go meant forgetting. I thought that if I denied those parts of the past that I didn't wish to remember that they would lose their grip on me, would cease to be associated with me. But I was wrong. I'm starting to realize that they are never going to go away. But I am who I am today because of the things that happened and the choices I made, both good and bad. It may seem counter-intuitive, but claiming them as part of my story is actually what will release me from their grip. If I name them and acknowledge their presence, they will no longer have power over me, because they will be a part of me.

No one is all-good or all-bad. Everyone has things in their past that they would like to do over. But unless we know The Doctor, that is not an option for us. Besides, to quote an old Mac McAnally song, "If our plans had turned out like we wanted, would they be what we want right now?"

I've had some pretty amazing adventures in my life. If I erased part of my past, I wouldn't have gotten to do as many wonderful things or gotten to know people who are so dear to me now. I wouldn't be me.

This new realization doesn't mean that everything will magically get better. Letting go is still going to be difficult. Only now it actually seems possible.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Here's the sermon I preached at All Saints, Omaha, this weekend [click here for a link to the scripture]:

You know, I think it's a really good thing that the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac didn't fall in the lectionary last week. When I try to think of good examples of fatherhood for Father's day, this passage is not at the top of my list, unless I'm going for irony.

At times I have trouble with some of the passages in the Bible. This is one of those times. I have heard the story repeatedly, and each time I get stuck on the same question: why? Why in the world would God ask Abraham to do something like this? After all that God has promised him, after all that Abraham has sacrificed in order to follow God's call, why would God ask him to sacrifice more? And his own child, for goodness' sake!

Let's take a look back at Abraham's life. The first time God calls Abraham, he picks up his wife, nephew, and servants and travels until God tells him to stop. Back then, your family and your land was everything. So for him to leave his extended family for the unknown meant that he was losing his identity. With his support system gone, he was relying completely on God.

God then promised him that he would have as many heirs as there are stars in the sky. And yet Abraham waited childless for 10 years before Sarah convinced him to take her slave-girl, Hagar, so that they would have someone to carry on the family name so it wouldn't disappear forever. Only after Ishmael is born does God finally tell Sarah that she is going to have a child of her own in the next few years. As Isaac grows older, Sarah becomes increasingly worried that Ishmael is a threat to Isaac's inheritance. In the passage immediately before the one we read today, Sarah tells Abraham to make Hagar and Ishmael leave. God tells him to listen to his wife. So he sends them off into the desert, what he believes to be a death sentence.

Abraham is understandably upset--Ishmael was his first-born, regardless of who his mother was. And right on the heels of this loss God decides to test him, to make him lose a son yet again. And Abraham listens! At this point, I begin to wonder what in the world is going on with Abraham. Where is the man who bargained with God for the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? If he could do that for complete strangers, for people who were corrupt and evil, why didn't he try to argue for the life of his own son? Why did he just blindly follow God's command?

We don't have answers to these questions. We just know that God called, and righteous man that he was, Abraham obeyed.

I wonder what the conversation is like between Abraham and his son as they leave the two servants behind on their way to make the sacrifice. Perhaps he is quiet, with a far-off gaze, nodding absent-mindedly as Isaac rambles on. Or maybe he is soaking up every last second with his precious son, absorbing their last bit of time together like a parched sponge. Or he could be trying to distract his son with tales of adventures from his journeys through foreign lands.

Whatever happens, Isaac is a smart kid, and, eventually noticing there isn't a lamb, he asks his father about it. Abraham answers him with the same response he gave God: "Here I am, my son."

And then, whether as a reply to pacify his son or a plea to God or an assertion of his faith, he tells his son in a voice cracking with emotion that "God himself will provide." As if to prove his point (to himself as well as his son), he begins to look around furtively, hoping against hope that there really is an animal somewhere out there.

With each step the place gets closer and his heart grows heavier with the knowledge of what he is prepared to do. When they arrive I imagine Abraham is very particular about how the altar is built and fusses with the wood, stacking and re-stacking until it's obvious even to Isaac that his father is procrastinating. Scanning the area for an animal for the hundredth time and still finding none, his shoulders droop and he asks his son to come to his side. At this point he has probably run out of words--how in the world do you explain to your child that you are supposed to kill them? He ties up Isaac, who is so shocked that he doesn't try to resist, but simply stares in confusion at his father. Abraham puts him on top of the wood and reaches for his knife. His blood pounds in his ears loudly and he feels nauseated. He is so focused that the angel has to call his name twice to get his attention. "Abraham. Abraham!" He freezes, too afraid to move. He whispers hesitantly, "Here I am." And the angel tells him his son is not to die after all. He hears rustling behind him and sees a ram caught in a thicket. His hands shaking and tears streaming down his cheeks he hurriedly unties his son and then gathers him into his arms before they go collect the ram.

Obviously this is all a romanticized version stemming purely from my imagination. Maybe Abraham was completely certain that God would come and save Isaac. Maybe he talked to his son and told him exactly what to expect. I don't know about you, but I have personally never met anyone without an ounce of doubt on some level, whether or not they'll admit it out loud. And so I think that if this were the case it would take away from his sacrifice and the lengths to which he would go to in order to obey God's command.

Perhaps we get caught up in the drama of the situation and are too quick to write off Abraham as a shoddy father. But maybe as a final lesson to his son he was demonstrating the very thing he did best--and what he did best was obey God. For Abraham, God came first--before family, before identity, before everything. And this obedience, this righteousness, was an essential quality for the future people of God to have if they were going to be in covenant with one another. Because for some crazy reason, God wants to have a relationship with us.

We can't understand the reasons behind God's actions and requests. We only have a few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, and we aren't able to see how they fit in with the rest of the pieces. We don't get to see the cover of the box, and that drives me absolutely crazy sometimes. So when I begin to get frustrated with God's request and how Abraham acts in this passage, I remind myself of a piece of the puzzle that is found way later in the Bible. Because the same God who makes this request of Abraham later ends up giving his own beloved Son as a sacrifice. And that's why we're here today: to join with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ--old and new, from near and from far away--in a service of worship, fellowship, and thanksgiving for a God who we will never understand but who we do know loves us unconditionally. Thanks be to God!

Carvaggio's "Sacrifice of Isaac"

Friday, May 6, 2011

that very Spirit intercedes

The verse that has been close to my heart throughout this past school year has been Romans 8:26. The NRSV version reads, "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words."

If I am being honest, prayer does not always come easily to me. I'm not talking about prayer in church; surrounded by the voices of my faithful sisters and brothers it's easy for me to join in with confidence. I'm talking about the kind of prayer where I am sitting in my room on my bed, where it's just me and God...and lots of silence.

In my experience, God isn't always the best conversation partner, at least not in the traditional sense. So in the extended silence it's harder for me to feel assured that God is actually listening, or that my prayers even make a difference. I often end up feeling frustrated or like a failure. But I keep on trying. And sometimes, days--even weeks--later, I catch a glimpse of something or someone says something to me, and in that moment I know that even if what I prayed for has not come to pass, God really was listening the whole time.


Monday, May 2, 2011

noticing the mess

He Qi's portrayal of "doubting" Thomas

Easter 2, Year A
John 20:19-32
St. Mark's

"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Every time we come to this Gospel passage I can't help but feel sorry for poor Thomas. In sermons he is often torn apart, scolded for his apparent lack of faith, forever dubbed "doubting Thomas." But can we really blame him?

Imagine it: A few days before, Jesus has been crucified. The disciples have spent the past three years following him, and less than 24 hours after his arrest, he is dead. It is hard enough to come to grips with the reality that all they have been working for is finished and that their lives are in even greater danger than before. But now Mary Magdalene and the other disciples are telling Thomas that they have seen Jesus, that he is back. Back from the dead? He'd seen Lazarus raised, but it was Jesus who had done that. So who raised Jesus? It is simply too impossible to believe something like this could happen.

So, Thomas responds the way I think any normal human being would respond, "Unless I see [him with my own eyes] I will not believe." And as the days go by without seeing Jesus, I imagine he becomes even more doubtful. Finally, though, after a week Jesus reappears, and this time Thomas is present. He sees the holes in Jesus' hands and side and responds with what is considered by some to be the most complete statement of faith in the New Testament: "My Lord and my God!"

To this, Jesus replies, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

I think it's important to remember that Thomas is not the only one of Jesus' followers who needed to see in order to believe that Jesus had been resurrected. Mary Magdalene begins to cry when she sees the empty tomb, thinking that Jesus' body has been stolen. Only when she hears her voice called and turns around does she realize that Jesus is the one speaking with her. Jesus then tells her not to cling to him but to go tell the others.

Similarly, Peter sees the empty tomb but doesn't believe until Jesus appears in the locked room. And the disciples only begin to rejoice after Jesus proves it's him by showing them the marks on his hands and side. In fact, the only person in this passage that believes without seeing is "the disciple whom Jesus loved."

"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." These words must have been a great comfort to the people who first heard them. The Gospel according to John was probably written 40-60 years after Jesus had died. This means that most of the people who had been present during his lifetime were no longer living. These words, in a sense, spoke directly to them, encouraging them to believe and promising them blessings if they did.

Even though they faced persecution, in a sense, I think faith came easier to the first generations of Christians than it does for us in the 21st century. After all, they at least knew someone who knew Jesus, or knew someone who knew someone who knew Jesus. We are so much farther removed. The only things we have to go by are the words written in the Bible and a tradition handed down for about 2000 years. There seems to be more room for doubt with each passing generation.

But keep in mind that it is natural for people to have questions, to wonder, to struggle with their faith. As a matter of fact, I dare you to find one person who has never had any doubts in their entire life. Even the Bible is filled with examples of people who struggled with their faith. It is precisely in the struggles where our faith has the chance to grow, to deepen.

In her book, Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott writes, "the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns."

I experienced some of this in college. My campus ministry, WCF, was made up of people of various denominations, mostly Presbyterian and Episcopalian. Other than being small, as far as I know we were a pretty typical Christian group--we got together once a week to share a meal, pray, and hang out. One of my friends, who had spent time with other ministry groups on campus before joining ours, said that he felt more comfortable in our group. He said that with the others, there was an expectation that everyone believe the same thing. It was black and white--you either believed what they did or you didn't, and if you didn't believe, then you didn't belong. But at WCF, it was okay for people to be unsure, to be, as he said, "in the gray spaces" of faith. At WCF we didn't have to feel guilty for questioning or pretend to believe in something we didn't. We could just be ourselves, and that was good enough. 

I think this is true of St. Mark's and the Episcopal Church in general. It's one of the main reasons I love it so much. I think that most of us are here today because there is something about Jesus that draws us in, a sense of truth that resonates deep within our hearts. Our faith might be shaky at times. Maybe it's shaky today. What I think this passage is ultimately trying to tell us, however, is that it's okay not to be 100% sure of what we believe all the time. Where we fall short, the Holy Spirit fills in for us. And it's why we come here, week after week: to find strength in common worship in prayer, to be nourished by Christ's body and blood, and to be re-energized to go out of these doors together to share the great, impossible news with the world that our Lord and our God has risen from the dead.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Friday, April 22, 2011

present-day stations of the cross

Well, it's been a while, but I suppose there's no time like Good Friday to begin writing/sharing again...

Two or three years ago in Lent I posted (on a different blog) the stations of the cross with pictures of everyday people instead of Jesus. It was a good spiritual practice for me, so I decided to try it again with new images. Why? I believe that God suffers every time one of God's creation suffers, and so this is my attempt to see Christ in the world around me. On Good Friday, I think it's especially important to remember those around the world who are suffering. And so, without further ado, I give you this year's rendition (taken from Google images).

Stations of the Cross

First station: Jesus is condemned to die

final stop of death row

Second station: Jesus takes up his cross

Third station: Jesus falls the first time

Fourth station: Jesus meets his afflicted mother

Fifth station: The cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene

Sixth station: A woman wipes the face of Jesus

 bird being cleaned after oil spill

Seventh station: Jesus falls a second time

Eighth station: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

 woman in Haiti

 women in Libya praying

Ninth station: Jesus falls a third time

Tenth station: Jesus is stripped of his garments

Eleventh station: Jesus is nailed to the cross

Twelfth station: Jesus dies on the cross

 nuns killed during the civil war in El Salvador

Thirteenth station: The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother

a Sudanese woman closing the eyes of her child

a woman mourning the death of her child in Iraq

Fourteenth station: Jesus is laid in the tomb

hanging coffins in the Philippines 
"Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."  BCP p. 823