Monday, February 27, 2012

guilty of dust and sin

1 Lent, Monday

Here are the readings for today: Genesis 37:1-11, Psalm 44, 1 Corinthians 1:1-19, Mark 1:1-13.

These 40 days are a time of self-discipline and reflection, of prayer and fasting. But Lent is also a time of repentance and reconciliation.

The reading from 1 Corinthians struck a chord with me tonight, in particular these verses:

"Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters" (1 Corinthians 1:10-11).

I spoke with a friend recently and asked how they were doing. They said that they were having a difficult time, partly because they had heard that I had been speaking about them behind their back.

You know the old childhood phrase, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me"? Well, it's wrong. Words do hurt. And I am guilty of having contributed to the pain of someone I care about. When I think of the pain that I have caused this person and others, I feel awful. Verse 15 from Psalm 44 reads: "All day long my disgrace is before me, * and shame has covered my face." This resonated with me strongly tonight.

"Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." But I do know. And yet I still mess up. I still manage to hurt people I care about. Why do I keep doing that? What compels me to contribute to gossip and say mean things about others?

This is not the unity that Paul is urging the people of Corinth to strive for. This is not the way Christ taught us to live. Christ revealed to us the nature of God, which is love. Love of God, love of neighbor, and--only lastly--love of self.

I don't know what else to say except I'm sorry. Sorry for the words I have spoken, the actions I have taken, and the actions I have not taken. Thank you for your honesty and for giving me the chance to repent and make it right again. 

Since today is the feast of George Herbert, here is a poem of his that my rector in Omaha is particularly fond of. It speaks far more eloquently than I could of God's reconciling love.

by George Herbert

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
        Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
        From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
        If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
        Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
        I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
        "Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
        Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
        "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
        So I did sit and eat.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

we will, with God's help

Year B RCL First Sunday in Lent

Here are the readings for today. I preached on Mark 1:9-15.

In those days, a wild man began preaching in the desert, calling for people to repent and turn to God, announcing the coming of one who was greater.

In those days, a man of humble beginnings came to where the wild man was preaching. Maybe he waited at the edge of the crowd for a while, listening to the words and the pleading behind them. Compelled, he then began to walk slowly but purposefully toward the wild man. “I want to be baptized,” he said, looking intently into the wild man’s eyes. The wild man nodded and wordlessly led him to the water. Without pausing, without hesitation, they stepped together into the Jordan River. The wild man took the other man by the shoulders and pushed him beneath the flowing water.

In those days, as Jesus came up out of the water, the sky was ripped open, the Spirit came down, a voice rang out an affirmation, and everything changed. Up until that point, Jesus had probably been living a pretty typical Jewish life, studying Scripture and learning a trade in his country village. But as soon as he stepped out of that water he was chased into the desert, cast out like an unclean spirit by the Spirit. The same Spirit that moved over the waters of creation shed its dove-like appearance to reveal the hawk underneath.

In those days, Jesus was tested and tempted in the same desert where his ancestors, the Israelites, had wandered. He was surrounded by wild beasts much more frightening than the creatures from Where the Wild Things Are. The days, mostly filled with silence, seemed to stretch into eternity, and thoughts, normally drowned out by busyness, refused to be ignored. These thoughts raced around, increasing in pitch and tempo and intensity until they were finally resolved.

In these days, we look back on Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and are reminded of our own struggles and temptations during this Lenten season. Whether we have given something up or have taken something on, or haven’t yet found a discipline, there are always those nagging thoughts or little temptations calling our name, tugging on our sleeves, distracting us from our relationship with God. It’s so easy to throw in the towel once we have messed up on our Lenten discipline. For example, you are halfway through a brownie when you remember that you gave up sweets, and so you decide that since you’ve already messed up, you might as well eat the piece of pie in the fridge. Or you climb into bed exhausted after a long day and remember that you haven’t been reading a chapter of the Bible each day, like you had planned, and now you are three days behind. “There’s no way I’ll catch up at this rate!” you think to yourself. You turn the light off, feeling guilty and disheartened. But the thing is, these disciplines are not about how well you do them. Taking up a spiritual discipline is meant to be difficult. In fact, the whole point is that we realize that we can’t do these things on our own.

This realization, that we can’t do it on our own, can often lead to a greater sense of clarity, of purpose. As we see in the Gospel reading, Jesus endures temptation and comes out of it with a strengthened resolve and a firm sense of calling. He emerges from the desert ready to begin his ministry, ready to “proclaim the good news of God.” 

In these 40 days of Lent, we are reminded that Jesus never promises that following in his path will be easy. John’s arrest foreshadows Jesus’ own future arrest. Mark doesn’t let us get past even the first chapter of his Gospel before pointing us to the cross. But this is the ministry that we have been baptized into. When we are baptized, we are adopted into God’s family, into the Church, into the Body of Christ. Our sins are forgiven as we enter into a new, Spirit-filled life. Once baptized, we are to be reconcilers, Christ-bearers, spreading the Good News just as the first disciples did. It’s not an easy task—in fact, it’s huge, and impossible to do on our own! But what Christ reveals to us in this passage is that God knows what it feels like to be tested and tempted. God has been there, done that.
And we also know that during his time in the desert, Jesus was not alone. In the midst of his suffering, he was in the company of angels. God was with him the whole time!

And God is there with us when we struggle—with our Lenten disciplines, but also with life in general. When the kids are running around screaming and you are at your wits’ end, stop for a moment and say a silent prayer for strength. When you and your loved one are in a major argument, stop and say a prayer for reconciliation. When it’s two in the morning and you are exhausted, but still not finished with your take home exam, stop and say a prayer for wisdom. When your doctor calls to give you bad news, stop and say a prayer for guidance. Whatever it is, ask God to help you through it. Prayers are not incantations—they won’t make the situation go away. But, somehow, you will be able to get through it. God will be with us, and with that knowledge, we can look at whatever comes our way and say, “we will, with God’s help.”

Just for fun...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

i can do all things...

(Here are the readings for today.)

How many times have I heard this quoted or seen this on a motivational poster? Too many times to keep track. It seems to be the Christian go-to answer for when something difficult arises: "Oh, you're having problems? Well, don't worry about it. God will help you. 'I can do all things,' you know." I've heard it so many times that I don't really stop and think about what it means anymore. But today it was the line that popped out at me when I was reading the lectionary. Actually, it was the few lines before it that really stood out--I had forgotten the verses immediately preceding it.

Philippians 4:10-13

10 I rejoice* in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived 
your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, 
but had no opportunity to show it.*  
11Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned 
to be content with whatever I have.  
12I know what it is to have little, 
and I know what it is to have plenty. 
In any and all circumstances I have learned 
the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, 
of having plenty and of being in need. 
13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 

This passage brings to mind the mission trips I have participated in. Every developing country that I have been to has introduced me to people who are living life from day-to-day without knowing where they are going to find their next meal. They "know what it is to have little." They "have learned the secret of...going hungry, of...being in need." And they are some of the most faithful and happiest people I have ever met. Yet, "I know what it is to have plenty." I "have learned the secret of being well-fed...of having plenty." But so often I catch myself complaining about one thing or another, dissatisfied with the way my life is going.

In this time of Lent, it is good to have a reminder of the people I've met on my travels. It puts things into perspective, and hopefully it will help me learn "to be content with whatever I have."

Friday, February 24, 2012

it's not fair!

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Here are the readings from Ezekiel, Philippians, and John for today.

At first the reading for Ezekiel left me with a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth. The passage seems to be saying that God punishes people directly for their sins. The people in the passage are complaining that God's way is unfair, but God is saying that the people's way is what's unfair. First, God makes the point that God is the one in control, not us: "You belong to me; I made you, and so you are mine" (my paraphrase). We humans are limited beings--we don't have knowledge of what is going to happen in the future or how the world works. That's up to God. At this point I begin thinking of Julian of Norwich's vision of God holding all of creation the way we might hold a hazelnut.

(Image from

 In this vision, Julian ponders:

"I wondered how it [creation] could survive
since it seemed so little
it could suddenly disintegrate into nothing.

The answer came: ‘It endures and ever will endure,
because God loves it.’

And so everything has being
because of God’s love."

We are so minuscule compared to the greatness that is God. We have such limited knowledge of what's going on in this world and beyond. It reminds me of some verses from Isaiah that we use as a canticle in our Book of Common Prayer: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). We humans can't see the big picture, and so we really aren't able to judge whether or not God's perceived action or inaction is unfair. 

Sometimes God can seem so very far away, especially when I'm going through a rough time or doing things I know I'm not supposed to do. I mess up, and mess up, and mess up. And a lot of times I make the same mistakes more than once. In fact, most of the time it's easier for me to identify with the wicked people in this passage than with the righteous.

But here's the part where I really find hope: God is waiting for us to turn our lives around, to admit when we go astray and repent of our wrongdoings. It's like God is saying, "C'mon, people, you know that you can't keep going along on your own. That's what sin is--separating yourself from Me. And living this way will tear you apart. Why do you keep doing this? I don't enjoy disciplining you! I created you for joy, not sorrow. So wake up!"

This seems to be an appropriate passage for Lent, after all: "Turn, then, and live."

hold my hand

Wow. Day 3 and I'm already behind! I will mention that I did read Scripture yesterday and wrote some notes, but it was the Scripture for Sunday since I'm preaching. So I'll wait to post about that until after I write my sermon :o)

Here are some reflections for Thursday:

Two verses of Psalm 37 (vv. 24 & 25) struck me today:
"Our steps are directed by the LORD; * he strengthens those in whose way he delights.
If they stumble, they shall not fall headlong, * for the LORD holds them by the hand."

I am in a great place right now. My future is looking bright, and it seems like (except for GOE scores) all the news I have been getting lately is good news. Yet, all this good news is making me feel suspicious. Why should I have it so easy? Is all of this happening because I said yes? But if that's true, then why aren't all my friends in the same place? What's the catch, God? I keep looking around my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting to get the phone call that something terrible has happened.

Yesterday (Thursday) I met with my spiritual director. I told her all of my good news and my hesitation to live into that news. She told me that the nagging voice in the back of my head filled with suspicion and doubt is NOT the voice of God, but the voice of one trying to lead me into what she calls a place of "spiritual desolation." She suggested that when I feel that I am being led down that path, I should follow Ignatian wisdom and:

Insist a little more on
    1. self-examination
    2. meditation (tell yourself the TRUTH)
    3. prayer (since you can't fix yourself, turn the care of your life over to God...ask for the grace of God's help)
    4. small acts of courage (do little things that stand in firm contrast to what the wrong spirit is trying to convince you of)

What great advice! I left our meeting feeling relieved. Since it was sunny out, I decided to take a walk and enjoy the day. I know that I can't stay in this happy place forever, that eventually I will have to come down from my cloud, but until then I will attempt to rest in the knowledge that God is with me, regardless of what happens, and God will give me the strength to get through both the good and the not-so-good times. But for now, I will try to live into the joy of the present moment. After all, joy is my word of the year :o)

(Image from

Thursday, February 23, 2012

ashes, ashes, we all fall down

Well, it's that time of year again. Christmas is over and Epiphany has disappeared with the final bites of syrup-drenched pancakes from last night's Shrove Tuesday pancake supper. Today marks the beginning of Lent, what we call the 40 or so days before Easter--a time of self-discipline, prayer, fasting, reflection, and reconciliation. Traditionally, people give up something during Lent: sweets, TV, facebook, or alcohol, for example. Some choose instead to take on something, like exercising, a new prayer practice, or hand-writing letters. Whatever you choose to do or not do, the intent is to deepen your relationship with God. This year I have decided to read Scripture and write my reflections on the passages that resonate with me. Why am I telling you this? Well, once again, I blog partly to keep friends and loved ones informed of my seminary experiences, but also for accountability purposes--it's a way of forcing me to "walk the walk," you see.

I'm going to start by essentially breaking my first day of Lenten discipline. Tonight I want to focus mainly on the amazing experiences of today, because today was pretty awesome.

Two friends and I met on the patio at 6 this morning to offer the imposition of ashes to people on the metro (we didn't do this with a particular church, but modeled it after the "Ashes to Go" movement, which has appeared all over the internet as the latest meme). We placed ourselves at the entrance to a  metro stop near to the seminary. People walking by must have thought us a strange sight: two people dressed in black cassocks--one male, one female (a friend was borrowing mine, so I was in street clothes)--holding small bowls with ashes in them and a sign that said "Ashes to Go." I had made handouts explaining the meaning of this sacramental act, along with the website of the Episcopal National Church and a picture of the "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You."

What did we hope to accomplish? Well, I personally didn't really know what to expect when we went out there. I thought maybe a handful of people might ask for it, but at first, there were no takers at all. People stumbled in to the metro station, still groggy and half-asleep because of the early hour. As the sun rose, people began to wake up more (including us) and actually looked in our direction. There were two guys handing out newspapers, and one of them talked to us a little when traffic was slow. One man got off of the metro and was waiting around for his ride. He smiled at us, and so I eventually worked up the courage to ask him if he wanted some ashes. He asked us a few questions about it and then agreed--our first taker! He told us he was a Baptist minister and was waiting for a ride to his work. As time passed, more and more people began to look our way, and a few of them stopped. Most people were curious, some people smiled, some shook their heads, and some were completely indifferent. One person started to come over but then said, "Oh, I really should go to church. Thank you, though." A few said, "what a great idea!" Two or three of them called Daniel "Father." Chana, however, felt that she was getting weird looks--they didn't quite know what to do with a woman dressed in that clothing. One man came running to the entrance, started to pass us, and then turned and came up to Daniel. Yes, he wanted ashes, but when Daniel went to put the cross on his forehead, the man lifted his index finger and asked, "Catholic?" to which Daniel replied, "Umm, Episcopalian?" At that, the man turned on his heel and went back inside the station. Some people tried to pay us, a few asked if we were "for real." All in all, we probably had about 20 takers between 6:20 and 7:40. One of the newspaper vendors even asked to have ashes put on him!

When we got back to campus, we went to the Ash Wednesday service. Ash Wednesday is a Quiet Day on campus, which means that we are to spend the day in silent meditation on the Word and example of Jesus Christ. A local rector gave the meditation, which was very moving. However, I struggled a little with the reading from Matthew (6:1): "Jesus said, 'Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.' " Did this passage mean that the "Ashes to Go" movement was a way of flashing our religion? In some ways, perhaps it did, but I think our main point was not to flaunt our faith but to evangelize--to carry our faith out into the world instead of waiting for people to come to us. If nothing else, we served as a reminder to the world that we exist (and to Christians that today is Ash Wednesday so they can try to make it to a service). And I'm sure some of the people who approached us had never heard of Episcopalians before. But now they have!

After the meditation I went to the Holocaust Museum. I hadn't been inside the main part of the museum since going on a field trip with a class in college. It seemed appropriate to revisit it on Ash Wednesday, when we are to remember our own mortality and repent of wrongdoings. But I was admittedly a little nervous about walking around this particular museum with ashes in the shape of a cross on my forehead. One of the security guards asked me about it and I spoke with him and then handed him one of the leaflets I had made. More evangelism, woo hoo!

The museum was just as powerful this time as it had been the last time. I was still dumbfounded by the extent of cruelty inflicted on so many people--how can we do this to one another? How brainwashed or scared do you have to be in order to attempt to systematically wipe out entire villages full of people? More importantly, why did it take so long for most people to react to the Holocaust? And how could a benevolent God allow this to happen? Well, I've never been good at coming up with answers for the question of theodicy, and it's late, so I'm not going to attempt to explain my thoughts on it right at this moment. Needless to say, it was a sobering experience.

After returning to campus, a couple of us went back to offer ashes at a different metro station. This time we hit the rush hour just right, and had many more takers. We had similar reactions as in the morning (except that everyone was much more awake), such as curiosity, ambivalence, appreciation, and indifference. It seemed like the people approaching us were much younger this time than before. The average age was around 30, and we even had some young children participate! We wondered if we were getting mostly young adult participation because the 5 of us were in our mid-20s to early 30s. Who knows? We think the total number of people who received ashes and/or information from us was about 75-90. That's awesome! My classmates are hoping to continue the tradition with more VTSers next year. There's no way to measure how much of an effect we had on people today. But it's not about the numbers. The experience was worth it (lack of sleep and cold temperatures included!) even if it only helped a few people reflect on their relationship with God.

Collect of the Day for Ash Wednesday:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have
made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and
make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily
lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission
and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

Daniel and Chana in the metro station

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

you raise me up

Here's my sermon for this week (The 5th Sunday after Epiphany)! The text is Mark 1:29-39.

“When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary; when troubles come and my heart burdened be; then, I am still and wait here in the silence, until you come and sit awhile with me.”[1]

May only God's word be spoken and may only God's word be heard. Amen.

The thing that strikes me the most about the passage from Mark is the sense of urgency. It’s as if there’s not enough time to get everything done. The scene opens with Jesus and his disciples as they leave the synagogue. Jesus has just spent the day teaching and performing an exorcism, and I bet he is pretty tired. He and his disciples go to Simon and Andrew’s house, presumably to rest. But he barely gets his foot in the door when they tell him about Simon’s mother-in-law, “at once.” I bet most of you can relate; you come home after a busy day at work, hoping for a quiet evening to wind down, but little Johnny gets sick and you have to take him to the E.R. Or you get ready to watch a TV show after school but then remember that huge science fair project that is due the following morning. And you haven’t started yet. And it doesn’t look like a snow day will be a possibility. Know what I’m talking about?

Well, I’m guessing that this is something like what Jesus must have felt like. But he keeps his cool and comes over to where Simon’s mother-in-law is lying. He takes her hand, lifts her up, and she is healed.

Now at this point the feminist in me gets distracted by the mother-in-law’s response to being healed. Really, mother-in-law? You were just lying down on the couch with a fever and the first thing you’re going to do when you get up is go into the kitchen? But, as tempting as it is to get caught up in this part, I’m going to have to come back to it another time, because the story doesn’t stop there.

I’m not sure how long Jesus has a break before people from town start showing up at the house. Perhaps they trickle in, after rumors of his healing power have circulated. Or maybe they show up as a mob, minus the pitchforks. Regardless, every sick person in town is brought to Jesus to be healed.

The whole city is gathered; that’s a lot of people! When I picture this scene, I imagine it must be similar to a war hospital: people everywhere, some weeping, some wringing their hands, some exuding strange and powerful smells—in short, utter chaos. But, just as doctors and nurses must put all of their fear and sadness and tiredness aside in order to focus on the task at hand, Jesus puts his own needs on the back burner so he can heal these hurting people.

How long does Jesus spend healing people? Well, we don’t know, but at some point either he or someone else in the house (I’m betting it was the mother-in-law) must turn away folks so everyone can get some rest. All we know for sure from the passage is that Jesus doesn’t heal all of the people—yes, he heals many, but there are some people who are turned away.

Maybe thinking about these people is what wakes him up early the next morning. Maybe there was just too much on his mind for him to sleep and he needed to take a walk to clear his head. Maybe he just wanted some alone time from all the people around him—from the townspeople, from the mother-in-law, from his disciples. 

He leaves the house when it’s still dark out and finds a place where he can be completely alone. In the stillness, away from distraction and the chaos of the previous day, Jesus prays.

Have any of you experienced something like that? Maybe it’s like how after you bring little Johnny home from the E.R. and you see that he’s resting peacefully, you are finally able to relax a little. You stop and take a breath. Maybe even whisper a quiet “thank you” into the night. Or like when you look up after finishing the science fair project to see the first few pink clouds in the sky and you pause to watch the sunrise for a few minutes before slipping back under the covers.

While Jesus is praying, the disciples wake up and begin to panic when they see Jesus is not there. The passage says they are hunting for him—not just searching but pursuing, like you hunt after game or even enemies. Simon and the disciples must be relieved when they finally find him. At this point I like to picture Simon as Jesus’ frantic personal assistant. I can just hear him going off on Jesus: “There you are! Everyone’s been searching for you. Okay, now we’ve got a busy day ahead of us; first my house is going to serve as a healing station, where you’re going to heal some of the people you didn’t get to yesterday. Then in the afternoon we’ll go back to the synagogue where you will teach some more. You know, the people in this town love you—I think we could set up our ministry here and be set for life!”

Jesus looks at him, amused, and replies, “That sounds nice, Simon, but actually, we’re not gonna stay here. I think we should go to the nearby towns and tell them the Good News, too. Yep. That’s why I’m here.” And he does exactly that, continuing to heal and preach his message wherever he goes.

What can we take away from this passage? Personally, I can relate to the sense of urgency, of anxiety, and it’s no wonder: 18.1% of adults in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder,[2] and one article I read said that last year the National Institute of Mental Health ranked the U.S. as the “most anxious nation in the world.”[3] We can get so busy with work and school and extracurricular events and social obligations and…and…and…the list goes on and on. With all of these responsibilities, it’s hard to fit in time for God. Yes, we are here this morning when we could be sleeping in, and that’s really important, but do we make time during the week to be with God?

If you’re like me, then being disciplined in your prayer life is a huge challenge. In the midst of all the busyness, it’s easy to let prayer slide because God is not always as direct at trying to get our attention as some of our friends are. But God is always waiting for us, yearning for us.

We can start responding to God with baby steps. Maybe try setting our alarm 10 minutes earlier to pray or journaling for 10 minutes before going to bed. Or when we’re at a red light or stuck in traffic we can take a few deep breaths and ask for patience or say a prayer for the friend who’s been on our mind lately. I’ve found that having a prayer partner helps keep me accountable.

No matter how we respond, the world is going to keep moving along at break-neck speed. It will be easy to get caught up in the rat race and lose sight of what centers us. Carving space out of our busy schedules to spend time with God can give us the strength we need to face whatever comes our way. Try it this week and see what happens! After all, in the beautiful poetry of Isaiah, “those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles…”

[1] You Raise Me Up, lyrics by Brendan Graham 

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