Monday, October 23, 2017

You mean it's not about a guy named Stewart?


Preached October 22 at Ascension Lutheran Church, Towson, MD.
Then Jesus said to them, "Give back to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's."
A coin with a picture on it—the Emperor’s. It was required to pay the imperial tax. That’s the one paid to their conquerors for the privilege of being an occupied territory. It was a perverse tax and the Jews resented it. Well, not all of them. There were some who were in cahoots with the Romans, like the Herodians. So, it was a political question, the kind you can’t answer without getting yourself in trouble with someone.

They wanted to trick him, and he tricked them back. In the process, he taught us a concise lesson on stewardship. Give to God the things that are God’s.

The things that are God’s. And what would those things be? The way you answer that question says everything about how you live as a person of faith.

I know that a lot of people hate it when preachers talk about money. I was never crazy about it myself. And that’s forced me to ask, why? In order to answer that, I have to come clean about my relationship with money.

Some of you are really good with money. Me…not so much.

I grew up in a home where I was never taught about money and I didn’t have any good adult role models. I don’t recall any budgeting happening. If it did, I wasn’t aware of it. My parents had no pension plans. They assumed Social Security would get them through old age. No investments. No savings. It worked like this… If you had some money, you spent it. And sometimes you spent it when you didn’t have it.

There was no charitable giving, other than maybe the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas time. We weren’t a church family, so I had no awareness of the fact that somewhere there were people who actually put money into an offering plate on a regular basis.

I had a lot to learn about money, as an adult. Particularly as an adult person of faith. It’s been a journey for me.

When I first heard the word stewardship, I thought people were talking about a guy named Stewart who wanted to take us all on a cruise. Then I learned that stewardship is about faithful management of all that God’s given me—which is everything I have. I have to tell you that learning that hasn’t made it any easier for me.

Once, when my son Ben was 5 years old, for his birthday he got some cash. Actually, a lot of cash for a 5-year-old in 1986. When we counted it, it came to 43 dollars. “What are you going to do with all that money?” I asked him. “I’m going to give it to the church to feed hungry people,” he said.

Without thinking, I responded, “Oh, you don’t want to give it ALL to the church, do you? Don’t you want to spend some of it on yourself?”

Yes, I said that. I’m not proud of it. But it revealed a lot about where I was on my personal stewardship journey. I was not what you what call a cheerful giver. There was little generosity in my heart. When I gave money away, I was always thinking about how I could spend it on myself. I would think about the car I could be driving, or the wonderful vacations I could be taking with the money that I was giving to the church. I gave, but I did it with resentment. I was begrudging in my giving. I gave only what I thought was enough, so that I always had plenty for myself and my family. I confess that I was stingy.

I came to realize that there is a correlation between being stingy with my money, and stingy in other areas, too. I looked at people I knew who had generous spirits. They were generous in their money, in the way they spent their time, in their relationships… Their generosity knew no bounds. They never seemed to worry that they were giving too much of themselves or their possessions. To me, that’s what it looked like to live by God’s grace. I envied them. I longed to be more like them.

And I decided to open myself up so that God could create a more generous spirit within me.

Now one of the secrets of the faith is that if you long to become a person of faith, you don’t just think about it. You don’t just pray about it. You do the things that a person of faith does and eventually, your heart catches up with your actions.

So, I made some changes in my behavior. I changed my spending patterns. Living within my means came to mean, living within my means so that I could share out of my abundance with others. That meant that I was okay with a used car. That I didn’t buy a house with mortgage payments that made it impossible for me to give a portion of my income to the church.

I made a commitment to give off the top. To give my money away first, and then figure out what I had left for myself and not the other way around.

Now, at different times of my life I’ve been in a position to give more money away than I have at other times. Right now, I’m single, my children are grown, I make a decent living, and there’s not much that I need. That hasn’t always been the case, so I haven’t always been able to give as much away as I can now, but it’s not so much the amount given as the longing for a generosity of spirit that’s nudged to give more through the years.

About 25 years ago, I started to pay attention to the percentage of my giving. In the Bible they talk about 10% as a faithful response for all that God has given, and I like that as a goal for myself as a person of faith. I’d never ever really done the math before and was surprised to learn that I was giving about 6% of my income, after taxes, to the church.

I didn’t feel good about that, so I decided to work toward 10%. I would do it by increasing the percentage of my giving by one percent per year. A couple years some things came up, and I just couldn’t swing it, so I did a half percent those years. After 6 years I was at 10%. That was right about when I started using Simply Giving, so the money is automatically taken from my bank account and it’s money that I don’t miss.

I’m living within my means, and my means includes charitable giving.

Then once I reached 10% of my income after taxes, I worked toward 10% before taxes. I decided that the 10% after taxes would go to the church. The additional money, the difference between before taxes and after taxes, that 10% would go to other charities.

One thing that’s new for me over the past few years is that I’ve become more intentional about the organizations I give to beyond the church. This time of year, I receive all kinds of solicitations for money from lots of worthy organizations. I can’t give to everyone who asks. I need a plan for my giving.

At the beginning of the year, I consider my options, and I decide who will receive my money that next year. Sure, something may come up, like Disaster Relief, and I can give to that over and above what I had planned for the year.

I want to give to organizations that I know will use my money wisely, and organizations that I believe in, ones that share my values. I do my homework before I give away the money God’s entrusted to me. This year my extra giving includes micro-loans for women entrepreneurs in developing nations, the Vision for the ELCA Fund, the World Hunger Appeal, ReconcilingWorks, my seminary, ACTC, BRIDGE Maryland, public radio.

I want to be intentional in my giving, just as I’m intentional in my spending.

That’s what stewardship is all about. Being intentional in how I use the gifts God’s given me so that the way I use those gifts reflects my relationship with the one who’s given me everything. Giving to God the things that are God’s.

When it comes to money, that doesn’t only mean stewardship of the money I give away, but it also means the money I spend on everything else, too. I continually ask, how does the way I spend my money reflect my relationship with God? This year, I took a sharpie pen and drew a cross on all my credit cards. That way, every time I use one, I’m reminded that the way I spend my money isn’t all about me; it’s a faith statement. 

I’ve become more generous through the years. That doesn’t mean I still don’t struggle sometimes, and I’m okay with that. God loves a cheerful giver, and that’s certainly true. But I take comfort in the fact that God loves a grumpy giver, too. The important thing is that I’m a giver. And God is helping me grow in generosity.

That’s a lot about me today.

What about you? What’s your personal history with money? How does the way you deal with money reflect your personal values, your relationship with God? Are you open to growing in generosity?  


Monday, September 25, 2017

Where do I stand on the national anthem? On the side of healing, please.


Professional athletes are making a statement during the national anthem again. I say again because this isn’t the first time this has happened. I remember well the black fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics and the outrage people expressed as a result.
Clearly, Americans have diverse feelings about our national anthem. I will admit that it chokes me up when I sing it, although I’m not exactly sure why. I suppose it represents my country weathering hard times and surviving them…it's a source of pride for me. (I've only known the first verse most of my life, and that's what I focus on.)
Although it’s just a song and the flag is just a piece of cloth, they represent more than that. For some people, they are synonymous with our country, so to disrespect the anthem or the flag is to disrespect our country. If you lost a family member who fought for our country in the military, your connection to the flag probably runs deep. The flag may be a person you love who was taken from you in an act of bravery defending something they believe in. Any sign of disrespect for that is unfathomable.
I suppose it makes sense that when people are really angry with our country, they will attack our symbols. It’s a powerful way to make a statement and a lot better than blowing up government buildings. No one is physically harmed in the process. And yet it’s hard to say that no one is hurt.
I’ve been a bit puzzled by the fact that few people are pointing out the obvious about all the NFL players who got down on one knee during the national anthem this week. Those who are protesting are overwhelmingly African American. As a white person, I can’t pretend I haven’t noticed.
I have no clue what it’s like to be black in our country; that’s not my experience. But I want to do my best to understand. I would like to hear from those who are angry enough with our country that they can’t bring themselves to stand for our national anthem. I would like to understand why they feel this is necessary. Instead of accusing them of being traitors, I would like to understand their perspective.
That may sound un-American to some folks, but seeking healing in a nation that is clearly divided is born out of love for my country. And clearly, as a follower of Jesus, that’s where I’m called to go.
We are so quick to accuse “them” and defend “us.” We do this without taking the time to listen to one another. It's not productive and will never move us forward. I hate watching our country go through this latest controversy, yet again casting judgment with no concern for understanding.
Instead of accusing or dismissing those who don’t share our experience or perspective, why don’t we try listening?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Pooky


December 7, 2001 - September 12, 20017
When the rest of the puppies in her litter opened both their eyes, she only opened one. Her brothers and sisters all found homes, but as it turned out, nobody wanted a pug with a bum eye. When I learned about this sweet, little unwanted pug pup, I emphatically stated that I couldn’t take her. And then, for some reason, I heard my voice saying, “Why don’t you bring her by the church and let me see her?”

She came, and I saw her. When she sat in my lap and nuzzled her nose into my belly, she was mine. Well, actually, I should say I was hers.

After living alone for many years since my divorce, suddenly someone was there to greet me at the door when I came home from work. I had a friend to cuddle with on the couch while I watched T.V., a warm body beside me in bed at night, and a companion on my morning walks.

On day one, I named her Sweet Pea, but that night, in a dream, her name was Pooky, and that’s who she was from that day forward. The name suited her. As a pup she was soft and squishy, wiggly and jiggly. The sounds emitting from her body (snorting, snoring, farting) were always amusing, and her wagging corkscrew tail made me smile even on the worst of days. Of course, the unconditional love in her eyes carried me along.

Pooky brought joy into my life at a time when I needed it the most. I remember her courageously chasing a flock of wild geese at the park, until they suddenly turned around and started chasing her. Pooky did an abrupt about face and came running back to me as fast as she could. Then there was the evening when she stole a pot roast from the dining room table while I was in the kitchen. I couldn’t figure out where the roast went, and then I found Pooky chowing it down in the living room; it was about as big as she was. Pooky was so proud, looking up at me, her tail wagging double-time. One of my favorite moments was the day she befriended a Great Dane at the dog park, popping her wagging butt in the air, running circles around him, nipping his heals, inviting him to chase her, until the poor Great Dane just plopped down in exasperation as he watched her. He knew he could never keep up.

In many ways Pooky was a typical pug. They are sweet, comical, mischievous, and not too terribly bright… except when it comes to food. The most important thing they’re good for is lovin’. And that’s what Pooky brought to me. As she aged, she became a different dog in many ways, but she continued to be good for lovin’.
I’m grateful to have known her. Grateful for almost 16 years together. Grateful for all the love we shared.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Will this be on the final exam?: a plea to educators

Teachers are busy preparing for their school year: putting up bulletin boards, attending meetings on classroom management, reviewing policies, writing lesson plans, etc. These are stressful days, as well as a time pregnant with promise.

As a grandparent, a pastor, and a citizen of the United States, I have one big request of educators. Please teach your students to think critically. Let it be the explicit and implicit curriculum in everything you do. It could solve a lot of problems down the road. I know because I can see the problems that have come about because the people of my generation seem to have missed it, and we’re leaving the next generation with a mess to clean up.

It took me a long time to figure out that I couldn’t believe everything I saw in print. Just because someone wrote it in a book, or a newspaper, or even the Bible, doesn’t mean that it’s factual. Every author has a bias. I can’t remember ever learning this until I got to college. As an English major, I was introduced to a whole new way of thinking. Without critical thinking, literature was no more than a bunch of words bouncing around in my skull. When my eyes were opened, I saw how a lot of stuff that had been fed to me as "fact" had distorted my view of world.

Critical thinking has become even more challenging today, with immediate access to every piece of information that ever has been disseminated in the history of civilization. It’s literally at our fingertips. How do we sort through it all? Unfortunately, many people take the easy way out. They gravitate to whatever reinforces the view they already have. They listen to a cable news station that is clearly biased, but are deaf to that bias because it tells them what they want to hear. Many adults I know these days receive the bulk of their news on Facebook. On Facebook! That’s the place where you can unfriend people who say things you don’t like. Where you can flat out lie about someone you don’t like and before anyone can dispute it, the lie is out there and they’re toast. I know other people do the same thing with other social media sites.

How do our youth negotiate all this? They need help! Parents can challenge them to think critically, if they have become critical thinkers themselves, but I wouldn’t count on it. Teachers, please, can you take this on for the future of our country and world?

There’s a story about Paulo Freire, a Latin American educator who began as a language teacher and then an adult literacy instructor. At that time, literacy was required before a person could vote in presidential elections in Brazil. By design, this prevented the poor from participating. As the story goes, when he taught the sounds of the word for water, he used a picture of water being pumped from a well. Then he taught the word for well. Once the words had been mastered, he asked his students, “Now, who owns the well?” That’s what teaching for critical thinking looks like. How many teachers would teach the words and consider the lesson ended?
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire wrote: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want our youth to simply conform and perpetuate the world as it is now. I want more than that for them and for my grandchildren. I want them to transform the world. I know many teachers share this passion and I thank you. We need more of you!
There are all kinds of tests students take before they can graduate from high school--tests that measure their ability to conform to the academic standards set for them by educators (or in too many cases, politicians, who know nothing about education, but that's a subject for another blog). This can be as stressful for teachers as it is for students. I don't mean to add to their load, but I wish that we could make it a rule that nobody can graduate from high school until they demonstrate critical thinking skills. Is there a way this could be added to graduation requirements, please? Maybe if students and teachers know it will be on the final exam, they'll take it seriously.
Believe me, it will be on the final exam. 


After posting this blog, I heard from my sister Wendy, who is an educator in Massachusetts. She informed me that critical thinking skills are required on some of the questions on their state tests, so that's a step in the right direction. Is this true in all states? So, I stand corrected here. But I wonder if this makes a difference in whether or not a person graduates. And Wendy writes that this raises a bigger question, "... can our students apply this skill to the world beyond the school walls? Or do we as adults beat them down when they question?"

Friday, August 4, 2017

Why does water keep coming from my eyes?

When my son Ben was little I once asked him why he was crying and he explained, "I'm not crying, but why does water keep coming from my eyes?" I'm not sure why he would have thought crying was a bad thing that he needed to deny as we never told him "don't cry" or any of those other emotionally stifling things parents tend to say to their kids, especially boys. His insistence that he wasn't crying had more to do with his constant need to contradict or challenge whatever I said. And I suspect it might also have been a reaction to the inability he had to control his tears. They came, whether he wanted them to or not. And it was pretty hard to deny them to his mother when the evidence was written all over his face. Crying? I'm not crying. That's just water coming from my eyes. 

Back in June I saw the doctor for something that was nothing, as is so often the case. I can't tell you the last time I went to the doctor concerned about something and it turned out to be anything. It makes me not want to go to the doctor at all for fear of being perceived coo-coo for cocoa puffs.  

While I was there, I asked her about an ugly brown spot I had on my chest, and she told me it was just a result of getting older. (Why is every physical problem that concerns me these days just a result of getting older?) Well, that prompted her to get out her magnifying glass and look over my back. (I felt silly as she did this, like she was just humoring the poor old hypochondriac.) She found a brown spot, like a large, misshapen freckle, that also had a little pink on one side. "It's probably just an age spot, but let's get you to a dermatologist to check it out." Okay. We both know it's nothing, I thought, but let's hear it from a dermatologist. 

I took my time making the appointment, but the Monday after I got back from vacation I saw a dermatologist. I actually saw the PA, a delightful woman named Julia. She did a biopsy, just to make sure, but she assured me it was most likely just an age spot. (Of course.) They would notify me in two weeks. So, I waited for a postcard or text message. 

One week later, I received a call from the dermatologist's office. Julia needed to talk to me right away, and no, she couldn't just talk to me on the phone. I had to come to the office that day.

Well, it turns out I have a melanoma, stage 1B. When she told me, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I never would have noticed this. I can't see my back and it wasn't bothering me. I don't see a dermatologist, ever. If my primary care physician had been in the room I would have kissed her. Thank you, thank you, Dr. Wills, for seeing this and telling me to check it out. It's early enough to treat it and the prognosis is good. Whew! Next I will consult with a plastic surgeon, set a date for surgery, and this will soon become an insignificant footnote in the story of my life.

Julia called me late that evening. She wanted me to come in the next day so she could do a full body exam. So, I went back, and this time she found something else. It's a piddly little mole that is exactly half brown and half white, as if someone had drawn a line down the middle. She sent it off for a biopsy. Yikes! I had no idea all this stuff was happening on my back. 

With a jam-packed week at the church, I've hardly thought about any of this. Well, there's that awkward time every morning when our Parish Administrator, Sue, has to change my dressing because, as someone who lives alone, I have no way of seeing or reaching the more recent little hole in my back. But other than that, it's life as usual... Okay, I've also spent a little time researching the word melanoma online, because that's just what I do. But everything I read gives me the reassurance that we caught this in time and all will be well. 

Last night, when I came home from a long day, I watched an old episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to help me unwind and end the day in a happy place. It was the one where Georgette has her baby. I didn't recall ever seeing it before. A very funny episode! When it was over, I turned the T.V. off and bawled my eyes out. Then I happened to realize that throughout the week I've caught myself tearing up over random things that normally wouldn't phase me. 

Hmmm. Why does water keep coming from my eyes?

Friday, July 28, 2017

Truth-seers

I've been on a campaign lately to update and modify the signage at Ascension. As a relative newcomer, I need to pay attention to details my eyes won't be noticing as the years pass. The more times I walk by the directory sign inside the Yarmouth Rd. entrance, the more likely I won't notice that where it once read "DIRECTORY", it now says "DIRECTO." The RY are missing and I don't know how long it's been that way. But I do suspect that it doesn't seem to bother anyone else the way it bothers me. 

Last week, as I was obsessing over all the signage that needs work inside our building, I exited the main doors and noticed a "No Parking" sign I had never seen before. There is was, right in front of me in all its glory! (The streaks you see are rust.)



Argh! I've been at Ascension for a year and was seeing it for the first time. I snapped a picture and shared it with a few people in the office. "Have you ever seen this sign before?" I asked. Not a one of them had ever laid eyes on it, and yet every time we leave the building, it's right there in our church circle-driveway. There's no way you could miss it. But, of course, everyone has. 

Now, I'm not pointing this out to disparage our property manager or property committee. They are amazing and keep the church in top-top shape. My point is how we can become blind to stuff that's right in front of us after it becomes so commonplace that we don't even notice it.

What's true for signage around the church is true for so much more. The longer we're a part of an organization, a system, a culture, the less we question how it works. That's why we need truth-seers.

This is what prophets did for God's people in the Scriptures. When the people fell away from God's ways and were swept up in the ways of the world, the prophets gave them a verbal smack upside the head, calling them to see the truth. God still sends us prophets today. If we're wise enough to listen to them, they will challenge us to become more than we are.

Lately, I've become especially sensitive to the word we use to describe the way we worship in the church as "traditional." I've used it for years to describe liturgical worship that follows the book, with "traditional" hymns, and "traditional" organ music. But truth-seers have challenged me to question the use of that word. How can I say that the way we worship in my white, middle-class, English-speaking, North American Lutheran congregation is "traditional?" That may be my tradition, but it is not the tradition for most of the Lutherans who are worshiping God on any given Sunday morning. Truth-seers have helped me to expand my vision in a way that includes those I hadn't considered when I bought into a certain standard for what is traditional Lutheran worship.

Truth-seers are usually outsiders. They're people who aren't a part of the dominant group. After all, when the system is working for you, you have no need to question it. This may seem relatively harmless when we're talking about local customs and preferences, but it quickly becomes dangerous when we're making assumptions about who's in and who's out. Then, in our blindness, we're failing to see injustice. It becomes so much a part of our lives that we don't even realize it exists. I've only been able to see this with the help of the truth-seers God has placed in my life.

Without the voices of truth-seers, I shudder to think of how much worse things might be than they are. Whenever I want to hide my head in the sand and ignore injustice in the world around me, I thank God for the annoying truth-seers who regularly challenge my false assumptions, expose my blind spots, and confront me with the reality of a faded, rusty sign that's just gotta go.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Resisting my default settings

I’ve never been one to lie about my age. I know it’s just a number and doesn’t have anything to do with my ability. What I may lack in stamina these days, I more than make up for in experience. I’m cool with being a woman who just began serving in a challenging new call at a time when most of my peers are retiring. The way I see it, I’m in my prime, so it’s full steam ahead.

That means I need to be a part of the 21st century. I do my best to keep up on the latest books they’re reading in seminary. I participate in social media and am technologically aware. I’m always pushing myself to think about what’s next and don’t wring my hands over the loss of the good old days, which, for me, where never really all that good anyway.

Despite all of that, on a regular basis, I’m reminded that I grew up in a different time. No matter how hard I try to remember that these days we record things, we don’t tape them, I still refer to taping my favorite shows on T.V. When I’m working at the keyboard on my computer, I often still find myself leaving two spaces after a period. When I ask someone to roll down their car window, I make a cranking motion in the air. None of these are things that a 30-year-old would think of doing, but I take consolation in the fact that at least I’m aware of it.

I’m always resisting the urge to return to my default settings. As I age, this is becoming more and more challenging. I can’t deny the fact that physically I’m not at all the person I once was. Mentally, I’m not as quick. It happens to all of us as we age and it can’t be avoided. But refusing to revert back to the world I grew up in during the 1960s is a choice. I’m convinced that for as long as I’m able to resist my default settings, I’ve still got it.

Viva la resistance!