Wednesday, August 28, 2013


I suppose it’s always hard for me to come to terms with waiting for something to happen that I care about. After a while, I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen. And then, after a while longer, I suspect that it’s never going to happen. Until, finally, overwhelming evidence convinces me that there is absolutely no chance in hell it will ever happen. I have a lot of trouble accepting such things.  

On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I think about Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech. He never lived to see that dream realized, and, so far, neither have we. Langston Hughes wrote about the fate of that dream.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

How can we live with a dream deferred? I suppose the very fact that it’s viewed as a deferred dream indicates hope. It may not be happening yet, but someday… It’s much like the first Christians who thought Jesus would be returning at any moment and then watched those moments turn into years. They realized that maybe this was going to take a lot longer than they first thought. So, they held onto the hope that someday

As a person who is now past middle age, I’m learning how difficult it is to release personal dreams that have eluded me. It’s reaching the point where I have no good reason to hold onto some of them. I can’t continue to say, someday…  Why do I have such trouble accepting that? Rationally, I have every reason to let go of that dream that simply ainta gonna happen. And yet, even as I convince myself that I’m putting it behind me and moving on, there is still the tiniest part of me that thinks, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this dream will still come to pass despite all evidence to the contrary. Maybe someday

I’m wondering if I will ever be able to resign myself to reality and truly release those dreams that have mattered to me the most. When I’m on my deathbed, gasping my final breaths, will I be wondering if just maybe I gave up too soon? Will there still be a part of me holding onto the hope of someday...?        `



Sunday, August 18, 2013

Always pulling us forward

When I went to seminary, almost 40 years ago, I had no idea that it was such a big deal for a woman to be a pastor. I felt called, and I responded, and then, when I got there, I found out that there were only a couple other women in my class. This was a new thing for Lutherans and they didn’t know quite how to handle it. Getting calls to serve in the church was especially challenging. It was hard for congregations to imagine a woman as their pastor because they had never experienced it before.  

Later, when I served on the bishop’s staff in my synod and worked with congregations in the call process, this was always an issue. Whenever I met with a congregational call committee and presented them with the name of a female candidate, it was never easy. The fact that I was a woman didn’t help. They thought I had an agenda and that, because I was a woman, I was trying to force a woman on them. The fact was, I did have an agenda. I wanted them to have the best pastor possible. And it just so happened that a lot of women clergy at that time were the best pastors around.  

I remember Liz, who was a little younger than me and had been serving as an associate pastor at a big church in the Columbus area. She was married to an Episcopal priest and when he got a call way up in the northeast-most corner of Ohio, she moved with him, hoping to find a call to a Lutheran church somewhere in the area. The problem was, there weren’t many Lutheran churches up there, so her options were limited. And  when one opened up, she needed the opportunity to interview. Well, one did open up. It was Messiah Lutheran Church in Ashtabula. They were not a large congregation, and they were located in a small town that was depressed economically. When I met with them to give them the profile information of a candidate for them to interview, I got some pushback. Not only was this candidate a woman, but she was already living in the community. They didn’t hide their mistrust from me. They clearly suspected I was trying to railroad them into calling a woman pastor, and one who was already living in the community at that.

I told them that I understood how they might feel that way, and I assured them that they weren’t in any way obligated to call this person as their pastor. But I also told them that once they met her, I felt confident that they would realize what a stroke of luck it was for them that she was already living in their community.

Well, they met Liz and were duly impressed. I had the privilege of installing her as their pastor. She served them well and was much loved. The only reason why she eventually left them was because the Northeastern Ohio Synod elected her their bishop. At the 2013 churchwide assembly of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, on Wednesday, Elizabeth Eaton was elected our presiding bishop.

 As I watched all the drama unfolding on the livestream on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think of the evening I met with the call committee at Messiah in Ashtabula and introduced Liz’s name to them and had to defend that decision because they suspected I was trying to sell them a bill of goods. Amazingly, this happened only around 20 years ago. What a difference a couple decades make!

I wish that I had known at the time that the pastor in question would one day become the presiding bishop of the ELCA and I could have said to them, “Are you nuts?! Do you not realize what an HONOR it would be for you to have this woman as your pastor?!” But I didn’t know that at the time. And we never do know how things will unfold in the future, how the moment we’re enduring, the one where we’re holding on for dear life, actually has purpose in the long run. And how, despite appearances to the contrary, God is always pulling us forward.  

This week’s text from Hebrews 11 & 12 is about the God who is always pulling us forward. It’s a continuation of last Sunday’s reading where the writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are part of an amazing family of faith. Much like looking through a family photo album, we see snapshots of those who have gone before us. And we learn that we didn’t invent faith. We come from a long line of people who lived the life of faith just as we do. People who were figuring it out as they went. Sometimes they got it right, sometimes they got it wrong. But through whatever came their way, God was always faithful. And as they experienced the never-failing faithfulness of God in their lives, they grew to trust it.

If we look over the pages of the family photo album that Hebrews 11 shows us, we see people who knew times of triumph in their lives. They conquered their enemies, they administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions. They quenched raging fire, escaped the sword, won strength out of weakness. They even gained victory over death. And the writer of Hebrews could have left it at that and we’d all be happy. But there’s another side to the life of faith, too. And so we read on about people who were tortured, mocked, imprisoned, beaten, stoned, sawn in two. Those who lost everything and were left to wander about homeless.

The life of faith is not reserved for those who seem to live charmed lives, nor is it only for those who live through hell on earth. It’s a mixed bag. Because our lot in life is not a measure of our faithfulness. And so there’s hope for all of us, no matter what the circumstances we must endure. Because faith endures.

Faith trusts God’s promises even when we may question them. Faith holds on and holds out because we are in relationship with a God who always has something better in store for us. God is always pulling us forward.

We can learn that from those who have gone before us. This is especially important for us when, in the moment, it’s so hard to see reason to hope.

The theme of Moral Mondays is “Forward together, not one step back.” Although no one bills it as a theological statement, that’s what it is. It reminds us that we’re not in this alone. And we’re heading somewhere. Forward together, not one step back.

We need that reminder because it sure feels like we’re going backwards. Take the whole issue of voting, for example. For a long time, North Carolina had one of the lowest voter turn-outs in the country. But then a lot of changes were made so that in recent years we have ended up with one of the highest voter turn-outs. We had been the most progressive state in the South in that regard. And now, all that progress has been wiped away with a stroke of the governor’s pen as he signed one of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation. 

It includes cutbacks in early voting, restrictions on voter registration, requiring voters to present government issued photo i.d.s, limitations on poll workers, and other actions that can be motivated by nothing other than a desire to make it harder for some people to vote — likely poor people, people of color, old people. Why would anyone in the United States of America want to make it harder for people to vote?

It’s difficult to see that we’re moving forward because when we’re bogged down in the moment; we lose sight of the bigger picture. That’s why the Martin Luther King quote, that’s a paraphrase of the thoughts of the abolishionist Theodore Parker, is one that I hang onto in times like this… “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

For the fact is, as people of faith, we’re not sprinters. We’re running a marathon. That’s the image we get in the 12th chapter of Hebrews. We’re long distance runners. Have you ever run in a marathon? One of the main rules for a marathon runner is that they can’t expend all their energy at the beginning of the race, or they’ll have nothing left for the end. From the beginning of the race you have to have the end in mind. You have to pace yourself or you’ll never finish. It may be hard to see this when you start out. And you may be tempted to quit along the way. But you gotta keep on keeping on. You gotta press on to the finish. As the song says, “Keep your eyes on the prize.”

Do you ever get so discouraged with what’s going on around you, or maybe what’s going on in your own personal life, that you just wanna give up? I know there are times when I do. It’s like I’m running in a marathon and I just can’t take another step. I can’t do it anymore. And I just wanna sit down on the side of the road and cry. And sometimes, to be honest, that’s what I do.

But then, while I’m sitting there on the side of the road crying, I look up and I see a stream of people running in front of me. I look back, and as far as I can see, there are people running on that road. And I look forward, and as far as I can see, there are people running on that road. And when I see this procession of saints, I realize that there’s only one thing I can do. I gotta get back up and join them. Because that’s what the life of faith does.

You know that little poem “Footprints in the Sand”? It talks about how when things are at their worst we only see one set of footprints in the sand because that’s when God carries us. Well, it’s a lovely sentiment, but that’s not the way it works, folks. It’s not just about me and God walking together through life. That’s not how it works. It’s about me and all the people of faith who walk with me, and all the people of faith who have gone before me, and all the people of faith who will come after me. And, as I see it, that’s how God walks with me. Through the procession of saints that flows like a river through history. So, there is never a single set of footprints in the sand. There are never two sets of footprints in the sand. The fact is, there are so many footprints in the sand you can’t even see where one ends and the other begins. That’s how God carries us through the times of struggle when we’d just like to give up. We’re swept along by the community of the faithful who are running the race with us.

The author of Hebrews describes how Jesus himself leads the way for us. And when the race is over, and we run into the stadium to take our victory lap, we hear a thunderous roar from the stands that are filled with people cheering us on. They are the ones who’ve finished the race ahead of us. They’ve been rooting for us all along. And in the end, they celebrate our victory. We made it. We didn’t give up. We may have wanted to give up, but we couldn’t. Because God was pulling us forward all along. In a world filled with violence, and hatred, and injustice, God was pulling us toward something better. God was pulling us toward the one who ran the race before us. God was pulling us toward Jesus.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”







Saturday, August 17, 2013

Bibles in the dumpster

I cleaned out our church library this week. Stuff that had been accumulated through the years that nobody could bring themselves to throw out. Old Sunday school material that will never be used again, hymnals that will never be used again, advice from the 50s for teenagers about sex that, please God, will never be used again. It amounted to a massive pile of stuff on the conference room table. And it all had to go. So, I hired some facebook friends to transport it to the dumpster around back.

I warned them, when they started, not to look. Because once they began browsing they would start deciding what they couldn’t possibly throw away, and we would be there all day. (I was paying them by the hour!) Of course, they didn’t listen to me. What is the aversion people have to throwing away books? I confess that I have it, too, especially when it comes to weeding out my own personal library. Is it because books are repositories of knowledge and that makes them sacred to us? I dunno. But it’s hard to dispose of a book. It feels like killing something that is meant to bring life to another. Once you dispose of it, you know that it will never bring life again.
My dumping crew got a chuckle out of some of the things they discovered. There was a book about silky terriers that was in the running for the most random book to be found in a church library. But then they came across the winner. It was a large book entitled, How to Draw Spaceships. Really, every church library should have one, right? One of my dumpers decided to hang onto it and give it to his nephew. Oy. And then there were the “antique” books. Another of my dumpers left with a box of them.

But the real problem books were the Bibles. What do you do with old Bibles? Are you supposed to bury them, or burn them, like the American flag? The fact is, we have old Bibles coming out the wazoo. Many of them are the King James Version, which nobody in my church uses any more. Certainly, we could hang onto a couple of them for historical reasons, but not 30. And then, there were the Big Bibles. These were the old family Bibles, and we had quite an assortment of them. How did they all end up here? Well, I can just see a family going through Aunt Gladys’s things after she’s gone and figuring out what to do with all the stuff she left behind. They come across this huge family Bible with its ornate, gold-leaf cover and they can’t possibly throw it away. But then, nobody in the family wants it either. What to do? Then one of them comes up with a bright idea. “Let’s take it to the church!” So, the story goes, again and again. And we end up with a shelf full of humongous Bibles that people dumped on us because they didn’t want them, but they couldn’t possibly bring themselves to throw them away. And we will never use them. Can you imagine having an adult class, asking everyone to grab a Bible and someone goes to the shelf in the library and pulls down one of these big ol’ family Bibles in the King James Version? It’s never going to happen!
Well, my dumping crew couldn’t do it. They couldn’t throw these Bibles away. So I had to do it myself. A few church members were standing by the dumpster watching me and I could see the horrified looks on their faces. As I tossed each one into the dumpster, I repeated, “This is not God, this is a book. This is not God, this is a book.” I don’t know if anyone went back and fished them out of the dumpster after I left because I walked away after the deed was done.

When I said, “This is not God, this is a book” one of my spectators said, “Yes, but it’s the Word of God.” Of course, he’s right. But the word of God is not ink and paper. It’s something more than that. The ink and paper is just ink and paper. It’s not to be worshiped. It is not an idol. By this logic, when we print our weekly Bible readings in the Sunday bulletin do we need to keep those bulletins for all time? Isn’t a Bible just a collection of such writings?
This whole exercise has reminded me of our strange relationship with this book we call the Bible. We want to idolize it and give it magical powers. When will we start reading it and allowing its words to change our lives? That’s something I would never throw in a dumpster. Nor could I.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Was Jesus a NICE guy?

We like to believe that Jesus was a nice guy, God’s own “Mr. Congeniality.” But, of course, that’s not who he was at all. As he’s journeying toward Jerusalem and things are heating up, his words are marked with a sense of urgency. Headed toward a violent confrontation with death, he doesn’t say, “I’ve come to bring sweetness and light to this earth”, but “I’ve come to bring fire to this earth.”

Like the God Moses encountered in the burning bush, Jesus knows the fire intimately. And experiencing that kind of inner fire doesn’t make one nice. On the contrary, an encounter with a burning bush always precedes confrontation and conflict. After Moses meets God in the burning bush, he’s not led to peace and a resolution of his problems, but straight into a hornet’s nest with Pharoah himself. It seems that conflict and confrontation are necessary for the sake of freedom and life. This is true for Jesus, as well.

At his birth the angels may have announced “Peace on Earth” but that’s not the way Jesus describes his mission at all. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he asks. “No, I tell you, but rather division!” And then he goes on to describe what he means by that. “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Now, this was no small thing in Jesus’ culture. In that time and place, it was your relationship to your kinship group that defined your life. This was the foundation of society. And Jesus wasn’t just talking about being divided from your kinship group in theory here. This was a reality for those who followed him.

So, what does it mean for us today? Somehow along the way, Jesus has become domesticated for us. We assume that if Jesus were alive in 2013 he’d be a college graduate, driving home to his house in the suburbs in his SUV, sipping on Starbucks, listening to country-western music. But the truth is, Jesus was anything but mainstream in his lifetime and he would be anything but mainstream today.

Many Christians in our culture stake their claim on family values as if they were invented by Jesus, when the truth is, he wasn't a very "good" son to Mary his mother. A "good son" would have stayed home and worked at the family's trade to care for his mother until her death; he wouldn't have gone off galavanting around the countryside. And Jesus wasn’t even a "good man" by the standards of the respectable people of his day. A "good man" would defend the family name and honor if challenged or attacked; he wouldn't be talking about loving enemies, and he wouldn't be disclaiming his family name by saying "those who hear the word of God and do it are my mother and my sister and my brothers."

And as if all of that isn't bad enough, Jesus actually encourages other people to leave their homes and families, to allow their family name and honor to be dismantled by others rather than upheld by retaliation. For that’s what it means to follow him his example.

Jesus challenges us to follow him in a radical way of life that turns the world as we know it completely upside down. There’s a hymn we sing in advent called “Canticle of the Turning.” It’s based on the song of Mary in Luke’s gospel. One of the verses goes like this:From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r, not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn;
there are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.

It’s a song of victory and usually sung with gusto. But the thing that we don’t like to face is the fact that when God turns the world upside down, we’re a part of that world. If we’re people who benefit from the status quo, we’re being turned upside down, too…or if we’re a part of a system that oppresses others…or a part of a nation at war…or part of a culture that treats the poor with contempt. If we benefit at all from the status quo, God’s reign means a reversal for us. Ouch!

When you’re leaving one way of life and taking up another, it’s painful. It’s disruptive. But it’s also true that the way to find the freedom to live in a new way is to turn your back on the old way: old relationships, old patterns of life, old ways of seeing the world. Bottom line? If you want to follow Jesus and participate in the Reign of God, you’d better be able to stand on your head.