Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pacifist Parents

Our engagement with the Gospel and what it means to live that out in the world is shaping us to become pacifists. We still have a long way to go, given that we thought The Dark Night was, you know, AWESOME and somehow an exception (you know, 'cause Batman doesn't use guns!). All of this having been said, here's a snippet of our bedtime argument tonight:

Me: Time for bed, Jackson. Your day is done.

J: No!

Me: Goodnight. I love you.

J: No! Poopeyhead. Stupid. [Pause] Gun.

Who says words will never hurt you?

Jackson is an incredibly sweet, kind, loving boy. But, man, he knows how to push my buttons. So, in response, I present this video flashback of Jackson as a 2 1/2 year old, singing his theme song, "Down By the Riverside" in the back of Aunty Kara's car. (He and Owen were wearing costumes. It was a crazy day.) If there was a bouncing ball for the lyrics, it would read: "Ain't gonna study war no mo-more, Ain't gonna study war no more. I ain't gonna study war no more (giggles)."

I. Hate. Lightening.

I can't help it. It's in my bones. It's beyond just a little girl fear that I never grew out of. I have every reason to fear lightening. It's arbitrary, powerful, deadly, beautiful. It's attractive and horrifying. It's destructive and fast.

I grew up in Knoxville, but many times a year, my parents would pack me up in the back of their silver Delta 88 with crimson velour interior, and we would drive to Tipton County in West Tennessee. Both of my parents grew up in Tipton County, near Covington. Both were raised on farms and both attended the tiny New Salem United Methodist Church, which is technically where they met - in the nursery. My whole family history can be traced back to Tipton County, and going back there was always with mixed emotion.

We would divide our time between my mother's home of origin and my father's. I have memories of sitting with my maternal grandmother (Granny) on her back porch, snapping peas and feeding all the stray cats that she harbored. I have more memories of playing solitaire in the huge living room of my paternal grandmother's (Mama Dow's) home. Both of my grandfathers died when I was about 4, and my memories of them are fleeting.

But, I do remember playing in Mama Dow's backyard. I remember because it wasn't a backyard at all. There, where a yard should have been, was the burned-out, gutted skeleton of a home where she had birthed her four children, raised them into adulthood, and watched crumble as my father and grandfather hurried furniture and valuables out of it during a summer storm. It was September of 1977, and a storm had come rolling onto the flatwoods. My father and grandfather were downstairs, and they heard a huge crack of thunder. My father noticed that it seemed to be a little smoky outside. He ran next door to the trailer where his grandmother was living to check and see if she was alright. As he did, he noticed that his home, where he was born, raised, and had just been eating a sandwich, was billowing smoke and flames.

Dad called the fire department, ran back to the house, and he and B.P. Dow raced to get everything out that they could. The house couldn't be saved, but most of their belongings were.

After that, the house sat, attracting hornets and yellow jackets, weeds and dirt. I used to love to play in the former downstairs bathroom, which still had an entire covering of pink tile on the floor. It was a game for me during each visit to see how much I could pry off and take with me. I prized those tiles. They lasted - through the fire, water, weather and heat - they remained constant. Until I loosened their grasp on the foundation and tucked them in my pocket for safekeeping. The home remained standing until I was in high school. My dad and uncles finally decided to have it bulldozed, and Mama Dow got a proper back yard.

When I was about 6 years old, my neighbors were having a community 4th of July party. As is always the case, a thunderstorm rolled in. We played in the rain, laughing at the nonsensical nature of it all. Then the storm got mad. It began to hail, and a neighbor who babysat for me grabbed me up and headed for safety... under our huge weeping willow tree. The hail was not to be stopped. The rain poured down. Lightening flashed. A loud crack of thunder, and ... WHUMP! A large limb fell from the weeping willow tree just behind where we were standing, crushing part of our fence. I remember being raced from the back of our unusually large back yard to the back door of our home, shielding my head from the golf-ball sized hail and crying about the rain, wetness, and loud noise.

Lightening and I are not friends.

It's no wonder that I used to have dreams about going on vacation and coming home to find our home burned out, the victim of a random lightening strike. As I grew up, I finally came to an understanding that I have a tremendous respect for lightening. Yeah. Respect. I can't understand it. I can't control it. But, I can appreciate its beauty.

When I read Scripture these days, I read with a lens of openness to what the Word can tell me about God. Does it affirm God's love and care for me? Does it tell me how broken the world is, and how sad God must be? Does it speak to human nature and our propensity to keep running from God, and God's refusal to let us go?

The only way I can understand lightening as a force and presence is to see it as an act of God. I know that God is not intentionally destructive, but I also know that God has power beyond my understanding and comprehension. God is love, sure. But God is mighty. And, God knows what's up. Maybe this seemingly irrational fear is God's way of keeping me in check, and making sure I remember who's in charge. I need that sometimes. I need to remember that nothing I can do will separate me from the love of God, but I certainly do try my hardest to test that out. Thank goodness God is in charge.

Because, though I hate lightening, I sure do respect it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I Can't Make this Stuff Up...

I was Googling "Statement of Faith" today. Here's what came up:

statement of faith - Google Search:
National Association of Evangelicals
This site may harm your computer.

Mission Statement · Statement of Faith · Our Values · History · Current Members · Executive Leadership · Order Bible Reading Guides Now. Statement of Faith ...

I'm not quite sure what to make of the idea that the Evangelicals might harm my computer. I'll keep them in my prayers.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sermon: Who will separate us from the love of Christ?

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
St. Mark UMC
July 27, 2008

Future Glory
Romans 8:18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 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. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
God’s Love in Christ Jesus
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today, we come to a text that holds some things in tension for us. I know many of us have come to read Paul with some skepticism. Some of us have chosen to skip Paul’s writings altogether, especially the Book of Romans. Paul says some pretty straightforward things about those who did not see it fit to acknowledge God, and were led to all sorts of behaviors: wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. They were filled with envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they were gossipers, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. The folks Paul was lamenting were not loving, committed, rational or open. They had traded God’s glory for a perception of mortal glory, and claiming to be wise, they became fools. They worshipped and served the creature, rather than the Creator. All of this was brought upon them by God because they suppressed the truth.
Now before you try to figure out which side of this issue to come down on: to agree with Paul, and siphon out the meaning of his words, or to pitch him altogether because his boldness leaves no room for interpretation, read on. He writes, “Therefore, you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another, you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” None of us escape the judgment of God. None. Including Paul. So I ask that we look to Romans today with the understanding that all of us –all – have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and none of us are to stand (or sit) in judgment of anyone else, including Paul.
We get to chapter 8 after Paul has poured his hearts out to the Jews and Gentiles. Slave and Free. Circumcised and Uncircumcised. All worshipping together, trying to put aside differences and accept the universal claim that we have on our hearts which is, “God for us.” And if God is for us, indeed, who can be against us?
It seems that we, ourselves, are against us. The Romans experienced sitting in one community, a diverse congregation gathered in as a united, worshipping body, struggling to work out how we are to truly be … United. Gathered. Accepted. Respected. Because these folks have a long history of disagreement, disrespect, disjointedness.
The result of Paul’s claim on the Gospel is his statement of faith that he pours out to the Romans in this Epistle. Paul begins in a place that is difficult for us to address, because Paul has no trouble pointing out that all of us have sinned and are in need of God’s grace. We all like to skip to the end where we sing “Jesus Loves Me” and repeat the final refrain of “Amazing Grace:” “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun!” As lovely of a vision of the end times as this is… we’ve got a battle to fight before we’re there.
And don’t we know it?! We repeat our Psalms of Lament to anyone who will listen: my money is running out! My business is suffering! My mother isn’t getting any better. My home life is rotten. My children are ungrateful. My country is at war. My safety isn’t guaranteed. My dreams are unattainable. My hope is teetering. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
We heap up prayers like the Psalmist and hope that they fall on God’s merciful ears. We wonder if we’re doing it right, and if so, what’s holding God back from all of the glory that we’ve been promised?! Don’t we deserve some clue of the Divine presence in our lives? Aren’t we here to work out our faith with at least some inkling of the joy of walking with Christ? When on earth is the Holy Spirit going to show up and give us some intervention? Why on earth do we even come to church?!
So, we wait, and we wrestle, just like the Romans. Many of these new Christians were particularly excited that they could start being a little more lenient with their obedience to the law. After all, Christ was clear that he came to fulfill the law, though not to abolish it. But Paul reminds them that their baptism has transformed them into a new creation, where dying, we have been raised with Christ. Just as we witnessed Cyrus being transformed before us today, and watched as his parents renounced the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the evil powers, which we all know are at work in the world, so too are we die and rise with Christ into a new reality.
Recently, my husband has turned me on to the works of William Stringfellow. He was trained as a lawyer at Harvard, but is considered one of the most prophetic voices in modern theology. He was an Episcopalian layman, and spoke with the boldness of Paul. The powers and principalities in this world are a big topic for Stringfellow, and few rocks go unturned as he’s identifying their presence in creation. He wrestles with how we are to be faithful in the face of these powers, which have taken hold of our institutions, our governments, our academies, even our churches. The principalities and powers are forces that we know are present in this world, that cause us, as Paul writes, “to not understand our own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” Stringfellow likened this propulsion to Nixon’s obsession with winning the Vietnam War. In his attempts to avoid being the first American president ever to lose a war, he became “obsessed” with death itself. More and more soldiers and civilians died in his unwavering effort to save his reputation. In this instance, it was death who won, as he lost sight of what was right and became focused on what he thought was most important.
Stringfellow writes in his book Free in Obedience, that all of us, in our ordinary and extraordinary states, are captured within the scope of the Gospel. In fact, Stringfellow underscores that there is no one, “outside the range of the witness of the faithful,” nor is there anything that is not “ a responsibility of the Body of Christ” (p.16). He goes on to list several situations that have unfolded for him in his daily life as a lawyer and citizen, as his office holds the sacred words of those seeking council. A young, unmarried, pregnant girl, choosing to give her baby up for adoption, a convict looking for a job, a college student looking for work, a woman seeking to leave her addict husband, a man arrested because of discrimination, a seminarian disillusioned about the church and rejecting ordination, a family in foreclosure, a man who is lonely.
All of these scenarios are real-life events that cause us to come face to face with our faith as we encounter them. But what, then, do we do? In my first year out of seminary, I served part-time in the Presbyterian Church. There, when the youth go through Confirmation, they are charged with the task of writing a Statement of Faith, which they have to present to the Session of their church before they can be approved for membership. I know this sounds like torture to all of us, but I have witnessed this process, and found it to be one of the most incredible opportunities for all involved. I supervised a Confirmation Class at Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville, NJ, and there, the youth had to write out exactly what they believed about God: I believe that God is bigger than me, created everything, loves me, wants what is best for me. They had to write about Jesus: I believe that Jesus is the son of God, born of Mary, and lived on earth so that I may know the fullness of God’s love and how to live on earth. They had to write about the Holy Spirit: I believe the Holy Spirit is present now, and always, to remind me that God loves me and is always with me. They had to write about the Church: I believe in the church as a faithful community of believers that is trying to figure out what on earth we’re doing until Christ comes again in final victory and helps us get it right.
I watched these youth struggle with fear and trembling over their statements. They had a lot to say about God, some fine “straight-from-the-Creed” language about Jesus, and a few vague remarks about the Holy Spirit. No one could quite pin that one down, which I suppose is the point. But what these Confirmands said about the church was even more interesting. They had high ideals, lofty goals, and marvelous expectations. This was a community where everyone was free to think and feel about God how they chose, but they all worshipped together. They saw their church as respectful, but nurturing of their faith and tradition. They saw it as a place of safety and sanctuary, fellowship and friendship, and on any day of the week, they would walk through the doors and find someone who loved and cared about them. It was like home. It was better than home. It was what Paul was writing to the Romans: here, in the comfort of your radical-life changing faith, you will find comfort, acceptance, and love. Love in Christ Jesus.
These Confirmands also had to memorize two passages of scripture. The first was from 1 John, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God…” The second passage was Romans 8:38-39. “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
How is it that our faith encourages us to respond to the upheaval of life, as the powers and principalities pursue us? As Paul encouraged the Romans to sort out what it is that was important, today I exhort you to consider what it is that you believe as you are faced with these issues. Where does your faith intersect your life? Does it at all? How do we, this church, play into your relationship with God?
I hope you understand that I’m holding all of us accountable for our work in this process. “The real issues of faith have to do with the everyday needs of us in the world,” Stringfellow writes, “and it is the care for and service of those needs for which the Church exists.”
So, how are we doing, then? As faithful folks trying to work our way through this world, indeed, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, what is it that we are to think and do? Because there are days that I feel paralyzed. Immovable. Suffocated. And the only thing that can shake me back into action is – typically – the last thing that I hope will happen. An argument. Bad news. A funeral. A jarring phone call. A pointed e-mail, and all of these point to the truth that we’re afraid to acknowledge: that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
I think we can see here, at St. Mark, some of the ways that we are making the matters of real life the responsibility of the Body of Christ. But, I also worry that we’re narrowing our focus too much. Perhaps we have realized that our orientation - whatever that may be - does not define us as a worshipping community of believers. Nor should it define us in any area of our lives - not at work, not at home, not in church. To limit our experience as a community to how we are defined in this arena is not respectful to the totality of who we are as God's creation. God has created us, loved us, and called us good. God has given us good gifts to use in many areas. How we live out our lives in loving and committed ways is a response to God's gifts for us, but not the fullness of it. I know that I cannot be defined as any of my parts. To say I am minister leaves out my role as mother. To say I am wife simplifies my role as woman. In truth, all of these work together in harmony, and point me to the culmination of the fullness of my creation as an individual who is gifted and loved by God.
But, as Paul makes clear throughout Romans, we are also wholly broken, and in need of grace and redemption. Though we acknowledge that grace has not been withheld because of our sins, we must also recognize that we are in dire need of this grace that is not cheap, but is provided in abundance because of God’s goodness, not our own. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
It is important for us to come away knowing fully what we think about our faith, because it’s gonna get rough. Parents will die of cancer, suicide. Families will split and re-join with others. If our faith was grounded on anything less than something based in assurance of God’s love, then we were in for a difficult spiritual walk. Paul writes that, though “we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered, in all of this, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” This is no cheap grace, brothers and sisters. This is grace that comes from the one who refuses to be separated from us, even as we are filled with wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness. Even though we are gossipers, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless, we still know - we still are persuaded that nothing in all of creation: not death in its finality, not life in all of its trial, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Cooper, you know - the boy who isn't quite 2 yet - went to school today in underpants.

Big. Boy. Underpants.

With Thomas the Tank Engine on them.

So there.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Just Because...

Matt pointed me to this little moment of joy today. Here's another reason to love Feist.

Thanks, Sesame Street!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

It's so good to be home...

So, despite all logic and reason (I was the only minister around last week, the boys were sick with some cold/eye goo/fever bug, we planned this with less than 48 hours notice, etc.), we packed up the boys, feverish and gooey into the car on Thursday and headed to Knoxville. My hometown. A fine place to visit, but I sure don't live there anymore.

Though my mom still lives in the same house that I was born in, I haven't lived there since I moved to Atlanta to go to college. I left as a girl, and have no idea what it's like as a town for grown-ups. I've lost touch with most of the locals, and many have moved away. Going back is bittersweet.

The boys, however, love going to Mimi's house. After all, it's big, clean, there's a huge yard, and she cooks all the time. She's also got this slightly annoying collection of toys from my childhood. I say annoying because I always thought it was cooky of her to keep them on hand... as if my children would ever play with them. Well, it turns out that Cooky Mimi was right. They love playing with my General Lee wrist racer,the Skeedoodle (remember those?! If the Etch-A-Sketch was too hard for you, then you could use the Skedoodle which provided templates for you to follow. Perfect!), and my old, rainbow colored xylophone. Well done, Mimi. Well done.

We arrived Thursday, many, many hours later than we should have. We piled everyone and their bodily functions in the car, and by the end of dinner, I'd come into contact with 5 of the big 6 of the aforementioned functions (no blood? no foul!). Between Edgar's carsickness, Jackson's snot and eye goo, Cooper's potty-training, well... you get the picture. The Cracker Barrel in Kennesaw was glad to see us go. After one additional stop for gas/coffee/potty, we finally rolled into Knoxville at 10:38 p.m. This was approximately 6 hours after our departure. If you're keeping count, that's as long as it takes to go round-trip from Atlanta to Knoxville, sans dependents. Sigh...

Friday arrived, and we snuggled at home, playing in Mimi's backyard with her treasure trove of toys (kid-friendly horseshoes! badminton! bubbles!), and Cooper ordered us to avoid standing in Edgar's poop. Fevers had abated. Gooey eyes were clearing. The sun was warm and kind. Naps came easily. A good day was had by all.

That night, mom scooted Matt and I out of the house for an evening of real grown-upness. We headed into town, via Kingston Pike. I pointed out all of the places I used to frequent - Buddy's Bar-b-que, my high school, the library. We marveled at the crappy decision to litter the main thoroughfare with strip malls, and oohed at the lovely homes in Sequoya Hills. We bowed down and paid homage to the mighty Sunsphere. And, we made plans to meet up with Sam, pictured above.

Sam and I go way back to our days of working at Camp Wesley Woods. We both served as Support Staff back in the day, and were responsible for leading the music for all of the worship services. Over time, we cultivated a group of camp friends who eventually started meeting during the year on the first Friday of the month in Waynesville, NC to play guitar, drink cheap beer and eat Micah's inexplicably good cooking. These are some of my fondest memories. I still have a recording of one of our afternoons, sitting around, playing, singing, sharing original songs, inventing harmonies, sharing lead vocals and admiring Sam's solos. He was, by far, the most talented of us all, and the most unassuming. To know now that he's out there, doing what he does best, is hardly a surprise. But, it never fails to amaze me.

Sam met Matt and I at Tomatohead in Market Square. We enjoyed a recommendation from our server, and killed time until heading to Old City to see if we could get in to the Pilot Light, a totally crappy "Rock Club" that looked as though it was far too cool for us. Tift Merritt was playing, and Sam and Jill opened for her on several shows that they played in the Midwest. His recommendation was resounding, and we were thrilled. Two live shows in one week!

Because we were with a musician, he seemed to know all of the other musicians everywhere. Matt and I got to feel cool. The picture above indicates that we are not, in fact, cool. But, we were with a friend who knew how to be, so we pretended like we belonged. Walking to the uber-minimalist Pilot Light (man, I love hyperlinks!), I ducked into a coffee shop to grab a little something to keep me going. In there, we saw people waving frantically at Sam. It was Tift Merritt and her band. Yeah. I was introduced after Sam caught up with them a bit, and she said to me, "Hi. I'm Tift." With earnestness I replied, "Oh! I'm going to see you!" So. Not. Cool. They were lovely, gracious, and kind. Zeke, the drummer and Tift's husband, walked us over to the club and got us in. We thanked him and headed back to Market Square to catch Gill Landry's set at the Preservation Pub.

Now that I've broken all of my own rules for name-dropping, let's move on, shall we?

It was a crazy night, which ended with us seeing one of the best live shows ever. At one point, Tift and her band came down off the stage onto the floor and sang, "Supposed to Make You Happy" a cappella with heartbreaking tenderness and beautiful harmonies. Tears flavored my PBR (I don't think the Pilot Light sold anything else). It was so beautiful. We even got to talk with the band afterward, which is an experience that rivals my best-ever music memory that involves Jennifer Nettles, and concluded with Matt and I riding the train from NYC back to Princeton at 4:30 a.m. the following day. More on this in some sort of blog-flashback later...

It's been nice this past week to have a couple of experiences that are so outside of our norm. We spend a couple of hours with the boys each night, and a good hour is always spent wrestling/convincing/encouraging/forcing them to bed. To have a break from that nightly struggle and negotiation is a gift in and of itself. But, we got to claim for ourselves some pure enjoyment from the evening beyond some parenting liberation. I got a chance to see an old friend. To hear some wonderful music. To re-claim my home for myself on my own terms, and share it with my husband and children.

It was so good to be home.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Simple Tasks

So, I've been tinkering with the blog layout, trying to make my words seem less... wordy. So, a brief post tonight, including a picture of why it takes us 3 times as long to do simple tasks, and why that's perfectly okay.

Also, Cooper is gonna be trouble. The sunglasses certainly help his cause.


Monday, July 14, 2008


There's nothing more comforting than routine. Especially for children (and really... isn't this true for us all?). We wake up and expect the newspaper to be in the lawn, double-bagged so that the dew or rain hasn't ruined our morning reading. We start our cars, expecting them to run. We go to work, anticipating the tasks ahead. We eat lunch. We fight taking a nap. We count down the hours, and then leave in our dutiful vehicles, headed to our homes, which should be waiting for us when we arrive. All life inside should have stories to tell and hungry bellies to fill. The laundry to be folded. Dinner is prepared. Sleep comes. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

The irony of raising children is this: for little people who thrive on routine, they are bound and determined to destroy any patterns of behavior that were set prior to their arrival in this world. Sunday naps? HA! Fat chance! Saturday sleep-ins? A thing of the past! Movies?!?! Are you crazy? Pretend such things ever existed! Dinner with friends or your partner where actual conversation takes place? NEVER!!! Time for hobbies like guitar playing, knitting, listening to music, finishing a cup of coffee, reading 3 paragraph articles in magazines, writing a blog entry?! Mwahahahahaha! Oh, and forget exercising! If it doesn't involve fishing out plastic toys that are covered in dog hair from underneath the couch, or lifting 25 pounds of dead weight off the floor after a tantrum, then it's not happening. Basically, anything you enjoyed doing (sleeping late, waking early, going to work, not going to work, listening, playing, running, cooking, writing, reading, eating, breathing, having a normal pulse) cannot happen anymore. At least not in the same way.

Sunday afternoon naps have always been a staple in my house. Always. I count on them, especially as a clergyperson. There's a running "joke" in the house (I say "joke," because I'm not sure if I think it's funny.) that we stand up for 10 minutes on Sundays, so why should we be so tired. Ha. The reality is that even for extrovert me, I am wiped out after leading 2 services and teaching a class on Sunday mornings. I always stay up too late, because I'm an SNL addict, to this day. So, Sundays are my grace period when I can make amends for bad decisions made the night before. This past Saturday, Matt and I went to see The Everybodyfields, who are long time friends of mine from my Camp Wesley Woods days in East Tennessee. Seeing Sam and Jill always puts me in my place - hearing them makes me want to weep with nostalgia and scream with delight at the same time. Their music is so evocative that it makes me aware of my deep, dark corners where sometimes the light forgets to filter and other times it shines so brightly that I have to shield myself from the glory.

We were really excited to get out of the house, and even more eager to see the band. Matt's only been to see them once. We went in March on the night of the fateful Atlanta tornado, which ripped through the East Atlanta Village and destroyed homes and cars as gigantic trees fell like bowling pins. The venue lost power ... because trees had wiped out everything around us, and being unaware of the extent of the damage, we all stayed inside like fools, expecting the power to come back on any minute. We caught up with Sam and met a friend of a friend, drank some beer, and left in the darkness. A fine way to pass time in the dark, but certainly not what we were expecting. We had to drive home a different way because fallen trees had blocked our way home.

We arrived at the venue, met up with some folks we knew, talked with Sam and Jill, made some hopeful plans to visit them soon, and waited for the show to start. Which it did. At 11:40. P.M. On a Saturday night. We had told the babysitter to go to sleep - this was going to be a late night. But, we couldn't help but feel guilty.

The show was incredible. Matt was blown away, and so was I. They've added a drummer, and along with the pedal steel and electric guitar, it made for an incredibly rich sound. I'm so proud of them, these friends of mine who are living the dream. I envy them a bit. A small part of me wants to be up there with them, singing my heart out and preaching truth in verse. But, I'm no good at songwriting, and it might get weird for my babies to never know which city we were in. That would be a big challenge to their routine, as they like to sleep in the same bed on a regular basis and all. They would dig the van rides, though. Those boys love minivans...

We finally left, mid-set, at 1:10 a.m. Our age and stage of life were tattooed on us as we snuck out of the venue, looking guilty and a little relieved. We took an "aw-shucks," approach to the babysitter, who opted not to sleep and looked a little antsy to get home. We paid her a little extra, hoping that our tacit apology would suffice. We crashed.

The boys, of course, woke up at 5:45 a.m. and decided that this was a GREAT time to practice their hammering. Yeah. Hammering. Two boys, with hammers. At 5:45 a.m. on a Sunday. Death, where is thy sting? 'Cause irony has the market cornered over here.

We negotiated some continued sleeping options with the boys, which included my 6'5" husband volunteering to sleep with our 2’6" toddler in his unusually narrow bed so Jackson and I could get some sleep. I finally got up, headed to church, leaving my sleeping brood behind. The beagle mocked me with his snores. He’s such a jerk sometimes.

Church was wonderful. My class was terrific. The storm made all of us slow and drowsy. And then, it was time to go home to the promised land of Sunday naps. Cooper fell asleep on the drive home. Jackson, the fighter of naps and defender of consciousness beyond reason, chattered away. We moved the baby into his bed, had lunch, and Matt encouraged me to take my long-awaited nap. But, I moved too slowly. We changed the channel, and found The Princess Bride in the opening minutes of the narrative, showing on PBS. Now, I like this movie, but I can’t quote every line, and I never argued to name our firstborn Wesley (though, I could make a case for it). But, for some reason, on a sleepy, rainy Sunday afternoon, it grabbed me. Jackson and I sat on the couch, cuddled under our favorite napping blanket, and watched it from start to finish, while Matt dozed beside us. We watched, Rodents of Unusual Size and all.

This is not routine. It’s a far more grown-up movie than Jackson should have been watching. And we never watch movies, so his attention span hasn’t been challenged to last this long. For goodness sake, he couldn’t even make it through an hour and 37 minutes of Wall-E last week. But, despite Matt’s earnest encouragement for me to go and rest while I could, I simply couldn’t tear myself from that place of comfort and sharing.

We sat, talked about the characters and the fighting. The pretty princess and the castle. He worried about her horse and the mean king. He hid behind his blanket when the eels came. He snuggled into my armpit as the story unfolded, and there was nowhere else I would rather be.

I had been thinking that morning that I really missed the ability to sleep or watch an entire grown-up movie without disruption or lingering guilt. I thought about how great it would be to do that, knowing that it was impossible. And I was right. It is impossible now to do those things, because I really don’t want that for myself. I love my children. I delight in them. I love our family time and their goofy ways of being. What a surprise it was to find that I could have both.

Maybe routine isn’t so comforting after all.

Update, 12/28/08: Find it here on Fidelia's Sisters!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sermon, June 29, 2008

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
St. Mark United Methodist Church
June 29, 2008
Genesis 22

“Here I Am”

Genesis 22:1-18, NRSV: The Command to Sacrifice Isaac

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill* his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’;* as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’*

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’ 19So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

Today, as I stand in this room on my first anniversary of coming to minister at Saint Mark. I am overwhelmed and blessed to think of what this year has brought. Many of you who were just strangers a year ago have become dear and cherished friends, and I know that I’m just scratching the surface in getting to know you all as we develop a relationship together. Last year, I came to this church with hope and wonder, a little fear and doubt. Today, I stand with you as a woman grounded in my call and place here, open to the Spirit’s leading and so glad to have your support and encouragement. One of the biggest challenges for me in ministry is still with me, five years after I’ve begun. Every time I stand up in this pulpit, my stomach knots up, my mouth goes dry, and I think to myself, “What on earth do I have to say to these wonderful, faithful people?” And each time, the Holy Spirit intervenes, directs me to the right place and gives me words that somehow manage to communicate the Gospel.
But this week, I’ve been praying a little bit harder to feel the Spirit’s presence as I prepared. This has been a hard week at St. Mark. We have gotten call after call about mothers, fathers, stepmothers who have passed away. Many of you also know that we lost a faithful congregant on Monday. Fred Fife died after a long battle with cancer, and his fight to the end was dignified, inspiring and gut-wrenching. Deana and I got the call on Monday, and were hurrying to get there to see him in time. Instead, we arrived about 20 minutes after he passed away, and as much as I prayed on my way to see Fred at the hospice center, I prayed even more as we walked down the hallway to his room. You see, I felt on Monday the way I feel now: Candler Professor Tom Long named that in any funeral, there are two preachers in this room, and that other preacher is Death with a capital “D.” As my footsteps echoed down the hallway, the hollow looming voice matched my pace saying, “You’re too late. He’s already gone. I made it here first. Death always wins.”
On Wednesday, I had the honor of preaching Fred’s funeral sermon. I saw people stream into this room who have never worshipped here (or anywhere else) before. They sat in these pews, faced this pulpit and prepared to hear something more than what the minister of Death was saying. So, I preached truth. Life. Resurrection. Restoration. Love. I wept, and I prayed that God’s voice would be stronger than mine. That this would be a day when God chose not to show up in a still, small way, but in a way that said with strength and vigor: I AM.
And today, as I prepare to preach my second sermon of the week, I know that there is still another preacher in the room. That as we listen to this text from Genesis that is perplexing and horrible when we think about what it tells us about God, I know that the other preacher’s voice is gaining strength. That preacher has been just as busy as I have this week, whispering in your ears that Death is just around the corner, inevitable, and that each day we live, we’re one day closer to dying. On this summer day in June, the Southeast prays for rain while the Midwest is flooded. We can’t put gas in our cars to go to our jobs or churches. We live too far from our parents to care for them properly. We feel trapped. Breathless. Scared. Alone. And the only voice that comes to offer comfort is Death’s.
And this is how we encounter Abraham and Isaac today, with Death’s whisper as a constant in the background. God enters into the scene by calling out to Abraham with the intent of testing or proving him. God calls and Abraham responds with the words of faithfulness, “Here I am.” But Abraham’s faithful words aren’t enough. What follows reads like a one-sided conversation: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land or Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” In this sparse story, God’s voice offers great detail about the specifics of the request. There is no doubt what God intends for Abraham, and no doubt that God knows how much is being asked of his servant. The boy who was the source of his parents’ laughter is now going to be the source of their tears. Abraham and Sarah’s disbelief about Isaac’s coming into the world will be trumped by their disbelief about his sudden exit. God, the giver of all good things, is calling for Abraham to return this gift to all the Israelites back to its source.
Abraham follows the instructions he has been given, and the following morning, he, Isaac and two young men saddled their donkey and made their way to the land of Moriah, where they would wait for the place to be named where Isaac shall be bound. In preparation, Abraham cut the wood for the burnt offering, using the task as an excuse to avoid Sarah and wait for this time to pass. On the third day in Moriah, God indicates the place and Abraham says plainly to his companions: “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
The walk up the mountain is somber. The wood is heavy. The boy is inquisitive. Abraham is stayed. What he tells his companions is what he prays will be true: “We will go, we will worship together – me and my boy – about the goodness of God who would not allow such sadness to overwhelm us. We will share laughter and tears in God’s presence, and we will know that we are on Holy ground. We will do this in communion with one another and with God who has joined us, two hearts as one in this miraculous family which cannot- will not – be shattered. God has made me a promise, God has made the Israelites a promise through this boy, and God will keep that promise. Yes, we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
But intervention does not stop them on their walk. Isaac questions his father. Abraham responds with the same words of faithfulness that he used in his response to God: “Here I am, my son.” In this response, he says, “I am faithful to you. Faithful to our God. Faithful to this promise. And afraid.” Isaac pushes on: “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham can only respond, “God will provide the lamb,” as they continue walking on together.
Without commentary or discussion, the text tells us next that Abraham and Isaac reached the place God had shown to them and there Abraham built an altar and laid the wood in order. Then he bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood – this is where this story derives its name – The Akedah. The binding. The Lord has provided. Isaac may have known the story of his birth, but he did not know that his death would be thrust upon him in such a way. That his father who laughed with disbelief at his coming would be the one to cause his own tears to fall because of his belief. The minister of Death mocks us all with her cloak and dagger way of finding us. This one came as a surprise. Who could have known that the promise of all generations would be sacrificed on a mountain by his own devastated father?
What happens in the text next is the only thing that keeps all of us from throwing our Bibles away after 22 chapters of Genesis and saying, “This is not for me.” We have read and heard that the faithful man, Abraham, obeyed God and followed through with God’s command. In return, God’s messenger from heaven addresses Abraham, who responds a third time, “Here I Am,” and instructs him not to lay a hand on the boy. God provides a ram in the thicket, who was sacrificed as Abraham and Isaac worshiped, and tried to reinterpret the meaning of their relationship. Abraham was faithful. The Lord provided. Isaac lived to be an old man. The promises were kept. The Israelites’ lineage continued through Isaac, and Abraham was counted as the father of a nation.
But I would like to argue with this conclusion. I don’t think it does us any good to read it, with Death whispering in our ears, and bark out a pithy platitude about God’s provision in trial or the mind-blowing faith of Abraham. It doesn’t do us any good to go on with our text, our worship, our lives, having heard this story and thinking that it doesn’t have something to do with us today. Because it does. Death is all around us. Death is a primary character in our story, and we are just waiting until she shows up. And show up she does, as Abraham binds Isaac to the altar.
For me, it doesn’t matter whether or not the voice of an angel calls out from heaven. Once Abraham has bound his son and raised his knife, he has sacrificed his son – his only son, whom he loves – to the God who has called him to this place. Whether Isaac lives or dies in this moment is morally inconsequential, because Abraham has made a choice. Abraham decided to do the unthinkable. Just like my friend Fred chose to keep battling his cancer, even though the chemotherapy killed him faster than the cancer would have. Just like my friend who has kept a job longer than she should have because she has to be faithful and support her family, despite all of the hurt and woundedness that it’s caused her. Just like your brother who has dropped everything, including quality and consistent time with his partner and young children, to care for an aging parent. Just like your sister who was on the fast track to be the first woman ever to hold her position at work until baby #3 came along and she gave it all up to stay home. Just like the relationship that you maintain because you know it would break his heart if you ever left.
We all make sacrifices, and we might even name that these sacrifices cause us to die a little death each day as we recommit ourselves to these promises that we’ve made. Today, as we read this text, Isaac is the symbol for these sacrifices that we hold in our hearts. Isaac, bound on the altar, is the career path we would have taken if things had gone differently. Isaac, helpless and afraid, is the family we always dreamed of having that hasn’t been realized. Isaac, weeping under the knife, is the choice we’ve made that we live with each day. However we’ve come to make these choices, know that they will shape us for the rest of our lives, and not always in devastating ways. For God has worked out in us, already, the fullness of our creation, which can only come when we have died with Christ and experienced the resurrection that we have been promised.
As Isaac is bound by Abraham’s sacrificial act, so are we bound by our choices. But, as this text shows us, the binding of Isaac is not just about the sacrifice, but the relief of the burden. The ultimate focus of this text is not on Abraham’s actions, but on God’s continued provision. God provided, first, Isaac for the restoration of Abraham and Sarah and all of God’s people through Isaac. Then, God provided the ram in the thicket. Finally, thousands of years later, God provided the fulfillment of all time and promises in the person of Jesus Christ, who became God in the flesh, living and dwelling among us. In this person of Christ, God came into our midst, lived and laughed among us, teaching and admonishing, and inviting all of us into the mansion that has many rooms. In Christ Jesus, God was born, baptized, died a brutal death, and was resurrected in glory that we might know that God incarnate is not separate from us, but part of us and our experience. When Jesus cried out, “Lord, if it be Thy will, let this cup pass from me!” the recognition of Death’s power is palpable.
But the promise we receive is that Death’s power, though mighty, is not the final answer. The promise that was made in Isaac, despite his binding on Mt. Moriah, was fulfilled to the letter. Death did not have the final answer. Abraham became the father of many nations, as promised, and the nation that was once oppressed is now lifted up to be favored in God’s eyes. And we have been brought into this promise. For God’s promise, in all of its mystery, is for us, in Christ. God’s promise was for Abraham – the one who sacrificed - and Isaac, the one who was bound. God’s promise was made full in the Incarnation and Jesus’s death and resurrection, which is also what has been promised to us. Death does not have the final answer.
So this morning, we use the words that are spoken at every funeral to begin the service. Let us use these words to recognize the suffering that we have endured, the sacrifices we have made. Let Isaac’s name stand as a marker for the words or names you would like to lift back up to God. Let us celebrate that it is not death that has the final answer, but a radical powerful life that defeats death in its own venue – the grave. God’s promise is for all. Life is for all. O death, where is thy victory? Where is thy sting?

Amen and Amen.

Gathering - Rev. Phillip Thomason

Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restored our life. Christ will come again in glory. As in baptism Isaac put on Christ, so in Christ may Isaac be clothed with glory. Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children. What we shall be has not yet been revealed; but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Those who have this hope purify themselves as Christ is pure.

The Word of Grace - Rev. Mandy Flemming

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I hold the keys of hell and death. Because I live, you shall live also.”

Greeting - Rev. Josh Noblitt

Friends, we have gathered here to praise God and to witness to our faith as we celebrate the life of Isaac. We come together in grief, acknowledging our human loss. May God grant us grace, that in pain we may find comfort, in sorrow hope, in death resurrection.

Putting the Damage On

Two weeks ago, I preached. The sermon is posted above, and I'm really proud of it. It's possibly my best sermon yet, but it was hard. The text was Genesis 22 (The Akedah - The Binding of Isaac), and the lectionary dumped this text in my lap during one of my fullest weeks in ministry. I had just done the funeral of a friend, which is never easy. I had also done the wedding of some friends only days before. It was a week where I was sure of my calling, but walking around with fear and trembling at the heaviness of my job in all of its fullness.

So, I finished preaching a very difficult sermon at the end of a very difficult week, and as I was shaking hands with folks at the door, eager to go home and nap when a youth came to get me.

"Uh - you might want to come see Jackson. He cut his hand kind of badly."

Oh dear.

So, I excused myself as quickly as I could from the line of affirming and reflective congregants. I ran to my office, grabbed my keys, and hustled over to the children's wing where I found my oldest son, whom I love, sobbing in the arms of his father.

Matt had blood smeared on his shirt. Jackson was screaming. Cooper was confused. Folks looked concerned. I got a quick look at J's cut, and was sure of what they were saying - he needed stitches. He'd been running around in a Sunday School class, fell and cut himself on - a sandbox? A door frame? A jagged dinosaur tooth? A cotton ball?! It mattered not, really. He had an inch-long cut on his palm, just below his pinky and tracing the path of his lifeline. There seemed to be some fatty tissue making a guest appearance. We were headed to the hospital.

I put my scared, screaming little big boy in the backseat. He kept repeating, "I don't WANT to go to my hospital! I want to just go home!!!" I calmed him a little with the promise of a trip to Arden's Garden for a smoothie. A boy like this needs a little boost of fruity, wholesome, protein-infused goodness. We were in for a long afternoon. He stayed in the car while I collected the booty (no - really! They've brought back Veggie Booty!), and we headed to Egleston.

He calmed down when we arrived, and we settled into the waiting room to watch "Toy Story." This was going to be okay! He held his left hand to himself like a little paw, careful not to use it or move it. We put a napkin underneath to sop up the blood as he held his hand to his chest like a not-so-mini Napoleon. But, he was brave enough to play with toys and ask about the movie. After an hour we got called back to a room. We made potty trips and watched Sponge Bob. Hours passed like... hours. Then, the doctor came in.

They sterilized the cut and applied some awesome numbing cream (no shots!). Then, in came the team to do 2-3 stitches on his paw. The very patient nurse began to insert the fishhook to start stitching, finished the first stitch and... pop! Out it came. There was more bleeding. And screaming. We tried to distract Jackson with a book of Disney characters, but he didn't recognize any of them. He had to watch - not watching was worse. The nurse made several attempts, but the skin where he was sliced was so thin that it wouldn't hold a stitch. It was nauseating and horrible.

So, the doctor swooped in, inserted the fishhook into a fattier part of J's hand (which I'm SURE wasn't numbed), and got one big, good stitch in. He was so brave. I was so unhinged. They gave him a Scooby Doo sticker after he was all finished (Wow! Thanks! A Scooby Doo sticker! You know -they give these things away at, like, the grocery store. That's far less painful than hours of waiting and getting sewn together like drapes. But, thanks anyway!). Jackson was unimpressed. I tried to tell the doctor it was because we don't "do" stuff like that (Thomas and Little Einsteins for us - and that's about it). But, Jackson was wearing a Lightening McQueen shirt (long story), and it seemed to undermine my alterna-parenting claims.

We finally got home with one stitch, several steri-strips, and instructions to keep his hand dry. Cooper responded by promptly dumping an entire cup of water on J's paw, and the steri-strips came unglued within 3 hours.

So, for the last 13 nights, we have enjoyed a ritual post-bathtime of washing J's hand, anointing it with BooBoo Juice (a real product!), slathering on neosporin, squishing on a gauze pad, yards of cotton bandanging and some first aid tape. Jackson, so adorably, calls his hand, "My Damage." He's trying to say bandage, but this description works well. The stitch came out after 8 days, and his damage is healing beautifully. We're now to the phase of dosing it with Vitamin E oil to minimize scarring (thanks, Bruce!). The cut is healing beautifully, and life goes on.

But J doesn't seem to realize that. He's gotten into the ritual and routine of being anointed and tended to in a particular way. His binding each night has become a comfort. I'm not sure what to make of this, since it was The Binding of Isaac that kicked off this mess. I suppose this is the difference in my story and Abraham's. When the binding of J's wound was complete, what remained was healing. When Isaac arose from the altar, his wounds remained. I'll never understand this story in its fullness. But, I do know that now we are gifted with restoration. Healing. Resurrection. New Life.


Monday, July 7, 2008

Starting Out...

Hi All!

So, in a job like mine, I do a lot of writing. Most of the time that writing gets shuffled down to the bottom of My Documents folder, ne'er to be seen again. So, after some coersion from friends and eagerness to get feedback on a broader scale, I think it's time for me to join the blogging world. Plus, I'm rotten at keeping up with short-term events, and I'm hoping that this will be a way to encourage me to post some regular thoughts on being a mom, minister, wife, and individual. So, here goes! Thanks for your prayers. Thanks for reading (mom!). Thanks for being a part of all of this.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

- Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses