Thursday, July 30, 2009

Remarks Article: Act and Being- Who are we? (Meditations on the Purple Cup)

Many of you know that my family and I have moved recently to a new house, about a mile from our old house where we have lived for the last four years. Our old house welcomed us when our family only had three people, and the youngest among us was only 8 months old. We settled into every square inch of the space and soon welcomed a fourth member. Both of my babies learned how to walk, talk, eat and play baseball at that house. Though we were sad to leave it, we were grateful to come to a new place where we didn't have to rearrange furniture when guests came over.

We knew the move would be hard for the boys. After all, it was the only home they'd ever known. They didn't know that most houses have more than one bathroom and don't require folding laundry on the kitchen counter. They knew that their room was huge (they took up residence in the finished attic space), and that all of their toys resided where they slept and they could run races up and down the length of the house. They learned that the front yard was the place for soccer, lacrosse and baseball games. Yes, we knew it would be hard to say goodbye to this house.

So, we did our best to talk about the things we all loved about it. We talked about the things we loved about the new house. On the day the movers came, we said a prayer before the truck pulled away. We blessed each room with a bit of water, saying thanks for the life and memories we had shared there. It didn't take long to settle into the new house, with its gracious and ample spaces for the things that had previously been shoved into corners and piles. But, we had to return to the old house to get it ready for the new resident. Each night, we've spent a little bit of time there, cleaning, repairing and readying. The boys have come with us, and have been thrilled to run races in their room and play in the front yard. Every time we leave, they reflect on how much they love it and miss it.

This weekend, we were taking the last of the things out of the house, and we found an old, purpleTake n' Toss cup. It was meant to be disposable, and I insisted that it be thrown away. I barked something along the lines of, "We're not taking garbage back to our house!" Matt headed with the old purple cup to the trash can, and immediately, Jackson burst into gut-wrenching sobs. "MY CUP!" He wailed. "THAT'S THE CUP I HAD WHEN I WAS A BABY!"

We saved the cup.

This cup, this little, disposable remnant of my baby's babyhood grabbed him and connected him back to his infancy. For those of you who were in worship yesterday, this may remind you of "Garden State" and Natalie Portman's "tickle" – a scrap of the baby blanket in which her parents brought her home from the hospital. She calls it "the thing I love most in the world."

Isn't it strange the things to which we ascribe value and importance? How these things, these tiny objects that appear to have no worth to anyone else hold, for us, a deep and significant meaning. Consider what these things are for you. What do they tell you about yourself, and more importantly, about who you are as a Christian?

The great theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writes in his book Act and Being that we know ourselves in two ways: as sinners, but sinners in light of the revelation of Christ's love. He compares these two aspects "Being in Adam" and "Being in Christ." If we find our "being in Adam," then we only know ourselves as sinners and apart from God. In this way, we live in untruth, turned in on ourselves and disconnected from community. In this, God becomes purely a religious object, and the heart turns in on itself. But, if we find our "being in Christ," we know ourselves as God's creatures, and as faithful beings, we turn to Christ and find ourselves there in God's community. In this is truth, love, mercy and grace.

As we live and move in this world, it is important for us to know who we are, and where we find our being. The objects that connect us back to who we are as people, loved and found in community, reveal to us what is important: family, relationships, friendships, home. This week, as you go to work, travel, play, and rest, consider what is most important to you. I pray that you will find your being in Christ, and in Christ, you will find yourselves as a part of this beautiful community of faith. I am blessed and grateful to serve here, where church is more than Sunday worship. You, Saint Mark, take your being and actions seriously. You do not come here by rote, but because this matters to you. You know yourselves as members of the body of Christ, and in this body, we all find our place.

Blessings and thanks to all of you.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sermon: Enough is Enough: Reflections on “Garden State”

John 6:1-16: Feeding the Five Thousand

6After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.*  2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, 'Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?' 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, 'Six months' wages* would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.' 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, 9'There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?' 10Jesus said, 'Make the people sit down.' Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they* sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, 'Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.' 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.'


When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.


In the fall of 2004, my husband and I were living in Adelphia, New Jersey, where I was serving as the pastor of a two-point charge and he was beginning his first year of doctoral studies. But, during the fall of 2004, our most notable characteristic was not what we did or where we lived, but the pending expansion of our family. Jackson was due on September 29, and in the midst of acclimating to a new house in a new town, new jobs and new work, we were preparing ourselves for the most radical newness of all: new life.
    My friend, Kara, who shared a due date with me, had her son, Owen on September 24. I thought that I would be next. Days past, weeks past, Matt's birthday passed, his father's birthday passed. My father had come to stay with us for a while, to greet his first grandson on the day of his birth. He'd been there for 5 weeks before Jackson showed up.
    In those days, inching along past my due date, we found creative ways to pass the time, and most of the time that involved going to see movies. One of the best we saw was a film starring Zach Braff (of "Scrubs" fame) and Natalie Portman called, "Garden State." I have come to call it a perfect film. It's a simple, slice of life story, well told. The characters are interesting and the soundtrack is evocative and smart.
    Zach Braff plays Andrew Largeman, who is an actor living in L.A. His father, from whom he is estranged, calls him in the opening scene of the movie to come back to New Jersey, because his mother has died. Andrew is 26. He returns home for the first time in nine years to attend his mother's funeral, and stays with his father in his childhood home. The scene is stark and painful. The distance is noticeable. At the funeral, he encounters some of his friends from back home, one of whom is a gravedigger. This reconnection establishes him back in this setting, with a home and peers, though these past relationships all seem forced and any happiness, simulated.
    Andrew meets Samantha the following morning at a doctor's office. Their connection is almost instant, and Samantha's effervescence is a welcome relief after witnessing Andrew's numbness to pain. He offers to drive her home, where he meets her mother, adopted "we-sent-money-to-Sally-Struthers" African brother, Tatimbeh, and dead hamster, Jelly. For the second time in two days, Andrew attends a funeral, this time for a hamster in the backyard of his new friend, Sam. He shares his story, and their relationship begins. Before long, Sam's mother is offering to show Andrew some of Sam's old ice skating tapes – she had the potential to compete in the Olympics, but Sam's mother slips and mentions that the epilepsy made her stop skating.
    Andrew, when prodded by Sam, finally shares with her and his friends about his mother and childhood. His mother was a paraplegic, and died after drowning in the tub. But, Andrew reveals that his father sent him away to boarding school after deciding that he was too dangerous. Andrew's mother had struggled with depression for many years, and this made him angry. One day, when he was 9 years old, he got angry that … he couldn't make her happy. He pushed his mother, and she fell. But, their dishwasher latch was defective, and the door had come open. She fell, hitting her neck on the countertop, and remained paralyzed from the neck down. Andrew shares that "a quarter-inch piece of plastic" has determined much of his life.
Two stories: woven.
Two dreams: broken.
Two people: coping.
    But then, a little miracle happens. They find each other. The day in which they need to, they find each other. And, instead of running from the pain, they choose to face it together. There is no mocking. No judging. There is only acceptance. And, from that acceptance grows the miracle of genuine, soul-tugging love.
    You know of this miracle, Saint Mark. I've heard this story told a few times this week, of the folks who helped guide us into this new way of being here. Those brave souls who took a chance and risked berating, judgment, hatred and misunderstanding to open the doors of this church to those who were most in need of Christ's welcome. Many of you watched that miracle occur, as the elderly said yes to the young and vibrant. And, none of us would be here today were it not for that miracle. The miracle of hospitality.
    Today, our text centers on the only miracle that occurs in all four Gospels: Jesus feeding the multitude on the hill near the Sea of Galilee. He has been teaching some difficult things about the laws and the prophets and glory and the love of God. Intending to rest, Jesus takes the disciples up the hill, but the crowd who has witnessed his signs of healing, follow him. Jesus' first question is where they will buy bread for all of these gathered to eat? Phillip shrugs and says that six months wages wouldn't be enough. Andrew then points out a little boy, who has give barley loaves and two fish. Jesus tells the crowd, at least 5,000 gathered, to sit down. Then, Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and broke the bread. Those gathered did not take a miniscule piece or bite, but took as much of the fish and bread as they wanted. When the crowd was satisfied, Jesus instructed the disciples to take up what was left, and the fragments filled twelve baskets, which is far more than they had to start.
    Many attempts have been made to explain away the mystery from this story. But, if all of the authors of the Gospels can agree that this story is a miracle, then I am willing to agree. Was the miracle that so many were fed with so little, or that in this simple act of offering, is it miraculous that the boy encouraged everyone to share with each other? Some argue that barley expands in your belly, so that one only has to eat a little to fill full. But, that's not enough for me. However, I can recognize the miracle that a boy shared his food (have YOU ever tried to take food from a young boy?), I think it's more wonderful that there was so much left over. I love it when God shows off a bit. It's not flashy – it's not like the fish turned into dill encrusted lemon caper salmon. The bread didn't suddenly become bruchetta. It's simple, but it's enough. And those gathered ate their fill.
    Our faith calls upon us to believe some strange things: the resurrection, the Trinity, miracles of healing. It's more strange, still, to come to know that our God knows us and loves us. Of all the oddities of this faith, this might be the strangest. When others were searching for a deity and struggling to make sense of the world, they ascribed infinite power to inanimate objects or fictitious characters. But, in these earthly understandings of "god," rarely did people crave a god that knew them, personally, and loved them. And yet, we know that the God of the Ages has infinite power and has subverted that power that we may know love. In place of judgment, is grace. In place of wrath is forgiveness. And who among us here couldn't use a little forgiveness?
    Because our God is one of accessibility – God gave us some strange ways to interact with that love. In the sacraments we celebrate, baptism and communion, we are invited to meet God in water and the Spirit, simple elements of bread and wine. These everyday acts of eating and drinking, washing and cleansing, are actions so simple that it's a miracle when we don't take them for granted. And yet, have you ever gone a little too long without eating? Your mind stops thinking about higher things and maintains a focus on this singleness of purpose: eat something. If you've ever tried fasting, you know that the exercise involves a big negotiation with your brain to turn itself off from needing food to function and focus on what lies beyond the basic urgency. And, for any of us who have been hungry – critically hungry – carefully hanging in the balance of where another meal might come – you know how the body needs to be fed. You know the importance of provision and sustenance. You know how delicious a single piece of bread and a good bite of fish can be.
    So, in offering us these sacraments of broken bread – tiny pieces of yeast, grain and water that don't appear to offer much – we find that we are satisfied. And why? Because God has said, "Come and eat your fill." There is no need for greed or wrestling at this table, because what God has provided is enough.
    Consider what God has provided for you, and consider your own longings. For what are you hungry? Justice? Peace? Health? Love? Friendship? Forgiveness? Acceptance? Understanding? Do you understand that it will take some kind of miracle for these things to come to you? But, you have to be willing to let the miracle occur. To recognize the "signs" of God's action in your life. And, I promise, they are there.
    John's Gospel calls miracles "signs." We look for signs everywhere, don't we? In the trivial and mundane. In the utterly significant things that we just can't miss. We do our best to read into the things that happen to us as signs of what our actions should be. But, the thing about God's miracles and signs is that they don't require a lot of interpretation. The people were hungry. And they ate. The bread was broken, and it was enough.
    For Andrew and Sam in "Garden State," they find a way to happiness despite their broken dreams. Sam shares with Andrew her "Tickle," which she describes as "The thing that I love most in the whole world."It is all that is left of her baby blanket, the blanket in which her parents brought her home from the hospital. Tickle is the piece that remains, and connects Sam back to her childhood, her infancy, her parents, the days before an unpredictable illness stole her dreams. This movie demonstrates the miracle of love, and love's capacity to take a scrap of what was and turn it into enough.
    On the day in which Jackson finally decided to get himself born, a full 9 days past his due date, we readied ourselves for what was next. I had to re-pack my hospital bag, since the seasons had changed. We loaded the car as the labor started, and drove for 45 minutes to the hospital in Princeton, New Jersey. On the way, we listened to the Garden State soundtrack, which is filled with evocative and earnest music. On a crisp October day, we drove, and we listened to this music as the bright blue sky led us forward into a new world of love and pain. This soundtrack was our soundtrack as we drove through the Garden State and anticipated the greatest shift our lives would ever know. We left behind an old life – a life where we came first and sleep was scheduled. We welcomed a new life – erratic and unpredictable, damp and floppy.
    And, by sunset, we welcomed a miracle – a healthy baby boy. And that was enough.
Amen and Amen.

Friday, July 17, 2009

My Address to Oglethorpe University's Class of 2013

Address given on Friday, July 13 to the incoming class at my Alma Mater.
Good morning, Class of 2013.

It is a joy and an honor to be with you this morning. Parents and students, this is an exciting time. There is a presence of anticipation and expectation here as you gather and begin to see the community in which you’ll be living for the next four years.

In this room, students, you will find your best friends, your best teachers, your role models, and maybe even your spouses or partners. The people gathered here may become your attendants at your wedding or partners in your law firm. The person to your left could be your realtor one day. The person to your right could be the Godparent to your first child. The person behind you might let you stay on her couch when things don’t go as you expect, and the person in front of you might be the fraternity brother you can’t stand but somehow learn to appreciate. And most of you will be Facebook friends by the end of the weekend.

The connections you make with the people in this room will affect you for a lifetime. When I arrived at Oglethorpe for the first time, as a matriculated freshman in the spring of 1996, I knew two people in my class: my roommate, Lisa, and my friend, Kipp, both of whom I’d met at the Spring Orientation weekend, then called Springfest. I came from my high school in Knoxville, TN, as a good student with a modest resume. I received a pleasant scholarship and an invitation to serve as an accompanist for the University Singers and a job as Dr. Ray’s work study. It felt right, and I was excited. As I moved my new things into my new room with my new roommate in this new city, I had a feeling that the first 18 years of my life were something like a good book I’d read; interesting characters, good stories, and a picture of what life was like. The wonderful thing was that I could take all of those experiences that shaped me and start to feel out how I would draw upon them in this completely new environment.

I knew how to be a good student. I knew how to make friends. But, I didn’t know to be in this world on my own. Your college experience is about discovering who you are as a person in this world, and this fall you have the chance to decide that for yourself. Your parents are likely saying quiet petitions that what they have tried to teach you during the first 18 years of your life will be resonant with you. They are hoping that you know how to make the right decisions and stay focused on what’s important. They might even lecture you about the exact cost of one day’s class so that you’ll know the value of this education you’re getting – and that if you skip even one session of your Human Nature and the Social Order class, you might owe them $115.38.

My husband pointed out to me that most of our critical, life-forming decisions are made in our 20s. In this new era of your life, you will decide who you are, what you want to be, what job you’d like to do and who your friends will be.

When I began at Oglethorpe, I had a feeling of who I was – a musician, an extrovert, a kid who liked to read. But, the culture here pointed me to something more, and I started to learn how to think. I learned how to take what I’d been taught and think about it critically. I opened myself up to new experiences and areas that I’d never known to be interesting before. Like some of you, I came to Oglethorpe with a sense of what I wanted to do: counseling. Because I had a particular interest in being a counselor in a church setting, I had some options as I shaped my education. Maybe Psychology would suit me best. Maybe Sociology. So, I tried declaring a major in one, then the other. Neither was a perfect fit. But, the faculty got me and understood the direction I was going. My advisor and psych professor guided me through a rough start to my social psych class, and I finished the semester with an A-. She helped me think critically about what I was doing and what I’d come to believe about people. She suggested that I try planning my own major, and I spent a summer working on campus and doing just that. I had the support of the Dean and my faculty adviors, and I graduated with real preparedness for what came next in my Masters program.

I began my time here with a minor in music. But, my roommate was a theater geek and she got me interested. She encouraged me to come and audition with her for the fall musical, “Assassins,” by Stephen Sondheim. I had no theater experience, but had always wanted to try it, so I showed up and read for the part. The director put me in the show, and thus began my theater career. I was in every Oglethorpe Playmakers production for the next 4 years, and graduated with minors in Music and Theater, honors in Theater and received and additional scholarship in performing arts. Simply because my roommate said, “Come,” and I said “yes.”

My favorite quote is from the author Alfred Lord Tennyson, and it comes from the poem “Ulysses.” In the opening stanzas, Tennyson writes, “I am a part of all that I have met.” Students, the people in this room will shape in you in ways you cannot imagine. You may be grateful for it, or spend years trying to forgive them for it, but there is no accounting for the ways in which your lives are bound to collide and cause ripples. One of my best friends in college – another theater friend – moved to England while I was in seminary. He was studying there with his girlfriend, who later became his wife. We lost touch (Facebook hadn’t been invented yet), but when my husband and I were moving back to Atlanta, we came down to house-hunt. I made sure to stop by the Oglethorpe bookstore, so that I could buy my 7 month old son a onesie, and I ran into Gabriel. After the appropriate, enthusiastic catching-up session, we discovered that I was looking to buy a house in Atlanta, and Gabriel was a realtor. He represented us as we did our search and purchased our first home. I sang in his wedding, and his wife helped watch our second son in his infancy.

I am a part of all that I have met.

My sophomore year, Lisa (my roommate) and I got a new set of suitemates – two freshman. We were ready to accept whoever Janelle in the housing office sent our way. Friends, trust Janelle. She runs the universe here, and she is a kind and benevolent soul. Janelle arbitrarily placed two girls – Jodie and Heather – together and placed them in our suite in Traer. Lisa and I watched as these two, tentative yet brave folks moved in with the same sort of anticipation and anxiety we’d shared a year before. We took them under our wing, and we became good friends. I lived with those women for the next three years, and they are still two of my best friends. The four of us had a Traer reunion on New Year ’s Day this year, and we gathered with our collective 9 children for a day of reminiscing and fellowship. It was, in some ways, as if no time had passed. We traded stories and parenting tips, recalled crazy things we’d done and late nights we’d kept. We shared the things that each of us had taught the other and confessed how much we admired and appreciated one another.

I am a part of all that I have met.

But, the best story is that when I got to Oglethorpe, I was an average student. But, somehow, in those four years, I transitioned to being a person who never said no to an opportunity. I did everything I could possibly do while here. I worked as a copy editor for the newspaper for a semester, I did everything the music and theater programs offered, I ran for student government (again, with my roommate Lisa) and held an elected office for four years. I became a Resident Assistant and joined a sorority. But, I didn’t do it all at once. I started first with the things I knew I could do: music, classes, making some friends, taking on a new task of learning how to act. I got good at those things and then opened myself up to more: being serious about this new love of acting, solidifying these new relationships, and thinking about joining a sorority. It never seemed like it would fit me, but I went through recruitment, and found that this activity, like all the others, could be what I made of it. If I chose to make any of these areas my life while I was here, then I could have done it. There are plenty of successful, happy college students who pick one thing and do it well. But, at Oglethorpe, when you’re pushed to think about more than just your niche, it’s possible to branch out a bit. This is the beauty of a liberal arts education.

When I graduated, I marched with the Platform Party to a blistering stage in the late May sun, where I had the honor of addressing my classmates for the last time. Those people, gathered on the Quad, had been with me as our little class navigated through our college experience. We, a group of strangers, now shared a common story. We had slapped our heads in the same classes, wrestled with many of the same papers, were drawn to or from the same professors, complained equally about the food, and had the same language to speak of these experiences. No one else could could truly appreciate the bizarreness of our mascot, the length of the Titles of the core classes, the beauty of the quad during a pick-up ultimate Frisbee game, or the strange fondness you may hold for a roasted boar’s head during the Christmas season.

Because you have said yes to this experience, you will be shaped into thinking people, who take the world and all it has to offer seriously. You’ll learn how to engage with a variety of people in a variety of settings with a variety of passions and interests, and you’ll also be equipped with the details that are important to you and your passions.

You are a part of all that you have met. And today, you will meet those people – friends, roommates, great loves, professors and mentors – who will shape you and stand by you.

Welcome, Class of 2013. Nescit Cedere.*

*He does not know how to give up.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mimi!

To the strong woman who raised me and taught me, shuttled me and supported me, churched me and got shaken by me, modeled for me strength and determination and beauty...

Happy Birthday.

We love you, Mom! (your card is in the mail!)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Afterlife

In my line of work, I do a lot of writing. And thinking. And reading (and the occasional bum-wiping). Yesterday, I got an email request from my friend, Matthew Paul Turner, for some thoughts about Michael Jackson and his current afterworldly whereabouts. His friend, Jason, was seeking some input from pastors on the topic for an article in the Daily Beast:

This is my full response to the question:

It's not up to me.

My opinion about Michael Jackson's salvation is just that: my opinion. I am not God, the author of all, and the Lord of Salvation. I am not Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who was born that we might know God in the most intimate way possible, and who died that all may come to God. I am not the Holy Spirit, which lives and abides in the promise that God will be with us always. I do not know the heart, mind or spirit of Michael Jackson - nor do I know which way the wind blows. Only God can know. It is a relief as a pastor to have the responsibility of preaching someone to heaven or condemning them to Hell off my shoulders, as these were never my duties. I am here to proclaim the good news of life in Christ, who has defeated death. I am not here to judge. God is the only judge, and I rest in assurance that God will do that job without my opinion or input.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, July 3, 2009

(No longer) Waiting for my new life to begin...

Today, my family woke up in bedrooms on the same floor, with only a bathroom separating us. We ate breakfast at an outdoor table on a screened-in porch, sipped coffee and caught up on the news while the boys biked in the driveway. We put the dog on a leash and the boys on their bikes and walked to the park where it is a perfect 77 degrees with a cool breeze. This, dear friends, is family paradise. We do not deserve it, and we haven't earned it, but we are definitely grateful.

Soon, once we unpack our worldly possessions and locate the strangely absent silverware drawer, we'll make up for all the hospitality we've neglected to offer, and celebrate our joy and space with you.

It's so good to be home.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Moving Day

Wednesday, July 1, 2009.

Sun rises. Boys wake. Breakfast procured. First trip made.

Truck arrives. Men lift. Men stack. Men move.

Four years packed in four hours. One load, family moved.

Home blessed. Water anoints
Rooms that held us
As we laughed and cried
Fought and made up
Brought home a baby
Saw two learn how to walk
Grow up

Family in car. Moving buddies cuddled. Drive made. Family unfurled, new home claimed.

New chapter begins.
Life continues.
Blessings abound.
Thanks be to God.