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packing up

hiking

In just about 6 weeks Dorrie and I will be heading out to our sabbatical and vacation adventures. We will be having quiet time, traveling time, time to visit family and friends, and especially, time to immerse ourselves in the big outdoors. As we grow closer to the start of our “time out of time” which is how I am imagining the sabbatical, we are looking at our baggage. What will fit in our backpacks and in our tiny trailer and what we will be giving away now or along the way.

Lent is a perfect time for “letting go” so we can grow closer to each other and to God, and it is a good time to reflect on what burdens are in fact ours to carry, wherever we are. How providential that I am starting to pack up during this long season that is focused on preparing ourselves for Resurrection; but not before giving a whole lot up.

This week I came across a reflection on the classic book Pilgrim’s Progress. The book begins with “Christian” at the start of his journey. Barry Moser painted a picture of Christian in Moser’s illustrated version of the book. The painter has the traveler bent over with the weight of his backpack. “Behold, I saw a man clothed with rags…a book in his hand, and a great burden on his back.”

The weight of our backpacks are as varied as each of us. For some of us the weight is light as we have dropped off quite a bit during our lives. For other’s like Christian, the weight bends us almost to the ground.

Regrets. Obligations. Treasures. Grief. Mis-steps. Anxiety and fears. Maps. If only. Opportunities missed. Letters unanswered. Injustice ignored. Losses endured.

I have my share of all of these. And I also have my share of another kind of weight. The weight that is more like “weightiness” or fullness of being.

Joys. Gratitude. Perspective. Connections. Daring. Surprises. Mercy. Love that is almost unbearable in it’s immensity. Laughter that doubles me over. Foolishness. Grace.

One type of weight does not wipe out the other. The combination makes the whole pack so full that I wonder how I can even get out of bed, never mind on the road, with all that is on my back. And yet…laying it all out like this, and knowing that I can only see the tip of what it is that I am carrying and what I might put down, I am grateful that Lent is a long season and that the sabbatical time is coming closer. Time to rest and be restored. Time to open to something new. Time to let go and let God in.

posture of prayer

pileated woodpecker

On my walk today along Water Street

two (not just one but two)

pileated woodpeckers hammered away

at the tops of the trees

filling the air with sound

their bellies with food

my eyes with the shock of red

flaming in the sun.

I stood in silence

neck craned back

head heavy

arms raised

awash in grace

as the river rushed along

paying no attention

to the three of us.

God is in the details.

sunflower

God is in the details.

If only I could remember that

when I am obsessing over what to do next.

And when I lay in bed

my mind tripping over this and that

as though by racing through the maze

I could find the essential detail

that would make it all come out right.

Like Job, flattened by God’s question

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

Tell me if you understand.”

I am diminished

right sized

left unknowing

charged with little.

Given no details.

Just this: Go there.

Do one thing.

Leave the rest to me.

 

moving imperfectly forward

storm at sea

I have been reading  Jesus Freak, by Sara Miles. Sara tells stories about where she met up with Jesus, who she calls “The Boyfriend” in feeding, healing, and raising the dead.

I got the book because I loved the title. I remember going to seminary and calling home in a panic and telling my wife “I think that I am going to turn into a Jesus freak if I stay here.” Her response was immediate and clear. “Things could be a lot worse than that!”

Sara talks about faith as being “hardly a miracle; it was more like living in a different key, being tuned, as the hymn said, to grace. It meant the kind of trust suggested by the story of Jesus walking over the water to the panicky boatload of disciples.”

As the Gospel tells it the story begins on a stormy night. The folks out fishing are scared to death and scared of death. They see someone who looks like a ghost. That ghost-like thing is getting closer. Jesus calls out from the storm, “Don’t be afraid! It is me!” Peter, the guy of a little bit of faith, climbs out of the boat and starts walking toward Jesus. Hoping for a miracle, Peter shouts “Lord, if it is you…” He takes his eye off Jesus and he begins to sink. Jesus takes Peter’s arm, and the two of them climb back into the boat.

Peter wanted proof of miracles. “But the miracle was really just his ordinary, flawed, human willingness to be in the storm, to be scared, and to try to follow Jesus anyway…. The lesson isn’t that if we had more faith we could walk on water or that God will reward our greater faith with supernatural powers and send the storms of life away. It’s that, as long as we love each other, we aren’t alone. “It’s me,” Jesus says. “Don’t be afraid.”

This story catches my heart today because I have been thinking about the many people I know who are scared to death of sinking down into fear or grief or the big unknown, that comes like a huge wave, knocking them over and pulling them under. The boat does not seem big enough to hold the lot of us. Being squished together is not comfortable.

This week I traveled to a church in another state and I stood in the pulpit and I preached a message about my church’s journey to be an Open and Affirming Church. I talked about the challenges and the pains, the openings and the grace that held me and my wife and our church. When the service and the discussion was over and I was about to pack up and go home a women pulled me aside. In a shy and halting voice she thanked Dorrie and I for being so brave (courageous was the word she used) to speak so boldly and so authentically, not knowing what our reception would be. She said that our witness and faith was a gift to her; a hand reaching to her storm.

I believe in the kind of miracles that are embodied in people who as Sara Miles says “keep moving, however imperfectly, toward the force calling them to be bigger, braver, and more loving.” I have been swamped in my own boat enough times to recognize the voice that calls me to imperfectly grow larger in love. “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”  And I am beyond grateful when someone pulls me aside and tells me that they are in the boat and our being together makes a difference.

I am who I am.

We are fast approaching Valentine’s Day, a holiday that I usually put to the side. Too much hype. Too many hearts. Too much mushy gushy love stuff. Not that I am against love stuff. In fact love stuff is at the heart of who I am. But Valentine’s Day? Not so much.

And yet this week I have been thinking about stories and songs that center around love (of self and other) and how important it is to share those stories.

Yesterday I preached on an odd combination of story and song. The late in life Apostle Paul, flipping one moment to the next between “I am the least of all the apostles” to “I worked harder than any of the rest of them!” Fisherman Peter, pushing Jesus practically out of the boat “Get away from me for I am sinful.” And Jesus, not overly concerned about the state of one’s self understanding. Instead, filling the world up with an abundance of love in the form of fish, friendship, forgiveness…while issuing an open invitation.  “Drop it all and come, follow me!”

Threaded through the  homily was a love song from my early adulthood. Cris Williamson singing Waterfall. “When you open up your life to the living all things come spilling in on you.” And the Apostle Paul finally admitting “But by the grace of God I am who I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.” waterfall-beauty-lets-explore-lets-get-lost

I remember being confronted by a man who is now a great friend and ally. That man, on meeting me, perhaps the first lesbian pastor he had ever met, demanded that I tell him how I, queer and Christian, could justify myself? How could I put myself into a right relationship with God? My first reaction was to ask him to ask the same question of himself. And my next response was to burst out laughing, practically singing that I am and will always be loved to bits by God. “By the grace of God I am who I am.”

“Grace is more than enough to put all of us in right, and wonderful, relationship to God and self and each other. Not to worry. Chill out. I am your pastor and I am not going anywhere and I hope that you are not going anywhere too.”

Back in the day when Cris Williamson was singing to me and to my LGBT friends, we clustered in safe places to tell each other our coming out stories. How we fell in love with another person of the same gender, or how we understood ourselves to be queer as all get out, and where we heard a song or a word or felt a touch of love. How we found, contrary to what other people were saying, that we were/are “all right.” And that somehow we knew that, as Cris went on to sing, that “everything’s gonna be all right.”

True love songs and stories sustain us, while Hallmark usually lets us down. Our own stories and songs, whether from our texts or our daily experiences, faithfully told and retold, etch out a place where the truth of our belovedness shimmers against a backdrop of twisted lies and misconceptions, pain and exclusion.

There is an old hymn that begins with “I love to tell the stories!”  And sing the songs. And cling to the truths. Bright and powerful, full of grace upon grace, filling up and spilling over, just like a waterfall.

Grace is never in vain. Happy Valentine’s Day. Tell the stories. Sing the songs. Dish out the hearts if you need to. Stand on the side of love.

open to what is coming next

sidewalks

Puddles glistening.
Birds swooping in for a feed.
Slight lean toward springtime.

This has been an odd winter. But what winter is not odd? Cold days. Warm days. Fierce wind. A few sultry days. Icy sidewalks. Hawks and owls on the prowl for songbirds and squirrels. Snow cover and now a melt. Flooding basements already. An odd winter.

My gaze turns toward what comes next. And given this season? Well, who knows?

This winter I read a prayer by a Scottish fellow by the name of John Phillip Newell. It got me thinking and writing about this false idea that there is anything like a repeat moment, or a normal  moment, or day, or season. When I read the prayer just after New Year’s Day it lodged in my mind, like an irritating pebble in a shoe. Except I cannot shake it off. It circles around me like one of those raptors. Helping me to notice what has never happened before. Which it turns out is everything.

In the gift of this new day,

in the gift of the present moment,

in the gift of time and eternity intertwined,

let me be thankful, let me be attentive,

let me be open to what has never happened before,

in the gift of this new day,

in the gift of the present moment,

in the gift of time and eternity intertwined.

We live with a gift of time and eternity intertwined. Sometimes we act like our moments do not matter at all. Much ruin has come from this disregard. Ecological. Personal. Social. Spiritual. Ruin. At other times we act like it is all about us and our moment in the sun. That too can lead us off the mark (a lovely take on sin.) But the truth is that each moment, whether we disregard it or we capture it with our attention, is already firmly embedded in eternity. Scooped up by the owl, digested, and then dropped back to earth, only to start up again.

One theologian, reflecting on humans’ great aversion to death, said that what we seem to be even more averse to, is resurrection. What comes next.

Let me be open to what seems to me to be a endless repeating loop of impressions and find the courage to see that this is a fiction. Let me be open to what has never happened before. The gifting of time and eternity intertwined.

 

Pastor in training.

Sunday was our Annual Meeting. We were talking about the body of the church, our gifts, and what can happen when we lay our agenda down to pick up God’s.

Our church has a Time for All Ages during worship. I have heard this called The Chancel Steps, or Time with Kids, but we chose Time for All Ages because whether kids or adults are sitting on the steps or in the pews or watching back home on Cable Television, everyone is addressed. Including the pastor.

I was planning to talk to the adults about a tragedy that had happened one town over and how some of the adults in our community and church were responding. I did not plan to talk about the tragedy with the young people, assuming that they had been shielded from this sorrow. So, sitting on the steps, I skirted the issue and focused on the gift of helping those in need; the ways they and the rest of the church reach in and out.

As our time was ending a 7 year old soberly said “You know, two people were living in a tent. And it got really cold. And they died.” We all fell silent as you do when you hear something that breaks your heart. I said “Yes, that is what happened. We are all so sad. We want to help other people who don’t have a home and are tenting in the winter when it is snowy and really cold. So we are collecting coats and blankets to help people be warmer.”

His and God’s agenda usurped mine.

shelter donations

This little guy is a pastor in training. He is unique in how he reaches to those around him. He notices who is here and who is not. He tells me when he hears about accidents or troubles in his town. He loves to ring the church bell to wake up the neighbors. He is learning to light the candles. But what he is really learning is how to pastor. He is practicing on pastoring me. In his own way he is saying “Marguerite, we are going to talk about this aren’t we? Like why we are collecting all the blankets and clothes. Right?”

This is not a case of “Kids say the darnedest things.”  It is a case of “Bring the children to me because I need them to keep you honest. I need them to keep you sharp. I need them to keep you engaged when you tone it down. So you perceive that my agenda is to pierce through your limited imagination. So I can save you all from backing away from life.”

I am a pastor in training. The lesson always seems to be grace.