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.

Advertisements

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.

Jesus goes public.

It is the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany. Like we heard last week in our Sunday worship, these weeks after Christmas give us a peek, or an aha, into who Christ is, and who we are in relationship to God and to each other. Imagine those Three Kings traveling home by a different road after meeting the Christ Child. It must have taken them weeks, if not a lifetime, to grasp the significance of their meeting with the Holy Family. It is the same for us. It takes a lifetime to grasp, even a little bit, of what it means to us that God is here, between us and in us and all around us. All the time.

It takes a lifetime because we encounter God through our daily experiences, through listening to the Scriptures, through prayer and meditation and in more ways that we can count. We see the Divine with and through our own lenses so to speak. And if you are anything like me, your lenses, meaning your vision, changes – especially with age!

In our Listening to the Gospel group we talked about the story that we heard today – the wedding at Cana. Some of us immediately loved this story and could quickly find their place in the story – as the servants, or Jesus, or the baffled disciples, or as Mary his mother giving her son a push to get his life going. Others were affronted by the story; questioning what was happening in the text and what it was bringing up for our ourselves. We all had one kind of aha or another.

wine vessels

My aha came quickly. As soon as I heard that Jesus and his mother were at a wedding, I thought of the many weddings that I attended with my parents, including the first wedding that I performed when the bride took what seemed almost an hour to show up. I thought about my own wedding 22 years ago.

When I heard that today’s Gospel story was centered on wine and that the steward was talking to the bridegroom about the custom of pouring the good wine first, and the inferior wine after the guests had become drunk, I flashed on all the weddings that I have attended and even officiated, including family weddings, where the bride or the groom and many of the guests were not only drinking fine or inferior wine, but were drunk. And I thought, what is Christ doing at a drunken wedding party? If the word Gospel means Good News, where is the Good News?

Our lives; our history, our hopes, and all of our baggage have a strong influence on how we see and hear and understand the world and the Word. The Good News is that nothing, not even our messy history, can separate us from God. As Paul in his letter to the Corinthians says, we all have different gifts and the Spirit activates all of us. Of course God is going to show up at a wedding party. As every 12 step program attests, our lives are out of control when we think that we are out there on our own, running the show. When we do what the servants did – which was turn their lives over to God, and just do one small thing at a time, miracles can and do happen.

Miracles happened for Jesus too. There he was, minding his own business, lounging at the banquet table with some of the wine drinkers. Who shows up? His mother. She points out the problem (the wine has run out) and he says what many of us have said, in one version or not, to our mothers “What does that have to do with you or me? Can’t you see that my time has not yet come? Can’t I just be a guest?”

Mom lets his question rattle around in his head and she goes to the servants and tells them “Do what he tells you.” And Jesus’ public ministry – his miracles, his healings, his speaking, and his dying and rising, is activated. His ministry was seeded back when he was sent out to the desert to be tested, or maybe at his baptism when the Spirit shouted a blessing to him, but his gifts came to life when his mother tapped him on the shoulder.

“Do whatever he tells you to do.” Jesus does not tell the servants to do anything remarkable – just what they do all the time. Show up. Get water. Fill the jars. Draw some out and bring it to the steward. Do no more and no less than I tell you to do.

This is the news that I heard in our Gospel group. In whatever circumstance that I find myself in, whether it be a drunken wedding, or a walk downtown, don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t overly analyze it. Just do what God is telling me to do. No more, No less.

We often listen to the Gospel as though it were written or told for us personally. And it is. As I said, we all hear the Word through our own lives. But the Gospel is also, and maybe even more so, given to every community of faith to wrestle with and to respond to and to act on. This is what is happening in worship and in meetings and in every encounter. Where two or more are gathered…God is speaking.

We, like Jesus, are prodded and sometimes pushed to go public with our ministry. We, like the servants are given small mundane doable tasks that may make a huge difference. We, like the steward at the wedding are charged with using the abundant gifts that have been given to us, without clinging to them. And we, like the disciples, are invited to the party – which sounds a lot like the kingdom that Jesus is always talking about,  where love flows like wine – and we are invited to trust and believe.

What is the point of this miracle at Cana story? One of the people who came to the Listening to the Gospel group put it this way. There is no point to this or any of the stories. It is not an intellectual exercise that can be distilled to a point. The Gospel is an Epiphany! God is here in the mundane and the miraculous. In our hearing, our living together, our turning our lives over to the Higher Power. In doing one thing at a time.

Who am I?

This past week, just a few days before the end of Advent and a few days before the arrival of Christmas I was as startled as Elizabeth, the elder cousin of Mary, was startled when Mary who was “a little bit pregnant” with Jesus, came to visit. Elizabeth was 6 months into her own pregnancy, hunkering down for the last weeks with a silent husband beside her. When Mary came knocking on Elizabeth’s door, the elder cousin cried out “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me!” Why me? Why now?

With this story lingering in the back of my mind I was happily engaged in the last minute preparations for our Christmas Eve service. Then came a knock on my door and in came a young couple. They came to see me, the elder minister, to talk about some concern that I was able to easily address. As we were about to wrap up our talk, the young woman hesitantly asked if I perform weddings. Startled, I said that yes, for sure, I perform weddings. Were they interested at some time, way down the road, in getting married?

Who am I? Why has this happened to me, that this young couple who I do not know well, who does not know me hardly at all, is asking me to officiate their wedding? Why me?

The details spilled out. Their desire to be married soon. Before the young man headed out to Marine training and who knows what else. Before the “little bit pregnant” young woman was showing. Before whatever was coming down the road met them, without a mooring or a ring to remind them about who they belonged to and what they mean to each other.

It was hard to brush aside the sense that there was an angel in the room announcing something that I at least was not ready to hear. But of  course, as always, angels in stories like this demand answers. I said yes. Then I sent the couple home to talk together about their vows. I sent them a personal note later in the day and gave them wide berth to change their minds. Maybe they really did not want me, the queer pastor of this church, to be the one to bind them together.

A day later they got back to me, determined that yes they were ready to get married. Yes they wanted me to officiate. Yes. Yes.  Yes. Before the week was over we gathered again at the church. A small group of witnesses were there to remind us of the promises made. Many pictures were taken, as this is, after all, the social media age. Blessings were bestowed. Prayers were said. Tears shed. Laughter too; at the audacity of it all.

“Why has this happened” will be asked again, by all of us, because that is one of life’s short and constant questions. All that we will be able to say is that we were told to not be afraid and to let Love lead the way. Here we are, caught up in love and hope.

wedding

 

poetry in motion

On  Monday I walked downtown to my yoga class. Across the street, at the fence overlooking the river, there was a man I did not know. He was standing, as folks often stand, looking out at the river. Nothing odd about this, except it was very cold that morning and the sun was hardly over the hill. I saw him and walked downtown.

Got to yoga and, behold, a closed door. The class had been cancelled due to the wintry mix last night.

I walked back home, up the hill, glad that I got a walk if not a yoga class. I looked to the other side of the street and saw the same man, standing in what seemed like the same place, looking out to the cold river.

First thought. A bit odd. The man not having moved on a cold day. Second thought. Keep walking home. Third thought. Wonder who he is and if he is okay. Bridge Street is not exactly a place for jumping off but something seemed, well, not okay.

I crossed the street and said hello and asked if he was okay; that I had seen him earlier in my walk downtown and there he was standing on my walk uptown. He told me that he was waiting for the Doctor’s office to open. He was okay.

All seemed well.  Sort of.

I said how sometimes at this spot you can see an eagle swooping down the river. We looked across the river together and he exclaimed “There is the eagle. Right there!”

The eagle flew by us, across the river and gracefully landed on a tree. We sighed in awe.

He said “Thank you for coming over and asking about me.”

I thanked him and the eagle and God for the sighting and that all was, is, well.

Sometimes I feel like I am living in a poem. Here is the river on a summer day. It is not always so sunny and blue and green and welcoming. river