How Many Candles?

455623650Sunday morning at the beginning of worship, I lit our peace lamp and then I lit four white candles: for Paris, Beirut, Aleppo, and Baghdad.

I almost skipped the candle-lighting altogether because I couldn’t figure out how many candles to light. Beirut and Paris, of course. Those were horrific terrorist attacks among people who don’t experience such things on a regular basis; places where people expect to go about their daily lives without encountering a suicide bomber or masked gunman. I definitely wanted to light candles for the 41 killed in Beirut, the 129 in Paris.

What about Aleppo and Baghdad? They had terrorist attacks last week, too. But, sadly, I barely paid attention. The words “bombing” and “attack” and “violence” and “dead” are so often heard in connection with these cities that those reports can feel more like a recurring news script than a real-life event. Still, the fact that those attacks were expected doesn’t make them any less tragic. It doesn’t make the 13 killed in Aleppo and the 26 killed in Baghdad any less dead. So Aleppo and Baghdad got candles too.

It was hard to stop with the candle-lighting.

I wanted to light a candle for the Palestinian family whose house was destroyed by the Israeli military because one of the men of the family was accused of killing an Israeli soldier.

And I wanted to light a candle for the dead Israeli soldier.

I wanted to light a candle for people in the cities of the United States killed by guns—those involved with gangs, those caught in the crossfire, those shot by police, those who are police.

I wanted to light a candle for the death-dealing racism of our culture.

I wanted to light a candle for the transgender people who are attacked physically and emotionally every day.

I wanted to light a candle for the 459 civilians killed by US airstrikes as part of our “war on terror”—especially for the 100 children.

I wanted to light candles for the tragedies we all knew would come in the wake of the Paris attacks—for the Muslims threatened and yelled at and physically assaulted; for Syrians killed as the French warplanes “pound” ISIS; for the refugees who are shut out and put down because of our misplaced fear.

I wanted to light candles for all of them. And I knew I couldn’t. We don’t have enough candles in our church cupboard. We don’t have enough time in our worship service.

It’s an odd thing, really, to light a candle in the face of death. It’s a small act. It’s almost a nothing act. Almost. But not quite. Lighting a candle is something. Which, however inadequate, is at least better than nothing.

And for me, for many of us, lighting a candle is prayer. And prayer opens our hearts and our minds to God, which means that our hearts and our minds are more open to each other. Which is something, too.

This morning my devotional reading was Matthew 1; a chapter I know well and am likely to breeze through. But this time I was caught by the angel’s words to Joseph: “You are to name [Mary’s son] Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

He will save his people from their sins.

We are all God’s people. And our sins are killing us—physically and spiritually.

In the midst of so much death–in the midst of such sorrow, such tragedy, such brokenness—it is hard to know how many candles to light. It is hard to know what prayers to pray. It is hard to know what steps to take. It is hard to believe in the promise of salvation.

But here is what grace means for me right now: One candle is enough . . . or four . . . or sixty. Any prayer will do—art, music, words, groans, silence. Even one step will get us to a new place, eventually.

And the promise is real even when we can’t believe it.

Categories: Ponderings, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

On the Trinity

There is a story about the great theologian, Augustine of Hippo. One day after he had been writing about the Trinity for awhile, he decided to take a break and go walk along the beach. He came across a boy who had a bucket.  He would fill up the bucket, run up the hill, and dump the water into the sand. He did this over and over until finally Augustine stopped the boy and asked, “What are you doing?”.  The boy said, “I am draining the sea into the sand.”  Augustine pointed out the futility of the task, and the boy replied, “Yes, but I will drain the sea before you understand the Trinity.”

Folks, I hate to tell you that if Augustine couldn’t figure it out, we’re not going to figure it out either.

The Three are one.  The One is three.  It doesn’t make any sense. It is not clear.  It is not easy.  It is not comfortable.  But relating to God as Trinity is a profound experience for me, an experience that gets me as close to the Truth of God as I dare to go.

The point of the Trinity is not to separate out and define the parts: Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Trinitarian theology merely opens up to us one way—the primary way—that Christians have worked to understand the vastness of God.

Yes.  God is the Almighty Creator who spoke the world into being.
Yes. God is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth who fully embodied the extent of divine love for the world.
Yes.  God is present with us today as Holy Spirit who guides and comforts and enlivens us.

It is important that we understand the breadth of the activity and personality of God.  The doctrine of the Trinity should keep us from narrowing our vision of who God is and what God does; and this should broaden our understanding about who God loves, and what the work of God looks like in the world.

I don’t often show off with fancy Greek words.  But some of them are worth learning.  And there is one you need to know if we are going to continue this futile task of trying to understand the Trinity. This particular Greek term was introduced by the Cappodocian monks in the fourth century. It describes the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.  The term is: perichoresis.

Creator, Christ, and Spirit relate by means of perichoresis.  Like a lot of Greek words, this one is somewhat difficult to explain.  There is no English word to use as a direct translation. It suggests the mutual indwelling of the three parts of the Holy Trinity.  The idea is that all three parts are equal and their identities are based in each other.

But perichoresis is not a static concept. It has the same root as choreography.  There is both inward and outward movement involved in the Divine Trinitarian relationship.  Theologian Molly Marshall calls it “the dance that characterizes Divine life.”

To think of the Trinity in terms of perichoresis means that relationship is at the heart of the Divine identity. Relationships are not just something that God forms with creation as God sees fit, but relationship is who God is.

And if God is relationship, that means that we, too, are drawn into the Divine choreography.  And our neighbors are drawn in.  And all those who love us.  And all those who hate us.  And the stars.  And the soil. And the squirrels that jump from tree to tree and eat from our bird feeders.

The perichoresis of the Trinity means that our God exists in and for relationship.  And we, my friends, are made in God’s image.  Made to be connected to the people and the world around us.

Ultimately, the Trinity is not a doctrine to be argued and recited.  It is not even a concept to be understood. It is a mystery into which we are invited.  A dance for all to join.

This post is excerpted from a longer sermon.

You might also be interested in:
Call to Worship for Trinity Sunday
Trinity Call to Worship adapted from Seekers’ ChurchThis Prayer of Confession

Categories: Bible Study, Ponderings, Preaching | Tags: | Leave a comment

Birding by Ear

A Prothonotary warbler

A Prothonotary warbler

Some people who love birds can listen to the forest chatter and tell you what kinds of birds are singing. The titmouse and the mourning dove, the chickadee and the robin and the wren and even–I’ve seen them out my back window–the stunningly yellow Prothonotary  warbler. For some people, all of these birds are like friends who call on the phone and don’t have to say who they are because you recognize their voices right away.

But I’m sitting on my back deck right now as dawn turns to morning, and I just hear birds. Lots of them, to be sure. Looking for food, calling for mates, declaring their territory, greeting the day. Chips and chirps and whistles and trills. I would know many of these birds if I saw them, but I when I just hear their voices I’m at a loss.

There’s the neighbor’s rooster, though. I learned about cock-a-doodle-doo in preschool. And technically a rooster is a bird, right?

And a cardinal. I know what they sound like because even living in town they were all over the place. I got used to hearing their proud, jaunty proclamations and looking up to see a bright spot of red perched high on a tree or wire or pole singing his little heart out. I try not to take the cardinals for granted; they are truly beautiful birds. When I hear their call–long notes followed by short–I look for the flash of red. . . . I see him now, near the top of a dead tree. And there’s another across the way calling back to him.

I know some of the birds I hear this morning are woodpeckers. The little hairy woodpeckers and the red-bellied and the flickers, maybe even a redheaded, though I haven’t seen any of those. I don’t know what their calls sound like, but I know the sharp raps they make when they are drilling into trees–or the siding on our outbuilding. It’s sharp and loud and echoes from a distance.

In the past week I’ve learned what an oriel sounds like, though I don’t hear any right now. There are a few that hang out in the trees in my front yard and I’ve learned that even with a bright orange chest an oriel can hide behind a leaf where his shrill call taunts me and I can’t quite see him–even with the binoculars. Luckily one of the trees in our front yard is dead, and when he sits high up in those bare branches I have a lovely view. (Though I’m afraid my husband plans to cut down that tree and then I may never see an oriel again.)

I’m pretty sure I heard an owl last night, though I couldn’t begin to tell you what kind. And it’s possible I dreamed it because I never fully woke up. I just have this warm cozy memory of darkness and hooting.

Birding by ear is something I’m learning. Very slowly. In fact, it may take the rest of my life. And even then I may not be able to identify more than a handful of birds by sound. And that is OK.

For now, this back deck is a good place to practice listening. This early morning is a good time to realize that there is beauty hiding within beauty in this world.

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On Worship, Freedom, & Fear

wildgooseThe Wild Goose Festival is a gathering at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and the arts. Happening June 26-29 outside of Asheville in Hot Springs, NC. You can get more information and tickets here: www.wildgoosefestival.org. I am honored to be part of the Wild Goose blog tour and connect through cyberspace with many other people of faith who long to celebrate and embody the living liberation of God!


Several weeks ago, blog tour participants were given a list of topics from which to choose, all related to this year’s festival theme: Living Liberation! When I finally for real had to pick one of those topics, my spirit settled on “living liberation through worship.”


Maybe because I’m a pastor, and facilitating worship is one of my primary activities every week.


Maybe because–at least in my white middle-class context–I don’t generally connect the act of worship with liberation, so the idea intrigues me.


Maybe because I was getting to the end of the list and I’m not brave enough to write about “living liberation as sexual beings”–which was the last option.


So, “living liberation through worship” it is. And this whole idea makes me think of what Annie Dillard wrote in Teaching a Stone to Talk:


It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church. We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.


Somehow for me the danger of worship and the liberation of worship are connected. Because a truly healthy fear of God–a realization of the full power of the Almighty–puts my earthly fears in perspective. And I have plenty of earthly fears. Petty fears about things like whether or not you will like this blog post. Deeper fears about what life holds for my teenage son when he finishes high school next year. Life-grabbing fears about the storms and tornadoes that sweep into Kansas this time of year, about the prevalence of guns in our society and the hurting, violent people who might use those guns to kill people I love.


If you need more fear in your life, just let me know. I’d be glad to give you some of mine.


And fear, as I imagine we have all experienced, is an imprisoning force. It is the opposite of liberation. It can hold us back and lock us in and keep us from living the abundant life that Jesus said he came to give.


Now I won’t claim that worship is some kind of magic ritual that will erase fear from our lives. But I do think that regular and true worship can help us release our fears–at least a little bit. Because in worship we acknowledge the true Power of this world–and the next. We remind ourselves that the forces of bondage and death that we fear are not the most potent forces in this world.  Worship reminds us–against the loudest of cultural voices–that our own individual lives are not the most important things in this world. And through worship God reminds us that the end of the Story–the true and real end–is Life. No. Matter. What.


In that way, worship gives us perspective. And perspective, it turns out, can be very liberating indeed.

Categories: Ponderings, Worship Pieces | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Carrying Grief

IMG_2764Last Friday was the first Valentine’s Day since my dad died. My brother and I don’t know what Dad usually did for the big day, so we got Mom some flowers. They are pink, not red. And the card simply says, “Happy Valentine’s Day;” it does not have one of those cheesy romantic Hallmark verses that my Dad somehow managed to get away with year after year.

She cried when she saw the flowers. With my mom, there are a lot of tears. And it’s not always easy to tell the happy ones from the sad ones. I’m sure these tears were both kinds–the love for her children and the longing for her husband pooling together in the corners of her eyes and trailing down her cheeks.

And I really hate that this is all I can do–give her flowers and cards and space. Indulge her new-found passion for Jayhawk basketball, watching the games my dad can no longer watch. (The games he wouldn’t want to watch this year.) Step around the boxes that say “Go Through Later.” Make sure the books in the give-away box don’t have his odd half-printing, half-cursive, writing in the margins. Remind her that we need a monument at the grave. Some time. When she’s ready.

I have my own grief, of course. And I hold hers. Because that’s what daughters do. Or maybe that’s what pastors do. Or at least that’s what I do.

I hold the grief. I want to throw it out the window and let the hungry birds carry it away piece by broken piece. I want to dump it in the compost bin and think about it decomposing in the humid heat until it is good for growing next year’s flowers and food. I want to tuck it into a hand-made card and mail it somewhere beautiful and warm and far away.

There are so many things I want to do with this grief–mine and hers. Yet I find I am still here, holding it. Letting it soften my words and extend my patience. Examining it for clues about how to be in this world now, without Dad. Trusting it’s nudgings toward cards and flowers and small steps of love.


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On Mark Driscoll–Or How to Respond to People Who are More Wrong than you would Think a Person Could Be

This is the image I have of Jesus reading Driscoll's latest post.

This is the image I have of Jesus reading Driscoll’s latest post.

Recently my brother in Christ (cough, cough, ahemmmm), Mark Driscoll, has unleashed on the world yet another macho tirade masquerading as biblical interpretation. I’ve seen lots of buzz about this article because in it he claims that “Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist.” Them’s fightin’ words for Mennonites! And there is a lot in the article to fight about–or rather there are a lot of interpretive and theological (and chronological and sociological . . . ) errors to point out. Several people have already made attempts to do so.

Here’s my question: Is it worth it? Is it worth the time and energy it takes to process and respond to Mark Driscoll’s words? (And yes, I get the irony in writing this blog post.)

Yesterday morning my husband overheard me giving a mini-lecture to our 16-year-old son. My beloved partner is working on a PhD in education and teaches special needs students. He gently reminded me that, because of our son’s particular special needs, he does not process that kind of verbal input. That is to say, it’s a waste of my time to lecture him. “I know it doesn’t do him any good,” I said. “But it makes me feel better.”

So, from that perspective, people should feel free to refute Mark to their little hearts’ content. If it makes you feel better to reiterate why you are the reasonable grown-up and he’s acting like a self-absorbed, testosterone-infested adolescent, lecture away. If it makes you feel better to quote Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount; if it makes you feel better to explain the genre of apocalyptic writing; if it makes you feel better to point out that the “long-haired, dress-wearing” image of Jesus from paintings was around long before hippies or community colleges–by all means write a blog post. (I personally, am feeling better already.)

But I can’t imagine that Mark will read or care much about these posts. He’s too busy pointing out all the bossy women and wimpy men for Jesus to cut down with his divine sickle . . . or trample with his divine horse . . . or something.

Mark’s claims about men and women and sex and God are so over-the-top wrong and ridiculous that it’s hard to not read them. Once I succumb to the temptation to click a link to something he wrote, I just can’t stop myself from reading on to see how he will possibly say something more insane than what he’s already said. (And I’m rarely disappointed.) It’s like slowing down to look at an accident on the highway. Morbid, but a little irresistible.

Honestly, I don’t know how I feel about even giving him the time of day to read his stuff, let alone respond to it.

On the one hand, I want to believe that if we just ignore Mark Driscoll, he will go away. (Not away to the sixth level of hell with all the heretics . . . just away to a cabin in the woods somewhere without internet access or mail service.)

On the other hand, I know that too many people are pulled in by his cockiness and . . . honestly I don’t know what they are pulled in by, but I know they are pulled in. And many of those people are damaged by his teachings. People are spiritually abused. Relationships are twisted and broken. His teachings are so toxic there is a support blog for survivors of his church, Mars Hill.

So how do we respond to those who do this kind of damage in the name of Christ?

I think, I pray, that God has placed some people in Mark’s personal circle to council and teach and rebuke him; that God has granted the gift of discernment to some people who are in touch with those most likely to be pulled into Mark’s warped way of thinking; that God has given some people a large platform from which to preach spiritual and biblical truth so that Mark’s perspective is in no way considered “the Christian” perspective on the world.

And I thank God that I am none of the above people.

For my part, I think I need to give my spirit a little sabbath and heed the words in the fourth chapter of Philipians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Which means that next time I see a link to something by Mark Driscoll, I will pray, “lead me not into temptation,” and move on.


Categories: Ponderings | Tags: , , , | 15 Comments

Story-Shaped Theology

This morning I came across this beautiful question in a sermon from Randy Newswanger:

Are my understandings of God, my understandings of healing and redemption, my understandings of community and celebration large enough to hold the specific details of your story?

I think this question is at the heart of church. We base our shared life around the Story of scripture, but there are so many more stories that we hear and live together. And each story grows and shapes and sometimes even transforms the way we understand how God works in the world. At least it should.

I worry sometimes that this whole internet thing allows us to be too selective about the stories we let ourselves hear. That the cable TV craziness means we only have to watch TV shows that validate our already-held ideas. That the church-shopping syndrome lets us ease into worship communities where we only have to listen to stories that mirror our own.

But we don’t have to be imprisoned in our comfort zones. Stories from around the world are just a mouse-click away. Or a library trip. Or maybe even a walk to the corner coffee shop.

Are my understandings of God, my understandings of healing and redemption, my understandings of community and celebration large enough to hold the specific details of your story?

I want to hold this question in my heart today. I want to listen closely to people’s stories, to listen deeply. Then, tomorrow, I want to try to do it again. If enough of us can manage enough energy and enough grace to do this more days than we don’t, I believe the church–and the world–will be transformed.

(Also, imagine how the government shutdown fiasco would have played out if congress-people and our president had listened well and allowed the stories of others to change their minds and shape their policies! But that’s a post for another time.)

Categories: Ponderings | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments

One More on Communion

So I have another story about holy space and tears and unconsumed communion bread. You can read it over on Huffington Post.

Categories: GLBT Concerns, Ponderings | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Holy Communion

8885024392My family shared communion bread in my father’s hospice room before he died. We blessed it, broke it, and ate it. My mom caught a few medical professionals off guard by holding the loaf out to them when they came into the room to check Dad’s blood pressure or give him his medications.

But all awkwardness aside, it was a beautiful thing to share this ritual with my dad one last time. . . . Except that Dad was past eating, even something as small and perfect as a piece of holy bread. So my mom tore off a piece for him and laid it on the pillow near his mouth.

As he took his final breaths–those breaths that are ragged and uneven, those breaths that make you count the seconds between them–I imagined that small piece of Jesus’ body filtering the air. As Dad drew air into his failing body, as his lungs struggled to push air out, it flowed through the blessed and broken bread.

That bread remained there when Dad died, on the pillow next to his beloved face–small and white and still.

This final image of my father is a painful blessing. It comes unbidden each time I speak the words, “This is my body,” each time I offer the loaf to those who can still take and eat.

For me, the phrase “communion of saints” used to conjure up vague images of sparkling lights scattered out there, somewhere–kind of like stars, but less specific, less real. Now the “communion of saints” is that hospice room. Too specific. Too real.

It is the gummy bread in my mouth, the labored chewing, the effort of my tongue and throat muscles as I swallow. It is holding hands with my brother and my husband, scrunching down and twisting my head to wipe the tears on the sleeve of my sweatshirt. It is watching my mom lead this ritual as both faithful pastor and grieving wife, somehow standing strong and collapsing all at once.

It’s a painful blessing–every time there is a loaf of communion bread, I am in the hospice room with my father again. I realize that I never saw anyone take that torn-off piece of bread away. And so it will always be there, on the pillow, next to Dad. It will always be there, holy and broken and unconsumed.

Categories: Ponderings, Practices | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Fatherless Fathers’ Day

May 2004 013A few weeks ago, my Facebook pages and blog feed were abuzz with discussions about impending Mothers’ Day worship services. Most of the posts said essentially the same thing: Remember that Mothers’ Day is hard for many people. It’s hard for women who have chosen not to be mothers and women who want to be mothers but aren’t; it’s hard for people who have difficult relationships with their mothers and for people whose mothers have died. People were posting personal essays and sensitive Mothers’ Day prayers. Post after post after post about motherhood.

And now, this week before Fathers’ Day–nothing. My virtual world is surprisingly silent on the topic. But my physical world, inside my own head, it’s quite noisy.

This will be my first fatherless Fathers’ Day. That’s how I’ve been thinking of it. The first Fathers’ Day since my dad died on March 7. The first Fathers’ Day that I can’t mail a card to wherever it is he is living now. (Not to say it will be the first that I haven’t mailed a card.)

There will be no plotting with my brother about a gift. No Sunday afternoon phone call so all the kids can shout “Happy Fathers’ Day” across the line. Just silence. Or, more likely, a much less exuberant phone call to my mom.

My first fatherless Fathers’ Day.

Except it’s not. Because I have had and always will have a father. Actually, a dad. (I NEVER referred to him as “my father” until he died. What’s up with that?)

Just because my dad has died does not mean I don’t have him any more. I have him–sometimes more of him than I want, but usually just enough. The man he was has shaped who I am–who I continue to be. Changing circumstances don’t change our essence. Or, as Dad liked to say, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

So here I am. Facing this upcoming Fathers’ Day with dread and with gratitude.

Dread because I know that I will feel my grief deeply that day. I will be sad. Very sad.

Gratitude because I have a father that I miss. Not everyone can say that.

My friend’s father died several months before mine, and her grief is very different. She grieves because her father never overcame his alcoholism. Was never able to be the father or grandfather that she wanted him to be. She grieves because she never had a warm and loving relationship with him. And now that he has died, her hope for his healing–for their healing–has died with him.

And so, in the midst of mourning, I acknowledge that my particular grief–the grief of missing a wonderful father–is it’s own distinct blessing. Even as the tears flow, I continue to receive the gift of being my dad’s daughter.

New Years Eve 2003 029

Here are links to previous posts about my dad’s illness and death:

Psalm 63 Call to Worship–from the hospital
Why the Silence–includes the poem I wrote for Dad’s funeral
Praying through Grief–the doodle prayer from Dad’s hospital stay
On Living Close to Death–a Lenten sermon focusing on Jesus’ meal with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus
Holy Week–on why I am canceling Lent next year
Attending Death–my Good Friday post at Practicing Families
Living with “Desire”–and despair


Categories: Ponderings | Tags: , , , , , | 12 Comments

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