Monday, November 5, 2012

Preaching on climate change...or not.

One week out, the effects of Sandy are becoming clear: devastation in Haiti and throughout New York and New Jersey; over one hundred people dead and an estimated 50 billion dollar price tag.  As the human and economic costs of the storm are growing, something else seems to be growing too: a scientific consensus that climate change had something to do with it.

But you wouldn't know it by listening to the post-storm responses.  Our presiding bishop gave a nice pastoral message, but didn't mention climate change.  The telethon Friday night raised lots of sympathy and money, but didn't mention the human activity that exacerbates such a storm.  I was agitated and yearned for more people to follow Mayor Bloomberg's lead and connect the dots. Against that backdrop, I decided to preach yesterday about climate change and our Christian calling to care for creation.

Yesterday was All Saints Day.  I wrote a sermon that linked the saints of the past who applied their faith to make a better world with our calling - as the saints alive now - to care for the earth for future generations of saints. I focused the earth-affirming texts that we read in church (Raising of Lazarus into this world; Revelation 21 where God dwells with mortals and creates a new heaven and a new earth). My sermon was risky and carefully wrought.  I was nervous about it.  I prayed all morning that what I said would be appropriate and would be good news.

And then, I didn't preach it.

Mid-sermon, it became clear to me the congregation was hungry to hear a basic message about God's compassion and hope for all those in grief. My preaching about climate change - at least as I'd planned it - would not have added to the message. 

Preaching about root causes for human suffering -  like war, unjust economic systems, and climate change - is a critical aspect of compassion.  A doctor doesn't just console the person who is sick but also works to figure out how to heal them.  But every cue I picked up on from the congregation as they listened, was that this was the time for consolation. (Thank you Holy Spirit).  I switched my sermon mid-stream and took out the climate change part completely.  It wasn't the time.  It wasn't the place.

I'm glad I was inspired to make the switch yesterday, but I hope that soon, I will preach about our calling to care for creation with courage and conviction.

Two things hold me up.  The first is that climate change is still seen as a politically partisan issue. If an issue is "political" I don't think it means the church should avoid it.  Quite the opposite: the church is a place for moral discernment and action about issues that are also political.  But because climate change is still seen as "political," it also means it is potentially divisive. Our congregation has been through a lot in the past few years.  As a new pastor to this church, I want to heal and unite first, and thus I am hesitant to wade into anything that could divide.   

The second is that I just hate arguing the science. There are still plenty of people who don't believe that human activity can affect the weather so dramatically. In the sermon I didn't preach, I wrote that if, in 50 years, the scientific evidence changes and we discover that all the consensus about climate change was misguided, I will be overjoyed.  My concern for climate change doesn't come from some twisted desire to curb the ease and pleasure in our lives.  I would love to drive all over the place without regard for how it affects the planet; or dry my clothes in the dryer without the nagging guilt that the sun and air do the job without even a microwatt of fossil fuels; or heat my house to 80 degrees in the winter instead of putting on slippers.  But that just doesn't seem to be the way of it.  

I am especially grateful to Christiana Peppard, who blogged for the Huffington Post last week, for giving thoughtful reflection on both of my hangups.  Peppard connects science and faith and politics in a creative and readable way.  I found her article gave a fresh perspective and I encourage people to read it and share it.

I know at least one pastor in our synod gave a prophetic sermon on climate change.  Thanks to Karen Brau at Luther Place for her boldness.  I hope it will be posted on their website soon.

That's all for now. Don't forget to vote tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Hello - I took a few months off as I transitioned and have been holding off blogging because I'm trying to convert to a new site, but Sandy has inspired me to write.

The number of times I've heard news people talk about what a strange weather pattern this is without mentioning Climate Change makes me scared.  It mirrors the silence around Climate Change in this election.   That silence, compared with scientific evidence proclaiming loud and clear that these kinds of storms are growing more frequent and have human causes, makes me want to rewrite Obama's debate quip: "The 80's called and they want their environmental policy back."

For wise commentary on Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change, read Climate hero Bill Mckibben's article on the Daily Beast:.

On a personal side of Hurricane Sandy.  We in the DC area were relatively unscathed.  I didn't even lose power which meant that, though of course I was concerned by the devastation experienced by others, in my world, Sandy was a relief.  I got to rest.

I haven't left the house for 36 hours except to take my dog Addie out.  Yesterday, I did very little.  This is rare for me. Normally on a Monday I would be torn between resting and packing in the activity (errands, cleaning, running) in order to prepare for the week ahead.  That conflict means that my day of rest isn't actually restful at all.  I expect no sympathy from anyone reading this; you don't rest often or well either.  A full day of nothingness is rare and blessed and I enjoyed it.

Even as I write that, I feel selfish.  I know people have suffered from this hurricane.  I know that people on the front lines don't get a day off to rest because they are out in horrible weather keeping the rest of us safe and powered up.  I know that there are people missing from the HMS Bounty and flooding throughout our cities.  I also know that a day off is a luxury.  For people who depend on a day's work to bring home money essential to keeping the rent paid, a day off without work isn't relaxing, it's terrifying.  For kids who depend on school lunches to keep them fed, a day off just means a day of hunger. 

But for me, it came as a blessing.  So the question before me is this: "How to enjoy a blessed day of rest without the gnawing guilt of knowing that others are suffering." 


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Called to care for creation.

I came away from the Chautauqua Institute convicted that I can do more and be more than I have been.  A sense of call pervaded the speakers and other pastors that I met.  Inspired by the passion of others, I reflected: "what is unique about me and my calling?  What do I care about and what can I do about it?"

I have decided to recommit myself to environmental work.  Since my childhood, I have felt connected to God in nature and have been concerned about the future of the earth.  In high school I wrote a big paper on the destruction of rain forests.  20 years later, the issues I cared about then have only become worse.  This summer has had such strange weather that people who used to be climate change deniers are now realizing that climate change is not only real, it is upon us. 

One of the things I'm excited about my new pastoral call is that the congregation where I'm headed, Peace Lutheran in Alexandria, has already shown a committment to ecological concerns.  

I don't know what it means that I am recommitting.  I've thought of trying to become a regular blogger re: the environment or redoubling my efforts to work with our DC area churches. But I also have a hunch that as important as inspiration and thoughtful conversation are, I will have to get myself and others more involved in the political realm. 

I figure putting it out there in the public will help me actually commit to it.  So here goes.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Eboo Patel

Blurry picture of Patel answering questions.
I'm at the Chautauqua Institute for the New Clergy Program (renewal and interfaith conversation for clergy in their first 7 yrs of ministry).  My mom came with me.  Great mother/daughter bonding time has been a bonus to the point of the week: to learn about pluralism, especially between the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) with a group of new-ish clergy from many denominations.

The days are full of lectures, conversations and worship on the theme "Radicalism: blessing or curse." 

Today we heard Eboo Patel, writer, thinker, and executive director of the Youth Interfaith Core.  He spoke at the launching of his new book, "Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America."

His lecture ranks up there with Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" and Jane Goodall's "Reason for Hope" as one of the best lectures I've ever heard. 

Patel defined radicalism as going back to the roots and then examined the roots of America to make the case that religious pluralism is what makes America great, and radical. 
My mom reading Patel's spiritual biography, Acts of Faith.

He quoted at length from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr to demonstrate that the greatness of our country relies on its commitment to pluralism. He didn't gloss over ugly parts of American history, but said that "the force of pluralism can defeat prejudice."  He believes that the same forces that made the civil rights movement possible in the 60s are at work in America now. 

Besides being able to articulate the broad sweep of American history with clarity and humor, his rhetorically beautiful lecture was also impressive because he didn't use notes.

I, on the other hand, was clumsily typing snippets into my phone in an effort to remember all he said.  Then I bought the book.  No time or energy to fully synthesize what was so great about his talk, but here are a few of my notes.  They may not be exact quotes so please get the book and read him directly if you're so inclined.

...When lamenting the fervor of anti-muslim sentiment during the discussion of the Muslim Community Center near ground zero in 2010, an adviser told him he was missing the better part of the story, the hope: "These are the moments that change agents hope for.  Our country is molten and can be shaped."

...talking about the pain of pluralistic culture: "everyone feels half can't get all you want all of the time."

...discussing how to interpret the Koran, Patel related what he learned from a mentor: "The Koran has to be interpreted in light of its chief value: Mercy."  (For Christians, he said it's love.  So our texts need to always be in service of love and those that don't seem loving need to be put in line, somehow, with the larger value.)

...On the variety of cultural/ethnic/religious/sexual identities in America: "the dash between Muslim and American is a bridge, not a dividing line."

Ok - those just a few notes.  The big takeaway is that America will grow stronger as pluralism is protected.  That's not a new idea, but it's sure an inspiration to hear, especially from someone who has strong faith commitments but isn't threatened by others with equally strong commitments.  You can bet I will google his blogs and articles (there are lots) and read as much as I can.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

An emotional time

While I was giving out the bread at communion at the early service last Sunday, one of the ushers slipped in line.  As I handed her the bread she whispered "come see me after communion."  I left the sanctuary as the congregation stood for the closing hymn: "I am the bread of life." 

The usher had just received a phone call letting the church know that a beloved member, K, had died.  Her death came sooner than we thought it would, but it wasn't a surprise. K had been suffering since Christmas.  She called in hospice earlier in the week and I'd visited her and her husband.  Our time together was of a different quality than earlier times.  I am leaving the church, but she was facing her death.  When we said goodbye, we knew we would not see each other again in this world.

After receiving the news, I came back into the sanctuary mid-hymn: "I am the resurrection and the life. If you  believe in me, even though you die you shall live forever."  I choked back the tears.  The kingdom of God was near. 

The hymn continues: "And I will raise you up..."

These last weeks have been full of grief.  Two weeks ago, a dear friend learned that his 32 year old son died while mountain climbing in Peru.  I'd never met the son, but I happened to be with the family when they got the terrible news.  Witnessing their pain, it was impossible not to hurt as well.  A huge crowd gathered for the funeral yesterday.  It was a testament to a life lived in faith and a death that is not the end.  Still, hearts are breaking.

"...and I will raise you up..."

These last weeks have also brought the 2-year anniversary of a college friend's death; the end of a marriage of someone I care about; the shootings in Aurora and Wisconsin.  Plus, I'm grieving my church.

"...and I will raise you up on the last day..."


At the late service, as I started in on the Eucharistic Prayer (the long one where we say take and eat...) I knew I was going to cry.  It was the last time I'd preside over communion at Prince of Peace; K's death was in the front of all our minds; my friend was preparing for his son's funeral; and I was staring out at a congregation full of people I'd grown to love, many of whom were tearing up as well.

When I lifted the bread, tears started flowing.

I went slowly through the prayer, having to pause often to regain confidence in my voice.  "who on this day overcame death and the grave...we await that let your church be gathered...that all may be fed..."

I've never seen a pastor cry at communion before.  For a moment I felt embarrassed, but then I thought: what better time to cry than communion? What better time to realize how much love is coursing through the world than in that exchange?

Handing out the bread there were times I could not get the words out. I distributed communion while tears ran down my face.  I suppose it might sound kind of beautiful, except that I'm not a pretty crier. Snot was mixing with tears and I was trying not to drip on the bread. At one point I had to get a 2nd purificator (little holy handkerchief) to wipe my nose. The congregation received the bread with their own mix of smiles and tears.  Someone with hands outstretched looked at me with understanding and twinkling eyes.  She whispered "bigger piece please" and winked, and then I started laughing too.

As I walked out of church for the second time, singing the same hymn, through the tears I felt the conviction of faith well up.  I sang as clearly as I could:

"Yes Lord, I believe, that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world."

In the face of grief, there's no greater gift than faith.

Yes Lord, I believe.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Changing Churches

This week, I wrote two important letters.  The first was a letter to my current congregation, Prince of Peace in Gaithersburg, MD where I have been truly blessed to serve for nearly five years as a pastor. I wrote to inform them that I had taken a new call and to start the process of telling them how much they have meant to me.  I wrote it through tears.
Palm Sunday at Prince of Peace
I pressed send to get that letter out and immediately opened a blank document in order to start my welcome letter to Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, where I have been called to be their new Pastor. I wrote that letter with excitement and anticipation.

All week I've been holding opposing emotions in my heart.  Sadness at leaving a church I have loved gives way to thrill about what the new church will hold.  Grief gives way to joy turns back into tears. It's a weird time, but there's nothing particularly unique nor ground-breaking about what I'm going through. Pastors come and pastors go. People leave jobs and positions all the time.  It's called transition.

What is unique is the character of the relationships built through church. For pastors and members alike, leaving a church is hard and anticipating a new church is exciting precisely because what it means to be church is so special.  With a church, you share the most profound moments of your life: births, funerals, weddings, crises, joys.  You share them with people you would not know except for church. And you do it all in the awareness of God's grace at the heart of it all.  What a gift.

In my life, I have left 6 churches (Peace in Robbinsdale Minnesota; Namulenga Catholic Church in Malawi; Bethlehem in Minneapolis; Bethesda in New Haven; Luther Place Memorial in Washington DC; InnerCity Lutheran in Windhoek, Namibia.). I list them because each of them has had great influence on my life and my faith.

I've left all but one under good, normal circumstance.  The exception was Peace in Robbinsdale. It was the church of my childhood but, because it was Missouri Synod Lutheran, it could not be the church of my adulthood.  I left because it didn't welcome all people to the communion table.  Since I left it has been increasingly important to me to be part of a church that affirms women as pastors (ahem!) and gay and lesbian people as fully human - neither of these is possible in the Missouri Synod.

Peace, Robbinsdale taught me about Jesus and made me who I am. For that, I love it.  It remains my parents' church and I feel welcomed when I go to visit. Still, I'm formed by the fact that I left that church and denomination.

It strikes me that people are in process of leaving church (or having their church leave them) all the time.  It's a huge transition and one that people who don't belong to a church perhaps don't understand.  Currently, the Catholic church has been creating so much negative press among my friends and I keep hearing: what is so powerful about a church that you stay even when you don't agree with so much?

If I were staying at Prince of Peace, I'd be planning intentional conversation about the Catholic Church and the big cultural shift taking place.  Many Catholics are fleeing; far more are trying to figure out how to stay faithful in a church that is straying farther and farther from their sense of the gospel.  The character of church relationships are so unique that it's worth examining from time to time what it means to be church together.

But, I'm not staying at Prince of Peace.  Though I've known for a while that this was likely, it still is hard to wrap my head around.  I'm leaving. I keep imagining the future at Prince of Peace and then I remember, my dreams belong elsewhere.  Prince of Peace,Gaithersburg, will be on the list of churches I have left. I have loved it dearly.  I'm sad. I'm excited.  I'm grateful.

Peace and joy - Pastor Sarah

PS - below are pictures of two of my former churches: Luther Place on the day of my ordination and the women's prayer group, Women on the Move, at InnerCity Lutheran in Namibia.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Throwing like a girl

The past two Saturdays I've exhausted myself playing in Ultimate Frisbee tournaments.  Completely sapped, I came home, scarfed down the easiest food possible (cereal) and crashed on the couch because getting all the way upstairs to the bed took too much energy. My body has been wasted but my heart has been full. 

I get irrationally happy after playing Frisbee. I love the endorphins after a run or a swim, but with Frisbee, the team aspect makes all the difference.  When we get into a flow it's especially a blast.  I feel a bit embarrassed and immature at how much I enjoy it.  At some stage, don't real grown-ups stop enjoying  sports so much?  I guess not.

Theologians would probably talk about this joy I've found in terms of embodiment.  Embodiment is just as it sounds: the human exists in and with a body.  Bodies are sources of our deepest pleasures and our most searing pain.  In our bodies we experience freedom and limitation.  Our bodies shape how we encounter the world. 

When I inhabit my body fully, I feel peace and joy and a sense of rightness.  A phrase I've grown to like is "healthy animal."  I don't think it's going too far to say that Frisbee puts me in touch with God because it puts me in touch with myself as a creature, a body.

You may be skeptical, thinking Frisbee?  Really? Yes, the name makes it hard to take it seriously as a sport much less an inspiration for theological reflection.  But yes. Many activities help us inhabit our bodies: dancing, walking, singing, the list is endless.  For me, it includes Frisbee.  And an important aspect of my sense of embodiment comes from being a body among other bodies: being on a team.

A few words about ultimate Frisbee. First, it's not Frisbee golf.  Athletically, it is about the same workout as soccer.  Teams of seven try to advance a Frisbee down a field by throwing and catching it.  You can't run with the disc.  You score when your team catches it in the end zone.

I learned to throw a Frisbee after college while in the Peace Corps and joined a recreational league in my early 20s in Minneapolis.  I felt, for the first time in my life, the unique thrill of playing a team sport.

I grew up post-Title 9.  Still, mine was in an era and micro-culture where team sports weren't exactly mainstream for girls.  I played soccer all through elementary school but by 5th grade, I was the only girl on my team.  Big suburban leagues for girls did not yet exist. I recall being extremely uncomfortable when the boys made stupid jokes about picking up the balls.

My junior high didn't have sports so when I got to high school and tried to join the girls' soccer team, I didn't have a clue.  I lacked the self-confidence it took to stick it out.  I went to exactly one practice, felt inadequate, and found physical refuge in dance instead.

My relationship with team sports didn't flourish until I discovered Ultimate Frisbee.  I loved it immediately. As I learned to play, a wonderful thing dawned on me:

When I played, I was happy.

I've played in low-key leagues on and off for the past fifteen years.  Until a brief time this spring, where I struggled to keep up with some amazing players in an all-women's league,  I had never played with all women.

My ultimate Frisbee teams have always been co-ed.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this blog: Paige Sultzbach. 

Paige Sultzbach is a 15 year old who plays 2nd base for her catholic school's baseball team. Her school didn't have a girl's softball team and she wanted to play.  So she joined the baseball team, becoming the only girl on the roster. She was a starter as a 9th grader and her team made it to the championships.

An opposing team forfeited the championship game rather than play against a team that had a girl on it. I find it so preposterous that I'm going to say that again:

An opposing team forfeited the championship game rather than play against a team that had a girl on it.

They cited pseudo-ethical reasons for the forfeit:
Teaching our boys to treat ladies with deference, we choose not to place them in an athletic competition where proper boundaries can only be respected with difficulty. Our school aims to instill in our boys a profound respect for women and girls.
What irony that a statement about respecting women and girls is used to justify exclusion, one of the basic forms of disrespect.

Most alarming to me about this story is that Paige sat out two previous games because that team had refused to play against a girl.  That's a tough position for a 15 year old to be in.

This happened just a month after Virginia Rometty, the CEO of IBM was not given a membership to Augusta Golf Club - home of the Masters for which IBM is a sponsor - because it is an all male-club.  Augusta's initial refusal to invite her threw into high relief the landscape of gender exclusivity in sports.

In an article about Paige in the Washington Post, the director of the Women's Sports Foundation, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, said:
In real life, these boys are going to be competing against the girls for jobs, for positions in graduate programs or in trade schools...In every other area of their life, they are going to be competing side by side.
Business deals happen on the golf course; the company softball team can be an important means of creating professional relationships.  When these are exclusively male, there is more than participation in sports at stake. 

Still, when I heard Paige's story, I didn't immediately think about the broad social implications of a sports team that wouldn't play against a girl.

Instead,  I thought of how happy it makes me to play Frisbee.  I hoped that baseball makes Paige that happy too.  I smiled at the joy of being a healthy animal and thought what a shame it is when anyone - male or female - doesn't have the chance to join the team.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wendell Berry: It All Turns on Affection

On Monday, I went with two dear friends, Christy and Bob, to see Wendell Berry give the Jefferson lecture at the Kennedy Center.  Read it here. 

We listened with admiration as this hero of ours critiqued corporate America, capitalism, and agri-buisness in favor of an economic life rooted in the land and motivated by affection.

Early in the lecture, Berry divided people into two categories: Stickers and boomers. Berry implied that Boomers are the majority of Americans.  Driven by money and success, they are mobile and ambitious.  Quoting Wallace Stegner, Berry said: 
' "Boomers, he said, are “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street,” whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”2 '
Like much of Berry's writing, his description of Stickers stirs up in me a longing for a life that's very different than the one I am living. It's a life marked by stability, roots, farming, family and faith. It's a simple life of contentment, hard work, and connection to people and land over time. 

Berry said,
"Stickers...are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it."
This is a life I've never known and I never will. I am, according to Berry, much more of a "Boomer" than a "Sticker." I live far from my family, have no connection to land, buy my food at a grocery store, shop online, and connect with the people closest to me over email, phone and skype much more often than in person.

And yet, if I need to put myself in one of these two categories, I would call myself a "sticker." 

Perhaps I am delusional to think of myself this way.

The friends I went with to the lecture are in a similar position. All three of us are Midwesterners who have made our home in the craze of Washington DC. One has spent much of the last three years researching the roots of his family. The other has a lovely suburban home decorated with momentos of the family farm that recently was sold off to an energy company.

We come together in community in part because we know that something is amiss in the "boomer" life that we've all chosen. We try to be "stickers" where we are, even though we know we can't possibly have the integrity or character of Berry's ideal.

We also know that rural life and connection to the land aren't enough to create the kind of life together that Berry describes. We know the pain of the ruined small town with its meth labs and poverty (Berry would point to those as proof of what the agribusiness economy has destroyed).

We hope, and we believe, that affection can be the primary motivation for a boomer-ish life too. And so we feed one another with good food when we can. We play music and go on walks and visit each other in the hospital. We try to love the land. We all work, in our ways, to stop climate change and protect the environment. We share a faith not only in God but also in the love of one another. We say no to the powers that try to control us.

Berry would have a lot to critique about our lives, but this much is true: In the face of a world of mobility and disconnection, true affection can still emerge as the primary motivation. Thanks to Bob and Christy, and all those friends who help me chose the alternative, the life that turns on affection.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Stewardship and faith: Rearranging like Lydia

Note: this is a copy of my April newsletter article, with minor changes.

When our youth fast for the World Vision 30 hour famine, we always have a worship service. In it, we do something to remember children who die of hunger related diseases: 1 child every 3 seconds. This year we made handprints on 300 pieces of paper, arranged like a cross. They represented the number of children who’d died in 15 minutes.

We found it so beautiful and meaningful that we kept it for worship. Then we replaced it with a cross of purple cloth which we're keeping through Lent.

When I went to the fabric store to buy a bolt of purple cloth, I was reminded of the character of Lydia found in Acts 16. She sold purple cloth. It was a precious commodity used by royalty and the upper class. Our use of purple for the cross serves as a reminder that Jesus was a different kind of king.

The women’s Bible study studied Lydia yesterday.

Lydia was converted by Paul’s preaching; “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” (Acts 16:14). She was baptized along with her household and it caused her to rearrange her life. She opened up her home and coffers to support the new ministry in Philippi. Her house became ground central for the church.

Lydia’s is a stewardship story. It’s also a story about someone growing in faith. Those two things - stewardship and faith – are always related. As we are drawn into faith by God, we want to respond like Lydia: rearranging our lives to participate in God’s ministry.

Rearranging. To give an extra $25 a month to our congregation, as many of our households are doing, takes some rearranging. To spend 30 hrs fasting for world hunger takes rearranging. To make space for the cross in our worship service took some major, literal, rearranging. (Thanks to Mark for spending so much time moving chairs!).

It raises this question: what in your life - especially your faith life - has caused you to rearrange?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Grace during Lent

I have recently returned from my first trip to Arizona. I went for a conference on adult faith formation and took a few extra days to visit the Grand Canyon and Sedona.

Because I left the day after Ash Wednesday, I joked with that I was giving up work for Lent. I didn't realize until I got on the plane how much I needed a break. I have been working hard, though no harder than everyone else I know. My pastoral work keeps me busy somewhere between 45 - 55 hrs a week plus time spent reading, praying, thinking, and worrying. In Washington DC, this is a light work load. I am not complaining.

Like everyone else, I also have the regular load of personal work to keep myself afloat: attending to a variety of relationships, cleaning the house, tending the dog, maintaining hobbies, exercising regularly, managing finances, cooking healthy meals etc etc etc. My personal work is also a relatively light load. I'm not caring for children or ailing parents. I'm not struggling to make ends meet. The fact that my list includes "maintaining hobbies" reveals that my life has more playtime in it than most adults I know. I am aware that I am in a privileged class with choices over how I spend my time. I have the opportunity for things like vacations and conferences. That's not lost on me.

Still, I have been working too hard. It took the spiritual nurture of loving people at the conference and the vastness of the Arizona landscape to drive that point home. For example: I wrestled with myself as I hiked down the Grand Canyon because I felt like I wasn't hiking fast enough. I kept making goals (I'll get to that water source by 1) and had to remind myself that I wasn't on a schedule and didn't need to invent stress.

In a reflection for Sojourners magazine, Cathleen Falsani put into words exactly what I had been feeling about a Lenten practice. She talked about a lecture by Eugene Peterson that convinced her to give up working so hard. She writes:

Providence has a great sense of timing — one that’s oriented by kairos not chronos. My time with Peterson fell during the first full week of Lent.

Before Ash Wednesday I already had determined not to do the usual thing _ give something tangible up: chocolate, caffeine, wine, fried food, etc. I decided instead to forgo saying negative things about my appearance out loud. I thought that would be healthy, helpful, a meaningful practice to honor God’s creation (me) and the Creator.

It lasted about 36 hours. I determined to start again. And again and again and again, if necessary.

...I stopped trying. I stopped, full stop. For Lent, I am doing nothing. I am just going to be. Feel the rhythms of grace and let God do the doing

Read her beautiful, wise reflections here.

Last night, friends came over for dinner. Embracing the "stop working" attitude, I spent some time with my dog and chatting with parishioners instead of cleaning the house. The meal was late. I had to ask my friend to cook the fish because I didn't get my act together in time to find a good recipe. I went to bed with a sink full of dirty dishes. No surprise, we had a wonderful time. And this morning, God is still turning the world around.

Of course, I don't plan to actually stop working. I did get up and do the dishes in the morning, and I will keep working at the profession that I truly love, invest in my relationships, walk my dog.

But, I have tried to implement a different attitude toward my work - all my work - as part of a Lent. I am trying to spend more time listening and noticing and less time planning and worrying.

My time in the Grand Canyon got good when I let go of my need for a schedule and just absorbed the beauty all around me. I'm pretty sure that though I'm back home, there's no less beauty and no less grace.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Maybe the apple store workers could do a training for our church?

Hi - I'm at the apple store in the Montgomery Mall waiting for a new phone. My phone speaker hasn't been working right since the day I got it and I finally realized I should get a new one. The friendly people are in the process of replacing it.

This place is hopping. Who knew this many people are in the Apple Store om a Thursday morning? Judging by the sea of blue shirts, it looks like over half the people here work here. I was helped by a nice woman but my problem wasn't resolved as quickly as she'd hoped. She passed me off to someone else because she had to go to a training session. That's right, a training session. She was professional and friendly. Communicated exactly what I needed. When she handed me off, the new person also greeted me with warmth and invited me to come over and work near him so he could keep an eye on me.

Back at church, we're in the process of envisioning our new space and we're always trying to figure out how to be more genuinely welcoming, how to connect with people appropriately and lovingly. We have a lot to learn from these Apple folks, including that they have training sessions to make sure they know their stuff. Yes, I know, I know that selling computers is different from welcoming people to church. I know that there's a message that the Apple folks need to convey without any deviations and there's probably disgruntlement among the ranks. Sill, I admire the energy in here. I am impressed by the friendly professionalism.

And there are so many people in here. If my phone worked, I'd take a picture. Everyone is in this store because they know what they want and they know where to find it. Some are just looking; some have appointments; some have very specific hopes for what they'll find.

I have a feeling it would be easier for most people in the world to explain why someone would get up on a Thursday morning and get to the Apple Store than it would to explain why someone would get up on a Sunday morning and go to church. hmmmm......

oh - My time is up - I'm going to get the help I came for. Peace and joy -

note: I added the photo afterward - I didn't take it.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review: Nature as Spiritual Practice - by Steven Chase

Hi all - I wrote a book review of Nature as Spiritual Practice by Steven Chase for the Presbyterian Outlook. Copying the review here too.

Monday, 09 January 2012 04:09

Nature as Spiritual Practice

by Steven Chase

Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmanns. 286 pages


On a morning walk, I caught sight of a bird circling over a pond. I was awestruck to witness it plummet into the pond and emerge with a catch.

My awe quickly turned to horror as I realized that the catch of the day was a red plastic cup, stuck on its feet. The bird was clearly in distress as it flew away low to the ground, crying. I said a prayer of lament for the polluted pond and asked God to help the bird shake free.

I am a nature lover. In this instance, however, the spiritual connection I felt to that bird was stronger than normal. It’s no coincidence that I was reading Steven Chase’s “Nature as Spiritual Practice.” He is convinced (and he convinces) that relationship with nature nurtured through spiritual practice can interrupt the downward cycle of ecological destruction. Chase connects the recent reemphasis on Christian practices with the ecological crisis unique to our time. By describing specific practices, Chase invites the reader through cycles of contemplation and action: “Nature as practice shapes attention and wonder; it also shapes activism.”

Culling sources ranging from the Desert Fathers to Julian of Norwich to Paul in Romans to Paul Tillich, he teases out creation-oriented themes, creating an overall fabric for appreciating nature as an integral part of our spiritual heritage. The wealth of quotes and references is worth the price of the book. Chase knows Scripture and is clearly rooted in Christian sources, but he downplays the specificity of the Christian tradition, often using terms like “divine” instead of God. This creates a possibility for dialogue between contemplative aspects of many religions, especially between Buddhism and Christianity. It also creates the opportunity to connect with people who find God in nature but not in church. The title itself underscores the approach; nature is spiritual practice. Thus a heron not only teaches us about prayer, it prays; a tree not only teaches us to listen, it listens. Moreover, nature is more than a metaphor or a model for human spirituality; it has a spiritual life of its own. I wrestled with this approach because of the inherent anthropomorphism (how does a tree listen without ears?). Ultimately, however, Chase’s approach leads to a deeper respect for nature’s spirituality and the inherent good of the natural world.

A field guide with 64 practices accompanies the main book. When attempting these practices, I found that I needed to interrupt the practice in order to keep referencing the field guide. It would take some, uh, practice, to use the field guide smoothly, but that’s part of the point. Chase intends readers to become acquainted with the field guide over regular use and to grow in their spiritual practice. Chase has included well-designed sample retreats for leaders. These are a bonus and a gift to those interested in spiritual retreats. Rarely is a set of books so theologically rich also so practical. For anyone concerned with how people can connect with nature to change the way we relate to this precious world, “Nature as Spiritual Practice” is a uniquely valuable resource.

Ten for Ten. Ten reasons it's great to be a pastor, in celebration of my 10 year anniversary of ordination.

I'm in there somewhere. I was ordained at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington DC on November 10, 2007, ten years ago today. ...