Saturday, February 28, 2015

That Preacher Woman is moving

Starting on March 15, I will begin posting my sermons on my congregation's redesigned website at I may occasionally continue to use That Preacher Woman to share miscellaneous writings. Look for upcoming sermons at Open Table's website at the bottom of the Home Page, through a link on the Pastor's Page, and under How We Worship.

Thanks to all who have enlarged our congregation by reading and sharing my sermons since 2011--a total of 179 sermons logged here. Hope you'll continue to follow me and our progressive, inclusive church in Mobile, Alabama: Open Table United Church of Christ ( Follow us on Facebook, too, at

In Christ's hope,

Monday, February 23, 2015

Four Quarters and Four Bullet Points For Equal Rights

This is the speech I gave at the February 21st "Celebrating Love, Calling for Rights" Rally in support of Marriage Equality for all Alabamians

Thursday before last I spoke at a marriage equality vigil outside the Probate Court House. Looking for a parking place shortly before the event, I drove into a lot without realizing it was reserved for certain businesses. I asked the attendant if he could give me change so I could park by one of the meters. He took my dollar. Handed me four quarters. I thanked him.

But before I could drive off, he pointed to my clerical collar –a signal I get in grocery stores from strangers who are just about to go suddenly theological on me. This (pointing at my clerical collar) is actually the international symbol for: “I see you’re a minister. Let’s talk about one of life’s most important questions right here in toilet paper aisle.”

Sure enough, the parking lot attendant said he wanted my opinion on something. When he added he was sure we held the same opinion on the topic, I said as sweetly as I could, “Maybe not.”

“What do you think about this gay marriage stuff?”

The tone of that question was, as Anne Lamott says, “enough to make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

I worried he’d ask me to return his four quarters.  Would I sell my soul for four pieces of silver?

“I support gay marriage,” I answered breezily.

“But the Bible’s against homosexuality," he informed me, as if I’d never heard THAT one before.

I looked at my watch.  I had time to hit just four bullet points that explain why straight pastors like me and churches like mine care so much about LGBT rights.  Each bullet is a sermon in itself—a sermon being my basic verbal unit of measurement. I’ll share just the bullets now, but if you want the longer version, catch me in the toilet paper aisle of the grocery store. Here's basically what I said.

1. The Bible never condemns the actions of loving, faithful same-sex couples. Nowhere does the Bible say, “Jane and Mary have lived lovingly together for 20 years. They are therefore doomed to hell.” Most or all of the six or seven verses used to clobber LGBT folks are actually speaking against things like gang rape or temple prostitution.

2. The Bible sometimes condones things we now consider immoral and condemn things we no longer see as wrong. The Bible is not a science book or history book or rule book. The Bible is a library of diverse theological writings--from songs and stories to sayings and sermons. There’s inspired wisdom in the biblical tradition, but truth has also been expressed outside the Bible. My denomination likes to say that "God is still speaking.” Humans keep learning new things, and those new insights help us live better lives.

3. Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. Not a word. But Jesus did consistently stand with those his society marginalized, stigmatized, scapegoated. What he did talk about was Love: the greatest commandment that eclipses all others. Love God, neighbor and self.  When in doubt, love. Judge Roy Moore should build a monument to that one commandment.

4. Religious leaders are sometimes wrong—I say as a religious leader.  Recall how often religious authorities have—kicking and screaming until the end—changed their positions on major moral questions of the day. Let’s think for ourselves, friends. Cultivate an honest inner life. Trust that God—divine love and truth—can speak to and through you. And take heart that “the times they are a ‘changin’.” You have more straight allies and gay-supportive clergy and churches than you might think—even in our city. Even evangelical leaders are changing their opinions in support of LGBT rights. This is, to use a Jesus-y phrase, “good news”—because it’s primarily a religious argument that is prejudicing the people and preventing equality. We must work to heal the wounds of spiritual violence committed in the name of God.

I’m here wearing this clerical collar because if I’m silent, if my church is silent, others like the parking lot attendant will wrongly assume I support prejudice and hate.

I’m here to support good marriages. A good marriage is a hard enough project of love, commitment, honesty, and forgiveness for straight couples. Harder still, I imagine, for those living in a culture where you have to hide your relationship or feel antagonism because of it. Surround yourself with friends who will support your healthy union and call you to your highest commitment. Believe that God blesses your love.

Hear this blessing for us all:
May God’s love guide us and may we know our own belovedness.

Local news covered the event this way:

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Salvation of all Creation

There was no sermon during our contemplative service today.  Below are scriptures we read, a commentary on the readings, and a description of our prayer stations.

HEBREW BIBLE READING      Genesis 9: 8-16     
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 

*GOSPEL READING   Mark 1: 12-13         
12And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

We often read scripture from such a human-centric perspective that we miss the allusions to God’s concern for the rest of creation—and our interdependence on fellow creatures.  In today’s Gospel reading, note that God’s Spirit led, no, drove Jesus into the wilderness, the wild place, the place NOT inhabited by humans but by “the wild beasts.” Jesus was with the wild beasts as preparation for his ministry. Jesus learned his vocation from the natural world. From earliest times the religious human being has found an experience of God and sense of direction, even vocation, through a wilderness experience.

Note also that in our Hebrew Bible reading, the covenant God makes after the flood is one between God and not only humans but ALL creatures of the earth. Noah’s story suggests that human survival is tied to the survival of earth’s other creatures. Noah was charged with saving both humans and animals. If the animals had not been brought inside the safe ark, the people would not have ultimately survived.

We have read scripture without seeing that the overarching salvation stories are stories about saving ALL creation. Any story of salvation that saves only humanity is insufficient and unbiblical. The Christian stories of salvation take us back to the Garden of Eden with the resurrected Jesus as gardener, the promise a renewed earth in Revelation, the image of the wolf and lamb lying down together in peace. Our spiritual ancestors knew what we’ve forgotten: we will be “saved” to the extent that the rest of creation can be saved.  So much for a highly spiritualized and individualized notion of salvation.

For forty days Jesus stayed in the wilderness with the wild animals. For forty days Noah and his family and their menagerie heard the rains fall upon their interspecies ark. For forty days you and I will journey through Lent. Let’s bring the wild creatures of the earth with us on this spiritual journey to remind us of our interconnectedness, our call to care for “the least,” our need to face into our complicity in climate change that might one day either bring more floods or create more desert lands.

There are many failings you and I ought to face into and “confess.” Of all the sins that demand our confession, contrition, and correction, the sin of planetary destruction is chief.  We’re starting with the biggie today. It’s the problem with direst consequences and it’s the hardest to remedy. We know we as individuals can help in small ways: recycling, reusing, reducing.  But there are also ways we can participate in a more systemic approach to environmentalism. For instance, in 2013 our denomination voted to pursue a set of strategies to attack climate change — which includes a path to divestment from fossil fuel companies. This action made the United Church of Christ the first major religious body in the U.S. to begin divesting from fossil fuel companies.  It is but one example of a collective effort to address a systemic injustice to our planet.

Let us hold SILENCE as we listen to the heartbeat of our planet.

Praying Through Art.  “With a hoot and squawk and squeak and bark, the animals tumbled off the ark.” Here’s a picture of a Plasticine illustration by Barbara Reid from the children’s book Two by Two. How does this picture make you feel? How will you add your hoot and bark as you leap into this new day?  What will you bound toward or fly above as you leave the shelter of this ark?  How will you cooperate with the recreating process of this dying and revitializing planet?   (Children may place their animal pictures on the altar at this time.)

Praying By Giving and Receiving. At Christ’s Table, we give what we can and receive what God always supplies: forgiveness, grace, love, hope. If you wish, consider this a time of private confession.  As you offer monetary gifts, pause to acknowledge ways you can be a better steward of your resources. Confess what is holding you back from living more generously. As you dip the bread into the cup, recall that Jesus said this is an act in which we realize God’s forgiveness of all our sins. Let Jesus’s mercy towards those who killed him embolden us to accept forgiveness for our failings, large and small.

Praying By Writing a Group Prayer of Confession.  Take paper and pen provided to complete this collective prayer:
God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale, God of the Swirling Stars,
We, the people of your earth, confess:

Sunday, February 15, 2015

After the Drama

Mark 9: 2-9

Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, the season highlighting the ways in which the divine in Jesus was revealed to humanity. In today’s gospel story Jesus is hobnobbing with Moses and Elijah, who yield to Jesus’s greater stature, his appearance altered to a dazzling white. This is high drama indeed. Just as Mark’s Gospel began with God’s declaration to Jesus at his baptism that he is beloved, so now on a mountaintop the disciples hear a reiteration of that same phrase. God’s voice thunders divine approval and again names Jesus as beloved son. This time God commands that Jesus' followers should listen to him.

What does Peter do?  Rather than waiting to hear from Jesus, Peter makes a suggestion: Let’s just stay here in this moment of glorious illumination.  It’s as if Peter’s suggestion broke a spell. Poof. Moses and Elijah disappeared. God’s voice became silent.  Enlightenment must lead us somewhere. Jesus and disciples descend. The narrator closes the scene this way: “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.” And maybe that is the disciples' task in a nutshell: Listen to him. See him only.

There are moments in life when we experience high drama.  Our senses are heightened; our hearts beat faster; we realize that things will be different from now on. We might feel God’s presence acutely then; we might see “only Jesus.”

What’s important for us to remember is that after the drama, after we’ve come down from the mountain of momentous events and dramatic experiences, there are things that need doing. Every powerful experience should send us out into the world to love and care and DO in the name of Jesus.

Last week was dramatic. We played our small part in a historic moment as Alabama became the 37th state to permit same-sex marriage. Our own courageous Kiera and Shay were among the first same-sex couples to receive a marriage license in Mobile County and received national media attention for doing so. Our congregation's efforts to raise money for Kim and Cari, covered by local media, contributed to the fund that made it possible for their attorneys to win their case. Our presence and voice have encouraged and comforted many in our community. We were not aiming for the spotlight; we were aiming to support loved ones and share our convictions of God's love. In doing so, a light shined on us. And drama, which none of us wanted, ensued.

I’ve felt at points that the Probate Court became hallowed ground. We’ve seen a miracle happen this week, a dazzling sign that God has again spoken of our belovedness—the belovedness of ALL God’s people. But we can’t remain on the mountain or in the probate court house—though it felt at times last week we would be in the court house forever waiting for those marriage license windows to open.

We have to go back down the mountain—and leave behind the dazzling rainbow-colored glow of this historic week. We move from the mountain to the mundane. We leave the drama for our daily duties: of caring for others, of forgiving our friends and family and ourselves, of standing with those who have been ignored, of deepening our own spiritual resources for the work ahead.

But first we may want to tell the story about what we saw on the mountain. Let’s not forget it. Let’s put it into a story so we make this moment as sacred. Let’s remember how we witnessed Jesus with us this week.

At the prayer vigil at the court house on Thursday, I concluded my remarks by recalling the drama of Monday and noting signs of Love this way:

On Monday in the midst of frustrations and disappointments, as partners consoled and encouraged one another in this very place, I witnessed the patient and kind love that St. Paul taught. And I saw total strangers surprising us with kindnesses. While rainbow banners lined this sidewalk,  car horns honked a steady song of support up and down Government Street.  Passersby cheered on those supporters lining the sidewalk. People we didn't know brought the folks inside this building food that we shared in a kind of holy communion. Near the end of the day, one woman walked into the probate courthouse laden with bouquets of fresh flowers she distributed to all couples seeking a marriage license. 

One straight couple who was turned away from the marriage license window on Monday had planned a church wedding for this Friday. I held my breath when a reporter asked how they felt about this roadblock to their plans, fearing they might lash out at “the gays.” They did not. They shared our frustration. And with soft murmurs and sympathetic faces, we conveyed wordlessly our caring for them in another act of communion.  At the very end of the day, long after we were told that no licenses of any kind would be forthcoming, at least one brave couple remained until the doors closed and then they came back the next morning as soon as the doors opened. Many of you came back every day since.

You have been faithful. Even if your religion shoved you away years ago, you have been people of faith. You have been faithful to this good thing. 
This God thing.  
This work of Love in your hearts and in our community.

Dearly beloved, on Transfiguration Sunday, let’s remember that the Transfigured One moves back down the mountain with the realization of suffering to come.  Let’s remember that we follow Jesus not only up the mountain for dramatic moments and spiritual highs but we also walk forward with him into the world’s suffering. After all, it’s often there that we are transfigured. You and I have certainly been changed as we've worked for marriage equality and human rights.

Over lunch today we’ll talk about this past week of Jesus encounters. You may want to share, as we break bread together, experiences which allowed you to “listen to Jesus” or see some of God’s glory. Marking moments as sacred and converting experience into strengthening story are functions of a faith community. Today is a good day for doing just that.

PRAYER: On mountaintops and courthouse steps, show us, God of Justice and Love, how to live. Spare us unnecessary drama, please. But when the drama must come, let us hear Jesus's words as our script, and let us turn the spotlight on him. Transform us so that we might be a loving light to others. Amen

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Message

Text:  Mark 1: 29-39

If you were to record the amount of time you spend doing various activities over the course of several weeks, what might an activity diary reveal about you? If you didn’t count the hours you spent sleeping and eating, what would be the top three activities in your typical week?

If we as a congregation kept track of the way our church spends its time, what would an activity diary reveal about Open Table?  How do we act collectively to be the church?  What activities of Open Table constitute the key actions of the church?

As we delve further into the first chapter of Mark, we start to recognize a pattern in Jesus’s activities of ministry in Galilee. Today’s reading repeats a sequence of activities established in last Sunday’s text: He preaches a message, casts out demons and heals the sick, withdraws for prayer—and starts the cycle again. His pattern of ministry might be a way for us, as Jesus followers, to assess and balance our own commitments—as individuals, as a congregation.

I spoke last week about our need for prayerful silence, inspired by Jesus’s command that silenced the unclean spirit. We’ll see in upcoming passages in Mark stories aplenty about healings. But today I’m interested in the last two verses of this pericope. I’m interested in Jesus’s ministry of proclamation. I’m interested in how you and I engage in proclaiming a message.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking: “That’s what we pay you to do, Ellen. You’re the designated preacher.” But that’s not entirely true. I hope you know me better than to worry I’ll expect you to start evangelizing on some street corner or passing out religious tracts. But you, too, are able to “proclaim a message.” Rosemarie will do so next week during our quarterly potluck. And there will be plenty of time for others to share a story from your own journey if you wish. And there are other ways you proclaim the message—without having to get behind a pulpit or even sound churchy.

Today’s reading makes it clear that at the very heart of Jesus’s ministry—and therefore at the very heart of ours—there is a message to be shared. In this important first chapter that serves as the thesis for all that follows, Mark’s Gospel leads with a message about “THE MESSAGE.”

Today we can instant message, Facebook message, text message. We can message through email and message boards. We have politicians who try to stay on message.  We have businesses who do brand messaging. We have a modern paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.

But what was Jesus’s message? What was the kernel of his many sermons and parables and dialogues and teachings and healings and acts of compassion? What was the message of his life? His death?
If you were asked what was at the heart of Jesus’s message, what would you say?

Would it be “Homosexuality is a sin?” I ask because I would bet good money that someone is preaching that very message in another pulpit in town at this very moment.

Let’s go back to the very start of Mark’s Gospel to see how this author establishes his theme. Mark begins this way:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way. . . .”

And immediately Mark introduces John the baptizer, the forerunner of Jesus, who is proclaiming a message of repentance. Jesus, a disciple of John, was baptized by him. Shortly afterward, John was arrested, and Jesus launched his own ministry in Galilee by “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent (meaning a change in direction), and believe in the good news.”

Note: If the message is not “good news," it’s not Jesus’s message.

As we pick up the story today, Jesus has been proclaiming a message of good news and healing the sick. When he sneaks off for time alone, his disciples hunt him down and complain, “Everyone is searching for you." Jesus responds, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." Mark continues: “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”

But what specifically was Jesus’s message?  Verse 15 says it’s about “the kingdom of God.” But not all scholars agree on what Jesus meant by this kingdom. And the disciples are consistently depicted as not understanding what he meant. The Greek phrase traditionally translated into English as “the kingdom of God” is Basileia tou Theou, which might be better translated as the reign of God or the rule of God to.  Announcing God’s eventual reign on this earth—not some sweet by and by heaven—is Jesus’s consistent message—often developed through cryptic parables. As Mark will soon show us, Jesus’s message poses this paradox: God’s sovereign reign is at hand yet is not quite here.  Some scholars talk about the now and coming kingdom of God. God’s way IS already present here—but not yet fully.

The good news is that God has a kingdom of love and justice. And that it is already being realized—not fully, not finally, not yet. But it’s on the way. Sometimes little bits of it are already peeking through. And this kingdom is not at all like the kingdoms of this earth. God’s rule, as the parables will reveal, differs greatly from humanity’s empires. That is good news. The first will be last and the last will be first in God’s upside down way of doing things. The new rules are not yet in play.
But there are moments. There are times. When the little guy wins. God’s reign has not been completely ushered in. But there are signs. There are symptoms. Of God’s justice for those who’ve been pushed aside.

And we are going to see a sign of God’s now and coming reign tomorrow at 8:00 at the probate court on Government Street in Mobile, Alabama. We are going to see a glimpse of God’s justice that no one saw coming quite this soon. We are going to know what is possible when the Spirit of Love breaks loose.

No, God’s kingdom will not be fully realized in Alabama on February 9, 2015. There are likely to be protestors who will say nasty things. There may even be unforeseen impediments. But we get to glimpse what this world will be like when God’s loving, just, and peaceful ways seep into our society and flavor all our dealings and shape us into the kind of people we CAN be.

When some of us stand beside K and S tomorrow at the Probate Court, we are sending a message. When we take Open Table signs with us, we are sending a message.

Our message is not: Believe in Jesus or you’ll go to hell.

Our message is: The kingdom/kin*dom of God—the way this world will be when God’s reign of love holds sway—looks like this. Here we plant the sign of God’s reign. Here we stand, just inside the figurative gates of that kingdom that has partially materialized but has yet to unfold. Here is a moment, a partial picture, a foretaste, a premonition of what we imagine God’s future to be.

Our message is about God’s now and coming reign.

Our best medium for expressing that message is our lives.

Like Jesus, we can live as if God’s reign has begun. The first chapter of Mark will end with a final story about Jesus’s healing a leper—who then cannot help but “proclaim” that Jesus had healed him. Oddly, Jesus will try to curb some of this messaging. “Don’t tell anyone about this,” Jesus will warn. Some think he wanted to keep a little more control over the messaging until his followers really understood it better. There may be times and ways that are not appropriate for sharing the message. But proclaiming that message is, according to Mark’s Gospel, central to Jesus’s ministry.

Some of us don’t really want to hear that. We want to follow Jesus without doing or saying anything controversial. Certainly we will try to send a clear message without demonizing those with whom we disagree. But we also bear a responsibility to speak up, to engage in acts that send a clear message.

A blogger recently posted her thoughts about the value of small churches. She values small churches because they permit the time and energy it takes to foster “transformational, redemptive relationships." As she puts it: “The tangled web of life together is impossible to navigate in a sea of hundreds of nameless faces.”  She praises small churches for being able “to use everyone’s gifts and passions and voices.” And she cautions that “growth doesn’t mean numbers”—despite the corporate models for success we import into the ways we do church when we should instead trust in “God’s economy.” She closes this way:

“Small pockets of love do matter. Justice, mercy, and hope ripple out from small acts of kindness and love. One life can change one other life, and those are little miracles. If we are always thinking ‘we’re not big enough, strong enough, cool enough, sustainable enough, ____ enough, we will miss out on amazing people and opportunities to love and live right in front of us.” What is required is “bending our ear and heart toward the ways of the kingdom of God–where the ways of the world are turned upside down, the last shall be first and the first shall be last, where learning the ways of love one relationship at a time supersedes everything else.” *

That is a message I need to hear. And proclaim.

Our heavenly father/mother, hallowed be your name.  May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen

*Escobar, Kathy.  “Small is Plenty” in (Feb. 3, 2015).

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Mark 1: 21-28

In our two stories today from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry by calling his first four disciples and calling out a demon. The disciples as well as demons obeyed him. The community that composed Mark’s gospel wanted readers to see Jesus authoritatively. In fact, the word translated as authority is used twice in this passage. But what kind of authority did he possess?  

Marcus Borg, God rest his soul, argued that Jesus’s authority was based on a personal experience with the divine. Borg, who died last week and who contributed much to progressive Christian thought, categorized Jesus as, among other things, a “Spirit Person” in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  For Spirit Persons, God is not “an article of belief” but “an experiential reality” (38). Borg says that Jesus’ practices of prayer and fasting seem consistent with a “form of contemplation or meditation” used by other Jewish spiritual leaders at that time who “would still their hearts before God before they would heal” and would do so using a wordless meditation that we might associate mainly with Far Eastern traditions (35). Like other Spirit Persons, Jesus evinced a love of God and an intimacy with God (calling God “Abba”) and spoke with authority (36) coming from his own personal experience rather from other authorities. Today’s scripture says that his authority was not like the scribes, who merely cited scripture. Jesus was a compelling figure because at the center of his life was a sense of God’s presence. Jesus did not simply believe in God; he spoke as one who knew God (37). That was the source of his authority.

If we want to follow the Jesus who is the Spirit Person, we may be required need to commit to his spiritual practices and, in so doing, fall in love with God. The Prophetic Jesus will cause us to speak truth to power; the Nonviolent Jesus will lead us in paths of peace. Jesus the Sage will teach us deep wisdom. Jesus the Healer will instruct us to heal our communities. But if we are following Jesus the Spirit Person, we will know sweet intimacy with a reality bigger than the one we perceive with our five senses or can parse with human language or quantify with human measurements. We will yearn for some Immensity we can’t name but of which we feel a part.

Here’s a sad confession for a pastor: it’s easier for me to follow Jesus by actions “out there” than quiet stillness “in here.” I’m a talker and a doer.

But at the heart of today’s story is Jesus’ command to “be silent” (Mark 1:25). Those words made a beeline to me this week. Jesus’s call for silence reminded me I am letting other spirits—the rowdy spirits of frenzy, impatience, distraction, worry, self-sufficiency—invade my life and unsettle me.

Does anyone else experience this discordant state of mind and spirit? For instance, does your mind replay tomorrow’s to-do list as soon as your head hits the pillow at night? Do you catch yourself listening to a loved one without really hearing her heart? Do you multitask yourself into multiple mistakes? Do your children hear the word “hurry” more often than they hear “Let’s listen to that bird’s song”?  Do you have to have a music track for your daily life? Are you checking your smart phone during dinner or at meetings? Do you forget how easy it is—and helpful—to take a long walk or to take a few deep breaths? Are you able to tune out the strident voices around you and tune in to the voice of peace? Are you making time for the spiritual practice of quiet?

If you and I are serious about following Jesus and coming to love God will all our heart, soul, and mind, we need to learn how to silence the internal cacophony. There is a silent place within where we can attain, as Jesus did, an imperturbable sense of oneness with the One.

Which brings me to a story told by Martin Laird in his book Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. He talks about the ongoing “chatter” that goes on in our minds. Some of this internal chatter is necessary and good, but a running commentary prevents a mindfulness of the present moment and can distort our experience of reality or keep us stuck in one perception of that reality. He tells this story about a woman named Elizabeth:

Elizabeth was one of the world’s authorities on irises. As an academic botanist she knew everything there was to know about rhizomes. When she wasn’t in her lab—a large greenhouse that took up most of her back garden—she was writing up her research or attending conferences. But the onset of a rare, autoimmune disease brought all her activity to an abrupt halt. The illness left her with intense pain and bedridden much of the time. Medication had little effect. Most days she could manage but a short walk in her garden and greenhouse to inspect the irises.

Elizabeth’s pain was simply there.  But her active mind could not let the pain be. Her mind would pick at it, lance it, scratch at it: “Why did this have to happen?” “Who is going to take care of me?” “How can I pay for this?” There were times of the day when the pain would intensify, and her thoughts ran: “Wouldn’t it be better to die,” “I don’t want to be a burden to others,” or “Why is God punishing me?” . . . .  She said, “My thoughts are like a pack of hyena. They make the pain unbearable.”

Elizabeth was familiar with contemplative practices but said it had been “more or less limited to airports, train journeys and enduring tedious sermons.” With the onset of this illness, however, her spiritual well-being became more of a concern to her, and so she established a regular discipline spaced through each day. . . . 

Her rediscovery of prayer bore fruit not only in a deepened awareness of God’s abiding presence but also she became skilled at seeing how the drama of the commenting mind adds to suffering. As a result she discovered several important things about pain.

Thoughts about pain are worse than pain by itself. “Suffering is what your mind does with your pain,” she said. “A silent mind knows no suffering.” Trying to push pain away increases suffering. In her case there was no question of pain going away. But suffering she could do something about. If she could be still before the pain and not wrestle with it, she felt alive and aware. Gradually she was able to let go of the demand that the pain be gone, if it didn’t happen to be gone.

By learning simply to be still before pain, she learned to see into pain. Pain has a center. This center is silence. When her attention was not stolen by thoughts about the pain, she could be still before this silent center. In this silent center she felt closest to God, so she would go back there whenever she could. It was not long after this discovery that she had the breakthrough of her life. . . . 

What brought definitive change for the remaining time before her death was the realization that in this very silence there was communion with all people, a loving solidarity with all humanity [and we might add all creatures]. The awareness of this was seamlessly united with her awareness of God. This realization expressed itself—even while bedridden—as self-forgetful, loving attentiveness to all whom she met. . . .  The more she was able to surrender to this loving silence at the center of her pain, the more she was a vehicle of this loving silence.

Medical writer Steven Levine observe “true healing happens when we go into our pain so deeply that we see it, not just as our pain, but everyone’s pain. It is immensely moving and supportive to discover that my pain is not private to me.” This is precisely what Elizabeth discovered. If she could be silent within herself, in the midst of her pain, and not get caught up in the commenting on the pain, she saw her isolation vanish and what she found, even in the midst of this pain, was communion with all people in the silence of God. . . . 

Not long before Elizabeth died, she was talking about how she missed her life as a botanist, about the unfinished projects that would remain unfinished. She said, “You know, while I’ve been ill I have managed to discover something new about irises—I never knew they were beautiful." (Laird 107-110).

I experienced this week the consequences of listening to internal commentary on pain when I should have been still before the pain. As soon as I did a face plant onto the concrete sidewalk last Thursday while walking my dog, I knew I’d broken my wrist. Instantly my mind raced with worrisome questions: Who would play the piano for Open Table?  Would George have to cancel a trip to St. Louis for the college?  Why did it have to be my RIGHT hand? If I have to have a cast, how long will I have to wear it? Will I be able to drive? Use my laptop? Shower? Cook? By the time we made it to the Urgent Care office, a long list of worst case scenarios were swirling in my head. When the nurse took my blood pressure, which is always very low, it registered very high. When I remarked on how unusually high it was, she told me that pain can raise blood pressure. But I was pretty sure worry was at least partly to blame. I was letting the commentary of my mind prevent me from being in the moment. I was going beyond the experience of pain to the experience of suffering.

Today I still have some pain. But I no longer am suffering through this experience.

Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, author, and contemplative put it this way: “The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of Merton’s birth. I share one more pearl from him: “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”

Friends, we can encourage one another not to commit ourselves to too many projects for our own spiritual health and for the health of our faith community.  Let us practice silence.  Even in this moment.


O Christ, when we hear you shout “Silence” in the synagogue, let us grow still and quiet.

Borg, Marcus.  Meeting Jesus AGAIN for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

Laird, Martin.  Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Just Add Water

Text:  Mark 1: 4-11

Some assume the “spiritual but not religious” dislike ritual.

But the legal victory Cari and Kim won on Friday suggests that some rituals are still valued in postmodern America. We’ve been fighting for the right (R-I-G-H-T) for all loving couples to marry. Turns out many still seek the rite (R-I-T-E) of marriage, decades after marriage was declared passé.

The impulse to create and maintain ritual is common to all human societies. It’s similar to our need for art, poetry, ceremony, dance. Rituals—even a simple bedtime routine to help children feel safe and calm—even the corny practice of  “surprising” co-workers with a cake on their birthdays to mark some days as special—even the simplest of ordinary rituals are ways we make meaning, mark time, and form community. They help us pay attention to life and find some semblance of order, which are spiritual practices. Imagine if no day were marked as special, no symbolic gesture were ever repeated with caring intention, no patterns of words or actions ever formalized and taught to the next generation. Imagine life without a set of shared symbols we enact to remind us of our history and values and to evoke emotions like those we feel singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a stadium with thousands. Sometimes all you need to do to mark a moment ritually is—as some boxed cake mixes direct—just add water.  And a spiritual intent.

Open Table’s website declares that we are “pursuing a vision of church that is rooted in early Christian history yet responsive to today's changing world.” One way we maintain a foothold in the ancient Church while stretching toward the future is by retaining the 2 key sacraments: baptism and communion. I have argued that these Christian rites are especially important to progressives who push the envelope theologically, learn from other spiritual traditions appreciatively, and react to dogma allergically. Sharing rituals with other Christians and within our faith community—rituals that are inherently elastic in meaning—rituals that inevitably evolve over time despite perceived inflexibility—rituals whose patterns point to generous spirituality—rituals that seep into our bodies as well as our minds —sharing ritual in common, I say, rather than theological propositions, is what grounds us.

Our name, Open Table, signals that our gathering at a wide-open table is the core of our identity. What you make of that symbol may be different from what I make of it.  What you make of that symbol on a given Sunday may be different than what you make of it the next Sunday. That’s because rich rituals expand for the needs of the people and the times. Ritual should serve the people, not the other way around. Rituals are a secure anchor whose constancy facilitates our explorations and variations. Rituals remind us that we didn’t get here on our own, so we owe humble gratitude to those who participated in past ritual.

Embedded in our sacraments and scriptures, which are highly interpretable, is the trajectory of Jesus’s ongoing life. If we root our worship life in story and sacrament, if we pass along the Jesus narrative and the Jesus rites, then we can follow Jesus into an unknown but hopeful future. A Jesus untethered to tradition is an empty figure, a balloon let lose in the wind. But let’s not tether him to a committee-generated statement of required beliefs. The United Church of Christ sees creeds as “testaments of faith”—not “tests of faith.” Creeds are less adaptive to changing times than stories and rituals.

And if you think that ritual’s purpose is to keep us loyal to older ways and outmoded ideas, don’t forget that John the baptizer, that wild guy in the wilderness of today’s Gospel story, was using ritual to reinterpret a tradition for subversive purposes.

Our young church has yet to experience Christian baptism together. We haven’t yet enacted together the watery initiation story of the Christian journey. We're likely to have our first candidate/s for baptism soon--probably a couple of babies coming into our church family but also possibly unbaptized adults who request baptism. We intend to retain the essence of baptism while also modifying it for a progressive people. Yes. We get to tinker with baptism if we choose.

A new commentary on the Gospel of Mark suggests Progressive Christians should love the baptismal rite:

“Christian baptism has a bad name among ‘recovering Christians’ and other exiles abused by Church dogma . . . as well as non-Christians turned off by Christian exclusivity and fundamentalist extremism. Nevertheless, even though the 21st century is a postmodern, post-Christian time, baptism is a ritual—perhaps an archetype—that is deeply important to all of humanity, as evidenced by child dedications and naming rituals . . . among all cultures, religions, tribes, and communities. When baptism is not a proof of salvation from hell but is a ceremony of welcoming and initiation, it becomes a primary and universal sacrament” (Raven 47).

How would you reshape the baptism ritual?  Are there words you’d want spoken?  gestures?  symbols to add?

Here’s an example of one change, a tiny but important one, I’ll make. Traditionally the priest or pastor baptizes “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” If you’re like me and don’t want the divine imaged solely in masculine terms, you’ll be glad that our denomination permits us to add to the Triune blessing this phrase: “One God, Mother of all.”

In our denomination individual congregations decide if they will practice infant baptism or adult baptism. Open Table decided to leave that decision up to families and individuals. So parents may choose to have their baby baptized. In which case Open Table will offer a confirmation class when that baby becomes a young teenager. Or parents may want their children to wait until they’re of an age to decide for themselves if they want baptism, and the church will still offer a class when they are young teens, but the teens have the chance to request baptism after that.

While both adult and infant baptism picture an initiation into the life in Christ, they emphasize the faith journey in slightly different ways.  So let me tease out those differences:

The baptism of a baby emphasizes God’s initiative in our lives. God names the child “beloved” and the parents and congregation covenant to support that child in her spiritual development. The sacrament resembles a naming ceremony that gives the child a place and identity in her family and church. The sacrament pictures all of life as a journey with and toward the divine, and the baptismal waters symbolize the birth waters that launch us into life. The theological appeal of this form of baptism is that it emphasizes God reaching out to us in love. But the theological problem with this version of baptism is that it’s not the radical, counter-cultural practice that John and Jesus enacted in the desert among society’s rejects. Infant baptism is not tied to an intentional commitment of the baptized to follow in the radical ways of Jesus. As such, it can become a watered-down (no pun intended) default practice of the majority culture that says you’re part of the club.

In contrast, the baptism of a much older child or adult stresses the human response to God’s grace. The one baptized has chosen this rite and made a deep commitment. It is more a re-naming and renewing ceremony that marks a transition into adulthood or into a fresh start, a forsaking of old ways and commitment to a new path. In the baptism of an adult or teen, water symbolizes the washing away of the old life, a burial of the egocentric self under the waters, and the emergence of a new life.  Here the baptized one shows he or she has turned away from a past in order to follow Jesus. This picture of baptism lacks the sweetness of a baby’s rite; in fact, adults endure a certain loss of dignity to be immersed in water. Unfortunately, the image of washing away sins in baptismal waters can lead to “what-a-worm-am-I” theology. And it emphasize the individual’s rather than the community’s role in the spiritual journey.

This week Richard Rohr shared an online devotional in which he lamented our reliance on words for spiritual experience rather than direct engagement with the nature. He said words have “kept us from mystical experience and the deeper knowing of reality.” Rohr regrets that we “do our rituals inside buildings . . . separating us from the consolations and the discomforts of nature. . . . Prior to the invention of the written word . . . the way God made God's self available was through all of the creatures, seasons, and cycles of life and death. The wondrous nature of the world itself is the universal religion that precedes all later religions.”

While that is probably true, I think ritual might serve as the mediator between religion with NO language and religion with TOO MUCH language. In ritual the stuff of nature--water, fruit of the vine, grain of the field--mediate between our bodies and brains, between our raw experience in the world and our need to make meaning of those experiences. Like art, ritual connects heart and head, body and spirit.

Not a fan of “empty” ritual? I’m not either. But I need ways to empty myself of the constant chatter in my brain and participate in patterns of living and loving that are far older and far bigger than I am. I am glad for companions who join me in these sacred rites and in the revisions we make to them.

God of constancy and God of infinite variety and surprise, speak to us through the patterns of days and the repetition of our rites.  Amen

Raven, S. Theology from Exile, Vol. III, The Year of Mark: Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity. Frederick, MD: Sea Raven, 2014.