The Cloud of Witnesses

20200629_104432Ancestors have been coming up with more frequency than usual in what I’m reading and reflecting on lately. In her video message and article around the Commemoration of the Emanuel 9 June 17, 2020, Pastor Kwame Pitts speaks about what it means to venerate African-American ancestors who struggled against racial injustice in their own times, and honoring their lives by continuing the struggle for equality in our time. I’ve also been reading Kaitlin Curtice’s memoir Native: Identity, Belonging and Rediscovering God, in which she seamlessly includes noticing the legacy and honoring the ways she experiences communing with her Potowatomi ancestors in her own hybrid native-Christian faith.

On this date 50 years ago, a major step was taken by my predecessors, making it possible for me to be a Lutheran pastor. After much advocacy and theological wrestling, the wording was changed in the official documents of the Lutheran church body I belong to, allowing for the ordination of women. Folks of European ancestry may not have as robust of a concept of interaction with our ancestors as Black or Indigenous people, although our history books are full of European events and leaders. I need to read more about the strength of ties to our ancestors and a history of trauma as a people. Yet the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12🕐:1 does resonate, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Today I name some of the women who made me who I am, and opened the way to me living fully into my dual vocation as a faith leader and a mother. My feisty maternal grandmother Florence and the independence of her sister Thelma as well as my own mother Marilyn and her sister Jane certainly instilled in me a fierce sense of independence and the confidence that my voice deserves to be heard. These are not women who keep quiet, but have been and are adamantly faithful to Christ and their families. In the Metro DC Synod where I served first a congregation as pastor, the very first woman ordained in our denomination served: Rev. Elizabeth Platz, and that synod now has its first Latina bishop. A couple places in my book I name the work of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich and theologians like Rosemary Ruether and Delores Williams who stretched the metaphors for God to include feminine imagery, which makes my recognition of God’s mothering actions possible. The personal ancestors and collective witness of ancestors who opened the way for me to become who I currently am calls forth gratitude and determination to become an ancestor of faithful influence on others.

*Photos of me with both my grandmothers

Editing: Parts 2, 3 & 4

I wrote a blogpost about editing right after I turned in my full book manuscript last November. I wondered at the time if I would have anything new to say once I got further into the process. Now that I have passed (nearly) 3 more phases of editing, finally receiving the somewhat ominous words in an e-mail: “This will be your last opportunity to review the pages before they go to press,” I find that indeed there is more to say. There have been multiple layers to this editing task, each requiring a different focus from me.

Feedback from my publisher’s editor

There’s an emotional discipline required for that first round of editing by a professional editor, a requisite humility about one’s content, and a commitment to detachment for the sake of the book that made me scribble “editing as spiritual discipline” on a scrap of paper sometime in March. Even if we think of ourselves as ruthless self-editors, it turns out we cannot evaluate what we cannot see. And I could not see which parts did not fit with the whole, because I could never approach it with fresh eyes. Every time I read a section, it already made sense to me because I knew what I meant to say or why I thought it should be in there. So I vowed to tackle my editor’s edits at least a chapter at a time. She returned the first half of the chapters to me in one batch with a note that Chapter 4 was the one she found to be most “disjointed.” Gulp.

I am not much of a procrastinator, as any former roommate could tell you, so I set to work right away and was delighted by how quickly I zipped through the first chapter. There were very minor punctuation or grammatical corrections (I sometimes have an excess of commas, and “Jesus’s” for the possessive still trips me up). That chapter, I did remind myself at the time, was always my most polished, as it had been part of the book proposal and had been reviewed by multiple friends. Chapters 2 & 3 had a little more editing for me to chew on, but not too bad. Then I stopped. I did other things, because kids and a congregation and a pandemic suddenly breaking out were all really valid other directions to focus while avoiding the mess I feared awaited me in that Chapter 4 file.

A little while later, my editor sent the second half of the chapters, and started going through and responding to my changes/questions/comments on the first three chapters which I had returned to her. When she responded to one of my comments, she ended the e-mail by saying, “Thanks for the work you’ve continued to do on the manuscript. It’s a book to be proud of.” I did not realize how much I had needed that affirmation in the midst of the ego burden that is editing, but that released my fear enough to open up chapter 4. She liked my book and my writing, despite the fact that she felt this chapter needed work. My editor and I had conversations in the “comment” boxes in the document then, and more back-and-forth on that chapter than any of the others, but it didn’t kill me. “My intention is to make your message as clear as possible, not to change what you are saying” she wrote (or something like that; I’m paraphrasing). My editor used a split screen, she told me, to put my version next to hers and make sure the final version was the one I wanted.

Copy editing

Then the manuscript was handed off to a new person or two (there were 2 different colors) for copy editing, still keeping “track changes” on in the files we sent back and forth, highlighted in different colors for whomever made various adjustments. That phase felt easier, more technical, like there was less at stake, and it was still all on the computer screen in a typical Word document font. I got that one done quickly, because the less emotionally-fraught technical corrections I will allow myself to do in the evening once the kids have gone to sleep and I’m tired, or even while they are making noise in another room during the day. “Did you learn anything about yourself from that phase of editing?” asked one of my writing partners named Jen over the phone last week. I thought for a moment then replied, “I probably hyphenate too much.” The copy editor was not a fan of my creating-my-own-adjectives-by-stringing-words-together approach. I suppose that’s how I try to write in my own vernacular, how I might tell a story in person. It works on a blog, but maybe not so much in a book?

Proofs

It is a brave new world of editing once the manuscript actually looks like a book. First the production manager e-mailed me a pdf for reference, promising to print and mail an actual copy on paper. I loved the font! It is reminiscent of the font on the cover art, which is so striking. And there was my name, plain as day, on pages with corners to indicate the size of the book. Astonishing. Then my editor was back in touch looking for a few suggestions of people to ask for endorsements for the back cover of the book. I’d been thinking about this, and had a wish list of women clergy and authors with some “reach” whom I admire largely from afar. She replied almost immediately that it was a great list and one of those was a CPI author, so she’d begin inviting them as soon as possible. I heard from one of them the next day that she’d been asked and is honored to write an endorsement.

A few days later, when the kids and I returned from riding bikes, I opened the screen door and there was a package. Inside was my book, the “proofs.” According to my five-year-old daughter I squealed and jumped up and down. It’s kind of a big deal, you know? I’m three chapters into this last chance to edit: marking clearly in dark ink, then mailing only the pages with changes. My publisher has also sent it to a freelance proofreader at the same time, with the deadline for both of us only 2 weeks away. My husband just said to me that he thinks he would be paralyzed by the need to make it perfect, so might never get it done, if he were in my shoes. But I take on only one chapter per day, and I already got one done today, so I’m pausing to write a blogpost. I’ve made 9 notes so far. I can see the ending, and am starting to feel the excitement.

Recognizing Jesus on the Road Now

People of God,

We’ll make meaning out of all this later. Or as Olaf sings in Frozen 2, “This will all make sense when I am older!” I wish, Olaf, I wish that were true. We will interpret and spin what God did throughout this crisis, for us or through us, afterward. We will try to leave out the details that do not show us to advantage, and become the heroes of our own stories, the narrators of our own losses. Later.

Being paralyzed by sadness is understandable for awhile, though. When Jesus asked Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. That is a whole mood for many of us right now. We suspected it was coming, but still, the official announcement this week that students will not return to their school buildings for the rest of this school year in our state makes parents and kids alike inclined to stand around looking dumbfounded and sad. Do you not know what has happened? Of course that’s why we look this way, and are just standing here.

There are two phrases in the road to Emmaus story that are heart-breaking to me. The first is the travelers’ initial response to Jesus, about himself: “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” We had hopes too, for all of these milestones, and graduates walking across a crowded stage and growing old together with loved ones who are ill or have died, for the small business that has had to shut down and so many other things. All those hopes are dashed.

But the second phrase from this story that will not let go of my heart, Church, is the question asked in hindsight: “Were not our hearts burning within us (while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us)?” Jesus walked with these two through the valley of the shadow of death, and they want desperately to read back into their memories, after the fact, the idea that they really knew what was going on. It’s breaking my heart because I wonder about them and us: Will we be faithful only in hindsight, or in real time? Can we possibly recognize Jesus in the flesh while this is happening and let that recognition influence our actions and faith now? Or will it just be something we add to a story later, from the safe distance of memories?

Jesus is most certainly walking this road with us. He is an essential worker. A nurse. A delivery truck driver. A factory worker who stays at work for 28 straight days to make the parts needed for Personal Protective Equipment. But also, we can definitely recognize Jesus in the vulnerable ones whose most heroic act will be staying alive during quarantine, if they can. Victims of domestic violence, those struggling with mental illness, those who could not afford enough to eat before millions lost their jobs. Who do these children of God resemble, if not the terrifying vulnerability of Jesus Christ himself? The time to respond, seeing Jesus in those beside us on the road, is now.

Hindsight provides a warning, and if we did not have enough appreciation for historians before, the comparisons made to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 have been invaluable now. In an article for Sojourners this week called “Flattening the Curve of Xenophobia” (I’ll put a link in the comments), Robert P. Jones warned: “But if history has a lesson for us here, it is this: Where there is a massive wave of suffering and death, a second wave of racism and xenophobia is typically not far behind. Experiences of mass grief and economic stress easily generate a desire for someone to blame. This is especially true of events that defy logic, such as the randomness of illness.” So now, still on the road, is the time to see Christ in our neighbors, especially those we tend to look right thru, before they are made into scapegoats.

The world cannot wait for followers of Jesus to look back in hindsight and repent, or for us to get comfortable and sure enough of ourselves to realize, “Oooohhhhh…that’s where God was in all of this.” We know this already: God is revealed when we walk alongside people and ask them what is causing them such sorrow, truly listening. And not just for the ones who welcome us and consider us family, but for the folks we don’t often recognize as belonging us. How are communities of color experiencing this pandemic differently than white folks? The disparities are stark. How does an undocumented person working in a high-risk industry balance the need to put food on the table with the need to stay safe? What happens when a person experiencing homelessness falls ill? On whom can white, middle class people with phones and computers and the ear of our legislators put pressure to direct resources that will save lives? The faith-based organizing group Isaiah is advocating now to make it possible for everyone eligible to vote in next November’s elections. Most of you who will listen to this have a great deal more security and resources to share with those who have very little. Now is the time to be extremely intentional about sharing our time, expertise, voice, money and access to power. Those who control the narrative have enormous power. God can and will put us to work NOW to shape the way this story ends, once we recognize Jesus right in front of us.

The Women Insist: Resurrection Must Change Us

It is after Easter, when there are glimmers of resurrection, and whispers that perhaps the traumatic ending will not last forever. We are also getting to the point of the coronavirus pandemic when we are asking what it will mean. There is pleading (please, let this terrifying collective experience mean something of value) and warnings (we are in for some serious gas-lighting as advertisers and politicians try to lull us back into consumer mode). But other than asking the questions, lamenting or worrying about it, how do we actually move forward as if we believe resurrection matters?

Will resurrection actually change anything? Look to the women; we have so much practice insisting that resurrection matters, even when nothing seems to have changed. The women are the first in every Gospel account to meet the risen Jesus, because they arrived to fulfill their final care-giving duties. None of us can just move on, without the last possible chance to say goodbye. Caring for those we’ve loved is integral to who we are. So we show up, in whatever ways we still can, for those we love. Care-giving may lead to discovering the possibility of resurrection. It does for Mary and Mary Magdalene and Salome.

What women also know deeply, no matter how much hope we have that THIS, FINALLY, will be the wake-up call we all need, is that resurrection is not a one-time event. Jesus rose from the dead, yet his followers only apply that truth in fits and starts to how they behave as his Body in the world. Resurrection should change everything – and it does – but not immediately. After the women run from the tomb, meet Jesus on the way, and tell the male disciples he is alive, they are not believed until the men see Jesus for themselves. So little has changed.

Women were leaders in the early church, marginalized as mystics, and had to fight even in living memory to be accepted for ordination. We have been pushing against post-resurrection disappointment for a very long time. My denomination began ordaining women 50 years ago, and like resurrection, the Body of Christ became more alive, more responsive to some of us. To be precise, though, that milestone was only for the ordination of white, hetero-sexual women. The first African-American Lutheran woman pastor was ordained 40 years ago, and the first lesbian woman was ordained 10 years ago. So, hooray – 50 or 40 or 10 years of official authority! We have a female presiding bishop now, and yet we know we are not anywhere near praising the unique gifts of women for leadership, to point the Church in a new direction, towards the resurrection it desperately needs.

When I become weary of preaching and living in the “already/not yet” of God’s promises to change our reality, to birth a new creation, I look to the women. Jesus knew what women were capable of, even when the rest did not, or do not still. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the eleven (male) disciples met Jesus at the mountain where they were directed to meet him, and then they worshiped him but some doubted. And Jesus gave the great commission to them there. Why not to the women? My working theory is because the women were already doing the work of ministry. They did not need to be instructed and sent beyond sending them from the tomb, because they did exactly what Jesus told them to do, the first time. Even though their voices and authority were not trusted.

Women in ministry embody how resurrection changes lives, against all odds. Against persistent, deadly patriarchy, we do not give up, or shut up. We know that the call of Jesus to “go and tell” is on our lives because the way we are able to carry the news is the only way some people will hear it (and I’m not just referring to “women’s ministries”).

During the stay-at-home orders and the struggle to “flatten the curve,”: behold the clergy women. Yes, clergy women who are parents are tearing our hair out as much as women in other career fields, now suddenly trying to work from home while also caring for babies or toddlers, guiding distance learning for school-aged children or responding to the social or mental health needs of older children.

Clergy women can now see ourselves in the screen while recording or live-streaming, and our own ingrained self-criticism rivals the number of comments about our appearance made even on digital platforms. For some of us who are in ministry for the care-giving, our skills are even less obvious now than ever before, because the only time people can witness us interacting with others is that worship service online. Yet we remain steadfast in believing that resurrection means change:

  • Change for the ways the Body of Christ exhausts and demeans some of our members

  • Change for the hope we have to make a difference in the world each day that we open our eyes

  • Change to attitudes until others will finally agree that not only can God use anyone to proclaim the Gospel, but women too are chosen and set apart for this task

Look to how the clergy women are responding, turning exhaustion and frustration into new possibilities. We are reaching out to each other for help. We have always known that we are not a one-man show, in any sense of the term. We need our other Mary or Salome to go with us into these heart-breaking experiences, to process it together, before we share it with everyone else. Our colleague groups are key to any new life emerging from this tomb.

Women preachers like Mary Magdalene tend to tell the story with Jesus at the center, not ourselves. In our eagerness to tell about him, we might embarrass ourselves – admitting at first that we thought he was the gardener – on the way to declaring that Jesus is alive so this changes everything, right?! Decorum is not what is needed, but enthusiasm, a trait Jesus praised in another Mary before his crucifixion.

Congregations were already changing before COVID-19 hit, and certainly some will not survive financially if we have to be physically shut down for months. But if I’ve learned one thing from the women “apostles to the apostles” and my contemporary clergy women colleagues, it must be that resurrection only becomes reality when we break with precedent and innovate, lovingly living into whatever new reality Jesus will send us into next. I will keep my eye on them to see how Jesus’ resurrection breathes new life into the Church in this post-resurrection moment.

Photo by Karl Magnuson on Unsplash

COVID-19 Sermon

The novel coronavirus has gotten into my extended family already, and I was asked for a message specifically about living through this horrible time right now. The Scripture passage that came to mind first is Jesus praying with his disciples in Gethsemane, found in Mark 14, among other places.

First, a word about what I will NOT be saying, what should not be said about this story, because it would be a distortion: To those who are currently showing symptoms of COVID-19, you may indeed be praying for this cup to pass from you, but you are NOT Jesus in the Garden, and it is NOT God’s will that you suffer in this way. If anybody’s “helpful” comments start to stray in that direction, stop listening. The Gospel-writers tell of Jesus’ last days like this so that people would believe he was fully human yet fully god, and even though those things conflicted inside of him, he submitted to follow the path that led to self-sacrifice, defeating death for humankind with God’s overpowering love for us. You are not asked to do that. You do not need to plead with God for your survival or submit to this disease, because IT IS NOT GOD’S WILL that you be sick. No way. God loves you so very much and doesn’t want you to suffer.

The message I would like to share is for the ones surrounding those who are suffering, like my cousin, whose husband is sick. Your loved ones have it, so not only might you have it too, but you are deep in fear and worry for the ones you love. Like Jesus’ disciples on the night they prayed in the Garden, you are carrying the mental, emotional and spiritual anguish of what is already in motion. Jesus’ life is at stake, and maybe so are the disciples’ lives for being associated with him. What does Jesus ask of them? To watch and pray. Instead, they sleep. And I cannot blame them. Look, it is physically and emotionally exhausting to be this worried, for our loved ones, and for ourselves. To have no idea what is going to happen, not only in the long-term, but in the near-term. I know you are worn out, your brain is foggy, you have no filter. You do not have the capacity to deal with people who send you a nasty-gram e-mail or burst out in anger because you came into contact with them last week, before you knew. So don’t open those e-mails. Block the trolls indefinitely, because – God knows – all you can handle right now is to watch and pray. God knows that, and God holds you too, along with your beloved one who is suffering. The Spirit intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words to express (Romans 8:26). That is a promise of love. Let the Spirit do her work; we can only do these 2 things right now, if even that: watch and pray.

Now I realize that Jesus sounds supremely frustrated when he repeatedly finds the disciples asleep, while he’s pouring out his heart to God. “Could you not keep awake one hour?” he says, “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Well, that’s the voice we are hearing in our heads right now. You who maybe are not facing the threat directly, why can’t you get it together and do what needs doing? Rise to the challenge! Be the one Jesus can lean on! When the reality is that our strength right now is severely limited by grief and fear. This moment in Scripture foreshadows the rest of the Jesus Movement. All God has for spreading the good news – that God is for us even when everyone else is against us – are human beings who are going to mess it up a lot. We cannot even manage to stay awake, to watch and pray. Yet somehow, God will work. Through all the tiny things one or the other of us manages to do right in the coming days, God will work. Through supporting and listening to those like medical and public health professionals who have trained for this. By sticking to the two things we can – maybe – manage: watch and pray. We deserve the rebukes, certainly, but also know that Jesus is going to keep coming back for wake-up calls. He’s going to keep checking in, like we are trying to do right now for the people we know who are scared and maybe symptomatic or worried they might be. It might indeed be frustrating, and we keep speaking sternly to our elders telling them to STAY HOME, for heaven’s sake. But like Jesus, we keep circling back out of love. We are all trying to navigate this fear and sadness and uncertainty together. And God is with us. God hears you and holds you, while you watch and pray. We will watch and pray with you.

Of Course I Will Help With Your Book Launch

No, I do not really have the time. But yes, I will absolutely help with your book launch!

I will show up to your launch events because I know how much it means for people to show up. Especially in a care-giving profession where the “ministry of presence” is part of both my roles as pastor and mother, being there for people at significant moments is something I do, but others rarely do for me. I know you are in the same boat, so let me be one who flips the script for you.

I will absolutely find the time to write you a blurb for a book proposal, be part of your FB group hashing out the idea, introduce you to my contacts and send out photos of me holding the book, recommending it to my friends on social media. If members of your launch team get free advance copies, I’ll buy extras to give away to friends, especially in other denominations or spheres of influence.

I will write you book reviews: on Goodreads and Amazon and anywhere else you want me to. You say human effort has to massage the algorithms for your book to become a “recommendation” to those who could really use it? And timing is crucial – it needs to happen in a rush on Day 1? Let me at those algorithms. Which of the online platforms I have written for could use a thoughtful book review? I am on it. Would you like me to introduce you to anyone I write for, to publish an excerpt? Consider it done.

Yes, to the cynics, there is a little bit of quid pro quo in supporting other writers. I do hope that when it is finally my turn to launch a book into the world, they’ll remember and be willing to help me out in their networks. Yet for the writers I know personally who do this, that it is about so much more than trading favors.

Going out of my way to join a launch team without being personally asked is also about the collective good, in my mind. Women’s voices and progressive voices of faith especially need to be amplified. I want people to know we are here, instigating conversations that everybody really needs to have. In spreading the news about your book, I am starting conversations I want to shape the public discourse, for churches I serve to discuss, for faithful-but-not-particularly-church-going friends to know exist. I want there to be smart, loving, insightful takes on adoption that influence how people think about our adoptive family. I want to interact with colleagues and congregants who can appreciate the beauty of pithy prayers that read like poetry for adults or children. I want my relatives who live in “red” states to have a source I trust, to read about faith and politics instead of disengaging. I want MORE influences showing the power of girls leading and busy people claiming sabbath and talking about the end of life in healthy ways. So I will promote Rosalind, Meta, Tracy, Angela, Ellie and Dana’s books like it is my job, to help however I can to launch them into the world.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

“The Law” for a snow day (Sunday)

Sometimes during MN winters, cancelling worship is the right thing to do. Here’s the sermon I would have preached, if it hadn’t have been for the snowstorm.

Isaiah 58:1-12

Matthew 5:13-20

The Law gets a bad reputation, but perhaps unfairly so. The Law can include the Ten Commandments, more minor ordinances, or just be shorthand in our minds for “God’s authority to tell us what to do.” It can feel oppressive or judgmental to we who are already burdened enough by the judgment of this world and ourselves. But if Jesus is, as he says, a fulfillment of the Law, then God giving us Law is an act of love. The Law of God is meant to give us order, the safe parameters in which all people can thrive. We cannot thrive if we are constantly caught in the back-and -forth of being victims or oppressors in dangerous power dynamics. The Law shows us not only how to live with one another, but how to live in relationship with God. When we are confronted with the commandments, for example, we know that we are not capable of keeping them. We realize that God is worthy of awe and gratitude for creating, redeeming and loving us, when we clearly are not able to do any of those things for ourselves.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus says, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

So what might it mean to us, that Jesus became one of us in order to fulfill the commands of the Law and the warnings and promises of the prophets? I don’t think it is that awful paying-the-price-to-an-angry-God-in-place-of-us “atonement” theory; because that is not the kind of God Jesus embodies in any thing he does on this earth. That doesn’t seem to be how Israelites saw sacrifices either. In Leviticus, for example, Aaron was commanded to give a sin offering and a burnt offering of atonement for himself and the people. But listen, the command is given with these words: “so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” Sacrifices were not a way to appease or manipulate the God of Abraham into forgiveness or a better mood – as if human beings have that kind of influence. They were to orient us towards God so we could see God’s glory. The Law does not demand a sacrifice in order for God to love you. God is already there. The Law is another expression of that love.

So, how does he do it? Jesus fulfills the Law and prophets, by interpreting them, showing that they are not dead words to be followed by habit, but living words to engage with as we relate to other people. He interpreted them in his teachings, in his public acts of protest and healing, and even in how he faced own death. Jesus constantly pushed the boundaries of what was clean or unclean, allowed on the sabbath, or with whom you should eat. He often taught in parables, tricky stories that could be seen from multiple angles, and in fact need to be wrestled with to get meaning out of them. He made his hearers engage with God’s messages, instead of just memorize by rote. He was living testimony that a dead, flat interpretation of Scripture is not what God desires. Jesus modeled a flexible engagement with the Words of God that we must interpret for our own time and situations. This is how he fulfills the Law, by taking it into his life in all its meaning, and history and reverence for God, with the real life people surrounding him as a major factor in how he interprets the Law and Prophets.

In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah today, the Lord God is irate over people doing thoughtless fasting, presumably because that is what the written Law prescribes for how to act righteous. “As if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” God doesn’t want those fasts. God wants us to fast from injustice, to cut out of our lives the exploitation of others, until the void it leaves aches like a hunger. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” What does that look like today? What would we be fasting from, if we were going to painfully cut out exploiting others? Interpret the Law in your own context, and live it out to the extreme, exhorts the prophet!

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” Isaiah promises. And Jesus repeats, but changes the verb tense: “You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.” Not in the past tense: “Back in the day, people were faithful, had integrity, cared for each other. They were the salt of the earth, light of the world.” Nope. Neither does Jesus say it in the conditional tense: “Do this, and then you could be the light of the world” Nope. He is declaring the truth in the present to those listening: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

You, interpreters of God’s Word in your own lives, responding to injustice and sharing what you have, you are here to enliven the whole earth. To change the flavor of the conversation, to show people there is way more to see than ominous shadows when looking towards God. You change the equation, with your saltiness and your shining a light from different angles and into neglected corners. It is our Christ-like job to re-interpret how God’s love stretches to the margins, in fact, it is a fulfillment of the Law. Interpret away; it’s what Jesus would do.

 

A Prayer for the Annual Meeting in an Interim

God of love and promise, we bring our full selves and many emotions to this moment in the life of this congregation.

As we gather for the annual meeting, we pray for honesty and hope in equal measure, that we might acknowledge to one another how our hearts are responding to a long-time pastor’s leaving, and the anxiety we hold before the future comes into view. Nudge us to tell our stories, so we might work through our responses together. Reveal seeds of hope and give us the confidence to try new ways of growing together in faith.

As we elect new Council leaders, give us confidence in your ability, O God, to multiply the gifts we bring. Open our imaginations about whom we might become, as we equip all the saints for ministry in daily life.

Holy Spirit, sharpen our focus during this time together. Although the concerns of our families, communities and world are always with us, quiet their demands so that we might think and listen and speak with this faith community in the forefront of our attention during this time. In your name we pray.

Amen.

Grand Gestures and Everyday Care

I walked into a room covered in rose petals, with bouquets of roses in containers placed all around the room. My love – whom I had been dating for about 2 months but already knew I would marry – had invited me to the Medicine Ball, a fancy affair for students at his medical school in Richmond, Virginia. Yet I hadn’t thought his dorm room, our short stop on the way to the big event, would be so…decorated. I learned then what has been reinforced regularly over our 13 years together so far: he shows love through grand gestures and over-the-top generosity. The tree house he built our daughters last summer is epic. When we met with our pastor about the congregation’s capital campaign, we left having pledged more than twice what I anticipated. For my 40th birthday, he planned nearly 3 weeks vacation in Hawai’i for our family, including my birthday and Christmas with my dear friend who lives there. When we discussed buying a hybrid car, we ended up with an all-electric Tesla. My husband sees opportunities aligning as fraught with meaning, recognizes a chance to make a significant difference, and makes grand gestures. It is one of the things that I love most about him.

I am more of a detail person. The ordinary maintenance of keeping us alive and connected must be done too, and sometimes I think I am the only one who sees the needs. Someone must notice what we need from the store, obtain the next size of clothes and shoes for the children, put the ethnic holiday celebrations on the calendar, remember relatives’ birthdays, and write the check for the offering plate. Afterward, I sort through the (literally) thousands of pictures my husband has taken, and organize our memories into blog posts, a calendar and photo books from our many adventures. This is my specialty. I sometimes find myself at an impasse in the face of major purchases or donations, having learned from childhood to be frugal and cautious, but I know exactly what must be done to get everyone out the door in the morning with lunches packed, and how to curate our memories of the significant days later.

For abundant life, this family needs both of us. Both of our tendencies have positives and negatives, and believe me when I tell you they can cause friction. Yet this Advent season, I find myself wondering about our different gifts and related hazards and how God manages to do and be both or all of those things for us. And I marvel, at how our life-giving abundant faith depends upon it.

We are waiting to celebrate the grand gesture of God bringing into the world a human incarnation of the divine. Yet that big event, and the staggeringly generous action of God becoming human, produces a human Christ child who needs holding and nursing and raising into adulthood. Jesus enters into our daily scramble for survival and search for love. Since God the Creator is not present in the same way as human parents, God made sure that Jesus would have Mary and Joseph for his human family. Almighty God would be in Jesus’ life for clarity about his identity. At the end, God would bring Jesus alive again after death, the grandest gesture of all. But for the daily life, God counts on people like Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and later the Holy Spirit working through Jesus’ followers. Without the Incarnation and the Resurrection, what would Jesus’ life mean? It is not enough for Christ to simply be a good teacher who preached peace and love. But a human embodiment of God, who makes solidarity and new life real is who I need. Yet at the same time, the repeated compassionate actions, shocking teachings and passionate outbursts of God-in-the-flesh made the grand gestures trustworthy. The God who became flesh and blood like us is invested in healing our bodies, or protecting them from those who try to self-righteously stone us. The God who can raise Jesus from the dead brings healing and hope in this life when we are agonizing over the death of a relationship or our autonomy under an oppressive power. We need God’s everyday care to trust in the grand gestures, and vice versa. So God did both for us.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Editing

For the last month, I have been editing my book. I’ve added about one and a half chapters of new material to what I had, but the majority of the work to get my manuscript ready for its deadline has been re-working what I wrote last spring. This work has revealed much about my initial way of putting words on paper/computer, and how writing a book doesn’t necessarily resemble the shorter writing I have done in the past.

So Many Words

First, a book is long. I needed a minimum of 50,000 words because that was the book size I had promised, that all departments of the publisher are preparing to design and produce. The chapters I had that were more or less “finalized” already were between 5,000 and 6,000 words each, so multiplied by 9 chapters, I should have been right there. But some of the chapters were significantly less polished than I had remembered leaving them before my summer of full-time parenting and frequent travel. I managed to write some short pieces for publication during those summer months, but there were no periods of time for focusing on the overall arc of my manuscript. Plus, not having heard anything from a publisher in months, I was feeling a little deflated about the project, and gearing up to send it elsewhere when I heard from Church Publishing in mid-July. So the editing did involve one entirely new chapter, and significant work on one that was more of an outline than a readable chapter.

I regularly write short pieces between 500-2000 words, so 5,000 words that all hold together somehow are a challenge. I broke each chapter into about 3 sub-sections to make it manageable. I prize being concise and pithy, but trying to reach that word count for each chapter means that I sometimes indulged tangents or left in less insightful explorations. The dynamic of going into enough detail to be meaningful, while applying broad enough strokes to paint big ideas is one I am still trying to navigate. In the editing, I had a bigger problem: the big ideas of each chapter are related – as they ought to be in a book – and kind of bled into each other after awhile. Since writing a chapter at a time over multiple months last spring, alongside shorter pieces for publication on the subject (to build my “platform”), and even teaching an adult Sunday School class on the topic, I reached a point this month when I could not sort through in my brain whether a particular story or biblical reference sounded familiar because it was already in the book, or because I had used it elsewhere outside the book. My husband Stefan was a great help there. Reading the full manuscript with completely fresh eyes, he could point out several instances of overlap (once within the same chapter!).

Writing Is Not Preaching

Besides the online pieces I write, I am a preacher, and while that can transfer to writing skills, it is also a very different form. I’ve been preaching weekly now since mid-September while serving as a “bridge” interim pastor. I have been surprised by how many of the new sentences (in those 1.5 new chapters, but also new paragraphs here and there) I have written would work better for preaching than perhaps for reading. When I’m preaching, I can pause for emphasis between multiple clauses in a run- on sentence, and get my point across just fine. I can begin multiple sentences with “But” or “Because” and it is emphatic, not poor form. I can use the passive voice without losing the hearer’s interest because of my delivery, whereas on the page I have had to re-route all the passive voice to active instead. When I preach, the italics or underlining or exclamation points are made by my voice! The style guidelines from my publisher actually specify: no italics, underlining or ALL CAPS and “no more than 2 exclamation points in the entire book.” I have had to work out alternative methods of exclaiming and emphasizing strong statements.

A Writer Needs Readers

Other readers have been a very helpful part of the editing process. First Stefan read the book in its entirety, offering encouragement and constructive criticism. I sent out half of the chapters (the ones I was most concerned about) after editing for grammar, to friends who are themselves clergy mothers. They offered suggestions too, from details like: “Who is the ‘we’ you are referring to in this part?” all the way to big picture responses like, “It doesn’t smell like super-sessionism to me.” Feel free to Google that one. It was very helpful to have additional readers who could let me know if something is clear, even if one is not inside my head. The book is designed to be read by clergy women with their congregations – with discussion questions for each chapter – so readers’ own anecdotes will add to the content.

It has been a challenging, thoughtful month. Somehow, working very part-time at the bridge interim congregation (preaching, officiating at funerals, visiting people and encouraging the leadership) has dove-tailed well with this editing process. It gave me the break I need to come back to the manuscript fresh, and the permission to not say “yes” to too many other things during this month. I also suspect that turning in my manuscript is not the end of the edits. In the informational packet from the publisher, the time-line includes 8 weeks of editing, following the deadline. But my contract stated I would turn in a complete, polished manuscript, so I have. Stay tuned for more adventures in publishing!

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash