Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Local Libraries Rule

When I was a kid, my mom had this crazy notion that instead of sitting around and watching cartoons on Saturday morning, the three of us should be out doing other stuff. We took swimming lessons (which was a miserable failure for both my sister and myself), I think I took some dance classes, we went out to breakfast sometimes. And, we'd go to the library. Looking back on it, I think this was probably a royal pain for my mom. My father would always stay home, so my mom would go out with the three of us - three small kids, and my brother was autistic - and she took us to the one place where we had to be quiet. Clearly, she thought it was important. My brother, being autistic, wasn't much of a reader. I don't really remember if he checked books out or not. But my sister and I sure did. Usually we went to the local branch of the library near our house - it was (and is) called the Loving Branch, and I think I used to mix it up with Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. That library was where I started reading chapter books.

Chapter books became special to me when I was very young. I learned how to read fairly early, thanks to my big sister's concern that I not go to school in Kindergarten without knowing how to read. So, by the time I got to first grade, I was ready to start reading chapter books. But, my first grade teacher had another idea. She didn't believe that any kids should be ahead of any other kid. So, when we had library time in school, we weren't supposed to check out chapter books. We were only supposed to check out the "easy reader" books. Well, one day I found a chapter book I wanted and I checked it out - and the teacher made me return it. My mom went through the roof! The teacher wouldn't budge on her rule though. So, my mom called the librarian. It turned out she also worked part-time as the Loving Branch! So, they worked out a deal where I could just check out chapter books after school, and my teacher just never had to know about it. My first chapter book was one she thought I would like. It was called The Saturdays, about four siblings who pooled their allowances so that each sibling could have a wonderful adventure with the money each week. I did love it. I read it many many times, and I kept visiting that librarian at the Loving Branch for years, borrowing Encyclopedia Brown, All of A Kind Family, and Betsy, Tacy & Tib books to my hearts content.

Some of you probably already know, but just in case, Micah has pointed out in this post that this is Banned Books Week. It is a sad thing to be kept from a book you want to read. While my reading hobby may have faded over time, my love for books hasn't. So, tonight, to celebrate Banned Books Week, I went to my new local public library and got myself a library card. And, while I was at, I checked out Anne Lamott's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith . Its not on the list of "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books", but I hear its good and I want to read it. And that is what celebrating Banned Books Week is really about - not about reading the most shocking thing we can find, or being shocked by what other people find offensive, but celebrating our privilege to read what we want, when we want to read it.

Monday, September 26, 2005

To turn, turn 'twill be our delight...

A Sermon for September 25th, 2005 (Proper 21A)

When I was a kid, I had a book of Aesop’s Fables that I loved very much. At the bottom of each page, in italics, there was a short sentence to explain the moral of the story. It might say “Moral: Slow and steady wins the race” or “Moral: Be careful what you wish for”. While reading through the Gospel reading this week, the parable of the two sons, I couldn’t help but wonder how a children’s book of fables would explain this story. It seems to me that the most obvious, and common, moral attached to this short story is “Actions speak louder than words.” That’s a good moral – and has support from other parts of the Bible, such as the letter of James where we are admonished to be “doers of the Word, and not merely hearers.” (James 1:22). The parable of the two sons becomes another story where we sort ourselves, and all too often, all those other people we know too. Are we the kind of people who take action - even if we are somewhat reluctant, the job gets done? Or, are we more like the second son, the one with good intentions but nothing to back them up? We have a name, you know, for those second sons, the kind who say one thing but never do it: hypocrites.

More likely than not, this is what Jesus was getting at with this parable: The Gospel of Matthew is particularly concerned with the hypocrisy of the religious officials, and Jesus is addressing the Pharisees with this parable. Certainly, the story was intended to convict them, to show them that following the details of the law while ignoring the commandment to love was indeed hypocritical.
I’m sure most of us have known people like the Pharisees, who claim the name of Christian, but their piety seems more of a status symbol, never backed up by love in action.

And before we know it, our short parable has become a vehicle for judgment for us as well, as we sort our friends and those we are less friendly with into the categories of reluctant do-gooder or irresponsible hypocrite. Being the typical humans that we are, I’m sure we all know which category our friends are likely to end up in, and which category we tend to use to condemn those with whom we disagree. We all want to be like the first son, the one who messes up a little but is clearly better than the second son. After all, actions speak louder than words.

But, here is where I get somewhat stuck. It seems that this reading of the parable asks me to believe that words don’t really matter all that much, that the father wasn’t really hurt by the first son’s refusal. But I know from my own life – and I suspect that you might have experienced this too – words do matter. Anyone who has ever been the kid on the playground responding to teasing by saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” knows that the saying just isn’t really true. Careless words, angry words, mean and critical words – they do matter. Some words cause enough pain that almost no amount of action can repair the damage. Being the first son, the one who refuses his father, does not seem like such a prize anymore.

So, we have two sons, both of whom have hurt their father: one by his careless words, the other by his careless actions, or rather, inaction. Do we as Christians really aspire to either of these? Of course we don’t. Which is why this parable is a more accurate description of reality than we might care to admit. We all fall short of the glory of God – those moments when we remember our duty to love our neighbor, those points in our lives when we say yes to the call of Jesus are the good moments, and we all have them. And we all have moments when we refuse to listen to God, and points when we forget our promises to serve Jesus with our lives. If used as a tool for judgment, this parable will convict us all.

But, if heard as an invitation, this parable will welcome us all. Why is it that the first son returned to work in the vineyard, after refusing his father? Perhaps he had gone out to meet his buddies, and discovered that they were all working for their own fathers, so he turned around and went back. Maybe he was in the middle of a good book, or had a backache, or just in a bad mood when his father asked, but changed his mind and decided to help out after all. The point is, he changed his mind. He turned around. That is the root meaning of the word repentance: it simply means to turn around.

Changing our minds, seeing that we were wrong and repenting is not a popular thing these days. It flies in the face of our culture of self-sufficiency, of perfectionism and confidence. Admitting our mistakes – intentional or not – pulls at the masks of caring competence we tend to wear. It takes strength and courage to go back and fix what has been said or done.
Sometimes, we have to be in the depths of our messes before we realize how much has gone wrong. Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace tells this story of repentance:

“Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: ‘Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, “I shouldn’t have done that.’ ‘My messy house’ says it all: with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, no such a monster after all, but only human. If the house if messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?”

Why not make room for God? Why not find a way to mend, to heal, to reconcile ourselves with God and our neighbor? It seems to me that the parable of the two sons is unfinished. The first son has repented, and gone back to join his father and take care of what needs to be done. But what of the second son? I believe the invitation to repentance is still open to him, and his father is still waiting. I believe it to be true for him because I believe it is true for all of us.
There is never a wrong time to reconcile ourselves with the God who loves us, and it is never too late to turn around and try to do the right thing on the second, third or tenth try. In a perfect world, we would all say the right thing, and then do what we promise. But in this world, we have repentance instead, and Jesus has just issued your invitation, with the promise that God will be waiting when we come back, no matter how messy we are when we show up.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Copy Cat

Today is a stay inside kind of day, and what better day than to join in and play one of those memes circling around? Hence, I bring you the archive game, a la... well, lots of people.

1. Go into your archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).
3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.

At the same time, they conclude that this conversion is not automatic, and is not guaranteed.

I'm not sure if this really counts... its from a required post for one of Trevor's classes. But, since he is largely to blame for the existence of my blog, I'll let it slide.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Setting Up

I've been having some network problems at church. I haven't been able to access the shared drive or the database from my computer, which isn't a huge issue, but kind of a pain. So, our senior warden/computer guy came to my office after church one Sunday to try and fix the problem. It took my computer 20 minutes to boot up. I had just gotten used to that fact, but he happily decided that my computer was indeed too old and I needed a new one. So, I now have sitting on my desk a pretty new flat-screen 19" monitor, attached to a nice new computer on the floor. Its not a Mac... but hey, I have a new computer. I'm very happy.

So, I am setting up all my old bookmarks (I forgot to export them from the old machine. Oops.) And, since this is a somewhat mindless task, I am finally listening to the cds of a presentation by Phyllis Tickle on "The Stewardship of Time." She is phenomenal. I have been reading her book "Prayer is A Place", and enjoying it, but wow. It just doesn't even compare to hearing her talk. She is talking about the disciplines of keeping the Sabbath, spirituality, hospitality, corporeality, and Melchizedek. Ironically, I am multi-tasking while listening to her. I guess some messages take a few tries to soak in.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Inspired by a Quiz

Test-taking time is over in our house, that is, tests of a serious nature. Thanks to all who shared good wishes for Luke.

I have pondering of late this latent desire I have to go back to school again. Now, granted, part of this is related to how I just got out of school. And it is partly due to the fact that this is the first fall since I was four that I wasn't either in school or working for a university. But, even with all that aside, I still like to entertain the thought of being a teacher someday, which would require more school. Of course, if more school means furthering my plot to have a few of my academically-inclined friends all relocate to the same particular West Coast town and attend the same seminary consortium program... then bring on the books!!

One of the somewhat-formidable hoops for going back to school is all those dern languages they want you to learn. So, when Beth had this lovely quiz about Which Language I Should Learn, I simply had to do it!

You Should Learn Spanish

For you, learning a language is about career advancement and communication.
Knowing Spanish will bring you tons of possiblities for jobs and travel. Bárbaro!

The best part? I already learned that one! What an encouraging thought on a Tuesday morning in September.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

This is a Test. A What? A Test.

Exams week has arrived in our household! For the next week, Luke will be taking the qualifying exams for his PhD. This is (ideally) the mark of the halfway point: he has finished his coursework and they gave him a Masters degree in June. Now he takes the exams to prove that he really has learned enough to start working on his dissertation. Then, this fall will consist of TA-ing for a class and writing his proposal.

All in all, the exams seem pretty humane. The first part was to write a 15-page paper that could serve as the beginnings of a dissertation chapter, and that was due last week. This week, Luke received three three-part questions (via email - thankfully, he can take these exams at home in Lansing where all his books are located). He has a week to answer each question. The questions are drawn from a set body of literature - between 100 and 200 books and articles for each exam area. He read many of these books and articles in classes over the last two years, and studied the rest over the summer.

Someone I was talking to recently about this said, "Oh - they sound pretty much like GOES." Since it was a useful frame of reference, I simply agreed. (For you non-ECUSA seminarians, GOES= General Ordination Exams, week-long exams ususally taken during senior year.) But, the comparison has gotten me thinking again about why the GOES need some, well, a lot of work. Now, I should concede up front that PhD qualifying exams have a different purpose from GOEs - the first being an indicator of readiness for further academic work, the latter being an indicator of rediness for ordained ministry. Still, both exams measure familiarity with the literature and topcis of particular areas at the end of coursework. The biggest problem with the GOEs, however, is that there is no canon of literature being measured! The GOEs are a national test, but there is no national curriculum being tested. So, seminarians spend months preparing for questions that they may never have covered at any point in seminary, with very little guidance of what to read. Now, most of the time, the questions are fairly reasonable. But sometimes they aren't. Without a particular body of literature to refer to, there is no contstructive was to say "Gee, it didn't occur to any of us that we needed to teach premillenial dispensationalism in our history classes because none of these books really ever talk about it."

My other problem with the GOEs is the rapid fire nature of the questions. Each section is given for three hours - you get the question in the morning, and turn it in at noon, or get the question after lunch and turn it in at the end of the afternoon. Now, even in my very very limited time in ministry, I've discovered that the ability to find information quickly and to write cogently in a short period of time come in handy. However - the lack of this ability should not be enough to keep someone out of the ministry!

I wonder what it would do to (for?) our seminaries if there was a basic canon of literature for the seven GOE areas. I wonder what it would do for the clergy over time. I don't think that reading from certain lists would create cookie-cutter clergy - just because we read some of the same materials doesn't mean we all agree with them, or interpret them in the same way. If we don't agree on Biblical interpretations, why would we agree on Phyllis Trible's take on Genesis or Lathrop's endless juxtapositions? Luke has certainly read books and articles that aren't on the exam lists too - so it wouldn't necessarily lead to "teaching to the test" anymore than profs already try to do. At least there would be soemthing specific to teach to!

The level of anxiety raised by comprehensive tests is never going to be eliminated. But, I believe it could be alleviated with some reform - and the GOEs might end up being the useful diagnostic they really want to be, rather than the ambigous-at-best/hazing ritual/stumbling block to ministry that they seem to be in so many cases.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to put those rapid writing skills to good use... newsletter deadline is this week!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

What She Said

I have a lot on my mind today, none of which gets a post. I mean, I think organizing the teacher resource room for the first day of Sunday School is fun, but I already know I'm weird. Although, Jane, it'd be nice to have you around this week :)

So, since my iTunes is running anyway, I'll jump onto Beth's game. I don't have an iPod, so I'm making it an iTunes game. Ha. I love making up my own rules.

How many total songs?
479 songs, 2.1 GB. I need to upload some more stuff!

Sort by Song Title - first and last songs?
First: #41 by Dave Matthews Band
Last: You've Got A Friend in Me from Toy Story

Sort by Time - first and last songs?
First: (0:05) An mp3 called Sunday Voice that Mark sent me once so I could hear how he lost his voice
Last: (12:03) Faye Tucker/Philosophy of Loss (hidden track) - Indigo Girls

Top Ten Played Songs
1. Beautiful You - Considering Lily
2. Watershed
3. Mystery
4. Shame on You
5. It's Alright
6. The Wood Song
7. Least Complicated
8. Hammer and A Nail ... 2-8 all by the Indigo Girls
9. Come Away - Fran McKendree
10. Martyrs and Theives - Jennifer Knapp

Last Ten Played (its been on shuffle for about an hour)
1. Bare to the Bone - Carrie Newcomer (now playing)
2. Groove Is In the Heart - Deee-Lite
3. O Praise Ye The Lord- Hymns Through the Ages
4. People of the River - Fran McKendree
5. Elevation- U2
6. You Are My All In All - Nicole Nordman
7. God Bless The Child - Billie Holiday
8. The Yes of Yes - Carrie Newcomer
9. Sisters And Brothers - Free To Be You And Me
10. In A Little While -U2

Find 'sex.' How many songs show up?
not a single one.

Find 'death.' How many songs show up?
man. I am so boring.

Find 'love.' How many songs show up?
36: praise music, hymns, soundtracks to RENT and Moulin Rouge... and, of course the theme to the Apprentice!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Curates Always Preach on Holidays (Proper 18)

Sometimes it can be frustrating to be Episcopalian and depend on the lectionary. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I found myself wanting to hear the story of Jesus calming the storm at sea, or a portion of Revelation, to hear the promises of the new heaven and earth, when God will wipe away the tears from our eyes. The end chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans with its simple, practical lessons in common courtesy leave me wanting a bit more. The devastating pictures on the news, hearing from friends whose houses and churches have been lost, the worsening situation in New Orleans leave me wondering “Where is God in all this?” And I’m haunted by the simplest song: Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.
What is true every day in our communities of faith is true in times of crisis and tragedy: God is present in the acts of genuine love we extend to one another.

And suddenly, the simple practical writings of Saint Paul shine as a beacon in a week of dark and sad stories. To see God at work in times like these we must let love be genuine – a simple instruction, perhaps, but certainly not an easy task.

The fast-paced life of modern America makes it hard for genuine love to flourish. The day to day busy-ness sometimes takes over, and we simply don’t see those opportunities to put love into action. In times of crisis and devastation such as we have seen this week in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the temptation to turn away is even stronger. The pictures on TV and the stories of desperate people are overwhelming, even numbing after a while. When the devastation is so incomprehensible, it seems that there is little we can do to be of any help. But genuine love does not need enormous miracles of Biblical proportions to be put into action. Rather today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus promises to be present whenever two or three gather in His name, when one child of God reaches out to another in genuine love.

First of all, this means walking through life “face first”, with our eyes and ears open to the world around us. Genuine love calls Christians to be present in all the moments that make up life: in the joys and the sorrows, in the celebrations and in the times of loss. How can we extend hospitality to strangers if haven’t noticed them sitting on our doorstep? How can we feed the hungry if we pass them by? We can only rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep when we open our eyes, and discover just who around us is weeping and who around us is rejoicing. Once love helps us see, we can take the time to stop and celebrate with the friend when she calls after her last radiation treatment, or sit and listen with the friend who just doesn’t know how to fix his difficult relationship with his teenager. It may not seems like much, but – as someone who has recently lost a family member – let me assure you that these moments are indeed holy.

This awareness of the world is weighty – which is why genuine love must be rooted in prayer, and perseveres only in prayer. In prayer and worship, we ground ourselves in the knowledge and love of God. That is why we come here every Sunday and gather together in worship: to remind each other and ourselves that nothing we do in the name of God is done alone. In our common prayer, we offer our cares to God, and remember that we are only vessels of God’s love, and witnesses to God’s presence in the world.

With our eyes opened and our spirits strengthened, we can name God at work in the world around us. And when the pain and loss of Hurricane Katrina seems too overwhelming, we can watch and wait and pray with the people of the Gulf Coast just a bit more. God will be present in all of these moments – and our genuine offers of love will guide us towards further action.

Because when we walk in genuine love, caring for those in need is a natural next step. Even if our actions seem small compared to the situations like our Southern neighbors face, acts of love point to God. Our catechism tells us that the mission of the Church is to restore people to unity with God: in a word, we are about reconciliation. Today’s Gospel lesson shows us how simple this can be. When one of us goes to another one in order to restore what has been broken, reconciliation – the mission of the Church – happens with just two people. So there really is so much we can do: over the next days and weeks, money can be donated to Episcopal Relief and Development, health kits and bottled water can be given, perhaps you may even be moved to help shelter refugees.

These actions help with immediate needs, but they do more than that. Genuine love gives birth to genuine hope: the hope that in good times, and in our darkest times, and even in death, we will never be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus. When we who are the Body of Christ in this world, are willing to walk with people in their trouble, to serve in times of devastation and give what we have in times of crisis – we witness to the truth: Where true love and charity are, God is there. May our words, our actions during the comings weeks and throughout our lives be a witness to this simple truth.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Things I'm Glad I Didn't Know Beforehand

I need a file for those things. My latest entry would be this: Our friend Morgan called Tuesday night. He and his family live in New Orleans. What I didn't know until Morgan called is that he had stayed in New Orleans during the hurricane. Thanks be to God, he is now out of the city and safe.

Dylan noted that today will be a day for bloggers to help raise funds for relief from Hurricane Katrina. So, here are a few links:

Episcopal Relief and Development

Mercy Corps

Red Cross

Also, the Diocese of Mississippi has a listing of clergy and parishes that have been directly affected - six of their parishes are no longer standing- as well as a list of supplies that are needed in the area.

For anyone in the Michigan area, there will be two prayer services tonight at 5:30, sponsored by the diocese - one in Detroit at the Cathedral and one at St. Paul's, Lansing (my parish).

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers." -Romans 9:12-13, from this Sunday's lectionary

*** Later edit: Emily of Hazlenut Reflections has upped the ante for giving: for every Episcopal blogger who joing the "Blogging Episcopalians" ring in the next two weeks, she will increase her personal donation to ERD by $5. I know a lot of you are already on that ring, but if you're not, now is the time.