Devotionals

 
"A Devotional is an old fashioned thing, what a hankie is to a kleenex, a Sunday dress to our better jeans. It was something my Grandmother did with vigor: she read a daily scripture, a daily page practice. How do you align your life with the Holy or something resembling the sacred? You practice. The United Church of Christ launched a far reaching identity campaign about five years ago, called the "God is Still Speaking Campaign." By that we meant open theology, actbout the scripture, which was followed by a sentence prayer. Today we call daily devotional reading "spiritual practice." How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You practice, practice, pive engagement of the Spirit in life. We meant that we needed to more deeply engage the usual with the possibility that we were already entertaining angels unawares. We wanted to grow spiritually.

I write daily devotionals on a rotating basis 4 times a month for the UCC site, Still Speaking Devotionals, along with six other writers who take the other days. Our goal is what we call whimsical piety in God. We want to provide readers, short emails as a means to enjoy a spiritual practice. If you would like to sign up for the daily practice, click here. You can always un-subscribe if it's not your cup of tea."  

Rev. Donna Schaper

Implied Spiritualities and Sneaky Resumes

"God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." - James 4: 4 – 10

Have you ever noticed yourself sneak yourself into a conversation, sneakily? You don't really say what you are doing, you just do it. "When I was in Italy . . . ." Then you go on to relate to the question of how crusty the whole wheat bread is. You are not really joining the conversation about the bread. You are doing what Carl Jung says we all, almost always, do. He says we "smuggle" our biography into everything.

We not only smuggle ourselves into the conversation; we are also so often blinded by the presuppositions of our class, race, church, parents, colleges that we don't really think. We simply react. That by itself would not be such a problem if we would refuse to be proud about it.

Nor would smuggling of our biography into conversation be a big problem if we weren't proud about it.

Self-satisfaction is a real problem. We can learn instead to be humble about our blinders. We can also learn to talk about the bread and openly "brag" about how it is better in Italy. We can especially brag if we keep a smile on our face and a joke in our heart about how great we really aren't.

Prayer
O God, grant us a way to see that we don't have to prove ourselves with you. Let us enjoy grace and forswear pride. Amen.

Honor

The difference between a good competition and an evil one is in its objective. When it comes to showing honor, everybody has a chance to win. There is no limit to the honor that can be shown. But if the competition is for test scores or other belittlements, watch out. You aren't outdoing one another in showing honor. You are just outdoing each other. Honor is the victim of the small.

Consider one of those tests we make children take. Multiple choice is a crazy way to learn. Everyone with a grain of attention knows that choices are not limited to a, b or c. Honor often involves "d," the selection that is not on the page of the test.

Or consider the way most of us are taught sports. We hear the cliché: "It is not about whether you win or lose but how you play the game." And then we watch the parents in the soccer stand scream for victory, at each other.

If we love competition, as many of us do, we can compete for our personal best, which is another kind of victory. That victory multiplies the choices and honors our humanity.

Prayer
Genuine Good God, you who hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good, draw near and help us make multiple choices in honorable ways. Amen.

Eternal Life 

"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" - Mark 17-20

Eternal life is a great objective, as long as it starts today and doesn't reach too far into the future. So many of us make deals with the future. If I can just have this now, I'll do that then. Buy now, pay later, put it on my spiritual credit card, I'll pay it off monthly, or at least I'll pay the interest.

Eternity doesn't come later; it comes now. Eternity has that big sound, like a thunderstorm that will come later in the day, or something grand that is just beyond our reach. The truth about eternity is that it is connected to now. There is no later when it comes to eternity. It can't be postponed. It is 7:45 in the morning, as I write, and this moment is connected, eternally, to the next.

So how do we have eternal life this morning? Especially as we run out to collect our paycheck, find bargains, stretch our resources so they will last, fill our barns, avoid costs? I enjoy spending my days as a security sleuth, a bargain hunter, a postponer of the important on behalf of the immediate. Jesus said, watch out for wealth. It can get in your way. He also was no fan of poverty. He fed the poor and met the fugitive with bread. You figure. But figure now, not later. What is important is already here.

Prayer
Show me what I must do, O God. And then give me eternal life. Amen.


You Belong 

"Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' it shall be said to them, 'Children of the living God.'" - Hosea 1:10-15

"Blogs are little First Amendment machines," said Jay Rosen. Most of us like the first amendment but are not sure about limitless points of view and expression of same. Some of us even wonder if there are just too many people, too much huffing and puffing, too much talk about too little.

The children of Israel knew very little about blogging or social media or populations exploding and tipping. Not one of them had email or a Facebook account. But they did know what it meant to not belong. To wonder if you were just another immeasurable, innumerable, isolate of sand, tramped on by the big people, too small to not fail in a world where some other things are too big to fail.

The prophet Hosea consoles them and us. You do belong. You do matter. You are a child of the living God. Your people will thrive. You will go on. God notices you. You belong. Now that is consolation.

Prayer

O God, when we are oppressed by just how small we are, enter our insignificance with a sense of place and belonging and hope. Count us in. Amen.

Is the Pope Protestant? 

"Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God." - Psalm 90:2

Perhaps you join me in being enthused by the Pope’s encyclical. The Pope’s words have changed the narrative about climate. It will come from praise, not protest. It will come as one subject, uniting the economy and the environment. The Pope has de-gentrified the subject, making it clear that environmental crisis will help the lost and the least most of all. The Pope has used his moral authority, authoritatively. If you have ever prayed about how it is 113 degrees in Pakistan today (as I write today), you might even see the Pope as an answer to multiple and multiplying prayers.

I make the joke about the Pope being Protestant because I am ready to follow him as my moral leader. My Catholic friends say I should find my own damn Pope. I think not.

Prayer
In the name of the mountains, in the name of the sea, in the name of creation, thank you, Pope Frances and God. Amen.

Good Law, Beautiful Faith 

"Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for 'The one who is righteous will live by faith.'" - Galatians 3:12

Religious people are right when we say that there are laws and customs, and ways to do things that help control borders. This is not a sneaky way to talk about the immigration debate or to sneak in Robert Frost poetry about how good fences make good neighbors. Nor is it just a way to reflect on boundary theology, that great new fad telling clergy not to muck around in others' lives inappropriately.

Instead, I just plain respect the law. Laws and customs, especially the consensual, can be very good things. They manage the great mysteries of life and death by saying, "This is how we in our community hatch, match and dispatch." We have traditions and rituals, finely honed by our forebears. Many spiritual people hunger for them.

Spiritual only people, or the "Nones," are also right when they hunger for something real and powerful as spiritual experience. Many really don't know how to do a funeral or a wedding without perjuring themselves. I mostly do memorial services with Nones, and they always start out saying their beloved has "passed" and that they want no God. They do want something, but they don't want to be false or phony at graveside. Sounds Godly to me—to refuse to be phony about God.

What if faith and law came together in a person: not phony law, but good law; not phony, propped-up faith, but real faith? Ah, then we would really be talking.

Prayer
Great originator, you who are the true original, you whom we can only copy over and over again, draw near and give us beautiful law and beautiful faith, day by day, person by person.

We Do Not Lose Heart

"We do not lose heart, though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day." - 2 Corinthians 4:16

Losing heart is easy. There is a lot of trouble everywhere. The nature outside us is indeed wasting away, and I'm not just talking bunions or colony collapse disorder. The renewal of our inner strength is not as hard as we imagine. We can continue to care even when we can't cure. Often when we can't cure, we stop caring. Instead, we can learn to love what we cannot fix.

Lucy Stone, the famous suffragette, understood. She had the chance for a small objective – women's rights – but decided on a larger objective, supporting the 15th Amendment's intention to give black men the right to vote. She suffered for this political expansiveness by being shunned by the other women leaders. They thought she was diluting their cause. She had the inner courage for external caring, not curing.

Listen as well to Federico Garcia Lorca: "I will always be on the side of those who have nothing and who are not even allowed to enjoy the nothing they have in peace." Imagine the horror of corrective rape – where you are tutored out of being a lesbian by being raped – or the horror of losing the very sexual vitality you have as a young man because you are so afraid of being caught and killed. Being an ally is as important as being a fixer.

We know that we're either part of the problem or part of the solution. Doing nothing sides with the status quo. And thus we care, expansively, even when we cannot fix.

Prayer
Spark our speck, O God. Renew our inner nature, day by day. Amen

Foreign Women 

"King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lordhad said to the Israelites, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods.'" - 1 Kings 11:1

Just say the words "foreign women" and certain kinds of people get excited. It's hard enough to be a woman, but to be a foreign woman is to put oneself in a kind of danger. The danger is in the increase in stereotypes that are hurled at you.

I side with Solomon in loving many foreign women and (shhhh, don't tell anyone) I'd love to know more about their gods. I can surely understand the Lord's ancient reasoning about Solomon's women: marrying them would forge alliances both religious and political that might endanger Israel, at least in its small self. As Israel and the rest of us have "gone global," we understand that nation-building and many Gods, even the women involved, are interesting.

I'll never forget a woman I met in Istanbul. She was scarved, smoked cigarettes, drove a red convertible and ran a large dry cleaning business. I think Solomon would have been intrigued – about her and about her God.

Prayer
You who are one God but is known in many ways, draw near and bless us with intrigue and interest in each other. Amen.

The Unity in the United Church of Christ 

"How good it is when sisters and brothers dwell in unity." - Psalm 133:1

The United Church of Christ has always had a problem with its name. United? As though others are not?

Our self-description improved in the 1990s. That language was Open and Affirming. By that we meant that we not only tolerated homosexuals as members and ministers but also affirmed them. What follows is another history lesson. It will help us to unify.

I was the Western Area Minister for the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ for seven years during the 1990s. There I had episcopal responsibility for placement and discipline for 125 congregations and their clergy. I traveled 100 miles a day to these churches in four counties.

Because the Conference had adopted the Open and Affirming policy and done the study required to achieve that name, I was not allowed not to present openly gay candidates to congregations. In the beginning easily half of them said automatically no to these candidates. Eight years later we were down to about ten per cent of premature negation.

The combination of the policy, adopted statewide, and the biblical study, which accompanied it, was powerful. The study was crucial. Many congregations agreed to be open immediately. They found it much harder to be affirming. Our refusal to compromise made the impact: who wants to just be tolerated?

Because the study materials were well written and profoundly biblical, we were able to pry people open. A secondary impact was faith formation and clarification of who we are and who we aren’t.

When history is written – especially about the UNITED Church of Christ – it will be very important to remember all the steps along the way.

Prayer
O God, you who bless us with unity, bless us also with an understanding of the slow steady ways of change. Amen.

Three Learnings on the Occasion of my 40th Ordination Anniversary

"So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." - Psalm 90:12

First: women have so much more to offer than we are able to give. Our power and impact are infinitesimal compared to our capacity. I now know that marrow-deep.

Secondly, I hope yet to discover when to listen to men and when not to listen to them. I like men a lot but don't like hyper-masculinity or patriarchy. There is a difference. One of my mentors told me to suggest the title "Bubbe" instead of "Grandma" to my grandchildren. "Otherwise you will feel old." My grandkids have abbreviated my choice to "Bubs." I hope to listen to my grandchildren more. Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, argued that when someone says, "You don't look your age," you should respond by saying that you hoped you would or could. So ditch that joke about how I must have been ordained when I was eight.

Third, I am so glad I never figured out how to color within the lines or paint by numbers. I just didn't know how.

I saw a tug circling in the Hudson. She was searching for a barge. My friend said when she retired she felt like a barnacle without a boat. I love tugging – the push and pull of the river, the Hudson, the one I love, that flows in both directions.

Prayer
Spirit of the Grandmothers, those who care for the past seven generations as much as they care for the next seven, thank you for my forty years in the best un-job a kid from Kingston could have had. Amen.

The Time Famine 

"When the time has fully come . . . ." - Galatians 4:4

The time famine is the pervasive feeling that we don't have enough time. Even retired people make the lament, joining the poor in observing how much work it can take to be unemployed. Parents speed-read "The Cat in the Hat" to their children. They are stuck in fast forward, knowing that everybody wants to slow down real quickly. Carrie Fischer tells us that "even instant gratification takes too long." We practice speed yoga in a road runner form of living. Canadian journalist Carl Honore does a whole Ted Talk, "In Praise of Slowness," about trying to find his inner tortoise. NPR broadcasts self-help quips about how to become free of your cell phone. We know the time house is on fire and that the clocks are in charge. And yet we plug along, imagining that tomorrow will be different, while knowing that it will not be.

When God's time fully comes, there will be a feast instead of a famine. If there is a version of the systemic oppression Jesus came to undermine today, it is in the time famine for first world people like us. It is in our use of time where we satisfy the oppressors the most. Our time is so taxed by what we have to do that we rarely get to what we want to do. We over-connect in such a way as to disconnect. We plant and plant and scatter and scatter and self-promote and self-promote and when we're done promoting, we take selfies.

Enough already.

Prayer
Help us understand how less is really less and more is really less, Holy Spirit, and release us for feast.


Whose Bus Is It?

"Salvation is nearer than you think . . . " - Romans 13:11

So when you are on the bus, you want it to go fast. When you are off the bus, you want it to slow down to pick you up. Very few of us are able to be free of our perch or our point of view. Salvation is spaciousness: the capacity to think about the people who are on the bus you are missing as well as those who are trying to catch the one on which you sit.

Salvation is nearer than we think – because it is in the way we think. Salvation is being able to think outside our box and off our bus. I came to life during the age of Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters. "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" was one of my favorite books. Kesey said there: "You are either on the bus or off the bus." Again, with all due apologies to those outside my demographic, we laughed frequently at that nugget. What Kesey meant was that there is no place outside the system. We are all in the system.

There is no place outside the system. There is very little place – for me – outside of my perch. There is very little place – for you – outside your perch. And there is no place, for any of us, outside the system. Salvation is finding our place in the system and looking around at how many of us are inside it. The bus is not just running for my convenience. Salvation is as near as a spacious perch, a yell at the driver to hold the door for the person who is running through the slush to jump on the bus.

Prayer
To see more than ourselves, we pray. Amen.

Whole Cost Accounting 

"Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near." - Matthew 4:17

What if it is true that it would cost less to resolve poverty than it does to sustain it? What if it was true that it would cost less to resolve the environmental crisis than to sustain it? Paul Krugman of the New York Times seems to think so. But he is "just" a brilliant economist.

What if the time of God was closer and simpler than we think? Jesus seems to think so, but then he is "just a Messiah."

So if Messiahs and brilliance can't convince of the ease of repentance, what about my favorite diagnosis of the human condition? What if we are just plain cheap? Or so addicted to King Status Quo that no amount of AA or Al-Anon or hypnosis can cure us? Both salvation and justice are less expensive than their alternatives, spiritually and materially.

Whole cost accounting takes the whole price into account. It looks long; cheap people look short and can't see beyond the King's orders.

Stephen Lewis answers the question, "How do you make a million?" this way: "You start with $900,000." Lots of people hang on to what they have and brag about how they are self-made, even though they inherited the car dealership from their parents. Does that accounting pay attention to whole cost accounting? Does it pay attention to what it really costs to have a bridge that gets you and your customers to your dealership?

James Baldwin says, "Anyone who has struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor. " Genuinely cheap people would see how expensive their servitude is and repent. The time is near.

Prayer
Open our eyes, true Reign, and let us see far and long into your future. Amen.


Ashes, Dust And Stardust

"…you are dust and to dust you shall return…" - Genesis 3:19

Mid-Lent is a good moment to remember Ash Wednesday.

On Ash Wednesday last year we walked around Washington Square Park asking people if they wanted a prayer and ashes. A remarkable number said yes. We also offered ashes and prayer, down and dirty, quick and easy, during our Bailout Theater to about 200 people who were there for the food and the show. A remarkable number also said yes. They actually stood in line to receive in the four corners of the sanctuary. They were Catholic, Protestant, Jews, as well as highly representative of that marvelous category, "None of the Above." The blessing we used said, "Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust."

I wish I had the capacity to survey the receivers and find out why they said yes to prayer and ashes. Were they play-acting? Trying to be a part of the other people with dirt on their faces, more intentionally and more spiritually? Or is there such a thing as spiritual yearning, yearning that doesn't want to be hypocritical or insincere, above all not to be so about God? Does this yearning just want to wear ashes and observe mortality on a regular, annual basis? Whatever it does, whatever it is, a surprising number of people say yes.

The Message version of the Bible says, "You started out as dirt and you will end up as dirt." The pessimism of Lent wears me out. The stardust and the yearning does not.

Prayer

God of life and death, stardust and dust, ashes and prayer, draw near and bring us out of dust into stardust. Engage us with our own mortality and make of us the Aurora Borealis. Amen

A New Valentine's Song 

"Sing to the Lord a new song ." - Psalm 96

Valentine's Day is a holiday that many of us love to hate. Maybe we're single or lonely and married or divorced. Maybe we're "between things." Maybe we are madly in love and can't wait to go out to dinner with our beloved. Whichever or whatever we are or aren't, whichever of these blends identifies our romantic status, Facebook need not know. We can keep it to ourselves.

On the other hand, we can also be snarky enough to just hate all those red hearts, plastered up everywhere, bleeding and beating and encouraging us to buy something. Real hearts get arteriosclerotic or have an attack. They have angioplasty or face real stress tests every few hours every days in most people's jobs. Hearts are so beautiful that it is obnoxious when they are overdone, like in the drug store or grocery aisles where even the dog bones have come out in heart shapes.

I long for a new Valentine's song, one beyond the clutches of the consumer's heart-shaped candy box--the one you can't afford, don't like to eat but feel compelled to give. It would be like those good old days when we wrote a Valentine's card to every kid in our third grade class and rejoiced in the return of 26 to us. Or it would be like that day when I was doing the laundry and folding my husband's clothes and realized I really do love him. I shed a little tear. I felt it in my heart. I remembered all the times he had folded my clothes for me. I hope I remember to get him a Valentine's card this year, at least by the end of February.

Prayer
O God, grant us heart-melting love. Amen.

Dress Up 

"A train of his garment filling the temple." - Isaiah 6: 1 – 2

I find it hard to get beyond the haberdashery into the holy. I admit I'm a jeans and T-shirt kind of person. When I hear about the holy inhabiting the temple, I wonder: Wouldn't it be uncomfortable to be so over-dressed? What if you got hot? Is God showy?

I remember when you had to dress up to go to church. It was fun in a way that today's uniforms are not. "Business casual" seems to have overtaken even the holy. What can people like us who are so casual, so simple, so comfortable in our clothing conclude about a divinity that is filling up the whole temple with fabric and jewels and grandeur and gumption? Is it good to be so unlike our God in our clothing? Does part of what's gone wrong with Sabbath start with some inconvenient truth about wanting to wear the same thing seven days a week?

One of my sons has a job where he has to wear a suit every day. He asked for ties and cufflinks for Christmas. We all nearly passed out. We remember how hard it was to get him out of tennis shoes for holiday dinners. Luckily his grandfather had several beautiful sets of cuff links.

I don't really know what clothes or fashion mean. And I certainly know very little about the holy. But Isaiah seems to think they are connected. A casual God? Can a casual God be holy? Can I be holy wearing jeans and a T-shirt?

Prayer
O God, help us not to make too much meaning out of little stuff and then again, help us pay attention to getting the temple full of attention to the divine.

Armor 

"Put on the whole armor of God." - Ephesians 6:11

When I hear the word armor, I think of knights in shining same. Some images just get in the way. Shields defend us from swords, which can hardly be God's preferred methodology. If it were, wars would be good, guns would be good, violence would be good. The powerful, the best-shielded and best-sworded, would win every war. That victory is precisely what Jesus claims is NOT going to happen. Instead, another victory, a victory of the weak and undefended, the weaponless, is on its way.

What then is our armor? It is our vulnerability. It is what "Geez" magazine (my favorite Canadian publication) calls, ". . . the spirit beneath the tradition, a spirit connected to everything. It emanates from the ancient saints of virtue and the volunteers in thrift store aisles. A trustworthy spirit exists in our midst. It will appear both futile and liberating. It will be both dissident and exemplary. It forgets to fret for hope." ("Geez," Winter 2014, Page 63)

Our armor is common and casual, like a grail, fretless, hopeful. Casual chic, we might call it, instead of heavy metal.

When I see the sworded sign, "Report suspicious activity," or hear that the threat level today is orange, I hear encouragement for the wrong kind of armor. I even hear what my Palestinian friend calls an invitation to prejudice. When I hear these official scare tactics, I wonder what to do. Put on my shield? Watch out for people darker than I am? Instead I have decided to find the spirit under the spirit and encourage her to encourage me.

Prayer
Spirit underneath, spirit grailing through our lives, help me get out of cumbersome costumes and into something lighter and more wearable. It's winter and it's already hard enough to get dressed. Amen.

Jesus the Baby 

"(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.'" - John 21:19

Isn't it amazing that we get a text about the death of the baby so soon after his birth?

It only amazes those who haven't had children, those who don't know how vulnerable you can feel carrying a 2-day-old around. G.K. Chesterton quipped, "The children are already frightened," when someone advocated protecting a child from a scary story. The adults are also always frightened, especially when we are young parents in charge of absurd vulnerability. I always wonder what God was thinking about coming as a baby. So dangerous for divinity!

The quick brush of death with birth only amazes those who missed the part about this child being different. His death was to glorify God. The shepherds and the angels didn't get it. I don't know why we should make believe we do. We can try but we don't have to succeed. "The value of the Jewish Messiah is not that he never arrives, but that his arrival is imminent. Every second of time is the straight gate through which the Messiah might arrive," said Walter Benjamin. Does that theology of the now/not yet, the always coming, help us with the mystery around birth and death being such good friends? It helps me. The ending doesn't so much happen as threaten to happen.

Jesus the baby becomes Jesus the man becomes Jesus the Savior. Jesus the living becomes Jesus the dead becomes Jesus the living. Even something as lovely as singing "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve will not last forever. The candles will be extinguished, the cover put back on the organ, the hymnbooks rearranged in the pews. The show that opened will also close. The way Jesus lived, always opening every gate, refusing every lock down, became the pattern for a life that cannot die. Your best moments will evaporate and so will you. My best moments will evaporate and so will I.

The pattern of Jesus opening the gate, silencing the night, and being vulnerable as a child, on behalf of children, who always open humanity's next gate: this will neither die nor leave. It will actually glorify God.

Prayer
Let us so beware any sense of permanence that we can enjoy the fleet of life and pattern ourselves to one opening night after another. Amen.

Re-Gift 

"Thanks be to God for [this] indescribable gift!" - 2 Corinthians 9:15

It was 4 p.m. on a cold Christmas eve in Riverhead, New York. A highly inebriated farmer rolled his truck up on to our front lawn and dumped a full load of turnips. "I want to help the poor," he mumbled. We had to rush to get volunteers to put the dusty turnips into the cellar so people wouldn't trip over them on their way in to the services. We didn't know what else to do with them.

There they stayed till after the holiday, when an interesting odor came through the church building. It was the smell of rotting turnips, something you rarely have the chance to experience. Soon the idea for the turnip cook-off developed. Anybody who wanted to, rich or poor, could come to the church, haul a lot of turnips out of the basement and create a turnip dish. They also had to haul out a few smelly ones and throw them away. On January 15th we would have a big turnip cook-off and the winner would receive a prize, something with a turnip look or feel. The cook book we finally published featured many dishes, including turnip cake, turnip casserole, baked turnips, fried turnips, stewed turnips, as well as turnips with garlic, cabbage, apples and poppy seeds. The winning entry was my husband's "Turnip fries." News 12 Long Island covered the event, and a good time was had by all.

The turnips were the ultimate re-gift, gone so wrong in so many ways that it begged to be righted. I am reminded of all the canned goods that went to people who lost their houses after Hurricane Sandy. People who no longer had cupboards were being given cans.

What could be different? A cook-off of mistakes almost always works.

Prayer
O God, let our gifts get closer to their target this year. Amen.

Selfie 

"He had five barley loaves and two fish . . . ." - John 6:7

When is it time to be a little selfie? I mean take a little selfie? A selfie is a picture you take of yourself with your own cell phone. Then you put it on social media to broadcast your moment. Your friends "like" it or "comment" on it or "retweet" it. You become seen. You become known. You become real.

Psychologists tell us that the most powerful experience people can have is to be recognized. In pastoral counseling training, we are told to mirror our conversants. Feed back to them what they just said, so they can hear it and hear themselves saying it. Many say that social conflict can be resolved with an even more sophisticated version of "I hear you saying." Anti-immigrant voices can often calm down if we say, "I hear you saying that you have deep respect for the law and are troubled by those who seem to be breaking it." When you pray at the city council after a police incident, be sure to pray for the policeman as well as the victim. Recognize, recognize, recognize. Mirror, mirror, mirror. Show that you are listening.

What was that boy thinking with his barley loaves and a few fish? Was he hoping to be able to contribute to the whole with what he had, small or even paltry, so much smaller than the gulf and gap in his moment? Has it not mattered for centuries that we tell the "un-selfie" story of his sharing as something that matters to us? Do we not see our best selves in him?

Prayer
O God, when we are looking for ways to manage this day, let us mirror, let us listen, let us recognize each other. And also let us take a selfie. Amen.

Maybe if I just close my eyes it will all go away . . .  

"This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit . . ." - Zechariah 4:6

The names Wilson and Brown and Garner and Pantaleo are such ordinary all-American names. Now they are forever linked in a couple of days of American history. Each involves a white policeman and an African American male. One is alive; the other is dead. One had a gun; the other did not. One had the protection of the "law," the other did not. One said, "I can't breathe." We don't know what the other said. Words betray us.

We believe Zechariah's promise is more true than not. Our beliefs are not yet fully available to our laws, which results in our legal and cultural incompetency. No indictments? We teach our children: use your words, not your fists. We say to ISIS that violence resolves nothing. We repeat the words: "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit."

A board member came to the church the night of the Ferguson non-indictment, wanting us to "open up." With tears running down her face, she told me about going with her UCC youth group from Iowa on an immersion to Atlanta in 1963. Andy Young was the youth leader there. Her roommate said, "White people see the world completely differently than black people."

That night, Jane and I felt safe. Then again, we are white and get protection from might and power. At a terrible cost.

Prayer
God, you who are stronger than might or human power, help us keep our eyes open to what we all see. Amen.

Heaven On Earth 

“Woe…to you…for you lock people out of…heaven…and when others are going in, you stop them.” - Matthew 23:13-28

The unique idea in all of Christianity is that heaven is on earth. Heaven is not above earth or over earth or opposite earth but ON earth.

Heaven is earth. Later is now. Spirit is body. There are no separations here only those that our minds create.

The average human being needs 4 acres for food and bodily support. The average American uses 24. Whenever we use more, we are taking food from others particularly the unborn. Others like the idea of sustainability, but it is often the bargaining position of one who says to God, OK, I won’t take any more, but could I hang on to what I have? That bargain means woe for the world’s people as well.

There is a third option, that of regeneration, of dying enough to live. Of letting go in order to have. Of really changing, from our metaphors on up to our behavior. Letting go of this world and its way means we open ourselves to the new. Otherwise woe is woe and it is ours.

Prayer
Help us, O God, to see heaven on earth. Amen.

Gender 

"Do not put God to the test."- Luke 4:13

This week is my 40th ordination anniversary. I know you imagine me too young and vigorous to have been gathering dust so long. But there it is. Tucson, Arizona, 40 years ago. I am having a lot of fun thinking about it, especially when I preach at another's ordination.

She was brilliant in her Ruth robe, laced with lace. The other women in the procession were equally splendid, one dressed in a very nicely fitted robe from Clergy Couture. She also wore pearls with her stole. A third woman was wearing a stole her mother had made, out of fabric from her grandmother's dresses and her own. It was a mixture of calico and lace. On it was an owl. Why? The daughter had told the mother the story of the owl she had seen in the forest; her stitching mother found it meaningful and fixed it in fabric.

If that perplexing word "queer" means anything, it means gender bending. It means becoming a minister after so many years of being a woman minister. It also means feminists in lace and older women in sensible shoes. What fun it has been to be out of place for so long.

So many people say women don't belong in the ministry. They also accuse male clergy of being "effeminate," those guys in skirts, up in the stands with the women and girls while the real men play the real game on the field. One thing I have loved about ministry is how androgynous it is: if the women are too masculine and the men too feminine, isn't that wonderful?

Prayer
Thank you, God who is beyond male and female, always trans gendering, draw near and thank you, thank you, thank you.

Neighbors 

"But as for that good soil…it bears fruit." - Luke 8:15

I went to a real church supper in a church that had a real kitchen in Conway, Massachusetts. The occasion was the rededication of the sanctuary after a mold outbreak that had shut the place down for three years, which mold outbreak was followed by a flood of the newly refurbished kitchen and downstairs. The small but mighty congregation not only survived but also flourished under these repeat curses. The pastor looks especially good with a paintbrush and the octogenarian members were prohibited from climbing ladders. 5,000 volunteer hours joined serious mold removal professionals in creating a lovely new space.

The reason I will remember the supper is not just that it started at 5:30, before our office even closes in New York City. Or that the pork loin, apples with cinnamon, sweet potatoes, mixed vegetables and berry crisp with whipped cream were not splendid. They were. The reason I will remember this church supper above all the rest is that the neighboring church, the Montague church, prepared the supper for the Conway church. They also cleaned up the inaugural dishes. The band from the local Catholic Church led the music during the worship. A reverse offering was taken. "You have endured so much for so long that we are not asking for another nickel. Instead, we invite you to enjoy this chocolate."

We usually do brunch in New York City and don't have a kitchen, unless you call a sink and a refrigerator and an island in a corner a kitchen, which I do not. We call it the "little kitchen that could," and now I know the little church that could and did and can, too.

Prayer
O God, thanks for neighbors who know how to be neighborly. Amen.

Sept 10

"Lord, he whom you love is ill." - John 11:4

I write this as the apparent suicide of Robin Williams is hitting the news. By the time you read this, his death at 63 will be old news. Some new tragedy will have taken its place, making it a great day to think about illness as a matter of the soul as well as the body. This very day many people will be wondering about whether life is worth living, and they won’t have the accompaniment of wealth or comedy or notoriety. They will wonder why life is uphill both ways. They will wonder about why to bother. They will think of ending it all as better than another today like tomorrow.

Illness has been diminished to matters of the body, in the same way so much of life is diminished to matters material and biological. Material ISM is something we love to complain about it. Today let us sophisticate our complaint. Let us realize that mental illness is real and that people who take their own life do so to escape extraordinary pain, pain that is with them at the breakfast they can’t eat, the lunch which looks like mush, the dinner they see with vacant eyes, eyes deeply turned inside. Mental illness causes people to use guns on school children, bombs on buildings, ropes on themselves, and to try one pill after another. Mental illness is real, and it is not a sin.

Lord, the one you love is ill. Let us not blame but instead learn to love.

Prayer
Bring us to the place beyond judgment and its canny distance from what hurts. Restore compassion to the “health” “care” systems and pull down our wagging finger and open our hearts. Amen.

Vacationing from Vacation

". . . he made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds." - Matthew 14:22

The sneaky truth about vacation is how much time "off" goes to what we will do or be when we get "on." We may say we "live for vacation" but mostly we don't. Resolutions abound when "away" about "back." New initiatives emerge. Four pounds disappear, no matter how much we eat.

Vacation means to vacate, to empty the place where we were to be in another place. Vacation is one of the last few islands available for reflection now that so much life is taken up with reactivity.

Jesus loved to vacate. He loved to empty. He loved to open up the space of the crowds and show them a way to reflective space, one where you can be alone but not lonely, apart but still in community, away from the moment while planning for the moment.

Like many of you I loved watching "Downton Abbey." My favorite line is when Violet, the Countess, asks her gathered brood, "What is a weekend?"

We may of course accept Jesus' imprimatur on our time "away," on behalf of getting "back." We may demand reflection on behalf of action. What is a vacation when we love our lives so much that we don't want to separate from them? Or better yet, how, after this vacation, can the work we do in the world give as much pleasure as its opposite?

Prayer
Empty us, O God, into action and reflection. Save us from reactivity. Let us fully live, and not just on vacation. Amen.

Love Your Enemies

"But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you." - Luke 6:27-31

One of the things that bothers me about the way we call a church a "family" is its denial of these words of Jesus. People love to compliment themselves on how much they love their families. "We are like family" is used to evoke intimacy, love, and bonding. Never mind what that phrase means to people whose families are bondage, not bonding. "Family" language becomes an unintentional, unconscious act of exclusion: if you aren't like family or don't even want to be like family, you don't really deserve love.

The exclusionary impoliteness is not the largest problem in understanding this text. The larger problem is the commandment of Jesus--to those who listen--that we love our non-family the way we love our family. We are to even love the ones that threaten our family. This commandment wreaks havoc with our response to threats of all kinds. It will also mess with your mind if you think about it for two minutes: I myself find it very hard to love people who don't agree with me politically. I guess I'm not listening to Jesus. Or if I am listening, I can't bear to hear.

The gospel of love is not sentimental. It is also not just for families.

Prayer
O God, sit with me for a while and feel with me how hard it is for me to love my enemies. Then give me a big push and let's see what happens. Amen.
 

Refuse to Pay the Worry Tax 

" . . . the place where you stand is holy ground." - Exodus 3:5

Everybody wants to simplify and no one knows how. Everybody wants more time for important things and less time on the trivial. Many of us want our attention commanded by a burning bush, one that will remind us how holy the ground is on which we stand.

One suggestion is to have the "talk." I don't mean the sexuality talk for adolescents. I mean the death talk. It is holy ground.

One of the biggest taxes on life is worrying about the future. I call this the "what if?" tax. What if I live too long and my money runs out? What if I die too soon and I don't get to spend my money? What if I am still trying to figure out how to forward a document when heaven comes knocking on my door? Or worse, looking for my lost cell phone? Again?

Ellen Goodman says "the death talk" can be the most efficient, sustaining and renewing thing we can do. Why? We cross it off our bucket list. We live today without the tax of wondering who our health proxy is, where our will is and who will get the scented geraniums or the pearls or the snow globe collection.

As Ellen Goodman also puts it, death rates remain at 100%. If something is that holy and that ordinary and that universal, it is also grounding.

Prayer
Send us deep into our own ground, O God, and there let us unbosom ourselves. Amen.

Things that Words Can't Say 

"We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans." - Romans 8:26

People misunderstand gardeners. They think we are like normal people and resist loss and what Robert Frost calls "the diminished thing." We are not. We may have all those feelings going on but we also have another one. It is the gardener's gene and genius. Groaning is its name. It is a groaning for the future, the one that will live in the seed after we are long fallow. What will happen to the morning glories? They may be perennial but what if the new people forget to water them two years in a row? What about the lupine? How long can it take neglect and still purple? Gardeners don't mind dying; we know the seasons much too well for that. We mind not seeing what happens next.

Maybe you groan another way. Most people have a place like the gardener's curiosity. We feel things that words can't utter. We lean towards a future we can't find. In the letter that Paul wrote to the people at Rome, he was not only groaning for them. He was also groaning to them, hoping that they would find a way to a deeper purple, a longevity worth living. He groaned, with the Spirit, to tell them what he had found in Jesus. He confessed that he lived beyond the world of words. Spirit lives there too, in the unutterable, the groan, the curiosity, the hope that something worth lasting will last.

Prayer
Spirit, You of few words, draw near and help us articulate our groaning and to make it worthy. Amen.

Wilderness Lament

"Get thee out of thy country, Abram . . ." - Genesis 12:1

If you don't think of the 21st century as a new country, you aren't listening. Listen to how the popular website Upworthy describes itself: "a cross between 60 Minutes and the Reader's Digest and a very socially responsive TV morning show." We and Upworthy -- are in an in-between time and place, living an intermission, maybe even an impasse. From there we search for a good "selfie," one of those pictures we can take of ourselves that tells us we are here.

We imagine ourselves as wilderness people and find comfort in what happened to good old Abraham. He too had to leave home and not know where he was going. Misery loves company.

Boyd Varty has written a book called Cathedral of the Wild. In it he gives the rules for safari. "When we do the stalkie, no talkie." There is often a kind of whine to our wilderness lament, as in "Why is this happening to me?" "Why couldn't I live in simpler times?" I have even heard people mourn the good old 1950's.

Is God telling us to take this trip to the new place, with new words to find new animals, headed towards a new cathedral? Yes. Even more, God has done this before and will do it again.

Prayer
We worship you, O God, from the wilderness, in the wilderness and we think you are really wild. Amen.

The Burning Sun of Envy 

"You have been . . . a shade from the heat." - Isaiah 25: 4

I met a family in California. They ran a vineyard together; their skin had taken on a bronzed leather from outdoor work. They wore blue jeans. They were blondes. The grandmother said she was worried about her posture at age 87 even though she stood up delightfully straight. I was jealous of their harmony and their postures and their suntans.

Our group took a long uphill hike in the mountains. The 60-ish son-in-law took his mother-in-law's arm all the way up and all the way down. Yes, down hiking is harder than up hiking. She asked to rest in the shade at one point and he patiently waited. They talked openly about how hard it is to let the land and a business go, especially if your daughters don't want to take it on. The daughters listened in and said, "Yup, it is." The land just smiled about its future.

What a joy it was to receive their shade. To know relief from the burning sun of our envies. To know that all people are not at war with each other and that some even like to walk up the hill and down the hill, arm in arm.

Prayer
Whenever we imagine that everybody has trouble and that we are glad that everybody has trouble, release us, O God. Let us learn to receive the good news of good postures, genuine honesty and vines that need not fear. Amen.
 

Get Over It and Get on With It 

"Why wasn't this ointment sold and given to the poor?" - John 12:5

The disciples sure are picky. I think they have met some of my congregants. The ones who slap the munchkins' hands as the munchkins reach for a second donut hole during coffee hour. The ones who are sure the communion service didn't end right the last time and thus missed the appropriate experience of the transubstantiated body of Christ. Perhaps they met the ones who are sure there were more volunteers at the last Valentine's Cabaret and who arrived early to set out the pretzels, thus shaming all those who arrived late. Perhaps the disciples know the ones who swear the large print bulletin wasn't printed largely enough. Or the ones who don't think the younger members are pledging enough.

The disciples probably asked their question about why somebody was having more fun than they were because they were deep in appreciation deficit disorder. All the experts tell us every complaint is a request for connection. What to do with the picky eater? Appreciate what they did eat, and let the rest go into the compost.

Congregations are ecosystems, like a forest, tall proud trees joining fallen branches and abandoned leaves to create oxygen way beyond their means. Every now and then we need to give ointment to the grumpy, so that they can learn to smell good and smell the good. Perfume for the picky? At least it keeps you from joining them in grumping back.

Prayer
O God, Turn the tables on complaints. Let us connect to the need for ointment in the complaint itself. Help the disciples get over it and get on with it. Amen.

A Good Trap 

"While I live I will praise the Lord." - Psalm 146:2

My husband said to me, "Don't worry, Donna, it is a good trap." The trap was in the back of the car, holding the 5th black squirrel we had captured this winter. The squirrel population in New York City has had a rough winter and brought their trouble straight to my small garden. I know, people shouldn't have gardens in New York City. Blame my parsonage. Moreover, people shouldn't have squirrels digging out and eating all their perennials. Thus, we had to take emergency measures.

The Have a Heart trap is set with a peanut in it. The squirrel goes in for the peanut, saving the perennials. The trap shuts tight on the squirrel. Three neighbors phone animal protection services. Three other neighbors start singing praise songs, loudly, as their small visible gardens and expensive perennials are also going the way of the peanut. We split the cost of the trap with those able to praise.

We drive the squirrel, who is weeping in anguish, to the East River, where we set it free on the banks. They only plant wild grasses on the East River and not tulips or daffodils. Squirrels don't like grasses. They prefer baby lettuces, lavender and perennials.

Repeating this exercise five times has caused me consternation more than anguish.

You probably think this is an April Fool's joke. It is not, unless you are a tree hugging squirrelist. While I live, I will join my neighbors in praising the Lord for both the life of squirrels and their eradication.

Prayer
When we find ourselves in a good trap, in one that causes us to compete with others, animal and human, assure us, Spirit of the Tame and the Wild, the Garden and the urban wilderness, that we are who we are and that you can still stand us. Amen.

I Have Winter-ism  

". . . our bodies had no rest . . . we were afflicted in every way—disputes without and fears within . . . ." - 2 Corinthians 7:2-12

I have winter-ism. I am a winter-ist. I am prejudiced against winter, the color of its skin, the perplexity of its moods, the way it is both too emotional and not emotional enough at the same time. Does it want to be cold? Or fireplace warmed? Does it want me exposed outdoorsor snuggled indoors, incubating? Should I imagine the courage of that first iris in the spring as my weather center or is it the sleep of its coiled roots that give the bloom its life? Why is winter so good at creating disputes without and fears within?

Winter is just a metaphor for death, and death is at least the mother of beauty. Why not treat winter with a similar respect? But then I see how dark connects to my other, more popular and acceptable prejudices, like racism. I wonder if I can dare allow something besides me to be normal. Or acceptable. Or good. I wonder how I can escape the prison of my prejudices and learn to enjoy all that God has made. Only then will my body have rest. Only then will I live beyond the affliction of fights outside and cold within.

Prayer
O God, take me to the new normal that loves summer and winter, dark and light, others and myself. Amen.

Who Says You Don't Know How to Pray?

"After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, 'Follow me.' And he got up, left everything, and followed him." - Luke 5:27

Most of us find ourselves "Doing for God" instead of "Being with God." Few people follow the doers and mobs go after those who have a sense of God within them. The doers sometimes have a repulsive sanctimony; the bee in us wants to know more about those who know how to be. We sense they are a flower who can feed us. Doers often say they don't have time to pray. Those who "be" can't stop praying.

Simone Weil said prayer is absolute unmixed attention. Robert Frost said a poem is a momentary stay against confusion. So is a prayer.

Prayer goes to the quiet corner of the party and listens. Prayer listens deep into our being inside of God's being.

John Quincy Adams said, on his deathbed, "I am composed." Why wait until then for composure? How about composure now, as it was in the beginning and will be in the end?

Who said you didn't know how to pray? Or better put, what would make somebody follow you, like Levi followed Jesus?

Prayer
Teach us to be with you, O God, in such a way that we don't even really care about who follows, so much are we convinced that we are following you. Amen.

The Golden Calf

"Aaron said to them, 'Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.' So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" - Exodus 32:2-4

I have to start taking the golden calf around with me more in the car. I did on Martin Luther King Day this year and got more attention than either it or I deserved. Not that we did not deserve attention. We did. But still, tourists requesting photo ops? Cops stopping me asking me what I was doing? UCC-ers competing to carry it out of the car into Broadway UCC on the corner of 93rd and Broadway?

The golden calf is a leftover prop from Occupy New York. It is made of paper mache, painted gold, with a tail that did not survive its placement in my Prius. It is made in the shape of the Wall Street bull. I was taking it, by request, to the Metro Association of the United Church of Christ service for Dr. King. It was for the altar.

All these years I have bemoaned what I thought of as generalized biblical illiteracy. How wrong I was. People know the golden calf. They recognize it when they see it. Through it they might also see a God they could love.

Prayer
O God, when we find ourselves doing weirder things than normal, remind us, that every now and then, we do it in your name, with your symbols. Amen

Listen for Advent 

"There the Lord will redeem you from the hands of your enemies." - Micah 4:10

Hark! Listen up. Advent is often a whisper. It is more like a song that is sung first by one group, then by a larger group, then by a whole group, giving meaning to the sense of cadence that Christmas often has.

Advent is so subtle that it may need a hearing aid. We need help to hear Advent because it has so much competition. It is like we are in an airport where everybody is announcing every few minutes that we have to pay attention to potential errors if not potential dangers. "If you see something, say something." Furthermore, we are not to leave our bags unattended. Or our flight could be leaving the gate any second, without us. In the middle of these warnings, Advent sends a deeper warning. "The Lord will redeem you from the hands of your enemies."

Note that there is an implication that we do have enemies. Hear the enemy part as much as you do the redemption part. Why? Anything that goes straight to the redemption is spiritually naive. Anything that stays stuck on the enemies is spiritually paranoid. To avoid either insult, or incompletion, we must focus. Focus faces fears, only to transcend them.

There are reasons to be afraid. So many hopes have so many enemies. Every day most people have the hope that they will get home safely and not miss the plane; that the tires they forgot to rotate or repair will carry them home. Many migrant laborers send money home at the end of the week as a vague way of redeeming hard labor, repetitive motion, and little respect. Many of us hope for a stress-free day the way children hope for Christmas, mouths wide open, fantasies abundant, reality left checked at the gate.

And yet our enemies are nothing compared to the Almighty who will redeem us from them.

Prayer

God of Jerusalem and Babylon, of our enemies and our friends, our fears and our faith, draw near. Come close enough that we can hear you. Amen.

Holy Day

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." - Hebrews 11:1

It was Yom Kippur. I was at Brighton Beach goofballing, which is often my word for Sabbath. Just putting one foot in front of the other.

All of a sudden I really had to go to the bathroom and all the restaurants were closed. Brighton Beach is a Brooklyn neighborhood that is home to a great many Russian Jews. That's how I ended up in the Jewish Home for the Aged, on a high holy day. It was the only place open.

I used the facilities and came out to see four women, two in wheelchairs, about to really duke it out. Two of the women, the ones in the chairs, were old; two were young. One of the older women was introducing the other older woman to her daughter and her daughter's partner. Clearly a holy day visit was involved.

Words had already been exchanged. The friend of what proved to be the mother of the couple SPAT at one of the women in the couple. She spat. A really good hurl too, as the kids would say. I thought there was going to be a fistfight. Instead, the younger woman took the spit off her cheek and for a moment thought of doing something equally violent. You could see it on her face. Then she scraped the spit off her cheek and put it on the hurler's blouse. She said, very quietly, "I don't think this belongs to me." She had faith more than hate, hope more than despair, conviction more than rejection.

Prayer

Let us make all days holy and refrain from spitting, in reality or in our hearts. Amen

Consider Tenderness 

". . . be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you." - Ephesians 4:32

When all the fur is rubbed off and when you are old and splotchy, let there be tenderness left. When you have scraped away all the decades and regret competes with gratitude for your attention, consider tenderness. No doubt you were never kind enough. Still, and then, hope that all that is left of you is love.

At the end, are you going to worry about what you looked like to people? Or worry instead about protecting what is left of your tender heart? A designer magazine told me that I should pay special attention to my coffee table books. "In that aspirational place called the living room . . . coffee table books tell the world what kind of person you would like to be." I also wonder what people would think of me if they saw my kitchen. Or my unfolded laundry. Or those socks without mates.

I long for kindness at the end the way a girl longs for a bike. I know that we are all writing the first line of our obituaries all t

 
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