Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Sermon

Since I whined about it so vociferously, I think I'll go ahead and post my classroom sermon from last week. I did learn some things.

As it developed over the weeks it became, at the suggestion of one of the young men in the class, a communion sermon. In my extremely limited experience, I have preached before in a few circumstances in which homily and situation needed to be completely aligned -- at my grandmother's funeral service, and during CPE last summer -- and I find that thinking in terms of specifity of context is more helpful and satisfying than not.

Memorizing? Not for this girl. I had been through the sermon some 40-50 times in the 10 days before the classroom preaching of same, and it had lost all of its vitality and freshness for me. My classmates tell me that that was not apparent in the preaching, but it certainly was in this preacher's heart. Other things for which I was fairly criticized were, I think a direct consequence of brain power being devoted to pulling words and phrases out of the air and concentrating on the ones that should be next in line. Sometimes we have to accept our (vast) limitations and, as some of my lovely commenters suggested, forego the grade in lieu of acknowledging who we are.

Text? We had three choices -- apparently all from the lectionary for the last Sunday in May. In my current life, most of the passages which speak to me are in Job but ~ probably no one would want to hear those sermons anyway.

Herewith, my little offering, unimaginatively titled at the last minute when it suddenly became apparent that a title was expected:

Come to The Table

You are with me – those are the words at the center of Psalm 23.

You are with me, God, as the gentle shepherd, the figure who perhaps most often comes to mind when Psalm 23 is read or recited or prayed. We seek it most often in times of trouble – lonely and isolated people in nursing homes mouth its words, chaplains pray through those words at the bedsides of the dying, pastors proclaim them at funeral services.

The Psalmist in those first few verses seems to be musing to himself about God – God makes me lie down, God restores my soul, God leads me. God is with us, he reflects, as a persistent, tenacious, and creative shepherd. Even in the darkest of valleys, God provides green pastures, still waters, right paths. Even as the darkness overtakes it, this valley sounds like a place of peace, a place in which one might rest.

And yet – so often, it’s not. The valley is not a place of peace. The valley is filled with conflict and anxiety. The valley is the place through which the cry of abandonment echoes out of the crater of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? “

"I shall not want” – that’s where we begin again --but we DO want. We want our lives back, we want our problems resolved, we want our loved ones restored to us, we want our foes flattened. We want to be who we were -- before we were shattered by our enemies. We want, and we want, and we want.

And in the midst of our struggles, when the restful allure of the valley seems to be nothing more than a mirage, God responds to our anguish and longing in a different way.In that desolate place in which we are surrounded by enemies, God emerges as the host of a meal. God goes to work and lays a table before us. God nourishes us and sustains our broken selves right in the heart of the chaos we are unable to escape.

The Psalm pours out of the experience of someone who had encountered his own enemy, perhaps in the form of a military enemy set upon destroying him, perhaps in the form of some other threat or danger to his well-being, but by those other predators in the dark that afflict us all: uncertainty, fear, confusion. Could he prevail in the struggles ahead? Would he survive? And in the face of his questions, he found that his God was still his sustainer – that his God would set a table and treat him like a king, anointing his head and filling his cup, despite the battle raging around and in him.

The Psalmist must have remembered how God nourished his ancestors, the ancient Israelites. Freed from the bondage to Pharaoh which had sapped their lives, the Israelites found new enemies -- hunger, thirst, exhaustion, confusion – and longed to go backward. However harsh their circumstances in Egypt had been, they had been settled in one place and certain familiar routines. Suddenly they were on the road – no longer able to grow and prepare food, no longer assured of a source of water, no longer able to relax in the evenings in the shelter of their own homes. Who were they, once they were no longer the slaves of the king? They were, as they discovered, God’s beloved people – the people for whom God provided food each day. Trudging through that lonely Sinai landscape, wondering how they would survive, they found that God remembered them every single day by setting a table and providing a meal for them.

Just as the Psalmist would have remembered the Exodus journey, so Jesus’ followers must have known Psalm 23 -- and they, too, had enemies. As Jews, they were under the thumb of the Roman Empire, and knew that their freedom to worship their God was always subject to revocation. As followers of Jesus, they could see that their recognition and security as loyal Jews was threatened. And as his intimate friends, they had heard his strange words, his recognition of the precariousness of his personal situation. The disciples must have begun to wonder what their loyalty to Jesus might be going to cost them. And there was a meal, laid before them and served to them by their Lord -- nourishing them not only with bread and wine but with mysterious words of assurance.

A table set for a beleaguered figure among his enemies. Manna in the wilderness. A Passover dinner before an execution.

We know about these tables ourselves, though we may not recognize them as such at first. Our son’s death last September was an ambush, and we felt surrounded enemies on all sides – the enemies that we would call death and bewilderment and anguish, enemies that seemed to have completely overwhelmed us.

And yet – there was a table set in the midst of those foes. Dozens and people came and went every day, and they were taken care of. Coolers piled up on the back porch, food covered every square inch of table and counter space. People arrived at the crack of dawn with breakfast, in the middle of the day with paper goods, in the evenings with casseroles. My friends commandeered my kitchen and fed us and everyone else who came by.

A table set in the presence of the enemy. Unexpected manna in the wilderness. God works through the people who care for us.

And God does it for us, here, at this table. God does not set a table for us only when times are good. God does not wait for the weather to be perfect, for the blended family to stop arguing, for the cancer to be cured, for the cease fire to be declared. God does not require the holiday china, the crystal stemware. God does not demand our victorious triumph over our foes or our certainty that we are on the right path through the wilderness.

God prepares a table in the absence of all of those things. Perhaps God’s finest table is laid out in the absence of those things. Perhaps God’s finest table looks something like the 20th pizza dinner in a row that a family shares in the lounge outside the intensive care unit. Perhaps God’s finest table is covered with the casserole dishes and paper plates that dozens of friends have quietly supplied when a a child has died. Perhaps it is served with bent utensils on broken china salvaged from the rubble of a bombed-out house in Iraq or a flooded house in New Orleans.

This bread and drink we consume – they remind us of all of those tables. They tell us that the Lord is our shepherd in turmoil as well as in tranquility, that the Lord leads us through raging waters as well as still pools, that God’s most delectable meals are prepared when we are most traumatized. They tell us that God is most with us when we are most alone.

God is not afraid of the same things we are afraid of. God is serene in the face of circumstances which threaten to engulf us, God in inventive where our imagination fails us, and when we think God is nowhere to be found, God is right there, shaking out the tablecloth, scrounging around for the silverware, placing the wineglasses on the table.

God is here with us – come and be nourished.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Too Much Going On

I have to preach in my Homiletics (preaching) class today. We are supposed to memorize our sermons. As a result of that expectation, I have spent far too much time attempting to accomplish the impossible at the expense of other work. I appreciate that reading or even glancng at one's text too frequently is an unfortunate substitute for real preaching but ~ our gifts do vary. I have tried working from an outline, but I forget a different chunk each time I try. And now, having been through the thing some 40-50 times, I have lost all sense of spontaneity and pleasure in it. As is so often the case at this stage of life, I have to accomodate the expectations of others and simultaneously translate them into something realistic and appropriate to who I am.

Which brings me to my general sigh about my seminary experience. I have had some wonderful educational opportunites here, but it is definitely a place for a younger and more conservative crowd. There are rigidities in place which work well for young people whose lives demand little else in the way of responsibility, and not much recognition that those of us with other demands in our lives also bring other gifts to the table. The theological perspective across the board? ~ I am told by many of the younger folks that it's middle-of-the-road, but from where I sit: hardly. A friend mentioned a few weeks ago that it can be necessary for (ahem) "older" students to feel that we have to shrink ourselves in a multitude of ways in order to make it through, which I found to be an apt description. It's too bad ~ I remember law school as a time of growth and expansiveness, rather than limitation and diminishment. I'm not sure how much of that is due to the different view which life experience brings with it, but I had hoped for the opposite here.

On the plus side, I am auditing Christology (yes, the subject against which I railed last quarter) with a professor new to the school, and the experience is a dramatically different one. Perhaps I am intrigued by theology, after all. (I had concluded that it was not for me.)

And . . . the fabulous intership I had planned for this year, destroyed by our son's death, is not an opportunity available to me again, so I am also having to spend an inordinate amount of time coming up with an alternative. I should be finishing my essays for the next stage in the ordination process, but I am spending the time allocated for that on phone calls and emails and interviews that go nowhere. Without the required field ed position next year (my last), there is no point in returning ~ a reality which is having a profoundly negative effect on my motivation in general.

And so am I responding to all of this in a productive and useful way? I think not! I am blogging!

I am going out for a walk and yet another run-through of the now-dreaded sermon. At least it's a beautiful morning.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Suicide is Not Painless

I've decided to write a bit more openly about our son's death, starting today, on my other blog.

It seems a bit incongruous here, what with the delightfully humorous bufflehead ducks putting in their semi-annual appearance yesterday. But that's the thing about suicide, isn't it? Incongruity. Of the most devastating and incomprehensible kind.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spring on the Little Lakes

Not my images ~ but these were all here this morning. The pied-billed grebes and the wood ducks will nest here; the ring-necked ducks and bufflehead are headed further north. I love bufflehead; they look like little buoys bobbing in the water.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Health Care 2009

Gregarious Son does not have a job with benefits, and so we help him out with catastrophic health insurance coverage. There was a time when that seemed like a precarious situation, but in the past few years I have become more jaded, with the result that I was able to say calmly in December that if the Lovely Daughter did indeed need eye surgery we had better get it done, because her college graduation will be accompanied by the termination of her health insurance.

The bill for her surgery has arrived. Now I'm not complaining, because she received excellent care at Giant Famous Hospital from a terrific doctor, and most of it is covered by the Quiet Husband's excellent insurance plan. And I am grateful that we were actually at the hospital for only three hours, and even more grateful that her vision is considerably improved and her spinal problems apparently eliminated, both by a relatively simple procedure from which no complications ensued. But, well, you know . . .


Friday, April 17, 2009

Quick Write No. 1

I've started a few posts in a desultory sort of way and they've gone nowhere. But I feel like writing, so I decided to offer a question for five minutes of nonstop writing. No more, no less. If you want to play, too, leave a comment with a link.


If you could get on a plane right now and fly anywhere for a five-day stay, where would you go?

Paris, for sure. I want to go back to the Chapel of the Martyrs, and I want to go back to Notre Dame for a couple of days. I don't know whether I could go to St. Chappelle for another concert, because Vivaldi sounds so off these days that I cannot listen to any of his music. All of Paris would be off, without my Chicago Son who first got me there, but it would also be a place to feel connected to him. I want to go back to the Luxembourg Gardens and remember my younger and happier family walking the deserted paths in the freezing cold, and I want to spend another warm evening on the bank of the Seine. And I want to slip away for an overnight to Chartres, and be reminded of . . . so many things.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Way Into Easter

Seven Stanzas at Easter
~ John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back,
not papier-mâché, not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.


I had forgotten about this poem but, in a year in which bodies and death have overtaken my thoughts and Easter has been difficult indeed, I am glad to have found it again, along with a little bit of commentary, here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Unabashedly Proud Mom

The Lovely Daughter

Phi Beta Kappa

Willamette University '09


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A New Poll!

I seem to have gotten really into this polling thing. For those of you reading via Bloglines or whatever, there's a new one in the sidebar:

Who had or has had the most formative influence on your religious life?

It occurs to me that answers could reflect both positive and negative experiences . . .

The idea materialized out of a Lenten reflection I just listened to (the one entitled I Know A Guy), which urges us to think about the people who have played significant roles in our religious development. I hope you'll leave comments! ~ because I for one find such stories fascinating. Because I'm in seminary, I often hear people talk about growing up in religious families, which was not the case for me, and so I am interested in all the kinds of influences that bear on a life of faith (or not).

For now, my own list in a nutshell:
Minister, friends, minister, nun, friends, ministers, professor, priests, professor, friends. Later addendum: of course, I should have included authors in my personal list!

You can check more than one answer -- go for it!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

My Very Most Favorite Facebook Greeting . . .

. . . comes from Oregon and is as follows:

Hi Momma!

Friday, April 03, 2009

God and Gender

The sidebar poll question was: How do you think about God?
The results, to the extent that I can cut and paste:

Always male
10 (12%)

Always female
1 (1%)

Sometimes male, sometimes female
26 (33%)

No gender
41 (52%)

The Holy Spirit is female; the other persons are male
1 (1%)

Scripture is clear on this; why are you even asking?
2 (2%)

I don't think about God
1 (1%)

I wish folks had comented more! (See the previous post.) Some apparently answered in terms of how they describe God rather than how they think about or imagine God. A couple answered that "Scripture is clear" ~ but I have no idea what their conclusions are as to what Scripture proclaims.

I think I answered both Sometimes male, sometimes female, and No gender, which would be the most accurate abbreviated response for me. I refer to God and the Spirit as God and the Spririt or, sometimes when the text is just impossibly replete with pronouns, I alternate masculine with with feminine ones, because, in contrast to what some others apparently presume, I am really really really bothered and disturbed by consistent references in readings, liturgy, hymns, prayers, sermons, and conversation, to God as "He" or "Him" ~ enough so that they affect my experience of worship in a profondly negative way.

I am, actually, surprised by the number of No gender answers, which no doubt reflects something about the readership of this blog. The questions then becomes, what does it reflect about God?