Sticks and stones may break my bones…

… but words– oh the awesome power of words– words can cause me to hate and fear and kill.

Reflecting today about the shooting at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN. A virtual friend of mine, Terry, points out that we often tolerate hateful and violent words by people in the media in our country, claiming that because it’s ‘satire’ or ‘commentary’ that it is harmless.

Words are not harmless.

And we all know this, especially those of us who, one way or another, devote our lives to the awesome power of words. I bet my job, my vocation, my ministry, my spiritual journey, in many ways my very life on the transformative power of the word (and The Word), for good or for evil. If words are toothless, then what is preaching? what is reading? what was the Sermon on the Mount?

No, words are not weak. Words create meaning, and community, and vision, and worldview, and context. Words inform behavior, and can shape that behavior to be life-giving and compassionate, or fear-filled and violent. Words can inspire, like King’s I have a dream and, sadly, like Hitler’s rallying speeches. Words, spoken, preached, downloaded, written, published, read, can create the reality in which one operates, and can shape that reality as a peaceable kin-dom, or a civilization threatened by liberals, upon whom one must take revenge, with a baseball bat (as recommended by Ann Coulter) or a shotgun.

In the midst of the power of words– words of welcome and love spoken by a congregation, and words of condemnation and distrust, written by media personalities and interpreted by a twisted and broken mind– an act of violence erupted in a community, killing two and wounding seven.

Those wishing to express words of blessing and hope and healing for the Tennessee Valley UUA can do so at a webpage set up for that purpose.

wow moment

Mentally running over my sermon ideas for the rest of the summer, I realized: I have three more Sundays at St. Paul’s.

Three.

I’ll be in the corner in a fetal position.

Sermon: Miniscule Muscle

“Miniscule Muscle”

( July 27, 2008 ) The coming of the kin-dom of God, in the world and in our own little microcosms of the church, is not a top-down power-grab, but the infectious grace of the powerless, unsuspected, small yet subversive yeast, mustard seeds, and people of God.  (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)

Just Say It.

If there’s a pastor in town who doesn’t have a funeral this week, I want to know who it is (because s/he must have some magic protection on the congregation, and I want it). It’s a bad week, especially for unexpected deaths. Especially for young men. And the funeral director’s own father, the former funeral home director and a pillar of the community, also passed away.

Tomorrow I am celebrating the life of a young man who died of massive heart failure at 39 (so this is my reminder to all of you to practice good health and see your doctor regularly). The night before his death, he spoke to his mother on the phone and told her he loved her.

A simple, from the gut reminder: got a friend? a parent? a child? Take a moment today and give a call, stop by, send a flower, give a hug. Tell them you love them. Don’t wait. Don’t dally.

Just say it.

Nope. I really can’t tell.

Please note: there is no way on God’s green earth that linking to this site is in any way an endorsement.

One of my friends told me about this site, and I spent a lot of time clicking through it.

It’s called “You’ve Been Left Behind,” youvebeenleftbehind.com, and here’s the thing: I can’t tell if it’s legitimate or not.

So here’s what they say they’ll do: they’ll give you some encrypted storage space and some non-encrypted space and up to 62 email addresses you can store. You upload documents or chose from their sample ones (which I haven’t been able to see), and they’ll hold onto them for you. For just $40 for the first year (and the re-subscription price will ‘go down as more people subscribe’), this website will store your documents, and then, send them to the specified emails after you have been raptured.

That’s right. So you can tell your friends how to get saved before it’s really really too late. So you can tell your enemies haha i told you so. So you can email the Pope and see if the Catholics really did get Left Behind like Tim LaHaye always claims they will.

How will they do this? If their team of five couples of Christians doesn’t log in for three consecutive days, it’ll apparently trip some sort of fail-safe and send emails three days later (assuming no one resets the system, or the antichrist doesn’t destroy the internet).

On the one hand, it sounds wacky enough to be something people would do. On the other, the language doesn’t smack quite enough of LaHaye jargon. And yes, I’m being pretty cynical about that particular brand of ‘theology’, mainly because I think it’s, well, not. I’m all for theological diversity (heck, I chair the team), but Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are not theologians. Nor are the folks who run this website, and refer to Christ as the “third person of the Trinity.”

You can log in and pay through PayPal.

But I didn’t. My friends and I tried entering information from a dummy account, but the site was smart enough to know the account was outdated. That lends a shred of credence to it. Well, at least to the fact that they actually are taking people’s money.

But I really want to know. Are these people for real? Because it also sounds like a really devious way to swindle fearful folks out of $40/year. Bad (or non-existent) theology aside, I’m not sure that anyone deserves that.

On the other hand, Rapture-oriented theory (which, I must stress, has no basis in either the Bible or Christian theological history) is one that preys on people’s deepest fears: fears about death and pain and being the slightest bit wrong about the nature of the Divine. This just adds one more layer of fear– fear about your loved ones. And so it attempts to take advantage of people’s fears to make a buck. LaHaye’s been doing that (somehow!) for years.

Title help!

Okay, this week’s lectionary is all about the power of little things, the subversive might of potent mustard and hidden treasure, and yeast kneaded through unsuspecting dough.

But I’m already having a hard time with the title. I can’t get away from referneces that are either very Star Wars (and I don’t need to continue to date myself!) or references that are even less appropriate.

So what’s a church-friendly, multi-generational way to say that size is not important?

And, without using Frodo, Yoda, or Mighty Mouse, what other ways might you communicate that little things and little people can be the might that topples the Empire?

When Hollywood Preaches

I made it through another tough morning– I couldn’t say the closing prayer at the end of my last Church Council meeting because I was getting choked up (over church council? yes, hush!).

My sermon was okay. Not the best–I’ve certainly spoken more convincingly about the way of nonviolence before.

Then, my husband and I went to go see The Dark Knight. Between the explosions and fight scenes and the general oh-my-gosh-Heath-Ledger-is-amazing-and-gone-forever I realized, this is actually a really thought-provoking film. I won’t ruin it for you, but go see it and reflect: where is the line when one crosses over into revenge, preemptive violence, and retaliation? Should one ever cross that line? When have the characters gone too far? Which ones, if any, embody Christ’s Third Way of creative non-violence? (and, to apply to American foreign policy, shake, pour over ice, and discuss)

This is why I should go to the movies Saturday nights. Sermon fodder.

Sermon: Grown Together

“Grown Together”

( July 20, 2008 ) Like wheat and weeds growing together in a field, our world is filled with good and bad. Jesus teaches not that we should resist or uproot the evil around us, but outshine it with love, patience, and hope. (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

Virtually Sacred Time

I continue to ponder the nature of church, community, and technology, wondering how the tools around us can be used to build up the Body of Christ. This is largely speculative; I’m not looking for quick answers here, but for reflection.

During last week’s four-hour-lunch, one of the topics of conversation between Human Hankie (and beverage connoisseur) Ted and I was about the nature church and the “missing generation” of young people (roughly, oh, high school graduation through baptism of firstborn child). Why do folks my age not go to church?

And, understand, I’m kind of a bad person to ask, because I do. I go to church a lot. Like, five days a week.

But for the most part, I think young people, professionals building their careers, and fledgling families have two big problems with church, or rather, are lacking two big things that would help them get to church:

Sacred space.

Sacred time.

The sense of a permanence of place and an identity shaped around place is significantly lacking in many people in my generation. We travel a lot more than our parents did; we’re more likely to have moved out of the house–out of the state–out of the time zone–for college, and are more likely to relocate for our jobs. We’re more likely to drive additional miles (provided we can afford the gas) to go to a better grocery store or movie theatre, rather than practice loyalty to one nearby just because it’s there. We’re more likely to see the space around us change shape and be able to separate those changes from any importance the space around us has. Place is fluid, dynamic, not a constant. Why, then– how then, can it be considered sacred?

If place has lost some of its sacredness, that’s nothing compared to time. Time is no longer a clear measure of the hours of sunlit productivity, or a steady count of days in a week. Many people in my generation work flexible hours, from home, from the car, from the office, on a train, over an internet conference call in the middle of the night with a colleague in Asia. Many people in my generation communicate not instantaneously via meetings or phone calls, but over email and text messages and Facebook updates, which can be accessed when the mood strikes and when time allows. What does it mean to meet at a particular time? Is there a way information can be dispelled on time delay? Can I TiVo it and watch it when it fits my schedule? In such an understanding of time, how can we define any of it as sacred?

I see two responses to this.

First, we can get upset and try to ‘fix’ the emerging understanding of time and place. We can insist that people should make a priority of sacred space and time, and rage against a system that increasingly tells us that location doesn’t matter (unless you’re in real estate) and that being on time is a nuisance (your schedule should fit you, not visa versa), that Sunday morning at ten o’clock is the best time for golfing or picnicking or sleeping in, that school clubs and games can and should schedule matches Sundays at eleven. Many of us do this. Heaven knows, when my sanctuary is looking a little empty, I do.

Or we can ask if there are ways that we too can be fluid in our understanding of what it means to gather in a time and place. If Christ is present wherever two or three gather, is not all space sacred? What about “space” that is a collection of electronic signals? Can virtual space be sacred? If God is eternal and present in all time, then cannot a gathering take place with a time-delay?

I’m intrigued, if not wholly convinced, by ministries like NuFaith Community, a United Methodist Church that exists, at least mostly, if not entirely online. A new church start, NuFatih doesn’t yet have a building, but that doesn’t stop them from having church. Go ahead, poke around a bit and tell me what you think. Try the online worship, sermons, prayers. Is this a gathering? Is it church? Is it sacred space? Sacred time?

I don’t know what the best response is to all of this. I do know that we need to have better responses, that we need to make better use of the tools at our disposal to equip, nourish, connect, uplift, and share the news of the people of God.

But there’s something else, too. There’s something that the church is missing that, whether people tune in online or in the pews, at 10 a.m. Sunday or when the mood strikes, we still need to provide.

We need to give people a reason. A reason to carve sacred space out of their lives and their websites, a reason to schedule sacred time in the dayplanners and iCal(endar)s. We need to have something real and authentic and honest and lifechanging to offer. We need to have a relevant Word and a timeless Word. Too often we step back from who we are called to be (God’s people) and worry about how we might do that (our programs). Really, people will make accommodations in their lives for anything, as long as we are willing to let those accommodations look a little different than we might expect, and as long as they can see that its worth it.

Give us a reason, my generation screams. Tell us–no show us– why God makes a difference in life, why church is vital. Gimme one good reason to consider your time and space sacred.

What’s our reason?

The Sweet and the Bitter

Today the Northeast Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church affirmed the boundaries change that I had previously described (the one about which I was so upset). This means that by 2010, I will officially be a pastor in the New England Annual Conference, while many of my dear friends here in New York will be part of a new Conference being formed.

That in itself it bittersweet; there are tremendous opportunities on both sides of the divide for new and vibrant ministries, and lots of great people I’m excited to work with in New England (I’m trying not to think of it as losing friends in NY– they’ll still be here and we’ll always have, er, Saratoga [and the web]– but as gaining new friends and colleagues and opportunities). But even in the midst of those new opportunities, there is a grieving that is real and often, for me, quite messy.

But as I was receiving a text message from the floor of Jurisdictional Conference, my husband was on the phone, accepting a job offer in South Burlington, Vermont as a middle school Special Educator. It’s hard to be upset, even about missing one’s dear friends, when one’s spouse is doing a booty-shaking touch-down dance in the kitchen.

Bitter and sweet, sweet and bitter, sown and grown together until you can hardly distinguish between the two, until you can’t pluck up the one weed without disturbing the wheat. Why does that sound familiar?

Where do the weeds and the wheat, the bitter and the sweet, grow side by side in your life?

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