Sermon: Annoying Grace

“Annoying Grace”

(Feb 12, 2012) Through humor and satire, the book of Jonah invites us to critique Jonah’s central beliefs: that people deserve punishment, that God’s mercy is a form of weakness or soft-heartedness, and that God’s grace, amazing when applied to us, is not meant to be poured out for everyone (Jonah 3:10-4:11 [included in recording]).

This sermon features melodrama, Facebook viral video and myth references, a Star Wars IV quote, and a description of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. Nerds rejoice.

Open Letter to Eat More Kale

I drew this picture. You can use it if you want. I’ve known local “t-shirt guy” and artist Bo Muller-Moore for a couple of years. Our daughters went to preschool together and are in the same grade (different classes) at school. Bo also volunteers as a driver for Meals on Wheels, which is a program that operates under the umbrella of the non-profit I chair, Just Basics, Inc. I’d have thought that Chick-fil-A’s objection to his trademark was a ridiculous thing anyway, but knowing Bo even the little bit that I do, it only serves to make me feel more self-righteously indignant (what’s that sound? Is it an apple falling near to this tree?).

Now there are lots of great ways to support Bo in his fight to protect his own intellectual property against the objection of a corporate giant, including buying his shirts or making a donation on his website, signing the petition, and passing his story along to everyone you know (sources: NECN, local station WCAX, Huffington Post, Yahoo finance, Public Broadcasting, MSNBC, Christian Science Monitor, Christian Post, and Anderson Cooper 360). But I thought I’d also help by giving him some suggestions for new ideas to silkscreen.

Dear Bo,

I’ve come up with a few more ideas for t-shirts. I think you should trademark them now:

  • Nobody calls me Chikin
  • I’m Pro-Bo!
  • CSA > C-f-A
  • Save a (genetically modified) chicken; eat more kale.
  • Confuse Anderson Cooper: eat more kale.
  • got kale?
  • I tried to shut down a humble, one-man company, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

I promise not to sue you for taking my ideas, but I’d like a free shirt out of the deal.

Keep up the fight, Bo; your community is beside you!


The images and text ideas contained in this post are intended as satire and to make a political statement. As parody, they are not meant to infringe on the trademark or copyright of any company, including but not limited to Chick-fil-A, Universal/Back to the Future, the Dairy Association, CNN/AC360, Big Idea/VeggieTales, or Eat More Kale.

The Invention of Faith?

My husband and I recently watched the movie “The Invention of Lying,” written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson (at Internet Movie Database). I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard more about this film sooner; I thought it was one of the most interesting and though-provoking movies I’ve seen in a while.

It starts as a romantic comedy of sorts, and a brilliant one at that. Sharp and witty and pushing the edge of its PG-13 rating, the film explores an alternate reality in which no one can ever lie. Ever. They don’t even have a concept for it. Now isn’t that a funny place to tell a story about a fat man looking for love?

Except the movie doesn’t stop there. When main character Mark does manage to break the mold and tell a lie, a whole new world opens up, for him, and for the audience. It’s not about lying to get girls in bed or to make easy money. Mark discovers something incredible.

(Mild spoilers ahead, but I try to be good about it)

Mark has discovered not just lying, but a whole series of stuff about saying something that isn’t. You see, by inventing “lying,” he has also discovered creativity, storytelling, and fiction. He has created, at least for himself, a concept of truth and honesty, because now he has a choice about when he will lie and when he won’t. This plays out very dramatically in a scene where he could get everything he wants– not money or sex, but what he really, truly wants– if he’d just tell a little lie. Mark discovers that he now sees the world in a different way, not only by what is, but by what could be, and he sees in people not only what they look like, but what they seem like, who they are inside. He’s discovered, although he never names it as such, hope. (here comes the spoiler-y bit)

And that’s ultimately what I think he’s trying to express when he invents his biggest “lie,” religious belief.

I was prepared for that to be really offensive, and at first glance it is. The film seems to suggest that faith is a lie, something we invent to give ourselves hope, to make ourselves less afraid of what happens after we die. What Mark invents is exactly that, and as he discovers, it’s not transformative or life-changing, it doesn’t help others see the world the way he sees it, and it ultimately doesn’t bring hope or change to anyone because it’s only an empty promise about the afterlife and some removed “guy in the sky” and not a way to change *this* life and live with new priorities, new eyes.

And I agree. When we strip faith down to be something like that, to be a series of empty promises about heaven and hell and how to get to one and avoid the other, we take something transcendent and holy and we turn it into a lie. We make it a silly story we tell ourselves to be less afraid and alone in life, and we strip it of any power to transform us and the world. We create our own religion, which has little or nothing to do with the powerful gift God is trying to give us. I believe that what God offers us, when truly understood (which we see only in glimpses most of the time), is powerful and profound and life-changing. Like Mark’s discovery, it should free us to live more deeply and fully, to express free will and choice and creativity, to love passionately and honestly, to be a part of something much more than ourselves or the survival of our species, but the lifeblood of all that is, a part of the vast and sacred scope of all of creation.

But instead, we boil it down to our own desires: safety, security, a relief from fear and loneliness. We take God’s gift of faith and we make it into a human invention of religion, empty, powerless, devoid of any transformation or lasting hope.

We render it a lie.

Like I said, the film got me thinking. I recommend it, and if you watch it and want to discuss it, I’m happy to kick around ideas some more. Enjoy!

When life gives you lemons…

… make a giving program out of lemonade!

Stewardship Moment: “Be Peculiar”

I needed to share some information with one of my congregations about some strange letters we’d received, and not make it too scary, and also take an opportunity to teach about tithing and challenge folks to greater giving in a fun way, so I thought I’d combine all three!

(My friend, who also happens to be the chairperson of our Conference Council on Finance and Administration, has already pointed out that I should clarify that tithing is based not on what one has, but on one’s income, which is a different thing indeed.)

Lessons of the Season

YINYANGIn my life, lessons come in seasons. I like to think that this is because all of life is learning, growing, and cyclical, but it’s probably just because I’m thickheaded and it takes a few whacks with a 2×4 upside the back of the skull for me to realize that God is trying to tell me something.

Example: one semester while I was in seminary, the lesson of the season was Sabbath. Everywhere I went, every class I took, for a period of about a month, we were discussing Sabbath. We read books on it. At my internship the pastor planned a retreat on it. I encountered a clergy woman who was suffering for lack of it. Finally I practically screamed, “Okay, already, God! I get it! You want me to make sure I observe Sabbath. Enough already!” And just like that, the Sabbath convergence went away.

The lesson this season in my life is that all things contain a trace of pain or sorrow or death. In fact, I think this may be the true brokenness of the human condition, the true loss of innocence, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden with its tree and the fruit that was All Good and All Evil, not the two mixed and woven and swirled together. But this is my life lesson. In the joy and excitement and anticipation of being ordained (after more than 10 years in this process), there is the deep sorrow that this will be nearly the last action of my Annual Conference gathered together in full for the last time. In the joy and exuberance of pregnancy and the triumphant wail of new life (whether another woman’s pregnancy or, I hope one day again, my own), there is the deep grief of the hope I carried and lost. Even in the thrill of this learning, which feels like wisdom and treading lightly in life that is fragile, there is also a kind of sadness that is the loss of innocence. Perhaps that is actually what heaven is– coming back to a place where we can experience joy and peace, untinged with the sorrow and pain that suffuse so much of life. Weeping and death will be no more.

Reflecting on these things during a time of silence and retreat, I found myself a beautiful, serene patch of grass near the edge of a lake and sat in the early morning sun. Absorbing the stillness and beauty of the moment, I found for an instant a near-painless experience, and then I noticed an object on the ground, not six inches from my knee. A rock? A piece of driftwood? It looked charred a little, blackened in an odd but natural way. I used a stick to move it slightly, and then recognized the shape. A dead bullfrog, its body as big as my palm, partially frozen and decaying and hollowed out.

I laughed out loud. “You don’t give up, do you?” I asked, breaking my silence. “God, you have a sick sense of humor.”

Returning to the group, we shared our reflections, and I spoke about how God reminded me, once again, that all beauty, all life, contains sorrow, loss, pain, death. Another retreatant also got a message from God. He was sitting in a clearing and a bear cub came and sat on the opposite side of the clearing with him for about 15 minutes. He was possessed not with fear, but with a deep calm.

Another life lesson for me; some people are the ones to whom God sends bear cubs and burning bushes.

Me? I’m the one God sends dead frogs. And I think I’m comfortable with that.

This pretty much sums up my spirituality.

Finding Jesus

find-jesus1Every week, I have a to-do list for the various aspects of my job (Worship Service, Visitation, Meetings & Administration and so on).Yes, I realize that’s very type A of me. Mostly I just like to be able to cross stuff off. Parts of the list are pre-written, and copied so that some recurring things (like picking hymns or setting the altar or writing a sermon) are on every list, and then there’s space for me to add the specific tasks for that week, people to visit, and meetings to go to.

Like I said, Type A. I know.

This week, the handwritten portion of my worship list looks like this:

  • Find Jesus
  • Divide texts for readers
  • Pick time for Sonrise service
  • Begin Holy Week liturgy
  • Get noisemakers

Yes, that’s right, at the top of my list is ‘Find Jesus.’

Now, I mean that in a liturgical sense, as in find a person to act out Jesus for the little dramatic thing we’re working on. But it seems to me that I might want to add that to the list of things that stay on the to-do list all the time. Right at the beginning of the week, first thing off the bat: find Jesus, and don’t plan worship till you do!

Wonder if I’d ever cross it off? I don’t think we’re ever *done* finding Jesus.

In the midst of death, we also live.

I love my kid; she keeps life light.

I was in the shower this morning, working on my eulogy (because that’s where I always work on my sermons, don’t you?). Arianna was obviously playing hide-and-seek with my brother-in-law, because just as I was reaching the second transition in the eulogy (and the conditioner), the bathroom door opened.

“Unca Jim, where are you? You in dare?”

I barely paused.

“Honey, Uncle Jim is, I assure you, not in the shower with me.”

And amid the laghter of my family, I went back to writing eulogies in my head.

Life goes on.

My Gray Hair

Lightening the discussion for a moment…

For my new readers in Central Vermont (and afar!), I will repeat what I have said elsewhere, I do consider it part of my ministry to be so transparent in my humanness that people can’t help but think, “well if God can use *that*, then maybe God can use me too!” This means that while some of my posts are about serious problems like poverty, homelessness, or the plight of the poor in developing countries, and some are about the nature of God or the purpose of prayer, or other theological and ministerial issues, some posts are just about parenting and clothing choices and silly moments in my life.

And this one is about my hair.

In fact, it’s about one of them. My gray one. And yes, there’s only one (actually, there are about three of them, but only one is crinkly and sticks out and makes her presence known).

I’m proud of this gray hair, and I refuse to dye her or her friends. I know, I know, you’ll ask me in ten years if I feel the same, and I certainly reserve the right to feel differently. But right now, I’m proud and I feel like between being in ministry for four years and being a mom for three, I’ve earned this little trophy of experience. You see, I’ve spent nearly every day of those four years or so trying to convince people (often myself, too, to be honest!) that I am old enough, wise enough, and experienced enough to at least begin to do the work I do. A pastor is a person who carries a fair amount of authority or at least tries to, and sometimes that respect (again, even the respect I have for myself, on my low-self-esteem days) is undermined by being the ‘young’ or ‘pretty’ pastor, rather than the wise or experienced one.

And sometimes it’s just funny. Take this exchange yesterday at a gathering of probational/provisional elders (that’s the term, currently in flux, for us United Methodist pastors who are in the three year period of evaluation before ordination).

An older pastor whom I love and respect and often have very little in common with (and that can be a good thing for us to learn from each other!) was explaining why he had a hard time relating to those of us who were describing the time of transition from one church to another.

“It’s been a long time since I did that,” he mused. “I’ve been at my church for seventeen years.”

There was a pause. “Twelve,” I said.

“No, seventeen. I’ve been there seventeen years.”

“Oh, I know. But twelve,” I replied. “That’s how old I was when you started at that church. I was twelve.”

When we each recovered from that particular shock, I at least mused that it is a wonderful thing to be colleagues with folks across generations, and, while I try not to go out of my way to point it out, it’s sometimes cool to be the young’un, but it means I often have to be that much more intentional about also being respectable and skillful and in search of wisdom.

So I’ll take it. I’ll take a gray hair or ten or a head full, and I’ll look forward to the day when I hope I, with humility and grace and respect, have wisdom to offer incoming pastors who were entering puberty when I was entering my current ministry.

Back on the Horse

I’ve been dragging my feet, sermon wise, for the past few weeks, just not feeling it. I was worried that this, the last sermon before a week’s much-needed vacation, would be another disappointment. I had switched to next week’s lectionary to make it easier on myself, and still was having difficulty with the text. Too many ideas.

I went to bed with half a sermon in my head. I woke up with a much better one in mind. For those who are wondering, yes, I do consider this ‘proof’ of divine intervention.

Wellspring Witness turned out quite well, with a call to the church to be the place of acceptance and nourishment and transformation we so desperately need to be.

Also, my choir, which you recall went through a dry period this winter, has been practicing on Sundays after church, yielding about three times as many people, and Sunday was their first offertory since the new time. They were great. I mean, they may not win any awards, but they had harmony. It was very refreshing.

On a side theological note, my mom was over, and I was trying to explain family systems to my daughter. I asked her if she knew who *my* Mama was, hoping to surprise her with the knowledge that her Nonna was her Mama’s Mama.

“Hey, sweetie, do you know who my Mama is?”

She thinks a second. Then, “I dunno. Maybe God.”

I love my three-year-old feminist.

A good day

Today, I sat down with my treasurers and worked on the 2008 budget. You know, the one for which we had that big giving campaign. No one was more surprised than me when we typed all the numbers into excel and looked at the bottom line, where you subtract the expenses from the inflows. It was black, not red. In the official wordage of Webster, w00t.

And silly irony for the day: pastor in her (pink) clerical shirt, in her car, inexplicably rockin’ out to Justin Timberlake’s “Love Stoned” (she’s freaky and she knows it/she’s freaky and I like it) — what? it has a good beat– and stops at a traffic light. Of course, two young men in the adjacent car notice me seat-dancing and start laughing, bee-bopping to whatever tune is on their radio. I just hung my head and laughed at myself. And went right back to dancing.