Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Status of Women

In the March 21 issue of The Christian Century, the Century Marks page featured results of a poll done by the Pew Research Center.  The poll measured current attitudes toward family trends, and the results were reported in seven circles.  In the center of each circle was a family trend:  Interracial Marriage, Women Never Having Children, Mothers of Young Children Working Outside Home, Gay/Lesbian Couples Raising Children, Unmarried Couples Raising Children, People Living Together Without Being Married and Single Women Having Children.

The question asked was "Is an increase in each category for the better, the worse, or makes no difference?"  And the responses were given in colors that went around each circle.  The better responses were colored in green, the worse in red and the makes no difference in beige.

It was interesting that only one of these categories had a large number of the circle in green.  I was pleasantly surprised that it was the category of interracial marriage.  Although the number of people responding that an increase in interracial marriage would be for the better was still smaller than those who felt it would make no difference and those who believe it would make things worse, it was by far the largest amount of green on any of the circles.  I was dismayed, however, that on the the last category -- single women having children -- the predominant color on the circle was red.  The majority of respondents to that question believed it would be worse for single women to have children than not.

I realize that I don't know a lot of pertinent details associated with this poll.  I don't know how many people were polled.  I don't know the demographics of the people polled.  I don't know if there were other details to the question or if the respondents had particular scenarios in mind.  Were they thinking of high school girls having children?  Single career women who had no intention of marrying?  Divorced women raising children on their own?  I don't know.  I did go to the Pew Research website but could not find this particular questionnaire.  So I'm left with uncertainty and a growing uneasiness, okay dread, at the attitudes I see toward women in our culture.

 In the early 1990's Susan Faludi's landmark book, Backlash:  The Undeclared War Against American Women took on the media for making it seem that the American woman's continued unhappiness was because feminism not only didn't work, but had actually harmed women more than helped.  A predominant media promulgated myth of my 20's was the belief that there was a man shortage, and I had a better chance of being involved in a terrorist attack than getting married once I passed the dreaded age of 30.  Faludi's premise was that the real source of women's unhappiness was that we had only achieved a few of the goals of the women's movement of the 1970's and that what we had gained was under attack.  That was the backlash.  The media's characterization of women only gave fuel to the anti-feminist fire.  Feminism didn't harm the American woman.  Not achieving true equality, which was the ultimate goal of feminism, did.

So here we are today.  We're still paid less for the same jobs.  We're still underrepresented in government.  I work in a traditionally male profession, and although the numbers of my clergy women colleagues are increasing, women clergy still tend to be called to small churches that most male clergy don't see as advantageous to their careers.  (Church folks, if you're reading this, please know that I love you and I am in this church because I answered a call, not because I was desperate!)

And I am dismayed to find that a fight I thought was long over is now predominant in our culture once again.  Birth control.  I have two children whom I love.  I cannot imagine my life without them.  But they were planned.  Birth control Reproductive rights.  It seems to me that when our reproductive rights -- and in case you were wondering, abortion is only one facet of reproductive rights -- come under attack in such a fundamental way, then our condition as women, as a society, has fallen measurably.  And yet all I can surmise from the poll on family trends is that people think single women having babies makes life (?) worse.  At the same time the outcry against single women using birth control is getting louder and louder.  To paraphrase, single women using birth control, whether to prevent pregnancy or otherwise, are sluts. Backlash.

I'll offer one other thought. In 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment met in Rio de Janeiro and agreed to the set of principles called the Rio Declaration. This was a follow-up to a conference on the environment held in Stockholm in 1972.  This conference recognized that significant economic development in poorer countries was vital to environmental sustainability.  Too often poorer countries exploited their environment in an attempt to raise their standard of living.  It was also recognized that the role of women must be elevated in poorer countries in order to keep population growth from reaching unsustainable levels.  In countries where men held power over women, especially women's fertility, population growth exploded.  The status of women is vital to protecting our environment. 

"The position of women in a society provides an exact measure of the development of that society."  Gustav Geiger

The status of women is vital to the environment, to the family, to our society.  The status of women is vital to us all.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Forgive and Forget

“God’s Amnesia”
Jeremiah 31:31-34
March 25, 2012
The Fifth Sunday in Lent

            Several years ago when the news hit about the benefits of taking ginkoba and ginseng to improve memory my parents immediately went out and bought some.  They were both struggling with the memory loss that can come with growing older, and if there was a natural way to help stem the forgetful tide, they would willingly try it.  There was only one problem with their plan.  They bought the ginkoba … but they kept forgetting to take it.   It seems that in order for it help memory, buying ginkoba is not enough.  You actually have to take it too.
            Much to my parents’ dismay, that has become a long standing joke in my extended family.  But I can’t laugh too hard at them.  I have my own issues with forgetfulness as well.  I have been known to search high and low, and with increasing consternation, for my sunglasses only to discover them on top of my head.  I’ve set my wallet and purses and other bags on top of my car and driven off.  And Alice can attest that when I’m talking to someone, I constantly ask,” have I told you this story before?”  Because I know that I’m starting to repeat myself, and that completely freaks me out because that means I’m turning into my mother, and that is a whole other story. 
            I suspect that most of this is the natural forgetting that comes with age.  And some of it is funny.  But there are other kinds of forgetting that isn’t.  I read just a day or two ago how scientists at MIT have discovered that blocking an enzyme, which is overproduced in Alzheimer’s patients, could help in the treatment of this terrible disease that affects over 5 million Americans alone.  Some forgetting isn’t natural or normal. 
            Even though I hate how I forget things more and more these days, I wish there were some parts of my life that I could forget.  There are things that I’ve said and done that still literally make me cringe with embarrassment or shame.  I read once that it was believed that when we die, we review our entire life, as though it were a movie rolling on a screen before us. 
I don’t know how much validity I can give to that claim, but I do remember that upon hearing that my first thought was, “O boy I hope not!”  Because even though there are aspects of my life I’d like to relive – such as seeing my kids being born – there are many other events I have no desire to see again.  I wish I wouldn’t have been there the first time.  I wish I could just forget.
There seems to be a bad kind of forgetting and a good kind.  Forgetting is the underlying theme that I hear in these verses from the prophet Jeremiah.  The context of this passage, as I understand it, is that up until these verses God’s people have been paying for the sins of their ancestors.  The people’s complaint has been that God never forgets sins of the past, and new generations continue to pay for the transgressions of the old. 
            When will they stop being punished for the sins of their parents?  When will God finally forget?
            In the verses immediately before our passage God is assuring the people that he has forgotten.  No more are you going to be judged for the sins of those who have gone before you.  No more will your teeth be set on edge because someone in the past ate sour grapes.  From now on it falls on you.  There will be new life in your midst, God says.  Humans and animals will once again multiply.  I have brought judgment on you for your wrongdoing, but I will also bring blessing on you.  I have plucked up, but I will also plant. 
One commentator wrote that God is reversing the previous relationship with Judah and Israel.  No longer will their relationship with God be based on disobedience, but on a new covenant. 
            Verses 31 through 34, which are the verses we are dealing with specifically with today, are some of the most famous and most recognized verses from all of Jeremiah.  Many scholars see this as the gospel before the gospel.  God, speaking through Jeremiah, promises the people a new covenant.  And this new covenant isn’t going to be like the old one.  God took them out of Egypt by the hand.  God led them in what they were supposed to do and walked them through how they were supposed to live.  God gave them the Law, but they broke it and broke their relationship with him over and over and over. 
            In this new covenant, God isn’t just going to give them the Law in document form.  That Law will be written on their hearts.  That Law will be within them.  They will not have to teach one another the law.  It won’t be reduced to a simple course of study.  Teaching the Law will not even be necessary.  Instead the people will fully and absolutely know the Lord.  They will finally and completely be his people and he will be their God.  All of them will know the Lord, from the least in society to the greatest.  All of them will know the Lord.  And God will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. 
            And remember their sin no more. This new covenant is God’s new amnesia.  It is selective amnesia to be sure, but God promises to both forgive and forget.  In this new covenant God’s memory for sin will be short.  It is a new covenant based on God’s amnesia, God’s willing decision to forget.
            Now what is a covenant?  The word is used over and over again in the Bible, but do we fully understand its meaning?  Especially because we live in a world of contracts.  We live in a contractual society.  As one writer put it, a contract specifies failures.  Think about any contract that you’ve ever entered into.  When I sign a contract with someone, I am agreeing to do certain things.  If I fail to do those things, then I am in breach of contract and could lose whatever it is that I have agreed to lose.  Whether it’s my job, my house, my car, etc.
            But a covenant is something completely different.  A covenant doesn’t specify failure, it specifies promise.  It specifies promise.  It specifies the faithfulness of God, in spite of how we go astray.  It specifies that God has promised to be with us, that God has promised to forgive our sins and to forget them.  But the covenant God makes with us is not one-sided.  It’s not just handed down to us on high, and we’re in.  We have our side to uphold.  We are called upon to love God, to know God with our whole heart, mind and soul.  We are called to love neighbor, to do what is right in spite of how easy it is to do what is wrong.  We are called to give our whole lives to this new covenant.  And, perhaps hardest of all – at least for me – we are called to trust that God will be faithful. 
            Other differences that I see between contract and covenant are that contracts seem to have a time limit.  Contracts end.  Covenants do not.  The covenants that God made with Abraham did not end when God made a covenant with David, and the Davidic covenant did not end when this covenant was made through the prophet Jeremiah.  The covenants of God flow into one another, all finally being fulfilled with the coming of God’s son. 
            So in this new covenant that we read in Jeremiah, it seems that God covenants, God promises, not only to forgive our sins but to forget them.  God covenants to develop amnesia when it comes to the past. 
            God forgives and forgets.  Can we do the same?  As we move into these last stages of the Lenten journey, can we both forgive and forget?  Can we develop amnesia when it comes to the ways we’ve hurt or harmed or disregarded one another?  Can we be intentional in our forgetting just as God is intentional in forgetting? 
            Think for a moment about one thing that you would really like to forget.  It could be something that you’ve done to someone or had done to you; something you’ve said; something you regret.  Whatever it is, find hope in the belief that God forgets.  God doesn’t forget us, but God, through grace, forgets our sins.  We are covered by God’s promise to develop amnesia.  That is our hope.  That is our assurance.  That is the new covenant in which we live and move and have our being.  Our sins are forgiven.  Our transgressions are forgotten. This is the good news!  We are covered by God’s amnesia.  Let all God’s children say “Amen!”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Troubling Words
Mark 8:27-9:1
March 22, 2012

Simple question
“Who do people say that I am?”
Our recitation of other’s opinions


Spurred his curiosity
The real question
“But who do YOU say that I am?”

Peter leaped
He did not dispute

Instead ordered silence
We knew
For a moment we knew

Clarity of moment
Dissipated into fear
Troubling words

Rise again?

Peter once more leaped
Rebuking, pushing, rejecting
Troubling words

Anger fierce, fast
“Get behind me, Satan!”
Peter the devil?  Or the devil in him?

Insight into divine
Came through such
Troubling words

We could not
Take them in
We could not

Understand his intent
Fathom his reasons
Such terrible trouble

Predicted in these
Troubling words
So many more

Gathered there, gathered
Round and he spoke
Of crosses

Roman death for
Criminals and traitors
He claimed his cross

Called us to claim
Our own
Necessary to carry

If we wanted
To follow him
Moment of clarity

Dissipated into
Confusion, pain, loss
Could we give up

Old beliefs, ideas
Relics of time past
Could we give up

Our lives for
his sake?
Carry our own cross?

His question remains
“But who do YOU say that I am?”
Crosses must still

Be claimed
Hefted, hoisted, lifted up
Their weight threatening

To break us
But in the breaking
We are made new


“But who do YOU say that I am?”

Troubling words

 Written for the Ecumenical Lenten Service, United Presbyterian Church, Shawnee, OK

Monday, March 19, 2012

Creepy Crawly New Life

            It seems that every place I’ve lived has come with its own unique bug, critter or rodent type creature.  Warm weather in Nashville meant the arrival of chiggers – nasty little critters who dug beneath your skin and set up residence.  My friend Tommy and I used to count our chigger bites as though they were a status symbol of our outdoorsiness. 
            When I was a seminary student in Richmond, Virginia, I had to deal with roaches for the first time.  (I realize that roaches are not unique to Richmond, but you have no idea how big these suckers were!)  I saw quite a few live ones.  In fact my broom and I put a large dent in a small utility cart I owned trying to send one back to its maker.  The school maintenance guys sprayed but that only turned my little apartment into a cockroach hospice.  They’d crawl under my door during the night, gasp their last breath and die, leaving their disgusting carcasses for me to find the next morning...too often with my bare feet. 
            In New York State, especially the further north you went into the Adirondacks, you had to watch out for the black flies.  They had the potential to carry away small animals.   
            I never actually resided in Minnesota, but my parents did, and there you would either be attacked by mosquitos or deer flies, both species being unusually large in size.  How many times did I try to go for a walk when I would visit my folks, only to turn back after being repeatedly swarmed by deer flies on kamikaze suicide missions?
            Let’s not forget Iowa.  As the farmland around us kicked into high growing gear, the flies and the Asian beetles would ramp up their activity as well.  When they tired of the choice feeding around the farms, they would stop by my neighborhood for a visit.  Yuck!  Yuck!  Yuck!
            And Oklahoma?  Well in the last week we’ve been infested by these large gnat-mosquito hybrids.  Apparently they don’t bite or sting but they are everywhere.  Quite frankly they are grossing me out!  You open the door and they swarm.  I shake out laundry and a few fly out.  There are usually at least three hanging around the kitchen sink in the morning, like some insect water cooler.  Again I say, yuck!  
Trust me, this is one creepy bug!
             I guess this is the inevitability of spring.  The grass greens, buds pop, flowers bloom, allergies blossom and the bugs swarm.  This is nature’s new life in all of its glory.  It occurs to me that maybe there is a connection between this new life and the new life we talk about in the church. 
            Whenever I preach or teach on the resurrection and the new life that is ours in Christ, I tend to think of new life in idyllic terms.  It will be perfection, utopia, without flaw or failing.  But is that real?  Haven’t I, in claiming my faith, experienced a little of that new life already?  If so, then there are still bugs.  And snakes.  And rodents.  All sorts of creepy crawly, slinking, slithering things that elicit involuntary screams from me when I encounter them.  
            If there was a literal Garden of Eden, or the garden was just what the world was like before humans came along and started exploiting creation, then I imagine it was full of all sorts of creatures.  Genesis describes God creating them, every creature that crawls, flies, swims, buzzes, and swarms. 
            So it makes me wonder if we have the wrong idea of what new life is supposed to be.  Is it supposed to be perfect, at least in our terms, or is it supposed to be abundant?  If the answer is the latter, and I’m not claiming to know, then it seems to me bugs and gnats and creepy crawly things are part of that equation.  Either way, spring has sprung in Oklahoma and elsewhere.  New life is all around me.  I wonder if I should make my peace with the mutant gnats or merely hope they don’t band together and fly away with the dog.
Belinda seems unaware of a potential threat to her well-being

Sunday, March 18, 2012

It's About Love

“For God So Loved”
John 3:14-21
March 18, 2012/Fourth Sunday in Lent

“He’s got the whole world in his hands.
He’s got the whole wide world in his hands.
He’s got the whole world in his hands.
He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

            This was one of my favorite songs when I was a kid.  We sang it in Sunday School and we sang it in Vacation Bible School.  I think we even added hand motions to it.  I was never one to be shy when it came to singing so I just sang it at the top of my lungs whenever the song would roll around. 
            It’s an uplifting song, which is probably why I liked it so much.   But I also distinctly remember liking the sentiment of the song when I was a child.  I liked the idea of God holding the whole world in his hands.  When I was a child I got a picture in my head of God as a great big person, with large and capable hands, holding onto the earth.  I still see that picture, even today.  As a child that image made me feel safe and secure.  As an adult, it gives me hope. 
            But either as a child or as an adult, the idea that God holds the world, all the people, all of creation in his hands, is a positive and inspiring thought.  So it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why I chose this as a way to talk about our passage from John, the third chapter, verses 14 through 21.
            More specifically, John 3:16.  This is probably the most famous verse of scripture.  It’s known to believers and unbelievers alike.  We see it in the most unlikely of places … like sporting events.  There always seems to be some guy with a homemade banner proclaiming John 3:16 at every major sports contest I watch. 
            “"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
            For God so loved the world.  Verse 17 further explicates the idea of God’s love.  "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
            It’s about love.  For God so loved the world.  The Son is sent into the world not for punishment, not so the world could be condemned, but for love.  For God so LOVED the world. This seems so simple and straightforward, I should just stop now.  We can finish up worship and all get to lunch before the Baptists. 
            Except for the reality that nothing in John’s gospel is fully straightforward or simple.  John’s gospel contains layers of meaning.  This is the only time in John’s gospel when the world, or kosmos in Greek, is used in a positive way.  All of the other references to the world are negative.  John speaks of the world as darkness.  It is enmity and brokenness.  It is separation from God.  It is that which works against God’s purposes in the world.  Yet this kosmos that is negative and dark and broken is also the same kosmos that God loves enough to send his Son, the incarnate Word into. 
            God loves the world, but this is also scandalous.  Surely if the world is as broken as John implies throughout his gospel, then the world deserves condemnation.  That is what should happen.  But the impulse for God is love.  The motivation for God is love.  It isn’t condemnation.  It isn’t for death, but for life.  For God so loved the world that the world was destined for life, not death. 
            Claiming this, claiming the love of God for the world, does not mean that we can gloss over the verses that follow. 
            18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
            There is condemnation, but as one scholar wrote, it is a passive condemnation.  God is not actively seeking to condemn the world.  Instead condemnation comes from our own inability to move into the light.  It comes from our own resistance, reluctance or just plain stubbornness to claim the Light of God.
            David Lose wrote about this passage saying that we have to choose which side of the coin is predominant in our thinking and in our faith.  Love or Judgment?  Are we more concerned about what it means that God loves us enough to give us his Son or about the judgment that comes if we don’t accept that love and the light it brings? 
            And it is not that the two are completely separate concepts.  Both are informed by the other.  But it is one thing to think that the reason God sent Jesus into the world to bring love and because of love.  It is another to believe that the ultimate reason for the incarnation is punitive.
            I take a stand on the side of love.  God sent the Son into the world for love.  Yet as I’ve said in other sermons and will most likely say again, this kind of love is not merely sentiment.  This kind of love is a verb.  Love is embodied and enacted.  Certainly Jesus’ death on the cross is testament to the fact that the love that motivated God was not just warm and fuzzy, sweetness and happiness. 
            The love God had and has for the world demands a response of love from us as well.  How do we love?  Who do we love? 
            I attended a conference on Stewardship in North Carolina this past week.  It was a positive experience for the most part.  I learned a lot, and came away with new ideas and inspiration for stewardship in my own life and in the life of our congregation.  However, I was disturbed by the fact that so much of the conference seemed to be centered solely on fundraising.  I do not question the fact that money is a fundamental part of stewardship and something that must be discussed honestly and forthrightly.  But I also understand stewardship to be about all of life.  It is how we spend our money, how we interact with our environment, how we live in relationship with each other and with creation. 
            So I was disturbed that one of my workshops, entitled “Creating a Culture of Generosity in Your Church,” was more about fundraising than about the full spirit of generosity.  But at our worship service on Tuesday night, I was renewed in my understanding of generosity.
            Reverend Susan Andrews, former moderator of our denomination’s General Assembly, and Executive Presbyter of the Hudson Valley Presbytery in New York State was our preacher that evening.  She moved through her sermon giving examples of generosity, but it was the last illustration that I found most moving.
            A few weeks before the conference, she and other presbytery representatives were invited to a meeting by the stated clerk of a small church in her presbytery.  The congregation has only about 20 active members, and Jerry, the stated clerk, is in his 70’s and is one of the youngsters.  Like so many of other congregations in our denomination, like us, they are a small membership that resides in a large church building.  The thing about this congregation is that they have plenty of money to continue without change for a few more years.  The question has been, though, is that what they want?  That’s why this meeting that Reverend Andrews described was called.  Not only was Jerry there along with the congregation’s part-time pastor, Andrews and the presbytery reps, another minister had also been invited.  The other minister was the pastor of a vibrant, growing, Pentecostal, Hispanic congregation.  Its members come from the growing Latino community in the Hudson Valley.  Many of their families are low income and, yes, undocumented workers are part of the mix as well.
            The reason the other minister was invited to attend is because Jerry and the rest of the congregation realize that holding onto a building for the building’s sake is not what they are called to do.  Their building is too big for their needs, while this other church needs something much larger to fill their needs.  So Jerry, speaking for the entire congregation, expressed their desire to give their church to this Pentecostal church. 
            They don’t want to sell it, lease it or rent it.  They want to give it.  Their congregation will still be able to have a small place in the building.  They will use it for worship on Sunday mornings at 9, finished in plenty of time before the dominant congregation begins their own worship service.  And that will remain that way until the congregation comes to the place when they ask the presbytery to dissolve their congregation. 
            The current congregation knows, as Andrews put it, that the church will change.  Their sanctuary will be filled with instruments and screens and things it never had before.  Aromas of exotic foods will emanate from the kitchen. 
            But this is their gift.  Their dying gift.  And to symbolize theirs and our fervent belief that death does not win, but gives rise to new life, they want the first Sunday for the new congregation to be Easter Sunday.  That is the resurrection. 
            There are still hoops to jump through.  I am proud Presbyterian, but we are the keepers of the hoops.  The presbytery must vote on this.  Andrews realizes that this could be hotly debated.  Will the presbytery retain the ownership of the property?  Will they require the new congregation to become Presbyterian in order to be in the building?  All of that has yet to be worked out.  But the hope is that the presbytery will hear the conviction of Jerry and the other members and remove any obstacles that might inhibit their amazing generosity, their amazing love. 
            For God so loved the world.  For God so LOVES the world, that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  The world is in God’s hands, and they are hands of love.  God loves the world, God loves us, so let us love in return through word and deed.  Let all God’s children say Amen!