Musings on motherhood, ministry and the Eucharist.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Birth Pangs of the Kingdom of God

Thanks to Pastor Tari Stage-Harvey for inviting me to preach at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church today.  And thank you to the wonderful people of Shepherd of the Valley for welcoming me to your worship and graciously laughing at my "pope joke."  It was a blessing to be with you.  

 "As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, 'Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!'  Then Jesus asked him, 'Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.'  When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 'Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?'  Then Jesus said to them, 'Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!"  and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.'" 
(Mark 13:1-8 )

            This is a hard gospel.  It’s not comforting.  At least not at first glance.  When Pastor Tari first asked me to preach, I didn’t know this was the gospel.  You see, on most Sundays the lectionary of the Lutherans and the lectionary of the Catholics line, up . . . but not today.  Looking for inspiration on what to preach on, I turned to the source every Catholic preacher looks to when asked to preach to Lutherans . . . the Pope.   And I found a quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI saying this is one of the hardest gospels to preach on . . . ever.  Lucky me. 
            This moment in the gospel takes place only a few days before Jesus will be arrested and eventually crucified.  He’s arrived in Jerusalem with his disciples for the feast of the Passover.  He spends the first three days of the week visiting the Temple, cleansing it, and preaching in it.  The nights he spends with his disciples on the Mount of Olives.  And so today, their third day in Jerusalem, as Jesus and his the disciples are leaving the Temple, one of them says to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  Jesus responds with a chilling prophecy, “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
            This exchange frightens the disciples, and so later on, Peter, James, John and Andrew come to Jesus privately to ask him “when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are to be accomplished?”  What follows is a long discourse, the very beginning of which we hear in today’s gospel.  In this discourse  Jesus speaks of wars, earthquakes, and famines, he speaks of persecution for his followers, and of a great tribulation to terrible to even imagine, and finally he ends with the image of the coming of the Son of Man. 
            It’s not until 28 verses after the four disciples asked their initial question, “when will this happen?” Jesus finally answers.  Near the end of the 13th chapter of Mark, he says,  “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  It seems a little anti-climatic after everything Jesus has revealed, to come to the end and have the answer be, “No one knows.”
            But perhaps this is because the disciples are asking the wrong question to begin with.  They want to be prepared for the moment when “not one stone will be left upon another and all will be thrown down.”  They want practical answers: “Tell us, when will this be and what will be the sign that these things are about to be accomplished?”  It’s almost like they want Jesus to say—in ten years, on Friday, December 17th at 7am this will occur--clear out of Jerusalem before then.  But the disciples [like us, when we strive for literal meanings and definite answers—when we try to box in the Word of God to palatable bite size portions]  we miss the point entirely.  The point is not when or where, but how and who . . .
            And this is the crux of the gospel—of the Good News:  as Christians we hold on to the sure hope that history is going somewhere.  We are not going round and round in a chaotic, meaningless cycle.  We are going towards the time when God will be all in all as St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians.  We are going towards the time of the fullness of the Kingdom of God.    
No one image, no one word or metaphor is enough to contain this Kingdom, which is for us and among us and yet also ultimately beyond us.
            Jesus tells us the kingdom is like a mustard seed—the tiniest seed that grows to be a magnificent shrub that can house all the birds of the air.  The Kingdom of God is like a precious pearl which a merchant—with joy and gladness—gives all he owns to possess.  The Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast to which all are invited.  
            When Jesus walked in the Land of Israel he not only spoke the Kingdom, he also acted the kingdom.  And wherever he was the Kingdom broke out—the lame walked, the blind were given back their sight, the lepers were healed, the hungry were fed. 
            We trust and believe in this radical, beautiful, incomprehensible promise of God being all in all; of the fullness of the Kingdom of God.  But we don’t know exactly how and we don’t know exactly when this will come about.
            I find it interesting and fitting that Jesus uses the imagery of “birth pangs” at the end of this Gospel.  I have gone through “birth pangs” personally two times and accompanied women and their partners through birth as a doula several more.  There is nothing like laboring to bring a child into the world:  the expectancy, the hope, the excitement, the joy, and also the pain, and the grit and determination required.  Birth is not easy, but bringing something to birth is powerful, beautiful and hopeful.  And this is the image Jesus gives us for the establishment of the Kingdom of God—it is a birthing.    
            The question the disciples, ask, “When will this occur?”  Is the wrong question.  There is no when, because the time to birth the kingdom is now.  We might ask, “What is it that God is bringing to birth in us, in our communities, in our world?  Where is the Kingdom striving to be born and how may we help and encourage that birth?
            In the birthing process there is a moment called “transition.”  It’s often the most difficult time for a laboring mother—the time when you’re most likely to grab your husband, the nurse, the doctor, or all three at once and say, “I’m done!  Make this stop!”  This is the moment of truth, when the powers of birth are so strong that the woman must give into them, let go of control and let whatever happens, happen.  This moment of truth is one of trust and surrender at the same time.  
I think Jesus, on the cross has his own moment of “transition.”  When he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  This is the very beginning of Psalm 22.  And in reading through Psalm 22 we find the image of God the midwife.  The psalmist proclaims:  "it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast" (Psalm 22:9).  After reciting the beginning of this psalm, Jesus breathes his last and surrenders to death—a death that will bring about the ultimate new life.  This is the pattern of life we as Christians mold ourselves to—dying and rising; labor pains and birth.  It is not always easy.  It is not always comforting.  But it is good.
  Around us and within us we can see the birth pangs of the Kingdom.  Let us pray to God with hope, trust and surrender, “Great Midwife, bring the Kingdom to birth in me.  Let your Kingdom come.”   

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Practice of Parenting

I just found this piece I wrote two summers ago.  It reminded me about what is most essential right now.  Hint:  It's not touching my toes, though I did do some stretching today and I'm getting closer.    

This summer I’ve been reading a lot about practices—the practice of writing, the practice of yoga, the practice of running.  Because I want to someday write a book and be able to touch my toes without bending my knees and to be able to run Leg #2 of the Klondike Road Relay (5.6 miles almost completely uphill) this September without dying.  I like this concept of practice.  All of the books I’ve read—and I’ve probably spent more time reading than actually practicing—say the same thing:  
  • “Don’t worry about perfection.”
  • “You can’t be perfect the first time.”
  • “Have fun with it.”
  • “Remember—all you need to do is show-up.  Be present.  Try.” 

This past week and a half I’ve been in a little resort town outside of Austin, Texas called Canyon Lake—completing a journey I began three years ago to become a fully formed catechist of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.  And now, coming home on an airplane, I do realize how silly that sentence sounds.  Three hundred hours of training, over a hundred album pages, and three years being with children in the Atrium does not a fully formed catechist make.  Because in this life we are never complete.  The journey continues.  This work of living—running, writing, trying to touch my toes—is never over.  So we never have reason to be bored.  That’s the Good News, right?

On my trip I only ran twice (don’t tell my Klondike team) at a slow crawl for 20 minutes each time before collapsing in a sweat puddle courtesy of the 7am Texas heat.  I practiced yoga once on the laminate flooring of my cottage before I realized my hamstrings might be stretching in the low-lunge position but my knee pressed into the plastic wood wasn’t thanking me.  And writing didn’t happen much either.  Most days I came home too exhausted from lectures and presentations and relentless note-taking to even think about picking up a pen or opening my laptop. 

Coming home now I’m excited to implement the writing and running and downward-facing dogging into an ideal routine.  But mostly I’m looking forward to the long days of summer I’ve been gifted to spend with the four smiling faces waiting for me outside of security.

When I think of practice I also think of parenting.  You don’t have to be perfect—you just have to be present.  You don’t need to have all the answers—but welcome the questions.  Forget about how educational the activities you have in your mind are and get caught up in the Superman book you’re reading to your five year-old for the 50th time.  Leave the dishes in the sink to watch your kids bounce on a trampoline.  Sit and listen to an impromptu piano concert without worrying about the laundry or the bills. 

I want to continue this practice of life with the freedom of one who trusts the Creator of all good gifts.  After all, when we give a gift isn’t the first response we’re looking for joy?  Sure, a “thank you,” is nice—but shining eyes and a big grin are completely acceptable.

I want my eyes to shine as I embrace the practice of parenting. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Courage, Dear Heart

My baccalaureate speech for Juneau high schools 2015 
In preparation to speak with you tonight, I decided I should read over the journal I kept my senior year of high school.  I thought maybe it would be inspiring.  It wasn’t.  A few weeks before senior year began I broke up with my first and only high school boyfriend.  From August to February my journal is full of angsty entries.  I dissected every single time we met in the halls of JDHS.  I even sketched a schematic to show how close we sat to each other in our French class. And then from February to May I only wrote a handful of times.  I think I was so busy and overwhelmed with college applications and Debate competitions, and actually trying to study that I probably didn’t get around it  . . . but I’m not sure.  There’s a possibility that these months were filled with all kinds of deep thoughts that maybe I could have shared with you tonight.  I’d like to think so anyway. 
One thing is for certain—just reading through my senior year journal made me exhausted.  And so tonight, I’d like to tell you—congratulations on a job well done.  All those science projects, and English essays, and math tests, were for this moment.  Soak it in. 
And I’d also like to tell you, thank you.  Your education isn’t just for you, or to make your mother happy or your grandma proud, or your dad relieved [though those are all good reasons], your education is a gift that you give to your community, your country, your world.      
And so I want to tell you on behalf of your family and your community how happy and proud we are of you and also how much we need you.
We need your gifts and your talents and your energy. We need your truth as only you can speak it.  We need your courage.
Back to my high school journal—the second to last entry I made, almost exactly 17 years ago today, when many of you were one year old, does contain one nugget that I want to share with you.  This entry reminded me of the strength and perseverance needed to make it to this point and to look ahead to what lies beyond.
On May 16th, 1998, finally emerging from the fog of finals, I wrote: “I’ve been in despair [I was a little dramatic when I was a senior, I’m totally past that now], but in the midst of it I heard a voice saying, ‘Courage, dear heart.’  Just as the voice of Aslan said to Lucy in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader when the boat was lost in the dark island.  The bearer of the voice led them out.  I’ve been led too.” 
The book I’m referring too, that I must have been reading my senior year, is the third book of the Chronicles of Narnia.  Maybe some of you have read them?  They were kind of like your grandparents’ Harry Potter.      
This image of Aslan’s voice whispering “courage dear heart” in the midst of the darkness resonated with me then, and still does now.
Courage is needed for so many things:
            To finish something you’ve begun.
            To begin something new.
            To be the truest version of yourself.
            To be wrong.
            To ask the questions you’re not sure you’ll ever be able to answer.
            To leave home.
            To come home again.
Philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich said, “Courage is the affirmation of one’s essential nature.”  And in the past 18 years as you’ve grown and matured the most important work you’ve done has been the work of discovering who you are. 
In the 2nd century St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”  For each of us this means something different—to be fully alive.  It means what gives you the most energy and joy and freedom.  What is the gift you were born to give the world?  We all have one.
This gift might change over time and it takes courage to wrestle and sit and trust that this gift will reveal itself.  Because part of being fully alive, of being human, is wanting more than just to be entertained or superficially happy—in the end it is the connections we have with each other, that define us.  But connection is risky, because to connect is to be real.
I learned this a few years after I graduated from JDHS.  On a safari trip in Kenya when I was twenty I injured my back, herniating 3 discs.  My injuries left me in a lot of pain, but their nature did not make me a good candidate for surgery.  I was told to be patient, to wait.  Eventually, hopefully, the pain might go away.
So I spent my senior year of college hobbling back and forth to classes and lying on my bed in the attic window of the house I shared with three other college students.  I watched as other people played Ultimate Frisbee or jogged around campus or even just sat with their backs against a tree to study.  I never felt more like I had no gift to give.
And that’s when I met Pat.  Pat was a gentleman who lived a few blocks away from campus in one of the L’Arche houses for adults with developmental disabilities.
I’ve always been someone who’s enjoyed volunteering.  But I knew at this point in my life I couldn’t rake leaves or paint or do any of the other volunteer activities that high school and college students are so good at—but I figured I could sit for a short period of time with someone else who was maybe lonely too. 
From the first time I picked Pat up we developed a pattern.  We walked the few blocks to Starbucks.  We ordered our drinks.  We sat across from each other and smiled.  And then we walked home.
Pat’s developmental disabilities meant he couldn’t speak.  I learned from the L’Arche community that since being abandoned as a baby Pat had lived in over 50 institutions and group homes before moving to L’Arche a year before I met him.  Of anyone I’ve ever met Pat had the most reason not to be open and accepting of strangers.  But Pat’s gift was presence and he gave that gift to me every time we went out for hot chocolate.  Pat didn’t care if I could cook or clean or write a fabulous essay or if I passed my Physics class—he simply cared.  Because I was there.
Pat remains for me a model of courage.  What it means to show up in life.  To give your own individual irreplaceable gift to the world even if sometimes, it will be rejected.
But where does this courage come from?  One of my favorite verses in the Bible, comes from Paul’s letter to the community in Ephesus.  Paul prays for this fledgling community:  “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father . . . I pray that, according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened in your inner being . . . as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”
To be rooted and grounded in love.  Here is the source of courage. 
And so, my prayer for each of you, as you branch out to new pursuits and possibly new places, and definitely new adventures—is that you remain rooted and grounded in love—in the love of your family and friends, in the beauty of Juneau, in the love of God.  It is in the rootedness to the very center of our being that we each find the courage to say “yes” to all that life has to offer.
And so I’d like to say—from my 18 year-old self to you—“courage, dear heart”.  Courage for the beautiful, unpredictable, precious journey of your life fully lived.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Poetry Slam

To the 4lb 15oz baby
who fit between my wrist and my elbow
who I had to wake every 2 and a half hours to feed:

I know you were scared
to stand in front of the room
of 30 capricious 4th graders.

I was petrified
to see my beating heart
in pink t-shirt, flower print corduroy skirt
trembling hands clutching
a magic marker scrawled sheet.

But then you smiled
head to one side
hand on your hip
like me stirring instant pudding
at the stove when I was 3.

Your voice might have shook
on the first line
but everything else said,
"Don't worry, Mom, I got this."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Be still

A view from the walk home from school when it was still winter (a week ago). 
The psalm for morning prayer today begins, “Be still . . . “  It goes on, but I stopped reading because that was all I needed to hear.  Be still.  Be still.  Be still.  But I wasn’t still today, in most ways.  I didn’t do Centering Prayer, though I had it on my list of to-dos above the desk.  I didn’t journal very much this morning.  I read some of Romano Guardini though, our spiritual companion for this semester of MAPS-CGS.  And there was so much about stillness in the article I was reading, that I only read 5 pages and then decided I needed to stop because they were so rich.  And I needed to be still with them. 
In the article, “Romano Guardini’s View of Liturgy, A Lens for Our Time,” theologian Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ says,

Guardini suggests, despite all the distractions around us and within us, we must learn the art of stillness, which is absolutely indispensable for the liturgical act.  “Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life; the quiet depths of its hidden stream.  It is a collected, total presence, a being ‘all there,’ receptive, alert, ready.”
And though this sounds so comforting and reassuring I want to curl up and watch the fire burn, there is an urgency to Guardini’s message too.  Hughes sees it mirrored in the book The Good Society.  The writers (Robert Bellah and “his colleagues”) proclaim,

Few things in life are more important.  For paying attention is how we use our psychic energy, and how we use our psychic energy determines the kind of self we are cultivating, the kind of person we are learning to be . . . If we are going to be the kind of persons we want to be, and live the kind of lives we want to live, then attention and not distraction is essential. 

Walking to school in December, just as the sun was coming up.
            And so heeding the call of stillness, (or maybe just overcome with fatigue from two nights of inadequate sleep and the worry of not being prepared for a doula meeting tomorrow) I stayed home today instead of venturing out into the rain to do errands.   I did homework.  I ate lunch.  I organized all of my doula files and handouts and paperwork into a bin and I wrapped it all up just in time to walk to the school and get Jessica for our walk home. 
            There are many good things in the world to do.  But today the best was to walk my children to and from school (Jackson one way, Jessica the other), to listen to their chatter about all things essential and peripheral, to breathe in the fresh Spring air (I’ve decided it’s Spring), to remember the experience and excitement and joyful privilege of being a doula and to get the kitchen incredibly, disastrously messy making Thanksgiving meat balls, blueberry sauce, steamed vegetables and garlic mayo. 
            And looking back just before bed I realize, almost like a hidden gift, that in all the activity today, I somehow found stillness.  It wasn’t the stillness I thought I needed to find.  It was the quiet calm and energy of doing work that is totally engrossing.  It was the stillness of a 3 year-old pouring beans in the Atrium, of a 4 year-old sitting with me before the lit candles of the model altar and saying “let’s say all the prayers, I want to watch this candle melt”.  I was “all there” and it was enough.      

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Reflections on a Semester of Hebrew Scriptures or How my Rabbi helped me become a better Christian


Research at the Saul Brodsky Library in St. Louis
When Rabbi Barry Friedman told my cohort at Aquinas Institute of Theology that he wanted us to take our “Christian lenses” off for our upcoming Hebrew Scriptures class and put “Jewish lenses” on instead, I was quietly cavalier.  “Not a problem,” I thought:  I’m a child of Vatican II, I was born 20 years after the Catholic Church stopped calling for the eventual conversion of the Jewish people, and I grew up watching Fiddler on the Roof, so Jewish lenses were probably much like the ones I already had—piece of cake.  However, as you’ve probably heard, “Pride goes before ruin, arrogance, before failure.”[1]  Life, fate, Karma, the Divine, or whatever it might be called (depending on your lenses) probably had a good chuckle, when, a few weeks later, I saw our local rabbi in a coffee shop and told him excitedly that I was taking Old Testament this semester for my masters program.  My faced flushed three shades of red, as I mentally kicked myself.  How could I have possibly made such a gaffe the same day I’d read in our text book, How to Read the Jewish Bible, “Jews . . . view the original covenant as still operative.  For this reason, Jews have tended to reject the term ‘Old Testament’”?[2] 

Perhaps my Christian lenses were glued on a little tighter than I was willing to admit.  And this makes sense.  Brains are funny and stubborn organs, whose pathways are littered with deeply entrenched imagery.  And so as soon as my cradle-Catholic imagination hears, “The Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah and Jonah remained in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights,”[3] I’m not immediately taken by the fact that the text never mentions “a whale,” instead I’m reeling with the foreshadowing of Jesus’ time in the tomb (three days and three nights) with Jonah’s sojourn in the fish.  This is one of the first courses I’ve ever taken where I grew used to immediately distrusting my first impression, because it was undoubtedly coming from the Christian lenses I wear everyday and not the Jewish lenses I had agreed to wear for the duration of our course.  
When Rabbi Friedman first spoke of taking off our Christian lenses a few months before our course with him commenced, he was careful to point out that he wasn’t asking for us to remove them because they were bad or faulty.  No, we were being asked to put them aside so as to fully enter into the Bible, the Tanakh, in a new way, one that didn’t read back into the sacred scriptures what our Christian reading of the Gospels and Epistles had told us about these texts.  And this question became a challenge and a puzzle for me and my cohort-mates:  Could we really read the second and third chapters of Genesis and not let centuries and centuries of Christian connections in liturgy, Tradition and scripture between Adam and Jesus, Eve and the Church, the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil and the wood of the cross, not affect our interpretation of it?  Could we delve into the Passover without thinking of the Last Supper?

Rabbi Friedman’s invitation to don Jewish lenses did not erase our (Christian) knowledge or understanding of the world, but it did allow us a way to challenge our own preconceived ideas in a safe and constructive way.  I think some religious leaders and lay people of all religions, would question this approach.  Is it really wise and worthwhile to ask a group of devout believers of any religious denomination to set aside their most precious religious belief (in our case, Jesus as the climax of God’s self-revelation to humanity), in order to look at the world from the viewpoint of a religion that does not subscribe to it?

Yes, I think it is wise.  More than that though, I think it is necessary.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, an advisor to the Second Vatican Council, told the assembled cardinals when he heard that the first draft of Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) still called for the eventual conversion of the Jews:  “I would rather go to Auschwitz than give up my faith.”[4]  The call for conversion was removed and the final document encouraged Jews and Christians to engage in “biblical and theological enquiry” in a spirit of “mutual understanding and appreciation.”[5]  And this call for collegiality in theological and biblical inquiry is what I experienced firsthand this past semester.  It is an experience that I want to take forward in my vocation as a catechist in the Catholic Church.

Every week, throughout the school year, I have the privilege of reading the sacred scriptures in the Atrium with 9 to 12 year-old children.  Their brains are expanding at an astounding rate, and often I think I can’t keep up with the connections and revelations that come out of our shared Bible study.  In my work with the children, I hope to model what I’ve learned from Rabbi Friedman this semester—to trust the questions that are asked, to know that it is “possible to disagree without being disagreeable,” and to promote the awareness of the lenses we wear, and the wisdom to be gained from taking them off from time-to-time. 

Michael S. Kogan, a Jewish scholar of Christianity, proclaims in his book, Opening the Covenant: 
We [Jews and Christians] cannot assume that we posses all truth.  Where our understanding is weak, the other’s may be strong, and vice versa.  We really do have much to teach each other.  Such mutual learning is one of the blessings of the Jewish-Christian dialogue.  It forces us to delve into our own tradition while simultaneously investigating the other’s wisdom.  The ultimate purpose is for Jews to be become better Jews and for Christians to become better Christians and for both to become better and wiser human beings.[6]
Our CGS Cohort this Fall in St. Louis with Rabbi Friedman

Thank you, Rabbi Friedman, for the opportunity to look at the scriptures through Jewish lenses, and in so doing become a better Christian.

[1] Proverbs 16:18
[2] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford: University Press, 2005), 8. 
[3] Jonah 2:1
[4] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Essential Writings (Maryknoll:  Orbis Books, 2012), 33.  
[5] Nostra Aetate, #4.
[6] Michael S. Kogan, Opening the Covenant: A Jewish Theology of Christianity (Oxford:  University Press, 2008), 32.