Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The President has spoken; now, can I?

I just listened to President Obama's interview in which he admits he thinks same sex couples should be allowed to be married. When he was elected in 2008, I was awed and amazed that America had elected a president who is not of European descent; perhaps this is even more shocking and more important. While I do not like to talk politics much on this church blog, I do want to share some reflections as a pastor who serves a congregation in which several of our members are same-sex couples, and why I think it's important to acknowledge such commitments publicly.
I have been married for almost 21 years. The legal benefits I enjoy from being married I take for granted: I can draw money from our joint bank account without my partner being there to verify my doing so. We can hold loans for the house, the cars, the college debt, together. We can speak for one another in an emergency medical situation. When one of us dies before the other, there will be financial benefits from the federal government and from private investments. I have not had to make special arrangements or pay extra lawyer fees to make these things happen; when we both signed our wedding license in 1991, they automatically took effect. Of course there are spiritual and emotional benefits as well: I know who I am because of who I am when I am with my partner; he has shown me something of God and what it means to live a life of faith; we are better together than either of us could be apart. And, as our wedding scripture reminds us, "Two are better than one...if two lie together, they keep warm." (Eccl 4:9-12)
When I do premarital counseling with same-sex couples (the same conversations I have with heterosexual couples, of course), the motivations to marry are the same: there is a promise of emotional, spiritual, physical, and practical stability, they are called to share life together, they are better together than either can be apart. I have never had a couple tell me "We want to get married so we can ruin the fabric of American family values"; nor have I ever encountered a couple divorcing because of someone else's gay marriage.
A lot of people are choosing not to be married. The commitment itself smacks of patriarchy, they say. They don't want to be tied down. Marriage will ruin their relationship. But there is something about making that commitment, in front of God and your parents and lots of other people, that cements the commitment. Being public about the relationship allows the public to support it--when a couple has said, "This is important enough to celebrate", then friends and family know it's important to them. They aren't always supportive, of course, but they know it's important and real.
Same sex couples who have some kind of ceremony, regardless of legal status, have told me that it makes a difference in the way they think about their relationship. It's no longer private, but all those witnesses at the wedding are part of the deal, too. So if couples choose to be married, so they can enjoy the stability and support of a publicly-supported and recognized relationship, as well as the benefits of a legal partnership--doesn't that support family values? Providing a safe place for people to bring out the best in each other, to love one another well and teach children these values? Having more people who can combine income, assets, and credit for greater financial stability? Being allowed access to care for one another in practical and long-term ways?
This is a political issue; but it's also a human issue. And I believe God calls us to build one another up in love, to support one another and bring out the best in each other, in romantic relationships and among friends and family. From a pastoral perspective, I firmly believe the more support we have for ALL families, the better our American family values will be upheld: love, trust, honesty, loyalty, belonging, kindness, patience, peace, joy. These are the values in my family, and in many families I know. These values do not have to be ratified by law; they are who we are as human creatures. Can we provide enough room for all families to teach and shape their values, and to support them in doing so? Umm... yes!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

April Bible Study: Job, part 1

Resuming our "Bible Study on the Road" in this Easter season, we begin with the book of JOB, which we will take in two parts. In April, chapters 1-21, in May, chapters 22-42.

Job is a teaching myth in Hebrew tradition, a grand story that raises significant theological questions with which we still struggle today. In a very poetic and poignant way, Job wrestles with the question of undeserved suffering: where does suffering come from? how are we to respond when we suffer, and in supporting others who suffer? what does God think or do in the midst of human suffering?

In the opening scenes, there is a gathering of the heavenly "court", with a character called The Satan serving as "prosecuting attorney"--his role is to be on the watch for things going awry and for treason--serious offenses to be brought to the Judge (God). The Satan in Hebrew understanding is, therefore, very different from the Devil of the New Testament, who does not relate to God as an equal but tried to undermine God secretly by targeting faithful believers. The scene in Job is set up as an agreement between God and the Satan; not an evil deed of a devil that God has to undo.

As you read, consider:
Who does Job understand God to be?
How do the friends think of God?
How do you think of God?

In his suffering, Job is visited by friends, who come from some distance to sit with him, then to try to figure out why Job is enduring this suffering. Job has a reply for all their accusations; his replies become more vehement through the story (so much for "patience"!).

Consider: think of a time you were suffering over a period of time. How did friends respond to you? What part of their response was helpful? What was not helpful? Did the response make you feel God was closer to you, or more distant?

In the first 3/4 of the book, God is the object of many conversations and conjectures; in the last 1/4 God becomes subject. Join us for the conversation and see what God will have to say!

April 11 6:45 pm Helen's (Austin)
April 18 10:00 am Living Word (Buda) [WELCA]
April 18 6:30 pm Bailey's (Buda)
April 25 6:30 pm Ruge-Jones's (San Marcos)

May 2 6:30 pm Schlortt's (Kyle)
May 9 7:00 pm Helen's (Austin)
May 16 10:00 am Living Word (Buda)
May 16 6:30 pm Bailey's (Buda)
May 23 6:30 pm Ruge-Jones's (San Marcos)

Friday, March 9, 2012


One of the primary spiritual practices of Lent is FASTING, along with prayer and almsgiving (giving to the poor). I have practiced fasting during Lent for about 30 years. I started in high school, fasting on Good Friday, and enjoyed a day off from school, make-up, hairstyling, and food--until one of my college profs called me on that, reminding me that we are not to display our fasting to others (Matthew 6:16-18). [disclaimer: I truly regarded that practice as a fast from vanity and peer pressure to look my best at all times, not as a flaunting of my piety. And the prof noticed it because I skipped his class, per my usual practice of not having school on Good Friday, and had to make up an exam.]

My fasting has expanded in recent years, first to add Ash Wednesday to the Good Friday practice; and now to include one day a week during Lent. What I "give up" in Lent is one day of eating, one 24-hour day each week. Over the years I have come to associate the feeling of hunger, during this fasting time, as a spiritual nudge from God, as a grumbly tummy reminds me that I am fasting, and that fasting is for not being distracted from God. In my current practice, I fast 40 hours each on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and 24 hours once a week in between.

So why do I fast? I had this conversation with my spiritual director a few years ago, asking her that very question: why do I fast? Well, there are several reasons, any one of which might be the reason any given week: I am a cradle Lutheran, from a tradition that has for centuries included fasting as part of spiritual discipline during Lent. Not eating reminds me that the sense that I have complete control over my life (I can buy food and eat whenever I want to) is only an illusion--truly my life is in God's hands. Fasting reminds me that some people feel that empty grumble almost every moment of almost every day, and challenges me to examine how my habits around food contribute to this inequality. Not taking time out to eat gives me a little more time for other things (ideally, prayer), and not spending money on food frees up that bit of cash to be given to the poor. Being hungry for awhile is a bit of a test--am I willing to take up that cross and follow Jesus to communities that live hungry all the time?

This Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22) I felt the fasting not so much physically as spiritually. I felt deeply connected to the Divine, through my gut. I prayed several times throughout the day, sometimes driven there by light-headedness that required I sit still for awhile. I prayed formal prayers, and I prayed for others, both for their needs and praying their prayers for them when they were not able to join us for worship.

Fasting draws me in to myself, which is not a common or comfortable place for me, an extreme extrovert who practices spirituality by focusing on others--praying for them, serving them, walking with them. But the depth to which fasting allows me to go is the place I find God on these holy days, a personal and intimate meeting that my soul needs, even if my extroverted mind won't admit it.

I commend this spiritual practice to you, precisely because it is not normal or expected, and it is not easy. In such jolts from our routines, God often gets our attention.

You Count

Not too long ago I read an article about keeping track of worship attendance. It's something I do for statistical purposes, and the congregation is small enough that I can keep track of who's been absent for a few weeks in a row. Of course worship attendance is not the only measure of commitment or faithfulness, which I'm learning in real ways as I observe and interview lifestyles and time patterns of very busy families. The number of families who go to worship on Sunday morning more often than not because it's "the right thing to do" is decreasing, but I continue to find passion and commitment for [ministry, God, Jesus, spirituality] running strong among those who do not or are not able to attend worship every Sunday.

That understood, I will continue to count worship attendance, in addition to attendance at other events and ministries, including book club, Sunday school, home Bible studies, women's events, senior events, confirmation, and summer camp. I will still visit people in the hospital, call them at home, visit them at work, find them on Facebook, pray for them, and send birthday cards--personal contacts that are not related to worship. I do this not to boost my stats (they only count once a year for ELCA reports) but because that aforementioned article reminded me of the importance of counting. We count not to induce guilt or to pad reports. We count because people count--YOU MATTER. In Luke 15 we hear the parable of a shepherd who leaves his 99 obedient sheep to find the one who strayed. Not being a shepherd myself, I may miss how ridiculous this is; a shepherd would probably not risk 99 for the sake of 1, but rather take the loss. But the Good Shepherd reminds us that every single one counts, and when the count is taken and one is missing, nothing is more important than finding that one.

Sometimes YOU, dear reader, are that ONE--the one who has not come to worship today, the one we are missing, the one whose absence changes the constitution of "WE". Being part of a congregation is not about obligation to attend so you (and your offering) can be counted. It's about the relationships you make with others through which the love of God is conducted, practiced, shared, grown. It's about the way your presence has changed our life together, and your absence changes it again. It's about what we know about God and faithfulness because of what you have brought along and taught us.

You do not need to feel guilty; but please feel missed. Know that your presence, or your absence, makes a difference in a community of faith, and if the primary form of togetherness in that community is worship, well, then...this "shepherd" is counting, because YOU COUNT.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Thanks be to God!

Two weeks ago I received some of the best news of my life. My friend Shelley had been enduring chemotherapy for 4 months, then had major surgery to remove any "leftover" cancer. On January 5, she was told there was no cancer in the tissue they had removed, or the lymph nodes. For me, a friend in a different time zone who found out in a Facebook post, this was indeed great news--it ranks in my life with "Will you marry me?" "It's a girl!" and "It's a boy!" in terms of being life-changing, transformational news.

The next morning I sang Matins, Psalm 95: "Let us come before God's presence with thanksgiving and raise a loud shout to the Lord with psalms." The significance of "thanksgiving" rattled my bones as I prayed--indeed, I am thankful in a new way for this new life for Shelley and for our relationship. It's so much more than appreciation or relief, though they are both part of the experience. It is deep, deep gratitude that God knows each cell of our bodies, even the cancerous ones, and that God desires wholeness for us, body, mind, and soul. It's a "come to Jesus" moment in which I realize I never really can return the favor or pay God back in any way, not even close. This is a gift in the truest sense, no occasion or persuasion or expectation of return.

The feelings I have around this are not polite--"Remember to say 'Thank you'". These feelings are intense and hard and sure and deep, and a little scary. This isn't just "something I picked up for you" kind of gift, but a gift that has changed the way I think about the world and my, and Shelley's, place in it.

I am very thankful, to God, for Shelley. And, as the psalmist suggests, I think I may have shouted!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Jan/Feb Bible Study: Mark

Because of various scheduling conflicts, the first Bible study of 2012 will meet on these dates:
Jan. 18 10 am @ Clarie's (WELCA)
6:30 pm @ Bailey's (Buda)
Jan. 25 6:30 pm @ Ruge-Jones's (San Marcos)
Feb. 1 6:30 pm @ Schlortt's (Kyle)
Feb. 8 6:45 pm @ Helen's (Austin)

Welcome Phil Ruge-Jones, our resident Mark scholar, who has written this month's blog intro to the Bible study. Read the Gospel of Mark (all of it!) and we'll see you at one of the gatherings.

Most scholars date the Gospel of Mark around 70 AD, during the time of the Jewish-Roman war that reached its brutal climax with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. In the midst of this massive destruction, the people of faith were perplexed and trying to sort out how in God’s name this could happen. How could God’s dwelling place and the city of God have been destroyed by imperial forces? Where was God in the midst of this national tragedy? How could God allow thousands of the chosen people to be slaughtered without mercy? With the temple destroyed, the people of faith had to figure out one more time what it meant to be the people of God in a new circumstance.
The Gospel of Mark is one response, but its purpose is not merely to explain what had happened. The gospel became a vessel capable of carrying their profound grief and perplexity. By telling of the crucifixion of Jesus, they also heard echoes of the Roman crucifixion of husbands, brothers, neighbors, and children. Their grief at what humanity did to Jesus flowed into their more recent grief. But also the hope that grew out of Jesus’ promised resurrection filled them with hope for a new future.
These people continued to live in the shadow of the Roman Empire. This imperial power was the global reality that dominated and shaped their lives on even the most intimate levels. They remembered the one called Jesus who spoke of another empire, the empire of God. Although we are more familiar with the translation the “kingdom of God” one could also translate the Greek word for kingdom as “empire”. This captures the tension between Rome’s empire and the one announced by Jesus. Jesus’ phrase was intentionally oppositional. For those who knew too well the brutality of the Roman Empire, Jesus proclaimed and enacted a very different kind of empire. This one had God’s initiation as its source and it gave people healing, bread, and life. Jesus’ commitment to proclaiming and living in this alternative empire eventually cost him his life.
One of the immediate contexts for proclaiming Jesus's story as the Gospel of Mark may have been on Easter eve at the vigil. Those who had studied the Christian way for as long as a year would hear the story of the life of Jesus as one last reminder of the way that they were beginning to walk. Hearing the story was part of the ritual that marked the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ in their lives.
As you read ask yourself these questions:
Where would this gospel address the loss its original hearers felt?
Where would it give them hope?
What is the “empire” that Jesus announces like?
How would you characterize it?
What does it mean for you to live in the way that Jesus announced and embodied?