Wednesday, March 30, 2011

who prays "best"?

Presbyterian with the letters rearranged = "best in prayer"....awesome. (ignore the fact that it could also rearrange to "britney spears")

This morning a friend tweeted about this article, where one of the myths is that the pastor's prayers are more powerful than "normal" people (I don't even want to think about what that means for my normalcy quotient!)...and it reminded me of a conversation we had last night in which, after I opened the Bible study with prayer, someone asked "how do you do that? I could never pray like that." (It wasn't even a particularly stellar prayer--it felt sort of...well...standard. You know, the usual prayer at the beginning of a class or meeting.) I actually said that I had a lot of practice praying essentially the same prayer over and over again, because those prayers are just a few sentences and always say the same things--thanks for this day, for the privilege of gathering around the with us as we discuss and learn and we can be faithful disciples in the world.

You know the one.

Anyway, in this conversation it quickly became clear that everyone in the room really believes that they can't do that. That they can't pray out loud, that they aren't good enough to talk to God on behalf of a room full of people, that because they stutter or their mind wanders or they might ramble or whatever, God and the other people in the room will be judging their praying ability. Pastors should just do the praying because we are so much better at it.

Um, no.

We're protestants. One of the key things about the whole Protestant idea is that every single one of us has direct access to God through prayer; we don't have to wait for the priest to go to God on our behalf, we don't have to wait for someone else (priest, saint, monk, pope, whoever) to pray for us, we can do it all on our own. And I have spent years now trying to convince kids that they can talk to God and whatever they have to say, God will listen to. It doesn't matter what other people think of their ability to speak in public, it doesn't matter whether the grown-ups in the room think the prayer is fluffy or "cute," it doesn't matter if you have to pause and think about the next word because you're not sure yet what you even want to say. Everyone can pray, everyone can pray out loud, everyone can pray on behalf of others, everyone can pray at Bible Study or in worship or at a meeting or a potluck. It's not like pastors have some special power that gives us the right words to say, or makes us unusually eloquent, or whatever. We all have that same power--it's called the Holy Spirit. Some of us have more practice, but that doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't be practicing. And in this case, practice doesn't make perfect--like any other spiritual discipline, this practice makes us more comfortable chatting with God despite our imperfection.

Apparently I should have been reminding the parents, not just the kids.
Next week: one of the parents will pray. (mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha....)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I have been thinking a lot about wisdom lately, but not "wisdom" in the traditional sense, or at least the sense it usually seems to get talked about in our culture. We have this picture of wisdom as something you sort of magically get when you're older--as in the phrase "older and wiser"--or through lots of really hard and tragic experiences.

But "wisdom" is also a spiritual gift listed in 1 Corinthians and it shows up on all the spiritual gift inventories, described as (different from knowledge) knowing God's will and being able to see the connections between everyday life and spiritual matters/God-things.

I think there's also another kind of wisdom--the kind that allows us to see ourselves clearly, to see others clearly, and to make room in that clarity for the movement of the Spirit.

I don't think many people (myself included) have this kind of wisdom.

But this is the kind of wisdom that we need if we are going to stop saying things like "it's not my fault there aren't any women leaders at this conference--we were just looking for the best people." This is so arrogant/condescending (especially when talking to a woman), and it shows that the speaker has not seen clearly the gifts of others or made room for the Spirit to work through people the speaker doesn't see fitting the usual mold of leaders. (Because really? all the best people just happened to be white men? really? hmm.) It's also the kind of wisdom we need if we are going to stop meeting new ideas with "that won't work because ______." Because as soon as we utter those words, we have shut down our own vision of others, we have blocked their creativity, and we have closed the windows and kept the Spirit outside. This is the kind of wisdom at work when we choose to listen without fixing the problems of the other person, when we show compassion without needing to solve everything for them...because when we fix it, we not only give the impression that we believe we are better than the other person, we also close down room for the Spirit to work in that person's own creative solutions to what's going on in their life.

The trouble is, this kind of wisdom requires that we know ourselves really really well, and that we simultaneously allow others to know themselves (and show that self to us) and to know us. So few people in our culture are truly self-aware, and so few people seem interested in really knowing The Other, and so few people want the Holy Spirit blowing in and messing up their worldview and plans, that this kind of wisdom seems scarce. When we're around it, we know. But most of life (at least my life) is not lived in that wisdom atmosphere, and we barely notice its absence until we breathe that life-giving air for a few moments...and then it's awfully hard to go back to the way things were.

So today I'm working on making space, because I breathed that other atmosphere and now I want it back.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

BG (Before Google)--a sermon for Lent 2A

Rev. Teri Peterson
B.G. (Before Google)
Genesis 12.1-4
20 March 2011, Lent 2A

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

Often, when I am preparing to go somewhere, I check out all kinds of things. I head to google and I look up the hotel, the restaurants, the attractions, the community news and statistics…I read reviews on yelp and trip advisor, I plot which places I want to try and which I’d rather avoid, based on other people’s experiences. I even do this here at home, looking up businesses I’ve not used before to find out about them before I ever make a call or walk through the door, to find out about the churches hosting Presbytery meetings, or what else is good at a local restaurant besides the thing I always order. And when I, or a friend, get ready to meet someone new, whether we’ve been set up on a date or we’re just making new friends, I almost always google them to see if I can figure out what they’re like ahead of time. Employers are now doing this too, googling candidates before they interview them, checking to see that there’s nothing embarrassing or controversial about them floating around the web, checking up on their history or their time management or their ability to keep the shocking photos off facebook.

And, of course, before I go anywhere—sometimes long before I even decide to go anywhere—I map it on google. How long will it take to drive there? Can I walk between these different places I want to go? Are there alternate routes I might prefer? I put in the addresses, I move that little blue line all around—because who wants to drive down Randall Road all the way to 90 when we could drive down 62 instead?—and I check out all my options. Sometimes I print the directions, sometimes I just put the address into the gps, sometimes I do both…but I almost always have a map before I leave, and I have a fair idea what to expect when I get there, thanks to Google.

Abram had none of these things. He heard the voice of the Lord telling him to leave his home and his family, to set out to this unknown place that God would show him. Abram didn’t have the opportunity to google who this God character is—this is the first time we find out that Abram and God have talked, we don’t know whether Abram and God had a prior relationship, and yet Abram asks no questions like “who are you?” or “can I see your photo?” or “what other things have you done, what other journeys have you guided, what other people have you blessed?” He doesn’t whip out his iPad and google “God” which will, as of this morning, get you about 726 million results, the first of which is the Wikipedia entry about God. Abram also doesn’t manage to ask God for a map—where is he going, how is he going to get there, how long is it going to take, and what’s the traffic adjustment? He just seems to believe that this voice is trustworthy, so he packs up all his stuff and heads out into the desert.

I don’t know if many of us would do that.

When God calls, we probably would prefer to do a quick Google search and ask for a map first? It’s so tempting, and so easy, to try to mitigate our fear of the unknown by doing some research ahead of time. Of course, then it’s also easy to get distracted by the millions of other things out there, the myriad options, the many voices. And it’s easy to find reasons not to go—it’s dangerous, it’s humid, it’s cold, the people are snooty, the food is only so-so, it’ll take a long time and cost a lot with today’s gas prices, there are a lot of 1 star reviews. Or it’s just that sometimes following God is too difficult a path, it doesn’t fit in our busy schedules, it might ruin our social status.

Presumably Abram had a busy schedule—he appears to have an entire household and a large extended family, and we know he has large flocks and servants which means his household was like a small village of tents. He was probably a respected member of his community. Not to mention that he was 75 years old! And yet, off he went, leaving all that behind. It kind of makes me wonder what people said about him after the last of his camel caravan was out of sight…I can practically hear the gossip. But he went anyway. Once he’d heard God’s call, he had to make a choice—he could try to return to life the way it had always been, before he heard God’s voice, or he could follow that call and see where that led him.

Dropping everything and following God’s voice into the wilderness is a common theme in the Bible—from this story of Abram to the Israelites leaving Egypt to Elijah to John the Baptist and Jesus and Paul. But even if we never leave home, God still calls us to a journey—a journey involving risks and life-changing choices. Once we hear God’s voice, things can never be the same. We have to decide whether to set our face back toward the past, pretending nothing has changed and that we can go on leading our safe old lives, or to set our face toward Jerusalem and accept the consequences of following God’s call.

One of my favorite quotes says, “faith is believing that one of two things will happen—that there will be something solid for you to stand on, or that you will be taught to fly.” Now, of course, I prefer to think about flying, because it sounds more fun and adventurous, but sometimes the journey just involves stepping out and finding the path is there, waiting for us even though we couldn’t see it before.

Indy didn't believe until this moment...he heard the voice of someone he trusted, and he chose to take the step.

This Lent, we too have some choices. God is calling…but to where or to what, we may not be sure. Who does God want us to be? What kind of people? What kind of work are we to do? How can our lives, both individually and as a community, be part of God’s kingdom quest here and now? Our church is at a crossroads—now we have to discern which voice is God’s amidst that jumble of voices, and then we have to decide…we can’t just stay where we are, looking at the sign—signs point somewhere, they’re not meant to be stopping places. We have to turn one way or the other. And perhaps this is a decision we need to make BG—Before Google, or maybe even live life Beyond Google, because there’s no way to remove our fear of the unknown, so at some point we have to decide whether, with Jesus, we will set our face toward Jerusalem or toward something else more comfortable and predictable. We know is that God has great plans…the question is—once we know God’s voice, which journey will we choose to walk?

May the Lord guide us as we travel together.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Lenten Discipline

Normally for Lent I take on the discipline of being more intentional about what I put in my body. This means giving up eating out and drinking pop, both of which are things I do because I didn't plan ahead for my day. So in being intentional, I try to bring my lunch (and/or dinner, if I have evening things, which I do almost every night). I pack my water bottles. I pass by Taco Bell rather than giving in to my every crunchwrap supreme craving. Etc.

This year I managed to fail at my discipline within about 36 hours. More than once.

And after talking with my therapist last week (and again this week) about my perfectionist tendencies and my not-helpful self-talk and my general feel of failure when I don't do things perfectly and all the time, I've decided to change my lenten discipline mid-stream. Granted, we're only a few days into Lent, which helps...

So this year I am going to give up perfectionism--in the sense that I am not going to talk badly to (or about) myself when I fail at something. I don't write every day? Not a cause to tell myself I'm lazy or stupid. I forgot my lunch and ran to Subway? Not a reason to remind myself of my idiotic forgetfulness. I skipped a morning workout? Doesn't mean I have to give up exercise because I won't get 90 minutes in, and doesn't make me a fat slob.

You get the idea.

So if you catch me talking bad about myself, please hold me accountable. Teri.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

a life for a life

This week the death penalty was abolished in Illinois. I am unspeakably proud of the legislature and governor for taking this step, and yet I find that I'm almost unable to write anything about it.

All the news coverage I have heard has been interviews with people who disagree with this decision, and I find the things they say so horrifying I don't know what to do other than to turn off the radio or the computer and sit in the silence instead.

Now, I've never been the victim/survivor of a crime for which someone could conceivably receive the death penalty. I don't pretend to know what those people are feeling. I would like to think that the values I hold would hold up under those circumstances, but I also know that you can't know that until they're tested (and, frankly, I'm a big wuss and don't want to be tested in that way!).

But still.

I heard a woman say that since she was robbed of seeing her loved one grow old, another family should also be robbed of that privilege. That's not what she said, but it's how she framed it: "I don't get to see him grow old, so this other man should die." Which means another family grieves, and the cycle of violence and grief and anger continues, with healing for no one.

I heard a lawyer say that now we will have more trials because they won't be able to use the person's life as a bargaining chip to get them to agree to plead guilty, thus avoiding a trial by a jury of their peers. All I could think was "please tell me we have not been using someone's LIFE/DEATH as a carrot/stick to get them to give up their constitutional right to a jury trial.....oh lord, I think that's what he's saying."

I heard law enforcement officials insisting (even when confronted with statistics that give the lie to their assertions) that the death penalty is a strong deterrent to crime and now there will be more crime.

And that was all in less than 10 minutes yesterday. If there were interviews with people who support the decision, I didn't hear them because I had to turn off the news.

It turns my stomach and makes all sound an assault on my ears and brain to hear these things. I can't imagine saying them out loud and I don't know in what world they are okay. I don't even know what to say. I want to start a sentence with "as a person of faith..." but I'm not sure what the next words in that sentence would be. All I can do right now is pray for people and for our systems, and maybe even for the english language because all the words I want to use (justice, mercy, grace, peace, repentance, forgiveness, punishment, etc) have been co-opted in ways that make them almost impossible to use in a theological sense in this context. Which makes me even more sad and speechless, even as I celebrate a decision that I believe to be in the best interests of the state, of justice, of humanity, and of faithfulness.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ashes to Ashes

I'm sitting on my couch, a smudge of ashes still on my forehead, thinking about this strange ritual that kicks off this very strange time of year.

You should know two things about me before I tell you what I'm thinking, though:
1. I like meaningful ritual. I like actions with symbol and communal meaning, rituals that connect me (and us) to something bigger and older than we are.

2. I did not grow up in the church, so I lack a lot of the baggage many others seem to carry.


I have many colleagues and friends who are, at best, ambivalent about Ash Wednesday. Part of me understands this, because when I came to the church I too thought it was a weird thing, a meaningless ritual that had been rightfully jettisoned from church practice during the Reformation, some kind of fake magic that was designed to control and manipulate people into giving more money to the already richest-thing-around overbearing church institution. (I've never been one to mince words, either...) The first year I went to an Ash Wednesday service, nearly a year after I started going to church, was the first time that congregation had done ashes in...ever. And I was one of those people who went forward but asked them to put ashes on my hand, not my head, because I thought it was creepy and weird and Catholic and I didn't really want to do it but I wasn't about to be the only person just sitting in the pew all alone either.

Now I love Ash Wednesday. It's one of my favorite services of the year, and it leads into one of my favorite seasons of the year. (Full disclosure: I seem to have particular love for the church seasons that are opposite the cultural season...I love Advent, which is all about waiting even as the culture runs around like headless chickens, and I love Lent which is all about darkness even though in the northern hemisphere our days get longer and warmer and sunnier and flowers bloom and whatnot.)

So...what is it that I love about Ash Wednesday?

I love that it gives us an opportunity to stop and repent -- to turn and focus where we should be focusing. Sure, we're Presbyterians so we have a prayer of confession every week, we admit our failings, the ways we wound our lives and the lives of others and the life of the world. We confront the ways we fall short of the glory of God, and we turn our attention to where it belongs...every week. But on Ash Wednesday, it's what we do...and that's about it. We name the ways we have fallen short, we pray to be turned toward the light again, we admit that we prefer darkness, we spend time focusing on looking for the right path.

But even more than that, I love that it's a service that reminds us that not only are we not perfect, we're also not immortal. We may try to cheat death with medical miracles, we may try to cheat aging with products and chemicals and makeup and hours of exercise, we may try to live forever through our own legacies. but we can't. In the end, we are all dust, and to dust we shall return.
And yes, we can think about this at other times...but not many other times. Most of the time when these ideas come up, it's at a funeral. But on Ash Wednesday we can remember, contemplate, and even celebrate our own mortality outside the context of individual grief (frankly, I didn't want to contemplate my own mortality while sprinkling my mom's ashes into the ocean....and that was the first time I ever touched ashes. I was busy grieving.). It's not often we get to acknowledge what we all know deep down--that no one lives forever, no one is perfect, and no one can walk this journey alone. We try to remind ourselves of these things throughout the year, but this is a day when the stark reality is all there is. We can look each other in the eye and say "We are dust, but God's love endures forever." We can affirm these two most crucial things about us as human beings: We are not God, but God is.

I am glad that protestants are (slowly but surely) reclaiming Ash Wednesday and Lent. This journey is an important one, and the ashes are a marker on our road, reminding us to let go of some things, embrace others, and turn to the light.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

International Women's Day

March 8 is International Women's Day--a day celebrating (and working for) the economic, political, and social achievement and well being of women worldwide. It's quite an organization--and this year is the 100th International Women's Day. It also happens to fall on Mardi Gras this year, because Easter is so late, making it a day of celebration on many fronts. (I'll gloss over the New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition of objectifying women, at least for the moment....)

I come from a position of privilege, at least in terms of my race, my socio-economic status (on a worldwide scale--on a local scale, not so much), and my country. I have always had a lot of opportunity open to me, from fantastic education to support in every endeavor I've tried. I've always been told I can do whatever I want to do and be whatever I want to be. The only expectations from my family were that I do something good, and that I do it well. Quitting something I'd committed to was never an option, and doing poorly wasn't really an option...and those non-options are marks of a position of privilege in many ways (and of growing up in the lower class in many other ways!). (and let's not discuss how those are also marks of being the firstborn of a firstborn...)

In any case, I have not run into the kind of gender discrimination that people in many parts of the world have. I've had some experiences, both at home and abroad, that have made me aware (sometimes painfully so) of the plague of sexism and the desire to subjugate powerful women. I've also had some experiences within my regular life that I attribute to subconscious sexism, though when I've pointed those out people always say I'm imagining things. And I've been one of those people pointing out that the leadership of various events--whether conferences, seminars, church events, etc--has lacked diversity. The response to that is similar to "you're imagining things" and generally sounds like some kind of anti-affirmative-action soundbite: "we're not trying to fill any kind of quota, we were just looking for the best people."

and the "best people" are, of course, strangely similar in gender, skin color, and cultural background to the person speaking.

As a woman who is intelligent, witty, a fast learner, a good speaker, talented in many areas, and willing (even desiring!) to serve the church and world in a variety of ways, I find that kind of statement so offensive as to almost be funny.

But not quite funny.

There's just no way you can tell me that the best people are always men. Or always white. Or always Americans. Or always hip. Or always over 40. Or always the highly paid people in our biggest churches (who almost uniformly call only white men to be their pastors...coincidence?).
Yes, those people are no doubt talented and wonderful and have things to say that we need to hear.
And so are the people who aren't invited.
Plus there are, frankly, some people in both of those categories who are not the best people to be speaking, but they fill the right position and they look right, so there they are on the glossy brochure or on the stage.

SO: dear world, you are going to have to make a choice. And International Women's Day is a great day to do it. It's time to choose: do you believe that stuff you've been teaching us girls, that we can do and be anything we want? Or do you believe that we can do anything we want as long as we don't tell anyone about it, and as long as we don't complain about being paid less than men to do it, and as long as we come to the conferences led by the famous rich white dudes without murmuring? Because the theme of this year's IWD is education and training, and if we are going to have all the great education and training, then you'd better be prepared to let us in to the subsequent arenas--good (and equally paid) jobs, voices in the wider church/business/culture, and the opportunity to stand on that stage and prove that we too are some of the best people out there, quotas or no.

Saturday, March 05, 2011


I am playing around with a new blog with pages, changeable background pictures, and other fun features. So please...suggestions and feedback are welcome! Especially if you find it hard to read or if colors are confusing or if you can't tell what's a link or any other things like that, please let me know so I can keep updating until it's perfect. Thanks!