Monday, May 25, 2015

Grace Like Velcro--a sermon for Pentecost 2015

Rev. Teri Peterson
Grace Like Velcro
Romans 8.18-39, Acts 2
24 May 2015, NL1-38, Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (instead of reading this, we will sing the hymn “On Pentecost They Gathered” which tells the whole story of Acts 2.)

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.



Sometimes it is a beautiful word: There’s nothing I have to do today. The test results came back—nothing. What can separate us from God’s love? Nothing.

Sometimes it’s a terrible word: what happens when black people are killed in the streets, their beds, their cars? nothing. What will be done about child abuse in a famous family? nothing. What will children eat tomorrow when there's no school and therefore no school lunch? nothing.

Sometimes it’s a helpless word, said with a shrug and a shake of the head: what can we do about the state of the world? often feels like nothing.

Sometimes it’s a word that simultaneously means “no thing” and also an absence. There is no thing—no object, no circumstance, no person—that can keep God’s love away from us. And also there is nothing—an emptiness, a lack of space—between God’s love and God’s creation. Nothing.

In case we wondered if Paul was serious about the word “nothing” he made us a list. He knows that we humans are prone to one of two responses to this kind of grace: either disbelief that it is true for us, and therefore we have to earn it…or disbelief it is true for “them” and therefore they have to work harder to be like us in order to earn it. So in his list Paul includes many of the things we spend a lot of energy avoiding: hardship and distress, hunger and nakedness, danger and violence, heights and depths, death…and also some things we may like too much: life, and the systems and powers of culture, and the way things are and the way things will be, and angels, and all creation.

Nothing. Not one thing—whether we protect ourselves from it or embrace it whole heartedly—nothing can keep God’s love away from us.

This is the verse that undergirds one of the hallmarks of the Reformed tradition. Our theological ancestors looked at Romans, especially at this chapter, and said that it was clear that grace is Irresistible. There is nothing we can do to stop God from loving, nothing that can stop grace from infusing everything. Grace is irresistible. The image I sometimes use in new member classes is Velcro—imagine that you are made of one side of Velcro, and grace is the other piece. God throws it, showers it, presses it in…and it sticks, whether you want it to or not. Every time. And you know how new Velcro is—you can’t peel it apart. God’s mercies are new every morning, sticking to us despite our best efforts. Irresistible grace.
this stuff can be intense!
Or, as Paul put it just a few verses earlier: since God is for us, who can be against us? There’s no room in between—nothing to get between God’s grace and God’s world and people. Even all those things we worry about—they can’t fit into that space between two pieces of Velcro. Even all the ways we devise to keep people in their place: no room. Even all the horrible things we allow to happen all around us, or that happen to us: no room. None of these things, nor anything else in all creation, can keep the love of God away from us.

I fully realize that it appears I am repeating myself, just like Paul does. And I am: because this may very well be the most important thing any of us can ever know about God: that we are never separate from God’s grace. Even in suffering, even in doubt, even in sin—God is always loving, and always moving us closer and closer to Christ’s new creation, closer and closer to the core of who we are: beloved, made to reflect God’s image into the world.

We should not, however, mistake love and grace for warm fuzzies and puffy hearts. Sometimes the Spirit moves us faster than we might like, or into places we’d prefer not to go, and sometimes the Spirit has methods we would consider unorthodox at best. Look what happened on that birthday of the church: The congregation was gathered together in a room, singing and telling stories of Jesus and praying. It was your average Sunday service, in other words. And the Spirit came rushing in like a violent wind, there were flames everywhere, and the people were thrown out. No more serene prayers and favorite hymns, no more reminiscing about how it was when they walked with Jesus in Galilee—the Spirit literally pushed them out into the street, which was crowded with people, and gave them words to start speaking. Or shouting, even. They raised a ruckus. Some might call it a riot. The spirit-wind was blowing, and polite church was no more. They were so loud and unruly in their telling of the good news that people thought they were a drunken mob. I’m sure the disciples were wishing they could resist just a little—so they could leave the house in an orderly fashion and speak decently to the people outside, sharing calmly that the Spirit of the Lord was in that place, which surely would have been just as compelling?

But God’s grace is irresistible. The Spirit will not be contained or controlled, and she was on fire. It was time. Maybe even past time. Keeping their faith to themselves and separating Jesus from the rest of their lives was no longer an option. The Velcro stuck…and on the other side was God, pulling and pushing and calling and insisting that we had work to do and we would never be alone in it. Even losing control of a worship service cannot keep us from the love of God. Even languages that are hard to wrap our tongues into cannot keep us from the love of God.

And God has plans and dreams for this world—dreams of people talking to each other and actually listening rather than shooting; dreams of an abundance of bread for everyone; plans for our welfare.

It’s interesting that Pentecost falls on Memorial Day weekend this year. Memorial Day is, by definition, a time of looking back, of remembering those who gave their lives for a vision of a better world, for ideals of hope, truth, freedom, life, happiness. Started after the Civil War by a few people from one side who created a memorial to people who had died for the other side, it has been a day for honoring people who saw what could be, though they did not live to see it happen. What I did not realize is that every year, going back at least to the 1940s, the President issues a new Memorial Day proclamation. And in that proclamation—every single one from Truman on to now—the President declares a day of “prayer for permanent peace.” Not a day of staring into the past, not a day of glorifying war and those who fight it—a day of prayer for permanent peace.

That means Memorial Day was actually designed to be one of looking forward—of honoring those who died by building what they dreamed of and fought for. To pray for permanent peace is to put violence in the past and turn our eyes and hearts and minds to another way. To pray for permanent peace is to refuse to allow anything, whether skin color or economic status or nationality, to come between us. To pray for permanent peace is to insist that there cannot be haves and have-nots. To pray for permanent peace is not only to sit in a room together politely saying the Lord’s Prayer, but also to be driven out of the sanctuary by the Spirit to actually do the will of God and help build the kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven—in both immediate and systemic ways. It seems the disciples were gathered together remembering someone they loved who was no longer with them…and the Spirit said “time to get to work doing the things he lived and died for.” And their prayer for permanent peace didn’t look very peaceful at first—it was downright disruptive. Of course, real peace is disruptive in a culture that runs on conflict. And yet it is God’s plan—a peace that passes all understanding. We may not understand what the Spirit is doing with wind and flame, with words and welcome, with push and pull, but we know this: The Spirit is here, we are the Body she moves to do God’s work of grace in the world, and that grace is irresistible.

May it be so. Amen.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

history matters

The news about Palmyra is distressing. (though the latest news today, that ISIS have placed guards at the ancient site, is the tiniest of glimmers of hope for antiquity, it's still not good.) I have been there, and can picture the place and the people in my mind (and in my photo album). I remember standing on the stage of the theater in the Roman ruins and playing the recorder as a way of demonstrating the acoustics of the place. I remember my roommate and I being left behind (and retrieved later, thankfully)...a demonstration of the potential for failure in the buddy system. I remember walking around this place in the desert, climbing the tower and marveling at how these things still stand out in the middle of the desert. I remember meeting people whose connection to this desert oasis wends its way through millennia.

ISIS has been known to destroy historical sites and artifacts before, because anything non-muslim (including things that predate Islam by hundreds and thousands of years) is idolatrous. Unfortunately that also destroys both any potential future economy based on tourism as well as, more importantly, a whole people's connection to a long and glorious past. And even as those ancient walls come down, new ones are built, between neighbors, between families, between friends...because where once it was common for Christians and Muslims (both of various flavors) to coexist, work together, be friends, etc, now that is nearly impossible. Along with holy and archaeologically significant sites goes the kinship of the Syrian people, which goes back hundreds of generations.
(and I can't even get into the human toll of this "conflict" (so much more than a conflict) in the present--it is beyond imagining, the suffering and grief and fear.)

As ISIS continues to advance, taking control of more cities, oppressing more people, and destroying more history, I thought I'd share this piece I wrote for another publication that ended up not being published.

First, some more photos from the ancient city of Palmyra...
can you see me in the window up there?

I call this the "column graveyard"--the place where pieces are laid out together but there is not sufficient knowledge to put them back together and place them within the complex of buildings.

According to tradition, the Prophet Mohammed visited the monastery of St. Catherine’s at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the 7th century. He sought the wisdom of the monks there, and later wrote a letter of protection for the monastery, which was reaffirmed in the 16th century, declaring that these People of the Book were to be safe from harm and from attempts at conversion. A mosque and minaret were built inside the walls of the monastery, as a visual symbol of the protective relationship between these brother faiths.

Over the centuries, that friendship has deteriorated into a minimum of tolerance, and now the corruption of the faith traditions has brought outright hostility. Life was not easy for Christians in pre-Arab-Spring nations—building permits were routinely denied simply because they were filed by Christians, evangelism and conversion were illegal, and the entire governmental, legal, and judicial system gave preference to Islam. But now those things seem almost reasonable in comparison to the impossibility of life as a Christian or a Christian community in these days. The ranks of the martyrs grow daily, as do the ranks of the émigré. Of the many friends I made while living in Cairo, only a few remain; the rest have scattered to Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and two to the USA. The cradle of civilization and of many of the world’s great faiths is being emptied of all of them—including Islam, in its truest sense.

In place of a beautiful tradition of peace and submission to God, there is now a premium priority on a cultural reality that is as foreign to many of us in the west as the ancient languages still spoken there.

The culture of much of the area we call “the Middle East” is based on a tribal honor-and-shame system, and this system requires a very strong leader who will maintain order and image. This leader ensures that there is nothing that would disturb the outside world’s perceptions of the quality, success, and peace of the tribe—and will often use any means to do so. While Americans look at leaders like Saddam or Mubarak and see dictators, people within those tribes see a strong leader who keeps them together and who keeps their family business within the family. While life was not easy for Christians under those dictators, it was still relatively calm and peaceful. Churches could gather for worship and study (though building a church was extremely difficult), Christians could (and did) engage in many charitable and developmental ministries, improving the lives of many who would otherwise be neglected. As long as they didn’t proselytize, the gospel could be lived out without words. And the family order was maintained, if only at the barest level of the Prophet’s command.

Other forms of leadership, based on other kinds of power, are weak in this kind of cultural reality, and make it difficult to shift toward a more open or democratic system. So we see it today: where strong leaders have been felled, thus bringing shame on the tribe, now others rise up to return the tribe to its former status and restore the peace. Many of them think the way to that restoration is by the same kind of violent power that worked in the past, and so we see the horrors perpetrated by both governments and groups like ISIS. All dissent must be crushed in order to bring back the calm and honor of the family—in this case, the family of a particular brand of militant “Islam”.

While the Prophet was friends with Christians and ordered their protection, groups like ISIS take another path, one that violates every sense of humanity and brings more dishonor on them than they can see. Their faith is corrupted, just as they believe their tribe has been corrupted. In many ways, it is a farce to call them ISIS, because there is nothing Islamic about them—they are so far from the tenets and roots of their faith as to be unrecognizable.

Our sisters and brothers in Christ bear the brunt of this form of “Islam,” unmoored from its story and its roots. We who live far removed from the daily reality of persecution and the very real threat of death for our faith have a hard time even contemplating these horrors, let alone understanding. As we pray for peace, as we lobby our government to find some way to protect people without causing more of a mess than we already have, and as we look for ways to ensure our dollars don’t inadvertently go to support the *ISIS cause, it is important also for us to realize how easy it is to become disconnected from our story, and then we become capable of great terror. History matters. Scripture matters. Our connection to the story God has been telling since the beginning matters. It is what makes us human, and capable of honoring the humanity of others. May those who twist their tradition to support their violent ideology be re-connected with the ground of their humanity and the source of their faith.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Growing Into It--a sermon on Romans 6

Rev. Teri Peterson
Growing Into It
Romans 6.1-14
17 May 2015, Easter 7, NL1-37

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old humanity was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For the One who died has been freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be master over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
~~(NRSV, with translation corrections by JRD Kirk, Fuller Seminary professor)

For the past several weeks, it feels like everywhere I turn there is talk about a very small big thing. Well, not a thing, a very small big person.

The royal baby.

Two years ago we met His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge…and this spring everyone has been wondering about his new sibling. When she was born, the excitement about a princess was bubbling…and the speculation about her name was out of control. There were people placing bets, websites publicizing their guesses, and probably two tired parents wishing they could just call her Mary like all the women in the Bible and be done with it. But a few days later the world was introduced to Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge, to great applause and wonder at their savvy in choosing names that were both traditional and had a little family flair.

Can you imagine growing up with all those titles and names? It feels like the name is almost longer than the baby. But she will grow into it, of course. As Charlotte Elizabeth Diana grows up, she will do all the things children do—cry, eat, crawl, walk, run, pull the dog’s tail, learn to read, pass notes in class, argue with her parents. Her titles don’t change the fact that she’ll be a kid who pushes the boundaries like they all do. Her august names don’t mean that she will always be  a perfect angel. And at the same time, she will be learning about her namesakes, about her family history and the expectations for her future, about who she is and how that identity is reflected in her titles and names.

The whole thing—Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge—may feel unwieldy now. Heavy, even, if she knew what she was getting into. In some ways, she is not yet all that the name proclaims her to be…and yet in the most important ways, she is already everything her name proclaims her to be.

This is how Paul talks to us about baptism.

Because in our baptism we have died with Christ, Paul says, now we walk in newness of life. We are to present ourselves to God as those who are alive in Christ, as instruments of righteousness, as people under grace, not law. In baptism, we are given a new name, one that is a little too big, a bit unwieldy and maybe too heavy at first, but as we continue to live and practice Christ’s way, we grow into it. We become in life what we already are in Christ—alive, righteous, grace-filled.

Does the fact that we are already alive in Christ, who has claimed all of humanity out of the depths, mean that we will never do wrong, never make mistakes, never sin? No, of course not. Just as the royal Prince and Princess will still get into trouble like children do, we will also get into trouble as we grow into our identity. Sometimes we will work against God’s Spirit, sometimes we will hurt each other, sometimes we will harm God’s creation, sometimes we will sow discord rather than love. That does not change the fact that we are children of God, claimed by the Spirit, alive in Christ. In the words of our liturgy, “In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.” We can keep on practicing the way of Christ, keep on growing into who we already are.

Paul anticipates the objections of those who cannot believe that God’s love is infinite, that forgiveness is as radical and all-encompassing as he is saying. The notion that God’s forgiveness and grace is all around us and within us, that we cannot earn it or lose it—even today they can be hard to swallow. So he asks: should we keep sinning in order to experience more grace? It seems the obvious answer—no need to even try to be Christlike. In fact, we should actually strive to be bad, because then there will be more evidence of forgiveness in our lives and in the world for people to see. Besides, if we can’t lose God’s grace by breaking the law, then why bother working so hard to keep it?

By no means!! Paul would probably have used all the exclamation points if he had them. How could we, who have experienced God’s unlimited grace, want to live as if it was not real? How could we, who have been buried with Christ and raised into new life, continue living the old life? It is incomprehensible. Those who have been given this new name will want to grow into it. Our life is our gratitude for all God has done. Because we are in Christ, sin has no power over us—which means that grace does. In Paul’s mind, these are the only two options. We are bound by and beholden to one or the other: sin, or grace. Since Christ has broken the power of sin, we can no longer be captive to it, which means we must instead be captive to grace.

It takes time to grow into this reality. The brokenness of humanity is sometimes more evident than God’s forgiveness. The temptation to work for our own gain at the expense of our neighbor is strong. The desire to ignore God and follow our own way sings in our ears. But we are not captive to sin. We will still be imperfect reflections of God’s image, because we are not God. But even a broken mirror reflects fragments of glory, and even we who are not God can act like who we are: beloved people of God, called to new life and righteousness and grace.

Sometimes it might feel like an act. We are to, in Paul’s words, “consider ourselves alive to Christ and dead to sin.” Sometimes it might take hard work to see ourselves and the world through Christ’s eyes. And while I don’t exactly want to buy into the old cliché of “fake it ‘til you make it”…there might be a little something to that. Because the more we act like disciples, the closer to Christ we walk. The more we seek God’s way, the more alive we become. The more we allow the Spirit to work in us, the more gracious we will be. The more we live as if the good news is true, the more the world is transformed into the kingdom of God. Along the way, as we practice life with God, we will become who we already are, who we are called to be.

It can be dangerous, this practicing life. During the conference I went to a few weeks ago, the leader gave us a Pilgrim Prayer that included the phrase “change me, bend me, break me, if need be.” We talked about what scary words those are, and that we should not pray them if we don’t mean it. I was reminded of the hymn where we invite God to melt us, mold us, fill us, use us…words we shouldn’t sing if we aren’t willing to be melted and molded, words we shouldn’t pray if we aren’t willing to be changed or broken. And yet…that is how we grow into who God created us to be.

To practice resurrection is to consider ourselves alive to Christ and dead to sin. It is to know that in baptism we have not only been welcomed into a church family, not only marked with the seal of the Spirit, not only experienced the symbol of God’s amazing grace: we have joined the rest of humanity in being buried with Christ, the One who died for all…and then being raised with him, breaking the power of sin and death and proclaiming the good news that God is love, and God’s love is stronger than the worst we humans can do. This good news, this new name we are given, is so big that it will take some growing into. Sometimes we will stumble, or wander away, or forget who we are. To practice resurrection is to not only believe the good news, but to keep coming back to live it: in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven, loved, and free.

Thanks be to God.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

For all the politicians' talk about "Main Street"...

In this morning's New York Times there is an article that strikes me as summing up all that is wrong in our priorities...when people ask (usually rhetorically) how we got where we are as a country, what happened to the way things used to be, why there are so many people protesting in the streets or using welfare or homeless or or or...this is the answer to why. The headline and first two sentences pretty well sum it up, followed by this paragraph buried in the middle.

Five Big Banks Expected to Plead Guilty to Felony Charges, but Punishments May Be Tempered
"For most people, pleading guilty to a felony means they will very likely land in prison, lose their job and forfeit their right to vote. But when five of the world’s biggest banks plead guilty to an array of antitrust and fraud charges as soon as next week, life will go on, probably without much of a hiccup."

(yes, this is true. In fact, it is so true that we have the largest prison population in the world, both per capita and in real numbers. In the last 35 years, we have built 22 prisons for every university. Families are torn apart and lives ruined by massive sentences for even small infractions that have been deemed felonies, and this happens at a much higher rate among ethnic minorities than among whites. It creates a cycle of poverty and prison that is difficult to escape from, especially as the stigma of having a family member in prison generally means that families get little or no support. It is not a stretch to suggest that the continued systemic racism in this country, the poverty rates that lead to crime, and the current protests and "riots" are all related to this reality.)
"Behind the scenes in Washington, the banks’ lawyers are also seeking assurances from federal regulators — including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Labor Department — that the banks will not be barred from certain business practices after the guilty pleas, the people said. While the S.E.C.’s five commissioners have not yet voted on the requests for waivers, which would allow the banks to conduct business as usual despite being felons, the people briefed on the matter expected a majority of commissioners to grant them."
Umm...okay. So let's get this straight. Corporations are people, but they will be allowed to continue doing the very things of which they have been convicted. These companies are, according to the article, too important to be punished.

Meanwhile, black men fill our prisons. Not important, apparently. Never mind their importance to their families, to their communities, to the future of this diverse country. Never mind that small things that are counted as felonies get people put into prisons where, upon their release, all they have learned is anger and resentment and skills for bigger crimes, should they want to put that resentment into action. Never mind that we simultaneously perpetuate the myth of the absentee father in the black community, even while putting millions of people in jail. They are not important enough, not central to their community, not crucial for the economy.

The article calls this prosecution and conviction "an exercise in stagecraft." How many families, and communities, wish that their loved ones and breadwinners--often stopped on spurious reasons--could experience the courts as an exercise in stagecraft? (I can hear the protests now: "but how will we deter others from committing crimes????")

Of course, they'd have to make it to court, which is a fairly unlikely outcome. But still.

Imagine if we treated our people like our corporations.

Or imagine if we actually treated corporations--made up of people--the way we treat other people. Without regard for their importance to the community, without regard for their past or potential, without regard for their context or humanity, we will criminalize their very existence, create minimum sentencing laws that ensure the cycle of poverty for another generation, and then demonize them for being in debt, uneducated, and prone to violence. We would insist we're not corporationist, some of our best friends are corporations, it's just that they should have known better, shouldn't have closed the door, shouldn't have opened the door, shouldn't have let the light in one letter of their sign go out, shouldn't have been in that neighborhood. Since they didn't manage that, they deserve what they get, both them and their family/community be damned. After all, we need to deter people from doing what they did.

Next time someone asks what happened to the America they remember, this is what we should show them. We chose corporations over people. We decided to use the adjective "our" to mean banks, not children. We bought into the lie that big businesses are the core of our country's success, rather than that our people are at the center of American identity and prosperity.

We chose this. And, as every parent is constantly trying to teach their children: choices have consequences.
Unfortunately, the consequences fall primarily on them, meaning we will go on choosing it until the day someone wakes up and realizes that they are US.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

before Tiny Houses were cool...

Almost every week it seems there is another article or video about Tiny Houses. Google brings up 22.4 million hits just from that phrase. People are making living spaces in freight containers and on trailers, and living in their ingeniously designed 250 square foot space in the woods somewhere. Or in an alley. Or wherever they want, because their house is on a trailer.

If there isn't a Tiny House article, there is a minimalism/get-rid-of-your-stuff article. The latest compiles some startling statistics, including things like "most Americans have 300,000 objects in their home" and "nearly half of Americans can't park cars in their garage." We have more offsite storage than we do people, which means that we are (bizarrely, I think) paying to store things we never see. Are the things in our storage units useful? Do they bring happiness to our lives? If so, why are they stacked in a locked room in a climate controlled building miles away from the house, opened only to put more things in?

I've never been a big accumulator of stuff (besides books...), so I don't really get it. I'm kind of trying to pare down even what I do have, as I seem to have gathered more things than I need or want over the past 9 years of living in one place. (though that article says the average woman has 30 outfits, whereas in 1930 she had 9. I'm super retro, apparently...I have about 10-12, max.) I know people say that stuff will fill the space, and that living in the same home for a long time means you accumulate things more so than if you move frequently (because who wants to pack all that stuff?). But still.

While in Europe this spring, we noticed a large number of little communities that at first appeared to be like community gardens, with garden plots and sheds. Look closer, though, and discover they are neighborhoods. There are garden plots, and swing sets, and lawn furniture, and clothes lines...and those sheds are homes. They have lace curtains and everything. Many of them are smaller than a shed I could go buy at Home Depot and assemble this afternoon in my backyard (if I had a backyard).

Usually these little communities were on the outskirts of a larger town, and often near the train tracks, although in Wittenberg it was just a couple of blocks off the main medieval streets (and would have been just outside the old city walls).

I suspect that little enclaves of tiny houses have been here, at the edge of town, for centuries. It's like the 21st century version of the villages surrounding a castle, where everyone grows a little food and lives in two rooms and maybe comes through the city gates a couple of times a year for a market or festival. Except now people have cars that they park at the edge of the village.

It's strange to think of people living in such small spaces, in what appears from the outside to be hovel-esque conditions, in the Western world in 2015. Even though we primarily saw these communities in former East Germany, it's still jarring to those of us who are used to spacious homes and large yards and storage units. Of course, to people from other parts of the developed world, it's jarring to see how many people here are homeless--a situation which could potentially be remedied with something like tiny house communities, or at least slightly ameliorated, if only we would decide they were legal.

And yet we have this fascination with Tiny Houses.

I wonder if the people who live in these before-they-were-cool Tiny Houses have a fascination with 1500 square foot houses? Or if they enjoy living their Tiny House lifestyle as much as we imagine we would?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

random and true

This is one of my favorite products:

It's a great everyday lotion, and it's amazing on sunburns too. (especially since my favorite after sun cream was discontinued. thanks a lot, neutrogena.)

Anyway, it's a great lotion. Not too smelly, not greasy, does its job well.

Except in one way.

Take a look at that package design. Notice anything?

It's so convenient--stable, pumps out just the right amount, fits in the cabinet.

And so inconvenient, because of course the last 20% of the product is in the bottom of the bottle but away from the pump. At best, it requires taking the lid off and using the stick part of the pump (what is that called, anyway?) to scoop it out. At worst, there's significant waste.

I am not into waste. I hate wasting things--whether it be lotion or food. So I am the girl whose bathroom is littered with bottles of lotion, propped up upside down, trying to scrape out the last few drops. My refrigerator is full of leftovers (my friend Elizabeth insists that one day I'm going to get some horrible food poisoning from my leftover habit, but 34 years of solid food suggests otherwise). My laundry room has a bottle of detergent that I have literally squeezed. I use my sonic toothbrush until it stops vibrating before I change the batteries. I have, on one occasion, mixed coffees because I didn't have enough of either to make the cup. (two things: 1. This is not recommended. 2. Never do this with wine.) I turn off lights when I'm not in the room, and my TV/DVD player are almost always unplugged. I keep my thermostat at 80 in summer and 60 in winter, because to heat or cool more than that seems wasteful. I have blankets, after all, and a fan and open windows.

So this lotion bottle irks me. I want for manufacturers to think of these things. It's obviously possible to get both the convenience of the pump along with non-wastefulness, as lots of Aveda products are packaged that way. Help me out here, lotion-makers. I should not have to spoon lotion out of the bottom of the bottle.

I could offer a witty reflection on our throwaway convenience culture, and how we are destroying the planet with our consumerism and laziness. I'm pretty sure we all know that already, though.

Instead, I'm thinking about how often we think something seems great--it has 90% of what we want (convenience, aesthetic, quality) and so we go for it...without realizing that the 10% matters far more than it would seem. How do we, as individuals, as families, as churches, as political bodies make choices that sacrifice the 10% (whether that 10% is sustainability, or people)? What seems like a small thing worth compromising, like a design that doesn't all all the lotion to be accessed, or a million families' food security, or a veteran's mental health care, or a potluck with paper plates, or a few flowers on Mother's Day, or a mere pronoun...those seemingly small things add up: to an aching and groaning creation, a dramatic increase in suffering, a lifetime of hurtful theology.

In other words: while compromises must be made, be careful about what they are. The lotion bottle could just as easily have compromised the pump and still been great, without leading to waste. The real dishes can go in a dishwasher. The children who go to bed and to school with full tummies learn better and become productive members of society. The person who hears expansive language finds themselves in the Divine story rather than cast away. And so on and so on.

Everyone is compromised (thanks RAF), the question is: how will we manage those compromises?

dear Aveeno: please solve your lotion bottle problem. love, a devoted fan.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Happy Mother's Day

To Mom, who worked hard for her education and insisted we do the same: Thank you for your love, support, and help along the way. And thank you for always pushing and challenging, always insisting that we love people and work to make the world a better place--you made me who I am today. Love you, and miss you every day. In your honor, I'm paying it forward:

You can give one too, or any number of other awesome gifts, at 

Lest you think I hate baseball, apple pie, and mom....

I don't hate Mother's Day.

I think the celebration of mom is good and important. So good and important it shouldn't really be confined to a day defined by florists and greeting card companies, but whatever.

I used to love making my mom breakfast and drawing cards and coming up with little gifts (usually coupons for things like "cleaning my room without complaining"). Later I used to love going to pick out plants (tomatoes and peppers) and finding ways to gift them to her...mostly so we could eat them later, I confess, but also because she loved to grow them. I would give anything to be able to do that again.

Which is how Mother's Day is supposed to be celebrated, really. Notice that the very name of the "holiday" gives us a clue: Mother's Day. singular mother apostrophe s... possessive: My Mother.

My mother. Our mother. Each family that wishes to do so appreciating its mother(s), in a personalized and specific way.

Not a generalized celebration of all mothers. Not a generalized celebration of women on a day that we associate with motherhood, thus equating womanhood and motherhood. Especially not a generalized celebration of women while we still devalue the work of mothering and pay women 23% less than men for their work outside the home, all the while "complimenting" them on the sidewalk, teaching them to be afraid, and asking what they were wearing.

When we make Mother's Day into a generalized celebration of all the moms/women/mother figures, in many ways we water it down into unrecognizable slop.

This is also the reason Mother's Day is hard for so many people. Because what should be personal becomes so public and meaningless, and along the way we are forced into some stereotypical ideal of womanhood and motherhood. It obliterates our actual lived experience for the sake of profit (and more than a little sexism). (the latter part is true of Father's Day too, of course.)

So yes: If it is appropriate to your experience, tell your mother (or someone of any gender who has been a mother figure in your life) you love her. Give her something meaningful to her, if gift-giving is part of your family's love language. Make her dinner, bring her breakfast in bed, make up some clean-my-room-without-complaining coupons, or whatever it is. And if that isn't how your relationships work, then do whatever you need to do--binge watch Netflix, order pizza, go for a walk, whatever--without shame or guilt.

Don't confine this appreciation to one day.

Don't insist that your specific experience be generalized to the whole. Know that there are people who don't find much to celebrate in the mother-child relationships they have been a part of, and those who grieve what was or could have been, and those whose mothers were and still are the most amazing perfect people ever.

And don't forget to work for a world where women--mothers and not, single and partnered, gay and straight, young and old--are valued for the amazing people they are, and their work is compensated fairly.

Happy Mother's Day, mom. Happy Mother's Day, grandma. Happy Mother's Day, Martha and Sherri and Betsy and Kim and all of you who have stepped in to be my extras. I appreciate you all, and am so glad you have been a part of my life.

*we still won't be celebrating Mother's Day in church.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Mother's Day Flowers

So, it's Mother's Day again.


Every year, it keeps coming. It's worse than Sunday, which comes every week without fail.

From where I sit as a motherless daughter, I do not need to be reminded to love my mom. I do not need to be reminded to appreciate her. Besides the fact that every single organization/store/person under the sun is sending 400 emails a day with subject lines like "don't forget mom!" (who forgets their mother? Even if she was terrible. I mean really. Sure, we may not realize how close we are to the fake holiday that allows us to pretend it makes up for the other 364 days, but the idea that anyone forgets their mother is fairly ridiculous.) there's also the part where I no longer have the privilege or opportunity to appreciate her or to show my love for her. Instead I spend these days thinking of the times I hurt her feelings, the times I didn't tell her how much I loved her, the things I wish we could have done together. I spend the days leading up to Mother's Day, and often the day itself, longing for something I can never have. And then, because I'm in my mid-thirties now, also being reminded of my apparent slacker-ness when it comes to the becoming-a-mom front.
my inbox looks like this, and more, every day for about 2 weeks before Mother's Day. ugh.

Whose idea was it to insist that Mother's Day (and Father's Day) be on a Sunday? It has led us into dangerous territory, church-wise.

Too often, Mother's Day (and to a lesser extent Father's Day, and Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July) has become a religious holiday, even though it a) is not and b) was even disowned by its creator for being too commercialized and sappy.

I realize that in some churches (and in some families), Mother's Day just has to be observed via some kind of liturgical practice.

If that is true in your church or family, I beg you:
Do it some time other than the usual worship time. 

If your worship service(s) are on Sunday morning at 8:30/9/10/11:15, or Saturday at 5pm, or Sunday at 7pm, or whenever...please, for the love of God and all that is holy--and for the good of people in the congregation and community, and for the integrity of worship--have your Mother's Day observance either before or after worship. Do not do it in the context of regular Sunday worship. Ever.

Because too many people--women and men, old and young--find Mother's Day to be exceedingly painful. And people who have these experiences that make Mother's Day painful (infertility, miscarriage, grief, abuse, etc) are often the very people who seek out church community...and the very people that will turn around and walk out the door at the first sign of carnations on the second Sunday of May.

Let's picture some scenarios.
a) During worship, there is a contest for who's been a mother the longest. All the mothers stand, and more and more progressively sit down as the ages of their children are called out, until the last woman standing is 102 and has an 84 year old child (and we all pretend we can't do math, because surely in those days kids were much better than now), and she is given a prize of a bouquet and some chocolate. Meanwhile, the woman who had a miscarriage last year wonders if she's really a mother. The woman who doesn't want to be pregnant looks around furtively to see if anyone notices her. The woman whose child died by suicide wonders if she still has the right to stand up. The woman who desperately wants a child but doesn't have the partner/finances/job/insurance/fertility treatments looks on while trying to hold back tears....and wonders what does this have to do with worshipping God?

b) On the way into the sanctuary, women are given flowers indicating their status as mothers.
Women who are obviously mothers (i.e. those with children in tow, those we know) are given carnations in different shades for different ages of children. Women who are not obviously mothers (i.e., visitors, new members the ushers don't know yet) are asked brightly "are you a mother?" and if they say no, the usher pulls back the basket of flowers and looks disappointed before saying "one day, dear!" and turning to the next unsuspecting woman. Meanwhile, the tone and purpose of worship has been set, and it isn't about Jesus.

c) On the way into the sanctuary, all women are given a carnation to wear on their lapel. Because all women are motherly. All women are nurturers. All women mother someone, whether or not they have children. Because obviously to be a woman IS to be a mother, so we must all be one. If you can't already hear the buzzer on this one, imagine it now. To conflate womanhood and motherhood is to tell those of us without children that we are incomplete, not real women...and to imply that all women are nurturing/motherly/whatever is a bunch of sexist BS that I never want to hear again. Because it's a) not true and b) ignores the nurturing men.

d) On the way into the sanctuary, everyone is given a carnation, because "everyone has a mother!" as the ushers will cheerily remind you as you come in. Sometimes it will be different colors for alive or dead, sometimes it's whatever was cheapest at the grocery store on Saturday when someone thought up this idea. Here's the thing: it's a terrible idea. (as if the previous ideas were not terrible?) Yes, it is biologically true that everyone has a mother. It is also true that many relationships with mothers are not best characterized by flowers. It is also true that people getting those white carnations will now spend much of the worship service thinking about their dead mother rather than about God. It is also true that people who were adopted, people whose mothers died very young, people who were abused, people who are estranged from their families, people whose mothers are living in the memory care unit and will not recognize them when they go over for lunch...these people came to church to focus their attention on the One who knit us together, who called us into being, and who is worthy of praise...and instead they are getting a slap in the face, a poke in the gut, a ripping of the heart in the one place and time that should absolutely be about God.

So what do we do in church on Mother's Day?
*Well, for starters, toss the carnations. Even at their best they remind 90% of us of funerals anyway.

*Next, nix any idea of "recognizing moms" during worship. At best, it is patronizing as we spend one minute thanking them for everything we take for granted the other 525,599 minutes of the year. At worst, it is a stake through the heart of a sizable number of people sitting in the pews.

*Absolutely feel free to mention it in the prayers of the people, the same way you would mention any other cultural or news event. In other words, not a special mother's day prayer, but a few lines acknowledging those who show us God's mothering love (best to use scriptural metaphors...mother hen, she-bears...) and acknowledging the pain that sometimes occurs in our human relationships.

*If you really have to do something, reach back to the first attempt at creating a Mothers 1870. At least that had meaning and purpose beyond just giving us another year to, apparently, forget our moms.

If you need more than that, please, I beg you: do it at some time other than the regular worship time. Have a special Mother's Day service. Have something during coffee hour. Allow those of us who find Mother's Day a trauma to worship God and then leave before the carnations and clapping.

Dear mom: I haven't forgotten you, I promise. And I'm pretty sure you didn't like carnations anyway, so this is one thing I don't feel guilty about. Sorry for the times I was a crappy/bratty/obnoxious/know-it-all kid. And young adult. Sorry I didn't get to tell you how much I love you more often. Sorry the Mother's Day cards mostly suck and are apparently the best we can do. I miss you. So much that if I thought it would bring me even ten more minutes, I would hand out carnations to every person who does so much as drive by the church, let alone walk in. 
(They would, of course, not be pink. duh.)

Dear church, and all the people who have been like a mother to me over the years, in churches and out of them: I love you. And we will not be celebrating mothers during worship. We will be celebrating the grace of God, whose love and peace pass all understanding, and who is a far more perfect parent than even the most amazing among us. 

Thursday, May 07, 2015

If You Can Breathe, You Can Pray--a sermon for the National Day of Prayer 2015

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP/Christ Lutheran
If You Can Breathe, You Can Pray
1 Thessalonians 5.14-28, Luke 18.1-8
7 May 2015, National Day of Prayer

FIRST READING: 1 Thessalonians 5:14-28

14And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. 25Beloved, pray for us. 26Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. 27I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
28The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

GOSPEL: Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" 6And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

I think it is possible that one of the most common things pastors hear from church members is “I can’t pray.” It’s almost like the prayer version of “I can’t sing”—something we believe about ourselves but that is not true. Just as many people think they can’t sing because somewhere along the way, someone discouraged them, many people think they can’t pray because somewhere along the way, we gave the impression that only the professional Christians know how to do it right. If we don’t feel eloquent, or don't even know what we want to say, we call that an inability to pray, and often we think of it as a failure.

And yet Paul writes that we are to pray without ceasing. Luke’s commentary on Jesus’ parable says we are to pray always and not lose heart. It’s almost as if they want us to feel guilty about not being good at something.

Well, I have good news today. As my best friend and I wrote in a book a couple of years ago, “if you can breathe you can pray.”

No fancy pretty words are necessary. No seminary training, no internships, and no call story carefully honed through many tellings are required. All that is needed is desire for a relationship with the Holy.

If you can breathe, you can pray.

Most commonly, breath prayers are one short phrase broken into an inhale and an exhale section. Some might use the ancient prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Some might choose to come up with words for a specific situation, like “God of life, heal your people.” Some may hear Paul’s instruction to give thanks in all circumstances and decide on a breath prayer of gratitude, such as “Thank you God, for your love.” As many combinations of words as are possible in our language, are possible with breathing.

Why don’t we try this for a moment. If one of these phrases works for you, use it: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. God of life, heal your people. Thank you God, for your love. As you breathe in, say the first half to yourself. Pause a moment before you exhale, and then as you breathe out say the second half in your mind. Choose just one phrase—either one of mine or one of your own—and allow your breath to guide your prayer for just a minute.

Take a deep breath in. Let it out slowly.
Breathe in God’s mercy. Breathe out God’s mercy to others.

If you can breathe, you can pray. Since we are breathing all the time, that means it is possible to pray without ceasing, as Paul taught us to do. Of course, that version of a breath prayer still has words, and sometimes words won’t come, or words are inadequate to the task. When our breathing is more like groaning, or sighing, or gasping, remember that the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words—and simply let your breath be your prayer, even without words.

Sometimes it feels like prayer, especially this kind that you can do anywhere all the time, is a fairly anemic response to the realities of life in this world. Sometimes it fees like prayer is a last resort, or is confined to one day. Often we end up with a transactional view of God: if we ask, it will be given to us if only we have faith and persistence…so when we ask and things are not given, then either we didn’t have enough faith or else God denied us what we wanted. While we may be able to theologize that away eventually with a platitude about God’s plan, the reality is that it hurts to pray fervently and still get the late night phone call, still see the evening news, still live with pain or anxiety or depression. It hurts to pray fervently and then open the newspaper to hundreds of kidnapped girls returned pregnant, thousands of people trapped under rubble, and a child dying every 5 seconds from hunger. It hurts to pray fervently and simultaneously hear yet another story of a church denying care to a family because of their sexual orientation, a child dying by suicide because their youth group bullied them about their gender identity, people walking away from God because God’s people have closed the door. It can feel like we are knocking, asking and seeking, begging and crying, knocking again—day after day, night after night—waiting for the unjust judge to finally see the light.

And maybe we are. Maybe praying without ceasing is exactly like that: to ask constantly and wait for God to come around. For so long we have thought of prayer as words we say to God, mostly asking for things, sometimes also giving thanks. Have we forgotten that prayer is a relationship, not a transaction? Just as we would never show our love for someone by only speaking to them when we want something, surely there is more to our love for God—and God’s love for us—than this kind of prayer.

I was reading Jesus’ parable and noticing a few things. The judge is described as having no fear of God and no respect for people, as being unjust. He says of himself “even though I respect no one, including God, I am tired of this woman asking me over and over again, so I will grant her request in order to get rid of her and have some peace.”

The woman is described as seeking justice so earnestly that time and comfort are no object.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not really okay with the idea that God is unjust, with no respect for anyone, and that God grants our requests simply because we ask enough times or because we are annoying and God wants us to go away. That goes against everything we know about God, who is love, who is made flesh to live among us, who calls us to love as we have been loved, calls us to compassion.

Who calls us.

What if we turn this parable upside down, and God is the widow who begs the judge—us—to do the right thing, day after day? He is caught up in his own ego. He knows who he is, and listening to small voices and doing inconvenient things are not part of his MO. He has a good life that cannot be disrupted by any kind of prayer that is not about asking. And yet the widow persists, calling, calling, calling.

What if we were to listen to the small but persistent voice—perhaps even more than we talk? What if we were to think of prayer as letting go of the things we think we know and opening ourselves to what God calls us to do? What if our breath prayer were silent, an offering of our life to the God who begs, cajoles, and demands justice for all people and all creation? What if our call to pray without ceasing is a call to allow the Spirit to intercede on our behalf, while we join our hearts to God’s own prayer, God’s own vision of the world? God is faithful and will answer our desire with relationship and with hope.

This kind of prayer may be the most important thing we can do for our community, our nation, and our world: to listen for God’s call coming through the voices of the poor, the marginalized, the ones we would rather get rid of or at least not have to see—a call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly; a call to love as we have been loved, to love our neighbor as ourselves. To hear and obey: this is the prayer God desires.

If we can breathe, we can pray. If we can breathe, we can give thanks to the one whose breath is our life. And we can listen, without ceasing. And when we have heard, our prayer becomes action, working for God’s kingdom of justice and peace in this world.

May it be so. Amen.

**h/t to Richard, who first suggested to me that we could turn this parable upside down.