Wednesday, September 30, 2020

21 more days!

 Just three weeks to go until, according to the PCUSA and the Young Clergy Women and any number of other organisations that care about such things, I am no longer young.

I used to wonder at what point I got to be a real adult. Just a normal adult. Because the church has programs and staff and resources for "young adults" and "older adults" and honestly it seemed for a long time like the gap in between was getting smaller and smaller.....mainly because our definition of "young" kept creeping up. It used to be 30, then 35, then 40...I'll leave you to figure out why we would need to still be considering 39 year olds who have been in their careers (or their calls, or parenting, or whatever) for nearly 20 years "young."

I have been looking forward to my 40s for a long time, in a way. Though perhaps what I mean is that I've been looking forward to not being considered a "young adult" for a long time. The way we continue to infantilise people (especially women, and especially women without partners or children) who own houses, have jobs, hold positions of power in communities, etc, is so frustrating. I think much of it has to do with white Western culture's fear of growing old. So people say things like "60 is the new 30"...well, you know what? I've said this before and I'll say it again: I hope not. Let's make 60 the new 60, and 40 the new 40. We are living through new times, so why not also live our age in a new way? Just because we reach a number doesn't mean we have to do what previous generations did at that number. 

As a case in point: every firstborn in my family has given birth to their firstborn by age 23. This goes back for....a few generations at least. 

I am a firstborn.

As you might have realised, I have not followed this particular trend in my family system.

In fact, I realised a couple of years ago that I left home -- as in, permanently moved 2,000 miles away -- just two weeks after my mother turned 40. Talk about a terrifying thought as my birthday approaches.

Anyway, even though my 23rd birthday came and went with no children and no husband and even though I had family members saying weird things that they probably didn't even realise were related to that, it wasn't until I was well into my 30s that I realised just how HAPPY I can be as a single woman. I've had relationships, yes, including long term and serious ones, ones I thought would be forever but didn't turn out that way, for good and less-good reasons. But now, and really for at least the last....6 or so years?...I've learned how to be ME. To live alone and love it. To travel alone and love it. To use my resources differently and to bless different people than I would be able to do otherwise. 

Sure, there are things I don't love about being single. Mainly, though, it's about housework. I don't love washing up after cooking, or unloading the dishwasher, or putting away laundry. I don't love that if I get sick, there's no one to help. (especially right now, when there's an illness going around that is more terrifying for single people than those I've encountered before, because of how quickly it can change into something very serious, especially at night.) That tells me I wish for staff, not a partner.

For a few years, the worst thing about being single was feeling like I was no one's priority. Like all my friends and family had people who were their number 1, who topped the list of people they thought about, worried about, etc, and there was no one who would put me on their list of priorities. And rightfully so, because they had partners and children and ageing parents, etc. It was hard work with my therapist to overcome that feeling and to build friendships where I could feel like I mattered in that way to someone else. Because you know what? It's okay to ask for people to treat you like you matter to them. And not every person who is a priority for us is related to us, and that is good and healthy.

The poem I want to share today is on a similar theme, sort of. At least of the idea of being a whole person by myself, and still being important in myself, though the author's experience is very different from mine in many ways. It's called "Today, God" by Starr Davis. I won't reproduce it here, for copyright reasons, but you should 100% click through and listen to the author read the poem!! 

I am liberated and focused today
on what it means to govern myself.

Among my biggest issues being single now: no one to help me eat the dessert.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

22 days to 40...sometimes what we want doesn't exist

I went looking for a poem that matched my thoughts for today, but could not find one. I even tried googling "poems for when other words aren't quite right" (and variations on that theme) but while I came across many lovely poems, none were what I wanted.

But of course, what we want doesn't always exist.

I want to pretend that is a lesson I don't have to keep learning over and over, but matter how many times I have learned it in the past 40 years, I keep stumbling over the fact that sometimes what I want does not exist. Given that Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun, I am constantly surprised when I run up against this limitation of the universe. How can it be that in 2020, the thing I want for today is not readily available? (#firstworldproblems)

When Amy and I were in the earliest stages of writing a book, this was actually one of the reasons we decided to do it: because the book we wanted to read and teach from and recommend to friends did not exist. So we worked to bring it into existence. (earlier this month it was in my Facebook memories, in fact, that I held that book in my hands for the first time in September 7 years ago!)

I am no poet, so I will not be bringing a poem into existence to meet this day's needs.


I will note that sometimes....perhaps oftentimes?...when we are longing for something that does not exist, that is a nudge from the Spirit about our calling. Because we live in this place and time in between the vision of God and its realisation, and sometimes it's our creating that brings the kingdom a little more into existence. 

Maybe through poetry. maybe through compassion. maybe through big acts of justice. maybe through writing a book or building a new community or lobbying our government or whatever it is...

it might be yours to do.

or mine.

or ours, together.

photo from the very first time I held the book...on a train, thanks to Anita!

Monday, September 28, 2020

23 days until I'm out of my 30s...

 "What else could they mean?"

This is a question I have learned to ask myself, upon the realisation that honestly, most things are not about me, even if they feel like they are.

When the story I tell myself (thanks Brene Brown for that language) heads down a road of taking things too personally, I now stop to wonder what else someone could mean by what they said. Even if it's outlandish, I try to come up with at least two alternative theories that might explain someone's words or actions, and then I try them all on before deciding that it really was commentary about me/my work/etc. Sometimes, of course, it was meant to be taken personally. But sometimes (most of the time) it really isn't about me at all. 

It's probably been about 5 years since I started asking myself this question and it might be one of the best things I've ever learned for my mental health (right up there with the importance of exercise!).

Feel free to ask it yourself too. So useful!

As Mary Oliver says: there are many ways to perish, or to way to perish is to believe everything is about me. And one way, for me anyway, to flourish, is to ask myself what else they could mean -- because not only does that remind me not everything is about me, it also allows me to be more empathetic, to imagine what else is going on with someone and to look through their perspective for a bit, and to perhaps see a new way. 

This is Mary Oliver's poem "Evidence (2)"

There are many way to perish, or to flourish.

How old pain, for example, can stall us at the

threshold of function.

Memory: a golden bowl, or a basement without light.

For which reason the nightmare comes with its

painful story and says: you need to know this.

Some memories I would give anything to forget.

Others I would not give up upon the point of

death, they are the bright hawks of my life.

Still, friends, consider stone, that is without

the fret of gravity, and water that is without


And the pine trees that never forget their

recipe for renewal.

And the female wood duck who is looking this way

and that way for her children.  And the snapping

turtle who is looking this way and that way also.

This is the world.

And consider, always, every day, the determination 

of the grass to grow despite the unending obstacles.

this is a few blocks from my house, and I see it often when out walking. 

Love Them With God's Love -- a sermon on Joseph and his brothers

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St John’s / Greenock St Margaret’s

Love Them With God’s Love

Genesis 37.1-8, 17b-36, 5.15-21

27 September 2020, NL3-3, Becoming God’s People 3

Since we heard about God’s promise to Abraham last week, both Hagar and Sarah bore sons to him, and each was promised to become a great nation — Ishmael and Isaac. The story of the Bible continues through the lineage of Isaac, who married Rebekah and became the father of Jacob and Esau. Jacob has been both a trickster and a dreamer all his life. With a pot of soup, he bought his brother’s birthright, and later he tricked their father out of Esau’s blessing. When running away for his life, he dreamt of angels coming and going from earth on a ladder. After marrying both Leah and Rachel, he and Esau eventually reconciled, and Jacob dreamt again, of wrestling with God and coming out the other side with a blessing and a new name: Israel. Jacob had four wives, and twelve sons. The youngest two sons were the only children borne by Rachel, who had always been Jacob’s favourite and truest love. We pick up the story today in Genesis chapter 37, reading verses 1-8 and 17-36, and then skipping to the end of the brothers' story in chapter 50, verses 15-21. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

37 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.’ His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

(his brothers were pasturing the flock….)

17b Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.’ 22 Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him’—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, ‘The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?’ 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, ‘This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.’ 33 He recognised it, and said, ‘It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.’ 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son for many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ Thus his father bewailed him. 36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

5015 Realising that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ 19 But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Family relationships can be so complicated, can’t they?

I think it would be something of an understatement to say that Jacob’s large family was a bit on the dysfunctional side. Jacob had first been tricked into marrying Leah when he really wanted to marry Rachel, and then throughout their lives both Leah and Rachel gave their enslaved servants to him as wives too — this, like the other human trafficking in this story, will need to be a sermon for another day. Jacob ended up with four wives and twelve sons, plus at least one daughter, but he really loved one wife and her two children the most, and everyone knew it.

That kind of favouritism was bound to create problems on top of the usual dynamics that come with younger children. As an oldest child myself, I understand the impulse to wish away a younger sibling now and then, but I can’t quite get my mind around the idea of trying to kill him or sell him into slavery — that is a whole other level of sibling rivalry than even our intense teenage fighting was!

Reading this story reminds me of a phrase that my supervising minister used to use, back when I was training for ministry 17 years ago. Whenever something frustrating would happen, she would say: “remember your job is to love them with God’s love.” The idea is that even if I didn’t feel particularly loving toward someone at the moment, or maybe even if I disliked them!, they still deserved and needed to be loved, so I ought to see myself as a conduit of God’s love, even if my own love wasn’t available. That way, I would behave toward them in a loving way, regardless of my own feelings.

This is true for all Christians, not just ministers. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbour…which doesn’t mean that we are always going to like people! Love is not so much a feeling as it is an action. To behave with love does not actually require that we emotionally love in the moment, though that may well follow. 

One of the ways that we can act with love, even if we don’t yet feel it, is to practice empathy, by trying to see from the perspective of the other person, or what we sometimes call walking a mile in their shoes. Empathy is something that gets talked about a lot but not practiced much, I think, perhaps because we confuse it with sympathy, perhaps because of a lack of imagination, or perhaps because it is too painful for us to imagine ourselves in a less-privileged position than we enjoy. But let’s imagine what empathy might have looked like in this story.

What if Jacob had been able to see from the perspective of his three not-favourite wives, or his ten not-favourite children? Would he have then been able to feel their grief at not being loved? Their anger at being passed over even though tradition said they should receive more? Their worry about the future? 

What if Joseph had walked a bit in his brothers’ shoes? Would he have seen the sadness that had replaced the playfulness of his childhood? Or how tired they were from keeping the flocks and herds, all while knowing that they may well be displaced out of their inheritance? Would he have seen how they wished for their father’s approval, or for even a day with a long tunic that marked them as being above manual labour?

What if the elder brothers had taken a moment to look through Joseph’s eyes — and seen his frustration at being coddled like a baby even when at 17 he ought to have had a bigger role in the family business? After all, the word that we translate as “long robe with sleeves” or that the musical translates as “coat of many colours” actually literally means “the dress of an unmarried royal princess.” Would the brothers have recognised that Joseph perhaps wanted to outgrow his princess dress, and his dreams reflect his longing to take his place among the family? Would they have sensed if he had discomfort with his father’s favouritism, or maybe his desire to prove himself to them, the big brothers he looked up to, hoping for their approval and to be seen as an equal?

It can be hard to look through someone else’s perspective, to walk a mile in their shoes. But when we do, our behaviour changes. We may still feel angry or sad or disappointed, but we are far more likely to have compassion and to be able to act with love. And when we act with love, we are more likely to grow into feeling it. This is what it means to love with God’s love — to act like the person is deserving of love, because they are.

This is a major part of growing as God’s people: learning to love with God’s love, to behave in loving ways even if we don’t feel it. That choice to act in love may help avoid some of the broken relationships that are so common, and it can even help heal some of the brokenness we live with now, both on a personal level and a societal level. As Cornel West said, “justice is what love looks like in public.” It isn’t a miracle cure, but it is a good start.

At the end of the story, when Joseph was in the position of power he once dreamed about, and their father had died, the brothers were still caught in the old ways. Their fear that Joseph may still be harbouring a grudge led them to yet another act of deceit, on top of all the others. But this time Joseph had learned a few things. He recognised their fear and their sadness, and chose to look past that and show them love anyway. Whether he felt brotherly love for them in the moment or not, he chose to act like it. Joseph took the moment to see from their perspective, and then offered his brothers forgiveness and reassurance and kindness, which is all they had really wanted all these years anyway. 

Interestingly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that this is the first time in the Bible that forgiveness is ever mentioned. It took the entire book of Genesis for people to learn forgiveness…and after this, it’s something both God and people do. But he writes that humans learning to offer forgiveness to one another is what then brought God’s forgiveness into the story — sort of like how Jesus taught us to pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Perhaps it is in learning to love with God’s love that we are most likely to experience love ourselves. I know that it can lead to feeling love for others…but maybe it’s also a conduit toward feeling God’s love for us, too. When we act with love, we become more like the God in whose image we are made — the God who is love. 

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

24 days left in my 30's, and...

 ...I was today years old when I learned how much sugar is too much in one sitting.

I used to wonder why people described some desserts as "too rich to eat more than a few bites." Well, today, age 39, 11 months, and 6 days, I officially reached the age where I understand.

Because I have eaten so much sugar in one sitting tonight, I cannot focus on poetry. 🤣

But also because I'm sure you're wondering what on earth I can have eaten: it was a skillet butterscotch blondie. The recipe was for two (enormous) pieces.......I may have eaten more than one but less than the whole thing, and I now believe that honestly it's probably four servings, not two despite what the title of the recipe said. And for the past three hours I've been feeling alternately a little gross and super tired like a child crashing half an hour after the crazy birthday party.

So apparently my forties will be the decade in which I moderate my dessert eating to something more reasonable....or at least spread it out over more meals during the day instead of scarfing it all down at nighttime! 

I'll be back tomorrow with poetry and reasonable lessons that I really should have learned earlier in my life. LOL.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

on the 25th-to-last day of my 30s....

 ...I walked 8 miles with a friend, delivering the print version of the Sunday service to those without internet, soaking up the sun even in the cold wind, and getting some exercise in too.

My 30s are when I learned that I really need exercise more than I thought I did. there was a brief period in my 20s when I had a gym membership and a personal trainer, but honestly I just didn't last long (a year maybe?). It was only later when I realised the difference that exercise makes to my mental health. And also when I re-learned to love running. I ran a bit in college but of course I had the Chicago lakefront to run along, so who wouldn't enjoy that? Living in suburbia, running was a different story. I mostly ran in the neighbourhood, and rarely longer than a few miles, and I used to say that I loved "having run" far more than I loved "running." I liked the feeling I had afterward, but the during it was....a bit of a slog.

When I was about to turn 35 my friend Julia decided to come visit and run a half marathon while she was there, and I decided I could probably do that...more to prove to myself that my body *could* do it than anything else. It turned out to be amazing -- the training was great for getting into a routine, and the race itself was gorgeous, and I was hooked. I ran another race in Edinburgh the following year, and then when I was injured I missed it more than I thought possible. Now I'm only running short distances again, and more sporadically than I would like, but my exercise routine is still daily in a way it never was before...and if I miss a day, I notice it. I can feel how important it is to my brain as well as my body. 

I never in a million years thought I'd be the girl who needs to work out every day, but there you have it...I'm a healthier person for it. :-) though I am the SLOWEST runner ever, I actually do love it...though in many ways I think I would still say what I like most is Having Run, because I really do it for the mood-boosting/mind-clearing effect more than anything else.

I thought I'd look for a poem by a runner and the first half 100% sums up the experience I have, hahaha. (the second half in many ways captures the experience of getting older, actually, though she does so from her lens as a mother).

Here is the first half of Rachel Zucker's poem "wish you were here you are":

time isn’t the same for everyone there is
science behind this when you fly into space
you’re not experiencing time at the same rate
as someone tethered to Earth & someone
moving quickly experiences time at a slower rate
even on Earth so as I run through Central Park
at a speed not much faster than walking but slightly
I am shattering fields of time around me
& experiencing time differently from those I pass

I can attest to the fact that 'someone moving quickly experiences time at a slower rate' because honestly sometimes that is exactly what running feels like....especially on the way home when the weather is less than ideal!

maybe next year again...

Friday, September 25, 2020

26 days of my 30s

Today my usual morning workout was disrupted because the website for the current class I'm doing was down. That meant that instead of whatever was on the calendar for today, I did a quick from-memory run through of a previous workout instead.

As I was doing it, I was thinking about how much effort I put in over the past decade to disentangle exercise from food. I definitely used to think of exercise as a way to "earn" some sort of right to eat what I wanted. And that, my friends, is not healthy. All those programmes that involve earning more calories through exercise so that you can eat more....that's a terrible mental/emotional relationship with both exercise and food.

Learning that exercise is a good and desirable thing in itself, and that how I choose to eat is separate from that (though still needs care along with enjoyment!), is, if I'm 100% honest, still a work in progress. But I have come such a long way that I have hope that maybe by the time I turn forty in 26 days, I'll have it all worked out. 😂

Today's poem has literally nothing whatsoever to do with this, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. It's about that turn of the season toward 40...and though I have no intention of dying my hair (too lazy), I do intend to live on in a blaze of glory, LOL. 

This is "Pushing Forty" by Scottish author Alison Fell...whose birthday must also be in the autumn, as she perfectly captures the way things are at this time of year and this time of life.

Just before winter
we see the trees show
their true colours:
the mad yellow of chestnuts
two maples like blood sisters
the orange beech
braver than lipstick

Pushing forty, we vow
that when the time comes
rather than wither
ladylike and white
we will henna our hair
like Colette, we too
will be gold and red
and go out
in a last wild blaze

not my dinner today, but so delicious I am happy just remembering it from a few weeks ago! I'm so happy I learned to make my own pizza.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

on the 27th day before my birthday....

 I was reminded that it's okay to go to sleep sometimes, and wake up and try again tomorrow.

I do not have the seemingly boundless energy people used to think I had (whether I ever had it is a secret I plan to keep!), and it is okay to rest.

Convincing myself that I won't miss anything, that there is no secret rule of the universe saying I have to stay awake until a certain time or risk being "uncool," or whatever other nonsense has kept me from my bed for years, took a long time.

Ok...truth be told, this might be a lesson I am still learning even in the last few days of my 30s. But today I am going to live into it.

This poem that my friend Elsa shared with me the other day feels like just the one I need today...because tonight, I need to be allowed to learn to love my need for rest, though it often feels like an uncertain new world to need more of that than I perhaps did before. And so it is. :-)

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

28 days until I'm not in my 30s anymore

28 days....4 weeks! So exciting. I love my birthday. Actually, let's be real: I love everyone's birthdays. I love the chance to celebrate. And the thought of turning over a new chapter and having new experiences...that's my jam. I'm all about all these things. #enneagram7 (though that's a learning for another day!)

Today I have been thinking about a lesson that was hard to learn. When I was growing up, I was often told I could do and be anything I wanted. Of course it was the 1980s and we all knew that wasn't true right then, it was more aspirational. Like...obviously my mom would say I *could* grow up to be president, but that's not entirely true, is it? Not because I'd be a terrible president, but because that's not a thing women can do just yet. Between social, political, and economic realities, the statement "you can do anything" is the kind of thing that we hope will become true the more we say it.

Anyway, I am mildly embarrassed to admit how old I was when I realised that one of the things that was causing me some level of unhappiness was that somehow I had internalised the idea that I could, or should, be able to do everything all at once. I'm not sure how people who have spouses and kids manage this, because even as a single person it was a shock to realise that I was going to have to live with a sort of cycle of things I wanted, rather than being able to do literally everything all at once. Clearly, you can't simultaneously work a dream job and travel the world and hang with friends and write a book and climb the ladder of denominational or community leadership, etc etc etc. It's more a rhythm of things weaving in and out than it is an all-or-nothing life experience.

I'm not sure why it took me a long time to figure this out, but it kinda did. I'm glad I learned it though, because I'm so much happier now than I was before I realised why I was feeling so frustrated all the time. :-)

The poem I've been pondering today isn't exactly related to this lesson. Or maybe it is.'s by Joy Harjo, the poet laureate of the USA. She is a native woman from the Muscoge (Creek) tribe, and I first heard her during this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival, and I've been exploring some of her work. Today's is a poem called "A Map to the Next World" and it ends with these lines:

We were never perfect.

Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was
once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.

We might make them again, she said.

Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.

You must make your own map.

That feels a little like what I think I've learned. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

on the 29th-to-last day of my 30s....

 ...I am once again thinking about how little we know about each other.

Over the past few years I have conducted a lot of funerals. And after at least half of those meetings with families, I have marvelled at how much people don't know about their loved ones. I'm something of a broken record about asking my friends to write down things about their lives, or to talk to their kids about their pre-parenting experiences. Because so much of what we know about our parents is really centred around ourselves rather than being about them, and too often the person's identity and personality ends up feeling pretty one-dimensional when we try to talk about them. 

What sort of things did they enjoy as a child? How did they get into (or out of!) trouble? What skills did they pick up or abandon? How did they meet the person they married? What did that relationship look like before children? What hobbies have endured, or were only for a season? What accomplishments have been forgotten along the way? What adventures did they take, meals did they love, places did they visit? How did they meet friends, and what kept those enduring friendships alive over the decades? How did they feel about things that happened in the world? Where were they at pivotal moments in history? What were the pivotal moments in their own lives (sometimes these are much smaller than a marriage or kids!)? And once children are grown and out of the house, what sorts of things filled their days? What did they enjoy doing for themselves, or for their community, not just for their kids? What kinds of things did they think about, pray about, wonder about that didn't have anything to do with their kids or homemaking or job?

So I suppose the lesson from this end of the decade is that it's important to share our lives with each other. Every time I make a "wine and the word" video I begin by sharing high and low points of the day, and I say something about how important it is that we share even these mundane things, because they are what make up a life. Living this life together in community, deepening our relationships through regular sharing of ourselves, matters. This is what it means to be community, to be in relationship: to know each other beyond just the small talk, and beyond just the most visible aspect of our days.

In what is probably not a coincidence, this is the poem I flipped to this morning as I was revisiting Nadine Aisha Jassat's debut collection "Let Me Tell You This":


He told me not to heed the Old Wives' Tales,
superstition and elaboration
bound in proverb and fable.

At home, by the kitchen table,
I watched my mother's hands spin the yarn
of meals and housework,
of duty and obligation.

I long to hear the tales in you.
To know that self beyond dinner time and bedtime,
to know the time of the tick of your heart,
which echoes in mine.

I wish I could press my ear to you like a shell,
to hear the ocean of you,
to know the roar that is yours.

What if it gets washed away too quickly?
And I live my life without your tales -- 
Searching, in the empty space by the kitchen table,
in the silence, for the words which were my mother.

Monday, September 21, 2020

the last 30 days of my 30s

 Soon, I will turn 40.

I had plans for this year -- 2020 plans. 20 places to visit, and 20 books to read, during the year I turn 40.

Alas, the year has not gone according to plan and I only managed to visit 2 of those places, and read a few of those books, before we were no longer allowed to travel and the library was closed.

Today it is 30 days until I turn 40. During these last 30 days of my 30s, I thought I'd try a new plan. One that doesn't require going anywhere, or getting anything complicated, just in case the pandemic makes that all impossible again.

During these last 30 days of my 30s, I'll be reading poetry and also pondering something I have learned in this decade. Though it's unlikely I'll be able to point to exact moments of my 30s when I learned things, so it's more of a reflection on things I am glad to know heading into the next decade, as it were.

Today I have been reading Baggage, by Jackie Kay (Scotland's Makar). I love these lines near the end, especially as I think about the close of one decade and the start of a next: 

Carrying your past on your back, late morning,
Like an animal carries what it needs to its den.
The old loch at your side, lapping: Ye ken

This – it is not as heavy it might be.

Sometimes the past does feel heavier than I can bear. Other times....not as heavy as it might be. I think that is because of something that I found very difficult to learn, and took me longer than perhaps it ought to have done. A piece of baggage I had carried and was, at times, crushing me. I was 32 when someone told me I did not need to carry it, but it has taken be a little while to internalise that. If I'm totally honest, I'm still working on it.

I have written/spoken elsewhere about the time when I was 13 that my mother looked me in the eye and said "we don't quit," and how that stuck with me as part of my identity. That phrase haunted me through times when I was in the midst of things that were really unhealthy but I was so certain that "we don't quit" meant I had to stick them out even if it was hurtful. Obviously there would be a million exceptions that any normal person (including my mother!) would have made, including the ones I was in! But ultimately, learning that it is okay to let go of things sometimes may have been one of the hardest lessons of my 30s. 

To be clear, I still think it's important to follow through on commitments. I am just also better at realising that not every single commitment is good, is forever, or requires my particular gifts. It is okay to let things go sometimes. 

And so..... "It is not as heavy as it might be." 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Look to the Stars -- a sermon for on Genesis 15

 Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Look to the Stars

Genesis 15.1-6 (NRSV)

20 September 2020, NL3-2, Becoming God’s People 2

When God called Abram and Sarai to leave their home in Ur and go to a new land, they went without question, believing God’s promise of descendants as numerous as grains of sand, trusting that God would use them to bless the whole world. When the camp grew too large for the land to sustain all the herds and people, Abram’s nephew Lot took his part of the family and animals, and went to settle in another area. During a war between Canaanite tribes, Lot was kidnapped by raiders. Abram took his men and went to battle the hostile tribe, rescuing Lot and all his family and their possessions. Abram then refused to take any of the spoils of war, returning home having received only a blessing from the high priest of the area where Lot lived. We pick up the story from there, in Genesis 15, verses 1-6 (New Revised Standard Version)

15:1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Many of you know that I have a tendency toward what I call “thinking about things.” Some of my friends might prefer the term “obsessing” and a mental health professional might use the term “ruminating” or “perseverating,” but I prefer “thinking about things” — and I do, I think about things a lot. Constantly. I like to go through everything in my mind, logically, and work out the different scenarios. If I do this, then this and this and this…..if we choose this other path, then this and this and this. I can spend hours, days even, thinking through all the possibilities and the different ramifications of each one.

Now, sometimes that leads to quite a bit of anxiety, because not enough of the options are good. I prefer win-win scenarios, where everyone has a good time and there’s peace and justice and goodness and maybe some adventure as the outcome. Sometimes that’s not possible and compromises have to be made. Other times there are no good options, no matter how hard I think, and that’s a pretty bleak spiral to find myself caught in.

That’s where Abraham is in today’s story — and God knows it. Though it isn’t clear that God had actually been reading Abraham’s mind, it is clear that God recognised that Abraham wasn’t feeling his best. God promised him blessing, and to make him a blessing to the whole world, but no matter which way Abraham turned over this problem in his mind, the facts were still the same: he had no children. So even though he had become a very wealthy man, and even though he had managed to settle down in the land and make peace with the neighbouring tribes and take care of Lot and his family, all those blessings kind of don’t matter since there would be no one to carry them on. All those blessings are temporary, and Abraham, now well into his 80s, was feeling his temporary-ness. If only he had an heir who could carry on his name and pick up the mantle of the promise to be a blessing to the world. But no…and so he concocted a legal workaround, making one of his enslaved servants his heir. That wasn’t exactly what he thought God had promised, but then again, that promise seemed like it wasn’t as durable as he’d hoped, so it was better to have a plan than no plan.

I know it might be hard to imagine being in such a situation, where things aren’t going the way we’d hoped, everything is taking way longer than we expected, and it’s impossible to plan for the future…but just try for a moment. You can see how easily Abraham might get mentally stuck in what I call a swirling vortex of despair, when it’s just him and Sarah, with no outlets, nowhere to go, and no future in sight. All Abraham needs is one son. That’s all. And it’s all he can think about, the one thing he wants, but seemingly can’t have. No matter how many other blessings there might be, the lack of that one thing overpowered everything else. And so God’s promise was frustratingly out of reach.

Into that anxiety comes God, starting off the conversation with “do not be afraid.” That’s quite an opening line, when speaking to an elderly gentleman who has been waiting years for God to fulfil a promise that was now physically impossible. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Abraham’s response was quick and sharp: “what can you possibly give me that would matter? You haven’t given me the one thing that would make your promise true, so I’ve had to think up a backup plan on my own.”

I think we sometimes gloss over the way people speak to God in a lot of these stories. When we think about talking to God, we think about praying lovely words and asking nicely for things, saying thank you a lot in between each polite request. Even when we are desperate, in the middle of a global pandemic, begging God for healing and for relief from all this uncertainty and suffering, I think most of us at least try to ask nicely through our tears and loneliness. But Abraham here does not follow the acronym I was taught for prayers: ACTS—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. You’re supposed to first tell God how great God is, then admit to not being great yourself, then thank God for all sorts of things, and then you ask for stuff. 

For some reason, people in the Bible rarely follow this rule. 

Abraham jumped right in with “what are you going to give me to make up for the fact that you have not fulfilled the promise you made all those years ago? Because I’ve been trying to work it out but really this was your job and you failed at it. I just need one thing, and it’s the one thing that even you can’t give me anymore. It’s too late. Thanks for nothing.”

There’s a part of us, I think, that recoils a bit at the idea of talking to God like this. But this is part of what it means to be in a real relationship — full honesty. Part of becoming God’s people is learning to be 100% ourselves with God, because God already knows us. There is nowhere we can hide from God, and we don’t need to. Look what happened, when Abraham spoke to God with that tone: God took him by the hand and led him outside, and lifted his eyes out of the swirling vortex of despair and toward the stars. 

God didn’t say “how dare you speak to me that way! Time to wash out your mouth with soap.” God said “come for a walk. Look at what I’ve made before. Look how beautiful this world is. Look at your part in it. The promise I’ve made you is even bigger than the stars you can count in the sky, and given that I made that, you can trust that I’ll make you into something bright and beautiful too.”

There’s plenty of uncertainty around, and I know we’re all familiar with delayed dreams and plans. The world is not what we hoped it would be. We are tired of waiting…tired of waiting for an end to pandemic restrictions so we can go on holiday or have a birthday party, tired of waiting for justice and for society to be equitable for all people, tired of waiting for people in power to care about climate change, tired of waiting for an economic system that works for everyone rather than just a few, tired of waiting for a cure for cancer, tired of waiting for the chance to safely gather in church, tired of waiting for so many things. Jesus said God’s kingdom was here among us, but we have yet to see it fulfilled. So we, like Abraham, try to figure something out for ourselves. We create solutions that seem okay for now, and we pretend they’re good enough. We long for a return to normal, even though normal wasn’t anywhere near as good for everyone as we think we remember.

Remember, Abraham only wanted one thing: just one child. 

And God showed him the stars. That’s how many descendants he would have.

What if our vision is too small, and God’s promise is even bigger than the things we are waiting for?

What if God’s promise is way better than simply “back to normal”?

Look to the stars. 

Count them, if you are able. 

And remember that the light you see today is already many years old. There are only around 100 stars within 20 light years — meaning that for nearly all the stars we see in the sky, it takes more than a generation for their light to reach our eyes! That light has been shining into space…and only now is it visible to us. God’s work is a long game, and we may not always be able to see it. But it is still there. 

It says then that Abraham looked at the stars — lifted his eyes and his mind out of his swirling vortex of despair, stopped his obsessive thinking about one small aspect of blessing that he was missing, and looked at the stars…and he trusted God. He trusted the relationship that God had built with him, and that the promise was true, even if it didn’t seem true yet. The light was still traveling through space, but at some point, he would see it twinkling on the horizon.

This trust is the foundation of the kind of relationship we see between God and Abraham…and the kind of relationship God wants to have with us, too. Trust is what makes it possible to talk so openly and passionately to God, knowing God won’t get angry and walk away. Trust is what makes it possible to listen when God whispers “look at the stars” and to wonder at the vastness of God’s vision. Trust is what makes it possible to live toward the promise even when we can’t see it yet. 

As we continue this journey of becoming God’s people, may we grow in trust — the trust that enables honesty and that opens our hearts and minds to see God’s promise that is for far more than we can imagine.


Sunday, September 06, 2020

The End of All Our Exploring -- a sermon on Revelation 21

 Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St John’s

The End of All Our Exploring

Revelation 21.1-6a, 22-26 (NRSV)

6 September 2020, Postcards of Faith 12

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.’

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations.

Over the past three months, we have journeyed through the scriptures, from God calling Abram to leave his house and go to an unknown land, Jacob and his family going down to Egypt to join Joseph, and the Israelites escaping from Egypt through the Red Sea, and then eventually crossing the Jordan into the promised land. We have followed the journeys of the Queen of Sheba going to visit Solomon, and Jonah trying to run away from his calling. We have become like disciples following Jesus from the first day John the Baptist explained who he was, to the hillside where he fed thousands, to the beach where he met us again after his resurrection. We have gotten letters from Paul, telling us about his own travels and exhorting us to continue reaching toward the goal of God’s kingdom. And today we arrive at the end of the book of Revelation, with the vision of God’s reign being complete and beautiful on earth.

As we have traveled through scripture, we have also been traveling ourselves — not the kind of holiday we might have had planned for this year, but a church family one in which each of us contributed toward our progress as we tended our physical and mental health with daily walks or runs or cycles, and as we spent time tending to our spiritual health through prayer and reading God’s word. Together, we walked from St. John’s Church on the shores of the Clyde, to the hometown of St. John the Evangelist on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Together our various activities have moved us more than 11,510 kilometres over the past three months! That has taken us across Europe and across Turkey and across the Middle East, around Judea and Galilee, and home again by way of St Paul’s journeys. We have, virtually of course, visited the great medieval Cathedral in Cologne, checked out some of Romania’s national parks, seen the devastation wrought by war in Syria, admired the ruins of ancient Corinth, remembered Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, and prayed at the refugee camps of Calais, on our journey to and from the home of our namesake St. John the Evangelist in Bethsaida. I hope I haven’t been the only one doing a little research on the foods we might enjoy in each place!

We have traveled quite a distance together, both physically and scripturally, so how fitting is it that we now end up at the very place where God intends all things to end up: in the holy city, which has come down from heaven to earth. Not that God takes us out of this earth, but that God comes and lives among us. Just like back in the Exodus days, when it says that God pitched a tent in the camp with the people, and just like in the birth of Jesus when John’s gospel says that God became flesh and lived dwelt among us, the mark of the kingdom of God is that God will live with us in the city.

This city is, like any other city, busy of course. It isn’t a place of perfect quiet and solitude — it’s a community where we will live together, working things out like any community does. But there will be no death, no pain, no tears — can you imagine? A community where people are all so loved and respected the we live together in harmony without the griefs of injustice or loss. God is indeed making all things new.

One of the ways all things are being made new is in our understanding of what this new heaven and new earth will be like. We have all these images in our heads, developed through centuries of art and literature, but sometimes they’re a little bit different than what the scripture actually says. For instance, this chapter of Revelation is the one where we get the idea of heaven having pearly gates — though we didn’t read that part, as it was verse 21 and I asked Mhairi to skip to verse 22! But it says that this holy city that has come down to earth, where all can live together, will have twelve gates made of pearl. 

I think it is so fascinating that we have taken this image of pearly gates and placed them in heaven, when Revelation so clearly says that the city is here on earth. And even more fascinating that we have, in popular imagination, made St Peter a gatekeeper, when it also clearly says “the gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there.” So the gates of this city are always open! No need for a gatekeeper, as literally anyone can come in as they please — no curfew, no restrictions. And all those nations, all those systems that used to exploit people for the glory and gain of the few, all those kings that have fought amongst themselves for power and wealth, will instead stream in through those gates and give glory to God, living in this new community of justice and peace and harmony.

It of course feels like a far-off vision. It must have felt equally far off to John when he wrote it from the midst of the Roman Empire and its oppressive regimes and persecutions. I don’t know whether to laugh, or cry, or just sigh at the fact that the idea of a city where the gates are never closed, where all are welcome and valued, where no one is seeking their own power and glory, and where we all live together in peace feels just as far off now as it was 2000 years ago.

This new Jerusalem has no temple — indeed, has no need of a temple, even. Because God lives there, the entire city is holy ground. And because God lives there, that means that at any moment, we might run into God. Because God lives there, light shines and the shadows never overcome it, so nothing is hidden or deceptive. Because God lives there, all are welcome.

I keep saying “there” but the reality of this incredible vision is os much more than that: it’s here. Not somewhere far off, where we have to be rescued and taken away from here to finally get some peace. But here, on earth. Just as Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven,” so the truth of God’s future, and past, and present, is this: that God comes to us.

TS Eliot wrote that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” After all our summer adventures from shore to shore and back again, can we look up and see our place with new eyes? What if God is indeed dwelling with us right here, right now…and every place we go, we might meet God walking about the town, and every step we take is on holy ground? Then it would be up to us to ensure that the community we build here is heavenly too — that we address injustice so that there’s no one left in tears and pain and suffering… that we keep the pearly gates open… and that the way we live together as followers of the Lamb is a light to the nations. 

May it be so. Amen.