Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Open hearts, open minds, open doors?

My heart is broken.  On Sunday - two days ago - I lifted up our sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church who were facing a hard decision, a decision that would probably split the denomination no matter which way it went.  Even knowing that, I really thought that the delegates voting would, as John Pavolitz says, err on the side of love.   But instead the vote went the other way.  The denomination voted to reject those members who are anything other than heterosexual cis-gendered persons.  No same sex marriages will be permitted.  No one may serve as clergy who identifies anywhere along the LGBTQI spectrum.  The church whose motto is “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” has chosen to reject some of God’s children.  Instead they have chosen to affirm that “The practice of Homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching.”

I know that my own denomination is not, and perhaps never will be, fully open and affirming.  But we are congregational.  Each Disciples congregation makes decisions about membership and leadership for itself.  We have no rulings coming down from on high telling us who we may or may not accept, who we may or may not marry, who we may or may not call as ministers.  

Our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church still have hard decisions ahead of them.  Will they accept this ruling or not? Will they stay in the denomination or will they go?  Will a new Open Church branch of the Methodist Church evolve out of this General Conference’s decision?  While they are grappling with these decisions, let us pray. 

And may it be known that our doors are open to any seeking a new home in Christ.  In our house, all are welcome, and all means ALL. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

I know better, but . . .

2018 was a hard year for me.  Nothing awful happened, mind you. It was just a hard year.   There was the back pain, which is better now after cortisone shots and cauterizing the nerves that were causing problems.  And there were all those “little” illnesses beginning around April - intestinal issues that I blamed on diet, painful bloating I blamed on stress, acid reflux from I had no idea what, nausea and cramps I blamed on stomach flu - that all just kept recurring, and I thought it was all different things.  And I was sick to death of being sick all the time.  But  apparently they are all symptoms of an h. pylori infection of the stomach, which is now being treated and will hopefully be better in about another 6 weeks.

But then there was that other stuff, those other symptoms that started small and increased as the months went by.  The tiredness that made me need daily naps, and often had me in bed for the night by 7 pm.  The lack of desire to clean my house, wash dishes, do laundry or even shower.  I did those things, but it was so much like work.  Lack of care about much of anything.  Lack of patience with other people.  Not wanting to be around humans much at all.  I often found it hard even to carry on a conversation.  I did most of the things I absolutely had to do, but anything I could avoid doing - a social event or a visit, for example - I would.  I knew, of course, what was wrong, but I didn’t want to admit it. 

You know, I know better.  I have done funerals for suicides, and have said that their depression killed them just as surely as a heart attack or cancer.  I know all the symptoms and I know I can’t just power through it, but you know I had to try.  I had to tell myself that if I was just strong enough I could beat this.  I kept thinking that I couldn’t be that bad, because I am happy.  I am happier living and working here than I have been in I can’t tell you how long.  How can I have depression and be this happy? 

I was spiraling out of control.  I stopped even going to events I really enjoy.  I jumped on people for no good reason.  I could hear myself saying all the wrong things, but it was like I couldn’t control my mouth or my emotions.  A member’s mother died, and I couldn’t bring myself even to call.  That is when I knew I couldn’t do this anymore.  

I talked to my Spiritual Director, honestly, about my depression.  We talked about medication and how it has helped me in the past.  I agreed to talk to my primary care physician about a prescription, and I did that.  Two weeks ago I began to take anti-depressant medication and I feel a bit better.    I have more energy.  I am happy to do my house chores.   It will take a while before all the other symptoms go away.  It will likely take much longer to make up to my congregation for a year and more of my impatience and neglect.  But I will try.  

After all, admitting I have a problem is the first step, right?  

Friday, November 9, 2018

Almost Vacation

Vacation begins in 60 hours!  Well, 54 hours really, ‘cause once I leave the church around noon on Sunday I’m pretty much done till I get back.

I am so excited about this vacation.  Three days on a private, directed retreat in the foothills just below Sequoia National Park.  Two days in a resort town on the Pacific Coast with a friend.  And two days at home, getting all the stuff done that doesn’t get done most of the time.   You know - stuff.  

And today is my day off.  So I’m trying to get all my vacation prep stuff done, and my usual day off stuff done, and maybe sneak in a nap or two.  Because I am exhausted, and I really need this vacation week.

But I might maybe have to preach tonight at an anniversary event at one of the churches in town.  Only if the scheduled preacher doesn’t show up.  But still, what if something happens and he can’t be there?  I need to have a sermon ready.  And I need to be there anyway, ‘cause unity and ‘cause folks from my church are singing.

And no, I cannot use a sermon I’ve already used some other place and time.  The thing about the Word of God is that it is particular to a time and a place and an audience.   I’ve seen people do that whole “just use one I use all the time” thing and it generally isn’t pretty.  Sometimes they forget to take out the parts that relate to the time and place they wrote it for.  Sometimes it is just a generic message that doesn’t really speak to the reality of these people in this moment.  A message written for a very (politically and theologically) liberal multi-ethnic congregation doesn’t fly in a moderate mostly white congregation or in a theologically conservative African American congregation.

Then there is the whole “what happened this week” stuff that cannot be ignored, even at an anniversary event.  There were young people shot and killed this week for no apparent reason.  People of color and especially women of color were elected in places where that has never happened before.  If the recount goes his way, an African American man might soon be the governor of Florida.  Florida!!!   (For y’all who don’t know Florida, this is a seriously big deal.).

And there are wildfires - big, bad ones. Some of our town’s firefighters have gone to help with the one to our north.  One of my clergy colleagues in Paradise lost her home, as did most of her church’s members.  And their church is gone as well.  Still lots of people in danger to the north and the south.  Lots of praying happening.  Rain, please?  A deluge right on top of the fires would be nice.  And maybe, no wind?  Just until the fires are out and the people are safe. 

Tomorrow I have to be on the road by 5 am in order to get to my required Anti-racism training on time - it’s a 3 hour drive.  Three hours there, seven hours in training, three hours back, and up at 3 so I can prep for Sunday’s message and the Veteran’s Day prayer.  

And the Cats are conspiring to keep me from accomplishing anything.  Walking on the keyboard when I am trying to work.  “Helping” me make my bed.  Taking turns chasing each other off of my lap.

See, this is why I need vacation.  So that my spirit may be refreshed in the mountains and at the ocean enabling me to better serve the folks in my valley.  So that I can come back to all of this rested and renewed. So that I can face Thanksgiving and Advent and Longest Night and Christmas Eve with joy and anticipation instead of dread.  (And when did we start talking about this time of year as “the dreaded holiday season” anyway?  That’s just disturbing.)

So, it is almost vacation. But not quite.  Not yet.

Monday, October 29, 2018


Today I am writing about Love.

Or at least, I’m trying to write about Love.
Because the 4th Sunday of Advent is Love Sunday.
And I’m supposed to be writing the Candle Lighting reflection on Love.

But where is Love?
This week alone - 
14 Bombs were sent
11 Jews were shot dead in their Synagogue
2 Blacks were shot dead while grocery shopping

Sometimes it seems like all there is, is Hate.

I know different.
I know Love is real
I believe there are more loving people than hating people.

But Hate is loud and clamorous, red-faced with anger.
It grabs our attention with clashing cymbals and clanging gongs,
with screams and breaking glass
Hate excludes and rejects, pushing away anyone who is different

And Love sobs quietly in the corner,
weeping and grieving.
And then gets up, and goes out to where the pain is greatest.
Wordlessly embracing the bereaved, the injured, the forlorn.
Welcoming the outcast and the other,
encouraging the weak, seeking the lost.

Where is Love?

Love is where ever it is needed.
It is in Pittsburgh, PA and Jeffersontown, KY.
And Washington, DC and New York, NY.
In inner cities and suburbs 
in gated communities and homeless encampments
On mountain tops and valleys and shorelines,
in farmlands and deserts.

Where ever there are people.
Love is there.
To heal the hate, to soothe the anger.

Where ever caring happens.
Love is there.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

I love your hair!

In February I had my hair colored.   Not the usual “cover the grey and make it look natural” look appropriate to my age.  Not even the “Lucille Ball improbably red” look that is still popular all these decades after “I Love Lucie” went off the air.  Nope.  I had my hair colored purple. Bright purple.  Not all of it. Just the front fringe of my modified pixie cut, which sort of swoops over toward the left. (My left. Your right.).   In April I had a blue streak added in the middle of the purple.  I get it re-done about every 6 weeks, when the colors are fading.  

Everywhere I go I hear, “I LOVE your hair!”  I hear it from little girls and teenaged boys and women of all ages and men my own age.  I hear in every sort of place - restaurants and department stores and gas stations and church and just walking down the street and city council meetings.  If there are humans present, generally, I hear some stranger say, “I love your hair.”  The other day at Target I think I heard it 8 times - and I was in the store less than 30 minutes!

Every time I hear, “I love your hair,” I say, “Thank you.  I love it too.”  Sometimes that starts a conversation.  Little girls are sad because their school won’t let them wear purple hair.  Moms are happy to hear me tell their girls that purple hair is one of those things that has to wait till they get a little older.  Young women encourage me to dare to be different.  Women my age and older sometimes say they don’t have the courage to do anything so bold, and I tell them to go for it.  Do the daring thing, if they want to.  I am a preacher!  And my church is ok with it.  ‘Cause it’s my hair.  And, they say it suits me.

Dyeing my hair these colors is probably the single best thing I have done in my entire life for my self esteem.  I mean, one cannot go through a day listening to compliments from random  strangers without feeling good!  Because the compliments aren’t really about the color or the style - that’s all down to my barber, anyhow.  The compliments are about the courage to be a little different and daring, at my age.  The compliments recognize the self confidence it takes to pull this off.  My purple and blue hair says, “This makes me happy, and I choose to do the things that make me feel good about myself today.”  The compliments remind me of that. 

It should go without saying - but I’ll say it anyway - that I make a point of complimenting other people on their outfit, or hair, or the color of their shirt or whatever.  If my eyes tell my brain, “I like that,” then I make sure my mouth does the same thing.  Not that anyone needs my approval - but I know how good random compliments from total strangers feel.  And I do like to share that good feeling, helping others build their self esteem - loving my neighbor, as Jesus told us to do. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Routines are good

I found this post in the Drafts folder of my “Everyday Thinking” blog, dated June 5, 2007.

It's been three months since I posted on my so-called Daily Blog. So much for trying to start a new good habit. :-)

I should note here that I started this blog, originally titled “Me, 365” in response to a writing challenge from RevGalBlogPals.   The first line in the first entry reads, “A spiritual discipline must have a starting point, so I begin here in my Daily Blog.”    Obviously,  it didn’t stay “Daily” for very long.   Coincidentally, I was thinking about daily spiritual practices just this morning.

One of my seminary professors gave us an assignment to develop a Daily Rule for ourselves - a routine of prayer, meditation, and writing that we would follow every day for the entire semester.  Naturally, my Rule was color coded and totally organized.  It included chanting a Psalm every morning, so many minutes of meditation, so many minutes of intercessory prayer, even,  if I remember correctly, praying a rosary daily.  Plus, of course, daily journalling on my spiritual life.   I followed it religiously every day for the entire semester.   And realized that this is not what works for me.  

Yes, I love routines.  I fall into ruts with some regularity.  I do the same things in the same order most days.  Left to my own devices, I would eat the same meals every day.  People who know me well can probably say, “If it is 7 am on Monday, Maria is doing such and so.”  Given half a chance I will wear the same outfit every day - a different (clean) top and bottom, but exactly the same style, day after day.  I tend to get growly if people mess with my routine.  But for some reason I find being required to follow a specific routine, especially a spiritual routine, extremely difficult.

I pray every day.  I meditate, also.  But unlike those people who can sit and spend 30 minutes praying intentionally for a list of persons and situations, I tend to be a popcorn pray-er.   If I think of you, I pray for you, at any random time throughout the day.  I have been known to stand in the middle of a parking lot with my hand on someone’s shoulder praying for him.  My meditation, likewise, is less a formal period of sitting somewhere quiet with candle and music and more simply a few minutes spent focusing on not much of anything, allowing God to whisper in my ear.  

I read Scripture every day, and ponder what I’ve read.  I read a couple of devotionals every day - one in the morning and one at bedtime - although I often forget whatever they were about within minutes of reading them.  

I write a gratitude list every day, usually while I am enjoying my first cup of coffee (and after I have fed the Cats).  Sometimes I miss a day because my routine is broken for one reason or another.  If I had to get up extra early, or if there is some crisis going on that has my attention focused elsewhere, I might forget to do the gratitude list first thing in the morning.  

I remember to reach out to other humans every day, because I am perfectly happy living in solitude with the Cats.  So I text and email and write postcards and participate in on-line writing forums.  I go out for meals and attend discussion groups so that I will have contact with people I wouldn’t see otherwise.   I even went out and dropped in on someone yesterday without panicking over it!  (For those who do not know me, this is a pretty big deal.)

Now, if I could just remember to do the physically healthy things every day - walking on the treadmill and doing stretches for my back and listing all the foods I eat in MyFitnessPal.  I could write myself a Rule, but I am pretty sure I know what would happen.   I used to do those things . . . and something changed my routine.  Guess I’m going to have to change it back.

Routines are good.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Sermon Writing - Maria Style

My church members know that I write my sermons early on Sunday morning.   Some think that means  I start doing the work on Sunday morning, but actually, by Sunday morning I have already spent well over 15 hours on preparation.   I thought I'd share a bit about my process, and how I got to this point.

I took three preaching classes in seminary.   I was only required to take one, but I had read that MLK Jr took six (6!) preaching classes, so I figured I would take all the help I could get.  Preaching wasn't exactly something I was looking forward to having to do, because I am terrified of public speaking!  Yes, I took a public speaking class in college, and yes, I passed with a A.  But I always wore long skirts on days when I had to speak so no one could see my knees knocking together. 
(Yes, I do wear long skirts on Sunday mornings.  Why do you ask?)

Anyway . . . I took three preaching classes.  One was sort of "intro to preaching" and included preaching lots of different kinds of sermons - inductive and deductive, preaching for funerals, even a section on Black preaching  (I was dinged for under-use of alliteration.)  I learned many things in that class, including the importance of following the lectionary and that I would most likely need to become best friends with the sound tech, as I have a fairly soft voice.  The most important thing I learned was that I had a lot more to learn.  Luckily, my preacher teacher Ron Allen has written a gazillion books on preaching which I have found extremely helpful

The second class was on a particular preaching style.  We were instructed to ALWAYS begin our sermons with a cultural reference, a quote from music or a movie or trend that would catch people's attention and to NEVER begin our message by recapping the scripture reading.  We must ALWAYS use a specific number of examples, each lasting a specific number of minutes.  We must NEVER refer to our selves while preaching.  I disliked the rigidity of the form intensely.  It felt awkward and constraining.  (Plus, I'm not a huge fan of being told "Always" or "Never" do whatever.)  But I did learn a couple of really important things.  First, not everyone will resonate well with whatever cultural references I choose because not everyone lives in the same culture - even in Indiana.  And second, but most important - if I lose you in the first sentence, or choose an example that upsets you, you will not hear one more word that I say.

For example, I began one of my in-class sermons with a quote from Elvis Presley's song "In the Ghetto." I forget what the sermon was about, or what my point was supposed to be.  But I do remember that one of my classmates came from the ghetto in Chicago, the place Elvis was talking about, and the song made her angry, as if it was inevitable that a boy born in the ghetto was going to die with a gun in his hand.  She had no idea what the rest of my message was about.

Another example.  At my first church I was preaching one of the wilderness scriptures, and spoke of the desert as a place many people would find inhospitable and forbidding.  I went on to extol the beauty of the desert, and the need to sometimes go to a deserted place to be with God, but one of the ladies in the church didn't hear any of that.  She stopped listening when she thought she heard me say the desert was not beautiful, and that made her angry because her home is in the high desert, and she loves it.   

The last class focused mostly on story-telling sermons, and that is where I found my joy.  I love telling stories.  And I learned that I may tell stories that I am in, as long as I am not the hero.  As long as someone else made the difference, or saved me, or taught me something.   Fred Craddock (my preaching idol) is renowned for telling stories about people he knew, and conversations he had with them, and  things that happened in their town last week.  I also learned that it really didn't matter how long I have been preaching, sermon prep was going to take about 20 hours of my week, every week.  Some have said that shouldn't be the case because with practice it should get easier, but I figure, if Fred Craddock, who had been preaching for 50 years or more, was still taking 20 hours a week to prep and write, then how can I think I don't need at least that much time?     

Oh yes.  Without exception, all my preacher teachers said, "Don't wait till Sunday morning to write your message."  And I don't.  Not really.  Except, I do, kind of.

I used to spend all day Saturday writing, and tweaking each word, and making sure the message was exactly what I wanted it to be.  And almost invariably I would wake up on Sunday morning with an entirely different message in my head - a totally unappreciated gift from the Holy Spirit.  Which meant every Sunday I was re-writing my message for that day.  I finally gave up on Saturday writing. 
So - the process.

My sermon prep for this week's message began when I selected the scripture reading, which happened about two months ago.   When I selected the reading I also chose a title and found a hymn to follow the sermon, which hopefully will reinforce whatever I intend to say in the message.   For the last two months, when I have found a story or example that suits that reading, I have dropped it into the message.  When I have a reaction to some news story and it relates, I drop that into the message. 

This week I will keep the message document open most of the time so that I can review what I've done so far.  I read commentaries and look at other people's sermons on this reading. I look back to see what I've done with this passage before - but I can't use my old message because the world has changed since then.  The people I am preaching to have changed.  I have changed since then.  I review with great care my examples, hoping to select the ones that will offend no one - like the Elvis song or the desert story.  The message might offend or upset, mind you.  But I at least want people to hear the message and not get lost in the first paragraph.

Likewise, the selection of artwork is a challenge.  I might have picked the artwork way back when I selected the scripture reading, although most often the art selection doesn't happen until the week I am preaching.  And I have help with that, in the person of our PowerPoint tech.  Between us we do our best to find the right artwork to speak to the message, again, without losing anyone right away.

Sunday morning:   I get up early - sometime between 3 and 4 am. I am in my office at the church before 6 am, and I begin typing.  I put all my examples and ideas and teaching moments that I have been working on together in the document.  That takes any where from 2 to 3 hours.  Then I read it and re-read it, out loud, so that if there are sections that will tangle my tongue I know that in advance.  I post it to my preaching blog, and on Facebook, and I send the link to our Website guru.  And then, it's go time. 

There's a lot of prayer involved, and research, and conversation.  But have no doubt, there is a lot of time spent every week on preaching prep.  Maybe I'm prepping this Sunday's message, and maybe I'm working on something I won't preach until October.  But at least 20 hours every week are going into sermon prep. 

And then, on Sunday morning, I write.