Saturday, March 29, 2014

Noah. What I liked. What I didn't.

My initial reaction to the movie Noah was a mixture of confusion, disgust, awe and laughter. I’m glad I went because I had to see it for myself. The fact that Biblical literalists hated it means nothing to me. I’m not a Biblical literalist and I didn’t expect it to adhere to the Book of Genesis. But I also didn’t expect it to be more implausible than the already implausible story it was based upon. I laughed a lot. And this was not a comedy.

There were some things I liked about it. I loved the way they retold the story of creation with Noah speaking the words of Genesis 1 over way cool animation that included both a big bang and evolution. I liked the character of Methuselah, who added a little levity to the film. Whenever he was on the screen, it was a delight. Even the way he got it in the end was a hoot. I liked the subplot with Ila and her infertility issue. Especially when Methuselah worked his magic on her and she immediately became a dog in heat. I also thought it was awesome when the waves came crashing in and the boards started creaking and it felt like the ark was going to be crushed. Oh, and I liked it when the birds circled above the ark and when the snakes slithered in. Very creepy!

Of all the things I liked about Noah, by far, the most noteworthy to me was the internal conflict within Noah himself. God didn’t speak to him audibly. Instead, Noah tried to figure out what God was saying to him indirectly, mostly through dreams. Of course, such things are subject to interpretation, and it seemed like Noah got it wrong sometimes. My favorite moment in the movie was when Ham objected to the fact that his father had left the woman of his choice to be trampled by the masses. Noah was convinced that all people were evil and no one was worth saving. But Ham disagreed and told his father that this woman was a good person. (The dynamic between Ham and Noah is the most interesting relationship in the film.) Noah thinks he has it all figured out and he projects his understanding onto God. His family will save the rest of creation, but in the end they must die along with all the other humans. Then, despite himself, love changes his mind. This makes him feel like a failure and he becomes a drunken, naked mess (one of the few parts of film that are faithful to the Biblical narrative). He’s a complicated guy. Aren’t we all? Yes, I liked that. 

What didn’t I like about the movie? Well, it was just so… ridiculous. My biggest problem was with the stone giants who were, unfortunately, integral to the plot of the movie. They protected Noah and his family, and they did the heavy lifting on the construction site for the ark. The fact that we had just seen a preview for the new transformers movie immediately before Noah began didn’t help because these were a lot like transformers. Except transformers are more believable. These giants were made from cheesy Hollywoodesque rocks.  Every time these creatures, called The Watchers, appeared, I giggled.  (I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to sing the hymn “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” again with a straight face.)

Seeing the animals coming to the ark… I don’t care how big that boat was, there was no way they were all going to fit inside. Putting the animals to sleep for what must have been nine months (long enough for a full term pregnancy) was a loooong hibernation! It was a convenient way not to deal with things like their food, and excrement, and the fact that they would have a natural inclination to devour one other. But I had to wonder, why did the magical incense work on all varieties of creatures, except humans?

It also troubled me that Noah was so concerned about who would re-populate the earth when, in the end, the only way to accomplish this would involve incest. Not a great way to begin again if you’re going for quality this time around. Just sayin’. (Then again, this is also one of those places where the Adam and Eve story breaks down.)

Little things about the movie bothered me a lot, too.  Noah and his family never went into town and they were nomads. So, where did their dresses and coats and  leather boots come from? (Have I mentioned that Noah refused to kill animals?) For that matter, where did all the cloth curtains hanging in the ark come from? And why did Ila have on eye make-up? And why was Noah’s wife always sparkling clean like she had just stepped out of the shower when he looked like he hadn’t bathed in years? These things were just so silly. I could go on, but that’s probably enough.

I was glad I went to see Noah with people who have a sense of humor. There is a lot to laugh about in this movie. For that reason, I would suggest that the best way to see Noah is at home with friends. You could have some fun making a drinking game out of it. You might take a drink every time Noah lifts his eyes to the sky. Or every time one of The Watchers gets its wings. Or better yet, every time you see a drop of water.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Thomas Wolfe once observed that you can’t go home again. I suppose that’s true in the sense that you can never go back home because so much  has changed about you and the place you come from that it will never be the same. But, on a deeper level, home is always a part of us; we never leave home and home never leaves us.

In my hometown of Hamilton, Ohio, I remember when we were all given forsythia bushes in school and told to go home and plant them in our yards. I was a little girl and can’t recall if this happened more than one year. I also can’t recall exactly where they came from. I think the owner of the local department store bought them and gave them to us because he wanted Hamilton to become known as the Forsythia City. It’s been a long while since I was home in the spring so I’m not sure how those forsythias are doing these days. In my mind, they still bloom there every spring.

In the fall of 2012, I moved into my new house, which is really an old house built about the time I was born. It wasn’t until that first spring that I realized there are about a dozen forsythia bushes in my yard. How perfect! I’m now in my second spring and they are blooming again. Every time I see them I think of my roots. They are a reminder to me of how the little girl who grew up in Hamilton, Ohio is always a part of me, not matter how long I’ve been away.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”   T. S. Eliot

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Old Shi*ts

This week, I’ve been studying the picture from my ordination day, which was 35 years ago on March 11. I look at that young girl in her mid-twenties and try to imagine what she was thinking at that moment. She was married and had just given birth to her first-born. She was anxious about her first call, serving as an associate pastor with the good people of Trinity Lutheran Church in Jamestown, North Dakota. And she never could have imagined all that would transpire in her life, eventually bringing her to Charlotte, North Carolina, living on her own, serving an extraordinary congregation like Holy Trinity.  

Along the way, I had a lot to work through as I figured out who I was and what it meant to be a pastor. The fact that I was a woman and had never actually observed how a woman does such a thing didn’t help. But after 35 years, I think I’ve worked it through, for the most part.

One of the difficulties I had as a young woman was adapting to having a secretary.  It was her job to type letters for me, to make appointments for me, etc.  But, I just couldn't bring myself to ask her. As I understand it, this is frequently a problem for women who are in a position where they have a secretary for the first time. For me, there was another layer to my discomfort. Our church secretary was a lovely woman named Dorothy, who was about the age of my mother. And my mother had worked the better part of her life as a secretary. I often heard her tell me about how exhausted and stressed out she was because of all the demands placed upon her at the office.  How could I do this to another woman?

So, everything that my male colleagues asked Dorothy to do for them, I did myself. Mind you, this was back in the days when we typed on stencils with correction fluid, which I globbed on my pages liberally, and we used messy mimeograph machines with the big tubes of ink that always ended up all over my clothes. Despite the fact that Dorothy was much better equipped to do this work than I was, I didn't want to burden her. Instead, after she went home in the afternoon, my day as my own secretary was just beginning as I took a seat behind the Selectric typewriter in her office.  

This went on for a few years. Until one week when I typed up a bulletin insert, which listed all the supplies people could save at home and bring to the church for Vacation Bible School. You know, things like: margarine tub lids, oatmeal boxes, cotton balls, and old shirts. Well, it wasn’t until I was in worship on Sunday morning that I noticed my typo. Old Shirts was missing the r. I was hoping nobody else saw it, and when I heard nothing, I was relieved.

Later that afternoon, I had to stop by the church. When I opened the door to Dorothy’s office, I was mortified to see all the extra bulletin inserts blanketing the room: on her desk, on the counters, on the floor. And on every one, Old Shits had been circled with a red pen. I quickly gathered them up, took them to my office, and threw them away. Whoever left them there assumed Dorothy had typed them and the last thing I wanted was for her to be humiliated for something that I had done. 

As it turned out, the senior pastor thought the mistake was hysterical, and he was the one who had spread them all over Dorothy’s office. I fessed up. And that is the exact moment I resigned from being my own secretary.

As I look at myself in that ordination picture, and I think about all the changes that would unfold for that young woman in the years to come, the story of the Old Shits comes to mind. And I realize that most of what I have learned since I was ordained, I had to learn the hard way. That’s one thing about me that hasn’t changed.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Wilderness Gift

Did any of you grow up with a place in your neighborhood called The Woods? The Woods were a place of great adventure. We liked to go there and play Tarzan or Robin Hood. We set animal traps and tried to catch little critters. We climbed trees, swung on vines, and built forts. In The Woods I learned things, too. Like, what poison Ivy looks like and how the nectar from honeysuckle tastes and what it looks like inside things like milkweed pods and hedge apples and acorns, and how you really don’t want a grasshopper to spit tobacco in your hand. The best thing about The Woods was that it was an adult-free zone. So I suppose it was our way of going off the grid.

But The Woods was also a fantastical place that scared me. I’d spend time there with my friends, but there was no way I’d go in there solo. There were snakes and wolves and monsters and all kinds of spirits living there. When I was alone, I would walk way out of my way to avoid The Woods. This was my first experience with the whole idea of the wilderness. For a long time, whenever I heard the word wilderness, I thought of The Woods.

In the Bible the wilderness is more of a desert. It’s a desolate place where there isn’t much of anything. Definitely off the grid. And yet, the wilderness is also the place in the Bible where some pretty big things happen.

The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness. But they did more than just wander around in a nothing kind of place waiting for the next big thing to happen. The wilderness served a purpose for them. They couldn’t go from Egypt directly to the Promised Land. They weren’t ready. They needed time in the wilderness, time to form an identity as God’s people.

The wilderness served a similar purpose for Jesus. Notice where it happens in Matthew’s gospel. It comes between Jesus’ baptism and his public ministry. At the Jordan, he heard the voice of God proclaim, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” And he needed to sort through what that meant for him before he was ready to begin his ministry. So, Jesus doesn’t just stumble upon the wilderness, and he isn’t banished there because God is displeased with him. The Spirit leads him there!

And so, while he’s still wet with the water of the Jordan, and the words from heaven announcing he is the beloved Son of God are still ringing in his ears, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. And immediately, the first test the devil puts before him is a direct challenge to his identity. “Oh, so you’re the son of God, eh? Then let’s see you prove it!” But, the thing is, Jesus already knows he’s the Son of God; he doesn’t have to prove it. What he’s struggling with is an entirely different question: What does it mean for me to be God’s beloved son? How shall I live out that identity in the world?

“Son of God” had more than one meaning in biblical writings and in secular culture. The Davidic kings were called “son of God”, and “sons of God” or “children of the Most High” could also designate angelic beings, members of the divine council. In the Greco-Roman world “Son of God” became an honorary title for the Caesars. The devil’s testing flows naturally from these well-known uses for the term.

So what does it mean when the voice of God announced that Jesus was his son? How should he interpret that? That’s what Jesus is struggling with. Has God bestowed divine privilege on me? Have I, like God’s people Israel, been set apart as holy and called to reveal God’s character to the world? What does it mean for me? What will my life look like as Son of God? Jesus needs to work through these questions before he can go out into the world.

Each of the temptations is primarily about identity. And Jesus refuses to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with God. His identity can be found in his absolute dependence on God. That also means that he puts himself in relationship with others who are dependent upon God. Being the Son of God did not mean abusing his power, or dazzling people with his tricks, or being seen as the one who can provide people with everything they want or need. He would never be Jesus Christ Superstar. That’s not the kind of ministry he would have. He would be content to be hungry, dependent on God’s Word and grace, to be at risk and vulnerable, finding his safety in the promises of God. For him, being the Son of God meant identifying with people.

Jesus needed the wilderness to prepare him. But this wasn’t the end of his time of testing. It continued throughout his life. In fact, these temptations foreshadow the main themes of Jesus’ ministry. He refuses to turn stones to bread to end his own hunger, but before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves of bread and some fish. He refuses to take advantage of his relationship with God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple, but at the end of his earthly ministry, he endures the taunts of others and trusts God’s power upon the heights of a Roman cross. He turns down the devil’s offer to be king of the world, and instead offers the Kingdom of God to his followers. The wilderness tests prepared Jesus for the tests he would face throughout the remainder of his life.

The wilderness was not a punishment for Jesus. It was a gift. Just as it was for Moses and the Children of Israel. There was learning in the wilderness. There was preparation for what was to come. There was the establishment of identity as God’s people. So, it leads me to wonder…

How does it go for you when you find yourself in a wilderness time of your life? Do you look at it as a punishment? Or can you see the gift in the wilderness? Do you resist it? Do you try desperately to put it behind you as quickly as possible? Or do you settle into it? Do you use it as an opportunity to wait for God’s next move, to trust in God’s mercy? Can you see it as a time to grow in your understanding of who you are as a Child of God?

The thing about Jesus’ time in the wilderness we might miss is how difficult it must have been. We can focus on how he duked it out with the devil and was victorious like the superheroes we see in the movies who fight to avenge evil. But, in fact, he is a thirty year old carpenter who hardly has the strength left to stand. Physically, he’s at the end of his rope. Socially, he’s alone and friendless. Spiritually, he is struggling with his identity as the glow of his baptism recedes into the hazy past.

The wilderness isn’t easy. It’s a lonely place. It’s where we come face to face with our demons. And for many of us it’s terrifying. So we keep ourselves busy with distractions and avoid it at all costs. But the wilderness is necessary if we want to know who we are. We can run from it. But eventually it finds us one way or the other. Through a deep loss. Or an illness. Or a crisis of conscience. Without choosing it, we find ourselves there.

We can run from it or we can embrace the wilderness as a gift. Our Sabbath experience can serve as a mini-wilderness time for us when we stop walking the long way around the wilderness and avoiding it because we’re afraid of what me might find there, much the way I was with The Woods, as a kid. The season of Lent is an invitation to enter the wilderness, as well. We may skirt around it all year and pretend that it has nothing of value to offer us, but every year it reappears, inviting us to enter into a place where we can learn again how dependent we are upon God. It’s the place where we can rediscover who we are by recognizing whose we are.

At baptism, God said to each of us, “You are my child, my beloved.” Is it possible to ever know what that really means without spending time in the wilderness?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Coming Clean

Dave was in a close relationship with God and it showed.  He seemed to live one of those charmed lives, where everything went well for him.  In the eyes of everyone around him he was successful and had all that a man could want.  But he reached a point in his life where he wanted more.  He discovered something he couldn't have and that made him want it all the more.  It was a woman.  This woman was married to another man.  But Dave wanted her.  So he took her.  He seduced her and raped her.  And she became pregnant.  Now Dave had to have the woman and the baby and he would do anything to make it happen.  Even commit murder.  So he tricked the woman's husband into going to a place where his killer was waiting for him.  Dave made sure the man was murdered.  And then he married the man's wife, the woman who was carrying his child.  Nice guy, huh?  So much for his close relationship with God.

Well, if you didn't recognize him, the guy in the story is a pretty famous man in the Bible -- King David.  After he did this despicable thing, God sent his prophet Nathan to tell David just how wretched he was.  He pronounced judgment on David.  And tradition has it that it was on this occasion that David wrote Psalm 51, the Psalm that we read every year on Ash Wednesday because it so perfectly leads us into the season of Lent.

Lent, we know, is a time to be drawn close to God.  After all of our wandering and straying from God's path throughout the year, Lent comes to us prodigals once again, calling us home. What was true for David is true for us as well. We may work hard to convince the world, and maybe even ourselves, that we have it all together. But inside every one of us, even the most beautiful people, there is some ugliness.

When I was a kid, I don’t remember having much of an awareness of my sinfulness. I do remember adults making a really big deal out of some of the things I did. Like when I picked the neighbor’s flowers. Or when my friend Jeanne and I got caught with our shorts down leaning against the house. Or when I built a damn in the gutter right in front of the sewer at the end of our street. Adults made such a big deal out of those kinds of things. And I felt shamed by them. But I didn’t honestly feel like a bad girl. From my perspective, I had a perfectly logical reason for everything. I picked the neighbor’s flowers to give them to my mom. I pulled my shorts down on the side of the house, because I really had to relieve my bladder. And when I built that damn in the gutter it was because I wanted to make a little pond to play in and every time I tried to do it with sticks and mud it got washed away. So I had to build it with the concrete mix I found in the basement. I honestly thought my parents would praise me for being so smart. But, oh, my! You would have thought I was ready for juvie it was such a big deal.  I didn’t get it.

It wasn’t until I got older that I saw myself as a Psalm 51 kind of sinner. I was not yet 30 years old, a young mother and a young pastor in my first call.  My daughter was four and my son Ben was 18 months old.  I had the life I’d always dreamed of and I felt invincible in those days. But keeping up with a large parish and two very active little ones, I was often harried.

One night when my husband and I were preparing to go out to an international potluck with some other pastors in the area, we were running late, as usual. We needed to give the kids a bath before we left and we needed to prepare something to take to the potluck.  My husband took bathroom duty, and I started cooking.

I was making egg rolls.  So, I poured the oil into the wok to heat it up while I started wrapping the egg rolls. The counter was covered with dirty dishes and I didn’t have time to deal with them. I just scooted them aside and made myself a work space and a space for the wok to heat. I was so frazzled that I wasn’t paying close attention. And I did something that I knew I should never do. I left the cord to the wok hanging over the kitchen counter.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw little Ben trotting into the kitchen buck naked. He had escaped from his father. And I stood about two yards away as I watched his chubby little hand tug on the electric cord to the wok. It happened so fast, but I remember watching it like it was in slow motion. There was nothing I could do.  Hot oil landed on Ben’s head and ran down his back.

Well, this was just the beginning of the nightmare.  One thing led to another and we spent years in hospitals dealing with the devastating results of this burn. To this day, you seldom see Ben without a hat. The accident affected his life in profound ways. And mine, too.

And, of course, while we were going through all of this, there was no disputing one critical fact.  It had been my fault.  Sure it was an accident. But an accident that was caused by my stupidity and my carelessness.

It was a Psalm 51 time in my life. You may have had one or two of those in your life, too. You may have experienced something much worse than I did. Perhaps something so horrible you can hardly bring yourself to think about it. You may have made excuses for what happened because it’s so hard to face the truth. But I think we all know how it goes when you stuff things deep inside. They fester and then come popping out in unhealthy ways. Often far worse than the original offense.

You may not always be aware of it. It may take messing up big, like David, for you to see yourself as you really are. Or you may be one of those rare people who is gifted with enough self-awareness to see the truth about yourself without a crisis forcing the issue. But when you realize that you’ve been kidding yourself by believing you have it all together, you know you have to come clean if you ever want the kind of life in all its fullness that God promises us by his grace. This doesn’t mean that we’re evil or that we intentionally go around hurting other people. Our offenses come from a place of deep woundedness inside us. They are unavoidable. But that’s the point. Sin is not just about the things we do or don’t do that are wrong. It’s the condition in which we live, which isn’t quite right. The psalmist writes: Indeed, I was born steeped in wickedness, a sinner from my mother’s womb.

If you feel a bit overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all, you get the point of Lent. We come to this season again to hear these words of Psalm 51. To remember that we are not God. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. Yes, it all sounds rather hopeless.

And that’s why we turn to God. When we realize that, left to our own devises, we will simply make things worse, we know there’s only one place we can go. It is God who has mercy on us according to his steadfast love. It is God who blots out our offenses with his compassion. It is God who washes us purer than snow. It is God who creates a clean heart within us and renews a right spirit within us. It is God who restores us to joy.

Lent is the time for us to draw close to the One who is our hope. Draw close. Feel his loving embrace. And hold on for your life!

Giving John Travolta a break

Since the Oscars on Sunday night, we’ve all been having a lot of fun with John Travolta’s blunder. Instead of saying the name, Idina Manzel he said, Adele Dazeem. What?! Where did that come from? Well, at least there was a Z in there. But other than that, the two names weren’t even remotely connected. And so, now a new word has been created. The word is “Travoltafied.” You can have your name Travoltified to become something that’s…. well, it’s not your real name.

I haven’t succumbed to the temptation to find out what my Travoltified name is. Not only because I don’t really care. But also because I care a lot. This whole thing is bothering me -- the way people are relentlessly going after a man who made a mistake. And they’re enjoying it too much. It was a mistake that didn’t really hurt anyone. Surely, he has been sufficiently embarrassed by it. He said that he has been beating himself up over it. And yet, people aren’t letting it go. Yes, I know that as a celebrity Mr. Travolta is accustomed to public scrutiny. But this belittling of another still bothers me. Because this isn’t the only time I’ve seen it.

It’s just plain mean-spirited. I don’t care that he’s a celebrity. He’s a person. He really is. And he messed up. Why are we ignoring the fact that he is a human being, with feelings just like the rest of us? I see this on a par with bullying. But it is done publicly in the name of good humor and every one of us who laughs (which is pretty much everyone) is complicit.

Why do we love to jump on people when they mess up? Do we never make mistakes ourselves? I think about the person beside me in traffic who does something stupid and my inclination is to call them names until I stop to consider all the stupid things I’ve done myself while driving a car. I suppose focusing on the mistakes of others comforts us in a way. It keeps us from taking an honest look at ourselves.

Really, this thing with John Travolta is judgmental and unkind. Can we give the guy a break?