Sunday, December 22, 2013

God in the Multitasking

As I wrote this Sunday’s sermon, I settled into my comfortable recliner, where all of my best praying and thinking and writing happens, if I’m not at Starbucks or some other coffee shop.

I prayed for awhile, okay, a SHORT while, but I had some ideas and was eager to get to my sermon. But first I needed some mood music, some Transiberian Orchestra, so I decided to pair my iPhone with my new wireless speaker that I got on ebay. Once those sweet sounds were pouring out, I got out my iPad to read my favorite commentary on the readings that I get through my email. I got a little distracted by a Levi’s email that offered 20 percent off, and remembered that my order for the jeans I got my sister for Christmas had been cancelled, so I better re-order them while I was thinking about it, so that they would be here by Christmas.

I finally read the commentary, and the ideas I had been having for my sermon took a new tack. “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” came to my mind. Who said that? I Googled the quote, and found a website called the Quote Investigator, which went into great detail about the many people this quote had been attributed to, including John Lennon, who sang it to his son Sean in 1980.

While I was researching this quoteI realized that my iPhone battery was

going to run down if I played my music from it, and since I was going to type my sermon on my laptop, I decided to play the music from my laptop, which was plugged in.  

The problem, I quickly discovered was that I did not have a Pandora app on my Macbook, and there wasn’t one listed in the App Store either. I could have used Spotify, an app I DO have, but I haven’t liked their mix of songs on theTransiberian Orchestra station as much as Pandora’s. 

I opened the Chrome browser and searched for Pandora app for Mac, and found a website I had never heard of that promised me an app, but the app wouldn’t install because I didn’t have the right program on my Mac. I finally decided to just play from the browser, since several minutes had gone by, and I needed to get to my sermon. 

I fiddled around for 10 more minutes and found the Bluetooth connection so I could pair my Mac with my speakers, marveling at modern technology, and how miraculously it could make life so easy.

Just as I had typed in the words Advent IV Sermon, the music stopped. I no longer had a Bluetooth connection, for some reason, and a dialogue box told me I was no longer on wifi, either. I clicked on my wifi, and it fired back up, and then looked at the Bluetooth connection, which said it was connected to my speakers, but the music was coming out of my laptop, and not the speakers. 

Okay, I thought, I’ll play the music from my iPad, which I can charge tonight, and proceeded to pair it, and get the app running, and music playing again.

Finally, I sat back into my recliner, and my laptop was now saying that I must install an update of Microsoft Word before it could go any further. This process took another 10 minutes, including having to close out everything that I had open on my laptop such as the previous draft of my sermon. Well, the title, anyway.

By this time, an hour had gone by since I had started, and as I began writing again, I reflected back on the quote from John Lennon (and the 6 other people who have been credited with saying that “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”)

What had made me think of that? Oh, yeah, there was something on the commentary I had read. I pulled my iPadover to read the poem by W.H. Auden that had made me totally switch my sermon idea earlier. 

Before I could read the poem, I was distracted by having to “Like” the music that was playing, which meant clicking on the Pandora app, and clicking on the thumbs up icon on the artist’s page. That only took a couple of minutes, but I was now nine minutes past the hour LATER that I had intended to start writing this sermon.

Ironic, I thought, that this sermon somehow managed to stay intact, as I was distracted by so many other things. It is as it was those 2,000 plus years ago for Mary and Joseph as well. While they were busy traveling to Bethlehem, so Joseph could register in his native land, a baby happened to be born.

God happened while Mary and Joseph were busy making other plans.

God entered this world as almost an afterthought, so that ordinary people like you and me might understand that life happens EVEN when we are busy and distracted and getting the To Do list completed, having forgotten to add“Talk to God” to the list.

What WH Auden said was this to Mary and Joseph: “Blessed Woman, Excellent Man, Redeem for the dull the Average Way, That common, ungifted Natures may Believe that their normal vision can Walk to perfection.”

There is hope for you and me. God keeps manifestinghimself to us, despite our other plans, our busy schedules, the frenzied modern lives made more complicated by technology and modern conveniences. Rather than allow it to interfere, God slips into our consciousness even as we are multitasking, even as we are making way for something else.

I have come to trust that the One who came down from his throne in heaven to live an ordinary life knows what it’s like. And though he may not have lived a life of apps and devices and Bluetooth and wifi, he must have faced other aspects of a human life like diaper rash, and stomach aches and sore throats and puberty, and confusing messages about who he was, and having to decide over his parents’ plans for his career to live the life of an itinerant preacher.  Not exactly a safe, secure career to put his parents’ mind at ease. 

And there’s that crucifixion and Resurrection business, which, more than anything, defined his whole life. If it hadn’t been for that, he might have lived in obscurity, and been a blip of God on a world’s very busy radar screen.

How many other times had God, DOES God appear to us and we don’t recognize the face of God?

This Advent, while you’re checking off your To Do List, while you’re wondering what all this extraneous activity REALLY has to with God’s Incarnation, remind yourself gently that it is life. And life is what God came to redeem.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

What did you go into the wilderness to see?

Sermon Notes -- Dec. 15, 2013
The Rev. Liz Simmons

You decide. Jesus isn't going to tell you what to believe. It's up to you. Jesus isn't even going to make claims about himself that you have to believe without evidence.

When John's followers come to Jesus asking "are you the one who is to come, or are we  to wait for another?" Jesus simply says to them, "Tell John what you see: the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind are restored to sight." You make up your mind if I'm the one you're looking for.

So is he? IS Jesus the one for you? Is he the one you're looking for?

Last week we talked about the needs of the people who came out into the wilderness to see John.

Maybe you related to some of those needs: most of all an aching sense that there must be more to life than one illness or mechanical breakdown or job loss after another, constant busy-ness, or constant alone-ness for others, the repetitive nature of everyday tasks that can become such a drudgery if we AREN'T connected to something greater than ourselves.

Most of us probably don't need our sight restored, or our hearing made whole; most of us don't need to be raised from the dead, but we can all relate to times when we feel as if our SOULS have been deadened by the hardness of life.

And we are reminded today that there is one who can raise us to newness of life. That one is the anointed One, the Christ.

So, how do we go about asking for this healing, this new life that we so desperately need? How do we RENEW a relationship that has already begun, but may have grown stale and distant because of our own inability to put our life in Christ foremost as a priority?

I don't think it takes much at all. God is always waiting by us for some indication that we want God in our lives. We talk about Advent as a time of waiting. Well, God is waiting for us just as much as we are waiting for God.

It's important that we not use our waiting for God to lull us into inactivity and complacency. In the play "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett, the two protagonists Vladimir and Aragon are talking. One says, "Let's go," and the other says "We can't," "Why not?" the first asks, "We're waiting for Godot," comes to answer. Godot, of course represents God, and Samuel Beckett's is a cynical take on the inactivity of the supposedly faithful in response to the mind-numbing sameness of life. To the outsider, faith often looks like a passive response to a seemingly urgent need to respond to problems in life.

We are faced with a dilemma. We are told that "with God, all things are possible," and yet, feel a need to respond to the problems ourselves. When do we get in the way of God's work? When do we let our own pride claim the credit for what God has done through grace? And when are we being too passive in the face of God's hurting children?

This Advent, we must take stock of what we see. When has God responded to a need of yours in ways you knew were not of this world? When has God asked you to step up and be the healing hands in God's world? What was the difference between the two of them?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Easter Reflections on Good Friday, or is it Good Friday Reflections on Easter?

The hardest part of Holy Week is having to write my Easter Vigil sermon on Good Friday, after very solemn worship, in the midst of real grief of what it is we human beings did to God when we crucified Jesus. Maybe other clergy are much more disciplined, and can get all of their Holy Week sermons done ahead of time, so they can focus on the week, but I have never been able to manage that.

And so this year, once again, I find myself empathizing with the disciples, in their FIRST experience of the crucifixion of their friend, lord and master. I say first experience, because for the rest of us, WE know how the story turns out. We KNOW there will be a happy ending, but if we are really living the liturgies freshly, through the anamnesis of sacred time, we still feel that wrenching of our emotions as we shout "Crucify him!" on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.

If we are self-aware, and have used Lent as a time to examine our consciences, we know that we are capable of the fear and fickleness that would lead us to demand Jesus' crucifixion, to betray him to the authorities, and to deny him when others identify us as his followers.

And so Good Friday is a hard time to write an Easter sermon.

Not to go from the completely sacred to the outrageously mundane, I once had to preach at the Easter vigil on the same day that my alma mater, the University of North Carolina, lost in the semi-finals of the NCAA basketball tournament. It didn't help that they lost to the local team of my parishioners, and I had sworn my allegiance from the pulpit just a couple of weeks earlier. To get so CLOSE to winning it all, and to be beaten while I sat in a sports bar with one other friend pulling for UNC as everyone else was wildly cheering for the enemy, was a very real experience of heart wrenching, and I am embarrassed to admit, not any less than the heart wrenching I feel today on Good Friday, trying to conjure up conviction for the Good News of the Resurrection.

And so this day, I begin with the disciples' approaching the tomb after they have probably wept all night, wondered if it was all a lie. Even though Jesus had told them this would happen so that God could be glorified, I imagine that they had no clue what that might look like. When I have gone through the agony of the death of someone I have loved -- when my mother died, and later my husband -- I could not have been comforted by the words, "Someday, you will be wiser for this experience." Thank God no one said it to me!

Even as a person of faith, a person raised in the church, who (currently) believes with every fiber of my being in the Resurrection that ALWAYS follows crucifixion, I could not have been comforted by the reminder that my loved ones would be raised with Christ. It is and was true, and will always be true, but when we are in the midst of grief, such words are like the women's words to the rest of the disciples when they told them that they had seen the risen Christ: "these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them." (Luke 24:11)

It takes awhile for the realization to sink in. And we want to see for ourselves. And so, each of us must roll away the stone from her own heart, and let the Risen Christ be known to her. Again and again and again. That's why we have liturgy. That's why we must walk through Holy Week EVERY year, and come out in Easter, starting in the darkness of the Easter Vigil, when we are like those first disciples approaching the tomb, with its rolled away stone.

But first I have to get through Good Friday.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Rest Stop of Joy Along the Way

Why is it so hard to trust the good times? Why is it that I see the dark nights of doubt and fear as real, and the good times of grace-filled days, the days full of good conversations and joyful laughter as short stopping points along the way, on a long journey full of struggle and heartache?

This past month has been packed full of hard work, but it has flowed gracefully, with the help of many angels along the way. I said goodbye to my parish of three years -- St. Luke's in Racine, WI: I packed up all of my too-many possessions; and I arrived at the huge rectory of my new parish -- another St. Luke's, in Jamestown, NY -- where I will be the interim rector for a year or so, however long it takes them to find the next rector in their search.

I arrived here just in time for the vestry and the youth group and the Bishop Overs Guild -- made up originally of all the working women in the church, and named after a missionary bishop who ended up settling in Racine -- to have their Christmas parties, so in 10 days, I attended three parties, two meetings and one choir practice. One of those parties was held at the rectory. (Yes, the same rectory that had just received all of my belongings only two weeks earlier.) So, when I wasn't attending meetings and parties, and trying to check in to the office enough to let them know that I WAS here, I was trying to get the public spaces of the rectory clear of boxes, and eventually decorate for Christmas.

All of this was tiring and stressful, but a lot of FUN after not having enough to do in my small parish in Racine, WI.

Already, in less than a month, St. Luke's-J has allowed me to tamper with two long-standing traditions: their Advent Service of Lessons and Carols, which I moved to the Sunday after Christmas, and the singing of "Silent Night" as the very last thing on Christmas Eve, which I moved to the place of the post-communion prayer, and then had the lights come up and sent them out with the uplifting and sending forth of "Joy to the World." We don't need sleepy and subdued people going out into the world. How's that message going to catch fire and attract new people?

But much credit to them for rolling with the changes. If this is a sign of things to come, this parish is open and ready to meet the challenges of a world that looks at church suspiciously, and without much respect. Not to say that I blame the world, after the messes the church has created with its clumsy theology and its claims to have ALL of the truth and ALL of the salvation -- whatever that means.

So, I find myself at another beginning, and it looks promising. I cannot be considered for rector of this parish; it's in my contract, which frees me to be bold and prophetic and not have to please specific people (well, not for long anyway), which is how it should be anyway for priests and pastors. Somewhere along the line, we began to worry about tenure and keeping our jobs, instead of speaking the hard truth in love. Some of my gifted, long-tenured colleagues have learned to do that. Me? Not so much. Too often, I find myself bursting with the urgency of what needs to be said, and don't always say it gracefully, or at the right time.

But for now, I'm going to enjoy this rest stop of fun and energy and promise of joyful Good News in a parish that seems open to the workings of Ms. Holy Spirit.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

California Highway

Someone must have praying for me. Good praying, I mean, not the sanctimonious prayer of some, where the person tells God what the prayee NEEDS (in their opinion). No, this one was coming from someone who knew me enough to want me to have God present to me during my pilgrimage-on-the-California-highways instead of my pilgrimage in Ireland, where I wasn't because I have no discipline and cannot save money. I didn't even have the money to be doing this camping trip which was really a pilgrimage of the .... you get the picture.

Doogie and I (Doogie is my Westie and soul mate) set out one early morning in May for San Diego, and planned to camp there two nights before heading up the coast to Oceano Dunes, stay there for two nights, and then get up to San Francisco. Then over to Tahoe or Utah, and down to the north rim of the Grand Canyon or through Flagstaff. I was going to be flexible and open, because I don't get to do that in my work as a parish priest enough (you know how those people can be; they are more interested in schedules and actually following the schedules than they are about being spontaneous in the spirit!).

Except that someone whispered doubt into my ear just before I left... and so I abandoned the trip midway, and it could have been a complete failure.

But somebody must have been praying for me.

After two good nights and a full day of dog beaches and dog friendly shops and cooking over a gas stove in San Diego in between, we hit the road for Oceano Dunes. I was prepared to ditch this portion and find a plan B. Oceano Dunes -- I had read and they didn't exaggerate -- was one huge camping and ATV beach. I envisioned 20 -some people on quads zipping all over the beach, up and down the dunes, and the possibility that there wouldn't much privacy. I was going to listen to my gut (Ms Holy Spirit herself) to see if it felt safe there. I shot up I-5 from the campsite because it was close by, and decided I would just bear down and get through Los Angeles as quickly as possible using sheer stupidity. As with every big city, there were many detractors telling me how many hours it would take me to get through the traffic.

It wasn't that bad, really. Except that bearing down and ramming through is one of the best ways to miss the scenery, which I KNOW wouldn't have happened if I had gone on the Ireland pilgrimage with Gil Stafford and his group. One of the stated principles of his group "Peregrini," which, from what I vaguely remember from seminary, has something to do with traveling, is that you should NOT miss the scenery.

Fortunately, I came to myself like the son in the story of the generous father (also known as the prodigal son), and got off I-5 a little after lunchtime to take the 101 toward the ocean. The 101, I found out later, has a worse repurtation than LA for its notorious traffic snarl-ups. Or "parking lots" more accurately.

I finally got off at a sign that said "Beach Traffic" or something similar, and parked it in a shopping center with interesting shops. After letting Doogie pee and smell a couple of unhealthy-looking trees in the parking lot, I took him to Starbucks and parked him with a scruffy looking guy that looked like he would throw down his life if someone tried to take Doogie from him so I could pee and smell the coffee in my own parking island of caffeine. (okay, that's over the top...)

Doogie and I sat grateful not to be moving and grateful not to be in the sweltering Arizona heat, and we people watched. Within sight of the shopping center was a middle class neighborhood; hell, I might have even been able to afford a house there if it wasn't California or Arizona. I got out my Atlas and tried to figure out where we were. We had been driving five hours by then, and I realized how silly I had been originally to think I might be able to get to San Francisco in one day. I was even beginning to wonder if we would get to Oceano before it got dark, but had re-discovered daylight saving time there in California. We don't do DST in Arizona; there is no need to inflict MORE daylight when the hottest temperatures soar even higher on our time off when our employers are not paying the AC bill.

I had missed the signs saying where we were. I have full-blown ADHD, but that usually doesn'y apply to traveling. I'm more like

Preparing for the Upside Down Kingdom

Sermon – Sept. 23, 2012

One of my favorite pictures is of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama hamming it up at the camera, both with big smiles on their faces. They look almost impish in their grinning, as if they are up to something mischievous.
It is my favorite image of two of the holiest people of our time, and I guess for me, laughter is an essential ingredient of holiness.
I once heard that laughter is the shortest distance between two people, so if God is love, then God must laugh a lot.
So Jesus must have laughed a lot as well. At lunch the other day with the Llanases and Betty Marquand, we got talking about just that: Jesus laughing,  and I told of a painting that I had seen of The Laughing Christ. Well, it turns out that there are several paintings of Jesus laughing, but I downloaded the one I liked best. Here it is.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is trying to instill in his disciples the kind of humility it takes to be a servant leader, an upside down version of what the world sees as leadership. Instead of a warrior king who would be Messiah by bringing political power to the Jews, Jesus tries to help them see that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Then he takes a child, puts it on his lap and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and welcomes the one who sent me.”
The only other time Jesus mentions children is in the Gospel of Matthew, when he says ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
It’s important to acknowledge that Jesus was probably talking about becoming child-LIKE and not being child-ISH. The disciples are being child-ISH when they are arguing about who is going to sit on Jesus right and left hands.
Instead, he is probably talking about holy qualities of an innocent, natural child. that would best prepare us for the upside down world of the kingdom, where servants are valued over the powerful of the world, where the last in line get to be first, where the meek inherit the earth, and where those who are willing to die to their egos are given true life.
What qualities will it take to prepare us for such a kingdom?
Certainly, the ability to laugh easily, but not AT others’ foibles, but at our OWN sense of importance. The person who can laugh at himself when he feels slighted, and say ironically “Obviously you don’t know how important I am” is someone who will feel at home in the kingdom of God.
The next qualities come right out of the prayer that we say just after a child is baptized, when we pray that he or she will be given “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.”
An inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.
All of these qualities embrace the gifts God has given us, and embrace the world as if life is an adventure, and there is trust that God will be there all along the way. And there’s JOY, without which life can get pretty dusty, pretty bitter. A Christian without joy is a contradiction of all Jesus taught, and if God is truly at the center of our lives and our being, joy should always be close at hand.
Finally, Jesus valued everyone equally, regardless of status or wealth. It is a very childlike quality to say to someone, “I’m coming to your house for dinner!” as Jesus did more than once. There is a trust in the goodness in other people’s hearts, because your own heart is pure.
Okay, so most of us don’t have pure hearts. But we can at least act a little more trusting, a little more joyful, wondering in the discoveries we might find.
The 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi tells the following story about a young man seeking advice asks to speak to someone wise.  The villagers point to a man playing stick-horse with children.  “He has keen, fiery insight and vast dignity like the night sky, but he conceals it in the madness of child’s play.”  During their conversation the young man asks the wise man why he hides his intelligence. The man answers, “The people here want to put me in charge.  They want me to be judge, magistrate, and interpreter of all the texts.  The knowing I have doesn’t want that.  It wants to enjoy itself.  I am a plantation of sugarcane, and at the same time I’m eating the sweetness.” The following words are from the middle of the poem.
Knowledge that is acquired is not like this. Those who have it worry if audiences like it or not.  It’s a bait for popularity.  Disputational knowing wants customers.  It has no soul.  Robust and energetic before a responsive crowd, it slumps when no one is there.

Chew quietly your sweet sugarcane God-Love, and stay playfully childish.  Your face will turn rosy with illumination like the redbud flowers.  -Rumi   1207-1273
 translation by Coleman Barks with John Moyne
 The Essential Rumi

If that doesn’t speak to you, maybe this thought will. I recently read a poster that said, “If you haven’t grown up by age 50, then you don’t have to.”
Now, let’s go and have some fun at a picnic!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Send Me Tough Angels

"I am not asking you
 to take this wilderness from me,
to remove this place of starkness
where I come to know
the wildness within me,
where I learn to call the names
of the ravenous beasts
that place inside me,
to finger the brambles
 that snake through my veins,
to taste the thirst
that tugs at my tongue.
But send me
 tough angels,
sweet wine,
strong bread:
just enough."
(Jan Richardson, In Wisdom’s Path)

It seems I must go through the wilderness again.

St. Luke's is running out of money and will not be able to afford a full-time priest after September of this year. We had bought ourselves some time with an aggressive pledge campaign, increasing our total pledges by $25,000 for 2012. We crunched numbers, cut programs drastically, cut back the hours on already very part-time cleaning people, parish administrator, and facility repair guy. The biggest line-item in the budget is the clergyperson.

So I brought it up first. "You can't afford a full-time priest. You don't NEED a full-time priest. The parish doesn't need to go anywhere, but you need to get creative about how you can be the church without a full-time priest." They were all quick to come to my defense. "We need you." Those not as worried about my feelings, but concerned about how this might "look" said, "we will die if we don't have a full-time rector."

Of course this is not true. More and more parishes in the country, in mainline churches all over, are going to part-time clergy. Unfortunately, it can't be me. I have no savings, no other sources of income that will allow me to work part-time. The careers I had before seminary have now moved on without me, and my credentials have expired, the places I worked have closed or changed hands, the supervisors are elsewhere.

 So I am back in the job search again. And though I have gone through this wilderness place before, the demons come back, the temptations can still get their claws in me, and pull me into their haunting cruelty. "This is not going to look good on your resume. Two years in one place. A year in another. Now less than three years here. How's it going to look?"

 Oh, I know that one well. "How's it going to look?" Some people can be very cavalier about this idea. "Who cares what others think?" they ask. Those people have never been on the other side of an interview, or waiting for a response from a job application, or had someone with power over them question if it is something THEY did that created these questionable items on their resume. It is an upper middle class white person's luxury to be able NOT to care, and it is becoming scarce even among this population as "downsizing" makes its way into our daily lexicons.

And so I count on the Holy Spirit, who works in ways that aren't bound by tradition or appearances or worth in the world's ways of measuring worth. She will send those tough angels for support and reassurance when resumes are ignored, when emails are sent saying "you aren't a good fit," when phone interviews fall flat. And she will (and HAS) opened the right doors, the right hearts and ears of a search committee somewhere out there with a parish who needs the gifts of a quirky but faithful woman of God who preaches from her heart, teaches with passion and curiosity, gives deep spiritual guidance and touching pastoral care, who may not keep all the balls in the air from dropping, but has enough humility and self-effacing humor to admit it.

 "Send me tough angels, sweet wine, and strong bread. Just enough."