Monday, December 3, 2007

Giving and Receiving

        If you’ve come here looking for me to join the flood of religious people reviling the retail orgy that Christmas has become, you probably want to go back to Google now. Not that I don’t think that the consumer orgy isn’t insane: anyone who skips Thanksgiving dinner to wait in line for a big sale the next day clearly worships something other than the babe born in a stable. But in all the craziness, I think we’re losing sight of what the whole giving of Christmas gifts thing was supposed to signify -- love, generosity and caring.
        While frantically schlepping from mall to mall to find something -- anything! -- for the 23 people on your list can hardly be called a spiritual experience, it doesn’t have to be a soul-sucking horror, either. I think the difference is the spirit in which we seek.
        My mother is the poster-child for the joy-of-Christmas-giving club. She adores Christmas shopping. It is a source of absolute delight to her to seek something special for the people she loves. There’s no sense of obligation there: even the gifts she has chosen for professional colleagues over the years have been selected with a fond eye towards the unique human beings she works with.
        In the process, she mostly seems to skip the guilt that appears to drive so much of our retail-driven Christmas shopping. She doesn’t buy gifts because she has to, and she doesn’t feel driven to spend more than she ought out of fear that she might look cheap. It actually is the thought that counts. And so her Christmas giving comes from a place of joy, love, and generosity.
        And it’s that spirit that also makes it a joy to receive a gift from my mother. Because you know how much love she puts into them, it’s really easy to be pleased by any gift she gives, even on the rare occasion when she misjudges your fondness for the current fashions. Her joy in giving is infectious.
        Which brings me to receiving. We talk often enough about giving as a spiritual discipline, but rarely is the spirit of receiving mentioned. But I’ve discovered that graciously receiving can be a spiritual gift as well.
        I have a friend who is more often on the receiving end than the giving end: she lives on a fixed income, and because she doesn’t drive, is dependent on others to be able to participate in social and church events. She is also a devoted and careful thank-you note writer, and her appreciation for assistance is genuine and warm. She lifts up and recognizes the gift of your time and care for her in ways that make you glad you were able to help.
        Being with Ellen has taught me that receiving help graciously is a gift, too -- one I don’t possess. I am a doer, and I find it difficult to allow others to do for me. I’m embarrassed when I have to ask someone to look after my kids because I have a late day at school, even though I gladly and frequently watch others’ children in similar circumstances. I feel guilty when someone offers to take over a task I’m finding I don’t have time for, even thought I’ve done the same thing for others many times. And I’m always apologizing to people who find my things -- my prayerbook, my Bible, my gloves -- and make sure I go home with them.
        I’m not alone in this. Lots of very capable people have trouble allowing others to help them. In my experience, clergypeople may be the worst offenders: those called to ordained ministry tend to have a sincere and deep desire to serve, and as a result, we tend to resist being the ones served. I’m certainly in that category: I am one who serves, and so I struggle with seeing being served as a failure of my calling by God.
        Except that we are all -- each and every one of us -- called by God to serve, to love one another as he loves us. God didn’t create us in two categories, the servers and the served. He created us interdependent, meant to serve and be served. The others I serve cannot be fully complete as long as they only receive; for those I love to be able to experience fully the joy of service, I must be a gracious recipient of that service, of that gift of themselves. Learning to receive graciously requires an admission of vulnerability and need, which is also a gift of humility and shared humanity, one that opens us up to deeper relationship with each other and with God. We are served and serving, and love abounds.         So this Christmas season, my prayer is for all of us to give with gladness and love, and to receive with joy. Whether it’s home baked cookies, a fur coat, an offer of babysitting or a ride to church, or a really ugly tie that you can’t believe Uncle Herbert bought, may giving and receiving both be a source of abundant life for you and yours.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Why Do You Go to Church?

When Sunday School started this fall, I asked my Grade 6-8 class, “Why do you come to Sunday School?” They looked at me in disbelief, and I immediately corrected myself -- I know why they come to Sunday School: their parents make them come. “So why do your parents make you come?” I asked.
They understood that their parents felt it was important to learn about God and Jesus, but really had no idea why: they figured it had something to do with making them good people.

So here’s my problem: if you’re just looking for a way to be a good person, you can be a secular humanist and sleep in on Sunday morning, and sooner or later, these kids are going to figure that out. Christians have no lock on being good people, and there will be plenty of non-Christian friends who will gleefully point out the many, many times throughout history when Christians have actually been as far from “good people” as it is possible to get.

My co-teacher, and the mother of one of our students, mentioned her gratitude to God for all that he has done as one of the major reasons she wants her daughter to be in Sunday School. And that’s great, as far as it goes. But is it enough? Sooner or later her daughter is bound to notice that God causes the rain to fall upon the just and unjust alike, and wonder what the point of gratitude is.

A study by the Barna Group recently arrived in my mailbox showing that young people have an increasingly negative view of Christianity. (You can read the report at: Even those with some experience in churches saw Christianity as judgmental and hypocritical. They also thought that Christians were “anti-homosexual,” failed to put into practice our teaching of “loving our neighbor as ourselves,” and that Christianity no longer looked like Jesus.

It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s what the kids in my Sunday School class are going to hear from their peers as they move into high school and college. There will be lots of reasons not to go to church -- will we have given them any reason to come?

We can no longer count on social pressure to keep our children in church until they discover their own answers to why be a Christian. If we are to have any hope that our children will know God, we need, desperately, to be able to articulate a deeper understanding of our faith, something that goes beyond platitudes or a fear of Hell. And for that to happen, we need to understand, ourselves, what we are doing here.

The place to begin, I believe, is in telling our own stories. I know why I go to church, but I’ve spent the last four years in an intensive discernment process listening for God’s voice in my life. That makes me far from typical. But I don’t think it should. I think that each and every one of us has a powerful and compelling story about how God has moved in our lives. If we didn’t, we’d long ago have quit setting the alarm clock on Sunday mornings.

What is your story? Why do you go to church? Or why don’t you go to church -- is there something about the way Christianity is taught that keeps you away? What would you tell my sixth to eighth graders?

If you feel up to being public about your story, leave a comment on the blog. If it’s something too intensely private to share with the world, I’d love to hear from you directly: I’ll keep it confidential, just between you and me.

in telling our stories, I believe we begin to find the places where God is truly and deeply present in our lives, allowing us a fuller relationship with Him. And that, in turn, allows us to help others find and be found by Him, which is the true meaning of Christ’s command to us to “go out and make disciples of all nations.” So please, join the story telling! At the very least, it will help me offer better answers to my sixth, seventh, and eighth graders about why they should keep dragging themselves to Sunday School when they’d really rather stay in bed.


Monday, October 8, 2007

Fall in the Garden

It’s fall in my garden. The undisciplined flowers of summer have given way to brown stems. It’s particularly sad this year, since my fall-blooming asters succumbed to some illness in mid-summer. There’s just row on row of deep brown leaves, about eight inches tall, filling the lower half of the garden where there should be bright purplish blue and yellow flowers.

The cucumbers gave up the ghost in August, too. I’ve never yet managed to keep them alive and healthy through the whole season. I think it’s powdery mildew, but I haven’t found the cure, yet. So all I have left is a couple sickly yellow leaves -- and a lone cucumber I somehow missed when there were still leaves on the plant. The zucchini succumbed as well: so much for my father’s prediction that I would be up to my elbows in squash. And I think the squirrels liked the peppers: I kept seeing baby peppers but only got to eat one. It was almost two, but the squirrel got there ahead of me.

The tomatoes are still doing OK -- there are lots of green tomatoes on the vines still, and we’ve been eating tomatoes non-stop for about two months. The herb garden is doing great, too, but it’s too crowded -- I squeezed too much into too little space trying to make room for the new patio. The plants have done surprising well considering the fierce competition for sun and water.

It’s fall in the garden. Some blighted promise: the cucumbers, the asters. Some hopes that bore generous fruit - the tomatoes, the parsley and thyme. Some that as it turned out, I didn’t really know what to do with them when they did reach their potential -- the Thai chilis, the lavender.

Maybe that’s why I garden: it’s really a lot like life. There are no guarantees, but there are lots of surprises. You don’t really control any of it, and when things go well, it’s best to share -- sure, you can put up tomatoes, but really, how much picalilli can one family eat? Best to share them with friends so they all get eaten at their sun-warmed best.

Most of all, I appreciate the reminder that no matter what succeeded and what failed, there’s always next year. By next April, I’ll be wandering around looking at new plants poking through this fall’s dead leaves, debating what variety of tomatoes to plant, surfing the Internet looking for yet another treatment for powdery mildew -- or another answer as to what’s causing the cucumbers to die! And whatever the results, I’ll plant the cucumber seeds anyway -- in the hope that this year will be different.

Those green tomatoes are big enough to ripen on the window sill into November, and the pesto should be great this year. And I just noticed that the Gerbera daisies I had given up for dead are blooming again. Maybe I’ll get a bouquet before final frost after all. It’ll be a good reminder, as the papers and unfinished reading assignments pile up, that all things end -- and that for the things that do fail, there’s always next time.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Welcome to Wading In

I’ve been saying for months that it was time to start a blog. Everywhere I go people say to me, “Be sure to let us know how things are going for you at EDS!” I deeply appreciate this interest in my progress, but I soon began to feel like personal correspondence would take more time than the research required to earn my Master of Divinity degree! Thus, the blog.

So what took so long? Those of you who have met my wonderful husband and IT guy, Rich, know that it wasn’t being intimidated by the technology. I told Rich I wanted a blog, and BAM! I had a blog. No excuses there.

No, it was the name. I was moving right along until Rich asked me, “What do you want to name it?”

Hmmmm. I hope the blog will offer a way to keep in touch with all the wonderful people I meet on this journey, as well as to offer reflections on ministry for years to come. So I wanted something catchy, but not too tied to a particular moment in time. Throw in the fact that I’ve never excelled at short punchy writing, and you have a recipe for complete writer’s block.

But I finally came up with the title above -- Wading In. You’ve probably already caught the obvious pun on my name. But my perhaps unfortunate fondness for puns aside, the more I thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed.

This blog will be about the experience of wading into classes at Episcopal Divinity School, and wading into the new opportunities for ministry that I trust will be coming in the years ahead. I’m also well known for wading into theological discussions, particularly ones where others might have the good sense not to go, and I hope that this will be a place where I can share the resulting reflections with all of you.

But best of all was an image from my childhood, of people being baptized wading into the waters of a lake for immersion. Wading in, they are unsure of their footing, stumbling and uncertain. They are sinners and outcasts, a disparate people of no particular religion, lost to God. But they wade in with the great hope and confidence in God’s promise that He is waiting for them, to grant them newness of life and forgiveness of sin. They wade in hoping to be transformed into people of God, into God’s holy priesthood. And God answers in the waters of baptism.

What a perfect metaphor for my journey. Stumbling and uncertain, often unsure of my footing and sometimes of my destination, I wade in anyway, trusting in God. And God answers, in the water, in the bread and wine, in the people who pray for me and love me.

Wading In. Daring to get our feet wet. Inviting God to transform our lives.

Welcome to my journey. I hope it will prove to be a source of encouragement on your own, as well.