Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"The Bible Tells Me So"

As the church that I am rostered in continues after many many years to wrestle with the matter of sexual orientation, I read many blogs and articles and posts every week expressing many different views and reactions and opinions. Some of them are well-reasoned and articulate. Others less so. Some are written from a personal perspective trying to reconcile what Scripture says with their life experiences. Others are written from an academic or scholarly distance, but with no less concern or seriousness.

A leader in the ELCA recently posted an editorial found here in which he attempted to distill the current controversies down to three simple questions. While I respect his effort and in due regard to his leadership in the ELCA and our predecessor bodies, I believe that he missed the boat. In his attempt to express his own clear and basic thinking about this issue, he missed the fact that larger issues have been raised. I wish that this controversy was only about sex. But of course it is more complex than that. The authority of Scripture has been brought into question.

There are bumper-stickers that say, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." If only it were that simple. Instead, we have been given scholarly, analytical and critical tools that help us in our understanding of Scripture. Among these are the ongoing learnings about the society and culture in which Scripture was written as well as the understanding, common at the time, of how writers then understood specific words that they used in their writings.

Thankfully, this is not the first time that the authority of Scripture has been questioned.  So we, as a Lutheran church, have grappled with slavery -- we have come to realize that the New Testament writings are not authoritative and normative for the practices of the 18th and 19th centuries (nor for that matter for the human trafficking of the 21st century). The ELCA addressed the matter of ordaining women by considering the gifts women bring to ordained ministry in light of and in apparent contrast to a few select verses in the New Testament but in continuity with others of New Testament Scripture. Sixty years ago, a pastor who married a woman who had been divorced was not permitted to serve as a pastor for a stated period of time, based upon New Testament teaching about marriage and divorce.

In each of these situations, a "plain read" of Scripture would have brought about a result that would conflict with current practices and understandings. And, undoubtedly, the "authority of Scripture" was raised in objection to abolition, ordaining women, permitting men and women who were divorced to serve as ordained ministers. One of the strengths of the Lutheran church is our ability to read and interpret Scripture and apply it fully to our lives today in light of what we understand to be the truth of the Gospel. Reasonable and faithful minds can differ -- that does not mean that either side or view is heretical or apostate.

So, today I am grateful for the Church and all who are a part of it. I am grateful that we can disagree and that we can state our disagreement. I pray that Jesus' prayer may be realized -- that we may all be one as we live in disagreement.


(photo taken on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho; Copyright Pamela Smith, 2010)

Friday, August 20, 2010


Snippets. You know what I mean -- snippets, bits of things. Buttons, paint swatches, phrases. Slang shortcuts such as "ttfn" or "LOL" or "@#$%$". Our memories and recollections of people and times and places are snippets of the real experiences. None of these snippets can fully recreate the experience.  Similarly, a snippet could be a headline or a stereotype or "common knowledge". A snippet is a truth remembered from a moment in time or an impression in a brief encounter that so very easily morphs into a generalized assessment which then takes on the mantel of Truth.

Snippets. The media calls them "sound bytes". The political pundits capitalize on them, editing words, choosing carefully, finding visuals that support the impression that they wish to convey. And then this snippet takes on a life of its own and becomes Truth.

I wonder what Snippets an objective observer of all of the events and thoughts and moments of my life would come up with. And as I wonder this, I shudder.

I am a lover of Christ and I am aware of many Snippets and conclusions that one, whether a Christian or not, may draw about me and my fellow-believers. I could be found complicit in the tortures of the Inquisition, in the atrocities of the Crusades. I could be found guilty of convicting witches because they couldn't survive a trial by drowning.  Some could ascribe to me the many deaths at the hand of Timothy McVeigh  because he was raised as a Christian. And, there are Christians such as Scott Roeder who similarly have performed heinous and illegal acts. In a Snippet, these actions could be attributed to me because I too am a Christian. Never mind the lynchings and burnings of the Klan over the centuries, all done in the name of Christ.

There are so very many Snippets that grab our attention.  There are so many who want us to attend to the  Snippets before us because they are beguiling and they satisfy the Snippets that we have about ourselves.

Holy God, preserve us from the Snippets and may You lead us to speak the Holy Truth.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010


(image obtained from cards.ishshah.com)
Once again, I have started working through this wonderful book, Benedict's Way: an ancient monk's insights for a balanced life, by Lonni Collins Pratt and Father Daniel Homan, OSB, published by Loyola Press in 2000. This thoughtful writing brings the Rule of St. Benedict into the normal everyday humdrum life that most of us live.

The book has 30 sections, each of which is a reflection on an aspect of the Rule; things such as listening, prayer, hospitality, service, wisdom, conflict. Benedict, so wisely, considered each of these -- and many more -- in his Rule.

For several days now, I have been resting on the first word of the first section which is also the first word of the Rule -- "listen." In Hebrew, the word is "shema". It is the first word of the great commandment found in Deuteronomy 6:4 -- Hear O Israel : The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

I have learned that verbs in Hebrew are seldom understood to involve simply passive reflection. So, it seems to me that "listening" to music, for example, would likely involve picking up an instrument and playing along with it or would lead to getting up and dancing. So the notion of "listening" or "hearing" carries with it some compelling action -- listen and do something about what you hear.

But one must listen. That is to say, I must listen. And in order to do that, I must choose what it is and to whom it is that I will listen. My resting in this first word of the St. Benedict's Rule has led me to understand that I must filter what it is that I listen to; even seemingly "good" voices assault me with yet more to do and deprive me of the simple joy of God's grace to me. I am learning to "listen" to my very self -- to hear my impatience, my clenched jaw, my reach for aspirin for the second day in a row.

And besides using aspirin, I speak to those who are most trusted among my friends and loved ones, those who really know me best. And then I listen again, with as much of my "self" as I can muster. And through all of this, I strain to hear the Word of the Lord -- how is it that God is speaking to me.

Then, of course, I must think about how it is that I listen to others -- does my listening compel me to action?  What is the most grace-full thing that I can do?
So, my friends, how do you "listen"? What do you turn down so that you can hear? What do you do with what you hear from others?


Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Patient Vineyard Owner

Isaiah 5:1-7
Luke 13:1-9

When Earl and I lived in Northern Indiana after we bought our first house, each spring had a ritual. He would get the roto-tiller out and till the garden spaces we had. We would roughly plan out what would go where. Then we’d head out to Bortz Farm Store where we would get seeds of all sorts and get some of them started inside. Then a little later we would go and get the starter plants. On Memorial Day we would plant them along with the starts from seeds. Then we would water and feed and weed and watch and wait. We’d eagerly see the blossoms on the tomatoes and on the zucchini and the beans and peas and know that a crop was coming. We had a contest with our friends to see who got the first tomato -- almost always by the Fourth of July.

We’d water and feed and weed and watch and wait some more. Then it was time to pick the green beans for the first time and the zucchini for the umpteenth time. And at the end of the summer we would can and freeze the harvest from the garden. We were involved with our garden.

And I’m certain that over the years many of you have similar stories to tell. Maybe not vegetables, maybe flowers, or maybe herbs but something else that took the same degree of effort and care and waiting and expecting a good crop.

So we can understand how it was for the beloved one who had a vineyard in today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah. The vineyard was on a fertile hill -- can you almost see the black loamy earth? He cleared all of the stones away and he planted it with no ordinary vines -- rather, he planted it with the choicest of vines. He built a watchtower right in the middle of it where he could live while he tended to it. And he built a wine vat anticipating the wonderful grape harvest he would enjoy. He eagerly awaited the sweet fruit just as Earl and I waited for that first tomato. But, he wouldn’t have that harvest until 4 or 5 years after he planted.

For years he tended his vineyard. But his harvest was not what he expected -- all it yielded were wild grapes. Wild grapes are small, coarse, and sour; good for very little at all. How could this be? asks the vineyard keeper. “What more could I have done for my vineyard?”

And because of the lack of a harvest, the vineyard keeper says -- I will tell you what I am going to do. I am going to remove the hedge that I made, I am going to take down its wall, I will no longer garden it. It will become a wild vineyard. These are not the words of an angry and vengeful God. They are words of God whose very heart is broken by his people.

In the last verse of this Song in Isaiah, the prophet tells us some of what this means. We read that the vineyard -- the vines -- are the people of God. The House of Israel and the people of Judah -- the Kingdoms that had fallen away from God, turned their backs on God’s ways and the covenant relationship that God established with them. God wanted a harvest of justice and righteousness but instead saw bloodshed and heard deep wailing.

Thanks be to God that this is not the end of the story. My friends, as one commentator noted, the witness of Scripture is that after judgment there is always healing; after desolation there is always consolation; and after grief there is always hope.

So, let’s hear the rest of the story found in the parable that Jesus told in today’s Gospel. A man owned a vineyard in which a fig tree was planted. The owner came year after year looking for fruit on this tree, but there was none. Finally he said to the gardener, “Cut it down. It is wasting the soil.” The gardener said, “Wait, please one more year. Let me give extra care to it, let me fertilize it, and tend to it more vigorously. Then if it bears fruit, well and good. If it does not, then you will cut it down.”

What do we learn from these readings? These together are a perfect example of how in Scripture we as Lutheran Christians find both Law and Gospel. First, the Law – in both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings there is an expectation of fruitfulness, an expectation of justice and righteousness, an expectation that we as God’s people will live into the covenant relationship that God has created with us. Every Sunday we confess that Jesus the Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead – that is an expression of the Law. We often say that the Law is what God asks of us.

But, that is not all there is. We also read and understand Scripture as not only a statement of what God expects but also what God does for us – in other words, the Gospel, the Good News. What good news do we encounter in today’s readings?

First, we read of a vineyard owner who tills the soil, removes the stones, sets a hedge of protection around the vineyard and builds a watchtower in the midst of it. A vineyard owner who did literally everything possible for the vines. Then we read of a gardener who realizes that the fig tree hasn’t produced fruit for a good long while. The gardener asks the owner to wait, just one more year, while the gardener gives some extra attention and care to this tree. The owner agrees to wait. And then the gardener gets to work. The fig tree is not left alone to figure this all out. The gardener steps and takes extraordinary measures so that this tree will produce fruit. The good news is that we worship a God of second chances. The good news is that we too have a gardener who equips us and prepares us and tends to us so that we can bear fruit -- the fruits of justice and righteousness.

Thanks be to God.
(Photo taken at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem; copyright Pamela Smith, 2006.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Back from the Guild

15 days, 3 time zones, 50 degree temperature swing, re-acquainted with the other half of my brain.

On July 19 I headed to the Grunewald Guild in Leavenworth, Washington for two one-week classes. The first was Contemporary Collage Quilting and Beading. The second was part of a week of Liturgical Arts. I took Advent expressed in silk painting. On August 1, I arrived home around midnight.

15 days. An odd number (not to state an obvious numerical fact). 7 days, one week -- yes, I get that. 4 days -- yes, I get that too; a nice long weekend. 3 days -- well, a not-so-long weekend. But 15 days? When have I last spent 15 consecutive days on a singular endeavor? And, other than times of work and school, when have I last spent this length of time away from home and family? 15 days. I learned that I need this stretch of time at least every year to refuel.

3 time zones. I arrived at the Tampa airport at 6:00AM EDT and arrived in Seattle at 1:00PM PDT. Then I rented a car and drove 2 1/2 hours to Leavenworth and the Guild. We had dinner at 5:30 PDT (8:30 EDT). Vespers started at 7:30 PDT (10:30 EDT) complete with many stifled yawns and heavy eyelids. Then 15 days later, I arrived home near midnight EDT (9:30 PDT), etc. You get the drift. Traveling east is always the hardest for me. It's only now, over a week later, that my body is getting accustomed to being back home in 'my" time zone. 

50 degree temperature swing. In Dunedin this summer has brought us "feels like" temperatures of over 105 degrees. Our evening temperatures are "all the way down" to 75. Thank you God for the Pacific Northwest! Needed my flannel pj's. Perfect cup of steaming coffee each morning. 

Re-acquainted with the other half of my brain. I didn't wear my watch. I slept until I woke up. Let myself be seen by others despite a rather severe case of bedhead. No calendar. Instead, I swished paintbrushes, dabbled in different colors of dye, fingered through a beautiful stash of fabric, stitched with lovely beads.  Carried a sketchbook with me -- and actually used it. Played with colors and textures and words. Priceless.

So, now I begin my first full week back. I have had such fun sharing my meager creations with folks at church.  The Guild is a bit of holy ground -- and I am most grateful for this year's pilgrimage.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Passing One's Mantle

In one the Old Testament readings last Sunday we read the story of Elijah passing his mantle to Elisha. (2 Kings 2) There was much drama and also some familiarity around that. Waters were separated and paths were walked -- first by Elijah and then by Elisha. Reminiscent of Moses and the parting of the waters of the Red Sea.

And so after the many steps and conversations and checks and double-checks to prepare for worship on Sunday, I sat down in the chancel and looked around. What a surprise --  I saw faces of dear friends who came to worship with us this day.

John and his wife Kathy, their daughter, Heather, and her son Caleb came some distance to join us. What a joy! I met Kathy over 25 years ago when Heather and my youngest were in the same kindergarten class at the church we attended. John's father was the senior pastor there for many years. Pastor Johnson died about a year ago and I was honored to attend his funeral as a vested and processing clergy. (In Pastor Johnson's faith tradition, women are not ordained; however, he felt differently.) After our worship service, Kathy, on behalf of the family, offered me the gift of one of Pastor Johnson's stoles.

As I have reflected on this very kind and gracious gift, I am mindful of the passing of the mantle of ordained ministry. In many respects, this is a laying on of hands -- an action and grace that is integral to ordination. Certainly, I am no Elisha but, as he did upon receiving Elijah's mantle, I do pray a double portion of the spirit of the one passing it. 

I am also mindful of the strong legacy that Pastor Johnson left to each of us who participated in the Bible Study he led. The Bible that he used was his Greek New Testament. He gave me the first glimpse into the richness of studying New Testament Scripture in the language in which it was originally written. Of particular note to me was his teaching on the word "grasped" as we considered Philippians 2. My understanding of this text has been forever changed as a result of his knowledge and teaching -- a time prescient of my seminary study as I prepared for ordained ministry. 

Further, I am mindful of the importance of sharing one's mantle with others. Through this gift, Pastor Johnson has invited me to share the mantle of ministry with others as he has shared it with me. This mantle of ministry necessarily includes both lay and rostered leaders. Our ministry is not our exclusive possession but is intended to be shared and mutually carried so that the Body of Christ may grow. 

Thank you, Pastor Johnson, for the gift of your ministry among God's people. Thank you John and Kathy and Heather for this precious gift that I cherish.

Shalom my friends

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Thin Places" Easter 7C

Have you ever noticed how many instruction manuals and guides there are? How many “how to…” books there are? There’s even a magazine called “DIY” – do it yourself. I was working on a knitting project and couldn’t remember the right way to do the stitch that was called for next, so I went online and found not only a description and step by step directions, but also a video actually showing me how to do it and I could play it over and over until I actually figured it out.
Mastering things, learning things, being able to do things, figuring things out. In fact, “we’ll figure it out” is one of my favorite sayings – even when things seem most confusing and uncertain, as an act of faith I can assert that we will figure it out.
And sometimes we read Scripture or listen to the Sunday readings as a kind of “how to” guide for Christians – how to serve God better, how to serve God’s people more effectively, how to grow the church more quickly, how to live a better Christian life, how to. And often, Scripture is exactly that kind of instruction and direction.
But again today as we have seen over the Sundays of this Easter Season, we are invited into places that we can’t really understand. Places without step-by-step guides, places that seem to be anything but practical.
These are "thin places." This is how some have described "thin places":
A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.
Those places or events in life where the dividing line between the holy and the ordinary is very thin... to the point that the ordinary becomes holy and the holy becomes ordinary
Celtic Christians called them places where heaven and earth touch, where God seems more readily present, more easily accessed.
In today’s Gospel reading, we are invited into a very thin place. The verses that we heard just a few moments ago are portions of what is called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. This prayer takes place on the night of the Last Supper and is part of what is called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. Jesus and the disciples are in some bittersweet hours – they are enjoying time together. Jesus then begins to prepare them for what is to come – a time when he will no longer be with them. He washes their feet despite their resistance. He tells them to dwell in the peace that he gives. He speaks to them for a good while about how things will change and how they will stay the same.
Then a very thin place emerges – right there in their midst, Jesus enters into a time of prayer. This was not one of the praying quietly in your heart times – no, Jesus spoke this prayer out loud. This wasn’t a group prayer where everyone takes a turn offering a petition. This was a time when close friends listened to the things that are heaviest on the heart of their Lord and spoke with his Father about those things.
Some of us may have had times when we were present while two other people were having a very personal and important conversation. We know that we are witnessing some very special, almost holy. That’s what we are a part of in today’s Gospel.
So we listen very carefully to what Jesus prays and it looks very much like one of those beautiful complex sailor’s knots that we talked about last week. As I listen to these words what stands out to me most is the word “one.” Jesus prays that those who believe in him and who will believe in him may be one in the same way that he and the Father are one.
This is not a prayer that we all get along and agree on everything. This is not a prayer that each of us are all smiles with each other all the time. This is a much deeper prayer –a prayer that we may become so fully united not only with each other but with God. Jesus prays that we may be one in the same way that Jesus is in us and the Father is in him. That all may be perfectly one.
This unity, this one-ness, will be fully realized at the end of all time when God redeems the whole of creation, when Jesus comes again in glory. Jesus – the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. Jesus, the very one who prayed from his disciples and, indeed, for all of us.
I believe that our worship together each week is one of those “thin places” and I know that there are various parts of our service that touch each of us differently. But within our liturgy, there are two places that are very thin. Listen for the words as part of our celebration of Communion that go like this – and so with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, and all the hosts of heaven we praise your holy name – my friends at that time we join into the eternal song of praise that is sung around the throne on which the Lamb is seated! The veil separating the human and the divine is lifted a bit or becomes a bit more opaque and we glimpse a bit of the ultimate glory of God with our very limited eyes.
And, of course, as we receive the very Body and Blood of Jesus we experience in a very tangible way the unity that Jesus spoke of when he prayed that we may be one as he is in us and the Father is in him.
It’s pretty hard to understand, isn’t it. Yes, that’s how it is with these “thin places.” We cannot understand them. There’s no “how-to” guide for living in them, we simply ARE in them.
God gives us these thin places SO THAT the love that the Father has given to Jesus may be in us also and SO THAT the world may believe that Jesus was sent into the world and has loved the world.
May it be so.

The photo at the top of this post was taken on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Walking those miles brought me to a thin place.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Her Last Words to Me

These past several days have been a bit of a working sabbatical for me -- I have been "on the clock" so to speak but have been away from the usual place of my ministry. Last Friday I traveled from Clearwater to Orlando for the Synod Assembly -- the gathering of all the clergy, rostered leaders, and lay voting members of the ELCA in the Florida-Bahamas Synod. This year was one not primarily focused on Synod business but in which we have various workshops, different worship opportunities, less taxing schedule. An easier breath of fresh air.

I came home late Sunday and then headed back to Orlando very early this morning to attend a conference sponsored by Lutheran Counseling Services in Orlando on Aging and Spirituality -- A Quest for Meaning. Now, I must be honest, I've dealt with lots of issues around aging and spirituality, both personally and professionally; I wasn't quite sure why I felt so drawn to this conference as to unilaterally cancel an office appointment and spend 4 more hours on the road after all the travel of the weekend. Now, as I sit here at the end of the day, I have some ideas about why. I am grateful for ideas about things that may be implemented in the parish I serve.

But more interesting, at least to me, was the moment in the session after lunch when I caught my breath and felt the welling of tears in my eyes. So much of what I was hearing resonated in my heart as I experienced the loss of my mom. Mom's last words to me were spoken over many many months and today they all came together into one conversation.

Mom experienced great pain in her left leg in the two years before her death. Doctors couldn't diagnose it, physical therapists couldn't relieve it, I cried over it as each touch and position shift caused her to cry out. The first of Mom's last words were "I just want to stop fighting."

The next of Mom's last words were spoken to me indirectly. I couldn't find the way to tell her that I would be leaving St. Petersburg to go to Columbia, SC to attend seminary. Certainly, I ought to have stayed with her to visit her, to do her laundry, made sure that everything was ok in her room and assure that her nurses knew that she was not a forgotten one. Mom's pastor called me and told me that Mom knew I was going to be a pastor and she was proud.

Then I came back during my first year of seminary at Christmas break -- we had great fun in many ways. We found some new ways to celebrate Christmas as Mom needed to stay in the nursing home. Then some days later, I needed to head back to seminary and I went to see Mom on my way out of town. We talked as we could. Mom no longer knew me as her daughter. I brought her laundry in. She asked me (whom she did not recognize as her daughter) if I had also taken care of Pam's laundry. "Yes, Mom. It's all taken care of. All is good."  As I left the nursing home and turned back to wave good-bye, she beat me to it -- giving me a big smile and a big wave.

In the days that followed there were many other events and exchanges and interactions. But in the minutes before her death Mom spoke one more last word to me -- the slow and quiet breathing of one who is approaching their last moments. This my friends, this is Holy Ground.

Today, I was ever-so-gently invited to wade into this again.

Actually, I don't think that Mom has yet spoken her last words to me. Might be easier now to hear her continuing words.

This Grateful Chick Stands on Holy Ground,

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The "Thin Places"

Today's Scriptures and liturgy were exactly what I needed. In the moments of my days I long to build tents to just hang out with Jesus. Yet, God's actions quickly sweep in to interrupt my silly plans with visions and displays that are simply grand.

Over the past bit of time, I have been taken to task about how I do not return telephone calls quickly enough (Friday morning after a a Wednesday afternoon message with no urgency conveyed), not visiting folks in the hospital (notwithstanding the fact that the patient had only a loose connection to our parish), not using the altar missal for our worship service and using a hand-held binder instead, asking communion assistants to handle pew communions rather than doing it myself as the pastor.

I was relieved today to relish in the words of the Gospel as we experience the Transfiguration of Jesus. And I was grateful for the words of friends who recalled the "thin places" in which the divine comes so very close to us that we can almost taste it, those places in which the veil between the human and the sacred is paper thin. Those holy holy moments in which we are present at this beautiful display of Jesus' glory.

This week the Lenten Journey begins and I embark on a spiritual direction path that offers new opportunities. I trust that these will reveal even more "thin places."

Blessings abound,