You may have seen the new BuzzFeed video, “What is Privilege?” – it’s been making the rounds on Facebook and YouTube the past few weeks . If you haven’t, it’s worth 4 minutes of your life. While privilege isn’t really a difficult concept to understand, accepting it would seem to challenge one of our most cherished American ideals – that everyone has the opportunity to succeed in life. The shorthand we use for this notion is that any American child can grow up to be president. Yet while this is technically true, we all know it isn’t totally true.

So in the video, ten participants start out hand in hand, stretched across the room in a line. We hear a voice ask a question, and people “answer” by taking a step forward or backward. If you were born in the U.S., take a step forward; if your parents worked nights or weekends, take a step back. There are questions about mental and physical disability, race, gender, religion, and socio-economic class. There are other questions about language, access to health care, education, physical safety, and the stability of your family system. There are questions to cover just about all our advantages and disadvantages, more than could possibly apply to any single individual’s circumstance. And in the end, there is a real, visible gap between those in front and those in the rear, a gap resulting from factors none of those individuals controlled.

My religious tradition is pragmatic about the world – there are many powers which will try to exploit differences between us, hoping to gain advantage. But my faith also harbors a great hope – that ultimately, none of our differences matter before God. St. Paul told the Christian women and men who made up the church in Colossae, “In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.” Sentiment and wishful thinking will not move the world closer to this hope, but perhaps positive, concrete action to live up to the standards of our faith will.

Sabbath Home

One sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.  Mark 2:23-3:6

I Sabbathgrew up on the western edge of the Great plains, and I spent a lot of winter days reading about another little girl from the prairie – Laura, from the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. A subject that came up more than once in her books was the way Sabbath was observed in her home. And well, that set me thinking about church as our “sabbath home” . . .

You can stream the audio sermon at Sabbath Home.

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.  Genesis 1:29-30

GardenWe started gardening when our children were little, because we wanted them to know what food was and where it came from. We wanted them to experience the smell of the damp earth, the warmth of the sunshine and the wetness of the rain, the sound of bees pollinating the flowers and the colors of ripening fruit. We wanted them to know the tangy taste of a fresh raspberry, as well as the effort and care required to pluck it from its thorny stem.

We started our garden thinking we would be the teachers, but it seems the garden taught us. We learned about the connections between green plants and living creatures, and the garden brought us close to critters we’d never paid attention to before. We learned about the incredible bounty God provides – there’s nothing skimpy or miserly in the way nature works – as well as the great diversity of living things that share our world. Our garden led us to the local farmer’s market and taught us about eating in season. We learned about nutrition, and new ways of cooking, and eating lower on the food chain. We learned about food insecurity and how community gardens can help people nourish themselves and their children. But mostly we learned that God made earth so there’s more than enough, if we pay attention to the way it all works together.

I’m thinking that every church family should have a garden, and that part of our weekly prayer time ought to be spent weeding and watering. I wonder what the turnips and peas would try to teach us about God. Do you think we’d be smart enough to learn it?

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.  Genesis 1:29-30

“As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?”  Ezekiel 34:17-18


I’ve got two blogs going, my own and one for the church, which is where I started this conversation about environmental stewardship as a spiritual discipline. I really think it belongs here, though – it’s not your orthodox stance, but I’ve been thinking about it for a lot of years. (If you want to catch up, you’ll find the beginning of the conversation here.)

So, my first career was spent as an environmental engineer. I worked for a large industrial company that made the materials and chemicals used to build wonderful things, like houses and cars, ships and bridges and hospitals. When I started my career 35 years ago, we were really just beginning to learn what pollution could do to our water and air and land, just beginning to understand the complex connections between our health and all those toxic byproducts we also produced when we were making all those wonderful things to improve people’s lives. I’m know it seemed to many people back then that the world was so big, and our waste so small in comparison, that we couldn’t have much of an impact, not really. We were wrong.

The problems of pollution in our industrial world are complicated and can seem beyond the ability of any of us to effect. Yet in this, too, we have been given responsibility by our Creator to walk lightly on the earth, preserving the gifts of earth, air, and water which sustain life on our planet. But what can a single individual do? Well, we can choose to buy less toxic products, buy only the amounts we need, and dispose of any leftovers properly. We can reuse, recycle, and repurpose all kinds of things, rather than throw them away. We can pitch in and help clean up our rivers, parks, and roadways. And we can make sure that our political leaders understand our desire to keep our natural resources clean and wholesome for generations not yet born. I’m sure there are other ways to make a difference that I haven’t thought of. What do you think we can do?

Grace Wins, Hands Down


There’s no denying it, autumn is over and done with and we are deep in the heart of winter. There’s ice on the river, you dare not leave home without mittens and hat, and the eagles have returned, hoping for a meal.

We’ve been watching the eagles from our window. You’d think if you were at the top of the food chain, life would be a bowl of cherries – or fish, in this case – but it’s not. The poor birds are harassed from sun-up to sun-down, by every other flying creature along the river. The crows and gulls are almost like shadows, following them where ever they fly, in the hope one of the big guys will drop that fish they’re trying to swallow in mid-air.

None of us are very good at imagining what life is like for someone else. In the press of living our own lives, we forget that other people have demanding jobs, and family obligations, and bills to pay. We may be unaware of the worry they feel for loved ones who live in far away places, and we’re not likely to know much about the sleepless nights they endure because of their own pain. The tears of loneliness they weep when they are by themselves are invisible to us, and we hope we are never in the way of the anger they just can’t hold inside any longer. While it may be true that we all have different levels of tolerance for frustration, fear, and injustice, it is neither wise, nor kind, nor helpful to condemn a brother or sister when we do not understand the troubles they face.

A new year is beginning, a time when many of us look to recommit ourselves to a more Christian way of living. We promise to lay down our vices and pick up new virtues, but in short order, we’re right back where we were. That’s because our brokenness – our sin, to use an old-fashioned word – is inherent to our life. Accepting Jesus does not make us perfect, it makes us forgiven sinners. The kicker about that is that repentance and reconciliation then have to become the rhythm of our lives. We will always mess it up, and we will always need to ask forgiveness, and we will always need to reach out to our brothers and sisters, offering our forgiveness and understanding to them. When you think about it, this gift of salvation – the resilience to turn and turn and turn again, to cling tight to the promise that we are redeemed, and to refuse to give up on a brother or sister – is miraculous, plain and simple.

All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers. But sin didn’t, and doesn’t, have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down.                 Romans 5:20

One in a Million


My husband’s brother Michael died this week. It wasn’t really unexpected – he’d been treated for end-stage renal disease for more than 44 years. It’s just that, well, we never really expect death. It is a rare, unnatural, uncommon occurrence for death to pass so near, so close to us we can touch it – at least, it seems to be, when it’s happening to us. In truth, of course, it’s not. A million people died this week, the same as every week, and my brother-in-law was one of them. Just one in a million.

What did seem to be rare and uncommon to me was the extraordinary graciousness that welcomed and embraced everyone as the family gathered to say good-bye. I can’t say it surprised me, though. My brother-in-law was one of those rare people who were truly “grace-full”, so much so it couldn’t help but spill over and touch other people with its healing effect.

I don’t mean to make him sound like a saint, because he was just a human being like all the rest of us. Yet in spite of the grave illness that set so many physical boundaries for him during his life, he was a man bound and determined to live his life fully, and he did everything with a zest I still envy. Perhaps, in that respect, he was one in a million.

Many of us have Michaels in our lives – people who inspire and instill hope in us. We admire them; and we long for that illusive gift of grace they seem to have in their possession. But many of us also know people embittered by the hardship of life, people who seem to live in the shadows of pain or fear or loneliness. We pity them, for it seems they have been robbed of a great treasure – that graciousness we all desire. It does not seem to be circumstance or means that makes the difference. Grace can be found in the most dire situations, just as it can be absent in the most fortunate. What, then, can possibly cause such a difference?

I am convinced that faith – in its broadest sense – is what makes the difference. Faith is as simple – and as difficult – as accepting the fact of mystery in the world and refusing to waste time or energy demanding answers to pointless questions like “Why?”. Faith is as simple, and as difficult, as recognizing the miracle in each breath, every heart beat, the full palette of emotion and thought. Faith is as simple, and as difficult, as allowing your loved ones to walk with you to death’s door, and leaving them, when the time has come, with a smile and the surety of peace. I don’t know the odds of finding such faith – one in a million? – but I know the quest is worth everything.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”    Hebrews 11:1

The Challenge of Change

When we were much younger, my husband and I pursued the American dream with a vengeance. Like many of our contemporaries, we just assumed we could “have it all” – successful careers, thriving family, comfortable home, cars, vacations, and satisfying volunteer activities that made a difference in the world. This belief is so basic in our culture, we assume that NOT having a picture-perfect life kind of marks you as a loser. It was the piercing honesty of a child that finally shattered the delusion. I was trying to get the boys bathed and ready for bed. They were squabbling, each trying to provoke the other in ways that only siblings can, but when the water started flying around the room, I lost my cool and snapped at them both. Whereupon my 3-year old put his hands on his hips, screwed on his best “angry face”, and said, “Well, I’m sorry! I had a hard day today!”

His comment hit me like a ton of bricks, because up to that point in time, I absolutely knew that “having it all” would make us all happy, and yet there I was, faced with clear evidence to the contrary. Neuroscientists tell us that all new information coming into the brain has to be assessed and a decision made about how to handle it. If it fits with what we already know and believe – if it’s consonant with our experience – it may reinforce what we already thought, or it may just be discarded since it offers no new value. When the information is dissonant, however – when it contradicts something we believe to be true – it takes a lot of energy and brain work to process it, no matter what we ultimately do with the new idea: ignore it, deny it, or construct logical reasons to reject it. There is another possibility, of course, though in my experience it takes even MORE energy and creative thought to consider seriously that the old information we’ve been using to make decisions might not be complete or entirely correct.

The problem with my son’s challenge was not that career, home, and financial security were bad, because they’re not. The difficulty arose because I had allowed those things to trump a much deeper, more fundamentally-held truth – that love is the purpose for which God created us. I didn’t do it consciously, of course, but the contradiction was there all the same, just waiting to be pointed out to me. I thought I knew all about the selfless love of God in Christ. Why, I could have recited all the right Bible verses for you, but I don’t think I really began to understand it, even a little bit, until I was confronted with the idea that I might need to sacrifice something in my life, for the sake of someone I loved. Change like that is for the brave of heart, and yet that is exactly what Christ calls us to – transformed lives, changed from the inside out.

You know, I’m pretty sure God had been sending me the message that “love wins” a long time before my brain was able to recognize it and decide to work through it rather than dodge it. But when I finally did, it was no longer possible to keep doing the same thing hoping for a different result. Within a year, we changed our lives in some pretty radical ways. Joe decided to stay home with the kids full-time, so we could focus on nurturing those strong, family relationships of love and respect we believe God calls us to, and I took on the role of sole provider for a while, to enable all that to happen. I probably wouldn’t suggest what we did to anybody else, for I can assure you it was terrifying, but it was also the right way for us to move forward. Our faith grew deeper, and stronger, because we were willing to re-learn something we already knew in a new way, and to be changed by it.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2

I find myself stumbling over what the church (or the general culture) has tried to teach me about Jesus – things that everybody knows about Jesus – but that I just don’t find a lot of convincing evidence for when I read the Bible.

This spring/summer, we spent three months reading 1 Peter. (The “we” is a study group in the Presbytery of East Iowa, working with Nikki Collins MacMillan to explore stepping outside the walls of our church buildings.) I spent most of the summer angry, recalling comments I’ve heard stating that oppressed and marginalized folks should be glad to suffer, if that’s what God wants, because that’s what Christ did, suffered for other’s sins. I would have problems with that statement almost no matter what, but I especially had problems since that’s NOT what 1 Peter says.

For some perverse reason that I don’t quite understand, I’ve been including readings from 1 Peter in worship since the beginning of July, though I’ve only managed one sermon on it that whole time. But this week I got stuck on 1 Peter 4:1 – learn to think like Jesus. (Have the same intention, the same attitude.) What a difficult thing that is. We have his words, reported by other people, but not the thinking behind his words. The gospel lesson, the last parable in Luke 12, ends with one of those hard sayings of Jesus that just doesn’t seem to jive with the standard story about Jesus as the eschatological judge. I can imagine it, though, as a glimpse into his own thoughts about who he was – a faithful steward might have filled the bill just as well, maybe better, than the image of a son: “From the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. “

I think a lot of people today want to learn to think along these lines, both inside the walls and out.

What a Beautiful City


 “Then one of the seven angels said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates, twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Revelation 21:9-14

It’s a peculiar image, to my modern mind, but the ancients often used the metaphor of a wife to describe their cities. Beautiful, precious, carefully adorned and protected, treasured as the keeper of hearth and home. Consequently, it doesn’t really surprise me that this city, the worthy spouse of the Holy God, should be compared to a very rare jewel. She is perfection, with her 12 gates, 12 angels, 12 inscriptions of the 12 tribes, standing on 12 foundations of the Lamb’s own 12 apostles. Twelve is one of those perfect numbers, combining symbols of both heaven and earth – the triune nature of the divine choosing to dwell within the four corners of the world.

What I do find fascinating is that John sees this perfect city coming down out of heaven to take her place on earth. Frankly, it would make a lot more sense to me if the angel had just carried John away to heaven, but that’s not what happened. John is very much on the earth, and so is this new city. She’s everything you’d expect a city to be, but made perfect with the glory of God’s presence. I may be wrong, but I don’t think most of us think of our cities as a worthy spouse of the Holy God, but maybe we should. If we treated our community, and the people who live here, as a precious thing of beauty, to be adorned and protected, treasured as that which we value most, we might be surprised how keenly we could feel God’s pleasure in us, as the bride he adores.

We see many things when we look at ourselves, but we rarely see what God sees, because we do not have eyes of love. I don’t know which is the cause and which is the effect – maybe it’s a never-ending feedback loop – but I sense two things essential to our thriving, and they are inextricably linked together: the deep conviction that God’s love is making our community beautiful and perfect, and our own commitment to treat every member with the compassion and respect due to one beloved by God.

(original post 14 June 2013)

  “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

When called on to officiate at a funeral, I almost always use these words somewhere in the service as a witness to the resurrection. I find these words of John’s vision to be among the most comforting ones in the Bible, especially when hard pressed by a present reality of death, mourning, tears, or pain. It gives me great hope to hear that there will come a time when death will be no more, that in God’s long-range plan for creation, suffering and sorrow will cease to be, replaced, we are told, by God’s shalom, by God’s peace.

Of course, my head is rationally insistent that such a time has not yet arrived – we do still experience those hard realities. Yet my heart hears with unabashed joy that the first things have passed away. I don’t think it’s the death of Jesus that so captures the human heart; death is a common-place thing. It’s his resurrection from the grave which is so compelling. I wish I could understand it, but try as I might, I can’t – my head is in total agreement with the poet Swinbourne: “Dead men rise never”. And yet my heart is convinced that Jesus did. In the silence of that tomb, in the darkest hours before dawn, the first things passed away, and God began to create the world anew. It’s probably the best news I have ever heard.

     Though I’m sure none of them realized it at the time, when the women came to the empty tomb that first Easter morning, they were standing on the threshold of a whole new life, one never even imagined before. As Tom Wright put it, what everyone expected at the end of time, God had done for Jesus right in the middle of time, and it changed everything. It opened up a way into the space between what was and what is and what will be – Jesus opened a way into the “kingdom of God”, and I pray every day for the courage to live and grow and follow him into that eternal space where God’s peace permeates heaven and earth.
(original post 12 April 2013)