Monday, December 26, 2005

Serving Stephen

Acts 7:54-60
When the people heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Human One standing at the right hand of God!" But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.


Wow. What a powerful moment for the new Church. One of their own, one of their dearest, the deacon Stephen, pays for his faith with his life. And Saul—soon to be known as Paul—is there as well. It’s like a scene from a serial movie or a murder mystery—this person Saul will become very important to the church indeed—but in a different way than what you expect…

Stephen the deacon. When I began the long journey towards ordination, there were two questions I had to answer to the satisfaction of the committees that interviewed me. The first was, “Is your call to professional ministry? Or can you fulfill your call as a lay person?” This was a very important question, especially since I was a second career pastor. And it is true that there are many people who begin the process towards ordination because others—friends, a trusted pastor, family—encourage them, whether or not the person really feels the call. So that was the first question. The second was just as important, although it might nor seem so at first glance. “Are you called to ordained ministry or to the diaconate?” In the United Methodist Church, the difference is subtle—deacons may lead worship, preach, and teach, but they cannot consecrate the Communion elements, baptize, or marry people. Of course, there are exceptions when a deacon is appointed to act as pastor, but most deacons are never in that position. Deacons are called to a specific kind of service—Christian education, music ministry, administration, youth ministry, and so on. Also, most deacons must find their own positions—they are not appointed to a church as ordained pastors (elders) are. So for me, going through the process in the United Methodist Church, this was a serious question.

I quickly learned the correct answers to the questions about ordained vs. diaconal calling—that diaconal service is a different calling, not better or worse, higher or lower, but simply different. That we all have different gifts, and some of us are gifted with the graces for diaconal service, and some for ordained ministry.

Stephen the martyr. In England, St. Stephen’s Day was traditionally the day boys went out and shot wrens—an echo of Stephen’s martyrdom. Today in Britain and Canada and other Commonwealth countries, it is Boxing Day—the day when you give boxes—gifts—to the post person, to the newspaper deliverer, and so on (it used to be the servant, but nowadays most of us don’t have any).

And that somehow is appropriate. On the day when we remember the death of the disciple who served others, we thank the ones who help us during the year. Who helps you? The people who have helped me over the years--have served me, if you will--include my son’s day care provider, the dry cleaner who is always cheerful, bank teller who remembers to ask me about the church, the server at Tim Horton’s who knows my order by heart (large double double and chocolate chocolate frosted doughnut, if you’re curious). It’s not that I’m better than they are, and so they serve me. It is simply their job. And when the teller comes to church, I serve her. When the dry cleaner needs an ear, and I listen, I’m serving him.

Because the truth is, we all serve each other—or should. Jesus said, “Serve each other.” He gave us the example by washing his disciples’ feet before that last meal together.

Do we allow others to serve us? Or are we so sure that we can do it all ourselves, and that it’s others who need help, never us, that don't let someone else do for us? Are we so arrogant that we cannot accept a gift from someone? I have learned that sometimes the greatest gift is simply accepting the gift.

So serve. And just as importantly, allow yourself to be served.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2005

Our readings tonight have one theme, one message: Hope. The prophets of Israel, despairing in their exile, hoped for God to bring them out of the foreign land and return them home. We hope to be rid of the demons that haunt us, that make our days unhappy and our nights unsleeping, to remember that our children, whether of our body or of our heart, are still worth loving. We hope that our lives, too, obscure though they may seem, are not useless or in vain.

And behold, our hope is not idle. Our hope has been answered—through the birth of a child, God made flesh, God come to earth to be with us. Emmanuel—God is with us. Can anything be more wonderful than this? God came to be with us in a shape we could recognize. We are never without God—God is very present with us, always. But sometimes, our human eyes cannot see God as clearly as we would like to, as well as God would like us to see God. And so God came to be with us for a little while, as a human being.

And that’s what we celebrate tonight—not the shepherds and the angels and the candles and the tree, certainly not the presents and cookies and eggnog and fancy clothes. We celebrate the fact that our creator loves us, God wants us to know God—and so God came to us. “For God so loved the world…” For God so loved us.

Soon after DP and I moved here, we found a tract on our car windshield. One of those small pamphlets, I think you can get them fifty for five dollars or something. It was stuck under the windshield wiper, and the title read, “Certainly you may do as you wish.” The writer was trying to convince the reader to go to church instead of sailing or playing golf or playing roulette or horseback riding—at least, I’m assuming those were the alternatives to church, from the pictures on the cover. Anyway, there was some language in the booklet that made me nervous—“your soul could be required of you at any time,” “you have made choices about how to spend your life,” “sometimes we are selfish and rebel against God,” that sort of thing. I had no idea if there was a person in the neighbourhood who made a habit of putting those on cars, or if it was directed specifically at us, if we had a homophobic neighbour. I asked our neighbours who are also a lesbian couple, and they said they had gotten one or two, but they didn’t know if they had been targeted either, or if the tracts had simply been placed on all the cars that happened to be parked on the street at the time when the person was placing them. When the tract appeared a second time, I talked to PF (Pastor Friend), who had been very welcoming and supportive. Dear PF! He didn’t think it meant anything, and was very reassuring and comforting—remember, DP and I were still getting to know this place and our neighbours. For all we knew, we had a homophobe down the street. So we decided to keep an eye out and see who else—if anyone—got a tract next time one appeared on our car.

A few days later, after my office hours were over, I went out to my car. There was something on my windshield, tucked under the wiper, wrapped in plastic. It was a small booklet.

“We are not alone. We live in God’s world,” it began. And it went on.

“We are not alone, we live in God's world. We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit. We trust in God. We are called to be the Church: to celebrate God's presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

It was a child’s book of the United Church of Canada’s creed. Tucked into the front was PF’s card, with a note of encouragement. He had left me a gift, a sweet taste to take away the alarming bitter flavour of the tract, and he left it on my windshield to remind me that people who wish me well are watching me also. And do you know, I have never found another one of the tracts on my car?

We are not alone. God is with us. In the coldest and most fearful of times, when everything seems too much—when you are in exile, or when those demons of fear seem about to overwhelm you, when you don’t know if what you are doing is worthwhile, when you don’t know why you bother, when you don’t know who is friend and who is not—remember. God loves us so much, God is with us. We are not alone.

This is what we celebrate at Christmas—God’s presence with us, now, tonight, and forever.

In the many names of the one loving Creator, amen.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Another Woman!

Exciting news! My niece, who is expecting in early June, had her ultrasound this week, and she's expecting a girl! Another girl to add to my overwhelmingly female family! I'm one of five sisters, and three of my sisters have only girls (seven between them). With my mother, that's fourteen wonderful women! (Checking my math here--five sisters plus seven daughters is twelve plus a grand niece is thirteen plus my mother is fourteen. Yep, it's right!) And if you want to go back a generation, my grandmother (my mother's mother) had two sisters and no brothers, so that's three more women...

Life is good.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Tuesday Evening...

and Commander in Chief's not on! Darn...I was hoping for some relaxation and entertainment tonight. Instead I'll have to do some work. But I can procrastinate a little longer by blogging, right?

DP and I got our Visitor's Record renewed today. Quite easy, once they've (Canada Immigration, that is) decided it's close enough to the expiration of your previous document (see Exciting Canadian Politics entry, below). Drove to the US, drove back, told the nice Customs and Immigration man we needed to renew our VR's, he sent us into the Immigration Office, we showed the nice clerk our papers, she agreed we were eligible to stay another year, she did the paperwork, we got our new VRs, we drove home. All done!

I survived our annual congregational meeting. I'm not exactly up on Robert's Rules of Order, which is how the meeting is run. Other people are up on RRO, and let me know (nicely) when I wander. All the business of the church was taken care of for a year, including the election of a new Board of Administration (thank you, God, for the Holy Spirit moving among the members!).

I'm feeling very tired. I'm not sure why. There's the usual busy-ness of the season, of course, and the added stresses of being a pastor at this time of year (and don't I resent people who do their Christmas shopping all year and are done already? Yes, I do--unreasonably, perhaps, but I do). I have a lot to do, what with getting the Christmas and New Year's worship services ready, preparing for next year (worship, administration, etc.), my own personal Christmas with DP and TO, various meetings and appointments (and the usual clergy meetings and luncheons are doubly important in December)...But the thing is, I'm not feeling motivated. I just want to curl up with a good book (Jane Austen springs to mind), a cup of tea and a cheese sandwich, and let the world go away.

Unfortunately, it won't go away.

So maybe if I'm more disciplined--get the work done instead of procrastinating, then I won't feel so overwhelmed. Shoot, I'm making sense. Must be time to get some work done.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Somebody Pushed My Button!

I was reading another blog, and a response to the blog got me going... So look out below, I'm on my hobbyhorse and rocking away!

The comment was on demographically focused devotionals, worship, etc. Such things as A Women's Devotional, or the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a church founded in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community, or even Promisekeepers. One commenter took exception to such things, saying that all Christians should be one, and such things are divisive. My blogger acquaintance responded that such things are needed because marginalized groups do not always feel at home in the larger church.

Let's look at the Methodist Church. Back in the early 1800s, in a church in Philadelphia, the black members were not allowed Communion until all the white members had received, thus insuring that the white folks got Communion, while sometimes there was not enough for the black folks, to say nothing of the attitude thus indicated. The black members finally had enough and went off to form their own church--the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME.

Now, some might say that they had no right to do that--they were in the church, and receiving Communion, and members... But they weren't really accepted, were they? They were regarded in fact, of not in the letter, as second-class members. But God has no second-class children.

The simple fact is that different groups in society have different reasons for wanting their own denominations or congregations within those denominations. Sometimes it's cultural/ethnic/language, as with the Latino Methodist churches, or Korean Methodist, or Vietnamese Catholic churches (I once lived five minutes from Our Lady of Vietnam Roman Catholic Church, three blocks from St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Community; there was room for both). Or the MCC. Or the AME.

The fault is not that of the marginalized groups--they are seeking God, and want to worship God and follow Christ. But the institutional church, the human church, is preventing them. And so they find their own ways to worship.

Personal history: God called me to ministry when I was a member of a United Methodist Church. I (eventually) responded, went to seminary, graduated after five years, was appointed (as probationary elder) to a charge, and led a very hurting congregation towards wholeness over the course of a year. But also during that year, I realized that aspects of myself I had thought I could hide forever would not be hidden. I was less of a pastor for hiding parts of me and lying about it. And so I came out as a bisexual woman, went through a divorce, and left the United Methodist Church. I didn't leave because I was angry at the United Methodist Church, but because they would not allow me to answer my call within the UMC. In effect, I was forced to choose--God or the UMC. I chose God.

I am disappointed in the UMC (and other denominations, but the UMC is the one that touched my life). I was a lifelong UM--parents married there, myself baptized and confirmed there, heard my call there, went to a Methodist seminary, etc. And yet, when it came down to the difficult questions, they (the institution) could not see me as an equal child of God with my straight classmates at seminary or my straight colleagues in ministry.

We, the marginalized, are not asking for special treatment. We're asking for equal treatment. Our lives are often ignored in the sermons we hear, in the music we sing, and in the prayers we pray. If worship does not speak to our hopes and fears, it cannot reach our hearts and inspire us to reach for God.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Bone People, by Keri Hulme

I've been meaning to comment on this, since I mentioned rereading it and wondering if it would be as good the second time around. Well, it was.

This is one of those books that you start out reading, you're a bit confused, you take your time with the first fifty pages or so, trying to sort out who's who and what's going on. This was especially true for me, since a great deal of the book's power is in the emphasis on Maori culture, which I am woefully ignorant of. Then you really get into it and you start reading obsessively, desperate to find out What's Going to Happen. And then It happens, and you get depressed, and don't want to read anymore, except that you've started to fall in love with this characters, and you need to know how they get themselves out of this situation. And so you finish it.

Most of it is very good, well-written, excellent characterization and descriptive writing that makes you feel as if you are in New Zealand. The plot is fairly good--a couple of odd twists, but hey, what do I know of the cultural norms in an isolated town in New Zealand (see above, re: Maori culture)? However, the ending is a bit too pat, and while it's emotionally satisfying, it's artistically disappointing.

That said, however, find it and read it anyway. Powerful reading for a snowy weekend. Bet you'll find yourself Googling for Maori info before the weekend's over!

Past Lives

I'm hopelessly addicted to those silly online quizzes--what's your personality? If you were on the series "Friends," which character would you be? etc. But I liked the result on this one! I was a belly dancer! Good thing, cause it's never happening in this life!

In a Past Life...
You Were: A Gorgeous Belly Dancer.
Where You Lived: Argentina.
How You Died: Suicide.
Who Were You In a Past Life?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Snowy Friday!

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas around the RP household! Not only did I get ambitious yesterday and haul down three boxes of Christmas decorations (which now adorn the house), but I've been playing Christmas music on the stereo and--it snowed five inches last night! Our neighbor's teeny tiny evergreen looks like a Christmas card with the snow on its branches perfectly rounded and smooth. It just needs a tiny cardinal or bunny to make it complete. It almost makes me want to go Christmas shopping!
DP has discovered a shop in town that sells goods from the Third World, with proceeds going directly back to the artisans. Finances aren't going to permit a lot of gifts this year, but I plan on visiting it for most of the gifts I do give. I wonder if they have anything for a 17-year old boy? TO's list is mostly electronic this year. Sigh.

Top Christmas CDs in my special Christmas CD box:
  • Mannheim Steamroller (several of theirs; they have a great catalog too, and I lust after their parka!)
  • Handel: A Soulful Celebration (a reinterpretation of the Messiah--great stuff!)
  • Chicago: Christmas (an unforgettable rendition of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town")
  • Natalie Cole Christmas
  • Sax Winterlude
  • John Rutter's Christmas Music (one of my favorite modern sacred music composers)
Other random thoughts:
I'm not preaching this Sunday; our host pastor and his wife (also a pastor) are going to preach a dialogue sermon. It's wonderful how things worked out--I had asked him to preach for me because we have a bingo event on Sunday afternoon after church, and I'll need to be fairly alert, thus need to conserve energy (and preaching takes it out of me!). He and his wife rarely get to preach together, and so this is an opportunity for them as well. See? Benefits all around!
Because I have this Sunday off, I was hoping to use the extra time this week to get ahead of things--plan worship for January, select Scriptures for the year, start the sermon for week after next, that sort of thing. Did not work (see above, with home decorating and snow to be shoveled). I've gotten some other planning done, however. And I keep reminding myself, it's not always possible to finish every job all at once. Sometimes you work on something for a little while, then come back to it later, especially if you're waiting for input from someone else. It's the waiting, I guess.
So I guess I'll work on the Scriptures for a while, then the sermon,. Maybe neither one will be finished, but they'll be closer to it than they are now--and closer than they would be if I didn't do anything at all!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

World AIDS Day

It's December 1, World AIDS Day. I remember when AIDS first showed up (then called GRID) in the public consciouness, as I was working in medical libraries at the time, so the doctors would want information on it, and we'd do a computer search on AIDS and get "finding aids," and grant information--but very little on AIDS itself.

MCC really came to the consciousness of many in the GLBT community in those early years--often an AIDS patient's own clergyperson wouldn't come, for fear of infection, or of seeming to condone their "lifestyle" (ahhh, don't get me started), so the hospital staff would call the local MCC, if there was one. A friend of mine who was in active ministry in the 80's went through a period of months where she officiated at 2-3 funerals a week. When the pace was slower, it was 2-3 a month. For comparison, when I served a small rural church with an aging congregation, I performed 3 funerals in one year.

Even now, when we can see that the majority of infections worldwide are through heterosexual contact, so many in the US want to stigmatize it as a "gay disease" or as something that those who are infected somehow brought on themselves through infidelity. And yet so many of the people infected are women whose (male) partners have had unsafe sex (whether with women or other men). And what about the children? And those (fewer now) who received blood or blood products in the years before we had tests? 17 years ago, when my son was born by cesarean, I had a special bracelet on my wrist, in addition to the hospital ID bracelet and the one matching my son's bracelet. That special bracelet warned staff that I had received blood transfusions (almost twenty years earlier), and they should use precautions when handling my bodily fluids.

And I think of those people who say that AIDS is God's pronouncement of doom on the gay community, and I want to laugh. Because, after all, the lowest rate of infections (and there are some) is among lesbians!

Not all is gloom. We have lost some talented and beautiful people, whole regions have been basically deserted, and the human race is the poorer. But there is hope. New medications have be developed, people are living longer and longer with AIDS, and sero-converting later and later. People living with AIDS (PWA) are dying of other things--heart disease, lung cancer. It sounds odd to see that as a victory, but it used to be that anyone who received a diagnosis of HIV stopped at the lawyer's on the way home and made sure the will was in order. I would love it if all my friends who are HIV+ or living with AIDS outlived me. They are all wonderful men (as it happens, all men), who have supported me in some rough times and celebrated with me in some great times. I cannot imagine the world without them.

Keep the promise--stop AIDS.