What I realized when I went and sat on a mountain for weeks

  
At yoga camp, I started drinking water like it was my job. 

Granted, I am living in an un-air-conditioned (fantastic) old house, and spending most of every day working out, so drinking water sort of IS my job. However: I kept up the obsession somewhat out of boredom and somewhat out of idle curiosity. Not every moment demanded my full attention (that’s my own ego’s opinion, not the truth), and I wondered, what would happen if I really drank those 8-10 cups of water every day for weeks?

Well. I’m here to tell you that it not only made my skin the clearest it’s been in 2 decades, but it’s curbed my addiction to sweets. 

I think what is really going on is that I’ve been incorrectly diagnosing an evening hydration trigger for an evening sweet trigger. Sure, plenty of it is conditioning, but I’ve noticed that when my body is full of water, my tongue isn’t quite as overpowering in its cry for chocolate cake or ice cream. 

It made me wonder–as my brain has been trained the last few weeks–how this translates to my larger life. If I perceive a need for water as a desired sugar buzz, I wonder if I am perceiving my soul’s cry for Living Water as a desired Netflix buzz. Perhaps saturation in the Scriptures would quell the tugging at the corners of my mind that most often drives me to a screen. 

Maybe a bit of meditation or contemplation would relieve my parched spirit more than a sweet bit of comedy could ever hope to do. 

the longest night & St. Thomas Day

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I’ve come to believe that there are no coincidences in the liturgical calendar.

I awoke early on 22 December, just as light was beginning to streak the sky, having completely forgotten that the night before was the longest span of darkness for the year before and the year to come.  Something made me realize it as I came awake in bed, and I hoped it was a sign that light is starting to break into the ice jam of darkness in my own mind, bringing to an end the exhausting and isolating but yearly phase of grey. Continue reading

And again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like The Devil Wears Prada.

A sixth parable: In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep depicts fashion mogul and long-time Vogue editor Anna Wintour–though her character has a different name in the film, of course (the real-life parallels are too blaring to be ignored).  A young, idealistic journalist, Andy (played by Anne Hathaway), desperate to get an “in” anywhere in the writing world, takes a job as an assistant to Miranda Priestly–Meryl Streep’s character.

Early in the film, there’s a scene in which the staff is agonizing over which turquoise belt to use in a shoot; witnessing the turmoil, Andy scoffs.  Ms. Streep turns her venomous tongue on Andy, delivering a powerful monologue tracing the history of the frumpy sweater which Andy proudly sports as a sort of anti-fashion statement.

So it is in the Kingdom of God. (see yesterday’s Gospel lesson: Matthew 13:31-33 & 44-52)

Sometimes we mistakenly think that it is our accomplishments or our self-made worthiness that elicits God’s response in becoming incarnate and eventually dying to stay with us.  It is not because there is something intrinsically superior about me, or you; it is because Jesus chose us.

Our worth comes from the price which has been paid for each of us–every person has a market value that is equivalent to Jesus’ life–our deepest identity is that we are loved by God.  We are really not such impressive, fantastic people; how exhausting it is to pretend that we are–how frustrating and tiresome to always try to work yourself up to perform and behave relying on your own steam and goodness!

If, however, our energy, our hope, our “steam” comes from finding ourselves only in what God has told us, we are free from being impressive, trying to achieve God’s love, or others’ acceptance.

We are both the cerulean sweater, and Andy, the idealistic journalist.  There’s nothing intrinsically better or more impressive about cerulean versus navy or lapis or even kelly green–the only thing that sets the cerulean sweater apart is that Miranda Priestly chose it.  The only thing that sets any one of us apart, that makes any one of us special, is that Jesus chose each of us–not that any one is particularly exceptional in and of themselves.  And we’re like Andy because we often think we’re in control of our own fashion–or our own image, or lives!–but really, we aren’t.  If we stake our image, our understanding of ourselves on anything other than being God’s child, being the one for whom Jesus sacrificed himself, then we won’t ever be at peace.

Matthew 13:44: “‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

The Good News is that looking at ourselves honestly, rightly, allows us to see our shortcomings, admit to them, own up to our sinfulness, and to still know that we are the field, the pile of dirt, that Jesus has joyfully bought with everything that he has.  I think it’s not a coincidence that a field, a pile of dirt, doesn’t do anyone much good unless life is put in it somehow–if someone plants it (as many of the parables surrounding this verse describe), or if, as in Genesis 1, God’s own breath–ruah–is blown into the pile of dirt, animating it, making it live (making it into us, into humanity).  Without God’s breath, God’s spirit, God’s energy and hope, we are just piles of dirt, but with God, because of God’s sacrifice of love for us, we are made free and alive and full of color.

May we be free from the expectations and achievements which this world–and we ourselves!–puts on us, knowing that our life, our worth, our very breath, comes only from God.

Prophet Daniel & the Leather Oxfords – a sermon.

In May, I was in NYC for my brother’s graduation from college, and while I was there, I wanted to find the right kind of walking shoe for the summer. I started looking through shoe stores in SoHo for the slip-on tennis shoe I had in mind, but by the time I walked into the second store on Broadway, I had given up my crush on ked-look-alikes and moved on to a leather oxford with a bit of a heel. Where did that desire come from? I’d never spent a moment looking at them online before my trip, or in any stores once I’d arrived; I hadn’t even noticed that there were any pairs that style in stores, but suddenly, I was overcome with this burning desire for oxfords. I moved from store to store, in pursuit of the perfect pair.

Many of you are aware I’d been taken in by the ubiquitous advertising of the fashion world—leather oxfords with a small heel are all the rage for spring. After a few days of walking around in New York City, seeing the shoes on women on the street, on billboards on buildings and in the subway, and on manequins in store windows, the image had lodged itself in my head, and I had no idea it was weaseling itself in there until I had a sudden and unquenchable thirst for these classic leather shoes.

In today’s Scripture lesson (Daniel 1:8-15), Daniel just isn’t refusing Babylonian biscuits and gravy, or turning down a grass-fed filet. By “not defiling himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies,” Daniel is standing up to the lie that Babylon is trying to pass off on him. Daniel knows the truth—life is found in no one else, there is no other god or person or philosophy or lifestyle on earth that gives the kind of life that following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does.

Actually, our language has done us a great favor— “Babylon” continues to be a label used to describe those things in our world that are corrupt and evil. We are called to be Daniel here, today, in 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina. We are called to reject Babylon, to purpose in our hearts to not defile ourselves with the portion of the king’s delicacies. We are called instead to eat fruits and vegetables, those things which will truly build us up, give us the energy we need in order to live good, joyful lives, attuned to God and to each other.

Just like Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as the Tempter offers Jesus bread, and the ruling of kingdoms, and the service of angels, there’s nothing inherently evil about bread or being a world leader or about angels’ help. There’s nothing wrong with wearing beautiful clothes, or watching television, or enjoying grass-fed filet mignon.

How many more malicious desires and ideas take root in our minds and hearts when we’re not looking? Television like the Real Housewives might be one—have you ever noticed what happens to you after you watch shows like that? I’ve found that I’m usually crankier, more tired, and most discontented with my life than I was before I sat down on the couch, even though my purpose in sitting down to some mindless TV was to relax. I’m less-relaxed, less-calm, less-rejuvenated when I finish Millionaire Matchmaker or Scandal. These shows lull me into new expectations about how exciting and shiny and sexy my life should be; my little bungalow with its husband, and garden, and German Shepherd in South Carolina suddenly looks very, very dull—and it happens without me realizing it.   I snap at my husband and I roll my eyes at vacuuming; surely the Real Housewives don’t have to deal with dog hair or with ironing.

How about Don Draper? We are desensitized to advertising all over and around our lives. Just like suddenly developing an urge for those oxfords, it’s a given matter of course that the ads on the edges of our pages while we surf the web are related to the shopping sites we visited earlier in the day, and the emails we receive in our inboxes are tailored to appeal to our particular weaknesses and consumer habits.

It is a lie to believe that what we ingest doesn’t matter. Our culture is becoming very aware of the importance of the sorts of things we eat, but by the same token, our culture tries to tell us that what we watch and read and talk about and worry about and focus on doesn’t matter, it doesn’t shape us nearly as much as the food we put in our mouths. This is the lie of Babylon that Daniel identified and purposed in his heart to resist.

We’re being lulled to sleep, thinking that what really matters is whether we are eating ethical shrimp or fair-trade zucchini. Though ethical food and fair-trade practices are vitally important to our lives as Christians and citizens of this created world, we ought to spend at least as much time considering the kinds of influences we allow in our own lives and in the lives of our families. Are we ingesting the kinds of television shows, music, radio programs, novels, movies, and conversations that help us to stay awake, or do the lull us to sleep?

It’s not a coincidence that we read Daniel wanted to eat vegetables—celery and kale do not make you want to take a nap. They keep you alert. Babylon wants to make you fall asleep; to not realize what is happening to you until it’s too late. We are the proverbial lobsters or frogs in the pot on the stovetop. Just a little bit of discontentment sneaks in to start with, we repeat the same annoying story about our spouse or best friend, and after a few times, we start to believe it. The water starts to warm up, and we start to believe the lie that others’ lives are naturally more glamorous and peaceful than ours. Soon, the water is boiling and we’re cooked—we didn’t even notice it.

This is what happened to Walter White in Breaking Bad—a timid high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer without having smoked a day in his life. He eased up next to evil under the guise of providing for his family by starting to cook and sell very pure, very cheap meth. A few seasons later, he’s a drug kingpin in the Southwest.

My friends, we live in Babylon. We are strangers in a strange land. We are offered all sorts of shiny delicacies by the king every day. As we notice all the moments that shove tempting, sleep-inducing food beneath your nostrils, let us remember Paul’s words: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

A version of this sermon was preached at Downtown Church in Columbia, SC, on July 20th, 2014.

Trinity & Unity

I had two best friends in elementary school; Sarah and Maggie.  Sarah and I lived just 10 houses apart, and we were born 10 days apart–as 9-year-olds, we thought this was very significant; Maggie lived in another town.  Maggie and I both had younger brothers and therefore shared the suffering of older sisters–a unique and very heavy cross we bore; Sarah was an only child.  Sarah and Maggie had been going to the same school together since pre-K; I was new in the fourth grade.  Though we three were devoted to each other and loved each other, there always seemed to be one of us on the outside; a pair of us was always a little bit closer than the other.

Three seems to be one of the most challenging numbers for a group of people to navigate; with two, you’re just a pair, with four, there are two pairs, and once you get to five or six, it’s really just a party.  Three is an awkward number when it comes to close relationships, and yet, that’s exactly the number that God chose to use to communicate to us who he is.  The most challenging of all numbers for a relationship to succeed–that’s the number God uses to reveal to himself to humanity.

Though it’s wrong both to say that God is more unified than diverse, or more diverse than unified, both angles are a bit much to cover in one morning–or at least are beyond my ability to capture succinctly, so I’ll focus on God being three-in-one.

There are many images, or analogies we’re given in our daily lives to help us try to understand how God is three and also one; marriage, though between two people, not three, is a picture of more-than-one-becoming-one.  In Genesis it says “the two became one flesh.”  Some of you know well the challenge of being unified with someone who is very different from you; many of us have seen the beautiful results of a couple who have consistently, for decades, put their unity ahead of their own individual ways. Another picture we see of many-being-one-body is the church.  Now, I don’t have to tell you that we haven’t done a great job of staying as “one” over the last many centuries.  Even before the Protestants and Roman Catholics split off, the Eastern church, the Orthodox Church, split off back in the 11th century, and another branch of churches left in the 5th century–we’ve been doing this all throughout history.  What has happened more recently in the lower part of our state is nothing new. There’s been a lot of upheaval here in the last months, and people have gotten up from the table, they’ve left the room, they’ve removed their presence from us.  We’re left incomplete without them, our church body isn’t whole because we’re missing them.  All our “persons” aren’t here.We worship a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three person, one unified God.  The first thing we learn about God in Genesis is that God is singular–it wasn’t, “in the beginning ‘gods’ created the heavens and the earth.”  The three persons of our Triune God aren’t grabbing for the spotlight, crazed to be heard, insisting on their own way or their own distinctiveness.  In the first words of the first book in which God tells us about himself, we meet a creative, compassionate, life-giving, self-sacrificing God.We live in a time and culture that emphasizes individualism.  Our grades in school, our paychecks at work, our email addresses, and our cell phones have one name on them, they belong to one person individually–each of us.  It’s easy to forget that we can’t rely on ourselves, that thinking of individuals as the building block of society is a rather modern notion.This week, Jordan and I are leaving for a trip to see cathedrals in Northern France.  We’ve been doing research and I’ve been calling on my Gothic Cathedrals class from undergrad to prepare.  Did you know that most of those famous cathedrals took more than 100 years to complete?  Not only was life expectancy shorter then, but people who were masons, working hard on the building wore their bodies out even sooner – even 3 and 4 generations might pass before the work was done.Most of those cathedrals are known for the town in which they’re located–Chartes, Cologne, Amiens–the identity is based not on a particular architect or stone mason, but on the community, the whole.  The whole church and community as one.  The name of every person who worked on the building isn’t written down or remembered – what they knew themselves to be working toward wasn’t their own glory or their own kingdom or for the importance of their particular voice, but to glorify, point toward, lift up God’s name, God’s identity.

The church, God’s people on earth, Jesus’ hands and feet in the world–us–existed long before we came along, and will be around long after we’re gone.  Our work is not to be heard or to be remembered or to be concerned and proud and angry about what makes each of us so terribly unique, but to do as Paul exhorts us in this morning’s epistle reading from 2 Corinthians,

“11 Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.

13 All the saints greet you.

14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.” (13:11-14, NKJV)