Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day Sermon

In honor of Memorial Day I thought I'd post the sermon that I preached last year on the Sunday just prior to Memorial Day. It includes an amalgamation of some of the stories that my father used to tell me about his experience as a Naval sailor in World War II. For my siblings who may read this, your recollection of some of the details of these stories may differ from my own, probably due as much to my own faulty memory and the young age at which I heard most of these stories, as to the natural inclination for both story teller and listener to embellish and edit details over time.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet I was able to track down a rather detailed account of the wartime incident that my father spoke of the most: the bombing and sinking of his ship. For those who are interested, you can find that account here.

This is the ship that my father served on, the LST 313:

And this is his ship just after it was bombed by a German ME109 fighter plane on July 10, 1943, off the coast of Gela, Sicily.

On this Memorial Day my prayers go out to all of those who have lost their lives due to the horrors of war.

Sermon - "The Numbers Game" - May 28th 2006

I have a math problem for you to solve this morning.
When does 5 + 2 = 5,000?

What if I told you that Jesus was the one doing the math, does that make this problem easier to solve?

We're all familiar with the story of Jesus feeding the crowd of 5,000 - where he took 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and managed to turn them into 5,000 meals.
(And this was before Hamburger Helper)
While the gospels tell us that all of the 5,000 in attendance that day accepted Jesus' meal and "all were satisfied," author and humor columnist Tim Bete thinks otherwise.
Bete speculates that in a crowd that size there must have been at least 1,000 children present when Jesus performed this miracle, and by his calculations "400 of those kids would have declared that they 'didn’t like fish', 350 would have complained that their 'bread was touching their fish' and therefore they couldn't eat it, 150 would have whined that the fish was 'inedible without tartar sauce', 75 would have asked for fish sticks instead of the whole fish, and finally, 25 would have dropped their fish on the ground and then cried because it was dirty even though they had no intention of eating it in the first place.
Because Jesus was in charge, two miracles occurred that day, first he multiplied the loaves and fish, and second, he got all the kids to eat it."

Jesus was not just a miracle worker; he was also a shrewd mathematician.
Not only did he feed 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, he managed to parlay 12 apostles into a religion that reached millions.

Which brings us to the second math problem that we'll be solving today.
When does 2.1 billion + 1 = One?

2.1 billion is the number of people in the world today who identify as Christian.
When we add in Jesus, the one Christ that each Christian professes to follow, we should end up with a total of one -
one faith, one body, one church.
At least that's how Jesus the mathematician saw it.
Jesus had the ability to look to look at an infinite set of variables and see them all come together as one.
We are the variables, and the path that Jesus walked is the one on which we are all meant to converge. Jesus was a living example of how we were meant to live. His life, his teachings, were given to us as a gift. But unfortunately, like children who find reasons not to eat their fish, we find reasons not to accept what Jesus has offered us.

The scripture from the Gospel of John that we read today is Jesus' prayer for unity among all those who profess to follow in his footsteps.
Jesus said:
"Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one"

This scriptural passage has been the basis of many a sermon in Christian churches as of late, not just in our denomination, but in all denominations faced with division in their ranks.
Name any hot button issue and I'll guarantee you there's a church somewhere that is arguing about which side of the fence they should be on.
Abortion - Gay marriage - Gay clergy - Female clergy - Immigration - The War in Iraq - Political Activism - Family Values - Biblical interpretation.
It's liberal vs. conservative. Traditionalist vs. Modernist. Patriot vs. Pacifist…..Christian vs. Christian.

Tempers flair, voices are raised, tears are shed, and before long some members of the flock choose to leave the fold, joining those who stand with them, and leaving behind those who don't.
What was one church splits into two….and inevitably, lines continue to be drawn, and two splits into four, and four splits into eight, and so on and so on.

Jesus may have been a master of addition, but the church formed in his name has become a master of division.

"That they may all be one" happens to be the motto of our denomination, the United Church of Christ. This motto was chosen to be a symbol of the merger that occurred in 1957, when the Congregational Christians churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, two Christian denominations which had previously merged from four, came together as one to form the United Church of Christ. A denomination that now has 1.4 million members.

In the past 200 years there have been just 53 denominational mergers in the Christian community. Of those 53, the UCC merger is the only one that involved churches that were not from the same family, that is, churches that did not share the same lineage, and its corresponding beliefs and practices. Crossing family lines is very hard to do, it takes a concentrated effort on all parties involved, and it takes an extreme willingness and openness to compromise.
A merger such as this was unique for its time and it's even more unlikely to occur today.

In February of this year the world's population reached 6.5 billion.
With 2.1 billion adherents, Christianity claims 30% of that population.
And as our confirmation class learned a few weeks ago, if you polled those 2.1 billion people and asked them what it means to be a Christian, you'd probably get 2.1 billion different answers.
You need only look at the number of Christian denominations in the world to confirm this. A denomination, in the Christian sense of the word, is an identifiable religious body under a common name, structure, and/or doctrine.
When I asked the confirmands to guess how many Christian denominations there are in the world today, their average guess was 28.
Pastor C. threw out a guess of 500, which is close to what I would have said had I not looked up the answer on the internet before hand.

The actual number of Christian denominations in the world today is 37,000…and counting.
This includes all of the main denominations: Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Baptists, etc; all of the denominational sub-groups (Southern Baptist, American Baptist, etc.), and all of the independent churches which claim no allegiance to any of the organized denominations.

There are 210 new Christian denominations formed every year, which averages out to five a week.
We are a long way from "they may all be one" - in fact we're moving in the opposite direction.

This is nothing new of course. Christianity started out as a faith of factions. In the second century, not long after the gospels were written, there were several groups that claimed to be the true followers of Christ, all of which differed in both belief and practice - there were Jewish-Christians, Gnostic Christians, Marcionite Christians, and a group that scholars call proto-orthodox Christians, which is the group that eventually won the battle of beliefs and became the predecessors of modern Christianity.

The establishment of the Nicene Creed in the 4th century was meant to settle once and for all what Christians did and did not believe, but as we know, the infighting did not stop there.
The Eastern Orthodox church, the Anglican Church, the Protestant Reformation were all products of schism within the Christian community.

The formation of our country, the United States of America, was responsible for the birth of a multitude of new denominations as colonists left their homelands behind and formed new faith communities. Many of the original 13 US colonies were established by and for specific Christian denominations. Massachusetts was founded by the Puritans, Pennsylvania by the Quakers, Maryland by the Catholics, and our own state of Connecticut was first settled by two puritans both of whom were exiled from Massachusetts for their dissenting religious beliefs - one thought religious practices in the colony were too strict, and the other thought they weren't strict enough!

In the 1800's, further branching of US denominations occurred during the Great Awakening as revivalists split from traditionalists, and just before the Civil War, when the issue of slavery split entire denominations into northern and southern divisions.

Given our history, we have to ask ourselves….Is it even possible for us all to be one?
If we can't imagine one united Christian church, then can we at least envision a day when we will all work together for a common cause? This is, after all, what we Christians claim to be doing.

We all believe in God, we've all been taught that Love of God and Love of Neighbor are the greatest commandments. We all believe in our heart of hearts that we are acting as God's agents in this world, doing God's will, receiving and giving God's love as God has commanded us to do. Yet we all seem to have different interpretations of what working for this common cause actually entails.
It turns out our common cause is not so common after all.
We all have different answers to the same question.

It all comes down to perspective.
As with many math problems, the answer we arrive at depends on our starting point.
In the Christian community, God is not a single point around which we all cluster, but a continuum, a line that stretches from left to right with the extreme visions on either end, and the rest of us scattered somewhere in between.

Our particular congregation has just over 200 members. And as our website proudly proclaims, we're not all alike, and we're fine with that. In fact we actually prefer it that way.
We have 200 different perspectives on this world yet we've collectively decided that we're enough alike to come together to worship, and to function as one body, both in our community and in the wider world.

For any group to have coherence there must be some stability in the ranks; in our case our differences are not so extreme that we can't find a way to work around them. Those who found they couldn't work around those differences are no longer here. They took a step either to the left or to the right to find a place on the continuum where they could worship in a group that shared their vision of God. This shift takes place every day, in every denomination.

On the micro, or congregational level, we Christians do function together as one, but on the macro, or denominational level, we do it in 37,000 different ways.
So how can we all call ourselves Christians?

The hymn that we sang at the start of today's service supplies one answer:
"They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love"

I remember singing this hymn in Catholic school when I was 7-years-old. It was one of my favorite hymns, mainly because its simplistic message of unity was one that resonated with my child-eyed view of the world:
"We are one in the spirit we are one in the Lord - we will walk with each other - we will walk hand and hand."
Love was all we needed to stand together.
When you're 7 you have no comprehension of just how big the world is, and you haven't yet learned to fear or segregate yourself from those who are different from you. At 7, we mix freely with our peers on the playground, not realizing that just a few years down the road we'll start separating out those who are not like us.

By the time we're 9-years-old we can point out those who are too fat or too skinny, too short or too tall, too smart or too slow, too loud or too quiet. It's about this time that those differences start to make us feel uncomfortable and we find ourselves avoiding those who embody them.

When we reach the age of 11 or 12 we begin to divide ourselves further - by popularity, social graces, athletic ability, and fashion sense. Now the kids we mixed freely with on the playground at 7 are no longer welcome at our lunch table because they're "weird" - they don't have enough friends, or they don't have the right friends, or they can't run fast or throw a ball, or they buy their clothes at Wal-Mart instead of Abercrombie and Fitch.

At 14, after we've become masters of segregation, we're thrown into the social melting pot known as high school. It's there that we encounter even bigger differences to separate us. There are the usual issues of dating, driving, drinking, and drugs - who does what and who doesn't.
And there are the wider issues that we may be encountering for the first time - racial differences, cultural differences, gender differences - All of which must be dealt with while the world is pressuring you to decide just who YOU are - where do you want to go to college, what do you want to study, just who are you going to be when you grow up?

The challenge set before us at any age, is to find a way to determine and express our identity, to say to the world "this is who I am" without feeling the need to reject, put down, or obliterate those who are not us.

As Christians, we strive to hold ourselves to higher standards, to fight against our human predilection to label and segregate others, to let love be the only qualifier for membership in this community. While our rational adult brains say this idealistic view of the world is unattainable, our dormant childhood brains say it is attainable.

When we're 7 we can sing "They will know we are Christians by our Love" and believe it.
I placed this hymn at the beginning of our service today because it represents an idealism that we all start off with as children, an idealism that we seem to let go of all too quickly.
As adults we may envision ourselves grabbing the hand of the person next to us as we charge ahead in our common cause, but eventually we realize that the person next to us is trying to march to a different beat - they may not have the same theology that we do, or they're living a lifestyle that we don't approve of, or they behave in a way that we would label as low class, or they belong to a political party that opposes everything that we stand for. We begin to feel uncomfortable, stressed, disgusted, or threatened,…and we find life is so much easier if we just let go of their hand.

We draw lines that separate our beliefs from their beliefs, yet we each envision our own line as the one that points directly towards God.

Drawing lines in the sand is something that we as human beings have done since we first arrived on this planet. This is what we do to identify ourselves as individuals.
I am me, you are not me.
Being born mathematicians we then begin to look for patterns. You're kind of like me so I'll stand with you, you're definitely not like me, and that scares me, so I'll stand against you. We sort ourselves into groups of "us" and "them", and then God forbid we decide that we both want the same thing, because more often than not, instead of sharing it, we'll fight over it. We'll even go to war for it.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the day that we Americans have set aside to remember those who lost their lives in war. Ideally, it should be a day in which we honor all of those who lost their lives in war, regardless of the color of the flag that we place on their graves.
Memorial Day is not meant to be day where we debate the horrors or the merits of war.
It's not about vilifying war as a human atrocity or accepting war as a human necessity.

If we looked at the numbers we'd see that of the past 3,400 years, the entirety of humankind has been at peace for only 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.
But arguing about whether one particular war was "just" or necessary while another is not, only serves to draw more lines in the sand.
Memorial Day is not about focusing on the lines that separate us; it's about focusing on the numbers that unite us.
Once again, we have to do the math.
We need to look at the number of lives lost…on both sides of the line.
Because when we add them together they equal one.
One great sacrifice…. for country, for ideology, for God….
One great loss for us all.

Lets look at a few of those numbers:

3,400 Americans killed in the current war in Iraq - total deaths among all combatants and civilians - 70,000. (updated figures as of May 28, 2007)
58,000 Americans killed in the Vietnam War- total deaths among all combatants and civilians - 5.1 million.
400,000 Americans killed during World War II - Total deaths among all combatants and civilians - 62 million.

Total lives lost in all wars in human history: estimates range from 250 million to 1 billion.

To honor the memory of those lost lives, I'd thought I'd share one of the stories that my father, a veteran of World War II, told me about his experience with war.
It's a story of a battle that began oddly enough with a line drawn in the sand.

My father served on a Naval Tank Landing Ship; these were the ships responsible for moving artillery, heavy equipment, and large groups of marines across the ocean, and then depositing them on the shore of some foreign land.
This particular story began with my father and several of his shipmates wandering around aimlessly on a Sicilian beachfront, just off the coast of Italy. It was July 1943, and my father's ship was in the process of unloading a group of Marines and their equipment on shore. As this wayward group of Navy sailors began to get underfoot a Marine commander ordered them off the beach, effectively drawing a line in the sand that they could not cross. My father and his buddies piled into an unattended Jeep and headed up the road to see what was on the other side of the dunes. Not five minutes later they were careening back onto the same beach they had just left.

At this point in the story my father would break into a broad smile as he imitated the now red-faced Marine Commander running toward their speeding jeep and yelling at the top of his lungs: “I thought I told you guys to get off this beach!” This was right before the commander stopped dead in his tracks as he noticed the convoy of German tanks coming up the road just behind my father’s jeep.

With no time to think my father and his shipmates made the decision to swim back to their ship which was anchored less than a mile off shore. Reaching the anchor ropes, they climbed up and landed soaking wet on the top deck. My father went below to change into a dry uniform and 10 minutes later arrived at his newly assigned gunnery post back up top…. just as a German bomb fell out of the sky and dropped right through the center of the ship. The force of the explosion blew my father overboard and into the water.
Acting on instinct he clawed his way back up the anchor rope and onto the deck of the now burning ship. As the heat from the deck burned through the soles of his shoes, the official call came out to abandon ship and my father found himself jumping back in the water he had already come out of twice before, this time with his uniform in shreds.

After treading water in rough seas for hours he was picked up by another ship, and was promptly sent back to the States to await a new assignment. Traveling home in a borrowed uniform that consisted of navy dress pants, an army infantry shirt and boots that were two sizes too big, my father made the long trip back to Long Island on a crowded and rickety troop train. Arriving in his home town he stumbled out of the station and unknowingly right into a neighboring barber shop where he collapsed with exhaustion into the first chair he saw.
The barber approached him and unwittingly placed a cape around his neck. Noticing the obvious if disheveled dress of a soldier the barber quickly broke into small talk as he began to cut my father’s hair.
“So, home for a visit are ya?” he said, “Did you see much action over there?”

I heard that story many times when I was young, as my father made every effort to share the humor of his World War II experience with his children. It wasn’t until we grew much older that we heard the version of this story that didn’t edit out the not-so-humorous parts. In this version my father had to dodge machine gun fire from German fighter planes as he swam to his ship offshore. He revealed that he was one of the lucky few on the top deck when the bomb split his ship in two, and out of the hundreds of men on board he was only one of 175 who survived. I learned that if he had been assigned to his usual post in the engine room he would have been lost as well.

I was in my 30’s before he divulged that there were Marines who were catapulted into the water with him after the blast. Marines who were each weighted down with 70 pounds of equipment and who were clawing in desperation at my father just to stay afloat. As he clung to the anchor line, the weight of the flailing Marines began to pull him under. In an effort to save his own life he had to use all his strength to push them away to what he knew was a certain death.

As I grew older the stories that I had heard so many times before as a child began to change in form and in tone. While watching a particularly graphic war movie on TV my father remarked how he had seen men suffer much worse fates. Even though I was not a child anymore I found I wasn’t quite ready to know that my father had actually seen men die within feet of where he was standing.

Of course my father was well into his 60’s when he told us these stories and as a child hearing them I always pictured him in the story as I knew him, as a fully grown man. It wasn’t until I was grown myself that I realized that he was only 20-years-old when these horrific things happened to him.

As a young man my father was a first-hand witness to suffering that I can not even comprehend. Suffering that he was powerless to prevent or alleviate in any way. Which is probably why he spent the rest of his life giving as much of himself as he could, to his wife, to his children, to his friends, and to the job he depended on to support his family.
It’s been five years since we lost him. His suffering is now over….The untold suffering that he experienced in his youth, and the lingering suffering that he experienced in his death.

At the tender age of 20, my father witnessed first-hand the results of drawing lines in the sand...and he spent the rest of his years on this earth doing what he could to erase those lines, by treating everyone he met with patience, understanding, and kindness.

There are 200 members in this church.
1.4 million members in this denomination.
37,000 denominations in the Christian community.
2.1 billion individual Christians, 6.5 billion people in the world.
And Christ calls us all to act as if we are one.
One body. One mind. One heart.

But the question remains - How do we even begin to do this?

It's so easy to throw up our hands and conclude that we as Christians are so far apart on some issues that there is no middle ground to be found. That we as nations are so far apart in our ideologies that there is no averting the inevitability of war. That we as human beings are so far apart in so many ways that it is impossible to eliminate the lines that we draw to separate us. But perhaps we've set the bar too high, and out of futility of never reaching the goal, we've given up altogether.

No one is saying that we have to compromise on every issue, that we have to eradicate war entirely, that we have to erase every line.
I believe even Jesus would admit that our inherent humanness keeps these lofty goals permanently out of our reach.
But what we do have is the ability to try.
We have the ability to pick our battles.
To use our wisdom, our reason, our divine intuition, and God's directive that we love one another, to determine when we need to offer resistance, when we need to give in, and when we need to compromise.

To ask ourselves what are the life or death issues that we absolutely must fight for and what are the issues that we only think we need to fight for, because of pride, fear, a lack of understanding, or an unwillingness to share.

We need to draw lines because it is impossible for us not too.
We're all so different. To function as individuals we can't help but note where we end and the other begins.
But what we need to focus on are the areas where we overlap.
Because we all overlap.
We all have commonalities that make us human.
We all have commonalities that point to one source.
A source that we Christians call God.
If we learn to focus on the commonalities, on the areas that overlap, even though collectively we stretch from end of the continuum to the other, we'll see that we're all linked together as one.

We can switch congregations, change denominations, change faiths, or drop out all together…We can draw lines in the sand, we can go to war over those lines, but we can't break the bond that we share as human beings, or the bond that we share with God.
And if we could stand back and see ourselves from God's perspective we would see that yes indeed, we may be one.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Where can I get me some man meat?

According to the following Blogthings Quiz, I don't have a boyfriend because I don't give men enough of my time....
Too bad none of the questions had "Because I'm a lesbian" as an answer choice.

The things I waste my time on when I get bored.

Oh...and I like the picture they have of the chick playing pool.
If that's not code for "forget about the boyfriend - you're better off spending your time in a bar called Sappho's Sisters" I don't know what is.

You Don't Have a Boyfriend Because You are Too Busy

While a relationship sounds nice, you're strapped for time
Whether you're legitimately busy or just making excuses...
... You don't give men enough of your time.
As nice as "instant love" would be, there's just no such thing.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Springtime in CT

Just wanted to note that it's going to be 85 degrees here today.
You know it's warm because my Weather Pixie down in the sidebar is wearing a dress.
She's such a femme.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"Ve have vays of makingk you talk..."

I had the opportunity to attend an Ecclesiastical Council a few weeks ago and I saw first hand the kind of grilling I can expect to get when I apply for ordination after seminary.
Perhaps "grilling" is too strong a word. The meeting didn't take place in a small room with a bare light bulb swinging overhead, and there wasn't a lone jack-booted figure standing in the shadows barking out questions and ultimatums to the poor unsuspecting ministerial candidate….but it certainly felt like it was an interrogation.

Going before the Ecclesiastical Council is one of the last steps towards ordination. The candidate writes a 20-30 page Ordination Paper outlining their spiritual journey and their call to ministry, with the primary focus of the paper being an expression of the candidate's understanding of theology and denominational polity and history.
The Council gathers at the candidate's home church with the "Council" being delegates from the regional association's churches and members of the clergy. The candidate gives an opening statement and then the floor is opened up to questions.

The questions are what I'm dreading.

I was told that one previous candidate was posed the question "How would you explain 'God' to a five-year-old?"…..after a long uncomfortable silence the candidate finally said "I have no idea." These are the job-interview-from-hell questions that are impossible to prepare for…questions like "If you were a tree what kind would you be?" - there is no right or wrong answer to questions like these but you just know whatever answer you give is telling the interviewer "this person is insane and incompetent, avoid them like the plague."

During the EC that I witnessed, the questions centered mainly on the candidate's understanding of the concepts of sin, atonement, and forgiveness.
I would have liked to have heard more about her understanding of her call and the type of ministry she felt drawn to, but there were some members of the Council who seemed caught up on her "vague" understanding of sin and her willingness to "move too quickly to forgiveness."
Double yikes.
To the candidate's credit, she handled the questions with ease and gracefulness, and as most of those present knew each other and/or had previous contact with the candidate, there was an element of lighthearted humor in the exchanges as well.
In the end, she was unanimously "approved for Ordination pending a call," which means she has to secure a job as a pastor, chaplain, etc. before she can be officially ordained.

The head of the Council on Ministries assured me afterward that I needn't worry about the questions I will receive when it's my turn to do this a few years down the line - Seminary will help me to clarify my theological positions and after attending a few more Ecclesiastical Councils I'll start to get a feel for the kinds of questions to expect.

So why am I still worried about it?

My SO woke up early this morning because she was stressed about our car, our money situation, and the end-of-school-year tasks at her job that all need to get done in a short amount of time… know, real-life, real-time important stuff.
Meanwhile I was lying awake worried about how I am going to explain my position on sin and atonement to an Ecclesiastical Council…four years from now.
I should just have the phrase "NEUROTIC GEEK" tattooed on my chest.

Admittedly, I haven't put much thought into what MY understanding of theology is. I've read and written quite a bit about other people's understandings of theology: Thomas Aquinas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton….there have been bits here and there that have resonated with me, but I've never assembled my thoughts into one coherent statement that says "this is what I believe."
The Jesus that I believe in…The Jesus that I follow, preached a very simple theology:
Love God, Love each other.
And I strive to practice this theology through prayer and service to others.
Perhaps I'm still bucking the restraints of my Catholic upbringing, but when I encounter words like Trinity, Salvation, Incarnation, Resurrection, Sin, and Atonement, I tend to throw them all in a box labeled "Divisive Dogmas - Handle With Extreme Care."

I know that as a minister I need to have a firm understanding of these concepts - my own understanding, an understanding of what these words have meant traditionally, and an understanding of what they mean to others.
Deep down I believe I already have this understanding, I just haven't learned to articulate it as of yet.
And to be quite honest, many of these traditional "theological" words still scare the bejeevus out of me at times.
When I hear someone say something like "Jesus is my personal Savior" or "Jesus died for our sins" I want to run screaming in the other direction. Words like these trigger my Intolerant-Christian-Fundamentalist early warning system. Right or wrong, I automatically assume that a person who uses these phrases often and openly in public also believes that people like me (read g-a-y) are unrepentant sinners and are damned to Hell for all eternity. This is a theology that I can't wrap my head around so I've avoided dealing with the words that force me to do it - Judgment, Sin, Damnation, Salvation.
Any word or concept that implies that God is not all-loving and all-forgiving is thrown into the aforementioned box and is not a part of my every-day theological vocabulary.

Having said that, my theology does include variations of these concepts. As Kathleen Norris did so well in her book Amazing Grace, I've learned to redefine many of these words so that they better fit in with my understanding of God.

"Sin" is not defined as an evil and depraved act worthy of punishment, but rather it is any belief or action that separates us from God or separates us from each other.
Greed, envy, intolerance, placing value on things that gratify ourselves while giving little or no thought to others - these are the sins that Jesus spoke of and urged us to avoid.

"Judgment" is not a punishment enacted by a vengeful God that gives him the power to separate us from his presence for all eternity. Rather it is a mutual understanding and awareness that we did not always live our lives to the best of our abilities; that we "sinned" or separated ourselves from God and each other and in order to move closer to God we need to be aware and "remorseful" of those times when we moved away.
"Salvation" comes to those who exhibit this awareness, but not all reach this level so easily. Whether it's lack of spiritual development, a by-product of free will, or the expression of darker forces that some would label as "evil", there are some souls who don't turn as easily towards God. But I don't believe that God deliberately damns these souls to Hell for eternity. Hell may exist as place for those who have turned from God but it is not God who keeps them there. Whether you believe in free-will or the influences of dark forces, there is something other than God that allows the separation to exist.
I believe that over time all souls reach awareness and are "saved."
Does that make me a wimpy, progressive Christian?
Damn right!

There's another Ecclesiastical Council coming up on June 6th and I read the candidate's ordination paper last night. Her theology can be classified as progressive and is much more in tune with my own. She relied on plain-spoken, every-day language to present her position, rather than the academic and sometimes stilted language of theology that I encountered in the last paper I read.

So there is hope that a "simple" Christian like me will survive the approval process and make it into the ministry.
I can assure you, and them, that yes, Jesus is my personal savior. It is through him that I move closer to God. I just don't feel the need to tell it to every passing stranger, put in on a T-shirt, or to tell others that they must claim this theological understanding as their own in order to be "saved."
The guy wearing the "Buddha is My Personal Savior" T-shirt has just as good a chance of uniting with the force that we Christians choose to call "God" as anyone else in this world. Even the atheist who can't find room in his philosophy for the concept of an over-seeing power but dedicates his life to the service of others "gets" what it means to "saved."

Theology is not about how you define the words, but how you live your life.
And I've got four years to figure out how to say that in a way that will convince others that a minister is what God is calling me to be.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good…

I graduated on Sunday (yaaaaaaaaaaaaay!) Summa Cum Laude with a BA in Religious Studies.
My SO and her mom, and my best friend J. attended the festivities, and I managed not to trip and/or have my hat blow off when it was my turn to walk across the big stage.
The weather was beautiful and a good time was had by all!

The Bad…

On the way home from dropping my mother-in-law at the airport yesterday, we ran into the rain/wind/lightning storm from Hell, and while stopped in traffic on I84 our trusty Subaru was rear ended by the car behind us.
The guy gave us a pretty nasty jolt (my knees hit the dashboard even with the seatbelt on) but our Forester lived up to its stellar crash-test ratings. The rear bumper absorbed the impact with only minor denting/separation. The guy who hit us, however, had the whole front of his car mashed and had to call a tow truck.
Score it:
Subaru - 1
Hyundai - 0

Now we get to spend today dealing with insurance companies and the auto body shop.
Oh joy.

The Ugly…

Soon after arriving home with our nerves still on edge from the accident, we discovered that our living room ceiling IS STILL LEAKING despite having roofers here every day for the past three weeks. In fact, the leak has gotten worse. The roofers spent a week-and-a-half tearing off and replacing the entire roof on the leak side of the house, and last week they moved to the opposite side of the house, so we naturally assumed "problem solved"….uh uh…the roof on our 1850's Victorian farm house has more nooks and crannies than an English muffin (a really big Victorian English muffin) and the rain is obviously winding its way through a cranny that the roofers have overlooked.
In the meantime, we have Niagara Falls in the living room, the power was off all day so the food in the refrigerator is suspect, and we're without a car until at least Monday.
Hello Enterprise? We'd like to rent an Ark.
Do you have one that looks like a Ferrari?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Friday Fun Workout

For all of those trying to stay in shape despite their age (see last post) and/or those trying to shed a few pounds to fit into their summer duds (myself included) here's a little vid to keep you motivated.
Just thinking about the hours of rehearsing that it must have taken to get this routine right makes me unlikely to ever again complain that spending 30 minutes on a treadmill is "boring."

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Rock of Ages

Chronologically I am 41 years old, but in my mind's eye I'm still 21…and this highly scientific blog quiz confirms it:

You Are 21 Years Old

Under 12: You are a kid at heart. You still have an optimistic life view - and you look at the world with awe.

13-19: You are a teenager at heart. You question authority and are still trying to find your place in this world.

20-29: You are a twentysomething at heart. You feel excited about what's to come... love, work, and new experiences.

30-39: You are a thirtysomething at heart. You've had a taste of success and true love, but you want more!

40+: You are a mature adult. You've been through most of the ups and downs of life already. Now you get to sit back and relax.

I've never been one to be obsessed with my age. 16, 21, 30, 40…all milestone birthdays that for me were just sequential numbers and nothing more. I've never had one of those "Oh my God I'm (blank) years-old my life is over!" moments.

I started thinking about this because I realized that delaying seminary for another year will mean I will be starting my first year at the ripe old age of 42. It was a comment that my mother made that actually brought me to this realization. When I told her how disappointed I was that I may need to wait another year to start school, mainly because I feel ready to go now, she said, "Oh I know, and you're not getting any younger either."
Thanks Mom.
To think I was focusing all my concern on money, balancing school/work/family, and getting my M.Div started as soon as possible so I can go out and "be all that I can be," and what I SHOULD have been thinking about was my impending death.
We can always count on our mothers to put things in perspective.
In reality, despite the fact that I may need to change the name of my blog to the "40-something Seminarian", I really don't see my age as being an influencing factor on any choices that I make.
Why would I? In my head I'm still 21.

I can still go out and run 3 miles, ride my bike for hours, and I've spent the last 2 weeks cleaning my house from top to bottom, contorting my body in all sorts of unnatural positions to do so and I've felt none the worse for wear. I feel tired at the end of the day, but after 6 hours of sleep I'm up and rarin' to go the next morning.

One of my biggest pet peeves is 40-somethings who blame their aches and pains on "getting old" rather than on the fact that they parked their butts on a couch at the age of 25 and haven't moved since. I watched a triathlon a few years ago where the oldest finisher was 97 years old. He finished in front of his 79 year-old son, who also competed, AND his 60 year-old grandson. Now there's a family who's genes I'd like to have.

My body thinks I'm still 21 but there are parts of my psyche that haven't progressed beyond the age of 11.
I still eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch (with chocolate milk of course), I collect Matchbox cars and Star Trek action figures, and at this very moment I'm blogging while wearing Sponge-Bob Square Pants pajamas.

It's for this reason that my brain looks at the number "41" and spits out a punch card that says "Does Not Compute" (….ok…punch card?...that alone should tell me how ancient I really am).

When I was kid, women in their 40's were married with 3 kids, wore polyester pants suits and sensible shoes, had a hair salon perm, went to PTA meetings, and generally complained about their bad backs, crows feet, and sagging bodies while having a stiff drink at the end of the day.
When I was a kid, 40 was old.
At 40 you were a mature adult and you were expected to look and act the part.

Me, I subscribe to the Ellen Degeneres philosophy of aging: You're only as old as you think you are. You can be 49 and wear jeans and Converse sneakers and dance over coffee tables and lo and behold, the balance of the universe is not upset.

When I was 32 I crashed my bike during a race and fractured my pelvis. My father's response was "that's what you get for riding around on that bike at your age."
That was the first time I had ever been told that I shouldn't be doing something because I was too old.
Old? How did I get to be old? Did I pass a mile-marker somewhere that said "you have to be below (blank) age to ride beyond this point"?
Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 13 come echoing down through the ages:
There comes a time when we have to 'put aside our childish ways' and start acting like grown-ups.

My response to that is the same response I have to Paul's teachings regarding women and sex:


Because we all know that blowing a raspberry is the only response that a mature adult can give when one encounters that which is ludicrously silly.

Yes, I will be 42-years-old when I start seminary, and I'll be 45 when I graduate and put myself out on the ministry market. But I will not be alone. While some may look askance at a 40-something entering medical or law school, the average age of those entering seminaries these days is 40-years-old. We're the tail end of the baby boomers and the leading edge of the Gen-Xers who decided that our parent's idea of what we can and can not do at our age no longer applies.
We don't have to stay in the same job for 40 years. We hit middle age and wake up to the fact that we don't have to continue doing what has become meaningless and/or unfulfilling; we can listen to the voice that is pulling us somewhere else; we can stop mid-stride and change course; we can throw caution to the wind, climb out on a limb, jump without a parachute, and enact every other cliché that describes what it means to buck the expectations ascribed to being a "grown-up" in this world.

My mother is right.
I'm not getting any younger.
But then again, no one is. I was "not getting any younger" when I was 5.
That doesn't mean I should hit middle age, calculate how many years I think I have left, throw up my hands and shout "ballgame over."
Uh uh. I plan on living to 100 so I have at least 59 years left in me.
I can do a lot in 59 years.
And if my time is up a lot sooner than that, I will go knowing that as long as I was able to I continued to pedal forward; and I did not give up because I thought I was too old to try.

And on that note,
Let's give it up to 95-year-old Ola Nochs, who graduates this Sunday, May 12th from Fort Hays University in Kansas and enters the record book as the oldest person ever to be awarded a college degree; proving that you're never too old to move forward.

Congratulations Ola!

Friday, May 4, 2007

Friday Fun...and they're off!

In honor of the Kentucky Derby which runs tomorrow here's an oldie but goodie - The Queen Victoria Handicap:

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I...

There's a video game that I play from time to time called "Westward" where the object is to settle the unexplored and untamed wilderness of the western frontier. Each time a character is moved into an unexplored area the landscape literally paints itself as the character walks forward. What had previously been a fuzzy and opaque area of the screen, springs forward with a myriad of trees, lakes, and caves waiting to be mined. Checking the game's overview map we would see that a whole new corner of the world has appeared where only blank space had been before.

I had my own "Westward" experience in real life yesterday.
I took a trip down to NY to check out the New York seminary that I'm thinking of applying to for the Fall of 2008. I still have not heard from the Boston seminary regarding a possible scholarship for this Fall, so it's looking more and more likely that I will have to wait a year to begin my studies.

I am no stranger to NYC having gone to school there many years ago and having friends there whom I visited often when I lived on Long Island. But after visiting the NY seminary I feel as if a whole new corner of the world has opened up for me. In many ways the NYC seminary is the polar opposite of the Boston seminary but I strangely find myself attracted to both.

One is in the city; one is outside of the city. One is surrounded by the small, white clapboard churches of New England; one is set down in the middle of the eclectic, urban churches of NYC. One is tied to my denomination and offers an atmosphere of familiarity; one attracts students from all denominations and offers the challenges/advantages of living with diversity.

The appearance of this new world is both exciting and frustrating.
I've been facing in one direction for so long it's unsettling to suddenly be faced with such an opposite yet equal choice.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I…..have no friggen' idea which way to go!

What are the PROS for each path?

In this corner we have the Boston Seminary - with a peaceful hill top campus, strong UCC ties, small classes, new chapel, affordable tuition and on-campus housing, and a short T-ride from downtown Boston.

In the opposite corner we have the New York Seminary - housed in a intimidatingly beautiful and historical building, top-notch professors and a challenging curriculum, diverse student body, daily chapel services along with morning and evening prayer services, strong emphasis on social justice/action, and the city of NY right at its doorstep.

What are the CONS?

Boston - unfamiliar city, I'm less likely to leave the peaceful confines of campus to mix with the community, fewer course offerings, smaller faculty, student body is more homogeneous, newly built chapel lacks warmth/history, only 3 chapel services per week, small library and bookstore (have access to Harvard's facilities but entails travel).

New York - crowded city, commute home by train/subway/bus takes just as long as commuting by car to Boston, larger classes mean less one-on-one attention from professors, more rigorous academic demands, more expensive tuition and housing than Boston (though housing is cheap by NY standards).

In the end my decision may come down to money.
The NY seminary has more scholarship offerings but the cost of tuition/housing is nearly twice as expensive as the Boston seminary, so even a 50% tuition scholarship for NY would leave me in the same financial hole as going to Boston with no scholarship.

If money was not a factor, which would I choose?
My heart has been set on the Boston seminary for so long that it is hard to let it go.
But looking back at the words I chose to describe each school in the above "PRO" section, I'm beginning to realize that my choice may be more obvious than I'm willing to admit:

Boston: peaceful, small, affordable.
New York: intimidating, diverse, challenging.

I have to ask myself: Am I going to seminary to feel safe? To be comfortable? To not be stretched beyond my means?
Or am I going to grow? - To force myself out of my comfort zone, to shake-up my expectations and my set-in-stone beliefs, and to experience and explore the unfamiliar and the unsettling.

Both seminaries have new experiences to offer; both will challenge me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually; both are great schools and both produce well-educated and effective ministers. Both offer paths that have been well-worn from the many who have come before, but which is the right path for me?
Perhaps it's the one I've avoided taking up until now because it would be too hard, too scary, too expensive, too intimidating.
This is my road less traveled by.

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

- Robert Frost