Prince of Pieces

If I let myself, I could be sad all the time.  Not depressed, mind you, but sad, because there is so much to be sad about.  I am sad about ignorance, equating ISIS with Syrian refugees and governors who not only don’t know the difference but also don’t know the Constitution.  I am sad about all those people who died from violence, in Paris and Beirut, in Kenya, transgender women of color killed just because, victims of domestic abuse, black boys.  I’m sad about how many people I know are fighting cancer.  I could be sad all the time.  So much is falling apart and in tatters

I can’t imagine being part of a church that ignored the sadness of the world but I wonder sometimes how much I ignore the joy of the world.  “God is good/all the time/all the time/God is good” chafes me a little, because I think of how it might sound to someone who just received a terrible diagnosis or who lost a beloved. In an ultimate sense, God is good.  It’s what we hang our hats on, that something Good awaits us after all the bad. But we don’t live in the then, we live in the now, and the now can be pretty bleak.  Off the top of my head, I can instantly name five people whose lives are in shambles for one reason or another.  I could be sad all the time.

For many years I have loved Walter Wangerin’s story Ragman,  in which Jesus takes what is broken in others and replaces it with what is whole in him. Near the end of the story,  he is all broken, and then he dies, and then he comes back, with only a scar to show for his suffering.  It is such a story.

These days I picture Jesus picking up the pieces of our lives, the shreds that are still left, with care and tenderness and with the skill of an artist, putting them back together; sort of.  I imagine if he tried to put us back together as we had been we would all look like Frankenstein’s monster, everything where it should be but wrong.  So instead I imagine he takes us in our brokenness and makes a mosaic out of the shattered parts of our lives.

Or I think about this world of ours that is torn to shreds by so much, by hunger and war, by famine, by drought and tsunamis, by greed, by fear, by apathy, ignorance.  They are wood chippers, electric carvers gone mad, these forces.  It’s like the map of the world has been put through the paper shredder, and Jesus stands there with the strips of what’s left and we hand him some old, yellowing Scotch tape, and beg him to fix it.

“Las Monarcas” My friend Jill Ross created this mosaic of monach butterflies, and I am grateful to her for the many ways she brings beauty to the world. This image is copyrighted and used by permission of the artist.

Then I think what would happen if he, being Jesus, didn’t take us up on our old tape but instead took all those strands of the shredded paper, the refuse of the world map, and wove them into something new, so that the boundaries went away, and age old enemies were woven next to each other, and what we had was no longer a map but something different, and new, and because it is woven, something stronger than what existed before.

Maybe the Prince of Peace will be the Prince of Pieces, our pieces, the flotsam and jetsam of our tragedy and sin, picked up and not discarded but reused, remade, into something different but still beautiful.

There is sadness in that, too; but maybe a little beauty or at least a little hope.


Preaching: What’s the point?

empty-pulpitOften on a Sunday afternoon, after I’ve changed out of my church clothes into jeans and a sweatshirt, after I’ve had a wee nap in the comfy chair, after I’ve unwound from All Things Sunday Morning, a creeping doubt comes into my head: what difference does a sermon make?  I’m not fishing for compliments here.  I’m pretty realistic about my sermons and I, like everyone else, I am an above average preacher.

About ten years ago I let go of worrying that every sermon I preached had to be Wonderful and Inspiring.  I’d learned that a lot happens between my lips and the congregation’s communal ears, that people hear things I never said and don’t hear things I thought I said quite plainly.  Silly old Holy Spirit, interceding with sighs too deep for our words.

I’ve preached sermons that teach (I hope); sermons that lead (I hope).  I’ve preached and heard sermons that are challenging and inspirational and sermons that are sheer poetry. I have also preached my fair share of dogs but always try, in the advice of my preaching professor, to walk those dogs proudly.   A lot of us preachers spend a lot of time at our craft, and a good quarter of our time is spent planning worship, writing liturgy, coordinating music with the musicians, and writing the weekly sermon.  Some weeks it feels positively prodigal to spend so much time on something that will only play out in a hour.  But like a drama or a symphony, the preparation is as much as the performance.

Lately, though, I’ve wondered if it makes a difference, if good, faithful people don’t hear a decent sermon and then go home and go about life as usual.  When I do a sermon series, how does that help when less than half the folks are there to hear the whole series?  And really, if every sermon is exhorting people to go out and be faithful in some way, might that not lead to some spiritual schizophrenia?  Fifty-two ways you can be faithful in today’s world?  Maybe three ways would be enough, and we could dispense with the sermon altogether for the other forty-eight Sundays.

The world is a mess.  A big fat mess.  People are dying from cancer.  Children are drowning as they flee with their parents in search of a safer home.  Religious extremists of all faiths give God and God’s followers a really bad name.  We imprison people for the crime of being poor.  Black lives matter and people don’t get it. How on earth could one 10-20 minute sermon make a dent in the mess?

It can’t.  Fifty-two sermons can’t make a dent.  Ten thousand sermons can’t.

But fifty-two people can make a dent.  Ten thousand people can make a dent.  Maybe that’s the part I forgot.

As the congregation settles in on Sunday morning, I think about all the hidden pain people bring in with them – irreconcilable differences, living paycheck to paycheck, enduring treatment, shredding away from loneliness or addiction or ostracism.  Worry about kids.  Worry about parents.  Worry about friends.  Secrets and lies and shame.  But I also think about the strength they bring in – perseverance, presence, advocacy, grace, hospitality, hope.

So maybe if for one hour a week, these wounded wonders come in and are soothed by music or a prayer or even a sermon, maybe it was worth it.  Maybe if something I or another says in a sermon helps them to hang on for one more week, or gives them that kick in the proverbial pants, maybe if that tricky Holy Spirit intercedes and whispers something perfect that they then attribute to the preacher, maybe then there is a point to preaching.

Or three points and a poem.  But hopefully not that.


The Terrible Beauty

Halloween is done, thank God.  I am so over that holiday.  This year we carved exactly one pumpkin, and I let the real spiders decorate inside and out.

Actually, Halloween was over for me after fifth grade.  That year, near Houston where I grew up, a father was found guilty of killing his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide.  The next year I broke my foot, and that was that.

Maybe part of the reason I’m glad Halloween is over is because I really, really, really love All Saints Day.  It’s right up there with Christmas and Easter for me, only better, because there are fewer expectations.

But this year, in the middle of the service – after I had preached but before we began to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, after we had sung “For All the Saints” and named our beloved dead – in the middle of the service as the choir sang an extraordinary anthem, I thought to myself

This is a terrible thing to do to people.

The choir was singing “Entreat Me Not to Leave You” by Dan Forrest.  (You can listen to a different choir sing it here.)  I was thinking about all the people I have loved who have left me in death, and I did not have the literal opportunity to tell them not to go, not to die, not to succumb to the cancer or the internal injuries or old age.  I got so sad, and had to do that pastor thing of disengaging emotionally so I could stand up and do the next thing.

Celebrating All Saints is a terrible beauty.  Terrible in that all that pain and grief and rage is unleashed again.  Terrible that it’s done publicly.  Terrible that we don’t all stand up and stomp around and insist that God stop all the tragic deaths.

But then it’s so God-damned beautiful too. The golden shining of those souls.  The memories.  Naming the names.  Affirming the hope that they are not gone forever.  Not being alone in our grief.  Really beautiful music.  Holy communion.

The best analogy I can find is wiggling a loose tooth.  It hurts, but it’s a good hurt. Today I think All Saints is that way, the worship service at any rate.  It hurts, remembering those people who have gone from us.  But it’s a good hurt, because we had them for a while, and now we have each other, and that will do.



My husband and daughter, years ago, at Yellowstone, walking toward a wide sky.

Jury Duty: A Tale of Stupidity and Greed


Quotation on the exterior of the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Building in Portland

I thought – when asked if I should be called “Reverend” were I to be selected to serve as a juror and I responded, “‘Ms.’ is fine.  ‘Reverend’ is an honorific, not a title” – I thought that neither the prosecution nor the defense would want the likes of me on a jury.  I was wrong.

I spent eleven-ish days as a juror on a trial, and another day as a juror in deliberations. It was a criminal trial in the federal court, and if you’d like to read more, please click here.  It was my first time to serve as a juror, and while the testimony was at times so tedious I wanted to stab my eyes out with an ice pick, or in Anne Lamott’s famous words, drink gin out of the cat dish, there were also many things that were interesting.  Until we began deliberations we jurors could not talk about the case with anyone, even each other, so we spent a lot of time talking about what the lawyers wore.  I haven’t seen so many pearls, pumps, pantyhose, and suits since I worked at PaineWebber in New York in the late ’80’s.

I could not talk  to anyone about the case, but almost every night I would think to myself, “Another day of greed and stupidity.”  The experience did much to affirm John Calvin’s notion of the depravity of human beings.

It was a fraud case, and investors in a bio-diesel project in Ghana and Chile lost over $1 million.  A group of the investors were men who went to church together, a church in the Portland suburbs about which I know very little.  Since the trial ended I googled it, and it’s one of those churches that has a lot of male pastors and a lot of female administrative assistants and child-care providers.  You know what I mean.  They would not invite me to preach there.

But if I were ever invited to preach there, I might preach about the love of mammon.  Or I might preach about how the followers of Jesus must be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.  Or I might just preach on Matthew 25:31-46 which catches me short every time I read it and maybe catches other Christians short as well.

For the first two weeks of the trial, I parked about six blocks away from the courthouse so I could get a little walk in every day.  And in downtown Portland, at 8:15 in the morning, on Third Avenue, there are a lot of people sleeping on the sidewalks and in the doorways. Some of them are just waking up, dazed, hungover, glazed-over.  They would wrap their blankets around them or bring out their cardboard signs asking for help, and I would turn a blind eye to them on my way to Starbucks.

Then I would go into the courtroom, and listen to witnesses testify about how much money they invested and lost.  Most of them invested more than once, despite the appalling lack of returns and appalling lack of evidence that bio-diesel was actually being produced. Some lost as little as $25,000.  One lost $500,000.

The group of church guys had talked about how fun this investment would be, that they were impressed that the Scam Artist was a professed Christian who had been both a pastor and a missionary.  If they invested, they would not only see a fabulous (one might even say unbelievable) return on their investment, they would also be helping the planet (bio-diesel!) and the people of Ghana and Chile. With my 20+ years experience as a pastor, with my A.B. and M.Div., I was not as impressed by his claim of being a pastor.  But he was a guy, a white guy, and he opened his staff meetings with prayer, and he opened his investor meetings with prayer, so he must be on the up-and-up, right?


I suppose it is okay to want to make money.  I suppose it is okay to want to help people.  I’m not sure it’s okay to want to make money while helping people on the side.  I have to think about that, because you could say I get paid/make money to help people.

But every morning, as I drove past the Union Gospel Mission, as I walked by the people sleeping on the streets, I thought about how far that $25,000 could have gone right here in Portland.  And I thought about how far that $500,000 could have gone in Ghana or Chile.  And I shook my head at the investors.  Why did they continue to give this guy money?  Why did they trust him?  Why?  Were they hoping that if they pumped another 100K into the thing they would finally see the return?  Were they desperate and scared?  Stupid?  One of the witnesses used that word.  Were they greedy?  Another witness described himself that way.

In the end…

In the end, I had little sympathy for those who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  It appeared they had the money to lose.  I judged them because I thought of all the ways that money might have been used, to help people in Ghana or Portland or who knows where else.

In the end, I had a little sympathy for the defendant.  None of us knows where the all the money he took in ended up.  We can follow the trail of some of it, but not all of it. In the end, the defendant could not afford an attorney but relied on the excellent services of the federal public defender.

In the end, I felt bad for the defendant’s daughter.  She cried when the judge read the verdict, and that is hard to witness.

In the end, I felt bad for the people in Chile who never received months of pay owed to them.

In the end, I felt bad for the people of Ghana who are still hoping against hope that Obrunie Jack will return and get the jatropha plantations going and the refineries producing bio-diesel.

What did I learn?  That we are blessed with a legal system that presumes innocence until proven guilty.  That public defenders are unsung heroes.  That jurors take their responsibility seriously.  That judges oversee the process fairly and intensely.  That people are kind, and stupid, and fair, and greedy, and ambitious, and humble.  That church folks go to their jobs all day long and then show up at night for church meetings – I had to do that a couple of times; it’s not easy.  I learned that it is a huge responsibility to decide if someone is guilty of breaking the law, knowing that my decision can send someone to prison.  I learned that Matthew 25:31-46 catches me short again, and I wonder if I will visit this man in prison.

I am grateful to the Honorable Anna Brown and her staff, and federal public defender Lisa Hay and her colleagues, and U. S. Attorneys Claire Fay and Donna Maddux and their staff.  I am grateful to my fellow jurors and wish them well.

And I am grateful this is over.


Quotation at the Federal Courthouse, in the elevator lobby


  Sundays in September at church are a glorious thing. About a third of the congregation I serve takes the summer off. They travel, to the beach or the mountains or to other countries. They visit relatives. They go camping. They sleep in and go to brunch and enjoy leisurely coffee with the ever-shrinking Sunday paper. And then, like magic or clockwork, come the Sunday after Labor Day, they’re back in their usual pew, tanned and relaxed and joyous to be with the people again. 

By the second Sunday after Labor Day they have remembered the routine and dress rehearsal is over. They know to come early so they can find a parking place. The pastors robe.  The acolytes light the candles.  The choir processes. The prelude begins and the anticipation of what is to come is palpable. 

Last Sunday I sat up front looking out on the congregation. It’s one of my favorite things to do. There’s so-and-so; those kids grew a foot over the summer; she’s sitting by herself now. We get to baptize that baby this fall. A young couple!  Maybe they’ll come back. 

And as I looked out over the congregation I saw a family I know enter. Grandma, Grandpa, other Grandma, mom, little girl, other little girl who’s lost her hair because she’s going through chemo because she has a tumor in her brain. 

Nothing makes you question the point of worshipping God like seeing a bald five-year-old come into church. 

It’s the hard part of being a pastor and of being a person who believes in God. Terrible things happen all the time, everywhere. Children get cancer. And God lets it happen. 

Tragedy will continue to strike. People will ask why. People will blame God. People will worship God. None of it makes any sense. 

What I know is that on Sunday this family was greeted with love and joy. And we still sang the songs and said the prayers and passed the peace. 

Maybe that child’s presence in the congregation grounded all of us on Sunday, a physical reminder that the world is not perfect. Maybe we all had to dig a little deeper about this God we worship. Maybe we peered into the abyss and saw paradox, joy and sorrow, community and loneliness. 

And maybe I realized why some people take the summer off from worshipping God. 

Heart’s Desire

A-hand-drawn-heartFor months, at the urging of my spiritual director, I have been praying to find my heart’s desire, to find that thing (not a person – I have those) that inspires me, energizes me; my flow.  But you pray for something long enough, and the prayer goes unanswered, and eventually you stop praying for the thing.

The last few months have found me in the doldrums. (Excellent word, by the way, with possible origin in the words dull and tantrum.)  Yes, you could say I’ve been having a dull tantrum for a season, the result of an unusually warm summer, a not-fun spring at church, and continued physical pain as my hip heals more slowly than I would like. Plus sometimes I’m just a big baby.

And then I got an idea.  I would write a book, a novel, about a church, because I am the First Pastor Ever to think about writing a novel about a church.  I thought about it all spring, and I thought about during our first week of vacation, and I thought about it some more the week our kid was at sleep away camp.  And then I went away for a week, to the lovely shores of Lake Tahoe with a plum assignment of leading worship once a day.

In my free time, I powered up the ol’ laptop and started writing.

I am having a ball.

Today when I met with my spiritual director I told her I had started writing my book and she commented that light was bouncing all around me.  She noted my energy and joy.  And then she said, “I think you found your heart’s desire.”  I will note that God took God’s sweet time answering my prayer, but a thousand years are but a day, etc. etc.

Here’s the thing: writing this puppy is cathartic, and in twenty years of ministry I have met amazing people who have done strange and wonderful things that inspire the characters.  There’s swearing and liturgy.  Twists and turns.  Recipes.  Lists.  Thwarted romance.  A Yorkie Poo.  It is so me.

Back in high school, I aspired to be a writer, but college and theatre and then seminary and ministry got in the way.  To be truthful, my daughter’s own love of writing has inspired me, and maybe some day we will write a book together.  (I can just hear her saying, in about eight years, “As if.”)

This book will never see binding or a spine or a listing on Amazon.   I’m pretty clear about that.  It might show up on this blog.  It might be a Christmas present to my friends and family. But maybe one’s heart’s desire doesn’t have to have a purpose or action plan.  Maybe one’s heart’s desire doesn’t have to lead to success, fame, or fortune.  Maybe one’s heart’s desire is simply the thing that leads out of dull tantrums to joy.

That’s all for now – chapter nineteen awaits.writing

Skipping church

It’s Sunday morning and I am home and we’re not going to church today.  We are on vacation, enjoying one of our six Sundays a year not in church, but I’m feeling a little naughty and a little guilty about the whole thing.  The truth is, we could go to church – if not the church we serve, then another church.  A church of another denomination, in our neighborhood, whose pastor we admire.  A church served by one of our Presbyterian colleagues whom we never get to hear preach.  The hipster church down the road which brings in millenials in droves, for reasons we simply cannot fathom.

But no, we’re staying home this morning.  We might go to brunch – isn’t that what people who don’t go to church do on Sunday mornings? We could drink coffee and read the Sunday paper, but I’m the only one who drinks coffee and we cancelled the paper until tomorrow, thinking our vacation would last one more day than it actually did.  Instead, I was up at six (why?????) and the others are sleeping in.

Here’s the thing: pastors (and other church professionals) need a break from church and from Sunday morning worship.  If I were to go to my own congregation this morning, and sit somewhere in the sanctuary, it would be hard for me to let go and just worship.  If there were a mistake in the bulletin, I would see it.  If the sound system was wonky, I would notice it.  I would have to work hard to worship and not to critique, and that’s not fair to those who are leading worship today, or to myself.

And for me, it is hard to do a one-off at another congregation.  It’s hard to go to a brand new church whose traditions are not your own.  Did I sit in “someone’s” pew?  Do we kneel, come forward, stand up, sit down, fight fight fight?  If I sing the alto line to the hymn, will I get funny looks?  Will my child be bored to tears, or invited to leave to go God knows where for a Bible lesson, juice, and animal crackers?  Will the sermon move me or annoy me, or worse, bore me?  Will I be welcomed or ignored?

In the twenty-two years since I’ve been ordained, the most I have not gone to church is three weeks in a row, and that was when my daughter was first born.  Did I miss it?  I was so overwhelmed by my newborn, and breast feeding, and exhaustion, and healing from a C-section, that worship was the last thing on my mind.  But that fourth week, I couldn’t wait to take our daughter to church for the first time.  She was cooed over and held and I was loved and cared for.  We were home.

This morning we are home at our home.  The spouse and the kid are still asleep, and the dog just woke up and is sitting on my lap.  The morning coffee has been consumed.  I might make scones.  I might read.  I might do laundry.  I won’t go outside, because the smoke from the fires east of us is looming over all the city and it’s nothing short of gross outside.

I won’t go to church today; I’ll take the rare sabbath a pastor gets.  I’ll remember that I am not in charge of worship, nor solely responsible for it, nor the only one who does it right.  I will say a prayer – for my colleague who is on her own this morning; for the firefighters who are so brave and tireless; for those whose health and homes are affected by this fire.  I’ll say a prayer of thanks for this morning off, for vacation, for my family and my dog.

And then I’ll go make scones.morning-coffee