Sunday, December 21, 2008

God's Gracious Choice

Sermon for St. Paul’s, December 21, 2008
2 Samuel 7:1-11 16, Luke 1:26-38

Last week in the sermon, we talked about being called to be the people of God. Isaiah 61, gave us a picture of what God’s people look like. They are a people in which there is no oppression, where the brokenhearted are bound up, where those falsely imprisoned are set free, where the mourning are comforted. They are a people who are blessed richly by God and are a blessing to those around them. They are a people of justice and generosity. And we heard that we are called to be such people. We are the people that God is forming into a community that reflects these values, that reflects God’s glory, that reflects the kingdom of God. God realizes that this will not be an easy task and so God sends one who will show us the way, a Messiah, God’s own Son, to model for us and teach us, to strengthen and encourage. God, through the work of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God will bind up the brokenhearted, set free the captives, and comfort the mourning. When we fail, God calls us to repentance. God forgives us and recreates us. God reforms us once again into God’s people.

But there is always a bit of doubt in our minds. Are we really the ones who are to be God’s people? Are we really the ones God has chosen? Why would God call us? Why would God choose you? Why would God choose this small little community to be God’s people? During my time here last week, several people mentioned the significant decline in this congregation over the last few years. In the building here, there are pictures of large youth groups. There are memories of two services. There are longings for a time when the sanctuary felt full to overflowing, when the congregation felt alive and vibrant. People seem to wonder, “Has God left us? Are we still God’s chosen people? Are we worthy of God’s presence? “

Who is it that God calls to be God’s people? What criteria does God use? And what does God desire from us?

If I was choosing a group of people to represent me, who would I choose? Who would you choose? At the moment, there are a number of television shows where famous people are choosing their successors, their prodigies, their best friends. Donald Trump is finding apprentices, Elle magazine its next junior editor, Heidi Klum the next great designer, Gordon Ramsey the next great chef. They look for the best and the brightest. Someone with talent, intelligence, creativity, and a great personality to match. They are not looking for someone who is simply great. They are looking for someone who is spectacular.

Our society seems to worship the spectacular… those who are big and bold and splashy. Those who are beautiful, rich, young, and healthy. And at times the church does not seem much different. Pastors often lament the fact that when they go to minister’s conferences, all anyone seems to talk about is size. How many people attend your church? How big is your sanctuary? Do you have the latest sound system? Are you reaching the “emergent” generation? Henri Nouwen, a priest whose ministry focuses on the handicapped, writes:

“When you look at today’s Church, it is easy to see the prevalence of individualism among ministers and priests. Not too many of us have a vast repertoire of skills to be proud of but most of us feel that, if we have anything at all to show, it is something we have to do solo. You could say that many of us feel like failed tightrope walkers who discovered that we did not have the power to draw thousands of people, that we could not make many conversions, that we did not have the talents to create beautiful liturgies, that we were not as popular with the youth, the young adults, or the elderly as we had hoped, and that we were not able to respond to the needs of our people as we had expected. But most of us still feel that, ideally, we should have been able to do it all and do it successfully.”

Nouwen calls this the temptation to be spectacular, the belief that in order to please God we must be a star, gifted in all things and successful in anything we put our mind to. And pastors are not the only ones who fall to such temptations. Churches, too, feel that they must have a vast repertoire of skills and to be good at all of them. They feel the need to be popular, to attract large numbers of people, and to be professional and polished in all that they do.

Spectacular is what the world is looking for. Spectacular is what we believe we should be. But is spectacular what God is looking for? Does God only choose the best and the brightest?

In the book of 1 Samuel, we find Israel in need of a ruler. For several generations they had been led by Judges, men and women sent by God to provide wisdom and leadership for the people. Israel, though, was tired of judges. They wanted a real leader. They wanted a king like all of the other nations. And they wanted someone spectacular. So, they chose Saul. Saul was the son of a wealthy family and the most handsome man in all of Israel. He was big, tall, and strong and he looked like a king. Everyone believed that Saul would be a great king and, with the Lord’s help, in those first months he was. Saul won his first battle against the Ammonites. His second battle, however, did not go as well. The Israelites were in distress under the attacks of the Philistines. The people were hidden in caves and among the rocks and tombs. Saul was awaiting Samuel, the priest, who would bring an offering to the Lord on their behalf, but Samuel was taking too long. The people were leaving. Saul was losing his followers and losing the battle. So, Saul decided to present the offering himself… disobeying the Lord’s command. Saul lost patience and rather than waiting on the Lord and on Samuel, he attempted to do it all alone. Saul gave in to the temptation to be spectacular, believing that God would want him to win the battle at all costs, even disobedience to the Lord’s commands.

Saul would continue this pattern of relying on himself rather than relying on God… and so, God would eventually reject him as king. Instead. God would turn to another… a less spectacular choice for king, but one described as “a man after God’s own heart.” The prophet Samuel had been sent to choose a new king, this time from among the sons of Jesse. When he saw the oldest son he thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before us.” But the Lord replied, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Samuel examined all of Jesse’s sons one by one starting with the eldest, but the Lord rejected them all. Finally, only the youngest remained. David was almost as handsome as Saul, but there was a great difference between the two men. Saul, when given the choice between being spectacular and obeying God, consistently chose to be spectacular. David, however, would consistently resist the temptation to be spectacular. David’s greatest desire was not popularity or success, but rather obedience. David’s greatest desire was to please God. And because of that, the Spirit of the Lord rested upon him. The Lord chose David as the new king over Israel, the least of his brothers would become the first among them. God’s choice was not the spectacular, but rather the one after God’s own heart.

In Luke, Chapter 1, we come upon a young girl in the town of Galilee. She was from a working class family and engaged to a local carpenter. She was a faithful Jewish woman, but there is nothing in the text to indicate that she was spectacular. Instead, many commentators believe she was rather ordinary. Faithful, but ordinary. A lot like you and me. Even less is said about her husband. He, too, can be described as faithful but ordinary. This time God was not choosing a king. God was choosing something much more important. God was searching for a woman to bear the Christ child. God was looking for a family to raise God’s son.

There is nothing in the text to indicate that God scoured the land for the most spectacular couple to raise this child. There was no competition to determine who would be the most worthy. There was no genetic testing to pick the woman who was the wisest or healthiest or most spiritual. There was no application process. No search criteria. In fact, the text tells us nothing about how God made the choice of Mary. Instead, we enter the story when the choice has already been made. Mary sits alone in small room and suddenly an angel of the Lord appears to her and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you… Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

As the commentator, Robert Stein points out, the point of the text is not Mary’s worthiness. Instead, the focus of the text is on God’s gracious choice. God chooses a young girl, a young girl just like one of us, to be the mother of the Messiah, to bear the Christ child. Mary is not spectacular, but because of God’s gracious choice, she will take part in spectacular things.

A young shepherd boy, the least of his brothers… a young Jewish girl from a working class family not yet married… these are the types of people God chooses. God chooses people like you and me. God does not look for the spectacular. God does not look at outward appearances. Rather, God looks at the heart. These are the types of people God chooses. All that God asks is that our hearts are right with God.

Advent gives us a chance once again to get our hearts right with God. To prepare for the coming of the Lord. I don’t know what happened in this congregation over the last five years or so. I don’t know if it is something that you need to confess or something you need to offer forgiveness for. Perhaps you were simply victims of circumstances beyond your control. What I do know, is that God still chooses you.

There is a little children’s book by John Trent entitled, “I’d Choose You.” The story is about little Norbert the Elephant who has had a particularly bad day. He was picked last for the team. Nobody wanted to sit next to him on the roller coaster. His friend, Heidi Hippo, embarrassed him in front of everybody. But when he arrives home, his mom opens her arms and says, “And if I could honor one child who has an exciting and wonderful future...and if I could teach him each day that he is God's special gift, especially on those days when he doesn't get picked...Guess which one I'd choose every time? I'd choose YOU!" Just as Norbert’s mom opened her arms to her son, so God’s arms are open to us. God chooses you.

All God desires is that our hearts are right with God. If you need forgiveness, confess your sins and they will be forgiven. If you need to forgive, lay your grievances before the Lord and ask for the strength needed. If you are in the midst of circumstances beyond your control, know that God is with you. God chooses you. God chooses the ordinary faithful to be a part of God’s spectacular work in the world.

God is with you right now. Dwelling in your midst. God does not care if you are great or small as a congregation. God does not care if you are rich or poor. God does not care if you have a magnificent sanctuary or a professional choir. God simply desire to dwell with God’s people.

In the text from 2 Samuel read this morning, we find David concerned about building a spectacular house for God. When God first came to dwell with the people of Israel, God’s presence was a great pillar of fire, a great cloud of smoke that traveled with them through the wilderness. Eventually, the people built a beautiful ark that they carried with them everywhere. The ark looked like a throne and when God spoke to the people of Israel, God would often settle in a cloud of glory on the ark. This ark came to symbolize God’s presence among the people. The ark was kept in the tabernacle, a great tent-like structure that could easily move with the people wherever they went. David, however, felt that the tabernacle was no longer appropriate as a house for God. Israel was in a time of peace and people were building permanent homes, no longer dwelling in portable tents. David himself had a beautiful house of cedar and felt that the Lord should have a beautiful house as well. David wanted to build God a great temple.

David shared his dream of building a great temple with Nathan the priest and Nathan, of course, approved. Obviously God needs a beautiful temple to live in. God is a spectacular being and God needs a spectacular building. But God had other ideas. God came to Nathan with a message for David saying, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of them… saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”

God was not angry with David for his desire to build a great temple. God recognized that David’s desire came from his love for God. But God did not need a spectacular house to dwell in. God was not concerned about a spectacular building. God did not need David to build him such a dwelling place. God would do the building. God would make a spectacular temple to dwell in. However, this temple would not be made of cedar. It would not be made of brick or stone. God’s temple would be made of people. It would be made of God’s people. And God would make them spectacular.

God goes on to say in 2 Samuel, “… I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth… Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” God did not need David to build a temple. Instead, God would do the building, forming Israel into the people of God, a beautiful temple that would serve as God’s dwelling place.

God chooses you to be God’s people. God calls you to prepare your hearts to receive Christ anew this Advent season. For God desires to dwell in you and among you. God desires to make you into people who reflect God’s glory, the kingdom of God. We now know that God’s kingdom will not look like anything we could have imaged, for it begins not in glory, but in a manger, with a young girl, chosen by God. It begins with God’s choice to dwell on this earth, in a humble human body. It continues with God’s choice to dwell in and among God’s humble people, God’s ordinary faithful people. For out of these humble beginnings, God will bring forth a great kingdom… God will build a beautiful temple, and God’s work will be spectacular.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Isaiah 61: Blessed to be A Blessing

Sermon for St. Paul’s United Church of Christ
Third Sunday in Advent, Dec. 14, 2008
Intro and thank you

The young man had not been at temple for several months. This was the temple he grew up in and attended faithfully ever since he was a small boy. But today he had returned… amidst rumors and gossip about what had taken place since we had last seen him. There were stories about his being baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River. Something strange had happened that day… John had refused to baptize him at first, but when he eventually did so, some saw a bright light or a dove descending on him. Some wondered if this had anything to do with John’s prophecies about the coming Messiah, but they could not ask Jesus, for shortly after his baptism he disappeared into the wilderness. He was gone for over 40 days and no one is sure what happened to him, but when he came back he was changed. He had always attended synagogue, but now he was teaching regularly and everyone was praising him.

And today, he finally came home. Today, on the Sabbath, Jesus was here and we would all see for ourselves just what changes had taken place.

At that moment, he was handed a scroll to read. He stood, unrolled it, and seemed to search for a particular passage. What would this son of Joseph, this carpenter’s son, one of our own…. What would this young man read to us this day? Jesus stood and began to read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the Lord’s favor.”

From the book of Isaiah. Interesting. Wasn’t John the Baptist also quoting from Isaiah recently? Wasn’t that the book that was full of promises about the coming Messiah? It had been many generations since there had been a prophet in Israel. People had stopped waiting, stopped hoping for the coming Messiah. But John’s words had renewed the hope of some. John was coming to prepare the way for the Lord and now, now Jesus stands up and reads this passage. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me..” Could he be another prophet? Or was it possible? And then Jesus sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What exactly did Jesus mean by that?
In order to understand what was really happening at this moment, we have to understand a bit more about what this passage in Isaiah meant to the Jewish people at the time.

The book of Isaiah begins with the Jewish kingdom of Judah in a time of great prosperity and wealth under King Hezekiah. Unfortunately, in the midst of their great wealth, their hearts had turned from the Lord. Though they continue to worship God in the temple, Isaiah 29 says that they “drew near to God with their mouths and honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from God and their worship of God was a human commandment learned by rote.” They were condemned for their worship of idols (2.8), for their arrogance (2.12), for their greed (5.8) and for their injustice. They were judged for their inhumane treatment of the poor (3.14-15) and the working classes and for not attending to orphans and widows (1.17).

Isaiah’s spoke a word of warning to the people of Judah to repent and return to the Lord. Repentance meant a turning away from idols, humbling themselves before God and others, and bringing economic justice to their land. If they would not repent, if they would not humble themselves, they would be made humble, brought down by foreign armies, and led into captivity. This would be God’s judgment upon them. This would be God’s way of getting through to them, of reminding them who was in charge, of reminding them of God’s love.

It seems strange to understand the bringing about of such suffering as an act of love. And yet, when we read the words of Isaiah, we see that God does not desire to bring about such judgment. God desires repentance. God desired repentance, because God was trying to fashion a people… a people who would reflect the glory of God’s kingdom, a people who would be blessed, but also a people who would be a blessing to others … and God will do whatever it takes to make that happen… because of God’s love for us.

Throughout the book of Isaiah, we see the love of God in hints of child named Immanuel, a Wonderful Counselor, a Prince of Peace, a shoot that will come out from the branch of Jesse full of wisdom and understanding, a suffering servant, a light to the nations. God made a promise to the people of Judah, a Covenant with them and with all the Israelites that they would be the people of God, that they would be blessed and they would be a blessing. And God would fulfill that promise, both through the people of Israel and sometimes in spite of them. God would send someone, filled with the Spirit of the Lord, to come alongside the people and shape them into nation that reflected the glory of God.

In Isaiah 61, we have a picture of what God’s people look like. They are a people in which there is no oppression, where the brokenhearted are bound up, where those falsely imprisoned are set free, where the mourning are comforted. They are a people who are blessed richly by God and are a blessing to those around them.

This passage, however, is not written to a people in prosperity. Judah had already heard Isaiah’s words of warning and they did not listened. They had been taken over by foreign armies. They were sent into exile. Despite their hard-heartedness, God still called out to them. God still loved them. God still desired to fashion them into a nation that would bring glory to God, that would bless and be blessed. In the midst of their suffering, God offered a promise of restoration and renewal. God offered to recreate them into the nation that they were originally meant to be. In this new nation there would be no more oppression, no more broken hearts, no more prisoners, no more mourning. Those who have suffered in exile will be restored. They will be called “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord to display his glory.” Isaiah writes, “Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.”

Some have called the promises in this passage “the great reversal,” a complete reordering of society where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. While to some extent, this is true, I prefer to simply call this a picture of the kingdom of God. This is the people God has called Judah to be. This is the people God has called us to be. Just as Isaiah called to Judah so long ago, God is still calling to us today. God wants our hearts to be humble. God wants our worship to be more than a human commandment learned by rote, but rather a response to the rich blessings that God has bestowed upon us. God wants us to treat one another with justice, to care for the widows and orphans, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to comfort those who mourn. Central is the recognition that all we have is from God and that all that we have is to used as a blessing to those around us. The people of Judah forgot that the Lord had provided for them. They forgot to share that blessing with the world around them. Yet God continued to pursue them, continued to fashion them into a people that would reflect the kingdom of God.

These words from Isaiah were the words that Jesus spoke when he stood up in the temple hundreds of years later. Those who heard him were impressed. The text says that they were amazed. They were ready to welcome this young profit into their midst and perhaps to believe that he was the coming Messiah. They wanted to believe that Jesus would bring the kingdom of God to the Jewish people. Unfortunately, like Judah, many of them focused on the blessings God would bring them and not the call to be a blessing. They were hoping God would bring them prosperity and power. But Jesus continued his teaching… and his words made the crowd so angry that they attempted to throw him off a mountainside. What made them so angry?

It was not the words he read from Isaiah. Instead, it was his contention that the words were not meant for Israel alone. Jesus tells of the prophet Elijah going to feed the Gentile widow of Zarephath and of the prophet Elisha going to heal Naaman the Syrian illustrating how God had always reached out beyond the Jewish people. One of Judah’s greatest sins, the sin that Isaiah spoke out so strongly about, was the hoarding of God’s blessings. God had blessed Judah tremendously and they had forgotten… forgotten that what they had come from God and instead they turned to idols, forgotten that all their great blessing was a gift and instead they arrogantly claimed it as their own, forgotten that what they had been given was meant to be shared with others, a blessing to the nations. Instead, they mistreated those in need, the poor, the widows, the orphans. God came to create a just and generous nation, a nation that would bring that justice to those around them, and who through their generosity would shine a light to the world.

With the words of Isaiah, spoken by Jesus the Messiah, God was once again calling the people of Israel to repentance, calling them once again to live into the people God desired them to be. And this time, God was sending a great helper. God was sending a son into the world, God’s self, to walk among us, to eat and drink with us, to model for us and teach us what the people of God were to be. Jesus was coming to usher in the kingdom and to guarantee that the great work begun would be brought to completion.

Perhaps it seems as if we gotten a little ahead of ourselves in the Church year. We are in the midst of Advent, a time to focus on the coming of Jesus as a little baby in a manger in Bethlehem. It will be another 30 years before Jesus stands up in the synagogue and reads this passage from Isaiah. Another 30 years until he begins his ministry. And yet Mary knew even before Christ was born who this Messiah was that she would give birth to. While Mary is pregnant with Jesus, she goes to see her relative, Elizabeth. When she enters the room Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims a blessing on Mary and the child. Mary responds with a song of praise to God, a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; who has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” The one who promises “his mercy from generation to generation.”

Mary knew that the little baby to come would bring both judgment and blessing, not just for our sakes, but for the entire world all to the glory of God.

During this Advent season, God is once again calling us to be fashioned into God’s people. To be a community that lives kingdom values. God calls us to recognize that all we have is from God. It has been given to us as a blessing… and so that we may be a blessing to the world around us. In this particular holiday season, it may be difficult at times to recognize the blessings we have been given in this world. Many are struggling financially, worried about putting food on the table, paying their mortgages, the cost of health care, whether or not they will be able to retire. When it seems most difficult to see that God has blessed us, when it seems most difficult to offer that blessing to those around us, that is when the message of this Christmas season is the most important. God did not leave us to accomplish this task along. God sent Christ into the world, the one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests. Christ himself will bind up the brokenhearted, feed the hungry, and set the captives free… through the work of his people. When we fail, God will call us once again to repentance. God will recreate us. God will love us and pursue us. As Advent reminds us, each year Christ comes again into our midst to fashion us into kingdom.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Mind the Gap

Traveling in England there are signs all over calling you to "Mind the Gap", to make sure that you don't step into the space between the train and platform. On my trip back East, my mom and I decided to mind another gap, the Delaware Gap. We made our way down a winding road on the Pennsylvania border.

Along the way we stopped at Dingman Falls... we made our way through the laurel bushes, along a creek, down the path, past a smaller water fall.

We climbed up a short way to Dingman Falls... and then climbed to the top for a better view.

From there we continued south until we came to the Delaware Gap, a deep gorge in the mountains. The mountainsides were covered with their autumn glory. My mom and I laughed... we stopped at every overlook, but they all seemed specifically designed to block the magnificent view of the mountains!

The drive was a beautiful detour on our way to Reading, Pennsylvania to see my mom's parents. It has been about six years since I saw my grandparents, and the last visit to their home did not end well. So, we were a little anxious as we made their way to our house.
The visit, though, went very well. My grandfather is not very encouraged by the current state of the world... I suppose that is the best way to put it, but the last time I was with him I began asking him questions about his childhood and young adult years. I have never seen him happier. On this visit he talked a bit about his time in business school, working in the steel mill, and then in the mail room. He was thrilled with his new XM satellite radio which had a station dedicated to his favorite music from the 1920's. He drove us by the house my mom grew up in and took us to one of his favorite places, the Daniel Boone Homestead. Both he and my grandmother love the horses. They bring carrots with them every week or so to feed them.

Apparently my grandfather was quite into horses and rode a lot when he was younger. As my mom pointed out, when he is more gentle and peaceful than ever when he is with the horses. My grandparents did not have the happiest of marriages when they were younger, but they have been together for over 60 years and they have come to a place of companionship with one another, a true partnership.

I don't know when I'll see them again. I hope I'll see them again. The following day my mom, grandmother, and I made our way to the Barnes Museum. It is fantastic, by the way! The museum was built as an art school. Mr. Barnes wanted to teach art to the masses. The walls of the museum are packed with paintings. Most are from the Impressionist period with an overwhelming number of Renoirs. Barnes, however, wanted to teach about themes and method and so each wall shows art from a variety of time periods and at times from a variety of cultures all illustrating different aspects of color, perspective, and light. Amazing. My grandmother and I share several passions... world travel, broadway musicals, and art museums. I hope that we will have a few more years to share out passions with one another.

As we were returning from the museum, we drove past the house of one of my mom's cousins. While my grandparents are quite conservative, some of the rest of the relatives are quite radical! We found Barack Obama waving from the front yard of her cousin's house and she just had to stop and take a picture. It's nice to know that my own political leanings are not entirely outside the realm of my family context! I have to admit that finding connections with my relatives is important and meaningful to me. It gives me a sense of rootedness. It helps me to know that my identity is not all a matter of my own choosing. To have no roots for who I am leaves me with an overwhelming number of choices. Honestly, I prefer to live within some limits. I think perhaps there is something biblical in that... living as a created being rather than trying to be the creator.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Still Learning from My Mom...

I had one final day with my Mom in Maine before we got in the car and made our way south to my grandparents in Pennsylvania. Following our time at the Rachel Carson Refuge, we went on another little hike out to Wells Beach. It was a bit cold and windy... perfect beach weather for a former Northern California girl. And of course, there were rocks everywhere. I loved it! Among all rocks and amid the tide pools there were little snails leaving trails everywhere. Crawling under the rocks, following one another in along the trails of sand.

Before we headed down to Pennsylvania, we had two more tasks to accomplish. The first involved my learning (or re-learning) something new from my mom. I brought some fabric with me that I had bought in Guatemala. Hand weaved, extremely soft denim like material that is generally used for women's skirts. I had been wondering what to do with it, so I brought it east to my mom and her sewing machine. Okay, don't laugh. It was a simply project. We just made place mats and napkins. But still... I sewed! On a sewing machine! I may have to get one of those things.
The second task involved my seeing what my mom has learned. I was the first to begin a Christian in my family. Others followed... my sister a year later and my mom a few years after that. I soon was involved in leadership, eventually heading to seminary and becoming an ordained minister. My family has often seen me as a spiritual leader. I found out this week, though, that my mom has become quite the spiritual leader in her congregation. Mom was leading a bible study in the other room as I was sewing. I overheard some of the discussion. Enough to hear my mom offering her insights and advice, modeling a mature faith and challenging them to healthy, whole relationships. Enough to hear the responses of those attending who clearly looked up to her. So now it is my turn to say how proud I am of her.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Historic Homes and Wildlife Refuges

Down the street, past the historic mill and the old cemetery, is Hamilton House. Built in 1785, Hamilton House sits on a bluff overlooking the Salmon Falls River. Once owned by the Tyson family, apparently they used to build their own pirate ships in a little swale alongside the house... Wait, "pirate" is not the politically correct word here. It was actually legal at the time to raid certain ships and claim their goods on behalf of mother England. In case you are not aware, piracy runs in my family. The Deasy's had their own quay in Clonakilty, Ireland which they used as their home base for raiding ships off the coast. Perhaps my own good girl concern for rules is some form of penance for early family sins!

Behind the house are some beautiful little English gardens. In the summer they hold concerts there. We wandered a bit in the gardens before heading back home. For more information on the Hamilton House see

Have I shown any pictures of fall leaves yet? Yes, one of the main purposes of the trip (other than seeing my mother, of course!) was to see the New England fall colors. There were definitely some beautiful trees along the river next to my Mom's house, but we saw the most spectacular leaves as we drove through North Berwick on our way to the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge.

Pictures really can't do justice to the explosion of color. My favorites were often the ones in the midst of turning... with bright red and vibrant green all mixed together.

The Rachel Carson refuge was not bursting with color, but it was beautiful. A wheel-chair accessible path wound through the trees and then out along a ridge overlooking the salt water marshes and estuaries that make their way in from the Atlantic.

The sunlight would peak through the leaves... the leaves would take on a translucent glow. Beautiful.

I remembered hearing about Rachel Carson in the Wilderness and Faith Class I participated in last year. She was a marine biologist and environmentalist in the early part of the 20th century (www.fws/gov/northeast/rachelcarson) and served as editor in Chief for the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Following World War II, Carson wrote about the connection between pesticides and biological damage. She was one of the first to really argue for the connection between humans and the rest of creation in modern times and to call us to treat the environment with respect and care.

I am so grateful for those who decided years ago to set apart tracts of land as parks and refuges throughout the United States. They are my saving grace in the midst of the city of Chicago... and they have always been where I flee to seeking my own refuge... with the wildlife... with creation... with the creator.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Then the Cemetery...

So, first we visited the beach. The next day we walked around my Mom's neighborhood. First we made our way to the local cemetery. Yes, I have a fascination with cemeteries. And this one was no exception. Nestled in a pine grove, the floor covered with a cushion of fallen needles, this cemetery meandered among the trees along a ridge on the edge of a local lake.

Age is all relative... growing up in California, we rarely found anything more than 100 years old. Traveling around Europe and the Middle East, I encountered stones and ruins thousands of years old. For the United States, this cemetery was quite old. The oldest tombstone I found was dated from 1732. Portions of my Mom's house are said to be from even earlier than that.

The Goodwin family had graves throughout the cemetery, including, most likely, those who owned the house before my parents. It is a bit difficult for me to understand. I didn't grow up in house that had "historic value." At least none that I knew of. My current home is only about 80 years old, but has some interesting stories behind it. Most likely the community I live in served as housing for those who worked at the tuberculosis sanitorium located across Pulaski.

Whenever I look at history, I am aware that there are stories that are not told, people who are forgotten or left behind. History is so often the story of those who are in power or those who won the day. Rarely is history told from the perspective of the average and the ordinary... or from those on the margins. So, I am always grateful for those signs, such as this tombstone, that hint at the rest of the story.

When I read the scriptures, I search for such signs. Stories of those who were lost or forgotten. I am aware that in many ways the Bible is just the tip of the iceberg, hints of a much deeper, wider, and more complex story. The world that Christ walked in was not just that of the stories written. So many stories were lost or forgotten. I am grateful that the Bible is full of at least some of the stories from the margins, that the parables were often so much about ordinary people and ordinary objects that were endowed with deep spiritual significance in the words of the Savior. May we see the world with similar eyes to that of our God.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Beach first...

While I had headed to the Northeast primarily to see family, I did have ulterior motives... the first being to see the fall leaves. But of course, being from California, we had to visit the beach first. I have to admit, I miss being near nature. I realize there are parks and things in Chicago, but it is just not the same. Part of it is the urban setting. Part of it is the culture. I have spent so much time in outdoor cultures... places where no matter what the season, people were outdoors hiking, boating, skiing, exploring. I find myself in a much more indoor culture these days... well, for the last 8 years. And a final part is being single... the outdoors are often not a safe place around here. A new walking trail was put in a few blocks from my house last summer and a month ago a woman was attacked in broad daylight.

So, whether off to see the fall leaves or the beach, I was excited to spend some time outdoors with my Mom. Our first hike was along the cliffs of York beach. I have always loved rocky beaches and York beach brought back memories of the rocky shores in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I used to drive out there to walk along the rock wall... most often during storms... to watch the waves crash and feel the power of the ocean while I was in seminary.

It was a beautiful fall day and the hike was a bit of an adventure. The path wound along the cliff and there were places where it had clearly washed away in previous years. As usual, I was fascinated by the rocks. I have been for years. I remember a small rock collection that my grandparents gave me for a Christmas present when I was in elementary school. The fascination stayed with me as I took geology classes in college.

Now, I tend to take pictures of rocks... you'll see one or two more in the days to come. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Visiting Mom

And now for a break in our regularly scheduled program... while I will continue to upload excerpts from my doctoral exams, I thought I would break up the high brow discourse with a few vacation photos and reflections on my recent trip to Maine. For those of you who don't know, my mom and stepdad moved back to his hometown in Maine a few years ago and bought a 200 year old (is that right?) farmhouse on a river complete with three story barn in the back.

I decided that I needed a vacation after all my studying for exams all summer and jumping right into teaching this fall. I am very thankful for fall breaks! It turns out that my stepdad was away all week and so my mom and I had time to ourselves. We ate out with friends of hers, wandered in cemeteries, through forest preserves, and on the beach, and she even helped me do a little sewing project.

I never know how my mom does it. She has a great garden in front of her house... well, in front and back of her house. There is a huge rhubarb patch on her front lawn, a flower garden along her back walkway, and a vegetable patch off to the side. She harvested all the pumpkins above (and one little watermelon) while I was there. I have not inherited any of her outdoor gardening ability and have none of her fortitude for the work that is required.

I remember as a kid how much I hated the gardening we had to do. Once a year we were required to weed the back hill. It was covered with ivy, pampas grass, and other plant life... and if I remember a bit of animal life as well. Oh, yes, and there was the front hill as well covered in juniper bushes. I think all three of us (my brother, sister and I) whined and complained for several weeks before the big day. Now mowing the lawn... that was a different story. I kind of enjoyed that. It was a small, manageable square of land. But I think that chore most often went to my brother. I don't know why we... I should say I... both my brother and sister are attempting landscaping and gardening at their homes... never took to outdoor gardening. I would like to... I have made a few attempts... but then something else always comes along. If only we could inherit all the good things that our parents try to pass down to us.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Confessional Practical Theology

John Swinton and Harriet Mowat have recently published a book on qualitative research methods that is grounded in a confessional approach. The aim of their practical theology is to create congregations committed to the faithful performance of the gospel. While they make significant use of socio-analytic methods in their work, they give primacy to theology. They claim that theology is constructed by God and therefore cannot be fundamentally challenged by humanly constructed knowledge. This is not to say that they have a completely naïve approach to theology. While they argue that there is one single unified gospel story, they see Christianity as the interpretation of that story in various cultures and contexts. Christianity itself is a historical/theological construct. They also operate from a hermeneutic of suspicion, acknowledging the sinfulness of humanity as contributing to the misuse of power in interpretation and the lack of self-reflection within communities that prevents us from seeing our own constructs.
What I appreciate about their method is their attempt to include God as a primary actor in the life of the congregation. God’s revelation is a primary discourse shaping the beliefs of the people. The Holy Spirit is central in the practices of the church. The congregation is called not to respond to human standards, but to faithfully perform the gospel. While it may be impossible to understand God’s revelation outside of human construction, it seems crucial to look for the ways that God might challenge the dominant oppressive discourses in our society and empower individuals to resist. My own commitments to feminism and liberation grow out of my understanding of the gospel. This allows me to understand each of these discourses as grounded in a deeper commitment to all humanity reflecting the image of God.
There is a danger in such methodology. When arguing for a foundational gospel truth, there is often the danger of silencing those discourses and experiences that seem to challenge such a truth. There can be an idealization of the church and a refusal to significantly address issues of suffering. This has certainly not been the case in Swinton’s work. His book Raging with Compassion seeks to address the problem of evil in the world. Rather than asking why evil exists or the relationship of evil to a good and benevolent God, Swinton asks how we can create congregations that are able to sustain faith in the face of evil. He does so not by denying evil exists but by seeking to increase the congregation’s capacity to bear suffering. This involves being able to sit in silence as well as embracing lament.
Swinton avoids one of the central issues often present in confessional practical theology, the suppression of challenging or painful voices and the voices of those on the margins. Yet, it does not seem that such an emphasis is grounded in his own methodology. What has caused him to focus on suffering and evil in his work? Much of his research has focused on those with mental and physical disabilities, seeking to create methodologies that honor them as human beings in the research process. Yet, it is unclear what drives this commitment. His methodology by focusing on a generalized idea of the gospel does not demand such an emphasis.
In addition, while focusing on those on the margins in the midst of suffering, I am unsure that I believe his response is sufficient. The main focus of Swinton’s book on evil is increasing a congregation’s capacity to bear pain. The emphasis is on sustaining faith. Rituals and worship become central in this approach. There is nothing, though, to call the congregation to change the structures that are contributing to evil in the first place. Both seem necessary to truly provide pastoral care. While Rebecca Chopp focuses on creating emancipatory structures, she often loses the faith aspect of the congregation. In my own practical theology, I hope to attempt to hold these two aspects together, focusing both on faith and action.
A final note on my own approach to practical theology. While my goal is to retain commitments to all three approaches, I recognize that my context will determine which approach I give priority too. In the midst of feminist and liberation circles, I often emphasize the confessional aspects of my faith seeking a way to acknowledge the role of a dynamic living God in the midst of theology and congregational practices. Within my own denomination, I tend to emphasize the feminist and liberation aspects. There is a danger in our denomination in using the confessional approach to avoid the socio-analytic work necessary to creating practices that are truly faithful to the gospel. In addition, I must present my feminist and liberation commitments in confessional language in order to be heard. I am making choices between discourses, drawing on what is liberating, making compromises, and choosing between pain and pleasure. I will need to constantly analyze power dynamics and my own choices in attempting to balance these approaches.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Practicing Liberation

Rebecca Chopp is also a feminist practical theologian, but liberation theology is more central in her work. Her early work, The Praxis of Suffering, focuses on developing a methodology for practical theology grounded in Latin American liberation theology and German political theology. As such, suffering becomes a primary referent along with gender in her work. Chopp has been accused of being more political than pastoral in her practical theology. Certainly she appears more political than Elaine Graham. Graham’s work, while emphasizing human flourishing, is clearly grounded in the pastoral work of the congregation. Chopp, in emphasizing justice and liberation, has moved beyond the confines of the local church into the wider society. Her practical theology has clear goals for changing structures in the here and now and creating liberating practices.
If, as most feminists argue, the personal is political, might one also argue that the pastoral is political? It seems that the political edge to Chopp’s work grows out of a pastoral concern for the flourishing of all people that cannot be limited to the local congregation. If one is to attend to issues of race and class in their practical theology, it seems essential to move beyond the local congregation. It is clear from sociological studies of evangelical churches such as Divided by Faith by Emerson and Smith that our churches have become racially divided and our emphasis on local communities has only served to further the race and class divides in our society. One’s practical and pastoral theology must have a political edge if it is to address these issues. Chopp’s ecclesiology focuses on the development of communities of emancipatory proclamation. Perhaps she is simply reclaiming the prophetic aspects of ministry that are so often lacking in our churches today.
As part of their commitment to the located and interested aspects of knowledge, both Chopp and Graham have a non-foundational approach to truth. All truth is seen as socially constructed. As such, Christianity becomes a socially constructed reality. In their practical theology, socio-analytic tools and theology are given equal weight. They use a hermeneutic of suspicion when approaching scripture and tradition. God seems to be reduced to a human construction rather than an active, living being. Is there a way to reclaim the role of God in practical theology without losing a commitment to feminism and liberation? It seems that a confessional approach moves in the right direction. Before addressing the confessional approach, though, one must ask where Chopp and Graham get their commitments to feminism and liberation. It seems that these commitments are foundational to their work, but from what foundation do they draw on? What in their methodology challenges others to make these same referents central in their work? Is it possible that the gospel can provide such a foundation?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What Makes a Woman?

Since the beginning of my Ph.D. program, I have been struggling to integrate my faith commitments with my commitments to feminist and liberation theologies. I have been drawn to confessional approaches to practical theology because they seem to see God as an active part of congregational life. I have been drawn to feminist theologies for their emphasis on gender and an analysis of patriarchy. I have been drawn to liberation theologies for their attention to race and class and their structural analysis that moves beyond the local congregation. The next few blogs will give you a bit of insight into how I am trying to pull of these together.
Feminist approaches to practical theology see gender as the central sight of socio-analytic and theological reflection. Their main purpose is generally to seek the flourishing of all humanity through the dismantling of patriarchy. For feminists in practical theology, all knowledge is located and interested. Analyzing power dynamics is essential. Practices become the main sight of reflection and are seen both as reflective and constitutive of beliefs and identity.
Elaine Graham has published a significant work on the meaning of gender in theology and congregational practices entitled Making the Difference. In this work she seeks to move beyond gender as an essential category (as fixed and never changing) or as socially constructed (how we are formed by society). Rather, she emphasizes gender as a performed reality. As such, it is in performance, in practices, that gender is constructed and maintained. For Graham, bodies are sites of discourse, sites of injustice, and vantage points from which to view reality. Gender is not something socially constructed outside the body and then mapped onto passive beings. Rather, gender is something both received and constructed by the individual. Graham emphasizes the intersection of structural influences as well as individual agency and sees material practices as mediators of these two acts. Our gender is both formed by forces outside ourselves and by the choices we make in living out our gender.
Graham’s emphasis on gender as performed reality becomes a central aspect of her pastoral theology in Transforming Practice. As with many feminist theologians, Graham’s pastoral theology shifts away from the actions of the ordained clergy to that of the congregation as a whole. (Feminist want to emphasize the work of the laity since the hierarchical structures of the church have often marginalized women) Graham’s pastoral theology seeks to create pastoral communities, communities that empower the flourishing of all humanity. In order to create such a community, Graham focuses on the creation of practical wisdom grounded in the practices of the church. The practices of the church constitute and maintain such wisdom. Her emphasis is on orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.
Graham’s work draws on both liberation theology and feminist theology, but gender is clearly the central category of her analysis. She attempts to attend to differences among women in her focus on gender as a performed reality, but in order to embrace such differences, Graham moves to a theoretical level. In doing so, she often loses sight of the material realities of women, in particular women of color. She tends to refer to a generic “women’s experience” as a source and norm for her work. In granting primacy to gender as the primary category of oppression and patriarchy as the primary oppressive discourse, she often fails to recognize the racially constructed nature of both gender and patriarchy. While the potential to address such differences is present in her work, by not referring to particular realities she leaves race and class analysis invisible in her methodology.
All this is to say that what it is to be a woman is often different in different cultures… whether different races, different ethnicities, or different classes. There are different expectations of women’s roles, different understandings of beauty, strength, motherhood, etc. Feminists have a difficult time knowing how to fight for women’s equality when there are so many different women to fight for! It becomes easier to assume that we are all the same… and that everyone is just like me… that to try and deal with all the differences among us. I want to try and make sure that the research that I do and the theologies I construct attend to and acknowledge the differences.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Identity as Ambiguous

As mentioned in my first blog about feminist research, there has been a shift in some feminist methodology from standpoint epistemologies to discourse theory. Epistemology is simply the study of how we know what we know, what is truth, what is real. Standpoint epistemologies believe that each person from their various standpoints has different access to the truth and will probably experience a different truth. Often scholars will privilege one particular standpoint as more true than others, particularly arguing that those who are oppressed or on the margins of society understand reality better than the privileged. Discourse theory believes that all of us have identities that are shaped by a myriad of criss-crossing discourses or streams of influence. These include aspects of our race, class, and gender but also include the big ideas in our societies that shape our understandings of ourselves.

Discourse theory is particularly highlighted in Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s work Changing the Subject. While I love this book, I would not recommend it to anyone who is not interested in a very abstract discussion about knowledge and identity. It is long and dense. Fulkerson critiques feminism for failing to develop theories that adequately attend to issues of power. She seeks to radicalize and deepen our understanding of the construction of gender in order to embrace difference. Fulkerson shifts from a privileging of women’s experience to women’s experience as more ambiguous and constructed. She begins from the location of women and their experiences. In order to uncover the discourses at work in the construction of women’s identity, she focuses on the material reality of their lives. She looks for those practices that are sites of utterance, locations in which communication takes place. In her study of women in the PCUSA, she considers bible reading. Among Pentecostal women she focuses on oral histories. In the world of feminist academia she focuses on books and literature. She sees each of these places as the dominant forms of communication within those cultures.
Within such practices, she looks for the various discourses that cross one another, the differential referents of meaning. In particular, she looks for those places where women’s construction of identity and meaning seem to differ from those of the dominant discourse. These are the places where women are graf(ph)ting new meanings and creating new identities. They are the sites of resistance and liberation. They are not, though, unambiguously liberating. Fulkerson seeks to analyze the unspoken rules operative within the community that shape how they negotiate the differences in discourses. She analyzes the power dynamics inherent in the process including the choices women make, the pleasure they gain, the pain they avoid, the ways they are complicit in their own oppression, and the ways they seek liberation.

This focus on the ambiguous nature of women’s experience is central to understanding women and pastoral identity. Too often the choices women make, the compromises in order to survive and thrive in a patriarchal culture are seen as a justification for women not being capable of or desiring to become pastors. It is important to highlight how the pain inherent in becoming a pastor, as well as the pleasure, is different for men and women because of the different ways discourses regarding gender and pastoral office intersect. Women's choices regarding the raising of children, their career choices, whether they will pursue further education, how they will lead, and how they present themselves are just that... choices. The choices often involve compromises and/or sacrifices based on the conflicting expectations of the culture around them.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Empowering Research

On Saturday, I posted some of my reflections on Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a scholar whose work focuses on black women’s experiences. Elaine Lawless also focuses on women’s experience in her work. Her book Handmaidens of the Lord focuses on the life narratives of white Pentecostal women preachers mostly in the rural south. She, too, has had to draw on more informal resources since a majority of these women serve in small parishes with little written history. As a folklorist, her focus is on the narrative aspects of women’s call stories and sermons. In particular, she suggests that women’s life stories are constructed narratives that serve to present a particular identity to the listener. Rather than a linear life story, the narratives are made up of a series of vignettes focused on this particular identity. Her approach is similar to that of Carolyn Heilbrun in Writing a Women’s Life. (I highly recommend Heilbrun’s book! It contains some great reflections on how we tell our own life stories, in particular stories of call and how they are shaped by our own expectations of what it is to be a woman)

In a later work Holy Women, Wholly Women, Lawless develops a more intentionally feminist approach to her interviews with women clergy. In this work she focuses on a group of mainly Protestant ordained clergy and develops a methodology that she calls reciprocal ethnography. Again, Lawless begins with interviews soliciting the call narratives of women clergy and follows up with additional interviews and sermons. Lawless’ reciprocal ethnography then adds an additional step. In this particular study she began meeting with the clergy women regularly, joining in an existing support group they had formed. Lawless observed the group as part of her study, but she also began a process of dialogue and discussion with the women. Those interviewed were allowed to read the transcripts and comment or correct them. As Lawless observed themes, she would bring them to the group educating them about the context of those themes and asking for their feedback. Their feedback would serve at times to correct Lawless’ observations and at other times to present a distinct voice from her own.

Lawless’ purpose in adding such a layer to her interviews was to move research into a dialogue between researcher and subject. Feminist methodology is interested in doing away with the hierarchies inherent in research and moving into a partnership model. Lawless’ method attempts to bring in the subject’s voices as an equal partner with her own. This requires a high level of self-reflection on her own preconceived notions and her own social location. It also requires her to distinguish in her writing between her voice and that of her subjects. I value this approach to research, but I also know that it is impossible to fully do away with the power dynamics inherent in the process. Lawless’ methodology includes an over reading of interviews to search for the things that are not said and the themes that are unconsciously present. In this way she exerts her power as the researcher to read into the narratives her own paradigms. While she is reflective about it, it is impossible to fully remove yourself from such work and to keep from imposing paradigms of your own onto the subjects. In the end, Lawless retains her own voice as that of the final expert. Her education and research give her expertise and in that sense power over her subjects.

Esther Madriz, in an article on qualitative research, further elaborates on the use of focus (small) groups in feminist research. She highlights, along with Lawless, how focus groups emphasize the multivocal nature of truth. Feminist research often seeks understanding grounded in multiple perspectives rather than one absolute truth. Focus groups also allow one to observe the relationships between individuals, to gain access to the language and symbols of their culture. They allow one to grant priority to individuals as relational beings, central to feminist thought.

Madriz also highlights the shifts in power dynamics that occur when a researcher is in a room with multiple subjects. She highlights the fact that focus groups may be particularly helpful when entering certain cultures or when the researcher is from a more dominant culture than the subject. For some women, in particular, the group may be necessary to help them find their voice and make their ideas and feelings heard. Madriz recognizes that many focus groups serve as consciousness raising groups for the subjects. She sees this as a significant aspect of feminist research. Feminists recognize that research is not neutral, but has the power to change the subjects. Rather than seek an impossible neutrality, some feminists embrace this aspect and seek to use it for the empowerment and flourishing of their subjects. When I finally do begin my research in local congregations, I can only hope it will have such an effect!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

If It Wasn't for the Women...

So, I have been neglecting my blog in recent months… And to be honest, I am not quite ready to do a lot of new writing. Sixteen hours of exams was quite enough. Instead, I thought I would post some excerpts from my exams. I realize for some of you this will be very boring! But for those interested, it will give you a little insight into what has been swirling in my head for the last few months. And if you have any questions… comment away. I’ll try and respond.

My first exam area was congregational research as practical theology and the first question looked at various feminist approaches to qualitative research. Here is the first researcher I considered… Cheryl Townsend Gilkes.

Mary Jo Neitz has an article in The Handbook for the Sociology of Religion that presents an overview of feminist methods of research. She begins her article by articulating the struggle many feminists have had in integrating their feminist commitments with their sociology. It is only in the last few decades that feminist approaches to sociology have gained significance. Early feminists began asking why women seemed to be excluded or invisible in sociological research. The next generation took the “add women and stir” approach simply recreating existing studies with women subjects. More recently, feminist sociology has shifted to begin asking questions that arise from women’s experience. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is a prime example of methodology that begins from women’s experience.
By beginning from women’s experience, feminists have shifted the location of scholarship from formal institutions and structures to the material realities of women who are often on the margins of such structures. This emphasis on material realties has led to an emphasis on practices rather than theories and ideas. To be more exact, knowledge and ideas are seen to be embedded in practices. Knowledge is seen as located and interested. Analyzing the power dynamics that shape the construction of knowledge becomes central to feminist research. More recent feminist theology has sought to radicalize and deepen this notion of the construction of knowledge by moving beyond women’s experience as a standpoint from which to understand truth to women’s experience as a performed reality constructed out of discourses. Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s work will highlight these shifts from standpoint epistemologies to discourse theory.
Cheryl Townsend Gilkes’ major work If it Wasn’t for the Women… focuses on the significance of women in the black community. Her work begins from the experiences of women, specifically black women. As such, the location of her research shifts from family and the formal structures of the church to the intersection of family, church, and community. Gilkes argues that most sociological research has rendered black women’s experience as invisible or deviant by focusing on white women’s experiences and patriarchal norms. They have failed to recognized the racial aspects of the construction of gender and have taken white women’s experiences as normative. For white women, family has been seen as the major site of oppression and their role within the family has been seen as marginalized or compartmentalized from their role in society. For black women, family and work have always been integrated placing them in a different relationship to black men and to white patriarchal norms. In addition, while black men have often exerted communal leadership through the church, patriarchal norms have kept women out of such positions. Black women have instead exerted their leadership within the community itself reflecting an integration of the sacred and the secular in their lives.
In shifting her focus to the experiences of women, Gilkes has made two moves methodologically. First, she has broadened her resources beyond formal written documents. While her work is very historical in nature, she has added women’s voices by referring to oral histories, sermons and testimonies, and literature. Her work reveals that within black culture, women are seen as central and foundational, especially to the church. Their histories are not as obscured as in the white culture. The black community has not been able to deny the leadership of black women who have often founded churches or served as leaders in the abolitionist movement. She did find that written histories often reflected more patriarchal norms while oral histories reflected women as more active and powerful agents. The second move made by Gilkes has been to focus on a more grounded theory approach. Rather than adopting existing paradigms from black history, sociology, or feminist scholarship, she has sought to create new paradigms based on black women’s experience. In particular she has sought to rewrite the understanding of the family in black history.
The next post will focus on Elaine Lawless… a researcher who also considers research from women’s experience but also develops a methodology for understanding how women narrate their own lives.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Top 10 Books

I was asked by a friend and youth pastor to create a list of my top 10 books... This list could have gone in many directions! Most of us chose to focus on books that impacted our spiritual lives and ministries. I also chose books that weren't reflected in many of the other lists. So, here is mine. You can see that my current studies were very influential!

1. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez
2. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Emerson and Smith
3. The Church and the Second Sex by Mary Daly
4. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henry Nouwen
5. Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald Heifetz
6. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth Johnson
7. Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology by Jung Young Lee
8. Writing a Woman's Life by Carolyn Heilbrun
9. White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response by Jacquelyn Grant
10. Teaching to Transgress: Education a the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Photos Along the Trail

I promised a few more photos after my weekend in Rainy Lake. It gave me an opportunity to wander along a little trail in the Boundary Waters. There is a small park and boat launch on Rainy Lake on the Western Edge of the waters. It was just me and my camera… and a little rain… and a few other shutterbugs. It was fun to see a small group of friends each armed with cameras trying to take creative shots along the trail. I was jealous of their cameras! I just have a little point and shoot digital camera. I love the freedom of digital. Take as many pictures as you want. It has freed me up to practice more. To make mistakes. To try things that seem a bit ridiculous. For someone who has struggled with trying not to make mistakes all her life… in words, deeds, thoughts, feelings… it has been freeing to try to learn by trial and error. I have a ways to go. When I go out to take pictures with my friend Cathy she takes at least 3 times as many photos as I do! But she has always been a bit more expressive than I have! So, here are some of my favorite shots from the Boundary Water trail.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Refuge in Rainy Lake

I spent the Memorial Day weekend at a great little inn on the shores of Rainy Lake, Minnesota. It has several names… Rainy Lake Inn, Tara’s Wharf, and Sand Bay Inn. Currently it goes by Rainy Lake Inn and Suites ( There are four suites, each with at least one bedroom, a living room, and a kitchenette. All with tremendous views of the lake and decks to sit out and enjoy the view. In addition, attached to the Rainy Lake Inn is Tara’s Wharf Ice Cream Shop
and a gift shop called the W.A.Genius Signature Store ( I was in the one of the more casual rooms, but the suites were beautiful. A great refuge. The building itself is actually over the water and so the lapping of waves on the shore and the pier rocks you to sleep at night.
I was up visiting my friend, Kirsten Wagenius, proprieter of the said gift shop. She is carrying mostly items from local artists and a few from friends in Chicago (including some of my photos on various cards, coasters, and framed prints). This was her opening weekend. We spent one late night putting final touches on the store and then opened for business. It was a bit of a slow weekend. Memorial Day was still a bit cold and the gas prices seemed to have discouraged some people from traveling… which is too bad! It was a stunning weekend.
I’ll add more photos later, but here are a few from the first sunset.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

My First Virtual Birthday

So, now that I am a full-time student, I spend most of my days sitting at home trying to read and write, preparing for my qualifying exams. The last time I did this, the internet was just picking up speed. I think I had just established my first e-mail account and I was lucky if I checked it once a week… and always in the computer lab in the basement of Caroline Hall. There were distractions… but the distractions were clearly separate from my work. The T.V., reading a novel, cleaning my house. Now, as I sit on the computer trying to take notes or formulate questions, with just one click I can make my way into a whole world of distractions. And in the midst of these distractions, I have found my way to facebook. Yes, I find myself checking my facebook account every few hours. Who is doing what? Who is reading what? Who is making friends? Did anyone write a message on my wall?

At first, facebook was a bit disarming. I would get e-mails from friends I had known for years asking “if I wanted to be friends.” Did I want to be friends? I thought we had already established that! I didn’t know it was a question! And I found that as I went to “invite someone to be my friend” I would get a bit anxious. Would they accept? Would they want to be my friend? I have since grown used to the language of facebook. And have even begun to add applications, letting people know where I live and what books I read.

Recently, I also decided to add my birthday to my profile… and just in time! Late on April 28, the birthday wishes started rolling in. I was so surprised! Good friends, acquaintances, former students, and many who had never celebrated my birthday before. One person would post. It would show up in the news feed. Another of my “friends” would see it. Another post. Another news feed. A virtual birthday party! I even received a virtual piece of cake and balloons.

I am not entirely sure how I feel about my virtual birthday party. On the one hand, I felt very celebrated. More than in quite a while… (well, last year was an exception) It was quite the party. I reconnected with old friends. Stayed in touch with others. I even received virtual birthday cards from my little seven year old nieces who live miles away. On the other hand, honestly, I miss getting cards. There is something about being able to touch and feel a card. And cards take a bit more effort, a little more thought… and the sacrifice of a stamp. It is not the cards that I miss, really, but the materiality of my relationships. I love how the internet allows me to stay connected quickly and cheaply, but it is no substitute for real live human beings. Perhaps I am feeling this more acutely this year. With so much time at home alone, I find most of my relationships taking place in the virtual world. It is one thing to have the virtual world enhance an already rich life of relationships, but it is another when the virtual world begins to substitute for the material world.

Perhaps I am just old. Perhaps for those who have always had a virtual aspect to their relationships there is not the disconnect. Yet I have to wonder… how is this virtual world changing how we understand relationships? What it means to be “a friend”… can friendship be fully defined in the virtual world? How is our understanding of what it is to be human changed? How is our understanding of community changing? And how do these things change how we understand church? And God? (after all… what a friend we have in Jesus…)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Blessed by A Community of Women

In my last blog entry, I lamented about being relegated to the world of women. Lest anyone assume that I do not value relationships with other women, let me now present the flip-side of that argument.

One of the reasons I can complain about my situation is because I have such wonderful relationships with other women. When I first became a Christian, several young women took me under their wings and mentored me. They taught what it meant to be a Christian. They bought me my first Bibles. They led small groups that I was a part of. And they saw the gifts for ministry in me before anyone else. They advocated for me and opened the doors that began my journey towards ordination.

Today, I have a wonderful network of women that I am a part of. They are all ages, in various stages of life, scattered all over the world. Some of them mentor me. Some of them I mentor. Many of them are what some would term “holy friendships,” ones that support and encourage me, walk alongside me in the faith, cause me to strive for excellence, and remind me continually of God’s presence. These women have been incredibly important to me for a variety of reasons.

The world gives women (well, all of us, but women in particular) a lot of mixed messages about who we are and who we are to be. The patriarchal systems and the sexism that persists today is at times blatant, but often much more subtle. When it is blatant, my women friends can laugh with me and rage with me, helping to remind me that my identity is in Christ not with those who devalue women. When it is more subtle, women friends can help me see those patterns, to stop doubting myself. They can share similar experiences. Some have gone before me and can offer advice. Some have come behind me and can remind me how far we have come.

But it is more than that… these women help teach me each day what it is to be a woman. What do I mean by that? It used to be that we grew up in communities, extended families, places where traditions and knowledge and secrets were passed on. Okay, perhaps only the healthy communities. But where today can you truly talk about some of the things that are truly unique to being a woman? Or perhaps are just truly unique to who you are but you are terrified they will cause you to be marginalized and silenced because they are too “feminine.” For example… I am a crier. For some of you that may be difficult to believe, but when I am under tremendous stress, or have not slept, or perhaps in the midst of my period, or someone evokes the issues I’ve had with my father… I cry. I can’t help it. I have tried to work on it. I have had a few bosses that have had to weather through it. Where can you talk about that?

Where can you talk about the changes you are going through when you are pregnant or going through menopause… especially when you are a pastor and the entire congregation is watching?

Where can you talk about the struggles of how to dress professionally… and feminine… and to indicate that you are available… and to reflect your personality… and to feel good about yourself… and not provide a temptation to anyone… and appropriate for the culture you are working in… and….

Where can you talk about the choices you are making in your career… and your personal life… how those things are not separate for you… how they don’t fit together neatly or easily… how they lead to lives that meander and wander rather than following a linear path up the corporate ladder?

In Elaine Lawless’s ethnographic study of a group of women clergy, Holy Women, Wholly Women, she writes of the need to “hear one another into speech.” How finding safe places to speak the stories of our lives is crucial to living an abundant life. Her study is worth looking at if you are interested in a peak into the world of professional clergy women. In reading her book, I was reminded that there are many women who have not been blessed by the relationships I have had with other women. They have been deep and meaningful, formative and fulfilling. Which is why, despite how they operate in my own life, I still feel that women’s groups are vital to the church and to our world. Every woman should have the opportunity to be blessed by relationships similar to the ones I have shared….