Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A scenic drive

I came here to work. Honest. I sat at a display most of the day today, and managed to get a great deal of work done while I was there.

But... I took a local seminary's recruiter's suggestion and headed back north to the Columbia River Gorge to drive along the Columbia River Highway. I took my time, stopping to see waterfalls along the way. It was an absolutely perfect day, partly cloudy, mid-50s, a little bit of a breeze. I could not have planned a better side trip for the day. There will be pictures when I get home.

I drove on up the interstate for awhile after I came to the end of the scenic highway. I turned around to return and drive on to Eugene, OR, just before sunset. The darkness slowly enveloped me while I chased down the sunlight heading west toward Portland. The last light of the day hovered over the river on the horizon until I finally exited to get something to eat....salad with smoked salmon. Yum!

Tomorrow, I'll return to Portland by way of the Oregon coast. If the weather's as good as it was today, I'm in for a real treat. Even if it's foggy and cold, it'll be a treat. I love the many moods of the coast. Whatever the day offers will be wonderful!

Monday, February 25, 2008

The smell of the ocean

I returned late last night from a weekend trip. I'm leaving this afternoon for another. Fortunately, though, I'm headed where I may get to smell the ocean and feel the cold ocean breeze on my face. Assuming my schedule and the weather permit on Wednesday afternoon, I'll be able to drive along a beautiful coastline on my way back to airport city from city where I have business. It's not much, but it's the best I can do this time, and given that I live about as far from the ocean as a person can be, I'll take what I can get.

I have two more trips next week, both short and should only require one night away from home. The following week, I'll be with my mom while she has knee replacement surgery. I'm going to be very happy to see the end of March on my calendar!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A sermon

Telling Stories
John 4:5-26; 39-42

The Samaritan woman’s testimony to the town’s people is really remarkable when you stop to think about it: “He told me everything I have ever done.” (v. 39) Here is a woman whose reputation looms so large that she is known even by those who just happen to pass through town. People had been telling the story of everything she had ever done for years.

“Did you hear about the woman who lives on the edge of town, you know, the one who has been put out by five different husbands?”

“Yeah. I hear she’s living with another man now and that he hasn’t even bothered to marry her. Oh, the poor dear. How does she do it? It must be just awful to live that way.”

“Poor dear? Are you kidding? I hear those husbands were all well within their rights to put her out.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. You just never know what you can believe these days. I do feel badly for her. She must be awfully lonely. I’ve started to strike up a conversation with her several times, but I don’t know. That’s risky. I’m afraid of how it might make my husband look if people knew his wife was associating with her.”

And though the stories they told may well have been behind her back, or maybe they were told in her presence, she knew what was being said, and perhaps even at some point let go of the idea that there was a different story to tell. The power of voice, of whose story gets told, has a way of doing that to us.

She was accustomed to being the one who hushed conversations when she walked into the room, the one no one spoke to when she went to the well. For years she’d gone during the early part of the day to draw water, when it was cooler, like the other women, but after awhile it became easier to endure the heat of the sun in the middle of the day than it was to deal with the impact her presence had on the women of the town. It’s hard to walk into a group of people who know you by your reputation and as a result, refuse to allow you to be a part of the community, to join in the conversations, to have relationships with others.

So it’s surprising that what struck her about the encounter with Jesus is that he told her everything she had ever done. There must have been something different about his telling.

How do you tell her story? Do you tell about a woman who had lived a hard life, maybe made some bad choices along the way, but also suffered the pain of rejection, the heavy weight of guilt and shame?

That makes for a pretty good story doesn’t it. It makes Jesus look pretty good too. The Jewish teacher sits down with a woman who had shown poor judgment in her life leading her to make some mistakes with men and offers her eternal life. He’s gracious that way, not afraid to sit with the sinners.

I think we have to be careful how we view her from our position of 21st Century western privilege. We run the risk of seeing an autonomous woman who had the freedom to make choices about her marital status, and thus her position in society, because that’s our experience, or at least we think that’s our experience. Life was clearly different for women then though. They were more likely to be viewed as property to manage than as people with freedom to make their own choices.

I think it’s pretty hard for us to know how much of her life’s condition was the result of her own choice and how much was the result of society’s proclivity to exclude. We have to be careful about how we tell others’ stories. No matter how gracious we may think we’ve been in the telling of the story, we may still fail to fully grasp its truth.

So what made Jesus’ telling of her story different?

John introduces the story of their encounter by telling us that Jesus had to go through Samaria on his way to Galilee from Judea (v. 4). It was not the custom for Jews to walk through Samaria. There was a way around that made as much sense for him to take as it did for him to go through Samaria. But something compelled him to go through and not around.

He came to the place known as Jacob’s well. He was tired and thirsty and though it was the middle of the day, a woman, a Samaritan woman, walked up to the well to draw water and he asked for a drink.

I wonder how the woman approached the well. Because I’m inclined to think she was there in the middle of the day for the express purpose of avoiding people, I imagine her working really hard to keep from making eye contact with Jesus. I picture a woman trying to sneak up to the well without being seen, trying so hard to blend into the sky around her that it startles her when Jesus speaks to her.

But, she does something surprising. She responds to him. She points out his error: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (v. 9) She cuts to the chase. "Who are you?," she wants to know.

Thus begins a conversation about ancestors, including an interesting allusion to Jacob, the one for whom the well was named, you know, Jacob, the deceiver, the one who lived by the name given to him at birth until he had a profound encounter with a stranger, maybe God, maybe an angel, who knows, maybe himself, and insists he won’t stop wrestling until he has been blessed. And the stranger responds by giving him a new name, a new story to live by. He became Israel, one who strives with God and with humans and prevails. (Genesis 32: 22-30) That is their ancestor Jacob. His story is part of Jesus’ and the Samaritan woman’s shared heritage. I don’t think it’s a mistake that this encounter happens at his well.

In this conversation about ancestors Jesus makes a curious reference to living water, and the woman takes that and runs with it. She sees his offer as an end to her striving. She will never be thirsty again. She’ll never have need for water, never have need to walk to the well in the midst of those who’ve rejected her, never have need to walk there in the middle of the day. If he will give her this living water, perhaps she’ll be self-sufficient and she can free herself from the suffering she experiences everyday of her life. (v. 15)

But the conversation takes an interesting turn here. It exposes the woman’s misunderstanding about what she needs to end her suffering. Jesus asks her to go get her husband and bring him back with her. (v. 16)

Can’t you just feel the tension in the air when he says that to her? Can you see the discomfort in her face? Can you feel her vulnerability?

Perhaps in a last ditch effort to cover up her exposed life, she tries to hide. First, she tells a partial truth: “I have no husband.” Jesus is not swayed. He calls her on it: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” Then she does what any good theologian would do when feeling vulnerable. She turns to heady theological conversation. She tries to distract him with the one point that has divided his people from her people: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Who could resist a good debate?

Or maybe she’s just testing him, seeing if he comes to her genuinely or if he’s just using her life’s condition to further solidify his position of power over her. Maybe she’s asking him to show his hand before she risks acknowledging the truth in his presence.

Jesus shows her he understands what separates them, but he calls her to see something different. He calls her to worship in spirit and in truth.

His telling of her story is different. He tells the truth, but he does it to liberate her, not for his own benefit - to show that he is better than she is - and in doing so, he frees her to reconnect with those from whom she has been isolated for years. His call to truth-telling is rooted in the conviction that the truth will set her free. He empowers her to tell her own story. It takes a lot of courage to do that. He doesn’t tell her to do it. She does it on her own. And she does it with urgency.

Now I’ll make a confession here. I don’t know if I’ve told the Samaritan woman’s story faithfully or not. Telling someone else’s story is always pretty risky, and nine chances out of ten we end up revealing as much about ourselves in the choices we make about how to tell the story than we do about the person whose story we tell. In hearing my telling of the story, perhaps you hear that I am a person who knows what it means to have someone else tell her story for her and in turn to resign herself to believing it’s true. Perhaps you know what that’s like.

If that’s what you hear, then I hope you also hear that I am someone who knows the powerful impact of speaking one’s own truth in the presence of someone who does not wish to use it for his own benefit. Doing so may not convince the masses to see us any differently, but in the telling, we become convinced of the truth of our own lives.

What would you hear if the Source of Life told you everything you have ever done?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Winter gardening

When I was a kid, the mail nearly every winter day was heavy with the weight of seed catalogs and farm implement sales bills. My dad loved to garden. Even more, he loved to plan for his garden. He studied the catalogs with the keen insight of an experienced scientist. His purchases always included a carefully determined mixture of tomato, green bean, and sweet corn varieties that were known hits and others that were experiments, attempts at taking the best sweet corn ever up a notch higher or producing a tomato crop that would outdo last year's. No garden ever received more loving attention, particularly in the winter months, while the ground lay frozen and dormant.

I think of Lent much like the time my dad spent planning for his garden. Like the tilling of the soil and the anticipation of the seeds that would be planted, my Lenten disciplines are preparations for growth, removing that which blocks it, taking up that which is needed to nourish.

I'm new to the practice of observing a Lenten discipline. I grew up Baptist. I knew nothing about the ashes, except that they were something the Catholics did, and the Baptists had determined Jesus made no longer necessary. Though my worship professor in seminary worked diligently to correct all the years of Baptist irreverence for all things liturgical in his students and teach us a thing or two about the Christian year, I still don't have the deep intuitive sense about the meaning of some celebrations on the Christian calendar.

I admit I don't get how giving up caffeine or sweets or sex or whatever helps one prepare for growth. More to the point, I haven't yet figured out how it helps me. I do understand that it's meaningful for others. I've heard many stories about how the absence of something that's part of others daily lives reminds them to focus on God, to reflect on that which gets in the way of them connecting with God. I've just never had any success finding a deeper connection with God that way.

Instead, following the pattern I started a few years ago, when I decided that I was going to give up the habit of "catastrophizing" for Lent, I've chosen to consider the patterns of behavior or thinking that keep me from fully connecting to God and to those around me and choosing to allow the period of Lent to be a time-limited experiment of giving up those patterns, knowing that I can take them back up afterward, if necessary, but also realizing that in most cases they are things I don't want in my life anymore and that after 40 days of living without them, I'm much better able to let go of them for good.

Giving up the habit of catastrophizing opened me up to one of the greatest transformations of my life, and while I don't expect that kind of dramatic change to happen every year, I do see the potential a yearly tilling of the soil and examination of what's needed for growth can bring to my life. The imposition of ashes is a reminder of my mortality. Life is short. I don't have forever to wait for those things which are most important to me to just happen. For life to have the meaning I desire, I have to be intentional about the choices I make. Letting go of patterns of behavior or thinking that get in the way of that kind of intentional living seems to make the most sense to me in the season of Lent.

My Lenten discipline this year started calling to me some time in November or December. I didn't have to reflect much to decide what I wanted to give up. It emerged naturally over the course of several weeks, like the cycle of growth that planting, harvesting, and waiting that exists in the natural world around me.

Still, I'm struggling to let go. I'm trying to give up the questions of inadequacy this year, the ones that ask: Am I smart enough? Good enough? Creative enough? Attractive enough?, etc. I know the patterns well. I even understand the role they play. But letting go of them means taking up the discipline of risking and working hard to move toward those things that I want most for my life. Letting go means having faith to move beyond that which has held me back most of my life.

I'm not asking anyone to tell me I'm enough, because someone else's perspective isn't what I really need. What I need is courage to believe what I already know is true, because if I truly believe it, my actions will follow.

That, my friends, is my struggle in the darkness of winter, while I pore over the seed catalogs of possibilities for my life.

Friday, February 15, 2008

My view

This has been my view for the last couple of days....

Since the fever broke last night and I'm on the mend, my view has changed today. You can imagine my excitement about plans to go to the farm for dinner this evening!

Hopefully I'll have something more interesting to blog about after today.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Live blogging the flu

The first signs of feeling human again appeared late this morning after the Tylenol kicked in and I'd had a cup of coffee. This flu bug really knocked me out. If you haven't had a flu shot yet and can still get one, I highly recommend it. I'll be more diligent about getting one myself after this.

I'm still coughing (and driving the cat insane in the process) but my energy seems to be returning. After a trip to the grocery store wore me out yesterday, I'm not willing to give the newfound energy a good test though. I do, at least, feel like sitting up to read today. That's a definite improvement and will help keep the boredom at bay, the most life-threatening symptom I experienced yesterday.

I have a sermon to write for chapel next Thursday. If this improvement continues, I may be able to knock out my first draft later this afternoon. That would be a good thing!

Stay well, my friends! I wouldn't wish this stuff on anyone.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Commiserate wtih me

Eleven hours after waking up today, I've achieved the primary goal I had for the day: get home and go to bed. I woke up with every joint and muscle in my body aching and my chest feeling like someone has taken a vice grip to it. It's that stuff that makes it hurt to raise your pinkie, you know, the flu. Unfortunately, I was 250 miles and two meetings with prospective students away from home.

So I got through the meetings, drove the miles, dropped things off at the office, returned the rental car (a Mazda 3, NOT a Mazda 5, thank you!), and changed the sheets on the bed, and now here I lay with a warm, purring cat next to me, ready to crash for the day.

So why am I blogging? Because apparently the only thing I hate worse than feeling like crap is not having anyone to commiserate with me in my agony.

What good is a blog if you can't use it to drum up all the sympathy you need in such circumstances?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Time-of-day quiz

You are breakfasty, like a pile of pancakes on a Sunday morning that have just the right amount of syrup, so every bite is sweet perfection and not a soppy mess. You are a glass of orange juice that's cool, refreshing, and not overly pulpy. You are the time of day that's just right for turning the pages of a newspaper, flipping through channels, or clicking around online to get a sense of how the world changed during the night. You don't want to stumble sleepily through life, so you make a real effort to wake your brain up and get it thinking. You feel inspired to accomplish things (whether it's checking something off your to-do list or changing the world), but there's plenty of time for making things happen later in the day. First, pancakes.

Sounds about right. Mmmmm....pancakes.

Try it, if you like.
via JM

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A great day!

There isn't much anymore that will get me up early enough on a Saturday to be showered and presentable and on the road before 8:00 a.m., but the chance to meet Yankee T was more than enough for me. Unfortunately, in my rush to get out the door this morning, I forgot my camera. Run over to her blog to see a photo from the day. The ones she takes are so much better than mine anyway.

I arrived in the city that's home to the newest presidential library late this morning. YT had called about 30 minutes before I got to the place where we were to meet; she was early and I was late. I had no trouble spotting her car in the parking lot when I got there. Long time readers of her blog know that the back end of her station wagon is a bulletin board of clever bumper stickers supporting every liberal cause known to humankind. When I rounded the corner near the restaurant where we were to meet, I spotted her immediately. Her denim jacket which I'd seen photographed recently was easily visible from a distance. She was on the phone, but turned to see me and recognized me right away. It's amazing how that happens. After three years of visiting over e-mail and through blogs, it's like we'd already met.

We had lunch and went through the usual run down of past blogger meet-ups and some catch up on what's happening in each of our lives. We talked about the presidential race and other assorted fun things. YT is as warm and spunky in person as she is on her blog. It took no time for me to relax and enjoy the conversation. She proved to be a true friend when she pointed out the piece of lettuce I had stuck in my teeth, saving me from certain humiliation!

Almost three years ago, I made my first attempt at leaving AM. It was a scary night, spent in a hotel alone and uncertain what the future would hold. I had two phone conversations that night, one with YT, who had been following my saga through my blog and e-mail, and one to a good friend in the town where I lived. The sound of YT's voice has stayed with me since that night. It was great to hear it in person today!

After lunch, we sauntered through the newest presidential library, then parted ways. It was such a great day! My only regret is that I didn't get to meet the World's Best Bleeding Heart Attorney or any of their amazing daughters. Perhaps a trip in the future will allow that to happen.

Thanks for a great day, YT!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Don't tell anyone...

...but I get to meet the amazing Yankee T tomorrow, if all goes as planned. We'll be meeting at an appointed place in the state that rests between us.