This breakfast is so very civilized. My usual morning involves scarfing down Cheerios while leaning over the kitchen sink and shrieking at my teenager that he’s going to be late for school. So if I accidentally yell you all to hurry up or you’re going to miss the bus please don't take it personally- It's just a bad habit.
Frankly, I'm a bit amazed to be here speaking to you. I’m keenly aware of the great theologians and prolific writers attending and participating this weekend. And yet- here I am- invited because of my only credential that makes me stand out from the crowd:
I'm a professional comedian.
Yeah, let that sink in for a minute.
Are we really so desperate for laughter and humor and joy that we would want a comedian to offer a keynote speech at a large religious gathering? Apparently the answer is yes. Yes. We thirst for laughter. Yes. We hunger for joy. Yes. We seek community. - unless of course you're an introvert in which case I promise I will leave you alone now (But don't come to my workshop this afternoon it will make you uncomfortable.)
I have two simple goals for this breakfast talk: that we will laugh together and that you will find some value in the humor for your larger life. I also want to warn you that I'm planning on taking the advice of the great comedian Mel Brooks who said, " if you are going to bother walking up to the bell, ring the bell, don't tap the bell" All letters should be addressed to the Metropolitan Boston Association or the moderator of the Millis Massachusetts Congregational Church- So let's jump in to the story and ring the bell loudly...
About five years ago I purchased my very first brand-new car. I bought myself a Saturn which, as you might know, is now my generation version of the Edsel. But this Saturn came with satellite radio and I was delighted to find a comedy channel of clean comedians. One day, I was driving down the road on my way to a hospital visit when I started laughing at a comedian on the radio and I looked down at my fancy digital display and the display read Rabbi Bob Alper. And I thought yes! That's exactly what I want to do. I want to be a clergy-person and a standup comedian. And this remained a great idea for about 4 miles until suddenly I remembered I'm a Christian.
And Christians tend not to do comedy all that well.
In fact, we have a name for our Christian comedians. Historically we call them heretics. Unless of course you're really good, in which case, we call you a martyr.
But the timing of this idea was perfect as it was just a few weeks before my 40th birthday. Deciding it was time to start taking things off my bucket list I enrolled in a standup comedy boot camp and discovered I have a decent talent for the art.
Of course anyone from my family of origin could have told you that I have an odd gift for comedy. My father sat me down when I was about 10 years old and told me that if I was not careful I would manage to offend everyone I would ever meet in my life with my sense of humor. Fortunately, through the years his prophecy has not proven to be accurate- as the actual percentage of annoyed people hovers closer to 86 percent.
I don't set out to intentionally offend people.
Okay I rarely set out to intentionally offend people.
Most of the time I just lose control of my verbal filter and don't even realize that someone could be offended. The flipside of this is that it's hard to offend me. In fact, sometimes people have to point out to me when I should be offended.
Here's an example. Many years and a few churches ago after worship one Sunday a church member came up to me and said," Jen, I really love listening to you preach. You always wear your faith like it's a party dress."
Now, I thought that was pretty cool comment. Until I started chatting with one of my colleagues and mentioned to her what the man had said. Before my eyes she became indignant on my behalf.
"How dare he?", She said.
I was confused. "How dare he what?"
"How dare he say that. He made you sound like you're a little girl."
So of course I thought, "he did?" And then I proceeded to don my own feminist outrage at the clearly horrible and disrespectful treatment.
The following Sunday rolled around and I had gotten my indignation under control enough to simply ask the person what he meant by his comment.
"Well," he said, "some people wear their faith like a suit of armor. It fits awkwardly but it protects them from everything. They don't get to interact with the world comfortably. Their faith keeps everyone at a distance. And some people wear their faith like old pajamas. They’re so comfortable and worn out that the person forgets that they're even there.
But you, you wear your faith like a party dress. It looks from the outside like you're doing something special -you're going somewhere exciting and the best part is you seem to invite us all to come along with you."
Now perhaps I'm still naïve, but I couldn't find the need to be upset about anything he said. In fact, that statement of "wearing my faith like a party dress” has become a touchstone of my ministry.
Because why shouldn't we have a party? Why shouldn't we celebrate? We proclaim the joyful feast as if it was last rites or a terminal diagnosis – “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Jones, but, this is the Body of Christ, Given for you.”
I think that this gift of faith and forgiveness and grace this is pretty awesome. This is worth celebrating. And I choose to celebrate with laughter. Now, believe it or not, I have been in other settings where people are offended and upset that I think the Christian faith is fun and that it invites joy.
And, yes, I’ve gotten a bit of flack from folks who feel that my calling as an ordained minister can’t coexist with my calling as a comedian. And, Yes. I do see my comedy work as a calling within my call to ministry. A calling within the call. It is not just about laughing. I don’t want you to leave here thinking you can tell a few knock-knock jokes and magically enhance the ministry to which you were called. That isn’t my humor ministry and it shouldn’t be anyone’s.
Humor- this comedy work, this laughter is not about simple joke telling- It is about accessing joy. it is about making an authentic connection. It is about being fully present in the situation and looking at it with a unique perspective.
And church is a fertile ground for unique perspectives. Because churches are very funny and anyone who doesn’t think churches are funny have clearly never spent a lot of time with church people. And church communities, for all their differences, are really very similar. I wish someone would do Joseph Campbell type study of the various archetypes prevalent in every congregation. There's the over-functioning church lady who takes on tasks that other people were willing to take on – so she can complain about how much work she has to do. The grumpy man who says he doesn't want to be there and yet spends an extraordinary amount of time at the church puttering around. There is the fierce protector of the church history - and Lord help you if you want to change even the type size in the bulletin without their feedback and permission. And then of course there's my favorite church archetype, the guardian of the church kitchen. I think that universally the kitchen guardian is a lot like the wizard Gandalf the gray from the Lord of the rings. She just stands at the doorway to the church kitchen and plants her broom like a magical staff yelling, "You Shall Not Pass!"
And those are just the people who hang out at the church. Some of the best stories come from people who are visiting the church for various reasons.
Several years ago now I was officiating a church wedding. It was an evening service and the reception was going to follow at a local nightclub. As sometimes happens the bride was running late. I mean late; as in 45 minutes late. But luckily that seemed to be the culture of her peer group and most of the guests were running late as well. I was less than thrilled about the tardiness, considering the fact that I was paying a babysitter top dollar. So, in a move that I now confess as fairly passive aggressive I went out in my robe and stole to check and see if the limousine had arrived.
So, there I was, standing on the front steps of the church when a friend of the bride arrived. She was wearing what I can only describe as clothing from the 50 Shades of Gray eveningwear collection. A red and black dress made up of many straps of various width and 6 inch heels that were bright red and studded with black gemstones. I was watching her impressed by her ability to maneuver in the high heels, as she made her way carefully up the stairs. When she arrived at the landing where I stood the most amazing thing happened. She stumbled. Now, for most people going to a church event that wouldn't be a big deal, but because of the precariously placed collection of straps she was wearing as a dress- she had bigger issues. As she approached me, continuing to lose her balance on those deathtraps she had strapped to her feet, the jostling of her stumble made her upper body pop right out of the dress just as she put her hands out - grabbing onto me and pulling me close- for balance.
Seminary taught me how to handle many church situations - this wasn't one of them.
So, I stood there - not sure what to do... Again- I blame Andover Newton that I was not prepared for this....
I finally asked a divinely inspired question, "What’s up?"
I continue to stand there as still as possible while she regained her balance let go of me and adjusted her dress.
"Not much" she finally said as she made her way up the remaining stairs into the church sanctuary. From her calm countenance, one would think it was a common occurrence for her. So everyone else on the staircase...we just rolled with it... The wedding started an hour late and the babysitter got a nice paycheck.
Friends, you know that is just one example of a typical day in the life of a church.
And it's funny. And horrifically awkward- but funny. And maybe I've made you a tiny bit uncomfortable with that story? We'll that’s ok too- humor has a side benefit of sometimes being provocative...
As well as helping us deal with the awkwardness. It can help us deal with the pain. The best humor- the best comedy is about reframing the situation - not ignoring it.
A bit of caution here – like everything else - laughter and humor can be misused.
A word of caution for us all -but especially for my friends serving in positions of power within the church. Humor –can be incredibly wounding. Sometimes you can hit a spot you didn’t know was tender and the next thing you know- your toss away line – your innocent joke has gone thermonuclear. It happens. It is unintentional – but it happens and it is a risk you take when you use humor.
Another, less obvious danger is when humor is used inappropriately to minimize the suffering of others. My advice it to be gentle, to seek permission to be playful and to be sure that the humor is authentic and welcome.
I have a friend who is undergoing chemotherapy to treat her cancer. She goes in for her infusions every Wednesday. And every Wednesday morning I send her a text message containing the "Chemotherapy song of the day." We've enjoyed such hits as, Culture Club’s "chemo, Chemo, Chemo, chemo, Chameleon”, Kermit the Frog's little know hit, "The Chemo Connection" , and the ever popular Wham chart topper, "Wake Me Up Before You Glow Glow". But before this little bizarre ministry- we had a long talk. An honest talk. And while we joke together. – we’re also honoring her fears and her pain. We don't cover up the icky-ness of her chemo- we intentionally incorporate laughter into the icky-ness. Can you imagine the fall out if she wasn’t looking forward to those text messages? We have the kind of relationship where that is seen as the silliness it is AND a pastoral moment of checking in- she knows that I’m thinking about her and praying for her every time she goes in for a treatment.
Here's another example that might ring true to people.
Parenting is awfully hard isn't it? I'm finding it's not at all like they promised in the brochure.
When I was pregnant, my husband and I really struggled to find a name that we could agree on for the baby. Being religious people everyone expected that we would choose a biblical name for a child. We just couldn't agree. We spent days studying names in the New Testament, you know all the important ones, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, George, and Ringo. But eventually we came to agree on a name we first saw in the Hebrew Scriptures. It was easy to spell and easy to pronounce. So after much deliberation we decided to name the baby, God. This worked out quite well because as an only child he is certainly worshiped. And now that he's a teenager, not a day goes by where I'm not reminded that God hates me.
There's a joke there- but there is also pain. I fully acknowledge that it kinda hurts knowing that I’m not even close to being the perfect mother. It hurts that my son and I aren’t as close as we were when he was younger. This is normal. This is real. And maybe you found yourself in the joke. Anybody have a Yep moment? Did it make my experience, my pain relatable to you?
Were you able to laugh at it with me? And yet, I don't feel that my experience, real and painful as it is was diminished by the fact that we all laughed. In fact, that's a good joke. I'd be sad if you didn't laugh.
Within the church community we can use laughter to honor the struggles that some of our churches are having. Before I started serving the church in Millis Massachusetts I was serving a church out West you know Far West near Springfield Massachusetts- the great frontier for those of you from the Boston Area. And this church was struggling. I mean really struggling. The church was in such a budget crisis that we could no longer afford the upkeep on the pipe organ and it was out of tune to the point of being unusable. We didn't have a piano and that left us with very few options for music. But as you all know, music is exceptionally important in our tradition. Luckily down in the Sunday school room there was an old Fisher-Price xylophone complete with the little yellow mallet. And it worked out great until one day the little yellow mallet disappeared. But even then I was undeterred because it was the pull toy kind of xylophone.
Did you have that one? So worked out just fine in the end because every Sunday morning I would take the xylophone and go to the back of the church, put it down in the aisle and then I’d run as fast as I could up and down the aisle so we would at least have some music. Of course all of the hymns had to be sung to the tune of old McDonald's Farm but we made it work - it was a lot like this, " amazing grace how sweet the sound e I e I o I once was lost but now I'm found. E I E I O..."
Oh, you people- you do know you snickered at a dying church, right?
Or maybe we should look at a more global issue- a social justice issue. Let's talk about the exploitation of our young girls. Because that's definitely not funny.
My niece recently had a birthday - she was turning 12 and asked me to go to the mall to this particular store which shall remain unnamed and to buy her, in her words "anything in that store aunt Jenny, anything!" So, I went to the mall and walked into the store. And I stopped short and I looked around and thought clearly I accidentally stumbled into Frederick's of Hollywood Junior. I went back out to double-check the sign, but no, this was actually the store that my niece loves. So I just shook my head and walked around looking at the clothing. Have you seen the clothes that are marketed to preteen girls? They were horrific. Sparkles and spangles and spandex, oh my. Then off in the corner I saw a row of sweatpants. Now my niece did say I could buy her anything so I went over to the sweatpants. Have you seen the sweatpants? They all have words across the butt; Angel, Sweetie, Juicy. And I thought to myself there is no way I'm buying my niece anything that will encourage a complete stranger to read her hiney.
Then I had an epiphany. See, I decided that I should really get a pair of the sweatpants for myself. Only my sweatpants are not going say juicy. Oh no, my sweatpants are going to tell the entire world why a middle-aged woman is wearing sweatpants in public. My sweatpants are simply going to read "retaining fluid." And I'm darn lucky I have the room to pull it off.
But back to the story. So anyhow having failed in my quest to find anything appropriate in the store for my 12-year-old niece I was on my way out when I was accosted by saleswoman who insisted that she could help me pick out the perfect outfit. I argued that no, I was looking for an appropriate outfit for 12-year-old and she assured me she had just the thing. She disappeared into the racks and came back a moment later holding up a Hot pink leopard print sparkly spandex miniskirt with matching vest that had- wait for it - tassels. And she held it up like it was the Holy Grail.
This is the point in the story where all of the filters I have between my brain in my mouth collectively went on strike. And I responded to her by clapping my hands and saying " That's perfect! Her Brownie troop is going for their junior hooker badge and that outfit is a winner." And then I turned to storm away in righteous indignation only to come face-to-face with my town’s most dedicated Brownie troop leader - who was picking up a very similar outfit for her own daughter.
Oh... Life... You just gotta laugh sometimes.... And you just gotta cry sometimes.
To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.
Laughter, friends, laughter is simply the ministry to which I have been called. And that doesn’t mean I’m not sad sometimes. And that doesn’t mean I’m not depressed sometimes. And that doesn’t mean I can’t empathize or won’t stop joking when someone else is in pain. It doesn’t mean that I don’t screw it up. I do. I am painfully human.
My father’s warning is as true today as it was all those years ago. My sense of humor can get me into trouble. When I was in discernment for ordination I met annually with what was then called the Committee on Ministry. And each year I wrote a paper for them about the process – my growing edges …favorite classes,. The usual… and for some reason I decided to write my first draft as a Dr. Suess poem. It was epic. This thing was five pages of actual report – real theological content- but with a rhyming bouncy cadence. I submitted it to my in-care advisor and ALSO sent along a “Standard one.” Both were sent to the committee. And they were not amused. What I thought showed great creativity and imagination to them was disrespectful and an indication of my not taking the process seriously enough for them. Yup, It’s all fun and games until someone loses their standing. The epic report was an epic fail. And I could almost hear the ghostly voice of my father whispering, “I told you so…”
But I learned my lesson- the way a child learns not to touch the stove- once burned. I’ve mostly just moved on to other stoves….
From the time of the significant trip down the road in my Saturn listening to Rabbi Alper to my life now- which includes performing with Bob Alper on his Laugh in Peace interfaith comedy tour – I’ve discovered something vital.
The world needs more laughter. We need more humor. We need more community and joy and smiles. The good work of peace and justice can be accomplished not only through protests and actions – it can be also be done with jokes and laughter.
At an interfaith comedy show- the Christians, Jews and Muslims laugh at the same jokes. The people who had no connection before are forming community through a shared joy-filled experience.
And when the show is over there are some interesting stories.
At a large university in the mid-west- the Laugh in Peace show was booked and promoted jointly by the Jewish student association and the Muslim student association. (I don’t know what the Christians were up to- probably drinking and eating cheeseburgers) after the show the presidents of the two student groups shared that the two groups have had offices next door to each other in the student center for YEARS and this was the first time they spoke- let alone worked together. Laughing together brought the communities closer. This is spirit of Christ’s great prayer paraphrased –One that I hold dear - That they may all laugh as one..
They call him Sully- his name is James Robert Sullivan- but everyone calls him Sully.
Sully grew up in Boston. Well, South Boston if I need to be specific, and he plans to live there his whole life. He loves everything about Boston, from the rushing and squealing sounds of the T at South Station to the yelling and whining of college students with fake IDs trying to get into the bars near Quincy Market to all the cloying smells of Fenway Park. He firmly believes that nothing in the whole world could compare with Fenway Park. The scent of sausage and peppers mixed with the odor of ancient beer, wet paint and lingering sweat make Sully aware that he's at the home of his favorite team- the Boston Red Sox. Sully loves the Red Sox. He is a season ticket holder, autograph collector and font of statistical knowledge. His wardrobe consists of Red Sox shirts, jackets, sweatshirts and he even has a few Red Sox ties and a worn pair of Red Sox crocs for the beach. His house is full of memorabilia, pictures and a framed copy of the Boston Globe from October 28, 2004.
What isn’t apparent while looking at his life and possessions is that Sully is a deeply religious man. He attends worship at his United Church of Christ congregation every week. He serves as a deacon. He tithes 7.63% of his income and he’s trying to increase it this year. Sully is a person of such deep and abiding faith that the people who know him treat him as something of a prophet. They listen to him when he offers advice. They listen to him when he has a suggestion at church. They listen to him when he speaks about God. People think that Sully has some special bond with the Almighty. He really seems that connected. Sully- when asked about it- shrugs it off – he knows that he and God are tight – but he doesn’t brag about it. Being a reluctant prophet is a tough enough gig without publicity. So- day after day- baseball season after baseball season Sully lived his life with faith and trust in God. Until one day....
Now the word of the Lord came to Sully, son of Patrick saying “Arise go to Yankee Stadium in the great City and cry against it for their wickedness has come before me.” But Sully rose to run away to Los Angeles to see the Dodgers – fleeing from the presence of the Lord. So he went to Logan airport, paid his fare (including the extra $25 for a piece of checked luggage) and got on board a Jet Blue flight heading to LAX. But the Lord hurled mighty mechanical difficulties at the plane. And they sat at the gate for hours. Soon the passengers cast lots – using those little pretzel sticks from the beverage cart- saying “this stinks- let’s cast lots to figure out on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they did- and the lot came upon Sully so they looked at him, sitting innocently in seat 26B, and said to him,...well, they said to him a lot of things- after all they were from Boston and had been sitting in the plane for a few hours. They were more than a little annoyed... anyhow- the gist of it was – they wanted to know who he was- and mostly what he had done that has so annoyed God that God was causing the flight to be delayed so grievously.
And Sully said, “Me, I’m nobody – usually- just a guy- the kinda guy God talks to on occasion- but here’s the thing- God wants me to go to New York - New York! And there I am supposed to prophesy to the Yankees and then they will change their ways and the Lord’s curse will be listed from them.” Well, as you might imagine- this little bit of information shocked the passengers causing a riot and so then the TSA agents boarded the plane and came upon Sully. They bound him up and dragged him off the plane. Then they threw him into a holding cell in the belly of the airport. Due to a little known clause in the Patriot Act- known as the Whale clause- Sully was in the belly of the airport for three days – and from his cell Sully prayed to the Lord saying,
“I called to the Lord out and he answered me; out of the belly of hell I cried, and you heard my voice. 3You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the forgotten places, and the emptyness surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 4Then I said, ‘I really messed up - I am driven away from your sight” 5The wall close in around me; the lonliness surrounded me; I went down to the land whose doors closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the hell, O Lord my God. 7As depression a, As depression was closing in – I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple 8”
And then the Lord spoke to the TSA supervisor and Sully was released.
Then the word of the Lord came to Sully a second time saying, “Arise – go to Yankee stadium, in the great city, and proclaim to it the message that I will give you.” So- Sully rose and took the Bolt bus to Grand Central Station and then the shuttle train over to the stadium and at the gates of the stadium he cried out -
“Forty Days more and Yankee Stadium Shall be over thrown.” And word got back to Yankee Management and they arose from their thrones and removed their Brooks Brothers suits and covered themselves with sack cloth (or sweat pants from Wal-mart) and the management made an announcement over the Public Address system and by use of the Jumbo-tron – and they said
“Let everyone cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn from their evil ways – like pretending to be hit by a pitch.... or cheating in other ways.... because who knows – God might turn from his anger so we might not perish into the bottom of the standings.”
And when God saw that they repented- God decided not to punish the Yankees. But this really ticked off Sully. So he prayed to God saying:
“Seriously? This – this right here is why I was trying to get to LA. I know you are a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. But the Yankees? Really the playoffs again?” Then he cried out, “ O Lord, Take my life from me for it would be better for me to die than to live.” And Sully went out into the last row of the bleachers and sat in the sun refusing to move until death.
And the Good Lord appointed a plant to grow down out of the scoreboard and give Sully shade. And Sully was thankful for the shade – but the next morning God caused a rat – one of those gigantic New York City Rats- t to eat at the plant and so, with the plan gone - the sun beat down on Sully and Sully was sad because the plant died. Sully cried. He cried because of the Yankees re-gaining Gods favor but mostly he cried because the plant was gone. Then God said to him,
“You feel badly about the plant- which you didn’t create or make grow- it came and was gone in one day – and yet you are upset because I show mercy to the Yankees and all in the great city. Really, Sully – there’s no crying in baseball.”
So Sully went home to Southie pondering all these things in his heart.
Nessie the Bad Dog
Princess Piglet of Snortington
These are just a few of the many names our Soft Coated Wheaton Terrier, Nessie, is called on a daily basis. Go ahead and judge me as a horrible person who is neglectful of her animal. Fine. Whatever. You don’t have to live with the beast.
Nessie trots to the beat of her own drummer. Unlike other dogs she would rather sleep alone in her crate than be with her people. Several attempts to get her to sleep on the bed with us have ended with frustrated whining in the middle of the night so she could escape the bedroom and return to her crate in an isolated corner of the kitchen.
She loves food and, despite our telling her that she has a significant wheat allergy, she continues to counter surf and apparently defy gravity when no one is watching to reach the packages of bread on the back of the counter. She has gorged on bread, muffins, cupcakes and, her favorite, hot dog rolls, eating entire packages (including a portion of the wrappers.) She has a love of baking mix and greatly enjoys making dark brown sand-art like creations on the floor when ever she can tear into a package of brownie mix.
Beyond her tenacious love of food, Nessie is a deep thinker. I know this because once she knocked over the trash filled with dinner leftovers including a chicken carcass and Nessie withdrew from the dumpster with a single burn-out lightbulb held in her teeth. It was as if she wanted us all to know that she had a grand idea.
The antics of Nessie the Bad Dog are many and I’ll leave the story of her cleaning out my son’s Easter basket between the sunrise service and the 10am service for another day. She peppers my days with moments of frustrated laughter and incredulous joy. I’ve never known a dog like her and as angry as her antics make me I’m actually kind of glad that her life is a part of my story to share.
Lately I find myself dreading Facebook. Not all of Facebook, just the little message that tells me I’ve been tagged in someone’s photo. For the most part- the pictures do not capture my good side, which as you might recall, I accidently left behind in 1988. I avoid cameras at all costs now. Vanity? Hell yeah! If I avoid seeing myself I can pretend I still look like a cute, perky 19 year old instead of that middle-aged exhausted person who stalks me behind darkened windows and mirrors.
In the midst of my photo sulking and refusal to “Click to add these horrible photos of your butt to your timeline” requests from Facebook I got to thinking, what it would be like if Jesus had a Facebook account. Which brings me to the title, WWJT.
Who Would Jesus Tag?
Despite his popularity with the wealthy people of power in the United States, I don’t think Jesus would tag himself in photos in front of the Capitol Building in D.C.. I doubt there would be pictures of him at the President’s Gala Oscar Party in L.A. or in the luxury box at the Super Bowl (no matter how many times they thank him on the field.) No, I think that Jesus’ Facebook photo album would be filled instead with random selfies.
Here I am, hanging out with the homeless in the park.
Here I am, weeping on the sidewalk in Egypt.
Here I am, sitting with my friend in the jail cell.
Here I am singing with the head start kids at circle time.
This isn’t to say that others would not tag him –
“Here I am with Jesus on my mission trip.”
“Here I am with Jesus at the hospital”
“Here I am with Jesus watching the sunrise”
I’m still not going to post any more photos of myself on Facebook but I’m willing to let myself be tagged in one with Jesus.
I’ve been invited to speak at an event on the topic of Christian humor and hospitality. Which inspired this joke:
How can you tell when you’re in a church kitchen? Every cabinet is locked and the one that isn’t has a sign on it that lets you know you opened it wrong.
I didn’t say it was a funny joke.
Church kitchen joke aside, an important part of Christian hospitality is in letting someone do something in a way we would never do it.
And then keeping our mouths shut.
Years ago, I was thrilled to preach at a different church. (Pulpit supply – so don’t even TRY to figure out which church this was…) I arrived early and was invited into the kitchen where the “Church Ladies” were getting food ready for coffee hour. I offered to help. After an awkward pause, I was given a box of donuts and a linen napkin lined basket. When I arranged the donuts into the basket I discovered I had one left over that didn’t fit. I made some sort of joke about it- who wants to eat it now or used it as a monocle or some such thing- innocuous as far as I could tell. I was given a look by one of the church members so cold that it stopped me mid-sentence. She stiffly brushed past me, removed all of the donuts I had placed in the basket and then refilled the basket with the same donuts in such a way that they all fit. All without saying a word, she transformed my willingness to help into shame. The other people in the kitchen said nothing about her behavior and nothing to me about my attempt to help. I skittered out of the church kitchen as quickly as possible to try to find a place to hide in an unfamiliar church. The frost in the woman’s look and the way the others were complicit in her rudeness made me wish I could leave. If I were visitor instead of the preacher- I would have walked out the door and knocked the dust from my super cute black pumps.
Many, many years later that experience continues to influence my ministry. When the flowers are off-center or the half and half is in the wrong pitcher or the donuts are in two separate baskets instead of one, I am thankful. Yes, it isn’t perfect. Yes, the tablecloth was the wrong one. So what?
Carl Jung had this quote carved over the doorway to his home
VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT
(Bidden or Unbidden, God is Present)
One donut basket or two, God is present.
Blue tablecloth or red, God is present.
Small pitcher of cream or large, God is present.
Part of hospitality is celebrating those who are willing to be present and are willing to lend a hand as best they are able.
So put out the wrong salt and pepper sets.
Light the candles too early or too late.
And, please, please, use that one remaining donut as a monocle.
I think it’s funny.
I suffered awkwardly through a Viagra commercial last night sitting next to my 14-year-old son. Let me tell ya, nothing screams mother/son moment quiet like erectile dysfunction. I’m not normally a squeamish person. I try to be open and accepting and don’t make a big deal out of human sexuality but something about the Viagra commercial inspired a “I won’t make eye contact if you don’t” moment.
The commercial did motivate me to write this post because I figure if I can listen to someone blather on about erectile dysfunction while watching the ABC Evening News with Diane Sawyer then I figure that you, dear reader, can read about my depression. Granted, clinical depression is not nearly as sexy or titillating as erectile dysfunction (although, now that I think about it, both have the potential to keep a person in bed. -beyond that- not much in common) but it tends to be something we don’t hear about except in commercials for pharmaceuticals.
My experience with depression is not dramatic enough to warrant a tv ad but it is enough to have required outside help. I work everyday to keep my mood in check and to make choices that will help, not hurt, my illness. I don’t share this as a ploy for sympathy or as a blog version of an ABC Afterschool Special (God, I miss those cheesy shows!) I simply share because I can and maybe if I publicly state that I struggle with clinical depression and still maintain a mostly happy, successful, loving life then, maybe someone else will find the courage to share their story and then the stigma around mental illness will start to fall away- just a little.
I could share the entire saga with you- but frankly it is mostly boring and too darn hot right now to complete the six book set that is my story of depression. Just know that if you want detail and/or want to tell me your story- I’m here and willing to listen or talk as the case may be.
I even promise to make eye contact. – just don’t mention Viagra and we are good.
After the bombing on Monday I tried to sooth myself with my good friend chocolate - but when I returned home from work on Tuesday, Nessie the bad dog had eaten the entire package of whoopee pies.
Good dog, Nessie, good dog.
Thank you for caring about my nutritional needs.
I know, truly I know, that there is no outside thing- food or drink- that will make the sadness of the week’s events feel any less miserable. We struggle to make sense of the senseless- and to purge our brains of the gruesome images we witnessed. But you can’t do that- there is no brain bleach or “emotion away cleaner” that will make this any better.
On Friday, the violence struck close to home when my husband Rob (who was not able to go into work in Cambridge because the City was on lock down ) was saddened because, he recognized the baby face of the MIT police officer as someone he passed on his commute. We clung to the television- watching the same scenes over and over again. Feeling the anxiety and despair. Glued to my Twitter and Facebook feeds- I tried to offer words of hope, humor and comfort over the internet. And finally late Friday night- breathing again. Turning off the TV and breathing… Anyone else feel like you forgot to take a deep breath the entire time between Monday’s bombing and Fridays arrest?
It was a week… it was a week… and it was and is a time to wrap ourselves in God’s love and God’s promise of comfort. And , aren’t we blessed that the lectionary this week is the 23rd psalm. The Lord is my Shepard. Words that are comforting and familiar.
First off, we have the illustrations of peace and rest. He makes me lie down in green pastures – he leads me beside still waters. I don’t know about you – but sleep has not come easily to me this week. On Monday night – I stayed up late watching the news coverage of the bombing and then – surprise- when I tried to sleep I couldn’t turn off or down- the thoughts running through my mind. Tuesday was much of the same and then…you know how it goes- once you fall behind on sleep… And then Friday night….eeesh. But anyway- my point is that this metaphor of resting in a green and quiet spot was exceptionally appealing this week.
And then, of course, there is the part in the psalm about walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Put a big ol’ check mark next to that one this week. It seems as if the entire week has been cast in the shadow of death and flavored with evil. But then comes the next line. Your rod and your staff they comfort me. There’s an image for the week, Jesus the Good Shepherd using the rod and staff to keep the sheep on the right path and to thump the heads of any lions, or wolves or terrorist, whatever or whoever that threatens the flock.
Let’s not ignore, however, our doubts, our questions, our angst… Where was that rod , where was that staff - when the bombs went off? Where was the Shepherd who is supposed to keep the sheep from harm?
I don’t have an answer to why there is evil in the world…and believe me- if I did, it would make it so much easier to be preaching this morning. But we are not a church of easy answers. We are a church that struggles together to make sense of the pain and the hurt in the world and we are a church that clings to the belief that God was there- when the bombs went off- when the shots were fired. God was there weeping at the bedside of the injured. God was there encouraging the spirits of the first responders and the investigators and the leaders of the community and the land. God continues to be there and here.
The psalm ends with the beloved phrase, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This is the promise of God. That we are pursued by God’s goodness and mercy and pursued relentlessly. Followed by Goodness and Mercy always and then, when the days of our lives end - we will dwell with God forever.
That is a promise for the future and we are still grieving and healing and trying to get through the day, and please God, a better week.
I’ve heard violence defined as one person forcing their will on someone else. We’ve seen that this week; the will for discomfort, for destruction and death inflicted on people who simply willed a nice day out with family and friends to watch a marathon. Here is my challenge to us- because our will- our will for a feeling of safety and peace was violated this week and still the gospel calls us to respond with our own “will” a different kind of “will.”
I will not answer violence with violence.
I will not scapegoat an entire religion for the actions of a few.
I will pray for the taken, the injured and the ones who cause the chaos.
I will love.
I will laugh.
I will hope.
I will keep faith.
I will be strong.
I will rejoice in this day and the next day and the days to come.
Because Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Sometimes I worry over the dumbest things. Today’s anxiety is about my current drug of choice, the okdol bibimbap from a local restaurant. It arrives in a viciously hot stone bowl so when the food is places in front of you- it is still cooking. The sizzle and crack of the veggies and rice make the lunch a full sensory experience. This winter, the okdol bibimbap became my ultimate comfort food. I partook of the hot delight almost weekly. On some cold and depressing days I would consider ordering a second bowl just because the sizzling had quieted down in the first one.
Now that the weather is getting warmer I am concerned about my beloved hot stone bowl. Should I abandon it for another dish? Would it be strange to warm my hands over a steaming bowl of lunch during a heat wave?
Comfort food is a big part of my faith tradition. From the pancake and bacon supper on Shrove Tuesday to the many pot-luck suppers and even the coffee hour after worship – filled with donuts and cookies – we include food as a part of our ritual. Jesus eating fish with the disciples on the beach is one of my favorite post-resurrection stories. Gathered around the sizzling fire, Jesus enjoyed a meal. Maybe he even threw another fish on the grill once the sizzling sound stopped. Now that I think about it- I’m going to keep my comfort food tradition. Who wants to join me next week?
Her husband’s death was unexpected. Because nobody ever expects someone to die in their 30’s when they are in perfectly good health. She guessed that’s why they call them accidents. And she did call it an accident – despite the well-meaning friends who mumbled something about it being God’s will…. Despite the trite card she got saying something about God needing an angel…. It was an accident. Plain and simple. She held onto that notion because the very idea of it being God’s will made her sick. What kind of a vicious God would take away her husband, her best friend – to make her hurt like this on purpose? No, she clung to the belief – that it was just a random, horrible accident.
The days following the crash were a painful blur to her. She wandered through the hours –supported by family, crying with friends, and making a hundred little decisions that needed to be made but had no meaning. Buried or cremated? Picking out a tie for him for the viewing. Meeting with the pastor and choosing hymns that she supposed had words of hope – but for her rang shallow. The funeral was no better. She listened to people speak words of love and hope and comfort – but they were only words and her beloved was still dead and gone. The cemetery, she recalled was colder than she expected for mid-April. And then – as suddenly as a car crash – the decisions, the planning and the services were done and she was once again home. People filled the house with conversation and food. The acidic, slightly burnt smell of coffee drifted in from the kitchen to the couch where she had been attempting to shrink into the cushions, making her empty and fragile stomach clench painfully. He always made the coffee. Not today. Not tomorrow.
People drifted in and out of her space. Some settled next to her for a while asking if she wanted anything to eat or drink. Some made painful eye contact from across the room attempting to share their sadness with a glance. She knew them all – some better than others. Her friends, His friends, her co-workers and family- his co-workers and family and a few outliers. Random people who’s lives he had touched and she didn’t know how… but they were here. Dinking coffee and eating sandwiches.
Her pastor had said that the grief might come in waves and true enough she was finding that in one moment she would be fine- well, almost fine – and then in the next the pain would crash down on her and steal her breath. Sometimes she even thought she could feel it building up inside her, rushing toward the shore of her soul- threatening to slam it apart with the force of the crashing tide. And in that moment- sitting on that couch – while the voices and even the muted laughter rang out from the kitchen she knew- the next wave was coming and it was going to break her.
As the sofa shifted, she looked up to see her elderly neighbor settle on the adjoining cushion. This was the neighbor her husband had adored. He was the one to shovel her drive after her own husband, ravaged by dementia for years finally passed last December. It was that thought that brought the grief crashing down – the image of him bundled up with a stupid red hat on his head and a shovel in his hand heading next door to clear a path for a neighbor. As the sob left her body she noticed dry and wrinkled hands reach out to pull her, with surprising strength, into a tight embrace. It was awkward, for sure. The way she had been sitting didn’t make for a comfortable hug this way- but there was a strength, a tightness of the hold that seemed to make it better- it made it more real- more bearable.
Since the accident she had received many, many hugs but this one- this one put all the rest of them to shame – because this hug was brutal. It was a hug so strong that it held her together when anything less would have allowed her to shatter apart. It was a touch so real
that it made the heartache – the grief – seem like an illusion. And in that moment- when death was so close – the two women held one another and rocked on that couch- as if the embrace alone was the only thing that made the sun rise and set. The cost of that hug in arthritis pain would never be mentioned. And it was a costly hug indeed-
But - years later- it might be recalled as the most painfully comforting touch ever or it might be blended in as another moment in a series of life moments – but then – right then – it mattered. John 12: 1-Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them* with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii* and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it* so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
There he was, the guest of honor at the “thanks for raising Lazarus from the dead” dinner party. And the sister of Lazarus takes the most precious thing she has – still readily accessible since she had just used it to anoint the body of her until recently deceased brother. She takes this ointment and touches Jesus’ feet with it. A radical thing to do – to use the expensive nard- to touch the feet of a non-related man – to wipe them with her hair- which was unbound in front of men- another big no-no. And Judas gets twitchy about it-
But Jesus tells him to knock it off- to leave her alone. She is anointing him for burial.
I imagine that the touch of her hands was comforting. I imagine that story played out again and again all over the world as the hands that hold a grieving person together when they are about to shatter apart.
I imagine that, in that moment- when death for Jesus was so close – the touch of hands on his feet might have felt like the only thing that made the sunrise and set.
Days later- on the hill at Golgotha, it might be recalled as the most painfully comforting touch or it might be blended in as another moment in a series of life moments – but then – right then – it mattered.
Those two women – from different times and different stories- they could have held back- they could have saved their strength or saved their costly ointment. But they poured out what they had without thought to the cost. And their touch made a difference.
May we be so inspired that we do not hold back but rather reach out, pour out, give out our best to the world which starves for a healing touch. Because you never know what things your hands might hold that will keep the world from shattering apart.
Ash Wednesday was not a part of my faith story growing up. I never received ashes and never gave anything up for Lent. My entire knowledge of the Lenten season came from watching my neighbor, Kelly O’Brien come home with a dirty forehead marked with ash and a desire to eat at my house for dinner- because it wasn’t fish. Kelly also had to give something up for lent. Usually it was a kid friendly sacrifice – candy or soda. I would marvel at her devotion as I popped open my can of Coke and ripped into a bag of M & Ms.
Time has carried me forward into strange lands and tonight I will look into the eyes of my parishioners in my United Church of Christ Congregation and mark their heads with ashes.
What I once looked as a “dirty forehead” has become for me a remarkable symbol of death and rebirth. As a child I couldn’t have understood the words, “You are dust.” As an adult with the bitter experience of losing loved ones to death, I find the words oddly comforting.
Tonight I’ll encourage the remembrance that human life is short and, no matter who you are, it will end. So I seek the message of encouragement is tucked away in the ash. From death to life, from change to change, from dry wilderness to verdant oasis, God is present in fire and ash, in hope and dread, in Coke and M & Ms. Amen.