When I was in seminary the hot buzzword was “Authenticity.”
We discussed the authenticity of Jesus Christ.
We dissected the authenticity of the Bible.
We encourage one another to preach with an authentic voice.
I was told to always be my full authentic self – since that’s the person God called into ministry.
Here’s the thing.
Sometimes I don’t like myself. I would rather be somebody else.
Given this fun fact - how can I be authentically me when I’d rather be Julianne Moore or Emma Watson?
Or is this one of those chicken and egg things?
Perhaps I am being true to myself when I want to be someone else.
Doesn’t everyone have times like this?
God called me just as I am– forty-something, snarky, witty and loving – and a woman who would sometimes rather be someone else with a more (as it looks from the outside) glamorous life. And so I minister here in this cold and snowy place to other people who also sometimes dream of being astronauts or actors, doctors or dancers, pilots or painters. Here in this place, my authentic self (who wants to be someone else today, thank you very much) meets your authentic self (who also wants to be someone else today) and we muddle through together.
Pay no attention to my fake British accent. It will go away soon enough.
I was told in 1975 that good girls in the United Methodist church did not receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. Neither did we have to give something up for Lent. That was something only the Roman Catholic kids did.
The O’Leary girls gave up candy.
I ate a Marathon bar.
The Giattano boys gave up soda.
I drank Tab.
No limits. No restrictions. Lent was just any other series of days in the year.
I still don’t know if that was truth or just something my parents told me when I was pondering the dirty foreheads of the people I saw on Ash Wednesday. Perhaps I was feeling left out?
In my adult life there have been years where I’ve passionately thrown myself at Lent. I’ve given things up. I’ve taken things on. I’ve fasted. And…. It never seems to work for me.
Maybe it’s because I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen from all that effort. I never felt any closer to God when I sacrificed nor did I feel more alienated from God when I didn’t.
So, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “Lent. What’s up with that?”
Here is where I’ve landed. (This is for today. I might have some great insight tomorrow.)
I don’t have to “do” Lent the way everyone or anyone else does it.
My spiritual discipline is mine.
My sacrifice - or lack there of – is mine.
My relationship with God is mine.
Good girls can get ashes if they want them but it’s not a requirement.
I’ll keep Lent this year in my fashion and pray that it strengthens my walk with Christ. You do what you think best
If you want to talk about it, I’ll probably just be over here eating some candy with my Diet Coke.
PS. Feel free to find me on Facebook for my Lenten Prayer of the Day.
Nessie the Bad Dog is my nine-year-old Soft Coated Wheaton Terrier. She has always been a little “off.” She will sidle up to a houseguest to snuggle only to growl as he pets her. Then she’ll growl when he stops. The veterinarian we took her to as a puppy used the exact phrase, “she has a screw loose” to describe the dog.
Another one of Nessie the Bad Dog’s endearing traits is that she’s always hungry. She would counter surf a tsunami if it meant she’d end up with a tasty morsel at the end. Her insatiable quest for food has landed her in all sorts of predicaments. She’s been trapped on the dining room table, had her head caught in a too small cardboard box, made it snow brownie mix all over the kitchen and once even ate all of my son’s foil wrapped Easter candy when she was alone between the sunrise and the 10 o’clock services. That made for further entrainment as all of her bowl movements for the next week came out like cast-off disco balls from a Lady GaGa tour. This cranky, hungry, often stinky, ball of fluff ad teeth is yet another of my crosses to bear.
I wonder about this odd creature that shares my home. Could she ever be content? It seems no matter what she has scarfed down from the counter or stolen off the table or nicked out of the garbage, she is always looking for more and more. I don’t think there would ever be an “enough” for Nessie.
Growls if you pet her- Growls if you stop.
This morning I managed to spill a vast amount of hot coffee all over my winter coat. The travel lid was not secured properly and so while I was trying to sip it like a lady- it was flowing like Niagara Falls onto my suede jacket. There was so much coffee spilt that it seeped through to my work clothes and stained the sweater I was wearing. I growled.
I was mad at the cup. I was mad at the coffee and mostly mad at myself. I didn’t need that cup of coffee. I’m really not even sure why I felt to need to make it for myself and bring it into the car with me. I was content. I was caffeinated. And then I wanted MORE and so was baptized in French roast.
I don’t know why I didn’t listen to myself. If I had listened to that inner voice, I would have known that “enough” point with the coffee had been passed. If I listened to “Enough!” I’d have not gained those last ten pounds. I’d have stopped talking before I said that stupid thing I couldn’t take back. I’d have not purchased that “one more- had to have” thing.
Contentment eludes me even when I know I’m content. Like Nessie the Bad Dog I assume that there is just something MORE that I need. MORE; even when I don’t need it.
Perhaps I’ll stop seeking contentment when I am more content. All of this is to say that as a painfully flawed human I know I’ve got a lot in common with Nessie the Bad Dog. We are just going to sit here and growl for a while.
My church’s annual meeting is this Sunday so I’m prepping an appropriate sermon that walks the very fine line between prophetic word and pep talk. The truth is- we are just fine, thank for asking. We are trying out new leadership models and new modes of mission and ministry. We are reviewing our shortcomings and celebrating our successful moments of following Jesus. My job is at annual Meeting is to pray and support the work of the Church Moderator and the lay leadership, who, in the church I serve, did some amazing work this year. Yes, the budget is still in a deficit- but so what? That’s what the endowment is for… MINISTRY. We aren’t closing the doors – not even close.
I’m so tired of people talking about how the Church is dying. First of all, that kind of talk implies that death’s a bad thing. Um, hello, people of faith… remember that whole dying to eternal life thing? Death is real, inevitable and nothing to be feared. Next, I have served as the final pastor to a congregation that did in fact “DIE.”
We had a final service, sold the building and closed the doors – DEAD. And you know what? Death was a beautiful thing. From that death came tendrils of resurrection that continue to bloom. Scholarships were provided from the sale of the church building, vestments and antependium were given away and communion silver gifted into the care of another community. The folks who worshiped at the church that died found new faith homes in surrounding communities where their gifts and talents continue to be used for the glory of God.
So, tell me more about how the Church is dying?
Why are so many people making death proclamations and wailing as if there is some gigantic medieval death cart waiting to take away the bodies of the churches fallen victim to the plague of modernity.
“Bring out your dead!”
I think they’ve forgotten that the church isn’t the building that welcomes a mere quarter of its capacity on Sunday mornings. The church isn’t the dwindling bank balance or the massive choir. The church is the living, breathing, bitching, and moaning laughing, and singing body of Christ. All of us together are Church. So, the way I see it- as long as there exists even the smallest handful of Christians trying to follow Jesus then the church isn’t dying.
Will Church look like it did in the past?
No. Of course not, because WE are the church and we don’t look like we did in the past. (Although I’d be happy to get my 1993 body back, please and thank you.) The Church is, in the words of the great theologians, Monty Python, “Not dead yet.” So, please stop trying to convince us that we are.
Out of respect for Islam and the millions of followers of that faith, I choose not to include any sort of representation of Mohammed on my website. That’ s me.
My website. My choice.
I know that using an image of Mohammed is considered offensive and I choose not to do it. Not out of fear of reprisal but out of a Christian imperative to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Do I support free speech and the right of the Charlie Hebdo editors to have an image of the Prophet on their front cover? Yes. And I also support the right of the Muslim community to be offended by it. (Not to act violently on that offence- mind you – but rather to be upset and engage in non-violent acts to educate.)
Now- about Jesus.
Where to begin… There are so many images of Jesus that it boggles the mind: icons, stained glass windows, paintings, movies, statues and even toys. I personally own a toy Jesus with “Gliding Action.” (See photo) He hangs out on my office bookshelf with “Action Figure Moses “and a few other tchotchkes. A few years back, I was given a toaster that imprinted an image of Jesus right onto the bread as it cooked. A simple search of “Jesus Toys “ returns a lengthy list.
What then are we to make of these things?
My faith allows me to see these items simply as toys. They are not “Jesus” anymore that a picture of me at my high school graduation is “Jen.” If a floating bathtub Jesus makes you giggle– then ok. Jesus is not the tub toy, the action figure or the dress-up paper doll. These are silly human made things.
For me, Jesus is bigger that any of those things because the real Jesus invites us into relationship. I might enjoy my action figures but I don’t have a relationship with them. Jesus calls people into community, calls us to love (even (especially?) those we don’t like) and calls us to live a life of service. The Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) is bigger than my action figure and any argument about the action figure. Thanks be to God.
Now, about that tub toy… my birthday is in May….
Give me Jesus.
I’ve been married for a while now. Although we’ve been having so much fun the time is flying. We’ve enjoyed twenty-three years of wedded bliss and, of course, a bunch of wedded angst tossed in - but mostly bliss.
I’m thankful for the stored up trove of good memories and shared experiences as we begin the joy of aging together. Not that we are OLD, mind you. We are just slipping rapidly into the joys of middle age. This is the time of life where previously silent body parts have joined the audible party. Some mornings getting out of bed sounds like a Neil Peart rehearsal – all percussion instruments sounding off in seemingly random rhythms. It isn’t only our bodies changing either. Perhaps it is the stress of living as the “sandwich generation” attempting to care for our offspring as well as aging parents, but we seem to be getting more scatterbrained as the months go on. Finding keys, remote controls, wallets, glasses and even tickets put in “a safe place” has become a giant time suck. We would keep these things in one place- but we forget to do it. I try to think of it as a bonding experience. Nothing says love like sticking your hand into the pocket of your spouse’s sweaty cast off gym clothes seeking a lost work ID badge.
But my new favorite part of growing old together as a couple is being responsible for remembering one another’s likes and dislikes. As in, “Honey, I don’t remember. Do I like tilapia?” There was a time- not all that long ago- when overhearing this would have made me roll my eyes and mock the couple. Now I get it.
I have so many other things on my mind and a fish entree just isn’t one of them. So, I can turn to the person who has been with me in other tilapia-type situations for help. When my recall fails, I can lean on my husband's memory and he can lean back on me. Sometimes the answer is, “I have no idea if you like tilapia.” But there have been great saves made by asking those types of questions.
For example, I do not like tilapia. At. All.
And I don't even have to remember it.
I’m in the business of cracking jokes at religion. As a comic and a clergywoman I do my best to poke fun at the places where Christians take ourselves too seriously and because I truly love serving my church and the idea of keeping my job I attempt to remain within the bounds of appropriateness for my humor and myself. And there’s my problem…
Sometimes I skirt right up to the edge and sometimes I cross right over it.
Not MY edge, you see, never MY edge. I know where that is and I’m good at keeping a few steps back. The problem is all of the other edges of all the other people in the entire world.
Darn, you people can’t take a joke.
Well, some of you can… but not all of you…. and I’m not sure of my responsibility in all of this. Am I allowed to offer a joke that I think funny but that pushes into your “NO GO” zone? What is your responsibility in that situation? How can we agree on the line? Do we have to agree?
My dad was quite a joke teller – but always appropriate to the audience. He died when I was twenty-six years old and in our time together on Earth he told me exactly one “dirty” joke. It was right after the Lorena Bobbitt incident when she sliced off her husband’s penis and threw it out of the car window as she drove away. The joke was something like this:
An elderly couple was out for a drive when Lorena Bobbitt cut in front of them with her car. A few minutes late something hit their windshield causing the elderly woman to shout, “Oh my God, Harry! Did you see the size of the dick on that bug?”
And the second after it was out of his mouth- he was horrified he’d said it in front of me. He blushed. I was fine with the joke. It was funny. I laughed and was not at all traumatized by hearing it. Truly, I was often much more traumatized by his corny jokes that he would tell my boyfriends. He never seemed to care about those.
Humor is subjective, you see. I was much more offended by his innocuous knock-knock jokes that I ever was by his “dirty” joke. I’ve been offended by other comics. I’ve heard jokes in comedy clubs that made me feel like I needed a shower after hearing them because they were so filthy. I’ve heard jokes that insulted me as a mother, as woman, and as a Christian. I’ve been angry at some of the things I’ve heard. I’ve been hurt when the joke was on me. And yet, I’ve never considered violence as a result of those insults.
The attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris yesterday made me ponder anew my role and obligations as a creator of satire. I thought about my jokes and the people who have been insulted by them. I thought about my dad and his one awkward attempt at telling his daughter a “dick joke.” I thought about the cartoonists who knowingly stomped right over the edge of what would be offensive to many people. I pondered all of this in my heart and came to this place:
I’m not responsible for how you respond to the joke – I am responsible for the joke. You may not find it funny – but I do – or I wouldn’t have said it.
You may find it ridiculous or corny or even offensive – and…well ok.
I own my jokes and the right to say them.
You get to own your reaction and the right to tell me what you thought.
I may or may not listen.
I was challenged by a member of my congregation to create a brief sermon for her wedding as a Dr. Seuss poem. I do love a good challenge. Here is the brief homily I offered at the wedding of Becki and Brian on June 21, 2014.
Reflections on Wedding Vows
via St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians
in the style of the great theologian, Dr. Seuss.
St. Paul said love is patient
St. Paul said love is kind
It doesn’t boast. It doesn’t brag
to wrong things – pays no mind
And here you are on your wedding day
your vows about to speak
And still I will remind you both
that love’s not for the weak.
It takes hard work and brave-ish hearts to keep those marriage vows
For you are two real people and not placid highland cows.
Things will happen – as they do
that really frost your cakes
Like books on floors and seats left up,
Repeating old mistakes
In those moments when tempers flare
and patience has stepped out
Hold tight the love you share today
and breath the anger out.
Yes – love is good and true and best.
It bears and hopes all things
But it gets put right to the test
when there are tough mood swings.
Paul said God does give us love
that’s really deep and true
Love never ends –
That’s right my friends
May it be so for you.
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.