It only takes a spark…

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The phone rang at 5:00 am yesterday. I’m often up at that time, but not since it’s been getting lighter later. I was still in a midnight haze. It was Alarmwatch. The alarm went off at the church. Since I get the call about once a week, it was enough to get me out of bed, but not enough for me to get my clothes on and go to work.

When I did get to Western, I found out the alarm was for real. Someone climbed down into the stairwell outside of the church and broke through the double-pained plexiglass window that looks into our multi-purpose room. They took a huge tank of gasoline, poured it into opening, and lit a match.

Thank God, the sprinklers kicked in, the fire didn’t last long, and it was contained to a wall of the room. If it weren’t for the sprinklers, the fire department said it would have been massive. By the time I got in, John Wimberly, the HOS, had been there for hours. He and a few homeless clients cleaned up the water and damage.

It was heart-breaking to see. I mean, I’m certainly thankful because it could have been much, much worse. But still…. When I walked down, that nauseating smell of smoke lingered in the air. The window glistened where it had been broken as the light got caught in all the jagged edges. The grey floor had a gasoline stain that looked like the shadow of a ghost. The ceiling tiles were curled charcoal. The wall was black, except the bulletin board and the giant menu stood empty.

The reporters who came quickly labeled it a hate crime. The space where the fire took place is where Miriam’s Kitchen feeds 250 homeless people each weekday morning. It’s also the place where about 200 Muslims students gather to pray on Friday afternoon. And it’s the place where an Ethiopian Church gathers for services in the city. It’s a busy room. And I guess with the Muslim students gathering, they wanted to link the incident with recent hate crimes at GW.

John quickly tamped out that fire. He told them that we don’t know the motivation. He’s right. I mean, we serve 250 people each morning, most are chronically homeless, and many are mentally ill. Many have a chemical dependence, and all are frustrated. We have good security and very few incidents. But it can be difficult for the social workers and counselors who work every day.

We’re always having healthy conversations at the church, balancing between hospitality and security. Over the hearth, we have that Scripture from Hebrews etched in stone: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” I walk by it several times a day. Meditate on it.

My relationship with the homeless is meeting with them and praying with them. I teach art at another homeless shelter in town. I don’t have the same kind of contact that the social workers do, so I lean more on the hospitable side, while they understandably worry about safety.

The posted menu may have been empty, but the real food was served. Thanks to the homeless men,the amazing volunteers, and Miriam’s efficient staff, everything was cleaned up, cooked, and ready to go by the time the clients arrived.

photo’s by Mrs. Maze

Does ten percent make sense?

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It’s stewardship time. We’ve been stuffing cards into envelopes with great fury over at our place. We are not only mailing them out, but we’re also filling them out at home. We always try to give ten percent. It’s our personal goal. Sometimes we achieve it and other times we don’t, but it’s always the target.

I thought about the Burmese monks who protested by withholding their alms bowls from the government and the military, and the great unrest it caused in the country. What would happen if we stopped passing our brass plates and handing out these pledge cards? Would anybody notice?

In Louisiana, the average income of our church neighbors was 28k. In Barrington, the household average was 128k. In D.C.? Well, it’s 250 to 500k. Yet, in each place, people have given roughly the same amount, about 2k.

Now, as I’ve said before, I don’t keep track of who gives what. But, in light of this reality, I wonder if asking for ten percent makes any sense any more. Are D.C. residents much more greedy than Abbeville residents? Certainly not. A number of factors are in play.

(1) Housing costs take up a much bigger percentage of income. For instance, one hundred percent of my income goes to housing. We pay bills with my husband’s income.

(2) People tend to have a variety of causes that they give to, beyond the church.

(3) We have a lot of young urban single households. They don’t have the added cost of children, and they can live in a smaller place, but they’re still living in a place where it takes two incomes to afford real estate. Plus, they have student loans to manage.

I guess what I’m saying is that between Fannie Mae and Sallie Mae, there are many, many factors that a flat tithe doesn’t take into account. Our economy is different than it was two thousand years ago. Shouldn’t we be thinking about this more? Or, explaining it better? Every pastor knows that most people in the pews are not giving ten. Why is that? Are people more uncommitted and greedy than they were in the past? Have we set up an impossible goal?

One last thing, just to play devil’s advocate here (maybe literally…gulp). What if someone in our neighborhood did tithe her 500k, and gave 50k to the church? It would be lovely, because of course, it would pay my salary. But then my position would be completely reliant on one person. Would it be healthy for the church? We all know congregations that leaned too heavily on one or two really generous and wealthy people, and when they moved to Florida, the church budget went into a free fall. Can there be a problem with giving too much to a church?

I have a Rabbi friend whose congregation is charged a “fair share” based on the income and the congregation’s budget. That way, he explains, everyone pays, but the congregation is not too beholden to one individual. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that we’d ever move to this model, but it did make me wonder…. Should we be thinking about this more?

A vocation and a voice

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I went to Larchmont Avenue Presbyterian Church this weekend to preach, and to talk about Tribal Church. What a fun experience. They have a great staff, Bill Crawford and Jed Koball are there, two hard-working and extremely gifted people. Years ago, Bill was a campus minister at GW, and he forged a relationship with Western, really helping Western to see a larger vision for the campus. And now, I get to be a part of that outreach, as I serve Western and the GW campus.

They had one of those fantastic pulpits, one that ascends like an octagon elevator. The only problem was that it wasn’t made for a pastor who’s five feet tall, and I couldn’t actually see the first three rows of the congregation when I stood in it, so Bill constructed an extra step, with cinderblocks and plywood. Then it was perfect.

It’s odd, preaching to a crowd that you don’t know. I never know whether to write something fresh, or to recycle. If you recycle, you can rely on a sermon that’s good, but they do tend to get stale after a while. So, I always write something new, but then there’s a chance that it’s not going to turn out well. What do you do? Do you recycle?

The other thing that I’m always aware of in a different pulpit is my voice. I’m not quite sure what to do about my voice. I don’t have a deep, resonate preacher’s voice. It’s nasally and high-pitched. I’ve heard complaints about my voice in all my churches, except Western (I love Western). A member of a worship committee in one church said that they needed to cut off the microphone when I preached because my voice is “screechy.” It was my second week at the church. I didn’t know how to respond. I stood speechless, flushed with shame and thought, But it’s my voice. It’s not a dress. I can’t just take it off.

It’s a voice that feels like it’s reaching for something that it can’t… quite… get… a… hold… of. It’s a voice that doesn’t modulate emotion, but it stands at the edge of tears or outrage or passion. My preaching professor said I needed to listen to it regularly, to try to improve it. He tried to comfort me by saying, “It’s okay. People will get used to it. People got used to Truman Capote’s voice.” (Wait. Was that supposed to make me feel better?)

At my first internship, they told me I needed to go to a voice coach, but I couldn’t quite figure it out, was it that my voice really needed help, or was it just that my voice didn’t quite fit into certain pulpits? Was it because it was annoying, or was it because it belonged to a woman?

I went to a voice coach recently. I worked on the range, trying to loosen my clenched jaw and my taught vocal chords. I tried add some depth to it, by breathing deeper, and imagining that my voice was echoing over a pond. It didn’t work. I still have the same voice.

Plus, I’m not sure I wanted it to work. The coach worked with actors and actresses who try to become someone else on stage. But, I didn’t want one of those dramatic pulpit voice, the kind that sounds like it’s quoting Shakespeare and lilts too much. I wanted to be more authentic. More of myself in the pulpit. I didn’t want a voice that said, “I’m in the elevator now. I’m going to talk to you differently.”

Larchmont will be looking for an Associate Pastor soon (Jed’s an interim). They want to call the very best person, male or female. The church was begun by a woman, but due to chance, they’ve never had an installed female clergy person.

And you know what? The nicest thing was said to me this weekend: “I’m glad the congregation got a chance to hear your voice. I’m glad they had a chance to hear a woman in the pulpit.” I was certainly not the first woman in that pulpit (they’ve had a female interim), but my voice was appreciated there. 

Maybe things are changing. I know my voice hasn’t.

Falling into the Friday five

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For readers who are not aware of the RevGalBlogPals ritual, you can catch up here.

1. How did you celebrate this time of year when you were a child?

Well, There’s not much of a fall in Central Florida. The seasons end up being summer, with an occassional cold front, when it gets down to 65 (bbbrrrrrr).

So, I blogged on this sad season of my life before, but since you asked, I’ll do it again. I distinctly remember our Baptist Church having a Haunted House, which my mother would loudly protest every year. I would not be allowed to go through it, because it was “of the devil.” She would get in an annual, long heated battle in the hallway with the youth pastor, while I wanted to die. Then, we would come home, and she would decide that I couldn’t go trick-or-treating, because, of course, that was “of the devil” too.

It was not my favorite time of the year….

2. Do you and/or your family “celebrate” Halloween? Why or why not? And if you do, has it changed from what you used to do?

Yes! It’s changed quite a bit at our house. We love Haloween. I usually make a costume (although this year, Little C’s going generic Disney–a disappointment, but I’ll live). I love seeing the kids all dressed up. We’re still in the Trick or Treating years, so it’s great fun.

2. Candy apples: Do you prefer red cinnamon or caramel covered? Or something else?

Caramel. I like the apples in slices now. It evens out the candy-to-fruit ratio.

3. Pumpkins: Do you make Jack O’ Lanterns? Any ideas of what else to do with them?

Yes! Although I’ve tried to resist making them too early this year, because they always get moldy before the big night.

I already mentioned this podcast a couple of days ago, but there’s a guy on it who maps his neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. He maps two things: the number of times certain addresses get mentioned in the newspaper and how many pumpkins are on the porches of his neighbors. Oddly enough, the porches with the most pumpkins are also the ones that get listed in the paper the most times.

4. Do you decorate your home for fall or Halloween? If so, what do you do? Bonus points for pictures.

Nothing yet this year. I’m not sure if I’ll get it together or not… Oh, who am I kidding? I’m lucky to get a Christmas tree up!

5. Do you like pretending to be something different? Does a costume bring our an alternate personality?

Sure! I’m always up for a good costume party. Although I haven’t been to one in a long, long time. Last party, my husband was a missionary and I was his convert (A seminary party. It was in bad taste. Very bad taste).

Bonus: Share your favorite recipe for an autumn food, particularly apple or pumpkin ones.

Alright, anytime I start a recipe with “open a can of,” and the second step is “and another can of,” I know I’m stepping into Jill Connor Browne’s territory. But here’s a great recipe I got from the back of a can of evaporated milk:

2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 cup (1 small) chopped onion
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
3 cups chicken broth
1 can (15 oz.) LIBBY’S® 100% Pure Pumpkin
1 can (12 fl. oz.) NESTLÉ® CARNATION® Evaporated Milk

Directions:
MELT butter in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; cook, stirring frequently, for 2 to 3 minutes or until tender. Stir in curry powder, salt and pepper; cook for 1 minute.

ADD broth and pumpkin; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low; cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in evaporated milk. Transfer mixture to food processor or blender (in batches, if necessary); cover. Blend until smooth. Serve warm.

It’s fabulous. You can even serve it in a cooked pumpkin, and no one will know how incredibly simple it was to make it.

photo’s by apfelbaum

From dust to dust

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I went to an Interfaith Breakfast Workshop on ‘Caring for Creation: How to Build a Sustainable Future’ yesterday, sponsored by the Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light. It was very interesting. Here are a few things I learned:

Imam Yahya Hendi, Secretary General and Founder of Imams for Human Rights and Dialogue, spoke of the need for the Abrahamic faiths to realize our origins, as people of dust, as he implored us to work together on caring for creation.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, President of the Washington Board of Rabbis spoke about Jonah, and the notion of “other.” He pointed out God’s concern for the people of Ninevah and the animals of Ninevah.

The Rt. Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, UK, was the keynote. He was deep and insightful. He spoke about themes for preaching the environment, ones that I had never thought about. He spoke of Jesus as the Son of Man, and traced the etymology of the word “man” to “Adam” and to “earth.”

Jones spoke of Jonah as well, and how the earth responded to Jonah’s disobedience. He compared that with the Jesus’ resurrection, and the “violent earthquake” that resulted.

I learned a great deal from the other clergy around me as well. At a mosque in Northern Virginia, they are working hard to get parishioners to carpool. So, in their parking lot, they have parking spots reserved for carpoolers.

Imagine this. It would not only be good for the environment, but we could begin thinking more communally this way. It might be a way for us to survey our congregations or our church directories and think, “Who might need a ride? Who lives in my neighborhood?”

The Imam says they focus their most of their environmental training on the children. “We let the children teach their parents,” he explained.

The most poignant thing for me was a new way to think about fasting. I grew up on the beaches of Florida (a.k.a.–the land of eating disorders for a teenage girl), and I have a huge host of issues with fasting, as a result.

But each participant introduced a important way of fasting for the environment, within their religious tradition. For instance, the Imam explained Ramadan as a time of rest for the environment. He broke down the gallons of water that Muslims save each time they fast. It was astonishing.

The Rabbi spoke about Sabbath and our consumption. He talked about how important it is to have a day when we don’t consume and to allow the earth to rest (not something new, but certainly something that I need to be reminded of).

The Bishop recommended a carbon fast for Lent, which encouraged a congregation to use alternative forms of transportation or to turn down the thermostat as a spiritual discipline. He asked, “Why give up chocolate? Why not give up something that will make a difference?”

Buzzing, humming, droning, murmuring

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My favorite radio program is “This American Life.” (Aside: Does anyone know what happened to the television program? Did anyone see it? Is it still out there? Did it get panned?) Anyways…last Saturday on the radio version of TAL, they spoke to a man who mapped his surroundings with the barely audible hums that came from all the appliances around him. So, his computer vibrated to a b flat, his heater made a d buzz, and his dial tone rang out something different altogether. (I don’t remember the actual notes correctly. But you can hear the podcast if you want accuracy…).

He explained that we are the first generation to be surrounded by these humming appliances. He began to map out the chords that became his background music each day, and noticed that they were minor, depressing combinations. He did research on religious music, and what the church has said about certain note combinations through history.

Since hearing the program, I can’t help but hear other things: the blowing fan, the whistling light bulbs, the murmuring refrigerator, the droning computers. He’s right. We’re surrounded. I’m not musical enough to know if these noises are discordant, contributing to a shift in moods, I’m just more aware of them now.

I have lived in the South most of my life, where the air conditioner was a necessary ingredient for sanity. But then I moved to Rhode Island, where we didn’t have any AC. The short summer was heaven. We opened up the windows and let the sounds from the outside in doors. At the time, I was struck, not by the manufactured chords that made up our lives, but by the rhythms. It seemed like the beat of the dripping rain, the grasshoppers, and the birds was much different than the mechanical hums that had become a part of my life’s soundtrack. Happily, we moved to Virginia, to an old breezy home that was never built for air conditioning, so we can keep it open most of the summer too. And so I’m writing here, as the sounds of nature wake up around me.

The other thing that has kept me thinking since Saturday: “We are the first generation to….” This is an amazing moment of firsts. It’s not just technology, although that is most of it. It’s social too. If we think of “generation” in a broad sense, we are the first generation of Christians to welcome women into the pulpit. We are the first generation to be thinking about family leave. We are the first generation to assume that the spouse will be working. We are the first generation that does not assume that the person staying home is the mom. We are the first generation to be talking about allowing ordained gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to be open and honest about their sexuality. There are so many things happening…what am I leaving out?

So often, as a person born in the seventies, I get frustrated and don’t understand why things don’t change faster. I become irritated because I feel like so many people just don’t understand.

But then, I realize where I’m standing, in this important room of firsts. A room where some of us hear things completely differently. And then I become overwhelmed with gratitude, because I’m able to stand here, in this moment of change, in this exciting, buzzing instant in history.

photo’s by heirloomfoto