Friday, February 17, 2012

It's Just Life

A week or so ago, I wrote about one thing people can do to take charge of our lives and behavior: to evaluate the stories we tell, and choose to tell and re-tell only the stories that serve us - and the rest of the world - well. (For example: We matter.)

Today I saw a video that reminded me of another thing said in our coaching seminar:
We do well to accept that life is difficult - that we are not entitled to an easy life.

Life used to be more challenging, our seminar leader said. Folks had to drag water from the water hole, etc. When our lives are relatively easy (with drinking water available from any number of faucets in the house!) our resilience suffers.

After describing the earthquake in Haiti, the terror of it, and the need to fashion a shelter from leaves and clothing, the woman in this video says, "The hard things that happened aren't 'difficulties.' It's just life as I see it."

I can't get that line out of my head . . . . That's probably a good thing; I know it is one of the stories that could serve me well. (Along with: "We are strong," and "We are not afraid to work." The woman in this video is wonderful.)

Take a few minutes to let this Haitian woman inspire you, too.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"We Matter" - my friend Noell

Lying in bed last night, I couldn't stop thinking about:
my teenage daughter awash with insecurities,
my lesbian friends unable to marry legally in Virginia,
all the articles I've read recently about bullying,
and recent news that the Violence Against Women Act has become a partisan issue.

What came to mind was the scene in Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help where Aibileen Clark, a black maid, is falsely charged with stealing and has to say a quick goodbye to Mae Mobley, the white child she has raised:

"Baby Girl," I say. "I need you to remember everything I told you. Do you remember what I told you?"

She still crying steady, but the hiccups is gone. "To wipe my bottom good when I'm done?"

"No, baby, the other. About what you are."

I look deep into her rich brown eyes and she look into mine. Law, she got old-soul eyes, like she done lived a thousand years. And I swear I see, down inside, the woman she gone grow up to be. A flash from the future. She is tall and straight. She is proud. She got a better haircut. And she is remembering the words I put in her head. Remembering as a full-grown woman.

And then she say it, just like I need her to. "You is kind," she says, 'you is smart. You is important."

+ + +

I want to send a belated Valentine's Day "thank you" to the people who help us to believe such things about ourselves. May we say them over and over again, until we know they're true.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Transformed by the Renewing of our Minds

Last Sunday the lectionary included a reading from Isaiah 40 – the beautiful “with wings like eagles” passage. In response to that text, Imaging the Word (Vol. 3) included part of an article by Tony Proscio:

"I will go unto the altar of God."
And the monk responded, "To God who gladdens my youth."

"Juventutem meam," he said, distinctly and with feeling. My youth.

He was 81.

To those whose lives are fueled by belief - to people still young at 81 because they're scarcely at the threshold of eternity - there's no corner of life where faith is irrelevant.

+ + +

It reminded me of something my coach had said when we were together last month. We were talking about things people can do to take charge of their lives and behavior. One thing anyone can do – with practice and effort – is to reinvigorate our thoughts. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

In the seminar we’d been asked:
How do you tell your story?
What things do you find yourself saying over and over?
How do you explain the good and bad things that happen to you?
What kind of God calls and supports you? (And do you preach a different God than you’ve experienced in your own life? Many of us preach a loving, generous God but experience a very different God, the leader had said.)

Some of our thoughts are engrained, the seminar leader said. They’re knit into our neural pathways; they travel the superhighways of our brains. We think those thoughts reflexively and say them often. Sometimes they serve us well. Other times they don’t!

As an example, my coach told me about a man in his congregation who, when asked how he was doing, always said, “Pretty good for an old guy.” My coach found it amusing, until he realized it’s what the man always said. Think for a minute about the implications of living fully into that statement: Pretty good . . . for an old guy. It’s limiting, isn’t it? Especially when you could be thinking: "I will go unto the altar of God . . . God who gladdens my youth."

So . . . the challenge is to identify the thoughts and stories that travel the superhighways of our brains (driving us, really), and to keep the ones we like and change the ones we don’t. Changing the unhelpful thoughts and stories is hard work: it’s like making a path through the jungle. You need to keep thinking the new, better thoughts doggedly and intentionally. Eventually they will become a more powerful force in your life.

I began this blog by saying I’d been feeling overwhelmed in my life and work – that it’s one reason I’d wanted a coach. Recently I’ve realized “I’m overwhelmed” is one of the stories I've been telling – a story that does not serve me particularly well. Yes, I have a lot to do. Some days it’s more than I can finish, and I hate living with unfinished, pressing business. But I’m not falling asleep at the office, with my head on my desk. There is room in my life for rest, and the people with whom I work are patient and supportive. “Overwhelmed” means “buried or drowned” or “defeated completely.” Inundated. Overpowered. There are days I feel that way, but it doesn’t define me.

So I’m going to work on thinking some new thoughts - thoughts I’m hoping will transform me over time: that I’m busy, but making progress (for example) . . . that I’m doing some things really well, and learning how to do other things better . . . and that in all things, the Lord renews my strength. That last thought in particular seems like a good one to repeat over and over and over again.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Partners, Process, and Potential

I always intended to go back over my notes from the seminars that began the Comprehensive Coaching Program. Finally getting around to that now.

We started by discussing three Ps - Partnership, Process, and Potential (I love alliteration).
1) Coaching is a partnership. The leaders spoke about the coach and coachee, as well as the Holy Spirit - all partners in this
2) Process. Yes, OK. But what really caught my attention was what they said around
3) Potential. I remember them asking us to consider: Who am I called to be as a leader? Who does God need me to be?

The word "need" is what I began to wonder about. It seems presumptuous to believe God needs me to be anyone in particular, or at all. I assume it is within God's power to work around me, in fact. (As in: all things work together for good, despite the bad choices I sometimes make.)

Still, it's empowering to imagine I have a place that important in God's plan.

Who does God need me to be . . . ?

Something my coach said Friday may help to move me toward the answer. We were talking about a scenario I'd described as ideal but impossible in my current position. He was pressing me to consider whether it might really be possible, and I was raising all the objections he said it was natural to raise and that warranted examination, of course. He said, You have ideas about what would be a really ideal situation - a situation in which you could function at your best. That's worth exploring! It's never entirely selfish, because the point is to be your best for others.

I preached about service today: how we're all called to a life of service - to others and to God. I'm thinking God needs me to be in top form as I undertake that service. God needs me to function at my best - for my own sake, and for the sake of those I serve.

So here's my homework:
1) Imagine what - in my current position - would be ideal. An ideal preaching schedule. An ideal weekly routine. An ideal agenda for Session meetings. I guess I could go any direction with this.
2) List the reasons my ideal won't work. Examine the values underpinning those objections.
3) Imagine how this change (if I made it) might work for good - for me, for the church, for the denomination, for others . . . .
4) Consider: How might I incorporate at least some of these changes? Or aspects of the changes? What might the impact be?

If you want, it can be your homework, too!

Why Christ Came

“Why Christ Came”
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; 1 Cor 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
A sermon preached by Carla Pratt Keyes
at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
February 5, 2012

Once upon a time is the name of a new TV show I kind of like. It takes place in the fictitious town of Storybrooke, Maine – a seemingly ordinary town of full of cafes and corner stores . . . a courthouse, hospital, school. It seems quite normal. But that is only because the inhabitants of the town are under a curse. They have been frozen in time and space, and have forgotten who they really are. Really they are Rumpelstiltskin, Red Riding Hood, Aladdin, Geppetto. In flashbacks you learn their stories – stories of heartbreak and ecstasy and valor – all set amidst the dark woods and majestic castles of the land now cloaked with a curse – a land of magic and mystery, a land of fairies and dragons. All hidden . . . all forgotten.

Until Emma Swan comes to town. Emma is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming; she was spirited away before the Evil Queen’s curse came into effect. She has come to Storybrooke – why? To be with Henry, the son she gave up for adoption ten years before. Why really? According to Henry, Emma has come to save the town and all the people in it, to lift the curse, to remind the people who they are and what they are about.

Today’s story from Mark has an other-worldly quality to it, even in this colloquial translation. Imagine Jesus in Simon’s home by the sea, the woman sick with fever, her bed at the back of the house. Jesus took her by the hand, the story goes, and he raised her up. The fever left her; it fled Jesus, like the wild pigs will do in a little while, like the demons always do. Then the crowds come: the sick and demon-possessed. Did I say other-worldly? We don’t think much about demons anymore; they’ve been consigned to the TV shows and fairytales. When Mark speaks about the sick and demon-possessed, he means everyone who is broken, no matter how. And as I try to imagine them all (even with a 21st century mindset) the lines blur between ordinary and mythic. What ails the drug lord? The paralytic? The prostitute? What troubles the cancer patient? The alcoholic? The schizophrenic? Where do we start treating post-traumatic stress? Or depression? Or rage? There are all kinds of “broken” – only some of which you can treat with medicine. However people hurt . . . no matter what tormented them, they went to Jesus, and Jesus healed them.

Jesus wields unbelievable power, works instant cures, helps everyone who wants him. Finally, after they’ve all gone home, when it’s so late at night that it’s actually early in the morning, Jesus walks out the door (probably the same door the demons used); he goes into the darkness on his own. Jesus wants to be alone. He wants to pray. But the disciples track him down. They don’t just look for him; they pursue him. They want him to come back into town – to bask in the glory a bit! Jesus won’t do it. “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns,” he says, “so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do. That’s how the good old New Revised Standard Version of the Bible puts it. That is what I came out to do. You could almost take it to mean: that’s why Jesus got up early, why he left the town limits that morning. I read a summary of this passage that said, “Jesus decides to take his ministry to Galilee,” like, instead of back home to Nazareth, maybe, or instead of ordering a pizza. I don’t know; it seemed too casual to me. He came out to enjoy the sunrise . . . . Someplace else I read that there’s a military nuance to the Greek word that’s used for “come out”: Christ came out like an army comes to meet the enemy (all those demonic forces). That’s powerful to think about . . . . Yet I like the way this new translation emphasizes Christ’s purpose, his reason for coming into the world. Here Jesus says, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” [1]

This is why Jesus came: to preach what is good . . . to oppose what is evil . . . to heal the cosmic brokenness, remind people who we really are, and show us what we are meant to do.

Twelve men are Jesus’ first disciples, but (in Mark) a woman is the first to understand what he is really about . . . and goodness, I skipped right over her! Simon’s mother-in-law, who’d been sick and feverish, experienced Christ’s power to raise her up and make her whole. The fever left her, and she served them.

She served them. I confess, most of the years I have known this story, I have hated to think of that poor woman rising from her sickbed to serve – what? Supper? Drinks? Couldn’t the men have fended for themselves one evening while she got over being so sick? Yet many scholars will tell you: this was probably for the woman a deeply satisfying thing. Her illness had robbed her of her status, her dignity, her ability to welcome guests into her home. In her culture, to offer hospitality like that was an important part of a full life. I expect it brought her joy.

What’s more, as she serves, we see this woman fulfilling her purpose. Not only as a woman. Not only as a host or hostess. But as a disciple of Jesus Christ. The word Mark uses to speak of the woman’s service is one we’ll see again and again in the New Testament: diakoneo, to serve. Our word for “deacon” comes from diakoneo. To serve is as essential to Christian ministry as hospitality was to a first century woman. It takes the twelve disciples a while to learn diakoneo. They keep arguing about who is the greatest among them. Jesus sighs and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” (9:35) Of course, Jesus sets the example. “I did not come to be served [he says] but rather to serve and give [my] life to liberate many people” Why did he come? Why really? To serve. And by serving, to save.

There are two things I noticed about the woman’s service in today’s story. First of all, there was nothing flashy or even memorable about it; it was simply worked into the fabric of her life. She did what she could, where she was, to make others comfortable. And secondly, there’s a pay-it-forward quality here. Angels are the first to serve in Mark’s gospel. They take care of Jesus while he’s in the wilderness, among the wild animals, and being tempted by Satan. The angels serve Jesus. Jesus serves the sick and broken people around him. He serves this woman. The woman serves the disciples. The disciples are made ready to go with Jesus and (in some ways at least) to follow him. To serve is what Christ will ask them to do.

Some of you have heard about the little epiphany I had last week – thanks to my Epiphany Star, Gratitude. When I got that star a few weeks ago in worship, I thought of Meister Eckhart's old line that “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” I resolved to notice the good stuff this year and to say thanks as often as possible. To feel gratitude. But then, last Wednesday morning, my husband and I woke our son Elijah by singing him Happy Birthday. (Happy Birthday, Elijah. I have to pay him royalties now that I’ve mentioned him in the sermon.) Anyway, Elijah woke up happy about the song, and the first words he said were, “Thank you!” I thought: what a nice way to start your second decade – feeling grateful! The more I thought about it, the more grateful I felt. I realized that I wanted to revise my resolution around the Epiphany Star of gratitude. Instead of feeling more grateful myself, I want to try doing more things that will help other people to feel grateful. Even small acts of service can mean a lot.

In the back of my mind, I’m sure, was a blog I’d read about an “outbreak of Idaho kindness.” Someone had reported her experience of a stranger’s kindness while shoveling snow. It was two-feet-high that morning. Hard to imagine in these parts. A young man had walked up, relieved this woman of her shovel, and spent the next 45 minutes clearing her sidewalk. It wasn’t random, she realized later. The man left her in the same direction from which he’d come. He had approached her intending to help.

Same morning, another woman named Carol looked out at 2 feet of very wet, heavy snow in her driveway. She knew it wasn’t going anywhere without some help. So she called a local excavator, Kurt, who moonlights in the winter plowing snow. She’d met him a couple of years earlier when he’d done some digging in her front yard to fix a broken waterline. He remembered her name, and they had a nice talk . . . but his minimum charge was more than she could pay. That night, when Carol got home her driveway had been plowed! At first she thought she and Kurt had misunderstood each other – that her “thank you” had meant he should go ahead and plow. But when she got inside, she found a voice mail from Kurt: “I was in the neighborhood this afternoon, so I went ahead and plowed your driveway . . . I don’t expect you to pay me . . . just pay it forward to someone else who needs help sometime.”

Another cold morning, Carol was stopped in traffic because of road construction. As she sat in her warm car, she watched one of the workers blow on her hands repeatedly to warm them. When the traffic started up again, Carol slowed to a stop by the woman and handed her gloves out the window. The woman smiled a great big smile as she put them on. [2]

I wish I hadn’t woken yesterday morning to the New York Times and its Quotation of the Day: “He was never warm in his entire life. Not once.” That’s what Juma Gul said about his one-month old son, who recently froze to death in a refugee camp in Kabul. His family had fled their home – part of a war zone, they say. (Plenty safe, the Afghan government says.) The Gul family and 35,000 other people have been huddled in tents and mud-huts in the middle of Kabul, without heat or electricity through the coldest, snowiest January in 20 years. They are living in a state of chronic emergency, without access to much of anything: health care, education, food, sanitation, water. [3] Talk about broken.

I mention this with sorrow, mindful of the vast need and brokenness in this world. But I feel also grateful for the people who, like Jesus, take their service out to neighboring lands – even faraway lands like Afghanistan, recognizing the need – the universal need – for help with healing. Not all of us go – not all of us need to go – but the Christians who do model Jesus’ determination to meet people wherever they are. To take his service on the road. Our Witness Season is a time to hold such people into the light, and to serve and support them however we can – with prayer, with notes offering encouragement, with money (if we can) to fund their work of binding up wounds and casting out demons – demons of prejudice and poverty, disaster and despair – all kinds of demons, really. It’s what they went to do . . . what we are meant to do, too, in some way.

Why did Jesus come? To earth, I mean. There are lots of ways to answer that question. He came to serve. To heal. To teach us about God. To fight what is evil and promote what is good. To save this town, this earth, and everyone in it. He came to remind us: we are meant to follow his example.

[1] The Common English Bible. We distributed copies of the New Testament in this new translation at GPPC this Sunday.
[3] “Driven Away by a War; Now Stalked by Winter’s Cold, by Rod Nordland, February 3, 2012,

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Gift of Gratitude

Today is my son's 10th birthday. A decade, he says. Two digits. I'll confess to feeling a little bit stunned.

This morning my husband and I got up just a few minutes before Elijah's alarm was scheduled to go off. We woke him by singing Happy Birthday. "Thank you," he said, as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

Later it occurred to me: the first words of Elijah's second decade were "Thank you." What a wonderful beginning.

Gratitude is the "Epiphany Star" I got in worship a few Sundays ago. Epiphany stars are construction paper stars with gifts of the Holy Spirit written on them. At GPPC we receive Epiphany stars on the Sunday closest to Epiphany - usually the same Sunday we reaffirm our baptismal vows. The gifts are varied and randomly distributed: love, joy, humor, wisdom, creativity, integrity, etc. It's lovely to see the variety of gifts pinned to people's lapels, sweaters, and t-shirts during worship. We invite folks to think about the gift on their star as God's gift to them in the coming year and as their gift to others and to God. It's a gift to "grow into." A one-word New Year's resolution. One more gift for the Christmas season. (A Christian fortune cookie - OK, it's like that, too.) When I received "Gratitude," I thought of Meister Eckhart's old line: If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is "thank you," that would suffice. I resolved to notice the good stuff and say thanks as often as possible.

But today I realized that this resolution may be more satisfying: to do things that will lead other people to feel thanks, and even to say it. It certainly was a nice way to start this day.