Jesus and Puffy Cheeks

We don’t have a ton of kids at my church. Two who are regular. A few more (several babies!!) who come every couple of weeks. But one regular 5-year-old Sunday School participant, who, weekly, gets a lesson, a lot of stories and always arts and crafts (which, when I’m teaching, usually means Play-dough and Crayons).

Today we had a ball. We told the story of the disciples, hidden away and scared in the upper room, and Jesus coming and breathing on them and saying “Peace.” The story went something like this:

Me: The disciples were very
5-Year-old: SCARED!
Me: But then someone came to see them. Who was it?
5-Year-old: Jesus.
Me: And what did Jesus do?
5-Year-old: [here you have to imagine the 5-Year-old and me both blowing with very exaggerated, very full, very puffy cheeks].
Me: And what did Jesus say to them?
5-Year-old: Peace be with you!
Me: And then were they still scared?
5-Year-old: No!

So we went into the church where the altar guild, the deacons, and the flower guild were all working and told the story to each of them. Then we found the treasurer and the Senior warden and told them. And then to the 5-Year-old’s mom. And now I’m telling you. It was great fun. So if you’re feeling scared and aren’t sure what to do, just imagine Jesus, with big, puffy cheeks, blowing on you and saying Peace!

Here are some pictures of my play-dough renditions of the scene. Jesus is orange, in case you’re wondering.


I feel humbled. And sad. And wishing that I was a lottery winner or the inventor of something brilliant and money worthy.

I have a parishioner, who I’ll call Clark. Clark is an older man, with a couple of illnesses. He moves from tenement to  tenement, looking for places that are safe, drug free and affordable–an unlikely trinity in this city. He’s currently homeless (for another 2 hours and 10 minutes). He came up for communion tonight and unlike his usual response after I commune him of “God Bless you, Sarah,” tonight Clark stumbled. He took the bread from me. And the wine from the deacon. And then the deacon gave the wine back to me for me to finish. He walked back and said to me: “I didn’t get a good sip,” so I gave him the chalice again. And he sipped a small sip. And then he stumbled. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Yes, I’m okay. Good night, Sarah,” he said.

I walked out of the church, down the side aisle and found him lying on the back pew. A few minutes later our deacon/nurse and I sat with him and began to sort out his life. He can’t cash a check until midnight, so for 4 hours, he will ride the El until then to keep warm. Then he will rent a room at a less than lovely hotel, but he’ll be off the streets tonight. Tomorrow he will get back on the meds he’s been off for a month because he hasn’t been able to afford the monthly CTA pass to get to the center where he gets his meds. I bought him dinner, so he has a full belly.

I can’t do much for many with my limited means. But Clark is a long time member, who knows the liturgy better than most anybody. And a dear man. And as I sit at home, in my comfy PJs, having eaten some leftover steak, I find myself thinking about him. It’s cold. And Christ is Risen. Here’s the rub, we  are an Easter people. Redemption has come and yet the work–the work remains.

she’s not dead yet…on Job and cats and pacemakers and dogs and, oh, yeah, God.

This week I had to choose between three Old Testament Scriptures for the bulletin and for my sermon, to go with the story of Jesus calming the Sea while the disciples freak out. One of the text choices was David and Goliath. I really, really, really wanted to preach on David and Goliath. But for a myriad of other reasons, including some boring practical ones, I chose Job. Despite my whining, it’s a great passage. If you want to read it, click away. Job, after endless trial and torment finally cries out to God in frustration, to which God replies: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? ” God goes on to remind Job of the vastness of creation–the limits, the measures, the boundaries of all that God has created. And while, in someways, it comes across as God yelling and being, frankly, kind of mean to Job, there is in the midst of this conversation, incredible beauty in all that God says.

I write all this feeling incredibly detached. There is so much death and illness surrounding people I love right now. And I’m remarkably calm. The calm in the midst of many storms, for a moment, perhaps. The crazy includes pacemakers becoming part of my vocabulary as are the realities of parents that grow older. You already know about Alzheimer’s, lung cancer and grandmothers. And of course there’s the Athens GA house of aging animals, AKA my mom and step-dad’s home. They’ve lost three (the third of whom was put down today) of their four cats in 6 months. Today Sam, the three-legged wonder cat, used up the last of his nine lives. Losing a leg, but beating cancer, he learned to move so quickly on three legs. But today it came to an end when a blood disease finally had its way with his small body. In my world here in Chicago, the puppy I’ve loved like she’s my own for almost 11 years has a return of cancer and it’s moving quickly, aggressively and cruelly. I watch her bleed and can’t imagine my life without her in it. And know that day is coming soon–but it’s not here, not just yet.

So I find myself thinking about Job. My trials are nothing like his. I know that. I have a job and a family and people who love me. I have a coffee shop and decent coffee and free wifi. I have sunshine and books and a volleyball team. Yes, I am not Job. And neither are any of the people who are far more directly affected by all the ailments listed above. And yet, in the midst of heartache and struggle and pain, it’s hard not to lift up our hands and cry out to God.

Hail Mary, full of Grace. Help me find a parking place. It’s a prayer I use at least once a day in this city. I work with someone who really believes that it’s a legitimate prayer–that God has some control, some say in where we park our cars. That if we are good and pleasing, a parking space will open up. If our intentions are less than ideal, not spot will appear. That God answers that kind of prayer directly. I don’t believe that, although I pray it all the time. Same as I’m not really convinced the St. Joseph statue I buried in the front yard of the Russian Spy’s house will actually help the sale of said house. But I hope.

It’s why I don’t pray “please make the cancer go away” or “please make my Father be 60 instead of almost 78.” I’m not convinced God works like that. And I kinda think that’s what God is saying to Job. Something along the lines of “it’s a bit more complicated than your individual speck of drama. I’ve got a whole planet to look out for.” Which leaves us where? Comfortless? Helpless? Alone? No. In all of this we are more than abandoned children. God moves into the boat, the storming sea, the raging lake that storms and finds the places of calm and brings us to them. A friend of Bishop Gene Robinson said to him once “Sometimes God calms the storm and sometimes He lets the storm rage and calms the child.”

“Where were you when I laid the foundaition of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone whe teh morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

I trust, call it childlike, call it foolish, but I trust, that God was there. And that God is here. With a little black cat as he left this earth, and with my hurting parents as they held him and said goodbye. With my grandmother as she sings Frank Sinatra and wonders who her daughter is. With my father as he discovers the joys of MRIs. With my dog as she sneezes up blood. And wtih me as I watch, frozen in fear of what it to come.

on life in lakeview, being hungry, jesus and the MDGs

i don’t normally invite people in when i’m alone in the church. and i struggle with it because when i ask myself WWJD (what would jesus do) the answer is almost always–answer the door. but i’m not jesus. and i sometimes just don’t feel safe. and the sad piece is that my resources are limited. so usually i refer people to the lakeview pantry, which is where i sent a lot of the money given to my discretionary fund.

so when the doorbell rang, i went to it expecting to send him away. but something caught my attention. and there was another person in the building, at least for a few more minutes.
“i’m hungry and i need to pray” he said. and i remembered that we had food waiting to be picked up by the lakeview pantry that i could give him. so i opened the door and invited him in.

we went to get some food–dry milk, peanut butter, instant mashed potatoes, canned beans–all the standards you think of when you think food pantry. he was so grateful–this cast off food, this stuff to which i snub my nose–he was so grateful. he kept thanking jesus for the blessing. and so i walked with him back to the door. but he stopped me. “can we pray?” he asked. how could i forget the most basic and the most important of his requests? “of course,” i said and i led him to our chapel.

he gasped as he walked in. “it’s so beautiful.” i asked him what he wanted to pray for. he wanted to pray for his wife, who is in great pain. we sat and we prayed. i prayed some stuff out of the book of common prayer. i tried to lead us in the lord’s prayer, figuring everyone knows that one, but he was silent. i prayed a few more prayers. as i got up he asked “can i stay here a little longer?” “of course,” i said.

i went back into my office and looked up a few resources i thought would help him. i wrote them on orange post-it notes and went back into the chapel. i heard him, as he prayed, talking to jesus:
“lord, i know you say to take your yoke because it’s easy. and i’m trying lord. but my burden is not easy. and i don’t know how to bear it anymore, lord. please, take my burden.”

i left him to pray. and pray he did. for a good 45 minutes. out loud. to god. lamenting and beseeching all the way. and then he was done. and he took the bag of food, the orange post it notes and gave me a hug, thanking me for all my help. and he went on his way.

today is the mid-way, the half way point of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) goal–to meet the MDGs by 2015. the goals are to end poverty and hunger, achieve universal education, gender equality, reduce child mortality and improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, ensure environmental stability and to develop a global partnership for development. a tall order, but one that is achievable. governments are asked to pledge (and follow through with the pledge!) 7/10ths of 1 percent of the GNP to the MDGs. with that small amount, the MDGs could be met. with that small amount, we could truly live into our baptismal promises to respect the dignity of every human being.

today i will pray and fast and write my elected officials and ask them to help meet this goal. and i’ll do it because i pledged to do it. but i’ll mainly do it because of that man who came to my door. in hopes that my prayer will rise with his. that his yoke and burden will lighten. today i do this because of that man who came to my door. the man who reminded me of all that i have. the man who reminded me of the Good News that Jesus came to proclaim and that we are all called to share.

rainy tuesday

yesterday was beautiful. today is rainy, but it’s that sort of nice summer rain, so it doesn’t feel as gloomy as winter storms. i was doing a little bit of premarital counseling with two delightful folks when the summer storm started. as we’re talking about marriage vows and covenant and what all of it means, i hear this gurgle. they hear it too. it’s like a stomach gurgling after too much fiber–only louder. at first we’re quiet, no one says anything and we continue on. the gurgle becomes a rumble. and it repeats itself again and again. the toilet in my bathroom loves to make noise when it rains. the extra water comes in and something having to do with roots and systems gets this little toilet so happy that it explodes water out of the bowl and all over the office, all while making joyful gurgle sounds. finally, i get up to check, and despite the lid being closed, the water is still spewing out, joyfully, all about the bathroom. we couldn’t stop laughing. it’s very hard to have a meaningful discussion when toilets are exploding in the room next door. they were very good sports.

in my lectionary group, we talked a bit about this week’s gospel reading from matthew. the phrase that jumped out the most to us was this: go and learn what this means. jesus gives us license to learn. learn what he means–learn what his teachings mean. how do we learn? we try and we fail. we try again and we (maybe) do a little better.

jesus heals the sick little girl, raising her from the dead. the man who asks him to do this is a leader of the synagogue. he asks jesus to lay his hands on her. this is against all laws. touching a dead body is the ultimate in unclean things to touch and any synagogue leader worth his salt knows that you don’t touch dead bodies. but he has been changed. by his humanness, by his love of this child, by his hope in this man named jesus, he has been changed. he now realizes that the rules which always have applied, the rules which were so important, are now meaningless in the context of this which is bigger, is beyond rules.

that’s the thing about relationships and being in them–they change us. they change our understanding not only of who we are, but how we operate in the world. jesus is the ultimate in changing relationships–turning the world upside down–reinventing the laws. don’t get me wrong–the laws matter. they were put in place to help us live together. think of the 10 commandments: don’t kill, don’t steal–these are basic tenants to help us live, to help us function in community with each other. but what jesus sees is beyond the law, into the relational piece, beyond the “what has always been” into the “what can be.” it’s the challenge and the joy of being in relationship (especially relationship with jesus). things are always changing. things are always new. oh that we would all go and learn what this means.


sometimes i remember. i remember why i started this whole thing. today was one of those days. boil away all the theology, all the atonement theories, all the adiaphora–call it simple, oversimplified, but it’s true. i love jesus. it’s why i’m a priest. it’s an irrational, child-like love. and so when i wash the feet of my parishioners, when i make eucharist with them and when i strip the altar bare–something happens.

liturgy, at its best, allows us to fully enter into life with christ. it’s not about play acting, although it is theatrical. liturgy is a way into the world of the sacred and holy. god’s time is not like our time–the fullness of time has yet to be revealed–and when we do liturgy, when we really do church, good church, we enter into god’s time, where jesus is fully present.

and so when i wash the altar, which represents jesus himself, when i strip it bare and wash it as a body before burial, something happens. something changes in me.

tonight i found myself done with all i had to do–the stripping was over, the washing was done, and yet–i could not leave. i couldn’t leave the altar. so i leaned over and kissed the altar (not an uncommon practice) and found my head resting on it, in front of all the people. i just stood there with my forehead pressed against the altar. it was strangely profound. and it broke my heart because i knew, i know, in my ousia, in my being, that i have to leave, that i have to let him go, to do the work that he has come here to do.

i guess that’s why i’m a priest, not that this love is exclusively priestly, but for me, it is why i’m a priest. this irrational, insane love affair with jesus of nazareth. i’ve had it for as long as i can remember. i’ve tried to love others, but it always comes back to him. and tonight he sits in the garden and waits for the betrayer to come, while i sit at home in my comfy chair. strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered. tomorrow will come when it will. but tonight my heart is broken.