Sunday, March 27, 2011

Like Water for Bread

Here is my sermon for this week. The text is John 4:4-34. The audio version will be up here, later in the week.

Last year at this time we were celebrating Palm Sunday and praying that it would stop raining. Our basements were flooded, and it took us a long time to get anywhere because all of the major roads were underwater. We had more water than we knew what to do with and then in the summer as we entered a period of drought we wondered where all the water had gone. But, the simple truth is, except for rare exceptions, we don’t have to worry about our water supply, or even if we will have access to water.

We have what most people throughout history, and large portions of the world’s population today, have never had: Clean, fresh water whenever we want it. We don’t have to go to a well several times a day and carry the water back to our homes, all we have to do is to turn on our faucet or go to the grocery store, and this allows us, I think, to believe that we can tame water. That we can domesticate it and make it compliant, and so we create dams and canals and other things to try and force water to follow our will, and then we are shocked into remembering water’s tremendous power for both life and death when we witness events like the tsunami in Japan a few weeks ago or the typhoon in Thailand in 2005 or what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans. And then we are forced to recognize that we are merely trying to rope the wind, that we cannot control water, that it is ultimately beyond our power, it is a thing of mystery.

In this, water is much like how we approach God. We want God to follow our commands, we want God to answer to our schedule, we want God to be domesticated, because an untamed God, a God outside of our control, is threatening to us, not because of fear of punishment or other destructive capabilities, but because of the simple fact that an unrestrained God might ask us to do things that make us uncomfortable, to go places we don’t want to go, and to talk and deal with people we whom we don’t want to deal. And so we create rules and put up restrictions. Only some people can do this, only particular people can participate, only certain people are worthy.

As the scriptures tell us today, Jews and Samaritans did not like each other. In fact they despised each other. For a Jew to have anything to do with a Samaritan, including drinking from their water jar, simply could not happen. But Jesus not only crosses the boundary of respectability by talking to a Samaritan, he crosses the boundary of gender as well. Men and women did not spend time mingling in the ancient world. Men would talk with women in public only if they were a family member or if they were propositioning her. But Jesus is bold enough to ask the woman for water, to which she wonders why a Jew would be talking to her and the disciples are astonished that he is speaking to a woman.

Then Jesus tells the woman that if she understood who he was that she would be asking him for water, because after having the living water that he can provide she would never be thirsty again. This term “living water” is really a play on words. A well is not living water, because it is stagnant, but instead living water is a river, stream or spring, somewhere where the water moves, and of course the woman wonders where Jesus could possibly ever get living water since the only water source is the well.

We, of course, understand that Jesus is the living water, that the source is not something in nature, but in Jesus himself. And lest we doubt this understanding, just a few chapters later Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Now, unlike some other faiths, no one is born a Christian. We become Christians through the act of baptism. It is in being born again, in being cleansed by the water that we enter a new relationship with God and with each other. It is the new covenant by water and the Spirit that brings us into a new standing, but again we like to tame these things, to control them.

We think it’s very cute when we baptize our babies, and so we say the words and keep going, acting as if we haven’t been radically transformed by this action. We seek to domesticate and subdue the power of God by pretending that baptism doesn’t really mean anything that it is just something we do. We seek to make God’s grace and God’s will submissive to our purposes.

But baptism is not about controlling, but instead of being controlled, it is about releasing a totally radical, wild, untamed and expansive grace. A grace that is extended even to people others think are undeserving; people like you and me. It is an unruly, unmanageable and uncontrollable grace and when we understand that and accept it it should scare us, because it means that everything is now beyond our control that we have to put our lives into the hands of another and that is something we almost always try and resist.

But it is not just baptism, it is also communion. Jesus is not only the living water which quenches our thirst, but John tells us that he also the bread of life and whoever comes to him will never be thirsty or hungry. We like to try and separate these two things, baptism and communion, to treat them as if they are separate entities, but we can’t. Theologian Connor Cunningham says that to separate baptism from communion is to render them “unintelligible.” In the early church this was more clearly demonstrated because immediately after baptism people, including infants, would receive their first communion. Communion links us to our baptismal vows in ways that few, if any, other thing can.

Now most denominations stipulate that in order to receive communion you must, at the very least, be baptized. In the United Methodist Church we do not practice that because John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that communion could be a converting sacrament. That is in receiving the bread and the cup, God could work in you to such a degree that you would come to accept Jesus’ saving actions on your behalf, the power of the bread and the cup could literally lead you to accept God’s saving grace, and so instead of baptism leading to communion, communion could lead to baptism or a reaffirmation thereof. And because we can only baptized once, communion becomes one of the primary ways that the radical nature of God’s grace is played out for us in our lives. It connects us to God’s radical hospitality.

But, like everything else when we try and control it, it appears to lose its mystery and power. The Lord’s supper is most effective, most efficacious, most sacramental when we simply let go and experience it as God intends, when we stop worrying about everything, and simply taste the bread and the juice, experiencing God’s grace and God’s love entering into us, and flowing through us, satisfying that portion of our being which longs to be connected to something deeper, which hungers for something more in the world.

Indeed, communion is one of the few things that we in the white protestant tradition do that is sensual. We see the elements, we say the words, we hear the liturgy, we touch the bread, we take and eat, we swallow and we become part of the mystery. When practiced with freedom rather than being controlled, communion should envelope us, overwhelm us and make us one with Christ and one with each other. It is the radical and untamed power of God made real in our lives.

Jesus invites the woman to drink of the water of life, and what does the woman do? She demands it. It is the imperative, “Give me this” she says. Christ invites us to partake as well. Christ reaches out. God’s grace is available to us, in the water and in the bread, but we too must respond and say to Jesus, “Give me this water so that I may never be thirsty and give me this bread so that I may never be hungry.” May it be so. Amen.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Caring For The Caregiver

It's been a little while since I've posted because I was out most of last week dealing with a kidney stone. I ended up making two trips to the ER and taking lots of pain meds, which made me loopy and not exactly able to function fully or effectively.

This situation has also put me on the opposite side of the care spectrum for awhile as members of the congregation are now concerned about my health and well being rather than vice-versa. This is a strange spot to be in.

The first reason is because I think we have to ask if the caregiver of a community can ever fully transition to the care receiver? Certainly people can be concerned and offer expressions of concern, but can the congregation provide me with the care that would normally be given by a pastor? I don't think they can and it changes the dynamics of roles in ways that may be unhealthy in the long-term.

The second is because I am not an incredibly forthcoming person. I am not one who tells everyone everything about what is going on in my life, especially about personal matters, and I consider my health to be one of those issues (even though I am now putting it out where everyone can see it). But now I am having to tell everyone who asks about my urinary patterns, which leaves me quite a bit uncomfortable; we have crossed a boundary that I am not happy crossing, but at the same time cannot really say "I'd rather not talk about it with you." I also cannot really disappear for a week and not tell people what has happened. That isn't healthy either.

The third, which I have troubled over for a long time, is that most ministers do not have a minister. When I need to be cared for the way that I care for my community, I do not have that resource, nor do my wife or children for that matter. I know this is not a new issue for anyone in the clergy, but it becomes more apparent at times like these.

These are certainly not things they teach you in seminary.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Speed Linking

  • For the first time, a high school baseball game featured two female starting pitchers. They represent just 2 of the 1000 girls playing high school baseball. For a great look at how girls and women have been excluded from the national pastime I recommend Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball by Jennifer Ring.
  • Wondering how gas prices are set? Here is a little primer, although from my perspective it does not answer all of the questions.
  • A drug which has been shown to help prevent premature birth has now been centralized to production by just one company. As a result, the cost of the drug has sky rocketed from $10 to $1500, which means that rather than the 20 injections needed to make sure the baby makes it to term costing $2000 they will now cost $30,000. Since a large portion of the women needing these injections are minorities and poor that means that fewer may actually get the medication they need. The CEO of the pharm says that the cost is justified because the average cost associated with a preemie with birth defects for the first year is $51,000, so by their calculations these women are saving $21,000 by taking the shots. The costs for developing this drug were paid by others so it's not that they are having to pay off investments. Instead this is just out and out greed.
  • Is the 30-year-mortgage a thing of the past? Maybe if Congress pulls the plug on government backing of mortgages.
  • The GOP is working on making it more difficult for young people, students in particular, and minorities to vote. Voter suppression has obviously taken place before, but it's usually a little more covert. The speaker of the house in New Hampshire said the problem is that young people "just vote their feelings" and end up "as a liberal," and of course that must be stopped.
  • Erin Brokovich is back at it again, and in the same town, where PG&E has allegedly polluted the water table again.
  • For those interested in reducing government expenses, the GAO has made a recommendation that would save the government 5.5 billion over the next 30 years. All we would need to do is to eliminate $1 bills and replace them with coins. Interested?
  • There are certainly things in my house that have been damaged by my young children, but this story is a reminder why you don't give valuable things to toddlers, especially your new Oscar.
  • One of the great lines from the movie Big is when Susan is complaining about her assistant and says, "She spent the last three months writing down her married name. "Mrs. Judy Hicks", "Mrs. Donald Hicks"; "Mrs. Judy Mitchellson Hicks", sometimes with a hyphen, sometimes without a hyphen. Sometimes, she spells the hyphen." That was 1988, and apparently the debate still rages, with some 86% of brides taking their husband's name.
  • Justice Sonya Sotomayor reports that she was offended by some of the questioning she received from Senators during her confirmation hearing and believes she was treated very differently then male candidates, especially about her personal life.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

God is in the Details, Part 2

Paco Underhill, who studies the retail environment (and who more church leaders need to be reading and listening to), once said he was working with one of the major home improvement stores and he took all of the executives into the restrooms in one of their stores. To his surprise, most had never been into their restrooms, and, since they were all men, which is another issue, none of them had ever gone into the women's restroom.

What did they find there? The standard industrial bathroom. It was there for convenience and nothing else. It was certainly not a point of selling anything, which was exactly his point to them. They are engaged in the business of selling people on the need to upgrade their homes, and they have the perfect opportunity to put that into practice in their restrooms and instead they ignored it. What if you had different types of sinks, faucets and toilets in the restroom, Underhill asked? What about having Kohler, or one of the other supplies, sponsor your restrooms so that only their products are seen? Then when people go in, and they can be encouraged by the sales people, they can see what the products actually look and feel like.

When I read that I began to totally rethink things and paid attention to whether people were paying attention to the little things or ignoring them. Another IKEA example. In their family bathroom, they have some of the items from their children section in the room, like a rocker and small table and chairs. It is not only convenient, it also shows off their product, and I would guarantee if they removed them that their sales on these items would decrease. But do they have anything in their normal bathrooms? No. They sell sinks, cabinets, chairs, etc., but they are not in one of the most obvious areas for people to actually experience and interact with them.

When you overlook the little things, for whatever reason, then you will miss the big things as well. Adam Hamilton said that when he visits a new church for the first time the first palace he asks to see is not the sanctuary but the nursery, because that will tell him what he needs to know about the church. If the nursery is well done then other things will be well done. But if the nursery is ignored you can also be sure they are not good at other things, especially in receiving guests.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

God is in the Details

A few weeks ago I was at IKEA and for the first time one of my daughters was able to go into the play area, and, more surprisingly, she wanted to go in. So we stood in line and waited an exorbitantly long-time to get her in because there was only one person registering children. Then when I got up I had to fill out a paper information sheet with all the proper information and there were several things which struck me about this.

First, it could have easily been entered into a computer rather than onto paper which would do several things. It would allow those who go to IKEA often, which is a lot of people, not to have to fill out the same paperwork each time. They could just pull it up and off we go. It would also then give IKEA incredible marketing opportunities for contacting people who they now know have children about items they sell that might be of interest to them. But they were not doing any of these things. Instead, we did it the long way all the while there were three staffers sitting on the wall of the play area talking to each other, and only casually paying attention to the children (and that’s being a little over generous).

Second, if they had my information already in a computer system, they could have several terminals available allowing me to check my daughter in without taking up staff time to do it, and then once they are entered in staff can assist us. This would greatly speed up the process and allow for greater efficiencies for me and the staff.

Later, as my youngest daughter and I were looking around, the pager they had given me (great idea) went off and so I hustled out of the furniture area, which if you’ve been to IKEA you know is not the easiest thing to do, down the elevator to the children’s area. Once there I again had to stand in line while the person in front of me collected her children which they were exceedingly slow in rounding up and moving on, and then, once the kids were all there and were putting on their shoes, rather than asking me to step forward so they could begin the next process they instead stepped away and waited for that family to leave. So then I step up and no one comes over to assist me, and so I have to tell the person standing there talking to someone else that my pager has gone off and want to know what happened, so she has to track someone down to find out.

Now I love IKEA and all of my experiences there have been great. The staff has been very helpful, and even as annoying as their layouts sometimes are in wanting you to walk through the entire store so you can buy more, I don’t mind that because they are good at paying attention to the little details. They clearly think about the customer experience and do not allow mediocrity to settle in.

But that is apparently not what they do at the children’s area, where mediocrity reigned supreme. And that mediocrity impacted the rest of my shopping experience. The areas in which they excelled where pulled down by the areas in which they were weak. Just like a barrel can only hold water up to the top of the lowest stave, making the rest of the barrel ineffective and rending the places of excellence obsolete.

They could have made this an outstanding experience for me, my daughter and also done things to help themselves out from a marketing stand point as well. But to do that they are going to have to pay attention, which they clearly aren’t, and rethink the entire system from both the customer and the business point of view. Rather than thinking of this simply as a good bonus to make available to customers, and therefore not something that is really important, then need to refocus and see this as a sub-business that is just as important as everything else they do.

What areas of our church life are we ignoring and therefore keeping us from being excellent?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Worship Changes

Our experiment in trying new things in worship is more than half-way through. Our current practice of having a series of praise songs at the beginning of worship will come to an end this Sunday as we prepare for Lent, which begins Ash Wednesday. Lent is a penitential season and the changes in worship will reflect that new tone with the introduction of a time of silence and breath prayer. As you have already read about in Pastor Joel’s letters, we will also practice weekly Communion during Lent.

As the staff and appropriate commissions talked through the logistics of the worship time, we knew that some things would have to be moved or removed in order to get everything to fit. It took quite a bit of brainstorming, but we have come up with a plan that we believe will work.

During the weeks of Lent, we will no longer do announcements at the beginning of the service. So, if you count on that time as a buffer to make sure you are in your seat in time for the Call to Worship it will not be there. If there is anything we need to highlight it will be done as part of our celebrations and concerns.

The biggest change will involve the Sunday School time. In order to make sure the children are present in the sanctuary to celebrate Communion with the adults, we had to completely change their schedule around. Beginning on March 13, rather than beginning the worship time in the sanctuary, children and youth will start out in their classrooms. The Sunday School classes will then come up to be present during Communion and stay for the remainder of the service. There will not be any children’s time during the service.

This scheduling change will accomplish several things. The first is that it will give our teachers the time necessary to teach a lesson in Sunday School each week. Secondly, it will allow the children to be present and witness a portion of the service that they normally don’t see or participate in.

The final and most important thing the change will do is to allow our children to participate in Communion with us. As we gather at the table each week it is very important that the entire community is welcome and invited. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said that Communion is “the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God.” (emphasis is mine) In addition, the official statement on Communion for the United Methodist Church states “the grace given through Holy Communion is offered to the entire church, including those who are unable to respond for themselves. Children are members of the covenant community and participants in the Lord’s Supper.”

The logistics are that the children will enter the back of the sanctuary during the Doxology and go to sit with their parents so that they may receive communion as a family. Parents, that means you will need to show your children where you will be sitting during the service before taking them to Sunday school, so that they can find you when they come back up. So remember, starting on March 13, and for the Sundays leading up to Easter, children and youth will start the service already in Sunday School and then come up later to join us for Communion.

We know that changes can be hard sometimes, especially changes to things we hold important, like our worship time. But we are grateful for the openness that has been exhibited as we explore new ways to express our worship to God and to experience God’s grace for us.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Speed Linking

  • The last US veteran of WWI died this week.
  • According to Moody's, which is not exactly a liberal group, Republican cuts to the budget would result in the loss of 700,000 jobs. I will write more about this later.
  • A bill has been introduced in the Texas legislature to make hiring an undocumented worker punishable by an automatic two years in prison and $10,000 fine, unless you hire them to do work at your home. When asked about this unusual loophole, the bill's sponsor said that without it, "a large segment of the Texas population" would end up in prison. So it's okay if they are cleaning your house or cutting your lawn, but not picking your fruits and vegetables or cleaning your office or hotel room.
  • A new book coming out by Pope Benedict says that Jews should be completely exonerated for killing Jesus. While I'm glad he is making this statement, the fact that he has to shows how far we still need to go.
  • An interesting study that shows that 15-24 year olds are holding off from engaging in sexual activity less than past generations.
  • Need a reminder that the rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox is just a game? The daughter of the first base coach for the Red Sox lost her leg in an accident, and the Yankees players stepped up with "significant" financial assistance to help the family with expenses.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Getting Gendered

My wife and I had a recent discussion of the gendering that takes place in our culture, in particular to clothing. Since I grew up with all brothers I can't say that I ever really paid attention to some of the things that I notice now that I have two daughters. I notice when the Christian Century writes about a man and his "accomplished wife," knowing full well that they would never write about a woman and her "accomplished husband." That is gendered language.

But, one of the things that is really striking to me is the differences between clothing departments in stores. The disparity is enormous and so obvious that I can't believe I never saw it before. If you want to buy anything dealing with sports it simply cannot be found in a girls department. There are no shirts about baseball, soccer, even softball, not even in "feminine" pink. They simply don't exist. We are almost 30 years away from the passage of Title IX, the US women's soccer team has won the World Cup,and I can't buy a t-shirt for my daughter about sports. Now I can go into sports or team stores and find clothing, but it's in pink, because heaven forbid we should have girls in non-female colors.

Now my wife was saying that she is happy with the recent move that the NFL has made in making clothing tailored for women's shapes (although the MLB has been doing this for a while). My response was that the clothing had been "sexualized" in that it was tailored tightly so that women could be seen showing off what men want to see and what our society often says is the only thing that women are good for, which is sex and sexuality.

She disagreed and said they were simply making clothing that is better cut for the female body. I don't disagree with that, but if you look at the NFL adds, it is skinny, white women with larger breasts who are wearing these shirts. To me it is just another example of gendering. Women are being told that they can be sports fans as long as the are being/doing sexy at the same time. Do you have to feel sexy in order to root for the Patriots? Apparently you do.

Along the same lines, a blog site called "sociological images" which tracks the treatment of women in the media recently posted this image from a website which allows you to try on virtual glasses so you can see how they might look on you. You can upload your own photo or you may use their sample images:

Notice anything about the images used? The blog is quick to point out that the pictures of the men contain different ages (including people with wrinkles), different body builds, different facial structures and even different shades of pigment. The women, however, are all white, they are all young and skinny, their facial structures are nearly identical, and they all have blond hair, although one is slightly darker than the others.

So what are we saying about the difference between men and women in these pictures? We clearly have an established look for what is beautiful, not that this should come as any surprise, and for women about the only variable possible is eye color, and to be honest I'm surprised that they didn't just photoshop them all to blue. So how do you tell if the glasses will look good on you if you don't look like this? I think the answer is, it doesn't matter, because if you don't look like these girls you simply don't look good period.

These women don't represent humanity, although we are told they do, and I'm sure they can't buy a good shirt about sports either.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Death of a Giant

When I received my call to the ministry I refused to believe that it was for me. I could not see myself in the church. I did not believe that there was a place for my voice, and so I ignored it. I ignored it for a number of years. But then I came across The Good Book by Rev. Peter Gomes, and I changed my mind.

In Rev. Gomes' book I found my voice in the wilderness, or perhaps God's still small voice crying out to me. It was because of that book that I accepted my call and that I am a minister today.

Rev. Gomes died on Monday evening at the age of 68.

I only met him once and I could not pass up the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to me, and he was very gracious in his words to me. On that occasion he had just delivered the best sermon I have ever heard (it was on stewardship). There is no doubt that the accolades that he was one of America's finest preachers were deserved. If you never heard him preach then you were missing something.

Although he undoubtedly had no idea who I am, I will deeply miss his presence in my life and I will miss his voice. I owe my own voice to him. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends, colleagues and students. He was a giant in his profession and a giant in my life.

I know that our master has already said "well done my good and faithful servant."

You can read more about Rev. Gomes in this piece from the Harvard Gazette.

Like a Mother

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The scripture reading is Isaiah 49:8-16a. The audio can be found here.

If I were to ask you to tell me what God looks like, I can probably guess that most of us would describe the image we see all the time. God is an older man, white of course, with a long white beard, maybe, like Michelangelo’s famous portrayal in the Sistine chapel, he is incredibly buff, but he’s floating in the clouds, or maybe sitting on a throne, looking powerful and all knowing. If we had video capability I would show you that picture, but when you go home if you do a Google image search this is the first image that comes up and, and in seeing it most of us would all shake our heads and say, “yep, that’s what God looks.” But is that really what who God is and what God looks like?

The scriptures give plenty of metaphors for God and most of them are male, not necessarily of someone who spends all their time in the gym as Michelangelo would have us believe, but male nonetheless. Now, some of the male images of God are not very flattering. The prophets Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all picture God as an abusive husband, but its okay because his wife, who is Israel or Jerusalem depending on the prophecy, “was asking for it.” How we think about God and what metaphors we use for God matters. Is the image of an abusive husband the image of God we want to hold onto and someone to whom we want to pray? If we were to always conceive of God as abusive, I strongly suspect that most of us would not be sitting here. That that would be a God we would not want to follow or worship.

Jesus, of course gives us the masculine identity of God as father. But, the word translated as father might be better translated in most cases as daddy. It’s not a title as it is a deeply personal relationship. So when we pray to God as father, do you conceive of that as someone who is an authoritarian figure, who is sort of around but not intimately involved in our lives, who is more there as protector or provider or disciplinarian, or do you conceive of God, as daddy, someone carrying you on his shoulders, teaching you how to throw a ball or slide into a base, or sitting down and having a tea party with you? These are two radically different images of God from the same metaphor.

In today’s scripture passage from Isaiah, we have God conceived of not as father, but instead as mother and this is not at all unusual for the writer of this portion of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66 are thought not to have been written by the main the prophet Isaiah, but instead by writers who are referred to as deutero-Isaiah and trito- Isaiah, meaning second and third Isaiah. I won’t go into all the reasons, but beginning at chapter 44, there is a change from proclamation about the coming destruction of Israel to the post-exiling existence of the Jewish people, and there is also a change in the style of the writing, including the metaphors for God used. In fact, female images for God occur more frequently chapters 40-66 in Isaiah then they do in any other book in the Bible. And like today’s passage, most of these metaphors refer to God as being a mother.

Perhaps that is appropriate since the author of these passages is seeking to let the people know that God has not abandoned them, that God is faithful and still cares for them and will always continue to care for her children. “Can a woman forget her nursing her child,” God says, “or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” And then God says, even though earthly mothers may forget that God will not, that God will always remain faithful to her children, that God will be a more faithful of a mother than we can ever possibly conceive. This is a very different image than what we are probably used to hearing about God, and because we are so used to hearing God using only male imagery I would guess that many of us probably did not even notice it when female imagery was used.

Now this imagery may work for you or it may not work for you, but don’t reject it simply because you don’t think that this is who God is. The problem with many of the metaphors given about God in the scriptures is that we often forget that they are metaphors and instead we treat them as if they are saying this is who God actually is in God’s character. That is not what metaphors do or their purpose. Metaphors relate one thing to another, but they are not saying that the two things are the same. When I say that on our wedding day Linda was as beautiful as a rose, I am not saying that she is actually a rose or even that “roseness” is somehow part of her make-up, the same as if I say that the Red Sox are now being managed like the Yankees, it does not mean that they are the Yankees, and I know many of you are very glad they are not the Yankees.

Metaphors, when properly constructed, must show similarities and differences, so that we can say “yes, God is like that,” and also at the same time say “God is not like that.” When we say that God is a rock, it does not mean that God is an actual rock who has no thought, no movement, no growth, etc. Instead it implies some characteristics that we associate with rocks, like steadfastness or strength or perhaps immovability, so that we can say God is like a rock while at the same time understanding that God is not like a rock. Metaphors make comparisons so that things which might otherwise be incomprehensible, like God, become more comprehensible.

At the same time, our imagery of God needs to match our understanding of God. If you believe that God has given us total free will and allows us to do whatever we want and to be whatever we want without interference from God, then our metaphor for God needs to match that understanding. We cannot hold that belief and simultaneously imagine God as a potter, because if God is potter then we are the clay being formed and molded by God which would imply that God is doing most of the work and God is therefore interfering with the life of the clay. The potter does not allow the clay to do whatever the clay wants to do. And so that metaphor of God as potter does not work with a conception of God in which we have total freedom. (1) If you find that your prayer life is not working, or if you find you once had a wonderful prayer life and it has suddenly stopped working perhaps it is because your metaphor for God is no longer applicable.

Rev. Carolyn Jane Bohler, author of God the What? What our Metaphors for God Reveal about Our Beliefs in God, which has greatly helped me greatly expand my metaphors for God, says that after the birth of her first child, she found herself exhausted, physically, emotionally and spiritually, which I think every parent in her can identify with, and she found her prayer life working for her at the time she most needed to be sustained by something bigger than she was. And then she came to use the metaphor, like today’s scripture, of God who was a nursing mother who would feed her and give her sustenance at the time when she felt her weakest and was most vulnerable and dependent, just like her infant. As Dr. Jane Vennard tells us you will find that what you pray for and how you pray will be impacted by the metaphor of God that you pray to, and so to help illustrate this, we are going to try a little experiment and be a little interactive this morning.

In your bulletin, you will find a two sided insert with a series of metaphors for God followed by lines after, which I know many of you were wondering about, please take that out now. This will also be available on the website with today’s bulletin. At the center aisle of the pew you will find a basket of pens so please pass that down so that everyone has something with which to write. And then we are going to do some praying. What I am going to do is to read one of the metaphors for God and then you are going to write whatever comes into your mind as a pray that matches that metaphor. All we are doing is writing just one line. So here’s an example. If I say, God the physician, which is not on your sheet, I might write, may your healing hands calm and sooth my troubled soul. Or I might say, write a prescription that will heal me of my doubts. Do you get the idea?

There is no right or wrong way to do this. There are no right or wrong prayers, and you don’t have to share them with anyone else unless you want to. Listen to each metaphor and respond as you feel called. Listen to what the metaphor says to you and write that down, if you think about it too hard you’ll find it harder that it should be, just let the spirit move you, I will give you time to write your prayer down. We’re only going to do a few of them. Everyone clear on what you are supposed to be doing? Here we go:

God the father, my daddy….
God the nursing mother….
Weaver, spinner God
God of the stillness….
God the baker…. (2)

If the Spirit has moved you the way it normally does on this exercise you found that your prayers were very different for each one, that praying to God as father is very different then praying to God as nursing mother, which was very different from God as baker or stillness. I’m sure that you also found that some of the prayers came very easily and some others were hard, which would indicate that some of the metaphors work for you today and others don’t. However, just because a metaphor works for you today does not mean that it will work for you tomorrow, and what does not work today may work for you next year. Our metaphors must change to the realities of our lives, but make the metaphor your own, find what works for you.

If you are using only one metaphor for God, you are too limited. Find new ways to address God and I guarantee you you will find new ways to pray and new things to pray for. If you are getting stuck coming up with new metaphors to try, there are a number of recommendations on the insert which can be used or expanded upon, or do a search on the internet where you will find thousands of recommendations, and when all else fails go to the bible where you will find lots of metaphors for God. You might also just answer the simple question, what do I need for God to be for me right now, it could be nursing mother, it could be strong father, or it could be, as one six-year-old-girl said, God as bright night light.

If you are looking for something to take on during Lent, I might suggest that you take on a new metaphor for God each day and work with that image in your prayers. But don’t take on the ones that are most meaningful for you. Take on the ones that are hard or challenge you as well. Maybe imaging God as feminine might be difficult because you’ve never conceived of that as a possibility before so work on that, or maybe you have trouble with God in the masculine or maybe it’s even conceiving of God as non-gendered. If you are used to working with a very personal, knowable God, pray to the unknown, mysterious or unknowable God, and vice versa by praying to a God who is personified and personalized for you. Sometimes the things that are most helpful in showing us who God is for us is by working through who God is not for us.

Our metaphors for God matter and make a difference in our lives, they guide us and lead us, they shape us and form us. It is impossible to think about God without metaphors, and as Rev. Bohler writes “If we settle for only one metaphor for God, we limit our potential experience of God. I believe the converse is also true: if we expand our metaphors of God, we expand our experience of God.” May it be so in our lives. Amen.

(1) Bohler, Carolyn Jane. God the What? What Our Metaphors for God Reveal About Our Beliefs in God.
(2) These metaphors for God come from God the What? and from a seminar on prayer led by Dr. Jane Vennard.