Fa la la la la not.

Shhhh! It’s sleeping.

I’m not ready. The turkey soup is not made yet. I haven’t found time to clean the house and decorate. I come home from work to fix dinner, do my charting and then FLOP. The idea of wrestling down boxes and bins is unappealing, to say the least.

But I’m just not ready to put up the tree and all the lights.

I’m not ready to find the crèches and the stockings for display.

I’m especially not ready for every nasal, scoop-noted pop star butchering carols on store Muzak everywhere. (There oughta be a law…)

I’m not ready. I’m tired. And just a little bit grumpy.

So, Lord, prepare my heart. Make the rough places smooth. Ease the darker moments with filtered-down Light. Send Your Love. Send your Peace. And lift my eyes to see the Joy of Heaven.

Allelu. Amen.

Book Review: The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God

The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God: Autobiographical and Theological Reflections. Rabbi Anson Hugh Laytner. Resource Publications (Wipf and Stock), Eugene Oregon. © 2019. Paperback, 176 pages.


Theodicy in theological terms is the way that humanity explains appearance of evil and suffering in the human condition. In the purest and messiest of theological constructs, there are few explanations that bring relief or intellectual understanding.

As a hospice chaplain, I often hear questions that stem from a struggle with developing a personal theodicy. The ‘why’ questions (Why me? Why now? Why this?) are never really answered outside of a faith system of some kind. But it is most frequently these ‘why’ questions that drive us to seek the Divine on a deeper level, and to invite hope and peace into the process of reconciling our ‘whys’ with our faith.

This is not easy work and is not taken lightly. Rabbi Anson Hugh Laytner writes with humility and thoughtfulness and brings his personal story into the fray, using the book of Iyov (Job) into his conversation and reflections. Rabbi Laytner lays out first the arguments which stem from a reading of the book of Iyov and then walks the reader through his own trials and sorrows. As he writes in the Introduction:

“At the heart of my story is a period of ten years during which my family and I endured wave and wave of suffering, grief, and death. At at the same time, it is also a story filled with love and transformation… Having lived through the trauma of those ten years, I now dwell in the life-after and continually reflect on how I came to be where I am today.” (p. xv)

Rabbi Laytner describes the tsumani of events for his family; his parents, in-laws, daughter and other relatives all struggling with disease and dying within this ten year period. He describes the process of finding emotional balance, struggling to make meaning, and heal from loss after loss. And he acknowledges his suffering was peripheral to the physical diseases that attacked others, though no less traumatic for his own emotional and spiritual well-being.

Layton’s book provides theological content and reflection through a series of chapters that untangle the book of Iyov and replace a transactional view of theodicy with one that is nuanced and grounded in restoration and trust that G-d hears and responds to our pleas. Rabbi Layton also admits that though he has come through the firestorm of loss, he still sees his joys through that lens.

“Even my happiest moments are grayed with a little grief. There is no forgetting, only a patching over the past with new life experiences. I live restored and content, but wounded nonetheless. And I continually think about what it all means to me.” (pp 135-136)

Kudos to this author for extensive footnotes, a helpful index, an extensive bibliography and his personal “39 Hypotheses – Or, Where I am Today”. In a time of “puff pastry theology” and “name-it-and-claim-it” charlatans, I am grateful for the deep dive into this topic. It will take more than one reading to absorb it all.

There is much wisdom in his writing, and much to contemplate. I recommend this book to the reader highly, especially if you have come through a storm of suffering and are struggling to put your shattered theology back together.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I was provided this book without cost from the publisher and was not required to give a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Things are not as they seem…

Things are not as they seem… First off, why would you WEAR a seat belt when you aren’t driving the car anywhere?

It will only take four hours,” sayeth me to mine Bearded Spouse…

A few weeks, ago, my Bearded Spouse and I set out on a mission of mercy, helping a friend attach a new top to her Jeep. My spouse is good at things requiring tools. Our friend is good at reading directions. I am good at encouragement and finding the right pieces and bits of hardware. It took all three of us, a lot of focus and patience, and some grit and determination to pull it off.

It shouldn’t take that long,” we thought… The company’s estimate of 4 hours assumed that we knew which bracket or piece was which, and how it attached. The diagrams were abysmal. SIX, not four hours later, the top was on with enough skill that it was (hopefully) waterproof.

I was struck by what was not included. The various pieces were not labeled. Unlike some Scandinavian build-a-bookcase companies I know, the directions were terrible. And working in the heat and humidity was taxing. Somehow, we managed. The Jeep had a top on it before it was dark outside!

Would I help our friend with this project again? Well, sure. That’s what friends are for. But next time, I might bring along a cooler with some food and drink, some tunes to pass the time, and the expectation that whatever the manufacturer says, I need to multiply the estimated time-to-completion by a factor of two!

By Ben (source)

Heart song time…

I was at the gym tonight, working out… and this song came on…


WAIT! HOLD UP! Who is this woman??!!

Yes. I was working out. I go twice a week to work with a trainer and do some cardio on my own afterwards. A year ago, it was Physical Therapy, cold packs, acupuncture, and massage, trying to rehab my knee. Then surgery and recovery in March, April and May. And joining a gym in June.

Before that… I NEVER went to the gym. My “exercise” was the occasional walk around the neighborhood, intensive weekend yard work, and cleaning my house. And leaping to conclusions.

So yes. It’s bizarre, unreal, and words I didn’t think I would ever say (let alone blog about) but I’m working out twice a week. Back to my blog post…


I was on the cool-down portion of the treadmill during my cardio time, and this song started. As the treadmill deceased in speed and incline, I listened intently to the words. It was surreal.

My day ended on a downer of a note. For reasons I can’t go into, I was not happy with a specific decision. I made it to my car before the tears started falling.

Over and over I asked God, WHY? WHY? WHY???

It felt very isolating. Very frustrating. I did not feel heard. I did not feel validated for my expertise. And… yeah. I didn’t feel like God noticed or cared.

I put it “on the back burner” and dried my tears (because… driving) and headed off to work out. I didn’t want to, but knew I needed to expend some energy and burn off some of my frustration with whatever was in store for me.*

The words reminded me… God is there. All along. With me. With you. In those impossible moments of WHYS? God’s Goodness is still there.

I’m still mad. I’m still frustrated. But I’m walking this one in the Spirit’s embrace, with more awareness and peace. OK, sometimes stumbling and then throwing things… but walking.

May it encourage you.

*In case you’re interested:

  • Clean, jerk and press (10 pounds, I’m a wimp!)
  • TRX work out for curls and lunges.
  • Medicine ball slams and planks.
  • 45 minutes of cardio on the treadmill, bike and elliptical

Book Review: Perfect and Forgiven

Perfect and Forgiven, Zach Maldonado. Self-published, paperback, 166 pages. (c) 2019. Available on Amazon.


Zach Maldonado from Church Without Religion created a study guide to reflect his personal faith journey and his identity in Christ. He developed a series of topics such as “Complete,” “Delighted In,” “Masterpiece,” and “Blessed.” Each topic begins with a phrase or verse of Scripture as jumping off point. So far, so good.

On first glance, this study guide looks like a good, down-to-earth Bible study. And in most places, it is. For anyone who has struggled with self-esteem and self-worth, particularly when comparing oneself to a holy and righteous God, I have no doubt it will be helpful. The language is down-to-earth with very few theological terms (which is refreshing!) There are a few well-used tropes (the blind men touching an elephant, for instance) but much of the content is from his personal experience.

This study guide could be used with students as young as middle school. The topics are not complex and there is not nuanced discussion of questions that come up in high school. For use as a daily reflection, the chapters are short, and the daily affirmations are good for any age. At the end of each chapter, there is a paragraph titled “Hearing God’s Opinion.” This is a paragraph written as though God is speaking it to the reader. For the most part, I found those to be encouraging, as is their intent.

My quibble with this study guide is that it has a very narrow theological focus. It is from a conservative, evangelical viewpoint. It espouses the “penal substitution” view of atonement. It uses snippets of scripture from a variety of Bible translations, apparently to make the language work for the main point of the chapter. (For instance, Zach drew from NASB, NIV, NCV, ESB, NET, CSB, NLT, BSB… but there were no selections from NRSV, a standard in theological study.) God is always referenced as a gendered male. I understand his evangelical perspective, but it is easy enough to re-write and not use “he” in every instance.

Maldonado also uses a male-centric focus in writing about women which I find troubling. For instance, he mentions ‘the woman caught in adultery’ – and no mention of the man. (Logically, a woman can’t be “caught in adultery” without a sex partner…) In an era of “Me Too” and “Church Too” I would like to see a better handling of this topic. He also refers to marriage as heterosexual only, and sex as something not done “outside marriage.” As a result, I do not recommend this book for churches which are welcoming and affirming, nor for any LGBTQ+ Christian organizations.

There is a positive Spirit within the pages, and some of the content would be helpful for anyone. Zach writes for his church and his audience, and I respect that. For the broader Church community, I would not suggest using this study guide.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I was provided this book without cost from the publisher and was not required to give a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Encouraged

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection or mercy, complete my joy and be of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose. (Philippians 2:1-2)

It was not the best weekend. I kinda had a pity party…

sigh…

On Saturday, the basement drain overflowed. The result? A bunch of stinky, filthy towels. Many, many hours later, we had a clean laundry room floor and a huge stack of clean towels… And a drain that worked, after multiple trips to the hardware store by my beloved Bearded Spouse.

On Sunday, I worshiped at my friend Dee’s church (and enjoyed it!) But it was also World Communion Sunday, and it was difficult, quite honestly, to not be the one presiding at the Table of Grace and Welcome. I had to reflect and wonder… if I would be serving in a congregation again

When I got home, I was feeling “itchy” and needed something to do. The hometown pro football team was losing (again)… I decided I had procrastinated on one task long enough and it was time to suck it up, and git ‘er done! I began to sort and pack away items from my former church office that were piled all over our living room. This included the “creative stuff” of a pastor: special paraments and altar cloths I’d created or collected. Stones and candles. Strings of mini-lights. Liturgies and service planning notes.

I sorted. I cried. I despaired. While I was at it, I cleaned out an old desk and weeded out more books. And as I was sorting, I found these:

One was a book given to me by Dana, one of God’s best ever “balcony people.” I survived and thrived in seminary and my early years of ministry because of Dana’s encouragement. The other one was a “Celebration Journal” given to me on my ordination day, a little more than 10 years ago. I re-read Andrea’s words of dedication. I found entries I had made in the midst of all sorts of challenges. I tucked them into a special place on my desk to reread and use later. I paused to thank God for these two women… their ongoing gifts of encouragement continued to bless me, years later!

And I realized there are so many more encouragers: My husband and daughters. Family. Professors. RevGal friends. Coworkers. Friends. Former parishioners. A wave of thankfulness came over me.

I moved to my next task… I went to clean and pack away my stoles that were not in season. I wondered how long I would be waiting until I would regularly wear them. Then I found this one…

It was given to me in August by my former senior pastor, Jill, and the head of our church council, Regina. Their cards were folded inside. Their words reminded me of the Call on my life, that God has scattered the seeds of the Gospel through me and would continue to do so. They promised to place this stole on me when God next Calls me to a church.When and where God will call me next, I don’t know. But God does.

The lesson came home, sweet and clear:

Not only does God know what’s next in our lives, God brings friends, companions, and encouragers into our lives to help us… persevere. believe. hope. trust. rejoice. and… (dare I say it?) keep the faith as we WAIT. And even more importantly, that I offer MY words of encouragement to them.

I am so grateful for those who have been with me for this journey of service and celebration, and in this journey of change and waiting. And beyond grateful to the God of encouragement who continues to lead…

Thanks be to God!

Remembering… 24 years ago…

October 1995 The NAMES Project displayed on the National Mall in its entirety. Photo from https://www.aidsquilt.org/

24 years ago…

24 years ago I walked the mall with my 3 month old daughter in my sling. I had heard that The NAMES Project Quilt, a memorial of people who died from AIDS, would not be shown in its entirety again. I wanted to see it, so I packed a diaper bag and the baby, and headed down via Metro to the National Mall.

I remember that it was a pleasant fall day, not too hot, with bright sunshine and a brilliant blue sky. As I exited the Metro in front of the Smithsonian Castle I was enveloped in the crowds of people, and the recitation of all of the names. Family members and friends signed up to read a portion of the list. The names… on and on… read by voices cracked with grief.

I walked some (not all) of the quilt. At one point I stopped to feed my daughter, watching people go by. I changed her diaper and started walking again. She was a little fussy, so I rocked her in the sling, slowly gazing at the quilt, each 3×6 foot panel representing a life, a friend, a family member, a lover. They stretched on endlessly. I found the index of panels and located a panel from a friend from college. I heard stories from strangers. I cried with them.

At one point, a young man rushed up to me, tearful and angry, “WHY would you bring a baby to this? To THIS? She won’t remember!” I felt his anger, his sadness, and possibly a little bit of fear. We started talking, and he shared his story, and his partner’s story. He showed me his lover’s panel (I had just walked by it.) I looked at him and said, “She won’t remember. But I will tell her she was here. And then she will know…”

That baby, now 24, is a teacher. Statistically, that young man is probably dead. I find that sobering… And if we went to see the AIDS Quilt today it would be over 50 miles long. According to the CDC, (which estimates these statistics):

  • in the US – 38,739 people were diagnosed as HIV+ and there were 15,807 deaths
  • in the world – 36.9 million people with HIV+ and there were 940,00 deaths

While the incidence of HIV+ is decreasing, the prejudice against individuals who are diagnosed continues. As it was in the 1980s, access to adequate healthcare, including early diagnosis and treatment, is dependent on where you live, your socioeconomic status, your race, and your sexual identity. Antiretroviral medications can be expensive and have debilitating side effects. And finding a physician and care team who will support a patient who is HIV+ and their loved ones is a challenge in some parts of the country.

Even more difficult is finding a church… sadly. If you live in just about any city in America, or attended a PRIDE parade, you’ve heard a street preacher condemn people with AIDS/HIV and speak words that are cruel and homophobic. (I won’t quote them here. They get enough airtime.) The God of mercy and grace who Called me to ministry is not a punitive, angry God.

So on this anniversary of The NAMES Project display on the National Mall, I hope you’ll reflect for a moment on what we could still do as individuals, as churches, and as a nation. We have a long, long way to go.