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June 15, 2016
This past weekend, I was grateful to have the opportunity to attend New England’s Synod Assembly. This year’s theme was “No Reservations.” Beyond my initial snarkiness around the irony that we indeed had to make reservations for this event, it was a powerful theme for what, for me, would be an inspiring weekend. We live in a culture where reservations and perceived scarcity are the norm. We hear “there is not enough” and “there is definitely not enough for that person” all the time whether it be through media messages or the way we create budgets. While this might be the dominant narrative in our country today, the church - WE - don’t have to buy into it. We can live by another narrative. We are called to live by Jesus’ story in which there is enough for everyone. We are called to live out a story in which there are no reservations on love, grace, acceptance, food, water or care. There is enough for everyone (and that means EVERYONE).
We heard from Mikka McCracken, Director of Planning and Engagement for ELCA World Hunger and U.S. Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), known for his work to end hunger. Over and over again as they talked about the work that we as the ELCA or our country are doing (or not doing), they continually had us reflecting on questions together. If you had $50,000 that you could only spend outwardly, how would you use it? What are you doing to end hunger on the local level? On the international level, how are you working to empower women? Is your pastor preaching about a God of abundance? What holds you back from talking to your representatives about why hunger matters to you as a person of faith?
In asking these questions, we were constantly challenged not to think or answer about them in abstract ways but rooted in our own contexts in the work of the congregations in which we are a part. I was inspired by congregations who organized youth walks for hunger to their local city hall, got dirty in community gardens in the midst of a busy suburb, or spent their Lenten seasons delving into issues of hunger alongside the story of Jesus. Just as I was encouraged by the work of so many in the Synod, I found myself proudly sharing about the work of St. Paul, particularly the work led by our Social Ministry Committee (SMC).
As your vicar, I’ve only been here since September, but I’ve seen the fruits of raising money for uniforms for children in South Sudan, food collected for Arlington Food Pantry, gifts given to children at the holidays, engagement in climate change, troop care drive, conversations around barriers and stereotypes, children and families making key chains for Good News Garage, and supporting the work of Ascentria Care Alliance during Easter (and much more!). I was particularly inspired by the trip several of us took to New Lands Farm in May. For me, as we walked around new tilled grounds, hearing the sounds of different languages coming from different corners of the fields, and seeing beautiful and fresh buds come out of the ground, this is where I saw the theme “no reservations” come to life. It was empowering seeing new Americans - both women and men - having the space and freedom not only to grow foods but to be able to pass their skills along to their children on their own terms. For all these efforts, support, and financial contributions - THANK YOU! You all are working toward a vision where everyone has enough!
I have been so impressed by the leadership of Cathy Venkatesh, Lysa Hynes and the entire SMC has taken in visioning and planning out what it might look like for St. Paul to give of themselves with no reservations. They’ve made serious efforts this year to think deeply about the past and future of how we’ve lived/will live with or without reservations. And yet, if I’m honest, I wish I saw more of you actively engaged in this process! Don’t be afraid! Come with no reservation to the opportunities that have been planned, send e-mails or drop into a meeting with your passions, pray without ceasing, or volunteer to plan the next event! Take a risk and sign up for a morning of volunteering with Seafarers on June 25 or take an extra look at the newly updated Arlington Food Pantry list and help to fill the narthex baskets to the brim! May we boldly be a people who not only experience a God of no reservations, but love our neighbors with no reservations!
God loves you
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This week, as I walked back through the sanctuary after our early service, I was stopped by one of our youngest members. He handed me a picture. I paused for a second, sat next to him on the pew and he read what it said to me. “God loves you.” The message was simple, surrounded by colorful crayon-drawn hearts and shapes. I’ve been struck as the week has gone on, how powerful that moment was for me on Sunday. Maybe it is the bombardment of political ads that led up to Super Tuesday or that my head and heart has really been stuck in “repentance-mode” during this season of Lent which has me questioning how God loves any of us in the middle of this mess. But as I read the parable of the Prodigal Son in preparation for this Sunday and as I look at the picture now proudly hanging on my office bulletin board, I’m reminded that despite how lost or unlovable we might feel, God loves us. A lot. Excessively. I don’t think we can be reminded of this love enough (if you are like me, it seems like it is easy to forget!).
My “Vicar’s Desk” is simple today. May the words of one of our smallest prophets continue to interrupt your thoughts this week, “God loves you.” May you taste that reminder in the bread and the wine, may it splash on your forehead as you pass by the font, may it be said to you on the subway or in the work place through affirmations or quiet smiles, may it squeeze you in your night-time hugs with your little ones or partners, or surprise you in a burst of color or breath of fresh winter air.
- Vicar Alissa
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I recently came across an old Lutheran hymnal from 1901. The morning service began with these words, “We poor miserable sinners…” My first reaction was “Ouch! No wonder the church has driven people away (grumble, grumble)!” A few days later, I read an article about Donald Trump responding to an inquiry on whether he’d ever asked God for forgiveness with, "I am not sure I have…I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't." To which my immediate reaction was, “Ouch! This is exactly why people need the church, to counter a culture which teaches us to never apologize and do whatever you need to do to rise to the top (grumble, grumble)!” I have to wonder if my mind does so many mental whiplashes around the topic of confession and forgiveness as a vicar, that perhaps your minds might do the same when you pause to think about the practice we find ourselves doing almost every week before worship.
I think my own mental gymnastics is not that I don’t believe that we are all sinners (we are, in fact, all poor miserable sinners) but I find my tension in constantly reminding folks of their sinfulness because it can often act to reinforce unhealthy narratives connecting sin to guilt and shame. At the same time, I find the act of confessing deeply freeing. Standing with others, everyone admitting that in some way, somehow we’ve messed up and not treated each other as well as we could have – I feel as if I’m not only asking God for forgiveness but the people around me. There is something comforting and a little bit surprising each week as the promise of God’s forgiveness is proclaimedin response to the confession. I think it has become more surprising and intriguing over the last few years as I am continually learning how hard it is for me to forgive as a human and what a gift that is for God to forgive me (and those around me) for all that we do to each other (or lack doing for each other) – over and over. If I’ve learned anything from my own relationships or chaplaincy work, it is a sense of how complicated, emotion-filled, and transformative forgiveness can be in one’s life. I also think it’s important to both bring and receive words of comfort and reassurance stating that whether or not one is able to forgive, God forgives and continually forgives us.
One reason why I (or, perhaps we?) might have an uncomfortable relationship with confession and forgiveness is that our history as Lutheran Christians is linked to a complicated relationship and resistance to it. Luther wrote strongly against the notion that there was anything we must do in order to receive God’s grace and forgiveness, particularly through the selling of indulgences, which was often linked with individual confession during his time. It was not that Luther was against these practices – in fact, he thought they were necessary for our life with God and each other, rather, he wanted to simply reform them. Even after the reforms happened, it was still (I’d argue is currently still) seen as a primarily Roman Catholic practice. Currently, the act of confession and forgiveness holds a prominent spot in worship, but it is almost always in a communal form. In many ways while we shifted from individual confession, we never shifted away from the private aspects of it even when we stand together publicly on Sunday mornings.
During the season of Lent you are invited to explore the act of confession and forgiveness with others at St. Paul by reading “Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession” by Molly Baskette. Her book elbows us to look deeply at our own stories, thoughts on sins, vulnerability, and communal practices surrounding the act of public confession. There will be two opportunities to discuss it with others immediately following Thursday evening prayer on 2/25 and 3/10 (~8:00 pm). Pastor Goodman and I are excited to read and explore it with you! With hope, we share Baskette’s words that “…in seeking meaning, we find it: God gets to reveal where She was in our story all along, and we begin to see the glimmers of grace and redemption, the outlines and contours of Her shape, the mark of Her prints all over it. Confessing, we get to meet God face to face.”
P.S. Molly Baskette, the author of the book we will be reading together, was the keynote speaker for New England’s Synod Assembly this last year. Below you will find a link for her talk and also your fearless pastor sharing a confession with all those gathered. You’ll find Ross’ example at 45:53 and one from a college student at 18:59. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08GrzF9QtQQ
CrossFit, Church and Bodies
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I first heard of CrossFit from my twin sister, Gretchen, when she joined about a year ago. With the fear of gross over-simplification, CrossFit is an intense strength and conditioning program consisting mainly of a mix of aerobic exercise, calisthenics and Olympic weightlifting. She fell in love with it and continues to go several times a week. As a health-conscious young adult and non-church go-er, who lives in a small town in Wisconsin, it gives her a place to meet people. She’s seen gains in her physical strength and discipline. She’s pretty much a beast. While her inspiring experience hasn’t yet motivated me to head out to a box (what CrossFit gyms are called - predominately re-purposed empty warehouses) of my own, it has made me particularly intrigued by their recent press. Recently, the New York Times published an article entitled, “When Some Turn to Church, Others Go to CrossFit.” The article was prompted by the research of two Harvard Divinity School researchers, Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston, who were studying spaces other than churches that function as spiritual communities.
As an emerging pastor, and someone who walks by a CrossFit gym every day, I have to wonder what this new trend --- which, looks like it is here to stay --- can teach us about our churches and life together at St. Paul? While I could go on and on about gathering trends for millennials, I particularly wonder how it might inform the way we think about the way we honor our bodies as we gather together. I have to admit, in my own life, when I was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer, it was my weekly yoga classes at the cancer center that felt like church to me. I needed a community that didn’t forget that I had a body that couldn’t be disconnected from my soul, my heart, and my life with God. My body mattered to me and I needed a safe place where it would not only be recognized for the trauma it was going through and also its awe-spiring ability to heal itself, but also be engaged. I so appreciated a place that connected body and spirit, by encouraging breathing, movement, and awareness. My guess is that for the thousands of people who flock to CrossFit gyms each day, they are also looking for these type of places too.
Despite lifting up an incarnational theology that claims bodies are good, and believing in a God who thought it was essential to take on human flesh to be in relationship with us, the body is something that is often neglected. So often we prize our intellect over our bodies --- as if we could have a brain without a body! Or, (and I am particularly guilty of falling into this trap) we are too quick to jump into and cling on to hyper-spiritualized imagery of the body, especially as we interpret scripture. Perhaps, this makes sense, especially here, given our own church’s namesake is St. Paul, whose writings often get used to do just that. As Lutheran Christians, we understand our lives and bodies to be a gift from God. We also believe that how we respond to God’s gracious gifts is important, and part of honoring our bodies can be, but is in no way limited to, eating well and exercising. My thoughts about CrossFit are not ones which lack critique. As one of my beloved professors, Stephanie Paulsell notes in her writings about honoring the body, “Our culture has so many ways of sending us the message that only one body type will do—we must be a certain size and shape, we are told over and over again or we will not be beautiful or happy. When attention to health and fitness is powered solely by the desire for the "perfect body," our body can seem more of a burden than a gift.” I worry that romanticizing CrossFit as an alternative to church, simply plays into a culture that can be damaging to so many if taken to the extreme.
But, the question still remains how can we, as a community, really embrace and receive our body with joy as the gift that it is? While an easy answer would be to simply add an exercise program in the fellowship hall, I think a more intriguing question is how we might honor our bodies in our liturgical spaces in a way in which all bodies might feel included? How do we incorporate smells, tastes, touch, physical postures in our praying, singing, preaching, that goes beyond our regular exercise routine of standing up and sitting down in a very rote and rehearsed way? How do we encourage families to have open and honest conversations around bodies and how to take care of them? As Clifford Green urged us to think deeply in last’s week’s morning forum, the way we think about our bodies has major consequences to how we pray, how we read scripture, and how we live out our lives together, especially with people experiencing homelessness or hunger.
I’m thankful that there are places like CrossFit where people like my sister and friends are finding community, belonging, and discipline in their lives. As a church, I hope we become good neighbors with these boxes, rather than see them as competition, because at the core we fill different needs. There is a lot that can be learned from these communities, and they bring up so many questions for me about our practices and theology; questions I think that are worth asking and wrestling with together.
In Body and Spirit,
P.S. If you have time, I recommend watching this video of Greg Glassman, CEO of CrossFit, speaking at Harvard Divinity School in November about about the connection his organization has to finding meaningful communities outside of the church. Also, I highly recommend Stephanie Paulsell’s book, “Honoring the Body.” I also recommend e-mailing me at
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“...In this season of short days and long nights, of gray and white and cold, teach me the lessons of beginnings: that such waitings and endings may be a starting place, a planting of seeds which bring to birth what is ready to be born --- something right and just and different, a new song, a deeper relationship, a fuller love--- in the fullness of your time. O God, grant me your sense of timing.” - Ted Loder
Advent has always been my favorite season of the church year. As someone who spends a lot of her week thinking about Sunday mornings during the season of Advent, I’d like to contribute my love for this season to great worship planning or some sort of magic I discovered in the pews. But, I know the truth is that what has led me to falling in love with the season is the family ritual that took place each night around my dinner table growing up. The Saturday after Thanksgiving my Mom would buy fresh pine boughsand weave them into our table’s centerpiece, the Advent wreath. Each night after we ate supper, my sisters and I would take turns lighting the candles, and reading a short devotional. And then, we each (all six of us) got to pick a Christmas or Advent hymn to sing. When I think back what strikes me the most is how much time it took to complete this ritual each and every day.
Advent is a season all about time. We wait, even aswe also actively live in the already and not yet. We wait for Christmas even as we already know that Christ is with us now. We live in a country that associates time with productivity and values do-ers rather than be-ers. In many ways, the season of Advent urges us to be countercultural in the way we spend our time. Instead of filling time with “doing more,” Advent invites us to fill our time simply “being” with God in the present.
This last Sunday I sat in the adult forum and watched as a table full of grown ups colored. Yes, colored. It may sound silly, but the practice slowed us down, and helped us focus on hope and the scripture in front of us. I’d argue that what we were doing was even an act of prayer. Consider how you might spend intentional time with God, perhaps your own act of prayer, this Advent whether it is through coloring, picking up the bible for a few moments in the morning, a long chilly walk, or even lighting the Advent wreath with your family after dinner. On Thursday (TODAY!), at 7:30 PM, Mark and Sarah Huber will be at St. Paul helping us to spend intentional time with God by creating a space to wait, sing, and reflect together.
Ted Loder’s prayer “Grant Me Your Sense of Timing” (see above), has become part of my Advent “being” this year. It is a prayer for my own life, my prayer for yours, and my prayer for the world as we wait and wonder for Emmanuel.