Debra Recommends

This Shared DreamAfter the BeginningTo Say Nothing of the DogThe Girl With the Dragon TattooA New Beginning for Pastors and Congregations: Building an Excellent Match Upon Your Shared StrengthsThree Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission To Promote Peace...One School At A Time

More of Debra's books »
Book recommendations, book reviews, quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists


Invited to Take Risks

State of the Parish Address

Rather than looking back at the year behind us, I would like to use this year’s State of the Parish Address to look to the year ahead.  When, during the Annual Meeting, you receive copies of the Annual Report, you’ll have a chance to read from your wardens, from staff members, and from other leaders of St. Mark’s about things that have taken place – fabulous things that have taken place – at St. Mark’s in 2014.  There is much to celebrate and remember in our past year.  In fact, there is much to celebrate in our past 150 years.  But today, I would like to take an opportunity to look forward; to explore with you what lies ahead.
Earlier this month, I was listening to a podcast of NPR’s Ted Radio Hour.  Host Guy Raz was interviewing Edith Widder who, in 2005, founded the Ocean Research & Conservation Association and a year later was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant”.  Dr. Widder is a marine biologist who specializes in bioluminescence and was describing her experience of being the first person to photograph the elusive giant squid. When the host asked Dr. Widder why she chooses to explore - what keeps her motivated - Dr. Widder replied:
“Exploring is an innate part of being human. We're all explorers when we're born. Unfortunately, it seems to get drummed out of many of us as we get older, but it's there, I think, in all of us. And for me that moment of discovery is just so thrilling, on any level, that I think anybody that's experienced it is pretty quickly addicted to it.”[1]
I gave that some thought – “exploring is an innate part of being human”; we are born that way – created as explorers. That seems right.  We learn by exploring, by taking risks. Some of our earliest explorations don’t turn out so well – the toddler who sticks a slightly damp finger into an electrical outlet.  Not a great experience – but, a learning opportunity to be sure!  But, on the other hand, our earliest efforts at exploration lead to our first scooting, then crawling and then walking.  Without such exploration our development stops.  Each venture, each risk taken, an opportunity to explore, to learn and to grow.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus calls out to Simon and Andrew, “Follow Me.”  He calls out to James and John, “Follow Me.”  And, he calls out to each of us – and to the Church – “Follow me.” This is a calling, an invitation to explore, to take a risk with life; to do something completely new and potentially dangerous.  It is no mistake that today’s reading begins with the announcement that John the Baptist has been imprisoned for his preaching about Jesus; indeed, following Jesus can be very risky.  Elsewhere in Scripture – in Matthew’s Gospel – Jesus says, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3).  What if part of that invitation is daring to reclaim that innate part of us – the child-like explorer within? 
Jesus calls out, “Follow me” – take a risk with your life.  He doesn’t promise there will be no pain. Again, remember John the Baptist.  But he does promise a life of fulfillment as we come and take part in the work that God is graciously doing in the world around us.
In 2015, St. Mark’s wardens, vestry and clergy have decided to embrace a period of intentional exploration and risk-taking.  We have done this by expanding our budget so that the Community Engagement Coordinator position, currently held by Jacqui Zeng, can be extended for another year.   We feel confident that the work that is being done through this role is faithful work - work that is resulting in a greater presence for St. Mark’s in our community as more and more outside organizations utilize our facilities during the week.  On Tuesdays, InterPlay classes are offered in Cunningham Hall. On any given Wednesday night, you will find not only Music Night taking place in the choir room but Evanston English Country Dancers in Cunningham Hall, and a Creative Writing Group sharing our space in the library.  Adding to this important weekday building use in 2015, will be a Wednesday sack lunch program to feed some of our homeless neighbors.  Being done in partnership with St. Matthew’s, this program will be overseen by our Community Engagement Coordinator. And this will be possible because we are willing to take a risk with our budget, because we are able to step out in faith.
In 2015, we have dared to expand our budget to include funds for a seminarian from  Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary here in Evanston.  St. Mark’s has been a seminary field site in the past and it is exciting to become one again.  Welcoming a seminarian, appreciating their individual gifts for ministry and celebrating their growth as partners with us in ministry are rich opportunities for St. Mark’s.  This will be possible because we are willing to take a risk with our budget, able to step out in faith.
In 2015, St. Mark’s has dared to expand our budget to enrich our music ministries. In 2014, we already expanded the Associate for Music Ministries position from 15 hours to 20 hours per week.  But, at that time, we provided no additional funds for program expansion.  Despite the lack of additional funds, David Plank has launched a weekly music night that provides opportunity for children and adults to learn more about music, to practice singing together, and to gather as community.  In order for this to continue and grow, the budget needed to grow.  And so we took a risk with our budget and stepped out in faith.
In 2015, your leadership – wardens, vestry, and clergy – have dared to take a risk with the budget; but, in response, we are also taking a bold step with our giving because we believe the risks we are taking – these explorations – are good and faithful responses to Jesus’ call to “follow me.”  Despite our increased giving, you will see a gap between income and expenses in the budget that the vestry has passed. Yes, we dared to pass a budget that is not balanced.  You might look at this gap as a deficit with no concrete plan for closing the gap.  But I choose to see it as our opportunity for faithful response – a faith line in the budget.  And, in faith, I and the rest of St. Mark’s leadership have increased our pledges by an average of 20% in 2015 and we invite you to increase your pledge as well or, if you’ve never pledged before, to take a step out in faith and complete a pledge card for the first time.  Why?  Because we have faith in God’s call to us to be a people who take risks. We have faith in God’s call to us to be like Simon and Andrew who immediately left their nets and followed Jesus, to be like James and John who left their father and their boat to follow Jesus.  We have faith in God’s invitation to us to set aside security, self-interest and approval as our primary values and instead to enter a life that places our value in faithful living with its inherent call to risk, insecurity, and self-denial; to place value on God’s promise rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ.
We have faith that this is what it means to be followers of the way of Jesus, a people who not only talk the talk but walk the walk.  Might there be setbacks? Absolutely.  What child has ever learned to walk who hasn’t fallen down once or twice along the way? But what child has ever learned to walk who didn’t first muster up the courage to try – to take that first step of faith.
 “Follow me” – two of the most challenging and life affirming words that Jesus speaks in the Gospels.  And with these words Jesus began calling the first disciples into community and continues with those same two words to call us into that beloved community today.   A community that is invited to boldly explore what it means to be a part of God’s work in the world, a community that is invited to take risks, to explore, to discover the power of God working in and among us.   That is what we will be about in 2015 at St. Mark’s.  That is what I invite you to be about in 2015 at St. Mark’s.

[1] Edith Widder, interview by Guy Raz, “In Search Of,” NPR TED Radio Hour, January 9, 2015. Transcript available online.


Make Us A House

Advent 4B 

As Christmas approaches, talk around living rooms and around dinner tables often revolve around traditions.   When does your family open gifts? Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?  Which church service do you attend? The one with the pageant, the one with candle light, or the one on Christmas morning?  Do you hang stockings for Santa to fill?  What is the traditional Christmas feast at your house?  Ham? Stewed Oxtail? Curried Goat?  Something else? 

Our churches too are filled with such nostalgic conversations about tradition.  “We will dim the lights and sing Silent Night in the candlelight, won’t we?”  “We will have poinsettias again this year, won’t we?”  “The pageant will be the traditional story, won’t it? – with the angels, the shepherds and the wisemen?”  “We will have a carol sing this year, won’t we?”  These are just some of the questions that I have heard at and around St. Mark’s as Christmas draws near.  And, the answers for those who just can’t wait – yes, yes, yes, and yes! 
In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, King David announces to the prophet Nathan his desire to build a house – a temple – for the Lord.  It seems wrong to David that he should live in a great house built of cedar and that God should still dwell within a tent.[1]  During the night, however, Nathan receives word from God saying that this is not what the Lord desires.  In fact, God tells Nathan, never have I asked for a house of cedar; moreover, God continues, “I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place . . . the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”[2]
So what do the Israelites do? They build a house of cedar – a temple – for God.[3] A temple so elaborate, in fact, that it takes 7 ½ years to complete.  To be sure the building of the temple doesn’t take place until the reign of King Solomon some 10 to 20 years after King David’s reign ends; but, there is no indication that God has, in this interim period, changed God’s opinion on the matter.  Moreover, this is not the first time in the history of the Israelite people that the people ask God for something, God says “no” and the people do it anyhow. In fact, that’s how Israel got their first King!  But we’ll save that story for another time.
In the building of the temple a deep and rich tradition around ritual worship begins.  Chapter upon chapter of Scripture focus on the right way to worship God: who can approach the throne of God in the temple, who can serve as temple priests, what the priests should wear, what sacrifices are appropriate for various occasions and circumstances, and so on. This tradition of “how to” worship God is one that carries into our present day whenever congregations engage in conversation – or sadly sometimes debates - about how we should worship, the “right” way to worship, or, as it is frequently heard in churches, “the way we’ve always done it.”  And there are two times of year when these conversations reach a climactic pitch: Easter and, you guessed it, Christmas!
Psychologist Michele Brennan suggests that the reason holiday traditions become so important is that they help build
“a strong bond between family and our community. They give us a sense of belonging and a way to express what is important to us. They connect us to our history and help us celebrate generations of family. . . . They keep the memories of the past alive and help us share them with newer generations.”[4] 
And so, when someone decides to try something new or different, it can feel as though a part of our identity is being stripped away.  Rationally, we know that is not the case:  my family is still my beloved family even if this one Christmas we eat dolmades instead of ham and my church community is still my beloved church community even if this year my favorite Christmas hymn doesn’t get sung.  But on an emotional level, such small things can really move us.  And so, the way we do things becomes a habit, becomes an expectation, becomes a tradition.
And, I LOVE tradition.  When our Confirm not Conform students gather for class, our session begins with a series of statements and an invitation for students and leaders to stand on a line in the room. One end of the line represents “Strongly Agree,” the other end represents “Strongly Disagree.”  Last Sunday night, one of the statements was, “I like things to stay pretty much the same.”  When I moved to toward the “Strongly Agree” side of the line, I heard one of the students exclaim, “Pastor Debra! That’s really bad!”  Now I can only assume that the reaction had to do with the fact that I am constantly encouraging all of us to accept change as a normal part of how we do things – in fact, I would love for us to make a tradition of change!  But here’s another fact: I too find change incredibly challenging.  I, like most people, when it comes to traditions – especially around the BIG holidays – I like things “the way they’ve always been.”  But I also know that when I give in to that desire, I run the risk of closing myself off from God’s invitation to new life.
King David wants to build a temple for God.  And God says “No!”  God tells King David, through the prophet Nathan, that it is God who wants to make us a house.  God wants to set the parameters for our life with God.  God does not want to be boxed in – by a temple, by our church walls, by the way we’ve always done things.  God wants to make us a house, God wants to dwell in us and reshape and reform us again and again.  Can we make room in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls for that sort of transformation – room to receive God’s gift - even amidst the candlelight, the poinsettias, the pageant, and the carols?

[4] Michele L. Brennan, “WhyHoliday Traditions Might Be More Important Than You Think,”  Living a Balanced Life published by PsychCentral and accessed on December 17, 2014.


Because We Can't Wait . . .

Sermon Preached on Advent 1B

In the wake of the announced decision of the Grand Jury to not indict Officer Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, our nation has erupted with countless responses.  The most volatile of which have made their way into our homes through reports and commentaries on our televisions, through our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and around many of our Thanksgiving dinner tables. 
And today is the first Sunday of Advent – a season when we focus on hope and begin looking forward with anticipation to the coming of the Christ child.  As we fill our calendars and our lives with festivities – caroling, shopping expeditions with friends, decorating Christmas trees, hanging colorful lights, radio stations sent to all Christmas music all the time.  It is a season of great joy!  And so, it is tempting to put all of the talk of Ferguson, Missouri aside – at least for this one hour that we share together – to focus instead on the coming of Christ. Can’t we just wait?
Waiting until tempers cool down or until the season feels more appropriate – really, which season would that be?  And waiting, I was reminded this week, is really a white privilege; for our brothers and sisters who are persons of color, waiting has been the cry for too long.  Our history books could be filled with stories of “waiting” for the right time.  And when circumstances around us are already filling our homes with conversation and questions, waiting to address those circumstances can only send a confusing message.  We cannot wait for a better, more opportune time.  Writing for a group blog for educators, contributor David Cohen wrote:
“If we don’t talk about Ferguson, about the life and death of Mike Brown, Jr., then we miss an opportunity to help our students understand and develop a connection to their country’s living history. That’s not something we cherish – the recognition of seemingly perpetual conflict – but if we ignore it, we don’t equip students to deal with it any better in the present or the future”
and, “if we don’t talk about this . . . we’ll have to explain why this particular event – and the tragic pattern in which it fits – that mattered so much to [our students] was not worth our time, not considered educationally relevant.”[1]  And so it is in our churches.  If we don’t talk about Ferguson, about the life and death of Mike Brown then we too miss an opportunity to help one another understand and develop a connection between our faith and our lives.  To this end, The Very Rev. Mike Kinman, Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis who has been in the midst of this unfolding incident since August has asked Episcopalians across the country “to take at least one Sunday during Advent [to] talk about the issues the events in Ferguson have raised and where those issues of race, class and the oppression of God’s children are present in their own communities.”[2]
In order to move us in this direction, I have invited Motoko Maegawa to facilitate such a conversation with and for us after the 10:30 a.m. worship next Sunday [note the date has since been changed to Sunday, December 14].  Motoko is known to many here as “Tyler’s Mom” or as a middle school principal at a Jewish Day School in Chicago but another hat she wears – and, indeed, a gift she has been given is as a Leader for the National SEED Project for Inclusive Curriculum.  SEED stands for “Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity and it is a non-profit organization which encourages conversations about how our own stories relate to social systems and about how we can turn both oppression and privilege into agency and action. 
When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he began by giving thanks to God “because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind. . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  In the rest of his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul lambastes them for the many things that were not going so well in their community – for their chaotic assemblies, because of their abuses of the Lord’s supper, and their struggles to sort out what to do with gentile converts to the faith.  But Paul begins with thanksgiving.  Some have suggested that Paul is being sarcastic in his opening remarks; but I don’t think that is the case at all. I think that Paul is truly thankful for the spiritual gifts that God has given them and, by raising this up in the beginning, he can through the rest of the letter tell them of the great things that are expected of them.  There are no good excuses – they have every gift they need – in speech and in knowledge.  They have all that they need to transform their community into one that waits with anticipation and hope for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  They are a community, poised on the edge of what we now call Advent  - a season of hopeful preparation and waiting for the coming of Christ.
What might hopeful preparation and waiting look like for us in the wake of all that has taken place in Ferguson, Missouri?  Here are just some suggestions – you may have your own to add to the list[3]:
1.      Listen deeply.  Learn from persons of color how we ended up here by listening to their stories.
2.      Do not police others’ reactions. I’ve heard a lot of comments this week about the need for peaceful responses.  But, remember that much change has taken place in our country through protest from the Boston Tea Party to Women’s Suffrage, from the March on Washington to Stonewall.
3.      Know the history. Take time to understand the history of racial violence in America.
4.      If You See Injustice Occurring, Do Not Stand Silently or Walk on By
5.      Imagine a future without racism.  Learn about and look for the ways systemic racism is a part of our institutions – all of them, including our church.  What alternatives can you imagine? If our churches – if St. Mark’s – were to be built anew how might we more fully use all of the gifts we have received from God to transform our community into one that waits with anticipation and hope for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
6.      Come be a part of next Sunday’s conversation led by Motoko.  This may be the most difficult challenge of all.  Because it is sometimes hardest to have honest conversations with those we care about most deeply, with those we are committed to being in community with.  And yet, isn’t that what being church is all about – deepening our relationships?  To help us begin thinking about the conversation, Motoko has suggested that we might spend some time this week considering how you might complete these two prompts:  “A hard and scary thing in talking about racism is. . .” and “A good and useful thing in talking about racism is. . .”
Today is the first Sunday of Advent – a season when we focus on hope and begin looking forward with anticipation to the coming of the Christ child. Maybe this is, after all, the right season to talk about Ferguson, about race, and about the transforming power of God’s love at work in our lives and in our community.  God has given us every gift we need – in speech and in knowledge.  We have all that we need to transform our community into one that waits with anticipation and hope for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Will you take this opportunity together with me?

[1] David B. Cohen, “Time and Space to Learn and Reflect,” InterACT, August 19, 2014 accessed online  on November 29, 2014.
[2] Mike Kinman, “Episcopal Cathedrals commit to talking about  Ferguson, race, and their own communities,” Christ Church Cathedral accessed online on November 29, 2014.
[3] Some of these appear in Janée Woods, “12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson,” Quartz (August 17, 2014) accessed online on August 22, 2014.

In the News . . .