The Theology of Julia Spencer-Fleming

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            I discovered Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson and Russ van Alstyne books about a year and a half ago. A dear friend of mine, who is a female Episcopal priest, gushed over this mystery series. Most the mysteries I read are set in the past. I don’t find many modern mysteries that compelling – they seem far too violent, and real life has enough violence for me. Yet, the kicker with this series is the lead is a female Episcopal priest. Patty handed me the first book, In the Bleak Midwinter, and it only took a few days for me to rush through it. There aren’t many books out there with a female minister, and certainly not one as the primary character. I know we are still in the minority, and I enjoy reading about someone who might have some things in common with me.

             I have no idea if Spencer-Fleming is attempting to convey any certain theological stance or not. Yet, she defines a rather clear one in the development of her characters and story lines. Clare is not the stereotype one assumes for a minister, apart from her gender. A compelling military background prepares her in unusual ways for her parish (totally apart from her crime solving – an activity the typical minister does not usually undertake). Her calling from God is real, fresh, immediate and perplexing. God calls all sorts of people, oftentimes for reasons that no one can comprehend (including the called individual), and Clare represents that so powerfully.

             The other characters are varied and full. The books are filled with experienced and crusty police officers, Granny activists, struggling and misunderstood teens, a variety of veterans, individuals struggling to survive economically and spiritually, wealthy but flawed movers and shakers, and a wide assortment filling the spectrum. The author’s gift is not just that she can create so many interesting and imaginative characters, but that each one is sympathetic. I despise the actions of some of the individuals, but yet I cannot help but have compassion for them, as Clare herself does. There are no perfect people and no perfect answers. Life is tough. Life is complicated. Life hurts. Yet, through it all – there is grace.

             The best fiction provides truth. It inspires us to be more and better than we are. In one book, Clare laments to a colleague that she might be reckless. The other woman tells her she probably instead is fearless. I have used that example to sister clergy, as well as to students. They are two sides of the same coin. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s theology is that each unique person is a child of God, gifted and graced in powerful ways. Her theology is that the life God offers to us can call us so far beyond what we can imagine, and that we should be fearless in seizing grace and opportunities. Hold on tight to that, and we will find the path that fulfills, compels, and inspires.

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Here comes the rain again…

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            Tacoma, Washington is close to heaven on earth. I attended a summer conference here about 10 years ago, and immediately fell in love. It sits on the Puget Sound, with the Cascade Mountains gently circling the city. My favorite colors are blue and green, and every shade of these two hues fills the eye in Tacoma. Rolling hills, diverse architecture, and unique micro-breweries dot the landscape. I am quite fortunate to find myself back in Tacoma for another conference. It’s not the freshly warm days of summer, but instead the cool rainy days of winter. A winter storm is sweeping north of here, so the day has been filled with torrential showers. Wind sweeps the rainfall sideways, and hail even decided to make a brief appearance. Tacomans have been quick to tell us visitors that this is unusual. Yes, it rains often here, but usual gentle sprinklings that don’t interfere with one’s normal day.

             The rain hasn’t bothered me. I rather like it. As a teen, one of my favorite songs was “Here Comes the Rain” again by The Eurythmics. Here comes the rain again, falling on my head like a memory, falling on my head like a new emotion. Rain was equated with deep emotion, the depths of one’s heart and soul. I didn’t quite understand all the meaning of the words so beautifully sung by Annie Lennox, but I knew it stirred me and spoke to something beyond my short-sighted 16 year old perspective.

             The rain still speaks to me. The world’s religions have various water rituals which symbolize cleansing, new life, new beginnings, new community. “Remember your baptism and be thankful” are words I have stated on numerous occasions. Rain cleanses us, nourishes us, gives growth to the dryness of our lives. So many people desire sunshine each and every day. We want sunny dispositions, an easy and fun life, a wide sandy beach with a cooler of Coronas.

             But we need balance. It wouldn’t be so lush and gorgeous in the Pacific Northwest without all the rain. The sunny days wouldn’t mean so much if they never ended. We’ve been taught that rain is something we must endure – into each life a little rain must fall. But why must rain be the bad guy? Rain instead exemplifies what is basic, necessary, and foundational in our lives.

             So I say, bring on the rain.

The Size of a Mustard Seed

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          “It’s about this size.” The doctor held her thumbs incredibly close together over a strip of paper. “You can see 4 millimeters isn’t much, but I know it can cause a whole lot of problems.”

             I could barely see the space between her hands, my eyes still glazed over with tears of pain. The morphine drip had been set up about half an hour before, but my right hand continued to press into the left side of my stomach, my body curled on the hospital bed. Kidney stone, was the first thought that popped into my mind a few hours earlier when the sharp pain woke me. I spent an hour debating whether or not I needed to go to the hospital in the middle of the night, but when the doctor finally confirmed my amateur prognosis, I was certain I made the right decision.

             The subsequent days were filled with debilitating pain – definitely worse than the 20 plus hours of natural childbirth I had endured many years before. All the terrible things I ever heard about kidney stones were true. How could such a tiny thing cause so much agony?

             Through the haze of pain, naseau, and prescription meds, I continually remembered the doctor demonstrating the size of that tiny stone. The average kidney stone is the size of a mustard seed. Jesus famously said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20) I have preached on this scripture several times over the years. Growing up in the mountains it was hard to imagine how such a gigantic chunk of land could be moved. Even with dynamite, it was no easy task. Now, I think Jesus enjoyed exaggerating on occasion – but he used extremes to make a point. Something so tiny that it can be easily missed can have a tremendous impact for the good.

 It seems far easier to think of negative impacts than positive ones. The old glass half full – half empty illustration. Complaining about life is far easier than thinking of the things for which we are thankful. Yet, just a tiny 4 mm of thankfulness can turn our lives around. Replacing a small amount of complaining, worry or fear with praise, hope, or belief can truly be life-changing. Spending just a few minutes a day in prayer, sacred reading, meditation can impact the entire rest of our 24 hours each day for the better. A minute pebble can turn our lives one way or the other. Let’s take those miniscule irritants in our lives, and instead of allowing them to fester and take control, turn them into a force for good. Just 4 mm can change our lives, and it can change the world.