Thursday, March 23, 2017

Insight from Different Versions of Psalm 126

Last night, at my church we had another Lenten soup supper with Psalms and creative responses.  I chose Psalm 126:

I started with the NRSV:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,[a]
    we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

We read from the Contemporary English version (once I had a denim-clad Bible in this version):

It seemed like a dream
when the Lord brought us back
    to the city of Zion.[a]
We celebrated with laughter
    and joyful songs.
In foreign nations it was said,
    “The Lord has worked miracles
    for his people.”
And so we celebrated
    because the Lord had indeed
    worked miracles for us.
Our Lord, we ask you to bless
    our people again,
    and let us be like streams
    in the Southern Desert.
We cried as we went out
    to plant our seeds.
    Now let us celebrate
    as we bring in the crops.
We cried on the way
    to plant our seeds,
    but we will celebrate and shout
    as we bring in the crops.


Here it is in The Message:

It seemed like a dream, too good to be true,
    when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang,
    we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were the talk of the nations—
    God was wonderful to them!”
God was wonderful to us;
    we are one happy people.
4-6 And now, God, do it again—
    bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
    will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
    will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.
We read each one, but The Message was the one we returned to again and again.  I was fascinated, as you knew I would be, at how the basic themes were the same, but the language so different.
I loved the idea of armloads of blessings:
My spouse thought about rain and the colors of joy:
Here's another picture:
Alas, I don't have pictures yet of the gardens created by others, gardens of yarn and pumpkins made of buttons.
I am loving this approach to the text, reading multiple times and letting the words sink in.  The different translations tonight added a richness.  I am hoping for rain in our drought-stricken places--I hope that for all of us.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 26, 2017:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Psalm: Psalm 23

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14

Gospel: John 9:1-41

Occasionally, a student will ask me how I know that a symbol is really a symbol, and not just me overreacting to something in the text. I always reply that we know we're looking at a symbol when the author comes back to it again and again. Then an image is meant to take on more weight.

Today's Gospel would be a good illustration of this point. Again and again, we see blind people in this text, from the physically blind to the metaphorically blind. Again and again, the text returns to blindness. Clearly, we're meant to explore issues of our own blindness. It's not bad to do a spiritual inventory periodically. Where do we see evidence of God in our lives? Where are we blind to God's presence?

As I read the text for this week, I found myself getting to this point from a different angle. Look at how Jesus cures this blind man. He mixes dirt and spit (dirt and spit!) onto the man's eyes and instructs him to bathe. I'm not the first to be struck by the earthiness of this cure: the use of different elements (dirt, saliva, and water), the rootedness of the cure in the physical (Jesus doesn't cast a spell, for example, or call on angels), and the simplicity of it all.

It might make us think back to the Genesis story, of God forming the first humans out of dirt (Adam) and an extra rib (Eve). It might make us think of all the ways that God uses basic, earthbound elements in both creation and salvation.

Think of our sacraments, for example. There's baptism, the word bound with water. And the water doesn't come to us from some special source--it's not like we special-order it from the Holy Land. Well, perhaps some churches do, but that's a foolish use of money, if you ask me. It's not like those waters have special powers. The power comes from the word--and perhaps more importantly, from the words that the congregation offers. When we baptize someone, the whole congregation takes a vow to support that person--when you wonder why baptism is such a public event, and why some people are adamant that it not be separated from the service and the congregation, that's why. It's not a photo op. It's a sacrament.

Think about Holy Communion. I've been to many Holy Communions now. Some churches use wafers specially ordered from religious communities, but you don't have to do that. I've had Communion with pita bread, with challah, and once, with a pizza crust. I've had good wine, bad wine, and grape juice. Again, what's important is the symbol of the elements, mixed with the words. It's not just about memory--it's how God becomes present to us, through a mystery that we don't fully understand.
As we work our way through the Scriptures, think about how often God takes simple things and turns them into routes that can lead to salvation. The most stunning example, of course, is the story of the Incarnation. During weeks where I'm impatient with my own failing flesh, I'm even more astounded than usual that the Divine would take on this project.

And we, of course, can work similar magic. Open up your dinner table, and observe grace in action. Forgive freely, and watch redemption work. Pray for those who would do you wrong, and notice what happens. Get your fingers in the dirt and watch the flowers bloom later. Take some simple elements and envision them as sacramental, a symbolic route to God.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rites of Spring

Suddenly we notice every shade of green:

The azaleas may distract us from the work of Lent:

The dogwoods remind us of one of Spring's destinations:

Life out of death:

We see these rites enacted every spring, and every year, the first blooms pushing back against the earth surprise us:

Easter beckons, but we have a journey to complete:

Monday, March 20, 2017

Poetry Monday: "Consolations in Harsh Landscapes"

I love Rattle's feature "Poets Respond," which the journal describes this way:  "Every Sunday we publish one poem online that has been written about a current event that took place the previous week. This is an effort to show how poets react and interact to the world in real time, and to enter into the broader public discourse."

But I rarely have myself together enough to create/revise/come up with an idea for a poem in time for the Friday deadline.

This past Friday, as I was feeling sorrowful about the budget and simultaneously thinking of Saint Patrick, I wondered if I could revise this blog post into a poem.  I thought I would cut and paste lines into the shape of a poem and then revise, but that's not how it happened.  For the most part, I came up with lines inspired by the blog post, and then this poem emerged.

Consolations in Harsh Landscapes

Today patrons shall drink gallons
of green beer and cheer
at parades and watch
the green currents of many rivers.

I will look at the federal budget and remember
that even in a harsh
landscape like Saint Patrick’s Ireland,
strange shapes can flourish.

I will till my own soil, rocky
and marbled with thorns.
If truly desperate, I’ll suck seaweed
from the stones for nourishment.

I will set sail in my coracle,
casting away my oars.
I need no supplies that federal dollars
can bring me.

I will create new communities
on these stony shores.
The larger world may not yet know
but it needs our new brand of faith.

The poem didn't win, but that's not really why I wrote it.  I decided to post it here, since the topic is so timely that a more traditional publication is unlikely.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Feast Day of Saint Joseph

March 19 is the feast day of St, Joseph, Mary's husband, the earthly father of Jesus. I have done some thinking about Joseph, as many of us do, in the Advent season, when occasionally we get to hear about Joseph. He thinks of quietly unweaving himself from Mary, who is pregnant. This behavior is our first indication of his character. Under ancient law, he could have had Mary stoned to death, but he takes a gentler path.

And then, his life takes an even more surprising turn. He follows the instructions of the angel who tells him of God's plan. He could have turned away. He could have said, "I did not sign up for this!" He could have said, "No, thanks. I want a normal wife and a regular life."

Instead, he turned toward Mary and accepted God's vision. He's there when the family needs to flee to Egypt. He's there when the older Jesus is lost and found in the temple. We assume that he has died by the time Christ is crucified, since he's not at the cross.

Some of us today will spend the day celebrating fathers, which is a great way to celebrate the feast day of St. Joseph. We might also celebrate stepfathers and all the other family members who step in to help with the raising of children.

 Lately, I've been thinking about his feast day and what it means for administrators and others who are not the stars but who make it possible for stars to step into the spotlight.

 Most students will remember their favorite teachers. They won’t remember the people who scheduled the classes, the ones who ordered the textbooks and supplies, the ones who kept the technology working, the people who kept track of the records, the ones who interfaced with loan officers and others to get the money necessary for school. But those people are important, too.

Let us today praise the people in the background, the people who step back to allow others to shine. Let us praise the people who do the drudgery work that makes it possible for others to succeed.

Many of us grow up internalizing the message that if we're not changing the world in some sort of spectacular way, we're failures. Those of us who are Christians may have those early disciples as our role models, those hard-core believers who brought the good news to the ancient world by going out in pairs.

But Joseph shows us a different reality. It's quite enough to be a good parent. It's quite enough to have an ordinary job. It's quite enough to show up, day after day, dealing with both the crises and the opportunities.

Joseph reminds us that even the ones born into the spotlight need people in the background who are tending to the details. When we think about those early disciples and apostles, we often forget that they stayed in people's houses, people who fed them and arranged speaking opportunities for them, people who gave them encouragement when their task seemed too huge.

I imagine Joseph doing much the same thing as he helped Jesus become a man. I imagine the life lessons that Joseph administered as he gave Jesus carpentry lessons. I imagine that he helped Jesus understand human nature, in all the ways that parents have helped their offspring understand human nature throughout history.

Let us not be so quick to discount this kind of work. Let us praise the support teams who make the way possible for the people who will change the world.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Leaders of the Free World

Yesterday, I watched the first pictures of Angela Merkel and Donald Trump.  Angela Merkel has fascinated me for many years now--she's one of the first world leaders who is a woman, and she has a doctorate in physical chemistry--and the element which may fascinate me most is that she's the daughter of a Lutheran minister who came of age in communist East Germany.

I've spent some time trying to discover what strand of Lutheranism shaped her.  It seems that the East German government was somewhat permissive when it came to letting her father be a pastor--not what I was taught about communists when I was young.  But she also took part in communist youth activities which were almost compulsory, if one wanted opportunities.

What a difference from Donald Trump's youth and young adulthood.  And as older adults, their paths have not been similar.  My admiration for Merkel comes from many of her actions, but my love of Merkel comes from how she has handled the question of refugees.  I love her sense of hospitality and care for the stranger.  But underlying all of that is something else.  I get the sense that these refugees will be taken in and transformed into Germans, with jobs, who will give back to society for the next wave of people who will need them. 

It's much the way that Lutheran groups in the U.S. have helped refugees become citizens with a strong helping hand in the beginning, but an overall design at creating self-sufficient members of a new land.

It's clear from his budget that Donald Trump does not have the same values undergirding him as Angela Merkel does. It's a budget that worships military power while gutting every single program that helps people who are dispossessed from the larger society.  It is impossible to imagine Angela Merkel proposing such a budget.

I suspect that Angela Merkel's Lutheran beliefs are somewhat different than mine; I'm fairly sure we would disagree on what constitutes a marriage, for example.  But there are core beliefs that we find across almost all variations of Lutheranism (and much of Christianity for that matter), and that I don't see in this current administration:  care for the powerless, care for the dispossessed, care for those in the lower parts of society. 

We can disagree about how that care is distributed, but I always look at where we spend the money.  Budgets speak volumes about our values. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Saint Patrick and Modern Harsh Landscapes

Today is the feast day of Saint Patrick.  But as with Mardi Gras and Valentine's Day, the secular aspects of these days almost completely overshadow the religious and spiritual origins.

All these centuries later, I still find Saint Patrick fascinating.  What surprises me lately is how I find different aspects of his life fascinating at different points of my life.  This year, I'm thinking about Saint Patrick and the harsh landscape that was Ireland when he lived there.

I spent part of last Saturday watching PBS travel shows with an Ireland theme.  The countryside that was once so rugged and foreboding is now lush and green and well-travelled.  But those ancient monks like Patrick, who carved out rich lives in Ireland and Scotland, faced significant hostility, from the people who lived there to the weather to the ground and the ocean.   Ireland and Scotland must have felt like distant outposts, a tough exile.  And yet, what they had to offer was exactly what was needed to keep the faith going.

Many of us may lately have a similar feeling, that we face hostile surroundings--especially in these times of fierce budget battles that are just beginning.  I have lived in times of federal budgets that gut all that I hold dear--it's heartbreaking, but in these times, outsiders are needed more than others.

Some of us may have been feeling that way much longer.  Many of us who have a religious practice have been feeling like we live in an alien landscape, one that doesn't support our dreams and values.

But instead of despairing and longing for the mythical glory days of past times when the Church was more influential in the U.S., perhaps we should think of ourselves as Celtic monks, trying to till a very rocky, thorny soil. We should take comfort and encouragement from how much God can accomplish, even in the most unlikely circumstances. There’s plenty of transformative work for us to do today.

The lives of the Celtic monks remind us that even in a distant exile, wondrous things can happen if we stay open to all of the possibilities.  During our times of exile, it's good to remember that basic truth.