Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Passover Inspirations

I have written before about the slogan that I associate with posters and fabric wall hangings from the 70's that proclaimed "Bloom Where You Are Planted" (see this post, for example).  It's one of those sayings that because of its ubiquity, I rarely see anew.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat recently wrote a post that made me think about that process of blooming, of how explosive it can be, and perhaps even painful:  "Can you imagine what it's like to be a tulip curled into a bulb, waiting patiently through the long and perhaps snow-covered winter for the indescribable call to unfold, to stretch toward the light, to shatter and expand and become something glorious and new?"

She discusses this blooming in the context of the Passover story:  "The Pesach story is like that. It's the beginning of our unfolding into the nation we continue to become. As a people we were curled into a tight place until we were brought forth from there -- maybe by the same ineffable force that whispers to tulip bulbs when it's time to burst free and emerge from underground."

I find it interesting to consider how we react to that whisper.  Some of us can never make a move--we might stay curled in our tight places forever--after all, it's warm there, with a steady paycheck, and we know what to expect from our cramped quarters.

When we think about Passover, we may not think about flowers and blooming.  Rachel brings up one of them:  "We realize that we don't need to stay where we are. We realize that we could choose to risk the unknown, even though it's scary, even though we don't know what lies ahead. The Pesach story says: take the leap. Step into the sea and trust that it will part for you."

I love this vision that says that the sea won't part until we've waded into it.  Once I posted this inspiration in a prominent place:  "Leap and the net will appear."  I like Rachel's wording better.

In this season of spring holidays, let us not lose sight of our blooming, the seas that lay ahead of us, the resurrection that is possible.

Monday, May 2, 2016

What if God Needs Us to Appreciate/Create Beauty?

My friend Vonda Drees recently published this image on Instagram:

She wrote this about it:

"‪#‎Senses‬ are ‪#‎sacred‬ ‪#‎thresholds‬." ~John O'Donohue, A Blessing for the Senses, Anam Cara

This brings to mind the Teresa of Avila quote, "Christ has no body but yours," which I usually hear in the context of service. This image, though, makes me wonder about her words in the context of sensing beauty.


I wanted to preserve this idea, as I, too, tend to see this quote about Christ's body in terms of our hands being the ones to do the work of healing the world--which I usually interpret as feeding the poor, healing the sick, doing social justice and charity work that is so often gritty and dirty.

But what if God needs us to appreciate beauty?  How might my days be different?

And if God counted on us to create beauty?  My days would be different yet again.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

How Should Christians Celebrate May 1?

May 1 is May Day and International Worker's Day, and thus, it is celebrated in a wide variety of ways.  We don't usually think of this day as a Christian holiday, but in many ways it is.  So how can Christians celebrate?

--Today, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Lutherans celebrate the feast day of Philip and James; others will celebrate May 3.  These are not the most well-known disciples.  Today you could reread the Gospels, a kind of literary Easter egg hunt, to try to find them.

----Make a bouquet of flowers.  If Spring has yet to come to your neighborhood, or if it's already left, buy some flowers!  Or get a plant, which will give you joy for many more weeks.  Say a prayer of thanks to the various creators along the way that got this beauty to you.

----It's probably too late to launch a Maypole.  In my elementary school in the 1970's, we had a May Day celebration that focused on flowers and Maypoles, not on workers.  Looking back, I'm amazed that our teachers were able to rig together a Maypole.  We spent weeks practicing the weaving of the ribbons in the Maypole dance.  We had a whole Mayday festival.  Parents came.  There was a Mayday king and queen.

So, you probably can't dance around a Maypole today.  But if you have some ribbons, you could weave them together and think about what might make you happy enough to dance.  God wants us to have joy in our lives--what brings you joy?

--Our Bible shows us time and time again that God wants us to look out for the dispossessed, and May 1 is a great time to do that.  Write letters on behalf of the unemployed, the underemployed, everyone who needs a better job.  Write to your representatives to advocate for them.  What are you advocating?  A higher minimum wage?  Safer working conditions?  Job security?  Work-life balance?
--Send some money to organizations that work for worker's rights.  I'm impressed with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which works to protect the migrant workers in the fields of Florida, but you certainly have plenty to choose from.

----Can you create something that weaves these strands together?  Here are some possibilities:  a sculpture made out of ribbons that explores the world of migrant workers.  A poem that celebrates flowers and contemplates the ways that we love some blooms (flowers) but not others (algae, cancer).  A painting that uses weaving in some ways to think about the past century of efforts to enlarge the workplace and make it safer.  A short story that updates the story of Philip--who would he be today? 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Retreat Retrospective

A week ago, I'd have been about to head to Richmond for the women's retreat put together by the women of my mom's church, St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Williamsburg, Virginia.  We went to Richmond Hill, a retreat center in urban Richmond, in a gentrifying neighborhood (or perhaps already gentrified).  Above the door is a reminder of one of the missions of Richmond Hill:

The retreat center is 2 or 3 buildings:  a historic house, a historic church and school, and parts of the building which look newer.

And of course, there are lovely gardens--someone has designed amazing creations in what is actually a very small space for walking gardens.

There's an amazing labyrinth:

I love the old church/chapel, where the community gathers 3 times a day to pray for Richmond and for a variety of other people and places:

The chapel has a wall of historic stained glass windows:

The meeting room, contained in the historic house part of the center, had windows on three sides; it was a great space where we gathered throughout the retreat to discuss parables, to experience contemplative movement, and to make cards that will be sent to parishioners throughout the year.

Along the hallway to the main meeting room were smaller spaces.  Here I am facilitating a workshop on spiritual journaling:

Here's a different meeting room:

My mom used the word "austere" to describe the rooms, which are simple with single use community bathrooms down the hall.  The rooms were spacious and the beds comfortable.   We remade the beds when we were done, and we prayed for the next retreatents as we prepared the room.

The retreat center has 10-16 people who live at the center full-time and take care of it.  The community has elements of a monastic order, although they are not vowed to place and they do not require a lifetime commitment.  There are small apartments for them tucked into various spaces throughout the center.  And there are common spaces; below is the lounge just outside the dining area:

Along the way, we were reminded of the overriding purpose of the retreat center:

And thus renewed, we headed back into the world, to be the light, the salt, the yeast, the city on a hill.

Friday, April 29, 2016

George Eliot on Living a Good Life

A month ago, I'd have been finishing Middlemarch, a reading experience which took much of the month of March.

I first read Middlemarch long ago, in grad school, as a young woman, just 24 years old.  It was the last novel in our Victorian novel class, so I read it just after Thanksgiving, in a mad rush to get to the end.  I appreciated many things about it, but I most appreciated being a female in the 20th century, when I wouldn't have to marry to be able to fulfill my destiny.

Of course, I read it as a woman who had just gotten married 15 months earlier, but I saw that as a choice.  And I was sure that I would have a wonderful career, because after all, I was in grad school, in full control of my destiny.

Oh, the hubris that is special to the young!

And now, here I am, having just read Middlemarch at age 50, and seeing my young self in Dorothea, although my marriage choice has been a wiser one.  Honestly, none of the marriages in the book would make me want to be married, but what else was a woman to do?

When I was young, I saw the book as an exploration of how the world stymies women.  But at this  point, I see it as an exploration of what it means to live a good life--even if we're not exactly sure what that would look like.  Early on, Dorothea leads the way. 

I first saw this glimmer early, on page 392 (chapter 39) when Dorothea explains her philosophy to Will:  "That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil -- widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower."

And at the end of the book, her life is held up as a model of the good life, although it may be a surprising model, not the traditional life we hold up as one that is true and good:

"Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

I found this ending so moving that I almost wept.  For obvious reasons, I love the idea that we can live our faithful lives, and that even our unhistoric acts can be important, even if the scope of that importance is not vast.

I am now reading Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, a true delight, with its mix of memoir and literary analysis and history.  And I came across this essay by Francine Prose.  Here is her wisdom:

"Even as our inner children are reading to find out what happens, Eliot's taking the grown-ups on a dizzying tour past the landmarks of adulthood: the uneasy truce between ambition and limitation; how we satisfy our desires for love, excitement, and money; the compromises we make with ourselves; how hard it is to admit a costly mistake.

Unlike a history book or tract, Eliot shows us what it was like, from the inside, to live in an era in which female intelligence was considered a serious handicap, and she tells us precisely what it's like to weigh the longing for simple happiness against the desire to be a good person and lead a meaningful life."

I didn't see all of these elements when I was a younger reader.  I always tell my students that you know that a piece of literature is good when it bears rereading.  By this standard, Middlemarch is great.

And those questions about what constitutes a good life--those shall always be with us.  And George Eliot has interesting answers.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Insights from a Retreat

A week ago, I'd have been starting another retreat journey, the third in a month (the earlier two happened on the same week, but they were very different, so I'm counting them as two:  Mepkin Abbey and Create in Me).  Before we get too much further away from that time, let me capture some insights:

--As we discussed the parables Saturday morning, one of the pastors said that God needs us as much as we need God.  That idea seemed revelatory to me, and I came back to it on Sunday morning when we studied ten maidens and their lamps (Matthew 25: 1-13).  We talked about the idea of judgment, but I tried to turn the conversation to God needing us to be ready, with our metaphorical sandals laced.

--From there, we went back to the barren fig tree  (Luke 13: 6-9) that hasn't been bearing fruit and the conversation about whether or not to rip it out.  The gardener fights for the tree, asking for one more chance to save it by giving it more manure.  A standard interpretation:  God is either the gardener or the landowner who wants to rip out the tree.  But what if God is the withered tree and humans are the manure?

--It seems an essential question:  how are we manure, for God, ourselves, and the world?  And what manure do we need to nourish ourselves?

--As I led the Bible study, I reflected on how much it was like teaching for me--the best part of teaching:  leading a conversation, being delighted in real time as we made new connections, guiding us as we discussed the implications.  No papers to grade!  If God needs people who are doing what makes them feel alive, then this activity is one of those things for me.

--I had this sharp memory of going to Jubilee Partners during my first year of college, and I particularly remembered that piercing yearning to go be part of that community.  I talked to a woman who is co-spiritual director of the Richmond Hill community, and I want to remember that being a part of an intentional community doesn't have to be a lifelong vow.

--During the Spiritual Journaling workshop, we talked about whether or not our Facebook practices could be considered journaling, and if so, how could we make it a more spiritual practice?  I'd like to explore this idea in more detail in a later post.

--Making cards is a great group activity, and we did it at the end of the retreat.  It worked, because it didn't rely on a critical number of people, and so, if people had to leave early, we could still do the project.  In fact, it might have been less easy to do with all of the people who were first there--not much room to move around the tables.  It also works because people of varying artistic talents can participate.  And it was a great way to prepare ourselves to go back to our "regular" lives.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 1, 2016:

First Reading: Acts 16:9-15

Psalm: Psalm 67

Second Reading: Revelation 21:10, 22--22:5

Gospel: John 14:23-29

Gospel (Alt.): John 5:1-9

As we work our way through the Lectionary again and again, I'm always intrigued by what leaps out at me. Usually when this Gospel comes around, I focus on the lines about not letting our hearts be troubled or afraid. But this year, I'm zoning in on the idea of God living with us, God making a home with us.

I think of all the roommate relationships I've ever had. Even when they've been less than optimal, I have to admit that I likely knew those roommates more intimately than all my other friends. In my younger, less content years, I'd focus on the bad traits. In my later years, I've tried to focus on the benefits to communal living while not getting derailed by the disadvantages. Now, I live with my husband only, which has a kind of elegant beauty, yet I miss having the more extended community we had when we lived in a communal household. I miss the community I enjoyed when I lived in college dorms. My mother-in-law enjoyed a similar sense of connectedness when she lived in a condo.

What would it mean to have this kind of connectedness with God? What kind of roommate would God be? I imagine that God would be the kind of roommate who would make delicious meals and would make sure that there was enough to share. I imagine that God would bring scruffy people home to dinner, but we wouldn't be afraid, because we'd know that it's always O.K. when God brings scruffy people home for dinner. I imagine that God would be the kind of roommate who would go to the trouble to arrange outings for us, thinking of what would delight us and bring us all closer together.

More importantly, this Gospel lesson points to the kind of homemaking intimacy that God longs to share with us. This Gospel doesn't present a picture of God as disapproving Judge and Jury. This Gospel presents God as roommate, who knows our hopes and fears, who shares our daily journeys. This picture of God is not a God-as-Santa-Claus. God doesn't promise to fix everything in this Gospel, at least not explicitly. But we have something that might be better. This Gospel shows us a God as partner, partner in our joys and sorrows.

The idea of God-as-roommate is probably a strange concept to most of the world's religions and perhaps to many Christians. And yet, if you go back to read the Gospels, it's an idea that Jesus returns to again and again. Maybe we would prefer to have a fix-it God. Maybe we would feel better with an absent God who returns only to judge us sternly for all our failings. That idea might be less scary than a God who lives with us and thus, sees us at our best and worst. Maybe we've spent a lot of time struggling to leave home (literally or metaphorically), so the idea of a God who wants that kind of intimacy might be offputting.

I admit that the idea of a wish granting God has more pull, especially on days when life isn't going well. I understand that people who have yearned for good parental relationships--or for those of us fortunate enough to experience a good family life--the idea of God the loving parent has appeal. But the idea of God as partner has a sturdiness to it. It's the metaphor that can last as life gets tough.

Life will always get tough, and just as spouses can't always fix everything, a God who grants us free will also cannot fix everything. When life gets tough, as it always does, the idea of God as Santa Claus will shake our faith, as life's dreadful turns of events don't support that view of God.

Jesus doesn't give us this view of a God who waves a magic wand to get rid of all our troubles. Jesus shows us a God that wants to be there with us, through all of life's events, both joyous and sad. Jesus shows us a God that will help us in our troubles if we ask, but not necessarily make them go away. Jesus shows us the idea of God as a partner, a partner with tremendous resources so that we need not be afraid or troubled.