Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 27, 2014:

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 29:15-28

Psalm: Psalm 119:129-136

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 128 (Psalm 128 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:26-39

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today we have a series of interesting parables which Jesus uses to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. I don't think that Jesus is explaining the afterlife, the way that many of us might assume when we hear the word "Heaven." Instead, Matthew uses that word as shorthand for a concept that's closer to "life as God intended." Of course, I'm grossly simplifying, but instead of doing an in-depth exploration of the word "Heaven," let's look at the images Jesus uses.

Note the smallness, the almost invisibility, of the first two images (verses 31-33): mustard seeds and yeast. There are two elements which are interesting. One is that these small grains left alone will transform themselves into something bigger--and in the case of yeast, will transform the surrounding elements too. Leave flour alone, and it won't change much in terms of volume. Even if it gets buggy, the bag won't explode. But add yeast and water and a bit of sweetness and leave the bowl in a warm place for a few hours--when you return to the bowl, the dough might be overflowing. Likewise with a seed. Plant it in the earth, add some water, and leave it alone--if you're lucky, you get a shrub or a tree. If we go out looking for the kingdom to be a big, glorious thing, we might miss the Kingdom.

Many people simply don't register the presence of God because they're looking for the wrong thing. They're looking for something huge and powerful. For example, think about the Jews of Jesus' time. They didn't want spiritual salvation. When they talked about a savior, they wanted someone who would kick the Romans out of their homeland. They missed the miracle of Jesus because they looked for the wrong sign.

The next set of metaphors (verses 44-46) talks about the preciousness of the Kingdom and also a bit about the effort required to find it. The treasure/pearl doesn't just fall into the men's laps--they're out looking.

We live in a culture that doesn't want to put in a lot of work. If you don't believe me, watch the claims that advertisers make: I can lose weight by eating a cookie, I can make by working just 15 minutes a day, I can get a college degree without leaving my house. I love talking to my colleagues and collecting their strange student stories. One of my colleagues had a student stomp out in a huff when she realized she'd have to write essays. Keep in mind, my colleague teaches an English Composition class. Did the student think they'd be creating macaroni collages?

And then I start to wonder why this student imagines that she can go to college and not have to work. Where does she get that message? Of course, the culture in which she lives beams that to her all the time.

Likewise, Kingdom living requires some effort on our part. God wants to meet us, but we have to go forward towards God. We have to look for the right signs, and we have to make some effort. That effort might be regular prayer, spiritual reading, going to church, turning ourselves into caring people, giving more of our money away.

But the end of this week's Gospel assures us that the effort will pay off. We don't want to be in the furnace where men weep and gnash their teeth. For those of you who read the end of the Gospel as a metaphor of Hell after death, you might be right. But I would argue that life is terribly hellish right here and now for people who aren't doing transformational work.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Creativity: Using What's On Hand

A few years ago, at Mepkin Abbey, we noticed that one of the huge, majestic trees had toppled over.  But we were more awed by what the monks had decided to do with that tree:

The other chunk of tree was later carved into a crucifixion scene:

The monks could have paid a lot of money to an arborist team to have that tree removed.  But instead, they saw the creative possibilities.

It makes me wonder about the materials I have on hand.  I often go out to buy materials for a project.  What if I worked from a different perspective?  What if I thought about what I already have in my house and went from there?

This monastic approach of using what's on hand branches out into all areas of the monk's lives, from what I can see.  I've been there for meals with pairings that I thought very odd:  a spinach-tomato frittata paired with a cottage cheese and pineapple side dish.  I wondered if the monks were simply trying to use up the food on hand that was about to go bad.   How many of us might have run out to the grocery store to pick up some ingredients that we thought would be more appropriate for a side dish, like a salad or broccoli?

Well, if I used what I had on hand and started from there, I'd have time to do a lot more creating, time I would have spent running errands and waiting to have money to buy supplies and waiting to have time to get to the store. 

Let me take a lesson from the monks.  Let me begin with what's on hand.  Let me start now.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Quilting a Meeting

Yesterday, I took my time-sensitive quilting project to our church council meeting.   I've been on the lookout for chunks of time to work on it, and yesterday's meeting seemed perfect, with its start time moved from 10 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.  I don't usually take copious notes so I thought I'd try quilting during our meeting time.

I've noticed that many of our members keep looking at their cell phones, so I didn't feel I'd be disrespectful by quilting.  In fact, I think I think checking one's cell phone is more distracting mentally than quilting.  One of our members has worked on knitting a prayer shawl, so there's been a precedent.

During my time at the Create in Me retreat, I crocheted a prayer shawl.  I worried that I might not pay attention if I was crocheting, but I found that just the opposite was true.  Having my hands busy quieted my mind.  And when I look at my notebook from that retreat, I find that I took notes too.

Yesterday, I found that the quilting calmed my mind in a similar way.  And when our meeting time went longer than scheduled, I didn't mind.  I made more progress, and that was good.

I wish I could take my quilting and crocheting projects with me everywhere, especially to meetings at work.  Alas, taking my projects to work is probably unwise--but perhaps I'll start thinking about meetings of other types as opportunities to get some quilting done.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seneca Falls and the March To Inclusion

Today in 1848, the first U.S. women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Among the demands made by the women assembled was the right to vote.

I could make the argument that it's historical events like this one that set us on the road towards expanded pulpits, although it would be many more years after women started exercising their right to vote (in 1920) before we'd see women in Protestant pulpits. The major exception to that sentence would be the Pentecostal churches. The Pentecostal branch of Protestantism was more open to women preachers early on, since the movement was founded by women.

Of course, I must admit that we're still far away, very far away, from full parity. We still see very few female senior pastors compared to males. We still see very few female bishops, when we compare those numbers to the bishoprics held by males. But we've made amazing progress in the 162 years since the Seneca Falls Convention.

What I find most exciting about the various human rights movements of the past few centuries is how the idea of rights for one group expands to affect other disenfranchised groups. I'm a Lutheran, and as a denomination, we're still wrestling with the idea of homosexual people serving as pastors. The ELCA allows homosexual people in lifelong committed relationships to serve as pastors, but also allows churches to decide not to invite homosexual pastors to serve them.

And of course, there are still plenty of mainstream Protestants who aren't comfortable with women serving. The work is not done.

And I'm not even taking on the Catholic church.

But today, let us celebrate Seneca Falls. Let us celebrate those few brave women who dared to dream of a more inclusive world. Let us offer prayers of gratitude for those women and for human rights workers everywhere. Jesus constantly reminded us that we're to look out for the poor and the oppressed. Those who work for human rights show us ways that we might fulfill Christ's mission.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sidewalk Chalk Evangelism

On a discussion on Facebook the other day, a woman wrote: 

"I am using Brian McLaren's book: We Make the Road by Walking, for small groups starting September. We are using the walking/pathway/journey of faith image for next year, beginning in the fall. Looking for creative ways to be church with this focus. Weekly meeting in small groups will happen in homes, a Panera Bread and the church. Looking for new ideas for weekly book study gatherings and to make real the journey of faith image.

 My church is a smaller congregation in an affluent neighborhood. It is a higher educated group and many live very focused, purpose filled lives. Feeling desperate for new ideas.

 Need some inspiration from the creative clergy women community!"

I thought of labyrinths and of walking through the neighborhood in prayer.  But I also thought of this picture from Lutheridge, taken by Mary Canniff-Kuhn:

Thus, inspired by the above picture, I wrote this idea, which I want to capture here as well:

"I am impressed with things that my poet/teacher friends do with poems and big hunks of sidewalk chalk. You can make trails this way too. My friends would put poems on sidewalks. I bet you could do something similar with faith images, verses, inspirational words and phrases, prayers that are chalked onto the pavement. Or if not sidewalks, perhaps the church parking lot, driveways, and whatever Panera allows."

I love the idea of leaving wonderful, affirming messages on sidewalks and pavements across the nation.  What a powerful evangelism that would be.

I use the word evangelism guardedly.  I don't have a vision of the kind of evangelism designed to get people to come to our churches.  But I do have a vision of spreading the gospel good news this way:  angel messages for a different age.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fasting for Peace

Driving to work yesterday, I heard this story on NPR about Jews and Muslims breaking their fast together as they prayed for peace in the West Bank; they were part of a worldwide effort as a Jewish fasting holiday that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in and the Muslim fast of Ramadan happened in the same month.  I felt a pang of regret that I had not fasted.

I had heard about the fast in the hours leading up to it.  Rabbi Rachel Barenblat had mentioned it in her writing, and I briefly thought about attempting it myself.  I didn't do it for many reasons:  fear, laziness, not enough time to build up my resolve.

People might question why fast anyway?  What good would it do?  One of the commenters in the NPR piece explains, "Fasting is used by Judaism to beseech God, to say, look, we're withholding pleasure from ourselves. And we're withholding food and drink, because we really want you to recognize that there's something going on that needs attention." 

In this post, Rachel Barenblat says, "What does abstaining from food and drink for a day actually accomplish? I know that it won't change the external realities on the ground. But communal fasting is a very old Jewish way of connecting with others in grief and in hope. I hope that the fast will make an impact on we who are participating in it, and will inspire us to take action to bring peace and healing. And perhaps the fast will bring some hope to those who hear or read about it, and will inspire them to take action, too." 

She quotes Rabbi Jill Jacobs:  "As Jews, we know that fasting is one of our tradition's main expressions of a public crisis. While most of us don't believe that God will literally heed our fast and come to intervene, we nevertheless yearn for a way to express our sorrow and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. Publicly embracing an interfaith  spiritual action is a small step, but it is better than privately wringing our hands and beating our breasts."

I used to be a skeptic.  I would be one of those people sneering:  "Why pray?  Why fast? Go out and work with the poor.  They need action, not symbolic gestures."

But through the years, I've seen social injustice so huge that a simple action of mine won't provide the fix.  I'm thinking of apartheid in South Africa, which haunted me in so many ways in the 1980's.  I participated in many interfaith events which primarily consisted of prayer, song, and letter writing.

Once I would have thought of prayer, song, letter writing, and fasting as symbolic actions.  Now, I no longer do.

Do I think that God responds because of our actions?  Yes--and I think that others respond too.  Enough actions, symbolic and otherwise, and the world shifts.

Did my prayers create the end of apartheid?  Would it have happened anyway?  Perhaps the divestment campaigns of the 1980's did more to hasten the change?  I do not know.  Part of me says that it wouldn't have happened without the spiritual component.  Part of me would talk about geopolitical events and keep the spirituality out of it.

I am nourished by those memories of spiritual solidarity from earlier times in my life.  That's why I wish I had fasted on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunities for shared spiritual actions in the future, even if peace blooms in the West Bank.  I'm hopeful that the next time I'll be quicker to say yes.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, July 20, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 44:6-8

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 28:10-19a

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

Psalm: Psalm 86:11-17

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 (Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-25

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Again this week we have agricultural metaphors--what an intriguing scenario, to have an enemy that sneaks into your fields to sow weeds, instead of just destroying the field outright. And what an interesting response of the owner: to let the wheat and the weeds grow, to separate the useful from the useless later, once the growing is done and the reaping finished.

The traditional response to this Gospel sees this story as a metaphor about Judgement Day. My problem with that metaphor is that weeds don't turn into wheat, and I don't like the implications of that. The parable comes much too close to advocating predestination for my Lutheran sensibilities to be happy with this interpretation.

Luckily, humans aren't solely weeds or wheat. I know that there are some weeks where I'm more of a weed than anything that is of agricultural use. And I'm the pesky kind of weed; I'm not the kind of weed that grows quietly alone; I impede the spiritual progress of others, strangling and choking and making life miserable. I console myself by telling myself that we all have those days or weeks or seasons where our weedy natures take over.

But I can’t take too much consolation. These summer Gospel readings remind us that we don’t get to sleep in the soil forever. We don't get to loll around in our wheatfield, hoping that we're one of the chosen ones and not one of the weeds. At some point, the wheat will be separated from the weeds.

Let us return to the idea of sowing and seeds, a useful metaphor in so many ways. How can we sow seeds now that will blossom into good gardens later? There are as many ways to do this as there are vegetables in the garden right now in many parts of the country.

Maybe we could pray more. Maybe we could resolve to be cheerful, no matter what the day brings. Maybe we could give one or two percent more of our income away. Maybe we could remember to say “please” and “thank you.”

Our basic task is to reflect God's light into a world that dims each day. How can you best do that?

If you feel disheartened, like your weedy self is too firmly rooted, remember those who have gone before you. One of Christianity's most successful evangelists, Paul, was killing Christians before he converted. If God found a use for Paul, God can use your seedling talents too.