Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lent of Many Cancers

Our Good Friday service includes a series of meditations on the 7 last words of Christ.  Our pastor asks for volunteers from the creative writers and thinkers at our church.  I volunteered for "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

At the time, I thought I'd talk about the times that we feel abandoned, that if even people like Jesus and Mother Theresa felt abandoned, that we shouldn't let those feelings of abandonment unsettle us too much.

Then I experienced the Lent of many cancers--none of them mine, let me hasten to add.  But all of them afflicting people who are my age or slightly older.  I know that at age 48 I'm officially at midlife, perhaps slightly beyond the middle of midlife.  But still, it's disconcerting when so many people in such a short period of time come back from a check up with a cancer diagnosis.

I'm sure that God hasn't felt abandoned by me during these past 6 weeks.  I've prayed more than I've ever prayed before.

Have I felt abandoned?  No.  But I have felt baffled.  Who creates such a system, where cells can go haywire in such a way?

I've written before about a universe rooted in free will and how it means we will face mistakes, since we're not marionettes.  I've read the theories about evolution and how some dead ends, like cancer cells, lead to other types of evolution too.  But still, I'm unconvinced that God has done the best job possible with creation.

I recognize the hubris in saying this kind of statement.  The world is full of much that I don't understand or fully appreciate.

The Good Friday narrative that leads to our Easter joy makes no sense to me either.  The Bible is full of these kinds of narratives where good is fashioned out of ashes.  I do have faith in the Easter message, that death does not have the final answer.

So, I will celebrate Easter tomorrow, even as I still feel marked by the ashes of Ash Wednesday.  I will move through the coming weeks trusting that God has a bigger vision than I can understand.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Ancient-Future Maundy Thursday

Our church has often done non-traditional services on Maundy Thursday.  Some years we've had a group of teens who take over; some years we've done something in a multimedia vein.

Last night, we went straight back to the roots of the Church.  We gathered for an evening meal.  We sat around one long table, to which we added two tables as more people showed up:  a cross shape!

When we began, I felt a bit fretful.  We had one pot of soup, a bag or two of dinner rolls, and two bowls of salad.  And people kept coming and coming.

It was supposed to be a potluck, but I'm guessing that many people shared my reasoning:  most people cook for 12, so if I don't bring anything, it won't matter.

Happily, a few people came late, and they came with more soup and salad.  As always, we had leftovers. 

My pastor and I had set up a simple art project.  We had 7 canvases and markers on several tables.  I asked people to write or draw the names of people, places, and things that they loved and will miss when they're no longer on Earth.  At first people seemed hesitant, but then, many of them got into the spirit of it.

We gathered around the table and ate our supper.  As supper drew to a close we did the Faith 5:  we heard the Maundy Thursday text, we talked about our highs and lows, we looked for ways the Bible reading tied into our highs and lows, we prayed, and then we blessed each other.

I rearranged the canvases into the shape of a cross, and the plan had been to paint a heart over the top of people's writing.  I had in mind an outline of a heart.  But I didn't count on the two elementary-aged girls who wanted to help.  I gave them the paint and the brushes and let them take over after I drew the outline of a heart.

They painted exuberantly.  Even as we dimmed the lights to have the Communion part of the evening, they kept painting.  I decided to let them, since their moms seemed OK with it.

Our pastor had made individual breads so that we could do intinction.  Each person communed the person beside them.  And then our pastor blessed us, and we were done.

The painters were done too.  Our pastor said, "It's what the Holy Spirit would look like if the Holy Spirit was made of red paint."  I felt a bit distressed by the tornado shape of the heart, but that metaphor for the Holy Spirit works too.

Everyone pitched in to clean up and to put the room back into its Fellowship Hall set up.  People seemed reluctant to leave.  It was a wonderful night, that ancient maundatum ("love each other") put into flesh.

I'd like to find a way to do it more often . . .

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Poem for Your Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday.  Will your church wash feet today/tonight?  Strip the altar?  Have a Seder meal?

Will your church have a service at all?  How many people will come?

I have always loved these special services, this time out of time.  One of my favorite Maundy Thursday memories happened at a different church.  Since I had to teach at night, I organized a midday happening that involved lunch.  I had thought about a Seder meal, but that became too complicated.  I made a huge pot of lentils and served it with feta cheese, pita breads, and olives, foods that Jesus and his followers would have eaten every day.

A preschool had taken up every scrap of space in the classroom/kitchen/fellowship hall of the church, so we assembled in the back of the sanctuary.  We ate and read the Maundy Thursday texts and everyone exclaimed about how much they loved the lunch.

A different year, I was stuck in the airport as I travelled back from visiting my grandmother. As I observed the airport and thought about the ancient holiday and my home church, a poem practically wrote itself.

 So, for a different spin on Maundy Thursday, here's the poem.  It was published in Florida English.

Maundy Thursday at Hartsfield

 We long for Celestial food, or at least to leave our earthbound
selves behind, but it is not to be. The airport shuts
down as late thunderstorms sweep across the south.
I resign myself to spending Maundy Thursday in the airport.

One of a minority who even knows the meaning of Maundy,
I roam restlessly. I cannot even approximate
a Last Supper—the only food to be had is fast
and disgusting. I think of that distant
Passover, the Last Supper that transformed
us into a Eucharistic people.

A distant outpost of a vast empire, teeming
with a variety of humans, all hurrying
and keeping our heads down: Jerusalem or the modern
airport? I watch my fellow humans, notice
the hunger in their faces, their haunted feet,
so in need of love and water.

I watch Spring Breakers and athletes and moms
and gnarled elders and unattached children, all racing
through their earthly days, hurtling through time,
crossing continents, without any rituals to ground
them. I think of Christ’s radical
agenda: homelessness, care, and listening,
ignoring rules that made no sense,
making scarce resources stretch,
food eaten on the run, a community hunted
by their own and by the alien government.
I miss my own church, by now gathered in a dark
sanctuary, participating in ancient rituals
we don’t fully understand, looking for that thin
place between the sacred and the every day.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 20, 2014:

First Reading: Acts 10:34-43

First Reading (Alt.): Jeremiah 31:1-6

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-4

Second Reading (Alt.): Acts 10:34-43

Gospel: Matthew 28:1-10

Gospel (Alt.): John 20:1-18

Finally we move through Holy Week to Easter Sunday. At last, our Lenten pilgrimage draws to a close.

But perhaps you still linger back at Ash Wednesday. Perhaps you find the Good Friday texts more evocative than the Easter texts. It's interesting how our emotional lives aren't always in sync with the liturgical seasons or the Lectionary.

This year might be particularly tough with so many of us still out of work, or underemployed.  Maybe you still have your job and you're desperately afraid of losing it.  Maybe you find yourself thinking about how nice it would be to be RIFed. This year might be the year that someone we love faces a tough medical diagnosis or recovery. Maybe you've suffered some catastrophic loss that has stunned you to your core.  The world offers so many impediments to our joy.

The stories we hear during Holy Week remind us of how to move from lives that have been reduced to ash back to lives full of resurrection. This year, the Maundy Thursday story speaks to me, perhaps because I've been reading theology that talks about the practices of Christianity.

 In An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor observes, as many theologians have, that the teachings of Jesus revolve around the things we do, not the things we believe. The Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed came much later in Christianity. Long before we had creeds, we had Jesus saying, "Do this. Now do this. Now do this." We are to feed the hungry, care for the sick, protect the widows and orphans. Taylor comments on the Last Supper: "With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do--specific ways of being together in their bodies--that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself" (43). We have "embodied sacraments of bread, wine, water, and feet" (44).

I have an atheist friend who says she envies me my belief. I argue that my beliefs come because of my practice, and that she could enter into spiritual practices, and she would be a different person in a year. She proclaims not to believe me, but she also refuses to try my experiment. Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity, says "We become what we do" (192). Holy Week reminds us of what we are called to do.

We are called to break bread together, to drink wine together. We are called to invite the outcast to supper with us. We are called to care for each other's bodies--not to sexualize them or mock them or brutalize them, but to wash them tenderly. Thus fortified, we are called to announce that the Kingdom of God is breaking out among us in the world in which we live, and we are called to demand justice for the oppressed.

Of course, Holy Week reminds us of the risk. Jesus was crucified--that was a capital punishment reserved for those who were considered a threat to the state, people who would foment rebellion, for example. The world does not often respond kindly to the call for social justice.

But Easter promises us that our efforts will not be in vain. N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, is a great Easter text (I've underlined something on almost every page), and Wright says forcefully, " . . . what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to roll over a cliff" (208). We may not understand how God will transform the world. We may not be able to believe that bleakness will be defeated. But Easter shows us God's promise that death is not the final answer.

Spring reminds us that nature commits to resurrection. Easter reminds us of God's promise of resurrection. Now is the time for us to rekindle our resurrection selves.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Palm and the Passion

Palm Sunday took me to this picture that I took at Mepkin Abbey:

It made me think about how the palms can obscure Jesus and his mission:

And of course, from there I wondered about our own lives.  What keeps us from realizing our lives' true purposes?  Is it temporary, like palm branches?  Or something more difficult, like a slab of marble?

Maybe we just need to turn around, to get a different perspective, to get a peek behind the palms.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday, Passover, and Lunar Eclipses

Some random thoughts as we leave Palm Sunday and head towards Passover and Holy Week.  All this, and a lunar eclipse!

--Yesterday our church did Walter Wangerin's The Cry of the Whole Congregation.  I thought about how much more I like it than any other approach to Palm/Passion Sunday that I've seen.  I thought about how many churches I've been to in my life for Palm Sunday.  I tried not to realize how old I am.

--I confess that I prefer the very old-fashioned way of expecting Palm Sunday to be Palm Sunday, and if people can't make it back for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, oh well.

--But at least the Wangerin work is more participatory.  I really hate hearing one person read a lengthy Gospel.

--Passover starts tonight.  I think of the Seder meals of my past, of the ways that Christians have tried to understand the Jewishness of Jesus and the shared roots of Christianity and Judaism.

--I know that some people think that Christians celebrating a Seder is insulting to us all.  I disagree.  Well, I disagree if that Seder put on by Christians is done in a spirit of ecumenism.  And I've been invited to a Seder or two and been happy to be part of the Jewish family for the night.

--For wonderful insight into the Exodus story, see this episode of the NPR show On Being.  For a great resource that's very ecumenical yet rooted in Judaism, I highly recommend Marge Piercy's Pesach for the Rest of Us.  Lots of insight into the traditions and lots of recipes:  I think I'll bring it with me to work today.

--There's a lunar eclipse in the overnight hours.  I'll likely be up anyway between 3 and 5 a.m. in the Eastern time zone, so I'll keep an eye on it.  I'm always amazed at how much time a lunar eclipse takes.

--And it's tax day tomorrow.  I got my taxes submitted last week-end, so it's not a big day for me.  But the poet part of me wants to create a poem that weaves all of these things together.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On the Margins

A week ago, I had a strange experience, one I've continued to think about.  I had people over for a backyard cook-out.  One of them had to leave earlier than the rest, so I walked her out front to her car.

A man was staggering down the sidewalk.  My friend and I paused.  I asked, "Are you O.K.?"

From a distance, I had thought he was an elderly man, especially given the stoop and the shuffle.  Up close, I realized he was younger with muscles and tattoos. 

He said, "I really need a ride to the shelter.  I need some water."

I said, "Let me get my friend settled, and I'll get you some water."

I walked my friend to the car and made sure she was good to go.  I went back inside, poked my head out the back, and said to my spouse, "Could you come out front to help me?"  I gave what I hoped was a piercing look.  I grabbed two bottles of water and the cordless phone, and I went back to the front.

I gave the guy the waters, and I said, "Can I call someone for you?"  He gave me the phone number of the shelter.  My spouse came outside and chatted with the guy.

I called the shelter, gave them the details, and they said, "Someone will call you back."  I thought, how strange.  Not:  we'll send someone over to pick up this resident.

We told the guy that someone was coming, and that he was welcome to sit under the shade of our tree.  I asked if he needed food.  He said, "I just ate.  I need a ride."

I said, "Your ride is coming.  I have to get back inside."

I told my friends what had happened, and we discussed what I had done and what I should have done.  One friend commended me for giving him water; she said, "You did all you could do."

Well, no, not really.  I could have given him a ride.  Would I have given him a ride if he was female, and thus, less threatening?  Would I have given him a ride if I still had an old car so that I didn't mind the presence/smell of a homeless guy?

I was into a downward spiral of middle-class guilt when the phone call came.  It was a life skills coach who had been working with the guy.  He said, "We need you NOT to give this guy a ride.  This is his M.O.  He expects everyone to drop what they're doing to tend to his needs, and he needs to learn to plan ahead."

We had a brief talk wherein I learned that the guy has some violent tendencies, especially when people don't help him.  I asked what I should do, and the man on the phone advised me to let him sit until he wandered away.  I felt strange about that, but I did, even though the man at one point stretched out on the sidewalk, and I wondered if I should call an ambulance.

But then, he got up and walked away.

I thought about Jesus and wondered, as I often do, what Jesus would have advised me to do.  I could have invited the man to my backyard cook-out.  I could have given him a ride.  I could have done what I did, so that hopefully he'll learn better life skills.

As in Christ's time, we live in a place and time where there aren't many resources.  There's not a neighborhood detox center where the man can go to pull himself together.  We have no affordable housing in South Florida.  There are very few employers who would be willing to tolerate all the difficult behaviors while offering a shot at redemption.

I gave the man a rest under a tree and some water.  It's much more than some would do, but so little, considering all the needs that the man has.  And this man has some social service workers who are trying to help him, but despite these efforts, he's still in need of all sorts of care.

A week later, I'm still thinking about all of these issues.  I'm no closer to any answers.