Saturday, May 27, 2017

Between Ascension and Pentecost

Many of us move through (live in?) religious communities where the discussion turns to the decline of Church in the Western world.  I realize that I'm framing the discussion in very simple terms. We could define the Western world (industrialized nations?  Northern hemisphere?  Europe, which is very different than the U.S.), and we could argue about the definition of Church.

But I don't want to get bogged down in those discussions.  This morning I want to think about the passage from Easter to Ascension to Pentecost.  Today I'm especially interested in the time between Ascension and Pentecost.

We hear a lot about those early believers who changed the world by going out and being in the world.  In small groups, they took their message outward and formed more small groups--those groups formed more groups, and on and on.  Many of us have had that example flung at us as people ask why we stay in our church buildings and expect people to come to us--a good question, but again, not the one that interests me this morning.

This morning, I'm feeling tired, and I'm beginning to wonder when I'll stop feeling tired--but again, not the item that interests me.

For several years, I've been interested in the smaller stories in the New Testament--the times between the big times.  What do the disciples do between Ascension and Pentecost?  I assume that they wait.  They've been told that they will be clothed with power from on high.  But they don't wear those clothes yet.

A few years ago, my church did an extended study of Paul, and again, I was struck by how Paul's story was one of success--followed by times of waiting--and the occasional outright failure.

So if we're in a time of waiting, not dynamic church expansion--or if we're in a time of contraction--let us take heart.  Other disciples have had similar experiences.  Let us trust the One who has the larger vision, the One who has the longer view.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Buyer's Remorse of God

We are at the 4 year anniversary of buying our house; we are at the one year anniversary of finding out that our cottage resident would be moving to Utah.

I do not feel buyer's remorse, but every year, as insurance bills start arriving in the mail, I do wonder how long we can afford to live here.  This morning, I wondered if God ever has buyer's remorse.  I thought about our planet as a house in need of constant repair.  I wrote a poem.

I envision God as having irritation at being able to see the potential in a place, but not being able to quite pull off the transformations that should be possible.  I look at my temporary kitchen and think about ways that the permanent kitchen might be better.  We have the money set aside.  All I need is the time to get some estimates--and to move into the cottage for the reconstruction period.  And before that can happen, we'll need to get the space ready . . . and the floors fixed . . .  .  And then the largeness of the task overwhelms me.  I imagine God feeling the same way.

If I carry this metaphor onward, does that mean that humans are God's contractors?  I could make that work.  Some contractors know what they are doing.  Others will take the money and vanish.

But as I am committed to my house, so is God committed to this resurrection project.  My poem ends at the end of the day with God having a glass of wine on the front porch as the sun sets.

It's still Eastertide, after all.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Feast Day of the Ascension

Today is the Feast Day of the Ascension,  40 days after Easter, 10 days before Pentecost.  This feast day commemorates Jesus being taken up into Heaven.

Imagine it from the eyes of those who have followed Christ from traipsing around Galilee, Crucifixion, and then Resurrection.  You have just gotten your beloved Messiah returned to you, and then, poof, he's gone again.  What a whipsawed feeling they must have had.

How do we celebrate this day, so many thousands of years later?  Many churches have chosen to simply ignore it.  We march on to Pentecost.

But let us take a minute to acknowledge the wonder of the Ascension.  It's a fate reserved for very few in the Bible.  And let us take a minute to think about Jesus, who has already suffered death, the fate which an ascension spared for the few others who experienced it.

Just like the first followers, just like Jesus, we don't get to stand around waiting for our chance to go to Heaven.  There's work to be done on Earth.  The coming Sundays of the Pentecost season remind us that we’re not put on Earth to wait to die. We are here to help God in the ultimate redemption of creation. Jesus began that work of that redemption. We are here to further it along, at least as much as we can during our very short time here.

And how do we do that? The possible answers to that question are as varied as humanity. Some of us will pray without ceasing. Some of us will fight for social justice. Some of us will create works that point others to God. Some of us will visit the lonely and the sick. Some of us will give away our money so that others have the resources to do the creation redeeming work that needs to be done.

Whatever we choose, it’s important that we get to work. We don’t want to get to the end of our time here, only to be asked, “Why did you stand there gaping, when there was so much work to do?”

For those of us who feel like we can't do much, consider this language from today's Gospel,  the latter part of Luke 24:9: "so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

I love that language:  clothed with power from on high--how would we behave if we truly believed we had been clothed with power from on high?

Pentecost will be here soon, the holiday that commemorates the first clothing with fire.  But we've all been clothed in that way.  We have all been clothed with power.  Believe in that force--and then get to work in the claiming of creation.

Prayer for the Feast of the Ascension:

Ascending God, you understand our desire to escape our earthly bonds, to hover above it all, to head to Heaven now instead of later.  Remind us of our earthly purpose.  Reassure us that we have gifts and talents that are equal to the tasks that you need us to do.  Help us close our gaping mouths and get to work.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, May 28, 2017:


First Reading: Acts 1:6-14

Psalm: Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 (Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Gospel: John 17:1-11

In this week's Gospel, we see Jesus at the end of his mission. We see Jesus praying, telling God all the things he (Jesus) has done. We also see Jesus handing over his ministry to his disciples.

What a strange thought, that these humans are ready for such a large mission. And yet, even my devout atheist friends have to admit the success of these early followers. And those of us several thousand years out might be wondering what Jesus did to foster this success. After all, if you set out to choose a group of people to bring the Good News to the far corners of the planet, you would likely pass those early disciples right on by.

That's the wonderful news that winds its way through the Bible. God can use all sorts of misfits and scraps of humanity to accomplish wonderful things. In her wonderful book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott says, "You've got to love this in a God--consistently assembling the motleyest people to bring, into the lonely and frightening world, a commitment to caring and community."

Notice that all of Jesus' followers were given responsibilities. They didn't just show up at church and wait to be entertained. They didn't march off in a huff when Jesus didn't do things the way the last savior did. I'm sure that Jesus lost some people along the way--after all, he made some stringent demands. But he also gave people ownership and expectations.

Jesus taught his followers to live in the moment, to not worry so much about 5 year projections or the future of the faith. He taught people to focus on the needs of the community and not on power structures that they hoped to maintain.

Jesus commanded his followers to be dependent on each other and to trust that God would provide for them. Think about one of the Gospel's versions of the last supper. Jesus sends them into town to procure things and when they're asked what they're doing, they're to say that the Lord has need of these things. And it works! When they're sent out, they're sent out two by two, with only what they can carry (and it's a light load). This ensures that they'll make connections in the new community, not just trust in each other and the people that they already know.

I'll admit that it's simplistic to look at Jesus' ministry in this way. We can't just set out into the world in pairs (we can't, can we?). We can't decide to start over in thinking about the way we do ministry.

But maybe we can refocus a bit. The church does best when it focuses on the needs of the community and looks to fulfill those needs. Many of us might think in terms of a soup kitchen or a day care, but there are other needs too. Maybe our frazzled community needs a contemplative service, where people can come into a candlelit sanctuary and sit and hear the lessons, without a sermon and communion and all the other stuff we cram into a service. Maybe people need a noon concert series. Maybe people need to come to paint and to listen to the voice of God in the paint. Maybe people need a book group to keep their minds from turning to mush.

If you don't know where to begin (the needs of our communities can seem overwhelming), start by emulating Jesus as we see him in this lesson. We can start by praying for each other. We can pray for all our colleagues, not just the ones that are out sick. We can pray for all our church members, not just the ones who don't come to church anymore. We can pray for our leaders: our pastor, our President, our boss, Congress, the mayors and city managers. We can pray for our friends and family. Jesus told us to pray without ceasing, and these days, it seems we have no shortage of those who need our prayers.

So, start with some simple approaches. Say a prayer of thanks before you eat, and as you say grace, remember those who are hungry. Pray for the end of hunger in our world. Say a prayer of thanks at the end of the day and the beginning of the day, and thank God for the people in your life who mean so much to you. When your boss yells at you, when your clients are frustrated, when your students curse, pray for them. Be the mirror that reflects God's light into a world that needs it so desperately.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Poem for a Morning after a Bombing

What to say on a morning after a bombing in Manchester that seemed to target children and teens attending a concert? 

I could talk about the first news story I heard, about cab drivers who took children home, even though they had no money.  I could talk about hearing of hotels who sheltered unaccompanied children.  I am always heartened by the ways that humans come together in a crisis.

I thought about posting a poem that had something specific to say about terrorism.  But I don't have many of them, and the ones that I do have are not quite right this morning.  I clicked on a poem in my files called "Safe"; it's about what happens when Jesus joins the baseball team.  It pleased me, but again, I'm not sure it's quite right this morning.

Instead, let me offer this poem.  Maybe it will cheer us as we remember our own days of eating GORP.  Maybe the thought of falling safely asleep under a wide open sky will remind us that terrorist events really are few and far between. 

Let us remember how the natural world can heal us.  Let us pray for all who need healing.


Heading for the Hills


I recognized the menace in the murky waters.
I never felt my family’s fellow joy
in the ocean. I refused
to wade deeper than my ankles.

I saw how the sea seduced
people, luring them with lapping
waves, then sucking them out into the depths.

I did not even collect shells. If the ocean thought
I would be enticed that easily,
it could think again. I knew of its creepy
creatures that crawled across the dark bottom,
the currents that swirled at cross
purposes. I wanted no part.

I preferred our mountain escapes. Content
to hike the tallest parts of the state, I filled
my pack full of water and trail mix, home made
Gorp, that magical mix of cereal and peanuts,
raisins and candy. I loved to sleep
in a mummy bag that hugged my shape
and kept me safe. We ate dinners
made out of reconstituted powders and got along
in ways we never did in the flat plains
of every day life. My sister and I gathered
firewood and played cards, collected leaves
and tried to whistle like the birds.

In the mountains, I knew the contours
of possible catastrophe, and it didn’t frighten
me. I knew how to work the snakebite
kit (which I shouldn’t ever have to use, if I made sure
to walk with heavy footsteps). I knew the bears
were far more interested in my candy than in munching
me. I knew the force of gravity would not suck
me off the mountainside, that we would safely sleep
beneath the stars after we counted all the constellations.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Brunch Thoughts

--Months ago, I bought a Groupon for a 2 for one brunch.  The expiration date was fast approaching, so yesterday, we met a group of friends in downtown Hollywood.  We walked to the restaurant, which meant the all-you-can-drink mimosas really was a good deal.  We stayed there for 3 hours enjoying good food, great conversation, and mimosas.

--How would our experience of worship change if we could have all-you-can-drink mimosas during church service? 

--I've thought many times before about how it would be nice if communion could be a real meal, not just a shred of bread and a thimble of wine.  I've been lucky to have a few worship experiences that were built around meals, and as I have always thought, they were more meaningful.  But were they more meaningful because they were new and carefully planned or because they were truly more meaningful?

--I realize that a real meal and ever-flowing mimosas would work better in small churches than large ones, and in different worship spaces, of course.

--As I was getting ready for our walk to brunch, I was listening to reports from Trump's trip to the Mideast.  What to make of one of the least spiritual U.S. presidents heading to the world's holy sites?  Is it a Nixon in China moment?  And what would that mean in this context?

--What will Pope Francis say to Donald Trump?  Of all the places where I'd like to be an unseen observer, that's the one I'd choose.  At least, this month.

--My New Year's goal was to have more brunch.  I'm not sure I've been very successful.  But there is time yet.

--We're almost at the half-way point of the year.  It's good to think about the trajectory of the year.  But I won't be doing that thinking this morning.  It's time to shift my focus back to work.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Feast Day of St. Helena

Today is the feast day of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine.  You may or may not remember that Constantine was the Roman ruler from 306-337.  Yes, that's a long time ago, and you may wonder why a theological blog would be interested in him, or his mother, at all.  Constantine gets credit for being the first Christian Roman ruler (although some historians would point out that he was not solely Christian) and for making the spread of Christianity possible.

Even if he was not personally responsible for the spread of Christianity (we'll let historians debate that, while we move on towards our discussion of Helena), he helped foster the spread of the faith by bringing an end to religious persecution.  The Edict of Milan, which set Christians free to worship as they chose, also gave freedom from persecution to other religions too; everyone was set free to worship whichever god(s) they wished.

Today we celebrate his mother, St. Helena (although if you're Catholic, you'll have to wait until August 18).  Did she bring up Constantine in the faith?  We simply do not know.

St. Helena has come to be associated with holy relics, and perhaps we might find the roots of the Reformation with her.  If she had not so vigorously asserted the power of these relics (if indeed, she did; I realize that we're talking about legend here, not history that's been written down), would their power have continued into the medieval time period?  If there had been no relics, no selling of indulgences, would Martin Luther have felt strongly enough to write his 95 theses and post them on the Wittenberg door?

If this stretch is too much for you, let's just celebrate St. Helena as the mother of Constantine, and one of his influences.  Under Constantine's rule, Christianity came to many of our ancestors, and for that, we can be grateful.

It's important to remember how much influence we may have on future generations as parents, as relatives, as concerned adults.  You may have days where you despair, where you wonder what your life means as you endure useless meetings, bullying colleagues, pointless work.  But God can use it all.  In the life of someone like Helena, we see that we don't all have to be a Constantine.