Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Hush Before Holy Week Begins

Today, across Christendom, churches will celebrate Palm Sunday; many churches will also celebrate Passion Sunday.  Today, we hurdle into Holy Week--many pastors will be leading as many as 15-20 services between this morning and Easter evening. 

Today, many of us will receive palms.  The leftover palms will be burned and mixed with oil and saved for next year's Ash Wednesday service, where they will be smudged on our foreheads and we will be reminded of our essential dusty nature.

Palm Sunday reminds us that the people who will be our friends today may turn on us tomorrow.  The adoring crowds of today may turn accusatory by the end of the week.  And yet, as we journey through our lives, suffering every sort of betrayal, the Holy Week trajectory reminds us of the joy we will also experience along the way:  good meals with friends, deep conversations, a God who so wants deep connection with us that he will wash our feet.

And the hectic hurry of Holy Week ends in Easter, where we are reminded of the ultimate promise:  no matter how bad it gets, God has a plan.  We may not be able to see it, we may not be able to believe it, but God is hard at the work and play that is the redemption of creation.

Now that's Good News!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Poetry Saturday: What to Do with the Ashes

It's strange to see Holy Week just on the horizon.  I am still in an Ash Wednesday frame of mind.  I am still wrestling with the idea that we do all we do, only to come to dust.  It does seem to be a bit late for this existential crisis.  Or maybe, here at midlife, it's a crisis come just on schedule.

I read Roz Chast's Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, about the decline and death of her very old parents.  At the end, she talks about deciding what to do with her parents' ashes.  They sit in their separate boxes in her closet.

She thought about dumping them somewhere, but she had problems with all of the possibilities.  I loved this sentence:  "Throwing their ashes off the side of a boat makes as much sense to me as tossing them into a wastebasket at Starbucks" (p. 227).

I've thought about this issue of what to do with ashes since my mother-in-law died.  We talked about tossing them into the ocean, but she never really went to the beach down here.  She had feelings for Indiana, but if we had driven back there, we would have been unfamiliar with her landscape.  In the end, my spouse buried them in the yard of our old house, and the bougainvillea tree that he planted always bloomed extravagantly. 

We decided that she was as fond of our house as any place.  And we liked the idea of her returning to the earth, instead of sitting in the gray cardboard box.

We are both Ash Wednesday and Easter people, always conscious of that Ash Wednesday message that we are dust and to dust we shall return--and yet, we are also resurrection people.

When we were discussing ashes and what to do with them, this poem came to me.  The people in this poem are entirely fictional.

Ash and Salt

For a year after you died,
I reread all those childhood books,
revisit Winnie, Madeline, Charlotte, and Wilbur.

I remember you reading
these books that provided us a private language
of blustery days, bad hats, and great pigs.

I make myself the foods that provided comfort once:
fudge, grilled cheese sandwiches, boiled custard,
pancakes with chocolate chip smiles.

I light the candle I find in a closet
of a house I won’t live in much longer.
The candle consumes itself.

I decide it’s time to let you go,
to set this yapping dog of grief free.
And so, with the full moon above,

 and the sea sucking my ankles,
I try. I hurl clumps
of ashes into the waves.

I trust that they’ll be gone
by morning, that no little children
will make a gruesome discovery at sunrise.

Lacking the proper language, with no sacrament,
I lick my fingers
that taste of ash and salt.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Heading To Holy Week

As we head to Holy Week, how can we hear the familiar stories with fresh ears?  How can we move closer to this story that's so distant from us in time and place?

Do the palms obscure the real Jesus?

What feet are waiting to be washed?

What table waits to be set for a meal made new with meaning?

The soldier looks impassively at the Passion.  How are we colluding with our empire?

So many wounds to bind.

How can we celebrate Easter with the taste of ashes still in our mouths?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 29, 2012:

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Gospel: Mark 14:1--15:47

Gospel (Alt.): Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

Palm Sunday has become a busy Sunday. Somewhere in the past twenty years, we've gone from hearing just the story of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem to hearing the whole Passion story--on Palm Sunday many Christians leave the church with Jesus dead and buried. It's downright disconcerting to those of us who return to church for the rest of Holy Week--we hear the same stories on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It makes for a long, Sunday Gospel reading--and reinforces one of the paradoxes of the Passion story: how can people shout acclaim for Jesus in one day, and within the week demand his Crucifixion? Maybe it's good to hear the whole sad story in one long sitting, good to be reminded of the fickleness of the crowd.

It's one of the central questions of Christian life: how can we celebrate Palm Sunday, knowing the goriness of Good Friday to come? How can we celebrate Easter with the taste of ashes still in our mouth?

I find myself still in an Ash Wednesday frame of mind. Perhaps you do too. It's been a tough year for many of us. We’ve suffered job loss or house loss. If we’ve kept our jobs, we’ve said goodbye to colleagues. In any year, some of us lose loved ones in any number of ways. Because we are mammals that think and know, we are always aware that there will be horrors yet to come. We live in a culture that seems to prefer crucifixion to redemption.

Palm Sunday offers us some serious reminders. If we put our faith in the world, we're doomed. If we get our glory from the acclaim of the secular world, we'll find ourselves rejected sooner, rather than later.

Palm Sunday also reminds us of the cyclical nature of the world we live in. The palms we wave this morning traditionally would be burned to make the ashes that will be smudged on our foreheads in 10 months for Ash Wednesday. The baby that brings joy at Christmas will suffer the most horrible death--and then rise from the dead. The sadnesses we suffer will be mitigated by tomorrow's joy. Tomorrow's joy will lead to future sadness. That's the truth of the broken world we live in. Depending on where we are in the cycle, we may find that knowledge either a comfort or fear inducing.

It's at times like these where the scriptures offer comforts that the world cannot. Look at the message from Isaiah: "The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. . . . For the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near" (Isaiah 50, first part of verse 4, verse 7, and first part of verse 8).

God promises resurrection. We don't just hope for resurrection. God promises resurrection.

God calls us to live like the redeemed people that we are. Turn your face to the light. Turn away from the dark. Commit to redemption. Commit to new life. With a peaceful mind, wait for the resurrection that God has promised to you.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Feast Day of the Annunciation

Today we celebrate the Annunciation, the feast day that celebrates the encounter between the angel Gabriel and Mary, who would become famous as the mother of Jesus.  He gives her the vision that God has for her; she agrees.

I have a blog post about this feast day up over at the Living Lutheran site.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"I find Mary an interesting model for modern spirituality. Notice what is required of Mary. She must wait."

"She must be present to God and be willing to have a daily relationship, an intimacy that most of us would never make time for. She doesn't have to travel or make a pilgrimage to a different land. She doesn't have to go to school to work on a graduate degree in theology. She isn't even required to go to the temple any extra amount. She must simply slow down and be present."

"We might think about how we can listen for God's call. Most of us live noisy lives. We're always on our cell phones and computers. We've often got several televisions blaring in the house at once. We're surrounded by traffic and the loud beats booming from cars. We've got people who want to talk, talk, talk. Maybe today would be a good day to take a vow of silence, inasmuch as we can, to listen for God."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Saint Romero

Thirty-five years ago today, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated; no one has ever been brought to trial for this crime.

Until recently, I assumed that we would never see Romero beatified.  But this new Pope has begun to speed up the process.

Saint Romero--how I like the sound of that. 

A few years ago, I created this card to commemorate his life:

I find his life inspiring for all the reasons you might expect:  the standing up to oppression, the speaking truth to power, the martyrdom.

Lately I've been thinking about the fact that he came into greatness late in his life; he was born in 1917, and I don't think he did his best work until the 1970's,, in his late 50's/early 60's.  Looking at the trajectory of his life from the middle years of the century, one would not have predicted that he would speak so eloquently about injustice and the need to fight against it.

In fact, many scholars believe that he was chosen to be Archbishop precisely because he was expected not to make trouble.  All that changed when one of his good friends, an activist Jesuit priest, was assassinated by one of the death squads roaming the country. Romero became increasingly political, increasingly concerned about the poor who were being oppressed by the tiny minority of rich people in the country. He called for reform. He called on the police and the soldiers to stop killing their brethren. And for his vision, he was killed as he consecrated the bread for Mass.

Romero knew that he was in danger from various political forces in the country, but he refused to cower in fear and back down. Likewise, Jesus must have known what wrath he was bringing down upon himself, but he did not back down. Until the end of his life, he called upon us to reform our earthly systems, systems that enrich a few on the backs of the many. Romero and Christ both show us that the forces of empire do not take kindly to being criticized.

In the years since Romero was assassinated, we have seen the kind of economic injustice that infected El Salvador, where a very small proportion of the population controlled much of the money, take over much of the world.  What would Romero call on us to do?  How can we change the very economic structure that oppresses so many?

It's likely not enough for us who have much to give away our wealth, although it's important to share.  But that action won't change the larger system.

I wish I could end with a reassurance that the system will be changed if we just take action--but this time leading us to Holy Week makes me want to go a different direction.

Romero's life story shows that the system will resist change violently.  But the Passion story shows us that even the violence wrought by unjust earthly systems can be changed into a force for redemption and resurrection.  Humans may not be able to force that change--but God can.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Hospitality and the Renewal of Camp

One of the highlights of last week came on Thursday.  A local pastor contacted my spouse as someone who could help him figure out people in Broward county who have a connection to church camps in general and Luther Springs in particular. 

Instead of a meeting over coffee or in someone's office, my spouse suggested that the pastor come over for dinner.  My spouse knows how to do hospitality!  I tried not to worry too much about all the ways our house might not be good enough.  I've written about this idea of scruffy hospitality, most notably in this blog post.  I say, "Come on over!  My kitchen floor isn't clean enough to eat off of, but that's why we have plates."   But secretly, some part of me believes that my floor should be clean enough to eat off of, and that I will be judged harshly when it is not.

My spouse made a wonderful meal on the grill.  We let our guest decide whether to eat in the dining room or on the front porch.  The pastor, who has a degree in urban planning, chose the porch.

Our porch table is big enough for three plates and not much else, so we made our plates inside and took them to the porch.  And then, we had a delightful time.

We talked about camp and Luther Springs, of course.  But we also talked about the issue of the local church.  He's pastor of a church that doesn't have its own building, and given the costs of acquiring a building and land--and then insuring that building--the church likely never will have its own space.  We're part of a church that has a building and 4 acres, most of them sitting vacant.  Occasionally we think of doing something else with the land, but it never works out.  Currently, we have a multitude of other groups and churches also using our building.  Most days, that sharing situation is a gift to us all.

We talked a bit about larger church stuff and theology.  What a treat!  Most of our dinner guests are not inclined to talk about theology.

Will it lead to more involvement in camp?  There's no getting around the fact that it takes 5-6 hours, or longer, for most of us to get to Luther Springs.  If we're in the western part of the panhandle, it's even further.  That makes a week-end trip almost impossible.

I know that most people think that camp means summer camps with kids spending nights away.  But I think camp can be just as vital for grown ups.  We could have lots of renewal in a week-end--however, it might not be as possible when that week-end is book-ended by a car trip of that size.

It was a weeknight, and so we called it a night at 10:00--a late night for me.  But it was worth the slight weariness that I felt on Friday. 

When just talking about camp leads to feelings of renewal, just think about what a time away at camp could do!