Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 22, 2018:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The Gospel for this Sunday bookmarks two of Jesus' most famous miracles (but they're left out of the Gospel reading; we've already done them, or we'll do them later): the feeding of the great throng with just five loaves and two fishes, and Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm. As we ponder the Gospel for this week, it's good to remember that Jesus has been busy.

Notice that not even Jesus can stay busy all the time. The first part of the Gospel has Jesus trying to get away to a lonely place, and the last part of the Gospel shows the amazing things that Jesus accomplishes after he prays. These passages give us insight into our own care. Like Jesus and the disciples, many of us are living such busy lives that we don't even have time to eat.

The work of building God's Kingdom in our fallen world will wear us to a husk; it’s true of Christ, and it’s true for us. Notice that in these passages, Jesus doesn't find renewal in the Synagogue--he finds renewal in retreating and praying.

Most of us live such busy lives that we have built no time for retreats. Even on vacation, many of us are still working.  And most of us don't take vacations with the aim of spiritual renewal.  Instead we take vacations that leave us frazzled and exhausted--we come home needing a vacation to recover from our vacation.

Luckily, this Gospel also shows us a simpler way to recharge. It's one that you can do anywhere, at any time. Notice that Jesus prays.  Prayer serves many purposes, but the main purpose is to give us an intimacy with God. Our friendships don't survive long silences. Likewise, our relationship with God thrives when we make time to talk to God.

One reason Jesus came to us was to model the life we're to emulate. And if Jesus prays, we should take our cue from him. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus praying perhaps more than any other spiritual practice we'll called upon to do. We don’t see Jesus tithe, and we rarely see him going to weekly services. Instead, his prayers undergird his spiritual life and make it possible for him to do the works of charity and healing that he does.

The ministry of Jesus has much to teach us, and one of the most important lessons is that we can't take care of others when we're not taking care of ourselves. Jesus prays, Jesus takes retreats, Jesus shares meals with friends--these are the activities that leave him ready to care for the masses.

Our mission is the same as Christ's. Like Jesus, we're surrounded by hordes of hungry people. Broken people need us.

Yet we will not be able to complete our mission if we don't practice basic self-care. The message of today's Gospel is that it's O.K. to take time to pray. It's O.K. to retreat. It's O.K. to eat a slow meal with friends.

Not only is it O.K., it's essential. Christ, the incarnation of God on earth, needed to take a break. So do we all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Strange Streets and Surreal Times

Yesterday was a bit surreal:

--We have a U.S. president who seems more willing to trust Russia than to trust our allies of 50 + years.  Hearing the news of the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki was just bizarre.  I found myself thinking of a classic episode of The Simpsons that has Homer in Cuba saying, "I think we can trust the president of Cuba" as all of their valuables are taken by the government.

--As I went to pick up one of our college friends who was in town, I heard news of an exchange student who was a secret agent.  It's enough to make me wonder what year it is.  But it's clearly a year that has never existed, if we have double agents making connection with the NRA as our U.S. president has a meeting with the Russian president without anyone else present.

--I'm glad that I'm not a writer of thrillers.  How does one compete?

--My college friend had said he wanted to go to an Armenian restaurant, so I had researched a possibility.  In the car, he said, "Are there any restaurants from Hungary?  I could be wanting some Hungarian goulash."  I suggested Old Heidelberg, a German restaurant that has several kinds of goulash.  I didn't think we'd actually end up there, but we did.

--My friend loves to order appetizers for the table, but the Germans don't really have the kinds of appetizers he likes to order:  no jalapeno poppers, no crab-filled puffy things.

--I had envisioned a lovely night of half price appetizers in downtown Hollywood--but I was also expecting to end up someplace totally different--that's what happens often when we're with this particular friend.  But to end up at a German restaurant?  I wouldn't have thought that would happen.

--We had a very leisurely meal, and so, it was strange to drive home through the dark streets.  At a stop sign, there were several groups of unruly people.  At a stop light, a dark-skinned man staggered into the stopped traffic and said, "I want all of these cars."  I'm not sure how we caught his eye, but he lurched to us, pounded (lightly) his fist on our car hood, and said, "God bless you."  My spouse rolled down his window and said, "Brother, God bless you too."  The light changed, and we all drove away.

--It's the kind of scene that could have ended very differently.  I'm glad that it ended with blessing.  My spouse heard the man say, "Some folks don't see it (or Him?)" as if to say, "You and me, we see it."  I heard him say, "Some days, I just don't see it"--as in, some days I feel God's presence, and some days I don't.  Regardless, I felt an odd moment of connection with a man who most of us would have perceived as threatening.

--I wanted to go home, cook a meal or cookies, and bring it back--but I know how many ways that could have gone wrong.  Instead I said a prayer for us all, out there on strange streets, looking for connections where they may or may not be wise, including our president.

Monday, July 16, 2018

When the Well Runs Dry

I have been feeling a bit dry and withered as a blogger this past week.  Some weeks, I have more ideas than I can use.  Then I hit a dry spot.

I've been writing for decades, so dry spots don't freak me out as much as they once did.  I know that the trick is to just keep going, to show up at the desk, to trust that all of my dry spots have led me to an oasis in the distance that I didn't realize was there.

I've also been thinking theologically, thinking about all the passages in the Bible that promise that the dried out bones of our lives are not the only reality.  Once I assumed that we got the dry and dusty passages because of the part of the world where the Bible writers lived.  Now I recognize a universal metaphor when I see one.

I spent part of the week-end packing up books to get ready for the great flooring project.  As I packed up my theology books, I reflected on how much more time I used to have to read.  And that reading helped to feed my writing life.

I've heard this time of the writing life referred to as "the well going dry."  Let me look for ways to fill the well that fit with my current life.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Woody Guthrie, Singing Saint

Today is Woody Guthrie's birthday. It's also Bastille Day, the French equivalent (sort of ) of our Independence Day. I see this historical event as one of many that launched us on the road to equality. It's an uneven success to be sure. More of us in the first world enjoy liberty than those in developing nation. But that thirst for freedom and equality found some expression in the French Revolution, and I could argue that much liberation theology has some rootedness in that soil (yes, it would be a problematic argument, I know).


I see Woody Guthrie as one of the unsung (ha ha) liberation theologians.

I've always asked my students if they're familiar with his music, and they always say they're not. Then I sing a bit of "This Land Is Your Land," and they realize that they do know his work.

Unfortunately, the most radical verses of that song are often not sung:

"In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing." [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me. "

Throughout his life, Woody Guthrie showed a compassion for the poor and the dispossessed that we see so rarely from famous/talented/artistic people. He also showed an amazing capacity for nurturing the talents of the next generation (most notably, Bob Dylan and later, through his music, Bruce Springsteen and U2). We could argue about his Huntington's disease: what was responsible for what? We could talk about his womanizing and his abandonment of his children, and I'm not arguing that he gets a free pass on that behavior because of his disease or because of his artistic talent.

I am saying that his lifelong radicalism impresses me. His lifelong commitment to his art impresses me. His struggle to be a better family man, requiring a fresh start again and again, impresses me. His ability to create art in spite of his lack of formal training and education, impresses me.

He has written songs that school children sing, songs that rock and roll folks sing, songs that invade my sleep and sweeten my dreams.

If I was the person in charge of modern feast days, I'd canonize Woody Guthrie. His songs point the way to living a more solidly ethical life. His life does not, except by example of some things not to do. And yet, at the end, despite his wanderings, the love of his life, Marjorie, continued to care about him.

It's easier to love someone like Woody Guthrie who has a brain disease that makes him behave badly. It would be much harder if he was a jerk just because he was a jerk.

You might ask me why he deserves a feast day. I would point out his prolific output, his variety of types of songs, his embrace of dispossessed people of all sorts, his embrace of freedom. I would argue that his music can lead us to the social justice actions that God commands. I could make a case that his music leads us to God, both the songs he wrote, and the songs inspired by his life and work.

What better person to make a saint? I'm not exactly serious, because I know most people could make a fairly lengthy list of people who deserve sainthood more.

But for today, let's celebrate a musical legend. Let's celebrate the man who gave us the line "This land was made for you and me." Let's sing!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Monostones

Many weeks, I have more blog posts than I have days to write them.  The ideas bloom on the hydrangea bush of my brain.




Some weeks, the calm surface of the river of my brain hides many currents swirling beneath.



These past few days, my brain has felt more like a field of rocks, all similar, nothing beckoning me to linger long.



I look into the monotones of my thought, just in case some life would appear.



I stack the stones into a form that says, "We were here."  I want to see what my brain does with that cairn.


Thursday, July 12, 2018

Poetry Thursday: "God at the Creativity Retreat"

Yesterday a student came to my office to ask, "Do you have any art supplies?"  That made me inordinately happy.  Of course I have art supplies!  She only wanted scissors.  But I was happy to be seen as a source of creative ingredients.

My office has many art supplies, and I often think I'd be happy if I had no other duties but to lead creative projects.  But that's not what I'm called to do right now.  And much of my work requires creativity, even if it's not the scissors and markers variety.

The encounter also took me back to the Create in Me retreat, and this morning, I dug up a poem that I wrote at one of them.  It was a year we studied the first creation story in Genesis, the one without the snake and the forbidden fruit and the entrance of sin into the world.

No, this was the first creation story, where God declares everything very good.  And this poem emerged during the retreat:


God at the Creativity Retreat


God comes to our creativity retreat
and notices the smallness of scale
and scope. God creates several new
species while some of us paint icons
and others make miniatures.

God doesn’t understand
the instant rejection of creations.
God spends part of each
day leaning into our ears to whisper,
“It is good.”

God vaguely recalls creating calories,
but doesn’t understand all the fuss
over them. After a long
day of workshops and craft sessions,
God finishes eating all the cake icing,
while some of us look away.

We drive down the mountain
hoping for inspiration to claim
the coming year. With spirits softened
we see all the possibilities
and proclaim them very good.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 15, 2018:

Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

The Gospel lessons of should dispel any aspirations of glory and fame that we have as Christians. It's an idea that's almost antithetical in our society.

Our society has become one that worships fame and publicity. Now young people don't want to just earn a lot of money--they want to do it in a way that brings them fame. David Brooks has done some fine work looking at the youth of decades ago and the youth of today.  Young adults used to go to college to find a meaningful philosophy of life; now that goal is #16 on the list.  When I saw him speak several years ago, he recounted his experience of going to college campuses and asking audiences if they'd rather have lots of fame or lots of sex; overwhelmingly, the students voted for fame.

The Gospel for this Sunday--and most Sundays--defines success differently than modern people would. John the Baptist, someone who has remained true to his mission, is killed by King Herod. And why? A mix of motives, but the Gospel mentions King Herod wanting to impress a young woman and Herod's unwillingness to hear the truth and to admit the truth.

So, John the Baptist loses his head. Literally. Not a comforting vision for those of us who struggle to live our faith day by day. This reward is what we can expect?

Jesus never promises us an easy time, at least not the kind of easy time the world dangles in front of us when it attempts to seduce us. We see this even in Christian communities. We feel like failures when our churches aren't megachurches. We feel like we're not a success when we have to struggle to find the money to pay our church’s bills--or worse, when we have to cut staff and programs.

But if we look at the portrait of the earliest church, we'll see that it wasn't the megachurch model. The early church builds on an idea of cells, tiny little house churches of committed Christians. Some days I shake my head in awe at what a small group of people can accomplish.

And then I laugh at my own lack of memory. My History and Sociology classes years ago taught me the exact same thing: the most fascinating change is often created by small, committed bands of people. And the most successful changes are often made by people who are grounded and rooted in some kind of larger faith vision.

Yet the Gospel for this Sunday reminds us that success may not be at the end of our individual stories. We could commit ourselves to Christ’s mission only to find ourselves wasting away in prison, a victim of a corrupt society.

It’s a risk worth taking. We know how sustaining our faith can be and how important it is to build a faith community. We know how larger faith communities can change the world for the better.

Jesus offers us a chance to be part of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom where everyone has enough and everyone feels that love. Of course, the catch is that the Kingdom isn't here yet. We have to help build it. We've caught glimpses of it breaking through. It's both now and not yet, this elusive Kingdom. But when we feel/glimpse/experience/live it, we know that it's worth whatever we must endure for the sake of it.