Saturday, November 18, 2017

Poetry Saturday: Family Farm Heritage

Perhaps I should post a more spiritual poem.  This blog is my theology blog after all.  I should write a poem about gratitude and God and great feasts.

But Thanksgiving suggests a different kind of spiritual heritage to me.  For many years, we went back to my grandfather's homeplace, where his relatives were still farming on a small scale.  We ate a turkey that had been scratching in the yard very recently.  We ate vegetables grown in the fields outside the door.  We talked about our ancestors.

I learned about my great grandmother (or was she an aunt?) who was picking beans when she had a heart attack.  She made the men wait to take her to the hospital until she could change into clean underwear.

Of course, I learned more than just funny stories.  I learned about how people survived hard times and how they celebrated bounty.  I learned about a quiet spirituality (of a Lutheran variety) that formed the backbone of my family.  I learned about tables that were full of enough food to share with the family members who didn't have as much to contribute--for many starving student years, my husband and I would go to the feast with a meager loaf of pumpkin bread, and we'd leave with enough food for a week--and a Christmas tree cut from the fields!

So, here's a poem that celebrates that heritage.  It was first published a year ago in Big Muddy.

Thanks Giving

Finally, I am with my own kinsfolk.
I do not feel a freak of nature anymore.
Here beneath this hook
where my great grandfather butchered hogs and deer,
I stare into faces familiar to me.
My future face.

I have the strong, solid body
which doesn’t belong to this age
of computers and office politics.
I was meant to be up at half a crack of dawn,
fixing a huge breakfast
before I plowed a field and put an addition on the house.
All in a day’s work.

The strength of my people lies
buried in my bones and brain,
a genetic code impossible
to diet or exercise away.
My hips would balance a baby
while I shaped bread dough and slaughtered chickens,
if only I would comply.

But I’ll submit to my genetic destiny on some level.
I will always awaken before sunrise,
always keep an eye to the sky,
track the weather like a second religion.
I’ll cook enough food for a small third world country
and share my good fortune with others.
I’ll tell the family stories
about strong women
with indomitable wills.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Black Friday and Beyond (and a Return to the Parable of the Talents)

A week from today will be Black Friday--which now starts much earlier.  Some of us will barely finish our Thanksgiving dinners when it will be time to shop.

Some of us will do our best to avoid the holiday crowds and the madness that descends on people when they want a good deal.  It might be wise to do some strategizing now.

I've felt a tinge of that madness.  I've looked at sales circulars and heard/saw the ads and worried about missing out.  I want to save money now so that I'll have money later.

Of course, the best way to save money is not to spend it. 

I also have the parable for Sunday in my head.  What do we do with our resources?  Do we bury them in the yard?  Do we try to make more of what we have?

This post reminds us of a political meaning to the story that has been lost through the ages: 

"This master is not God, he is a wealthy elite—therefore an oppressor–and the first two slaves are his henchmen.

If we take a step back from the hyper-capitalism of our culture, we can see that they are right. I mean really, how does one earn 100% interest? If our church treasurer announced that our investments had doubled this year, we should have a lot of questions. Like which horses did we bet on? Or what kind of drugs are we selling? Or how old are the children working the off-shore factory? Because there is really no secure and ethical way to make that kind of a profit.

Likewise in the first century. The peasants listening to Jesus knew how those first two servants made such impressive returns. They loaned money to subsistence farmers at exorbitant interest rates. This practice was the mechanism that made the rich richer and the poor poorer."

Many of us assume that in the economic spectrum, we're either poor or on the side of the poor.  Let's keep that always in mind as we make our economic decisions.  If I go out to get a good deal on Thanksgiving, am I complicit in an economic system that gives no worker time off?  If I buy cheap junk from China, who is enslaved because of my appetite?

On an on we can go.  I do realize how hard/almost impossible it is to live a life that is truly in sync with our values, particularly when it comes to economic decisions.  Let this be the year that we give these questions some attention.  Let us think about how we are spending/using our talents.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Advent, Art, and Creativity on a Wednesday Night

Last night, as we ate dinner, we watched the last half hour of an episode of Craft in America, a WONDERFUL PBS series that has been airing on the CreateTV channel.  Last night was episode #102 on landscape--but it was about how landscape influenced the artists, not landscape art.

Near the end, one of the artists said that they create art to show the beauty in the Divine.  My spouse said, "What are we waiting for?  Let's create art!"

We pulled out the art supplies and the paper.  The episode had left me wishing we did more with clay or metalwork, but we don't have those kinds of materials on hand.  He chose colored pencils, and I chose watercolors.

I like the way his sketch looks so luminous.  I'm not sure the photo captures that quality:

I decided to let the themes of Advent swirl in my head when I saw that I had chosen 2 shades of blue and 1 of red watercolor to squeeze on the palette.  Can you see the candles?

I am the first to admit that I treat watercolors more like acrylics.  Last night I tried a different technique, wetting the paper.  But I didn't really see or feel a difference.

This morning I woke up thinking about the last time I painted with watercolors, back in August when my nephew and sister visited.  I remembered using the same colors and wondered if I had painted the same picture.  Here it is:

I was relieved to see that they are somewhat different--clearly there are similar elements, but that's fine with me.  I remember feeling dissatisfied with it, but this morning, I like it better.

It was wonderful to turn off the TV, listen to Holst's The Planets, and lose ourselves in creative play.  Ahhhhhh.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 19, 2017:

First Reading: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Judges 4:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 123

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

This week's Gospel gives us the parable of the talents. One servant turns his 5 talents into 10, one turns his 2 talents into 4, and the servant who buries his one talent in the yard doesn't create any new capital. It's easy when reading this Gospel to focus on the word "talent." It's natural to think of our own talents, to wonder how we're investing them, and how we're wasting them by burying them in the yard.

The parable makes it clear what will happen to people who bury their talents. Now, I know that many of us are blessed with a multitude of talents. We do have to make judicious choices about which talents are worth cultivating. I hope that we won't be the servant cast into worthless darkness because we pay attention to one set of skills over another.

But let's look at that parable again. Let's look at that word, "talent," again--in the time of Jesus, it was an economic term, not a personal development term. Read the parable substituting the word gold blocks for talent.

It's worth noting that a quantity of 5 talents, according to my Bible footnote (and my Bible is published by Oxford University Press, so I trust the footnote), is worth 15 years of wages of this laborer. In an article from The Christian Century, James Howell, a Methodist minister, points out that the servant who got just one talent would be receiving more money than most of us get in a lifetime of work: "This amount would stagger any recipient and send him into utterly uncharted territory. A Mediterranean laborer wouldn't have any more of a clue about how to invest five talent than the guy who bags my groceries would about $74 million (even if I and all my friends tried to advise him)."

As I read this week's Gospel again, I forced myself to think about the fact that this parable really is about money. It's not instructing me to return to the piano keyboard at the expense of the computer keyboard. And it's an unusually Capitalist message from Christ. I'm used to the Jesus who tells us to give our money away. I'm not used to the savior who encourages us to make wise investments of our money.

I'm not used to thinking of money management as a talent. But this parable makes clear that it is. Jesus makes clear that money is one of the gifts we're given, and the verses that follow (31-46, ones that aren't part of this week's Gospel) show that Christ is not straying from his essential message. The verses that follow talk about treating the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner as if those people are Christ incarnate. God has a vision for how we'll use that gift of money.

The servant who was cast into out darkness was cast out because the talent went to waste buried in the ground. How would he have been treated if he had given the money away to the poor, the sick, the stranger? I suspect he would NOT have been cast into outer darkness.

Our collapsing Capitalist paradigm often doesn't take community into account. Not making enough money in America, where workers have unreasonable demands like a living wage and safe working conditions? Just move your industry to a country that has less oversight. Sure, you rip apart the social fabric, but at least you're making money.

God calls us to a different vision. Our God is always obsessed with the poor and dispossessed. And we're called to be part of that obsession.

Unfortunately, the times we're living in mean that we'll find many opportunities for this aspect of Kingdom Living. With the holidays approaching, we might think about our customs. Maybe, instead of giving people who have lots of stuff even more stuff, we could donate to a charity in their name. In my family, the adults decided that instead of exchanging presents with each other, we would choose a different charity each year and donate to that charity. Maybe, instead of an endless whirl of parties, we might give some time to our local food pantries or soup kitchens. As we buy a book or two for our favorite children, we could buy a book or two for local reading programs or donate to RIF (Reading is Fundamental, the nation's largest child literacy organization).

The ways to help heal the world are endless, and God invites us to join in this creation project. We can donate money, time, skills, prayers, optimism, hope. Doing so is one of our most basic Christian tasks.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Streaking through the Holiday Season

Yesterday I went to the podiatrist, and I left with a diagnosis of arthritis in my big toe joints (more in this blog post).  It really wasn't a surprise.  And yet, there's not much that can be done.

I was glad to hear about this idea of adopting a daily practice to take us through the holidays.  In this blog post, MaryAnn McKibben Dana writes about taking the idea of a streak from her running practice and applying it more broadly:  "To 'streak' in running means to run at least a mile a day, every day.  Many runners choose to streak as a way of staying accountable to moving at least a little bit each day. This holiday season, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, we’re creating our own twist on the streak. We’d love to have you join us." 

She offers a variety of practices that we might adopt through the holidays, from moving more to making sure we get enough sleep to drinking more water.  In light of my recent arthritis diagnosis, I plan to move every day, and then ice my feet at the end of the day.

I immediately thought of the many things that might disrupt my plans.  The end of the blog post has important advice for us all:  "Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Life happens, and sometimes the exercise just doesn’t happen, or that second (or third) cookie is just too tantalizing to ignore. Don’t stress about it. Melissa and MaryAnn believe that health and wellness come in the midst of baby steps, setbacks, recommitment, accountability, and grace. Let your goals and intentions be a North Star that guides you, not a destination you either succeed or fail to reach."

I do tend to let my inner perfectionist derail honest efforts.  Let me remember the idea of a North Star and the daily practice that can help me towards it.

Soon the holiday season starts in earnest.  I do a pretty good job at keeping a sense of balance and not double or triple booking myself with big events.  But I haven't been doing a great job of making a daily commitment to movement.  Now is a good time to start.

The blog post makes an offer of a daily e-mail of encouragement.  I signed up--it's free, so what do I have to lose?  I can use the daily reminder to stay alert and awake.  It's a great Advent message, but also one that's relevant throughout the year.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Lessons of the Bridesmaids

Usually, when I'm in charge at church, I dress up a little bit more.  Never with hose or high heels--we do live in Florida, after all.  But usually a skirt and jewelry and a bit more make up--it's as if I can hear my grandmother clucking her disapproval, and I hope that the correct, modest clothing will appease her.

Once when I visited her, at some point during the early 1990's, she was very upset over a woman who wore blue jeans up to the altar rail to take communion.  Until I heard her, it never would have occurred to me that anyone would take offense with blue jeans, unless they were dirty from gardening.

Yesterday I knew that I would be the only one there opening up the church, unlike usual, when there's at least 2 of us.  I decided to wear pants and running shoes.  I would be keeping the church locked until parishioners showed up, but I still wanted an extra layer of safety.

I try to always keep one eye towards my personal safety, but recent events have left me feeling frazzled:  so many mass shootings, so many stories of sexual abuse and harassment.  And so, I dressed for safety and comfort (my feet and back have been aching).

I tied our current events and my sartorial choices into the Gospel of Matthew.  I reminded parishioners that Matthew was writing for times very similar to ours.  In 80 or 90 AD, the Roman empire had begun crack downs, and in 70, the temple had been destroyed.  People were having to figure out how to live in a present time period which was very different from what they had been expecting.

Who among us cannot relate?

We looked at the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids--the wise ones brought extra oil for their lamps, while the foolish ones did not.  The ending of that parable seems relevant for our time (and for most times throughout human history):  stay alert.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Friday is often a day when I can leave work earlier than usual.  On this past Friday, I knew that we could use a change of scenery, so I suggested we go on a quest for new wine glasses.   I wanted to leave the house for something more than chores, which is why I thought about Crate and Barrel for wine glasses, not Target.  Plus, I've tried the 2 types of glasses that Target has.  The expensive ones break easily, and the inexpensive ones have an annoying lip around the glass rim.

I suggested that we go to Crate and Barrel.  I had been missing trips to the Crate and Barrel outlet, where my mom and I used to go when they lived in northern Virginia.  That store, both the outlet and the regular version, is so lovely.  I want a life that looks like Crate and Barrel, but I know it's an illusion that they're selling.  I love those Le Creuset pans, but I hardly find time to cook hunks of meat in my grandmother's roasting pan, so why do I think it would be different with yet another pan?
We wandered around the furniture, which looks so cool--both trendy and classic.  We sat on some of the chairs, but they're not comfortable.  Whew--just saved $800!
My reading for this week-end:  Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year, about how she coped after Gourmet magazine abruptly shut down.  It has recipes and lovely photos too.
Yes, I am sensing a theme.  Part of me longs for a major change, but I'm not sure what I want that major change to be.  It's so different from when I was younger, when I knew exactly what I'd like my life to look like, if only I had a magic wand.  So, while I'm waiting for those kinds of issues to clarify for me, I'll think about smaller changes:  some better quality wine glasses, some delicious cooking, some trips to stores where I'm not willing to afford the stuff which hopes to tempt me to think that all I need is a better sofa and my life would change.
Though those tablescapes that they had set up in Crate and Barrel were mighty tempting--lovely displays along long dining room tables to evoke autumn, Thanksgiving, and Christmas--just lovely.
While I was there, I was reminded of "Crocks," a poem I wrote that's inspired by the store, a poem which explores similar themes.  It's just been published in Innisfree Poetry Journal, and you can read it here.
And now it's time to get ready for church, a truly countercultural activity these days--not just in the fact that so few people go to church, but more so in the message that I get there.  Church reminds me that what Crate and Barrel offers me is an illusion of the good life.  The good life will be found in other ways, not in the buying of stuff.