Monday, July 28, 2014

Social Justice Coffee Break

I've been part of Bread for the World since the 80's.  I like their vision of social justice and the way the group operates.  I like their ecumenical, non-partisan focus on making sure the world gets fed.

A side note:  it's interesting to ponder that during my lifetime thus far, we could actually feed the world; the problem is food distribution, not food production.  And during my lifetime, that could change as climate change wreaks havoc with our planet.

Two weeks ago, I got an e-mail from the southeast coordinator of donor relations for Bread for the World.  He was going to be in town and wondered if we could meet.

I thought about my schedule.  It was one of the busiest weeks, with lots of faculty observations and faculty files needing to be completed by the end of the week.  I just wasn't sure that I could find even the tiniest hole.  My schedule before the busy week was so busy that I didn't even respond to his e-mail.

A week ago, I got home to find a phone message from Bread for the World.  It was only Monday, and already my week felt overwhelming.

But as I slept, I dreamed about my calendar and phone messages and making some time.  I woke up, wondering why my subconscious didn't come up with more inventive dreams, something that involved flying or being able to swim underwater with gills.  But I went back to the e-mail and realized that the Bread for the World coordinator would be in town through Friday.  I did have a window on Friday morning.  My window matched his window.

We met at a Panera.  We had coffee and talked about the work the group has done and about the political situation both in South Florida and across the nation.  We talked about the group's vision for the future, which still revolves around eliminating hunger across the globe.

I had thought about avoiding a face-to-face meeting because I was afraid I'd be asked for money, and I don't have much extra to give.  But the issue of money never came up.

We did talk about time and organizing alongside others.  We talked about my writing and how I might help.  Yes, these things I can do.  I did caution, "I will not be one of those people at a political rally yelling in the back of the room.  But I am willing to ask questions at a microphone."

I got back to my office to find an urgent e-mail from the organization asking me to call my representative, which I did.  I'm lucky, in that she often votes the way I'd like her to, but it never hurts for our senators and representatives to hear from us. 

Our coffee meet-up was only an hour, but it might have been the best hour of my week.  It was great to be reminded of what a group of concerned citizens can do.  

It's also good to be reminded of what the Holy Spirit can do.  I think back to my night of restless dreaming.  I think of how God has often spoken through our dreams.  Was God speaking to me that night?

I think so.  I woke up feeling pushed towards that meeting.  Doubters will say it was just my restless subconscious thinking or some strange sense of guilt.  But I'm calling it the Holy Spirit.

The Bible is full of stories of people who said yes to God, along with a few people who said no.  I'm glad to be reminded of the importance of staying receptive to God's vision.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Quilting and the Next Generation

A week ago, I took my quilting project to church.   Unlike at my house, our church has long tables, where I could do the final cutting and pinning without getting down on the floor.

After the intergenerational service, I stretched it out on one of the tables to be able to cut and pin without having to be on my hands and knees.  Several girls came over and offered to help.  They asked me questions about quilting, and I gave a quick overview.

I offered to teach them more at a later point.  One girl said, "I've got nothing planned for today."  But alas, I didn't anticipate their interest, and so I had no supplies.

Still, I let them pluck pins out of a box and help pin the fabric.  I told them about how I had assembled the quilt, the top and the putting together of the 3 layers.

I also talked about why I was making it; it's a prayer quilt, like a prayer shawl, but made of different materials. We talked about the prayer shawl ministry and why quilts and blankets are such a comfort.  We talked about our favorite quilts and blankets.

Our time was short, so I couldn't give  a quick history lesson.

How I love quilting, one of the art forms that truly began in the U.S.  I love an art form born out of adversity, like the lack of cloth, that shows such cleverness and thrift.  I admire all the ways that humans have reinvented the form.

Maybe I'll make a quilt kit for the girls who helped me on Sunday.  They wanted to make quilts for their dolls.  I was so thrilled that children still played with dolls--and that they want to make things for them!  I left feeling happy in so many ways.

We'll be quilting again at my church.  We've got a day of service projects planned on September 7, and we'll be making at least one quilt for Lutheran World Relief.  Maybe we'll gather once a quarter to work on quilts.  Or maybe we'll just do it once and see what happens.  We're already all so busy.  But if people want to learn to quilt, it's hard for me to say resist.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Spirituality of Space

I had heard a lot about the movie Gravity.  I knew it was probably best seen on the big screen, but it slipped away from the movie theatres before I had a chance to go.

I heard many people talk about the beauty of the movie, and a subset talked about how spiritual it was.  So, the other night, after a long day wrestling with forms and faculty files, I settled in to quilt and watch.

I must confess, I switched between it and reruns of Modern Family.  I fast-forwarded through some of the parts of floating through space.  There seemed to be huge swaths of floating through space.

On a big screen, perhaps this would have been spiritual--or at least beautiful.  On a small screen, I found it boring.

So, if I looked for the spirituality in the movie, what would I say?  There's the issue of when we give up on life and when we don't.  But I didn't see the movie approach this question from a spiritual angle, more from a survivor who needs to dredge up her last reserves and carry on.

There's the issue of the fragility of life.  I found this article on the NPR site which addressed that angle:  "Also, as we see in the movie, to leave the protective blanket of our atmosphere is extremely risky. Life out there is impossible, as the movie's opening lines make clear."

The movie doesn't go in this direction, but it made me think about the creator of this universe.  What does it say that so much of the universe, at least as we know it now, is hostile to life as we understand it?  I've wrestled with this issue before; see this blog post for more thoughts and a poem of mine, "Geology, The True Life Science."

One of the creation stories in Genesis leads many to think of humans as the ultimate creation, the one that God intended.  Some go further and say that this creation story leaves humans in charge for all time.

The movie shows the folly of those beliefs.  We are only in charge as long as we've got our protective atmosphere--and often, not even then.

And thinking we're in charge is the ultimate folly.  We are not, not even remotely.  The movie shows the folly of this thinking again and again and again.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Doe Spiritual but Not Religious Mean Solitary?

We've been hearing a lot lately about people who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.  Whenever I hear that, I think of Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity.  In it, he develops an idea that he credits Huston Smith for initiating:  ". . . religion is to spirituality as institutions of learning are to education" (p. 219).  You could do it all yourself in the arena of religion/spirituality or learning/education.  You could read books and pray and teach yourself all kinds of things.  But why deny yourself the resources and community of the institution?

We tend to think that spiritual but not religious types are operating all on their own, doing their own thing, finding God in the sunsets and beach walks and forests of the world.  But a recent book review in The New York Times suggests it may not be true.

It's actually a review of 3 books, but the last one by Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination, addresses the issue of the solitary spiritual person.  They're often not working in isolation the way that popular culture would have us all believe:  "They 'participated in everything from mystical discussion groups to drumming circles to yoga classes,' Dr. Bender said in an interview. And her finding that spirituality 'is not sui generis,' but rather learned in communities that persist over time, actually runs contrary to spiritual people’s conceptions of themselves, she said. 'There is something in the theology of spiritual groups that actually refocuses their practitioners from thinking about how they fit into a long continuous spirituality.'”

She then goes on to explore these communities, from alternative medicine to the arts.  Hurrah!  The arts are included.

I, of course, began to wonder if some of the arts, the more communal arts, lead to a more spiritual connection than others.  That may be a subject for another book.  I suspect it won't be the focus of Bender's book.  But I plan to read this book anyway.

And I plan to bookmark this idea about the arts, communal practice, and spiritual development.  You might say this book has already been written, but I am not so sure.  I do have sociologist Robert Wuthnow's Creative Spirituality:  The Way of the Artist--I read it years ago, and it didn't answer the questions I had then.

Will it now?  Originally, I read it looking for insights about arts programs in churches, which I didn't find.  As I scanned it again just now, it seems that he's looking at artists who are not working in community, at least not ostensibly.  I, of course, would argue that almost all of us are working in community.  But a dance troupe does have more of a communal sense than the solitary writer or musician.

And then there is my larger question:  can an artistic community bring a spiritual artist back to a more institutional religion?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 27, 2014:

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 29:15-28

Psalm: Psalm 119:129-136

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 128 (Psalm 128 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:26-39

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today we have a series of interesting parables which Jesus uses to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. I don't think that Jesus is explaining the afterlife, the way that many of us might assume when we hear the word "Heaven." Instead, Matthew uses that word as shorthand for a concept that's closer to "life as God intended." Of course, I'm grossly simplifying, but instead of doing an in-depth exploration of the word "Heaven," let's look at the images Jesus uses.

Note the smallness, the almost invisibility, of the first two images (verses 31-33): mustard seeds and yeast. There are two elements which are interesting. One is that these small grains left alone will transform themselves into something bigger--and in the case of yeast, will transform the surrounding elements too. Leave flour alone, and it won't change much in terms of volume. Even if it gets buggy, the bag won't explode. But add yeast and water and a bit of sweetness and leave the bowl in a warm place for a few hours--when you return to the bowl, the dough might be overflowing. Likewise with a seed. Plant it in the earth, add some water, and leave it alone--if you're lucky, you get a shrub or a tree. If we go out looking for the kingdom to be a big, glorious thing, we might miss the Kingdom.

Many people simply don't register the presence of God because they're looking for the wrong thing. They're looking for something huge and powerful. For example, think about the Jews of Jesus' time. They didn't want spiritual salvation. When they talked about a savior, they wanted someone who would kick the Romans out of their homeland. They missed the miracle of Jesus because they looked for the wrong sign.

The next set of metaphors (verses 44-46) talks about the preciousness of the Kingdom and also a bit about the effort required to find it. The treasure/pearl doesn't just fall into the men's laps--they're out looking.

We live in a culture that doesn't want to put in a lot of work. If you don't believe me, watch the claims that advertisers make: I can lose weight by eating a cookie, I can make by working just 15 minutes a day, I can get a college degree without leaving my house. I love talking to my colleagues and collecting their strange student stories. One of my colleagues had a student stomp out in a huff when she realized she'd have to write essays. Keep in mind, my colleague teaches an English Composition class. Did the student think they'd be creating macaroni collages?

And then I start to wonder why this student imagines that she can go to college and not have to work. Where does she get that message? Of course, the culture in which she lives beams that to her all the time.

Likewise, Kingdom living requires some effort on our part. God wants to meet us, but we have to go forward towards God. We have to look for the right signs, and we have to make some effort. That effort might be regular prayer, spiritual reading, going to church, turning ourselves into caring people, giving more of our money away.

But the end of this week's Gospel assures us that the effort will pay off. We don't want to be in the furnace where men weep and gnash their teeth. For those of you who read the end of the Gospel as a metaphor of Hell after death, you might be right. But I would argue that life is terribly hellish right here and now for people who aren't doing transformational work.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Creativity: Using What's On Hand

A few years ago, at Mepkin Abbey, we noticed that one of the huge, majestic trees had toppled over.  But we were more awed by what the monks had decided to do with that tree:

The other chunk of tree was later carved into a crucifixion scene:

The monks could have paid a lot of money to an arborist team to have that tree removed.  But instead, they saw the creative possibilities.

It makes me wonder about the materials I have on hand.  I often go out to buy materials for a project.  What if I worked from a different perspective?  What if I thought about what I already have in my house and went from there?

This monastic approach of using what's on hand branches out into all areas of the monk's lives, from what I can see.  I've been there for meals with pairings that I thought very odd:  a spinach-tomato frittata paired with a cottage cheese and pineapple side dish.  I wondered if the monks were simply trying to use up the food on hand that was about to go bad.   How many of us might have run out to the grocery store to pick up some ingredients that we thought would be more appropriate for a side dish, like a salad or broccoli?

Well, if I used what I had on hand and started from there, I'd have time to do a lot more creating, time I would have spent running errands and waiting to have money to buy supplies and waiting to have time to get to the store. 

Let me take a lesson from the monks.  Let me begin with what's on hand.  Let me start now.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Quilting a Meeting

Yesterday, I took my time-sensitive quilting project to our church council meeting.   I've been on the lookout for chunks of time to work on it, and yesterday's meeting seemed perfect, with its start time moved from 10 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.  I don't usually take copious notes so I thought I'd try quilting during our meeting time.

I've noticed that many of our members keep looking at their cell phones, so I didn't feel I'd be disrespectful by quilting.  In fact, I think I think checking one's cell phone is more distracting mentally than quilting.  One of our members has worked on knitting a prayer shawl, so there's been a precedent.

During my time at the Create in Me retreat, I crocheted a prayer shawl.  I worried that I might not pay attention if I was crocheting, but I found that just the opposite was true.  Having my hands busy quieted my mind.  And when I look at my notebook from that retreat, I find that I took notes too.

Yesterday, I found that the quilting calmed my mind in a similar way.  And when our meeting time went longer than scheduled, I didn't mind.  I made more progress, and that was good.

I wish I could take my quilting and crocheting projects with me everywhere, especially to meetings at work.  Alas, taking my projects to work is probably unwise--but perhaps I'll start thinking about meetings of other types as opportunities to get some quilting done.