Thursday, January 18, 2018

My Grandfather's Sermon Writing Process

Last night I discovered more hurricane damage.  My roll top desk sits under a window, and that window had been shuttered during Hurricane Irma.  I assumed no water could get in, but over the past month, I've discovered otherwise.  The envelopes at the top of the desk looked rained on, for example, but I rarely use envelopes anymore, so I didn't discover this fact until mid-December.

As I sorted through piles last night, I realized that water had gotten into one of the piles.  It was dry on top, so I didn't think to look through the pile.  In my defense, there was lot to do in the days after the hurricane, and no power with which to see.

Now the surface of the desk has a few ripples.  I am feeling such guilt about that.  I get this beautiful furniture from my grandmother's estate, and I can't properly care for it. 

I've written more about the roll top desk in this blog post on my creativity blog.  But here on my theology blog, I also want to remember that long ago, my grandfather wrote his sermons on that desk.  I come from a long line of writers, although the larger world may not see it that way.

But think about that writing discipline.  My grandfather, as far as I know, never recycled sermons, although I'm sure various themes surfaced again and again.  He wrote a new sermon every week.  I'm sure he wrote other things too:  articles for the newsletter, letters to the editor that appeared in local papers, letters to his family members, all the types of writing that don't seem important enough to be saved.

Did he write longhand?  I assume so.  The final step in his process was typing the sermon onto a folded sheet of paper:

He knew that he needed to keep the content confined to 4 sides of paper.  His sermons rarely spilled onto a new sheet of paper.

I've read some of his sermons, and I must confess, they don't appeal to me.  They explicate the Bible passage for the day, and they do it well--so I do understand their usefulness to a congregation in the middle of the 20th century that wouldn't have had much education or training in literary/Biblical analysis.  For me, I want more depth.

As I cycled through despair last night after discovering the hurricane damage, part of that despair was over something more existential than the way rain can damage wood.  My grandfather wrote week after week, and now he is gone.  We only have a few of his sermons.  We only have a few people left on earth who remember him at all--most of his parishioners are long dead too. 

We are here for such a short time, and it's so easy to let the days and years slip by.  Let us now resolve to stay resolute and seize joy as we go along.  

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, January 21, 2018:

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Psalm: Psalm 62:6-14 (Psalm 62:5-12 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20

I'm interested that in this Gospel (as well as other stories we've had recently, like Mary's call in Advent), people don't seem to hesitate. They don't weigh the cost of discipleship. They don't create a spreadsheet that compares the pros and the cons.

No, God beckons, and these men leave their normal lives immediately.

The story we get in today's Gospel seems like a young person's story. How hard is it to give up everything when you're young and don't really have all that much to give up? I think of the mother of Andrew and Simon Peter, who must wonder if her sons have lost their minds. I imagine her sighing, saying, "Eh, they're young. They'll come to their senses and come back to the family business--I give them 6 months of this homeless lifestyle, following this wackadoo Jesus."

I think about Jesus moving in the world today, and I wonder if we’d recognize him and if we’d drop everything to follow him. Would we think about our jobs and the current unemployment rate and the likelihood that we’d never find a full-time job again if we dropped everything? Would we think about our family obligations? Would we worry about our stuff and our mortgages and how we’d pay our bills if we just dropped everything to follow Jesus?

Would we even hear Jesus at all? Many of us wander through the world with our cell phones pasted to our ears or our fingers, careening into innocent bystanders because we’re so oblivious. What would Jesus have to do to get our attention?

Our Bible stories train us to look for burning bushes, so we ignore the still, small voice that speaks to us out of the darkness of a sleepless night: it's not God, it's indigestion. We're ready for hosts of angels, or bright stars, or wise men who let us know that there's a new savior on the scene. But if God speaks in a small whisper, can we hear over the din of our electronics?

And if we hear, can we make time? I see God as the friend who continues to invite me to lunch, the one to whom I say, “I’m super-busy this month. What’s your calendar like for next month?”

The good news is that God continues to call us anyway. No matter how many times we reject God and God's hopes for us, God comes back to see if we're interested.

God has great visions for us. But even if we can't rise to those grand plans, God will entice us with smaller parts of the larger vision. And then, years later, we look up, amazed at how our lives' trajectories have changed.

What is God calling you to do? And if you're not comfortable with the larger plan, are there smaller bits you can do right now?

Maybe you're not ready to go back to school, but you could take a class or two. Maybe you can't leave your job, but you could try something different through volunteer work. Maybe you can't solve the larger social justice issue that keeps you up at night, but you could write a letter or educate your fellow citizens.

We are all so much greater than we know. Christ came to us to show us what is possible in a human life--and so much is possible. What part in this great human drama were you born to play?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Art to Help Us Focus

Before Christmas, my pastor asked me if I'd create some sort of sanctuary decoration for the Baptism of Our Lord.  I said sure, even though I wasn't sure what I'd come up with.

Our altar has an open space, which makes it perfect for some sort of installation art.  I continue to be inspired by what our pastor did for Lent for several years:

I decided to do something similar to evoke baptism.  I had in mind flowing waters and rivers.  I thought about descending doves.  I went to JoAnns and got a great post-Christmas deal on a huge spool of light blue, sparkly ribbon that would prove to be important to my creative process.  I also collected some boxes to provide shape and layers:

I decided that trying to create a descending dove would be too complicated.  But I have a tabletop easel, and I drew something that I hoped would evoke a dove.  And then I added the words that I want us to remember when we think about baptism; God is well pleased with Jesus, and God feels the same way about us:

On Sunday, I arrived early at church and spread out my materials:

Then I went to work, draping fabric, taping ribbons, trying to evoke fluidity.  I ended up with this altarscape:

I still had ribbon left over, and so I moved to the space to the left of the altar.  I tried to create a different vibe, something that would evoke waterfalls and cascading water:

I wonder about the others who share our space.  What will they make of our decorations?

I could wonder the same thing about our parishioners.  I know that at least one of them would like to return to the more sedate decorating of our past, where an extra banner would be the only deviation from the paraments and flowers that the altar committee would set up.

I know that as a child I responded to the season of Advent and Christmas in large part because it shook up the normal worship style, which stretched so boringly across the calendar.  Suddenly we had different colors, different stuff in the sanctuary, something new each week to focus upon.

I like how my current church and pastor are willing to do the same thing throughout the liturgical year.  I remember being at Mepkin Abbey, long ago when I worshipped at a different church, and being intrigued and charmed by how the worship space changed during the four days we were there.  I yearned for a church that did something similar.

And now, I belong to one.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Learning to Dream Again

I confess that I have often approached Martin Luther King day as a celebration of how far we've come--and let us take a moment to remember how far we really have come, and in a relatively short time.  For example, when I took a summer job in 1985 at a D.C. office of Lutheran Social Services, I met a black woman who was old enough to have experienced Jim Crow laws and how they impacted travel by car just 25 years earlier.

And now, same gender couples can get married.

Some of us are worried about the erosion of Civil Rights.  We tell ourselves that once rights are given they can't be taken away, but you don't have to do too much digging in history to realize that statement is not true.

Some of us are frustrated that the rest of us never realized how much was left to be done.  That's fair.  But now it must be clear to us all.

So on this day that honors one of our Civil Rights leaders, let us take some time to think about the work left to do and how we might be part of it:

--We can shake the despair we might have been feeling in the past.  Let us dream boldly again.  If any society was possible, what elements would we want to have as part of that society?

--We can use our art, whatever those talents might be, to share that vision with others.

--We can use the old tools of writing letters to lawmakers, organizing, marching, and teaching to dismantle the structures that oppress.

--We can learn to use the new tools of social media--those are the tools that taught many of us how much work is left to be done.

--If we're spiritual/religious people, we can pray that our vision of a better future will come to pass.  We can ask for Divine help.

--We can remember that much of the work of social justice is not the type that will get us a holiday in our honor.  In fact, those Civil Rights workers, including King, did that kind of work for years and decades before breakthroughs happened.  We can do the work of making the sandwiches, running the childcare centers, working with disadvantaged students, listening to the dispossessed in our own communities.

There's plenty of work to do and a wide variety of ways to do it.  That's both a frustration and a blessing.  There's room for each of us, although the work we do may feel very piddly.

We can't always know that progress is being made when we work for social justice.  We proceed in faith, trusting that our work will not be done in vain.  Perhaps that's true of any big project:  books that we write, children that we raise, students that we educate, long-term relationships of all kinds.

Today is a good day to take some time to envision a better future, for ourselves, for our children, for future generations who will marvel at what's been done.  What dreams do we have?  If we believed that anything was possible, what would we want to see?  

Let us do what can be the hardest work of all--to believe that anything is possible.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Installation Art in the Sanctuary

One of the things I love about my church is that we're willing to think about art in the worship space beyond the traditional paraments, banners, music, and flowers.  Most churches do this kind of experimenting periodically, most notably during Advent/Christmas and Easter.  We go further.

My pastor is on sabbatical, so he asked me if I'd come up with something for the baptism of our Lord.  I said sure.  I immediately thought of the glowing elements that we added to a baptismal font at the 2014 Create in Me retreat:

I won't be adding glowing elements or even the twinkly lights that first came to my mind.  I'm taking a variety of other elements to church with me.

I have a variety of blue fabric and sparkly fabric.  I have some wired ribbon, blue ribbon that I got for dirt cheap at an after-holiday sale at JoAnn Fabric.  I have some other ribbons too.  I have a variety of boxes so that I can do something with varying heights.  I've got some pieces of coral.

I have a vision of creating a river of fabric and ribbons.  I want to create a sense of cascading water.  I want to add the words of God about being well pleased.

Of course I will take pictures--stay tuned!

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Presidential Language

Every time President Trump says something offensive or outrageous or so, so wrong, I wrestle with whether or not to say anything.  Thursday's comment about immigration and who we admit and who we don't--and the profanity about some of the nations--well, I just don't know what to say.  Actually, I have a lot to say, but I'm not sure it's wise.

So, let me say a few things.

Let me remember that Donald Trump is a child of God, just like the rest of us.  God loves him as much as God loves any of us.

Donald Trump comes from a different religious tradition than I do.  My religious tradition teaches about compassion for the people fleeing from oppression.  Donald Trump seems not to have had that training, not from his religion, not from his friends, not from any world experience.  When I think about how dangerous wealth can be, it's because it protects someone like Donald Trump from hearing the stories of refugees, first hand, just before those refugees have to flee because the INS authorities are closing in on your Lutheran Student Movement conference.

Let me remember that God has such a different vision of what our world can be.  I've caught a glimpse of it, and I'm pretty sure that God's vision doesn't match Donald Trump's vision.

Let me remember that God chooses to come to humanity in various backwater places (to use a kinder phrase than the one that Donald Trump uses).  People of Christ's time probably had similar opinions about Nazareth as some of us do about Haiti--what good can come from there?

God shows us again and again that great things can rise from the trash heaps and dung piles.  God shows us again and again that the rulers of the empire may have no clue.  History shows us that too.

Still, our language shapes our reality, and it is hard not to despair.  But let me remember that I can only control what I control.  Let me commit myself to precise language that heals, not that sows division.

Friday, January 12, 2018

January Mission

Most of us have already put away the holiday decorations, the wreaths on the doors, the lights on the shrubbery, and the baubles we've collected through the years.

We must remember, however, not to abandon all the aspects of Christmas.  We can't leave the baby in the manger until Easter.

We must stay alert.  While there may be no angel choirs to sing to us, we can see God gleaming in the distance.

God still has invitations, for those with ears to hear.

We are more than dried husks of our former selves.  God is always making all things new.

How will we shape the clay of our lives and our world?