Friday, October 31, 2014

First Trip to Mepkin Abbey--Ten Years Ago this Week-end

Ten years ago, I'd have been spending this week-end at Mepkin Abbey, the first time I went to Mepkin Abbey.  I had an idea of what to expect, since the friends who went there with me had gone a few months earlier.  I knew that we wouldn't be staying in the Abbey itself, and we might be in a trailer.  We were.  I knew that the meals would be vegetarian and that we'd only have a fixed amount of time to eat the midday meal.  Because I'd read Kathleen Norris, I had a sense of the schedule of worship.

I was not prepared for how that brief visit would transform me.  I went home with Plainsong ringing in my years and yearning to return.  And so I have returned for 10 years now.  I do some of my best writing and revising while I'm there, and some of my best poems have been inspired by my time there.  I have seen how a schedule that returns us to our center can be both calming and invigorating.

Maybe I will write more later on all the ways I've been transformed, but for now, let me remember that first week-end.  For more secular details, go to this blog post.

--I expected to feel a certain holiness in the chapel, which I did.  But I also experienced that return to God throughout the grounds.  I loved how there were statues throughout the grounds, some traditional marble statues, and some carved out of wood.  I felt like I was always happening upon a treat and a reminder to return my attention to God.

--We were there during a liturgical shift, from Ordinary time to All Saints, which was celebrated on the actual day of November 1, the morning we left.  I was surprised by how the chapel seemed to change from service to service.  Different flowers, different candles, different art, different focuses.

--On All Saints, there was a picture lit by candles.  It was "Festival of Lights," by John August Swanson.  I was struck by how the changing art helped me think about the difference in the church calendar--the changing art called my attention back, in the way that banners rarely do.  But would they, if we changed them more often?

--I loved the rhythm of chanting the Psalms, the way that the simple music got into my brain.  For weeks afterward, I'd hear that music running through my brain.

--The words of the Psalms got into my brain as well--much better than what is usually running through my brain.

--Compline service was my favorite.  I loved ending the day with the simple, underlit service, with the Abbot splashing us each with water from the baptismal font.

--I bought a prayer book so that I could try to do what the monks do.  It's not as good, praying the Psalms alone.  But because of the experience of different prayers for different feast days and non-feast days, I eventually decided I wanted more.  That brought me to The Divine Hours, the 3 volume set by Phyllis Tickle.

--I loved the natural flower arrangements, some of them in big stone jars.  And not so natural.  I recognized a garland of colored leaves made out of fake silk that one can get at Michaels.  And yet, it worked.

--We were there during the week-end that the time changed back to Eastern Standard--interesting to see how the light changed during services from Daylight Savings to Eastern Standard. 

--The various changes in the chapel over just a week-end made me wonder what it would be like to be there a whole year to see the changes.  And then I wondered, if a monk spent his whole life there, at some point, would he stop noticing the changes?  And of course, I'm always wondering about the lessons for our church interiors and for our own living spaces.

--Is it Mepkin itself that makes me mindful?  Or just the time away?  How can I bring that Mepkin mind home?  These are the questions that I asked that first year that I continue to ask.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

What We Lost in the Reformation

Many of us have already celebrated Reformation Sunday--but October 31 is that actual day that Martin Luther nailed those theses to the Wittenberg door.  He knew that he would get maximum visibility since everyone would be going to church the following day for the Feast of All Saints.

I've spent years thinking and writing about what was gained with the Reformation (for example, this post), but this morning, a different post of mine is up at the Living Lutheran site.  It explores what we lost in the Reformation.  Go here to read it.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"I wonder: If our religious traditions had paid more attention through the centuries to the female saints and to Mary, could we have arrived at a place of more inclusivity sooner?"

"What did we lose by our Protestant rejection of these special feast days? Most obviously, we lost the opportunity to have more opportunities for festivity, both in our daily lives and our Sundays. But at a deeper level, we lost many opportunities for inspiration from those who have gone before us."

"My exploration of the Celtic saints has led me to an appreciation of a sacramental outlook and a wish that our Lutheran understanding of the idea of sacrament was broader. Ancient Celtic Christians believed not only in the incarnate Jesus of the past but in the incarnate sacredness of everyday life: that every task existed to point us to the creator."

In this morning's post on my creativity blog, I've written more about the Living Lutheran site and my 4 years of writing there.  I've written about feeling off track.

And of course, maybe the idea of a track is flawed.  The work will take the time that the work takes.  I'm loving this post by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, which reminds us that "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work."  Her post talks about the work of parenthood and the work of attentive living, but her thoughts also hold true for our creative work and other types of spiritual work.
Here's a quote about yearnings for your Thursday (I will leave the gendered language for God that the author uses):  "I will also never be a Trappist Monk, yet I am able to come to Mepkin on a regular basis and share in this life I find gratifying and rich.  Our deepest desires will be fulfilled, discernment promises, though not always in our time or in ways that we would choose or even imagine.  God hears our prayers, knows our yearning.  He is at work in the world.  We need faith and we need patience, but he will fill the hear that is open to him" (p. 121).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The All Saints Sunday readings for Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014:

First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

Psalm: Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-3

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

This Sunday we celebrate All Saints Day. Most churches focus on loved ones of the congregation who have died; some churches give special emphasis to members who have died since the last All Saints Day. Some churches will be thinking about the larger collection of saints.

The Gospel reading for today at first seems jarringly out of place. Why are we back to the Sermon on the Mount? But after reading it, we see the connections. These are the behaviors of those whom we traditionally consider saints, people like Mother Theresa. They should be the behaviors of those of us still on earth who consider ourselves to be part of that saintly pantheon.

It's even more interesting to read this Gospel in the light of worldly events. These behaviors are not the ones endorsed by most of the world. Spend a night watching television and contemplate what it says about our culture. We don't see many messages that remind us to be meek, to hunger for justice, to work for peace, to be pure in heart. No, we're supposed to dance with stars, or sing for a panel of harsh judges, or watch dramas about ghastly criminals.

The Lectionary Gospel reading uses bridesmaids and lamps to tell us about the kingdom of God. Half of the bridesmaids keep their lamps ready, while half are careless and bring no oil with them. Here we have another story that reminds us to stay alert and prepared and warns us of the consequences if we don’t.

When we read Gospels like these, many of us might think that we do these things as our admission ticket for Heaven. But some of the more interesting books of theology that I've read lately remind us that Christ didn't come to take us to Heaven. In fact, the concept of Heaven with all our loved ones waiting for us there is relatively new to Christian thought. Christ came to announce that God's plan for redeeming the world had begun. That plan involves our pre-death world, which is not just a place where we wait around until it's our turn to go to Heaven. No, this world is the one that God wants to redeem. Christ comes to invite us to be part of the redemptive plan (if you want to read a book-length treatment of this idea, make N.T.Wright's Surprised by Hope your November reading).

Jesus comes to show us what a God-drenched life would look like. I recently rediscovered this quote by Marcus Borg (from a lecture in Miami that he gave almost 10 years ago) in my notebook: "Jesus is the epiphany of God. He shows us what can be seen of God in a human life. There's much of God that can't be shown in a human life, but Jesus shows what can be seen."

Jesus also comes to give us instructions for how we can join together in the redemption of the world. Think of the Sermon on the Mount as a behavior manual. As you move through your days, view your actions and your thoughts through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. Do your thoughts and actions support this vision of peace, justice, mercy, and comfort? If not, how can you change to be more in alignment with God's vision of redemption?

We could use this All Saints Day as a reminder that we need to jump start our efforts to act as saints in this world. If that behavior means that we also get to be saints in the next world, swell. But the good news of Jesus is that we don't have to wait until we die to experience redemption. We're already saints. We just need to remember to be about the business of sainthood, and to avoid the behaviors that distract us from our mission.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Theology of the Pumpkin Patch

In these waning days of October, as we race headlong towards Halloween, my blog post is up at the Living Lutheran site. 

I wrote about my experience with the pumpkin offload and what that experience shows me about God and God's communities.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"And then I thought of all those agricultural metaphors, where Jesus says, 'The kingdom of heaven is like ... .' That parable of the seeds and the different types of ground – do we really understand that parable if we’ve never planted anything?"

"Unloading the pumpkins also reminds me of something else that I cherish about church communities: At their best, there is room for everyone. The littlest ones can carry pumpkins, if they want to help that way. Those of us without the strength to carry pumpkins can help sell them."

"As I cradled those pumpkins, which so resemble human heads, I felt a strange tenderness toward them, the tenderness that I imagine God feels toward us all. In some ways, pumpkins are so sturdy and yet so fragile. All it takes is one slip and the pumpkin is rendered useless, a pulpy mess of slime and gunk. And yet, even from that accident could come new life, if one planted the pumpkin seeds. From that one pumpkin, we could grow a whole new patch, life out of death."

Go here to read the complete article:

http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2014/10/141028-Theology-of-the-pumpkin-patch

Monday, October 27, 2014

Duck Blinds and the Reminder to Stay Alert

At Mepkin Abbey, I noticed this structure in a tree.



The tree looks out over cotton fields that lie between the gift shop and the African-American cemetery.  Some years, there's an old chair up there.




When I first saw it, I thought perhaps it was a dilapidated tree house.  Now I'm thinking it's probably a duck blind or some other hunting structure.

Of course, it's at an Abbey.  I think of Merton and the small hermitage that he built.  I try to imagine the monks climbing the tree to have some alone time.  I don't think I'm looking at a hermitage.



The abbey grounds are full of surprises, bird houses and repurposed shacks.  But you have to be looking and paying attention.  It's one of the lessons of Mepkin Abbey that I try to remember. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Reformation Sunday 2014

Another Reformation Sunday dawns.  As  Lutheran, this should be one of my High Holy Days, right?  A day of awe, if I can borrow a term from Jewish friends.  But often, the day leaves me feeling discombobulated.

We celebrate our heritage--but we don't often talk about how tradition and our clinging to it can be dangerous.  We are a church that changed that trajectory of the world--but we seems resistant to doing that again.  We claim people like Nadia Bolz-Weber, and she is wonderful, but she's only one person.  To find out how she's wonderful, you can listen to her at this On Being site or go to this blog post which includes quotes from that radio broadcast. 

I'm thinking of this post, where the author talks about "the Nadia problem":  "'The Nadia Problem' is that she is being promoted as an example without churchwide acknowledgement that she is actually an exception, and that the Spirit-led and community-based construction of House for All Sinners and Saints has not even begun to move into the churches now fretting about the loss of their 'All-Star Team.'"  She's responding to this article in The Lutheran, which talks about the coming wave of clergy retirements.

I'm remembering a Reformation Sunday in 2004, which I spent at a Trappist monastery with a Lutheran friend and an Episcopalian friend.  I remarked on how strange it was to spend Reformation Sunday with a much more ancient incarnation of the faith.

My Lutheran friend said that wouldn't miss it.  She said she much preferred the chanting of the Psalms.  She appreciated their fierceness and honesty.  She said that one of her least favorite holidays was Reformation Sunday.  I understand.

I worry that we get too wrapped up in feelings of self-congratulation on this day.  I worry that we don't do as much introspection and accounting on this day.

So, by all means, let us celebrate our heritage.  Let us sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."  Let us read the Bible in our own language, a path begun by Martin Luther.

But let us not lose sight of our reforming heritage.  Let us pray for the strength needed to be the reformers that our time needs.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Pumpkin Evangelism

At work, I'm part of the Employee Engagement Committee--we mainly plan festive events that we hope will keep up morale.  We had been discussing a pumpkin decorating event.  One of our members said he'd been to several key places, like WalMart and Publix and not been able to find pumpkins.

My muscles have only just begun to recover from our great pumpkin offload.  I wondered if I should mention our church's pumpkin patch.  I thought, why not?  I sent the e-mail.

Why is it that I expect negative feedback?  I expected people to write back and say, "Forget it.  We are not supporting a church."  I expected something even more negative.

Happily, that was not the case.  People asked if I would be willing to buy the pumpkins, and I said sure.  I was even given cash, so that I wouldn't have to pay out of my own pocket.  Wow.

People were more worried about my ability to carry the pumpkins than about the possible ethical ramifications of using our school funds to support a church.  Had anyone raised that objection, I'd have pointed out that these funds support Vacation Bible School, which helps to inculcate a love of learning and arts and crafts in 70+ children a year.

But I didn't have to offer my well-reasoned arguments about why we should support a church pumpkin patch.  People were just happy to find a source of pumpkins and a person who would buy them and transport them.

I am part of the ELCA--the E stands for Evangelical, but I'm not evangelical in the most common use of that word.  I don't proselytize.  I am not quick to talk about my spiritual life.  I don't witness, in the flamboyant sense of that word.

However, I think it's important to remember that there are other ways to witness.  I talk about my church when it makes sense in conversations, and I hope that my references to it show it as the community resource that it is.  I talk about our food pantry and our VBS programs and the ways we support home schooling groups and the drama troupe for students with learning disabilities. I hope to counter the mass media images of hysterical people demonstrating against this and that.

I must confess that I'm also happy to be able to support our church.  It's a win-win--but I do realize that I'm biased.

And I'm also glad for this reminder that it's OK to speak in this way:  that I won't always face negative reaction.  On the contrary, I might be a welcome solution to a problem.