Sunday, July 5, 2015

Dog Days of a Spiritual Life

It's the time of year again:  hot, endless days of summer.  It seems we will never celebrate Christmas again.

How to maintain our faith in a time of drought?  Perhaps by returning to nature, the river that runs deep:

Perhaps we will find the secret in the cool catacombs of a library:

Maybe by approaching an art form from a different angle:

Let us sit quietly on the porch:

We will cultivate our gardens in the belief that rains will come again:

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Independence Day Prayers

When I'm on Facebook, I'm amazed at the anger and vitriol that some display, the sweeping generalizations that I see and hear.  I want to go into teacher mode.  I want to point out how wonderful it is that so many of us can have such a wide range of opinions, and none of us will be carted off to jail, unless we decide to do something violent on the behalf of those opinions.

So today, let me give thanks for this freedom that we've somehow managed to maintain.  But let me not be blind to the oppression that many still face.

For many of us, Independence Day is a day of cook-outs and fireworks.  If we don't live in a place that has preserved colonial history, or if we live further west, Independence Day may seem a distant holiday.  But this holiday week-end gives us a good reason to remember the high stakes that those signers of the Declaration of Independence faced.  It's good to remember how much they valued the idea of freedom, even if they didn't extend those freedoms to all.

In this time after momentous Supreme Court decisions and actions by evil-minded people, it's good to think of freedoms and what freedoms still need to be won.  I will spend some time thinking about all the female clergy in South Carolina who are getting vicious threats and hate mail.  I will think about people who still don't have basic protections, like the right to work at a job without harassment.  I will think of people still going to bed hungry, still out on the streets.

I will say a prayer for protection and for liberty from tyrannies of all sorts.  Today and every day.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Promoting Camp

At the end of the day yesterday, a group of us from Lutheran churches across the county met at our church, a central location for us all.  We were there to hear about promoting the campaign for Luther Springs, our Lutheran camp in Florida.  The man there to train us to go out to talk to church councils was once my college Theology professor and campus pastor.

We talked about what outdoor ministry had meant to each of us.  It was interesting to note how many of us talked about the deep importance of camp to our grown-up lives, not our camp experiences as children.

Our Florida camp, Luther Springs, has gone from being on the brink of bankruptcy to being more successful than the space developed can handle.  Luckily, there's room for development.

How did this happen?  Ten years ago, most Lutherans in Florida had never heard of Luther Springs.

Part of it was their partnership with the group that manages the North Carolina camps, Lutheridge and Lutherock.

And when that group started helping, the camp started offering more programs for adults.  Once better housing was built for larger groups, the popularity took off.

I thought of the one day retreat that my mom and I have created for her church women's group.  Could one day retreats held at churches help support camp?  We've said it at my mom's group's retreat:  "If you liked one day of this, just imagine a whole week-end or week."  Last night I thought of offering 1 day versions of the more popular retreats:  a 1 day women's retreat, a 1 day creativity retreat, and so on.

Of course, the kind of support that Luther Springs needs right now is money to build more lodging, to build a better kitchen (I've had home kitchens bigger than the Luther Springs kitchen), and to build a bigger meeting space/chapel.  The materials we looked at last night made it clear how little it would take from each Lutheran church member to get the camp to where it needs to be:  just under $34 a person a year for the next 3 years.

History is full of examples of what can happen when a large group of people works together.  Hopefully this campaign for Luther Springs will be another example.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Poetry Thursday: Creativity Lessons from Toddlers

I've been thinking about the lessons that Vacation Bible School teaches the grown ups about creativity.  The children entered into every arts and crafts activity with openness.  Even when they weren't enthusiastic--and most were--they still gave every experience a try.

Perhaps it was the activities I chose, but no one said, "I can't do this."  Only once did someone destroy a creation, and it was an older child.  The younger children gave no judgment.  It was very refreshing.

 I just finished reading Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins--a novel which also makes me think about creativity.  It's a book that works beautifully as a novel.  But at the end, a reader can't help but realize that it's also a book about narrative and story telling.

All of these threads make me think of a poem that I wrote years ago, after I spent Thanksgiving week-end with my nephew.  We told each other stories, stories which ignored the basic rules of narrative structure.

Later, I wrote this poem:

Narrative Lessons

The three year old tells me a story
that is really a list
of things you’d find in the firehouse
where the little old lady lived
once upon a time.

The three year old has not memorized
the five kinds of conflict
(or is it 6?
and what about the ones that overlap?).
He has not studied Aristotle’s rules.
He does not know about mimesis,
the mirror or the lamp.

He simply understands the objects
which he likes recited
to the grown ups who love
him best, the narrative that burns

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 5, 2015:

First Reading: Ezekiel 2:1-5

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Psalm: Psalm 123

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 48

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Gospel: Mark 6:1-13

What an intriguing Gospel reading for this Sunday: Jesus rejected by people who had known him since he was little and who knew his family. Perhaps you can relate.

The first part of this Gospel (in the reaction of the people of Christ’s own country) gives us a clear warning about the risks we face when we have expectations of God that might be a bit too firm. We're not really open to God or God's hopes and plans for us when we think we know what God should be up to in the world. The society of Jesus' time had very definite expectations of what the Messiah would look like and what he would do--and Jesus was not that person. How many people ignored God, right there in their midst, because they were looking for someone or something else?

This Gospel also warns us about fame and acclaim. If you've been alive any length of time, you know that the world grants fame to an interesting variety of people. But once again, if we expect God to act like a star, we're setting ourselves up for disappointment.

Much of the Bible shows us God appearing as a stranger, as a baby in a manger, as an itinerant preacher, as a crucified prisoner. We hear God speaking in dreams, in a burning bush, a whisper here, a glimmering there. If we’re waiting for angel choirs in the sky to give us a clear message from the Divine, we may wait a very long time. We need to learn to listen for God in other settings.

And the end of the Gospel has a warning for us, as well. If we become believers because we think we'll be famous or we'll make lots of money or we'll have political influence--well, we're likely to be disappointed. The Gospel of Jesus is not about those things that the world considers important--no matter what those Prosperity Gospel folks would have you believe.

If we think of Jesus as building a church, the model that we see in a Gospel might point us in a different direction than the path that many of us have been treading

Jesus sends out his disciples two by two, with no possessions and not much of a plan. Notice what he does not do--he doesn't make them create a mission statement or a business plan. He doesn't have them raise money for buildings and programs. And he doesn't expect them to work fruitlessly--they are allowed to shake the dust off of their feet and move on if a community rejects them.

What would our lives look like, if we followed this model? What would our lives look like if we trusted God more than our retirement plans? Where are we stuck, needing to shake dust off of our feet and move on? Where might God lead us, if we can just learn to trust and learn to move?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

VBS Music and Theology

I have had the music of VBS in my head for over a week now.  In some ways, it's not horrible. Many of the lyrics are somewhat Biblical, after all.  We spent the week singing about the might of God, the love of God, the uniqueness of God--all in simple sentences, with an upbeat tempo.

When my brain is full of VBS songs, I wonder what my brain usually contains when it's not these lyrics.  In my younger years, it would have been different songs.  But now I don't listen to music as much as I once did--somewhat strange, since music is so much more accessible now.

People across disciplines have long known that if you want the brain to remember something, one good way is to put it to music.  I remember song lyrics long after other knowledge has seeped from my brain.

On Sunday, as I watched the group of VBS kids sing about God who can do anything, I thought about future years.  Will they wonder why this God who can do anything neglected to do something they deem important?

The theology that we teach in VBS is fairly simple--and I'm not saying that critically.  VBS is designed for children, after all.  And a recent trend in VBS is to have curriculum designed for multi-age groups--which means that the theology is geared towards first or second graders.

But I have noticed that many grown ups have never moved much beyond this elementary school theology.  This fact used to enrage me.  I saw it as a failing of the modern church.

Lately, I've been wondering why I have been so angry.  After all, if people have a theology that brings them comfort, who am I to criticize?

But the thought that pushes at me:  is theology meant to bring comfort?  If we delve into theology to understand God, then a second grader's theology isn't serving grown ups well.  Was Jesus sent into the world to bring comfort?

Yes, in some ways.  But no, in important other ways.  There's the social justice angle, after all.

We focus on social justice in our VBS--or to be more accurate, we have a charity project.  This year we raised money for earthquake victims in Nepal.  In the past, we've worked on clean water and malaria nets.

When it comes to social justice, many grown up Christians still have the theology of children.  We care for those who are down on their luck by giving money.  Most grown ups, regardless of spiritual background, don't spend as much time working on changing the social structures that keep people trapped in poverty.

I know that many adults don't care about theology at all.  They come to church for a variety of reasons.  They have friends in the church.  They like to sing in the choir.  They feel better about themselves after an hour in church.  It's a respite from regular life. 

Is there a way to interest these worshippers in a deeper, more complex theology?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Hybrid Sunday

We usually have the Sunday after VBS as a VBS themed Sunday--the kids sing, there's no sermon, and after the service there's a waterslide (the bounce house kind) and lunch (a way to use up extra kid food from the week).

Earlier this week, the bishop of the ELCA called for this Sunday to be a day of repentance and mourning:  repentance for our culpability with the culture of racism and mourning for the 9 martyred in Charleston.  At first glance, it didn't seem a good fit with VBS Sunday, but our pastor decided to try.

And to make the Sunday even more interesting, a couple wanted to affirm their wedding vows.  They're a couple with a delightful child--the family had once been members of the church and come back every year for VBS, and this year, the father/husband could come too. 

How did these elements work together?  Well, at first we experienced the joy of the VBS songs and Bible readings.  Then we moved to the liturgy of repentance and mourning.  From there, we wished each other peace, took up the offering, and celebrated the Eucharist.  And then, after the joy of the Eucharist, we had a marriage renewal. 

As we went along, our pastor reminded us that this is what life with the Lord looks like.  We will not immediately defeat death, but it can be faced with grace.  In any life, there will be grief, but there will also be joy.  We have assurance that God is with us in both our joy and suffering. 

It was a great service, although I do wonder what our large number of visitors thought of the service.  Maybe they, too, were moved.  Maybe they just wanted to move through it so that they could get to the lunch afterwards.  We tried to explain each part as we went along, so that visitors wouldn't be lost and confused.

With every service, a good worship planner tries to see it through both the eyes of the long-attending member and the visitor.  I think we did a good job.