Sunday, February 19, 2017

Epiphany Stars: A Follow-Up Story

On the first Sunday of January, my church celebrated Epiphany, and I was the one leading the service.  For years, I had read about Epiphany stars--a practice early in the year, where participants choose a star with a word on it, and that word guides them through the year.

I decided to abandon the dark sermon about Herod and modern refugees and to go with Epiphany stars.  On Saturday, I cut out the stars, wrote words on them, and put them in a bag I got from the Mepkin Abbey gift shop.  In church the next day, the experience went well.  For more, see this blog post.

A few weeks ago, a woman stopped me on her way out of church.  She told me that she keeps the star that she drew out of the bag on the dashboard of her car.  The star instructed her to "look up."  She told me that she's glad that the star is there to remind her.

I knew the woman, but we're not church friends--in other words, she didn't have a motivation to find the experience a good one.  I was pleased to hear that the experience was meaningful for her, and meaningful beyond Sunday morning.

I thought about how I had been hesitant to choose that direction for Epiphany.  I was reminded of my own star:

I'm also aware that I was able to say yes because I knew that the service was Jan. 1, a day with sparser attendance--and attendance might also be impacted by everyone's knowledge that our pastor would be on vacation.  I was able to take a risk with a different kind of sermon, a more interactive sermon, because the day was going to be different anyway.

But I'm glad I said yes to that Epiphany service.  I'm going to try to use that as a reminder to say yes more often.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Labyrinth Longings

Two paths run side by side:

How much does the landscape change if we're just one loop to either side?

How much does the landscape change if we shift the season?

It is good to have a walk with a friend.

It is good to have a time apart.

Let us rest awhile in this place.

We take off our shoes because we're on holy ground, the holy ground of the labyrinth.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Writing Prayers 2018

Wednesday was a long day at work--long in terms of hours spent in the office, not long in terms of being onerous.  On the contrary, I liked feeling that I was solving problems and helping make the school stronger.

In the late afternoon, I got a pleasant surprise.  I had been thinking about which manuscripts were out in the world and trying not to feel despair about how few are out there circulating.  I checked my e-mail and found an offer to participate in the prayer project that has been one of my favorite writing assignments of the past.

I haven't been part of the project for several years, and the invitation to be part of this year's Bread for the Day made me very happy.

I try not to think about how many writing opportunities have come and gone for me:  editors that have retired, publishing venues that have changed or closed--and my own time constrictions which means that I can't find other opportunities the way I might have.

So, Wednesday's invitation made me happy not only because of the invitation itself, but because it reminded me that some doors might open again.

I will be writing the prayers for January 2018.  The first year, I wrote the prayers for August.  For the next two years, I wrote December prayers.

I found it a bit jarring to write prayers for Advent as we moved through the season of Lent.  But as an administrator, I'm often dwelling in multiple seasons:  I think about the schedule for an academic term that's six months away.  I plan events far off in the future.  I guide faculty through documenting a past year's worth of faculty development while also planning for the coming year.  I do the same thing for assessment activities.

Now I will be writing prayers for January while this past January is still in my memory--I wonder if that will affect the writing? 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

It Begins: The New Sanctuary Movement

This morning on NPR, I heard this story about a woman in Denver who reported to a church instead of reporting to her deportation.  I thought, and so it begins, our new sanctuary movement.

My current church would not work well as a sanctuary church--we have no shower or any way to bathe except for a sink here or there.  To get to the fellowship hall, one must leave the building, which might leave sanctuary seekers at risk--they'd have to choose between the church sanctuary and the fellowship hall.

We share our space with roughly 7 other congregations--because we have 3 large gathering spaces (our fellowship hall has two sides, and either can be used as a large space), it works well to share.  What would happen if one of the church groups wanted to shelter someone, and the others didn't approve?

We are a small church--occasionally we do a shelter week with a homeless group, and it's hard to get enough church volunteers to make that happen.  I'd be interested to know how churches shelter a person in an ongoing way--how are boundaries drawn?

I will be interested to see how the Trump administration handles this issue.  I know that for years, officials have been careful to keep immigration showdowns out of churches, hospitals, schools, and other "sensitive locations."  But those policies were created by other people.

I haven't always been sure of the faith lives of U.S. leadership, but I've known about the faith traditions that might have shaped them.  With past leaders, I thought there might be a chance that they'd understand the motivation of sanctuary churches.

With Trump, I'm fairly sure that he hasn't been around the types of people who have the theology that would lead them to offer shelter.  Will he react in authoritarian fervor?  Will he decide that he has more pressing issues and thus ignore the sanctuary movement?

I suspect that it depends on how the movement grows or doesn't grow--and what other issues emerge in the coming weeks.

I will be adding these sanctuary churches to my prayer list, my ever-growing prayer list.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 19, 2017:

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm: Psalm 119:33-40

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48

Turn the other cheek. Give up your coat and your shirt. Walk the second mile. This Sunday we get to texts which have been so misunderstood through the centuries that it’s hard to remember what Jesus was really saying. Jesus was NOT saying to let your abuser batter you day in and day out. Jesus was not instructing us to let evil steamroll right over us. Jesus was not even calling us to pacifism, a stoic acceptance of brutality that will buy us a better condo in Heaven for enduring hell on earth.

No, these are resistance texts. Yes, resistance texts.

These are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that evil elements will not turn around and destroy us. Likewise, these are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that we don’t become the evil that we are resisting.

It’s important to remember that the culture of Jesus was a vastly different culture. It was a culture based on honor. It was a culture based on social hierarchy. It was also a culture ruled by Romans who were not going to tolerate social unrest, Romans who would not hesitate to slaughter dissenters.

Jesus shows us how to live in this world, how to resist evil without being destroyed by evil. If you want to read the best text on this idea, I recommend Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. It is one of the best books of theology I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of theology.

Let’s focus on the turning of the other cheek, since this passage is so well known. Notice that Jesus gives specific cheeks in specific order. That’s a detail lost on us, but it wouldn’t have been lost on the people who heard Jesus’ instructions. Walter Wink explains:

“Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? It would be the left. It is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, 'If anyone strikes you on the right cheek...' I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn't even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of the hand.

Now the back of the hand is not a blow intended to injure. It is a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It is always from a position of power or superiority. The back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew in that period. What Jesus is saying is in effect, 'When someone tries to humiliate you and put you down, back into your social location which is inferior to that person, and turn your other cheek.'

Now in the process of turning in that direction, if you turned your head to the right, I could no longer backhand you. Your nose is now in the way. Furthermore, you can't backhand someone twice. It's like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn't work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, 'I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can't put me down even if you have me killed.' This is clearly no way to avoid trouble. The master might have you flogged within an inch of your life, but he will never be able to assert that you have no dignity.”

Wink explains the other elements of the Gospel resistance readings here. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to his work, especially for those of us who aren’t up to reading his multi-volume works on resisting the various powers at work in this world.

For those of you who would sneer at the idea of resistance working in our evil, evil world, I would say that nonviolent resistance can bring mighty social change.

Walter Wink, writing in 1993, notes, “In 1989 alone, there were thirteen nations that underwent non-violent revolutions. All of them successful except one, China. That year 1.7 billion people were engaged in national non-violent revolutions. That is a third of humanity. If you throw in all of the other non-violent revolutions in all the other nations in this century [the 20th], you get the astonishing figure of 3.34 billion people involved in non-violent revolutions. That is two-thirds of the human race. No one can ever again say that non-violence doesn't work. It has been working like crazy. It is time the Christian churches got involved in this revolution because what is happening in the world is that the world itself is discovering the truth of Jesus' teaching, and here we come in the church, bringing up the rear.”  And of course, more lately we can point to a variety of revolutions, in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, some of which have fairly peacefully gotten rid of dictators who had been in power for decades.

Maybe we are not up for the task of resistance, which can be scary and can lead us to unexpected places. At the very least, we can pray. We can pray for those people who are doing the heavy lifting of resistance. We can pray for those who are transforming their societies for good, whether they live in our country or on the other side of the planet. We can pray for the softening of the hearts of the hard ones. We can pray that we have the wisdom to recognize evil when we see it. We can pray that we have the courage to resist evil in whatever forms it comes to us.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What the Monks Can Teach Us about Romantic Love

I’ve been going to Mepkin Abbey, a community of Trappist monks, regularly for over a decade now. When I first started going, I expected to learn many things: a different way to do worship, a variation of how to live in community, and the ultimate approach to hospitality.

I’ve learned a lot that I didn’t necessarily expect to learn from the monks, like different approaches to eating meals and new ways of looking at worship space. In hindsight, those aren’t the biggest surprises. No, the biggest surprise is how much I’ve learned about marriage from returning to this community of celibate men.

It sounds almost salacious, doesn’t it? “All I need to know about marriage I learned from a monk!”—it’s a bad movie, just waiting to be made. But in all seriousness, the monks have much to teach us about deep commitment. It’s a similar commitment to love that we see from our creator.

I've assumed that a monk who has taken final vows feels that certain decisions are settled forever: where to live/retire, what to do with one's time, what kind of food to eat, on and on I could go. In a way I've envied that decision. 

Cloistered monastics take a vow to a specific monastery or abbey. In many ways, the vow of stability is also a vow of commitment to a larger sense of religious institution.  It’s only been lately that I’ve been reflecting on marriage as a similar vow of stability. 

Likewise, those of us who have taken vows to a partner have taken a similar vow of stability, a commitment to place, where place is a person. But in many ways, marriage is more than just a pledge between two people. We commit not just to a relationship, but to a larger vision of what a marriage can and should be. By that commitment, we’ve closed the door to other decisions. In a way, life becomes easier.

Through the years, though, I’ve realized that not all monks will stay at the monastery until they die. It’s not a prison, after all. Perhaps my vision of the monastic vow of stability has been shallow? I’ve assumed that once the commitment is made, no other possibilities are ever considered. But of course, that’s not true.

In monasticism, as in married life, we periodically wonder about roads not taken. If the yearning is strong enough, the road not taken may be the road that has the stronger pull.

I know how easy it is to convince ourselves that a better life is possible. But we forget to consider the whole picture. Those of us wishing for more alone time forget how lonely that time could be if our wish was fully granted. We move to different houses and neighborhoods, only to be surprised when the new house has problems too. We forget that every job comes with its headaches. We wish our partners were different, while forgetting to appreciate the properties that attracted us in the first place.

Here, too, the monks model good behavior, and not just for monastics. The monks live in intense community and ideally, the needs of the whole community rise above the needs of one individual monk. 

In an ideal world, married people, too, have this kind of surrounding community, one likely composed of friends and family. In an ideal world, the church community serves as an anchor for these vows of stability.

As our culture celebrates Valentines Day, it’s a good time to consider what our church communities do to help those members who have taken vows. It’s a good time to consider what we can all do to celebrate a deep commitment to love.

Our larger culture sets aside a day to buy chocolates and champagne and cards—but every day should be a day that we celebrate love of all kinds. God who came to dwell with us showed us many examples of how to live a life committed to love.

How can we emulate that kind of love?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Valentine's Eve Nuggets

I imagine that across the world (at least in some industrialized nations), people are gearing up for Valentine's Day.  Before the madness sets in tomorrow, let us consider this holiday:

--I feel the same about this holiday as I do about New Year's Eve--why spend that extra money just because marketers have decided that we should?
--To me, this feast day is essentially a manufactured holiday, yet another one, designed to make us feel like we must spend gobs and gobs of money to demonstrate our love.

--If you want to show me you love me, don't spend thousands on a bauble.  Go ahead and pay down the mortgage.  It may not seem romantic on its face, but what could be more romantic than ensuring that I have a roof over my head and a door that locks.

--And there's a larger social justice element, even beyond the question of how we spend our money and the best use of that money.  This blog post reminds us of how many of our Valentine's Day traditions are built on the backs of abused workers--and not just abused workers, but enslaved workers and children:  "70-75% of the world’s chocolate comes from cocoa beans harvested in West Africa, where almost 2 million children work under violent and hazardous conditions.  Many of these children are kidnapped or sold (some as young as 7 years old) and forced into such labor."  The statistics are similar for our roses, our diamonds, our technology, and our stuffed animals. 

--I do understand why people want a holiday in the long winter months to celebrate love.  But I also understand how this holiday is painful to many:  those who have lost the loves of their lives, those who have never experienced the love for which they yearn, those who love in a different way.  After all, this holiday doesn't celebrate all love, but one certain kind of love, and the societal hype reinforces ideas that may get in the way of a realistic approach to relationships.

  --Every day, ideally, should be Valentine's Day, a day in which we try to remind our loved ones how much we care--and not by buying flowers, dinners out, candy, and jewelry. We show that we love by our actions: our care, our putting our own needs in the backseat, our concern, our gentle touch, our loving remarks.

--I think that in America we do a bad job of learning how to manage our emotional lives.  We think our feelings are real.  We forget that the emotion we have today will likely be gone by tomorrow.  We forget that our bad feelings are often triggered by all sorts of things that have nothing to do with how we really feel.  Low blood sugar has caused many a fight--and probably more divorces and break-ups than we like to think about.  Many of us go through daily life fatigued.  We think our boredom and sadness are caused by our families or our friends or our jobs--and that might be the case--or we might just need more sleep.

So, as we begin the mad rush to Valentine's Day, let us take a moment to remember the gift of being able to love each other.  Let us remember God, who first loved us, and who will love us long after all other love falls away.