Saturday, October 22, 2016

Poetry Saturday: Salt Water Sacraments

The death of our colleague in a diving expedition gone wrong has made me think about all the ways we relate to our planet.  Most days and months, most of us likely give no thought to the planetary laws of Physics and Chemistry and Biology that affect us all.  In days of heavy weather or king tides or a death out in nature (as opposed to a car crash), we become uncomfortably aware.

I was looking through my poetry folder and came across the poem below.  It describes a true time, when I went for an early morning Easter run and watched a baptism in the ocean--and it really was a time of ferocious rip tides which had drowned swimmers.

I, of course, thought about our sacraments, how we try to channel the Divine, how we participate in rituals we scarcely understand.  Is God more like the parents and adults gathered around the child being baptized or more like the ocean, with its currents governed by larger laws?

For the record, most days I believe that God is like the parent or partner who wants the best for us--but I also believe that if we set forces into motion, God cannot always rescue us (much like the parent of any adolescent).

Salt Water Sacraments

In the nineteenth century, they’d have gathered
by a lake or a slow moving river.
They’d have worn white robes
and sung the hymns they knew by heart.
They’d return to shore for homemade cake and fresh-squeezed
lemonade, a recess for sweetness, a respite
from the sweat of daily life.

Today they gather at the edge of America,
the southernmost shore of the tip of Florida.
Easter Sunday, just at dawn, traditional
time for baptism. The beefy man in a white
shirt whips off his tie and wades
into the surf. Two girls in neon
swimsuits follow him. Brave

children in this month of drowned swimmers
sucked out to sea, drained bodies spit
back on the sand, weeping women
taking their dead away.

These children see the beach as a playground.
They don’t understand the depth of the commitment
they make, the true nature of the covenant.
Their parents think of all the dangers lurking
offshore, waiting to sting and strike sweet
flesh. Even the minister knows only
the vague shape of this sacrament,
has only glimpsed the vast expanse
of salt water beyond that anchors
and buoys and cradles.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Rituals of Grieving

It's been a difficult week at work.  By now, our school's loss of a gifted faculty member has made national news:  on Saturday, Patrick Peacock, a skilled diver with advanced certifications, died over 200 feet underwater in a cave.  Most of us have spent a stunned week trying to make sense of it all.

Of course, on some level, no sense can be made.  It's a dangerous cave, but he had successfully navigated it before.  He had the skills and the equipment--but equipment can fail, and even the most experienced divers can face challenges.  He was only 53.

I've wondered if we'd all be reacting the same way if he had died in a car crash.  Probably.  Our students have made a shrine.  They'd have done that regardless of the method of death.  We'd have cried.  We still would have had a piercing moment when we have to look at our lives and evaluate:  are we doing what we were put on earth to do?

I've been touched by how many students have had his classes and how he has affected them as a teacher.  I've been an adjunct for as many years as I've taught full-time, and I'm happy to know that adjuncts don't necessarily have less of an impact on students' lives.

Tomorrow I'll go to the memorial service.  I've spent the week thinking about the rituals that humans create to help them navigate life's passages.  I listened to Terry Gross interview Jonathan Safran Foer recently on an episode of Fresh Air; she says, "Well, you know, you mentioned ritual and the importance that some rituals have taken on in your life. You write about that in a paragraph in the book, where Jacob is thinking - and this is after his grandfather dies - he's thinking, Judaism gets death right. It instructs us what to do when we know least well what to do and feel an overwhelming need to do something. You should sit like this. We will. You should dress like this. We will. You should say these words at these moments, even if you have to read from transliteration. I think that really captures very well (laughter) how ritual can be very helpful at times when you don't know what to do or what to say or how to dress. And, you know, the Jewish rituals for mourning the dead tell you what to do for all those things."

I suspect that tomorrow's memorial service won't have any kind of liturgy.  I suspect that I will miss it.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Buddhist Pumpkins

It has been an exhausting week.  Last night I couldn't do much more after work than sit and stare at the TV.

Luckily, there was something to watch:  It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  The wonderful colors of this show made me want to sketch with my own colored markers, but I was too tired to do even that.

Charlie Brown's treatment made me sad.  Why does he get rock after rock?  Why did Lucy have to tell him that he was on the do-not-invite list for the Halloween party?

This week has reminded me that life is not fair.  Some days, you get a bag full of candy.  Other days, you get rock after rock.  I tried to focus on the fact that Charlie Brown does get to go trick-or-treating, and he does go to the party.

Of course, he might have preferred to be left out, given his treatment.  He might have preferred to keep Linus company in the pumpkin patch.  Maybe it would have been better to go to bed early.

Last night, as I locked up my office, I looked at the Halloween decorations, decorations that others have put out.  I had this despairing thought:  I've missed a lot of one of my favorite months.  We're closing in on the end of October, and I have yet to make any pumpkin bread.  I have some decorating that I haven't done, and likely won't.

But at the end, Linus reminded me that Halloween will come again.  Maybe next year the Great Pumpkin will visit us.

Events of this week--the awful diving death of my colleague who was only 53--remind me that we may not have next year.  Thus, my determination to return home to enjoy one of the delights of the season, with this TV show.

I am still trying to be mindful each and every hour, to savor my life in that way.  So far, I'm not doing a great job.  But I am good at tuning in periodically throughout the day.

Clearly I will never be a Zen Buddhist.  And the theology of Linus and the pumpkin patch worries me too:   I don't like the idea that the pumpkin patch must prove itself before the Great Pumpkin (God?) will arrive.  I don't like that Linus will spend the next year preparing to be even better, in hopes that the Great Pumpkin will grace us with his presence.

Is the Great Pumpkin male?  I can't remember.

The show does not give us a Lutheran pumpkin patch, where grace rules the day, where a Great Pumpkin would love us even before we've done a single thing to prove ourselves.

Let me focus on the kindnesses of the show:  Lucy puts Linus, worn out from his night of waiting, into bed.  She has collected some candy for him.  Even though various Peanuts kids aren't always understood or accepted, they aren't completely cast out.  Charlie Brown and Linus have a friendship that will help them survive being the outsiders of their groups.

Let me remember that I haven't missed the whole of the season.  I always say that my favorite corridor is the one from Oct. 1 to Christmas.  There's still time:  time to bake pumpkin bread, time to enjoy the decorating efforts of others, time to think about buying some candy for trick-or-treaters.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 19, 2016:

First Reading: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Joel 2:23-32

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 35:12-17

Psalm: Psalm 84:1-6 (Psalm 84:1-7 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 65

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

As an English major and a Composition teacher, I immediately hone in on the speech of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the subject and the verb. The Pharisee is the subject in the sentence structure and the actor of each sentence: I _____ (fill in the verb). The tax collector asks God to be the subject of the sentence and the actor. What are we to make of this?

Some theologians would say that Jesus tells us that only God can deliver salvation. We can take on as many spiritual tasks as we like and do them all superbly, but it won't be enough. Some theologians would tell us that Jesus is reminding us of the value of humility. The Pharisee might be more spiritually pure, but since he lacks humility, he fails on some essential level.

Many theologians would comment on the human trait to draw lines of in groups and out groups, just as the Pharisee has done. As humans, we seem incapable of just accepting people. We want to change their behavior or their lifestyle or their beliefs. We compare ourselves to others, so that we can make ourselves feel better.

Jesus reminds us again and again of the futility of this action. The only way to salvation is to pray as the tax collector does: "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Notice the simplicity of the prayer. If we could only pray one prayer, this would be a good one. And a good second prayer would be one of thanks, thanks for all the way God showers us with blessings.

Jesus is clear about the dangers of exalting ourselves. In our current time, he might have spoken at greater length about the danger of humility turning into false humility. He might have preached to our inner adolescents, who might have protested and wondered why we should change our behavior at all, if it doesn't lead to God's favor. He might have told us that we do the things we do as Christians not to act our way to salvation, since that can't happen, but because we choose actions which will lead to enriched lives for ourselves and others.

It would be an interesting experiment to pray the prayer of the tax collector on a daily basis and to see how our lives changed. What a simple spiritual task. What a change of trajectory might be in store if we actually prayed it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pumpkin Patch Contemplations

Yesterday, I did my first-ever stint of selling pumpkins at our church's pumpkin patch.  I chose a shift where I wasn't likely to have too many customers; I wanted a slower time for my first time selling.  It was a beautiful day to sit outside before a stretch of seasonal gourds.

I sold exactly one.  The guy who bought the large pumpkin said, "I'm gonna put a spigot in it and serve drinks that way."  I wondered if he realized that the pumpkin didn't come as a hollow gourd, but I decided not to interfere.

We had other visitors.  I enjoyed watching the squirrels play hide-and-go-seek in the pumpkin patch.

Two women came at separate times and asked how much it cost to take pictures.  I didn't have the presence of mind to suggest a donation--I'm not sure I would have done that anyway.  I gave one little girl stickers, and she acted like she had won the lottery.

I had plenty of time to read, to take pictures, and to sketch.  As I thought about our pastor's observation that no other activity brings us into so much contact with our surrounding community, I made this sketch, and late in the process, the words "Pentecostal Pumpkins" came into my head.

Even if I didn't make many sales, it was a peaceful, meditative way to spend part of a day.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Pumpkin by Pumpkin, Note by Note

When I think of yesterday, I may remember it as a day of pumpkin offloading:

The offload went well--because it was Sunday after church, we had lots of people helping.  In just a few hours, our church's front yard looked like this:

But I also want to remember that it was a day of handchime practice. 

Yesterday, we started working on a piece that we want to play for Reformation Sunday, just 2 weeks away.  The first attempt to play through "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" was a disaster, the melody line unrecognizable as some of us lost our places and some of us rang the wrong note at the wrong time. 

But first times are always like that.  We persevered, and by the end of a half hour, we played a recognizable version of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."  And we still have a practice session next week.

I want to remember the lessons of yesterday:  what seems insurmountable ( offloading 1700 pumpkins, getting ready to play handchimes in 2 weeks) is actually doable--one must proceed pumpkin by pumpkin, note by note.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pumpkin Patch Evangelism

By the end of today, with luck and some dedicated labor, our church's front yard area will be transformed into a pumpkin patch.  Our pastor reminded us that no other event so connects us to our local community in the widest way.  Often when I describe the location of the church, someone will say, "Oh, the one that has the pumpkin patch every year!"

The sight of a pumpkin patch in front of a church does provide some visibility in the time of year when most motorists aren't noticing us.  We have lots of people stopping by who would ordinarily never give us a second thought.  We have brochures that tell people about our church.  But I doubt that pumpkin purchasers ever come back for worship.

We don't do it to be widely known for having a pumpkin patch, of course.  We do it because it raises a large amount of money in a short amount of time.  In my heart of hearts, I'm not sure it's worth the effort, but the majority of our church does.

We use the money that we raise for education--some years VBS, some years sending youth to the national gathering, some years for supplies.  One year the money helped repair the roof--it might not seem like supporting the community until one thinks about how many community organizations use our building, from AA groups to the drama group for developmentally disabled youth. 

I'm struck by the ways that our pumpkin patch serves as spiritual formation.  I love the way it brings our church together.  Much like Vacation Bible School, it's a time period where we need everyone to help out when and where they can.  Some of us offload pumpkins.  Some of us sell them.  Some of us show up in the evenings to turn the pumpkins to keep them from rotting.

So, if you haven't already bought your pumpkin(s) for the season, drop by a local church pumpkin patch.  Your dollars will go further than if you bought a pumpkin at a grocery store. 

If you're in South Florida and you want to support my church, it's Trinity Lutheran at the corner of 72nd and Pines Blvd, across the street (but on the same side of the street) from the South campus of Broward College.