Saturday, May 30, 2015

Time to Write Phyllis Tickle that Appreciation Note

I was sad to hear that Phyllis Tickle has been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  I was also sad to learn that her husband had died recently.

She is 81 years old, so why am I surprised that death moves to the forefront of her narrative?

But she seems so ageless that it's hard to imagine that she, too, will die.  And now it looks like her death will be sooner, rather than later.  Her prognosis is less than a year to live.

This recent article shows that she's in good spirits about the situation:

“'At 81 you figure you’re going to die of something, and sooner rather than later,' she says, sitting at her kitchen table for her first interview about her diagnosis. 'I could almost embrace this, that, OK, now I know what it’s probably going to be, and probably how much time there is. So you can clean up some of the mess you’ve made and tie up some of the loose ends.'

'I am no more afraid of dying than I am of, I don’t know, drinking this coffee,' she continues, pointing to her mug. (It’s actually filled with Postum since she’s had to give up caffeine. She remains, thankful, though, that she can still drink a nightly whiskey.  'Jack Daniels, of course!' she says, shocked at the suggestion that a Tennessee native would drink anything else.)"

Writer David Gibson sums up her work this way:  "Taken together, Tickle’s works combine the sprawling scope of historian Karen Armstrong with the fine-grained command of sociologist Robert Bellah and the rural sensibilities of poet Wendell Berry. Throw in a dash of Thomas Merton’s sense and spirituality for good measure."

As she dies, I expect new insights from her on this chapter that closes on us all.

Should I write to her?  Should I tell her how much her work has meant to me?  If I want to do that while she's here with us, in a physical form that we recognize, I should write soon.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Keeping the Flame of Pentecost Burning

Have you taken down your Pentecost decorations or do you keep them up for the full 12 days of Pentecost?  Oh, wait, wrong holiday.  But it is interesting to me how quickly Pentecost comes and goes.

As a child, I saw summer as the long, boring green season:  no special decorations, no music, no food, no children involved in worship service.

In many ways, although much has changed, much remains the same.  It's a long stretch until we make our way back to Advent.  In some ways, I'm glad.  The fifty days between Easter and Pentecost, and the season of Lent before it, make strenuous demands on the faithful.  It's good to have some fallow time.

Or maybe I should look at this time differently.  Pentecost offers us much in terms of changing our worship spaces--lots of decorating possibilities.  But it's not about transforming the surfaces of our worship spaces, much as they might need that.  It's about getting us out of our worship spaces to go out to transform the world. 

Yes, transform the world that seems so resistant to change.  No wonder we throw ourselves into our decorating projects.  The true mission of Pentecost makes us too uncomfortable to bear.

Throughout church history, we’ve seen what the presence of the Holy Spirit can do, even in the most improbable settings.  Pentecost is the holiday designed for discomfort, a celebration that should stir us to get up off the couch to go out and do great things. We learn about Pentecost in the book of Acts, after all, not the book of Sleeping Late. Perhaps that’s why so many of us approach Pentecost with a bit of apprehension.

 If we trusted in the transforming power of God, what changes might we see? How might our local society and the larger world be different? The answers to those questions might scare us.  Of course, not asking those questions should scare us more.

We live in a time of rapid change, from revolutions abroad to church schism at home. Various scholarly disciplines continue to give us new discoveries that completely reorder the way we see the world. We may not know what our next steps should be. We are people who want a plan: a daily plan, a five year plan, a ten year plan—yet the circumstances of our lives, both on the individual and the global scale, may make planning impossible.

But Pentecost reassures us with the mystical promise of the Spirit. We do not have to know what we are doing; we just need to be open to the movement of the Spirit. Pentecost promises daring visions; we don’t have to know how we’re going to accomplish them. God will take care of that.

God became incarnate to prepare humans to carry on the work of Kingdom creation. And Pentecost reminds us of our job description, to let the Holy Spirit blow into our hollowed out spaces and to fill us with the fire to dream and the resources to bring our visions to life.

In this time after Pentecost, instead of sinking into the lull of a long, green season, let us continue to think about the Holy Spirit and the call of God.  Fifty days from now, when the holiday is long gone, what might we begin to incubate?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Incubating the Improbable

My post on the Feast of the Visitation is up at the Living Lutheran site.  Those of us who grew up in Lutheran churches of the past may not know about this holiday.  Even my Catholic friends often don't celebrate feast days.

But the more I learn about feast days, the more I yearn for what they promise:  an enriching of our spiritual lives, a way to have more festival times, a way to be inspired, a way to learn about important heroes of the faith who might be otherwise lost to us.

Now, the Feast of the Visitation doesn't celebrate the lives of people lost to us.  Anyone who has paid attention during Advent knows about the lives of Mary, mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, mother of John.  They were cousins, and unexpectedly, improbably pregnant.  During their time of getting ready, they spent time together.

My post explores the implications of this feast day.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"I love this story of new life being held in unlikely wombs. I love this message that biology is not destiny, that our bodies can do all sorts of wondrous things, like heal, generate new life, and nourish what we previously thought to be impossible."

"Never far from my mind are the issues of discernment, call and retreat. God calls both Mary and Elizabeth, and both say yes to a radical change of direction to what they might have planned. And it's a change that will have an impact on the rest of their lives, not just a year or two. What a great idea: to take some time away from regular life to support each other and to prepare."

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 31, 2015:

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm: Psalm 29

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-17

Gospel: John 3:1-17

Ah, Holy Trinity Sunday. It's interesting to look at various denominations to see how each one handles the idea of the Trinity. Some Christians are certainly more Trinitarian than others. I know that the idea of a Triune God is a huge stumbling block for many people.

As a child, this concept didn't bother me much. It seemed obvious that humans had many different sides, so why shouldn't God? As I got older, the idea of God being able to split those selves into various incarnations seemed a cool trick, but why shouldn't God be able to do that? I'd like to do that, but I don't want those other responsibilities that come with divinity. I'm working to be happy to let God be God, to let the mystery of the Trinity not even enter my consciousness.

Lately, as I've been thinking about community, I return to the idea of the Trinity--we worship a communal God who desires to be in community with us. I've always liked the symbolism of a braid, and Trinity Sunday seems a good time to return to that symbol. In a braid, each strand can stand alone--but what a more intriguing shape they make when woven together.

We might look again at the story of Nicodemus, a man who was a serious scholar. Jesus tells him, and us, that we must be born anew. We might look at our place in the braid of the Kingdom and wonder how we might be born anew. We are not that far from Pentecost. We should be listening for the Spirit.

I love verse 8, which says, "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit." My rational mind rebels. My rational brain demands that we make a plan, a plan for each day, a 5 year plan, a 10 year plan. My rational brain makes lists and wakes me up at 3:00 in the morning with worries.

I like the mystical promise of the Spirit. We do not have to know what we are doing; we do not need a plan--we just need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, a task which is not as easy as it might sound. God invites us to be part of the work of creating the Kingdom, right here and right now. But Christ tells us that we need to be born anew.

The evangelical movements have done a lot with John 3:16, which may be one of the most famous Bible verses. Many evangelicals can tell you the exact day and time that they were born again. However, many of us find this model lacking. Being born again is not a one-step process, when we invite Jesus into our hearts and we're done. Most of us need to be born again each day, day after day.

Now is the time for a different approach to this effort of being born again. We could greet each day, asking our Triune God to help us be born anew to be braided into community and Kingdom building. We could end each day by thanking our creator for the ways that we've been shaped that day.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Interactive Pentecost

Our church's 9:45 Worship Together service tries to do several things, and one of them is to have us all interact with the Biblical texts:  we sing, we do our best to sign, we look for ways we see the Bible intersecting with our lives, we act out the stories, we do a variety of art projects.  It's a small group, so there's no sitting there watching others interact.

On Sunday, I confess that I wanted to just sit.  But I'm a good sport, so I pushed through my lethargic mind set.

We divided into two groups.  One group would tell the story of Pentecost using the language of puppets, and the other group would use the language of pantomime.  I was in the pantomime group.  We could use props, but no words.

We cut flames out of paper.  We made fans to simulate the wind.  I was Peter, and I found it strangely easy to mime the speech found in Acts 2.

The hope is that we will all remember the Pentecost story long after Sunday morning.  We've been part of it, after all.

Yes, I know that the hope of every worship planner is that we remember the stories and lessons of each Sunday long after we go home. 

But I left church energized--all my lethargy expelled.  If I had gone to our larger service, I doubt that would have happened.

I love having the option to have an interactive service.  I often tell people that we're creating this service for our children who need something different.

Sunday was a potent reminder that many days, adults need something different too.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Prayers on Memorial Day

The wind has howled all night, as we have moved from Pentecost to Memorial Day.  I wake up with a vague unease, as I often do on Memorial Day.

Is it because of Memorial Day?   Even though my dad was in the Air Force, and then the Air Force reserve, for most of my life, I, like many Americans, have felt some ambivalence about the military. I have some trouble reconciling my religious beliefs which tend towards pacifism, to the necessity for military protection. There have been times in my lifetime where I've thought, at last, we're moving towards a world that won't need military action. And then the world launches into a new form of barbarism.
It is impossible not to realize the cost of war.  There's the money, of course, and the death of soldiers.  We may forget the other costs:  the families of military members, the injured veterans, the civilians damaged in so many ways, peace of all kinds shattered.

So, on this day which has become for so many of us just an excuse to have a barbecue, let us pause to reflect and remember.  If we're safe right now, let us say a prayer of gratitude.  Let us remember that we've still got lots of military people serving in dangerous places.  And recent events have reminded me that the world we feel is safe can quickly dissolve into conflict and war.

Oh so quickly.

Today, I'd like to be at a national monument, listening to one of the service bands perform. Or maybe I'd rather be in a contemplative spot, saying a thank you.  Or maybe something more festive.  I miss the small town parades; I know that my college town of Newberry, South Carolina will be celebrating in ways that remind me of the 1950's.  Now I no longer know the stories of my neighbors.  I don't know whose great great grandfather/uncle served in which ways.

Now I live in a place that feels more like a future U.S., where English isn't the dominant language, where there are more recent arrivals than people with ancestors buried in the soil. Most days, I'm cool with this, and invigorated by it.

But today, I feel uneasy.  Part of it is the wind.  I've lived in states in the U.S. South where this kind of wind portends a fiercer wind later, as the heat has time to build to storms.

Part of my unease is how invisible the military feels to so many people today.  Once, all of my schoolmates had relatives, often a father, who had served in the military.  Now I find that I'm often the only one.  Growing up, I chafed a bit under the expectations of military family discipline.  Now I find myself thinking we might all be better if national service was required.

In his lecture several weeks ago, David Brooks responded to a question about the value of national service.  He said, "A kid from Connecticut living with a kid from Birmingham living with a kid from Cody, Wyoming--that would be valuable in many ways."

We've become a more stratified society in so many ways, and not just the economic ways that often trigger handwringing.  More and more, most of us tend to meet people just like us.  Maybe that's the source of my unease.

But most likely my unease comes from this day to honor the dead--while realizing that we are far from a world where we can beat our swords into ploughshares and practice war no more.

So, let me return to a valuable practice.  Let me pray to the One who has more power than I do in these matters.

 Here's a prayer I wrote for Memorial Day:

God of comfort, on this Memorial Day, we remember those souls whom we have lost to war.  We pray for those who mourn.  We pray for military members who have died and been forgotten.  We pray for all those sites where human blood has soaked the soil.  God of Peace, on this Memorial Day, please renew in us the determination to be peacemakers.  On this Memorial Day,we offer a prayer of hope that military people across the world will find themselves with no warmaking jobs to do. We offer our pleading prayers that you would plant in our leaders the seeds that will sprout into saplings of peace.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost Morning

While other parts of the country are having a bit of a cool stretch, we are waking to a hot Pentecost morning.  It's the kind of shimmery heat where I wouldn't be surprised to see flames.  But they probably wouldn't be the flames of the spirit so much as the flames of wildfire.  It's that season in Florida.  We share many things with California--I wonder if our fire seasons are the same.

I think of other Christian holidays where mythical creatures appear and leave presents in the dark overnight hours.  I see no gifts yet.

What gift would I like to receive from the Holy Spirit?  I have no desire to speak in tongues.  I know what Western societies have done to their prophets.

Only profits get attention in our culture, rarely God's prophets. 

And the attention that comes to prophets usually comes with a bullet attached--and sure, one might get beatified 35 years later (I'm thinking of Archbishop Romero), but social justice doesn't happen quickly or easily or at all.

I would like to be gifted with patience.  I would like to be less judgmental.  I would like to accept that others get to make their own choices, and they're not likely to look to me for advice.

I want the rushing wind to scour me out, but I don't want it to hurt.

I want to be startled into new appreciation.  I want to say, "Hello, Holy Spirit.  It's good to see you again.  What have you been up to?"

I want the answer to fill me with longing not fear.

I want to be ready to be rekindled, to burn with a flame that does not destroy but transforms.