Thursday, July 27, 2017

College Students and the Hope for the Future

Last night was a whirlwind evening; it was my night to host dinner for the camp counselors who are down here to lead VBS.  I left work early, but I didn't beat the camp counselors home.  Luckily, I had done a lot of prep work on Tuesday.  They finished up in the cottage, while I put the finishing touches on dinner.

One of them walked in and said, "It smells like Heaven in here!" I'm hoping they'll remember the smell of Heaven and not the unswept floors and the dusty surfaces of my house.

It was our second dinner together.  It's been interesting spending this much time with today's traditional college kids. 

You might say, "Don't you work with college kids?"  Yes I do, but they're not traditional college kids like these.  The students at my school, most of them, have many more disadvantages than these camp counselors.  For one thing, they wouldn't be able to take a summer away to be a camp counselor.  They have too many responsibilities in their regular lives.

Both types of students give me a wild-eyed hope for the future.  Both have enthusiasm and interesting new ideas.  Both types of students have more energy than I have right now--they might say the same thing about me, as I think about what it takes to make 2 meals this week from scratch, for a much bigger crowd than I usually see around my dining room table.

I'm also struck by what a wide diversity of people I've spent time with this week.  I read/hear national commentators talk about how most of us are spending time with people who are exactly like us.  That's not my situation.  If I'm with people who have a similar educational background (lots of grad school), they don't have my religious/spiritual interests.  In fact, many of my church friends don't have all of my religious/spiritual interests.  I have a really different set of educational experiences than most of the people in my work place.  I don't have the same kind of family concerns as those of many people whom I know personally.

It's good to have a week like this one that reminds me that we all have more in common than we think.  The college students at my dinner table this week aren't really that different than the college students at my school--or than me or my mom, for that matter.  We're at different points in our lives, but we want much of the same:  fellowship, a good meal at the end of the day, and the ability to dream of an improved future.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 30, 2017:

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 29:15-28

Psalm: Psalm 119:129-136

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 128 (Psalm 128 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:26-39

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today we have a series of interesting parables which Jesus uses to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. I don't think that Jesus is explaining the afterlife, the way that many of us might assume when we hear the word "Heaven." Instead, Matthew uses that word as shorthand for a concept that's closer to "life as God intended." Of course, I'm grossly simplifying, but instead of doing an in-depth exploration of the word "Heaven," let's look at the images Jesus uses.

Note the smallness, the almost invisibility, of the first two images (verses 31-33): mustard seeds and yeast. There are two elements which are interesting. One is that these small grains left alone will transform themselves into something bigger--and in the case of yeast, will transform the surrounding elements too. Leave flour alone, and it won't change much in terms of volume. Even if it gets buggy, the bag won't explode. But add yeast and water and a bit of sweetness and leave the bowl in a warm place for a few hours--when you return to the bowl, the dough might be overflowing. Likewise with a seed. Plant it in the earth with a bit of fertilizer, add some water each day, and leave it alone--if you're lucky, you get a shrub or a tree. If we go out looking for the kingdom to be a big, glorious thing, we might miss the Kingdom.

Many people simply don't register the presence of God because they're looking for the wrong thing. They're looking for something huge and powerful. For example, think about the Jews of Jesus' time. They didn't want spiritual salvation. When they talked about a savior, they wanted someone who would kick the Romans out of their homeland. They missed the miracle of Jesus because they looked for the wrong sign.

The next set of metaphors (verses 44-46) talks about the preciousness of the Kingdom and also a bit about the effort required to find it. The treasure/pearl doesn't just fall into the men's laps--they're out looking.

We live in a culture that doesn't want to put in a lot of work. If you don't believe me, watch the claims that advertisers make: I can lose weight by working out 7 minutes a day, I can make thousands of dollars a month by working just 15 minutes a day, I can get a college degree without leaving my house. I love talking to my colleagues and collecting their strange student stories. One of my colleagues had a student stomp out in a huff when she realized she'd have to write essays. Keep in mind, my colleague teaches an English Composition class. Did the student think they'd be creating macaroni collages?

And then I start to wonder why this student imagines that she can go to college and not have to work. Where does she get that message? Of course, the culture in which she lives beams that to her all the time.

Likewise, Kingdom living requires some effort on our part. God wants to meet us, but we have to go forward towards God. We have to look for the right signs, and we have to make some effort. That effort might be regular prayer, spiritual reading, going to church, turning ourselves into caring people, giving more of our money away.

But the end of this week's Gospel assures us that the effort will pay off. We don't want to be in the furnace where men weep and gnash their teeth. For those of you who read the end of the Gospel as a metaphor of Hell after death, you might be right. But I would argue that life is terribly hellish right here and now for people who aren't doing transformational work.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dinner with the Camp Counselors

Last night's dinner with the camp counselors went well.  I was nervous about it, and those of you who are better at these social occasions might wonder why.

I knew it would be just me and the 5 camp counselors for dinner.  I'd have been less nervous if some of the church VBS leaders had tagged along, but they had been working VBS all day, so I understood why they didn't want to make the trek to my house.

I had decided to make chicken with poblano mole sauce.  It's been a success when I've served it before, but it's unusual.  I made a black bean and corn salad to go with it, and I put out tortillas and tortilla chips.  I hoped that people would find enough to eat.

Happily, they loved the chicken.  They took seconds of everything.  We talked about Wednesday's dinner.  I worried that they get pasta too often.  They've been staying in people's houses all summer, and some of them have been doing this for several years, and they said they've never had spaghetti.  So, I will make my pasta with marinated veggies, along with some meatballs in a tomato sauce, and I'll let them decide how to combine it all.

I find it fascinating that I'm making meals for 4 college students and a high school student, and no one is a vegetarian or a vegan.

The item that makes me most nervous about hosting a get together with people I don't know is the question of what we'll talk about.  I needn't have worried.  Our conversation was wide ranging, from all the foods one can deep fry (squares of mac and cheese anyone?) to strange food combinations, like peanut butter on a burger to various camp experiences, some with food, some not.  We spent a lot of time after dinner talking about musical instruments.

The high school student was fascinated by the dulcimer, which I bought for $40, but never taught myself to play.   Actually, it would be more accurate to say I taught myself, but now I don't remember--it was a brief season with the dulcimer. 

By the end of the evening, he played it with a bit of a slide guitar sound.  As always, I'm fascinated by how people play instruments when they've had no training.  What makes some of us frozen with fear, while others explore? And I was intrigued by the fact that all of us can play the ukulele, to some extent.  Is the ukulele becoming more popular?  Or was it just some fluke?  I suspect it has to do with how affordable an instrument it is and how accessible.

They stayed for about an hour and a half after dinner.  We talked not only about musical instruments, but about camp experiences, both the residence camp and the travelling to churches to assist with VBS camps.  I was interested to know what kinds of lodging they'd had.  They've stayed in people's guest rooms mostly, with a sleep sofa here and there.  So our cottage is perfectly fine; in fact, one of them said, "If I was a college student here, I'd love to rent something like this cottage."

As I cleaned up, I tried not to notice all the ways I'd failed to clean my house for them--I was too busy getting the cottage in shape.  I had clean dishes and a clean bathroom, but my floors could use a sweeping, and let's not talk about the dust. 

I decided long ago that I can't keep up the housekeeping standards of a past generation.  But I don't want to let that fact keep me from extending hospitality.  I suspect that most people don't even notice the dust--or they say, "Hey, I'm not the only one who lets the dusting get away from me."

I'd like to have people over more often--but that often requires a feat of scheduling that's beyond me.  So for now, let me be happy to have had this experience--and its reinforcement of my belief that this hospitality is a worthy skill to practice.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Sunday Reunions

Yesterday was not only the day that the camp counselors came.  Our old campus pastor also came to worship.  I had time to reflect on our various journeys.

My spouse and I met at Newberry College, a Lutheran school in South Carolina that had more Southern Baptists than Lutherans.  Our campus pastor was also a professor.  Later, he would return to parish ministry and spend time as parish pastor at my grandmother's church in Greenwood, S.C., so I stayed in touch in a way I might not have otherwise. 

Much later, my spouse served on the board of Novus Way, the group that oversees 4 Lutheran camps and more programs than I could list here.  Our old campus pastor retired and found that he needed more to do than supply preaching--and thus, he travels across multiple states, supporting the mission of Novus Way.

Yesterday he came to our church for a variety of reasons; the main one was to give my spouse a beautiful print in honor of his service.  He also talked to the congregation about what their donations have made possible.  After the service, we had pizza and talked further.

At one point, I said, "Who'd have ever thought, back when you were my Phenomenology professor, that some day we'd be here, talking about church camp?"

One of the church members said, "Phenomenology?"

I said, "Yes.  I had to give an oral report on exorcism.  And one of my classmates was an ordained Baptist minister, and he said, 'Oh yes, I've done lots of them.'  And I never quite recovered my momentum."

Soon after that, we gave our campus pastor a hug, and he was on his way, driving all the way back to South Carolina in one day.  I said to my spouse, "I'm both glad that we're not making that long drive and slightly envious of that meditative state he might achieve."

We came home to keep working on projects, chief among them getting the cottage ready for the camp counselors.  I hope they'll be comfortable--I've done as much as I can do to that end, with the resources that we have.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Hosting the Camp Counselors for VBS

A few weeks ago, I was struck by the idea that for the first time in years, I wouldn't be helping out with VBS.  This week, it's occurred to me that I am helping, and it may end up being just as labor intensive, although it will be very different.

This year, many fewer of us will actually be helping with VBS itself, in terms of being on site and working with groups of children.  This year, a group of camp counselors from Luther Springs will be running our VBS.  We will have VBS in the day, not in the evenings.  We will have a much smaller group of kids.  It's both strange and a relief.

We have often had more neighborhood kids than children from our own church; we just don't have that many children as part of our church family.  Is VBS a valid ministry, worth the money and time we devote to it?  I know about the studies that show that one common denominator in adults who attend church are that they attended VBS or church camp.  I suspect that those adults were also going to church as children.  I don't know the stats for children who only attend VBS or church camp.

Of course, we're not putting together a VBS week just to have church members in 20 years.  Why are we doing it?   For a variety of reasons:  because we always have, because we feel it's important to these kids at this time, because we've had fun doing it, because we have a core group of people who are public school teachers and thus they have time in the summer.  If that core group didn't exist, those of us with full-time jobs in the summer literally would not have time--or we'd have a very streamlined VBS, with fewer decorations and other elements.

This year, we have camp counselors coming, something we've never done.  We have an empty cottage, so 3 of them will stay here.  I will provide dinner two nights this week.  I'll provide some transportation.  I've already done a lot of shopping and prep work.  I will do some cleaning this afternoon.  I've done laundry so that they will have sheets and towels, and then I will do laundry after they leave.  It will probably end up being the same amount of work as past years, when I've led the arts and crafts--but it feels very different.

My cottage is a historic structure, and it has some quirks.  I am hopeful that they'll be delighted with the lodging--but I'm worried that its flaws will detract from their experience.  Of course, for the most part, they'll just be there to sleep.  Let me also remember that people who are expecting resort-like accommodations don't usually sign up for a summer as camp counselor.

Likewise, I hope they like the meals I've planned.  I put a loaf of bread and peanut butter and jelly in the cottage, along with breakfast foods.  They won't starve.

I think I'm also feeling some anxiousness because we haven't done this before, so I'm not sure what to expect.  The schedule is still a bit loose.  So I'm preparing meals that can sit for awhile. I'm telling myself that all will be well.  And it will.

I also want to remember something one of my VBS planner friends said to me when we had lunch on Friday.  She said that hosting the camp counselors is like hosting missionaries.  It was only later that I reflected how many people I know who worked at church camp who have gone on to work in the Church.  Perhaps these experiences will not only be formational not only for the children who come to VBS, but also for these counselors.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Feast Day of Mary Magdalene

Today, we celebrate the life of Mary Magdalene. Take a minute to read the New Testament reading for today: John 20:1-2, 11-18. How interesting to have the Easter story out of sequence, here in the middle of summer. In some ways, we can hear some nuances when these passages come to us at a time that's NOT the end of Holy Week and Lent.

Actually, the verses in between the ones for today's Gospel interest me. After Mary tells the disciples about the empty tomb, several of them race towards the tomb. They look, they assess, and then they go home. It is only Mary who stays behind to weep.

But because she stays behind to weep, to be still for a bit, she gets to be the first to see the risen Lord. The male disciples are first to see the evidence of resurrection, but Mary sees Christ. Soon othrs else will see him, but she is first.

There have been many moves throughout church history to strip Mary of her importance. Many church teachings portray her as a prostitute, as mentally ill, or both. More recently, we've had The DaVinci Code, which has many people talking about the possibility of Jesus having a family with Mary Magdalene. What is it about this woman that pushes our buttons?

The early church was quite unique. Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes clear that women are important. True, no woman is listed as a disciple. But it was women--and their money--that made the ministry of Jesus much easier. It was women--and their money--that kept the early church afloat. But somewhere in the middle ages, history was rewritten to make women seem dangerous, demented, soiled, and stupid.

That's the beauty of having Scripture that's written in our own language, that we can read for ourselves (those of us who are literate forget what a great gift we've been given). We can go back to see what the Scriptures actually say.

The story of Mary Magdalene seems similar. We need to be reminded to stay alert. Busyness is the drug that many of us use to dull our senses. But in our busyness, we forget what's really important. We forget to focus on Christ and living the way he commanded us.

If we're too busy, we might miss Christ altogether. Both the Old and New Testament teach us that God will come to us in forms we least suspect. If we're not careful, we'll assume that we're not needed and go back to our houses. If we're not careful, we won't notice that the gardener is really Jesus.

It's good to be reminded of the resurrection story in the middle of July. Now the year is over half way done. We don't have the magic of spring to renew our spirits. We may be feeling scorched by the weather and by our dashed hopes for the year. It's good to remember the story that we can be part of; it's good to remember that we're promised grace and salvation.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Creativity Report: Thursday Evening

Last night, I got home earlier than I have any other night this week.  I did some writing--a very small bit of writing.  Once I could write a huge chunk of short story, if not the entire short story, in an hour or two.  Now I feel lucky if I get a paragraph or two without feeling despair at not knowing how to write the story.

Next week we are hosting 2 camp counselors who are arriving to help our church lead Vacation Bible School.  Last night I found out that I'll be feeding them 2 nights, which is fine.  After all, when we agreed to host them, I assumed we might be feeding them dinner every night.  This week, my dinners have been my favorite:  wine, crackers, and cheese, which I feel O.K. about since I've been vigilant in portion control.  But that won't do for camp counselors.

I've had some poblano peppers that I bought when I planned to make a mole sauce.  They were on their last days, so I used the impending approach of camp counselors to make the sauce.  Later, I stuck it in the freezer for next week.

I had planned to collage, but I was running out of time.  I decided to go ahead and do it, just to see what would happen.  A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out some shelves, and I found a lot of materials that we kept in anticipation of doing more collaging.  I decided to throw away old calendars.  But I kept the envelopes of images and words that I cut out and saved. 

Last night, I decided that I didn't have to look through every envelope.  I found an old Christmas card that I liked, and I decided it would form the anchor of my collage.  I chose a few phrases, and a few other images.  When I was sorting, I came across a stash of mat boards that we bought at a sale long ago.  I decided on a purple mat board, even before I chose the images.  I love how it all came together:

I do notice that I tend not to collage like other people.  I have a lot of open space in my collages.  If I like the original image, it's hard for me to add other things on the image.  You'll notice that the Christmas card image is untouched, although I let things creep onto the white border.  The lantern had the purple glass.

When I used the modge podge, the images wrinkled a bit, and the blob at the lower right of the Christmas card formed.  I try to see it as part of the process, but my inner perfectionist is not happy.

If I look at this collage as a journaling exercise, it's clear to me what my soul is saying.  I'm ready for Christmas!  I'm also interested in more open spaces, in a different landscape.  What do those turtles mean?  Coming out of my shell or going in?  Wishing my house was more portable?

I didn't spend more than 45 minutes on this project, but I found it immensely satisfying.  Let me remember that for the future.