Saturday, October 1, 2016

Blessing Our Pets in Church

Across the country this week-end, many churches will be having services to bless pets. We do this ostensibly to celebrate the life of St. Francis, although there was so much more to St. Francis than his love of animals (more on that on his feast day on Oct. 4). Today, I'd like to think about pets and whether or not we should have a service to bless them.

I once attended a church that incorporated the pet blessing into the regular service, which meant that we all attended church with a variety of animals that day. I confess to being nervous. What if some of those less-friendly animals got loose? What if someone in the church was deathly allergic to the hair of one of those animals? I was deeply distracted that day and relieved to get out of the sanctuary. Worship should not inspire those feelings.

Many churches do a separate service these days. That means that people like me can avoid the whole thing. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate animals, and if I lived by myself, I might want a pet for companionship--but only if I worked fewer hours and travelled less.

Moving the worship service to a separate time, and perhaps a separate place, still doesn't solve the theological question. Why are we blessing our pets? I'd ask a harder question: why do we welcome pets into our sanctuaries while not welcoming the most destitute members of our society? Let's be honest: what would your church members do if a deranged homeless person walked through the doors or a skinhead or a family who didn't speak the language of members?

Maybe a pet blessing service opens our hearts to those who don't speak our language or look like us? But I'm also troubled by the knowledge of how much money we're spending on our pets. Gone are the days when you'd spend a chunk of money for shots and that would be the extent of your vet bills for the life of the pet. I know people who cook for their pets because they're horrified at what goes into pet food. Yet I don't see that passion for food safety translate into other areas of life.

What does it mean that we spend so much on our pets and so little on the poor? What does it mean that we care more about the health of our pets than our own health or the health of our fellow humans or the health of the planet?

I worry that our pets are shrinking our human contact. I know several people who are happier to spend an evening with a pet than with a friend. What does that say about our society?

A good pastor could address some of these elements in a pet blessing service. A good pastor could remind us that as we care for our pets who are thoroughly dependent on us, we are called to care for the poor amongst us, who are also thoroughly dependent on our generosity.

Yes, a good pastor could make all kinds of connections so that a blessing of the pets service avoids insipidness. Let me rest in the hope that most pastors who incorporate pet blessings will take advantage of this opportunity.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Black Moons and Renewed Yearnings

Tonight, we have a black moon, which is not as dire as it sounds--it's the second new moon in a month.  Down here at the southern tip of the U.S., we've been able to see the sliver of moon with a silvery outline of the rest of the moon.

If you wait until evening, however, to see if your view is the same, you won't see it.  Moonrise in south Florida today is at 6:49 a.m.; times in other places will vary.

I am intrigued by all the vaguely religious connotations that go along with a black moon:  the second coming, the end of times, and a time when spells take on more potency.

When I was younger, I was intrigued by alternative religions, especially ones that didn't minimize females--that path led me to a variety of religious expressions that we might now classify as Wiccan.  I can't remember which writer suggested that we pay attention to the phases of the moon, that we start new projects when the moon was waxing into fullness.  As a college student, of course, I couldn't time my course work that way.  But the idea has stuck with me.

I don't believe that the position of the moon or the planets has more impact on daily life than other elements.  I suspect that many of us would make better decisions if we kept ourselves nourished and rested properly, and those actions would have a greater impact than a second new moon in a month.

Still, the idea of a time of increased potency intrigues me.  If we were to cast a spell today, if we wanted to harness the power of the new moon, what would we want our spell to do?

When I was young and wrote page after page of my wishes, hopes, and dreams, I had a better sense of what I yearned for.  These days, as I race from pillar to post, I have a vision of a fairy godmother who offers me 3 wishes--but first, she'd have to get my attention.

When I was young, I said that the first thing I would wish for would be unlimited wishes.  But let's take that off the table.  And let's assume we're not in a fairy tale where we'll be granted our wishes, but in a way that teaches us a lesson--we lose 20 pounds when our leg disappears or we get a small fortune because a loved one dies.

No, let us play with this idea of wish fulfillment.  I think that as we get older, we quit thinking about what we truly want.  Many of us have had too many experiences with our dearest dreams being squashed--and thus, we decide it's safer not to dream.  We'll settle for what we have.  We won't dare aspire to more.

If you could be granted 3 wishes, what would you ask for?  What's the top wish?   What would make your heart sing?

I don't believe in fairy godmothers, but I do believe in God.  I don't believe in a God of wish fulfillment, a Santa Claus God who gives us what we request.  But I do believe that God often wants what we want; God wants us to be fulfilled.  Like many a good friend, God has all sorts of resources, and might be happy to harness them in support of us--if we but say what we need or want.

Many of us are so beaten down that we feel we dare not ask.  Many of us seem to believe in evil devils who hover in wait to disappoint us.  I don't believe in those evil devils either.

Maybe the time is right to start a prayer journal of sorts.  Maybe it's time to record our yearnings.  Maybe we're tired of words and want to do some collaging or sketching.  Maybe we're too tired to do much more than pray.  But that's a powerful move too.

Let us get back in touch with our visionary and envisioning selves.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Feast Day of Saint Michael and All Angels

Today, the Church celebrates the role of angels in the divine plan, my prayer book tells me (The Divine Hours, written by Phyllis Tickle). Our Orthodox brothers and sisters handle the question of angels better than most Protestants. Most of the Lutheran churches that I've been a member of don't talk about angels much, and based on the ideas of some of my students, many Protestant churches do talk about angels, but with a very shaky theology.

I'll never forget one time teaching Paradise Lost to South Carolina students in my Brit Lit survey class at a community college. One woman seemed particularly confused about all the angels in the story. "How could there be angels," she asked, "when nobody has died?"

It took me a few attempts to understand her question. She knew about angels from church, but only in the sense that we become angels when we die--which is a very recent idea about angels. I explained the more ancient idea about angels, which is that they are a species completely separate from humans. We got into a bit of a theology lesson, but I could see that she wasn't happy with these ideas about angels. She was much more comfortable with the idea of the angels being Grandma and Grandpa who died when she was a child. The idea of angels as a separate kind of entity with no free will? No thanks.

In a way, I understand. Angels are scary. Death is scary. It's rather brilliant to come up with the idea that we become angels when we die--and yet, this shaky theology defangs several concepts which should, in fact, be scary. We will die--and before that, everything we love will die. How do we cope with that idea?

Some of us cope by clinging to the idea that there is a Divine God with a plan and a vision that's vaster than anything we could develop on our own. This God has more power than we can conceive of--including legions of angels, angels that are there for us too.

Let me confess that I don't do angels well either. They seem a bit too New Agey for me, especially with the spate of angel books that were published 20 years ago, books that promised me that I would get to know my angels, books in which getting to know my angels was very similar to enslaving my angels to do my will. Blcch. Giving the angels a mission is God's job, not mine.

I often joked that I should combine two publishing trends and publish a diet book: Your Angels Want You to Be Thin! The Know Your Angels Diet Book. I'm not that mercenary, though (and if you are, feel free to steal my title), not that willing to make money off the real troubles and gullibility of humans. To borrow words from Blake, I don't want to be the one that makes a Heaven off of misery.

But now, years later, I find myself a bit envious of those people who grew up in traditions that had theologically sound approaches to angels. Again and again, I find in the traditions of others something I feel lacking in mine.

Luckily, I'm part of a Lutheran tradition that doesn't insist that we remain closed off to traditions that might enrich us spiritually, even if Luther didn't sanction them. We've seen an explosion of exploration of labyrinths. Maybe angels will be next.

For those of you who want some special Scripture for this high feast day, here's what the Lutheran church (ELCA) recommends:

First Reading: Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3
Psalm: Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22
Second Reading: Revelation 12:7-12
Gospel: Luke 10:17-20

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 2, 2016

First Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4;2:1-4

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Lamentations 1:1-6

Psalm: Psalm 37:1-10 (Psalm 37:1-9 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Lamentations 3:19-26

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 137 (Psalm 137 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Gospel: Luke 17:5-10

Perhaps the Gospels of past weeks and months have left you feeling depressed. You have begun to realize that you will never succeed at this Christianity thing. You can't even remember to make a donation, much less tithe regularly. You'd like to invite the poor to your dinner table, if you ever had time to eat dinner yourself, and you wonder if you still get Christianity Points if you invite the poor to dinner, but pick up that dinner from the deli. You'd like to look out for widows and orphans, but happily, you don't know of any. And frankly, most of the week, you don't have a spare moment to even ponder these things at all.

This week's Gospel offers encouraging news. It reminds us that belief has the power of a seed. As fewer of us plant anything, we may lose the power of that metaphor. But think of how inert a seed seems. It's hard to believe that anything can come from that little pod. And then we plunk it into the earth, where it seems even more dead--no sun, no light, no air. But the dark earth is what it needs, along with water, maybe some fertilizer if the soil is poor, and time. And with some luck, and more time, eventually we might all enjoy a tree. And not only us, but generations after us--that tree will outlive us all.

Christ reminds us that faith is like that seed. And the good news is that we don't have to have faith in abundance. A tiny seed's worth can create a world of wonders. And it's good to remember that we don't have to have consistent faith. We live in a world that encourages us to think that we'll eventually arrive at a place of perfect behavior: we'll exercise an hour a day, we'll forsake all beverages but water, we'll pray every hour, we'll never eat sugar or white flour again, we'll cook meals at home and observe regular mealtimes. We want lives of perfect balance, and we feel deep disappointment with ourselves when we can't achieve that, even when we admit that we'd need ten extra hours in the day to achieve that.

Jesus reminds us to avoid that trap of perfectionist expectations. People who have gone before us on this Christian path remind us of that too. Think of Mother Theresa. Her letters reveal that she spent most of her life feeling an absence of God. But that emotion didn't change her behavior. She tried to reveal the light of Christ to the most poor and outcast, and was largely successful. She didn't feel like she was successful, but she didn't get bogged down in those feelings of self-recrimination. And even when she did, she kept doing what she knew God wanted her to do.

Many of us might have seen Mother Theresa as a spiritual giant. We might feel dismayed to realize that she spent much of her life having a dark night of the soul kind of experience.

On the contrary, we should feel comforted. Maybe these letters show that she wasn't a spiritual giant. And look at what she was able to do.

Or maybe we should revise our definition of a spiritual giant. If you read the journals, letters, and private papers of many twentieth-century people who have been seen as spiritual giants (Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Madeleine L'Engle, Dorothy Day), you'll see that feelings of spiritual desolation are quite common. The fact that we have these feelings--does that mean that God has abandoned us?

Of course not. Those of us who have lived long enough have come to realize that our feelings and emotions are often not good indicators of the reality of a situation. Our feelings and emotions are often rooted in the fact that we haven't had enough sleep or the right kind of food.

The people who have gone before us remind us of the importance of continuing onward, even when we feel despair. Christ reminds us that we just need a tiny kernel of belief. All sorts of disciplines remind us that the world changes in tiny increments; huge changes can be traced back to small movements. Your belief, and the actions that come from your belief, can bear witness in ways you can scarcely imagine. Perfection is not required--just a consistent progress down the path.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Need for Silence

Once, I would have watched the presidential debate, each and every one.  Once, I recorded them (on tape!) and made my students watched them--we then discussed the elements of argument present or not and wrote analytical essays.

That woman is no longer me.  I watched 15 minutes of the debate, and once the voices went up and the talking over each other started, I called it a night.

Once, I thought I needed to watch the debates to be informed, to be a good citizen.  This election, I don't feel I need the debates to tell me what I need to know.

If I had counted on last night's debate to get solid information, I don't know that I'd have gotten that.  Where was that moderator?  I'd like to see moderators have the power to cut the microphone when rules of good debating are ignored. 

I just don't have the patience for modern life, the shouting, the refusal to listen to each other to be able to find middle ground, the shouting.
This morning, I turned off the radio, and instead of rushing to fill the silence, I sat with it.

Later, I read this article by Andrew Sullivan, and this quote leapt out at me:  "The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn."

The white noise in the context of his article is the ever-present stimulation of our phones and devices.  But the old-fashioned white noise of radios, TV, and words acts in much the same way.

I feel a need for silence, for stillness, after our hectic travel pace of the last week.  However, today is a day of many meetings.  But I often come up with interesting poem ideas on these days against that particular white noise.  Stay tuned!

Monday, September 26, 2016

God and Geology

I feel lucky that I'm part of a Christian tradition (Lutheran--ELCA to be specific) that doesn't require me to choose between science and faith in God.  Only for a brief time in childhood did I read the Bible as history--and thus, I'd have seen the earth as only a few thousand years old.

I wouldn't be able to square that belief with facts that come to us from the field of geology.  The earth is much older than a few thousand years.  A trip to the Grand Canyon hints at that truth of geology.

And of course, science can prove how old the rocks are:

I was struck by the crowds at the Grand Canyon, by how many people I saw who were oblivious to the Grand Canyon, who walked beside it, punching messages into their phones.  I didn't take pictures of those people.  I didn't want to be oblivious to the world around me:
I was also struck by the hardiness of the plants that are able to take root in such a harsh landscape:

 I'll remember that canyon, the consolation of a fierce landscape.  I'll remember that the world offers many vistas, if we would but open our eyes.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Spiritual Landscapes

We are back from a quick trip to Arizona--the son of grad school friends got married, and while we were there for the wedding, we went to the Grand Canyon.

I was expecting more of a desert fierceness, but we were in Flagstaff for most of our trip, and it reminded me of Asheville, North Carolina.  For most of our trip, there was a cold dreariness, gray clouds scudding across the sky, with periodic interruptions of drizzle and rain.  I found it delightful, although not what I was expecting.

When we went to the Grand Canyon, I was expecting to be overcome, and I was.  At the first glimpse, I grabbed my spouse's arm and said, "Oh, Carl!"  But with all the other humans there, it wasn't as spiritual an experience as I thought it could be.

Before we went, I was amazed at how many people told me that this part of the country was a very spiritual experience, both the Grand Canyon and Sedona.  In fact, I've been intrigued by these "thin" places in our landscapes, where we can almost feel the spiritual aspects seeping right out of the land.  I'm not sure I felt that sense, not in any unusual way.

I also wondered about people who claim that the earth is only several thousand years old, a claim which seems bizarre when I look out at that landscape.  It's a landscape that shows the power of water and wind and the process of erosion--and those processes take so much time to carve out what's left, what we see.

I would like more time to explore that part of the U.S., both the lower part of Arizona and Utah, but this trip was not the time.  We had a different trip this time, a pilgrimage that brought us back to our old friends, that gave us time to reflect on our grad school selves and our current selves.

I'm glad that we gathered for a joyful reason, a wedding.  I know that at some point, it will be funerals that bring us together--and so, for now, I cling to the joyous even more fiercely than I did when we saw our friends get married when we were all in our 20's.