Saturday, June 24, 2017

We Are Not the Messiah

Last night, my spouse was feeling despair.  He found out that one of his classes that he's about to teach is a class that comes to him with a syllabus, book, and assignments that he's not allowed to change.  Instead of feeling thrilled about the reduced work load for this week-end (creating a syllabus takes no small amount of time for him), he started to feel huge sadness about the state of higher ed in the U.S., where adjunct faculty aren't allowed to create their own classes or make the important decisions and where there aren't many full-time jobs left.

I have had this conversation many times in the past decade.  I, too, despair, and I have such a yearning to fix it all--but it's a problem much bigger than I am and far outside of my meager powers to do anything.

Last night, I thought about the fact that the next day would be the feast day of John the Baptist.  I said, "I wish I could fix this, but I can't"--a differently worded version of John the Baptist's answer to the question of identity:  "I am not the Messiah."

Now of course the fact that I can't fix the dynamics affecting the larger social picture doesn't mean that I can just shrug my shoulders and go with the status quo.  I must do what I can to ensure that the students get a quality education, that faculty have what they need to deliver that education, and that the staff are supported too.

And to continue this metaphor, John the Baptist reminds us to stay alert.  He's not the one for whom we wait, but that one is coming soon. 

We live in a culture that likes to keep us busy and distracted. We are all too busy to heed John's message: "Repent." Turn around. Do it now, before it is too late.

Today is a good day to think about John's message.  What parts of our society need salvation?  How can we be part of the redemption of all of creation?

And today, we might take a gentle look at ourselves.  We're none of us perfect, and while John's message about vipers and the ax that will chop down the tree that isn't bearing good fruit may sound harsh, it's one that we should sit with for awhile.

John the Baptist reminds us that we are called to emulate Jesus. Some days, though, I’d rather emulate somebody else. I’m so tired of working so hard to be a light to this fallen world.

When I feel that way, I need to listen to the words of John the Baptist again. I need to listen to God, who often calls to us from the wilderness. Most of us need to be reminded to listen to that call that God makes. Let the words fill our hearts with hope: "The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3: 5-6).

Our salvation is at hand: our grieving hearts will be comforted, our anger and irritation will lift, the planet will heal itself as it always does, God will take care of us and everything we need is on its way.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 25, 2017:

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17           
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39
 
 
I wonder what the Family Values crowd makes of this Jesus, who in this week's Gospel warns us that he'll be turning family members against each other.  This is not the meek, do-goody Jesus who reads us a nice bedtime story and tucks us into bed.
 
No, this is one of the texts where Jesus warns us what we'll be sacrificing when we follow him.  Or seen alternately, this is one of those texts where Jesus reminds us that God wants to be the central focus of our lives.  Teaching after teaching, Jesus shows that God knows what competes.  In this text, it's our family that competes with God for central focus.  In other texts, it's money. 
 
As we look at the teachings of Christ, a central theme emerges.  Fear is at the root of all that keeps us from God.
 
Again and again, Jesus yokes his teachings of what will be required with the admonition to have no fear.  Here, Jesus tells us that God knows about the least little sparrow--and we're worth more than sparrows.  The wisdom of the Holy Spirit invites us to new life, not to paralyzing fear.  Jesus tells us that even sparrows are nurtured in God's economy.  Our religious texts remind us over and over again to be careful of where we store our treasures.
 
I love this vision of God who knows me from the individual hairs of my head to the rough soles of my feet.  I like this vision of God who helps me travel through the dangerous parts of the world.  I want to believe that I am worth more than sparrows, and I want to believe that in God's economy, sparrows are worth more than two pennies.
 
But again, Jesus warns us that we can't stop with that vision.  This is a God who keeps watch so that we can do the transformational work that must be done.  It is work that is likely to take us to threatening places where we may have to oppose the dominant power structure.  We may find ourselves crucified, in every sense of that word.
 
As I write this meditation, I'm thinking back to the events of Freedom Summer, that crucible moment in history which changed the progress of the Civil Rights workers forever.  I'm thinking of the youthful exuberance of those college students who headed south to register voters and to teach kids to read.
 
I'm thinking of how so many of them paid for those acts with bruises and broken bones.  I'm thinking of the ones who died terrible deaths.  I'm saying a prayer of thanks for the transformations that they brought.
 
Again and again, Jesus asks if we're willing to pay the price.  Again and again, Jesus offers the promise that we find at the end of this Sunday's Gospel:  if we quit our obsessive clinging to those elements that we think give us life, we may indeed find true life.  
 
We will find God. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Christians and the Summer Solstice

Here we are in the season after Pentecost, a long, green season that needs some holidays.  Perhaps the summer solstice would fit that bill.

I am partially kidding, of course.  For one thing, many of us won't notice much change, once the summer solstice has come and gone.  Many of us live in places where we've been slogging through hot weather for over a month.  Many of us won't notice that the longest day of light has come and gone.  It sneaks up on us, this gift of light that's been added in small increments to our days since the winter solstice.

And yes, I understand the pagan roots of this day.  If we refused to celebrate every holiday with pagan roots, we'd have very little left to celebrate.

Let us think of some ways to celebrate the summer solstice--and to strengthen our faith:

--We have longer days now than we'll have at any other point in the year.  Let's use this increased light.  Let's get out and exercise.  Let's notice the glories of God's creation. 

--Let's enjoy the fruits of the season.  Sure, we can eat melon year round now, but it's more refreshing during the hot months--and a good way to stay hydrated.

--When the heat is just too much, let's escape in an old-fashioned way:  by seeing a movie.  Whether in the movie theatre or in the comfort of our own homes, seeing a movie is a great way to beat the heat.  If we feel our brains turning to mush, let's look to the movies to see if we see any overarching themes or characters that remind us of our own spiritual stories or the larger spiritual stories of our faith.  Even escapist fluff might remind us of the overarching importance of love in our lives or that the battle between good and evil will not be escaped.

--The shifting of the seasons is a good time to do some sorting.  As we pull out our summer clothes, let's get rid of the ones we never wore last year.  As we think about our summer activities, let's get rid of the sports equipment we will never use.  Let's sort through our picnic supplies.  Have we been hoarding craft supplies that need to go to a better purpose?

--These days of longer light might make us feel like we have more time--and many of our workplaces expect a bit less in the summer.   Maybe this summer we could donate a bit of time.  Often our churches could use some assistance, as people take long summer vacations.

--Let's think about the qualities of light and think about all the Bible passages that mention light.  If we are the light of the world, are we June light or February light?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Monastery Dog and Other Poetry Inspirations

This morning, I finally wrote a poem.  I looked back through my poetry notebook, and it's been almost a month.  It has been a humdinger of a month, between my online ENC1102 class with its intense pace of a piece of work due 4-6 days of the week, work which must be graded, and my trip to Mepkin Abbey.

Yet I also feel like I've been telling myself this story every month:  Last month was a humdinger, but the pace of my life should be calming down soon, and I'll get some writing done. 

Let me sit with this idea for a bit, before I come up with plan A, B, C and a back up plan for each.  This morning let me be happy that I wrote a poem.

I came back from Mepkin with a new poem in my head, a poem inspired by a time during our retreat when I watched the monastery dog sleeping in the sun, and I thought of a previous retreat where we talked about needing to find time to write.  I thought about the monastery dog who knows how to prioritize her time.  I liked the contrast.

Over the past week, I've thought of different contrasts.  I thought of a retreatent who brought her own organic food and didn't eat the food prepared by the monks.  I thought of us all at the Sunday Eucharist service, even though we all came from a variety of practices.

I'm still wrestling with the poem, but I'm happy to have work on paper to revise.

I thought I had written about the monastery dog before.  In a blog post, from 2015, I had written this:

"At first I felt sorry for the monastery dog.  She seemed so eager for attention.  I thought about all the children who would never be part of her world.

Yet as my week-end at the monastery proceeded, I decided that the monastery dog was lucky.  She had a never-ending supply of visitors who would likely pet her.  The monks would take care of her.  Not every community has taken a vow of hospitality, after all. She could have been abandoned to a much worse fate.

And she had vast fields at her disposal.  No cooped up back yards for her.  Her joy at racing across the grounds made me happy too."

I thought I had written that poem, but I looked through older poetry notebooks this morning, and now I'm thinking that I planned to write it, but it's one of many poems that I never actually wrote.

The eternal question:  how many of these poem ideas should I return to? 

That's a question for another day.  Today it's time to return to the main campus for my week of trainings.  Today it's the student tracking system--another computer system that will be able to do far more than I will ever dream of asking it to do.

Yet another metaphor waiting for a poem . . .

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mepkin Mind

It is 5:17 a.m. as I write.  A week ago, I'd be about to leave Mepkin Abbey.  The drive back to Florida was uneventful and felt speedier than it sometimes feels.  I was grateful.

This past week-end has been one of finally getting caught up--I did the last load of laundry on Saturday, and did some required IT security training yesterday which will mean I can keep teaching my online classes at the community college.  I got a haircut on Saturday, which wasn't overdue, but my shaggy hair was driving me nuts.  In between, we spent lovely time on the front porch watching the rain showers come and go.

This will be a week of heavy duty training at the Ft. Lauderdale campus, where I have no office, so I'm taking my own mug, my own snack, and trying to remember what else I might need when I don't have an office.

Let me create my own Mepkin retreat in my head, a Mepkin Mind, where I can return when I need the soothing of chanted psalms:



Let me remember my delight at seeing a hydrangea bush in full bloom:



Let me remember the river that has seen so much, even if it is never the same river twice:



Let me adopt the attitude of Abbey, the monastery dog, who is always happy to be near us:



If she's ever stressed, I never see it:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day and God as Father

It's Father's Day, and I have parenting, metaphors, and God on the brain.  I come from a religious tradition that emphasizes God as Father more than any other metaphor I've encountered, although that situation has been changing during the last 40 years.  I've often found it irritating, even though my own experiences with fathers have been overwhelmingly positive.

I know how lucky I am to have emerged from an intact family, to have a mom and a dad who continue to love each other, and continue to love my sister and me. I grew up in the 1970's and saw plenty of wrecked families. I've always wondered how people who come out of those wrecked families, especially those with absent or abusive fathers, react to the idea of God as a Father.

I would argue that much of the damaged theology that we see comes from this idea of God as Father, in all the negative ways that metaphor can include.  God as the Judge Father, God as the Punishing Father, God as the Distant Father--I am lucky to have found a church that doesn't talk about God as a withholding father who always evaluates us and always finds us wanting, but that theology is never very far from many of us.  It's what keeps many people away from church, I suspect.

Even though I have a good relationship with both of my parents, I'm not crazy about the idea of God as Parent of either gender. I think that God as Parent is an infantilizing metaphor. If God is a Dad--or so much more rarely, a Mom--then it follows that we're children, and too often, we see that as a reason for inactivity. But God needs us to be active in the world. I'd go further and say that God is counting on us. I much prefer the idea of God as partner. God can be the Senior partner; I'm cool with that.

Having just come back from Mepkin Abbey and having spent time with my friend who comes from a tradition that talks about our elders, who are so often wise, I have that metaphor on the brain.  How would our relationship with God change if we saw God not as a parent, but as a wise elder?  I know that even at my current age of almost 52, I need more people in my life who can keep sight of the larger perspective.  I need a God of a grander vision, a God who can remind me of what's important, a God who directs my eyes to the larger horizon.

Today I shall pray for that God to come to us.  We live in a landscape more increasingly wrecked by poisonous models of caretaking; I'm thinking primarily of the fractured political world we inhabit, whether we want to or not.  On this day, at the end of a week where we saw a man shoot congressional male leaders on a baseball field during an early morning practice, it's clear to me that we need a different model of how to be male in the world.

Happily, most fathers I know these days are different.  They're much more involved in their children's lives, regardless of the age.  They change diapers, they braid hair, they fix lunches, they teach children the skills they will need, and they help older children find their way in the world.  God, too, cares for us that way.  And we are called to care for each other similarly too.

Let us do so today--and every day.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mepkin Photo Walk

A week ago, at 5:30 a.m., I'd have been walking back from my breakfast at Mepkin Abbey.  I have often thought about the fact that I so often keep monk's hours, although I worship less throughout the day than monks do.  At Mepkin last week-end, I woke up between 4 and 4:30 a.m., but that's not unusual for me.

If my camera takes good pictures at night, I can't figure out how to give it those commands.  I spent some time in the early morning as I walked to breakfast trying to capture the full moon:



A week ago, I would miss the Eucharist service on Saturday morning.  I was waiting for my friend to knock on my door for a walk, and somehow we missed each other.  I looked at my watch, realized it was 7:25, and not only was I going to miss my walk with my friend, but also the Eucharist service.

So I decided to take a walk by myself.  It was a different kind of communion service.



I have been walking the Mepkin grounds for over 10 years--sobering to realize.  I've been taking pictures since 2009.  I brought a camera to the retreat with me; I was determined to figure out how to make it work.

Let me hasten to say that these are not super sophisticated cameras that I have.  I don't change lenses.  I keep the auto function on, even though I could be the one making the artistic decisions--there are only about 9 choices on the slightly more sophisticated camera that I inherited from my sister when she decided that she would mainly take pictures on her iPhone.  In fact, one reason I would get a smartphone is to have an easy camera feature on a device that would fit in a pocket.



Since I have been taking pictures at Mepkin for 6 years now, I challenge myself to find new angles.  For example, here's a picture of a statue that I took in 2009:



Last Saturday, I noticed that some of the tree branches and twigs behind the statue have a thorny appearance.  I tried to capture that aspect.



Of course, the advantage of taking many pictures is that you get the occasional surprise.  My spouse delighted in this one, with Spanish moss not thorns, which I didn't even remember taking:



I feel like I see the world differently when I'm walking with the camera.  I notice angles and colors and the way the light changes a shot.  I can't always control what the camera sees, however.  Here was another shot that my spouse liked.  The cross didn't have this glow when I saw it with my eyes, but the camera caught it:



One of my friends asked me how I learned to take such good pictures.  I said that I take a lot of bad pictures, and every so often, one of them stands out.  It's one of the blessings of a digital camera:  one can take lots and lots of pictures.