Friday, June 24, 2016

The Feast Day of John the Baptist

Some months, I’m in the mood for John the Baptist. I’m ready to go into the wilderness. I’ve got a file of recipes for locusts and wild honey. I’m in a daring mood—I’ll speak truth to the King Herods of the world, even if it means my head on a platter.

But much of the time, when John the Baptist shows up in the lectionary or when we celebrate his feast day on June 24 or when we talk about prophets in general, I’m weary. Most of the time, I'm tired of having prophets like John the Baptist call me part of a brood of vipers or comparing me to shrubbery that refuses to behave.

I know, I know, I have all these faults. Don't threaten me with that ax. I try so hard to bear good fruit, but I'm afraid it isn't enough. I'm surrounded by people who are clearly in a more crabby mood than I am, and I'm trying to be sympathetic, but it's hard. This attempt of mine to transform myself into a compassionate person is taking longer than I thought it would. I see people at work having meltdowns, and my response is to hide under my desk, metaphorically, although there are days that the thought of literally curling up under my desk is almost irresistible. I don't go to them to say, "What can I do to help you through this painful time?"

But let me return to the mission of the prophets. God does not send prophets because we’re all already damned. God sends prophets to call us back to the path we should be travelling.

On this day in June when we celebrate John the Baptist, it’s good to be reminded that I'm not my final, improved version of myself. I still have work to do. And I need to hear that message that the prophets bring us. I'm lazy and inclined to coast, and it's good to know that God has a vision for me that is vaster than any I could dream myself.

It’s also good to remind ourselves of who we are. I like the passages when John the Baptist is questioned about his identity. He says, “I am not the Messiah” (John 1:20). He could have hoodwinked people who were willing to believe he was the Messiah. He could have made a power grab. He could have gotten great wealth and women and audiences with powerful rulers.

Those temptations have led more than one religious leader astray.

But John knows who he is. He is not the Messiah. He has been sent to point the way to salvation, not to provide it.

Likewise, we are not called to be the Messiah, That doesn't mean we’re off the hook in terms of behavior. We can't say, "I am not the Messiah," and stay home on our sofas. We can’t decide to watch reruns of The Simpsons and do nothing about injustice in the world.

No, 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, even if we’re not ready for deserts and locusts in our dedication.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Forgiving the One Who Kills While Drunk

I have friends who lost a family member in a horrific car crash.  The family member was travelling on his motorcycle at night on the Interstate, when a woman who was driving the wrong way on that Interstate ploughed into him, killing the family member and severely injuring the driver.

Was she drunk?  Of course she was--sober drivers don't get on the Interstate driving the wrong way--it's hard to do.

The story is full of grim irony.  The man killed had been clean and sober for years, and he had helped countless others to that salvation.  And now, he was dead by a drunk driver?  There was much anger and sorrow.  Forgiveness was not readily apparent.

My friend who was the sister-in-law of the motorcyclist moved towards forgiveness more quickly than the rest of the family.  She continued to remind everyone of the victim's quickness to forgive, and to forgive over and over again.  At the beginning, almost everyone else wanted a swift, harsh justice.

The wheels of the legal system move slowly, sometimes unbearably so.  This case was no different, and this case moved more slowly through the legal system because of the severe injuries of the drunk driver.

These delays gave the family members time to move towards forgiveness and a plea deal.  The DUI driver will have to serve some time in jail, and she will never drive again.  She will have to be a speaker about the danger of drunk driving, along with other responsibilities.  She will have a lifetime of random drug tests.  And she must live with her injuries.  She will never be the same.

I have seen the family members on the local news as they talked about their losses.   Knowing that they have moved from anger to a forgiveness has been inspiring.  They have not couched the experience in spiritual terms, not publically, but I cannot help but think of the various spiritual traditions that command forgiveness as a spiritual duty, a spiritual necessity, a spiritual formation.

Forgiveness cannot erase loss, of course.  But it can transform the loss.  Anger can be transformative too, and not always in a bad way.  But anger nursed deep within us is damaging.  To hold that anger for many years is even worse.  Far better to forgive, although it's much harder.

The DUI driver has a much more difficult road ahead.  She is filled with remorse, and she must rebuild a life from shattered shards.  I hope that the fact that she has received some forgiveness will help her too.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 26, 2016:

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Psalm: Psalm 16

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20

Second Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Gospel: Luke 9:51-62

In this Gospel, we see Jesus headed towards Jerusalem. He meets people who want to go with him, and some of them he seems to turn away, by warning of a sort of homelessness, a psychic isolation that comes with nestlessness.

Other people he invites to follow him, and they want to, but they have these responsibilities that they need to attend to first. And just like that, they've lost their chance. Many of us must understand the plight of the man who needs to bury his father. In the time of Jesus, this obligation would have loomed even larger than it does today.

Jesus seems to suggest that we forsake family responsibilities, and this theme recurs periodically throughout the Gospels. Or maybe he's suggesting that we shuck off the things which are already dead.

Our society gives us many rules and regulations that torment us as surely as the demons tormented the man in last Sunday's Gospel. Ask any sociologist, and they'll tell you that socialization binds us more thoroughly than any other aspect of our being. It's socialization that demands that we mop the floors when we'd rather be making music. It's socialization that tells us we must attend to our families, our jobs, our various responsibilities, in certain ways, even when those ways put our souls in danger.

Jesus warns us again and again of the dangers of taking our hands off the spiritual plow. Of course, most of us aren't leading agrarian lives anymore, so the metaphor may not be as powerful. But in our time of increasingly fragmented attention spans, the central message remains: Jesus tells us to keep the focus on him, not on our smart phones, our iPads, our e-mail accounts, our televisions, all the screens which rule our lives.

If we're not willing to forsake those screens for God, perhaps it's time to deepen that faith. If our mission doesn't move us, perhaps it's time to adjust the mission. What would excite you so powerfully that you would never lose your grip on that Gospel plow, that you would never look back? How can you get that excitement into your daily life?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Jesus and the Modern Outcast

My church, Trinity Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Pembroke Pines, Florida, has passed a final step in becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation.  Last night, our church council unanimously voted to adopt the following statement of welcome:

Who is welcome here at TLC?
At Trinity Lutheran we practice radical hospitality…so
If you are Native American, Asian, Hispanic, Black, White, Bi-Racial or Multi-Racial......
If you are three days old, 30 years old, or 103 years old...
If you’ve never stepped foot in a church; or if you are Catholic or Prostestant, Buddhist or Jain, Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, atheist, agnostic, or Christian, a seeker or spiritual or not quite sure...
If you are single, married, divorced, separated, or partnered...
If you are male or female, straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer...
If you are a Republican, Democrat, Independent, Socialist, Libertarian or of any or no political persuasion...
If you have, or had, addictions, phobias, regrets, or a criminal record...
If you own your home, rent, live with your parents, or with your children or with your friends, or are homeless...
If you are fully-abled, disabled or a person of differing abilities...
You are welcome here at TLC!

As I reflect on the statement, I think about how far we (by which I mean our local church and our national church) have come in what seems like a very short time.  This statement of inclusion along the spectrum of gender and sexual preference doesn't seem as radical as it once would have.

My local church has been moving to this position for many years, and along the way, I'm sure we've lost some more conservative members--perhaps that's why we have seen less pushback at this particular time.  In 2009, when the ELCA moved towards more inclusivity while also respecting the different views of members, our local church had conversations about what it all meant, and I remember some deep disapproval. 

Some of those members are still with us.  Have their opinions changed or have they decided to mute their disapproval?

As I reflect on this statement of welcome, I think about how easy it seems to welcome LGBTQ members of the community--but to genuinely welcome people with mental issues that are presenting in disruptive ways?  That might be harder.  We say we welcome people with criminal records--but for all crimes?

I think about the ministry of Jesus, his communion with the outcast.  If Jesus came back to live with us today, who would be the outcast?  If I wrote a Gospel today, who would be the demon possessed?  What would we say about a Jesus who broke bread with the child molester?  Would Jesus hang out with a person who planned to bomb a nightclub?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Poetry Monday: Improbable Blessings

Saturday morning I realized that I had written no poems for the week--my goal is to write 2 poems a week, usually on Tuesday and Thursday.  My plan has been to use the week-end to catch up, if necessary.

I was feeling a bit uninspired, a bit blah.  So I did what I normally do: I went to a few websites to see what other poets have been up to.

My favorite is Dave Bonta's Via Negativa site.  There I found Luisa Igloria's "What can you do with day old bread?"  It's so much more than a list of possibilities like feeding birds.  I thought of bread pudding.  I briefly wanted to be distracted from my writing blahs by making dessert.

Her poem was inspired by Dave Bonta's erasure poem, "Inner city" with these lines that felt evocative:

"in the city is a city missing bread
for the swan on the water"

I thought about feeding the birds with bread, and my brain went to our post-worship service practice of dumping consecrated wine in the butterfly garden at church and sprinkling crumbs of consecrated pita bread across the ground.  And finally, a poem was born.

I briefly worried that I'd already written something similar.  If so, I can't find that poem.  I did write a poem about consecrated wine going down the drain (see this post).

I sent the poem to Dave Bonta, and he published it on his site--to read it, go here.

And then, I went on to write another poem--my weekly quota in one day!  The second poem considers our current obsession with culling carbohydrates from our food intake--what does this mean for our sacramental practices?  How does it look to countries that are so parched from drought that nothing will grow in the dehydrated soil?

Here we are, at a new week.  Let me be on the lookout for poetry possibilities!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Father's Day and God the Father

 I have fathers on the brain, since it's Father's Day in the U.S. 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.

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.

Of course, I see the value of viewing God as a loving parent, but I'd love for us to expand our metaphors for God. I'd also love us to take our view of God, and see if it could have impact on our own lives. How might our parenting change, if we used God as the parenting model? What if we viewed God as someone who packed our lunch for us? What if we saw God as soccer coach or the one who taught us to sail or program computers?

On this Father's Day, I plan to call my own Dad, to say thanks. I plan to write my father-in-law, to say thanks. I plan to pray for a world where fathers are there to shape their children in positive ways. I plan to pray for fathers everywhere. And in effect, I'll be praying for us all--we are most of us shepherding people from a variety of generations in a variety of ways.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Angel Action Wings

There are many stories that have come out of the Orlando shootings, but I found this one about the angel action wings compelling.

The Orlando shooting story has many religious angles, and most of them distress me.  The idea that people from Westboro Baptist Church will try to disrupt funerals--I have always found this idea abhorrent, and this time is no different.

What theology are these people hearing every week?  Does their Jesus really command this kind of behavior?  Why do we permit these people to disrupt funerals?

I realize that there are many reasons, chief amongst them freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.  I love that people are using these same laws to get counter-protest permits, and I love the creative approach to helping the mourners.

The Orlando Shakespeare Theater has been making huge angel wings (imagine white sheets on long sticks that extend above the wearer's head and beyond the body too) for people to wear as they shield the mourners from the Westboro people.  Those shields could have been in any shape, but making them angel wings makes it even better.

The picture of the man wearing the wings takes me back to every Christmas pageant I've ever seen, and that makes me smile.  The idea that a theater group made these costumes also makes me smile.  But what really makes me smile is the idea of fighting hate this way.

They could have held up signs with counter messages--those would have also served as a shield.  The fact that they're angel wings, not protest signs, is a powerful message.

The leader of the group says that the group's goal is to rise above hatred and to show love and compassion.  Today in Orlando, that love and compassion will be on display in the form of gigantic angel wings.