Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mediation on this Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 28, 2008:

First Reading: Isaiah 61:10--62:3

Psalm: Psalm 148

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7

Gospel: Luke 2:22-40

This Sunday, after the whirlwind excitement of Christmas Eve, we return to the Temple, where Simeon and Anna have been patiently waiting for God to fulfill God's promise. And in our scary times, that message is a wonderful reminder: God fulfills the promises that God makes.

Of course, it may not happen in the time period that we would like to demand. So what do we do in the meantime? We wait. Maybe we wait patiently, like Simeon. Or maybe we become impatient, like the Psalmist. But we wait. What else can we do? Scripture and Literature across many different cultures warn us of what happens if we decide that we're as powerful as God and can proceed on our own--nothing good can come of that.

What do we do while we're waiting? We can take Simeon and Anna as our models. We can surround ourselves with people who believe in God's promise. Hopefully, we find those kind of people in our Christian communities. Hopefully, we've spent our lives finding people who live in hope, even when surrounded by evidence that would make more rational people doubt.

Of course, we don't have to just wait passively. The Advent lessons have reminded us of the importance of staying alert and watchful. The Scriptures tell us that God will appear in many guises, none of them what we expect.

We can also take our cues from Mary and Joseph, from Elizabeth and John the Baptist, from any number of spiritual predecessors. We can decide to take our part in the redemption of God's creation. Every day gives us the opportunity to practice resurrection, as Wendell Berry phrased it. We can choose to move towards light and leave the darkness to mind its own business. We are called to be the light of the world, the yeast in the bread dough, the salt of the earth. We can't do that if we're pessimistic.

I would encourage us not to leave Christmas behind too quickly. Many of us have had busy Decembers. We can leave our Christmas trees up for a few more days (twelve, even, until Jan. 6, Epiphany) to enjoy the vision we haven't had a chance to take in during our busy Advent. We can eat one last Christmas cookie, while we reflect on the past year, and plan for the year to come. We can pray for the patience of Simeon, for the wisdom of Anna, for the courage of Mary and Elizabeth and Joseph, who said yes to God's plan. We can pray that we have the boldness of John the Baptist, who declared the Good News. We can pray for the strength to evolve into people of hope, people who watch and wait, confident in the knowledge that God fulfills all promises.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Writing the Bible by Hand

This morning, on NPR, I heard a news story about a bus that's travelling around the country. When it comes to your town, you can hand write a verse of the Bible. Do you get to choose the verse? And more importantly, why are we doing this? The story didn't say.

So, since NPR said that Zondervan is sponsoring the bus, I went to the website. No mention of the bus there. Hmm.

Could this just be a giant publicity stunt? Is there some theory behind it?

I'm intrigued. I think back to my study of Composition theory in graduate school. I know that a hundred years ago, if I had students who wanted to learn to write, I wouldn't have them focus on their own writing. No, I'd sit them down and have them copy out works by great masters.

Or is this experiment more like having people memorize the Bible? Is the idea that once I write a verse in my own hand, it becomes more my own?

When I was in school, I did discover that I learned more and retained more, when I took notes. Often, during a test, I could visualize my notebook, and remember taking notes on the book or the lecture, and get to the right answer through that process.

Or is this experiment more like medieval monks, creating an illuminated manuscript? I've always been intrigued by that process. I write a weekly meditation on the Gospel, and I wonder if I would enrich the process by creating a work of art to go along with that? I miss some of the artistic sides of myself that seem to have gone dormant.

Perhaps this experiment is designed to make us appreciate modern technology (word processing, the internal combustion engine). Or maybe it came into being to help us all feel more linked to each other?

I'd like to know more, but if the news story gave all the answers, I wouldn't have written this post. And chances are good, I'd be disappointed with the official reasons Zondervan would give for creating this project.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Praise in the Ruins

On Saturday, as Carl and I read our 15 minutes (we're still making our way through Psalms), I was struck by the images of ruin and destruction. In Psalm 51, there is the yearning for the walls of Jerusalem to be rebuilt. In Psalm 53, there's the image of God scattering the bones of the ungodly. The image that made me want to cry most came from Psalm 55, with its extended nightmare vision of the former friend turned enemy.

I'm not sure why those images of destruction (and yearning for wholeness) are the ones that leapt out at me Saturday. I'd had a good day. But always, these days, there's the consciousness of impending ruin, and I'm finding it hard to tune out. Some days, I'm sure that the destruction has already fallen upon our heads. Some days, I'm convinced that we're poking around in the smoking ruins of our society, and we don't even realize it.

But the Psalms show us what to do, even if we are facing the worst-case scenario. We pray for justice, and we pray for those who are hurt. We pray for restoration. We yearn for resurrection, and we demand that God listen.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Labyrinth and Prayer

On Friday night, we offered our candlelit labyrinth experience for the last time this Advent. It was the perfect night--about 75 degrees, no wind (unlike the week before, when the temperature had plunged to 55 degrees, and it was so windy that only half the candles stayed lit).

I walked the labyrinth, and my mind immediately went to prayer. Later, I thought about how easy it is for me to pray in the labyrinth, and how my mind stays focused in a way that it doesn't in any other setting.

I've tried sitting still and meditating; I never got to the point where my mind was quiet. I've tried lying in corpse pose after a rigorous yoga workout; I kept looking at my watch. In the middle of the night, when I wake up worried and unable to sleep, I try to pray, but my mind always races back to my worries.

But in the labyrinth, my mind goes immediately to prayer. I begin with prayers of gratitude, deep and profound thank yous. I move to asking for help for those who need it, both people I know and people on a national level (no matter how I feel about various world leaders, I always pray for their health and wisdom). And rarely does my mind go racing away.

Of course, sometimes I'm done with the intense part of prayer, and my mind goes onward. On Friday, I solved a poem that had been percolating. Here, too, I'm amazed at how natural and easy it is. No agonizing, no whining from my brain: just "Stitch this part to that part and then the poem works."

Maybe I should walk a labyrinth more often. One of my friends walks the labyrinth several times a week, in the morning, at sunrise. She seems to be one of the most level-headed people I know.

If you want to walk a labyrinth and need to find one in your neighborhood, go to this part of the Labyrinth Society website.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Creation vs. Incarnation

In her essay, "'Tis the Season: Holidays, Harvest, and the Psalms," Lynn Domina says, "For me, and I suspect for many writers and other artists, even for those of us enthusiastically identifying with a Trinitarian tradition, the most compelling divine characteristic is not incarnation but creation" (page 117 of Poets on the Psalms, a wonderful book of essays, edited by Lynn Domina, published by Trinity University Press in 2008).

We're deep in the season of Advent, so I've already been contemplating the mysteries of incarnation. How many other religions have a god who takes on human form and dwells among us? I've always found that aspect of Christianity compelling.

But I've also always identified with the Creator aspect of God. I especially love the earlier Genesis story of creation (the one that doesn't revolve around Adam and Eve and a snake). God creates all sorts of things and declares them good. Sometimes very good. You never see God saying, "What a lousy rough draft. I'll never be able to do anything with this crap I just created." No. God loves all of the creations.

I'm lucky to be part of a Lutheran tradition that doesn't emphasize sin and the cross. Oh, it's there. But we emphasize the Kingdom of God, breaking through to us in all sorts of ways: incarnation and creation are the most visible.

Incarnation vs. Creation. Which is most important? Or can they even be separated?

Something to ponder, as we hurl ourselves towards Christmas.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wednesday Night Dinner at the Inner City Church--Part 2

I spent the week making lots of baked ziti casserole for our second trip to feed the homeless at First Lutheran. Last time we were there, we had 90 people show up for dinner. Last night, we had about 60. Luckily, the church has freezer space for the ziti that didn't get eaten.

Last month when we went, I spent time at a table, talking to the men as they ate. Last night, I spent most of my time cornered by a homeless man who was high on something (I thought alcohol, my spouse thought something else). He wept as he told me of God's love for us. He said incoherent things. We tried to talk about where we're from. He's from New Jersey, and he seemed to say he'd never met anyone from the South before. That could be true. There aren't many Southerners in the Ft. Lauderdale area.

Here's the strange thing that I've thought about all night: every so often, he'd say something profound and strange. For example, he said that God knew all of us before he created the world. It doesn't seem profound when I type it out. But imagine a bleary-eyed man muttering slurry words who suddenly looks beyond us all, gets a joyous look, and says such things.

Maybe I wouldn't spend much time thinking about this, if I hadn't spent the month thinking about John the Baptist. Would John the Baptist's contemporaries seen him in the way we see the slurry-speeched homeless? "What's he on? Why does he wear those strange clothes? What's he always talking about in such a strange manner?"

I also had the angel Gabriel on the brain, since I'd written my morning meditation on him. Would Gabriel have seemed as equally strange to Mary as the homeless man appeared to me? Maybe that's too long a stretch--and yet, some of my best poems have come from long stretches. Something to think about in the coming days.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Meditation on this Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 21, 2008:

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Psalm: Luke 1:47-55

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Second Reading: Romans 16:25-27

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

Today we get the wonderful Gospel story of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, and Mary's response. Protestants traditionally don't spend much time thinking about Mary, which is a shame, because she has much to teach us.

I love Mary's measured responses. She ponders. She wonders how the events that Gabriel mentions can be true. Everything that Gabriel says would challenge the brain that tended towards the literal, which frankly, is how I think of the modern brain--if we can't prove it scientifically, don't bother us. Most of us would have jeered at Gabriel and sent him on his way. We'd have told our friends about the stupid angel who thought we'd believe that a post-menopausal woman, like our cousin Elizabeth, could get pregnant.

But Mary has a different response. I like that she's not punished for her questions. Gabriel answers, and she accepts.

I like that God sends Gabriel to prepare the way. Many of our Advent lessons seem to revolve around God preparing the way, whether it be with angels or with prophets or with strange men crying in the wilderness.

And it's important to note that Mary has a choice. We always have a choice. I've had nonbeliever friends who call God a rapist because of how God treated Mary, but that's not the God I know and not the God that the story presents. Gabriel paints a scenario, and Mary submits to God's will. Mary could have said no, but she chose to say yes.

I always wonder if there were women who sent Gabriel away: "I'm going to be the mother of who? It will happen how? Go away. I don't have time for this nonsense. If God wants to perform a miracle, let God teach my children not to track so much dirt into this house."

We won't ever hear about those women, because they decided that they didn't want to be part of God's glorious vision.

How about you? How is God calling to you?

Most of us aren't visited by angels, and if we are, we know better than to talk about it. But God speaks to us in other ways. There's the traditional way: through the Scriptures. But God also speaks to us through our yearnings and dreams.

God breaks into our world in many wonderful ways, but most of us aren't paying attention. If the angel Gabriel did appear, we might not even notice, because we're so busy, which makes us too exhausted to even dream of a better life.

Winter is a great time to become more introspective. The days are shorter and darker--what better time to stay inside and write in your journal. You could get back to that valuable tool of keeping a gratitude journal--every day, list 5 things for which you're grateful. Or, every day you could list one time when you felt God's presence (and once you train yourself to be aware, you'll have more to list). Or you could list the ways you'd like to see the world change to become more aligned with God's vision for the world (and maybe you could list ways that you could help with that transformation). In your journal, you could keep a prayer list, so you remember the people and places that need your prayers--and maybe, in future years, you'd consult the list and be amazed at the way that God answers your prayer. Maybe in your journal, you could practice the ancient art of lectio divina--take a passage of the Bible and meditate on it awhile--write about the passage for 10 minutes and see what happens.

You might start with these words of Gabriel: "For with God nothing will be impossible" (Luke 1, verse 37).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Are the Psalms Gendered?

I am reading Poets on the Psalms, an intriguing book edited by Lynn Domina (published in 2008 by Trinity University Press). I never thought about the Psalms as being particularly gendered until I read Alicia Ostriker's essay, "Psalm and Anti-Psalm: A Personal Interlude."

Ostriker observes, "Psalms contains no women at all" (26). Before my recent, intense reading of the Psalms, I would have said that the Psalms contain no individual humans, so much as we read the voice of a universal narrator. But Ostriker goes on to observe that "the Psalmist often seems less a generic human than a public man. A politician, a warrior" (26). When I read that page of her essay, my first reaction was denial: "Surely not."

After reading her essay, I decided to turn to the Psalms for my daily 15 minutes of Bible reading. And much to my shock, she's right. I am surprised at the tone of the Psalms I've read thus far. I know that some of the Psalms have a reputation for their fierce anger, but I wasn't expecting so many of them to be like that. I wasn't expecting so much battle imagery.

And I'm reading the Psalms through the lens of gender, a lens that isn't unfamiliar to me (I began my life as a literary critic as a feminist reader; gender issues would always be the first thing I noticed, and then I'd return to issues of race, theology, class, nationality, figurative language--or whatever else the professor told me to observe). Ostriker is right. The lack of female experience is startling. How could I have gone through my whole church life and not have noticed this before?

Of course, it makes sense that since the Psalmist is male (we presume), the Psalmist would make use of imagery that was familiar to him. It makes sense that a male Psalmist would not refer to miscarriages, to bodies that betray us in particularly female ways.

Sure, some of the bodily betrayals presented in the Psalms are probably universal; most of us won't make it through old age without feeling that we are "poured out like water" (Psalm 22). I am familiar with the weeping episodes that the Psalmist describes.

I am most familiar with the Psalms as I encounter them daily, in the fixed hour prayers composed by Phyllis Tickle, in her The Divine Hours series. I like them better in small chunks. But am I letting the Psalms off the hook?

No. I know that I'm participating in a patriarchal religion, and that some of the books are more male-dominated than others. One of the things that many people appreciate about the Psalms is their fierce honesty. And if it's honesty written by a male Psalmist, that doesn't mean we must discount them, just because we're feminists.

It does give me an idea for a writing project--what would the Psalms look like, if penned by a modern, female poet? Hmmmmm.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Feeding Souls and Stomachs

I'm having one of those Advents that so many church folks have--and secular folks for that matter--I feel like I am never home. I go from work to church to home to sleep and then I wake up to do it all again. There's choir rehearsal and cookie swaps and extra services and rehearsals for extra services.

Our church runs a food pantry for people who are having a food emergency, and we're seeing more business than usual, as you might expect this time of year. I filled in on Thursday at the food pantry, and then on Friday evening, I went for the candlelit labyrinth contemplative time.

I drove home thinking about how happy I am that our church is committed to both a food pantry (as well as other social justice programs) and a labyrinth. How rare is that, I wonder? I suspect it's rare, but I have no statistics to back it up. Especially with smaller churches, where choices must be made, I suspect that churches commit more to either the social justice side of mission or the worship side. Then there are the churches that don't do any of it particularly well.

Today, after service, a homeless man came to the door. He needed food, and he thought the church might have some--and because we run a food pantry, we did have some food to give him. I'm glad that people still see the church as a place to go in times of crisis. And of course, I'm sad that there is still aching hunger in the world.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Reading our Way through Psalms

Carl and I finished reading Luke this week. Interesting to read the Good Friday-Easter story during Advent.

Then we moved back to the Psalms. Here, too, interesting to read the Psalms so soon after reading the Good Friday passages. We noticed, as we were bound to notice, how much of the language of Luke's Good Friday material came directly from Psalm 22.We talked about whether or not Luke knew that he did this.

I thought that Luke did, that he intentionally used the language of the Psalms. It's like a contemporary poet using Biblical language or alluding to great works of literature--it roots the modern poem to an ancient tradition. Carl wondered whether or not Luke was trying to prove that Jesus was the answer to a prophecy, which I thought was possible too. One explanation doesn't have to cancel out the other.

I asked, "If we weren't so familiar with this language as Good Friday language, would we see this Psalm as being about crucifixion?" We read Psalm 22 again, and realized that it could be about any number of events that makes one say, "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws" (Psalm 22, verse 14-15a). In fact, I read that part and hear illness, not persecution.

Of course, there are plenty of parts of this Psalm that are about persecution. It's a perfect Psalm to echo in a crucifixion story, but it also fits with so many of us, who may be feeling personally persecuted by an individual or just buffeted by forces, societal or otherwise, that we cannot control.

And it's interesting how the Psalm moves from lament to praise. The Psalmist moves from feeling persecuted and abandoned by God, to proclaiming that God will grant deliverance. That's a hopeful message in these turbulent days.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Anniversary of the Death of Thomas Merton

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton. If I made a list of the top ten most important spiritual figures of the twentieth century, he'd be on that list, and for many scholars, he'd be number one (I might give the number one slot to Pope John Paul II. Or would it be Archbishop Oscar Romero? Or Mother Theresa? Or Archbishop Desmond Tutu? Or Dorothy Day? Interesting how thus far, only Catholics are on my list . . .).

I heard a great interview with an author and documentary filmmaker yesterday on the Diane Rehm show. Luckily, we live in the age of the Internet, where even though we've missed a show, we can still listen. Go here to hear the show (it's the 11:00 hour, so you might have to scroll down).

That interview made me think of an episode of a different NPR program, Speaking of Faith. Paul Elie was on the show to discuss his book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which came out in 2003, and is a fabulous book. It's also a heavy book (as in long, not as in too deep to read on a plane, which I did, when I couldn't put the book away), so if you want to just listen to the discussion about it, to get a sense of it, go here.

Merton is one of those writers that I feel like I've read, because I've read a lot about him, and read portions of his work collected in many different places. But as I consider, I'm a bit shocked to realize that I haven't read one of his books all the way through.

Let me add that to my to-do list for 2009. In fact, a reading list for the year might be a very good idea. Off now, to ponder my list . . .

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Picture of our Candlelit Labyrinth at Sunset

Today, I'll try something new as a blogger. I'll include a picture of our labyrinth. It was taken on All Saints Day (Nov. 1, 2008) at sunset. That's not me in the picture; that's my new friend Eileen.

You might wonder what we used to construct it. We used old roof tiles (barrel style) from a hurricane damaged church to the north of us. They're somewhat damaged (chipped at the edges), so they're not worthy of stealing.

I like how we recycled, how we made something good come out of Hurricane Wilma. I like how the tiles are low maintenance, unlike shrubbery, and how they blend into the landscape. I like that we didn't pave over a space to create a labyrinth.

I REALLY like that I'm part of a church that has a labyrinth, the largest one in Florida, at least for now. We actually have two--not pictured is our Roman style labyrinth, which turns at sharp angles, and is more of a box shape than a curving shape.

This week, I'll try taking a picture of the labyrinth at night, and if I'm successful, I'll post it.

Meditation on this Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 14, 2008:

First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Psalm: Psalm 126

Psalm (Alt.): Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28

Today's Gospel returns us to John the Baptist. John proves to be such a compelling figure that the religious people in charge try to determine who he is. This interchange between John and the priests and Levites fascinates me. I love that John knows who he is, but he's not interested in explaining himself to institutional figures. Still he'll answer their questions.

One answer in particular keeps banging around my brain: "I am not the Christ" (verse 20). Some interpretations have him say, "I am not the Messiah." He's also not Elijah, not the prophet. When asked to explain himself more fully, he refers to Isaiah: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' . . ." (verse23).

I had an argument with an atheist friend who traditionally views Christians with the same sort of horror that the priests and the Levites viewed John the Baptist (how we are friends is a mystery to me, because I make no secret of my beliefs). She expects Christians to be unable to control themselves, to testify all the time. In our recent argument, she said that the message of Christianity is that believers have to go out to convert non-believers, and that Christians have that as their mission. I told her that she needed to go back and read the Gospel.

The first lesson from Isaiah seems more appropriate as a mission for the modern Christian, with its language of binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and comforting those who mourn. We are to be a garland, instead of ashes, to be the oil of gladness.

And yet, some days I feel it might be easier to be one of those old-fashioned Christians, who have the mission of telling everyone that Jesus loves them. And of course, the next question from many people would be, "Yeah? How does that change anything?"

My atheist friend and I argue over whether Christianity is a series of beliefs (which she says it is) or a series of actions (which I say it is). Of course, we're having a centuries-old argument. You might even say the whole history of the Protestant Reformation, which continues today, is over this issue of creeds and who believes what.

I believe this issue of creeds leads us away from the important question. I remember watching Religulous earlier this fall, the movie which shows Bill Maher going all over the world to ask Christians whether or not they really believe in talking snakes and Virgin births. And I spent the whole movie shaking my head over how he was missing the point.

One of the main points of Christianity is that God comes to us, in the form of Christ, to show us what is possible in a human life. The Christian mission is to emulate Christ in our behavior.

The message of today's Gospel is that we must be careful to remember that we are not the Christ. There are days when I shake my head and think, "I've been working on hunger issues most of my whole life: writing letters to legislators, giving away money, working in food banks. Why isn't this issue solved yet? How long will it take?"

I must practice saying, "I am not the Messiah." That doesn't mean I'm off the hook in terms of my behavior. I can't say, "I am not the Messiah," and stay home and watch reruns of The Simpsons and do nothing about injustice in the world.

But I am not the Messiah. We struggle against a huge domination system, as Walter Wink termed it. The story of John the Baptist and Jesus serve as cautionary tales to me, when I get too impatient with how long it takes for the arc of history to bend towards justice (Martin Luther King's wording). They struggled against injustice and died in the maw of the system they worked to dismantle.

This week I shall practice a John the Baptist approach. I will recognize the importance of making the pathways straight, while continuing to insist, "I am not the Christ."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Reading the Bible Together

My church launched an initiative on Dec. 1. Many of us have covenanted to read the Bible 15 minutes a day until Easter. We signed documents, which I must admit, makes me take it seriously. We took partners in our efforts, in hopes that we'd all be more accountable.

It was the thought of my signature that came back to me on Dec. 1, when I realized that I hadn't read my 15 minutes, and neither had my covenant partner, my spouse. We sat down to read together. It seemed only natural to read the same passage, so we returned to Luke, which he had been reading during the time when our pastor challenged us to read one Gospel from start to finish, straight through.

We have continued reading our 15 minutes of Bible reading out loud. One of us reads and the other listens. Some nights we trade off--one reads for half the time, the other for the other half.

Some nights I feel we've become our grandparents, although I'm not sure that they read the Bible to each other out loud, the way that we're doing. It feels very earlier-century to me.

And yet, I find myself looking forward to it. One of the things that I miss most about my younger school days is that it was the last time when I was surrounded by people who were all reading the same thing. There was always a discussion partner near by.

It's interesting to see what parts of our reading jump out at him. They're often parts that I'd have just zipped right over. It's interesting to read out loud, which keeps me from my obnoxious habit of reading quickly, but not deeply. It's interesting to be part of a project together.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Luke's Depiction of Judas

Luke says that Satan entered Judas. That line made me stop and ponder. I know that this is a Biblical way of talking about how humans go astray, but I don't like the way that it takes agency away from Judas. It's as if Judas couldn't help himself; it recalls that old line, "The devil made me do it."

It detracts from one of the central lessons of Judas, which is that humans will betray each other for any number of petty reasons. Sometimes it's for a monetary pay off. Sometimes it's to satisfy our jealousy or our hatred or our envy. Some people just like to make mischief. I suspect that we often don't understand why we betray each other--and that may account for Judas better than anything else.

I think of the book by John Knowles, A Separate Peace, when the narrator bounces a tree limb, causing his best friend to fall out of the tree. Why does he do it? He doesn't know. That truth of the novel terrified me as a teenager, but it wasn't a surprise. Not really. We betray each other all the time, and perhaps we're more likely to betray the ones we love than the people we barely know. And why do we do it? We don't know.

And perhaps that should be one of the lessons of Judas. Judas had plenty of time to change his mind, or at least, it sounds like he did. He could have made the arrangements to betray Jesus and then not have shown up. He could have been more introspective: "Hmm. I want to betray Jesus. I wonder why I want to do that. Thirty pieces of silver really isn't that much money. How will I live with myself after I tear apart my community here?"

Most of us just aren't very introspective. We don't understand why we act the way that we do. And many of us go through life, sowing destruction, when we could be agents for peace.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Walking the Candlelit Path

On Friday, I went over to the labyrinth; every Friday in Advent, the labyrinth is lit by candles from 6:30-8:00. We're hoping that people will take some time out of their busy December schedule to remember what the season is really all about.

We first did an evening candlelit walk for All Saints Day (read the Miami Herald story here). But I couldn't stay for the whole event, so I walked as the sun was setting. For me, that was a first. I've walked labyrinths in a variety of settings, but always in full daylight. I loved walking as the sun set and the streaks of oranges and pinks filled the sky. I felt electrified and full of light myself, yet serene.

On Friday, I got to the labyrinth at 7:20--full darkness. From the road, the candlelit labyrinth looked Halloweeny. I was expecting more of a Christmas Eve feel, but to see a distant glowing shape was almost spooky (of course, the temperature didn't help--we were at a balmy 75 degrees, which is a Fall temperature to me, not an Advent temperature).

Once I got close to the labyrinth, it lost that Halloweeny feel. I started walking, and realized how different it is to walk a labyrinth in the dark, lit only by candles. I literally couldn't see very far into the distance, to see where the labyrinth would be curving. I could only see as I got there and made the turn. Even though I understood the shape of the labyrinth--I helped create it, literally, with my own two hands--I couldn't remember how the path went.

That experience seemed like a great metaphor for life. And of course, the labyrinth experience works as a metaphor for life in many ways. But Friday night, I meditated on how often I think I know where I'm going, only to be sent curving in a different direction. I meditated on how I had plenty of light if I just focused on my present steps. Once I stared off into the distance, trying to anticipate my future steps, I'd get lost. But if I stayed present, I'd be OK.

Ah, that old difficulty--to quit fretting about the future (which will curve in ways we can't anticipate) and focus on my present steps; to trust that God will give me enough light to show me where I need to go; to use the light I have, even though it may be dim and flickering.

That's the beauty of a spiritual practice like the labyrinth--it symbolically reminds us of the tasks at hand, while giving us an experience rooted in the physical world. And with labyrinths, as with the best spiritual practices, that experience is powerfully calming.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Great Online Advent Calendar

Yesterday, I found mention of a great Advent calendar over at LutheranChik's "L" Word Diary (she posted her discovery on Thursday). I know that there are probably tons of online Advent calendars out there, but I like that this one gives us Scripture, slideshows, videos, music, links to further meditations, and for Dec. 5, we get links to good gifts to give.

What's upcoming for this calendar? I don't know. It won't let me open future days.

It reminded me of being a kid, that momentary joy of the chocolate or hidden picture of the daily Advent calendar, that urge to gobble up everything in one moment of gluttonous joy. I like this spiritual discipline of taking everything day by day, a skill that still doesn't come naturally to me.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Keeping our Advent Watch with a Nativity Scene

I've decided to occasionally post my poems here, especially if they fit with the liturgical season or anything else I'm writing about. I've had nativity scenes on the brain, since they start to appear right now, and they often inspire controversy: do we allow them in civic spaces? Do we include the baby Jesus before Christmas? Do we allow children to be creative with them?

Through the years, I've heard of unusual additions to home nativity scenes, and I decided to combine all the possibilities I could think of into one poem, which is below. This poem comes from my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

My current nativity scene has lost some key figures through the years. We've managed to keep track of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, probably because they're glued into the stable. We're down to one shepherd and a camel--no wise men to go with the camel, no angels in sight. That's probably a poem right there!

We do have a plastic, purple monkey that our friend John put in the nativity scene years ago. It's a tiny, flat monkey with a scooped hand that came from a game where you try to pick up other plastic monkeys to make a chain. I know that some people might see it as disrespectful (and they shouldn't read the poem below), but now, most of my decorations have some memory of beloved friends and families attached to them, and I like decorating and remembering.

Plus, I think that if the Gospels teach us anything, it's that God will be found in the most unlikely places and attract all sorts of attention. People will follow who you would never expect to find in the company of God. That purple, plastic monkey can be a symbol of the tax collectors/prostitutes/social outcasts that Jesus invited to dinner.

Anyway, here's the poem:

Nativity Scene

Through the years, the stable attracted
the odds and ends of our childhood toys:
a plastic soldier, his rifle chewed and mangled,
migrated from the war zone;
a horse, which once helped herd
plastic animals, now riderless and alone;
a Magic 8 ball with murky
water, the answers to our questions, obscured;
a nutcracker dressed in festive finery, but missing
its lower jaw, its mission in life undone;
lonely Barbie, hair shorn from too many experiments,
now loveless and forlorn;
a matchbox car, once prized, now missing
a wheel and limping along;
a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle doll with other refugees
from popular shows of past years;
a gingerbread boy gamepiece, knowing he belongs elsewhere,
neglecting his duties in Candyland, so compelling
is the baby in the manger.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Meditation on this Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 7, 2008:

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a

Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

Today's Gospel takes us to John, a fascinating character. In today's reading, we see him, clothed in his strange costume, eating locusts and wild honey. Other Gospels present him as the cousin of Christ. Who is this guy?I find him fascinating for many reasons. Maybe I'm always intrigued by a prophet. This year, I'm thinking about John's place in the drama of Christ's life, and how he seems completely comfortable with his place.

In earlier years, I've wondered if it would be hard to be John, with his more famous cousin Jesus overshadowing him. This year, I notice that he has the perfect opportunity to upstage Jesus--people of the time period were desperate for a Messiah, and there were plenty of predators wandering around, trying to convince people that they were the Messiah. John had more legitimacy and a wider following than most of the other people with their wild claims.

But John knows who he is. And he fills out his full potential by preparing the way for Jesus. Not only does John know who he is, he knows who Jesus is. John knows for whom he waits and watches.

We might be wise to see John as a cautionary tale too. John is one of the earliest to know the true mission of Jesus (in some Gospel versions, perhaps he realizes the mission of Jesus before Jesus fully does). Notice that John's life is turned upside down.

I'm not saying that we'll be driven into the desert to eat locusts. But it is a different vision than the one that today's current crop of Prosperity Preachers offers us.

Many people are shocked to discover that being a Christian doesn't protect them from hard times. Being a Christian doesn't mean that we won't suffer sickness, that we won't lose our jobs, that we won't lose almost everything we love. To be human means that we will suffer loss--and thinking people know in advance that we will suffer loss, which means that we suffer more than once.

But we have a God who has experienced the very same thing. Think of the life of Jesus, who had no place to lay his head and died by crucifixion. No prosperity gospel there.

No, the good news is that we have a God who fully understands all the ways in which we suffer--and wants to be with us anyway. We have a God who fully understands all the ways in which we will fail--and loves us fully anyway.

John reminds us of our Advent goal, which is to keep watch, to stay alert. Of course, our Advent goal should spill over into the rest of our life. It's easy to keep watch in December, when the rest of the world counts down to Christmas. It's harder to remember to watch for God in the middle of summer. And of course, that's why we need to develop daily spiritual practices that will keep us watchful.

It's important for us to determine which practices will develop our intimacy with God. For John, it was going into the wilderness. What will it be for you?

And of course, we're being prepared for a greater mission than just our own personal relationship with God. John baptized people and told them the Good News. We are called to do the same.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Advent Retreat at RevGalBlogPals

If you're already feeling overwhelmed by the season, and you need an Advent retreat, there's a cool thing going on at RevGalBlogPals. They've posted an online Advent retreat in three sessions, complete with Bible readings, art, meditations, questions for reflection, and of course, there are comments. Here are some links to make it easy: part 1, part 2, and part 3.


Relying on God, not our Retirement Funds

Ever since eating with the homeless two weeks ago, I've been thinking about wealth and how it's distributed. I've been thinking about my grandparents.

My grandfather was a Lutheran minister, and they'd have been considered poor throughout much of their lives. The churches that they served always made sure they had a house in which to live--but it was a parsonage, so they never owned it. They were paid, but those were in the days before the current ELCA guidelines were in place. They had enough, but not much more.

Still, they gave away money. They tithed to the church, and saved 10% too. My grandmother will still tell tales of tramps finding their way to my grandparents' house and asking for money. My grandfather never gave away money, for fear that it would be used to buy alcohol, but he would always make the tramp a fried egg sandwich, even if there weren't many eggs in the house. And then he'd sit on the back steps and eat with the stranger.

They never really saved for retirement. My grandmother's pension check from the ELCA is $90 a month--like I said, they were serving the church long before the ELCA guidelines were in place, guidelines that help insure that pastors will be compensated fairly--or what our current generation sees as fair. My grandfather made some investments with money that he made from selling honey, but for the most part, they trusted God.

And they have been compensated, far more than they ever would have thought possible. My grandfather's stocks, bought in teeny amounts, have appreciated. He didn't invest in the strange options we have now--he bought shares, often one at a time, in things that he saw his family using, like Duke Power, which provided their electricity. He would have been astonished had he lived long enough to see how well he provided for my grandmother with those stock purchases.

Of course, he'd have probably taken no credit for that.

He served a church in South Carolina for almost twenty-five years, and when he retired, the church gave them the parsonage that had been their home for that time. Pastors had started asking for a housing allowance, and the church knew that the next pastor was unlikely to want to move his family into a parsonage, into a small house that was in need of upgrades. So that church gave my grandparents the parsonage.

I think of all those Bible passages that tell us not to worry about tomorrow, all those passages that tell us that God will provide for the faithful. My grandparents were the only people I've known personally who were able to live that faith, and I'm sure part of what made that possible is that they lived through the Depression. They understood, in some visceral way, that humans will always be subject to economic forces that they can't understand.

They understood where their allegiance belonged. I'd like that kind of strength.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Meditation on this Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 30, 2008:

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Gospel: Mark 13:24-37

You may read the Gospel for Sunday and wonder if I've pasted the right lessons into the space above. You may have been prepared for angels appearing to Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph. You might be like me, a woman who has already put up her tree and listened to Christmas CDs; you may be hoping for a glimpse of Christmas in Advent.

Instead, again, you get this apocalyptic text from Mark, about tribulation, and a darkened sun and moon and stars falling from the sky. Yikes. Isaiah's not much better; we're not to the comforting texts yet.

But the end of this chunk of Mark is important. It implores us several times to watch.We're not very good at watching. We're not very good at waiting. These statements are true throughout the year, but they're especially true during the liturgical season of Advent. The pace of our socializing goes into full-throttle frenzy, and we give ourselves over to trying to create a perfect holiday. Then we spend the month of January nursing a cold (or succumbing to more serious illness) and the rest of the year paying our credit card bills.

Seen in this light, the Gospel chunk of Mark makes sense. The way we celebrate Advent is indicative of the way we spend the rest of the year, and in this way, the apocalyptic tone makes sense. So many of us are making a ruin of our lives. What can we do so that our lives do not end up in ashes?

The Gospel tells us to keep watch, and we might return to some ancient spiritual disciplines to help us with that. We think of Lent as the time of year for spiritual discipline, but Advent might be an even more important time, since our culture gives us more pressure in the season of Advent than Lent.

Return to the old practices. Light an Advent wreath each evening. Or buy yourself an Advent calendar. Those of us without children often let these traditions slide. Maybe we could take them up again.

We could return to some even more ancient practices.

Add some devotional time to your day. There are many books set up specifically for Advent or you could resolve to read more of the Bible. There are always some interesting resources on the Internet; you might go to to see what talented artist and writer Jan Richardson creates for each week in Advent. You might keep a similar journal, either in the privacy of paper or the public eye of a blogsite (as a new blogger, I can attest that keeping a blog is easy, even if you're technology phobic).

Perhaps you might decide to undertake a fast. Many of us gain 4-10 pounds during an average holiday season. If we choose to abstain from food one day a week, we might avoid that fate--and our hunger pains might lead us to think about the real reason the season exists.Maybe we'll fast from parties. Maybe we'll get together with the adults in our lives and decide to fast from gifts. We could give each other time, instead, an afternoon spent in each other's company. Maybe we'll fast from the news, with its relentless grim information.

Maybe we want to be really brave and consider a larger technology fast. How much time do you spend on the Internet? How much of that time brings you closer to God or your fellow humans? How much of that time transforms you into a more creative person? How much time do you spend tending to your electronic devices? Computers, cell phones, T.V.s and Tivos, and Ipods, and gadgets I don't even know about yet. What would happen if you turned them all off for a day and spent your time observing the non-electronic world?

You might decide to give some of your time and/or money to charity. Or you might resolve to help those charities in January, when the fervor of charitable activities at year's end dies down, and those organizations really need you.

You could decide to pray. Maybe now is the time to add fixed-hour prayer to your life. Even if you don't want to buy an expensive set of breviaries and prayer books, you could go to this site: The prayers change through the day.

Whatever you do, choose a discipline that will help you keep watch. When we train ourselves to be alert, we'll be amazed at how much evidence of Divine Love surrounds us every day.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A bit of Mark, A bit of Isaiah

I was reading the Gospel of John, then I read this Sunday's Gospel reading from Mark (the one we'll hear the first Sunday in Advent). That wasn't enough apocalyptic Bible reading for me, so I went to Isaiah.

I'm one of those strange people who really likes that we get a dose of apocalypse as the rest of the nation gears up for its annual spending frenzy. Of course, this year, with grim and grimmer economic news each day, some eschatological reading seems to fit right in. Everyone I know feels impoverished, especially when they look at their retirement accounts.

But I remember those men (and the few women) from the dinner at First Lutheran on Wednesday night. There's nothing like sharing a meal with those who have nothing to put life in perspective. I think of them as I'm getting ready for Thanksgiving and Advent. Sharing a meal with them, and later prayers with them, made me realize how fortunate I am. When I pray, I don't pray that I be able to find food tomorrow. I don't suffer that kind of food scarcity. No, I'm lucky. I wish we could all be that lucky.

I think back to my younger self. When I was twenty-one, I decided I was ready for more spiritual discipline, so I decided to fast one day a week, in solidarity with the world's poor (yes, I really was that earnest). I wasn't very good at it. But it did remind me how quickly one goes from niggling hunger to ravenous, and how hard it is to concentrate with no food in one's stomach. Those hunger pains did remind me to pray for the poor. My relief at being able to break my fast made my heart break for all those people who can't fill their tummies so easily.

Maybe it's time to think of my Advent discipline. We think of Lent as a time for discipline, but Advent works just as well. There's so much in our culture, waiting to distract us. Advent is a season of watching and waiting, and we need some discipline to keep our minds focused.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Wednesday Night Dinner at the Inner City Church

Where I live, we have lots of Lutheran churches, but most of them have very small memberships. Lutheran churches down here are wealthy in buildings and property (wealth that's not very liquid, especially not right now), but face dwindling membership. Some Lutheran churches remain fiercely independent. Some have talked about joining forces, not in terms of closing churches, but in terms of mission.

We see the most growth in the western suburbs and some of the greatest poverty in the inner cities to the east. One of the earliest churches, First Lutheran, finds itself in the shadow of skyscrapers and multi-million dollar condos, only a mile or two from the beach (where even more wealth has concentrated and redeveloped the region)--and yet, it sees a crying need from the homeless who surround the church. Because of the recent, rapid redevelopment of downtown Ft. Lauderdale, these men (and they are mostly men) find themselves homeless again: shelters have been torn down, as have the abandoned buildings where many of them used to sleep.

Rather than ship these men to the wealthier western suburbs for dinner, First Lutheran asks area churches to volunteer to bring and serve dinner on specific Wednesday nights. This past Wednesday night, it was my church's turn.

Sadly, nothing I saw that night surprised me. The plight of the poor doesn't change much from year to year, generation to generation. But I was glad to be part of the Wednesday night dinner effort nonetheless. I've had friends through the years that argue that feeding the poor isn't really going to change much. They are right, in that we need to work for systemic change. We also need to feed the poor.

And I was glad to see so many of the church's children and teens come that night. If the church doesn't sensitize children to the plight of the poor, who will? My longing for social justice was birthed in the church, and I will be forever grateful to my parents (and all the other church members) who made that happen.

I'm also grateful to my spouse, who says that my longing for social justice and my compassion for the poor are the qualities that he finds most attractive in me. I'm lucky that he has a similar temperament. It would be so much harder to struggle for social justice if I was married to someone who undercut those efforts. It would be so much harder to live my life according to my values if I had married someone who had different values.

Spending the evening with the poorest of the poor and dispossessed (at least in the USA--I realize that America's poor are quite wealthy, according to world standards) always makes me wonder if I'm successful in living my life according to my Christian values. Have I sacrificed those values so that I can live a life of comfort? I'm happy that I'm married to someone who doesn't see me as insane for asking these kinds of questions.

After dinner, many of us went into the sanctuary for a service. The pastor asked for input for the prayers. When one homeless man said, "That we may find food tomorrow," tears leaked out of my eyes. I cried all the way home. I cried for part of the following morning.

It was only later that I heard about the historic drop in the stock market on Wednesday. Ordinarily this news might make me feel anxious and scared. But I have a home to live in, a well-stocked pantry, more clothes than I can possibly wear, shoes without holes in them, and a job that makes it all possible. I am so fortunate. I wish I knew what to do to make sure that everyone had an equal chance at that kind of fortune.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reading John 1:1

This week, I'm dipping into John, as the Gospel I've chosen to read as the next part of our Book of Faith initiative. It's interesting to read the beginning of this Gospel, which is so different from the other Gospels. I'm also rehearsing for a Christmas cantata, as is my spouse. We play the CD of the music at least once a day. The cantata revolves around beloved Christmas music and the themes you would expect: baby in a manger, awestruck shepherds, angels proclaiming joy.

But not John. We get that mystical sounding bit: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Word incarnate. Hmm. Word as God. I'm a poet, so these words might make more sense to me than they do to most people.I have a non-believer friend who has no patience for this kind of language, which she sees as non-rational, non-provable. I'm happiest in the world of poetry and figurative language, where the meanings are multiple.

This idea of God as Word also reminds me of a time in a different church, where I heard a reference to God as the "Great I am." I heard "iamb." Some day I hope to work this into a poem. God as a pair of syllables, one unstressed, the next stressed. Some theorists tell you that an iambic line most mimics the human heartbeat, and that's why we find so much use of the iambic structure in poetry (at least poetry written before the middle of the twentieth century).

I look forward to the rest of the book. It's been a long time since I read a Gospel straight through. I'm used to the little chunks that I get in church every week. It's a lot more than some Christians get, but it's such a different experience to read the whole thing, every verse in proper context.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Meditation on this Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Nov. 23, 2008:

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Psalm: Psalm 95:1-7a

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 100

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

This week, the liturgical year comes to a close with Christ the King Sunday. In some churches, this will be a high festival day that celebrates the power of Christ. But the Gospel reading makes it clear that Kingdom power is not the same as worldly power.

We might expect a Gospel reading that reminds us that Jesus transcended death. We might get a Gospel reading that tries to scare us with a vision of Christ at the next Coming, descending in glory to judge us. Well, in a way, we do.

But the vision we get is not the one that we might expect. We might expect to be judged and found wanting because of what we've been told are sins: our drinking, our gambling, our loose sexuality. We might expect to be judged for all the Sundays we decided we'd prefer sleep to church. We might expect to be judged because we've been lazy and we didn't go for that promotion at work.

This Gospel reminds us of how God will judge us. Did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned? Then we have been attending to our royal tasks.

And why do we do this? The Bible is full of stories of the Divine showing up in circumstances where we wouldn't expect to find God. The Bible tells us that God prefers to hang out with the poor and the marginalized. If we want to find God, we need to go there. We have a history of thousands of years of Christians whose lives support what the Bible tells us--we will find God in the meekest of places. Next week, we celebrate Advent, where we remember one of our central Christian stories: God comes to be with us two thousand years ago, but not in the power center of Rome. No, God comes to us in one of the outposts of Roman civilizations and God lives with one of the groups of people that the worldly, dominant power structure of the time despised.

This Gospel also reminds us that we are to see God in everyone. It's easy for me to see God in the eyes of my husband as he looks at me lovingly. It's harder for me to see my difficult coworker as Jesus incarnate. In any given day, we are besieged by people who aggravate us, from our family members to our colleagues to strangers who drive the road with us (or shop in the same stores or send their children to the same schools). By forcing myself to treat everyone as Jesus-in-Disguise, I will transform myself into the Christian that I want to be.

Jesus was the model, after all. Jesus had dinner with the outcast. Jesus treated everyone with love and respect, even people who were out to sabotage him. I could let myself off the hook by saying, "Well, yeah, he was God incarnate. I could do that too, if I was God incarnate."

No, you can do it, because Jesus did it. Jesus came to show us the full potential of a human life. Jesus came to dwell among us and to show us a better way to live. It's not the way the world tells us to live. The world would scoff at a king who sought out the poor and dispossessed, who sold his possessions so that he would have more money for the poor.

But Christians know that our power lies in our compassion. We don't achieve compassion by sitting in our homes, working on being more compassionate. We become more compassionate in the same way that God did, by getting involved in the world.

And we're not doing this for some after-death reward, although many preachers will use this Gospel to lecture on that. We do this because God has invited us to be part of the redemption of creation--not in some far away time, but in our very own. We don't have to wait for Jesus to come again. When we model Jesus in our everyday behavior, Christ re-enters the world.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Christian Scharen's "One Step Closer"

Writing yesterday's post made me think about another book I read two years ago, One Step Closer by Christian Scharen (Brazos Press, 2006). In this book, Scharen, who has a PhD from Emory University and is an ordained Lutheran pastor, interprets the life and work of the rock group U2 through a theological lens.

I'm always interested in popular culture and the ways that popular culture can lead us to deeper matters. I'm also aware that the term "popular culture" can be used as a dismissive sneer. But I've also spent many years in college classrooms, and I've seen popular culture as a language that many of us share, a language that can serve as a starting point to help a class leap towards accomplishments that wouldn't be available without that starting point.

I like the approach of this book. Instead of a chronological approach, Scharen explores classic types of Biblical writing and shows how U2 echoes that type of writing. It could be something as simple as using a Biblical Psalm as song lyric (like "40" from War). It could be much more complex, like the ways the group has worked with the genres of prophecy, parable, and apocalypse. Through the whole book, Scharen refers to a wide variety of songs and albums/discs, as well as quotes from band members.

He also refers to an impressive number of theologians, like Miroslav Volf, Martin Luther, and Philip Yancey. I first read about this book in a book review in The Christian Century, where Jason Byassee says, "U2 in conversation with a professional theologian is rich fare indeed" (page 35, August 8, 2006). I would add that the presence of all the other theologians make this work even richer.

Some more conservative folks might wonder why bother at all. But Scharen points out, "It is worth doing because many preachers 'preach to the choir,' so to speak, while U2 'preaches' to millions who don't even know the basic songs of faith and have grown up without any connection to the church" (page 10). More than one commentator has noted that for many post-modern folks, a concert is the closest experience that they'll have to something communal, and more than one of my students have commented that a U2 concert reminds them of church--or what they wish church could be.

The quotes in this book undergird Scharen's thesis that U2 is on theologically solid ground and that they are a positive force, a modern (or post-modern, depending on how you use these terms) icon that leads us to the Divine. Here are some quotes from Bono: "The most powerful idea that's entered the world in the last few thousand years--the idea of grace--is the reason I would like to be a Christian" (page 129), "Look: evil encroaches in tiny footsteps on every great idea. And evil can almost outrun most great ideas, but finally, in the end, there is light in the world. I accept God chooses to work with some pretty poor material. But I'm much more amazed by what people are capable of than I am by what they're not capable of . . ." (page 137), and "There's two kinds of people, there's those who are asleep and those that are awake. I've used my music to wake me up and if it wakes other people up on the way that's okay because we get used to the sound of a bomb going off in Belfast and to the roll call of bad news on television, we get used to the fact that a third of the population on earth are starving. We get used to all these things and we eventually fall asleep in the comfort of our freedom" (57).

Monday, November 17, 2008

NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday's story "Preaching the Bruce Springsteen Gospel"

Yesterday, as I wrote about Bruce Springsteen and later listened to Weekend Edition Sunday, I was reminded of an interview they did awhile ago with Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz, a man who uses the music of Bruce Springsteen during the church services he leads. He's a Unitarian Universalist preacher, so he's got a lot more latitude than those of us in more liturgical churches.

You can go here to read about the specific story on the newscast and of course, there's a button you can click if you want to hear the whole interview.

The interview was so intriguing that I bought his book, The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Redemption, from "Asbury Park" to "Magic." I put it on my shelf of books I mean to get around to reading and promptly forgot about it until yesterday.

So, within a few weeks, I'll read the book and post a book review.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Come Let Us Sing Together

Many people ask me why I go to church. I can tell that some people want to have an intense discussion about the benefits and disadvantages of weekly attendance, and I'm always happy to have that conversation. But some people just want a one sentence answer. I often say, "I go to church because it's one of the last places where people of varying talents sing together." I used to think of that as my sarcastic answer, but in the past few years, I'm surprised by how true it is.

A year ago, my friend had some relatives visit from Germany. Her cousin is in a community singing group, and I was startled to realize how few community singing groups remain in our country (and many that remain require the singer to have a professionally trained voice). My husband and I joined them for dinner at my friend's house, and after dinner, we sat around the dining room table singing. What a marvelous thing to be to sing the same songs.

Later, I thought about how incredible it is that people across a 20 year age range could sing the same songs. We'd all grown up in different parts of the world--how did we know this music?

And then I wondered how students today will learn to have songs in common. I went to school during the 1970's, and we had Singing as a subject in my elementary school. Just before lunch, we'd trundle into the music room and sing religious songs, folk songs, patriotic songs, songs from other countries, songs across a wide range of ideologies. As children these days prepare for standardized tests, I suspect that singing (and any number of other classes that encourage a love of the arts and creativity) has been sacrificed.

I also went to church as a child, which complemented my singing education. And I went to church camp, which had us singing throughout the day: hiking up a mountain to the dining hall is hard? Sing! I've learned these lessons well. When I need a mood boost, I sing. When I need to remember why I'm here on earth, I sing.

I sing a variety of things, but old spirituals move my mood the fastest. They remind me that my lot in life is luxurious, compared to what other people have endured. They give me a glimpse into the ways that people have reinterpreted Bible stories to have relevance to what they're currently experiencing. They remind me that God will get us through whatever trials fall down on our heads.

Listening to Bruce Springsteen's "The Seeger Sessions"

I've enjoyed Bruce Springsteen's The Seeger Sessions" since I first heard it in 2006. Earlier this year, I listened to it again, as Tropical Storm Fay threatened us. I took a macabre comfort in hearing "My Oklahoma Home," with its refrain about various things blowing away. When I first heard the song in 2006, I chuckled over its humor (a wife blowing away? really?). As I listened again, I found the last part of the song poignant, with its realization that the singer's Oklahoma home is everywhere, as the top soil blows across the continent.

In the last few weeks, I've returned to this disc, and I've been startled to realize how many songs on this disc have a religious theme (most of them coming from the African-American spiritual tradition). I love Springsteen's version of "Oh Mary, Don't you Weep." His arrangement of "How Can I Keep from Singing" is unsingable to me, but it moves me to tears when I hear it.

In the almost two weeks since Obama won the election, I've really enjoyed hearing "Eyes on the Prize," "Jacob's Ladder," and "We Shall Overcome." Some years, when I've heard these songs, I've felt bleak about the prospects of overcoming. I've felt frustrated at the seeming fact that some of these things won't be overcome in my lifetime.

Oh me of little faith. You would think that I would learn that the world can change dramatically, and sometimes in a seeming instant. I'll never forget the Saturday in 1990, when I heard on NPR that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. I have a picture of a group of college friends that I took in 1986--one of them is wearing a T-shirt that demands "Free Nelson Mandela," but we never really expected that it would happen. When it did happen, I walked around in a happy daze, seeing the world shimmer with hope and promise.

I love these songs, religious and otherwise, that Springsteen chose to showcase in this project. I love remembering that the fight for justice can be fierce, but it doesn't mean we can't have good music.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Reading James

One of my churches is participating in the ELCA's Book of Faith Initiative, which encourages local churches to ramp up their Bible studies. Last week, we all tried to spend 15 minutes a day reading the Old Testament, and this week, we did the same for the New Testament. After spending a few days dipping in and out of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, I was feeling oddly frazzled. I decided to follow our Pastor's lead and focus on just one book and read it each day.

As I've been doing that, I'm reminded of the monastic practice of Lectio Divina, that deeply focused reading practiced by so many religious people (cloistered or not). What I've done is not exactly that. I should read a sentence, meditate on it for some time, read the next sentence, continue to contemplate.

Still, reading the same book of the Bible each day does force one to pay more attention. I'm not the world's most careful reader, which is odd admission from an English major. I'm an efficient reader--I have a reading task, and I want to get it done. So, I like this idea of returning to a text again and again.

Even once our Book of Faith Initiative is complete (will it be complete? I don't know the long range plans of the ELCA, but as Christians, we should never view the reading of the Bible as complete and accomplished), I feel I should continue this practice. I'll write up my thoughts as I undertake this spiritual discipline, and I'll use the label Lectio Divina, so that those who are interested can easily find this type of writing on my blog.

This past week, I've been reading James.

I've read the Letter of James several times now, and each time, I'm struck by how much it has to say to me, by the things that leap out at me. As a Lutheran, I worry about verse 17 (chapter 2), that says that faith without works is dead. Maybe I'm a bad Lutheran--I agree with James on that point.

He makes very salient points about how we treat the poor and how we treat the rich, and he asks, "Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court?" (the last part of verse 6, chapter 2). Very interesting to read that on a day when we're debating whether or not to bail out the American auto industry.

I like his frank discussion of how much damage your tongue can do. Again and again, I need to relearn that lesson. I think of my reading of Little Women as a young girl and feeling a fierce identity with Jo, who needed to control both her temper and her tongue. My ten year old self would feel despair if she knew I still had to work on that each day. She saw personality flaws as something that would eventually be changed permanently. She didn't realize that these struggles are cyclical.

And then there's that apocalyptic ending, just after he's reminded us that we're "a mist that appears for a little time, and then vanishes" (last part of verse 14, chapter 4). It's always good to remember to keep everything in pespective. All the things which seem like huge crises today (whether it's a global financial crisis or a personal relationship crisis) are really not that important.

He ends by reminding us to pray for what we need. It's still hard for me to do that; my needs seem pathetic, compared to what someone in Africa needs. I solve that by praying for us all. He tells us that when someone wanders away, we're to bring them back. I wonder if he was writing today, if he'd advise us to do the same with our minds, which are prone to wander away into fields of fretting about the future. There, too, he could tell us to pray, since prayer is one of the more powerful techniques to bring that monkey mind (as our Zen compatriots would call it) back.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Meditation on this Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 16, 2008:

First Reading: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Judges 4:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 123

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

This week's Gospel gives us the parable of the talents. One servant turns his 5 talents into 10, one turns his 2 talents into 4, and the servant who buries his one talent in the yard doesn't create any new capital.

It's easy when reading this Gospel to focus on the word "talent." It's natural to think of our own talents, to wonder how we're investing them, and how we're wasting them by burying them in the yard.

For example, with a little work, many of us could have a fine singing voice. We might even sing in a choir (or start a choir). With even more work, many of us could learn to play an instrument. I suspect that most of us are burying these talents in the yard. It just requires too much work to do otherwise.

The parable makes it clear what will happen to people who bury their talents. Now, I know that many of us are blessed with a multitude of talents. We do have to make judicious choices about which talents are worth cultivating. I hope that we won't be the servant cast into worthless darkness because we pay attention to one set of skills over another.

But let's look at that parable again. Let's look at that word, "talent," again.

As I read this week's Gospel again, I forced myself to think about the fact that this parable really is about money. It's not instructing me to return to the piano keyboard at the expense of the computer keyboard (feel free to revise that last sentence to fill in the talents of your choice). And it's an unusually Capitalist message from Christ. I'm used to the Jesus who tells us to give our money away. I'm not used to the savior who encourages us to make wise investments of our money.

I'm not used to thinking of money management as a talent. But this parable makes clear that it is. Jesus makes clear that money is one of the gifts we're given, and the verses that follow (31-46, ones that aren't part of this week's Gospel) show that Christ is not straying from his essential message. The verses that follow talk about treating the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner as if those people are Christ incarnate. God has a vision for how we'll use that gift of money.

And obviously, we'll have more resources to help our fellow humans who are in trouble if we've made wise investments. These days, I'm not sure about the best investment strategy to turn 5 talents into 10. But again, if I look at the Gospel as part of the larger chapter in Matthew, I suspect that to see this week's Gospel as a parable about making my money grow means I'm missing an essential part of the message.

The servant who was cast into out darkness was cast out because the talent went to waste buried in the ground. How would he have been treated if he had given the money away to the poor, the sick, the stranger? I suspect he would not have been cast into outer darkness.

Our current (and some might say collapsing) Capitalist paradigm often doesn't take community into account. Not making enough money in America, where workers have unreasonable demands like a living wage and safe working conditions? Just move your industry to a country that has less oversight. Sure, you rip apart the social fabric, but at least you're making money.

No, we do not believe in a savior who preaches such nonsense. Our God is always obsessed with the poor and dispossessed. And we're called to be part of that obsession.

Unfortunately, tough economic times mean that we'll find many opportunities for this aspect of Kingdom Living. With the holidays approaching, we might think about our customs. Maybe, instead of giving people who have lots of stuff even more stuff, we could donate to a charity in their name. In my family, the adults decided that instead of exchanging presents with each other, we would choose a different charity each year and donate to that charity. Maybe, instead of an endless whirl of parties, we might give some time to our local food pantries or soup kitchens. As we buy a book or two for our favorite children, we could buy a book or two for local reading programs or donate to RIF (Reading is Fundamental, the nation's largest child literacy organization, at

The ways to help heal the world are endless, and God invites us to join in the creation project. We can donate money, time, skills, prayers, optimism, hope. Doing so is one of our most basic Christian tasks.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

First Posting

I've been fascinated by blogs for years now, and I've always enjoyed most the ones that are organized around a theme. Since I write a weekly meditation on the Gospel reading from the Common Lectionary, a theological blog seems a good place to start my blogging adventures, since I'll have content for at least one post a week.

I chose this blog title, Liberation Theology Lutheran, to let people have an insight into my theological leanings. I'm far from a fundamentalist, and some of my Christian friends view some of my beliefs as close to heretical. My Marxist friends would let you know that I'm flawed in their eyes--all that Lutheran training! And then I earned a PhD in British literature. As the final ruination in the eyes of many a fundamentalist and many a Marxist, I write poetry and have a firm belief in the positive potential of a variety of artistic expressions.

In addition to my Gospel meditation, I'll comment on other theological topics that interest me, books that have merit (as well as books that don't have merit), and anything else that seems relevant. My goal is to post several times a week.