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.