Monday, November 24, 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 http://theadventdoor.com/ 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: http://www.annarborvineyard.org/tdh/tdh.cfm. 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
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
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
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
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
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
You can go here http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93437259 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
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.
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
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
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 www.rif.org).
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
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.