Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 3, 2010:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:7-14

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 24:1-12

Psalm: Psalm 147:13-21 (Psalm 147:12-20 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:3-14

Gospel: John 1:[1-9] 10-18

When I was younger, the Gospel of John confounded me. What kind of nativity story did John give us? Does he not know the power of narrative, the importance of a hook in the beginning?

Look at verse 14, which may be familiar: "And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." As a child, I'd have screamed, "What does that mean? How does word become flesh?"

And then I became a writer, and I learned how the word becomes flesh. I invented characters who took on lives of their own, who woke me up early in the morning because I wanted to see what happened to them. Yes, I know, I was the God of their universe. But as anyone who has had children will know, you make these creations, and they have their own opinions, and they live their lives in ways you couldn't have known they would.

But lately, I've begun to see this first chapter of John in a less-writerly way. Words become flesh every day. We begin to shape our reality by talking about it. We shape our relationships through our words which then might lead to deeds, which is another way of talking about flesh.

Think about your primary relationships. Perhaps this coming year could be the year when we all treat the primary people in our lives with extra care and kindness. If we treat people with patience and care, if we say please and thank you more, we will shape the flesh of our relationships into something different. Alternately, if we're rude and nasty to people, they will respond with rudeness and cruelty--we've shaped the flesh of the world into a place where we don't want to live.

Our words become flesh in other ways, of course. It's not enough to profess we're Christians. Our words should shape our actions. The world is watching, and the world is tired of people who say one thing and act another way.

How can we enflesh our Christian beliefs incarnate in our own lives? That's the question with which we wrestle year after year. It's easy to say we believe things, but it's much harder to make our actions match our words, to live an authentic life.

The good news: it gets easier. You must practice. Our spiritual ancestors would tell us that daily and weekly practices help to align our words to our actions.

I have an atheist friend who says she envies me my ability to believe. I tell her that there's not a class of people who just have faith. We come to it by our actions. We pray, we pay attention, we meet in church, we study, we read the Bible, we help the poor and outcast, we pray some more--and years later, we realize that we are living a life consistent with our values.

It's time to think about the New Year, and some of us will make resolutions. What can you do to make your words and beliefs take flesh?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Eve Poem

A few days ago, I said that I would post the poem that I read during the Christmas Eve service. I'll be the first to admit that it's not your standard Christmas Eve fare: no manger, no angels, no shepherds, no Mary, no Joseph. But it fits the Christmas theme of Emmanuel, God with Us.

In some ways, it works better as a Maundy Thursday poem, which makes sense because it was inspired by a discussion about the best way to celebrate Maundy Thursday, when the church council of an old church to which I belonged vetoed a foot washing service. Most of the parishioners of that church would flatly refuse to let others see the pitiful nature of their feet. Of course, that’s the point of a foot washing service. There’s no place to hide with your feet exposed.

I have no problem letting others see my feet, so I immediately began to play with ideas. What would I most want to hide from my fellow humans, from God? My bathroom.

Here’s the poem I wrote, and I should warn you, many people have reacted strongly to it. I figure that a work of art that provokes this level of discomfort may be on the road to revealing some truth, so I haven’t abandoned it. Chiron Review recently published it.


Jesus showed up on my doorstep, demanding
to clean my bathroom.
I refused.
I mean, it’s one thing for him to face
Crucifixion for my sake.
It’s quite another for him to see
how I really live.

His face—so sad.
He talked about searching
for feet to wash, but modern feet are so clean.
It’s no sacrifice to touch people’s feet.
In this world of pedicures
and solid shoes, a foot washing doesn’t convey
the same care it once did. That’s how he came
to develop his crazy cleaning scheme.

I offered to let him scour my oven,
but he said it wasn’t the same,
and besides, it’s self-cleaning.
He really wanted to deal
with the detritus of my life.

What can I say? Jesus is persuasive.
He organized my jumble of cosmetics and healed
my slow drains. He cleaned
my toilet with his hair.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Slaughter of the Holy Innocents

Today, we remember all the male babies of Bethlehem who were killed because of Herod's feelings of inadequacy, because of his fear. Today we might say, "What an idiot that Herod was!" And yet, if you look around, you'll see that we haven't really grown that much as a people.

I see turf battles all the time. Some of the turf might be worth fighting for, but much of it is not. Recently at work, someone said to me, "I don't want you to feel like I'm usurping your power." He said it with a perfectly straight face.

Power? Me?

I'm the Interim Chair of a department that's part of a small school that's working towards SACS accreditation. What power would that be exactly?

And let's dream big for a minute. Let's say I was the Chair of the English Department at a prestigious school. Would I then have power? Not really.

The power I would want would be the power to make the world a truly better place. And very few people have that kind of power.

In fact, I should probably return to the words of John the Baptist: "I am not the Messiah."

Our lust for power, whether we'd use it for good or evil, is what gets so many of us into trouble. In our world, we're surrounded by miscarriages of power and justice on every scale, from the small scale workplace battles to the large scale horrors of what's happening in places like the Congo.

Here's a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime: "We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you , in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Reading on the Editorial Page

How interesting that on Christmas Day, op-ed pages turn to theology. Of course, in the last 20 years, op-ed writers have become less shy about letting their beliefs, religious and secular, creep into their writing. I like knowing that writers are human, and I like knowing what has shaped them.

On Christmas Day I noticed that a few op-ed commentators across the country turned their attention to Christmas and managed to take a time-worn topic and make it new again.

Karen Armstrong is always fascinating, and in this op-ed piece in The L.A. Times, she reminds us that the New Testament Gospel writers had an agenda, and it wasn't recording history in the way that it really happened: "Unconcerned about historical accuracy, therefore, Matthew and Luke tell entirely different stories. Placed at the beginning of their Gospels, the infancy narratives act as a preface, giving the reader a foretaste of how each evangelist understood Jesus' mission. Matthew wants to show that Jesus was a messiah for Gentiles as well as for Jews, so he tells us that the Magi from the east were the first to recognize him. Luke, however, always emphasizes Jesus' concern for the poor and marginalized, so he makes a group of shepherds (who were sometimes regarded as sinners by the pious Jewish establishment because they did not observe the purity laws) the first to hear the good news."

She reminds us that the Gospel narratives still have a powerful message for us today, and it might not be a comforting one, depending on where we live on the social spectrum: "The Gospels paint a picture that is very different from the cozy stable scene on the Christmas cards. They speak of deprivation and displacement. The Messiah himself is an outsider. There is no room in the inn, so Mary has to give birth in the 1st-century equivalent of an urban alleyway. As victims of Herod's tyranny, the Holy Family become refugees; other innocents are slaughtered. If we attend carefully to these parts of the story, the specter of contemporary suffering -- within our own society and worldwide -- will haunt our festivities. And we are left with the disturbing suggestion that the future, for good or ill, may lie with those who are currently excluded."

Over at The Washington Post, Michael Gerson wrote a piece that links the poor and outcast of our current day to the outcast family of Jesus. He concludes by saying, "Being astonishing, of course, does not make something true. The message of Christmas seems scandalously unlikely to us, just as it did to sophisticated Romans at the time. But if it is true, nothing is more important. If it is true, poverty and suffering have been shared and dignified by God Himself. If it is true, hope and memory do not end in a gash of Earth. God, let it be true."

These are both fine pieces, and I'm both surprised and delighted to find them in papers with national reputations. I have die hard conservative friends who tell me of the liberal, anti-Christian bias of the nation's papers, papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. But I've got to be honest. I see these papers as always trying to give all sides a voice. Some years, one set of voices may be louder than in other years.

This year, I'm happy to see the Christian voice that appears in these papers. It's a voice that's not fundamentalist, not exclusionary, not full of fury and damnation. It's a Christian voice that reminds us that through the centuries, we have found God rooted in the margins of our society. In the Judeo-Christian tradition found in the Bible, God comes to dwell with the poor and the outcast, and God invites us to dinner there.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Love That Baby Jesus--the Christmas Eve Report

I woke up much too early for someone who spent Christmas Eve at church being part of 3 services and cleaning up afterwards. Yes, there's clean up to do--Communion dishware that needs tending, candles to be extinguished, sweeping--our church doesn't usually see this much traffic in one month, let alone a single night.

Most people I know have expressed shock and surprise at how I planned to spend my Christmas Eve, but as the daughter of a church musician and the granddaughter of a Lutheran pastor, spending most of Christmas Eve at church feels familiar to me.

Last night we had three very different services. The 5:00 service was more contemplative. It ended in the labyrinth. I've never celebrated Christmas Eve in a labyrinth, but it was really meaningful. One of our church musicians played "Silent Night" on the guitar as we walked. The sun had set, but it was still light enough to see. Christmas lights twinkled in the distance, and people were already shooting off their fireworks. Simply beautiful.

The 7:30 service was the family service, where many children had reading or singing parts. Those of us in a theological writing group also read our work (I'll post the poem that I read tomorrow). The 7:30 service was full of people new to us, people returning to us (but I didn't know them, since I've only been a member a short time), lots of babies crying, and little children talking.

As we stood in line for Communion, one of the toddlers caught sight of the manger, which had been empty for Advent, but now had a Baby Jesus in the manger (a little plastic looking for my taste, but I tried to squash that Critical Aesthetic voice in my head). The toddler squirmed with excitement in his mother's arms and screamed, "Mommy, Mommy, look. It's the BABY JESUS!" Then he sighed in contentment and said, "I love that baby."

If I had stayed home, I'd have missed that!

I don't have children of my own, so I'm always grateful for the chance to see them in action, to be reminded of the childhood wonder that used to be such a constant in my life and that I try to respark in my grown up self.

The 11:00 service was mostly comprised of the Christmas Cantata, in which my husband sang. I've been listening to him practice his part for over a month now, so it was fascinating to hear the whole thing, with all the voices. They sounded really wonderful. It's always amazing to me that you can take a volunteer force, practice for awhile, and change them into a cohesive whole. I sang in the cantata last year, and felt a vague twinge of missing that performance high.

Then at 12:30, we became the clean up crew. I was asleep by 1:30, which doesn't explain why I sprang awake at 6:45 this morning; as I said before, I have no children. I could have slept until noon.

Maybe I'll get lucky and find some time for a Christmas nap!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Bridge from Advent to Christmas

Long ago, I read Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. Even though some of the book is a bit schmaltzy, overall, it moved me profoundly. Her entry for December 25 included a quote she found on a Michael Podesta print:

"If, as Herod, we fill our lives with things, and again with things, if we consider ourselves so unimportant that we must fill every moment of our lives with action, when will we have time to make the long, slow journey across the desert as did the Magi? Or sit and watch the stars as did the Shepherds? Or brood over the coming of the child as did Mary? For each one of us there is a desert to travel, a star to discover, and a being within ourselves to bring to life."

For me, this quote is a perfect bridge from Advent to Christmas. If you're like lots of church folks, your Christmas Eve is just one more busy day in the pre-Christmas season. This quote reminds us of the importance of contemplation, of slowing down, of thinking about what we're really celebrating here in the winter darkness.

If you want to see the original print, go here. You might explore the rest of the site. Michael Podesta has been one of my favorite calligraphers/graphic designers for a long time. In 1987, when I graduated with my B.A. degree, my parents gave me the print with the Emerson quote that says, "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

Michael Podesta has a lot of inspiring material, some of it Biblically based, some of it not. All of it is beautifully done.

But I digress--back to Christmas Eve.

We have lived in great darkness. We are ready for the light to shine. Tonight is the time to light candles, to sing loudly, to welcome the stranger who just might the savior. May we all have a blessed Christmastide.

Pink Floyd as Advent Music

Yesterday morning, a small band of us gathered in the darkness to practice our ritual. No, it wasn't some pre-Christmas Eve religious group. It was my spin class, which met 15 minutes earlier, so that we could launch the fight against Christmas fat early.

My instructor brought the wrong soundtrack (spintrack?) with her. Instead of the one she'd spent so much time crafting for yesterday morning, she brought the Pink Floyd spin music. We hopped on our bikes and cycled off into the morning.

I associate Pink Floyd with the music of my late adolescence, and so I have conflicted feelings towards it. It launches me back to that nihilism that comes with the territory of late adolescence and that hopelessness of the Cold War that we didn't know was about to end.

Yesterday as we cycled, I first thought, well, this music isn't exactly Christmasy. No, it's not, but it seemed a good fit for Advent. Advent, after all, has apocalyptic themes and darkness and suffering and people waiting for salvation--I could make the same case for most Pink Floyd songs. Advent is the season of the lone, prophetic voice crying in the wilderness--the modern equivalent could be the rock star.

As we came to the end of our Pink Floyd ride, the dawn sunlight tried to peek around the curtains, and I thought, yes, the people who have lived in the darkness have seen a great light. I made my way to work humming "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," with some Pink Floyd chords banging around in my head. If I was a musician, I'd noodle around and create a new Advent classic. But since I'm not, I'll let you imagine your own music.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 27, 2008:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Psalm: Psalm 148

Second Reading: Colossians 3:12-17

Gospel: Luke 2:41-52

How quickly the children grow up! Could this Jesus in Sunday's Gospel really be the same baby we just saw in the manger? Can this boy be the same Jesus we'll be meeting soon? We spend so little time with Jesus as a young boy that it's strange to get these glimpses.

Those of you who live around teenagers will probably find the Jesus in Sunday's Gospel familiar. He's so self-absorbed. He doesn't worry about his parents' feelings and anxieties. And yet, he's mostly obedient, mostly a good kid.

We think of Jesus as a special case. We tend to focus on his divine aspects and overlook the human ones. Yet any child arrives with his or her own agenda. In the end, most children are a bit of a mystery. We wonder where they get that quirky sense of humor, or those interests that are so unlike any others in the family. If we're honest, most of us have moments, maybe quite a lot of them, where we wish those children would just conform, just be the little people we wish they would be.

The relationship that Mary and Joseph had with Jesus was no different. We might protest, "But Mary and Joseph knew that he was special!" Every parent feels exactly the same way: this child is born for greatness. Yet in how many ways our children will break our hearts.

And it often starts with education. Notice that Jesus has ditched his parents to stay behind with teachers and scholars. He has his own business, and Mary has her wishes, and they will likely clash. Read Mark's Gospel (go ahead, it's short, it won't take you long), and you'll get a different view of Mary and her view of the mission of Jesus; she's not always happy, and in several places indicates that Jesus is embarrassing the family.

But in the end, this week's Gospel is also a story of nurture. God comes to be with us in human form, and not just grown-up, self-sufficient form. God becomes the most vulnerable of creatures, a baby, and thus becomes, the second-most vulnerable, a teenager. Those of you who struggle with a teenager may not find comfort from the Good Friday outcome of this story. But maybe you can find comfort from the fact that even Jesus could be a pain-inducing teenager.

And we all can find comfort from this chapter in the Christmas story. Hear the Good News again. God comes to be with us, in all of our brokenness. God loves us in spite of, because of our brokenness. God lives with and mingles in our human messiness. We might even say that God glories in our messiness, that out of our messiness salvation comes.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Your Older Self Counts On You to Make Good Choices Today

On Sunday, we went Christmas caroling to shut-ins. I am always amazed to see these people, who often don't know where they are or who we are or who they are, singing along with us. Somewhere, deep inside, these songs reside.

I've heard other people say the same thing about elderly people and the Creeds, or the Lord's Prayer. They can't remember family names, but they can say the Apostle's Creed or the Lord's Prayer.

As a child, the constantness of the liturgy irritated me. We had other services in the hymnal--why didn't we use those? Why didn't we make something up? Why did we have to do the same thing, week after week? Didn't the grown-ups know how BORING it all was?

As an adult, I understand the value to repetition, especially repetition set to music. When we do something day after day, week after week, it wraps its way into our bones and our blood. As an adult, I try to think about what patterns I'm perfecting by practicing every day.

And I try to be alert so that I don't let bad habits take root. Repetition can have both positive and negative effects, after all.

I've always told my students that if they want to remember something, they should set it to music. Pick a familiar tune and figure out a way to sing what they need to know for the test.

Poets know some of the same skills as songwriters. Rhythm and repetition and rhyme can make an art form memorable--or miserable, as the case may be.

If we want to have something to cling to as we age, as everything we know about ourselves gets stripped away (our health, our memories, our very sense of ourselves), we should be laying the groundwork now.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Feast of St. Thomas and the Winter Solstice

Today is the feast day of the man we remember as Doubting Thomas. It is also the Winter Solstice, shortest, and thus, darkest day of the year. It's a juxtaposition that makes sense. This is the time of year when it's tough to hold onto our faith in God's promise that darkness will give way to light.

I've always had a soft spot for St. Thomas. I like the fact that he doubts, and Jesus doesn't hold it against him. It makes sense to me that he would doubt: what a fantastic tale his fellow disciples told him! He must have thought that they'd finally all lost their collective minds. Suffering from spirit-cracking grief himself, he cannot believe in their tale of hope, a tale of hope that defied everything he knew about how life and death worked.

After all, is Thomas so different from any of us? Most of us must wonder if we're dabbling in lunacy ourselves, as we profess our beliefs in a triune God that defies the laws of nature. And most of us have probably had friends who only believe in what their senses tell them, and those friends have likely challenged us a time or two.

Here's a prayer from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Winter for this day: "Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant me so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that my faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Spiritual Wisdom from Alathea

Last night was the Alathea concert at my church. What a delight to go to a Christmas concert! For the most part, I love being part of the boldly multicultural society that we have down here in South Florida, but many of us tiptoe around the winter holiday issue, here in a place with so many non-Christians.

The Alathea Christmas concert was unabashedly about Christmas, not about the other winter holidays. It was unabashedly, unashamedly Christian. When I was younger, that aspect might have annoyed me. I remember having heated arguments with my younger sister about the artistic merits of Amy Grant, for example. My sister loved her, and I loathed her. I much preferred U2, which I claimed had musical talent, as well as more sophisticated lyrics. Amy Grant was so much more obvious, so earnest. Back in the early 80's, Bono didn't seem as earnest and obvious as he does to me now--but now, earnest and obvious are not the dirty words to me that they were to my younger self.

At the Alathea concert, we heard the humorous story of their small church in the Tennessee mountains, which had all of 4 children the year the children decided that they wanted to put on a Christmas pageant that told the Christmas story. The children played revolving parts, and the youngest was the baby Jesus in the manger, who proceeded to throw his toys out of the manger.

But more moving was the story of the songwriter who felt alone at Christmas, as she hadn't had a significant other in years. But then, as she was devouring a half gallon of Moose Tracks ice cream, she decided to reread the Christmas story. She realized that if God came to be with us, we will never be alone.

Of course, they sang beautiful Christmas music, both their own and traditional favorites, woven in with the stories and theology. For me, a person who has been racing around so fast that I've rarely had time to sit and listen to my favorite Christmas CDs, it was a welcome respite.

Perhaps it was even more so because I spent the day at the Pembroke Pines Snowfest before going to the concert. We handed out info that had Christmas Eve information, and we ran a Christmas Karaoke booth--very popular with the children.

After a day of hearing rendition after rendition of "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," I was ready to get back to the spiritual roots of Christmas. And Alathea was just the pathway.

You, too, could get a taste of their Christmas vision. Go here to order their Christmas CD. Even if it arrives after Christmas Day, you can celebrate the season until Epiphany. Maybe you're like me--we should celebrate Christmas year round, if we really believe this Good News that we preach this time of year. But even if you're strict with yourselves and you outlaw Christmas music in your house between Dec. 26 and Thanksgiving, order it now, so you'll have it for next year.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Collecting Creches

I've been noticing stories about people collecting creches--often those stories are in conjunction with some kind of display, like the only one I've ever seen, at Mepkin Abbey (go here for a wonderful slide show of that event).

This morning, when I Googled the topic, I discovered that it's a much larger topic than I thought, with annual conventions devoted to the practice.

In 2004, I happened to be at Mepkin Abbey the week-end that they set up their creche display. Everyone at the Abbey was invited to view the display after Vespers on Saturday night, the week-end before it would open to the public. I was excited for many reasons, but primarily, I had never expected to see the display, since it usually took place during a time of the year when I couldn't possibly make it back to the Abbey. Plus, we got to see it for free, and the public would be paying $25 a ticket, if I'm remembering correctly.

I hadn't really thought of all the creative possibilities that a creche scene offers. At Mepkin Abbey, we saw creches from every corner of the world, with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in every color and nationality. We saw creches made from such a variety of materials: clay, clothespins, wood, paper, scraps of cloth.

I never thought about starting a collection of my own until this year, when I have kept stumbling across stories of individuals who have done just that. In olden days, one would have to travel to other countries to get their creches; these days, there are countless organizations which will ship these creches to me, but somehow, that feels like cheating.

I will probably not start my own collection; I don't know where I'd store it, for one thing. I much prefer to enjoy the collections of others. But suddenly, I'm struck by the desire to make my own creche. Wouldn't that be an interesting Advent and/or Epiphany practice?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cultivating Seeds of Gratitude in the Garden of Social Justice Work

When I was in graduate school, I had some trouble revising my thesis, and I started to spiral into despair. A wise inner voice told me to get to the local food bank to volunteer some hours and to get my head out of my solipsistic focus.

I've always relied on social justice work to restore my perspective. Social justice work reminds me of the puniness of my individual problems. Social justice work reminds me of the work that's truly important.

I had a similar experience yesterday. After a week of creating accreditation reports, which led me to despair at the ways my writing talents are being used these days, and dealing with student issues and scheduling issues and trying to salve the feelings of various people, I was ready for a change of pace. After a wearying discussion of personnel issues, I beat a hasty retreat to First Lutheran church in downtown Ft. Lauderdale.

I brought in the vegetarian lasagna and got to work. I cut the various desserts and put them on small plates. I helped strategize about what to do with donated baby carrots (cook them into mushiness--many of our dinner guests have dental problems). Once everyone arrived, I spent some time racing around: bringing fresh pans of food to the serving table, passing out dessert, giving people foil and plastic bags so they could take some food with them.

For a brief period of time, I was able to forget about the endless work discussions that we have about changing the culture of our school. I was working on changing the even larger culture, the one that treats a chunk of our population as disposable.

After the worship service, I got in my older model car and drove through the dark, downtown streets. I saw some people on the sidewalk who dragged their possessions with them through the night; the lucky ones had shopping carts. I thought about my own car and how lucky I am to have one. I thought about my house, into which we've been pouring money (new AC, new roof), and instead of feeling weary, I felt lucky.

I'm hoping that my spirit of gratitude stays with me through this day at work, a long day of meetings and telephone conferences, of graduations and retirement parties.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 20, 2009:

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a

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

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 80:1-7

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

Gospel: Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

Finally, we have moved away from John the Baptist--although he's there, in utero, leaping at the sound of Mary's voice.

I love this Gospel vision of improbable salvation: two very different women, yet God has need of them both. I love the way this Gospel shows that even the impossible can be made possible with God: barrenness will come to fruit, youthful inexperience will be seen as a blessing.

Take some Advent time and look at the Magnificat again (verses 46-55). Reflect on how Mary's song of praise sums up most of our Scripture. If we want to know what God is up to in this world, here Mary sings it for us. He has raised up a lowly woman (who would have been a member of one of the lowliest of her society). He has fed the hungry and lifted up the oppressed. He has continued to stay with Abraham's descendants, even when they haven't always deserved it. We can count on our strong God, from generation to generation.

Take some Advent time and think about Mary's call to be greater than she could have ever expected she would be. She could have said no to God--many do. But she said yes. That acceptance didn't mean she would avoid pain and suffering. In fact, by saying yes, she likely exposed herself to more pain and suffering. But in saying yes, she also opened herself up to amazing possibilities.

Think about your own life. Where do you hear God calling your name?

Perhaps I will adopt a different New Year's resolution this year. I usually have resolutions about eating better and exercising more and tending to my writing. Maybe this year, I will resolve to say yes to God.

The very thought makes me a bit terrified. My control freak self doesn't like this idea of saying yes. My control freak self doesn't understand why I would want Mary, mother of Jesus, as a model.

How can we be like Mary? How can we be like Elizabeth, who receives an even more improbable invitation? Where would we be led, if we said yes to God?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Liberation Lasagna

I spent part of the morning making vegetarian lasagnas--tomorrow my suburban church goes to the downtown church to feed the destitute. I could have taken the easy way out and bought something from the grocery freezer. But that's ghastly expensive, and it wouldn't have taken care of one of our guests who can't eat meat.

I started experimenting with vegetarian food when I was 14 years old. We lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, and we often had UVa students over to eat as part of our church's campus ministry outreach. Some of them were vegetarian, and some of them baked their own bread, and over meals, we talked about these things. I haven't been the same since.

When I started cooking vegetarian food as a teenager, my mom was scared that the family wouldn't get enough protein, so I tried to boost protein content where I could. I remember making a vegetarian lasagna with ground up kidney beans as one of the layers.

Now I don't worry too much about protein, what with the ricotta cheese and other cheeses. Excess protein is a far greater problem for most Americans than protein deficiency.

A year ago, when we made ziti as our first meal for the urban church, I thought about that, and decided that the largely homeless population probably needed as much protein as I could give them. I made a ziti casserole with meat. That's when we met our guest who can't eat meat, and I resolved always to have a vegetarian option on hand (luckily, someone else had made a vegetarian ziti that night).

I still take shortcuts that would horrify my younger self. I didn't make the sauce from scratch--I don't have that kind of life right now. Much of my cooking consists of putting vegetables and some protein in a pot in interesting combinations and letting it cook for awhile when I'm doing other things. On really busy days, my cooking consists of cooking pasta and opening a jar of sauce--but that's still a better option than fast food. On really busy days, the kind that makes up my December, I gulp down a bowl of cereal and take a multi-vitamin and hope for the best--and that's still a better option than fast food.

Today, as I cooked lasagna, I reflected on how nice it was to be cooking again, a real main dish from mostly scratch. I reflected on how much I enjoy cooking for others and serving them food. I especially enjoy it when I know that the ones I'm serving have so little opportunity to sit down to a real meal, to have coffee and dessert, to linger as long as they'd like. I wrote that sentence thinking about the homeless guests who will eat dinner tomorrow night--but it really describes most of us these days.

Jesus knew what he was doing when he created his ministry that revolved around the table. If we can get people to slow down enough to eat together, we might change the world.

Monday, December 14, 2009

My Ecumenical Santa Lucia Day

Last night, we went to St. Joseph Polish National Catholic Church in Davie, Florida. My suburban Lutheran church's choir had been invited to be part of a festival. I was excited, anticipating music of the season and the dinner afterwards.

We were treated to a truly ecumenical event. We sang the first verse of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" in three languages (English, Polish, and Spanish). We had a Spanish Guitar Ensemble, and choirs which sang in multiple languages (but primarily English and Spanish). We had representation by a number of churches: Lutheran (both ELCA and Missouri Synod), Catholic, some Franciscan monks, and one of our area megachurches. The audience was even more ecumenical; we even had a person who self-identified as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.

I found myself a bit confused: were we worshipping or were we having a concert? If we were worshipping, I wanted a few people to turn off their cameras and settle down. In some ways, we seemed to be worshipping: we had singing, we had Bible readings, we had a sermonette where we were asked to invite Christ into our hearts. Even if we had already done so, the priest told us that Christ liked to be invited again. It creeped me out a bit and took me back to 5th grade, where I attended a Presbyterian school; we had chapel every Friday, where we were scared to death by tales of hell, and I prayed fervently for Jesus to enter my heart. The following Friday, I did it again; what if Christ hadn't heard me before, what with all my classmates around me praying for the same thing?

Yet at the same time, the experience felt more like a concert, with lots and lots of singing. In the end, it was a bit exhausting, as the whole thing lasted 3 hours. And I didn't hear much music that I recognized. I wanted music to put me in a Christmas mood, not music that I'd have to concentrate upon to figure out whether I would like it or not.

We didn't stay for dinner, even though it smelled yummy. We looked at the slow-moving line and figured out we wouldn't be eating until after 9 p.m., a bit late for me.

But the night wasn't a complete bust. I learned about the Polish National Catholic Church, a group I'd never heard of before. I'd driven by the church, but assumed it was a Catholic church of some kind. I enjoyed sitting in the sacred space. I loved the few pieces of Christmas music that I recognized. I appreciated the community ecumenical spirit of the event. I just wish that my Advent didn't feel so jam packed so that a concert that stretches beyond the 2 hours I had budgeted for it feels like a serious imposition. Something to think about for next year.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Feast Day of Santa Lucia

Today is the day that Scandinavian countries celebrate Santa Lucia day, or St. Lucy's day. There will be special breads and hot coffee and perhaps a candle wreath for the head. Many churches, particularly Lutheran churches, will do something special today.

I first heard about St. Lucia Day at our Lutheran church in Charlottesville, Virginia. As the tallest blonde girl, I was selected to lead the St. Lucia day procession when I was in my early teen years. The grown ups placed a wreath with candles on my head and lit the candles. The younger children carried their candles. I walked up the church aisle and held my head very still. I still remember the exhilarating feeling of having burning candles near my hair. I remember hot wax dripping onto my shoulders--I was wearing clothes and a white robe over them, so it didn't hurt.

It felt both pagan and sacred, that darkened church, our glowing candles. I remember nothing about the service that followed.

A year or two later, Bon Appetit ran a cover story on holiday breads, and Santa Lucia bread was the first one that I tried. What a treat. For years, I told myself that baking holiday breads was a healthy alternative to baking Christmas cookies--but then I took a long, hard look at the butterfat content of each, and decided that I was likely wrong.

I love our various festivals to get us through the dark of winter. When I lived in colder, darker places, I wished that the early church fathers had put Christmas further into winter, when I needed a break. Christmas in February makes more sense to me, even though I understand how Christmas ended up near the Winter Solstice.

So, happy Santa Lucia day! Have some special bread, drink a bracing hot beverage, and light the candles against the darkness.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Music for your Contemplative Christmas

I got a treat via e-mail the other day: one of my folk music friends singing a beautiful song about Mary and her ability to say yes, even though it opened her up to all sorts of sorrow. It's by Bob Franke (you can hear him sing the song on his website).

I like my friend's version better. You can go here to hear and watch him.

I found this song the perfect antidote to my John the Baptist weariness. I need less winnowing fans and axes and more angels and teenagers who say yes. I need quieter music. I need to slow down a bit.

It's been a hectic week at work, as we've been racing towards deadlines. It's been a noisy time at home, as the roofers have arrived with their bubbling tar and pounding hammers. It's wonderful to have music to remind us to slow down to breathe--and to say yes.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Here We Stand

It was on this day in 1520 that Martin Luther publicly burned the papal bull that demanded he recant 41 sentences of his writing.

As a Lutheran, I love being part of a denomination that was founded by a man who was both a monastic and a university professor. I love that I have not only been allowed to question, but encouraged to question. I love that Martin Luther was a prolific writer and that he didn't back down when he thought he was right.

I want to believe that our traditions will keep us talking to each other, even when we disagree. Especially now, when we are going through a time when so many of us are disagreeing over the subject of homosexuality.

I am also willing to accept the idea of schism. Perhaps that, too, is part of my Lutheran heritage. Schism doesn't scare me as much as it does some people. If we must split, perhaps that will work out for the best.

I think that there are spiritual threats far greater than homosexuality. I see the growing number of people thrust into poverty as a far darker spiritual blight on our landscape. I watch the growing disparity in education levels, and worry for the future of the country. I think of Martin Luther, who illegally translated the Bible into the language of the people, and I wonder what he would think of our country, where people have access to educational resources, but for a variety of reasons don't (or can't) take advantage of them. I watch how we treat children in our country, and I want to howl out, like an Old Testament prophet.

So today, in honor of Martin Luther, and his commitment to his beliefs, maybe I'll spend some time thinking about my own beliefs. I doubt my church leaders would ever demand I recant any of them. What beliefs would be so dangerous, yet so spiritually correct, that the modern church would feel threatened enough to track us down for having them?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 13, 2009:

First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20

Psalm: Isaiah 12:2-6

Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7

Gospel: Luke 3:7-18

I find myself growing weary of John the Baptist. I'm tired of this Advent cycle. Why is John the Baptist always here? Can't we have some angels appearing to Mary or Joseph? Can't we have a different part of the story?

I'm also tired of the prophets of this year's lectionary. I yearn for some old-fashioned Isaiah.

I also wonder why we don't have many great Advent hymns. I only really like "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel." O.K., O.K., the candlelighting/watch for Messiah song set to Yiddish sounding music is pretty cool too. But why aren't there more?

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

Perhaps I'm ready for that ax after all.

Or maybe, I need to pay attention to John the Baptist with a bit more focus. Advent reminds me that I'm not my final, improved version of myself. Advent reminds me that I still have work to do. And I need to hear that message. I'm lazy and inclined to coast, and it's good to know that God has a vision for me that is vaster than any I could dream myself.

I am ready for those angels who tell me not to be afraid. I need that message of fearlessness in my Advent darkness. I am ready for the Christmas miracle of a God who wants to be with humanity so much that God comes to us as the most vulnerable creature: a baby born to parents low on the social ladder of a society that is far from the corridors of power.

Oh come, Emmanuel. Ransom me!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Social Justice Magic Wand

On Saturday, we had an Advent event in my suburban church. We decorated gingerbread boys, baked Christmas bread, created Chrismons, and made Christmas cards for shut-ins. We invited the teenagers from a local Lutheran social service agency that shelters children who are in trouble.

I circulated, as I tried to be helpful to all the work stations. As I walked by the gingerbread decorating tables, one of the teenagers said to me, "Miss? Miss? This is the best part of my night."

At first I misheard him. I thought he said, "This is the best part of my life." Actually, I'm still not sure what he said. But I felt a piercing sadness.

I have chosen not to have children, and I've noticed that lots of people assume I don't have children because I hate kids. What balderdash! I don't have children for lots of reasons, and one of the main ones is because we live in a society that isn't very family friendly, no matter how much we talk about how we value children in our culture. No we don't. We value old people. Follow the money, and you'll see the values of a society. We don't fund schools, we don't do enough to protect children's health, our child/infant mortality rates are shameful, we don't help families with childcare.

But I'm digressing into a rant.

On Sunday, I told a friend about my Saturday experience and my piercing sadness. I said, "If I had a social justice magic wand and could wave it to eliminate one social problem, I'd wave my magic wand to make sure that all children live in homes with people who love them."

My spouse chimed in, "But love them appropriately." Yes, it is horrifying how many children suffer sexual abuse from people who claim to be their loved ones.

Children are so vulnerable. I kept trying to bat that thought away as I spent my Thanksgiving with the toddlers.

But in some ways, teenagers are even more vulnerable. They don't have as many resources as grown-ups, but people expect them to behave like grown ups. They don't have the cuteness factor protecting them, the way that little kids do. Or maybe, if they do have a cuteness quotient, it works against them by attracting the wrong kind of attention.

I'd need to remind my social justice magic wand that by children, I mean adolescents too.

Alas, I have no social justice magic wand. And so, I do what I can do. I pray and pray and pray. I participate in ministries to children in crisis. And then, I pray some more. I try to take comfort in the Advent message that God comes to us in all our messiness. God comes to make the crooked straight. God is our safe home, our sheltering parent.

Monday, December 7, 2009

You're Invited to Alathea's Stop in South Florida

If you've been reading my blogs for awhile, you might have read some posts (here and here) about award-winning, folk music duo, Alathea. They were here in March. And now for the good news: they'll be here again on December 19 and 20.

Their concert will be December 19 at Trinity Lutheran Church (7150 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines, FL) at 7:30 p.m. Bought in advance, tickets cost $12 for adults and $5 for children ($15 and $7.50 at the door). You can stay afterwards to enjoy dessert and the chance to meet the duo and buy CDs--great for your last minute shopping.

Alathea will also be part of worship on Sunday morning. You won't get to hear as much of their music, but you'll get a taste. Afterwards you can stay for a potluck lunch.

For more information, call 954-989-1903. And remember, if you like folk music, if you like bluegrass, if you like holiday music, you'll like this band. You don't need to be Lutheran--everyone is invited.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Advent Thoughts--Fear and Trembling on the Road from Key West

Yesterday, my spouse and I drove down to Key West to see an old friend and her spouse (she's not old--it's just that I've known her since high school, which is getting to be a long time ago).

The drive down is beautiful, but it's hard to ignore the water lapping at the shore. It's hard to forget that those sea levels are predicted to rise to levels which will be catastrophic to the Keys--certainly by the end of the century, perhaps as early as within a decade or two.

I've been thinking of the apocalyptic nature of the Advent texts. If the Advent writers were writing today, would they use the language of global warming to talk in apocalyptic terms?

On our way back to the mainland, late at night, we listened to Peter, Paul, and Mary's Christmas album, which I recommend highly, and we sang loudly, all the better to keep ourselves awake. I thought about global warming and saving the coral reef as I sang this line from "Light One Candle": "We have come this far, always believing that justice will somehow prevail."

I wondered about justice for the coral reef and what that might mean for humans. If God answers my prayer that the coral reef be saved, would God need to rid the world of some humans?

Then I played one of my favorite narrative games: choose a catastrophe and see what happens next.

If there was a mass die-off not caused by global warming . . . let's say that the H1N1 virus combined with the H1N5 virus and became a lethal, highly contagious flu. If 80% of humanity died off in a year or two, would that be enough to save the planet? Or have we set so many forces in forward motion that the planet can't recover, even if most of us are not here to keep torturing it?

Not happy Advent thoughts, I know. Not the happy Christmas thoughts you'd expect a Christmas CD to inspire. But I came of age in the 80's--apocalypse is never far from my mind.

I could reread Cormac McCarthy's The Road, as lyrical a novel about the end as anything I remember. Or I could see the movie. But not this week-end. Today and tomorrow, I return to holiday festivity mode: events at church and meals with friends.

Today, as the sun rises, I remind myself of my core beliefs of our creator: our God does not want to destroy, even if destroying one part of creation saves another part. Our God wants to redeem creation, all of it, even those of us who don't deserve it. If we really believe in an all-powerful God, surely that God can save the coral reef without having to resort to the clunky tool of a mass die-off of humanity.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

'Tis the Season for Christmas Pageants

Many of us religious folks in industrialized nations are getting ready for Christmas pageants. Ah Christmas, that time of year when we get back in touch with our Drama Geek selves! If we're part of a church with a budget, we might find ourselves building sets, creating the lighting and music, and maybe even wrangling a live animal or two.

The rest of us must be content with stuffed animals and a minimalist set.

I've noticed that Christmas pageants tend to bring out the perfectionist in many grown ups. We fret over the acting ability of our church youth. We try to decide how much to resist the secularization of this season. I've heard of pageants in churches that utilize Santa Claus, but thankfully, I've never been subjected to this kind of torture.

Christmas pageants always make me think of my own youthful experiences, where I longed to be chosen to be Mary, but I was always too tall, too blond, too loud, too rambunctious--too much myself and not the vision that the grown ups had for Mary.

I wrote a poem about it all, which I post below for your reading pleasure. It was first published in The South Carolina Review, and then later, I included it in my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Medieval Christmas Pageants

The Sunday School pageant director embraced
the medieval ideals. Mary would have dark
hair and a pure soul. Joseph, a mousy
man who knew how to fade into the background.
Every angel must be haloed with golden
hair, and I, the greatest girl, the head
angel, standing shoulders above the others.

It could have been worse. Ugly and unruly
children had to slide into the heads and tails
of other creatures, subdued by the weight
of their costumes, while I got to lead
the processional. But I, unworldly foolish,
longed to be Mary. I cursed
my blond hair, my Slavic looks which damned
me to the realm of the angels.

I didn’t see Mary’s role for what it was: bit
player, vessel for the holy, keeper of the cosmic.
I didn’t understand the power of my position.
I could have led an angel uprising, although the history
of angel uprisings suggests that though whole new
worlds emerge, so do new tortures with the triumph.
I could have imparted messages of God’s plan,
spoiled all the surprises. I could just appear,
scaring mere mortals into submission.

Instead, I smoldered, smarting
at the indignities of mother made wings
and long robes to ruin my long legged run.
I internalized the message of the culture
which didn’t offer starring roles for girls,
no head angel power for us.
Instead, the slender, the meek, the submissive
girl got the prize, the spotlight focused
on her kneeling knees, her bowed head.
I tried not to sing too loudly, to shrink
my Teutonic bones into the Mary model.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Meditations on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 6, 2009:

First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4

First Reading (Alt.): Baruch 5:1-9

Psalm: Luke 1:68-79

Second Reading: Philippians 1:3-11

Gospel: Luke 3:1-6

This week's Gospel brings us back to John the Baptist, who went to the wilderness to hear the word of God. He comes back from the wilderness to tell people to prepare, that the paths will be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.

Today's Gospel takes me to several places. First of all, I wonder about the nature of God and the wilderness. How often does God appear to Biblical people in the wilderness? What does this say to those of us who never get any wilderness time?

I also think of John hearing God's word in the wilderness and his getting to work to tell preaching a "baptism of repentance." It's an interesting thought--if one hears God's word and believes it, how would one's actions change? What kinds of turning around might we expect?

We might also think in terms of the old tent revival preachers: if you knew God was coming back this month, coming to speak to you, what would happen next in your life?

On the RevGalBlogPals website, I came across this Bonhoeffer quote:

"It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God's coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God's coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love."

The recent Thanksgiving holiday may have made you painfully aware of all the crooked pathways within yourself that need to be made straight. I'm am always aware of how I have tried very hard to be a more patient person, and how often I fail so utterly to be the patient person I want to be. I'm easily frustrated, especially by problems which are really just money problems. A friend of Anne Lamott's reminds us all that "if you have a problem you can solve by throwing money at it, you don't have a very interesting problem" (Traveling Mercies 259). I am so often not grateful for the gifts that I have, the ones that money can't necessarily buy: my good health, the fact that most of my loved ones are on this side of the grave with me, a boss who treats me well, and time to carve out a creative life.

Our personal failings are often mirrored in the larger culture. We live in a world full of the crooked and the rough. We live in a world desperately in need of the sanctification that God offers. In The Reason for God, Tim Keller reminds us, "The Biblical view of things is resurrection - not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater" (32).

We might say, "Well, lovely, but that doesn't help me right now. Right now, I'm irritated with my family who drives me crazy, and I'm irritated with myself, because I can't seem to do basic maintenance tasks, and I'm fed up with watching all the governments whose actions affect me so deeply."

When I'm feeling that way, I try to take a page from the ideas of John Keats, the great English poet: I try to see my struggles as soul making. In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says, "At some point you pardon the people in your family for being stuck together in all their weirdness, and when you can do that, you can learn to pardon anyone. Even yourself, eventually. It's like learning to drive on an old car with a tricky transmission: if you can master shifting gears on that, you can learn to drive anything" (219-220).

God comes to us in so many ways, and we don't even notice. Advent reminds us to be watchful, to wait with anticipation. Advent reminds us of the promise of God's presence, no matter what issues we struggle with in any given day.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Advent Readings and Praying the Hours

Today is the day to get back into the patterns that sustain me. I've moved all the bookmarks in my prayer book and vowed to get into the spirit of Advent. Usually, I have no problem with that task. Usually, I'm fighting the urge to overindulge in the winter holidays. But this week, I'm struggling with the fact that Thanksgiving is over, and I feel like I hardly had a chance to look forward to it.

Here's where the lectionary and fixed hour prayer will help me. My daily prayer book (Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours series) roots me in Advent readings. My daily prayers will remind me to be on watch. After our Thanksgiving travels, I need to do loads and loads of laundry, and we don't have much food in the house, and the daily tasks of modern life threaten to overwhelm me. Plus, the car is making a strange noise, and at some point, the roofers will show up, and work accelerates. Once again, I wake up at 4 a.m., with my brain whirling.

So, I'll return to the Advent texts. I'll light the candles, and bake some cookies, and listen to my favorite albums and CDs. I'll remember that the whirl of modern life will always want to consume me. I'll take some time to listen for that voice, crying in the wilderness. I will hammer my swords into plowshares. I will look for ways to live in the light, not the darkness.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 29, 2009:

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10 (Ps. 25:1)

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Many of us begin to accelerate our holiday preparations about now. Perhaps you've already gotten all your shopping done. Maybe you put up your tree a week or two ago, so you could shift into full celebration mode when you returned from your Thanksgiving travels.

If you're in a festive mood, the readings for Advent must often seem jarring. They tend to be apocalyptic in nature. Take this week's reading from Luke, for example, with its mention of men fainting with fear and the heavens shaking and the return of Jesus (at least, that's a common interpretation of what this text means). Many of the Old Testament readings for Advent will focus on the prophets who foretell doom and offer comfort to the oppressed. If you're oppressed, perhaps you feel fine. Otherwise, you might sit there, wondering why we can't sing Christmas carols like the rest of the world.

It's important to remember that Advent is seen as a time of watching and waiting. We remember the stories of others who watched and waited (famously, Mary; not so famously, the legions of people who have felt the yoke of oppression and yearned for a savior).

It's also important to remember that one of the main messages of the New Testament (as well as the Old Testament, according to some interpretations) are tales of the Kingdom of God breaking into our current reality. Many modern theologians talk about the Kingdom of God, and about the mission of Jesus, as both “now” and “not yet.” N. T. Wright says, “Jesus was telling his contemporaries that the kingdom was indeed breaking into history, but that it did not look like what they had expected “(emphasis Wright’s, The Meaning of Jesus, 35). He goes on to clarify that Jesus, like many Jewish mystics, “was bound to be speaking of the kingdom as both present and future” (37). Brian D. McLaren ponders the implications of the message of Jesus: “If Jesus was right, if the kingdom of God has come and is coming . . . if we do indeed have the choice today and every day to seek it, enter it, receive it, life as citizens of it, invest in it, even sacrifice and suffer for it . . . then today our future hangs in the balance no less than it did for Jesus’ original hearers in AD 30 or so” (The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything 180). In later pages, he ponders the kind of decisions that people who believe the impossible is possible might make—and the kind of decisions that people who believe that the Christian way is just too unrealistic and difficult will make (181-182).

One of the messages of Advent is that God breaks into our dreary world in all sorts of ways, some scary, some comforting, some magnificent, and some hardly noticed. The story of Jesus is one of the more spectacular stories, but God tries to get our attention all the time. We are called to watch and wait and always be on the alert.

The message of Advent is truly exciting. God wants us to participate in Kingdom living now, not just in some distant future when we go to Heaven. What good news for people who might find their nerves frazzled by all this celebrating, all this money being spent, all this once-a-year cheer which can seem so false.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving Week Forecast: Blogging Will Be Light

It's time to disconnect a bit, to enjoy time with family, to be grateful for all the wonderful blessings that have come my way. We've got a 3 toddler Thanksgiving planned, so I'm not sure what my blogging time will be. I plan to post my meditation on the week's Gospel, but my blogging may be light this week. I plan to return to regular blogging on December 1, 2009.

The Feast of St. Cecilia

Today is the feast day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of church musicians (I got this picture from Wikipedia, which says it's in the common domain; the painter is Botticini, who has been dead for centuries). St. Cecilia is also the patron saint of music and musicians of all kinds.

So, if you're a church-going sort, celebrate this feast day by thanking your church musicians. Many of them are working for small salaries (or for free), and they probably don't hear many words of thanks.

If you're not a church-going sort, celebrate the day by listening to music.

If you're in the Ft. Lauderdale area, you could actually make music! The Broward folk music group has a Jam in the Park today from 2-5 at Secret Woods Park (2701 W. State Rd. 84Dania Beach, FL 33312). You don't need to be a musical expert--just show up and enjoy the music. Bring an instrument, if you play, and feel free to sing along.

You could add musical events to your calendar. Support those musicians by going to concerts and buying CDs. Support independent artists by giving their CDs as presents. If you're in the Ft. Lauderdale area, put this concert on your calendar:

Trinity Lutheran Church is excited to host award-winning folk duo Alathea in town for a stop on their Christmas Concert tour. The duo will perform on Saturday, Dec. 19, at 7:30 p.m., and their music will appeal to a wide range of people: singer-songwriter fans, bluegrass lovers, and people in a holiday mood. Tickets cost $12 for adults, $5 for children if purchased in advance ($15 and $7 at the door). Stay afterwards for dessert and a chance to meet the group. CDs will be on sale. For more information please contact Trinity Lutheran Church at (954) 989-1903. To find out more about the group, go here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Photography as Prayer

I've recently begun to try to learn how to operate our digital camera. For those of you who have already mastered this skill, you have my permission to go ahead and laugh at me. For those of you who are still scared of your digital camera, rest assured that I understand. We have a camera that can be a point-and-click camera, if you know which little symbol to choose, as well as all sorts of other settings. As with my computer, I suspect that this camera can do far more than I will ever know to ask it to do.

I took the camera with me to Mepkin Abbey. I didn't take it with me to help me remember the place, the way I do with so many pictures that I take. Mepkin Abbey has seared its way into my brain and soul, and I try to remember to go there mentally when I'm in need of refreshment.

I've enjoyed other people's photo essays, so I thought I might want to try that. I also like having the occasional picture to post on my blog, especially when I'm about to go on blogvacation.

If you've been reading my posts this week, you'll realize that I took the camera with me as I walked the labyrinth. In fact, I didn't walk the labyrinth without the camera. The first time, I chased some butterflies (and I finally got a good shot). The second time, I walked the labyrinth barefoot, and I was already thinking about a possible blog posting.

I did wonder if I was sacrificing the spirit of the labyrinth by being so focused on photographing it. Yet, I came to see using my camera as a different form of prayer. For those of us who operate on a more visual level, this form of prayer might work better. I'm a writer, so I see journaling as a form of prayer and/or meditation. But I also understand why that doesn't work for everyone.

The camera made me alert to the world. I'm abashed to realize how often I move through the world in a haze. The camera made me focus (even though it was an auto-focus camera!). As I took pictures of scenes that took my breath away, I tried to remember to offer a prayer of thanks.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Housing Dreams

Last night, my suburban church went to feed dinner to the poor and homeless at the inner city church. I always find it a valuable experience, but last night, I especially needed it. It's been a week of figuring out how to pay for property tax and insurance and the new roof that my insurer of last resort (it's Florida, and the complexities of property insurance would take a post or two of their own to explain) will require within the year. It's good to be reminded that I'm fortunate to have a house. It's good to be reminded to focus on having gratitude for having a house, instead of focusing on resentment over how much the house costs to maintain.

It's also important to be reminded of the larger social justice issue: how can so many houses sit empty in a city where there are so many homeless?

On Saturday, I went to a meeting of my conference (Broward-Bahamas) within my church's Synod. The purpose was to encourage us to dream new visions. Much of the morning focused on the consultant's experience helping struggling churches decide whether or not to close, merge, or refocus their efforts. But my favorite part of the day was the time where we wrote down possible directions for the Church.

What would we do as a Church, and as believers, if we truly believed that all things were possible with the power of God?

Several churches dreamed of a daycare or a pre-school center. I first wrote down wind farms and then solar farms.

And then I was brave enough to write down what I really wanted to say. Most churches in our county are in neighborhoods full of foreclosed houses. Could churches buy those houses? Could churches become landlords? We could take a page from the daycare/preschool book and give the tenants a price break if they became church members. We could be a force for affordable housing in the county. We could redeem houses and resurrect them into new life.

Just like a pre-school that would come with all sorts of unforeseen issues, I realize that there would be many problems. Many churches can hardly afford the property that they have--and we contemplate buying more?

I just know that property in South Florida will never be cheaper than it is right now. I see a gaping need. I know that God calls on believers to help the poor and destitute. I don't know where to go from having the idea towards making it happen, but I thought I'd post and see what happens next.

My wild hope, of course, is that churches across the nation will say, "Wow, what a great idea!" Habitat for Humanity started in much the same way--a group with a crazy dream that people could come together to build houses for the poor.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 22, 2009:

First Reading: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 23:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 93

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 132:1-13 [14-19] (Psalm 132:1-12 [13-18] NRSV)

Second Reading: Revelation 1:4b-8

Gospel: John 18:33-37

Some of us may be thinking, what a strange text to lead us into Advent. Some of us may be thinking, what a non-kingly Gospel for Christ the King Sunday. The weeks to come will be full of strange juxtapositions.

This whipsawed feeling should help us feel sympathy for the Jews of Jesus' time. We know that the Jews had been on the lookout for the Messiah for many years, but they certainly weren't looking for someone like Jesus. They wanted a more traditional vision of a King. They wanted someone who would sweep in and clean up current life. Specifically, they wanted someone to kick the Romans (and all the other outsiders) out of their homeland. They wanted someone to restore their vision of life as it should be.

We're probably familiar with that feeling. We, too, probably want a God we can control. If you don't believe me, head to the Spirituality section of your local bookstore and take a look. We're given prayers we can pray to make God do what we want (usually, in these books, to bring us riches). We're given visualizations to try. Or maybe we want a God that makes us feel superior. Here, too, there are plenty of books that will help, that will explain why one belief system over another will elevate us.

The Gospel readings for this week, and the Advent/Christmas texts remind us that we don't worship that kind of God. We worship a God who is willing to become one of the most vulnerable kinds of creatures in our world: a newborn baby, born to underclass parents, in an underclass minority, in an occupied land. We worship a God so radical that he is crucified as a political criminal. Yes, a political criminal--crucifixions were reserved for crimes against the state in the Roman system. It's interesting to reread the Gospels with that fact in mind and to learn anew what Jesus said that made him seem so radical and subversive to the Romans.

We worship a God that wants nothing to do with our human visions of power. Our God turned away from wealth. Our God calls us to a radical generosity. Our God turned away from political power. Our experience of God, in Jesus, reminds us that if we behave in the way that God wants us to behave, we will come into direct conflict with the dominant power structures of our day.

Our God is one that we will encounter in the oddest places, like a manger or in criminal court. Advent will remind us that we need to always be alert to the possibilities of this encounter, but that it likely won't happen in the way that we've prepared for or expected.

We come to the end of a liturgical year, the end of that long, green season after Pentecost (as my 5th grade Sunday School teacher called it). We begin a new year trembling with fear and hope. It is a good time, as all new years are, to make resolutions. In the next liturgical year, how will we prepare to meet God?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Walking Barefoot Through the Labyrinth

"The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth." Thich Nhat Hanh

One of the books I reread at Mepkin Abbey was Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World. I came across this chunk of text, which made me decide to walk the Mepkin Abbey labyrinth barefoot: "Take off your shoes and feel the earth under your feet, as if the ground on which you are standing really is holy ground. Let it please you. Let it hurt you a little. Feel how the world really feels when you do not strap little tanks on your feet to shield you from the way things really are" (page 67).

In some ways, of course, I was cheating. The grass that created the path through the labyrinth was lush. Now, when I'm at home in South Florida, I would no more walk outside barefoot than I would walk across broken glass shards barefoot. But it seemed safe to walk barefoot in the labyrinth.

In fact, it was HEAVENLY to walk through the labyrinth barefoot. I walked in the mid-morning, so part of the grass was still in the shadows, still cool and dew-drenched. Part of the grass had spent the morning luxuriating in the sun, so it was warm and dry. As I walked, I felt like I got a foot massage, along with all the other benefits I experience from labyrinths. And walking barefoot made me concentrate more intensely and made me experience the practice in a whole different way--more grounded, more focused on my body and the physical presence of the labyrinth.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Praise of Kathleen Norris

Whenever I make a trip to Mepkin Abbey, people always ask me how and why I came to make regular visits to a monastery. What's even more odd is that I used to live only 20 miles away from that monastery, but I had no interest in visiting it then. But now that I live over 700 miles, I try to go at least once a year.

Before we moved to South Carolina, I had no interest in theology, except for some lingering left over thoughts from my idealistic youth. Those thoughts pointed me down a social justice path, and I figured I didn't need a church for that. Of course, I didn't do a good job of social justice on my own, but I tried not to think about that.

When we first moved down here, I went to the public library several times a week. Kathleen Norris had just published Amazing Grace. The first time I pulled it off the shelf and saw the subtitle, A Vocabulary of Faith, I shoved it right back on the shelf. I certainly wasn't interested in that.

One week, though, the offerings at the library were slim, and that book just called to me, as it had been for many weeks. I took it home and devoured it. Then I read Dakota. Then I read The Cloister Walk. That book really wanted to go to a monastery. Those books also awakened a fierce desire to return to church, which I finally did (although I'd give Nora Gallagher's books more credit for that yearning than Kathleen Norris).

I had friends back in South Carolina who were reading Kathleen Norris at the same time. They, too, really wanted to go to a monastery. They knew about Mepkin Abbey, and they went to explore. Finally, in 2004, we had a reunion there.

I've often said that if the monks accepted married, female Lutherans, I'd have never gone back. I fell in love with the buildings, the food, the magnificent library. But more than that, I fell in love with their way of life. To be able to gather as a religious community to pray eight times a day--that really appealed to me. The balanced pace appealed to me even more.

I have always idealized lives that aren't my own, and luckily, I had Kathleen Norris to bring me down to earth. In The Cloister Walk, she gives us a look behind the cloistered walls to show us that the monks are living regular lives just like the rest of us. Being a monk doesn't mean that you'll feel holy every day. However, I did suspect that their daily circumstances left them more open to the Divine than most of us.

Here again, Norris pointed the way. At the time she wrote, she was an oblate, which meant that she wouldn't be living a cloistered life with the monks, but she would try to carry their lifestyle into her daily life as a married, Protestant, female writer. Reading her books, it occurred to me that I could do that too.

While I'm not an oblate, I have tried to adopt some of the habits of the monks. I try to pray several times a day (I'm partial to Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours series). I try to practice radical hospitality and generosity. I try to eat healthfully. The Mepkin monks are mostly vegetarian, and I'd like to be too.

My surroundings are not as beautiful as those at Mepkin. I don't worship in that kind of space, alas. My daily life is not set up to encourage balance, although I try to achieve that balance that I glimpsed at Mepkin (equal times for sleep, study/reading, worship, life-supporting work that earns money, and all the daily activities that one most do, like eating).

I don't know that I would have ever begun my exploration of monastic traditions without Kathleen Norris. Those explorations have changed my life in ways that I can only barely articulate, and therefore, I am so grateful to her.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Favorite Theological Books: The Short List

During my recent travels, one of my friends asked if I would compile a list of my favorite theological books. I said of course and then got to work mulling it over. I don't want to be too overwhelming. I don't want to include every book that's ever been important to me. At first, I tried to limit myself to 10 books, but I let myself go over that limit a bit.

I thought this list might be useful to other people, and so I post it here:

1. Anything by Kathleen Norris, but if I had to choose just one, I’d choose The Cloister Walk—it makes me want to write poems, it makes me want to visit a monastery (perhaps to move to a monastery), it makes me want to revisit books of the Bible which I haven’t thought about in years. There are longer essays for days when you have more time, and short essays for days when you don’t. Easy to dip in and out of.

2. Things Seen and Unseen by Nora Gallagher. This book follows the writer through a liturgical year, as she delves deeper into her faith. Great thoughts on labyrinths, the issue of homosexuality, the role of Christ, the pain of death, the joys of everyday life. Her book Practicing Resurrection is fabulous too, especially for those of us who play with the idea of becoming ordained ministers.

3. Anything by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was one of the first theologians I ever read. My father loved him too. When I was in college, my dad came to a Sojourners Pentecostal peace and justice event with me. He didn’t agree with all of the politics, but the pull of Nouwen was stronger than political disagreements. I’m most fond of Nouwen’s journals, in which he honestly writes about his struggles, particularly with wanting to be liked/loved. It took him many decades to find his niche, in terms of work, and his journals write about his efforts to discern his true call.

4. I have yet to read a book by Eugene Peterson that I didn’t like. I particularly admire the series he begins with Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, but a more accessible book is A Long Obedience: Discipleship in an Instant Society.

5. If you want an interesting approach to the Emergent church movement, you might start with The Church in Emerging Culture. Len Sweet moderates a conversation with writers/theologians/leaders from various points on the church spectrum: Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian D. McLaren, and Erwin Raphael McManus.

6. So far, I’ve liked all of Brian McLaren’s books, but my favorite is A Generous Orthodoxy. He discusses a variety of spiritual traditions (both within and outside of Christianity) and what he finds valuable about each.

7. I have no problems with the Jesus Seminar and the idea of using recent archaeological discoveries to inform our reading of the Bible. My favorite scholar in this tradition is Marcus Borg, and my favorite book of his is The Heart of Christianity.

8. On my first trip to Mepkin Abbey, I picked up Beyond the Walls by Paul Wilkes. It’s a great introduction to monastic life and what we can learn from the monks. It’s a great story of a man’s return to Mepkin Abbey as the seasons change and of all that he learns.

9. I recently read An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. It’s a lyrical look at the places outside of the church building where we can encounter God. She also discusses several spiritual practices, like keeping some Sabbath time each week.

10. Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution both enchanted me and made me feel like I wasn’t as fully committed to living out my faith as I should be. He’s young and tells the story of the alternative, religious community of which he’s part. Very inspiring.

11. Faith Works by Jim Wallis is the book for when you need to feel inspired to continue doing social justice work.

12. Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art had already expanded my brain by page 19: “God is always calling on us to do the impossible. It helps me to remember that anything Jesus did during his life here on earth is something we should be able to do, too.” The rest of the book does not disappoint.

13. Likewise Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat expanded my thinking about spiritual issues, particularly tithing: “Our guidepost we work with is that if ever find in a given year that we have invested more in our own future by way of retirement savings than we have given away for someone else’s present need, there is something terribly wrong. We tend to think the ratio should be at least two to one: for every dollar we invest in retirement savings, two dollars should be given away to an agency that will serve the poor” (189).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Thinking about the Fall of Communism, Bureaucratic Jobs, and the Power of Prayer

This past week, I've been enjoying hearing and reading various stories about the fall of Communism in the 80's. Most of them have focused on the fall of the Berlin Wall, of course, since we reached the 20 year anniversary of that event. I have vivid memories of that week. I was a young graduate student, cooking dinner, and I heard news stories that couldn't possibly be true. I felt that rush of hope, like earlier in the year during the Tian'anmen Square uprising, and I waited for the bullets. Amazingly, there were no bullets.

At the time, I didn't realize the accidental nature of the end of communism. In a story in The Washington Post on November 1, Mary Elise Sarotte tells about the East German official who was holding a boring news conference when he announced that travel restrictions would be loosened. The journalists immediately began to ask questions, but he hadn't read the briefing very carefully, so he made it up as he went along, announcing that the changes would be taking place immediately. The journalists reported, the ordinary citizens began to assemble, and the guards at the border were overwhelmed:

"Before long, the guards at Bornholmer Street were outnumbered by thousands of people; the same thing was happening at several other checkpoints. Overwhelmed and worried for their own safety, Jäger and his fellow guards reasoned that the use of violence might quickly escalate and become uncontrollable. They decided instead at around 9 p.m. to let a trickle of people cross the border, hoping to ease the pressure and calm the crowd. The guards would check each person individually, take notes and penalize the rowdiest by refusing them reentry. They managed to do this for a while, but after a couple of hours the enormous crowd was chanting, 'Open the gate, open the gate!"

After more debate, Jäger decided that raising the traffic barriers was the only solution. Around 11:30 p.m., the decades-long Cold War division of Germany ended.

Throughout the night, other crossings opened in much the same way."

I think of that boring bureaucrat and the blundering news conference, and I am reminded that even if we have the most dull jobs in the world where we feel like we affect nothing, we still might be an agent for social change. I think of those border guards who chose not to shoot. Even if they did it for fear of losing their own lives in the chaos that would ensue, that choice changed the future.

I also think of the people along the way who prayed. On All Things Considered on Monday, I heard a story about a Lutheran pastor who began to hold weekly Monday meetings in his church to pray for peace. This movement spread to other churches, and soon it was a mass movement of thousands of people. Communist officials later said, "We were prepared for everything except the prayers and candles." Again, people waited for the bullets. Again, the power of peace defeated the forces of violence.

I think of other places in the 1980's, where the powers of prayer and peace defeated the powers of evil, most notably Poland and South Africa. I think of places today where I cannot imagine how peace will come, like the Congo and Burma.

But I do not have to be able to imagine the particulars that will bring peace into the world. In the words of John the Baptist, "I am not the Messiah." I am responsible for praying for peace. The Holy Spirit will move in wondrous ways that I cannot anticipate. Happily, God has a greater imagination than I do.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 15, 2009:

First Reading: Daniel 12:1-3

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 1:4-20

Psalm: Psalm 16

Psalm (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 2:1-10

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25

Gospel: Mark 13:1-8

Here we are, back to apocalyptic texts, a rather strange turn just before we launch into Advent (and just so you won't be surprised, those Advent texts can be on the apocalyptic side too). This week's Gospel is the type of text that many Christians use to support their assertion that we're living in the end times, that the rapture is near.

Keep in mind that the idea of rapture is fairly new; most scholars date it to the middle of the 19th century. But Christians have felt besieged since the beginning, and indeed, at certain times throughout the centuries, they have been severely threatened.

Most scholars believe that the book of Mark was written just after a particularly brutal suppression of a Jewish uprising and just before the destruction of the Temple, a time when the empire of Rome made it increasingly difficult to be an alien part of the empire. The Gospel of Mark is the most apocalyptic Gospel, perhaps because it was written when people really expected the end was near (and indeed, in many ways, the end was near). The whole of chapter 13 of Mark is grim indeed. Perhaps the Gospel writer uses such a chapter to launch into the Passion story, to set the mood.

Or maybe the Gospel writer wants to remind us of the cost of following Jesus. Maybe it's the larger cost of existing in the world. Even if we're lucky enough to be born into a stable time period, to be part of a country with a stable government, if we're conscious, it's hard to escape the conclusion that it could all vanish at any moment. And even if we don't suffer on the grand (genocidal) scale, most of us will endure more loss than our younger selves would have believed could be survived.

Before we sink too deeply into depression, we need to remember that Jesus came to give us Good News. And that Good News is that we have each other, and we have a God who loves us, no matter what. If we devote our lives to that love, then we can survive all sorts of betrayal, loss, and persecution.

It's also important to look at the last part of the last sentence of this week's Gospel: "this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs." Birth-pangs. What is being born exactly?

The most positive spin on this bit is to say that the Kingdom of God is being born. We tend to think of the Kingdom of God as referring to Heaven, but if you read all the references to the Kingdom of God, it appears that Jesus isn't talking about Heaven as we know it. In some places, Jesus seems to talk about the Kingdom as already existing, perhaps as Jesus walking amongst us. In other places, the Kingdom of God will come to earth later, in a kind of purifying, redeeming vision. Yet again, we see references to this process already beginning, both with Christ's efforts and with the efforts of his believers.

Those of us who have had children, or who have had relatives and friends who have had children, know that parents have to go through a fierce process to hold that little baby in their arms. Jesus reminds us that the process towards the Kingdom of God can be equally fierce. Jesus reminds us that we must stay alert and aware, but that we need not feel alarmed.