Friday, January 30, 2009

Hold My Hand

I have hands on the brain this month, from Barack Obama's speech, to an old Civil Rights song, to various poems, to thinking about my own hands . . .

It started over Christmas, while I was observing my nephew, who is 2 and a half years old. One night at dinner, he reached towards my sister and said, "Hold hands, Mommy, hold hands." When she took his hand, he reached his other hand to my husband and said, "Hold hands, Carl, hold hands." We were done saying grace over the meal, so I don't think he thought we were praying. There weren't any scary new foods, but maybe he wanted comfort anyway--the other times he reaches for a hand are mainly times when we're near roads and parking lots.

I've thought of him often this month. I'm impressed with his ability to simply ask for what he needs. I've thought that I should take a page from his book. When I'm feeling anxious, and my husband is around, I go to him and say, "Hold hands, Carl, hold hands." He's always happy to reach out his hand.

I've also started trying to imagine God as a God who will hold hands.

On Election night, I was listening to a Smithsonian Folkways CD of music from the Civil Rights era. One song, sung to the music of "This Little Light of Mine," repeats the line "Jesus hold my hand, while I run this race" 3 times. There are numerous other verses, like "Jesus guide my feet, while I run this race." The refrain is either "I don't want to run this race alone" or "I don't want to run this race in vain."

The other morning, as I was out for my morning jog, the song was going through my head. I imagined Jesus as a morning running partner, right there beside me, offering encouragement. That particular run did go more smoothly--was it Jesus, or just some biomechanical variable?

I'm also trying to remember to ask for hand holding as I face more difficult moments. It's a comfort to imagine a God who is right there, with a soothing smile, holding hands.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"I Will Cast All My Cares Upon You"

When my church has its healing service at the end of the month, we sing a song as each person comes up for anointing of oil and laying on of hands. We sing:

"I will cast all my cares upon you
I lay all my burdens down at your feet
And anytime that I don't know what to do
I will cast all my cares upon you."

And then the song stays in my head for at least a week or two. It's got a sappy, mournful but sweet melody, and on some level, I hate it. My parents are classical musicians, so the praise music tradition will never be easy for me, I confess.

This week, I've been glad to have that song in my head, as my friend had her brain surgery (all seems to have gone well--hurrah!).

So often, I want to think that I can solve everything. And many situations give me the illusion that I can. Not so when a friend has brain surgery. All I can do is pray.

Several years ago, a colleague was having a difficult time with bladder cancer. When I was wishing we could do more for him, one of my Christian colleagues said, "We'll pray for him."

I said, "I guess that's all we can do."

She was quick to correct me: "It's the most important thing we can do."


I don't know why prayer feels so passive to me, especially in situations like mine this week, where I can't go in and do the brain surgery. It's good to have a song, even one with a sappy melody, that reminds me that I've got a God who would like to shoulder my burdens and who can accept all my cares.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Weekly Gospel Meditation

The readings for Sunday, February 1, 2009:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Psalm: Psalm 111

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Gospel: Mark 1:21-28

In this week's Gospel, we see Jesus teaching and healing. I could make the case that this short Gospel sums up the work of Christ. Just add a meal, and we'd have his ministry in this one small capsule of a Gospel.

What does this mean for us as Christians? I have teaching on the brain quite often, since I'm employed by a college, and have been working in the education industry in some form for my whole adult life.

Lately, I also have healing on my mind. This seems to be the season where many of my friends and family face significant health problems. In fact, one of my good friends is undergoing brain surgery even as I write this. I write a bit, trying to forget her ordeal, then I pray for her (and others enduring health crises), then I write some more, and then I pray more fiercely. There are worse ways to spend a morning.

I've always liked the picture of Jesus as teacher and feeder of the flocks. As a Christian, I could emulate that. I know how to do those things. But our culture has turned healing into such a specialized category, requiring years of schooling, that we forget that ordinary people can have an enormous healing effect.

Teaching and feeding, can, of course, provide healing. When I feel despair about the course of my life--when I compare what I've accomplished to what a Martin Luther King accomplished--I sit myself down and I remember all the students whom I've taught. Many of those students wouldn't have stayed in school had they not had a compassionate teacher like me, someone who taught them the basics of English Composition, someone who convinced them that college could be a possibility, even for people who were underprepared. And most of us have experienced the healing power of a good meal savored with friends.

But we can do so much more. We can pray for those who need healing. Even if we can't visit people in the hospital or bring food to families, we can pray.

If we feel brave, we might even try the laying on of hands when we're with the sick. The New Testament tells us of the power of our hands to heal. In some Christian traditions, it's so important that anointing the sick with oil is elevated to a sacrament. Many churches have a service of healing once a month. We can support those churches and not undercut this vital ministry, even if it makes us less than comfortable.

And let us not forget some of the simplest things we can do. We can smile at those we pass in the hallways. It's quite likely that most people we meet are dealing with more than we know, and a smile can go a long way towards healing what is split in the world (to use Gail Godwin's language, from her book Father Melancholy's Daughter).

When my mother-in-law was sick in the hospital, the hospital had us wear visitor stickers on our shirts. Sometimes I would forget that I was wearing mine, and I'd go to the grocery store. I noticed that people treated me more kindly. That sticker showed that I wasn't having a normal day.

We should go through our lives, seeing our fellow humans as wearing similar stickers that show their need for our gentle treatment. Think of what a different world we would inhabit if all people of faith made gentle treatment of their fellow humans a daily practice.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Love-filled God vs. Angry God

The Internet Monk has a great post here on our two traditional ways of viewing God. We may be most familiar with the vision of God as angry and waiting to smite us, and in fact, despite the actions of Jesus, He might just decide to smite us anyway. Many of us are comfortable with that world view. It explains all the unpleasant experiences that fall on our heads.

Sadly, many people, even church-going people, are less familiar with the view of a God who loves us--who loves us so much that this God keeps looking for ways to be with us.

We're not comfortable with the idea of grace. We have the suspiciousness of 9 year olds: what do I have to do, and why does that person who's behaving wrong get the same amount of grace as I do?

We're not comfortable with the idea of a creation that is wondrous and God-drenched. We're much more happy with the notion of a fallen creation, one that has been abandoned until some later point when Christ returns.

Our puny ideas of grace let us off the hook. If we believe that creation is damned, then we won't work to save it. If we think that we're Christians so that we get to go to Heaven some day, we don't have to do the hard work of Kingdom building in this world.

God calls us to be so much more.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Choose a Social Justice Cause, Just One, and Devote Yourself to It

Today's New York Times has an interesting opinion piece on Bill Gates' humanitarian initiatives. Go here to read the whole thing.

I especially liked the end of Nicholas Kristof's article:

"I asked Mr. Gates what advice he had for ordinary readers who might want to engage in micro-philanthropy.

“The key thing is to pick a cause, whether its crops or diseases or great high schools,” he said. “Pick one and get some more in-depth knowledge.” If possible, travel to see the problems firsthand, then pick an organization to support with donations or volunteer time.

So try it. The only difference between you and Mr. Gates is scale."

It's a great suggestion. Instead of donating to every cause that comes your way--and you'll be getting all sorts of solicitations once people know you'll donate--decide on just one or two areas and commit.

Years ago, I decided that hunger issues would be my primary focus, and so I donate money through my church, and I donate to groups, like Bread for the World, which work for change on a systemic level. I also give time by working in food pantries and going to sites to participate in feeding programs.

Of course, I donate to other worthy causes, but hunger alleviation is my primary focus, and it has been, since I was a young child.

There are plenty of social justice issues from which to choose. The hard part might be choosing one--so think about it this way. You're being awarded the Nobel Prize for the work you've done; what does the press release say.

If you look at recent Peace Prize winners, you'll notice that they, too, tend to have focused on one issue and devoted all their time, talents, and money to that area of social justice. We should let ourselves take a lesson from these social justice giants among us.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Poet Considers Inaugural Prayers

For days now, I've been thinking about Inauguration Day, about the prayers and the poetry (go here to read my thoughts on poetry that day).

I wasn't as upset with the choice of Rick Warren as many other people were. He has some views I don't agree with, but ever since I heard him interviewed on Speaking of Faith, I've been impressed with him and the way he lives his faith. Go here to listen. I'm most impressed with his work in Africa (oh, how Africa changes people!) and his giving away most of what he earns. He's practicing reverse tithing, giving away 90% of what he earns and keeping 10%, and many months, it's all I can do to give away 10%.

I thought his prayer a bit too long, and without any sort of soaring rhetoric. I wasn't offended by his reference to Jesus Christ--you ask a Christian preacher to give a prayer, and a Christian preacher is likely to make reference to Jesus. But I didn't find his prayer offensive.

I keep thinking back to the benediction. Rev. Lowery started off with all of the rhetorical flourishes that I missed in Warren's prayer--and that reference to "Lift Every Voice and Sing"! That hymn has now been in my head for days.

I didn't like the jingoistic way he ended: "When the yellow will be mellow, . . . when white will embrace what is right." It had been such a marvelous benediction until then. I'm increasingly irritated by 60's syntax, but I did take a minute to remind myself that those folks in the 60's--some who worked tirelessly, some who were killed, some who just pretended that they did anything important--those actions really did pave the way for the inauguration of our first African-American president.

When I was young, I was so frustrated with the slow, slow pace of social change. My parents and elders would tell me that I needed to be patient. I'd tell them that we didn't have that kind of time--didn't they see this mess in the world. I'd stomp away, sure that I was surrounded by hypocrites. I, of course, was purely righteous in my motives and motivations. Ah, to be 19 and so sure of oneself again!

My younger self would have scoffed at the idea that some day we'd elect a minority person to high office or a woman. For that matter, so would my older self. I'm so happy to have been proven wrong!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 25, 2008:

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Psalm: Psalm 62:6-14 (Psalm 62:5-12 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20

It is interesting to read this Gospel in light of this week's events. I've had the stories of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama in my head for days now. And then, I read this week's Gospel, and again, I'm thinking of this idea of a call.

I'm interested that in this Gospel (as well as other stories we've had recently, like Mary's call in Advent), people don't seem to hesitate. They don't weigh the cost of discipleship. They don't create a spreadsheet that compares the pros and the cons.

No, God beckons, and these men leave their normal lives immediately.

Likewise, in the stories of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, we see two men living fairly ordinary lives when they are called to be more and to do more. It made me wonder about my own life, what calls I've received, what calls I've neglected, what calls I've followed. It has made me wonder about other people's lives and the surprising turns they've taken.

Our culture seems to love these stories of the call that cannot be ignored, the call that launches people on to great things. But often, a call is a niggling feeling that one has for years. Maybe we take little baby steps towards that call. Or maybe we try to ignore it until we can't anymore, and we explode into interesting new directions. Or maybe we decided we'd rather have a life of comfort and familiarity, and we turn away from our call.

The good news is that God continues to call us anyway. No matter how many times we reject God and God's hopes for us, God comes back to see if we're interested.

God has great visions for us. But even if we can't rise to those grand plans, God will entice us with smaller parts of the larger vision. And then, years later, we look up, amazed at how our lives' trajectories have changed.

What is God calling you to do? And if you're not comfortable with the larger plan, are there smaller bits you can do right now?

Maybe you're not ready to go back to school, but you could take a class or two. Maybe you can't leave your job, but you could try something different through volunteer work. Maybe you can't solve the larger social justice issue that keeps you up at night, but you could write a letter or educate your fellow citizens.

We are all so much greater than we know. Christ came to us to show us what is possible in a human life--and so much is possible. What part in this great human drama were you born to play?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Marvelously Made--Psalm 139

This past Sunday, our pastor preached on the first reading, Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18. That Psalm contains one of my favorite images of God (oh, it's so hard to choose, though, isn't it?): God as knitter, creating us in the womb. As I listened on Sunday, I also heard echoes of God as weaver. God as fabric artist--now that's a God I can love!

Our pastor focused on the view of God that so many of us have: God as judge, with a big, black book, keeping track of our sins. Our pastor said, "There's just no scripture that supports that."

Instead, God delights in us. Go back to the first Genesis story (not the one with the snake and the deception, but the one before that). God creates this thing and calls it good. God creates that thing and declares it good. God never says, "Well, that was a horrible mistake. I won't be doing that again." God never descends into self-loathing: "How could I have been so stupid! These humans disappoint again and again." No, God creates humans and declares them "Very good."

Psalm 139 reminds us that God knows us from the inside out. And still, God loves us and declares us very good.

I wish I could get away from the self-loathing voice in my head. One of my New Year's Resolutions is to replace that voice with the loving voice of God. So, from now on, when that voice pipes up, I'm taking some words from Psalm 139 and doing battle! I'm going to say, "Thank you--I am marvelously made." It will be a way of vanquishing that voice as well as a brief thank you prayer.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Manuscripts and Monasteries

On the NPR radio program Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett explores ancient manuscripts and the role of monastics in preserving them. Go here to explore the show.

I recently reread Walter M. Miller' A Canticle for Leibowitz, a novel which revolves around monks in the Utah desert who try to preserve knowledge after a nuclear apocalypse catapults the world into a new dark age. I first read the book back in the mid-80's, when I didn't have much knowledge of monasteries.

It's interesting to have that book on the brain as I listen to Speaking of Faith. That book explores the uses of knowledge and the ways that we use knowledge to destroy ourselves and our civilizations. This radio show reminds me of how fragile ancient manuscripts are, and how miraculous it is that any of them have survived.

I also think of all the documents that so many of us are creating on the Internet. I tend to believe that once something is on the Internet, it will never go away. I'm careful about what I post, unlike so many people who post such ill-advised things.

So, I never back up anything that I've posted online. I just assume, for example, that this blog will always be available to me. But what if something happens to Google, and my work vanishes?
The work that we're all doing here in Cloud Computing Land reminds me a bit of the work the monks do in A Canticle for Leibowitz. They compile bits and pieces of knowledge without understanding them, but with the faith that someday, their work will have been important. We, too, are engaged in a giant experiment, and many of us aren't real sure where the experiment will take us--and those who are sure are probably wrong.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Nonviolence, Transformation, and the Church

There's a great article over at The Nation about the transformative power of nonviolence. Jonathan Schell and Taylor Branch focus most of their attention on the 20th century. Mainstream media often forgets to mention how successful these movements were, and it's important that we remind ourselves periodically.

Schell and Branch also remind us that many of these nonviolent movements were rooted in a spiritual tradition. When my friends go on and on about how destructive the church has been, I say, "But think also about the amount of good they've done." When my friends demand specific examples, and I mention the founding of hospitals and schools, those facts don't always impress them. But it's hard to refute the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King.

I know that violence can solve issues. I'm glad that we went to war and defeated Hitler, although I'll always wonder if there wasn't another way, if it really required such a devastating war. If someone broke into my house, I'd probably shoot first and ask questions later.

One of the reasons nonviolence is so attractive to me is that it doesn't come naturally.

One of the reasons that a spiritual practice is so important is that I can use it to retrain myself. I'm a much more peaceful person than I used to be. I've been practicing forgiveness for many years, so it's easier.

I've often thought that using violence to solving problems (be they personal or geopolitical) is akin to using a poisonous snake as a weapon of self-defense. It might work, and it might be effective. But it's likely to harm me.

This article is a great one to read as we prepare to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. It's important to remember how much nonviolence can accomplish--if we would but commit to it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Meditation on this Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 18, 2009:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]

Psalm: Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 (Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Gospel: John 1:43-51

In today's Gospel, people get an invitation (or is it a command? hmmm). Here are men who get a call from God and answer it.

Of course, it may not be the call they were expecting. We get a sense of that when Nathanael says, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (verse 46). Our Scriptures show us a similar story time and time again: God makes an offer, but it's not one that people are expecting. Often, their expectations blind them to the presence of God.

Nothing has changed today. Our Bible stories train us to look for burning bushes, so we ignore the still, small voice that speaks to us out of the darkness of a sleepless night: it's not God, it's indigestion. We're ready for hosts of angels, or bright stars, or wise men who let us know that there's a new savior on the scene--but we're not ready to attend to the daily work of spiritual discipline that might lead us to God's insight.

The story we get in today's Gospel seems like a young person's story. How hard is it to give up everything when you're young and don't really have all that much to give up? I think of the mother of Andrew and Simon Peter, who must wonder if her sons have lost their minds. I imagine her sighing, saying, "Eh, they're young. They'll come to their senses and come back to the family business--I give them 6 months of this homeless lifestyle, following this wackadoo Jesus."

John is the most mystical of the Gospels, so we have this portrait of Jesus, who prophesies that these men will see great things. And they drop everything and go.

Would we follow Jesus, if he appeared today? One of my favorite versions of this story comes from the movie Godspell. It shows young people in 1970's New York City working at dismal jobs. Jesus beckons, and they frolic in Central Park and at various sites around the city (including the World Trade Center, which was under construction when the movie was filmed--eerie).

If I was filming/modernizing the story today, I'd have Jesus appearing to middle-aged people. But there, my imagination stalls. How would I make Jesus so appealing that people could be compelled to leave their jobs, their mortgages, their children, all the duties which keep us so tied to the secular world?

For me, it's this vision of a Kingdom of God on earth, a vision where everyone has enough and suffering ceases. This vision is the Good News that Jesus came to deliver: we don't have to live the way we've been living!

In the coming weeks, we'll read the narrative of Jesus. Listen for that message. Try to hear with new ears, so that you, too, can "come and see" (verse 46).

And in your daily life, be on the lookout for God. God is still alive and moving through the world, making calls to those who have ears to hear.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Would I Be a Better Person if I Went to Church?"--Music

Surprisingly, my adamantly atheist friend says she would go to church if she could find one with a good Gospel choir. She says she would stay through the whole service, carefully not listening to the rest of the service, if the music was good enough.

I asked her if the lyrics to Gospel music didn't bother her, and she claims that she doesn't listen to the words, she just listens to the music. I argued that if she went to church on a regular basis, the words would sink in and change her. She claimed that would never happen. I'll comment on the idea of The Word in a separate post. Today, I want to think about the music that happens in most churches.

Most of us of a certain age probably learned to sing in church. In fact, for much of human history, humans got much of their art training at church. And music has always been one of the predominantly featured arts in many Christian traditions.

Of course, there's a wide variety of music to choose from. And what I find inspiring might drive the next person crazy. Luckily, so far, there seems to be room for everybody.

There's often a wide variety of musical instruments in church, which means that children can learn to play. Again, this doesn't always happen, but it could be a benefit.

I go to a liturgical church, which means that much of our service is sung, and we sing the same things each week. That practice means that the music and the words get in our heads, which for most humans is one of the easier ways to learn and remember (studying for a test? set the facts to music and you'll have an easier time). I'm often surprised when I read the Bible and stumble across a passage that has been turned into liturgy. I've already memorized the words because I sing them every week. Likewise, my church returns to certain hymns on a regular basis; I know the words because I've been singing them since childhood.

My musical backbone means that in times of tension, I've got an extra resource to calm myself down. I have been known to walk outside or to sing in the stairwells if I need a song break (much healthier than a smoking break!).

Music consoles most of us in a way that few other things can. Music can reach even the hardest heart, as my atheist friend demonstrates. And if we have that consolation, then I believe we're likely to be better people: calm, loving, serene, generous.

The lyrics of most religious music that we hear in church reminds us to be the people that God calls us to be. But I'll return to this theme when I talk about the value of hearing words spoken in a church or religious setting.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Would I Be a Better Person if I Went to Church?"--Charitable Giving

Over Christmas break, I read an interesting New York Times article on charitable giving. Nicholas D. Kristoff references Arthur Brooks' book, Who Really Cares, which explores who gives money to charity and why.

Buried in the middle of the Kristoff piece is the observation Brooks makes that church goers on any part of the ideological spectrum give more than their secular counterparts.

I asked my dad if he was surprised by these findings, and he said no. He said that non-church-goers believe that they can only rely on themselves, and therefore it's harder to part with their money.

Most people think that they give more to charity than they really do. It would be interesting to compare tax returns to get some objective data--we could leave aside the clothes and food given to various drives, and just focus on some objective data to answer the question: how much of your take-home pay goes to charity?

Most religious faiths stress the need to take care of the poor and less fortunate. Many traditions stress this point on a regular basis. Hearing this point preached again and again provides serious motivation to give. Some religious organizations require tithing, giving 10% of one's income.

And churches provide an outlet. If I want to give, my church runs a food pantry and brings meals to the less fortunate and collects clothes and has a fund for people facing temporary emergencies and works with county-wide organizations--for the sake of brevity, I'll stop with this short list. My larger church funds various relief organizations. When the move to give strikes me, I don't have to make much effort. I don't have to research worthy organizations--it's all been done for me.

Not everyone is so fortunate. I know that there are countless examples of charitable giving that's been used to fund buildings (of course, those buildings are often used to provide services to the less fortunate: church by day, homeless shelter by night!). I know that there are unscrupulous pastors who skim the charitable funds to keep a chunk for themselves.

I've spent part of my life going to church, part of my adult life not going to church. And I gave more to the poor when I was going to church than when I wasn't.

And it's a gift that gives back to me. When I've been most successful at tithing, strangely enough, is when I've been least anxious about money. Is that because the tithing process forces me to budget or because God provides more when I'm fulfilling that command? Is it some other reason that's unrelated?

I don't know. All I have to offer right now is anecdotal evidence, based on my life and those of people I know. But I plan to read Brooks' book to get a wider view.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Would I Be a Better Person if I Went to Church?"

At a gathering at my house in December, my friends and I talked about religion, church, and spiritual practices. It was quite a diverse assembled group: a Hindu, a Catholic, an agnostic, a Wiccan, an atheist, and me, a Lutheran (and my spouse, who sometimes was part of the group, and who is a Lutheran). Usually, I like these conversations, but that day, the tone became a bit combative at times.

My atheist friend said in a dismissive tone, "Would I really be a better person if I went to church?" I didn't have a chance to answer because we madly raced to a different aspect of religion, but I find myself thinking of her question, 3 weeks after she asked it.

My answer would be, yes, you will likely be a better person. I'm going to write several posts on this subject, but I want to stress my parameters first.

I know that there have been churches (both individual churches and whole traditions) that have done enormous damage, both to individual humans and to whole communities. I have a BA in Sociology, and I can tell you that every societal institution has examples, sometimes quite numerous across centuries, of damage done, often on a huge scale. So, there's no societal institution that I reject wholesale, just because there's been some past inflicted pain and/or destruction.

I'm not going to talk about the afterlife. I'm concerned with how a church practice might improve one's life on this side of the grave.

And I'm probably not going to talk much about creeds and beliefs, in the traditional way that people do when this question arises--I've noticed that people often bring up those points when they're trying to convince people that they need to believe a certain way to get to Heaven. As I said before, that doesn't interest me much. I'm convinced that Jesus came to show us a better way to live--right here, right now--not to serve as a ransom so that we could all get to Heaven. I realize that this idea will strike some as subversive, and I could write at length upon it--but I won't, at least right now.

So, this week, I'll write several posts, and try to label them so that readers who aren't interested in the larger topic can easily find a subtopic of interest.

Tomorrow--charitable giving.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Pilgrim's Way

Carl and I are still reading the Psalms; some nights, I think, how can we still be slogging through this book? We read 15 minutes a day--shouldn't we be done by now?

Last night, we got to some of my favorite lines from the Psalms: "Happy are the people whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way" (Psalm 84, verse 4) and "Steadfast love and faithfulness have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Psalm 85, verse 10). I love the personification in that last verse, the idea that righteousness and peace can do something so fundamentally human as kiss.

I also love the idea of our lives as a pilgrims' path. I sometimes feel like I should have made more progress in my faith journey, and I sometimes feel despair that I'm still wrestling with aspects that I should have mastered long ago. Sometimes I feel despair because I thought I had mastered those aspects, and then my mastery unravels. I like the idea that God seems to expect this cycle, but as long as we turn to God for strength and keep on the pilgrims' way, we're living up to our full potential.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Meditation on this Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 11, 2009:

First Reading: Genesis 1:1-5

Psalm: Psalm 29

Second Reading: Acts 19:1-7

Gospel: Mark 1:4-11

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and it's a good time to remember our own baptisms. We might spend some time talking about what baptism meant to our families. We might think about what it means to us. When I read this Sunday's Gospel, I focus on the last verse: "Thou art my beloved son; with thee I am well pleased." The good news that Jesus brings us is that God feels the same way about each of us.

Do we have to be baptized for God to feel this way about us? Christian traditions vary, but happily Lutherans, for the most part, believe that God feels this way, whether we are baptized or not. So, why bother?

We could have a long discussion about the idea of a sacrament, and what that means. I begin my thoughts about sacraments the same way I begin a discussion of symbolism with my Poetry class: a symbol takes an object that exists in the physical world, and drenches it with larger meaning (so, if I return home to a bouquet of red roses, I have one response; if someone intentionally sends me a bouquet of dead roses, I have a different response, and a potted plant will trigger yet a different response). However, a sacrament is more than a symbol, although in many religious traditions, that symbolism is vital. A sacrament is a way that God makes grace visible to us. Some religious traditions would say that the sacrament itself is the route of grace; according to this way of thought, we are more endowed with grace if we participate in Holy Communion once a week (or daily) than we would be if we went to a church that only offered Communion at Easter and Christmas.

I've simplified the idea of sacraments here--some would say I've dangerously simplified it. So, let's return to the symbolism and what that might mean for our post-baptized life. We might look at the baptismal service in our hymnals, and think about what it is that we promise when we baptize.

Hopefully, if we were baptized as children, we had adults in our lives who took those vows seriously. As we grow up, we're expected to do these things for ourselves. Do we get to church regularly? Do we read the Scriptures? Do we surround ourselves with people who will honor those commitments we've made and help us on our journeys?

As we participate in the church's rites and practices, we are reminded again and again of God's love for us. We are given much in the way of symbolic language that helps us understand. Baptism is one of those rituals. We bathe on a regular basis, and wash our dishes and our clothes and our children, so the idea of water washing us clean is not unfamiliar to us.

We might use water to remind us of the gift of God's grace. We could take a cue from Martin Luther, and remember our baptism each time we take a shower. If we're caught in the rain, we could lift our faces to the rain drops and thank God for all the gifts that we rarely appreciate fully. As we water the yard and the garden, we could think how lucky we are to have water that comes out of hoses and faucets on command.

We could think about how few people have that luck in our world, and we could resolve to do something about it. How would we perceive the sacrament of baptism if we lived in a country or a continent where there was no clean water? We might decide it's time to redirect some of our resources towards the poor (ready to donate? go here).

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Feast of the Epiphany

And so we bring our Christmastide to an end. I never feel this same sorrow when Eastertide comes to an end, although occasionally I have missed the extra worship opportunities in Lent (why do so many Lutheran churches only offer a Wed. night service or study opportunity during Lent? I envy the Catholics their daily mass).

I have found myself missing choir rehearsal. Yes, this year for the first time since childhood, I sang in a choir on Christmas Eve. We sang a whole cantata! I was only persuaded to do it because most of the music was built on familiar Christmas music, so I felt sure I could learn it. I didn't expect to miss choir rehearsal.

I love that feeling of singing in a group, of watching us improve. We took a giant leap between our last rehearsal and our Christmas Eve performance. Every time that happens, I'm amazed and awed.

Today, instead of doing festive last-day-of-Christmas events, I'll be at a series of faculty development workshops. Some of them, on creativity, I'll be leading. I hope that I can offer wisdom, which would seem appropriate for the feast day that celebrates the magi. The faculty development day is mandatory for full-time folks, and I hope that people aren't so angry about being there that they sabotage the whole event. I hope the special guest speaker has something new and interesting to say about technology in the classroom--or if the information is familiar, that it inspires us in new ways.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Preparing for Epiphany

I'm a big believer in the 12 Days of Christmas, but one can only hold on to Christmas for so long. I'm still not ready to see the holiday lights taken down, and I mourn the loss of my tree, even though we won't take it down until Epiphany, and I'll put up the exact same tree next year.

I found this reflection on Jan Richardson's blog. I love her illustration and her poem that envisions the Magi as wise women.

Her blog has made me want to play with paper and collage. Maybe this will be the year.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Meditation on this Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009:

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

So, have you broken your New Year's Resolution yet? I've decided that I don't like New Year's Resolutions because they inspire self-loathing, rather than spur me to make good changes. After I got to a certain age, I've noticed that my resolutions are remarkably similar to past resolutions. That observation means that have to notice that I've been failing at keeping these resolutions in the past--that observation launches me into a self-loathing cycle. And psychologists will tell you that working for change out of a position of self-loathing isn't likely to lead to lasting change.

This year, I've decided to try to view myself and talk to myself the way that our loving God would do. No more castigating myself about the weight I've lost and regained and lost and regained again. No more disappointment about the poems that I haven't written. No more stern words to myself about the miles I haven't run.

The cool thing about our God, the Gospel reminds us, is that God came to live with us. And the Bible tells us that God probably sojourns with us more often than we recognize (think about all those visits by strangers in the Old Testament, strangers that turned out to be God in disguise). God understands the challenges that come with having a human body and brain. I like to think that God would not be as harsh in judging me as I have been. And if God can cut me a break, maybe I can learn to do that too.

And maybe, I'll have some success at some point. Or maybe, I'll learn to think about my successes, and give myself credit for them, rather than always focusing on the ways I haven't measured up. As I strategize throughout the year, I'm better at recognizing what I've accomplished, as I think about where I want to go. There's something about the New Year though, that brings out my harshest inner critic.

As you look at the trajectory of the Bible, you could make the case that God has had some false starts in God's project for redeeming creation. False starts, wrong turns, rough drafts--creativity specialists would tell us that these are necessary to get to success.

And what I often think of as a failure is not--it's just an unfinished project. Even with Jesus, which we might argue is one of God's success stories in the redemption of the world--that's an unfinished project. Jesus began (or continued, depending on your view) the salvation of the world, but you don't have to look far around you to realize that the world isn't exactly redeemed yet.

Our Scriptures and our spiritual ancestors remind us that we are not left abandoned. God never crumples up the rough drafts and throws them away (go back and reread the first creation story in Genesis; God declares everything "good" or "very good"). In John 14:18, Jesus promises, "I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you." If God can take a long term view of redemption projects, so can we.

So, even if you've already broken your New Year's resolutions, don't give in to self-loathing. Remember that God finds humanity so fascinating, so worthy of attention, that God comes to be with us. And if God finds us redeemable, we should work on having a similar attitude.