Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mathematics, Cosmology, and Speaking of Faith

I haven't gone back through this blog to count the number of times I've recommended the NPR program Speaking of Faith. I listen on Sunday mornings, and I'm always amazed at how enriched I feel, both intellectually and spiritually; in fact, I know people who claim that they get more out of this program than they do out of church. I've certainly been to churches where I could say the same; happily, that's not true of my current church.

Last week's show was one of those shows that I've gone back to listen to several times, because it was just that fascinating. It featured theoretical physicist Janna Levin, who talked about her work and larger issues of what the universe looks like and our perceptions of it and how that might impact our faith. I've spent the week thinking about what she said about the perspective of the quantum particle, which would be quite comfortable with the idea that something can be both a wave and a particle, that something can just vanish without explanation. To a quantum particle, our world would seem rigid and strange.

I'm probably not explaining this well--I can just barely get my head around quantum physics, much less explain it to others. Happily Janna Levin doesn't share my problem. Go here to hear the show, to hear the unedited tapes, to discover other resources.

This show moved me so much that I ordered both of Levin's books. I'm envious, so envious, of one of the titles: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Is that not one of the most fabulous titles?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Meditation on this Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 1, 2009:

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm: Psalm 25:1-9 (Psalm 25:1-10 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

We begin Lent back in the country of baptism. Once again, we hear the story of the baptism of Christ. Didn't we just cover this material a few weeks ago?Indeed we did, and it should remind us of the importance of this sacrament. It gives us a chance to notice what we might not have noticed before.

On the RevGalBlogPals blog, Kathryn observes, "when Jesus appears on stage here, he has done nothing to earn God's love. The teaching, the healing, the utter obedience unto death all lie in the future-- but still God looks down and speaks the unconditional love that is always being poured on each of [God's] children." (go here for the whole essay).

I still struggle with the idea of grace. I still struggle with a fair amount of self-loathing. Where does my self-loathing come from? I have parents who have always loved me very much. I grew up watching Mister Rogers, who always ended with such a message of positive love that I'm tempted to watch him again today. I went to a Lutheran church, where I did not get a message that I was unworthy of God.

Perhaps my self-loathing comes from my society which would encourage me to spend all my free time trying to lose weight (because otherwise, I might transform society with my non-worldly ideals of peace and justice). Perhaps it comes from being a first-born child, with my extensive to-do list and my ever-increasing standards of what success looks like (always looking to the next milestone, never resting on my laurels, never enjoying current successes). Perhaps I need medication.

Or perhaps I should return to this Bible passage periodically. It's important to remind myself that God loves me. It's also important to remind myself of how much the world cares about whether or not God loves me.

Look at the end of the Gospel lesson: John the Baptist has been arrested. We can't say we haven't been warned about what might happen to us when we do God's work in the world.

But we're not excused from doing it. The Gospel ends with Jesus continuing his mission, preaching the gospel of God.

Lent is at hand. Many people think of Lent as Spring Training Camp (or Boot Camp) for Christians-these images aren't mine, but I've seen so many people use them, I'm not sure who should get credit. Lent is a great time for us to get serious (again) about our faith journey. Lent is a great time to spend some contemplative time to consider the ways that we're living out our Christian faith and the ways that we could improve. Many people will give up something for Lent. Many people will add something, like more Bible reading, more prayer, more devotional reading, more charitable work.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in the Liturgical year that reminds us that we are dust, and all too soon, we'll return to dust. You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same. This service used to depress me, but these days, I find it one of the more important ones of the church year.

We're not here for very long, and most of us have already used up at least half the time we have in this life. We just do not have time for most of the self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors in which we engage. Now is the time to turn off our televisions and to focus on something more important. Now is the time to give up our self-loathing and to focus on our God, who is well-pleased with us.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Launch Into Lent: Infuse Your Days with Creativity

Our medieval counterparts would have understood the value of artistic practices to our spiritual lives, and some Christian traditions have continued to embrace the role of the arts in their churches. But many of us in churches that were birthed during the Reformation find ourselves in traditions that value logic and reason and thought rather than creativity and mysticism.

It's time to reclaim our creative heritage, and Lent is a perfect time to infuse our days with creativity.

You might try a different artistic practice each week or you might choose one and focus on that discipline throughout the season. For those of you who claim not to be creative, I'd encourage you to think back to your childhood. What types of creative work did you do before you became convinced that you had no talent and therefore should give up your pastimes?

Here are some ideas. You might also refer to my entry several days ago about spiritual journalling.

--Write a poem about God. But before you start, fill in the following blank 25 times without thinking about it: God is like _______________________.

--Go to the store and buy 3 bouquets of flowers. Rearrange them into two bouquets and put them where you'll see them and be reminded of God's flowering love for you.

--Buy a big box of crayons (or paints or pastels or any medium that makes you excited). Create a picture that addresses your spiritual life.

--Collect all your magazines and create a collage that depicts your hopes and dreams for the future.

--Learn to bake bread. Bread is an amazingly forgiving food, and will endure countless experiments. You'll enjoy the kneading process. But if you just have no time, here's a recipe for No Knead Bread that showed up in the New York Times. It got lots of good reviews, but I haven't tried it.

--Go to a bead show or shop and buy some beads. String them together to make a rosary. Use your rosary to keep track of your prayers. For those of you who don't come out of a tradition that prays this way, go here for some ideas of prayers one might use with a rosary.

--Many churches will begin working on special music for Easter--join them.

--Plant a garden or an herb box or a huge bowl of flowers. You might feel more rooted as you get your hands in the dirt.

--Write your Spiritual Artist timeline. You can do this in your journal, on the computer, or on scraps of paper that you'll shred so that no one can see them. Break your life into 5-10 year time spans and write about what was going on in your life during those years, both as a creative person and as a spiritual pilgrim. Look for the places where your paths twine together.

--Write a chancel drama. Or some other kind of drama.

--See what happens to your prayer life if you adopt movements as you pray. Doug Pagitt wrote about some possibilities in his 2005 book BodyPrayer: The Posture of Intimacy with God .

--Explore liturgical dance.

--The image of God as a potter recurs in the Bible. Buy some clay and play with it. Think about a potter and the clay as an image.

--You might also try inviting your friends over for a Creativity Day/Afternoon/Morning/Week-end. You might decide to all work on a similar project, maybe on the same project, or maybe you just want to work on your own projects, alone but together. If most of your friends are non-believers, invite them anyway. You can tone down the spiritual nature of your creative endeavors, if it makes others uncomfortable. Or maybe your project would be an entry point for you all to talk about your spiritual journeys. If you enjoy it, try making it a standing date that you do on a regular basis. Some of you might decide to go on retreat together.


There are more resources for more various art forms than I can possibly begin to list. Go to your public library and check out some books, if that's the kind of research you do. Google the type of art form you want to try. If you're the type who wants or needs a class, many community colleges and universities offer continuing ed classes at very reasonable prices, and many community centers also offer classes.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Launch into Lent: Cultivating Generosity

I thought about using the word "tithing," but I decided to use the idea of generosity instead. People who tithe often forget how impossible it sounds to give away 10% of our income; most of us can't even give away 10% to our own savings account. If we can't convince people to give away 10% of their income to their own selves, how can we convince them to give away 10% to charity or justice operations?

The answer to that question is to encourage people to start small. Starting at 10% is overwhelming. Giving away 1% is more manageable. Then at some later date, increase it to 2%, and so on.

Or perhaps we should move away from the idea that tithing can only be measured in financial terms. We can clean out our closets and give away all those clothes we never wear. Most of us have too much stuff, and there are people who can use our castaways. Use the time of Lent to purify and strip down. We can ship books to schools and seminaries to second and third world countries that can use them (go here to read about the Theological Book Network, which redistributes the world's book wealth).

We can give of our time. For many of us, time is more valuable than money, or at least in shorter supply, and these days, to give up some time in the service of God might be closer to the spirit of tithing than giving up money. For Lent, choose a charity or service organization that needs your help, and show up to help. Work with an illiterate student, help a group with a clean up day, go bag food at a food bank: the possibilities are endless.

I understand that many people are racing faster than ever simply to stay in place: working two jobs for reduced wages, while trying to make sure that their children or aging parents get where they need to go. If that's your situation, you could still offer your prayers for those who are working for peace and justice.

Why do this? What was the original idea behind tithing?

Money--and the power and status that it brings--is a powerfully seductive thing. Once, when facing reduced circumstances as my husband left his job, my Charismatic Catholic AA friend acted as if I'd had a death in the family.

I shrugged and said, "I think having too much money is spiritually dangerous."

You wouldn't think I'd have to explain that to her, but I did.

If we have too much money, we tend to think of ourselves as capable and smart and able to go about our lives on our own. We think we don't need God. And soon, we begin to worry that we don't have enough money, and we lash ourselves to our jobs, jobs that require ever more of us, so that we can ensure we have enough money. But we'll never have enough money.

We will never have enough money. We will never be safe and protected by having enough money.

The only way to win that game (to paraphrase books and movies about other subjects, like female beauty and nuclear war) is not to play.

Giving money away loosens its grip on us. Giving away money reminds us that we can live on less. Giving away money reminds us that we are people of God, not people of the capitalist systems which would like to enslave us.


In May 2008, the magazine Sojourners published a series of stories on how Christians should handle money. They've expanded their offerings online. Go here for insightful reading and links.

The Theological Book Network will take not only your religious books, but a wide variety of books--or you can donate money to help them do their important work. Go here for more details.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Launch into Lent: Fasting

Most people think of giving up food when they hear the word "fasting." Many people assume that when one is fasting, one only drinks water. Most of us assume we could never give up food, not for any length of time--which might be one reason we should attempt it. Fasting has been part of most religious traditions, even if it hasn't been widely used in all of them. It's a powerful tool.

Fasting gives us an opportunity to focus our attention. And if we're fasting for spiritual reasons, we've freed up some time and energy to focus on God.

If we give up food, we also give ourselves an opportunity to viscerally feel how much of the world lives: that nagging hunger in the stomach, that return of one's thoughts to food and how to find it.

Even if we think we can't give up food altogether, we could designate one day a week to be third world eating day. We could eat nothing but a bowl of rice once or twice a day. When we're hungry, we could remind ourselves that even with a diminished diet of rice, we're still getting more calories than much of the world.

And of course, we could undertake fasts of other sorts. Here are some things you could give up, for one day a week or the whole of Lent:



--local television news

--driving above the speed limit


--coffee (or just coffee from a coffee shop, which is SO overpriced)


--fast food

--soda (yes, even diet)

--restaurant food

--fluffy reading

--sending text messages

--excessive Internet use

If you want to be part of a truly ancient tradition, you might choose Friday as your fast day for Lent, as much of the church did for the first 1600-1900 years of church tradition. Or you might want to plan for some sort of three day fast that covers Good Friday to Easter morning.


In March, Scot McKnight's book, Fasting, will be released, and people who have seen the book tell us it's wonderful. It's part of the Ancient Practices series (I've read two of the books in the series and can't say enough good things; I mentioned In Constant Prayer a few days ago).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Launch Into Lent--Keeping a Spiritual Journal

I think that Westerners are completely out of touch with their innermost thoughts. In fact, I think that we're terrified of our innermost thoughts, and that's why we try to drown them out with music, television, chattering on our cellphones. We're scared to know what we really think.

Journalling is a powerful tool for us, and many people have said that keeping a journal is meditation for Westerners. Maybe you already keep a journal. No matter your thoughts on keeping a journal, you might try some of these techniques to add some spiritual depth to your Lent.

Don't worry about the tools of the writing process. You can write on a computer or with your trusty pen. You can buy a beautiful book or write on scraps of paper. If you already journal, you can use it.

And don't worry too much about the logistics. It would be lovely if we all had an hour in the morning and in the evening to get in touch with our deepest selves, but most of us don't. So use what you have. If you can't achieve silence, don't fret. Write while the commercials are on and your family members are clicking through channels if you have to. God can use the time we have.

Choose one of the following and write. Feel free to return to it.

Writing Prompts:

--Where did you see God today? Where have you seen God in the last week?

--Keep a prayer list. Who needs your prayers today?

--Keep an answered prayer list. How has God answered your prayers?

--Write about the Scripture you've been reading. For example, you might ask yourself, "Who am I in this Gospel lesson?" You might see what still speaks to you, and what seems anchored to a distant time and place. If you keep this spiritual discipline through the years, you might return to an unapproachable text and see if it remains unapproachable.

--Write about the other spiritual material you've been reading. Look for spiritual lessons in your secular reading.

--Choose a word that has some spiritual charge and write about it. Here are some words to get you started: bread, sanctuary, grace, spirit, flesh, salvation, host, wine, revelation, soul, redeem, love, trinity, creator, fruit, joy, peace. If you enjoy this and would like to read a masterful writer engaged in the same process, read Katherine Norris' Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

--Imagine that you can say anything you like to God. What do you say?

--Write in the voice of God, speaking directly to you.

This last one might give you pause. Those of us who grew up in conservative traditions might fear being hit with a lightning bolt. However, I did this--with some fear and trepidation--with a journal writing workshop that I let, and my participants have let me know that this exercise was the most powerful thing we did. You might want to save this for a time when you have 15 minutes or more. It might take you some time to get into the spirit of the exercise.


Luann Budd's Journal Keeping: Writing for Spiritual Growth.

Christina Baldwin has spent most of her life writing about journalling, but she comes from a non-Christian, New Agey perspective. Her book Life's Companion: Journal Writing as Spiritual Quest is useful.

Augsburg has a neat 40 Day Journey series, which gives readings from an author, readings from the Bible, prayers, and journalling prompts. In the series: Kathleen Norris (recommended!), Julian of Norwich, Parker J. Palmer, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Madeleine L'Engle, Joan Chittister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Launch Into Lent--Increase Your Bible Reading

If you've started a program of fixed hour prayer, you're already increasing your Scripture reading. But some days, I find the fragmentary nature of this kind of Bible reading a bit irritating. It's good to read larger chunks of the Bible, and most of us don't do that very much.

If we're lucky, we get several chunks of the Bible during our church services, but some of us don't even get that. I once visited a Lutheran church and never went back--there was no first lesson, no Psalm, no second lesson. We just went straight to the Gospel. It was strange.

Maybe it's Monday, and you're wondering what to read. You could do worse than to just read the lessons for the past Sunday or the upcoming Sunday each day of the week. Let the words sink into you and see where they lead you. If you need the lessons for the week, plus special feast days, go here and then pick up your favorite Bible. If you need to read the lectionary online, go here; if you keep clicking through screens, you can get several translation options as well as study aids.

Or maybe you want to branch out. Choose a book you've never read before. Or maybe you want to simply read a Psalm a day. Or maybe you want to read your way through the Gospels. There's no wrong way to do it. And if you find yourself bored or irritated or wishing you'd chosen a different text--change!

How much should more daily reading should you do? My students are always asking for quantifying information, so I hear their voices: how many pages? How much time should I spend?

I'd take a page from the diet/exercise/lifestyle doctors. Start where you are, doing what you can do. Read 15 minutes a day. You don't have 15 minutes? Read for 5. Or simply read a Psalm or read one chapter. Read while you eat your cereal. Read just before bed. Make your children's bedtime stories come from the Bible. Get the Bible on tape/CD/mp3 download and listen on your way to work.

Go here if you don't want the burden of choosing--you can get a new verse each day (and check out the other tabs too--it looks interesting!). Or maybe you want to be ambitious and read through the Bible in a year--this site has help for that too.

Don't overthink this spiritual discipline. Just dive right in and read a bit more each day.


--Go here for the ELCA website page that gives you the lectionary readings for the week and special days.

--Go here to read the lectionary readings online.

--Go here for a random verse of the day, as well as other ways to surf the Bible.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Launch into Lent: Praying the Hours

For the next week, as Christians around the world prepare for Lent, I'm going to blog about some spiritual disciplines that you might want to think about, if you're thinking about adding a spiritual discipline into your life for Lent. At the end of each post, you'll find resources and links.

Today I want to write about fixed hour prayer (also called praying the hours, the divine office, the liturgy of the hours, and the canonical hours).

For years, I've been interested in the practice of praying at fixed hours of the day. I first became interested as I explored the worlds of monasticism, and I experimented on my own, and experienced it communally as I visited the monks at Mepkin Abbey. I find it much more satisfying to pray the Divine Office as part of a communal group committed to that spiritual discipline, but I don't live that kind of life yet.

So, I pray alone, and yet I'm not alone, because Christians across the globe are praying with me. We may be saying different words, but we're following a similar format. The simplest: a bit of the Psalms, the Lord's Prayer, a prayer of the day--all the rest are variations (maybe some other Scripture, maybe a Gloria, maybe a prayer of the Church, maybe a few more pieces of Psalms, maybe some spiritual writing/song that's not in the Bible).

Fixed hour prayer is different from personal prayer. We follow a format, with words that are prepared for us in a breviary or some other prayer book (those of us who are brave might make our own prayer books, but most of us don't have that kind of time).

Those of us who didn't grow up with that kind of prayer might protest that it feels impersonal. But fixed hour prayer doesn't have to take the place of your personal prayers. We're commanded to pray without ceasing, and so, there are plenty of hours in the day to fill with your personal conversation with God.

Those of us who often find ourselves at a loss for words when we approach God might be grateful for theologians who have done the work for us and all we need to do is to read the words.

When we participate in fixed hour prayer, we're part of an ancient tradition that goes far, far back, even before Christianity. The ancient Jews prayed seven times a day, we think. We're fairly sure that Jesus prayed these prayers too. Ancient monks in the desert prayed the daily office. We should do that too.

If you can't pray at all the times that your prayer book recommends, just do one or two offices. Monastics awake at early hours to get started praying (the Mepkin monks are awake at 3:20 praying), and they pray at fixed hours through the day: often at 6, 9, noon, 3, 6, and again before bed. If you're just experimenting with fixed hour prayer, you might decide to pray only the morning office and the office just before bed.

The benefit to returning to prayer throughout the day is that it reminds us that we're people of God. It reminds us that God's purpose for us is different than the world's purpose for us. Since fixed hour prayer is often composed of Scriptures, we sow those words deep in our souls if we pray them enough.

And of course, there's the benefit that comes from being in constant communication with God, praising and thanking and asking and glorifying.


--Robert Benson has just published a wonderful little book, In Constant Prayer (published by Thomas Nelson in 2008) about the practice of praying the hours.

--Fixed hour prayer books can be expensive, but luckily there are online resources. I go here when I'm away from my prayer books.

--If you want a prayer book, here are some that have been useful to me and to others:

--The shortest useful prayer book that I've found that I've liked is The Little Book of Hours: Praying With the Community of Jesus (Paraclete Press).

--My favorite book is a series by Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours. It's also online here.

--I've heard good things about Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings From the Northumbria Community (HarperOne), but I haven't used it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 22, 2009:

First Reading: 2 Kings 2:1-12

Psalm: Psalm 50:1-6

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9

This Sunday, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, is the Sunday when many Protestant churches celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord. The Gospel presents Jesus, Peter, James, and John up on the mountain when not only is Jesus transformed into someone with garments that are "glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them" (verse 3). And then Moses and Elijah show up to talk with Jesus.

As we can imagine, the disciples are afraid. Peter blabbers on about building booths, which I find somewhat charming: "Let's build a shelter!" And then a voice from the clouds tells them to listen to Jesus.Most of us will never have this kind of overwhelming evidence of the divinity of Christ. Most of us will never see the prophets, at least not on this side of the grave. Most of us will never hear God proclaiming that Christ is the son to whom we should listen.

And yet, many of us believe.

My nonbeliever friends just cannot understand how people of faith can believe, even though we have no tangible proof. When I'm in a lighthearted mood, I respond by saying, "I believe in many things that I can't explain: electricity, the internal combustion engine, and the enduring power of love. I believe in many things that I can't prove with my senses, like string theory. I believe in many things that I can't get my human brain around, like the expanse of the universe or the fact that my husband will love me at my most unlovable."It's an interesting thing to ponder, this issue of what makes some of us believers and what makes other people reject the idea of God. Do we believe because of evidence of God that we see in the world? Do we believe because we see the impact of God on other people? Or perhaps we do have some experience of God in our own lives? Some scientists will argue that the desire for the divine is part of our genetic code and others scoff at that. It's interesting to me that physicists, the ones who study a science that most of us will never fully understand, and a science that often seems least provable by conventional methods, often have a more profound belief in God (although it's often a different belief from that of most mainstream believers) than other types of scientists.

Different people will have different answers to why they believe in God or why they don't believe in God. And then we might ask what our belief in God, or absence thereof, means for our daily life.

A week from today we celebrate Ash Wednesday, a day that reminds us that we are here on this earth for a very short time. Rather than get morose about this subject, we can use this as a prompt to ask ourselves what's important in our lives. Are we living daily lives that are in sync with those values? How can we make adjustments to ensure that we are not wasting our brief time here?

Lent begins a week from today. This liturgical season offers us a perfect time for some recalibration. Maybe we want to try or revisit a spiritual discipline: adding another prayer time to our day, adding some Bible reading to our day, adding some devotional time, adding some quiet time, fasting (from television, from the news, from junk calories . . .), tithing, journalling, some social justice work. Maybe we want to add some symbol to our living space to remind us of our commitment to God. Maybe we want to undertake an art form to help us with our contemplative time. There are many more opportunities than I can list here, and it's easy to get overwhelmed. But just choose one thing to do for Lent, one thing that seems to mesh with your other commitments in life. Commit for the season of Lent, and by the time we get to Easter, you may be amazed to see how your life has become transfigured.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Marriage: Sacrament or Fund Raiser?

At my quilt group yesterday, we heard about a Student Government fund raiser at one of our local high schools. Students paid two dollars to get "married." Students married other students, both in terms of "officiating" the ceremony and in terms of participating. Students often married several other students at once--group marriage!

Our reactions ranged from mild amusement to mild outrage to serious discomfort. What ever happened to selling carnations, like my high school used to do for Valentine's Day?

I found myself thinking about marriage a lot this past week-end. Our church did a renewing of vows during Sunday's service, in addition to a baptism--an interesting juxtaposition.

I think Martin Luther went too far in deciding that marriage wouldn't be a sacrament in the Lutheran church. Nothing has ever helped me understand the nature of God's love better than my marriage (except, perhaps, the love of my parents for me). Nothing else, except, perhaps Communion, is so much an "outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible Grace" (as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer describes a sacrament).

I am always amazed and grateful when my husband forgives me for the boneheaded things I do. I'm even more amazed that he's often forgiving me for making the same mistakes again and again.

These are not major mistakes. I don't go out and cheat on him, for example. But I'm often irritated and grumpy, and I lash out, and I realize I've been a jerk, so I apologize and ask for forgiveness. And he kisses me and says, "Don't worry about it." And again and again, I feel blessed with a kind of marital grace.

And of course, I do the same for him. And in this daily practice of love and forgiveness, I come to understand God's love for me--and I am able to carry a similar love out into the world.

It's hard to be a Christian today, and to avoid the question of whether or not homosexuals should be able to marry. I'll just go ahead and ruin any prospect I have for going to seminary and say here, on the record, that I approve of gay marriage. My favorite conservative columnist, David Brooks, said it better than I can here in a New York Times column; he says, "We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity."

In fact, I'd go even further. Some members of my quilt group were troubled by the idea of students marrying not one other student, but two or three. That didn't bother me. I'd open marriage up to all sorts of variations. If three people want to commit, then let them commit. Where I differ from my society is that I would then say, if you want to commit, you'd better be sure--once you're in a marriage, we expect you to leave only if the situation turns truly catastrophic. If you're not ready for that kind of commitment, then go for the domestic partnership option that I'd have available to everyone as well.

Don't commit to marriage if you don't believe in the sacramental aspect of it. If you're just marrying for the health insurance, we should give people other options.

That quote of Brooks speaks to what I found so troubling about the idea of students paying two dollars to marry each other for fundraising purposes: it trivializes an institution that I find sacramental. We live in a society that trivializes commitment in all kinds of ways, and I find it dispiriting to discover one more way.

Of course, if students had a similar conversation about marriage as my quilt group did, perhaps it would be a useful exercise. I suspect that they didn't, but I'm hopeful that some thoughtful students began the process of determining what they believe about a battered institution.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Church vs. State and Reinhold Niebuhr

This morning, I heard another great show on NPR's Speaking of Faith--go here and you can hear it too, or just explore the website.

In this show, E. J. Dionne and David Brooks (two of my favorite commentators) talk about the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his influence both in the middle part of the twentieth century and on Barack Obama. It was such a civilized discussion, even when the two men disagreed. It was so different than the yelling one often hears on other networks.

I was also struck by how both men were able to speak about faith and its influence on political leaders without going into hysterics. I've often noticed that with my more secular friends, the idea that one's religious beliefs might affect one's political actions sends them into apoplexy. Yet these same friends launch into hysterical rages at the idea of hypocrisy of any kind. How is a religious working person to win?

Brooks and Dionne remind us of an earlier age (the 1950's), when Time magazine had a weekly theology column--often written by people that later generations would study in college. We currently live in an age of less rigorous thought--indeed, when there's any thought at all.

I was struck, listening to the two men, by how much they both knew about such a range of subjects and writers. And I felt that familiar longing to go back to school, to read all the books I'd missed along the way, to be surrounded by a community of scholars.

Of course, the likely scenario would be that I would be surrounded not by a community of scholars, but by a shallower kind of community. Sigh.

Perhaps I should start dreaming of a different kind of community, one that isn't school-based, but is intellectually stimulating. A retirement community perhaps? a monastic community of some sort? Hmmm.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Simon Peter's Mother-in-Law??

As I listened to last Sunday's Gospel (Feb. 8), I latched onto the words that told me that Simon Peter had a mother-in-law. In my younger days, I'd have been quite upset that the woman is healed and gets up and serves everyone. In my current state of mind, I understand that work doesn't get done just because one is on one's deathbed. Especially not when one is on one's death bed.

I've spent the last several days thinking about Simon Peter's mother-in-law. Mother-in-law presupposes wife, does it not? Simon Peter's wife. Now there's a thought. Do we ever hear much about her? What does she think about these exploits of Simon Peter? I feel a poem brewing.

I wrote a poem draft several years ago about Simon Peter's sister, the one left behind to take care of the family business while her brothers traipsed around the countryside following Jesus. Maybe I'll dig it out and think about it again.

The poem that's percolating about Simon Peter's wife will go in a different direction: we see him as a bumbling guy who just doesn't get it--she sees a different side . . .

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Meditation on this Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 15, 2009:

First Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 30

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Gospel: Mark 1:40-45

Today's readings revolve around healings. The Old Testament reading shows Naaman, who almost refuses a healing experience, because it involves a simple bath in a humble river. He wanted something grander and glorious. We might think about how many times we get in the way of our own health and wholeness by refusing to believe that the process can be so easy.

The Gospel lesson shows Jesus healing a leper. Those of us in the 21st century forget what Jesus is doing by this healing. We don't have complicated purity laws. By touching the leper, and by the leper telling everyone, Jesus effectively exiles himself. He cannot stay in town because by touching the impure, he makes himself impure.

I love this vision of God. God doesn't take on human form in order to tell us how icky we are. God comes to us in the form of Jesus and chooses to be with the most outcast of the outcast. When presented with a choice, Jesus makes it clear that God chooses to be with the lowly and the exile.

And here, in this Gospel story, the people leave their human communities to go be with Jesus. I wonder if that should be a lesson to us as well. We are not likely to find God in the hallways filled by powerful people. We will find God in the outposts of civilization, in the crumbling corners of human empires.

That doesn't mean that we're forbidden to hang out with the powerful. Indeed, some of us might see it as our mission to hang out with the powerful, to remind them of their duty to the poor and downtrodden. One wonders how this current economic crisis might have turned out differently, had we not left Wall Street to the powerful men. I'm seeing lots of interesting articles about how women might have made a difference, had they been a presence on Wall Street. I wonder the same about Christians.

The problem with the powerful is that they soon see themselves as gods, and they expect the rest of us to treat them like they are gods amongst us. And anyone who knows their literary history knows what happens when humans see themselves as gods: the gods step in to crush them, to remind them of their lowly status.

What a different story we have with our Gospel lesson, our God amongst us. We have our God, who prefers a lowly status. We have our God, who has a choice, and who chooses the sickest of the sick.

If we're not the sickest of the sick, it doesn't mean that God doesn't want to be with us. It does mean that we might have to make an extra effort, to be with the sick, which we might not like, because it might remind us of our frailty.

The outcast of civilization have a gift that doesn't come to the rest of us so easily. The rest of us find it easy to believe that we have accomplished all that we have and accumulated all that we have because of our skills, talents, and gifts. We don't like to admit that much of our present status has to do with luck--we were born to the right parents at the right time or we had other advantages that others didn't. We like to think that we have a certain power--and if we're not careful, we come to think of ourselves as gods--and then why bother to have a relationship with God, if we're so fabulous?

The dispossessed labor under no delusions. They have seen the underside of power. They understand that humans who think that they are gods can do dreadful harm. They know that they need God.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

"Operating Instructions"

I was looking for the bit in an Anne Lamott book where she talks about a mom being locked out of a bedroom. Behind the door was a screaming toddler. The mom couldn't get the door open and neither could the toddler. While she waited for help to arrive, she stuck her fingers under the door and talked in soothing tones to the toddler. Anne Lamott saw that incident as a metaphor for God's presence in our lives.

I thought the obvious place to look for the source would be Lamott's book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year." I didn't find that example, but I found lots of other great stuff I underlined years ago:

"You nonreligious types think, Well that's a funny little coincidence, but we Holy Rollers say that coincidence is just God working anonymously" (p. 61).

"Scientologists and Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are crazier than they have to be" (she's quoting a priest friend on p. 69).

"But once an old woman at my church said the secret is that God loves us exactly the way we are and that he loves us too much to let us stay like this, and I'm just trying to trust that" (p. 96).

"I'm so crazy that sometimes I even go into the past and rehash things that turned out well yet might have turned out disastrously" (p. 132).

This metaphor is almost as good as the mom metaphor for which I was hunting: "He said he'd finally figured out a few years ago that his profound sense of control, in the world and over his life, is another addiction and a total illusion. He said that when he sees little kids sitting in the backseat of cars, in those car seats that have steering wheels, with grim expressions of concentration on their faces, clearly convinced that their efforts are causing the car to do whatever it is doing, he thinks of himself and his relationship with God: God who drives along silently, gently amused, in the real driver's seat" (p. 113).

Friday, February 6, 2009

Pet Baptisms??? Pets at Ash Wednesday Service???

Last night, in my Poetry Workshop class, we looked at one of my poems, which I had written out as a paragraph, and I gave to them to experiment with lines and stanzas.

I like to explain how I came up with ideas for a poem, and the inspiration for this one happened when I went to visit my mother-in-law in the ICU on Ash Wednesday, and I noticed that every single one of the mostly unconscious patients in the ICU had an ash smudge on their foreheads. Always when I recount this tale to students, I have to explain Ash Wednesday.

Last night, one of my students told me that at her childhood church, people brought their pets to Ash Wednesday service to get them smudged. It boggles my mind. Can a pet possibly understand mortality? I see one of the main purposes of Ash Wednesday is to remind us that we're not here for very long. With that knowledge in mind, and our ash smudges on our foreheads, we might think more seriously about our priorities.

Then another one of my students said that her Baptist church used to baptize pets. Clearly these are not the Southern Baptists of my youth!! I resisted asking whether it was full immersion or sprinkling of water on the head.

I've grown accustomed to services where people bring their pets in to be blessed, although the Lutheran churches of my youth would not have done such a thing. But baptized? Smudged with ashes?

It makes me think about animal souls and the urgent question of my childhood: would my dog be in Heaven?

Over at LutheranChik's blog, LutheranChik recounts the conversation she's having on Beliefnet. She talks about C. S. Lewis' view of the question of pets in Heaven: "I mentioned C.S. Lewis, and how while he couldn't quite bring himself to imagine that every sentient being on the planet lives on in the life to come -- he speculated that perhaps they do as a species or Type but not as individual creatures -- he did theorize that perhaps, just as we are called into relationship with God, made children and heirs to God's household, our love and care for our companion animals likewise transforms them and allows them to join us in eternity."

Then she talks about her relationship with her dog and describes the games they play and the sheer joy that it brings both of them. She concludes "It makes me wonder if God feels a similar pleasure interacting with us, or sharing moments of spiritual intimacy with us."

It's a great post. Go here to read the whole thing. You'll have to scroll down to get to the Feb. 3 entry, if she's posted since then, and then keep scrolling to the entry entitled "Gertie Love . . . God's Love." It's worth the effort.

Still, even knowing how much people love their pets and how valuable this experience can be, I don't know if I can support pet baptisms. Do the people of the church promise to help in the pet's faith journey? Does the pet owner promise to read the pet the Scriptures? If I was a pastor and someone wanted their pet baptized, we'd have to have a long talk about the sacrament and what we understand happening there.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Value of Prayer Shawl Ministries

Around 2002, I first heard about prayer shawl ministries. I immediately understood the value for the people who made the prayer shawls, but I couldn't quite fathom what the recipient was supposed to do with a prayer shawl. I imagined the recipient getting the shawl in the middle of summer and wondering what to do with it.

A few years later, I was a member of a church that lost the roof of its education building during hurricane Wilma. The damage to the sanctuary was astonishing, even though it hadn't lost its roof. I was church council president, so I needed to provide some leadership. But I was dealing with my own home repairs, after hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. New Orleans sustained much, much more Katrina damage, but Katrina crossed over the peninsula of Florida as a category 1 storm and reminded us of how much damage a "weak" hurricane can inflict. And then, two months later, Hurricane Wilma came along to finish the job.

I spent the autumn of 2005 shuttling between damaged church, damaged home, and damaged (slightly) workplace. I couldn't imagine how we would ever put it all back together again.

In the midst of my autumn of despair, a prayer shawl arrived from Oklahoma. The pastor of my damaged church looked at it, puzzled. "What are we supposed to do with this?"

I read the enclosed note: "We know about your damaged church, and we are holding you in prayer."

I went to the bathroom so that I could weep in private. Back in my pre-hurricane-damage days, I would never have thought that such a simple gesture would means so much to me.

Did that prayer shawl magically heal the roof? Of course not. But it reminded me that I am not alone, and that gave me some strength to face the tasks that had to be done. Did we need the warmth of a prayer shawl wrapped around ourselves? No, quite the contrary. With no electricity for 2-6 weeks, as the weather returned to muggy heat, we needed just the opposite.

Did we need prayers? Yes. Did we need to be reminded that others were praying? More than you can imagine.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 8, 2009:

First Reading: Isaiah 40:21-31

Psalm: Psalm 147:1-12, 21c (Psalm 147:1-11, 20c NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39

In today's Gospel, we see Jesus hard at work. Most of us are familiar with this aspect of the story. Jesus heals and casts out demons and heals some more.

But notice what he does in verse 35. He retreats. He goes to a lonely place to pray. He has to get up long before dawn to be able to have this private time for prayer. And he doesn't get to enjoy his time in solitary prayer for long. His disciples "pursue" him, and Jesus suggests they head to the next town.

It's what he was put on earth to do, after all. He travels all around the area, preaching in the synagogues and healing and casting out demons.

But it's important not to lose sight of what fuels his activity. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus preaching, feeding, teaching, healing--and periodically, he withdraws to pray. In his new book, Tell It Slant, Eugene H. Peterson says, "Story and prayer are the core language of our humanity. We say most truly who we are when we tell stories to one another and pray to our Lord. Story and prayer are also the core language of our Scriptures: God tells us who he is, completely revealed in Jesus, the Word made flesh who completed 'the works that the Father has given me to complete' (John 5:36) and all the while is attentively listening and obediently answering, as a Son to his Father--praying. Our Scriptures consist mostly of stories and prayers. We enter most appropriately into that revelation when we listen and tell stories to one another and listen and speak to God in prayer" (160).

Most of us mirror Jesus in how busy our lives have become. Most of my friends report feeling like someone is always there, wanting, needing something from them. They get irritable. Some days, I think that older people, especially women, break their bones because they've had a whole life of people sucking the marrow right out of them (and some day, I'll make that image work in a poem!). But what can we do, especially in this economy?

God calls us to a servant's destiny. We are put on earth to be of service to others, doing the same things that Jesus did: preaching, feeding, teaching, healing. But God doesn't expect us to do these things without periods of rest. We need times of retreat, even if we can only schedule short times. We need times of prayer. We need time to listen for God, because the cries of the needy can drown out the still, small voice of God. We need time to refresh, and the easiest way to renew ourselves for the tasks ahead is to pray. The world, with all its aching yearning, will still be there after we emerge from our time of retreat.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Candlelit Holidays to Brighten Winter

On her blog, The Painted Prayerbook, Jan Richardson gives wonderful background on some early church holidays, which unfortunately seem to have collapsed into Groundhog's Day as the only day that most of us celebrate. Go here to read about Candlemas and here to read about the Feast of St. Brigid and to enjoy some wonderful art.

How sad that the modern Church has lost sight of this need for light and warmth and let most of these ancient traditions slide away from us.

Sure we're a day or two past the official celebration times, but why not light some candles and contemplate their meaning again?

I've always wished that Christmas came in February, when the dreary weather finally began to get on my last nerve (well, it did when I lived further north) and I needed something cheery. Even Valentine's Day didn't brighten my mood, since it always reminded me of childhood times, when I was hoping to get a special Valentine, but didn't, or when someone else always got more than I did.

So, I'll enjoy these last few days and weeks before Lent begins by lighting candles, baking the bread that I never got around to baking for Christmas (to celebrate St. Brigid's reputation for butter that is always replenished), and thinking about God's generosity and luminous presence.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

God as Writer?

This morning, I heard a great show on the Speaking of Faith program. Krista Tippett interviewed one of my favorite writers, Mary Doria Russell. She had fascinating things to say, and she focused primarily on her book The Sparrow, where she created a brand new world. This God-like exercise made her think about God, free will, creation, and led her back to faith--she calls herself an agnostic Jew. Go here to hear the interview and get access to lots of other information.

I found myself identifying with what she said. When I write fiction, especially novels, I often find my characters going in directions I didn't anticipate. I had declared that I was done writing love stories when I wrote my last novel--but when the two main characters fell in love, it made so much sense to me, and I didn't have the heart to send them on the alternate path I thought I had chosen for them. Through these kind of experiences, I feel I have a bit better understanding of God and the way God might relate to God's creation.

I've heard people say similar things about parenting. You want what's best for the child, but the child doesn't always cooperate. You'd do anything to save them--sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

I like this vision of God as a writer, creating various worlds, various characters, various plotlines. It works better for me than the image of God as angry father, God as avenger, God as creating our planet and then going off to focus on other universes.

I also like the vision of God as a co-creator, God as creative partner. What would it mean if we thought of God as a partner in creation? How would we approach our own creative process if we had a cosmic partner?

When I ask my students these questions (usually prompted by a traditional religious comment by a student, which is usually prompted by a reaction to a reading), I can see how uncomfortable they are with this idea. They're much happier with an absent God or a disapproving God. Of course, there's always one or two students for whom this idea clicks. I see joy light up their faces.