Tuesday, March 31, 2009
I was shocked at the idea that two of my friends view it as an impossible thing to live a life consistent with our values. They see it as completely normal that our ideals would be impossible to achieve--this, despite the fact that one of them flies into fits of apoplexy whenever she sees a hint of hypocrisy in the world.
Yet they don't see the inability to live consistently with one's values as hypocrisy. I find that odd.
Now, I'm certainly not claiming that I always live in concert with my values. But I'm always trying. There are times when other factors intervene. For example, due to declining student enrollment, we've had to cancel lots of classes and so, we've had to let some adjuncts go. In an ideal world, I'd find other work for them. Unfortunately, I'm not given that latitude. In an ideal world, I'd have given them more warning--as it was, I could only let them know a month ahead of time. In an ideal world, I'd have been paying them more money. But I'm not in charge of the budget.
Still, I fight for higher pay raises for them, because that is consistent with my values. As soon as I know bad news that will impact our faculty, I tell everyone so that everyone can plan accordingly. I don't hide and hope that no one finds out.
As I've spent time thinking, I realize that most of the people I've known are living lives that are consistent with their values, at least to my powers of observation. That may explain why it's so hard for me to find people I want to spend much time with--often, those values which steer their lives are troubling to me.
As a teenager, I assumed that everyone was hypocritical, and I reserved my largest portion of scorn for churchgoers. I'll never forget the time that I, a smug 19 year old, talked to an inner city pastor about the hypocrisy of suburban churches, and he told me in no uncertain terms that the money that suburban churches gave his church allowed them to do their various ministries to the poor and outcast.
And one summer, when I was home from college, one of the pastors of my parents' church announced that one of our African immigrant members was desperate for money to get his family out of his increasingly dangerous country. It was a tiny amount of money, all things considered, just the price of some airline tickets.
Of course I assumed that no one would donate. I was impressed when my father whipped out his checkbook. I was even more impressed that almost 30 people made a similar donation. At least that's how I remember it. I may have the numbers wrong. It was twenty years ago, after all.
I think that's one of the primary benefits of going to church. We are reminded of what we are called to be. We are surrounded by people who share a similar vision. We are given the opportunities to demonstrate that we do live according to certain values.
Monday, March 30, 2009
I was reading her discussion of particles and waves, and the trouble that a lot of people have with the concept that matter and energy can be both particles and waves. She claims that no one can really understand this concept (page 63).
Now, I don't claim to be a cosmologist or physicist, but I think I have less problem than many people with the idea that something can be two or more things at once, even if they would seem to be contradictory things. Even though I can't say it clearly, my brain doesn't ache at the idea of it, as the brains of many do.
I wonder why this is? Is it because I'm a poet? As a poet, I'm always on the lookout for images to string together, images that you, the reader, wouldn't expect to see in the same poem, with the overall effect of making you see the world in a way you never have before. And a poem that can do that is my favorite kind of poem, both to read and to write.
Or maybe it's because I grew up as a Lutheran, in a church tradition that didn't coat everything with sugar so that we'd all swallow it. Yes, there were contradictions and ideas that were difficult to get our brains around. Some of it, I'm still not sure I can explain, even though I don't have trouble with it on a theoretical level. I was never one of those children who couldn't understand the concept of the Trinity. Yup, made perfect sense to me. Viewed one way, the Divine would look like this, while viewed another way, we'd perceive this, and a third way would reveal that. My child brain only inquired, "Why did God stop at three?" I never did get a satisfactory answer for that.
I find it interesting that many atheists are willing to believe in things that their senses can't perceive (at least not without a lot of help), like atoms, but they criticize believers for their spiritual beliefs. When people ask me, "How can you believe in God? You can't prove the existence of God." Or they say, "If there's a God, then please explain to me why there is evil in the world."
Rather than try to make a proof, I simply answer, "I believe in all sorts of things I don't fully understand: the internal combustion engine, electricity, neutrinos . . . If I got rid of everything I couldn't prove or explain, I wouldn't be left with much." I do often make a futile attempt to explain the idea of free will and how that leads to evil, but I've found that people who ask these kinds of questions aren't really looking for an intellectual conversation. They're just being sneerily dismissive.
Janna Levin seems to say that even free will is an illusion. She hasn't talked about it much, and I'm only halfway through the book, so I'm hoping she returns to the concept. On page 25, she says, ". . . if every atom in our bodies merely follows a mechanical trajectory precisely determined by the laws of physics then we have no volition. Our choices are predetermined and we merely play out the inevitable effect of all those earlier causes." On page 26 she continues, "A deterministic universe is like a movie where the end is already recorded. We don't know the ending, so we have the impression that it's unfolding in real time and a sense of spontaneity, bu the end is already written, already determined. Maybe nature has restricted our perception in this way to protect us from the completely bleak state of affairs of knowing the ending, but it's an illusion all the same."
How interesting that my brain has trouble with that concept--not in understanding it, but in believing it--but I can willingly accept the idea of the Trinity.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Here I want to praise Gail Godwin. I read her book Father Melancholy's Daughter during the summer I was supposed to be studying for my Ph.D. Comprehensive Exams. I had vowed that summer that I wouldn't read any books except for the ones that would help me with my Comps. And yet, I couldn't resist several of them (the only other one I remember was A. S. Byatt's Possession, which I could almost justify, since one of my Comps areas was 20th Century British Lit).
I was already a big Gail Godwin fan. In fact, in 1984, she came to Newberry College to speak to us students, and I remember that she came to our Creative Writing class. I can't tell you specifically what she talked about, but I remember how inspiring she was.
To this day, Father Melancholy's Daughter is one of my favorite books of hers; The Good Husband is the other. I love how she explores issues of faith, love, and the question of the best ways to spend our all-too-short life. She also often explores issues of artists and how artists interact with the world. How do we stay true to our art and not abandon all our other commitments?
In an interview I read long ago, Gail Godwin said that Father Melancholy's Daughter brought her back to church. The story revolves around an Episcopalian priest, and Godwin talks about going to a local church so that she correctly painted a picture of the life of the faithful. And she never left.
I also think that she prays the daily office because she talks about coming across this line in her prayer book: "Shield the joyous." That line helped inspire part of the sequel to Father Melancholy's Daughter, a book called Evensong.
Father Melancholy's Daughter was a book that made me want to return to church, although it's taken me many years to find a church and a pastor like the one in the book. Other writers that made me long for a church life to call my own? Kathleen Norris and Nora Gallagher (go here to explore Gallagher's website). I expect I'll blog about them at some future time.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm: Psalm 51:1-13 (Psalm 51:1-12 NRSV)
Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 119:9-16
Second Reading: Hebrews 5:5-10
Gospel: John 12:20-33
Another reading about light and darkness. I love the last verse, the one that mentions becoming children of the light. How much I want to be a child of the light. How hard it is to keep from slipping into dimness.
My standard response to a Gospel reading that reminds us to be light to the world is to give myself more duties and obligations. I'll pray fixed hour prayers 7 times a day instead of 3 or 4. I'll tithe 20% instead of 10%. I'll find an hour a day to read the Bible. I'll create spiritual art. I'll go on 4 retreats this year, instead of one or two.
But what if my approach is wrong? What if God would like me to calm down, to be still, to rest and get to know the presence of the divine?
Two weeks ago, I did a labyrinth walk. Even though I've already blogged about this experience and its insight, I think it bears repeating. I held a candle in a tall, skinny glass jar, which I thought would protect the flame. I noticed that the faster I walked, the more my flame flickered. When I walked with a slow, deliberative pace, the flame burned brighter. Instantly, I made some connections.
I spend much of my weeks racing from this commitment to that commitment. Few of them are burdensome, yet my pace often leaves me exhausted. Perhaps that's the reason that lately I've been more fiercely drawn to the contemplative side of religious traditions.
Don't give me more books to read. Give me a Bible passage and let me walk the labyrinth--give my body something to do so that my mind can ruminate. Don't ask me to give more money--but do give me information so that I can be sure that my money is well spent. Don't give me more tasks to do--but do give me more time, so that I can do the tasks I've been called to do with a degree of completion that will please us all.
Today, many of us in the Christian tradition celebrate the Annunciation of our Lord. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says, "Hail, oh blessed one! The Lord is with you!" (I still like the older wording best). Mary asks some questions, and Gabriel says, "For nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1: 37). And Mary says, ". . . let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1: 38).
But then notice what is required of Mary. She must wait. She is not required to enter into a spiritual boot camp to get herself ready for this great honor. No, she must be present to God and be willing to have a daily relationship, an intimacy that most of us would never make time for. She doesn't have to travel or make a pilgrimage to a different land. She doesn't have to go to school to work on a Ph.D. She isn't even required to go to the Temple any extra amount. She must simply slow down and be present. And of course, she must be willing to be pregnant, which requires more of her than most of us will offer up to God. And there's the later part of the story, where she must watch her son die an agonizing death.
But before she is called upon to these greater tasks, first she must slow down enough to hear God. I've often thought that if the angel Gabriel came looking for any one of us, we'd be difficult to find. Gabriel would need to make an appointment months in advance!
Our modern lives make it difficult for us to find our way to God. And if we don't find our way to God on a regular basis, it will be hard to be filled with light so that we can radiate God's love to the world.
So, perhaps instead of adding more to our spiritual lives, we should begin to hollow out some spaces. Then we'll have room to invite God in.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
"You could too, if you practiced every day," I said.
I watch her brain click shut. No way would she be receptive to that idea. "Uh, uh, absolutely not. I could practice a million years and never be able to do that," she said.
When I can see her brain click shut, I should just drop whatever subject we're on, but I usually plow ahead. I told her about taking a yoga class with a woman who had been in a car accident. She could barely move. She couldn't afford physical therapy at the hospital, but she could afford yoga. She applied herself and practiced every day.
At the end of a year, she had more flexibility and strength than I did.
I wonder how many areas of our lives are like that. I'm almost done with Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and he argues that much of what we mistake for talent or genius is just hard work (go here if you want to read a blog posting of mine that addresses the talent vs. hard work issue).
I wonder if the same is true with spiritual belief. I would say yes.
My Marxist friend would disagree. She often says to me, "I envy you your belief." I always remind her that it's not about belief, it's about action.
She has a very Western brain that divides the world into belief and non-belief. If you don't believe in God, it's not going to happen. If you're a rational person (and she prides herself on being very rational), then you won't be able to believe in something that your senses can't perceive. If you can't prove it in a lab, and other people can't duplicate it, then she doesn't want to hear about it. On the other hand, she's not always willing to believe in things that are being proven in a lab--ask her about genetics, and watch her turn apoplectic at this area of scientific inquiry that's overturning all she thought she knew about nature vs. nurture (and she's not letting go of those beliefs, just on some scientific experiments--talk about your true believers!).
I will leave aside the thorny issue of proof. I don't think most people have an innate belief in God that they carry with them throughout their whole lives. I think we develop spiritual practices (like prayer, going to church, reading the Bible, meditation, living in community with the poor) that bring us closer to God, which bolsters our beliefs.
I've often challenged my Marxist friend to go to church with me for a year. My theory is that her belief system would change. I believe that being in a church an hour a week (or 90 minutes, as my church usually runs long), listening to scripture, sermons, hymns, songs, and liturgy, would change her mind.
She scoffs at me. I point out that for a year, I used to listen to right wing talk radio for an hour a day. I was commuting and couldn't always pick up left wing talk radio. Besides, I sort of liked that feisty Laura Schlessinger.
But I found that after a month or two, I was starting to think like Dr. Laura. I used terms like "shacking up," even though before I started listening, I hadn't disapproved of consenting adults living together. I switched radio stations.
Maybe my brain is more malleable than others, but I doubt it. I think that's why it's essential that we be careful when we open ourselves up to the elements that would undermine us in living the kind of lives that we want to live, the kind of lives that we've been called to live.
And it's vital that we attend to the creation of those lives on a daily basis. We won't get to where we yearn to go if we only think about it an hour a week (or less, for most of us). Daily, we should turn our attention to what's really important. Daily, we should practice.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Sunday, March 22, 2009
I must confess that although I was enthusiastic when I first heard about this experiment, at the time, I was going to a different Lutheran church, one that was not interested in changing the way they did Sunday School. I have since switched to this Lutheran church that has more of what I want in a church, but I don't often make it to Sunday School.
Today, however, I shall be there. I'm part of a labyrinth team that's presenting to the Sunday School. It may be just me. We'll talk about labyrinths and how Christians use them, and then we'll go walk the labyrinth.
At least that was the plan before our week of rain. South Florida usually has very little rain this time of year, and in fact, we're in the middle of one of our dryest winters ever. Until this week.
So, I've created a rain back-up plan. I'll talk about the braided labyrinth that we'll create at Lutheridge this year for the Create in Me Retreat. I've been making strips out of cloth. People will write the names of those who have been important to them in their spiritual lives. Then we'll braid the strips together, connect them, and lay them out in a labyrinth shape.
The Lutheridge planning team figured out that we'd need several thousand feet of braid, so some of us have started.
I'll take that braid with me. If the heavens open up and pour rain, I'll let everyone puzzle out how to lay a labyrinth indoors.
I have no idea how any of this will work, the indoor version or the outdoor, walk the labyrinth version. It unnerves me, a college teacher, the idea of people of all ages and all learning abilities, all in the same group. But I understand the importance, so I'm willing to give it a try!
Friday, March 20, 2009
He made it very clear that he thinks it's the developing world that deserves our money. Not our neighborhood organizations that help the poor and certainly not museums or universities. He points out that the rich often support buildings and programs, but very little of their charitable giving goes to the poor--not the poor in their local areas, not the poor in the U.S., and certainly not the poor in the developing world.
Why should we give to the developing world? For many moral reasons, but especially because our dollars (or euros or whatever currency) goes so much further and saves so many more people.
He suggests that we give 1% to the developing world. He's partial to Oxfam, for both their advocacy of the poor in the developing world and for their ability to make sure the funds get to places where they will matter most. I will probably give my 1% to Lutheran World Relief. I don't think they do as much political advocacy, but I'm impressed with their ability to help in the developing world.
If your family income is $105,000, then you're in the top 10% of U.S. taxpayers, and he recommends that you give 5%.
I did a quick calculation, and 1% is such a tiny sum. Part of my brain immediately says, "What difference will it make?"
Peter Singer would answer tell us that it could make quite a lot of difference--especially if more of us made the commitment.
Go here and scroll down to hear the show. Go here for Singer's website that supports the book; you can read more about his ideas, read excerpts from the book (or download it), and read more about the charities he recommends.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Last night, we were serving meatloaf (or meatballs), mashed potatoes, cole slaw, green beans, bread, and dessert. Last month, when we served ziti casserole, we met a man who was allergic to meat, and luckily, we had a meatless ziti casserole. I tend to cook mostly vegetarian, but when I've been cooking for our First Lutheran outings, I've thought I should cook with meat, so the folks who don't get much to eat on a daily basis can have the protein and fat that meat provides. It was good to be reminded that not everyone can tolerate meat. And good to remember that vegetarian cooking can provide similar nourishment. So, when we planned last night's meal, I wanted to provide a vegetarian alternative.
I brought a lentil loaf, fully expecting that no one would want it and resolving not to have hurt feelings. But we had not one, but two vegetarians, as well as some curious eaters. One man even asked me for the recipe, which I'll bring next month.
I made it out of leftover lentil soup (left from last Wednesday's Labyrinth meal). I had a lot of soup and despaired of ever eating it all. What a great solution.
A few years ago, I started writing down my basic recipes for male relatives who don't cook. So, I have my soup recipe in the database, and I thought I'd post it here. The way to make Lentil Loaf is at the end.
My first pot of Lentil Soup was made with Mollie Katzen's recipe from The Moosewood Cookbook, so I want to give her credit for inspiring this recipe. Most of what I know about vegetarian cooking I learned from her books. The first Lentil Loaf recipe I ever made was made from a recipe from the cookbook Laurel's Kitchen, by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey.
A timing heads up: this soup needs 30-60 minutes to simmer.
The bare minimum of ingredients you’ll need:
12-16 oz. package of dry lentils
28 oz. can of diced tomatoes (I like Del Monte petite cut)
OR 2 15 oz. cans diced tomatoes
Pot of water
Several carrots (3-6), chopped into bite size pieces (you can use baby carrots, but they’re more expensive). Carrots are SO nutritious and cheap—don’t be afraid to use a lot.
1 onion, chopped
several cloves of minced garlic (put the cloves through a garlic press or look for jars of minced garlic in your produce department and use a spoonful or two)
several Tablespoons of olive oil
herbs: oregano and basil
several Tablespoons of brown sugar (or molasses)
several Tablespoons of red wine
several Tablespoons of balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar
Put the onion and oil in a big soup pot. Turn the burner to high or medium high (8 or so on your burner control dial). Stir the onions around in the bottom of the pot until they’re limp and more translucent. Add the garlic and the oregano and basil. Stir another minute or two.
Put all the sliced carrots that you’re going to use in the pot and cover them with water. Turn up the heat of the burner under the pot until the water boils. Let the carrots boil 10-15 minutes. You want tender carrots before you go any further. Spear one, let it cool, and eat it to be sure.
Add the tomatoes and the lentils and all the rest of the flavor boosters that you’re using. Fill the pot the rest of the way with water. Let the pot come to a boil, then turn the heat way down (you want it to simmer just below a boil—you’ll probably want to keep the heat at medium low—at 2-4 on the dial). The lentils probably need a half hour of cooking at this point. If you think about it, give the pot a stir every so often (if not, no big deal).
You can also let this soup simmer away for an hour or longer. Just keep an eye on the liquid level (those lentils will soak it up as they cook!) and add water as necessary.
You could serve this topped with a dollop of sour cream, if you wish. But it’s great plain.
A pot of this soup will easily serve 6-15 people; smaller groups can get several meals out of one pot. And it’s cheap (it will cost you $1.00-$2.00 to make a whole pot), so when you’re tired of it, throw it out.
What to do with leftover Lentil Soup:
If the soup has been in your fridge long enough, it's likely to have absorbed excess liquid, and you won't have to drain it.
Take 2 cups of the drained soup (you can include the carrots and tomatoes) and put in a bowl. Beat 2 eggs and add them to the bowl. Add 1 cup of bread crumbs (Italian bread crumbs add nice flavor) and a drizzle of olive oil (2-4 Tablespoons). You could stop here or you could add: up to 1 cup of nut pieces (walnuts work nicely), up to 1 cup of seeds (sesame works nicely), up to 1 cup of oats or wheat germ or flour.
If you add a lot of dry ingredients, you might also need to add back some moisture. You want the consistency of wet glop (think meatloaf, if you've ever made it or a mortar mix). Start with 1/2 cup and go up by 1/4 cup increments. You could use plain water or: soup liquid, tomato juice, 1 more beaten egg, or stock.
Grease a loaf pan and add the mixture to the pan. Put the pan in a 350 degree oven. Bake covered for 30 minutes, uncovered for 10. Slice and eat.
You might want to serve with some sort of sauce. I used to serve it with Hollandaise, but ketchup might work too. If you're a non-vegetarian, gravy might be a treat.
Boil as much liquid out of the soup as you can (or drain it--or let it sit for several days, and it will absorb the liquid). Add chunks of feta cheese to the lentils, along with tomatoes (cherry tomatoes cut in half work well), cucumbers, peppers or whatever veggies you have on hand. Voila! A lentil salad (feel free to serve it on top of greens) or something you can spoon into pita bread.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
Gospel: John 3:14-21
There are some Bible texts that are so prominent that it's hard to find something new to say about them. This week's Gospel includes one of them, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
I spent my childhood and adolescent years in a variety of small, Southern towns, and this text was often used as one to exclude people. Most responses to the text that I've seen zero in on the idea that we must believe in Jesus to have eternal life, and I'm certain that I don't want to wander into that theological bog. I used to be able to spend many hours deliberating whether or not a Hindu could go to Heaven, or an atheist or . . . .
Now I'm much more interested in how we live our lives here--not so that we get into Heaven, but so that we participate in God's visions for us and for the larger world.
Today, let us focus on the text that reminds us that God doesn't enter the world to condemn us--many pop culture preachers forget that. But almost every verse of this week's Gospel reminds us that God comes to us out of love, not judgment. God comes, not to cast us into darkness. Most of us spend many hours dwelling in darkness. God comes to lead us into the light.
Many of us have come from Christian traditions which would find this theology strange. Many of us have been scarred by a theology of a divine judge who finds us wanting. Many of us fear hell.
Think about the lives we're leading--maybe that's the punishment. God has come, not to punish us further, but to save us from our punishment, which is our current lifestyle.As we move through our days, we could use our own internal judgment to ask ourselves if we're moving towards light or towards darkness. Which activities lead us towards the life we'd like to live? Which ones take us towards darkness?
Each person might answer that question differently. Coffee with friends might be a life-affirming break that helps us survive a tough work day or it might devolve into gossip and pettiness. We might be so available to help others that our family members feel neglected.
That's why it's important to keep asking the question, to keep making sure that our lives are on a trajectory towards light. We are like airplanes, which are notoriously difficult to pilot, given that humans aren't meant to fly. That's why airplanes are equipped with a variety of monitors, so that if one system fails, another can keep the plane from tragedy.
We need a similar set of systems. We need an internal compass, one that steers us towards light. We need to continuously ask questions of our activities, to make sure our compass stays calibrated. We need to surround ourselves with like-minded people who will partner with us, instead of sabotaging us. Inasmuch as we can, we need to align ourselves with institutions that have values of light rather than values of darkness.
If we take a self-inventory and realize that we've gone off track, the Gospel gives us the good news that it's not too late. And little changes can lead to quite a different destination.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
That made me think of my youth, where our church in Montgomery, Alabama took a group to Atlanta to see Godspell. I was in second grade, and to this day, I remember the dress I wore. I remember my mom saying, "Now this may seem strange at first. Jesus is a clown. They're all clowns."
I thought it was wonderful. I spent the rest of my youth wondering why church couldn't be full of energy and passion, like Godspell was. I learned the soundtrack inside out. To this day, I can still sing the full soundtrack, even without the CD, which rides around with me in the car. It's my favorite Bible-based music. It has done for me what hymns did for earlier generations--it's an easy way to memorize scripture.
Later, I saw the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar. I was sorely disappointed. I expected a Godspell but got a strange production with tanks and modernism. I was young and didn't approve of injecting 20th century images into the story. Oddly, I didn't have a similar experience when I viewed the movie version of Godspell.
A friend of mine says that they used to classify people based on whether they preferred one show or the other. Unfortunately, she can't remember what the distinction meant.
It seems destined to be one of those quizzes we could all take. Well, it would be, if anyone else was as interested as I am.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Nouwen is one of the first theologians I really loved. And I have a special fondness for him, because he's one of the few subjects upon which my father and my adolescent self agreed. In 1985, my dad came with me to a Sojourners event because Nouwen was speaking.
For the life of me, I can't remember what Nouwen said that day. Neither can my dad. But we remember it as a bonding event.
I've gone on to read a lot of Nouwen. He wrote a lot, so I'm sure I've missed some books. I always loved reading his journals, and I return to them periodically. I'm heartened by the glimpse that these journals provide, this proof that even people who seem to have it all pulled together have issues too. Nouwen wrestled with wondering if he was using his talents and gifts in the ways God intended, in the ways that would glorify God best. Nouwen wrestled with not feeling loved by his friends, even as he knew that they loved him, but they might not be able to give him what he needed.
That human side is so important to me. I wrestle with similar issues, and I feel irritated with myself for not figuring this stuff out already. It's good to know that maybe I'm expecting too much of myself.
And how amazing that Nouwen can write passages such as these, even as he's working out his life and issues:
"God does not require a pure heart before embracing us. Even if we return only because following our desires has failed to bring happiness, God will take us back. Even if we return because being a Christian brings us more peace than being a pagan, God will receive us. Even if we return because our sins did not offer as much satisfaction as we had hoped, God will take us back. Even if we return because we could not make it on our own, God will receive us. God's love does not require any explanations about why we are returning. god is glad to see us home and wants to give us all we desire, just for being home."
This passage is from the readings for the Saturday of the Second Week in Lent (pages 58-59) in Show Me the Way (Crossroad Publishing Company 1992). The passage originally appeared in The Road to Daybreak published in 1988 by Doubleday.
The passage below gave me enormous comfort and hope at the end of this past tough week at work:
"For a Christian is only a Christian when he unceasingly asks critical questions of the society in which he lives and continuously stresses the necessity for conversion, not only of the individual but also of the world. A Christian is only a Christian when he refuses to allow himself or anyone else to settle into a comfortable rest. He remains dissatisfied with the status quo. And he believes that he has an essential role to play in the realization of the new world to come--even if he cannot say how that world will come about. . . . But he will not despair when he does not see the result he wanted to see. For in the midst of all his work he keeps hearing the words of the One sitting on the throne: 'I am making the whole of creation new.' (Revelations 21:5)"
The above passage is from Friday of the Second Week in Lent (page 56) in Show Me the Way (Crossroad Publishing Company 1992). The passage originally appeared in Creative Ministry, published in 1971 by Doubleday.
Friday, March 13, 2009
Of course, if stocks had kept soaring, I might not have ever had that thought.
But it did give me pause.
Now, I haven't had lots of financial wealth. I'm a teacher, after all. One of the joys of not earning scads of money is that one doesn't lose scads of money. And I'm lucky, in that I've almost always earned enough to pay for my needs as well as a small luxury here and there.
And I've always tried to share what I have. I wish I could tithe the same amount as I save, but I save a bit more than I tithe. It's that scarcity consciousness rearing its ugly head. I'd like to operate out of a spirit of abundance, but I can't always manage that.
I wonder what would happen if I could have more faith that God would provide, if I took those passages seriously.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Again, we walked with candles in tall jars that we carried. It wasn't quite as breezy as last week, but my flame still flickered. I quickly noticed that if I slowed down or stopped for a minute, my flame blazed again.
I couldn't help but think about the implications for my daily life, where I am not feeling like the brightest flame lately. If I am the light of the world, as Jesus tells us, the world might be in trouble. My typical response to feeling my light flicker is to try to do more, be more efficient, move more quickly through my day. No wonder I feel frazzled.
What would happen if we all did more to protect our flickering flames? What would happen if we slowed down? I often assume the world will fall apart if I take some time for myself.
Of course, in these times of economic downturn, many of us are facing more pressures. Those of us who get to keep our jobs often find ourselves expected to do not only our work, but also the work of our laid off colleagues. And it's not a good time to look expendable. Those of us thrown out of work may feel that job hunting takes more time than our jobs did.
Still, we need to build some times of stillness into our days. If we just turn off the volume of our computers, we won't get pings whenever anyone sends us an e-mail; I know I'm not the only one who feels that I must drop everything and check my e-mail when I hear that ping. Maybe instead of having news on as our background noise, we could have some soothing or inspiring music. The world can spare us for the amount of time it takes to pray the Hours. We could find a yoga class--surely we can find an hour or two in our weeks for some kind of physical discipline that helps our minds calm down. We can look at our free time and make fierce decisions.
What activities (or rest!) helps keep our flames burning brightly? What makes our flames falter?
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm: Psalm 19
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Gospel: John 2:13-22
Ah, the moneychangers in the temple! Many of us as children (and perhaps as adults) loved this tale. Finally, a non-wimpy Jesus. A Jesus who wasn't afraid to take on the religious establishment. As a sullen teenager, I looked around church and thought, boy, Jesus would have his work cut out for him here.
Don't get the wrong idea--I wasn't going to some church that was transgressing on any large scale, and not on any small scale, that I knew about. I just looked around and saw lots of hypocrisy. Look at all this gold, I would say. We could sell the offering plates and give the money to the poor. Why do we all buy church clothes? We could come in our jeans, and give the money that we would have spent on fancy clothes to the poor. Why don't we invite the poor to our potluck dinners?
In retrospect, I'm surprised my parents still talk to me. What a tiresome child/teen I must have been, so self-righteous, so sure of everyone's faults and shortcomings.
As I've gotten older, I've become interested in this story from the moneychangers point of view. We often assume that the moneychangers were scurrilous men, out to make easy money, and I'm sure that some of them were.
However, I suspect that the majority of them would have told you that they were making salvation possible.
Under the old covenant, people had to go to the temple to make sacrifices to wash their sins away (it's a simplified version of a complicated theology, but let me continue for a few sentences). People who farmed had animals for sacrifice. Those who didn't, or those who came from far away, had to buy their sacrifice on site. And they needed help from the moneychangers and the animal sellers.
These people didn't know that Jesus had come to make a new covenant possible. They got up, went about their personal business, went to work, took care of their families--all the stuff that you and I do. They weren't focused on watching for the presence of God. They didn't know that they had been called to make way for a new Kingdom. They didn't know that the new Kingdom was breaking through, even as they showed up at their day jobs.
We might take a look at our own modern lives and institutions. In what ways do we think we're participating in God's law/kingdom/plan, but we're really not. My surly teenage self would mutter about hypocrites and exposing hypocrisy, but I'm not sure that's God's vision for me. It's a path that leads to self-righteousness and insufferability.
We might also take a look at our own modern institutions, especially religious ones. Where are we participating in God's plan? If Jesus showed up, what would he see as problematic? And how would we respond, if he pointed out something that needed some Spring cleaning, and it turned out that it was something we really cherished or thought that we were doing well?
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
I suspect this scenario plays out more often than we think. Memory is a tricky thing, especially as the brain deals with trauma, and our justice system is less just than we want to believe.
No, the amazing part of the story is that the falsely accused man forgave the woman (and the entire flawed system).
Diane Rehm asked him how he was able to do this, and he mentioned his Southern Baptist upbringing.
If we go to church every Sunday, many of us are periodically reminded of how important it is to forgive. My childhood brain did the multiplication of 70 times 7 to come up with the number that Jesus commanded, and gave up in frustration. I would have to forgive my sister that many times?
Yes, and maybe double or triple that.
The practice of forgiveness trains us to let go of our anger. This process may take some time, but most religious traditions assure us it will be worth it. Holding on to our hot, raging anger does not serve us well.
I've met people who are holding on to hurts from decades ago. They think they are protecting themselves, but they're really damaging themselves.
I'm not saying we can't learn our lessons, as we practice forgiveness. If someone hurts us maliciously time and time again, it may be wise to remove ourselves from relationship with them.
Another thing I noted about this story: the wronged man was able to forgive the raped woman because she came to him and asked for forgiveness.
That's another lesson that we learn in church. We must make amends if we've wronged someone. It's more important than showing up to worship--Jesus tells us that if we're in temple, and we remember that someone has a dispute with us, we are to leave that minute to seek reconciliation.
My atheist friends would remind me of all the people who sit through church services week after week who never learn these lessons. They say this as if it is somehow the fault of the church, and perhaps church communities could be better at calling people on their bad behavior.
But we are all flawed humans. Going to church doesn't change that. However, those of us who go to church are reminded that we are to strive to be better than our flawed selves. We hear the stories of Jesus, who came to show us all the potential that a human life contains. Maybe we'd get that message elsewhere, like in the stray Diane Rehm show (go here to get to the show--you'll need to scroll down). I look around me, and I'm not seeing that message projected very often in popular culture. Far better to find a spiritual community that will reinforce me in my pilgrim path towards being the human I yearn to become.
Monday, March 9, 2009
Several weeks ago, when we heard they were coming, some part of me worried that it would be the unlistenable kind of Christian Contemporary music. My sister and I used to get into fierce arguments about the worth of Amy Grant and her ilk. I would always claim that U2 was a much better Christian band, because they didn't sacrifice the musical skill or the lyrics. In my high school, we had a small battle when we got a juke box in the cafeteria, and a Christian group demanded that Christian songs be put on the juke box. As I recall (imperfectly probably), the punk rockers demanded certain songs that served their interest, and school officials eventually decided to just take the juke box away.
Ah, 1983, when we still had 45'' records to put on a juke box, when we had interesting groups like punk rockers and Young Lifers. It made for an interesting high school life in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Happily, Alathea was a much better group than some of the Christian groups of my youth (and some of the ones currently on tour). They play a variety of instruments, and what a novelty that seems--groups that can actually play instruments! They harmonize beautifully, and their voices don't have that grating vibrato quality that we see so often on American Idol or that warbly (or worse, glass-breaking) soprano that one finds too often dominating church choirs.
I loved their lyrics, and the way that they could seamlessly go from one of their songs to an old Gospel standard. I loved that Mandee Radford would talk about her songs, and what inspired them. I loved that they played instruments like dulcimers, mandolins, and the banjo. I loved them so much that I bought all of their CDs, and spent a pleasant Sunday continuing to listen to their music.
These women have a goal to play 150 shows this year, so they might be appearing near you. Their website has all sorts of information, like their touring schedule and their biography. It also has a page where you can buy their music--they're having a fabulous sale!
Sunday, March 8, 2009
It was wonderful to hear a show about the current downturn that didn't make me want to vomit out of fear and anxiety. In fact, it made me feel oddly hopeful, as so many of the show's guests pointed out that this kind of time of crisis is actually a great opportunity.
For example, the first guest, Rachel Naomi Remen suggested that we focus on the following questions: What can be trusted? What will sustain me? What do I really need to live? She pointed out that we all tell ourselves stories to help us sort out our lives, and that in the past decades one of the most dangerous stories has been "the goal in life is comfort."
The show is full of gems such as these, and if you want more wisdom from any one guest, the website gives you links to the past shows where each speaker has been focused. Go here and start exploring!
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Would I Be a Better Person If I Went to Church?--Raising Children to be the Kind of Humans We Want Them to Be
I have had friends who make no demands on their children. Actually, my friends seem often to be on one end of an extreme spectrum or the other: no demands or too many demands. The ones who make no demands, except that their children go to school, say, "Well, they can decide for themselves when they're older." But then my friends seem shocked when their children grow up deciding to be self-centered and lazy. They say, "How did they learn this? I set such a good example."
Unfortunately, setting a good example isn't enough. We have to require our children to do things that will shape them into the kind of humans we want them to be.
For my family, a lot of that shaping came through church work. We raised money for the poor, we made Christmas baskets for abused women, we created food baskets, we worked in food pantries and so on. Some of my friends went to third world countries to help the poor, so I felt that we got off easy.
And thus, we learned compassion for those less fortunate than we were, and we learned a strong thirst for justice.
I have no children. I admit that it's easy for me to declare that if I did have children, we would all participate fully in church life. But we would. I would pick my battles, and that would be one I would fight. My children could rebel and tell me how stupid church was. But they still would have to go with me, to weekly service and to do social justice work and whatever else I deemed important. School would be non-negotiable, and so would some chores, and so would church, and so would social justice work.
When I saw the article about Michelle Obama, I thought, what a good example she's setting! But based on the experiments of parenting friends, setting a good example might not be enough. Unfortunately, with our current spiraling economy, many of us are learning compassion for the poor from first hand experience, as people we know lose money, jobs, and houses. It's not how I would wish that people would learn this lesson, don't get me wrong. But a collapsing economy can remind us of the fragility of our lives and make us think about the structures in which we have placed so much trust. Many of us are learning that our trust has been misplaced: the bank won't help us with our mortgage, and our bosses are not our friends who will let us keep our jobs, even when profits dry up.
Again, as a child in the church, I watched the church help members down on their luck. I learned the value of community, especially a community where members care for one another. It's rare to find non-family communities that exhibit that level of care anywhere else in our society--and unfortunately, it can be rare to find it in churches.
Still, in many churches, we go to worship service every Sunday and hear God's vision of the world that we should live in. Ideally, we go out into the world and work on building that Kingdom in our current lives. And yes, maybe parents can teach that on their own, and instill those values in their children without any societal support. But what a help it is to belong to communities, religious and otherwise, that provide additional undergirding for those values.
Friday, March 6, 2009
It did occur to me to wonder why I found this show so fascinating. It's not like Ehrman was pointing out something I didn't already know.
I occasionally have this tiresome discussion with atheists. They point out to me that the Bible is full of inconsistencies--how do I explain the difference in the stories of Jesus' birth or the fact that Jesus says different things with each Gospel? They fling these things at me and then sit back, with an expectant air, as if I'm going to say, "Oh my goodness! Inconsistencies in the Bible?!!! I hadn't ever noticed!!! Well, that's it, I'm no longer a believer."
And of course, I'm not going to say that. But how much of a history lesson should I give? How interested are they, really, in this area of Biblical studies? Depends on the atheist, I've discovered.
I grew up Lutheran, so we talked about these things in my churches, Sunday Schools, and my home. I have an old-fashioned liberal arts education, from a Lutheran college, so I'm not exactly unexposed to different ideas about the Bible and Christianity. I have a Ph.D. Granted, it's in the area of Literature (19th Century British Lit, to be exact), but I have a healthy respect for rigorous scholarship, even if it threatens my beliefs. I grew up in the last part of the 20th century, where it seems that every other week, some cherished belief about how we knew the world or what we knew to be true was overturned.
Ehrman grew up in a much more conservative environment, so it was interesting to hear about his faith journey. He also has an interesting view of Jesus, and what he thinks that Jesus thought about his ministry--it's a much more apocalyptic view of Jesus than most churches emphasize.
I spent the rest of the day humming "My Lord, What a Morning," which sounds like it would be a lovely way to greet the day, but which is really quite a hauntingly apocalyptic spiritual, with it's line about the stars falling from the sky.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
I haven't been feeling too much like the light of the world lately. I've been craving a nap for about a week solid. I'm in one of those work periods where we have lots of meetings, lots of 10-12 hour days. I feel fortunate to still have a job, but I'm wishing it came with a napping couch.
Last night, after I read the Bible passages, we lit candles in tall jars to take with us to the labyrinth. It was windy, so we didn't bother to set up the labyrinth with candles--experience has taught us that the candles won't stay lit.
It was tough keeping the candles lit even when we carried them. I cupped my hand over the flame, but the first moment that I was distracted from my task of keeping the little flame lit, it blew out.
I think that only one of us (out of about 11 walkers) had a lit candle when we were done.
At first, I felt searing guilt over my inability to keep the flame lit. And then I thought about the experience as a metaphor.
In that passage from Matthew, chapter 5, verses 14-16, Jesus tells us that we are to let our light shine, but he doesn't tell us how hard it will be some days. As a child, I always thought that once the light was lit, the hard part was over. I would just shine and shine and not hide my light under a bushel and not let Satan pfff it out (as that old song goes).
How do we keep our light from going out? I suspect it's in the various disciplines that we adopt to strengthen our spiritual lives: praying, reading the Bible, reading other spiritual literature, fasting, tithing, charitable giving, working for social justice, practicing gratitude, noticing the wonders of the world.
It's important to realize that we can't keep our lights lit if we see this activity as a weekly duty. I suspect that even a once-a-day duty isn't enough. We need to develop disciplines that reorient us throughout the day. We need to build in breaks throughout the day to attend to our wicks and lights.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm: Psalm 22:22-30 (Psalm 22:23-31 NRSV)
Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
Gospel: Mark 8:31-38
In this week's Gospel, we have an interesting portrait of what it means to be the Messiah: to be rejected, to be hung on a cross, and to die in a humiliating way.
Again, repeat after John the Baptist, in our Advent readings, "I am not the Messiah." I've come to find that phrase comforting, as I realize that there are so many areas in which I cannot save people. I cannot force students to come to school and to enroll in classes, I cannot make the ones I love adopt healthier habits, I cannot rid the body of disease (although I'm willing to pray that it will happen), I cannot prevent the body from breaking down inevitably, and I cannot make adolescents behave in safer ways. I am not the Messiah.
But Peter's behavior makes me think that I can take my denying efforts too far. If I can say, "I am not the Messiah," it means that I have some expectations of what a Messiah should be and do. And then what happens when my expectations aren't met?
I know many people who pray to be delivered from disease, either for themselves or for others, but then death comes anyway. How do those people respond? Some of them admonish God and turn away from belief.
Jesus makes it clear that just because we believe, we won't lead charmed lives. We will still suffer any number of losses, and perhaps we will suffer even more losses, precisely because we do believe.
When I was young, I used to create dramas, where the main character (often a Barbie doll) was captured by Communists, who wanted her to renounce her faith; in fact, they would threaten her with death. My childhood belief system imagined that the worst thing I could do would be to renounce God in a public way like, say, a trial or a book.
But now, I think about the number of ways that we deny God in our regular daily lives. For example, many of us don't give our money away because we don't really trust that God will provide for us, as God has promised to do. We don't believe in Christ's vision of a redeemed world, because our senses (and our news media) tells us otherwise.
Like 3 year old children, non-believers (and shaky believers) are watching everything we say and do. They will say, "If _________________________ claims to believe in God, and yet behaves this way, then I'm certainly not going to believe in God." And so God stands betrayed and abandoned.
The season of Lent is a good time to do some self-inventory. How have we betrayed our core beliefs? How have our behaviors and thoughts betrayed our Creator? How can we change to avoid any future betrayal?
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Each week’s midweek experience will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a simple supper of soup, salad, and bread. At 7:00, the participants will move chairs to the labyrinths and help set up and light the candles in the larger labyrinth. The group will read a Bible passage and then experience a labyrinth walk.
For those who want to know more about the use of prayer labyrinths in Christian tradition and on how prayer labyrinths can be utilized, these Wednesday night opportunities are an accessible entry point. We invite everyone who hungers for a contemplative spiritual discipline to join us. For more information please contact Trinity Lutheran Church at (954) 989-1903. Voicemail may be left at any time. Trinity is located at 7150 Pines Blvd, at the SE corner of Pines Blvd and 72nd Ave, due east of the BCC South Campus.
Monday, March 2, 2009
Lutheridge, in the North Carolina mountains near Asheville, has the answer for you. Go here to read about the Create in Me retreat. This retreat is designed to appeal to a wide variety of artists and artisans. You can explore the rest of the website to discover a scrapbooking retreat or a handbell retreat (although those are done for this retreat season, Lutheridge seems to offer them each year).
I cannot recommend the Create in Me retreat enough--whether you're a professional artist or someone who would like to try being creative for the first time, you'll find a welcoming atmosphere. You can participate in everything, or take some time for yourself and enjoy nature, or Asheville, or being alone in your space.
It is a retreat with a mainline Christian focus, although the afternoon drop-in stations are arts-focused. It is a retreat at a Lutheran camp, which means you might find it rustic, unacceptably so, if you're used to spa getaways (no televisions in rooms, which I like, but others might find oppressive). But that registration fee does include lodging and meals and all your materials. It's hard to beat.
I've gone every year since 2002, and it's one of the highlights of my year, every year. It nourishes me in a way that little else does. And I come down from the mountain with all sorts of ideas, both for my personal creative life, for my students, and for my church.