Friday, May 29, 2009

Pentecost and Wind

As you prepare for Pentecost, you might think about the role of wind. I spent some of my formative childhood years in Montgomery, Alabama, which had lots of thunderstorms and more tornadoes than any other place I've ever lived. I remember summer nights waking to the sound of the wailing sirens that meant a tornado might be imminent and going to the bathroom (the only windowless room in the house) to wait for the all-clear signal. So I tend to see wind as a destructive force.

It's only recently, and with the help of some excellent pastors and seminary professors that I've begun to notice how often the Bible features wind, wind which usually represents some aspect of God. Think about the great rushing wind that often symbolizes God's creative force.

Our Bible study leader at Synod Assembly told us about the Biosphere experiment and the failure of the fruit trees. At first, all seemed well in that enclosed environment. But the fruit trees failed to give fruit, and all the scientists wondered what was happening. Someone finally put the puzzle pieces together and discovered how important the wind is to fruitbearing. It's not about pollination. We can do that manually. There's something about being exposed to that force that hardens a tree in a good way.

As we head into Pentecost week-end, let's think about wind and speaking in languages we can understand and all the other ways the Spirit is moving in our world.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

More Thoughts on Pentecost

As I look through my legal pad that I kept with me through my May travels, I realized that I have a lot of scraps that relate to Pentecost. Tomorrow, I'll write a more detailed blog post about Pentecost and Wind. Here are some other Pentecost thoughts (all of them come from our Assembly leaders, but unfortunately, I didn't write down who said what):

--Our Synod Assembly met on the feast day of Julian of Norwich, the medieval (12th century) anchoress. We were encouraged to "dream a missional dream--one so expansive that we will have to rely on God."

--Make a mess and call it on purpose.

--"The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home" Gerhard Frost, Blessed for the Journey (sounds negative at first, but it seems relevant to Pentecost, a high holy day that demands that we quiet our rational selves; we accomplish so much more when we rope ourselves together, especially as we contemplate ideas that seem outrageous or impossible).

--We studied the parable of the vines and the branches. Our leader reminded us that God is about bearing fruit, not causing us pain. Remember that, as you think about the pruning.

--We have too much to learn to be smug; we have too much to share to be modest.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 31, 2009, Pentecost:

First Reading: Acts 2:1-21

First Reading (Alt.): Ezekiel 37:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 104:25-35, 37 (Psalm 104:24-34, 35b NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:22-27

Second Reading (Alt.): Acts 2:1-21

Gospel: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, the event that sets into motion the events that will form the church as we know it. In mainline churches, Pentecost often gets overlooked. It doesn't have the gift giving potential of other holidays; it doesn't have any special candies or foods (although I see lots of potential here--flame shaped chocolates, anyone?). But I think the real reason that Pentecost has gotten the short shrift is that the events of Pentecost make many of us nervous.

Speaking in languages we don't ourselves understand? Evangelizing to strangers? No wonder we don't spend much time contemplating the meanings of Pentecost for modern life.

But maybe we should. Many North Americans are members of a church that is in clear crisis. Some of these crises explode on the national stage, like the wrenching scenes from Episcopalian churches who decide they'd rather be part of African episcopates than to continue to work with American bishops.

And even if my larger Lutheran church body, the ELCA, manages to avoid schism, it's hard to deny that many mainline churches are institutions in trouble. We face declining membership, declining donations. It's unclear how long many individual churches can keep limping along.

If we let the Holy Spirit loose in our home churches, what might happen? If we trusted in the transforming power of God, what changes might we see, both in our individual lives and in the lives of our church bodies?

Perhaps it is time for another Pentecost, for the next Reformation. Maybe the way we've been doing church is not just financially bankrupt, but spiritually bankrupt as well. Which leaves us with a burning question: what will the future look like?

Some people would tell you that the next Reformation is underway. In her slim book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Phyllis Tickle explains how we've come to the point of another great Reformation, and she draws a compelling picture of the various ways the Church will look when we're done. Some people are excited, as they point to a number of churches, both mainline and experimental, who are thriving. For an inspirational read, turn to Diana Butler Bass's book Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith.

Of course, there's a darker side. We are about to move into a time period where there are more Christians in developing parts of the world, like Latin America and African nations, than in the previous power centers, like the United States and Europe. No one has chronicled the changes already underway better than Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.

Let's leave the larger questions of the larger institutional church to the Bishops and other higher-ups who get paid to ponder these things. Let's think about our individual lives. What do you need to nourish yourself spiritually? How could a religious community be part of that vision? If we could create a church that enriched your life, on Sunday and the rest of the week, what would that church do?

Most of us go to church out of habit. We're used to paying a pastor and hoping that the leadership will deliver what we want. We don't spend much time envisioning something better. And yet, many of us have yet to reach our full potential as Christians, as Christians in community. Think about a religious community that could help you with that spiritual mission. What would that community look like?

What would your role be in such a community? How can you be part of creating that community? How can we go from a vision to a reality? Pentecost is the time for dreaming daring visions--and then going out to bring them into being.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Name Tags and Worship Services

During Synod Assembly two weeks ago, I realized how often people called me by my name, even though I knew about 5 people before I got there. We could do this for each other because we wore name tags, with our first names being the largest part of the tag.

I first started to think about the significance of my name tag during a Eucharist service at the Assembly. In a huge gathering, Lutherans tend to distribute the bread and wine at different stations. It can feel a bit dehumanizing.

But with a name tag, the ministers could address us by name. It may be the first time I've been addressed by my name during the Eucharist since college.

I had forgotten what a powerful experience it is.

I've been wishing that my church would do a name tag Sunday once a month. I could make the argument for every Sunday, but I understand that some people don't want to wear name tags all the time--maybe we could compromise and get people to commit to once a month. It would allow those of us who have been there for awhile to remember all the names we didn't remember when we were first introduced,long ago, before we were even sure we'd be members of the church.

But more importantly, it would allow us to be addressed by our names during the Eucharist. I could see that this first name basis might be even more important during a healing service.

I know that name tags feel artificial to some people. I suspect that those people have good memories for connecting names with faces. I do not. Name tags would help the rest of us so much, in so many ways.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day Meanderings

At my poetry blog, I wrote a post that talked about a variety of resources for Memorial Day, primarily reading materials.

As always, I noticed that I collected an assortment of pieces that don't really address the spiritual aspect of Memorial Day.

I'm not sure that I'm really capable of doing it either. Even though my dad was in the Air Force, and then the Air Force reserve, for most of my life, I, like many Americans, feel some ambivalence about the military. I have some trouble reconciling my religious beliefs which tend towards pacifism, to the necessity for military protection. There have been times in my lifetime where I've thought, at last, we're moving towards a world that won't need military action. And then the world launches into a new form of barbarism.

I have this trouble on a national level, as well as on a personal level. I want to be a pacifist, but I'm not going to passively let someone hurt me. I've taken self-defense classes, and I know how to shoot a gun.

Someone asked me, "Would you really shoot someone who broke into your house?"

I said, "If someone is breaking down my door, I'm going to assume that they mean to do me harm. I hope that I would have the courage to shoot the person breaking down my door."

A friend said, "Not me. I would die before I shot someone. Some principles are worth dying for."

Sure, if faced with an even trade--my life or yours--I want to think I'd surrender my life. I'm a Christian. I've been promised that death is not the final answer.

Unfortunately, I'm also a woman who lives in a violent corner of the world in a violent time of history. I face other threats than death: rape, kidnap, torture, slow death. That's why I have taken various self-defense lessons, and I hope that I'll be brave enough to use them.

So, why don't I translate these lessons to the world stage? Well, in fact, I do.

Here's where being a Christian also helps me. I can live in complexity. The Kingdom of God is both here and not yet. I look towards a time where we don't need a military, where I don't need self-defense lessons. I yearn for that time. But it's not here yet.

And so, on Memorial Day, I spend some time thinking about those who have made all sorts of sacrifices, so that my life, as a woman who is a U.S. citizen, is considerably better than the lives suffered by the world's majority of women. I spend some time praying my gratitude prayers for those who did so much for a future generation they wouldn't survive to see. I pray for peace in the world, for a time when we tell tales of a military-industrial complex, and our children can't believe we'd spend so much money and require so much sacrifice.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Spiritual Aspect of Good Work

At my other blog, I wrote a post about what makes work good and useful and beautiful--or at least, I wrote about seeing a variety of reading materials that has me thinking in that direction.

One absence that I see in all the things I've been reading is the spiritual dimension. In some ways, these articles are talking about the same issues that theologians have been discussing for many years; to paraphrase Jesus, "What good is it to have all this job satisfaction if we lose our souls?" But it would be interesting to read a book that directly addresses the question of whether or not we're all talking about the same thing, whether we use secular language or God-soaked language.

I've always wondered if I'm doing what God put me on earth to do. I have friends who scoff at that notion of Divine purpose. On the other hand, I've known plenty of people like my parents, who believe that God doesn't have your life mapped out when you're born, but does have an abiding interest in the choices that you make. My dad has always said that God can use you, no matter where you are. He used the metaphor (which he got from a book, and I'll find out which one and reference it later) of God as a weaver. No matter what color wool you are, God has the big picture and can weave you right in.

Part of me thinks that this idea of job satisfaction is fairly recent to the human condition. At what point did we think that our jobs would make us fulfilled. A few generations ago, most of our relatives would have been happy for jobs that put food on the table. They'd have turned to other activities for self-actualization (and they wouldn't have used a fancy term like that).

Nothing like a good economic downturn to bring out interesting things to read. As for these thoughts of a purpose driven life (and yes, I've read that book, and didn't find it as useful as others have, although I have a lot of respect for Rick Warren), I've been wrestling with them since adolescence, and I expect I'll still be wrestling with them on my death bed.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Professional Singing and the Church

At my other blog, I wrote about the e-mail I got, inviting me to a benefit concert, which would "Sing for the Cure." How could I object to that? At my other blog, I wrote about the concert from the view of creativity encouraged or dampened.

Then I started thinking about how seldom we sing together anymore. Part of it is economic; if we're working several jobs, we're not going to come home and play our instruments and sing. We're going to come home and sleep. Part of it, though, is that we've increasingly become consumers, and passive consumers at that.

That's one thing I've always treasured about church, at least the churches I've attended. There's no expectation of talent. Even in the choir, choir directors are expected to utilize the gifts of everyone who is interested.

I've heard of a disturbing trend in some churches. Some churches have moved to having professional singers or groups. They sing all the music, while the congregation respectfully listens. Just what we need, more passive consumption--and in church, of all places.

Now, I do wish the Lutheran church would integrate some other art forms as thoroughly as it has integrated music into its worship experiences. When I first went to Mepkin Abbey, I was amazed at how the worship space changed, from different flower arrangements, to different art moved around the chancel. There seemed to be a commitment to a wide variety of art forms to both enhance the worship experience and to be the worship experience.

Most churches, at least Lutheran ones, are probably open to the idea of incorporating more art. But the ones that I've been part of are waiting for direction: for artists to step forward, for volunteers.

I'm interested in the intersections between spirituality and creativity. I suspect I'll blog more about this as the days go on.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Am I Where I'm Being Sent?

Last night, we went to serve dinner to the homeless at First Lutheran. I've really grown to appreciate the Wednesday night service afterwards; in fact, in the fall, I plan to come each week for worship (the church doesn't serve dinner or have services on Wednesday during the summer).

We started by singing the great Pentecost hymn, "Spirit of Gentleness" (#396 in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book). I love that last verse in particular, with its images of dreams and visions and sight, but the poetry of the whole hymn really appeals. We finished by singing "Here I am, Lord" (#574 in the ELW). It, too, has poetic language.

I found myself singing more powerfully than usual. Sometimes, this song wrecks me, and I can't sing for crying. I've been singing this hymn since my Lutheran Student Movement days in college, and it always makes me wonder if I'm where I'm meant to be. Is God calling me elsewhere? The refrain, with its language of hearing God and being willing to go where God leads, has always been a powerful one.

Lately, I've been researching both programs that would certify me to be a spiritual director as well as programs that would lead me to ordination, which I assume would also certify me as a spiritual director, but one who could give communion, who could consecrate the elements of bread and wine.

The one thing lacking in the Wednesday night service is Communion. I wonder why they don't offer it?

Every time I participate in the Eucharist service, I think, I could do this every day and not grow tired of it. I used to joke, "But that doesn't exactly make a career plan, does it?" But perhaps it's an indicator.

Yet, I look at how much seminary costs, and I'm a bit flabbergasted. I'd probably spend at least $80,000 (the graduate certificate that would leave me certified to be a spiritual director would cost somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000, and I could do it online, except I'm not sure that I want to do it online). And realistically, I wouldn't be spending it--I'd be taking on debt, so the program would end up costing more. And I'd graduate, and I'd be almost 50 years old. Is this wise?

So, I feel I'm in a period of discernment. One of the reasons why seminary appeals is the idea of a community, a spiritual one and an educational one. Maybe I could create that in other ways. My mind immediately goes to the grandiose: I'd buy land and create a retreat center, complete with a chapel, where we could worship daily, and a creativity center, where the art supplies would always be ready.

Perhaps that dream is equally unrealistic. But then, I return to that Pentecost hymn, #396, with its portrait of women seeing visions, men clearing their eyes, and people arising with bold new decisions. Maybe my problem is not one of being too grandiose, but of being too timid and not daring to dream with boldness.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 24, 2009:

First Reading: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Psalm: Psalm 1

Second Reading: 1 John 5:9-13

Gospel: John 17:6-19

Parts of the Christian world will celebrate Ascension Day this Sunday, the one before Pentecost. The reading for today comes before the Crucifixion story in John, but it still makes a good Ascension Day text.

Here is the paradox of our Gospel Good News. The Kingdom of God is both here, now, already, but it is also not yet fulfilled. Those two conditions seem impossible to reconcile, impossible to live with both conditions in our head--and yet, it is what we are called to do.

But how?

The words of Jesus point the way. We are to be in the world, yet not of the world (the Gospel of John is quite mystical in places--the reading for this Sunday is one of those places). That seems complicated as well, another paradox, impossible to be both things.

In some ways, it is. But in this passage, Jesus reminds us that we are sanctified consecrated, and sent out into the world. The not yet message of the Gospel reminds us that we have work to do (the ELCA motto also speaks to this: God's Work, Our Hands). And this Gospel passage reminds us of the stakes: Jesus prays that we will be protected from the evil one.

In many ways, our most basic task is to confront evil. Everything we do, everything we create, needs to be a challenge to evil. We are not to go through the world with our business as usual selves. We are not to have a self that we bring out on Sundays, in church, and our week day self, and our Saturday self. Our task is to live an integrated life, a life that lets the light of the Good News shine through us and our actions.

So, it's all still a bit abstract? That's the beauty of our religion. We worship a God who came to model life's potential for us. Whenever we're confused, we might ask ourselves how Jesus would handle things.

You say you have a boss who is driving you crazy, making you redo work 5 times, only to arrive back at the place you started? You could growl and grumble. But you'd use your time far more wisely by praying for your boss. Maybe you've got neighbors who are at loggerheads--how can you be a peacemaker? Your grandma is lonely and far away? Write a letter once a week or send a card. You've got a friend who has hit a rough patch? Invite them over for dinner and share a bottle of wine. You know that people are hurting in the local tough economy? Donate some food to the food bank.

We are to care for everyone. We can start by praying for them. The beauty of prayer is that you can do it anywhere. In your car, on your way to work, pray for yourself, your boss, and your co-worker. When you take a break during the day, remember to pray. In your car, on the way home, pray for your family. As you watch the news and read the newspaper, pray for all those victims of various traumas.

As you move through the day, be on the lookout for ways to be the yeast in the bread, the salt that flavors the soup. Look for ways to show Christ's love. You can do it quietly--in fact, there are plenty of Gospel passages that say you must do it quietly. You don't want to be that pious Christian that makes people feel squirmy; you don't want people to accuse you of being a typical hypocritical Christian on the days when your light flickers and dims. Radiate love, as often as you can, and you will be a far stronger advocate for God, and a person who is far better equipped to fight evil.

Each day, pray the prayer that Jesus prayed so long ago, that his joy may be fulfilled in you (verse 13). May that joy spill over onto others, as joy invariably does. Each day, ask God to guide you as you seek to be God's love incarnate in the world.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Labyrinth Shape

I uploaded this image from the Wikipedia site that I linked to in my previous post today. It gives you an idea of the shape of the braided labyrinth that we created, although ours was one or two loops smaller.

Creating the Braided Labyrinth--an Essay in Words

To see photos of this process, go to yesterday's entry. I wanted to elaborate on some of the points.

One of the members of the retreat planning team, Laura, had experienced this at a women's retreat, and wanted to try it with our group. We had been conducting our Sending Service at the Lutheridge Labyrinth, which is not very accessible--lots of steps to navigate before you're down on the old tennis court site that's been transformed into a Labyrinth.

The team became concerned that there would be no way for us to create enough braids during the retreat, so some of us braided in advance. We arrived at the retreat with piles of braid and rope and ribbon, in case we still didn't have enough.

On the first night of the retreat, everyone got three strips of material (3 inches by 36 inches). On one strip, we asked for what we need. On another, we confessed our shortcomings. On the third, we wrote what we were thankful for.

We were supposed to turn to a neighbor to discuss these things. I think it would have worked as well if we had kept these private. But I tend to not be a small groups person, even as I understand their value.

Then we braided our strips together and started attaching them (using safety pins).

We had a braiding station open throughout the retreat. People dropped by and wrote prayers on strips. People braided. People attached the braids together. People seemed to love the braiding process.

I worried at first, because my braids were so big and loose. Some people braided the cloth into tight ropes. But it all worked out, as it so often does (life lesson here!).

On the last afternoon of the retreat, Laura and I gathered the ropes of braids and headed to the chapel. Someone had installed tiles in the past year, which made it easier to measure, count, and lay out the labyrinth. We did a less complicated labyrinth shape than the Chartres (or medieval shape). Go here for a picture on the Wikipedia site.

We had more braids than we needed, so we looped them around the chapel. We did our Sending Service, surrounded by braids of prayer.

Laura took the extra braids with her to use with her woman's group. Lutheridge kept the braided rope to use later in the summer.

What I love about this is the symbolism and the possibilities. I'll blog about those possibilities later in the week--but suffice it to say, this process is a way for people to experience the labyrinth with very little cost involved. And since it doesn't have to be permanent, it means that the labyrinth experience can be part of a much wider variety of possibilities.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Braided Labyrinth--a PhotoEssay

We began by braiding strips of cloth and connecting the braids.

The beautiful thing about this fabric project: any fabric will do, any color combination will do, and it doesn't matter whether one braids tightly or loosely.

We laid out the labyrinth in the chapel. In the past year, they've installed a tile floor (instead of the old concrete), which made the mathematical calculations much easier.

We had some extra braid, so we made a heart . . .

and a cross. It was at the entrance to the labyrinth, where we received Communion before the labyrinth walk.

Here's the end result: our Communion Sending Service on the last day of the Create in Me Retreat at Lutheridge. I'm the woman in the magenta sweater and blue shorts almost in the direct middle of the picture; I was the one distributing the wine. I could be part of a Eucharist every day and never grow tired of it.

Tomorrow, I'll write more about this process. It's got lots of potential for all sorts of groups, and I don't want those ideas to be lost.

Friday, May 15, 2009

What if Humans Are the Art Supplies?

At a creativity retreat, one can expect any number of metaphors using art supplies. It wouldn't surprise me if some people get annoyed with these constant comparisons. Some people want to dive right in and start creating, and not think about deeper issues, like what it all means--although if you're not interested in existential and theological issues, I'm not sure why you'd come to a retreat at a church camp. I'm a poet, so I love any exercises that could lead to interesting poems.

Yesterday, I talked about the idea of God as art materials. But today, I'd like to think about what it means if humans are the art materials.

I love the idea of clay being happy with its clay nature. It doesn't spend the day wishing it was steel. It knows what it can do, and it rests secure in its earthen self.

I, on the other hand, am not good at being happy with my essential nature. I'm always trying to improve myself. I always have a plan to do more reading, more writing, more praying, more yoga, and more exercise. I'm always looking for a way to eat better and to lose weight. I spend much time wondering if I'm doing what God put me on earth to do.

But what if I don't need to improve? What if I'm exactly what I'm meant to be? What if God put me here, knowing exactly what God was doing?

We are the art materials! God put as here as part of the plan for the redemption of creation, that redemption that's already taken place, but isn't complete yet.

If we are the art materials, God wants us to be ourselves. God NEEDS us to be ourselves.

Think about it this way: some of us are clay, some of us are fabric, some of us are paint, and some of us are metals.

If we all decided we needed to be blue paint, and we spent all our time and energy trying to be blue paint, we would deny the world, and God, the creator, all sorts of wonderful possibilities.

God would keep working with us, of course. God isn't going to dump us all in the trash, saying, "I hate all this blue paint!" If we all decide to be blue paint, God will have a blue period.

But how much more glorious a world we'd have, if God had full access to all the art supplies: if we'd all decide to be just what we were meant to be and quit trying to be something else.

The world will spend lots of time trying to convince us all to squeeze into very narrow molds. God needs us to be something else. And the Good News is that God needs us to be exactly who we are.

(thanks to Pastor Mary Canniff-Kuhn, who suggested all these possible interpretations and implications at Lutheridge during the 2009 Create in Me retreat).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

God as Art Materials

One of the more intriguing ideas I heard at the Create in Me retreat involved us thinking about God as art material.

We like to think that we can understand God. Worse, many of us like to think that we can control God. If you don't believe me, head to your local Christian bookstore and take a look. If we pray this prayer, we'll get this amount of wealth. God wants us to do this and that and then God will bless us as a nation. If we pray this way or behave that way, God will grant us good health.

Those of us who have been around for awhile understand the problems with this thinking. What happens if we live upright lives, but bad things still happen to us, as bad things always will? How do we cope with that, if we have the view that God will reward the upright exactly the way we think that God will? Many a crisis of faith is born in just that situation.

Far better to think of God as an art material. God will be God, no matter what we want, no matter how we want to control God.

Many of us approach God, and like with many of our relationships, we try to change God. It's as if you looked at your clay and wanted it to be steel, worthy of holding up a skyscraper. Clay can be many things, but it will never hold up a skyscraper by itself. It's as if God is a beautiful shade of blue, and we fume and fuss and wish that God could be a shade of green that we need God to be.

Unlike humans, art materials have their own properties. They're very happy with who they are and see no need to change. Clay doesn't want to be steel. Blue doesn't want to be green. God wants to be God, not your giant cosmic Santa Claus.

Some of you might say, "Well how do we know who this God is?" I'd suggest something old-fashioned: return to the text. Go back to the Bible. It's an incomplete picture of God, but it's more complete than many of the books published for the Christian market, and sadly, more complete than many people ever will discover in churches.

Of course, I'm a Lutheran. Of course I'd say, "Return to Scripture." Of course I'd be skeptical of religious authorities and anyone else who wants to navigate God for us. Sola Scriptura!

And for my atheist friends who would worry about all the human hands and minds that are part of that Scripture project, I'd acknowledge those fears and remind us all that there's always first hand knowledge of God. We can pray and listen and be alert and come to know God too. It's fraught with some danger (how do we know for sure what we're doing? it's good to have some kind of community for guidance, I suspect, and wisdom through the ages instructs thusly), but it's a time-honored path as well. Having just celebrated the feast day of Julian of Norwich last week and returned to her meditations, I'm reminded of the alternate paths that she illuminates.

Here's a fun meditation for you today (along the lines of Julian of Norwich, who had rich metaphors for God that were highly unusual for her time): if God is an art supply, which art supply would you choose to most adequately symbolize God?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 17, 2009:

First Reading: Acts 10:44-48

Psalm: Psalm 98

Second Reading: 1 John 5:1-6

Gospel: John 15:9-17

In this week's Gospel, Jesus again reminds us to love each other. If I had to sum up the whole of the New Testament, I'd do it this way: Love God (which of course would include Jesus and the Holy Spirit), and love each other with as much intensity as you love God. Jesus doesn't present us a choice in the matter. We're commanded to love each other.

And the impact of this commandment is even greater. We must love everyone--not just the people who are easy to love.

Let's be honest with each other. We don't always do a good job of loving people whom it's easy to love. For example, I know that my grandmother loves getting mail. There's a thrill about getting something in her mailbox from family members. In some ways, it doesn't matter what's in the envelope. She's just so thrilled to get mail. I understand that--I've been a student; I've been a homesick camper at Lutheridge.

How hard would it be for me to send her something once a week or once a day? She doesn't do e-mail, but I could print an e-mail and mail it the old-fashioned way. Often, I do a good job of mailing something once a week, but then I go away, my routine gets disrupted, and it takes me awhile to get back into that habit.

I'm bad at mailing birthday cards, and I rarely get presents into the mail on time. Why is this so hard for me? I love my family. If I had an abusive family, I might let myself off the hook, but I don't, so I won't.

Then I feel despair. If it's so hard to show my loved ones that I love them, how on earth will I do this for people who are less lovable?

Jesus came to show us the way. We show love by sharing a meal. We show love by spending time with people. We show love by listening to people. We show love by praying for them.

You might say, "Well, that's just too hard." That's where being a member of a faith community is important. Through our faith communities, we can show love by working with the poor and dispossessed, in a way that we can't by ourselves. At my church, we run a food bank, and we make dinner for the homeless in downtown Ft. Lauderdale once a month. I can't run a food bank by myself. I can't make dinner for 90 homeless people all by myself.

Our faith communities should ideally model good behavior for us. My faith community reminds me of my prayer responsibilities by publishing an updated prayer list each week. My faith community shares meals on a regular basis.

Hopefully, our experience of church (and other faith communities) strengthens us for the intense work of loving the world. It's hard work. It's what we're called to do. It's what we must do.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What Else Happened at Synod Assembly?

The first day of Synod Assembly was by far the most exciting. We dove in right away on the first day, Thursday, voting on the Sexuality Statements. In retrospect, I'm glad we did. It was good to undertake that task while we were all still fresh (although I heard some grumbling about participants who couldn't arrive on time, and some of us did come from very far away, and we might have been fresher on Friday).

We undertook some other legislation, most notably a Carbon Emissions Reduction Recommendation. At one point, I thought we might spend more time arguing about the appropriate response to the environmental crisis than we did arguing about sex--what a sign of something that would be!

We heard from all sorts of groups, from the Bishop of the larger Lutheran churchwide body, to the folks who do outdoor ministries in Florida and beyond, to various mission groups. The fact that sticks in my brain is that one in 50 Americans is helped by Lutheran Services America. I worked for Lutheran Social Services in the D.C. area during the summer of 1985 and 1986--it changed my life in any number of ways, primarily by helping me to understand how lucky I was to be born into fortunate circumstances.

Most wonderful for me: the worship services. The first night we had a Festival Worship with a procession of banners from Florida churches (since I was the only member from my church to attend, I got to carry the banner--I haven't done that since adolescence). We had a healing service the second night. At the time the congregation was invited to come forward for a sign of God's love and healing, about 8 ministers took their places in chairs at the front. Each minister had an empty chair facing him or her. Each congregant sat in front of the pastor, and the pastor asked, "Is there anything special that we should be praying for you?" Some people sat for a long time. Some people wept. I found it very powerful, even though my woes tend to be minor in comparison. When the minister asked me that question, I replied, "My job leaves me both stressed and bored." That's not as serious as cancer or other health issues. It's survivable in a way that betrayal by loved ones might not be. For the sending service, we had a Gospel service, complete with a choir and a band (and they were GOOD, unlike so many Lutheran church singing groups that come with a band).

Our Synod does business in alternating years; this year was one of those years. Next year, the Synod focuses on workshops and other kinds of experiences that give participants tools to take back to their congregations. The business meetings are held across a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, which is why so many people in my congregation couldn't go. Next year the Assembly will be held across a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so we may have a surplus of people who want to go. Even if I can't attend next year, I'm profoundly grateful to have been able to attend this year.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Arcing Towards Justice--the Longer Report

When I first said I could be our congregation's delegate to the Florida-Bahamas Synod Assembly, I had no idea that we'd be doing much of importance. I thought we'd just be electing some folks to do Synod work, and those elections are often between similarly qualified people. Still, no one else from my congregation could go, and I have some vacation time that is just going to vaporize at the end of June; so, when they asked me if I would go, I thought, sure, why not.

I am SO, SO glad that I went. It was powerfully moving to see the Synod approve the sexuality statements (go here to read all of the statements). I was pleased to see that the discussion was polite and respectful. Even when I disagreed with people, they made their arguments without resorting to vituperative spite.

Maybe it's easier for me to be gracious because I was on the winning side. Still, I felt powerfully moved. We're not a young Synod. It's not like the resolutions passed because the predominant age in our Synod is 30. No, we're much more likely to be 60 or 70 years old in this Synod.

So, why did they pass? I spent some time with the Reconciling in Christ people afterwards; they were having a wine and cheese reception at the same time as the Outdoor Ministries reception, and the area for Reconciled in Christ was much less crowded. I asked them why they thought that the resolutions passed. They, too, expected a harder, uglier battle. They saw the Holy Spirit at work.

I heard other possibilities. Some people think we're all just tired of battling about this issue. The sexuality statements do give us all (individually and as individual churches and the larger church body) room to stay bound to our consciences, even if we may have different opinions because of our bonds. It's a compromise that might work.

Or perhaps it's because we've done the hard work of winning hearts and minds. Or maybe it's because we live in a state where we're more likely to have met lesbigaytrans people, and the issue has become personalized. Maybe we reached a tipping point, after years of working to sensitize people.

The proposals to support the sexuality statements passed by wide majorities. The vote to approve the sexuality statement passed with almost a 2/3 majority (270 voted yes; 163 voted no). The vote on ordaining and calling lesbigaytrans clergy was closer (basically, this social statement lets individual churches decide--but if a lesbigaytrans person is in a committed relationship, they would no longer risk their ordination, even though an individual church might choose not to employ them); 239 people voted for the proposal and 172 voted no.

Still, some people were upset because they want the church to take a firmer stance. One of my conservative friends asked, "How can we differentiate ourselves if the larger ELCA gives us no guidance?" I understand her concerns, but I disagree.

I find myself wishing the church would go a bit further in a different direction. If we really think that marriage is as important as our social statements say, I'd like to see us work to offer marriage to same gender couples. I'd like us to call it marriage, not commitment ceremonies. While we're at it, I'd like us to declare that Luther was wrong and that marriage should be a sacrament, every bit as important as the Eucharist and Baptism.

I'd also like us to acknowledge that marriage might not have to be just between 2 people. I could see that three or more people might want to commit to each other, and that would be cool with me.

It's the commitment that's important. That's the word that focuses my attention. Others I've talked to have focused on the words lifelong and monogamous, which are also in the social statements. I think we've already settled the divorce issue, and need not redo that work. And I'm not about to blog about monogamy and its value or lack of it.

I heard one pastor predict schism. I said, "And to do what? Align with the Lutheran Church in Nigeria? We're not Episcopalians!"

But we might very well end up in schism. That doesn't scare me as much as it scares others. If a conservative wing wants to break away, that wouldn't have to be a disaster, although we already have conservative Lutheran options out there, like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Yes, the use of the word Synod here might confuse people--these two organizations are completely separate from the larger Lutheran body.

Now it's on to wait and see what happens at the ELCA National Assembly in August. It's hard to predict. Part of me thinks that if my conservative Synod is approving the statements, the National Assembly will too. Part of me agrees with my conservative friend, who thinks the National Assembly will be contentious and ugly, because everyone there is much more organized and fierce. I will pray for the Assembly, and trust the Holy Spirit.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Arcing Towards Justice--the Short Report from the Florida-Bahamas Synod

Yesterday, my Synod, which has a reputation as being conservative, voted to support the ELCA proposed sexuality statement. We voted down the proposal to keep supporting the much more conservative current statement.

I never would have thought we would move this far, this quickly, in my lifetime. The events of 2005 were so divisive, and I just couldn't see how we would move forward.

We are essentially agreeing to disagree, while stressing that humans in committed relationships should be our primary goal (I'm grossly simplifying--go here to download PDF files to read the multi-page statements in all their glory).

I shall write more when I can blog in the privacy of my study. Right now I'm at a laptop provided by Thrivent, and I'm conscious that at any moment, more people might want to check their e-mail or use the computers.

But suffice it to say, I'm thrilled. I've been part of groups working towards more inclusiveness since my days in the 1980's in the Lutheran Student Movement. We'd submit resolutions that we created in our gatherings, and the larger, "adult" church would pat our heads and carry on about their business.

Yesterday, a young woman stood up to talk about the value of inclusiveness. She said that she didn't remember a time when women couldn't be ordained and that she couldn't imagine not having the benefit of all the women clergy who have so influenced her. My eyes welled up. I do remember a time from my childhood, when women weren't allowed to be pastors, and my adolescence, when female pastors were still rare.

And here we are, 25 years later. Where will we be 25 years from now?

More to come. Suddenly, I have lots of blog topics: braided labyrinths, a report from Synod . . . .

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Away I go to Synod Convention

I'm headed away from the computer again for a few days. I've been chosen as a voting lay delegate (as opposed to ordained delegates) at Synod Assembly (the Lutheran church is divided into synods by region, and these synods gather once a year to vote on various pieces of legislation and to elect leaders).

Will it be a mountain-top experience like a retreat at Lutheridge? Will it be more like a multiple day department meeting? I shall report back.

We're meeting at a resort in Orlando, which feels strange to me. When I was an adolescent, Synod Convention was held at a college which had just let students go for the summer, and I think the South Carolina Synod still meets that way at Newberry College, my alma mater.

But a resort . . . that's a lot of money. Wouldn't we do better to give that money to the poor? Do we really need to gather as a group? Can't we do our business electronically?

There might be good reasons for meeting in person, not the least of which would be fellowship and the ability to worship together. I'll keep an open mind and report back. I've about decided that I won't even take the laptop. There's not much time, after all. I'll be back at the home computer before it even realizes I've been gone.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 10, 2009:

First Reading: Acts 8:26-40

Psalm: Psalm 22:24-30 (Psalm 22:25-31 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 John 4:7-21

Gospel: John 15:1-8

The Gospel of John includes several "I am" stories, like the one we find in the Gospel for today. Unlike the idea of Jesus as shepherd, which might be unfamiliar to those of us who live so far away from farms, the idea of Jesus as the vine, and believers as the branches isn't that hard for most of us to grasp. Most of us have watched plants grow, and we understand that one branch of the plant won't do well if we separate it from the main stalk.

To continue the plant metaphor, Jesus is the one who delivers water and nutrients to the rest of the plant. We won't do well when we're disconnected from the life source. In fact, Jesus makes clear what happens to those of us who separate from Christ: we wither.

Maybe you're feeling fairly withered anyway, even though you don't see yourself as being cut off from Christ. If that feeling persists, perhaps it's time to consider doing something differently. Maybe you need to pray more. Maybe you need to withdraw and take a retreat. Maybe you need to do some social justice work. Maybe you need some sort of midweek class or worship activity. Maybe you need to walk a labyrinth and meditate.

This week's Gospel makes clear that we are not put in place to just sprout meekly. We are to bear much fruit. If we feel like we're withering, we shouldn't let that feeling persist for too many months before we consider how we're going to become more fruitful.

Congregations will hear this Gospel this week, and many will consider what this verse means. Are we to bring more members to church? Are we to go out and create some sort of intentional community? Should we do more vigorous work for social justice? How can we be light and leaven in our workplaces?

The answers to all these questions might be yes. Or perhaps no. Let's return to the vine metaphor, and let's think about wine. Those of us who drink a variety of wines know that even though wines are made from grapes, there are lots of different grapes, with very different characters, which make a wide variety of wines possible.

Some of us are the type of grape who can go out and invite all our friends to church. Others of us are the kind of grape that would prefer to pray for others in private. Some of us might be the kind of grape who can visit sick parishioners, at home or in the hospital. Some of us might be called to create intentional community, while others of us have already found the community which can nurture us.

There is no single right or wrong answer. But we need to make sure we're asking the right questions. When I was on retreat this past week, talking to a pastor friend about work issues, she asked, "But through your work, are you creating a thing of beauty?" That's one of the interesting questions.

We also need to consider whether or not our daily activities are working on behalf of good or evil. Every action that we take helps to create a world that is either more good or more evil. We want to make sure we're creating the Kingdom that God has called us to help create. We're to be creating it here, now--not in some distant time and place when we're dead.

We're in a world where the Good News of the Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is both here now (thus a cause for joy) and not yet (as evidenced by evil in the world). Everything we create needs to be a challenge to evil.

We don't have time to waste withering on the vine. God has many joyous tasks for us, and the world urgently needs for us to do them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Back from the Mountain Top

I am back from a delightful retreat at Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp near Asheville, North Carolina. What a beautiful part of the country! And what a wonderful retreat!

In 48 hours, I'll be on my way to Orlando to our Synod's Assembly gathering. I've never gone to a Synod Assembly, so I'm not sure what to expect. If I was a really sophisticated blogger, I suppose I would blog the assembly, but I'm not up to that. If anything interesting happens, I'll write about it later.

It will be interesting to experience the two events so close together: the Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge and the Synod Assembly at a resort in Orlando. I'm trying to keep an open mind.

At some point, I'll write about our braided labyrinth. What a cool experience! And it would be easy to do for any variety of groups. I always wanted to do a labyrinth in our old church, but I was deterred by the cost of the heavy canvas that I thought would be necessary for a non-permanent labyrinth. My experience this week-end proves that labyrinths may be a possibility for many churches and groups.

I also did a lot of yoga. I must do more of this.

What I love about the retreat, and what I miss most as I return to regular life, is how easy it was. Get up, and yoga class is right there. Worship opportunities--never more than a short walk away. Creativity materials? All provided.

Now I'm back in my regular life, where my church is a 15 minute drive away. I have no idea where my nearest yoga class is. No one is cooking my meals.

I would like a more intentional community, and I wonder if it is possible outside of monasteries, social justice groups, and the like. Could I create such a thing? My spouse and I have always thought about buying land and creating some sort of community. This subject, too, is one I'll likely return to as I blog in the coming months.