Tuesday, June 23, 2009

This Blog Is On Vacation

I'll let others keep watch from their blogging perches while I spend some vacation days with friends and family--I'll return to regular blogging on July 1.

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 28, 2009:

First Reading: Lamentations 3:22-33

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24

Psalm: Psalm 30

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 130

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Gospel: Mark 5:21-43

Notice how rooted in physicality is our Gospel for Sunday. We've got a bleeding woman and a dying girl. At the end of the Gospel, Jesus orders food for the no longer dead girl. The Gospel practically oozes on the page.

Notice too how we've got a variety of people--all they have in common is their fierce belief and their willingness to do whatever it takes for healing. They will ignore all the years of ill health. They will ignore their rational voices that say that one man can't bring health. Even when they're surrounded by naysayers, they believe. They will ignore death, so powerful is their hope.

And how odd that the Gospel ends with Jesus telling them to say nothing. Of course, this is the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus often tells people not to tell what they've seen. Why does he do that? Does he know the human impulse to tell things they've been told not to tell? Is Jesus scared of attracting the wrong kind of attention too early? Does Jesus know what he's doing? The Gospel of Mark is the one where Jesus seems least to resemble the great and glorious Savior whom so many of us would swear that we know. He's secretive in Mark, and mean to his mom, and he often acts like he's making it all up as he goes along. By the time we get to the Gospel of John, which was probably written last of the four, Jesus has changed radically. But I digress.

Notice that in this passage Jesus focuses his attention on some of the most outcast of his society: a little girl and a bleeding woman. If you've studied the Old Testament, you understand how outcast a woman who never stopped bleeding would be. Ancient purity codes were quite strict about body fluids, particularly when they came from women. And a female child would have also been seen as expendable, at least in the larger society. Yet Jesus doesn't withhold his power from them, even if they're not important to the larger society.

This Gospel echoes the story we heard last week. Here is Jesus again, talking to his disciples about their fears. Here is Jesus, doing what should be impossible for humans to do. Last week he's controlling nature. This week, we seem him controlling the human body. We even see him overcome death.

These stories make me think about my own faith, particularly during these hot, hazy days of summer, when it seems impossible to get off the couch. What would inspire me to go to Jesus in a similar way? I try to imagine Jesus saying to me "Daughter, your faith has made you well." I think of all the ways that my faith can--and does--fall short.

This Gospel is instructive, in that it shows what it might take to get our attention focused on what's important. If my little nephew lay dying, I would move Heaven and Earth to find a cure. If I had a disease that no one could cure, I might be moved to try things my rational brain wouldn't accept. Over and over again, in many a disease narrative, we hear people tell us that their disease redirected their attention and turned out to be a strange blessing.

I'm always wary of this approach--I don't want to glorify suffering and disease. I don't mean to imply that the sick ones are lucky, and the healthy ones are ill. But with this Gospel, it wouldn't hurt to take a look at our own faith lives. Where is God trying to get our attention? How strong is our faith? What would it take to make us yearn for Christ, to search so fervently for our Savior?

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Church as Institution--One or Many?

Last night, I met a woman at a party who talked about the Church. She made clear that she was talking about the Church as an institution, which bothered me, but I couldn't puzzle out why just then.

This morning, it hit me: the Church isn't just one institution--and I could argue that its face as an institution changes through the years. Thus, it fascinates me when I meet people in their 50's and 60's who are SO angry about the Church. But as I talk to them, I realize that they're angry at the Church of their childhood--and frankly, that Church doesn't much exist anymore (Christopher Hitchens, I'm talking to you). Many of these people aren't keeping up with Church developments, and clearly haven't been, as I often find out when I talk about the Church of the Northern Hemisphere and the Church of the Southern Hemisphere, and the coming clash. Blank looks. If I could convince those folks to read only one book on the Church, it would be The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins; I suspect this book would completely scramble the way they view the Church as institution.

The group I was with last night are still ANGRY about the Catholic Church. Last night, it was the wealth of the Vatican which raised ire (other times, I've noticed that pedophile priests cause a similar outrage).

It's very intriguing to me, because when I think of the Catholic church, I think of any number of solid Catholic schools, I think of Catholic Charities, I think of Archbishop Oscar Romero, I think of Catholic Worker houses, I think of Flannery O'Connor, I think of the fall of Communism, for which I give partial credit to Pope John Paul II and the partially Catholic Solidarity movement. I think of all the good that has been brought into the world with that Vatican wealth. I don't think in terms of people harmed.

It might help that I was never personally harmed by Catholics. I have some friends who still carry psychic wounds. I understand that those wounds are hard to heal.

I grew up in the U.S. South, where there weren't many Catholics, but about a gabillion Southern Baptists. I didn't grow up in a city where Catholic leadership was corrupt and was involved in corrupt politics. Maybe I'd have a different world view if I did. But the first Catholics I knew were in college, and they were student activists and liberation theologians, working for the poor and the oppressed.

When these conversations like the one I had last night arise, I always try to remind the unchurched and the atheists that the Church as an institution is not exactly what God might have intended. Maybe I'll also start reminding them that the Church isn't one monolithic institution--it's an interesting crazy quilt of institutions.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day and Spiritual Formation

The longest day of the year dawns bright and hot down here in South Florida--happy Summer Solstice (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere)! I have fathers on the brain, since it's Father's Day (in the U.S.), too. I'm not the only one; the Sojourner's blog has some great essays. I particularly loved the one by Jim Wallis, which talks about your Dayplanner/Calendar as a moral document (how you spend your time shows us your values) and the one by Brian McLaren, which talks about what he's learned from his father and what he learned from his children.

I know how lucky I am to have emerged from an intact family, to have a mom and a dad who continue to love each other, and continue to love my sister and me. I grew up in the 1970's and saw plenty of wrecked families. I've always wondered how people who come out of those wrecked families, especially those with absent or abusive fathers, react to the idea of God as a Father.

Even though I have a good relationship with both of my parents, I'm not crazy about the idea of God as Parent (of either gender). I think that God as Parent is an infantilizing metaphor. If God is a Dad (or so much more rarely, a Mom), then it follows that we're children, and too often, we see that as a reason for inactivity. But God needs us to be active in the world. I'd go further and say that God is counting on us. I much prefer the idea of God as partner. God can be the Senior partner; I'm cool with that.

Of course, I see the value of viewing God as a loving parent, but I'd love for us to expand our metaphors for God. I'd also love us to take our view of God, and see if it could have impact on our own lives. How might our parenting change, if we used God as the parenting model? How might we change our creative lives, if we used God as model? Maybe we'd be more forgiving, in both instances. Maybe we'd look at all that we create and call it "Good" and "Very Good," as in the first Genesis story (yes, there's more than one Genesis story--go read the early chapters of Genesis again).

On this Father's Day, I plan to call my own Dad, to say thanks. I plan to write my father-in-law, to say thanks. I plan to pray for a world where fathers are there to shape their children in positive ways. I plan to pray for fathers everywhere.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Becoming a Better Godparent--Vacation Bible School

I've just spent a week being very involved with my church's Vacation Bible School, which was a great experience for me, and an even better experience for all the children and teenagers. I live too far away from my godchild (my nephew) to take him to Vacation Bible School with me. Luckily, my mom plans to take him to her Vacation Bible School with her.

I understand how hard it must be for working families to commit to Vacation Bible School. When we were done with our intense week, I just wanted to collapse in a heap, with my 40+ hour work week and several hours of VBS on top of that. Some of our parents dropped their children off at VBS, but most of them stayed to help.

So, if you're a godparent and you think that VBS helps with spiritual formation, what are your options? Obviously, if you live near your godchild, you can get involved with VBS, and you can make sure that your godchild participates too.

But what if you don't live in the same area? You could still help with your church's VBS, and you could send your child dispatches from your experience; send a daily e-mail or letter to let your godchild know what you've been doing and how much fun you've been having. Maybe your godchild will encourage his or her parents to investigate VBS nearby.

You could pick up a few things for your godchild while you're at VBS. Our VBS children each got a CD of the music. If my nephew hadn't been scheduled to participate in the same program later in the summer, I'd have sent him a CD. Instead, I picked up some stickers for him. He LOVES stickers, and I'm hoping that getting an envelope of stickers will help him look forward to VBS later this summer.

It's possible that you think VBS is hokey or dreadful. If your church offers a truly dreadful VBS (or worse, theologically problematic), then you have some thinking to do and perhaps, some decisions to make. But it's also possible that you're judging it as an adult and therefore judging it too harshly. Our children had a great time doing activities that would have bored me to tears. Even as we worked on one of our craft projects that was too hard (a wind chime that involved fishing wire), the children seemed fascinated and forgiving.

I think that one of the most important aspects of VBS is that it gives children a memory of church as a fun place, a place they can't wait to be. I remember being bored, bored, bored by church services when I was a child, the very services that give me comfort and strength now. It was those memories of the extracurricular activities, like VBS and youth group, that eventually led me to yearn for a church community as a grown up.

As godparents, we say that we'll nurture our godchildren and help with their spiritual formation. VBS can be an important help to us.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Graduation Speeches and Spiritual Formation

I've been thinking about graduation speeches, since my school had our Graduation ceremony last night. Last night's graduation speech was so different, and I wonder if it was different because the economy is now so changed, or simply because our speaker was different.

In the past, we've been subjected to speakers who have reminded students that their most important duty was to make money. We've had speakers who have told students that nothing will be impossible for them. The main focus was success, success, success--and success was always measured in monetary terms. Blick.

Now, I'm at a school that prides itself in preparing students for careers. I understand I'm not working at a school that focuses on the moral life of students or their theological instruction or their willingness to complete good works. I went to a small, Lutheran, liberal arts college, and I'm not sure how successful that school was at spiritual and moral formation of students.

Still, there's more to life than money, and I think that Commencement ceremonies are a great time to remind students of that possibility. And last night, finally, we had a speaker, a Miami-Dade county judge, who did just that.

He called them to reshape the world, to work for justice. He reminded them that even artistic types can work to make the world better. He reminded them that their work skills can be useful in other arenas: chefs can cook for fund raisers, that kind of thing. It was great.

In his own work life, the judge told them that he sees the poorest of the poor in our community, people who have made dreadful mistakes or had dreadful things happen to them through no fault of their own. He came close to saying that we have obligations to those people, as well as to our own families. Instead of focusing on the individual poor, he mentioned larger groups who are oppressed. It worked.

I wonder if we're going to see a new era of graduation speeches. I certainly hope so. I saw a glimmer of this possibility in Barbara Kingsolver's 2008 graduation speech to Duke graduates. She says, "Now, the rule of 'Success' has traditionally meant having boatloads of money. But we are not really supposed to put it in a boat. A house would the customary thing. Ideally it should be large, with a lot of bathrooms and so forth, but no more than four people. If two friends come over during approved visiting hours, the two children have to leave. The bathroom-to-resident ratio should at all times remain greater than one. I’m not making this up, I’m just observing, it’s more or less my profession. As Yogi Berra told us, you can observe a lot just by watching. I see our dream-houses standing alone, the idealized life taking place in a kind of bubble. So you need another bubble, with rubber tires, to convey yourself to places you must visit, such as an office. If you’re successful, it will be a large, empty-ish office you don’t have to share. If you need anything, you can get it delivered. Play your cards right and you may never have to come face to face with another person. This is the Rule of Escalating Isolation.

And so we find ourselves in the chapter of history I would entitle: Isolation and Efficiency, and How They Came Around to Bite Us in the Backside." Then Kingsolver talks about all the stresses the world faces, all the oppressions visited on all sorts of people. And she wrote this speech before the various economic collapses of late 2008.

During good times, we often forget that hard times have the effect of making us all evaluate what's really important. During good times, we forget to attend to some of the things that make our lives worth living. We forget to attend to our souls, many of us.

I'm not sure I'd have ever recommended a recession/depression as agent of spiritual formation. Surely there must be a less painful way. But perhaps not. Our current situation reminds me of many a disease memoir, where the writer comes out of the other side of the disease a changed person, a person who wouldn't have come into existence without the disease.

I'm also aware of how problematic it can be, to shape hardship in these terms. It's easy for me to talk about recession as spiritual formation, sitting here still in possession of a job.

So, let me leave the subject here, as is often the case, with perhaps more questions than answers. Let us all go about our days, play our roles in the economy, and ponder.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Baby Quilts as Prayer Shawls

I've taken a lesson that I've learned from the prayer shawl group at church and applied it to one of my favorite hobbies: making baby quilts.

I love to make baby quilts entirely by hand for friends and family who are having babies. Our multi-faith women's group likes to collect items for indigent moms, and I like to make baby quilts for the travelling bassinet that comes around. I like to make small quilts for Kids In Distress, a local group who takes care of abused children.

No matter who will receive the quilt, I've started praying for the child and the family as I stitch. It's not a continuous prayer. I can still socialize with my quilting group. But at least once during each sewing/quilting session, I offer up a prayer.

Unlike prayer shawls, not every quilt is going to a distressed person. Still, I figure it doesn't hurt to pray for babies and children. Before I had a little nephew, I wasn't as aware of all the dangers that seem to lurk everywhere. And I'm not just talking about predator scum who go after kids. When I think about their underdeveloped immune systems, I offer additional prayers. When I think about our financial crisis and the reverberations that will echo through the years and decades, I say a prayer. When I think about all the stresses that families, even solid ones, face, I pray more fiercely.

And then I give the quilt away, and I work on trusting God to hold us all in God's giant quilt of a world.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, June 21, 2009:

First Reading: Job 38:1-11

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49

First Reading (Alt.): 1 Samuel 17:57--18:5, 10-16 (Semi-continuous)

Psalm: Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 9:9-20

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 133 (Semi-continuous)

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Gospel: Mark 4:35-41We live in storm-tossed times. Even those of us who have managed to hold onto our jobs worry about what the next year will bring. Those institutions who have managed to plug the holes in their leaky boats must think about what they'll do when the stimulus money runs out. And of course, many of us might be feeling more alone than we've ever felt before, no matter what our financial luck happens to be.

Maybe we can relate to those disciples in this week's Gospel. The boat is taking on water. We're sinking. We'll die out here in the middle of this lake. It was bad back there with the crowds, but we don't want to perish this way.And so, like the disciples, we call out: "Where are you God? Don't you care about us, Jesus?"

Look at the response of Jesus in this passage. Many theologians have noted that he doesn't mock them for their fears. Their fears are real and valid. But he asks them why they're letting their fears get the best of them. It's as if he's saying, "I'm right here. I'm with you. Have you forgotten what is possible when I'm in your boat?"

And then, he calms the storm. You can look at this part of the passage in many ways. The traditional way is to see this as an example of the authority of Jesus. He has dominion over the seas and the storm. The natural world bows to his commands.

You can also see the storm as metaphorical. When we're having trouble, we often use storm imagery to describe our state, just as I did in the first paragraph. Jesus is there to calm the storm.

Notice, too, that just because we're believers, that doesn't mean that we will never experience storms. We will, and we will likely be afraid. But Jesus assures us that even though we might feel alone, we are not alone. The storms will come, and storms will go. But God is always there, with us, in our boats.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Add Eugene Peterson's Latest Book to Your Summer Reading List

I realize that most of us choose lighter summer reading. Summer is likely the time we move away from books that we might consider too heavy, like History or Theology.

Yet Eugene H. Peterson's latest book, Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, doesn't feel heavy. It's a delight of a book.

The first half of the book, as you might expect from the title, focuses on the parables of Jesus. I particularly enjoyed how Peterson showed the links between the stories. Peterson is a master at taking stories that are familiar, like the Prodigal Son, and helping us to see something new.

The last half of the book focuses on the prayers of Jesus. Again, if we've been going to church any length of time, chances are that these prayers aren't unfamiliar to us. But often, Peterson's analysis made me gasp with surprise. I particularly cling to the idea of Jesus praying for us. Some of my Protestant friends scoff at Catholics for their idea of asking saints and dear departed loved ones to pray for those of us still alive, but I like that idea. I like a savior that says, "I will not leave you orphaned" (John 14:18). So much of life leaves me feeling orphaned.

It's good to have books like this one, books that insistently remind us that we are far from orphaned.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Greed is a nearly invisible sin, a tiny parasite that makes its home in the intestines of wealth" (page 62).

"Jesus came to save our souls. He also came to save our words" (page 107).

"So when we pray, 'Your kingdom come,' praying the petition with Jesus praying at our side, we are at the same time implicitly affirming the rule as revealed in Jesus. And we give up second-guessing everything that we can't understand or don't approve of" (page 175).

"A steely refusal to repent, to stubbornly persist in a complacent, self-satisfied life, is a doomed life" (200).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Vacation Bible School Wrap Up

Yesterday, we turned over the church service (except for Communion) to the children who had just spent a week at Vacation Bible School. I'll confess that in the past, I've been of two minds about this.

On the one hand, I understand that letting the youth be in charge of the occasional church service can foster a life-long love of church and liturgy. I have fond memories of Youth Sundays of my own childhood. What a thrill to be in charge and to try new things!

As an adult, however, I often find these services painful. Not all of the children are able to read well. There's always one or two (or ten) who aren't well-behaved, and they aren't well-behaved in any number of ways that can be distracting. Children often don't sing so much as shout.

Yesterday, I went to church, since I'd spent the whole week helping. And perhaps my experience helping left me biased. But it wasn't too bad. I liked the liturgy that came with the program (I'm very impressed with the Augsburg/Fortress series; this year, we explored Discovery Canyon), and the music was catchy without being schmaltzy. The children read well (amazingly well, some of them), and they all behaved.

I like that Vacation Bible School pulls in so many children for whom this will be their only experience of church. It's interesting to me that parents are willing to let their children participate in VBS, but seem leery of church on a weekly basis. Is it that church on a weekly basis is so much more of a commitment? Is it something offputting about the church service itself? Is it simply that they're invited to VBS, but not invited to other parts of church life?

I'm glad that I got a chance to participate in VBS as an adult; it's been interesting to experience it from this side of the age divide.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Parable Writing Exercise

For those of you who need something to reinvigorate your summer, or for those of you looking for writing projects, or for those of you planning retreats, or for those of you looking for a fun project for small groups: here's an exercise to get people to write parables. It would also work for poems. I suspect it would also work for solitary people who want to work alone.

First, you will need to make lists:

6 natural objects

6 humanmade objects

6 ordinary actions

6 art materials.

If you're working with groups, you could give each group member the responsibility of one of the lists. Divide into groups of 4. Person #1 makes a list of 6 natural objects, person #2 makes a list of art materials, and so on. They number the list.

The team leader pulls a number--1-6--out of a hat. Let's say it's #4. Each group member says what the # 4 item on their list is.

So, in my group, we had canvas, coffee mug, autumn leaf, and sleeping. We started with the creating prompt: "The Kingdom of God is like ____________."

Now, we didn't need to use all the items on the list, although that might be a fun follow-up activity. We just started talking. "How is the Kingdom of God like a blank canvas? How is it like a painted canvas? How is it like a coffee mug?" We talked in our groups, then we talked as a larger group.

We had fun with this activity, and it was a great way to get to know each other. This activity would work better after the large group had looked at one of Christ's parables. Jesus took every day things/situations/activities and transformed them into stories that would help us understand God and God's purpose. We forget how strange those parables would have been to the audiences who first heard Jesus. But it's that strangeness that gets under our skin and makes us think.

We can do the same thing. We can create parables that will help us think about God and Kingdom building in new ways. We can create parables of wondrous strangeness that will get under people's skins.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 14, 2009:

First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 15:34--16:13

Psalm: Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14 (Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 20

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34

Today we return to those parables of potential held in tiny packages. We return to parables that remind us of what can happen when a speck of a seed is buried in the dirt and left alone. We return to parables that remind us that much happens beneath the surfaces and behind the scenes while we sleep peacefully.

We live in a culture that demands instant gratification. Many of us find it hard to read a book. I'm hearing more and more people confess that they can't even read a magazine article--their attention spans are just that fried. We live in a culture where, if it doesn't happen immediately, people don't stick around to see what happens.

I suspect that we're not living in a culture that's new in this respect. When I look at the parables of Jesus, I suspect that he was fighting a similar battle. People probably came up to him and said, "How can God be good if there's so much injustice in the world? Why does God allow that?" People probably say that to you, too.

I often use a parable of my own; in my own short life, I've seen the Kingdom of God break through in glorious and unexpected ways. The other day, I was looking through photo albums. I didn't find the pictures of my Confirmation day that I was looking for, but I did find a picture of an old college friend, back in 1986, who was wearing a shirt that demanded "Free Nelson Mandela."

Of course, we didn't expect that would happen. We expected that Nelson Mandela would die in jail and that the country would erupt in flames and bloodshed at any moment. We attended rallies and prayer vigils, but we didn't really expect peaceful social change.

Nonetheless, a few short years after I took that snapshot of my friend, Nelson Mandela walked out of jail. And a few years after that, he was elected president of South Africa. I continue to shake my head and wonder at my lack of faith. I continue to pray for God's kingdom to break through here on earth, and I'm still often surprised when it does.

In his recent book, Tell It Slant: A conversation on the language of Jesus in his stories and prayers, Eugene H. Peterson, says, "Still, when it comes to doing something about what is wrong in the world, Jesus is best known for his fondness for the minute, the invisible, the quiet, the slow--yeast, salt, seeds, light" (page 70). Some of my non-faithful friends snort and say, "What's the use?"

Peterson points out that "Waiting provides the time and space for others to get in on salvation. Waiting calls a time-out, puts us on the sidelines for a while so that we don't interfere with essential kingdom-of-God operations that we don't even know are going on. Not-doing involves a means of detaching my ego, my still immature understanding of the way God works comprehensively but without forcing his way, without coercion" (page 95).

Once again, these parables remind us that God's way is not the way of the world. But God's way can lead to a world transformed: floured leavened into bread, seeds grown into orchards, a community where everyone has enough and not a single person goes to bed hungry or lonely.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Vacation Bible School--First Day Report

I'm happy to say that the first evening of Vacation Bible School went well. We painted T-shirts as our Arts and Crafts project, an idea fraught with peril (or fraught with paint, at least). But it went well. I was most impressed with how the older kids helped the younger kids.

In our church, VBS seems to be quite the effort. Whole families are involved. We serve dinner, have music sessions, rhythm sessions, Bible study, story time, and Arts and Crafts. There's an opening service and a closing service each night. Even the teenagers come to help with the process.

I hadn't thought of VBS as a route to spiritual formation in that way. I assumed that the young kids who participated would have some sort of spiritual formation. But it's quite wonderful to see the older teens actually taking over parts of the process: leading classes, leading worship, that kind of thing.

Last night, my Arts and Crafts leader said, "You should go see the closing service. I'll clean up. I've seen the closing service before."

I walked towards the sanctuary, looking forward to what I thought would be a quiet, Compline like service (my favorite one when I'm at Mepkin Abbey). I envisioned candles and dim light, maybe some plainsong or Taize.

Ha!!! I opened the door to the brightly lit sanctuary, with children having a shouting/singing contest. It was the most nerve-jangling thing I've experienced in quite some time. I can't imagine taking one of those children home and trying to get ready for bedtime. Maybe I'm missing the point. Maybe that's why we do these things during vacation: so that we don't have to worry about bedtimes and school the next morning.

When I returned home, my spouse asked me if I had fun, and I had to say that I did. I said, "It's not the kind of fun where I'll say in October, 'Oh, I wish it was VBS time again.' But yeah, it was neat."

I wonder if people think it's strange that I'm helping, even though I don't have children. I'm not going to worry too much about that. I think that one of the advantages of church is that, ideally, all sorts of people mix together: all class levels, all ages, all races, those with children/relatives locally, and those alone. We're all part of a mission, and all talents are welcome. At least, that's how it should be. And in this church, I frequently experience that missional outlook.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Vacation Bible School and Me

Tonight will be a first for me. Tonight is the first time I participate in Vacation Bible School (VBS) as an adult.

For most of my adult life, I've gone to a church where there weren't enough children and volunteers to make VBS work. And during the summers that the church tried it, I couldn't have volunteered. I was teaching at night, and Vacation Bible School was also at night.

This week, too, VBS will be at night, which means I'll put in a full day at work and then go to church and try to be present for the children. I'm assisting with Arts and Crafts, so I'm hoping it won't be too difficult. I'm glad that I'm the assistant, not the one in charge.

I was asked to help back in April. Back then, my schedule in June seemed completely open. Now, of course, I've got a week of meetings and student surveys that assess teachers/classes and a personnel review. Back in April, I thought I might take some time off to be even more available for VBS. This week, I see the folly of that thought. Each of these meetings seems important.

One of my friends expressed disgust at the thought of Vacation Bible School. She said, "Oooh. You're not going to make them make crucifixes, are you?"

I said, "We're Lutherans. I feel fairly sure we won't be doing that."

I'm not exactly sure what we'll be doing, but we'll be using the Augsburg/Fortress series that my mom's church uses each year with great success. This year, we're visiting "Discovery Canyon." What does that mean? I don't know yet.

Of course, the real reason I volunteered, apart from liking the woman who asked me to assist her, is my own happy memories of VBS. Back in the 70's, when the summers stretched long, we'd often have several weeks of VBS. The sessions would last all morning. We'd make things and play volleyball and sing and do some Bible study. It was just part of those glorious summers which included swim lessons and reading stacks of books and going to the occasional movie and spending long afternoons getting sunburned at the pool at the Air Force Base.

Now that I'm older, I appreciate all the sacrifices the adults in my life made so that I could have those kind of summers. Hopefully, some child who comes to VBS this week will have some fond memories which will in turn, encourage them to volunteer, when they become adults.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Changing Church Service Start Times for Summer

We are not going to make it to church this morning. I feel somewhat bad about that. I also feel that it is partly the fault of my church. Today we start our summer service; we go from having 2 church services to one.

During the non-summer time of the year, we go to the 10:45 service. Some weeks, we barely make it to that service on time.

Now our summer service start time is 10:00. I'm sure we will make the adjustment, but we're not successful today.

I wonder why churches scale back in the summer time? I might try a different approach. In the summer, I've often felt that I have more time. It stays lighter later, and I feel like I have more energy. The tourists have gone home (in South Florida, our tourist season lasts from January to mid April, depending on weather patterns in the north), so it's not a hassle to drive. If I had kids, in the summer, many of their activities would dry up: no sports, no theatre, no test prep.

I'd be happy to devote some of that time to church, but often churches have scaled back their activities to just one service. I understand that in the past, people perhaps went on long vacations, and a church couldn't count on them being in town. Surely those days are over.

As I think about Confirmation and how Confirmation competes with so many other activities during the school year, I wonder if it might not make sense to move Confirmation to summer. Sure, there would be a week here and there where each kids would miss a session because they went on a trip, but it couldn't be any worse than during the school year. Could it?

Yesterday I read an article in The Washington Post which made a compelling case for year-round school. I could make a similarly compelling case for year-round church. Why interrupt our spiritual formation just because it's summer? Why not offer even more activities? If we do a better job of spreading out our activities across a year, maybe our church leaders, both rostered and lay, might not arrive at summer so exhausted and depleted--and for that matter, we could say the same for congregations.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Confirmation and the Church

I've only been going to my current church since July, so each holiday brings something new. This past Sunday, Pentecost, we had confirmands. I sat in my new church, trying to think about the last time I saw anyone being confirmed. It's likely to have been 20 years or more.

My last church was composed primarily of retirees, many of whom had been going there for 20 to 40 years. They had raised their children years ago, but still had memories that involved children and the church. Only a newcomer, like me, could look around and say, "Hmm. We have a problem here. Just a few small children, no youth group, no confirmation class." I had no solutions, but I attended that church regularly for 10 years and never saw anyone confirmed.

We had no confirmands because we had no teenagers. I know that other churches have no confirmands because of the stressful demands of modern lives. I started my own confirmation process in the late 70's. There were no other activities on Sunday afternoons. Nobody had sports practice or school activities. In some communities, most stores would be closed on Sundays. How things have changed.

When I was confirmed, everyone expected that we would diligently study for 3 or 4 years, that we would do this in addition to Sunday School and Church. Now, many confirmation classes have been condensed into one year, and the studies are done during the Sunday School hour. And I suspect that once teenagers are confirmed, we're not going to see them again for years, perhaps decades--if ever.

I've never understood why parents see Baptism and Confirmation as important, but they don't seem to see daily and weekly parts of being a Christian as important. Why baptize a child if you don't intend to bring that child to church on a regular basis? Why do we push children into Confirmation? I've often thought of my own Confirmation--at age 14, I was asked to commit to beliefs I could barely understand--but I knew that I better do it, because my family was watching.

Of course, my own life might demonstrate why we go ahead with these rituals. I went off to college, and wasn't part of regular church again for several decades. My involvement with the Lutheran Student Movement during undergraduate school and the Lutheran center on campus during graduate school meant that I didn't leave church completely. However, I didn't really return to regular church until I was well into my 30's. But I did return.

And I still wonder if there's a way to make regular church more like my campus experiences. Did we need to live in close proximity to have those Lutheran Student Movement experiences? In some ways, we were more like a monastic community in college: we ate together, worshipped together (often with worship services we created), and studied together.

My old LSM friends and I often discuss these ideas, but I've probably wandered towards a different blog post. I'm swamped by nostalgia. I think I'll be self-indulgent and dig out old photos. Maybe I'll be really self-indulgent and post one here and write a bit more about my own Confirmation memories.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Communing Our Parents

On Pentecost Sunday, my church celebrates confirmation. I'll say more about that tomorrow when I have more time. Our confirmands did all the communion assisting, which meant that some of them communed their parents.

Watching this process made me wonder about the emotional quality of the experience for both the confirmands and the parents. I wonder how it feels to receive communion from your child. I assume it must feel odd on some level--another sign that the child is growing up.

I know how it feels from the child side, although I was a grown child when I communed my parents. At the churches of my childhood, teenagers wouldn't have been allowed to be communion assistants, and the churches of my teenage years had professional staffs (pastors, assistant pastors, interns) to serve in the capacity.

At our recent retreat, I poured the wine for our Sending Service at the Braided Labyrinth. As my parents approached, I thought, oh, my, I've never given my parents Communion before! I found it deeply moving.

In fact, I found communing the whole group to be one of the most moving experiences of my Communion Assistant life. For one thing, I knew those people in a deeper way than I know most people; I've been gathering with them for 7 years. Another reason why it was moving was that we looked each other in the eyes. As I commune people at church, it's rare that anyone meets my eyes. But at the Sending Service, almost every single person looked at me directly. The whole process felt very holy and intense. I was very close to tears the whole time. Good tears.

The confirmands on Sunday might have been too worried about making mistakes to fully register their emotions. Or perhaps it takes years of communing before one feels the full impact of the Eucharist. Or maybe I'm just weird. I'll write a later post about the term I coined at Synod Assembly, when I told someone I'm a Eucharist Geek.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Mediation on this Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 7, 2009:

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm: Psalm 29

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-17

Gospel: John 3:1-17

Ah, Holy Trinity Sunday. It's interesting to look at various denominations to see how each one handles the idea of the Trinity. Some Christians are certainly more Trinitarian than others. I know that the idea of a Triune God is a huge stumbling block for many people.

As a child, this concept didn't bother me much. It seemed obvious that humans had many different sides, so why shouldn't God? As I got older, the idea of God being able to split those selves into various incarnations seemed a cool trick, but why shouldn't God be able to do that? I'd like to do that, but I don't want those other responsibilities that come with divinity. I'm working to be happy to let God be God, to let the mystery of the Trinity not even enter my consciousness.

Lately, as I've been thinking about community, I return to the idea of the Trinity--we worship a communal God who desires to be in community with us. I've always liked the symbolism of a braid, and Trinity Sunday seems a good time to return to that symbol. In a braid, each strand can stand alone--but what a more intriguing shape they make when woven together.

We might look again at the story of Nicodemus, a man who was a serious scholar. Jesus tells him, and us, that we must be born anew. We might look at our place in the braid of the Kingdom and wonder how we might be born anew. We are not that far from Pentecost. We should be listening for the Spirit.

I love verse 8, which says, "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit." My rational mind rebels. My rational brain demands that we make a plan, a plan for each day, a 5 year plan, a 10 year plan. My rational brain makes lists and wakes me up at 3:00 in the morning with worries.

I like the mystical promise of the Spirit. We do not have to know what we are doing; we do not need a plan--we just need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, a task which is not as easy as it might sound. God invites us to be part of the work of creating the Kingdom, right here and right now. But Christ tells us that we need to be born anew.

The evangelical movements have done a lot with John 3:16, which may be one of the most famous Bible verses. Many evangelicals can tell you the exact day and time that they were born again. However, many of us find this model lacking. Being born again is not a one-step process, when we invite Jesus into our hearts and we're done. Most of us need to be born again each day, day after day.

Now is the time for a different approach to this effort of being born again. We could greet each day, asking our Triune God to help us be born anew to be braided into community and Kingdom building. We could end each day by thanking our creator for the ways that we've been shaped that day.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Church Shootings on Pentecost

I was surprised to find out that the murdered abortion doctor was Lutheran. Actually, the first surprise was that he was shot while serving as an usher at his church on Sunday. It's become sadly common to hear about school shootings or shootings in neighborhoods. But a church?

I think of my own church, and I realize that I have no idea what most of my fellow parishioners do for a living. Of course, I'm fairly new to this church. In my old church, it was easy to know what most of us did for a living. Most of us were retired. Only about 10 of us adults worked outside the home (and there were only 50-70 people worshipping on any given Sunday).

As a teacher, I've come to understand that I work in a dangerous profession. Until recently, I've taught 5 courses a term, 25-30 students per class. That's a lot of students, any one of whom could be mentally unstable. And even if they're all pictures of beautiful mental health, it's likely that several of them are dating unstable people.

Still, I would expect workplace related violence to happen in the workplace, not in church.

And I keep thinking that the shooting took place on Pentecost Sunday. I wonder if the shooter chose that Sunday on purpose.

I realized that the victim was a Lutheran when I received an e-mail that had a message from our ELCA bishop. If you'd like to read it, go here. It's short and to the point. I like these sentences: "We pray for the courage to be peacemakers, rejecting violence as a means of resolving differences. We trust God's promise that neither death nor life nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)."

I must confess to queasiness over the fact that the victim performed late term abortions. I haven't done the research to find out how late in the term. My views on abortion have changed since seeing my sister's sonogram images of her son early in her pregnancy, and my views on end-of-life issues have changed since my mother-in-law's lingering death. I have always had respect for the views of Cardinal Bernardin, who promoted the seamless ethic of life, and events in my life in the last four years have moved my views closer to Cardinal Bernardin's.

But I still think abortions should be safe, legal, and rare. I'm still confused by the fact that we'll act to put our pets out of their misery as they're dying, but we don't want to do the same for humans. I can't figure out how to reconcile all my conflicting beliefs.

However, I certainly don't think we should go out and shoot people who are behaving in ways we can't approve of. That way madness lies.

For a discussion of the law and civil disobedience, go to Kirby Olson's blog post. For a background on the news element of the story and links for more background on the victim's life, go here. If you want some social science statistics about murder rates of abortion providers, go here. For a painfully honest and searing (and weeping-inducing) discussion of why women need/choose late term abortions, go here, which will also give you links to the first two parts of the discussion. In part two, Ayelet Waldman reminds us that women rarely need these abortions because they're flighty and forgot to take their birth control pills and waited and waited and waited: "I've continued to be open about this both because the pain is real, and I don't want to pretend it isn't, and because I worry that the bile-spewers like Randall Terry and Bill O'Reilly have managed to characterize late-term abortions as something women do on a whim. Like, 'Shit, am I pregnant? Thirty weeks? Damn, better get that taken care of.' But you and I are the face of late-term abortion. You and I and my friend whose baby had a fatal form of dwarfism diagnosed at 24 weeks. Or my friend whose babies (two of them) had such profound physical and mental malformations that they would not have survived more than a few minutes outside her womb." There's a reason why these issues tear us all apart.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Changing out Prayer Books

I use Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours for my fixed hour prayer. It's a 3 volume set, so three times a year, I trade out prayer books, taking book marks from one and adding them to the next one. Each time, I shake my head at how quickly time zooms by.

I've been using these wonderful books since Advent of 2005. In 2004, I went to Mepkin Abbey, and I really wanted something to help me pray through the day. I picked up a book in the bookstore. I was attracted to its small size. But each prayer encounter was almost too short. It didn't really replicate the Mepkin experience.

As I was reading Henri Nouwen's Genesee Diary, I realized that I really wanted a prayer book that was calibrated to the liturgical seasons. I wanted to be reading Advent verses at Advent, for example. And so, I made the leap.

I'm happy to have also discovered these prayers on an Internet site, so that I don't have to carry the books around with me. Would I have bought the books had I known of the Internet source? Probably. It's nice to be able to pray without a computer.

Of course, some of you would say that you don't need a book to pray, which, of course, is true. But for those of us who need the structure, fixed hour prayer can work well. For those of us who can't figure out what to say when we pray, fixed hour prayer can work well. I love the idea of being part of a world-wide prayer web.

And of course, the Tickle volumes are just one of many resources. As I've blogged before, many people are rediscovering the value of this ancient discipline, people of many different denominations. Perhaps summer is a good time to try something different. When I was a child, summers at church seemed to be "a long green season" with nothing to break up the liturgical season of Trinity, as we called it then. Trying a new spiritual discipline for a season might be a way to break up that monotony.