Friday, July 31, 2009

Healing Services

On Sunday, I served as Healing Service Assistant. I thought maybe I'd hold the oil while the ordained minister did the rest. I felt a bit of panic when I discovered that no, the 3 lay people assisting the minister would lay hands on people and anoint them with oil, while saying, "Receive this oil as a sign of love and forgiveness in our Lord, Jesus Christ."

My first thought is what always races through my mind: "I'm not ordained! I'm not worthy!" Then I remind myself that I'm a Lutheran, and we embrace Luther's concept of a priesthood of all believers. It's not like our ministers go to some kind of Hogwarts-like school where they learn to harness the power of God for human ends. I'm not sure why my brain always reverts to that default mode, when I know that I've had a more rigorous theological training than many ministers (some of whom have read a shockingly small amount of theology).

My next thought was, "But I'm not healed myself! How can I heal others?" Again, I had to laugh. It's not about me, is it? It's about God, and reminding people of God's power. I offer them a visible sign (words and oil), but I have no more power than that. The power comes from God.

I've been thinking of my own recent experiences being on the healing side of the healing service. During my youth, I attended fairly high-church congregations, people who didn't even like to shake hands during the passing of the peace, much less go into territories that border the charismatic, like a healing service. My current church, however, does a healing service on the last Sunday of most months. Last summer, after some trouble with the church I was attending (church council feuds, the realization that I wanted something so different than that church could be), I came to my current church during one of their healing services, and I went up to be anointed. I found myself dissolving into tears, yet after that service, I was able to let go of the hurt and anger at my old church situation.

This past spring was a time of tough belt-tightening at work, and I felt much despair. I walked the labyrinth, I prayed, I embraced that Lenten period of desert time. But I didn't come to any peace with work until I went to several healing services, including one at my current church and one at Synod Assembly. And now my mood seems to have shifted a bit.

With each example, I wonder if my mood shifted because of the healing service? As spring moved into summer, did my mood shift because we managed to avoid the worst calamities at work? Did my mood shift because I tend to be a hopeful optimist and my mood tends to reset to that setting?

I'm unsure, but I'm grateful for the release from my numbing despair. I'm mindful that tough times at work may return, that institutions may disappoint me, and I'm grateful to have been shown some tools for dealing with that.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Spiritual Boot Camp

Yesterday in The Washington Post, I read a story about six Franciscan friars who walked 300 miles from Roanoke, Virginia to Washington, D.C. They took nothing but a blanket, water, a change of underwear, and a toothbrush, and one cell phone for the six of them (to be used only in emergencies, of course).

Why would they do such a thing? The writer of the article says, "The pilgrimage was the idea of four young friars just finishing their training in Chicago and working toward taking lifelong vows. Seeking to emulate the wanderings of their founder, Saint Francis of Assisi, they wanted to journey together as a fraternity, ministering to one another and to strangers, while depending on God for every meal and place to sleep."

The story fascinates me, which should come as no surprise. I've always been interested in stories of people walking (or biking or using some kind of not-everyday transportation) long distances: up the Appalachian Trail, from the east coast to the west, along the Natchez Trace. But here we mix that story with a spiritual story, one which involves an ancient religious order, and I'm hooked.

I'm not the only one. The friars attracted all sorts of attention, most of it beneficial. Aside from the few lunatics who shouted atheistic phrases at them, most people showed them kindness, giving them food, money, and shelter. Of course, they came across many people in need of ministering along the way. It's an amazing story of what can happen when a believer relies solely on God.

Spiritual boot camp, you might say.

We might argue, "But I'm not a monk. Surely that's not required of me." However, when you go back to the Gospel, Jesus does send out his disciples two by two with the instructions to take nothing with them. And these friars show why Jesus would have done that.

As a woman, I'd be more hesitant to travel alone. But that's not required of me. Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs. Women travelling together are relatively safe in our culture. Dreadful things could happen, to be sure. But I'm not that much safer staying in my house.

In fact, I could argue that I'm in more spiritual danger, staying in my safe house, going to my safe job, contributing to my retirement account (how strange--I just typed my "requirement account" before I realized my error!). I'm relying on myself and my bosses--not God.

There was a time in my life when I didn't have much job security, when I underwent my own personal spiritual boot camp. I taught as an adjunct, moving from place to place, unsure season by season of what my economic future looked like. I talked to God more constantly then. I told God of my worries, I daydreamed about the brightest futures that might be coming my way, I asked God for what I needed--and usually, God sent great abundance my way. When it wasn't great abundance, it was enough abundance. I received what I needed in ways that I didn't anticipate and couldn't have asked for. God has a bigger vision than I do.

The friars sum up the lesson of their journey this way: "'Anything can happen when you live in the moment, one step at a time,' said Mark Soehner, 51, one of the mentors to the young friars. 'But to find that out, you have to be willing to take that one step.'"

To take that one step: what would that step look like in my life, right here, right now? What would it look like in yours?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, August 2, 2009:

First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 11:26--12:13a

Psalm: Psalm 78:23-29

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 51:1-12

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-16

Gospel: John 6:24-35

Welcome to bread month! Over the next four weeks, the Gospel lessons will return again and again to this common New Testament symbol. We will be offered many opportunities to think about the meaning of this symbol.

I often tell my literature students that they can tell when something in a story might be a symbol because it shows up again and again, taking on an unusual significance. Our lectionary creators want to make sure we understand the importance of bread in the ministry of Jesus.

You might say that you already know. You take communion every week. You've heard that story of the loaves and fishes multiplying. Maybe you even pay attention to the bread that you buy each week as you choose the most nourishing loaves. Maybe you savor some bread and wine with your cheese on any given week-end, and you contemplate the life-giving properties of your snack. Despite all the recent attacks against carbs, most of us know that some variation of grain has kept most of human civilization alive more reliably than any other foodstuff.

The Gospel this week, however, reminds us that there is much more to life than sustaining our all-too-human bodies. We hunger and thirst and we crave anything which might guarantee that we'll never hunger or thirst again. Jesus reminds us that it's natural for humans to want bread, but he tells us that we sacrifice so much if we stop with physical bread. Jesus reminds us of our larger purpose, which is communion with God.

In verse 27, Jesus says, "Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you." I suspect that many of us are like me, laboring so hard for our daily bread that we don't have much time for spiritual food. When we're feeling overstretched and burdened by our calendars, it's easy to want to sacrifice some of our tasks. We might find ourselves saying, "It's summer. If I don't go to church, people will assume I've gone on vacation. No one will miss me. I can get my grocery shopping done and be that much further ahead." We might say, "I don't have time to pray! I have all this ironing to do!!!" We might grumble, "Who can read the Bible in such a dirty house? I'll just run the vacuum, and then I'll settle down for some Scripture reading."

In the language of economics, we need to pay ourselves first. In Oprah's language, we need to practice self-care. In the language of nutrition, we need to nourish ourselves.

We can't possibly do the work that God calls us to do if we're starving for spiritual bread. It's hard to do the work that our bosses pay us to do when we're so spiritually malnourished. How hard can it be to remember to pray? I'd suggest that we use meal time as a trigger (say grace, say thank you, check in with God while you gulp down your sandwich)--but so many of us seem to be forgoing meals these days.

Somehow, create some connections so that you can develop spiritual habits to go with your other habits. Pray while you're brushing your teeth. Listen to the Bible (via CD, tape, or download) as you drive to work. Have some spiritual sustenance delivered to your e-mail inbox every day. When you call your mom, check in with God when you hang up the phone. When you update your Facebook status, remember that God wants some facetime with you too.

We are created for so much more than our earthly eyes can see, so much more than our cramped brains can comprehend. Spiritual habits and disciplines start to crack open our vistas so that we can enlarge our possibilities.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In Praise of Campus Ministry

The other night I dreamed I was back in the ELM center: a huge, 2 story building with an attached chapel that housed Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist campus ministries at the University of South Carolina. I spent some retreat/conference time there as an undergraduate attending Newberry College 40 miles away, and I spent a lot of time there as a depressed graduate student while I earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English at USC.

The center had several small bedrooms, which it rented out to exchange students. It had a huge kitchen, where they cooked, and where the campus ELM community cooked a Wednesday meal. We usually had some kind of Bible study afterwards. There was a fairly well-attended worship service on Sundays, but I rarely made it back for those. When I did, I enjoyed them.

What I really enjoyed most was the community. We had inspiring ordained ministers to lead us. We were graduate and undergraduate students from many faiths. We had a wide variety of interests. We spanned the age spectrum. But what we all really needed to remember was that we had a different identity than the one pressed upon us by the university. To this end, we studied different books than we did during the rest of our student lives and worked on different projects. I was at USC during the late 80's and early 90's, and primarily the campus religious groups worked on social justice causes; there weren't as many student groups focused on social justice then as there are now.

Looking back, I realize how lucky I was. I had a source of emotional support that wasn't tied to my academic department. I had a community that rooted for me, even when I felt at my lowest. We had great pastors and lay leaders, which I now know doesn't happen everywhere. We met interesting people from cultures that were unknown to us before we met them; I ate kimchee before I knew what it was--I look back to see a lonely Southern girl and a lonely Korean girl, who shared not much common language, but shared a belief in Christ and a love of food, sharing a meal.

I wonder at the state of campus ministry these days. I hope it's even more vibrant than it used to be, because I suspect that these students will need that strong foundation, even more than past generations. I suspect we've got some trials and tribulations yet to come, the kind not faced since the 1930's.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Can Facebook Lead to Spiritual Formation?

I'm late to Facebook. I've been on since December, but only recently have I been posting status updates regularly (still, rarely more than once a day). I hadn't really thought about the spiritual possibilities of Facebook until I read a piece in a recent Christian Century which talked about a pastor who kept up with the concerns of parishioners through Facebook--and prayed about them. I thought, what a great idea! And then I was embarrassed that I hadn't already come up with that thought.

We can also bear witness through our Facebook status updates. We had a guest pastor, Lisa Barry, yesterday as our pastor is in New Orleans with 37,000 other leaders and youth. Our guest pastor talked about how she's been keeping up with people in New Orleans as they post status updates, and so have I. We could have been watching live feeds, but in the somewhat public space of my office, a quiet Facebook status update is easier to check quickly.

Several pastors connect their own blogs or the blogs of their churches to their status feed. What a great way to keep in touch with parishioners!

But more importantly, we could invite people to church via our Facebook page. Our guest pastor talked about a young man who said he was off to church in a few hours to hear about miracles involving loaves and fishes, and he invited everyone to join him.

Your Facebook Friend collection is probably like mine: quite an assortment from far and wide, with very few local people. Still, your status update could remind your Facebook Friends that regular, normal people do go to church on a regular basis--it's not just the religious lunatics who go to church in this country. I enjoy hearing from my friend who has returned from Bible study, and I often look up the passage they've been studying. I confess that I wouldn't be reading that passage without the prompt from him.

We can talk about our struggles openly and request prayers. We could do this in a way that won't alienate whatever atheist friends we might have on our lists. On Monday, I wrote, "If you're a praying type, or a sending positive energy out into the universe type, or whatever type you are--you might pray for the 36,650+ Lutheran youth that are headed towards New Orleans for the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering--and for their chaperones, and for the city itself, which can still use lots of prayers. At least that city is getting some youthful, energetic labor in their rebuilding efforts this week!"

We can remind people of the lives we should be living, and we can enlist their support in living those lives. I could go on and on, but you've got the idea.

I must confess, it's taken me awhile to embrace all this new technology. I've been worried about online communities sucking me away from my onground communities. But instead, I've found that these online communities serve as an additional support mechanism. I like that I've found people whom I didn't mean to lose. I like being able to keep up with people I'll see on Sunday. I like blogs that let me read in detail of the efforts to lead a Christian life--and I'm finding it easier to read blogs, articles, and web sites these days, than magazines, books, or other old media. It's easier to keep up with Facebook feeds than to make a phone call (to be honest, I've never been a fan of the phone). I spend a lot of time in the office working on the computer, and I can do these online activities as I make my way through the work day. I don't feel comfortable reading a Christian magazine in the office or making too many personal phone calls. But I can take a quick zip to Facebook, and I suspect my bosses won't mind, as long as my productivity stays the same.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Can Internet Communities Foster Spiritual Formation?

My next post will focus on Facebook, but before there was Facebook, I spent a lot of time wondering whether or not Internet communities could foster spiritual formation. During the times that I was most frustrated with my home church, I would wonder more specifically whether or not Internet communities could take the place of a church.

Can we be the body of Christ if we don't meet in the same geographical place?

One of the functions of the institutional church has been teaching, and the Internet can do that very well. I don't have time to read all the books that are published, and book reviews that I find help point the way to the books that are most worth my reading time. I particularly like the book blog of Hearts and Minds Books. Sadly, I've almost always found that books do a better job of spiritual formation than most adult classes offered in a church setting. I've always found myself with such different questions and concerns than most of my churchmates, and it's a comfort to have books to help me. Many websites offer a similar level of intellect and depth of writing as the books that are most helpful to me. The downside, of course, is that one must wade through a lot of useless websites before finding the ones that have some heft.

I've also liked seeing the discussions on various blogsites, which I think can be useful in spiritual formation. Unfortunately, one can't always be sure of one's compatriots on a blogsite, at least not at first. Do these people have any training at all? However, this fact is also true of on-ground churches, and sadly, of a good many pastors. Most of our pastors got their theological training decades ago and haven't done much since.

Of course, the one thing the Internet can't provide is the sacraments. We can't easily commune online. Internet bread is no bread at all. We can't baptize our children online. I'm a Lutheran, so those are the two sacraments that we recognize. Those of you with more sacraments can continue in this vein. We can't anoint the dead with oil online. We can't have a marriage that exists solely online (can we? with no physical contact? surely that's not a marriage).

I would also think that we need an onground community. We need arms around us as we grieve. We need people who will look us in the eye and ask us how our week has been. We need people to hold us accountable. It's easy to fool Internet communities. It's not as easy (but certainly not impossible) to fool our onground communities.

I'd say that the Internet can certainly help foster spiritual formation, but it can't take the place of our local church. I know that many of us are in churches that leave us hungering for something deeper and for whatever reason, we have to stay with those churches (go here for a post that might offer comfort to people in those positions). We're lucky to have so many online resources to fill in the gaps and holes left by institutional religion.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Remembering to Pray

I've been trying to pray the Liturgy of the Hours for half a decade now. Some years, I'm more successful than others. I use Phyllis Tickle's books, The Divine Hours. When my husband was working 80 hours a week and my job only required me to be on site 20 hours a week, I'd just move the book around the house with me. But now, I'm in an office 40 hours a week, and I feel odd about taking the book to the office with me.

I thought, no big deal, I'll use an online site (go here for my favorite; I love the image of the candles at the top of the page). But I often forget. So, I've put notes to myself around my tiny office, but they often get buried under other notes to myself.

I thought about putting reminders in Outlook, an application on which I'm becoming increasingly dependent. But that seemed weird to me too.

So now, as I'm opening Internet sites, I open the one for the Divine Hours. I just leave it open, one tab among many. So far, that's doing the trick. I have to refresh the site (it took me a day to realize that); on my work computer, it doesn't update itself. But it reminds me.

If anyone walks in, there's nothing to see, nothing that might offend them, aside from the fact that I'm not on a site that I can even remotely claim is about work. Our technology use guidelines are a bit unclear as to whether or not I'd be in trouble if anyone ever decided to make a fuss. If I was streaming something, I could be in big trouble. But going to a site that's unrelated to work? I think our organization has given up policing that.

I figure if smokers are still allowed to take smoking breaks, I can take a prayer break. It calms me and gets me re-centered. I could argue that I'm more productive with prayer breaks. But so far, no one has complained, and I don't expect them to do so. With the economy swirling down the drain, we've got far bigger concerns than a lowly worker who takes a break to wander down a back street of the Internet, looking for the Liturgy of the Hours.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 26, 2009:

First Reading: 2 Kings 4:42-44

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 11:1-15

Psalm: Psalm 145:10-19 (Psalm 145:10-18 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 14

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:14-21

Gospel: John 6:1-21

It's sobering to realize that even in a land of abundance like ours, hunger is a real problem. Even in times when unemployment is at near record low levels (unlike the past 6 months), hunger is a real and pressing problem. It's easy to understand why the people who had just been fed from 5 loaves and 2 fishes would want to make Jesus king. Most of us, even if we haven't experienced food scarcity ourselves, are only a generation or two removed from it.

And even if we haven't experienced food scarcity, we've experienced that scarcity consciousness. Most of us don't operate out of a place of abundance. We have our little piece, and we clench onto it. We're not open to the grace of God's expansive love. Unlike that little boy who shared his lunch, we hold tight to whatever little shares of the good life we've claimed for ourselves.

Or worse, maybe we're like the disciples, who are so focused on the numbers that they aren't very open to the possibilities Jesus offers. I'm often like that. I get so focused on the way that I would solve a problem that I'm not open to other solutions. Worse, I get so focused on the way the world would solve problems that I forget that I'm worshipping a revolutionary God that doesn't need to be tied down by the ways we've always done things, by the accountant's ledger.

Sometimes, when we've heard a text so often, it's hard to hear it again. Reading the lectionary for this week, I was struck by how we have not one, but 2 miracles. Jesus makes the food stretch--everyone has enough AND there are leftovers. Like the people who were there, I find myself thinking, "Now there's a God I want to get to know." Then, we have the miracle of Jesus walking on the water.

I was also struck by verse 15: "Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” I can't remember ever hearing that as part of the story before, although, of course, I have. This passage shows up in the lectionary at least every three years. But this year, it leapt out at me.

It's another reminder that Jesus isn't interested in this kind of worldly power. Jesus came to model for us the Kingdom of God, starting here, starting now--not some distant time after we're dead, or some distant time when God comes again into the world. Here and now. What would that world look like, if we could fully realize the transformation? Jesus points the way.

So, what does this passage tell us about Kingdom living? It's not about power. We're not preaching, teaching, healing, feeding, and gathering together so that we can consolidate power and win elections and do whatever we want. Again and again, Jesus rejects that model.

The Gospel reminds us of what Jesus can do--but first we must be open. We can't be hamstrung in our imaginations. We have to remember that we've thrown in our lot with a God that wants to transform the world so that everybody has enough and that there's enough for the next day.

The first step towards that reality is to share. When we share, we're less clenched about our possessions, and it's easier for God to do the transforming work for which we all yearn. When we share, we short-circuit our imaginations, which are busy envisioning the worst (we'll be poor, we'll have to eat grass, we'll run out of money before the end of the month, our children will have to wear clothes that we find in the dump--on and on our gerbil minds whirl around).

No, God has promised that we will be provided for. Again and again, God tells us that there will be enough. We can rely on God. We can share our lunches, confident in the knowledge that there will be more, there will be plenty, there will be leftovers. We can share our lunches, knowing that we live in a world of abundance, not scarcity.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lessons Learned from Yoga Class

The other night at yoga class, we worked on our shoulder stands. We lay on our backs and lifted our legs into the air. The flexible went further, putting their feet on the floor behind their heads (a figure called "the plow"). Much to my surprise, I was able to do this easily. I heard someone mutter behind me, "No way this is her first yoga class."

No, not my first, but I haven't been to an extended yoga class since 1998. I do some stretching here and there, but nothing sustained. I can't sit on the floor, stretch down my legs, and touch my nose to my knees--if I could do that, I'd feel flexible.

When I was young, my friends and I would do all kinds of yoga postures, not realizing we were doing yoga postures, of course. I loved to hold my legs above my head. I wasn't particularly talented at gymnastics, which was unfortunate, since we all modeled ourselves after Nadia Comaneci, that summer of 1976. But I was strong in other ways, and I just didn't realize it.

My Indian friend tells me that I'm not as inflexible as I think I am, so perhaps that dynamic is still at work. I always look at how far I have to go to be where I'd like to be and feel a sense of hopelessness. I wish that I could look at how much I can already do and give myself some credit.

I see a similar dynamic in much of my spiritual life. Instead of giving myself credit for the daily offices that I do pray, I beat myself up for the ones that I miss. Instead of feeling good about what I tithe, I feel guilty about the goofy purchases I make, money that could have been used to alleviate some of the symptoms of poverty. I look at spiritual warriors and wonder why I can't be more like them.

Ah, time to inject another useful lesson from yoga class. During my yoga class that I went to (sporadically) from 1994-1998, my teacher would often tell me, "Stop looking at anybody else. Stop comparing yourself to what everyone else is doing. It won't help you." So true, and so applicable to so many areas of my life.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lutheran Youth Head to New Orleans

Today, the youth of our church head towards New Orleans for the 2009 Youth Gathering. Long ago, in 1981, I was part of a group that left Knoxville, Tennessee to go to Purdue University for our Youth Gathering. Ah, the olden days, when all the Lutheran youth could meet at a college campus. Those days are long gone. My mom, who has more connections in the church hierarchies than I will ever hope to have, tells me that there are only 3 cities that can handle the numbers of high schoolers that convene every 3 years. Cool.

I found my own youth gathering revelatory, a mountain top experience. As with most mountain top experiences, it made it hard to return to the humdrum life of suburban church at home.

My experience was very similar to college. We stayed in the dorms and each day we went to workshops and classes. We met people from across the U.S. At night, we gathered to worship. I don't remember much about the food, but I imagine that we ate cafeteria food. I remember my legs ached from so much walking.

It was this experience that gave me hope that maybe college would be different from high school, that if I could just hold on, maybe life would improve. And it did.

I loved hearing about all the mission work. I loved the social justice element. I loved the exciting worship.

I'm so happy that so many of our youth still have a chance for these kind of experiences. I'll keep them in my prayers this week.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Come Meet My Gods"

On Wednesday, after yoga, our Indian friend said, "Come meet my gods." We went to a different section of the temple, but one that had been visible during yoga, which had about 7 shrine-like areas. Each shrine had a statue that was lit from several angles. Some of the shrines had offerings in front of it (a wide variety of offerings: money, fruit, things I didn't recognize).

Our Indian friend stopped in front of each shrine and explained the god/goddess to my atheist friend and me. I found it fascinating, and somewhat hard to get my head around. I've always had trouble understanding Hinduism, but I keep trying.

I've had conservative Christian friends who would have refused to go and meet these gods. They'd have seen it as a violation of the first commandment. They'd have said that meeting these gods was the same as acknowledging their existence, which would be the same as worship. I disagree. It seems polite, when taking a yoga class courtesy of one's Hindu friend, to show interest in the place.

Oh, let me just be honest: I was fascinated by the whole experience. As we did yoga, people came to bow in front of each shrine, and a few people did a more focused worship (I'm using Western words because those are the only words I have). I wanted to see those shrines that glowed at us during our yoga. I was thrilled that our Indian friend wanted to show them to us. But I think I can show ecumenical interest without my Triune God feeling threatened.

My Indian friend has always said, "The gods network, you know." She's never objected to religious conversations, and she's always willing to let her Christian friends pray for her. I find her remarkably open-minded, especially compared to my conservative Christian friends.

Since Wednesday, I've started thinking of my own relationship to God, and how I would introduce the God I worship to people from other cultures (or from my own culture, for that matter). If I said, "Come meet my God," where would we go? To my church? Perhaps. To some spot in nature? Perhaps. To the downtown church, when my suburban church brings dinner to the homeless and stays for chapel? I'd probably start with that option and work out from there.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Yoga Class at a Hindu Temple

A Lutheran, an atheist, and a Hindu go to a yoga class at a Hindu temple--it sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn't it? No joke. The other night, I went to a Hindu temple with my Hindu friend and my atheist friend for a yoga class--very different from any other yoga class I've been to.

Most yoga classes I've been to have been led by New Age types: white, thin, Western New Age types who can bend their bodies into all sorts of pretzel shapes. The yoga class at the temple was led by an Indian woman with a roundish shape. The only one who could bend her body into a pretzel shape was a child, although she informed us that she couldn't really get her foot behind her head (O.K., but she could get her foot to the back of the top of her head--she's far more limber than the rest of us).

It was a good workout, yet we could all move the next day. I recognized most of the stretches and the movements from other yoga classes. But the class led by the Indian in the Hindu temple seemed much more practical and down to earth than the ones led by New Age people, more no nonsense.

At the end, we did a long meditation, where we concentrated on most parts of our body. We weren't told what to think (no energy streams, no clearing out of clogs, nothing like that), just to consider our thumbs, consider our hands, and so on.

We prayed for peace and we prayed for the ourselves and the family and friends of those of us gathered in the temple. I have conservative Christian friends who would have been deeply uncomfortable praying in a Hindu temple, with statues of foreign gods. But it felt very ecumenical to me; it's hard to imagine any objections to the prayers.

During the meditation we were told to imagine our favorite church, synagogue, mosque or temple; I haven't asked my atheist friend what she visualized at that point. I thought about the chapel at Mepkin Abbey. I'm not good at meditating, even guided meditations. My mind races and wants the whole thing to be over with. I remember one yoga class, years ago, when we lay in corpse pose, in silence, for 10 minutes. I kept looking at my watch.

Yet I am amazed at how good I feel at the end of the whole process. I feel like every fiber of my body has been stretched. I drive home with a quiet mind. I don't get angry over stupid drivers or how long it takes to get home. If only I didn't have to do an hour and a half of yoga and meditation to get to that state--or perhaps, if I did it more often and regularly, I'd make my way to that state more quickly.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 19, 2009:

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 7:1-14a

Psalm: Psalm 23

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 89:20-37

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:11-22

Gospel: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Whenever I see a chunk of text missing from the lectionary selection, I go back to read the whole thing. I understand that most church services don't lend themselves to such long Gospel readings from the pulpit, but in the privacy of my study, it doesn't take much time.

The missing text is the feeding of the crowd with loaves and fish, a story we'll return to in a few weeks. In the meantime, let's consider the actions of Jesus in this Gospel.

First of all, Jesus retreats. He invites his disciples, home from their evangelical journeys, to come away to a lonely place. Or at least, that's their plan. They end up with a crowd to feed, and Jesus teaches and feeds them.

In the middle of the omitted portion, Jesus once again withdraws to pray. His disciples try to make their way in the boat without him, but a storm overtakes them. Jesus walks to them across the water, calms the disciples, calms the storm, and leaves the disciples freaked out: he multiplies food, he calms the waters--who is this guy???

And then, once again, it's back to the mission: healing and making people well.

This Gospel has lessons for us. One of the most important lessons that it has for busy 21st century people is that even Jesus needs some down time. Jesus routinely goes on retreat. Jesus routinely withdraws to pray.

I hear the howls of protest even now. "Jesus wasn't a parent. He didn't have all these activities that his children had to get to--and who is going to drive them there? Me, that's who. And don't tell me that they don't have to do so many activities, because that just shows that you don't know how tough it is for kids to get into a good school." "Jesus didn't have this jerk of a boss who times his bathroom breaks. It was easy for him to take a time out to pray." "Jesus didn't have a house that was falling apart." On and on we could go, offering excuses for why we allow ourselves to get into a frazzled state.

But the ministry of Jesus has much to teach us, and one of the most important lessons is that we can't take care of others when we're not taking care of ourselves. Jesus prays, Jesus takes retreats, Jesus shares meals with friends--these are the activities that leave him ready to care for the masses.

Our mission is the same as Christ's. Like Jesus, we're surrounded by hordes of hungry people. Broken people need us (and perhaps you feel pursued by them).

Yet we will not be able to complete our mission if we don't practice basic self-care. The message of today's Gospel is that it's O.K. to take time to pray. It's O.K. to retreat. It's O.K. to eat a slow meal with friends.

Not only is it O.K., it's essential. Christ, the incarnation of God on earth, needed to take a break. What makes you think that you are any different?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bastille Day, Woody Guthrie, and Liberation Theology

Today is my birthday. It's also Bastille Day, the French equivalent (sort of ) of our Independence Day. I see this historical event as one of many that launched us on the road to equality. It's an uneven success to be sure. More of us in the first world enjoy liberty than those in developing nation. But that thirst for freedom and equality found some expression in the French Revolution, and I could argue that much liberation theology has some rootedness in that soil (yes, it would be a problematic argument, I know).

It's also Woody Guthrie's birthday.

I share my birthday with many famous people (Irving Stone, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gerald Ford), but I've always been happiest to share my birthday with Woody Guthrie. I see Woody Guthrie as one of the unsong (ha ha) liberation theologians.

I've always asked my students if they're familiar with his music, and they always say they're not. Then I sing a bit of "This Land Is Your Land," and they realize that they do know his work.

Unfortunately, the most radical verses of that song are often not sung:

"In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing." [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me. "

Throughout his life, Woody Guthrie showed a compassion for the poor and the dispossessed that we see so rarely from famous/talented/artistic people. He also showed an amazing capacity for nurturing the talents of the next generation (most notably, Bob Dylan and later, Bruce Springsteen and U2). We could argue about his Huntington's disease: what was responsible for what? We could talk about his womanizing and his abandonment of his children, and I'm not arguing that he gets a free pass on that behavior because of his disease or because of his artistic talent.

I am saying that his lifelong radicalism impresses me. His lifelong commitment to his art impresses me. His struggle to be a better family man, requiring a fresh start again and again, impresses me. His ability to create art in spite of his lack of formal training and education, impresses me.

He has written songs that school children sing, songs that rock and roll folks sing, songs that invade my sleep and sweeten my dreams.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Departures" as Spiritual Movie

My 18 year old niece has been visiting. One advantage to having visitors is that they suggest things to do that would never have been on our radar screen otherwise. My niece loves all things Japanese, so she was thrilled to see that the Japanese film, Departures, opened here this past week-end. We looked up the show times, and off we went.

I'd never heard of the movie, so I had no idea what to expect (probably the best state in which to see a movie!). To my delight, it was a wonderful film. A young man needs a job, and he finds a job preparing bodies for burial. I learned a lot about Japanese rituals around the end of death, and it made me think of our own rituals. Here in the U.S., we seem in deep denial about the fact that we're all going to die, and before this happens, we're likely to experience the loss of just about everything we love. The movie was very open about the grieving of those left behind. It made me want to grab onto my husband and hold him tight. The film made me happy about all the times I made the extra effort to go see my family members.

The movie had a lot to teach the audience about savoring the current moment and about how none of us is really on this earth for very long. It also had a subplot about the loss of a father and the son's search for his place in the world. Very moving.

As a Japanese film, it obviously didn't address Christian issues directly, but these issues of love, loss, and longing transcend individual religions--or perhaps I should more accurately say that all religions must cope with these human conditions. Its themes of love and redemption weren't foreign feeling at all.

Friday, July 10, 2009

If Jesus Lived Today

As a child, I was fascinated by the question, "How would Jesus be treated if he showed up in our church? How would Jesus be treated if he was a student in your school?" The variations of this question are endless.

So, perhaps my adult fascinations shouldn't surprise me. I have a whole series of poems that I've written that imagines Jesus in the world today. If you go here, you can read the first of that series to get published, and at that website, you can hear Garrison Keillor read it. It took me a long time to write it, and longer to send it out to be published because it felt somehow sacrilegious to me. But I soon got over that feeling, and I've written lots of poems on this theme. I've also imagined God in the world, and different ideas of the Holy Spirit in the world.

In the past month, I've had two more of these Jesus in the world poems published. You can go here to download your copy of Southern Women's Review. You'll need to scroll to page 48 to see my poem, "Reunion," which imagines Jesus as part of a family reunion. Chiron Review includes two poems of mine in their Summer 2009 edition. "Drained" is part of the same series as "Reunion," and I've pasted it below.

I wrote this poem, "Drained," after a Maundy Thursday service. I was thinking about how shocked the disciples were that Jesus should wash their feet. I was wondering what a similar act would be today: what would be both invasive and intimate. I thought about how many of my friends refuse to let people see the true state of their houses. I thought about how the state of my bathroom often embarrasses me. And voila, a poem was born.

Of all my Jesus in the world poems, none of them provokes the same amount of shock and outrage in people as the one below. I thought about putting it away, but one of my Lutheridge friends reminded me that we'd been talking about art that moves people out of their comfort zones, and that my poem certainly does that. She encouraged me not to abandon it.

So, here it is again. I'd be interested in finding out if you find it shocking, gross, or otherwise offputting.


Jesus showed up on my doorstep, demanding
to clean my bathroom.
I refused.
I mean, it’s one thing for him to face
Crucifixion for my sake.
It’s quite another for him to see
how I really live.

His face—so sad.
He talked about searching
for feet to wash, but modern feet are so clean.
It’s no sacrifice to touch people’s feet.
In this world of pedicures
and solid shoes, a foot washing doesn’t convey
the same care it once did. That’s how he came
to develop his crazy cleaning scheme.

I offered to let him scour my oven,
but he said it wasn’t the same,
and besides, it’s self-cleaning.
He really wanted to deal
with the detritus of my life.

What can I say? Jesus is persuasive.
He organized my jumble of cosmetics and healed
my slow drains. He cleaned
my toilet with his hair.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

More thoughts on Peter Singer's Book and the Ethics of Charitable Giving

I don't have as much time to write this morning as most mornings, but I can't resist passing along this link to an article by Nicholas Kristof. He begins this way: "It’s the Group of 8 summit in Italy, and world leaders are strolling along when they spot a girl floundering in a pond, crying out and then dipping beneath the surface. There are no cameras around. The leaders could safely rescue the girl, but they would get drenched and risk damaging their $600 shoes. A rescue would also delay the group’s discussion of Very Important Issues."

Kristof says he's convinced that they'd all jump in to save the girl, that most of us would. He says, " The difference is that the G-8 leaders would then hold a televised press conference to spotlight their compassion, perhaps canceling their session on humanitarian aid to do so." Ouch (but probably true).

Those of you who have read or heard Peter Singer will recognize the set up. It's a powerful one. Kristof goes on to discuss Singer, humanitarian giving (both on a personal and a national scale), and informational campaigns.

When Singer spoke on the Diane Rehm show, I found his arguments so convincing that I changed some of my charitable giving to Lutheran World Relief, which delivers most of its help to the developing world. His argument is that charitable dollars go further and do more good in the developing world than they do here in what we used to call the first world.

I love that Kristof is often shining a light on neglected corners of the world. He refuses to let us sit smugly in our first world complicity. Likewise, Peter Singer has often had intriguing, unsettling arguments in his Philosophy. Now, in the high heat of summer, we need men like these to help us shake off our lethargy.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 12, 2009:

First Reading: Amos 7:7-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

Psalm: Psalm 85:8-13

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 24

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:3-14

Gospel: Mark 6:14-29

I've always been fascinated by the people who see God as a sort of cosmic Santa Claus. I had one friend who claimed that if she prayed to God for a parking space, one would open up. She believed that if your life wasn't working out, it was a sign that you needed to pray harder. I heard a colleague declare that he wasn't worried about economic downturns because "The Psalms tell us that the righteous will never beg for bread on the streets" (ironically, he was fired a year after he said this). I wonder what these two people would tell John the Baptist.

Surely John the Baptist is a righteous man. It's hard to imagine such a grisly end to such a powerful prophet is justified.

Of course, it's not justified. There's nothing just about what happens to John the Baptist. He's killed on a whim, to please Herod's lover. It's not like he had a trial and was found guilty and therefore had to be beheaded.

I hate to have to say this, but it's not an unusual outcome for the prophets. It's not an unusual outcome for Christians throughout the centuries. We are not promised riches and fame if we follow God. On the contrary, the Scriptures (both the Old Testament and the New Testament) are quite clear that we may face great suffering.

I see a theme in our recent Gospel readings. Last week, Jesus isn't accepted by his hometown. Recently we saw the disciples sent out two by two, sent out with nothing but what they wear, and they're told to expect rejection. If we follow Jesus, we can't say that we haven't been warned.

Church growth people must be banging their heads against the wall. These promises and warnings are not the kinds of things that entice the unchurched. No wonder we see the recent explosions of Prosperity Gospel books and telecasts.

So, why follow the risen Christ? What's in it for us, besides suffering and martyrdom?

The rest of the Scriptures remind us of the promises and rewards. The world would tell us that we should look for wealth or fame or power, but those aren't the kinds of rewards the Scriptures promise the faithful. However recent news stories (the Michael Jackson coverage, the recent scandal of the South Carolina governor and the Alaska governor) might offer a cautionary tale about how empty a reward fame and riches and power can be.

Jesus offers us a life of fellowship: fellowship with each other, fellowship with God. Psychologists would tell us that humans long for fellowship and that feeling that love and acceptance can be what keeps us healthy and whole (much more than money or fame or power can ever do).

Jesus offers us a chance to be part of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom where everyone has enough and everyone feels that love. Of course, the catch is that the Kingdom isn't here yet. We have to help build it. We've caught glimpses of it breaking through. It's both now and not yet, this elusive Kingdom. But when we feel/glimpse/experience/live it, we know that it's worth whatever we must endure for the sake of it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Passing the Peace and Judging a Congregation

On Sunday, I was fairly sure that a visitor sat behind me. She said a slightly different version of The Lord's Prayer. I wondered what she thought of our service. During the passing of the Peace, I tried to make her feel welcome.

If I was out looking at churches, I would see the passing of the Peace as one of the indicators of the health of the church. How do people greet each other? More importantly, how do they greet strangers? I visited one church in Florida, dutifully pinned the visitor badge on my clothes, and then watched, stunned, as absolutely no one--no one--greeted me at any point in the service. I HAD A VISITOR BADGE!! What is the point of a visitor badge, if not to help the members know the people to whom they should be sure to offer a greeting. I didn't go back.

Both Lutheran churches to which I've belonged in South Florida have had long, long periods of time devoted to the passing of the Peace. There's time to greet most everyone, if you're so inclined. It's so different from any other church I've attended. At most churches, there's time to shake the hands of 3 or 4 people, maybe 6 if you're quick.

I wonder if it's a Latin influence? Most of the churches I've attended in other states are fairly buttoned up emotionally. There's not much hugging during the passing of the Peace or moving away from one's pew in those churches. You can tell that those people are descended from northern Europeans. Or perhaps I'm succumbing to stereotypes. I don't think it's that the members of my South Florida churches just like each other that much more, but perhaps it's an element.

Whatever explains it, I like the fact that we greet each other warmly. I truly feel as if those people are wishing God's peace for me. It's like a multitude of extra benedictions. And if I was a visitor, I'd see that moment in the service as a good sign. At least I would if people made some effort to make me feel included. My hope is that my current church does a good job with that, and I try to do my part to welcome the stranger.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Patriotic Music, the 4th of July, and Worship

When we walked into church yesterday, and I saw so many people wearing red, white, and blue, and so many men wearing ties with stars and stripes in the design of the cloth, I thought, oh, no, I should have stayed home.

I'm one of those strange people who feels that national flags don't belong in the sanctuary. I shudder when we sing patriotic songs during worship. I used to belong to a church that after September 11 sang "God Bless America" at every opportunity. I thought I would go out of my mind. If we must sing such songs, let's sing "God Bless Our Native Lands," so that we ask God to shower blessings on all lands.

Yesterday was our first July 4th week-end at our new church, and I'm happy to say that the hymn choices worked well. We sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (always a musical challenge, but I find it a joy to sing), "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," and "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory."

We had children hand out flowers to the people in the congregation who had served in the military. It was interesting to watch those members stand up; all of them were of retirement age. Only one woman stood. My spouse counted that 75% of the men of the congregation had served. Of course, since they're all of retirement age, that fact explains some of the issues facing the mainline Church, namely, the aging of the church and the absence of younger members to take the place of members who will be dying (assuming that our numbers are similar to mainline churches across the land, and according to statistics I've seen, they are).

We prayed a special prayer for those who serve in our military, and I see nothing wrong with that. I'm the daughter of an Air Force colonel, so I'm often reminded of how different my upbringing has been. However, I'm more reminded of that fact in academia than in church. In academia, I'm a real freak: Christian, poet, Air Force daughter, female Ph.D. (although this last fact is less bizarre than it once would have been--I'm an English Ph.D., after all, not a female with a Ph.D. in Chemistry or Engineering, which would still be unusual).

All in all, I thought that our worship planners did a good job recognizing our national holiday and integrating it into the service. So often, in other churches, I've seen the worship service subsumed to the patriotic agenda. It was nice to pray for the country and the military, while still realizing that our primary membership must be to the Kingdom of God.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thinking about the Declaration of Independence

I always love NPR's reading of the Declaration of Independence, the whole thing. It's wonderful to hear the various NPR voices read this document. I've been listening long enough that I've been through several changes of beloved voices, as people die and new people arrive. Go here to hear the whole thing.

I've always been a Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights geek. I love, love, love these documents. The NPR reading always reduces me to tears by the end of the reading.

I think we often forget what these founding parents risked as they launched this fight. I think we forget that the odds were stacked against them. I love these stories of the fight for justice. And to my friends who would tell me of the imperfections of the American story, I would concede some points. But to me, the important thing is that we continue to try to get it right. We continue to try to set free the oppressed and to keep the lamps of liberty lit. We acknowledge the times we've gotten it all frightfully wrong (slavery, the genocide of the Native Americans), but we keep trying to get it right. I see Independence Day as an interesting point where Liberation Theology meets politics and revolution and the world will never be the same.

Here's an interesting thing to ponder on this Independence Day: for what would you be willing to pledge your life, your fortune, and your sacred honor?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Portable Prayer Shawls

One of my grad school friends got some bad news about her dad, who is battling cancer: the first treatment wasn't working. One feels so helpless in this position. I thought about having my church send a prayer shawl, but I know that they come from a religious tradition that doesn't do much (yet) with prayer shawls, so I wasn't sure that was the right thing to do. I decided to make my own version: the portable prayer shawl!

I like the symbolism of the butterflies on the fabric. Each one of these is small enough to fit into a business size envelope. I also put a loop at the top, so they can be hung in some place where they will be a cheerful reminder that people are praying for the family. Hopefully, the butterflies will remind my friend and her family of the possibility of life emerging from the most unlikely circumstances.

A close up of the quilting--my grandmother would be ashamed of my sloppy stitching, but I'm hoping it's the thought that counts.

For the backing fabric, I chose this depiction of sweet treats. My first impulse when someone is in trouble is to bake--but I know that many people are battling weight gain and diabetes. Here's a calorie-free way to send good wishes--not as much fun as gooey brownies, but more practical. And it will last longer.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 5, 2009:

First Reading: Ezekiel 2:1-5

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Psalm: Psalm 123

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 48

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Gospel: Mark 6:1-13

What an intriguing Gospel reading for this Sunday: Jesus rejected by people who had known him since he was little and who knew his family. Perhaps you can relate.

The first part of this Gospel gives us a clear warning about the risks we face when we have expectations of God that might be a bit too firm. We're not really open to God or God's hopes and plans for us when we think we know what God should be up to in the world. The society of Jesus' time had very definite expectations of what the Messiah would look like and what he would do--and Jesus was not that person. How many people ignored God, right there in their midst, because they were looking for someone or something else?

This Gospel also warns us about fame and acclaim, something that might seem very relevant in these days of celebrity deaths. If you've been alive any length of time, you know that the world grants fame to an interesting variety of people. But once again, if we expect God to act like a star, we're setting ourselves up for disappointment.

And the end of the Gospel has a warning for us, as well. If we become believers because we think we'll be famous or we'll make lots of money or we'll have political influence--well, we're likely to be disappointed. The Gospel of Jesus is not about those things that the world considers important--no matter what those Prosperity Gospel folks would have you believe.

Jesus sends out his disciples two by two, with no possessions and not much of a plan. Notice what he does not do--he doesn't make them create a mission statement or a business plan. He doesn't have them raise money for buildings and programs. And he doesn't expect them to work fruitlessly--they are allowed to shake the dust off of their feet and move on.

What would our lives look like, if we followed this model? What would our lives look like if we trusted God more than our retirement plans? Where are we stuck, needing to shake dust off of our feet and move on? Where might God lead us, if we can just learn to trust and learn to move?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Returning from Vacation

So, this morning, I return from a gorgeous week-end of sailing on the Chesapeake Bay (the picture in my last blog post is from that area, taken by my brother-in-law). My fridge is nearly empty, as is my fuzzy brain right now.

So, while I adapt back to regular life, I'll refer you to something else to read. Go here to read a great article by a woman who returned to the Catholic church. As I read it, I thought about a recent blog post of mine (last Monday, I think), and thought, I wish I could have referred people to this article.

Ah, the joys of new technology, with a blog that feels more like an ongoing conversation than a published essay that's done for good--it means that I can refer people to other essays, even though mine is already published.

Enjoy Michele Madigan Somerville's essay, in which she talks about her struggles with the Catholic church and the joys that come from the struggle. I'll be back tomorrow with my weekly Gospel meditation.