Saturday, August 29, 2009

Saving the Coral Reef--A Social Justice Issue?

Yesterday, I went to Key Largo to Scuba dive in the morning and snorkel in the afternoon. On the dive boat, I heard one of the guys say that the ocean temperature at Molasses Reef registered 91 degrees--the hottest ocean temperature ever recorded at that location.

As I swam through the reef waters the rest of the day, I kept thinking about ocean temperatures and the beautiful sea creatures who swam around me. I thought about the news story I read last week that says that ocean temperatures around the world are at the highest levels ever recorded this summer. That fact does not bode well for our reefs.

One of the guys on the dive boat said that the observers of the reefs around Key Largo could see the coral bleaching on a daily basis, which is quite scary. When coral reefs bleach, they die, and that process has usually taken much longer than a day. The Science Faculty member with whom I was diving said that 90% of the coral reef around Florida has already died.

As I was swimming and feeling sad about all of these things, I decided to pray. It's wonderful to pray while swimming in a marine sanctuary; I've never done that before. I don't have faith in my fellow humans to reverse global warming. I think it's too late for the coral reef and probably for humans, although I think our species will die out after the coral reef is gone.

But what kind of statement is that about my faith in God? Do I believe that the God that made all of these environments that I love cannot save them?

I also thought about our approach to social justice. Most of the social movements in which I've been most active have been trying to save other humans: those living in South Africa, those living in Central America, the homeless, the hungry, children. Maybe it's time to think about marine animals, most of whom are equally helpless, most of whom are in immediate peril.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stewardship and the Church

On Tuesday night, I went to a Synod-wide webcast that discussed the topic of Stewardship. While I liked not having to drive to a central location (a trick in Florida!), it took me some time to get used to the jerky video quality and the occasional audio problem.

I wasn't sure what to expect--and to be honest, stewardship is not always one of my favorite topics. Although I do manage to give away 10% of my income most months, I always wonder if giving 10% is enough. The world's need gapes before me, and I wonder if I really need that bottle of wine, that new skirt. So the whole topic of stewardship can make me feel guilt and weirdness.

I'm happy to say that the webcast left me with a lot to think about, while avoiding the guilt trip trap. Our speaker was Charles Lane, the author of Ask, Thank, Tell. He stressed that churches should move away from the traditional stewardship approach, which presents the budget and asks everyone to dig a little deeper. He said, "Budgets motivate no one." Amen to that!

He says we should focus on the need of the giver to give, not the need of the church to receive.

He wants us all to be fearless givers, to be wildly generous people.

He talked about the idea of being stewards. Our job is to manage God's assets in a way that is consistent with the desires of the owner (God); everything we have is not ours, but God's. He stressed that God doesn't entrust stuff to us just so that we can accumulate stuff. We're given stuff so that we can share it.

He read Luke 12:34: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Treasure leads our heart. If we put our treasure in a 401K, our hearts will be there (and as the cover article in this week's The Christian Century reminds us, God doesn't love your 401K--if the article makes it to their website, I'll post a link later). If we put our treasure in our churches, our hearts move closer to Jesus.

You might be like my inner 19 year old, who immediately protested, "I don't see Jesus in my church!" Perhaps many ELCA members agree with my inner 19 year old; the average ELCA household gives only 1.7% of their income to the church.

Happily, I don't agree with my inner 19 year old. I do see my current church doing the Kingdom work that Jesus commands.

Believing that we're loved by a generous God is a faith matter. Relying on our bank accounts and not on God leads us into spiritually dangerous territory. Jesus reminds us again and again throughout the Gospels that God will give us everything we need. Being clutchy with our money leads us away from God. The only way to break the hold that money has over us is to give that money away--the Bible reminds us of that fact over and over again.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 30, 2009:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Psalm: Psalm 15

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 45:1-2, 6-10 (Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 NRSV)

Second Reading: James 1:17-27

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

You don't need me to tell you that humans are a rule-bound people. I've often wondered why this would be. I suspect people get to Heaven and try to create new rules. Many of us are committed to rules that make us unhappy. I have a friend who irons rather obsessively, for example. She complains bitterly about her family's ironing expectations. Why doesn't she just buy clothes that don't need such care? Why doesn't she pull clothes out of the dryer after about 10 minutes and hang them up? Why doesn't she accept wrinkles?

My favorite science fiction writer, Octavia Butler, had a theory that humans are both excessively intelligent and excessively hierarchical, and these two traits are often in opposition. It is our tendency towards hierarchy that so often gets us into trouble. We divide the world into the pressed and the wrinkled, between the vegetarians and the meat eaters, the drinkers and the A.A. folks: essentially between the people who live right (which means according to the rules we accept) and those who don't.

We often think that the Pharisees in Jesus' time were rule-bound people who couldn't see that God walked among them, even as Jesus was right there before them. While that is true, it's also important to realize that the Pharisees thought that following the rules to the letter was the trait that would save the Jews. We must not forget that the Jews of Jesus' time were under threat from many sides. We forget that Rome was a brutal dictatorship in so many ways, and that the peace that the Jews had found could have been (and eventually was) easily overturned.

We fail to realize how similar we are to the Pharisees. How much time do we consume wondering why people live the lives they do? I'm driven to mad frustration by the actions (and inactions) of some of my colleagues. What I'm really saying is "Why won't they act right? If they'd just act the way we all should act, life would be so much easier!" Of course, they probably say the same thing about me.

We look back to past periods of humanity, and we shake our heads over the things with which they were obsessed. We can't imagine the ritual purity laws that were in place in Jesus' time. We can't imagine the rigidly stratified societies that most humans have created. We can't imagine a time when women couldn't get credit in their own name or a time when blacks and whites had separate bathrooms, but those days aren't that far away from our own.

What will future generations think when they look at our time period? Will they shake their heads over our obsession with people's sexuality? Will they wonder why we devoted so much time at our national assemblies to the issue of homosexuality, while the gap between rich and poor got ever wider? Will they wonder why we tore ourselves into tiny pieces over homosexual clergy in committed relationships, while the continent of Africa suffered so much from malaria, HIV/AIDS, poverty, and brutal military regimes who condone rape of anyone who can't run fast enough to escape?

Jesus reminds us that so many of our rules come from humans, not from God. We think that God ordained the rules that we embrace, rules which so often tell us what not to do, but Jesus reminds us that there's one essential rule: love each other. God will judge us on the quality of our relationships. I've seen all sorts of relationships. I suspect that God would prefer the lesbian couple who still genuinely loves each other to the heterosexual relationship where the couple is cold and condescending to each other.

But more to the point, I suspect God is baffled by our constant desire to rank these things. God probably wonders why we can't just get it together and help each other to become more loving people. God probably wonders why we are so judgmental, even as we engage in all sorts of harmful behaviors.

God probably wakes up at 3 a.m. saying, "After all this time, after the example of Jesus, my cherished humans still don't understand how to behave; they still engage in toxic behaviors, thinking that will please me, and they can't even manage the most basic, loving behavior."

It's been a tough week for many Lutherans as we've watched our church vote on various issues. It's been a tough few years for Episcopalians, as various churches decide to align themselves with churches in Africa. We're people who long to be in communion with each other, even as we have trouble reconciling ourselves with the decisions that other humans make.

Jesus reminds us again and again that love is our highest nature and that the actions that move us towards being loving humans are the ones that we should take. We can operate from a place of love or we can act from a place of fear. As we act out of love, we will find ourselves in company with God.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

While I Was Gone . . . A More Inclusive Church!

While I was on vacation, the ELCA (my Lutheran church body) was busy voting on policy. The most groundbreaking vote concerned ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy who are in committed relationships. The old policy said that ordained gay and lesbian people needed to maintain celibacy to continue to be ordained. The new policy does not, but it does stress committed, lifelong relationships. It's a move that makes sense to me. I've always thought that God cares more about the quality of our relationships than about the sets of genitals involved.

I know that some people will be deeply hurt/alarmed/stressed by these actions. I know that some churches will align themselves with more conservative branches of the Lutheran tradition. I know that some people will leave. I know that God has a greater vision for us than we have for ourselves, and I'll continue to pray for the gift of Kingdom living.

I think it's also important to stress that the ELCA did more than talk about people's sex lives. We voted on a malaria initiative that hopes to wipe out malaria in parts of Africa. We voted to become fully communing with Methodists (I thought we already were). We voted on a social justice statement that concerns justice for women, a social justice area which I've already said on this blog deserves more of our attention. I'm appalled at the situation in Congo, and frankly, many women's lives across the planet are not much better. I see much backsliding in the arena of women's rights across the world, and it distresses me. But still, I will rejoice at justice in one area, in the hopes that all oppressed people can ride that wave of justice some day (and let me say here that I don't feel particularly oppressed as an educated, middle-class woman in the U.S., but I realize that I'm very lucky, and most of the planet's women are not).

If you want to see various reports from the Assembly, they can be found here. I particularly like our Bishop's closing remarks, which can also be found there, in various forms. I love the way that he envisions how he would respond to various groups (with Bible verses for all the groups). I thought about just extracting some of my favorite parts, but then I was so impressed with the way it was written, the way it worked as an essay (yes, once an English Comp teacher, always an English Comp teacher), I decided to post the whole thing below:

2009 Churchwide Assembly: Pastoral Response of the Presiding Bishop
Page 1
Pastoral Response Following the Ministry Policies Decision
Made to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly
by Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson
August 21, 2009

After the ministry policies vote on Friday evening, Presiding
Bishop Mark S. Hanson delivered the following message:

I want to share some words. As one you have called to serve
as pastor of this church, I have been standing here thinking about
my 23 years as a parish pastor and how differently I would go
into various contexts. Gathering with a family or a group of
people who had just experienced loss, or who perhaps were
wondering if they still belonged, or in fact felt deeply that ones
to whom they belong had been severed from them, I would
probably turn to words such as Romans 8:

"Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes,
who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who
indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the
love of Christ? [. . .] For I am convinced that neither
death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present,
nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate
us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord"
(Romans 8:34–35, 38–39).

But then I thought, what if I were going into a family, a
group, or a community that had always wondered if they
belonged, and suddenly now had received a clear affirmation that
they belonged? All of the wondering about the dividing walls
and feelings of separation seem to have dropped away. That
would be a very different conversation. I would probably read
to them out of Ephesians:

"But now in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off
have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he
is our peace; in his flesh, he has made both groups into
one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the
hostility between us. [. . .] In him, the whole structure
is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the
Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually
into a dwelling place for God" (Ephesians 2:13–14,

But then I thought, what if those two groups were together,
but also in their midst were those who had neither experienced
loss nor the feeling of the dividing wall of separation coming
down, but were worried whether all that had occurred might
sever the unity that is ours in Christ, and might be wondering if
their actions might have contributed to reconciliation or
separation? If all those people were together in a room, I would
read from Colossians:

"As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe
yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility,
meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if
anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each
other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also
must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love,
which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which
indeed you were called in the one body. And be
thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with
gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and
spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word
or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him"
(Colossians 3:12–17).

That passage gives invitation and expectation that those
deeply disappointed today will have the expectation and the
freedom to continue to admonish and to teach in this church.
And so, too, those who have experienced reconciliation today are
called to humility. You are called to clothe yourselves with love.
But we are all called to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts,
remembering again and again that we are called in the one body.
I will invite you tomorrow afternoon into important, thoughtful,
prayerful conversations about what all of this means for our life
together. But what is absolutely important for me is that we have
the conversation together.

I ended my oral report with these words: “We finally meet
one another not in our agreements or our disagreements, but at
the foot of the cross, where God is faithful, where Christ is
present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we
are one in Christ.”

Let us pray. Oh, God, gracious and holy, mysterious and
merciful, we meet this day at the foot of the cross, and there we
kneel in gratitude and awe that you have loved us so much that
you would give the life of your son so that we might have life in
his name. Send your Spirit this night, the Spirit of the risen
Christ that has been breathed into us. May it calm us. May your
Spirit unite us. May it continue to gather us. In Jesus’ name,

Saturday, August 15, 2009

This Blog is On Vacation

It's time for me to wander off again, to spend time with family and friends, to stay away from work and electronics, to ponder the waves and the future, and to read some good books. I'll be back to blogging around Aug. 25. (The people in the picture are my husband and my nephew, who are staring out at Hollywood Beach).

Friday, August 14, 2009

If You Must Argue with an Atheist

My atheist friend fell under the spell of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkens. I read God is Not Great, and it turned me off of the whole anti-God genre. Well, to be fair, I was never likely to be seduced by those books. I come from a long line of Lutherans, and some of my family members have been pastors and lay ministers in that denomination. I’ve spent more years of my life attending church services (of various types) regularly than I haven’t. I’m the type of person who goes to monasteries and cathedrals while on vacation, and I’ve even attended services—while on vacation. In my spare time, I read and write theology. For fun. So obviously, I'm not the intended audience for these books.

I agree with one main point of those books. Religion has been used in a variety of harmful ways; most Christians will be the first to tell you that. I haven’t met any Christians, and I’ve met a huge variety of Christians, who deny that Christianity has had its dark years or centuries, like the Crusades and the Inquisition and the failure to rescue more Jews from Hitler’s genocide.

However, for every dark moment that the books of Hitchens, Dawkins, and others bring up, I could list at least five ways that Christianity has transformed society for the better, and the anti-god writers seem determined to overlook that. What about the Christian cultures (like Scandinavian Lutherans) who rescued Jews from Hitler’s genocide or refused to cooperate? Some of the most successful social justice movements of the twentieth century have been possible because of the faith that undergirded them—for example, the Civil Rights movement in this country or Gandhi’s accomplishments or the monks in Burma who push for change. There are communities all over the planet who live out their faith in concrete ways that transform the secular community around them; think of the Catholic Worker movement or Habitat for Humanity.

Let me turn my attention to God is Not Great. In this book, Hitchens takes on the Bible, and the problem that I have with him here is that he’s incredibly literal in his interpretations. He’s worse than most fundamentalists I know. Of course, I’ve been faulted for my approach to the Bible, rooted in my experiences as a poet and an English major, where every story has multiple meanings beyond the literal.

It’s in his approach to the Bible that I first realized the biggest problem I would have with this book. Hitchens seems to have read no theology at all, at least not any that was written recently. He’d have found modern theology has much to offer when he feels revulsion at the idea of a savior who must be crucified because Hitchens will sin two thousand years later. I won’t list all the possible counterarguments here, but there’s a whole discipline in theological studies that addresses issues of redemptive suffering and atonement and the idea of sacrifice and what it means. For example, one school of thought looks at the fact that Christianity emerged out of Judaism and that the first generations of followers tried to undercut the Temple monopoly on the forgiveness of sins and the stranglehold that priests had on the Jews; priests not only collected sacrifices to right sins, but also collected money that was due to Rome. Or you might say that Jesus was crucified for our sins in the same way that Martin Luther King was killed for our sins. Both men came to offer the world a radical vision of peace and justice, and a harshly stratified society had to muffle that vision to avoid uprisings of the oppressed demanding transformation of that society.

When Hitchens attacks what he perceives to be the Church, he seems most upset with the Catholic church, circa 1952. The Church he describes really hasn’t been the way he describes, at least in the U.S. and Europe, during my lifetime. In my lifetime, we’ve seen a decline (and in Europe, almost a death) of mainline Protestantism and Catholicism; we’ve been dealing with some fallout of the time when the Church was predominant, certainly, like pedophile priests, but those most of those headline grabbing crimes are being brought to light decades after they’ve happened. You might counter by offering the spectacle of the Republican Right and their dance with Evangelical Christians for the past quarter decade, but Hitchens doesn’t spend much time on the Evangelical emergence.

Again, his lack of research seems glaring to me. If he had read a book like The Next Christendom, by Philip Jenkins, he’d know that he has much more to fear from Christianity in the Global South, not some phantasm from his youth. In the past decade, we’ve seen Rwanda send missionaries to the U.S. and Europe (an interesting historic reversal) because they see us in need of the Good News. Lately, some conservative U.S. Episcopalian congregations have left to join the Nigerian Diocese.

Why should we care? Many churches in the Global South take the Bible even more literally than U.S. fundamentalists. Take that obscure verse “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). Many Africans take that quite seriously and literally. Jenkins points out, “Even today, a single outbreak of witch-panic can lead to hundreds of murders in a period of weeks or months. Moreover, one of the main centers of modern witch-hunting activity has been South Africa, the most developed state on the whole continent” (123). If you read Jenkins’ book, you realize that Christianity isn’t in decline throughout most of the planet, and the Christianity that’s practiced, if adopted widely, will have far more unpleasant consequences than the ones that Hitchens contemplates in his book.

The coming clashes of fundamentalisms of all types of religions seem like a far more pressing problem to me, and it’s a problem that gets very little press time or book length treatments or political consideration. Hitchens had a chance to turn the discussion, and he resorted to trotting out familiar arguments about issues that were dead decades ago. What a shame.

I have Hitchens on the brain because I'm about to start reading Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. I loved Terry Eagleton as a literary critic when I was in grad school, and I'm interested to see what a Marxist literary critic has to say about these debates. The first paragraph is a zinger: "Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics. But it is also the case, as this book argues, that most such critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap. When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion's own. It is as though one were to dismiss feminism on the basis of Clint Eastwood's opinion of it" (xi). Wow. When I've read the rest of the book, I'll deliver a full report.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Will There Be Schism?

My Lutheran church, the ELCA, has its annual meeting next week in Minneapolis. Once again, we'll be returning to the question of sexuality. I'm hoping that by now we can all agree that we should be a welcoming church to everybody, regardless of orientation. One of our social statements proposes that we say such a thing outright.

The far more incendiary statement deals with pastors who are in committed, homosexual relationships. We voted on the statement during our Synod Assembly, and I failed to see how divisive it might be. It states that individual churches will decide the issue. So, we could have one church that decides not to call a person in a committed homosexual relationship, but at least rostered clergy wouldn't lose their ordination because of their love lives.

Notice that the statement specifies that the homosexual pastor, like the heterosexual pastor, must be in a committed relationship. Some people object because we tend to punish pastors who are living in committed, heterosexual, non-married relationships. I see that point. Yet, we're not giving homosexuals in most states the option of marriage, so I'm not sure how to work around the dilemma at this point.

I also see the problems inherent with letting each individual church judge the sexual nature of the potential pastor and requiring each church to judge whether or not the relationship qualifies as committed. I understand that a unified stance is more desirable in some lights.

But I really like that we've come to a point where we say, "We can agree to disagree. People of faith can come to radically different conclusions about a given social issue, and we've decided to honor that" (I'm paraphrasing the social statement that the whole church body will vote upon next week).

On the homosexuality issue, unlike with some other social justice issues, it's hard for me to see the side that's not mine, to understand where people are coming from. With abortion, although I tend to the pro-choice side, I understand the pro-life side. I've become increasingly queasy with the issue. But with homosexuality, I've always thought that what interests God is the quality of our relationships, not how the genital parts fit together. It's hard for me to see the other arguments, particularly the ones that pull Old Testament passages to support the arguments. Read the rest of Leviticus and tell me that you're going to live by all those laws. No, I didn't think so.

So, I will pray for the churchwide Assembly next week. So far, the ELCA has avoided the fireworks that our Episcopalian siblings are suffering, although I suspect that many churches have become Missouri Synod (the more conservative Lutherans in America, although not the most conservative), and depending on what happens next week, more may migrate. But that's O.K. Sometimes schism is necessary.

In future years, I'm sure that people will wonder what all this fuss was about. They'll shake their heads over the fact that some Episcopalians felt so strongly about the homosexuality issue that they'd pledge themselves to African missions rather than stay with the American Episcopate. They'll probably wonder why we spent so much time talking about this issue, while people died of very preventable diseases and the Congo became a cesspool of rape and violence and the divide between rich and poor became insurmountable. I have no answer for that, only sorrow.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Meditation on This Week and Next Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 16, 2009:

First Reading: Proverbs 9:1-6

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Psalm: Psalm 34:9-14

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 111

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:15-20

Gospel: John 6:51-58

The readings for Sunday, August 23, 2009:

First Reading: Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Psalm: Psalm 34:15-22

Second Reading: Ephesians 6:10-20

Gospel: John 6:56-69

Since I am unsure of my computer access next week, I decided to combine my efforts into one mediation. Maybe I'm wimping out--maybe I'm running out of things to say about bread. There is a certain repetitiveness to these Gospels. It's rare that we're given a chance to fully explore one of the central images of our Christian faith: where would we be if we didn't have bread?

I work above the Culinary department at my school, and sometimes, I walk through the dining room and kitchens, just because it brings me joy to see people cook. I love to see the Baking and Pastry students at work. The sight of loaves of bread cooling on racks brings me great happiness. When I told the head chef of that department that I love to see the bread cooling, he said, "You should come by later. I'll give you a loaf to take home."

Who can resist that? So I did. I watched the student wrap up my bread in plastic wrap and resisted the urge to say, "Don't bother. I'm going to eat it on the way home." I kept it wrapped to share with my husband.

The chef gave me instructions to freeze it after the first day. He said, "It's just made today, so it won't stay fresh as long as supermarket bread." He needn't have bothered. We ate most of the loaf that night.

As I walked to my car, with a loaf of bread that was bigger than a baby in my arms, I felt so cared for. I thought, I'll always have weight issues if I see food as love.

But food is love, in many ways. There's a reason why Jesus uses food imagery when he refers to himself. We can't go long without food. For most of us, if we miss a meal we become grumpy and irritable. Miss several meals, and we can scarcely think about anything else but food.

It's a shame that most of us don't have a similar approach to our spiritual lives. Imagine if we felt spiritually ravenous if we missed our daily prayer. Imagine if we were filled with longing and joy as we passed the churches and houses of worship on our way to work.

Again and again Jesus reminds us of the necessity of nourishing ourselves with him. Our ancestors ate manna, and they died. We can feast on the food that will bring us eternal life.

God calls us to do serious work. We must live as if the Kingdom of God has already taken over our world. To keep ourselves strong for that work we need to keep ourselves fed with good food: homemade bread and good wine, grilled fish, the words of the Bible, the words of writers who inspire us to transform both ourselves and the world, the images of people who inspire us to visions of a better world, music that can wind its way through our days, prayers that keep us connected to God, relationships that remind us that we are loved and cherished and worthy, and the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Intentional Communities, both Religious and Secular

Yesterday, I grabbed a quick bite to eat with one of my English major friends. Talk turned, as it often does, to the idea of intentional communities. I've often wondered if English majors talk about intentional communities because so much of our great literature comes from people who experimented with alternate lifestyles. Maybe people majoring in Engineering just don't have that history.

In any case, my friend had intentional communities on the brain because she'd just seen a repeat of the Oprah show where Oprah went to that Mormon community in Texas which briefly lost custody of their children earlier this year. I saw part of that show when it first aired, and while I found the exploration of their daily lives interesting, I just found it too creepy to watch these middle-aged men assert that they only wanted very young women for wives.

The question I always have is whether or not an intentional community can work for the long haul without some sort of religious framework. I don't even always mean religious in the traditional meaning of that word. My theory is that people who have some sort of higher reason for being together in community--whether that be scholarship, artistic creation, or worship of the Creator--have a better chance of staying together.

My friend was in a Hobbesian mood, where she didn't believe in the better natures of humans, so she saw dark motives in all intentional communities. Of course, she'd just watched that Oprah show, which would predispose one to a Hobbesian mood. I, the eternal optimist, countered that intentional communities could put in place a framework to support us in our quest to becoming the better people that we want to be.

I had to get back to work, so we didn't have time to fully explore these issues. And we didn't have time for me to offer one of my more controversial viewpoints. If I was a betting woman, I'd bet that religious communities have a better chance for lasting than other intentional communities.

Of course, a lot of intentional communities are based in impermanence, the most obvious example being colleges and universities. But for the ones that want to survive, do religious communities have more of a chance?

My brain tends to head towards monasteries and abbeys, religious communities which have lasted for centuries, many of them. I'm sure if we did an exhaustive search, we could find as many failed religious communities as we'd find failed artistic enclaves. Or would we?

Ah, to be younger, to have time to do that kind of research, perhaps to write a dissertation. Of course, my interest is much more practical. As one who daydreams about creating an intentional community, I wonder what would stack the deck in my favor. And can a religious community have some non-religious people in its midst without undercutting its purpose? That's the question I'd really like answered.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

When Churches Become Real Estate Developers

I read this story in this morning's The Washington Post. It talks of several megachurches (all on the evangelical side of the spectrum, I'm guessing from the names) who have created real estate developments with a church as part of the plans. Often, they include low or moderate income housing and/or housing for the elderly too.

In a way, I think that's brilliant. I remember during the 80's, that some downtown D.C. churches, including Luther Place, bought or developed row houses that were in the same block as the church. They turned them into places where people could get social services, as well as some housing for the oppressed. But that was small scale, compared to what the churches in the article are attempting.

Part of me loves the idea. I'd love to live in the same neighborhood as my church, and I think I'd like to have my church members be neighbors. It would be easier to pray together, to study together, to take nightly walks together. It would be easier to tend to the church property if it didn't involve getting in the car.

Part of me worries though. I know that the demands of church property often drives the church budget, which means that few resources are available for true ministry. When I was church council president, worries about how to tend to the property took an inordinate amount of time. I began to see the wisdom in keeping churches small--small enough to meet in people's living rooms. I began to see the wisdom in keeping the church mobile--Jesus sending out the earliest church, two by two, with very few possessions. The more possessions you must tend to, the less time/energy/money you have to tend to the lost sheep of the world.

It's an interesting idea, though. My mom and dad are looking at Lutheran retirement communities, and part of me feels a twinge of jealousy. For me, of course, it's out of the question: these places are too far away from any possible work I might do and they're way too expensive for normal working folks. But these experiments that I read about this morning? Those bear watching as a possible model for the rest of us. Something to ponder, something to dream about . . .

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Feast of the Transfiguration--and Hiroshima Day

Today, Orthodox churches celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, the day when Jesus went up the mountain with several disciples and becomes transfigured into a radiant being. Those of you who worship in Protestant churches may have celebrated this event just before Lent began, so you may not think of it as a summer kind of celebration. Pre-Reformation traditions often celebrated this day in conjunction with blessing the first harvest.

Those of us with any sense of history are likely also remembering today as the day when the first atomic bomb used in warfare was detonated at Hiroshima, thus launching us into this brave new world where we find ourselves.

I find it an interesting conjunction, and of course, I've written a poem about it. But since it hasn't been published, I hesitate to put the whole thing here; I'll put some of my favorite bits here. It begins with these 2 lines:

"We long to be transfigured in the Holy Flame,
to harness atoms to do our will."

and later in the poem:

"Like Peter, we long to harness Holiness,
to build booths, to charge admission.
Christ turned into Carnival."

(if these lines whet your appetite, you can e-mail me at, and I'll send you your very own copy).

And of course, with a story like that of the Transfiguration, I can't help but think about my own life. How would I like to be transfigured? Some days, the question is really, in what ways wouldn't I like to be transfigured?

But that question is really too me-focused, as the readings for today show us. The question is really how do each of us respond to the Transfigured Lord?

Today is a good time to spend with the texts for the day, to carve out some time for quiet contemplation. Go here for readings, complete with links, so that you can read online, if that's easier.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 9, 2009:

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:4-8

First Reading (Semi-cont.):

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

Psalm: Psalm 34:1-8

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 130

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:25--5:2

Gospel: John 6:35, 41-51

The Gospel for this week has provoked controversy from the moment Jesus said it. Indeed, disagreements about the Eucharist have prompted schisms within denominations, and one might argue, wars have been fought over the issue of what Jesus meant, how literally we're to take his words. People today are no less mystified than they were when they heard it. Perhaps you've forgotten how strange it sounds, especially if you grew up in a church that had the Eucharist as a centerpiece of worship or held it as a serious sacrament. But take a minute and think about what it is you think is happening when we celebrate communion together.

Are we just remembering Christ's life? Is Communion like a Thanksgiving dinner, where we eat certain foods because they remind us of our ancestors and of our traditions as a family and as a nation?

Do you see Communion as a simple symbol? Or are you like Flannery O'Connor, one of the greatest short story writers of the twentieth century, a Catholic who said, "Well, if it’s just a symbol, all I can say is to hell with it.”

People like Flannery O'Connor see the sacrament as so much more. In her book Girl Meets God, Lauren F. Winner argues for restoring an older term for the Eucharist: Viaticum: "Viaticum was a Roman term; it designated the food, clothes, and money that a Roman magistrate took with him when he traveled on state business, . . . the necessaries he needed to get him through his trip" (188). The term was first used with deathbed rites, but came to be used for any Eucharist. It's a term that reminds us how necessary the Eucharist should be to us. Winner quotes an unnamed minister who calls it "the sacrament of maintenance" (188). If you wonder why we dutifully offer Communion each and every Sunday, you might, in fact, fault the Church for not making it available on a daily basis.

Henri Nouwen spent much of his writing talking about Communion, trying to impress upon his readers how important it is. In Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith, he says, "The Eucharist is the sacrament by which we become one body. . . . It is becoming the living Lord, visibly present in the world" (reading for Oct. 13). In the reading for the next day, he says, "We who receive the Body of Christ become the living Christ." Nouwen argues for a mystical--yet very real--transformation: the wine and bread transform themselves into blood and body which then transforms us from ordinary sinful human into Christ.

We are hungry for that transformation, but like those people who followed Christ from shore to shore, hoping for a free meal, we often don't know what we hunger for (perhaps this explains why so many of us shop compulsively, eat compulsively, drink compulsively, gulp down anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants). We want to do God's work in the world, but there's so much work to do, and we're so tired before we even get started.

Our Scriptures remind us in both the Old and New Testaments that God provides. God gives us both physical food and spiritual food. But we must be receptive. God won't open our mouths and chew for us.

Our ancestors would have seen the temptation to skip church and sleep in for what it was: the devil trying to lead us astray. We are in such desperate need of spiritual renewal. We think we need sleep, but we need communion (and I use that word on all sorts of levels).

We are in the dog days of summer, when it seems so long until we feel Fall's coolness. We may be in a bit of a spiritual funk, as well. I often find August a slow slog, spiritually. We're deep into that long, green season, but so far away from Advent. And now we hit week after week of bread Gospels.

But of course, the Gospels point the way out of my spiritual doldrums. Perhaps it is time to return to a bread baking regimen. I can watch the yeast work its magic and contemplate the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. I can share that bread with others and take a moment to catch up. I can end the day with a Psalm, a glass of wine, a prayer of thanks. In the morning, as I bathe, I can remember my baptism and pray, "Preserve me with your mighty power that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord" (found throughout the 3 volume set The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle). Then, fortified, I can do the work of the week before returning again to the sacraments of Sunday.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Garrison Keillor's Lutheran Show

I don't always listen to Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, and when I do, I rarely listen to the whole show. Yesterday was an exception. Yesterday, the whole show was dedicated to the subject of what it means to be a Lutheran. I particularly love the ending clip about the Lutheran travel agency which guarantees you won't have too much fun, so you won't feel guilty about being on vacation.

I suspect that even if you didn't grow up Lutheran, if you've been part of a church at all (especially a mainstream Protestant type church), you'll find a lot of Keillor's material to feel familiar. Anyone who has been part of a church (or any social institution for that matter) knows that there's plenty of material for humor and satire here. And what I love about Keillor is that his satire never feels savage or brutal. You can feel the love that he has for the woman who doesn't want her clothes ripped off in a grand passion ("Can't I just wear old clothes that I don't mind having ripped?") or the choir directors who have to work with a wide range of talents.

He's got great musical guests on the show as well as wonderful skits and those fake commercials. What a great gift NPR gives us with all their eclectic programming.