Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 4, 2009:

First Reading: Genesis 2:18-24

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Job 1:1; 2:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 8

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 26

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Gospel: Mark 10:2-16

All across America, I imagine that mainstream pastors plan to preach on the Old Testament, Psalm, or Second Reading, instead of the Gospel this week. With so many divorced and remarried people in the congregation, who wants to touch the Gospel text? Verse 10, "What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder," has probably been slung around more often than just about any other Gospel verse, and I suspect, not always with the intent of making people's lives better.

But let's look at the text again, with different eyes. Note that the question is about the ability of men to divorce their wives. Of course it is. Women couldn't divorce their husbands nearly as easily under the ancient laws (Roman and Jewish) which governed the audience of Jesus. You might see this lesson as part of the whole lesson that Jesus preaches again and again, that lesson about caring for the poor and destitute and outcast, for those on the lower rungs of society. In some ways, this admonishment protected women, who under the law, didn't have much protection if their husbands wanted to cast them aside. And under the law, women cast aside didn't have much in the way of economic sustenance.

The Gospel lesson closes with yet another story of Jesus and children, which helps to frame the lessons about divorce and lead us back to thinking about our mission to protect the weak and the vulnerable. In almost every society, who is more weak and vulnerable than children? Even old people have more protection. Most societies like to think that they prize children, but look at how they spend their money, and you'll see a different story. Jesus, however, reminds us that children belong to the Kingdom of God, and that we must become like children to enter it.

The traditional interpretation of this part of the Gospel would be that Jesus is talking about Heaven, that place where we go when we die. Yet modern scholarship tells us that Jesus used that word, "Kingdom," differently. He's talking about a future time, but also our present time, the now and the not yet. Jesus came to tell us that the Kingdom of God was breaking through to reclaim the world. It's fabulous news. We don't have to wait until we die to experience the good life.

But of course, the paradox remains: we're still part of a fallen world, part of a world waiting for redemption. How do we cope with that reality and the message of Jesus?

Many humans respond by creating laws and conveniently ignoring the fact that the message of Jesus is one of grace and love, not of law. We see the Pharisees testing Jesus on issues of the Law, and Jesus snapping back. One can almost hear him thinking, we have so much to do and you're bothering me with questions of divorce and taxes? Before we get too self-righteous, thinking that we're not like those blasted Pharisees, we might remember that in the mainline church, we've spent quite a long time debating homosexuality. We may have settled the question of divorce for ourselves, but we're still getting tangled in these issues of Law and Righteousness.

I can imagine that Jesus would be impatient with us and say, "Honestly, are you still arguing over these issues of which love is legitimate and which love isn't? Haven't you put on your child eyes yet?"

I recently spent time with my three year old nephew, which often changes the way I approach the world and helps me understand these Bible passages that revolve around children. My nephew is the most non-judgmental person I know, and it's a delight to spend time with him. He wants us to dance around the living room, and he doesn't care how stupid we look. He wants us to draw him a picture of a truck, and while he'll offer suggestions, he has never crumpled up the paper and told me never to draw again. He delights in the world in a way that most adults have forgotten how to do.

I imagine God is much the same. We've got a wonderful world here, and we often forget how fabulous it is. We get so hung up on all the ways we think the world has gone wrong that we forget what is right. We spend time creating laws to try to control behavior, when we might do better to simply accept people for who they are, which is a major step towards loving them. We want to see the world in strict colors: black, white, no gray. We forget that the world is variegated. If we can leave the land of Law behind and enter the world of Love, we'll see a world washed in color, all of it good. We'll know what God knew, way back in Genesis, that the Creation is good, very good.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

Today, the Church celebrates the role of angels in the divine plan, my prayer book tells me (The Divine Hours, written by Phyllis Tickle). Our Orthodox brothers and sisters handle the question of angels better than most Protestants. Most of the Lutheran churches that I've been a member of don't talk about angels much, and based on the ideas of some of my students, many Protestant churches do talk about angels, but with a very shaky theology.

I'll never forget one time teaching Paradise Lost to South Carolina students in my Brit Lit survey class at a community college. One woman seemed particularly confused about all the angels in the story. "How could there be angels," she asked, "when nobody has died?"

It took me a few attempts to understand her question. She knew about angels from church, but only in the sense that we become angels when we die--which is a very recent idea about angels. I explained the more ancient idea about angels, which is that they are a species completely separate from humans. We got into a bit of a theology lesson, but I could see that she wasn't happy with these ideas about angels. She was much more comfortable with the idea of the angels being Grandma who died when she was a child. The idea of angels as a separate kind of entity with no free will? No thanks.

In a way, I understand. Angels are scary. Death is scary. It's rather brilliant to come up with the idea that we become angels when we die--and yet, this shaky theology defangs several concepts which should, in fact, be scary. We will die--and before that, everything we love will die. How do we cope with that idea?

Some of us cope by clinging to the idea that there is a Divine God with a plan and a vision that's vaster than anything we could develop on our own. This God has more power than we can conceive of--including legions of angels, angels that are there for us too.

Let me confess that I don't do angels well either. They seem a bit too New Agey for me, especially with the spate of angel books that were published 10 years ago, books that promised me that I would get to know my angels, books in which getting to know my angels was very similar to enslaving my angels to do my will. Blcch. Giving the angels a mission is God's job, not mine.

I often joked that I should combine two publishing trends and publish a diet book: Your Angels Want You to Be Thin! The Know Your Angels Diet Book. I'm not that mercenary, though (and if you are, feel free to steal my title), not that willing to make money off the real troubles and gullibility of humans. To borrow words from Blake, I don't want to be the one that makes a Heaven off of misery.

But now, ten years later, I find myself a bit envious of those people who grew up in traditions that had theologically sound approaches to angels. Again and again, I find in the traditions of others something I feel lacking in mine.

Luckily, I'm part of a Lutheran tradition that doesn't insist that we remain closed off to traditions that might enrich us spiritually, even if Luther didn't sanction them. We've seen an explosion of exploration of labyrinths. Maybe angels will be next.

For those of you who want some special Scripture for this high feast day, here's what the Lutheran church (ELCA) recommends:

First Reading: Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3
Psalm: Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22
Second Reading: Revelation 12:7-12
Gospel: Luke 10:17-20

Friday, September 25, 2009

Dirty Politicians and the Dream of God

We've had a bit of a political scandal here in South Florida. That's hardly news--we see more corruption down here than any other place I've ever lived (and I've lived in the DC area). But this local bust made me shake my head because local officials were accused of taking such small amounts of money. If you're going to sell your votes, can't you get more money?

And what happened to the idea that you go into public service to serve? Not to serve yourself, but to serve the least of the citizens.

Do these people not see the same streets I see? I've never lived any place with such a visible homeless population. Part of the problem is that our politicians have eliminated almost every government service that would help the poor. As a community, we're limping by on whatever charity that churches can muster. Part of the problem is that our warm weather attracts people down here, and our steep cost of living makes it tough to manage. Part of the problem is that we just don't care enough to do anything.

I watch all these people on the streets and want to weep. Do the politicians not see these people? We're driving down the same streets.

What makes it even worse is that I suspect these politicians would consider themselves good, God-fearing people--even as they're selling their votes. They probably go to church. What are their pastors preaching? Mainstream churches use the same lectionary. We're instructed to help the poor on a regular basis.

Were they going to sell their votes and give the money to the poor and destitute? A sort of Robin Hood scheme? Of course not.

And even if that was their thinking, they could have done far more good by working while in office for the good of the poor. Get more affordable housing. Get some dental care for people. Create a central resource center so people know where to come--and then staff it with knowledgeable, caring people. And then get some more affordable housing, because I can't envision the day when there will ever be enough.

Call me a dreamer. Call me deluded about what politicians should be doing. Call me a starry-eyed optimist. That's fine. God calls on us to be starry-eyed visionaries, working towards a Kingdom that's already breaking through to us.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009:

First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Psalm: Psalm 19:7-14

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 124

Second Reading: James 5:13-20

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50

Sometimes, we forget how harsh the message of Jesus must sound to outsiders. Sometimes, we've heard a certain phrase so often that we don't stop to ponder the implications.

Consider this verse: "And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire" (Mark 9: 43). And then we get the verses about cutting off a foot and plucking out an eye.

As a child, I was always taught that these verses were metaphorical. Of course we shouldn't pluck out our eyes if we looked at something forbidden.

As an older person, I wonder if we fall back on that idea of metaphor too often. Unfortunately, what often happens is that we sweeten up the message of Jesus in a desperate bid to attract non-believers. Look at all those prosperity gospel books, if you don't believe me. Several years ago, I was stuck in an airport in Kentucky, and I scanned much of a book entitled God Wants You to Be Rich! Really, I thought. The God I worship wants me to give my money away. If I take Jesus literally, not figuratively, I should be giving more of my money away. Notice how I'm hedging, even just then. There are plenty of verses where Jesus tells us to give ALL our money away.

As a pre-teen and early teen, I often voiced my desire to be either Jewish or Catholic. My parents were confounded by these requests and tried to explain the differences between our Lutheran beliefs and that of Jewish people and Catholic people.

But for me, it wasn't about beliefs. It was about practice. I wanted a religion that would impose a harsher discipline. I wanted to keep kosher. I wanted penance activities to do to earn forgiveness.

Now that I'm older, I want a religion that accepts my faults and reassures me that I'm lovable anyway. But I often wonder if mainline groups are losing members to more fundamentalist faiths because those faiths offer more rigorous requirements.

Jesus knows that we don't often require enough of ourselves--not in our spiritual relationships, not in our friendships, not in our workplaces, not in our families. Jesus knows that we will let ourselves off of the hook and not require real change of ourselves. And worse, Jesus knows that our harmful practices may harm others. Like the disciples who tell the man casting out demons to quit, we often dampen the positive passions of others.

What do we need to pluck out of our personalities? What is causing us to fall short of the full glory that can be ours? Or, to frame the question in a more positive way: how can we be good salt?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What 3 Year Olds Can Teach Us about God's Love

My sister and her 3 year old son visited us last week. What a treat! He really loves being with us, just because we're us. There's none of that scheming that can go on with older people, people who want to hang out with you, because they hope to get something out of you.

I've spent some time thinking about how married love teaches us about God's love--one reason why marriage is a sacrament in some traditions. But the love of a 3 year old has much to teach us about God's love.

I wish I could love myself like my nephew loves me. I never sense that he's disappointed in me. He wastes no time saying, "Boy, Kristin has really let herself go. Why did she let herself gain 20 pounds in the last several years? Why isn't she writing more? She's really a slovenly housekeeper, isn't she?" No, that's my own inner voice that you're hearing there. My nephew is just so thrilled to keep company with us as we dance, build sand castles, eat hot dogs, enjoy secret movie night. I imagine God feels the same way.

Because my nephew is so non-judgmental at this point, it's easy to dance around the living room. At one point, I looked at us dancing and said to myself, "We look like a bunch of Charlie Brown's friends." But we were having so much fun, I kept dancing. I imagine that we disappoint God when we let our opinions of how we're supposed to look and act disrupt our time with God and God's creatures.

I noticed that my nephew's creative process reminds me of God's, at least the story of God and the first creation story, the one that comes before the more well-known story with Adam and Eve. In the first creation story, God creates thing after thing and declares it good. Likewise, my nephew never creates anything and crushes it in disappointment. He draws a picture, and it's exactly what he intended. He creates one system of railroads, and then later, another. It's the process that he enjoys, even more than running trains over the rails. I've never seen him express disappointment or frustration when he's creating. I don't know if he's a special kid, or if it's only later that kids learn to be annoyed with themselves for what they can't do.

I like being with my nephew because he reminds me of what's important. In a week of committee meetings and lots of work-related intrigue, it was a delight to spend time at the beach, appreciating the ocean anew. It was great to be reminded that the world is full of delights, especially if we try to see it through the eyes of a 3 year old. Or, through the eyes of God.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Music Workshop You Could Do in Your Own Congregation or Synod Gathering

On Saturday, my husband and I were part of a Synod District Youth Event (our district is one county, Broward, and the one ELCA church in the Bahamas--that church didn't come). The organizer decided to focus on music. We had primarily elementary and middle school youth in attendance, although there was a toddler here and there, as well as about five high school students.

We started the day by having each youth make an instrument. They had a variety of containers to choose from and dry rice and beans to put inside. Voila! A shaker. We only had one or two accidents where the rice and beans got out of the shaker, but those were easy to clean up.

The youth spent the morning travelling in small groups from room to room. We had 4 rooms set up, each with a different instrument: handbells, drums, guitar, and xylophone. I helped my husband, who was leading the drum session. We've been collecting a variety of drums and shakers, mainly African, for years, and on Saturday, I thought, ah, perhaps this is why--how wonderful that each child can have a drum or shaker.

At each station, the youth learned at least one song. They might not have had time to learn the instrument (especially with the guitar), but they learned the song that the adult was playing on the instrument. With the drums, we did "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me"--a great song to go with drums. The youth also learned "Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Alleluia, Praise Ye the Lord," "Our God is an Awesome God," and "We Are Marching in the Light of God"--and since some of them had command of non-English languages, they were able to sing--I'm sure I heard both Spanish and French Creole.

After a pizza lunch, the youth did a scavenger hunt questionnaire, where they had had to find the person in the room who was an acolyte, the person who had 4 siblings, and so on.

Then we moved to the sanctuary, where the youth prayed and sang songs they had learned. In the larger group, each child couldn't have his or her own drum, but I was impressed with how the children shared the drums--two or three per djembe.

For a final treat, a steel pan drum band came to play some songs. This part might be the hardest part to reproduce, but any group would do. You haven't really heard "Amazing Grace" until you've heard it on the steel pan drum. We were lucky in that the church organist of the host church played in a group, and they were happy to play for us. The youth were most appreciative.

It was great to see the youth of different churches come together. It was great to work with different adults to give them a good experience. I suspect that in this time of shrinking school budgets, where arts programs are the first to get slashed, it will become more and more important to have exposure to the arts in the churches.

I also liked our model because it got the adults interacting with the youth, and our day didn't rely on imported curriculum--thus it would be easy to reproduce in other churches and in other denominations which could use whichever songs from their traditions worked best. It did rely on adults having instruments to share, but many churches have that resource. It was hands-on, and youth went home with an idea of how to make instruments, and how to use their voices, the instruments that are with them all the time.

Friday, September 18, 2009

In the Teaching Trenches--Transformative Social Justice Work?

Last night, I went to see Rafe Esquith, a man who will make you feel like you've wasted your whole life. I'm sure he doesn't do it on purpose. But here's a man who's spent the last 25 years teaching some of the poorest children in the nation--every child in his inner-city L.A. school gets free breakfast and lunch, and most of them don't speak English as their first language. He's gotten so good at teaching that he could have left any number of times, but he chooses to stay.

He brought some of his school's children with him, and they did a presentation which incorporated passages from Shakespeare's plays and rock and pop songs, which they sang and played on the guitar and harmonica. Amazing.

I know from reading his books that he's kept a rigorous schedule, coming in early and staying after class. While I admire that dedication, I do wonder what he's sacrificed for his vision. Was the sacrifice worth it?

One of my friends who went with me says that saving children is the most important thing we can do, and she's likely right. But some part of me (the grandchild of a Lutheran minister who heard many a tale of family concerns taking a lower priority than congregational concerns) wonders about the sacrifices that his children have also made for their father's vision. I think too about the societal structures that haven't been changed, so year after year, Rafe Esquith still has just as many kids who need him. Would his time have been better spent working in that arena of social justice.

In the end, I suspect the most important thing is to use our gifts and talents in whatever arena they're most valuable. If Rafe Esquith had decided to change society by running for school board, maybe he wouldn't have accomplished as much. Maybe some of the children who he has saved will go on to provide the transformative visions needed by so many social institutions.

My discussion with my friend reminds me of similar discussions with non-believers, who scoff at the idea of monks praying: "Why don't they get out there and do something useful?" But they are doing something useful, and some would argue, an activity that's more important than anything else they could do. Those of us in the dirty trenches of social justice work need some contemplatives out there praying for us.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Holy Spirit Nudges

Yesterday, after writing about service, I went to work, and then I came home and cooked and cooked and cooked. Once a month (during the non-summer months), my suburban church takes dinner down to First Lutheran, in downtown Ft. Lauderdale, where every Wednesday, the church serves a meal to the mostly homeless, mostly men who show up at 6:00. Afterwards, there's a small Vespers service.

The conventional wisdom has been that we don't see crowds of 80 or more unless the weather is bad. Last night, we had a lovely, late summer night. And we had over 100 people. We ran out of food, which we've never done before. We made extra mashed potatoes and gravy for the late-comers, but we ran out of everything else. People even ate the vegetarian meatballs (made out of lentils), which I brought for the one vegetarian who often shows up. They ate every single cookie and every scrap of bread, which in the past, we usually had more leftovers than we could give away. It was like the feeding of the 5000, only in reverse.

Next time, we'll prepare for more. But it does give me pause. Do we have more people plunged into homelessness than we did last year, or was it just a flukey thing? I tend to see it as a bad sign, and it makes me wonder how many people will show up when the weather is bad.

Our pastors were all at a regional meeting, so the First Lutheran people asked me if I would pray; my church members had nominated me as the natural one to say grace. Is it because of my booming voice? I can't be the only one who has spent my entire life saying grace. Of course, I said I would pray, and it was one of those times that I'm grateful for my booming voice--it's hard to get 100 hungry people to settle down enough to say grace.

I saw it as one of those Holy Spirit nudges, but I'm unsure of what I'm being nudged towards. Seminary? I know that when I serve dinner at First Lutheran, I feel most like I'm doing what I was put on earth to do. Meaningful work! I have a similar feeling when I serve communion.

Hmm. Serving communion and feeding the destitute. A career path or a course towards crucifixion?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 20, 2009:

First Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Proverbs 31:10-31

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom 1:16--2:1, 12-22

Psalm: Psalm 54

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 1

Second Reading: James 3:13--4:3, 7-8a

Gospel: Mark 9:30-37

This Gospel seems to drip with extra meaning, in a month where we've seen tennis stars lose their cool, musicians upstage each other at awards shows, and people hollering at a presidential address. Perhaps this is a work week where we wonder what on earth we're doing and how our lives have come to this. Maybe we're feeling frustrated with our families.

Maybe we wonder if we're living up to our full potential.

We're surrounded by self-improvement plans. Maybe we'll go back to school to make ourselves great. Maybe we'll color our hair or buy a new wardrobe. Maybe we'll pay off our debts or buy a car that makes us feel special. Maybe we'll lose weight or bulk up our muscles. The world has no shortage of suggestions for ways that we might make ourselves better.

God has a different suggestion. Jesus says, "If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all" (verse 35).

Humans, most of us, aren't wired that way. Watch what happens at work when one of the higher-ups leaves and there's a vacancy to fill. Watch how many people convince themselves that they're perfect for that job. Watch children, who will always struggle for supremacy. Very few of us come to service naturally.

But those of us who have worked to adopt the servant ethos can tell a different tale. Those people might talk about how good it feels to serve, how their own desires disappear in the face of those that are needier than they are.

But there is a bigger reason why we're called to serve: God hangs out with the lowly. Go back to your Scripture. See how often God shows up with the poor, the outcast, the lowest people in the social structure. We serve, so that we meet God. We serve, so that we serve God.

This verse reminds me of the 25th chapter of Matthew, where humans are separated depending on whether or not they fed Jesus or clothed him or visited him while sick or in prison. And the ones headed to eternal punishment say, "When did we ever see you hungry or naked or sick or in prison?" And we get the classic rejoinder in verse 45: "Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me."

We serve God by serving. Leaf through the Gospels and let yourself be struck by how much of the message of Jesus revolves around this message. We are called to serve. We elevate ourselves not by making ourselves better, but by serving others, by serving those who have the least to offer us.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I'm Back to Blogging

Usually, I'm able to give a bit of notice when I'm going to be away from this blog. My sister and my 3 year old nephew were visiting over the week-end, but I thought I still might have time to write. After all, he usually sleeps until 8:30 or 9:00, and I'm usually up long before the rest of the household.

Not this time. He's in very active mode. We spent the days going to the beach, the nights dancing around the living room. It was fabulous. But exhausting.

So, tomorrow, I'll be back with my weekly Gospel meditation. And later in the week, I'll write about how being around a 3 year old teaches me a lot about the love of God and the right way to live life.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Militaristic Love Imagery in the Psalms

I was struck by one of today's readings from the Psalms (I'm using Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime): "The human mind and heart are a mystery; but God will loose an arrow at them and suddenly they will be wounded" Psalm 64:7. My mind immediately conjured up an image of Cupid, not usually one I associate with God. Of course, our modern depiction of Cupid as a cute, chubby cherub of love developed much later than the Psalms.

What a strange image, God as archer, the heart struck by God's arrow, the heart that must be wounded.

Let me read the whole thing.

This Psalm is one of the ones that promises that evil will be punished, that God will bring the evildoer low. So, it's not a cupid-like image at all, when you read the whole Psalm. It's much more a hunting image, God hunting the wicked.

I liked the single verse more before I read the whole Psalm. Ah yes, the importance of context, something I learned early on as an English major.

Interesting too, to read a Psalm of vengeance on Sept. 11. I much prefer the day-of-service approach to commemorating the day.

I won't be serving my community alas. I will be going to meetings where we will discuss things which will probably be unimportant in the long term. I need a Bible verse that will take me through that. One of my friends meditates on the 23rd Psalm to take her through sleepless nights. Maybe I'll try that approach today.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Table Scraps and the Poor

I've been off and on following the Health Care Debate this summer. I've been hoping that something radical will come out of these debates, the sort of system that other industrialized nations have, the kind of system that would leave more of us free to be entreprenuerial innovators. Many of us stay in our jobs not so much for our salaries but out of fear of losing our health insurance. A few of my friends are relatively young, but they have fairly serious pre-existing conditions; in essence, they are chained to their jobs.

I really don't understand the people who don't want health care reform. Are they that satisfied with their health insurance? If so, it's probably because they haven't tested the limits of that insurance. Sure your health insurance will cover your generic meds for cholesterol lowering and such. But what if you need exotic cancer drugs? Are you so sure your insurance will cover those?

We're all one job loss away from being without health insurance. Are those people who aren't in favor of health care reform really so sure that they will never lose their jobs?

With last week's Gospel still ringing in my ears, I came across this posting on the blog The Jesus Manifesto. Loren McGrail focuses on the foreclosure crisis, but the ideas seem applicable to the health care discussion we're having as a nation: " So the question is, if even Jesus, sometimes, stands in need of correction, a mercy check, who is calling us out today in this time of economic collapse and chaos? Who is calling us to move away from our zones of comfort or privilege, away from our prejudices into unknown territory? What marginalized voices do we hear?"

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 13, 2009:

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Proverbs 1:20-33

Psalm: Psalm 116:1-8 (Psalm 116:1-9 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 19

Second Reading: James 3:1-12

Gospel: Mark 8:27-38

I can only imagine how much the Jesus in today's Gospel must have baffled people--Peter even goes so far as to rebuke him. It's important to remember that Jews during the time of Jesus weren't looking for the kind of spiritual savior that we have in mind when we use the term Messiah; Jews during this time period expected their Messiah to be a great warrior who would kick the Romans out of the homeland.

And here's Jesus, talking about being rejected by everyone and being killed and rising again; he mentions crosses--in that time, the only ones picking up a cross were those on their way to their own brutal public executions.

This Gospel was written during a later time of social upheaval (and written about an earlier time of social upheaval)--the reason the Gospel of Mark sounds so apocalyptic is because the Christian community feared attack from various quarters. This Gospel is written both to calm the community, as well as to give them strength to face what is coming, and the courage to do what must be done. The last chunk of the Gospel shows this motivation clearly. What good is our earthly life if, in preserving it, we lose our souls?

An intriguing question, even today--a time of social upheaval, where there are plenty of events to frighten us. Notice the language of Jesus. Following him is a choice. Crosses don't just fall on us out of the sky; we choose to pick them up when we follow Jesus.

It's a marketing scheme that you would never find in today's "How to Build a MegaChurch" model books. Emphasize suffering? Why on earth would people want a religion like that?

It's interesting also to reflect on Jesus' words at the close of this chapter--are we ashamed of Jesus? Do people know we are Christians by our actions? If they ask us about our faith life, are we able to speak coherently (or at least openly) about it?

These questions take me back to when I taught more classes. Several years ago, on a Monday evening, a student asked if she could see a book I had on my desk: The Violence of Love. I'm not sure what she thought it was, but I'm fairly sure she didn't think it was a collection of the homilies of Archbishop Oscar Romero (martyred for his faith and preaching on social justice in El Salvador in 1980). After class, she asked me "Are you Christian or Catholic?" In the past, I might have evaded the question by explaining how Catholics really are Christians. Or I might have hemmed and hawed and explained how my Christian faith and practice was different than that behavior of other Christians which embarrassed me.

On that Monday, I opted for simplicity. I said, "Christian." We talked about the book and Oscar Romero, about her Catholic upbringing and my Lutheran one, about her drift away from church and how she yearns for church but is afraid of it. She asked if she could find me next quarter to continue this conversation, and I said, "Any time."

I know that sometimes Jesus must cry himself to sleep when he watches my behavior. I like to think that on that Monday night, he said, "That Kristin. She's finally showing some signs of spiritual maturity." I like to think that he woke up Oscar Romero to tell him how his work still resonates. I like to think of Jesus and Oscar Romero, sharing some leftover flan that they found in the celestial refrigerator.

Are you willing to pick up your cross? Are you willing to talk about Jesus without being ashamed? Are you willing to follow Jesus, even though you must be aware that "we as Christians participate in the only major religious tradition whose founder was executed by established authority" (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 91). And not only the founder, but many of the early missionaries of the faith, like Paul and Peter. If you're practicing Christianity the way you should be, you'll be a threat to the established order. Are you willing to take that risk?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Summer Funk Lifting

I've had a pretty good summer, but I've found myself really having to force myself to go to church. Part of that is the change in the service start time. Part of it is some kind of funk that descended on me.

What's up with that? I've finally found a church that's close to what I've been searching for. Sure, there's some music choices that drive me crazy--that earnest Contemporary Christian vein. But I've gone to lots of churches and gotten used to overlooking musical programs that are severely lacking. I realize that I'm spoiled by my classically trained, church musician of a mom, and I try not to hold the failings of a church music program against any specific church.

Luckily, I've come to expect these spiritual downtimes. Much like in my marriage and my writing life, these cycles come and go. My experiences don't seem like those of my friends who wrestle with depression. My experiences seem more garden variety: sometimes I'm at a high point, sometimes at a low. The important thing is to clench my fists and just keep showing up. And sometimes, I'll be delighted and the work won't be as hard as I fear. And sometimes I'll sit there fighting back tears when nothing in particular is wrong. And sometimes, I'll feel that searing joy that makes me so happy to be alive.

I remember when people were shocked over the revelation that Mother Theresa had times of darkness and doubt. I always assumed that she did. I always assume that everybody who takes something seriously--whether it be a job, a marriage, a creative passion, God--will have those downtimes when they wonder if it's all worth it.

Yesterday was the first time I felt my summer funk lifting. It's not tied to the weather. Down here, we've got months of steamy heat before the first Canadian air mass heads our way. It's not tied to anything special my church is doing. Perhaps it's tied to the Fall season gearing up--yesterday, we signed up to bring food to the homeless at First Lutheran, an activity I've missed.

I won't be surprised if I find myself in a funk again at some future point. And when that happens, I'll just keep plodding along, secure in the knowledge that my funk will lift.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Signs of Grace

On Sunday, my husband called out from the kitchen and asked me to come quick. It was one of those kind of days where everything seemed to be breaking or leaking or otherwise going wrong, so I rushed to the back of the house. My husband stared at the sky at a double rainbow. Even though I understand the science behind rainbows, I still find them magical--especially a double rainbow, which I've only seen a few times in my life. I understand why the Genesis writer used it as a sign that God loves the world and will never destroy it again.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 6, 2009:

First Reading: Isaiah 35:4-7a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Psalm: Psalm 146

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 125

Second Reading: James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17

Gospel: Mark 7:24-37

Many people find this Gospel's depiction of Jesus disturbing, but I find it refreshing, even as it disturbs me. I grew up with an idea of an inclusive Jesus, a Jesus who came for all of us. The Jesus of my childhood was never angry (except perhaps for that incident in the temple), never irritable, never tired.

The Jesus of the Gospels isn't the Jesus of my childhood. If we read the Gospels carefully, we can see that the view of Jesus shifts as the community of faith continues to interpret the meaning of Jesus and to define what happened to Jesus and the first community of believers. Often we forget that the Gospels were written not by the first disciples (as I thought, when I was a child), but by people who came along later.

One early view of Jesus was an exclusive one, the one that says that Jesus came for the Jews. As the early Christian community expanded to include non-Jews, we can see chunks of the Gospels written with this development in mind. The story of Jesus and the Greek woman may be part of that mission.

Or perhaps we're seeing something more basic. I notice that a running theme in this Gospel is Jesus' attempts to get away, to move anonymously. It doesn't work. Everywhere he turns, there are the people who need him. We've all had those weeks at work or in our families where it seems that people need more and more of us and we can't get away from those incessant demands. We know how cranky that can make us. Maybe we're just seeing a Jesus who is tired and irritable. I like the idea of a snippy Jesus who can be reminded of his mission and who can soften his attitude. I like the idea that we can be occasionally cranky and not ruin our mission, just as Jesus was occasionally cranky, but managed to change our world so radically.

I also find the Greek woman to be refreshing. Here's a woman who fights for her daughter. Here's a woman who is told no, I didn't come for you--and she fights back. She presents a good argument, and it works.

I like the idea of a Jesus who can change his mind. I like the idea of a Jesus who listens to an outsider (a Greek, a woman) and becomes more inclusive.

Often the Gospel gives us a picture of Jesus who seems more divine than human. This Gospel shows me a refreshingly human Jesus, with traits (irritability, a desperate need for rest) that I recognize. I see a divine presence who might really understand me, since he's been under stress himself.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Personification and the Psalms

During this week's morning Psalm readings (I'm using Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime), I've noticed a pattern of personification that the Psalmist has been using. This morning's was familiar: "Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Psalm 85).

Yesterday's Psalm really struck me: "One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another" (Psalm 19). I love that idea of "each one teach one" applying to the sky. I have this idea for a poem where some night skies have peacefully learned their lessons and nothing spectacular happens; of course, there are always some genius pupils who go off to do their own thing, and any number of night sky spectacles that could be used as an example.

I wonder why the Psalmist used personification. Why does any poet use personification? To make something a bit abstract more real. Or maybe humans just can't resist personifying. I've noticed that it's the rare person with a pet that can resist assigning human traits to the animal.

Personification works. That's why poets use it. That's why humans use it. For all of its possible faults, personification is a valuable tool to help us understand the world we live in.

I love the idea of righteousness and peace kissing. I love the idea of a spectral classroom. I'll be interested to see where else I notice this personification in the Psalms. Now that I've noticed it two mornings in a row, I'll be on the alert for a pattern.