Saturday, October 31, 2009

Of Reformation and Reconciliation

Over on The Writer's Almanac website, I saw this post, with the following juxtaposition of history: today is not only Reformation Day, the actual day when Martin Luther nailed those theses to the Wittenberg Door, but it is also the day when "just 10 years ago — in 1999 --- that Lutheran and Roman Catholic clerics signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It's an 8,000-word document that aims to explain misunderstandings and resolve differences over the very doctrine that was at the heart of the of the Protestant Reformation. The document's preamble states that the two churches, Lutheran and Catholic, 'are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ.' The document is not all encompassing when it comes clearing up issues about Justification, it disclaims, but does say that no one will be excommunicated over the issue of Justification anymore."

I know that most of you didn't grow up in Lutheran households. Even if you did, you might not have spent time arguing over the ideas of grace and good works and what salvation requires of us. But the above statement might fascinate you anyway--it's interesting that what rips a faith community apart in one generation might be sewn together in a future generation.

And of course, today is Halloween, that strange day that drives Evangelicals crazy, that day that seems such a patchwork of spiritual traditions (I'm counting both Wiccan and other Pagan traditions here). Here we are headed towards one of the spiritually thin times/places, that space where our world and other worlds might collide.

Halloween has never been that time for me. I've felt assaulted by noise and crime and adults acting foolishly and children rudely demanding candy--but never have I felt glimmers of the otherworld.

It's an interesting time to consider the practice of putting on a costume. On Halloween, I've noticed that adults don costumes that let them behave in ways that they never would in their regular lives. Sometimes this seems sinister to me.

But as a spiritual practice, it has something to teach us. Perhaps each day, we should think of ourselves as donning our spiritual costume that will let us be more like Christ. We might not be able to do it on our own--but in our costumes, with a healthy dose of make-believe, --we can become the people we want to be--kinder, praying people who work for social justice.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Born to Die

The other day, I had a glimpse of myself as a 19 year old--and this glimpse was through the eyes of the adults who would have surrounded me when I was 19--in other words, those adults who were in their 40's and 50's when I was 19.

Yes, it was bound to happen; I'm not that 19 year old girl anymore.

One of my friends has a teenage daughter who asks me deep questions when I'm over at their house; my friend tells me that she only asks those kinds of questions when I'm over. Hey, how did this happen? I'm the cool, grown-up friend!

The other morning, my friend and I were having a quilting morning, when her daughter came out and asked if we ever thought about what happens when we die. We talked about some of the options, and I asked, "So, if death means that your essential nature is gone forever and there's no life afterwards, how would that make you feel?"

She said, "It scares the crap out of me. How can we be born just to die? And what if something happens and the whole human race dies out? Will we ever come back?"

I said, "Well, in all of the history of species die off, no species has ever come back."

She seemed a bit close to hysteria about all the ways that humans might die. I've noticed that she's a bit obsessed over the idea of a meteor crashing into the earth. I told her a fact that I'd learned on NPR's Science Friday: "Four of the last 5 die offs have involved microbes."

That's not much comfort of course. We talked--oh so briefly--about the course of human history. I'm always going to argue on the side of hope, even though when I look at the sobering global warming statistics, I'm not sure I think humans have much more time on this planet, and I have doubts that we can do much about it; it's too late. But I did point out that we were having this discussion on a day when the President would sign into law the first hate crimes act that treated transgendered people seriously. I threw out the Martin Luther King quote that I use every time I can get, about human history arcing towards justice.

We talked about how important it is for humans to do something. We talked about how we must not just sink into despair. I suggested that she go to an elementary school and read to children once a week--that's 30 lives or so touched right there. She's become fascinated with the idea of designing and building houses, so we might go to a Habitat for Humanity build. I suspect that once she actually slings a hammer around and tries to control power tools, she'll be more interested in design.

In fact, I suggested that she actually start designing now--draw some pictures, make some models. At that point, she got frustrated with the conversation and went back to her room.

I had this memory of myself as a teenager, a teenager who similarly frustrated with my parents' generation's inability to end the nuclear arms race. I suddenly understood why they looked at me as if I'd lost my mind--why get so upset over global issues over which we have no control? At the same time, I felt somewhat envious. I remember feeling so passionately that I burst into tears. Now I'm just in desperate need of sleep.

At the same time, I said a little prayer of thanks for my parents, who took me to church, where I learned a set of coping skills for these existential crises. It's not the only set of skills, to be sure, and we can argue over whether or not they're the best ones. Certainly my friend's daughter, who doesn't go to church, doesn't seem to have any other tools in her tool box to help her with these questions. Popular culture is great at showing us worst case scenarios, but not great at giving us ways of coping.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 1, 2009:

First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 24

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6a

Gospel: John 11:32-44

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints', traditionally a time when we remember our dead loved ones and all the saints triumphant. This past year has been such a time of loss for so many of us, so even if we've never lost a loved one, the readings are likely to have meaning for us. Even those of us who haven't experienced bad fortune personally may feel a bit shaken by all the events of the past year, as we've watched various industries implode and seen bad headlines for seasons at a time.

Some commenters wonder if we're all being a bit too passive. In a column in yesterday's The New York Times, Bob Herbert says, "Americans have tended to watch with a remarkable (I think frightening) degree of passivity as crises of all sorts have gripped the country and sent millions of lives into tailspins. Where people once might have deluged their elected representatives with complaints, joined unions, resisted mass firings, confronted their employers with serious demands, marched for social justice and created brand new civic organizations to fight for the things they believed in, the tendency now is to assume that there is little or nothing ordinary individuals can do about the conditions that plague them."

Herbert worries that we've become too passive: "Being an American has become a spectator sport. Most Americans watch the news the way you’d watch a ballgame, or a long-running television series, believing that they have no more control over important real-life events than a viewer would have over a coach’s strategy or a script for 'Law & Order.'" Herbert would call us to social reform in the model of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Certainly Jesus calls us to social reform as well.

Yet Jesus calls us to more than just social reform. Jesus calls us to a new life.

Jesus constantly reminds us that the glory of God is all around us, if only we had eyes to see. Jesus invites us to a Resurrection Culture. Sometimes, it's a forceful invitation: the cancer that is caught in time, the loss of a relationship or job that leaves us open to something more nourishing, the addiction that loosens its hold, the return of the prodigal loved ones. Other times, we catch sight of God's Kingdom as a fleeting glimpse: the dance of butterflies, the bad mood that lifts, the perfect bottle of wine that we share with friends.

Still we must cope with the ultimate sorrow. As thinking creatures, we go through life aware that if we live long enough, we will lose all that we love. How do we square the Resurrection Culture of Jesus with this knowledge?

Jesus promises us that death is not the final answer. We may not fully understand how Jesus will fulfill that promise. Some will argue that we go directly to Heaven, and some will tell us that we'll wait in a safe place until the final coming of Christ. And in the meantime, Jesus invites us to participate in the creation of the Kingdom, right here, right now. We don't have to wait until we're dead.

Jesus stands at the door of our tombs and calls to us. How will we answer? Will we say, "Go away! I'm comfortable here in my coffin. Leave me alone." Or will we emerge, blinking, into the sunshine of new life? Will we let Jesus unwrap us from our death cloths?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Poem for the Anniversary of Hurricane Wilma

Four years ago, I'd have been cleaning up from Hurricane Wilma, both at my house and at my old church.

The church was much more damaged than my house. Winds peeled back the flat roof over the educational wing. The sanctuary was also damaged--lots of water intrusion. Happily, the carpet was old, faded, and ugly. No one cared that we had to get rid of it.

No one cared, but few people showed up to help with the hard work of hauling it out of the building. To be fair, we were an older congregation--there were only about 10 of us capable of doing that work. And it took a long time for the streets to be passable. My spouse and I didn't live far away, so we could show up to work.

I remember the day that the Bishop appeared. I had been hauling wet carpet to the curb after ripping it out of the sanctuary. I was wet and dirty, with bloody hands, when two men came into the sanctuary. They must have been dressed in casual clothes, because I asked, "Are you the carpet guys?"

The assistant puffed up a little and said, "This is the bishop."

Oops. Like I said, I'm fairly sure they were dressed in casual clothes. If the bishop had come wearing his purple shirt and his impressive cross, I'd have known he wasn't the carpet guy.

Somewhere there's a picture of me, dirty and wet, shaking hands with the Bishop.

The Bishop looked at our damage, took notes, and left us with a case of bottled water and some tarps.

At the time, I remember wishing for a bit more help with the physical labor, as I went back to ripping up carpet and hauling it to the curb.

But later, I got a great poem out of it. And now, that poem has been published by North American Review, so I'm happy to post it below.

It's part of a series of poems that imagines what would happen if Jesus came back in our current world and moved amongst us today. Long ago, a Sunday School teacher asked us what we thought would happen if Jesus came back today (today being 1975). Little did she know that I'd still be playing with that question decades later:

Strange Communions

Jesus showed up at our church to help
with hurricane clean up.
“The Bishop was so busy,” he explained.
“But I had some time on my hands,
so I loaded the truck with tarps and water,
and came on down. What can I do?”

“Our roof needs a miracle,” I said.
“Do you know a good roofer?”

“I used to be a carpenter.
Of course, that’s getting to be a long time ago.
Let me see what I can do.”

I set to work ripping up the soaked
carpet in the sanctuary.
As I added a piece of dripping padding
to the pile, I noticed Christ across the street,
at the house with the fallen
tree that took out both cars and the porch.
He walked right up to the door to see
how the household was doing. I dragged
sopping carpet, trip after trip, while Jesus sat
on the porch and listened to the old woman’s sad
saga. The rough edges made my hands bleed.

Good smells made me wander down the dark
church hall to our scarcely used
kitchen, where I found Christ cooking.
“I found these odds and ends and decided
to make some lunch. Luckily, you’ve got a gas stove.”
I shrugged. “Why not? Otherwise, it’s just going to rot.”
How he made the delicious fish stew and homemade
bread out of the scraps he found
in our kitchen, I couldn’t explain.
We went out together to invite
the neighborhood in for a hot
meal, even though they weren’t church members.
We all spoke different languages,
but a hot lunch served by candlelight translates
across cultures.

I dragged drywall, black with mold, to our dumpster,
and noticed Christ walking by the cars in line
for the gas station on the corner.
When I got closer, I noticed he handed
out fresh-baked cookies and bottled water.
“Have some sweetness.
Life is hard when you can’t get necessities.”
Some drivers stared at him, like he was one of those predatory
scammers they’d been warned against.
“What’s the catch?” they growled.
“No catch,” he said with that convincing smile.
“Just a gift of grace, freely given. You’re free
to accept or refuse.” A strange communion.

Jesus left while there was still
much work to do: new carpet to be installed,
drywall to be hung, fencing to be constructed
around church grounds. I watch him drive
his empty truck, followed
by some of the neighbors, away from the church.

The next time it rained, I noticed
that the long, leaking roof had healed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Group Exercise for Halloween and All Saints/Souls Day

A few weeks ago, I went to Lutheridge for a planning meeting for the Create in Me retreat. One of the women who will be one of our large group leaders at the retreat used the meeting to try out an idea. It worked out well, so I thought I'd share it here.

She gave us balloons and plastic clips that allowed us to blow up the balloon, but not tie it off in a knot. She had us write or draw images/free associations with the word death.

A note on procedure here: for what comes next, it's best if somehow the prompt has people come up with the negative associations with death. Some of us drew nuclear reactors and graveyards and sad faces. That worked well. Some of us drew angels and other images that were warmer and fuzzier. That didn't work as well.

We went around the circle and talked about what we drew or wrote down.

We then wrote down habits/ways of thought/patterns that are harmful to us, either us as individuals or us as a human race. Once again, we went around the circle to share what we were comfortable with sharing. Then we deflated the balloons.

Our leader read one of the Gospel stories of the Resurrection, the ultimate death defeating story. I suspect that any of the Gospel Resurrection stories would work equally as well as any other.

We then received a small rectangle of paper and we each wrote a prayer. We folded up the prayer, put it in the balloon, blew the balloon back up, and tied the end in a knot.

The first part of this exercise as described above will be a getting to know each other activity--something we do on the first night. We plan to collect these balloons at our retreat, put them on sticks, and have balloon bouquets at each table where we will eat our meals. Then, after a few days, we will do the rest of the exercise.

At our retreat planning, it worked just as well to finish the exercise a few hours after we started, which leads me to think that this experience would work well as a Sunday School class or a small-scale retreat, or even to book-end a Bible study.

At the end of our planning meeting, we once again read the Resurrection story. Then we received a balloon. We reminded ourselves that we live in a culture where death looms large, like an inflated balloon. But the Good News of the Gospel is that the death culture is just a illusion, a scrap of plastic, filled with hot air.

We stomped on our balloons (fair warning: this can be a bit chaotic) and then collected the prayers that had flown across the room when the balloon popped. It wasn't important to end up with our own individual prayers that we wrote. We read the prayer that was in our hand and thus ended the exercise.

I like exercises like this one. This exercise uses cheap supplies and can be expanded or contracted to whatever time is available--it seems to be a versatile tool to have in our toolbox. I like exercises that give us a non-rational way of thinking about our culture and about our self-defeating behaviors. I liked stomping on the balloons: out, out, death culture and self-limiting behaviors! I like exercises that are art project, performance piece, and spiritual formation, all at once.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

How to Celebrate Reformation Sunday

I'm biased. I think the best way to celebrate Reformation Sunday is to go to your local Lutheran church, sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," and celebrate the Eucharist. Then you could come home, listen to Garrison Keillor's show (if your local NPR station rebroadcasts it at lunch, as mine does), drink some German beer, and take a nap.

Even when I wasn't a member of a church, I've always been intently aware of the liturgical season and the holidays that the Church celebrates. I grew up in a Lutheran family that went to church every time the doors were open--and that included when we were on vacation. So those rhythms imprinted themselves into my brain.

I love to celebrate, and I love that I have additional things to celebrate by being liturgical. But I know that not everyone is good at creating celebrations.

So, for those of you who are on your own this Reformation Sunday, here are some things you can do to celebrate.

--Go to a German restaurant and eat a German meal. Think about Martin Luther, who ate this food. Drink a German beer. Think about Martin Luther, who was not inhibited about the earthly delights.

--As you're drinking that German beer, write your own hymns. Not a musician, you say? Use popular drinking songs as your base! Lutheran legend has it that some of our greatest hymns have tunes that originated as drinking songs. So, the melody is already created for you--write a hymn.

--Not in a songwriting mood? Write your own 95 theses. What do you see as wrong with the Church? Do you have any suggestions? Extra points if you can back them up with Scripture.

--One of the Church's actions that outraged Luther was the selling of indulgences, which he saw as victimizing the poor. We like to think that the modern church has moved beyond the selling of indulgences, but history suggests that we're fooling ourselves. In what ways do you see the Church selling indulgences? Another way of thinking about this question: in what ways does the Church abuse its power?

--If you want to follow in the footsteps of Luther, indulge in some guilt. Luther held himself to some stringent standards, especially in his early life. Think about all the ways you've let God down--and then remember Luther's teaching about Grace, and feel better.

--Read the Bible. Rejoice in the fact that you can read it in your own language. Thank Luther for being one of the earliest translators of the Bible into the common language.

--You don't want to worship at a Lutheran church today? Go to a Catholic church. Remind yourself of where you'd be if Luther hadn't started the Reformation.

I'm being a bit facetious with this one. I know that if there had been no Luther, there'd have been others to lead us down the Reformation road.

And in all seriousness, one of my most memorable Reformation Sundays was spent with a Lutheran friend and an Episcopalian friend during our retreat at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery. We got in touch with Christian roots that are much more ancient than the roots that we usually celebrate during Reformation Sunday.

And another memorable Reformation Sunday was spent on a South Carolina beach with some of my best friends from graduate school (we had a reunion on one of the barrier islands in 2006, 16 years after the last time we'd been together in South Carolina). One friend was raised Southern Baptist and has gone on to find joy in a Unitarian church, but at the time she thought she wanted nothing to do with church. My other friend was very active in her local Church of England congregation, but she felt strongly called to become a Quaker. And I was part of a Lutheran congregation that left me desperate for more spiritual nourishment. We spent that Reformation Sunday talking about our spiritual struggles and our desire to find a group where we felt more at home.

I'm rather startled to reflect that each one of us has found her heart's desire. I give credit to the Reformation process of being able to talk about what we yearn for, about where the Church has fallen short, about being able to have a vision for the future.

Our Reformation Sunday Gospel finds Jesus promising that we will know the truth and the truth shall set us free. The truth can be terrifying and send us hurtling down paths that seem dark and dangerous. At times we may not know whether we're heretics or whether we're struggling to birth something new and inspiring. If we keep ourselves rooted in church traditions, we're less likely to flirt with the heretical. Yet, as the life of Luther reminds us, sometimes there are traditions that have gone completely rotten.

On this Reformation Sunday, I pray for us all to renew the Church the way that Luther did. I pray that God will show us the truth. I pray for us to be set free.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ministries of Interruptions

I've been reading some great stuff around the blogosphere this week, and I thought I'd recommend some of it. Di McCullough has a great post on vocational discernment and the institutional church. She yearns to study (and teach!) liturgy. Yes, that sounds great.

Yesterday at a luncheon designed to kick off a Public Speaking Series, one of our students gave a speech, and she urged us to do what we love (she switched from law school to culinary school), and I thought, hmm. Am I doing what I love? Some days yes. Many days, even if the work I do for pay isn't what I love, I'm doing some church work or writing work that is what I love. If I'm doing what I love but not getting paid, am I on track?

How many days a work week should I expect to be doing what I love for pay? Some drudgery is normal in every job, I know. But at what point is the job more drudgery than anything else?

Or maybe I'm just feeling frazzled from too many interruptions. There's a post on RevGalBlogPals where many women chime in to talk about how to deal with a "ministry of interruptions," as one poster calls it. If I thought of my work as a ministry of interruptions, would I be less irritated at the interruptions?

Erik Ullestad has great thoughts on the modern youth ministry here. He has an earlier post on the death of Luther League here. Modern youth ministries certainly have a tougher time than I do. I can't imagine how to compete with the frantic busyness of the modern young person. Just hearing about the schedules of my friends who have children wears me out.

But at least I'm not the Archbishop of Canterbury, who now must worry about breakaway Anglican churches realigning with Rome. Go here to read a great analysis by Beth Adams. I hadn't thought of the racism angle until I read her thoughts.

Ah, the process of reformation continues--and the reaction against reform continues too.

I have my outfit ready for Reformation Sunday (all red), and I'll be assisting with communion. If you're in the South Florida area, our Reformation service is at 10 am on Sunday--come to Trinity Lutheran Church, 7150 Pines Boulevard, Pembroke Pines, FL (that's the southeast corner of Pines and 72nd Avenue, across from Broward College). Go here to see our church's website.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Week of Healing Services

This has been the week of healing services, and I've been assistant minister at both of the ones I attended.

Our church does a healing service every month, usually, the last Sunday of the month. This month we moved it to be part of the service in commemoration of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During our church's healing service, which is part of a larger service, we invite people to come forward. They kneel at the altar, and the ministers lay their hands on the shoulders and/or heads of the kneelers. The ministers say something along the lines of "Receive this oil as a sign of forgiveness and healing in Jesus Christ. May you be strengthened and filled with God's grace, that you may know the healing power of the spirit." The ministers make the sign of the cross in oil in each person's forehead. Some people cry a bit. Some people continue to kneel and pray. The ministers keep moving from person to person.

Last night, at the service after the dinner for the homeless people at First Lutheran, we gathered for a healing service in the sanctuary. There were six pairs of chairs around the sanctuary. We read a Bible passage and the minister of First Lutheran delivered a homily on healing and the tradition of healing services. Six of us went to the chairs and waited.

People who felt so moved came forward. I asked each person, "What do you want to bring before God tonight?" My hope was that each person would then feel safe enough to talk about what brought them to a healing service.

After that sharing, I said a personalized prayer for that person and their concerns, and then I anointed that person's head with oil and said the prayer that we use in our suburban church.

We didn't have massive numbers of people come forward last night, but I wasn't disappointed. It's a new type of service, and I understand why people are uncomfortable.

I used to be deeply uncomfortable with the idea of healing services. It seemed too close to what those charismatic people do. In the past, I've been happiest with the gifts of the spirit that fit in with what my rational mind can understand.

As I watched people come forward last night, I thought, surely even the most rational person can understand the value of this process, even if they dismiss the possibility of God's healing power. We live in a time period where people have less and less time. It's hard for us to know what's going on in people's lives; we just don't have time to settle in for a heart-to-heart conversation. It's possible to go for days, if not months at a time, without ever feeling a non-sexual touch. Even our health care workers sheathe themselves with latex before they touch us.

I believe that God works in a host of ways that I can't begin to understand. I'm less inclined to dismiss centuries of tradition than I once was. For these reasons, I'm much more open to healing services these days, at least healing rites that are done within the auspices of a liturgical service.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel (if you're celebrating Reformation Sunday)

The readings for Sunday, October 25, 2009:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm: Psalm 46

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28

Gospel: John 8:31-36

I find it hard to believe that we are back to Reformation Sunday. Perhaps it's because of the weather and the record-breaking heat we've had down here in South Florida; only recently has it felt autumnal enough to contemplate the Reformation, Halloween, All Saints', All Souls'--those holidays that come as October turns into November.

Perhaps you feel like we've been living Reformation for the past year as the Lutheran church has wrestled with sexuality issues. Perhaps you are not happy with the changes that have been wrought. Maybe you find yourself feeling very sympathetic to the Catholic church of Luther's day, the Church that found itself torn asunder by many movements of reform.

Regardless of the side on which we sit with these recent struggles, we might find ourselves feeling a bit fearful. We might worry about schism. We probably worry that there won't be a place for us in the church that emerges from all of this.

We should take heart that the Church has always been in the process of Reformation. There are great Reformations, like the one we'll celebrate this Sunday, or the Pentecostal revolution that's only 100 years old, but has transformed the developing world (third worlds and those slightly more advanced) in ways that Capitalism never could. There are smaller ones throughout the ages as well. Movements which seemed earth-shattering at the time (monastic movements of all kinds, liberation theology, ordination of women, lay leadership) may in time come to be seen as something that enriches the larger church. Even gross theological missteps, like the Inquisition, can be survived. The Church learns from past mistakes as it moves forward.

Times of Reformation can enrich us all. Even those of us who reject reform can find our spiritual lives enriched as we take stock and measure what's important to us, what compromises we can make and what we can't. It's good to have these times where we return to the Scriptures as we try to hear what God calls us to do. Some ELCA churches may decide to break away and join the Missouri Synod. Some Lutheran churches may create a brand new type of Lutheranism. Some of us may call on our ELCA to become even more radical in our approach to hospitality and acceptance. Some of us may do some soul searching and discover that the churches of Luther are not our true spiritual homes after all. It may be painful, but any of these processes may lead us to soil where we can bloom more fruitfully.

We may think of that metaphor and feel despair, as if we will never be truly rooted, flowering plants. But rootlessness can be its own spiritual gift. The spiritual wanderers have often been those who most revitalized the Church, or on a smaller level, their spiritual communities. The spiritual wanderers are the ones who keep the rest of us true to God's purpose.

If you have been feeling despair, take heart. Jesus promises that we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. You might not be feeling like you know what the truth is at this current point; you may feel tossed around by the tempests of our current times. But Jesus promises that we will know the truth. We will be set free. We don't have a specific date at which we'll know the truth. But we will.

Rest in God's promise that we are redeemable. Rest in the historic knowledge that the Church has survived times of greater turbulence than our own. Rest in Luther's idea that we are saved by grace alone. Rest.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Questions I'd Have Asked Barbara Ehrenreich

Last night, a few of us went down to Miami to see Barbara Ehrenreich at Books and Books; for more on the reading, go to my other blog post here. Ehrenreich has just published a book that criticizes the American pop religion of positive thinking, and one of her targets was prosperity preachers. I'd love to have heard her talk more about that.

I was tempted to ask her questions, but I always worry that what interests me would not be very interesting to the rest of the room (some of my fellow audience members did not share my worry; they got to ask a question, and they rambled on and on about themselves until I wanted to snarl, "We did not come here to listen to you!").

I wanted to know if she actually talked to any prosperity preachers, and if she did, whether or not she asked them about all those Bible verses that talk about giving your money away to the poor and oppressed. I've always wondered how prosperity preachers square their message with those inconvenient passages.

They probably don't. I've only read a few of those books, because they make me so angry, but from what I've seen, they just ignore the vast majority of the Bible, which tells us to be generous and not to cling to our money/possessions. Gone is the Jesus of the Gospel who tells the rich young man who follows all the commandments to give away everything he owns to the poor and then he'll be ready to follow Jesus.

Ehrenreich, of course, is not a theologian, and I don't know that she'd have argued theology with the prosperity preachers. I'd love to know how she feels about Liberation Theology, and whether or not she likes it.

One woman who talked predominantly about her relief from her fibromyalgia did mention that she was a devout Catholic, and Ehrenreich used that opportunity to talk about the Catholic church and its approach to the thorny problem of suffering. She also talked about Buddhism, and Buddhism's embrace of suffering, despite the ever-smiling Dalai Lama (her words, not mine).

My reading of the Gospels tells me that by embracing Christianity, by following Christ, I can certainly expect suffering and persecution. I've had conversations with non-believers who struggle to understand what would attract me to such a bad bargain. I try to explain the vision that God has for creation, that God invites us to be part of that vision, that I want to be part of that creation, no matter how much the world tries to convince me otherwise. Those prosperity preachers are declaring a heresy.

God has a much better plan for us than a big house and more cars than drivers per household and more and more stuff. Now that's a radical message, one that most of us don't dare preach. How the world would change if more of us did declare that message more boldly.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Recent Books for Reformation Week

This Sunday, Lutherans around the world will be celebrating Reformation Sunday. Many of us know that on Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. Of course, we focus on this date for convenience; many reforming and radicalizing trends swirled around Europe at the time.

Many of us don't realize that the Christian church had gone through a similar upheaval some 500 years earlier, with the Great Schism which separated Eastern Orthodoxy from Roman Orthodoxy. And 500 years before that, as the Roman Empire finally crumbled, Gregory the Great helped the Church recover from an earlier set of arguments (the Chalcedonian arguments, for those of you who want to study more about Church schisms) and helped save the Church during the time after the fall of Rome by organizing monastic movements.

In her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (from which the above information is taken), Phyllis Tickle cites the Right Reverend Mark Dyer as saying "about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale" (16). Both Tickle and Dyer say that we're undergoing one of those periods of tumult right now.

Perhaps we see some of the emerging Reformations these days, and we feel queasy. Maybe we're following the schisms in the Episcopal church, as American congregations decide to align themselves with severely conservative churches in Africa. I recently came across this startling statistic in Alister McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution--a History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (a fabulous reference for those of you who really want to understand the Protestant Reformation and all its implications): "There are more Anglicans in the west African state of Nigeria than in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand put together (author's emphasis) " ( 348). We might read books like Philip Jenkins's The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity and wonder what it means for us in the northern hemisphere when the bulk of Christians live in Latin America, Africa, and Asia (the southern hemisphere).

Maybe we see people experimenting with ancient forms of Christianity, and feel alternately cheered and worried. There's been a marked increase in people praying the Liturgy of the Hours. They pray from one of the many prayer books that have been published in the last ten years. Some of us might worry about this return to Catholic practices, this return to printed prayers. We see people breaking away from large churches to form small house churches, truly the earliest form of Christianity. Some of them might go even further and explore forms of what is coming to be called the New Monasticism (in his book New Monasticism, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminds us that Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk: "We forget that much of the so-called Protestant Reformation was driven by the monastic impulse" (51); for more on this emerging movement, you could also read School (s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism edited by The Rutba House). What does it all mean for those of us who can't make those kind of commitments?

Those of us in declining mainline churches might feel that we're not seeing much in the way of a new Reformation. Or maybe we're feeling somewhat desperate for something that will change our decline, but we're wary of some of the new forms of Christianity that seem to be emerging. We might want to read Diana Butler Bass's book The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church and take comfort from her journey around the country. She found many mainline churches that are healthy and vibrant, despite rumors of the eminent death of church.

In her book, Phyllis Tickle reminds us, "It is especially important to remember that no standing form of organized Christian faith has ever been destroyed by one of our semi-millennial eruptions. Instead, each simply has lost hegemony or pride of place to the new and not-yet-organized form that was birthing" (27).

Once the dust settles, each of the previous time periods of Reformation has left the Church enriched, but enriched in ways that no one could have predicted--that's what makes it scary, after all. As we approach Reformation Sunday, I'd encourage each of us to tap our own inner Martin Luther. What is the Church doing well? What could be changed for the better? What part can we play?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Feast of St. Luke

Today we celebrate the life of St. Luke, which might inspire many churches to have a healing service today (my church combines a healing service with a Service in Commemoration of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month at the late service; for a preview of the sermon for this service, go here). In doing some research, I discovered that St. Luke is also the founder of iconography. And of course, he was a writer--both of one of the Gospels and the book of Acts. A creator, an evangelist, and a healer--something for everyone to celebrate.

It would be cool to create a worship service that celebrates all of these aspects; I suspect most churches will focus on just one. Something to think about for future years.

For those who want some special readings for today, here's what the ELCA gives us:

First Reading: Isaiah 43:8-13
First Reading (Alt.): Isaiah 35:5-8
Psalm: Psalm 124
Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:5-11
Gospel: Luke 1:1-4; 24:44-53

And for those who need a prayer for the feast day, here's what Phyllis Tickle gives us in The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime: "Almighty God, who inspired your servant Luke the physician to set forth in the Gospel the love and healing power of your Son: Graciously continue in your Church this love and power to heal, to the praise and glory of your Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How We Plan to Celebrate Diwali

Faithful readers of this blog know that I have a Hindu friend. Today is the high holy festival day (although I don't know that she'd use those terms) of Diwali. Diwali is a harvest festival, a festival of lights, a festival that manifests hope for the year to come--most religions have such festivals. My friend has a Hindu temple down here, so she doesn't feel as alone as she might. Still, she's talked about how hard it is to be part of a minority during her festival days.

Today, before she goes to the temple, a few of us are going to see the movie Bright Star. It seems appropriate. It's a beautiful movie that celebrates life and light. We'll eat popcorn, which I figure stands in for the traditional fireworks (think popcorn in the popper) as well as the harvest gifts that people usually give each other. Hopefully we'll renew our poetry/creative selves by watching this movie that is so swoony about the act of creation.

Happy Diwali, all!

Modern Miracles of Multiplication

Yesterday, early in the morning, I went to a local grocery store to pick up bread and baked goods that were at or just beyond their pull date. I went early, because at some point in the morning, that bread goes into the dumpster. If we can get there to claim it before they dump it, we can have it. By we, I mean my church.

The woman at the bakery showed me the grocery cart of baked goods and said, "That's all we have today--sorry." I thanked her and wondered what the usual bakery load would be. What she gave me was enough to fill up the trunk of my car. When I've done the bread run before, we sometimes have enough to fill up the trunk and the back seat.

I took the bread and baked goods to my church and filled up the freezer. We'll take some of it to our Wednesday monthly dinner at First Lutheran, and we'll give away most of it at our food pantry.

As I looked at my trunk of bread, I thought about the story of the loaves and fishes and the miracles of multiplication. Part of me is so grateful for this donated bread--it means we have more money for other parts of the meal and the food pantry. Part of me is horrified at the waste, or the potential waste: all this perfectly good bread was destined for the dumpster. So much of the world goes hungry while we dump tons of food on a daily basis.

I'm not describing anything new--we've seen this dynamic at work for decades, if not centuries. I don't know how to solve it. But I am delighted to be a Robin Hood of sorts, a one-woman redistribution force, saving bread and giving it to the poor. Once again, I had that Holy Spirit nudge, as I thought, I could spend my whole life doing this.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 18, 2009:

Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91:9-16You have made the LORD your refuge, and the Most High your habitation. (Ps. 91:9)

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

In this Gospel, again we see the disciples jockeying for position and favor. I like these humanizing details about the disciples: the fact that it takes them awhile to understand things, the fact that they routinely fail (after trying again and again, and often failing miserably), the fact that they want to be the favorite ones.

I also like that Jesus never wavers. He knows that he could be preaching a more popular Gospel, but he sticks to his message. Jesus must know that many humans will not see his Good News as very good at all: you mean, we should stay married? You mean, we have to sell all that we own and give it to the poor--and then we'll be ready to follow you? You're really serious about that getting rid of possessions clause? Hmm. Many of us will say, "Never mind." We'll pray the Prayer of Jabez, and hope that translates into big cash.

Again and again, Jesus tells us that the last will be first. Again and again, Jesus stresses that we're here to serve. Following Jesus isn't about self-empowerment. We don't follow Jesus because we hope to become rich (other religions, like Capitalism, might make that promise, but not Christianity). Christianity is NOT just a big self-improvement program.

Sure, we might become better people, but not by the route that the larger world offers us. Christ tells us that we fulfill our destiny by serving others. It goes against most everything else we've ever learned. We're not supposed to look out for number one? We're not supposed to be most concerned about ourselves and our families? No, we're not.

We've had an opportunity over the past several decades to watch our leaders--religious, political, all types of leaders--dance around these passages, to try to let us wiggle-worm away from the life that Jesus calls us to. We don't have to give away everything, as long as we tithe. As long as our possessions don't own us. As long as we keep in mind what's really important.

But what if Jesus was speaking literally? What if he really meant what he said? Go back and read the Gospels (go ahead--they're short--it won't take you long). Jesus is remarkably consistent. If you want to boil down his message into short bites, here's one: serve others. Don't think about your needs and wants--focus on others (and not just people that you like anyway).

For some of us, if we really start to live a Gospel life, it will take practice and undoing of a past life of bad habits. Start small. Do good deeds for people that you like. Practice radical patience. Be on the lookout for all the people who need your smile or a kind word. Let other people take the credit for your ideas. Give away more money. Add some more prayer time to your day to focus on the needs of others. Ask God to show you how to have a servant's heart.

Maybe God will call you to heal others, like St. Luke, whose feast day we celebrate this week. Maybe we will have a different apostle as a role model. There are many ways to serve, and a vast world in need of our service.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

This Blog Will Likely Be More Quiet for a Few Days

I'm likely to blog less over the next few days. I've got some autumnal visits with friends planned and a meeting to help plan the creativity retreat at Lutheridge in the spring (go here for more info on that retreat and then come join us--it's fun!). I expect to return to more regular blogging on Oct. 15.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Discovering God in Worship, of all Places!

Over at RevGalBlogPals, I found this writing prompt: "So, this week, please share five memories of such sacred moments with God and her holy people from your life and the lives of those you love."

At first, I was sure my answer would involve nature: hiking the Appalachian Trail or watching the sunrise over the ocean. In some ways, I haven't felt the presence of God so much then, as evidence of God, a "God's been here before me" kind of feeling.

Much to my surprise, I've felt the presence of God most often during worship service. It surprises me because I spent so many years of my life chafing over the fact that I had to go to church. I was a member of the kind of family who went to church every Sunday. The first thing we did on vacation was to locate the Lutheran church and figure out the Sunday service schedule. As a kid, I HATED it. I loved going camping, because my sister and I were allowed to create the Sunday service for our small family congregation. I still love worship planning.

Now, I must confess, I don't feel the presence of God each and every Sunday. It's usually part of a special service, like our monthly service of healing, especially when I've been one of the healing ministers and felt God's power run through me, as if I'm a conduit.

I often feel God's presence at Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp near Asheville, NC. I've been going to the Create in Me retreat each spring for almost a decade now, and I never fail to sense the presence of God during most of the retreat, but particularly during worship. At one of our special services, we commune by bringing everyone around the altar. People come forward to commune, and those of us not communing put our hands on their shoulders. It's a powerful experience, both for the communer and the ones behind the communers who hold them.

I felt God's presence at the Florida-Bahamas Synod Assembly worship, which surprised me, because they were so large and somewhat impersonal. But the healing service was much more focused, and I was able to say exactly what had laid me low all Spring: "My job leaves me both stressed and bored." The pastor prayed with me and anointed me with oil. Since then, while I have felt both stressed and bored at work, it hasn't left me feeling as torn apart.

And I've felt the presence of God at Mepkin Abbey, near Charleston, SC. I should point out that the services there that were so special to me are just every day services for the monks who live there. The first time I was there I knew that if I was a man, I would feel called to commit. However, as a Lutheran, married woman, I have felt that I could only visit, that I would always be welcome to visit, but not to stay.

I have also felt the presence of God in the loving relationships that I have, both inside and outside of the church. I especially sense God when my husband forgives me, or when we've been fighting and we figure out a way to move beyond our irritation and anger. I've always felt that Martin Luther got rid of too many sacraments; I'd add marriage back as a sacrament, if I was dictator of the Lutheran world.

What an interesting thing to ponder and to discover. As an adult, I'm only just uncovering the value of an ongoing habit of worship. My parents, and generations of church members before them, knew it all along: we are more likely to discover the presence of God when in communion with each other than when left to our own devices.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, October 11, 2009:

First Reading: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Psalm: Psalm 90:12-17

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 22:1-15

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16

Gospel: Mark 10:17-31

So, far, this month is proving to be Tough Text month. I suspect most Americans will have more problems with this text than with the divorce text of last week.

We've spent centuries rationalizing our way around the demands of this text. We talk about how the needle's eye is really a gate in Jerusalem (something that scholars doubt), so that we can convince ourselves that one could be both rich and righteous, even if that might be rare. We return to our stewardship messages, reminding each other that Jesus calls us to be generous. We consider a tough stewardship message one that asks people to give away 10% of their income.

No, Jesus has the tough stewardship message: sell what you have and give the money to the poor.


I've had this argument with believer and non-believer alike, who say, "You can't really believe that Jesus means that literally."

Yes, in fact, I do. And of course, the next question: "Why aren't you doing that then?" Well, sadly, I'm as attached to my possessions--and their symbolic security--as the next person.

The last year has taught us much about the danger of counting on our possessions for security. We've seen how quickly wealth can be liquidated--and for what. As I look at my decimated retirement account, I often think of how much happier I might be had I given that money to the poor instead of hoarding it for my future. Now it's vanished, gone, like steam. No one has benefited--except, perhaps, for the people who made a profit off my money before it vanished. And I'm fairly certain the poor didn't see the benefit of that.

Jesus returns to this message again and again: our attachment to money is spiritually dangerous, the biggest spiritual danger that most of us face. Comparatively speaking, he doesn't spend much time at all on other sins. He never talks directly about homosexuality, the issue that's splitting so many churches. But he returns again and again to the message that the rich must share with the poor.

Jesus calls us to radical generosity. We are to do more than just follow a set of laws, like the young man was so capable of doing. We are to jettison our stuff, so that we're more able to follow Christ. Jesus calls us to give away our wealth, so that our grasping hands can be open for the blessings that God wants to give us. We are to unclench our hands, release our money (and fear), and trust in God.

But the good news of this Gospel is that Jesus loves us where we are. So you're not radically generous right now. Start where you are. Increase your giving by 1%. Pick up the check more often when you go out with friends. You've got a lot of possessions gathering dust, and you probably know some young people just starting out who could use them. Leave larger tips. Quit complaining about your taxes.

Like every other spiritual trait, we grow stronger as we practice. Unclench those greedy, grasping hands.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

If You Need a Retreat While At Your Computer

Many of us work at jobs where we spend most of our days staring at computer screens. After a few hours of this, you probably need a break--yet you're at work, and you still have hours to go before you leave for home.

I like to have some computer resources that allow me to take a bit of a break, while staring at the screen. I'm lucky to have a boss who is reasonable. I could take a walk, if there was some place to walk, or turn to some other tasks. But some of us are chained to our computers. And it's good to have something to stare at that will refresh us. Since we're staring at our computers, it looks like we're working.

This week-end, I discovered a great slide show here at Bryan Sherwood's blog. He's taken his favorite pictures from the Abbey of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton's home, and turned them into a slide show. They're really beautiful, some of them quite striking.

So, if you need a retreat, but can't take time off to go someplace beautiful, why not visit beauty by way of your computer? If you're interested in monastic life, these pictures will inspire you. If you prefer to know God by way of nature, plenty of these pictures will give you something to ponder. Likewise, if you're interested in art and/or architecture, there will be pictures that appeal.

But most importantly, after seeing this slide show, I felt both calm and inspired. Before I viewed it, I had that frazzled brain that comes from working on too many computer projects. Afterwards, I was able to tackle projects with a brain that was renewed and refreshed.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"Bright Star" as Spiritual Movie

Yesterday, I went to see the movie Bright Star. While it isn't billed as a spiritual film, I found many spiritual elements in it.

It's a story about the doomed love affair between 19th Century English poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. The film focuses on their passion for each other and their passion for his poetry. Both of those things inspire a passion for the world around them--and the film gives us lush depictions of the world around them, whether it's the broad sweep of landscapes or the close examination of a butterfly.

Keats has tuberculosis, which is one of those diseases that lets you know you're dying long before you actually do. I always tell my students that Keats wrote his best work after he started coughing up blood. You wake up, cough up a bit of your lungs, and you're reminded of your mortality--if you had this daily reminder that time was running out, you might create your best work in short order too.

This knowledge of impending death also inspires a love for the world, and it's that love for the world, that painful appreciation, which makes me see the film as a spiritual film. It reminds us of the beauty of God's creation in almost every shot. The only grim scenes are set in the manmade chaos of inner-city rooms.

And the love of the two young people for each other, and the poetry that it inspires, reminds me of the sacramental nature of love. Through our love of our fellow humans, we can come to know God and God's love for us.

It's a gorgeous movie. What a rare movie, that intoxicates the senses without offending the sensibilities. Go see it before it leaves your town. It's one of those that demands a big screen.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Feast of St. Francis

Today we celebrate the life of St. Francis. Many congregations will do this by having a pet blessing service. Here again, we see a powerful life story reduced to something significantly more mundane. I would argue that the church almost always does this reduction act--and why? Why give up the power of these stories that way? We see that in our approach to Jesus Christ, and in our approach to every other believer who has a dramatic story. Are we afraid of the implications.

We often remember St. Francis because of his work, "The Canticle for the Creatures." Many people see him as one of the early environmentalists. I have no problem with animal rights crusaders and the environmental movement, but it's important to remember that St. Francis spent many years of his early ministry living with lepers and caring for them. He gave up everything he owned--and he was rich--in a quest for a more authentic life. He inspired others to follow the same path, and he founded a religious order that still exists.

In churches that celebrate the life of St. Francis, will we hear these parts of the story? I doubt it. Those are the parts of the story that are threatening to the social order. We can't have young people behaving in the way that St. Francis did. What on earth would happen then?

Our society would be transformed. And one of the ways that Christians have let down their faith, this is one of the most damning: we dampen the transformative message of the Gospel or we dumb it down into some sort of self-help drivel. The Gospel can transform us as individuals, sure, but then we are called to go out and transform our societies. God has called us to do redemptive work.

Instead, many of us will sit through insipid services where people get to bring their pets to church.

For those of you who hunger for something more on this feast day, a year ago, Jan Richardson wrote a moving meditation on St. Francis, complete with one of her illuminations. Go here for a real treat.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Seeing the Faces of those We Love in the Dispossessed

A few weeks ago, when we served dinner to the outcast at First Lutheran, I had a disconcerting experience. I can't decide whether to attribute it to early-onset Alzheimer's or something more spiritual.

The dinner guests lined up patiently, waiting to go through the serving line. I stood across the fellowship hall by the kitchen door, waiting to replenish the food. I looked up and thought I recognized one of the women in line. I thought she was my work colleague, but then I remembered where I was and remembered that I had just seen her the other day at work--she wouldn't have fallen down on her luck that quickly.

So I chalked it off to that momentary mind blip that happens some times. But then it happened again. I looked off into the distance, and in the face of a homeless man, I thought I saw an old college friend.

Soon, the pace of the evening picked up, and I stopped having these strange transferences. But I have thought about the experience several times. Was my brain reminding me that it's only dumb luck that separates the fortunate from the less fortunate? Did my brain think that it needed to transform the faces of the destitute to faces that I recognized so that I would feel compassion? Was it a symptom of impending neurological doom? Was my brain bored and amusing itself?

I thought about Jesus, feeling that deep and abiding compassion for everyone, even the worst of the outcasts. I often wonder how he managed that feat. How did he keep the compassion from draining his last drop of energy? The Gospels don't spend much time telling us that. We get some hints: Jesus prays and periodically he retreats. I wonder if he had some other spiritual disciplines that have been lost to us.

I had a similar compassion moment at my husband's family reunion in Indiana on Sunday. One young woman came to the reunion dressed--well, let's just say that she was wearing revealing clothing. And she was loud and vulgar and likely chemically altered. My judgmental self kicked into high gear.

But later, when I saw her up close, I thought, my word, she's just a child. And I wondered what had happened to her to make her act out in the ways she was.

I thought of my recent visit with my tiny nephew, and I thought about this woman, who was somebody's cute toddler once. I felt an aching compassion for this woman, who I found out had been in prison (for what I do not know) when her mother died. And she was only 18, she told me, when she asked for one of our beers, and I asked if she was of legal drinking age.

I wanted to take her home, enroll her in school, and get her into some grief counseling. But I've read literature. I know what kind of crucifixions await people like me, people with their middle-class messiah complexes. Besides, she doesn't know me from Adam's housecat.

Still, I can follow the example of Jesus and let my stony heart be moved. I can pray for her and for the outcast citizens that I meet at First Lutheran and for the homeless people who wander the streets with their clouded eyes. I can pray for the corrupt politicians who ignore the outcast and take bribes. I can pray for myself, that my stores of compassion not dry up.