Thursday, November 26, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 29, 2009:

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10 (Ps. 25:1)

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Many of us begin to accelerate our holiday preparations about now. Perhaps you've already gotten all your shopping done. Maybe you put up your tree a week or two ago, so you could shift into full celebration mode when you returned from your Thanksgiving travels.

If you're in a festive mood, the readings for Advent must often seem jarring. They tend to be apocalyptic in nature. Take this week's reading from Luke, for example, with its mention of men fainting with fear and the heavens shaking and the return of Jesus (at least, that's a common interpretation of what this text means). Many of the Old Testament readings for Advent will focus on the prophets who foretell doom and offer comfort to the oppressed. If you're oppressed, perhaps you feel fine. Otherwise, you might sit there, wondering why we can't sing Christmas carols like the rest of the world.

It's important to remember that Advent is seen as a time of watching and waiting. We remember the stories of others who watched and waited (famously, Mary; not so famously, the legions of people who have felt the yoke of oppression and yearned for a savior).

It's also important to remember that one of the main messages of the New Testament (as well as the Old Testament, according to some interpretations) are tales of the Kingdom of God breaking into our current reality. Many modern theologians talk about the Kingdom of God, and about the mission of Jesus, as both “now” and “not yet.” N. T. Wright says, “Jesus was telling his contemporaries that the kingdom was indeed breaking into history, but that it did not look like what they had expected “(emphasis Wright’s, The Meaning of Jesus, 35). He goes on to clarify that Jesus, like many Jewish mystics, “was bound to be speaking of the kingdom as both present and future” (37). Brian D. McLaren ponders the implications of the message of Jesus: “If Jesus was right, if the kingdom of God has come and is coming . . . if we do indeed have the choice today and every day to seek it, enter it, receive it, life as citizens of it, invest in it, even sacrifice and suffer for it . . . then today our future hangs in the balance no less than it did for Jesus’ original hearers in AD 30 or so” (The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything 180). In later pages, he ponders the kind of decisions that people who believe the impossible is possible might make—and the kind of decisions that people who believe that the Christian way is just too unrealistic and difficult will make (181-182).

One of the messages of Advent is that God breaks into our dreary world in all sorts of ways, some scary, some comforting, some magnificent, and some hardly noticed. The story of Jesus is one of the more spectacular stories, but God tries to get our attention all the time. We are called to watch and wait and always be on the alert.

The message of Advent is truly exciting. God wants us to participate in Kingdom living now, not just in some distant future when we go to Heaven. What good news for people who might find their nerves frazzled by all this celebrating, all this money being spent, all this once-a-year cheer which can seem so false.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving Week Forecast: Blogging Will Be Light

It's time to disconnect a bit, to enjoy time with family, to be grateful for all the wonderful blessings that have come my way. We've got a 3 toddler Thanksgiving planned, so I'm not sure what my blogging time will be. I plan to post my meditation on the week's Gospel, but my blogging may be light this week. I plan to return to regular blogging on December 1, 2009.

The Feast of St. Cecilia

Today is the feast day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of church musicians (I got this picture from Wikipedia, which says it's in the common domain; the painter is Botticini, who has been dead for centuries). St. Cecilia is also the patron saint of music and musicians of all kinds.

So, if you're a church-going sort, celebrate this feast day by thanking your church musicians. Many of them are working for small salaries (or for free), and they probably don't hear many words of thanks.

If you're not a church-going sort, celebrate the day by listening to music.

If you're in the Ft. Lauderdale area, you could actually make music! The Broward folk music group has a Jam in the Park today from 2-5 at Secret Woods Park (2701 W. State Rd. 84Dania Beach, FL 33312). You don't need to be a musical expert--just show up and enjoy the music. Bring an instrument, if you play, and feel free to sing along.

You could add musical events to your calendar. Support those musicians by going to concerts and buying CDs. Support independent artists by giving their CDs as presents. If you're in the Ft. Lauderdale area, put this concert on your calendar:

Trinity Lutheran Church is excited to host award-winning folk duo Alathea in town for a stop on their Christmas Concert tour. The duo will perform on Saturday, Dec. 19, at 7:30 p.m., and their music will appeal to a wide range of people: singer-songwriter fans, bluegrass lovers, and people in a holiday mood. Tickets cost $12 for adults, $5 for children if purchased in advance ($15 and $7 at the door). Stay afterwards for dessert and a chance to meet the group. CDs will be on sale. For more information please contact Trinity Lutheran Church at (954) 989-1903. To find out more about the group, go here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Photography as Prayer

I've recently begun to try to learn how to operate our digital camera. For those of you who have already mastered this skill, you have my permission to go ahead and laugh at me. For those of you who are still scared of your digital camera, rest assured that I understand. We have a camera that can be a point-and-click camera, if you know which little symbol to choose, as well as all sorts of other settings. As with my computer, I suspect that this camera can do far more than I will ever know to ask it to do.

I took the camera with me to Mepkin Abbey. I didn't take it with me to help me remember the place, the way I do with so many pictures that I take. Mepkin Abbey has seared its way into my brain and soul, and I try to remember to go there mentally when I'm in need of refreshment.

I've enjoyed other people's photo essays, so I thought I might want to try that. I also like having the occasional picture to post on my blog, especially when I'm about to go on blogvacation.

If you've been reading my posts this week, you'll realize that I took the camera with me as I walked the labyrinth. In fact, I didn't walk the labyrinth without the camera. The first time, I chased some butterflies (and I finally got a good shot). The second time, I walked the labyrinth barefoot, and I was already thinking about a possible blog posting.

I did wonder if I was sacrificing the spirit of the labyrinth by being so focused on photographing it. Yet, I came to see using my camera as a different form of prayer. For those of us who operate on a more visual level, this form of prayer might work better. I'm a writer, so I see journaling as a form of prayer and/or meditation. But I also understand why that doesn't work for everyone.

The camera made me alert to the world. I'm abashed to realize how often I move through the world in a haze. The camera made me focus (even though it was an auto-focus camera!). As I took pictures of scenes that took my breath away, I tried to remember to offer a prayer of thanks.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Housing Dreams

Last night, my suburban church went to feed dinner to the poor and homeless at the inner city church. I always find it a valuable experience, but last night, I especially needed it. It's been a week of figuring out how to pay for property tax and insurance and the new roof that my insurer of last resort (it's Florida, and the complexities of property insurance would take a post or two of their own to explain) will require within the year. It's good to be reminded that I'm fortunate to have a house. It's good to be reminded to focus on having gratitude for having a house, instead of focusing on resentment over how much the house costs to maintain.

It's also important to be reminded of the larger social justice issue: how can so many houses sit empty in a city where there are so many homeless?

On Saturday, I went to a meeting of my conference (Broward-Bahamas) within my church's Synod. The purpose was to encourage us to dream new visions. Much of the morning focused on the consultant's experience helping struggling churches decide whether or not to close, merge, or refocus their efforts. But my favorite part of the day was the time where we wrote down possible directions for the Church.

What would we do as a Church, and as believers, if we truly believed that all things were possible with the power of God?

Several churches dreamed of a daycare or a pre-school center. I first wrote down wind farms and then solar farms.

And then I was brave enough to write down what I really wanted to say. Most churches in our county are in neighborhoods full of foreclosed houses. Could churches buy those houses? Could churches become landlords? We could take a page from the daycare/preschool book and give the tenants a price break if they became church members. We could be a force for affordable housing in the county. We could redeem houses and resurrect them into new life.

Just like a pre-school that would come with all sorts of unforeseen issues, I realize that there would be many problems. Many churches can hardly afford the property that they have--and we contemplate buying more?

I just know that property in South Florida will never be cheaper than it is right now. I see a gaping need. I know that God calls on believers to help the poor and destitute. I don't know where to go from having the idea towards making it happen, but I thought I'd post and see what happens next.

My wild hope, of course, is that churches across the nation will say, "Wow, what a great idea!" Habitat for Humanity started in much the same way--a group with a crazy dream that people could come together to build houses for the poor.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 22, 2009:

First Reading: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 23:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 93

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 132:1-13 [14-19] (Psalm 132:1-12 [13-18] NRSV)

Second Reading: Revelation 1:4b-8

Gospel: John 18:33-37

Some of us may be thinking, what a strange text to lead us into Advent. Some of us may be thinking, what a non-kingly Gospel for Christ the King Sunday. The weeks to come will be full of strange juxtapositions.

This whipsawed feeling should help us feel sympathy for the Jews of Jesus' time. We know that the Jews had been on the lookout for the Messiah for many years, but they certainly weren't looking for someone like Jesus. They wanted a more traditional vision of a King. They wanted someone who would sweep in and clean up current life. Specifically, they wanted someone to kick the Romans (and all the other outsiders) out of their homeland. They wanted someone to restore their vision of life as it should be.

We're probably familiar with that feeling. We, too, probably want a God we can control. If you don't believe me, head to the Spirituality section of your local bookstore and take a look. We're given prayers we can pray to make God do what we want (usually, in these books, to bring us riches). We're given visualizations to try. Or maybe we want a God that makes us feel superior. Here, too, there are plenty of books that will help, that will explain why one belief system over another will elevate us.

The Gospel readings for this week, and the Advent/Christmas texts remind us that we don't worship that kind of God. We worship a God who is willing to become one of the most vulnerable kinds of creatures in our world: a newborn baby, born to underclass parents, in an underclass minority, in an occupied land. We worship a God so radical that he is crucified as a political criminal. Yes, a political criminal--crucifixions were reserved for crimes against the state in the Roman system. It's interesting to reread the Gospels with that fact in mind and to learn anew what Jesus said that made him seem so radical and subversive to the Romans.

We worship a God that wants nothing to do with our human visions of power. Our God turned away from wealth. Our God calls us to a radical generosity. Our God turned away from political power. Our experience of God, in Jesus, reminds us that if we behave in the way that God wants us to behave, we will come into direct conflict with the dominant power structures of our day.

Our God is one that we will encounter in the oddest places, like a manger or in criminal court. Advent will remind us that we need to always be alert to the possibilities of this encounter, but that it likely won't happen in the way that we've prepared for or expected.

We come to the end of a liturgical year, the end of that long, green season after Pentecost (as my 5th grade Sunday School teacher called it). We begin a new year trembling with fear and hope. It is a good time, as all new years are, to make resolutions. In the next liturgical year, how will we prepare to meet God?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Walking Barefoot Through the Labyrinth

"The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth." Thich Nhat Hanh

One of the books I reread at Mepkin Abbey was Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World. I came across this chunk of text, which made me decide to walk the Mepkin Abbey labyrinth barefoot: "Take off your shoes and feel the earth under your feet, as if the ground on which you are standing really is holy ground. Let it please you. Let it hurt you a little. Feel how the world really feels when you do not strap little tanks on your feet to shield you from the way things really are" (page 67).

In some ways, of course, I was cheating. The grass that created the path through the labyrinth was lush. Now, when I'm at home in South Florida, I would no more walk outside barefoot than I would walk across broken glass shards barefoot. But it seemed safe to walk barefoot in the labyrinth.

In fact, it was HEAVENLY to walk through the labyrinth barefoot. I walked in the mid-morning, so part of the grass was still in the shadows, still cool and dew-drenched. Part of the grass had spent the morning luxuriating in the sun, so it was warm and dry. As I walked, I felt like I got a foot massage, along with all the other benefits I experience from labyrinths. And walking barefoot made me concentrate more intensely and made me experience the practice in a whole different way--more grounded, more focused on my body and the physical presence of the labyrinth.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Praise of Kathleen Norris

Whenever I make a trip to Mepkin Abbey, people always ask me how and why I came to make regular visits to a monastery. What's even more odd is that I used to live only 20 miles away from that monastery, but I had no interest in visiting it then. But now that I live over 700 miles, I try to go at least once a year.

Before we moved to South Carolina, I had no interest in theology, except for some lingering left over thoughts from my idealistic youth. Those thoughts pointed me down a social justice path, and I figured I didn't need a church for that. Of course, I didn't do a good job of social justice on my own, but I tried not to think about that.

When we first moved down here, I went to the public library several times a week. Kathleen Norris had just published Amazing Grace. The first time I pulled it off the shelf and saw the subtitle, A Vocabulary of Faith, I shoved it right back on the shelf. I certainly wasn't interested in that.

One week, though, the offerings at the library were slim, and that book just called to me, as it had been for many weeks. I took it home and devoured it. Then I read Dakota. Then I read The Cloister Walk. That book really wanted to go to a monastery. Those books also awakened a fierce desire to return to church, which I finally did (although I'd give Nora Gallagher's books more credit for that yearning than Kathleen Norris).

I had friends back in South Carolina who were reading Kathleen Norris at the same time. They, too, really wanted to go to a monastery. They knew about Mepkin Abbey, and they went to explore. Finally, in 2004, we had a reunion there.

I've often said that if the monks accepted married, female Lutherans, I'd have never gone back. I fell in love with the buildings, the food, the magnificent library. But more than that, I fell in love with their way of life. To be able to gather as a religious community to pray eight times a day--that really appealed to me. The balanced pace appealed to me even more.

I have always idealized lives that aren't my own, and luckily, I had Kathleen Norris to bring me down to earth. In The Cloister Walk, she gives us a look behind the cloistered walls to show us that the monks are living regular lives just like the rest of us. Being a monk doesn't mean that you'll feel holy every day. However, I did suspect that their daily circumstances left them more open to the Divine than most of us.

Here again, Norris pointed the way. At the time she wrote, she was an oblate, which meant that she wouldn't be living a cloistered life with the monks, but she would try to carry their lifestyle into her daily life as a married, Protestant, female writer. Reading her books, it occurred to me that I could do that too.

While I'm not an oblate, I have tried to adopt some of the habits of the monks. I try to pray several times a day (I'm partial to Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours series). I try to practice radical hospitality and generosity. I try to eat healthfully. The Mepkin monks are mostly vegetarian, and I'd like to be too.

My surroundings are not as beautiful as those at Mepkin. I don't worship in that kind of space, alas. My daily life is not set up to encourage balance, although I try to achieve that balance that I glimpsed at Mepkin (equal times for sleep, study/reading, worship, life-supporting work that earns money, and all the daily activities that one most do, like eating).

I don't know that I would have ever begun my exploration of monastic traditions without Kathleen Norris. Those explorations have changed my life in ways that I can only barely articulate, and therefore, I am so grateful to her.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Favorite Theological Books: The Short List

During my recent travels, one of my friends asked if I would compile a list of my favorite theological books. I said of course and then got to work mulling it over. I don't want to be too overwhelming. I don't want to include every book that's ever been important to me. At first, I tried to limit myself to 10 books, but I let myself go over that limit a bit.

I thought this list might be useful to other people, and so I post it here:

1. Anything by Kathleen Norris, but if I had to choose just one, I’d choose The Cloister Walk—it makes me want to write poems, it makes me want to visit a monastery (perhaps to move to a monastery), it makes me want to revisit books of the Bible which I haven’t thought about in years. There are longer essays for days when you have more time, and short essays for days when you don’t. Easy to dip in and out of.

2. Things Seen and Unseen by Nora Gallagher. This book follows the writer through a liturgical year, as she delves deeper into her faith. Great thoughts on labyrinths, the issue of homosexuality, the role of Christ, the pain of death, the joys of everyday life. Her book Practicing Resurrection is fabulous too, especially for those of us who play with the idea of becoming ordained ministers.

3. Anything by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was one of the first theologians I ever read. My father loved him too. When I was in college, my dad came to a Sojourners Pentecostal peace and justice event with me. He didn’t agree with all of the politics, but the pull of Nouwen was stronger than political disagreements. I’m most fond of Nouwen’s journals, in which he honestly writes about his struggles, particularly with wanting to be liked/loved. It took him many decades to find his niche, in terms of work, and his journals write about his efforts to discern his true call.

4. I have yet to read a book by Eugene Peterson that I didn’t like. I particularly admire the series he begins with Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, but a more accessible book is A Long Obedience: Discipleship in an Instant Society.

5. If you want an interesting approach to the Emergent church movement, you might start with The Church in Emerging Culture. Len Sweet moderates a conversation with writers/theologians/leaders from various points on the church spectrum: Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian D. McLaren, and Erwin Raphael McManus.

6. So far, I’ve liked all of Brian McLaren’s books, but my favorite is A Generous Orthodoxy. He discusses a variety of spiritual traditions (both within and outside of Christianity) and what he finds valuable about each.

7. I have no problems with the Jesus Seminar and the idea of using recent archaeological discoveries to inform our reading of the Bible. My favorite scholar in this tradition is Marcus Borg, and my favorite book of his is The Heart of Christianity.

8. On my first trip to Mepkin Abbey, I picked up Beyond the Walls by Paul Wilkes. It’s a great introduction to monastic life and what we can learn from the monks. It’s a great story of a man’s return to Mepkin Abbey as the seasons change and of all that he learns.

9. I recently read An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. It’s a lyrical look at the places outside of the church building where we can encounter God. She also discusses several spiritual practices, like keeping some Sabbath time each week.

10. Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution both enchanted me and made me feel like I wasn’t as fully committed to living out my faith as I should be. He’s young and tells the story of the alternative, religious community of which he’s part. Very inspiring.

11. Faith Works by Jim Wallis is the book for when you need to feel inspired to continue doing social justice work.

12. Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art had already expanded my brain by page 19: “God is always calling on us to do the impossible. It helps me to remember that anything Jesus did during his life here on earth is something we should be able to do, too.” The rest of the book does not disappoint.

13. Likewise Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat expanded my thinking about spiritual issues, particularly tithing: “Our guidepost we work with is that if ever find in a given year that we have invested more in our own future by way of retirement savings than we have given away for someone else’s present need, there is something terribly wrong. We tend to think the ratio should be at least two to one: for every dollar we invest in retirement savings, two dollars should be given away to an agency that will serve the poor” (189).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Thinking about the Fall of Communism, Bureaucratic Jobs, and the Power of Prayer

This past week, I've been enjoying hearing and reading various stories about the fall of Communism in the 80's. Most of them have focused on the fall of the Berlin Wall, of course, since we reached the 20 year anniversary of that event. I have vivid memories of that week. I was a young graduate student, cooking dinner, and I heard news stories that couldn't possibly be true. I felt that rush of hope, like earlier in the year during the Tian'anmen Square uprising, and I waited for the bullets. Amazingly, there were no bullets.

At the time, I didn't realize the accidental nature of the end of communism. In a story in The Washington Post on November 1, Mary Elise Sarotte tells about the East German official who was holding a boring news conference when he announced that travel restrictions would be loosened. The journalists immediately began to ask questions, but he hadn't read the briefing very carefully, so he made it up as he went along, announcing that the changes would be taking place immediately. The journalists reported, the ordinary citizens began to assemble, and the guards at the border were overwhelmed:

"Before long, the guards at Bornholmer Street were outnumbered by thousands of people; the same thing was happening at several other checkpoints. Overwhelmed and worried for their own safety, Jäger and his fellow guards reasoned that the use of violence might quickly escalate and become uncontrollable. They decided instead at around 9 p.m. to let a trickle of people cross the border, hoping to ease the pressure and calm the crowd. The guards would check each person individually, take notes and penalize the rowdiest by refusing them reentry. They managed to do this for a while, but after a couple of hours the enormous crowd was chanting, 'Open the gate, open the gate!"

After more debate, Jäger decided that raising the traffic barriers was the only solution. Around 11:30 p.m., the decades-long Cold War division of Germany ended.

Throughout the night, other crossings opened in much the same way."

I think of that boring bureaucrat and the blundering news conference, and I am reminded that even if we have the most dull jobs in the world where we feel like we affect nothing, we still might be an agent for social change. I think of those border guards who chose not to shoot. Even if they did it for fear of losing their own lives in the chaos that would ensue, that choice changed the future.

I also think of the people along the way who prayed. On All Things Considered on Monday, I heard a story about a Lutheran pastor who began to hold weekly Monday meetings in his church to pray for peace. This movement spread to other churches, and soon it was a mass movement of thousands of people. Communist officials later said, "We were prepared for everything except the prayers and candles." Again, people waited for the bullets. Again, the power of peace defeated the forces of violence.

I think of other places in the 1980's, where the powers of prayer and peace defeated the powers of evil, most notably Poland and South Africa. I think of places today where I cannot imagine how peace will come, like the Congo and Burma.

But I do not have to be able to imagine the particulars that will bring peace into the world. In the words of John the Baptist, "I am not the Messiah." I am responsible for praying for peace. The Holy Spirit will move in wondrous ways that I cannot anticipate. Happily, God has a greater imagination than I do.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 15, 2009:

First Reading: Daniel 12:1-3

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 1:4-20

Psalm: Psalm 16

Psalm (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 2:1-10

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25

Gospel: Mark 13:1-8

Here we are, back to apocalyptic texts, a rather strange turn just before we launch into Advent (and just so you won't be surprised, those Advent texts can be on the apocalyptic side too). This week's Gospel is the type of text that many Christians use to support their assertion that we're living in the end times, that the rapture is near.

Keep in mind that the idea of rapture is fairly new; most scholars date it to the middle of the 19th century. But Christians have felt besieged since the beginning, and indeed, at certain times throughout the centuries, they have been severely threatened.

Most scholars believe that the book of Mark was written just after a particularly brutal suppression of a Jewish uprising and just before the destruction of the Temple, a time when the empire of Rome made it increasingly difficult to be an alien part of the empire. The Gospel of Mark is the most apocalyptic Gospel, perhaps because it was written when people really expected the end was near (and indeed, in many ways, the end was near). The whole of chapter 13 of Mark is grim indeed. Perhaps the Gospel writer uses such a chapter to launch into the Passion story, to set the mood.

Or maybe the Gospel writer wants to remind us of the cost of following Jesus. Maybe it's the larger cost of existing in the world. Even if we're lucky enough to be born into a stable time period, to be part of a country with a stable government, if we're conscious, it's hard to escape the conclusion that it could all vanish at any moment. And even if we don't suffer on the grand (genocidal) scale, most of us will endure more loss than our younger selves would have believed could be survived.

Before we sink too deeply into depression, we need to remember that Jesus came to give us Good News. And that Good News is that we have each other, and we have a God who loves us, no matter what. If we devote our lives to that love, then we can survive all sorts of betrayal, loss, and persecution.

It's also important to look at the last part of the last sentence of this week's Gospel: "this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs." Birth-pangs. What is being born exactly?

The most positive spin on this bit is to say that the Kingdom of God is being born. We tend to think of the Kingdom of God as referring to Heaven, but if you read all the references to the Kingdom of God, it appears that Jesus isn't talking about Heaven as we know it. In some places, Jesus seems to talk about the Kingdom as already existing, perhaps as Jesus walking amongst us. In other places, the Kingdom of God will come to earth later, in a kind of purifying, redeeming vision. Yet again, we see references to this process already beginning, both with Christ's efforts and with the efforts of his believers.

Those of us who have had children, or who have had relatives and friends who have had children, know that parents have to go through a fierce process to hold that little baby in their arms. Jesus reminds us that the process towards the Kingdom of God can be equally fierce. Jesus reminds us that we must stay alert and aware, but that we need not feel alarmed.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Lock Out--What a Cool Consciousness Raising Idea

Well, I planned not to post until next week, but I couldn't resist passing on this idea. This post on Erik Ullestad's blog describes a Lock Out, an idea that's just the opposite from the traditional Lock In. This experience helps expose church youth groups to issues that the homeless face. Hopefully participating would raise sensitivity to the issues of homelessness and spur work on this social justice issue. Lock Ins of my youth didn't really see us accomplish much. We watched movies (I remember watching Halloween, of all things) and overate and spooked ourselves by going down dark hallways into spooky sanctuaries. A Lock Out could be so much more meaningful.

Blog Quiet for a Week

The picture above is from Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp in North Carolina, but it captures the nature of my next trip. I'm off to Mepkin Abbey for a writer's retreat. I plan to pray the Psalms with the monks for several services each day. I hope to assemble a poetry manuscript or two. I'll be seeing some friends along the way and enjoying some time away from computers, phones, and all the other distractions of modern life. I plan to resume regular blogging on November 12.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 8, 2009:

First Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-16

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Psalm: Psalm 146

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 127

Second Reading: Hebrews 9:24-28

Gospel: Mark 12:38-44

In some churches this Sunday, congregations will hear the story of Ruth, and then hear about the poor widow in the Gospel. Some pastors will tell their congregations that the lesson to be learned is to be nice to your mother-in-law, and some will wrap the poor widow into a stewardship Gospel as they ask congregations to give until it hurts. What is Jesus really trying to say?

I've often had trouble with the historical church's approach to women, but rarely has the message of Jesus seemed anti-female. With Gospels like this one, at first I'm pleased to see that Jesus uses a female as a model of good behavior. The Gospel seems to fit with the story of the rich young man who is told to give away all that he has to the poor and with the message of Jesus about the yoke we must wear.

But then I stop and think. She's not just any woman. If Jesus just wanted a model of good behavior, he might have stopped there. No, she's not just any woman. She's a widow. Women didn't have much status in the days of Jesus, and widows had even less. Why would Jesus make her a widow?

I suspect that Jesus, as always, has something to tell us about the power structures of his day--power structures that look a lot like power structures of our day. The poor widow is poor not because she couldn't manage her money. No, she was poor because of the class structures put in place to keep her destitute. She is surrounded by men who have no trouble making their financial commitments to the Temple, while she gives all that she has.

Jesus calls us to always--always--help the poor, the destitute, and the outcast. But that is not enough. Jesus also calls us to participate in Kingdom building. We are to work to transform the world so that nobody will be poor and outcast. We are to work towards a world where everyone has enough so that no one has to donate their last coins to the Temple to help the poor.

Helping the poor is charity work, and it's important. We're called to do it. Transforming our society so that we have no poor people in need of charity work is social justice work, and we are also called to do that.

You might think about your own life. Where do you see poor widows in need of help? How can you help transform our society so that at some point there will be no poor widows?

Jesus also has a message that we shouldn't ignore about holding on too closely to our coins. Those of us who are successful have an increasingly easy time believing that we're successful because we're worthy and smart. We have an increasingly easy time believing that we're successful solely because of our own efforts.

Those of us who have suffered misfortune realize that our station in life often has little to do with our efforts. We have the luck or misfortune of the family we're born into. We make decisions early in life about jobs, marriage, education--and those decisions have impacts decades later that we couldn't have realized at the time we made them. There are global forces at work that are much more powerful than our puny efforts in our own behalf.

We like the American Success Story, which tells us that anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We like that story, although statistics don't bear out the truth of that story--quite the opposite.

Jesus has a different story to tell us, a story where we are truly free, and judged by a different rubric, one that is seldom valued by the world. Jesus values radical generosity, generosity that the world would regard as lunacy. Jesus invites us into the transformative grace of that story.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

God's Gardeners: When Writers Create Religious Movements

I spent the last week reading Margaret Atwood's latest novel, The Year of the Flood. In this book, she develops the religious movement, God's Gardeners, that she briefly mentioned in a previous novel, Oryx and Crake. In reading this book, it's clear that Atwood understands how religions evolve and the purpose that they serve for human communities.

God's Gardeners have their own saints, and Atwood weaves some liturgy from various Saint's Days throughout the book. In this time of environmental desecration in the novel, it's not surprising that God's Gardeners would choose environmental activists as saints, so readers discover the Feast of Saint Rachel and All Birds, and the Feast of Saint Dian, Martyr.

Despite the more modern saints, this new religious movement doesn't abandon the past. They celebrate the Saint's Day of Julian of Norwich (Saint Julian and All Souls). They still rely on the Bible, along with the surprising new interpretations that come with every new generation.

Atwood has even created hymns for her God's Gardeners. On a recent interview on Diane Rehm's show (go here and scroll down to listen), she describes having recently spent a lot of time with traditional hymns, as she chose the music for her parent's funerals. Writing the lyrics came naturally. And in the interview, she talks about how the lyrics came to have music. The Diane Rehm interview includes some of the music (and Margaret Atwood singing her favorite hymn!), as does the website for the book--and there's a CD available.

It's interesting to observe Atwood's creation of a new religious tradition and to think about the parallels to other religions. I see how the Liberation Theology developments of the 70's and 80's might have seemed a similar mix of tradition and new creation to earlier generations of Christians. It makes me wonder if traditional religions will be able to offer sustenance to whatever coming generations will face--or will they, like Atwood's God's Gardeners, have to recombine the genes into something new which feels very ancient?

Monday, November 2, 2009

All Souls' Day

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain leaves on his quest on November 2. Medieval audiences would have recognized this day as All Souls' Day, and this heavy foreshadowing wouldn't have been lost on them. All Saints' Day celebrates all the saints, while All Souls' celebrates those who have died in the past year. As Sir Gawain leaves, his castle-mates would have been expecting to celebrate his life the following year.

All Souls' would develop into the kind of day that drove Martin Luther crazy. On All Souls' Day, people would be encouraged to spend money so that their loved ones would get out of purgatory sooner. According to medieval theology, a soul wasn't ready to go to Heaven right away.

In most Protestant churches, All Saints' and All Souls' have merged into one, and that makes sense to me. Still, my inner English major will always have a sense of these alternative liturgical calendars. I like having more to celebrate, more ways to remind myself that there's more to life than what occupies most of my time (work--both on the job and at my house). I like having holidays that remind me that we're only here for too brief a time. It helps me to treasure the fleeting moments that I have.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Celebrating the Feast of All Saints

Last week, I enjoyed creating a post that suggested ways to celebrate Reformation Sunday. So, today, let me write a post that suggests ways to celebrate All Saints. Of course, being Lutheran, I think the best way is to go to church--and hopefully, you'll find a church that is doing something special. In the past few years, I've gone to Lutheran churches that did a butterfly release or did something special in a garden. But even the most traditional church should be celebrating All Saints' Sunday today--well, at least the high church ones (Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Episcopalian). My friend tells me that Presbyterians and Baptists would have no such Catholic-like celebrations in churches she's attended. More's the pity . . .

So, if you're cast adrift, here are some ways to commemorate the souls who have gone on before us to Eternal Peace.

--Plant some flowers. In many parts of the United States, now would be a great time to plant bulbs. Then in the spring, you'll have an additional treat. Over at LutheranChik's blog, she writes a moving post about planting daffodils for All Saints on the graves of her family members.

--Take a page out of the book of our Hispanic brothers and sisters. Prepare a picnic to share with the dead. Make some special sweet treats. This website has all sorts of interesting pages: recipes, photos of altars, information . . .

--For information about the Catholic approach to this day, including images and prayers, go to this website.

--Make something with the herb rosemary, traditionally used as a symbol of remembrance. How about a chicken, roasted with rosemary, lemon, and garlic? Vegetarians can make a tasty bean soup with the same trio of rosemary, lemon, and garlic--add several cans of beans (whirled up in the blender, if you prefer a thicker soup) to your pot of rosemary, lemon, and garlic, and you've got an easy delicious soup. Throw in some steamed carrot pieces for an even more nutritious soup.

--Remember your family stories. Even more important, start writing them down. You won't remember them forever. And there will be younger generations who will be starving for those stories. If you write them in a blog, hopefully, they'll be there forever.

--Write your living older family members a note or a card. Some day, you'll remember them on this feast day. Write them a note of appreciation now, while they are alive to appreciate your gratitude.

--Think about the saints that aren't related to you. Who has served as an example to you as a way to live your life? How can you follow that example?

--Here are the readings from the Common Lectionary for this day:

First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9
First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
Psalm: Psalm 24
Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6
Gospel: John 11:32-44

The prayer book that I use, The Divine Hours series by Phyllis Tickle, includes these readings:

Revelation 7: 9-17
Psalm 15

Here are two prayers from that book:

"May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen."

"Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give me grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that I may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen."