Friday, December 31, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 2, 2011:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:7-14

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 24:1-12

Psalm: Psalm 147:13-21 (Psalm 147:12-20 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:3-14

Gospel: John 1:[1-9] 10-18

When I was younger, the Gospel of John confounded me. What kind of nativity story did John give us? Does he not know the power of narrative, the importance of a hook in the beginning?

Look at verse 14, which may be familiar: "And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." As a child, I'd have screamed, "What does that mean? How does word become flesh?"

And then I became a writer, and I learned how the word becomes flesh. I invented characters who took on lives of their own, who woke me up early in the morning because I wanted to see what happened to them. Yes, I know, I was the God of their universe. But as anyone who has had children will know, you make these creations, and they have their own opinions, and they live their lives in ways you couldn't have known they would.

But lately, I've begun to see this first chapter of John in a less-writerly way. Words become flesh every day. We begin to shape our reality by talking about it. We shape our relationships through our words which then might lead to deeds, which is another way of talking about flesh.

Think about your primary relationships. Perhaps this coming year could be the year when we all treat the primary people in our lives with extra care and kindness. If we treat people with patience and care, if we say please and thank you more, we will shape the flesh of our relationships into something different. Alternately, if we're rude and nasty to people, they will respond with rudeness and cruelty--we've shaped the flesh of the world into a place where we don't want to live.

Our words become flesh in other ways, of course. It's not enough to profess we're Christians. Our words should shape our actions. The world is watching, and the world is tired of people who say one thing and act another way.

How can we enflesh our Christian beliefs incarnate in our own lives? That's the question with which we wrestle year after year. It's easy to say we believe things, but it's much harder to make our actions match our words, to live an authentic life.

The good news: it gets easier. You must practice. Our spiritual ancestors would tell us that daily and weekly practices help to align our words to our actions.

I have an atheist friend who says she envies me my ability to believe. I tell her that there's not a class of people who just have faith. We come to it by our actions. We pray, we pay attention, we meet in church, we study, we read the Bible, we help the poor and outcast, we pray some more--and years later, we realize that we are living a life consistent with our values.

It's time to think about the New Year, and some of us will make resolutions. What can you do to make your words and beliefs take flesh?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Feast Day of the Holy Family

Today, we celebrate the Holy Family, all of them, not just the baby in the manger, not just the sanctified version of the mother. Today we recognize the importance of the entire family to the health and well-being of Jesus.

It's a good time to think about our own families. How are we helping the next generation to find God? How are we nurturing young spirituality?

Perhaps this would be a good time to think about our own faith journeys. This week-end would be a great time to write some of those memories down. I wish that I had more from my grandfather. I know that he was accepted into seminary in the early years of the great Depression. The president of the seminary wrote him a letter to tell him that he couldn't be sure that he'd have a church career afterwards, since the economy was so grim. The seminary president encourage my grandfather to stay on the farm, since at least there he would have food. He ignored that advice and went to seminary. If he hadn't been in seminary, he wouldn't have had his internship in the hills of East Tennessee, and he wouldn't have met the woman who would have become my grandmother.

I know the story, but I don't know it in his words. I don't know if he had regrets. I'd love to know what he considered to be the highlights of his ministry. I'd love to know about his private spirituality and how it meshed with his church work.

We may think we aren't important, but we are, even if we don't have church vocations. Some day, when our memories aren't reliable, we'd be happy if we had written down our spiritual lives. Our descendants would be even happier.

So, today, we celebrate the Holy Family. Today is a great day to think about the spiritualities of our own families and how to celebrate and strengthen them. Today is a great day for stories and reflection, as we head towards another year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The True Miracle of Christmas

My blog post on the true miracle of Christmas is up at the Living Lutheran site. Head here to read it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Blogging Forecast

As we head into the Christmas season, it's always hard to know what my blogging schedule may be. Perhaps I'll be up before everyone else, and I'll blog. Maybe I'll be so tired from all the festivity that I'll sleep. Suffice it to say that I'll be off schedule, and blogging may be lighter than usual. I expect to return to regular blogging on December 29. On Dec. 28, my blog posting on the real miracle of Christmas is scheduled to appear at the Living Lutheran site.

Above you see the creche display that we've cobbled together from a variety of items on a bookcase that holds favorite books from my childhood. May your holiday be full of fond childhood memories as you craft together a Christmas from various traditions. May you have friendly and interesting visitors. May you have some time to look into the night sky and give thanks for all the wonders that come to visit.

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 26, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 63:7-9

Psalm: Psalm 148

Second Reading: Hebrews 2:10-18

Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

After all the joy and wonder of Christmas Eve, this Gospel returns us to post-manger life with a thud. In this Gospel, we see Herod behaving in a way that's historically believable, if perhaps not historically accurate, as he slaughters all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two. Why would he do such a terrible thing? Partly because he's worried about keeping his power; he's worried about what the wise men have told him, and he doesn't want any challenges. Partly because he can; he has power granted to him by Roman authorities, and that power means that he can slaughter his subjects if he sees fit to do so.

Jesus, however, escapes. A power greater than Rome protects him. Warned by an angel in a dream, Joseph flees with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, to safety. But still, the earthly power of Herod turns them into refugees.

Early in the Gospel, we see that the coming of Jesus disrupts regular life. Even before Jesus tells us that the life of a disciple is not one of material ease and comfort, we get that message. Even before Jesus warns us that following him may mean that we're on the opposite side of earthly powers, we see with our own eyes, in the story of Herod and the slaughter of the innocents.

This Gospel reminds us of the potency of power. We shouldn't underestimate the power of the State, particularly the power of a global empire. With the story of Herod, we see the limits of worldly power. Yet even within those limits, a dastardly ruler can unleash all sorts of pain and suffering. Those of us lucky enough to live under benign rulers shouldn't forget how badly life can go wrong for those who don't share our good fortune.

The Gospel reminds us of who has the true power in the story--it's God. The Gospel shows us who deserves our loyalty. And the Gospel also reminds us of the hazards of living in a universe where God is not the puppet master. In a universe that God sets free to be governed by free will, it's up to us to protect the vulnerable. And this story of Herod's slaughter reminds us of what happens when despots are allowed to rule. Sadly, it's a story that we still see playing out across the planet.

If we're not in the mood to see this Gospel in its geopolitical implications, we might take a few moments of introspection in these waning days of the year. Where do we see Herod-like behavior in ourselves? What threatens us so much that we might do treacherous deeds? What innocent goodness might we slaughter so that we can allay our fears and insecurities?

I predict that churches across the nation (and the world) will choose to ignore this difficult text on this morning after Christmas. Far better to enjoy Christmas carols one last time than to wrestle with this difficult text. But Jesus reminds us again and again that he didn't come to make us all comfortable. He didn't come to be our warm, fuzzy savior. He came to overturn the regular order, to redeem creation, to restore us to the life that God intends for us--and Herod stands as a potent symbol for what might happen if we take Jesus seriously.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Feast Day of Saint Thomas

Today we celebrate the life of St. Thomas. It's also the Winter Solstice, and as I write, a lunar eclipse slowly occurs in the sky. It's the time of year for doubting in the dark. It's a good time to celebrate the most famous doubter of all.

Who can blame Thomas for doubting? It was a fantastic story, even if you had travelled with Jesus and watched his other miracles. Once you saw the corpse of Jesus taken off the cross, you would have assumed it was all over.

And then, it wasn't. Thomas, late to see the risen Lord, was one of the fiercest believers, legend tells us, Thomas walking all the way to India.

I wonder if Thomas is near and dear to the heart of the more rational believers. We're not all born to be mystics, after all. But as I watch the lunar eclipse, I worry about our vanishing sense of wonder.

We've all become Thomas now. We don't believe anything that we can't measure with our five senses. Watching the lunar eclipse reminds me of the sense of wonder I had as a child, the sense that I couldn't fully know the world--and I was perfectly fine with that.

The more I read in the field of the Sciences, the more my sense of wonder is reignited. I continue to be so amazed at the way the world works, both the systems we've created and the ones created before we came along. The more I know, the more I want to shout from the rooftops, "Great show, God!" (long ago, when my friend had small children, they would shout this refrain whenever they saw something beautiful in nature, like a gorgeous sunset; I try to remember to shout it too).

So today, as the earth leaves its darkest time and inches towards light, let us raise a mug of hot chocolate to St. Thomas, who showed us that we can have doubts and still persevere. Let us raise a mug of hot chocolate to lunar eclipses and solstice celebrations and all the ways that the natural world can point us back to our Creator. Let us pray that our rational selves live in harmony with our sense of wonder.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Miracle of Joseph

We often forget what a wonderful man Joseph was. In yesterday's sermon, our pastor reminded us that Joseph could have ordered Mary stoned because she was pregnant by someone else. Instead, he had decided to send her away. She could have her baby and somehow make a life elsewhere, and he would deal with the humiliation of having a fiancee gone missing.

He spared her life. Even before God spoke to him in a dream, he spared her life. Most men would not.

And then, after God gave him instructions, he followed them. He and Mary built a life together. They had children. He continued to care for them all. It can't have been easy.

It never is.

The family values crowd rarely talks about how much a family demands of us. The sappy commercials this time of year never focus on the down side of family life, not to mention the possible darker sides: the arguments, the grinding times of poverty (which, if we're lucky, will pass), the sickness, the loss, the fear of the losses to come. We never think about how much of family life will circle around dealing with the failings of our bodies and the bodies of our loved ones. We rarely think about how we're committing to the whole extended family.

Joseph reminds us of the miracle of that commitment. God's plan may be different for us than what we intended. It reminds me a bit of the movie It's a Wonderful Life, which I just watched again the other night from start to finish, which I rarely do. Like George Bailey, like Joseph, we may have envisioned a future that's radically different from the life that swallows us up. But as the two very different stories demonstrate, good things, miraculous things--resurrection itself--can come from that different life path.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

This Year, Give Social Justice!

If you're a gift giving person, I'm assuming that your shopping is done. Perhaps you do your shopping throughout the year, choosing the perfect gift for each person on your list and putting it in your special closet, and entering the information into your spreadsheet so that you always know what you've bought and where it's going.

O.K. that should be about 5 of you.

For the rest of us, the gift giving occasions give no end of grief. What do we give to those people in our lives who are trying to scale down? Or to the people on our list who already have everything? What about those on our list who have tastes that are so expensive that we can't afford a gift? How can we know that our gifts won't just duplicate what our recipients have already bought for themselves?

In short, we want to know: how can we be sure that our gifts will be appreciated?

The always wonderful Nicholas Kristof has a New York Times article today that makes suggestions. He ends his piece by making his strongest argument: "One of the paradoxes of living in a wealthy country is that we accumulate tremendous purchasing power, yet it’s harder and harder for us to give friends and family presents that are meaningful. In this holiday season, sometimes a scarf from a prostituted Cambodian girl, or a scholarship for a Zambian child, is the most heartwarming gift of all."

But the real beauty of his article comes from the suggestions that he makes. He says that he's not going to talk about the organizations that we already know about, the Oxfams, the Heifer Internationals. Instead, he gives us groups we've never heard of, groups that are doing sound work. Kristof is one of those experts whom I trust implicitly. I know he's investigated these groups before he suggests we send them our hard earned money.

I like these groups because they can make a small amount of money go a long way. We don't have to come up with the $500 it takes to buy a needy person a cow. The First Book organization will take any amount through the mail; $2 buys a new book for a needy child.

I've written before here and here about Peter Singer's convincing argument that our dollars go further in the 3rd world than they do here. Kristof gives us a wide range of choices, both in the U.S. and abroad, to choose from, and all of them seem to be making donations go a very long way.

Many of us who celebrate Christmas, in and out of church, have lost sight of some of the social justice elements of the Nativity story, which is easy to do in a story overshadowed with angel visitors and visions of all kinds. We forget that the oppressive governmental machine which was Rome (and all of its local incarnations) had compelled everyone to report for census and taxation purposes--no exceptions for hugely pregnant women. We see a couple of modest means and few resources turned out into the night to endure birth in a barn.

What better way to remember this event than by donating money to modern organizations who help the Josephs and Marys of this world? Most of us have more stuff than we can ever use. Many of the people on your list would likely prefer that you give your gift dollars to a group that will put it to good use. And Kristof has some excellent suggestions.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sing to Celebrate the Life of Charles Wesley

Continuing with my theme of singing, I thought I'd post today on the birthday of Charles Wesley. Consider how different our lives would have been if we had not had the Wesley brothers.

Would we have had Methodists, had those two brothers not been so diligent (so methodical!) in spreading their version of the Protestant faith?

I've spent my life asking similar questions about Martin Luther. When I was young and not yet fully formed (and barely educated), I assumed we would all still be Catholics had there been no Martin Luther. Now I know that there were plenty of people asking vital questions. The Church would have been reformed--but in very different ways, without the force of Martin Luther, without his humor, without his tireless work.

But I'm biased, I know. Back to Charles Wesley.

I'm always amazed at how many of our hymns come from the Wesley brothers. Some of our best loved hymns come from the pen of Charles: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," and "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing." Here's a Methodist website where you can get words to hymns and hear them.

So, play some sacred music, and lift a mug of hot chocolate to the work of Charles Wesley. Better yet, gather a group together and sing. Break open that hymnbook. May you feel strangely warm! May you go on to shape the world in ways that only you can!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ecumenical Singing

Yesterday, at work, we did a carolling experiment. I'm part of a group who is tasked with coming up with cheap/free ways to help with employee morale. I wasn't at the meeting where we decided to do something called flash mob carolling. I'm a little fuzzy about why suddenly converging as if it's an impromptu gathering is better than having an organized and announced session, but that's what was decided. We planned to have our group of employees sing and the music club sing with us, and I think that the hope was that other people would join.

Mostly people just looked on, a bit baffled. They took pictures and video. I did wonder where all those pictures and videos might end up, but I decided that I didn't care. Once upon a time, I thought I could manage my online presence, and I do what I can. But frankly, I've come to decide that if a blog posting here or an innocuous picture there would sink a potential future job search, well, so be it. That was probably a job I wouldn't want anyway.

Here's what was strange about yesterday. Even though our group had decided on this project, people seemed unwilling to sing. The microphones freaked out some people. The cameras freaked out others. We hadn't rehearsed at all, so when the amplified instruments started to play, it was a bit jarring.

Some people protested that they didn't know the songs, even though we had chosen the songs and we had words. Before we started, I said, "Come on, we've been singing these songs our whole lives. We can sing these!"

But then I wondered. I've been singing these songs, and I find Christmas songs easiest to sing and to get right, precisely because I've been singing them my whole life (and listening rather obsessively to them, at least 2 months out of every year). But maybe not everyone has had that experience.

The most surreal moment of the day came when we got to the dreidel song. No one knew it. No one but me! Now this is a song that I haven't sung as much--heck, I've spent chunks of my life in Southern towns where there was not one synagogue. But I knew it. So, I launched in, and we discovered that other people knew it too.

Later I thought, how is it that me, the Lutheran girl knows this song and no one else does?

Or is it that I'm the only fearless one who will sing in front of people? I sometimes forget that my Drama geek training and my years of teaching have made me fairly impervious to the idea that someone might laugh at me or mock me. Mock away! I survived 7th grade, so no one's sneering mockery can scare me anymore.

Again I was saddened by how little any of us sing together anymore. Again I find myself feeling happy that I'm part of a church that still sings together. I'm also part of a folk music group that encourages singing, either alone or in groups. I suspect these kind of group singing opportunities are quickly shriveling.

So, as we think about what churches have to offer to our surrounding culture, let's not forget musical training. Let's joyfully proclaim our determination to preserve this part of our heritage. And for churches who have adopted the star performer/congregation as audience model, I would implore us to go back to our roots: a group of people singing with simple instruments guiding them (or perhaps singing without any instrument except for the one that we all have, the human voice).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 19, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16

Psalm: Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25

The Gospel for the Sunday before Christmas Eve gives us an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream. It's interesting to think about our lectionary, which moves in 3 year cycles and leaves out part of the story each year. This year we read about Joseph; other years, we see the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and to Elizabeth before her. This week, on Christmas Eve, we'll hear about angels appearing to shepherds.

Notice the responses of these people. They give themselves to God's will. They don't protest, the way that some of our spiritual ancestors did (think of Moses, who tried and tried to get God to go away).

It's important to note that God always gives us a choice, although God can be notoriously insistent. Joseph could have gone on with his plans to divorce Mary quietly; notice his unwillingness to shame her publicly, as would have been his right in a patriarchal society. But the angel appears to give Joseph a fuller picture, and Joseph submits to God's will. Likewise, Mary could have said, "Mother of the Messiah? Forget it. I just want a normal kid." But she didn't.

During this time of year, I often wonder how many times I've turned down God. Does God call me to a higher purpose? Am I living my life in a way that is most consistent with what God envisions for me?

The readings for this time of year reminds us to stay alert and watchful. This time of year, when the corporate consumer machine is cranked into high gear, when so many of us sink into depression, when the world has so many demands, it's important to remember that God's plan for the world is very different than your average CEO's vision. It's important to remember that we are people of God, and that allegiance should be first.

What does this have to do with Joseph? Consider the story again, and what it means for us modern people. Maybe you're like Joseph, and you're overly worried about what people will think about you and your actions. The Gospel for this Sunday reminds us that following God may require us to abandon the judgments of the world and accept God's judgment.

Notice that Joseph is the only one in the story who receives an angel visitation in a dream. What is the meaning of this fact? Perhaps this route was the only way that God could reach Joseph. Many of us are so used to having our yearnings mocked or unanswered that they go deep underground, only to bubble up in dreams and visions. Convenient for us, since we can discount things more easily when they appear in our dreams.

God will take many routes to remind us of our role in the divine drama. Many of us won't notice God's efforts; we're too busy being so busy. This time of year reminds us to slow down, to contemplate, to pay attention.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

We Weep for the Loss of the Peacemakers: Richard Holbrooke

When I heard the news last night that Richard Holbrooke had died, I wept. Noisy, gasping tears. I had the same reaction in 1995 when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Some people weep when rock stars die, but I sob for the loss of peacemakers, who are so rare on our planet.

Most of us don't have the patience for peacemaking. It seems so much easier to declare war. We don't have to deal with all of those competing personalities and claims. We don't have to determine who is right when we declare war, because we've already declared that we are right.

Peacemakers have to listen. They have to be willing to fail and to try again. They have to wait patiently for the right moment to proceed. They have to always be alert. It's an Advent kind of profession: to declare the words of the ancient prophets (although perhaps in secular terms) and to always keep watch, to set free the captives, to comfort the oppressed, to beat swords into plowshares.

The Dayton Accords which brought peace to the former Yugoslavia were signed on this day in 1995 in Paris. I regret the loss of Richard Holbrooke for so many reasons, not the least of which is that if anyone could have brought peace to Afghanistan, it could have been him. But now it will not be him.

And so, on this Advent morning, I pray for the stars to stay in the sky, for new peacemakers to emerge from the darkness. On this feast day which celebrates the life of St. John of the Cross, I pray for freedom from whatever tiny cells hold us prisoner. During our dark nights of the soul, let us turn to God. Let us always thirst for peace--and may our thirst be quenched!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Feast Day of Santa Lucia

I have very little time today, so rather than write a new post to commemorate Santa Lucia Day, let me repost from last year.

Today is the day that Scandinavian countries celebrate Santa Lucia day, or St. Lucy's day. There will be special breads and hot coffee and perhaps a candle wreath for the head.

I first heard about St. Lucia Day at our Lutheran church in Charlottesville, Virginia. As the tallest blonde girl, I was selected to lead the St. Lucia day procession when I was in my early teen years. The grown ups placed a wreath with candles on my head and lit the candles. The younger children carried their candles. I walked up the church aisle and held my head very still. I still remember the exhilarating feeling of having burning candles near my hair. I remember hot wax dripping onto my shoulders--I was wearing clothes and a white robe over them, so it didn't hurt.

It felt both pagan and sacred, that darkened church, our glowing candles. I remember nothing about the service that followed.

A year or two later, Bon Appetit ran a cover story on holiday breads, and Santa Lucia bread was the first one that I tried. What a treat. For years, I told myself that baking holiday breads was a healthy alternative to baking Christmas cookies--but then I took a long, hard look at the butterfat content of each, and decided that I was likely wrong.

I love our various festivals to get us through the dark of winter. When I lived in colder, darker places, I wished that the early church fathers had put Christmas further into winter, when I needed a break. Christmas in February makes more sense to me, even though I understand how Christmas ended up near the Winter Solstice.

So, happy Santa Lucia day! Have some special bread, drink a bracing hot beverage, and light the candles against the darkness.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Give-Aways Coming Soon!

At my other blog, I wrote this post about book give-aways. And then I thought, why not give away some of my theology books here at my theology site as well?

And so, on the first week-end of the new year, I will announce the first book give-away, both here and at my creativity blog. If you're the lucky winner, your mailing will include the book that was advertised as well as a surprise book.

The first book that I'll give away on this blog will be Geneen Roth's Women Food and God. I've written about this book in this post. Even though it has some failings, and it's not a book of theology in the strictest sense (and not even in a fairly loose sense), it seems like a good book for the new year.

So, on January 2, I'll post, and if you want to be entered into the give-away, you'll leave a comment. A week later, I'll have a drawing.

My plan is to announce a new book every Sunday, until I'm grow weary of the process. I could say that I'll do this weekly book give-away until I run out of books, but I don't even like to think about how many weeks I could go until I run out of books.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Producing Worthy Fruit

During last Sunday's sermon, our pastor kept coming back to the idea of worthy fruit. Can people see God in us? Are we producing fruits worthy of repentence?

I'm a poet, so I immediately started sketching some ideas:

grapefruits of honesty

watermelons of kindness

papayas of prayer

apples of loyalty

a million cherries of generosity

pears of rootedness

pomegranate seeds of justice

mangoes of charity

I could go on this way for a very long time. What would Christianity be without fruit metaphors?

Thursday, December 9, 2010


I'm not one of those angel people--I don't wear an angel as my lapel pin, I don't read books about angels, and I'm pretty sure I'd rather not meet any. I don't have this warm, fuzzy view of angels that many Americans have. I'm sure that if I saw one, I'd faint in fear and wonder. There's a reason why every angel appearance begins with the words, "Be not afraid."

But as I look at my Christmas decorations, I might need to rethink my position. Maybe I am an angel person.

The picture below shows an ornament made by a Haitian artist.

My mother gave me the angel below. She got it from a craft fair at church. I like its ruggedness.

Interesting to compare the angels made of metal (the Haitian ornament is actually made of metal too). The angel below came from Asheville. It's a much shinier ornament, with silver and gold and arms that move.

Our tree top angel came from a student many years ago. When I taught at my first full-time job at a community college in the Charleston, SC area, a student in my basic English class gave it to me. As state employees, we weren't supposed to accept gifts from anyone; the previous summer, several legislators had been indicted for taking bribes for votes (puny bribes too!), and tough ethics laws had been enacted. But I simply couldn't give her gift back: all those hours of crocheting work. I decided to accept her gift and hope for the best.

The angel below comes from El Salvador. Some day, maybe I'll get a complete creche set. I love the Central American style that this angel represents.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 12, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 146:4-9 (Psalm 146:5-10 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Second Reading: James 5:7-10

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11

Here again, in today's Gospel, Jesus reminds us of the new social order--the first will be last, the last will be first. Since many of us in first world churches would be categorized as "the first," this edict bears some contemplation. What do we do if we find ourselves in positions of power? Are we supposed to walk away from that?

Well, yes, in a sense, we are. Again and again, the Bible reminds us that we find God on the margins of respectable society. Again and again, we see that God lives with the poor and the oppressed. Nowhere is that message more visible to Christians than in the story of the birth of Jesus.

We get so dazzled by the angels and the wise men that we forget some of the basic elements of the story. In the time of great Roman power, God doesn't appear in Rome. No, God chooses to take on human form in a remote Roman outpost. In our current day, it would be as if the baby Jesus was born on Guam or the Maldives. Most of us couldn't locate those islands on a globe; we'd be surprised to hear that the Messiah came again and chose to be born so far away from the most important world capitals, like Washington D.C. and London and Moscow.

God came to live amongst one of the most marginalized groups in the Roman empire--the only people lower on the social totem pole would have been captives of certain wars and slaves. Most Romans would have seen Palestinian Jews as weird and warped, those people who limited themselves to one god. Not sophisticated at all.

God chose marginalized young people to be parents of God. Did God choose to be born in the palace of Herod? No. We don't hear about Joseph as a landowner, which means that his family couldn't have been much lower on the totem pole, unless they were the Palestinian equivalent of sharecroppers.

And finally, there's the part of the story we remember--the manger. God couldn't even get a room at the inn.

That's why, again and again, Jesus tells us to keep watch. God appears in forms that we don't always recognize. God appears in places where we wouldn't expect to find the Divine. Jesus reminds us again and again that there's always hope in a broken world. God might perform the kind of miracles that don't interest us at first. The Palestinian Jews wanted a warrior Messiah to liberate them from Rome. Instead they got someone who healed the sick and told them to be mindful of their spiritual lives so that they didn't lose their souls.

Many of us experience something similar today. We want something different from God. God has different desires for us than our desires for our lives. We ask for signs and miracles, and when we get them, we sigh and say, "That's not what I meant. I wanted them in a different form." We turn away.

The John the Baptists of the world remind us to turn back again. Repent. Turn back. Forswear our foolish ways. Go out to meet God. Your salvation is at hand.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Advent Resources

At Thanksgiving, my mom brought an Advent calendar for each child--the good kind of calendar, the kind with a chocolate for each day. But then the family with 2 children left before my mom remembered to give them the calendars. I had a brief hope that Mom would give me one of them, even though I know the chocolate probably wouldn't live up to my fussy standards.

Happily, there are Advent resources all across the web--and they're calorie free.

One of my new favorites is the one with amazing photos from the Hubble telescope. What an amazing glimpse into the cosmos!

For several years, I've loved Jan Richardson's The Advent Door. Her artwork accompanies the blog and serves as a wonderful juxtaposition. She does amazing things with paper.

LutheranChik started an Advent blog this year. What a treat to have a daily writing from her. I've always loved her perspective, but in recent years, she's blogged less over here and seems to have given up her food blog altogether.

But maybe keeping up with something on a daily basis is too much. Maybe you'd just like a weekly meditation. Abbey of the Arts is doing a once-a-week meditation.

Many people assume that academics have a nice, long Christmas break, and while I've had Christmas breaks, I've never had much of an Advent break. My memories of Advent are ones of lots of paper grading, lots of meetings, graduation duties, and finally, a few days before Christmas, a blessed break. Not much time for Advent contemplation.

The trick during Advent, as with other time periods of our lives, is to find some moments that we can steal away for our spiritual enrichment. What I like about these Internet resources is that I can do them when I'm stuck at work. No one needs to know that I'm taking a moment for Advent meditation, unlike, say, if I moved an Advent wreath into my office and lit candles. I can take a few moments to prepare the crooked pathways of my heart. All it takes is a few moments to till the soil of my spirit, to prepare myself to bear good fruit. And these resources help.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Feast Day of Saint Nicholas

It's always a bit of a surprise to realize that Saint Nicholas was a real person. But indeed he was. In the fourth century, he lived in Myra, then part of Greece, now part of Turkey; eventually, he became Bishop of Myra. He became known for his habit of gift giving and miracle working, although it's hard to know what really happened and what's become folklore. Some of his gift giving is minor, like leaving coins in shoes that were left out for him. Some were more major, like resurrecting three boys killed by a butcher.

My favorite story is the one of the poor man with three children who had no dowry for them, which would have made marriage possible, and so, they were going to have to become prostitutes. In the dead of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold into the house. Some legends have that he left a bag of gold for each daughter that night, while some say that he gave the gold on successive nights, while some say that he gave the gold as each girl came to marrying age.

Saint Nicholas is probably most famous for his associations with Christmas. Today, all over Europe, the gift-giving season begins. I had a friend in grad school who celebrated Saint Nicholas Day by having each family member open one present on the night of Dec. 6. It was the first I had heard of the feast day, but I was enchanted.

Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, who used to leave each other by saying "May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller!"

So, on this day, may we be led by the spirit of generosity, especially generosity to the poor. May Saint Nicholas hold our tillers and guide us to open our purses and wallets and bags of gold.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Homosexuality, Paul, and the Illumination of a New Book

We hear lots of folks talking about homosexuality these days, lots of people trying to parse what the Bible says, and more importantly, what it means.

I must be honest here, it's not a conversation that much interests me as a Christian. The Bible spends far more time talking about economic inequality than homosexuality. I suspect that if Jesus came to breakfast, he wouldn't be interested in our views of homosexuality. He'd want to talk about the homeless, pregnant women that we let sleep in the streets. He'd want to talk about why we allow children to be hungry, and he'd likely want to chat about our spending patterns.

Those verses in Leviticus? I am not interested. Leviticus proscribes many ways for us to live our lives, and I'm not following most of them.

But let's talk about Paul. Let's talk about the Greco-Roman view of homosexuality. Let's talk about a new book by Sarah Ruden: Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (Pantheon 2010). Some of us have this idea of a genteel model of homosexuality in the ancient world, but classics scholar Ruden points out that sexuality of all types was more about brutal domination than about a mutually supportive relationship.

She says, "Readers may think I am exaggerating, that the day-to-day culture of homosexuality could not ave been so bad. They may have heard of Platonic homorerotic sublimity or festive or friendly couplings. None of the sources, objectively read, backs any of this up" (48-49). And she goes on to demonstrate this point in a graphic way that proves that ancient homosexual couplings were more about rape than about any kind of consenting relationship that we see today. And heterosexual sex was not much better.

Along the way she proves Paul's forward-thinking qualities. She doesn't completely redeem him for me, but I came away from the book with a deep sympathy and appreciation for him. She covers not only homosexuality, but the issue of women, church leadership, slavery, and the Christian's relationship with the government. It's a fairly easy read and a great window into the ancient world.

If you find your head spinning by all the discussions your church might be having about God's view of homosexuality, I heartily recommend this book. One of the joys of being a Lutheran for me is that I'm not a Biblical literalist. One of the joys of having a Ph.D. in British Literature is that I have all sorts of tools for understanding the written word. I see literature, including the Bible, as firmly rooted in a particular time and space, and the educated reader can't discount those factors. Ruden helps us understand the time and the space in which Paul wrote his letters. We can't afford to be ignorant in this area.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Childhood Hunger Ends in Our Lifetime

Now that would be a nice headline, wouldn't it? And the thing that absolutely breaks my heart is that we could do it. We could end ALL hunger. The problem isn't food production, although in this age of global warming, we may face that crisis in the not-too-distant future. The problem comes in getting the right resources to the hungry--and in some nations, corrupt governments complicate that process.

We throw away so much food in this country, so much food. I've always admired the organizations who take that food and get that food to organizations that can either use it or distribute it to people who can use it. In my own house, we rarely throw out food. Even if something goes bad, we compost it.

But if we don't have time to compost or to work with social justice organizations who work to end hunger, we can still take simple steps to end hunger. I was powerfully reminded of that fact this week. I see my experience as a Holy Spirit nudge, God reminding me that we can make a difference, that the redemption of creation is underway.

On Thursday, I got to work to face my day of many meetings, most of them exhausting, capped off by having to teach a class. Just the thought of it exhausted me. As I went through the e-mail of various accounts, I noticed one from the ELCA that asked us to call our House representatives to ask them to vote yes on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill. I thought, well, let me do one little thing today that might actually make a difference in this world.

So, I made the call, which took no time, and I spent a few minutes wishing I had been more eloquent--I stammered out my request that Kendrick Meek vote yes, and the staffer asked for my zip code, and we hung up. It must have taken all of 30 seconds. And then I trudged through my day.

Yesterday, I noticed an e-mail from the ELCA that said that the bill passed. How cool is that? Apparently, hundreds of us called, and thousands of us sent mail. And now, the bill is on its way to President Obama.

We hear so much about all the ways government fails us. We hear so much about how Washington is out of touch with the rest of the nation. Even those of us who participate in this government "of the people, by the people, for the people" sometimes grow weary, wondering if any of our actions matter.

And then comes a 24 hour period like the one I had this week, a time when I, along with so many others, act, and I see a positive result. Listen to God, who says, "Yes. Your actions matter. I'm counting on you to birth this new creation, where no hungry child goes unsatisfied."

What a wonderful Advent present. Thank you Holy Spirit!

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Best 10 Hymns

During our car ride to Asheville, we listened to Roseanne Cash's The List, a wonderful CD. Cash tells the story of travelling with her dad, the incredibly Johnny Cash, and he mentioned a classic country song that she didn't know. He mentioned another--she didn't know it. He made a list of the most important 100 songs for her to know. For years, she hung on to the list, learning about the songs, but never recording them. Now, she's recorded a selection--and what a glorious recording it is.

One thing I love about a long car trip is the opportunity for deep and rich conversation. My spouse and I started wondering what kind of list we'd compile if asked for the most important hymns.

Here's my challenge to you: if you were starting a church or heading off to colonize a planet, and you could only have 10 songs/hymns, what would you choose?

To me, this is a more interesting question than what we first started discussing. We began with the hymns that have been most personally important to us. We quickly moved to which hymns have the most valid theology, which are the most important to the life of the Church, which give the most comfort, which hymns are the best teacher.

I don't really have a list ready yet. I meant to ask my question as a question for my relatives to ponder and compile, but I forgot. I plan to write an e-mail to ask them. I come from Lutherans who have spent many decades in church, singing the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

I'd be interested in hearing from readers too. If I was a new Christian, what hymns would you give me? If you come from a different religious faith, feel free to play along!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hanukkah Begins and the Christmas Season Shifts into High Gear

Last night the festival of Hanukkah began. As each year cycles into Hanukkah, I remember my child self. I went to a Presbyterian elementary school, where one of the teachers told us that Hanukkah wasn't very important, that Jewish people had just invented it so that their children would have a holiday that could compete with Christmas.

Now, I happened to have a Jewish neighbor, who decorated the house with blue lights. After school, I marched right over there to inform them of their phony holiday. I still remember the mom gently explaining what the holiday was all about and how ancient it really was, how it pre-dated Christmas. I was chastened, and I had learned an important lesson about respecting the culture of other people.

I love the story of Hanukkah, although I've since met many Jewish people who admit their uneasiness with the holiday (see this New York Times article, for example). I also love Christmas--it's always been my favorite season. I remember having a conversation with my father, who argued that Christians should hold Easter as their favorite holiday. I agree intellectually. But emotionally, my heart belongs to Christmas.

I'm lucky, I think. I don't have those conflicted emotions about Christmas. I love giving and getting presents, but I'm perfectly happy to agree to not exchange gifts or to give money to charity. I choose the Christmas activities I'll do; I don't feel the societal pressure to have a perfect holiday. Some years we send cards, but other years we don't. Some years I bake a lot, but recently I don't. I try to have some activities that benefit charities. I enjoy the lights as I drive at night.

Yesterday, a woman at work said, "They're playing Christmas music on the radio. Already. Are you O.K. with that?"

I pointed out that it was after Thanksgiving, and then I made a confession, "I play Christmas music year round."

When I need an emotional lift, I reach for a Christmas CD. I'm happy to have such an easy comfort. I also realize that I'm lucky that Christmas gives me emotional comfort. So many people don't have that option.

So, as our holidays shift into high gear (and our Hindu friends recover from their holiday), I wish us all the emotional comfort that we might need this time of year--and if they're calorie-free and low-cost, so much the better!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 5, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12

Today's Gospel continues with the theme of watching, waiting, and listening for the call. Today it's John the Baptist who tells us of what's to come.

The real, living Jesus was not who John's listeners expected. Many of them probably thought that John was talking about himself; after all, first century Palestine was full of self-proclaimed Messiahs, and I expect many of them spoke of themselves in the third person telling (or warning) of the deeds they would do. Many of John's listeners probably had no idea what he was talking about; humans seem incapable of thinking in terms of metaphor and symbol for very long. Many of them probably expected a Messiah that would come in a form they'd recognize: a warrior to save them from the Romans, a temple reformer to get rid of corrupt priests, or maybe someone who would lead them into the wilderness to set up a new community.

Are we not the same way? How many of us read the Bible literally, expecting specific answers to social or political issues that would have been unheard of thousands of years ago when the Scriptures were written? How many of us expect our salvation to come in the tired old ways? We go to church, we sit in our pews, we wait for God to appear, and we go home, disappointed, to take a nap and gear up for our secular week ahead. We scurry through the rat race of our lives, substituting other things for God. We worship at the churches of Capitalism, buying things at the mall or on the Internet, which means we have to work overtime to pay for those things. We wonder why we feel unfulfilled. We overeat or drink or have sex or flick through Internet porn sites, and we wonder why we feel so empty. To try to fill that hole, we do more of the activities that leave us with gaping holes in our Spirit. We hear that voice--maybe it cries or maybe it whispers. It scares us, so we eat some more or flip through ever more cable stations or go to bed early--because we can't deal with the implications.

John warns what happens to those of us who don't listen: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (verse 12). Some of us don't like this vision of a God with a winnowing fork in hand. How does this mesh with a God of grace and love?

But I'm reminded of the situation I find myself in, when I teach in my English classes. I often have students who have hated English classes in the past, so they don't come to class, they don't do the work, they make no attempt, and so, they fail. Maybe they tell the stories in a familiar narrative that blames me, the teacher. But truth be told, they didn't fail the class because of me. On the contrary, I would have worked with them, I would have helped them, I would have led them out of the valley of failure and despair. But I can only do so much, without a student working with me.

Likewise, God doesn't have to do much winnowing. Our lifestyles are already punishing us. Many of us are already feeling that unquenchable fire.

The good news is that there is time to change our ways. There is still time to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." (verse 3). Advent, traditionally a time for getting ready, is a good time to think ahead. How could we make the next year to be our best spiritual year ever?

Make your goals small and attainable. In horse training language, set your jumps low. Plan for actions that will be ridiculously early. You could start every day with a prayer that God would help you be the light of the world, that God would help you be your best self. You could end the day by thanking God for all the blessings that came your way. Or maybe you want to start each day with a Bible reading. Maybe, when you surf the Internet at work because you are so bored, you could visit some spiritual websites that feed your soul. Maybe you could bring a granola bar to the homeless guy who begs for money at the street corner. Maybe you could make crafts for the craft fair that raises money for charity. Maybe you could write a weekly letter or e-mail to someone you know who is lonely.

Don't try to do all of these things. Just choose one or two. Do your activity for a few months, until it becomes habit, and then adopt another. If you find yourself feeling like you can't meet your spiritual goals, simplify.

In this way, you will be in a much stronger spiritual place a year from now. God will call, and you will hear. God won't have to go to such great lengths to get your attention. Your deepest yearnings, the ones you didn't even know you had, will be filled, as you move towards God--and God moves towards you.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Feast of St. Andrew

Today we celebrate the life of St. Andrew, brother of Peter. Every so often I come across references to the relatives of Peter, and I'm always a bit surprised to remember that he actually had a family. What must it have been like to be the brother of Peter? Did Andrew grow tired of Peter's antics? Or was he happy to have such an enthusiastic sibling? In any case, Andrew was the first of the brothers to follow Christ, and he brought Peter to Jesus. Was there any sibling rivalry? Did Andrew sometimes wonder why Peter never seemed to get the larger picture? Was Andrew ever resentful when Peter rose to prominence?

I know that I'm supposed to assume that Andrew was more mature, that he realized we all have our own spiritual gifts, that he didn't resent his brother or any of the other apostles. But I'm also reminded again and again that the disciples were human, and even the apostles must have been subject to some of the uglier emotions that we all experience. Happily, the apostles managed to work through their human vulnerabilities to spread the Good News far and wide.

Andrew is given credit for bringing Christianity to eastern Europe and western Asia. He's also important to the people of Scotland. The image above is from a Wikipedia entry, and it's one of the icons of St. Andrew, from Kizhi Monastery in Karelia, Russia.

Here's a prayer for today, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours:

"Almighty God, who gave such grace to your Apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of your Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give us, who are called by your holy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! Blog Quiet Ahead

Hard to believe it's that time of year again--how did Thanksgiving roll around so quickly?

I will likely not be posting much, if at all, over the next week. It's time for family togetherness, and it's good to unplug. I expect to return to regular blogging on Tuesday Nov. 30.

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 28, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5

Psalm: Psalm 122

Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14

Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44

So, here we are preparing for Christmas, and we get this apocalyptic Gospel. You might have been expecting a passage about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary. You might have thought you'd hear some prophecy about the coming of the Messiah. You would have even settled for those strange passages from John which talk about the word becoming flesh and moving into the neighborhood (as Eugene Patterson paraphrases it in his The Message paraphrase).

But no, we get these verses that have inspired any number of end of the world scenarios, the most recent being the Left Behind series. Two men working in a field, one taken and one left behind. Two women grinding grain, one taken and one left behind. Jesus refers to earlier times when people should have been more alert: imagine if you had been one of Noah's colleagues, eating and drinking and making merry, having no idea of what's about to fall on your head.

Again and again, our holy scriptures remind us that we need to stay alert and watchful. Again and again, our holy scriptures warn us that God is coming and that God won't always take on the shape we expect. Sometimes, our spiritual ancestors are lucky, as Abraham was, when he invited the strangers into his tent, and found out he was having dinner with God. Sometimes our ancestors aren't as lucky. Think of all those contemporaries of Jesus, many of them good, observant Jews, who were on the lookout for a different kind of Messiah. They wanted someone to deliver them from oppressive Roman rule. What did they get? A baby in a manger.

We think that we wouldn't have been so stupid. We would have recognized the Divine, as Christ moved among us.

But think of our own lives. Many of us are so busy that we can't even adopt traditional practices that move us closer to God, practices like fixed-hour prayer or tithing. Would we really recognize God in our lives, especially if God took on an unexpected form?

We might adopt another ancient spiritual practice for our Advent discipline. We usually think of Lent as the season of discipline and denial, but Advent cries out for a similar rigor, especially in our culture that goes into hyper-consumer-overdrive this time of year. This year, practice seeing the Divine in difficult people. It's easy to look at a little baby and to see God looking back out of that face. But for a few weeks, practice treating difficult people as if they are the embodiment of God. Your evil boss? Your difficult teenager? The homeless guy at the corner who won't take no for an answer when he asks for money? Your sad mother-in-law? How might things change if we treat these difficult people as the embodiment of God, as Christ incarnate?

Our changed approach might change their difficult behavior. However, let's be realistic. It probably won't change their behavior permanently. But hopefully, if we approach everyone as God moving in the world, our attitudes will change. But even if they don't, this adjustment in perspective is good training. Again and again, Christ warns us to stay alert and aware. We live in a culture that wants us numbed (from too much TV, too much spending, too much drinking, too much working, too much, too much, too much). We need to adopt practices that train us towards a different way.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Be Not Afraid!

Yesterday was one of those days where I felt God reminding me not to be afraid. For months, we've needed to have a home inspector come to complete some reports so that we can continue to have homeowner's and windstorm insurance (two different policies, requiring two different reports). For months, we've put this off, because we've needed to make some repairs.

Yesterday, the house still wasn't in perfect shape, because it's an older house, and it never will be in perfect shape. But the deadline approaches, and so we decided to just go ahead with the inspections.

It was easy. Unlike with past inspections, the inspector didn't need to crawl around under the house. Unlike with past inspections, we've made substantial improvements in the past 15 months (new HVAC system, new roof) with all the right paperwork on file. Yesterday's inspection was fairly easy.

Our first houses were repossessed rehab houses, which we picked up for very cheap, but which needed all sorts of repairs and renovations. I often wonder if I'd be a more relaxed person about home repairs and inspections if we hadn't had the experience with those houses. I have seen first hand what damage substandard/misinstalled plumbing can do. I know first hand why aluminum coated wiring was such a bad idea. I have seen wood rot in all its glory. I know all about rodents and reptiles and insects.

Whenever it's time for a home inspection, I always worry that the inspector will find some kind of disastrous something that will require thousands of dollars to fix. Sometimes, that happens. Happily, yesterday was not one of those times.

With Advent just around the corner, I have angels on the brain and the fact that they always appear to mortals and say, "Be not afraid." I feel like this is a message that God sends me again and again. I am far too fearful. In the words of the mystic Julian of Norwich, "All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things shall be well."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Advent Retreats, Virtual and Otherwise

Yesterday I talked about carving out some quiet space during the season of Advent. I know some people who manage to actually get away, but for most of us, it's a bad time to try to schedule a retreat. Luckily there are ways to work the idea of retreat into a busy life.

Take some time now to look around to see if there are places nearby that might offer you respite. Perhaps a church that offers a noon concert series. Perhaps a quiet library. Maybe there's a park bench where you could sit if it's not too cold in your part of the world.

But maybe you just can't leave the office. Luckily, there are virtual retreats!

I especially like this slide show that presents pictures from the 2009 Mepkin Abbey Creche festival. Let it play on your computer and enjoy the calming effect.

If you have some extra money, you could enroll in this six week virtual course at the Abbey of the Arts. In addition to the weekly course materials, you'd be getting daily e-mails, a valuable reminder to slow down and remember what the focus of the season should be. If this idea interests you, keep in mind that you need to enroll by Saturday, November 27.

On Monday, November 29, the RevGalBlogPals site is having a virtual Advent retreat: throughout the day, you'll find several blog postings on the Advent texts (go here for more information). Put it on your calendars!

As I discover other ways to infuse your Advent with contemplative resources, I'll make sure to post updates.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Preparing for Advent a Week before Black Friday

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, which means we're at the end of the liturgical year. It also means that we're about to plunge into the Christmas season. This week-end is a good time to plan for how we're going to have a meaningful Advent, how we're going to resist the consumerist, capitalist madness of a whirlwind that tends to sweep us all along.

Last year was one of the first years in a long time that I experienced such a December. I had read about these kind of months, where people (often women) spend time rushing from pillar to post, whipsawed by all the obligations. I always felt proud that I was able to resist such madness. And then, last year came, when there were so many wonderful opportunities, and I wanted to do them all. ALL!!! And so, I found myself overbooked, doublebooked, with little time between activities. By Christmas day, I was exhausted and irritable.

So, let's strategize. How can we avoid a hectic season? How can we invite more contemplation and quiet into December?

--Make a budget now. A week from today, the Christmas shopping season begins for those of us brave enough to go into stores. Before you go, make sure you know how much you can spend. It's easy to get caught up in the shrill cycle of good deals and fierce desires. Don't buy so much that you'll still be paying off those credit cards in July. Nothing is worth that.

--Instead of buying stuff, buy experiences. Most of us have too much stuff. Why not give someone a meal out or a movie? Give the gift of your time.

--Instead of buying stuff, donate to charities. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy just about everything I need (and my needs are fairly simple). I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way.

--Plan your social calendar now. And keep it simple. Choose only one or two events per week-end. Declare that you won't go out on school nights. You can't do everything, and you'll only feel irritable if you try. What's most important to you and the ones you love?

--Purge the traditions that have ceased to have meaning. This one is tough. For example, I often find myself bored and irritable as I sit through The Nutcracker. I always think I'll love that ballet, probably because I loved it as a child. I don't love it as an adult. Why spend the money and time? Of course, if everyone else in the family adored it and wanted to go, it might be worth it. But now is a good time to have a frank discussion, before we're caught up in the sentimental sweep of December.

--Streamline some of the traditions. Do you really need to bake every kind of cookie that you remember from past holidays? Maybe you and your friends could have a cookie swap. Or get together to bake cookies together. Have a wonderful afternoon of cookie dough and wine and leave with enough cookies to get you through the holiday. For years, I did a cookie bake/swap with friends, which grew into a dinner swap, which we'd still be doing today, if I hadn't moved 700 miles away. That tradition meant something. These days, though, I don't bake cookies all alone. Consider ways to make the holiday meals simpler. Consider ways to simplify the holiday card tradition. Ask yourself which church events mean something to you and which you're attending because you always have.

--Take time to help the needy, and bring your children along. Some of my favorite holiday memories involve helping others. My Girl Scout troop used to go carolling at nursing homes. The church of my adolescence assembled gift baskets for homeless women. The words of Isaiah are knitted into every fiber of my being: "learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1: 17). My parents, along with social institutions like church and school, modeled the good behavior of working for social justice. It's stuck with me. Advent is a great time to train the next generation in the habits of social justice and charitable work.

--Schedule time in your day to slow down. Now is the time to remember to pray. Now is the time to rest. Light the candles on your Advent wreath and contemplate the mysteries that so many religious traditions celebrate as the year winds to a close.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Autumnal Colors, South Florida Style!

I've been inspired by the blog pictures of many people who have been cataloguing Autumn up in the upper 48 states: Dave Bonta has a great photoessay that takes us on a hike and Sherry O'Keefe shows us a weathered face of autumn. I routinely lament the lack of Autumn colors down here in southernmost Florida, but this week it occurs to me that we have gorgeous Fall colors, just not traditional ones.

So, I decided that it was time to take out the camera, to meditate on God's grandeur in a non-Brit-Lit part of the world.

This time of year, our yards are covered with a beautiful carpet of lavender flowers. From a distance, if you squint, it looks like snow. Natives call this groundcover clover, but it's nothing like the clover we'd use to make clover chains in a different part of the world.

Who says we don't have traditional Fall colors? Here's our orange--sure it's more lurid than your maple trees, but beautiful still.

I remember when I first realized what a florist in a different part of the country would charge to add birds of paradise to a floral arrangement. I thought, wow, those grow in my yard, and they spread like weeds!

Bougainvillea--the quintessential tropical tree. We used to have one that bloomed year-round, in a much more vivid pink than the one pictured. We lost that tree in the horrible hurricane season of 2005. I mourned it more than most trees, and it was one of the first that we replaced.

And now we look ahead to the next season. If you look at the above picture, you'll see it's a poinsettia bush! My spouse took one of the ubiquitous Christmas Eve poinsettias home and planted it in the yard. It's done beautifully as a green bush, but we wondered if it would turn colors. In other states, there's an elaborate procedure that involves putting a bag over the plant and putting it in a closet--something about that process tells the plant to change color. A few weeks ago, our outdoor plant began the change without all the fuss. Fascinating!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, November 21, 2010:

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 23:1-6

Psalm: Psalm 46

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Luke 1:68-79

Second Reading: Colossians 1:11-20

Gospel: Luke 23:33-43

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, which is the last day of our liturgical calendar. The readings are familiar: we're back in the land of Good Friday, with our king crucified on a cross. Perhaps not the image we'd expect for Christ the King Sunday, but those of us who have been reading through this cycle (either for the first time or for the umpteenth time) will be familiar with these strange twists of imagery, with the upheaval of all our expectations.

I have always loved the cyclical nature of the lectionary, with its readings that loop around and remind us that all of life is cyclical. When I'm having a bad day (or week or month), it's important to remember that everything can change. When I'm having a good day (or week or month), it's important to express profound gratitude and to try not to dread the next downturn too much. With every downturn comes an upturn. The life of Christ shows us this.

Christ's life shows us that being king requires something different for a believer. It's not the worldly experience of kings, who are venerated and obeyed. Being a Christian king requires humbling ourselves and thinking of others before we think of ourselves. But our rewards are great. If we could emulate Christ's behavior, we'd have a wonderful community here on earth, and whatever we might experience in the afterlife would just be icing on the cake. We'd have already had a taste of heaven right here on earth.

Maybe we feel grumpy as the holiday season approaches. Maybe we've had a season of sorrow, and we can't quite manage to feel festive. Maybe we're tired of humbling ourselves and we'd like someone to humble themselves for us.

Well, here's some good news. Someone already has. Maybe in this season of thankfulness, we can concentrate on our good fortune, even if we don't feel it. We're alive to see the sunrise and the sunset, some of the best shows on earth, and they're free! Even if we don't have as much money as we'd like, there's always someone who is in worse shape (and if we give some of our money away, we won't feel as constricted about money. Trust me. If you're feeling tight and pinched, now is the time to return to tithing). If we are having trouble keeping everything in perspective, maybe it's time to volunteer at a food bank or an animal shelter--or if we're not into organizational activities, we could do our part to pick up litter. We could smile at the janitorial staff. We could thank them for cleaning the communal bathrooms.

If we start working on our spirit of gratitude, the gift of generosity often follows. If we pray for those who need our prayers, our hearts start to open. If we work on forgiveness, our spirit soars. And soon we realize what it means to celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Poem to Celebrate Food, Friendship, and Community

At my creativity blog, I've continued my contemplation of food: this post ponders how we eat, why we eat, and how our society distracts us with weight control schemes that keep us from doing the important work (creative work, social change, you name it), and here I continue the thinking by considering the extra duties that children and pets confer.

Not surprisingly, many of my poems feature food. Here's a poem that appeared in Ruminate, a poem which thinks about women and food, women and religion, about the whole idea of communion (both the verb and the sacrament):


I knead the bread leavened with beer,
stew a lamb shank in a pot of lentils,
prepare a salad of apples, walnuts, and raisins,
sweetened with wine and honey.
No one ever had herbs as bitter as this late season lettuce.

My friends gather at dusk, a motley band
of ragtags, fleeing from the Philistines of academia:
a Marxist, a Hindu, a Wiccan, a Charismatic Catholic,
and me, a lapsed Lutheran longing for liturgy.

Later, having drunk several bottles of wine
with prices that could have paid our grad
school rents, we eat desserts from disparate
cultures and tell our daughters tales from our deviant days.
We agree to meet again.

Gnarled vegetables coaxed from their dark hiding places
transform into a hearty broth.
Fire transubstantiates flour and water into life giving loaves.
Outcasts scavenged from the margins of education
share a meal and memories and begin to mold
a new family, a different covenant.

We have participated in the Paschal mysteries,
not yet comprehending the scope of what we have created.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What the Monks Can Teach Us About Eating

The one thing that strikes me most about monastic eating is the scheduled aspect of it. We live in cultures where we're surrounded by food, most of us. Granted, a lot of that food isn't very tasty or very nutritious. I'm thinking of the past two weeks where everyone at my office has brought in the Halloween candy that wasn't claimed by trick-or-treaters. Most of us can't drive more than one block without being seeing (being tempted by?) a variety of eating establishments--again, most of them offering food that's not very tasty or nutritious. But boy, is it convenient--we don't even have to heave our bodies out of the car.

The monks eat at specific times of the day, two of the meals after a worship service. Monastic guests might have a different experience than the monks. Maybe monks are allowed to forage in the kitchen whenever they're hungry, but I doubt it.

What can this way of life teach us about eating? Plenty:

--Sticking to an eating schedule means that our blood sugar will never fall too far. It also means that we won't overeat because we snack through the day. It's easy not to snack, if there are no snacks to eat.

--There's always a bowl of fruit, if you just can't wait until mealtime.

--A sandwich and a bowl of soup make for a lovely supper. We ate this meal as our first meal at Mepkin Abbey, and I kept hoping for soup throughout the week-end.

--You only need dessert once a day. Really. Only once. Or maybe you want to make an exception for Sundays and have dessert twice.

--At Mepkin Abbey, the lodging for guests is at least a half mile away from the main part of the Abbey. One of us once had a pedometer during our visit, and we calculated that we walked 10-20 miles on an average day. Even if we didn't take a stroll down to the river or through the gardens, we'd still go back and forth to the chapel and the refectory 6-8 times a day. I often lose a pound or two during the week-end, even though I'm eating hearty meals.

--For the most part, for a variety of reasons, monks eat a tasty, vegetarian diet.

--Silence at meals means that the focus is on the food--or perhaps on God. You're not courting indigestion by talking about politics or home repairs or finances.

--At the midday meal, the monks listen to a book (I think it was a recording, but I can't be sure). I read through a lot of books and don't remember most of them. But I remember the snippets of the books that were being read when I visited the Abbey.

--We talked about how these monks put items together that we never would have done at home. For example, at the evening meal the last night, we had a spinach-tomato frittata paired with a cottage cheese and pineapple side dish. If we had been at home, we'd have probably offered a veggie side dish or a salad. We get into ruts, in food prep as with other areas. The monks point a different way. I suspect they use what's on hand, what needs to be used up.

--We also talked about how delicious everything was, even food we might have snootily turned our noses up to at home. For example, at the midday meal we had ice cream for dessert. It wasn't bottom brand ice cream, but neither was it premium. Still, it seemed like the best ice cream ever. I had an ice cream with Heath Bar bits in it, and I was surprised by how much I loved it.

--Portions are limited by eating time. You can take as much as you want, but you only have a certain amount of time to eat.

--Monks may move beyond this, but I found that because I was eating communally, I limited myself a bit. For example, I'd have loved to have more than one bowl of ice cream, but I knew that we were expected to take only one. Usually the food seems limitless, but once I was there and the one pan of enchiladas seemed to be dwindling quickly. Conscious of the line of hungry people behind me, I took a smaller portion than I might have.

--You might think that monks worry about world hunger or that they eat the way they do to free up resources for the rest of the world. If so, they don't talk about it. I suspect they eat the way that they do because they've been eating this way for many centuries and because it's a frugal way to be true to the rule of hospitality.

--Perhaps hospitality can point us back to the best way to eat. Much of what I've written above blossoms out of the monastic commitment to hospitality and welcoming the stranger. When I gobble a fast food meal by myself in my moving car, I am not practicing the hospitality of a welcoming table. God calls us to live in community. Solitary eating of non-nutritious food does not move us closer to that Kingdom ideal of sharing a table with the community.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Return to Regular Church

In between travelling and a visit from my sister and nephew, it's been a month since I worshipped at my home church. Today I plunge right back in. It's my week to do an improv Sunday School. We will be focused on cool women of the Old Testament, excluding Ruth and Esther. I will probably focus on Miriam the most. I just don't have much to say about Deborah, and the other women of the Old Testament are problematic. I don't really want to explain Bathsheba or Jezebel or the woman who cut Samson's hair to preschoolers and elementary school children.

I have learned an important lesson. It's important to have coloring pages. Some of our children would rather color than do anything else.

I've been fighting off a cold all week, so I'm not at my high energy best. A bad day to be having a low energy day--not only do I lead Sunday School, but I'm Assistant Minister. I shall muddle through somehow.

I've been to several mountain tops, both literal (Lutheridge!) and metaphorical (Mepkin Abbey!). It's always a bit hard to return to suburban church life, regular work life, the daily chores of upkeep.

So, my prayer for today:

Please God, grant me the wisdom to lead children towards your sacred text. Let me illumine them, whether through improv or coloring pages or song. Grant me the energy needed to be Assistant Minister. Let me not infect others with my germs, but only with my love.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What the Monks Can Teach Us About Ways to Lead Our Lives

Monks have so much to teach us. You could argue that most people have much to teach us, but monks, with their obviously different lifestyles, have a clearly different angle.

Here are some of the things I've learned from reading about monasticism and from being a guest in monastic communities:

--Monks understand the value of balance better than anyone else I've ever met. Their lives are highly structured, which many Western minds might balk at--yet it leads to the balance that so many of us crave. Monks worship periodically throughout the day and evening. In between they have times for study and times for work. They break for nutritious meals at specific times that never change (a lesson my grandparents knew well, but I've strayed from--my grandparents even snacked at specific times). They get 7-8 hours of sleep a night.

--They're willing to have some periodic disruptions of the highly structured schedule for special events. For example, Mepkin Abbey has an annual festival where they present creches from around the world. It's a fundraiser for the Abbey, but before the hordes of people come, the monks have a special night for themselves when they get to see the displays before everyone else.

--Meals are simple, except for when they're not. At Mepkin Abbey, the monks eat their big meal in the middle of the day, which makes sense to me. In the evening, supper is a simple sandwich, sometimes served with soup or salad or some kind of fruit. In the morning, we had hardboiled eggs with toast, and cereal was also available. Sunday evenings had a more elaborate evening meal--dessert twice in one day. Sundays are special, which make sense.

--Times of talk are balanced with times of silence. Trappists are more committed to silence than other religious orders. At Mepkin Abbey, silence isn't enforced around the clock. But for twelve and a half hours, monks don't speak. At meals, monks don't speak. At first I thought I'd hate all that silence. But now, as life becomes more filled with noise, I crave that quiet.

--Again and again, I am struck by how the monks are committed to ancient practices. They don't waste time looking for new and better and more efficient ways to accomplish things and live their lives. They're part of a community which figured out the best way of living long ago. It may not work for everyone--they don't waste energy trying to be all things to all people. They're not trying to convince the rest of the world. But the rest of the world can sense something--that's why for most communities, you need to make reservations to come visit months and months before you plan to come.

I understand that many people have problems with the Roman Catholic church, or even Christianity. I understand that many people look at monasticism and point out all the problems. Many non-monastic people are defensive for reasons that I don't often understand--it's not like monks are out there recruiting.

Or maybe that's the source of the anxiety when it comes to monasticism. Because, of course, the monks are recruiting in a sense, in the best sense. They recruit by showing us a better way to live our lives. Like so many ways the Holy Spirit works, the monks point us to a closer union with God--not by talking about it or making legislation--but by living it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What the Monks Can Teach Us About Worship

One of the raging debates in any church tends to be what the mission of the church should be. Are we there to care for the widows and orphans? To be a prophetic voice, speaking truth to the rulers of our empires? To form believers? To attract the unchurched?

Most of us can agree that one of the central missions of the church should be worship. And then we promptly tear ourselves into shreds arguing about the shape of that worship. How many readings? How long should the sermon be? Traditional music, rock, contemporary worship, or something else? How much quiet? How much time for announcements? Organ, guitar, or choir? Confession? Communion?

It's refreshing to go to a monastery, where these questions were settled centuries ago. From my limited experiences, the monks do not waste precious time second guessing worship practices that have worked for centuries.

Here are some things we might learn:

--We don't necessarily need a lengthy sermon. In fact, we might not need a sermon at all. The monks at Mepkin Abbey focus much more on scripture, song, and sacrament.

--We need more Scripture, not less. An average monastery sings its way through the Psalms every month, perhaps twice a month. The Psalms knit themselves into the memory--even a week-end stay shows that.

--A lovely floral arrangement can be made from stuff you find in your own garden--including dead leaves.

--We could do more to change up the worship space than just change the paraments. The monks at Mepkin Abbey create striking floral arrangements in huge vases and jars. During the month of November, they hang a framed print of John August Swanson's and light candles in front of it as they remember the saints who have come before us. Churches often do a good job of changing the worship space during the seasons of Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter. But why stop there?

--It doesn't hurt to bow. In fact, it helps.

--Practice makes perfect. I'm always surprised at how well these monks sing. But then it occurred to me that if you took anyone and had them sing through the same cycles throughout each day, month after month, year after year, they'd be able to sing beautifully too.

--The monks celebrate the Eucharist once a day. We need more sacrament, not less.

Of course, some of these practices are easier for monks, who live, worship and work at the same site. Still, they have much to teach us. And those of us who live and move primarily in the secular world have much to learn.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, November 14, 2010:

First Reading: Malachi 4:1-2a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Isaiah 65:17-25

Psalm: Psalm 98

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Isaiah 12 (Isaiah 12:2-6 NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19

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, in many decades, they have been severely threatened. Lately, we’ve seen massacres during church services, both here and abroad. It’s a sobering reminder that we live in an unstable world, a world where true sanctuary is rare.

Perhaps the Gospel writer wants to remind us of the cost of following Jesus. Even those of us who won’t be massacred or martyred for our beliefs may find it hard to live openly as a Christian in this world. Many people assume that all religious people are kooks. The idea that a person could be an admirable believer is not one that we find reinforced in popular culture.

Perhaps the Gospel shows us 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.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Back from Mepkin

I'm back from Mepkin Abbey--a very satisfying trip. I'm still waking in the night with the music of Mepkin in my mind. It's a bit like when I spend several days on my sister's sailboat, and it takes me days to get my land legs back. I'm always a bit sad when I stop feeling the swaying of the sea. Likewise, I'll miss hearing that plainsong in my head.

I'm planning a series of posts on what the monks can teach us. When I tell people that I'm off to a monastery, I get questions: "Aren't they Catholic and you Lutheran? Aren't they male? What can you, a married Lutheran woman, possibly gain from time in a monastery?"

I don't think I can answer that in one post, thus the series. I plan to begin on Thursday. But here are some short answers.

In our increasingly hectic lives, the one thing that often gets sacrificed is retreat time. Even some daily quiet time is often the first to go when our jobs/families/household duties demand more. Yet study after study shows us that we're actually more productive if we take some downtime. And retreat time can radically recalibrate us.

God didn't create us to be these harried, frantic creatures. We cannot minister to a broken world when we're so frazzled ourselves. We feel our jobs under threat, and so it's hard to say, "Hey, can I go on retreat?" Many of us, including me, have to use vacation time to go on retreat. But I find it renews me more than a traditional vacation (go to an exotic destination, go-go hurry-hurry to get all the activities and sights in).

It's also useful for me to discover how others are living their faith. Now I can't do everything the monks are doing. My life doesn't let me break 6-8 times a day for worship services that are at least a half hour long. But I can take shorter meditation/prayer breaks. I can use music at work to achieve that peaceful frame of mind. I can surround myself with art that will help me remember my purpose. I can remember that I need time away from screens.

As we move into the frantic time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it's good to remember these ways to stay calm.