Saturday, January 30, 2010

Giving Even More Away

For days now, I've been thinking of the article I read on Sunday in The New York Times, where Nicholas D. Kristof describes a family who, prompted by their teenage daughter, sells their large house, moves to a smaller one, and gives half the money to worthy charities. They buy a smaller house with the other half.

Instead of feeling impoverished by this decision, the family realized benefits. They spend more time together, as you have to do in a smaller house. They had fun and enormous satisfaction deciding how to distribute the money to charities.

I've always felt like I should be giving more, even though I'm usually at the 10% level. But is that enough?

In Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (a book I highly recommend), Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat have this interesting approach to charitable giving: "One guidepost we work with is that if we ever find in a given year that we have invested more in our won 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" (page 189).

While I essentially agree with them, I am not there yet, and may not ever meet them there. I would be happy to match my retirement savings with my charitable/social justice giving. Actually, I might do that already and not realize it. In the past few years, I've been lucky at work to have earned promotions and to have gotten raises. As my income has risen, I've tried to also increase my charitable giving. I haven't always been vigilant at raising my non-work related retirement savings (my work 401-K plan is recalculated automatically for me, as my income fluctuates, since I've specified a percentage to be socked away, not an amount--not so with my other accounts).

Something to think about, as I start to think about my income taxes. It's a good time to double check all of my accounts, to make sure that my spending and savings reflects my truest values.

Friday, January 29, 2010

An Answer for Why We Go to Church, Why We Live a Liturgical Year

I can't resist posting this quote from Joan Chittister's The Liturgical Year, another one of the books in the Ancient Practices series from publisher Thomas Nelson: "We do not live a liturgical life to look good to other people. We do not develop a liturgical spirituality to affect a kind of spiritual dimension to our lives. And we certainly do not go to Mass regularly to avoid hell."

I especially like what she says next: "We live a liturgical life in order to become like the One whom we follow from the manger to the Mount of Olives. We live a liturgical life to learn to think like He thinks. To do what He would do. To make Him the center of our lives--not our work or our money or our status" (179).

I have non-church going friends who would then ask, "Couldn't you do that on your own, at home, in the quiet of your study or living room?"

Maybe I could. But I doubt that I would. I'm easily distracted. I can hardly remember to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Could I remember to create all the other liturgical elements on my own, in my home?

Plus, humans were created for community. Very few of us have what it takes to be hermits. We need to be around people, especially people who have our values, in a world that doesn't value us or our beliefs very often.

Chittister sums it up well: "Liturgical spirituality is about learning to live an ordinary life extraordinarily well" (179).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Book for Eucharist Geeks Like Me

Yesterday, I read most of Nora Gallagher's The Sacred Meal in one big gulp. What a delightful book! It's accessible, it's short, it's poetic, it sings the joy of one of the sacraments--add it to your reading list.

I've loved Nora Gallagher since I read Things Seen and Unseen, a book I return to again and again. Her writing is beautiful, her theology sound, and she always makes me think. This book didn't tell me much I didn't already know about the Eucharist, but I enjoyed reading it.

She says that the Eucharist "is the one practice that is really about ingesting spirit, eating what we call God but what may as well be called taking a bite out of infinity" (14). She says this about spiritual practices: "A practice is meant to connect you with what is deeply alive, to stir in you the same kind of aliveness that the disciples of Jesus must have felt around him. A practice trains and disciplines the mind to head toward compassion rather than toward greed. A practice is not about finding exactly the right set of rules that will make you 'good' but is instead meant to establish a habit of connection to a world that is both tenuous and surprising, outside of time and in it" (page 25).

The book is full of nuggets like these. It's also full of history and background, which will be useful for people who come from traditions that don't emphasize Communion.

She also ties in Eucharist theology to the work that we do in the world, especially the social justice work that some of us might do (often in contrast to the work we might do to earn money). Here's one of my favorite quotes from the book: "To be exalted by earthly standards is to be constantly aware of who is not exalted or to be looking over one's shoulder for who might be more exalted next. It is to be anxious. To be exalted by heavenly standards is to urge others to be exalted, too, to share in the bounty of being loved and loving" (128).

This book is part of the splendid series, The Ancient Practices Series, brought to us by Thomas Nelson publishers. Just this week, I finished reading Joan Chittister's The Liturgical Year. I've read all but two books in the series, and I've loved them all. While they haven't told me much that I didn't already know, it's always good to read in a different voice, to be reminded of the precious nature of that knowledge.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 31, 2010:

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm: Psalm 71:1-6

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30

In this Gospel, we see the reactions of Jesus' listeners to his proclamation that the Scripture has been fulfilled. They can't believe that this boy that they knew as a child could be the Messiah. And then they decide to throw him over a cliff.

I wish I could say that I thought this behavior was bizarre, but I don't. Unfortunately, many people, even dedicated Christians, have this reaction to the Sacred.

How many times have you seen clear evidence of God working in your life? How many times have you discounted your experiences? "It can't be God. It's just coincidence that the issues for which I prayed for help and guidance have been resolved." We should be shouting for joy, and praying prayers of thanksgiving, and instead, we chalk it up to randomness.

In some ways, this behavior is similar to the desire to throw Jesus off the cliff. We discount the power of God, and so we diminish our relationship with God. Later, in the Good Friday story, we scoff at Simon Peter's denial of Jesus, but we often deny God on a daily basis. Many of us are committed to a scientific, rational view of the universe that leaves no room for a divine power. We throw God over the cliff.

Or worse, we're committed to a view of the universe as dark, chaotic, and threatening. We discount the power of light and good to overcome the powers of darkness. Again, we throw God over the cliff. God commands us to be children of the light, committed to love. Many of us prefer to wallow in our feelings of fear and despair. Ah, despair, the sin that medievalists would remind us is the deadliest of the deadly sins--for it is despair that keeps us from believing that life can be different, that God is really in control. And if we can avoid believing that, then we can avoid our responsibilities towards this world that God created.

One of the most insidious ways that we continue to throw Jesus over the cliff is in our daily behavior, especially if those around us know that we are Christians. So often, our behavior undercuts our Christian stance. What will the rest of the world think of our triune God when they see us behave in ways that they know are distinctly not Christian? How do we lead people away from Jesus by our unflattering behavior? It's time to remember that we are to be an example of the kind of world that Jesus came to help us create.

The new year, which is quickly moving towards becoming the old year, is a good time for reflection, a good time to turn inward and to become aware of areas where we could still use improvement. Sure, God loves us the way that we are (a gift of grace to be sure). But God always calls us to be better. It's time to work on our attitudes and beliefs and actions that throw Jesus off the cliff, attitudes and beliefs and actions that make others think that God is indeed dead.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Praying for the Bishop

During our conference meeting on Saturday, the Synod representative asked us to pray for the Bishop. I wish I could say that I was a good enough prayer person that I could say that of course I always pray for church leaders. But I often have trouble remembering to pray for the people outside of my immediate circle--well, heck, if I'm admitting the truth, I often have trouble remembering to pray for those close to me. But for a few days, at least, I've been remembering to pray for the Bishop.

Our Synod has at least 4 churches who are considering leaving the ELCA (the larger denominational body), and our Synod representative told us that the Bishop is really taking it hard and working hard towards reconciliation.

I found myself surprised to hear this. I admit that my thoughts weren't very Christian ones when I heard that these churches were thinking of leaving: well, good, don't let the screen door hit your bigoted butt on the way out of our inclusive door.

Those thoughts are one of the many reasons why I am not the Bishop.

These churches are deeply upset over the recent vote at the Churchwide Assembly, and I confess I'm having trouble understanding the upset. The church didn't mandate that every church must call pastors who are gays and lesbians. Churches are allowed to decide that they will never do that. But some churches will, and gays and lesbians who are in lifelong, committed relationships will not lose their ordination, and they no longer have to live a duplicitous life so that they can have both their relationship and their job. The churchwide body left room for disagreement. You don't have to approve of this lifestyle. You don't even have to support it by calling those pastors.

Some from the other side have criticized this wishy-washy approach to social justice. However, I rather admire this attempt to live in the tension of not being sure how to handle this divisive issue.

LutheranChik has a great post where she attempts to understand all this "anguish" that people say they are feeling. I understand feeling anguish over battered Haiti. This issue of people's private sex lives in committed relationships doesn't seem anguish worthy to me.

Of course, I'm younger than the people feeling so upset that they'd leave the church. I'm younger, and I've known a lot of gays and lesbians, both in committed relationships and those committed to promiscuity--sort of like the heterosexual people I've known. Gays and lesbians just don't seem that different. And I've lived long enough to realize that sexual desire is a pretty fluid thing. Any of us might wake up one day to find ourselves in love with our best friends of the same gender. Or of a different gender. Or we might find ourselves desiring someone who never would have interested us before. Or we might just wish we had that extra time to get more sleep.

So I will pray for the Bishop, both our Synod bishop and the bishop of the larger ELCA. I will pray for these churches who are contemplating leaving. I'll pray for all those Lutherans who are thinking of creating yet another Lutheran denomination--will they go back to using an older hymnbook too? And my snarky comments lead me to think that I should pray for myself, that I should pray to have the open heart that it takes to listen to people who are feeling an anguish that I cannot understand.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Today is the day that we celebrate Saul's conversion, the act that would eventually make him Paul, probably the greatest evangelist ever. It's important to remember what Saul of Tarsus had been doing up to that point: persecuting Christians. One of the things I love about Christianity is that God can use absolutely anyone. No one is too dreadful, provided that they have this kind of epiphany moment that Saul experiences.

When I was younger, I would have turned up my nose at this feast day. I HATED Paul. In fact, I stayed away from church for a few years in my late 20's and early 30's, because I had decided that the church was more devoted to Paul than to Christ. And I could still make that case about some of them.

It's helped to have some scholarly insight. Many of the letters of Paul that I see as most damaging, most supportive of the status quo of empire and patriarchy, we now think that most of those letters weren't written by Paul. Paul's writing was much more egalitarian. There's some school of thought that medieval writers revised some of them to make them less egalitarian. It would be interesting to learn Greek, to see for myself what has been done.

But my life right now doesn't lend itself to learning Greek. I'll rest secure in the knowledge that the Paul that my 19 year old self hated is not the real Paul. The real Paul is quite amazing. To think about what he accomplished just makes me tired and makes me feel a bit inadequate, truth to tell.

We've spent weeks now embroiled in efforts to get a handle on our church budget. Some part of me thinks it would be easier to be Paul: come in, set up a church, go to the next town, set up a church. Those of us left behind have to figure out what it means for our daily lives.

Today might be a good day to meditate on Road to Damascus experiences. Have you ever had that kind of experience, where your life was turned around with a flash of light? I'm not sure I really have. I've felt God revealed in much smaller movements, those still, small voices in the night.

Today might be a good day to ponder where we need that light of revelation. Today might be a good day to pray that God show us where we need a revolution, a rotation, a change, in our way of thinking and acting.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Call to be Small?

We live in an era of megachurches. I currently go to a church that has 100-130 people worship every Sunday--and that's considered a small church, by our denomination's standards. But I used to go to a church where regular Sunday attendance had dwindled to 40-50 a week.

I've been thinking about these things after reading this post. And here I read Di's experience of finding a Lutheran church that's working for her. And my spouse has spent several weeks wondering if we've lost our way in terms of reaching out to the unchurched. And I've been wondering at what point a church becomes too big.

There are disadvantages to being a very small church, like my old church, especially when most of those members are over the age of 70. There just aren't as many people to do things. If you're a family, there's likely no youth group, perhaps no Sunday school.

There are advantages to being small. Want to offer a cool arts program that the church hasn't done before? Want to preach? Want to experiment with changing the liturgical space? Want to teach a song? Want to bring in your band to accompany the service? Anything, everything is possible, if you're part of the kind of church that's so grateful for someone who's willing to do something that they'll listen to your ideas.

And the best benefit is that the members really know each other. At a Christmas Eve service at my old church, I looked around and realized that I knew almost every face—more, I could connect a name with every face, and for most of those names and faces, I knew a bit of the person’s history. How rare this is, I thought. What a gift to have a church home where I actually know almost everybody.

Of course, the downside is that many church members will be mourning the past days of the church that are no more, and likely won't come again.

My Broward-Bahamas conference (a Synod district, a smaller part of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is currently meeting and trying to envision a different way of doing church. Do we all need to run a Confirmation program or could we have regional Confirmation groups across the county? Does each church need to have its own separate office? How can suburban churches help urban churches help the homeless? Could we dream even bigger dreams?

Most of our churches down here are land rich and member poor. We have some churches that are down to 20 members. That probably can't go on much longer. With the recent collapse in property values, our churches aren't even as land rich as they once were.

We live in interesting times. I know that some people aren't convinced that the mainline churches are collapsing, and some of them aren't. It's hard to ignore the national and international statistics though. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are growing much faster than others.

Where will it all lead? I have no idea. And it's not really up to me. If I believe what the Scriptures tell me, I have to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work and moving in the world. god has a bigger, better vision for the world than I could ever dream up. I'm heartened by stories on people's blogs of the churches they've found and the acceptance they feel (there are some great stories of work-life balance from clergy women with children here, if you need some more reasons to feel good).

Tomorrow we meet again as a conference group. What visions will we weave?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 24, 2010:

First Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm: Psalm 19

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Gospel: Luke 4:14-21

It's a shame that the Gospel lesson ends with verse 21. Verse 22 shows a predictable response; the people don't want to believe that something good can come from such humble beginnings. We might say it's the story of Jesus' life--people can't believe that God can work a divine purpose from such a marginal place.

It's a problem that many non-Christians have with the religion; in fact, some scholars might argue it's one of the central problems that many non-believers face. The idea that God would take on human form diminishes God, at least in some people's minds. Some people find it absolutely incomprehensible.

Perhaps some of our fellow Christians find it incomprehensible too. We hear echoes of this disbelief when people talk about Jesus' ministry: "Sure that was fine for Christ, but he was part God." The next part of this sentence is usually one designed to let us off the hook: so, therefore, I don't have to do what Jesus did (feed the hungry, visit the sick, work for the rights of the oppressed); after all, I'm only human.

Jesus was human too, and therefore, anything he did, we could do. In fact, some theologians posit that Jesus came to show us how to live God's vision for us right here on earth, in our own communities. The passage that Jesus reads from Isaiah gives us an idea of what God has in mind for us and our mission in the world: preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, set the oppressed free, give the blind their sight.

Interesting to think about church communities and individual Christians. How are we living out Christ's mission? Notice that Jesus doesn't say, "I came to show you how to model your church/synod/denomination according to modern business practices so that you can build up your endowment." Jesus doesn't say, "I came to give you this cool prayer--if you pray it three times a day, you'll get rich." Jesus does not say, "I came so that you might know to meet in a building once a week." Jesus doesn't say, "I came to revamp your worship service with music/media/atmosphere that's more accessible to the modern seeker mentality." Jesus has a very different agenda than the ones that modern people might want him to have.

As we will see in the coming weeks, Jesus focuses on community. Not just once a week, meet for an hour community, but a deep, committed group of people. He works with the people he meets, people like you and me, people who are far from perfect. He works where he is, in a distant outpost of a powerful empire. He doesn't say, "Well, I better move to Rome, because that's where the rich and the powerful people are, and they know how to get things done." He looks around, sees what needs to be done, and does it.

And it's important to realize that he does his work at great risk to himself. Empires realize that their future is threatened by communities that are deeply committed to the vision of God. They'd rather have us spend our hard-earned money (and work ever longer hours to get more money) on cheap junk made by oppressed people on the other side of the planet.

In the first weeks of this new year, it's a good time to think about how we might make this year different. How can we be part of the work that makes the scripture be fulfilled?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Upon This Rock--The Feast of the Confession of St. Peter

I've always had a fondness for St. Peter. I've always had a fondness for all the disciples, really. Such flawed people. So much like us all. Today's feast celebrates Peter's assertion, "You are the Christ."

Think back to those early disciples, travelling the countryside with a mystifying man named Jesus. They must have had trouble figuring out exactly what was happening, much as we all do when we're in the midst of our life experiences. And yet, they are able to confess their belief and to commit to this new life path. For most, it will cost them their lives.

I think about our secular holiday that celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King today, and the juxtaposition of the two holidays. As a child growing up in the 70's, even in the deep South, we were taught to admire those Civil Rights workers (I went to fairly progressive schools; I know that not every Southern child had that experience). What tremendous odds they fought against! What vision they had! How solidly committed they remained!

The older I get, the more I continue to be impressed with that social justice movement. I'm especially impressed with their commitment to nonviolence. One of the books I keep meaning to read is Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World : Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People; I've heard him talk about one of his book's main points that the twentieth century's biggest leaps in transforming societies came from nonviolent movements: think about the collapse of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and Gandhi's campaign in India. Those three examples are examples not just of nonviolent movements, but nonviolent movements rooted in religious belief.

I have argued before, and I will continue to argue until I die, that social justice movements that have a religious core will be more successful than those that don't. A religious core gives us the hope we need to keep going when it appears that all our efforts aren't working. A religious grounding assures us that just below the surface, justice simmers, and seeds wait.

So today, we celebrate both St. Peter and Dr. Martin Luther King. If you want a religious reading for the day, turn to Matthew 16: 13-20. Any of Dr. King's writings provide a respite, no matter what day of the year it is. We might offer a prayer for all the workers toiling in the social justice field, that their work might flower. We might pray for ourselves, that we hold fast to what is true, that we not sacrifice our deepest principles for political expediency, or the other darker temptations that lead individuals and social justice movements astray.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

More Thoughts on Haiti

If you're a Thrivent member, Thrivent will give one dollar for every two dollars that you donate to Lutheran World Relief to help Haiti. If you've already donated, Thrivent will do a retroactive match. Go here for more details (scroll down). I love knowing that my insurance and some of my retirement dollars are part of this company, so that they can do this work in the world.

I continue to weep over all the human stories coming out of Haiti. I've been censoring my intake of images. I think the human body isn't built to withstand bad news on a global scale. If you're in my house and you tell me your sad news, I can absorb it, I can make us tea, I can hold you close and pray and keep your specifics in my head as I pray for you. I slip into numbness and despair as I contemplate Haiti and the Congo and the homeless in Ft. Lauderdale and I can barely raise my weeping face to pray. Add the relentless images of the television news machines, and I'm ready to just give up, to crawl under the bed and collapse in a quivering heap.

I've been returning to the words of the Bible, of course, but I can't resist pointing out some good reading out there on the web. I love this piece in The New York Times, written by a former science writer for a California newspaper who writes poetically about the instability of the earth beneath our feet. She gives us this quote, attributed to Will Durant: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

On her blog, Elizabeth Adams has this wonderful post about winter in Canada and contemplating Haiti and Handel's Messiah.

If you want to see or read the message about Haiti from the Bishop of the Lutheran church, Mark Hanson, go here. I give thanks that we don't have a spiritual leader who sees natural destruction as a sign of God's wrath.

The Pretty Good Lutherans website has a host of stories about the earthquake, including the stories of a group of seminarians who were there (and one is believed to be dead in the rubble). By the time you get to the website, you may need to scroll down to get to the stories.

Times of disaster always leave me in wrenching sadness for the victims and in breathless hope, for the way that humans respond by offering money, prayers, skills, stuff. I heard about the planes loaded with relief supplies which had to circle above the island for hours as they waited for it to be their turn to land--I heard these stories, and I try to focus on them, instead of the stories of despair.

Bishop Hanson gives us all a prayer to pray, in case words have failed us: "Merciful God, hear our cry for mercy in the wake of the earthquake. Reveal your presence in the midst of our suffering. Help us to trust in your promises of hope and life so that desperation and grief will not overtake us. Come quickly to our aid that we may know peace and joy again. Strengthen us in this time of trial with the assurance of hope we know in the death and resurrection of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Heartbreaking News from Haiti

Yesterday on Diane Rehm's show, I heard Gregg Easterbrook talk about central Africa, and he said that anything that can go wrong in a region has gone wrong there. You could say the same thing about Haiti.

And now, a huge earthquake, so soon after the devastating hurricanes of 2007.

I'm not going to indulge in asking all the questions of WHY. Why does God allow such tragedy? Why can't the Haitian government behave better so that these tragedies aren't so magnified? How can Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same land mass with such different outcomes?

The answer to any of these questions could be handled in book-length detail. But we know that right now, people need help. It's even more dire a tragedy than it might have been, because many of the aid organizations already on the ground had their headquarters in the areas that have been most devastated.

If you've got your favorite aid organization, you know what to do. If you don't, let me recommend Lutheran World Relief. They have a fabulous record, and you can be sure that your money will go to helping people, not to lining the pockets of CEOs. Go here to donate specifically to earthquake relief for Haiti.

And, of course, even if you have no extra money in these tough economic days, you can pray. You can light a candle and pray that our God of love and justice be with the survivors of the earthquake. You can pray for all the displaced Haitians who are worried into a frenzy about their loved ones back home. You can feel extra gratitude today because you are not at the mercy of the elements after a horrible natural disaster. You can take this moment to acknowledge that as much as we might like to believe we are the architects of our fate, we are all only one natural (or humanmade) disaster away from being plunged into poverty. And then you can pray again.

And then you can think about your bank balance again. Maybe you're not as impoverished as you think. Maybe you can tighten up the budget in one place so that you have money to spare for Haiti. If a hurricane or a tornado or a wildfire wiped out your community, you'd be profoundly grateful for outsiders who helped out. Now is our turn as the fortunate ones to help out the victims.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 17, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm: Psalm 36:5-10

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Gospel: John 2:1-11

Today's Gospel presents the first miracle of Jesus, the turning of water into wine at a wedding. No doubt that some preachers across the country will take this opportunity to talk about weddings and the sanctity of marriage; they'll see the participation of Jesus as his sanction of this institution. Perhaps others will talk about miracles, while others talk about the proper way to treat one's mother.

I'm less interested in the marriage issue than in the miracle issue. In this Gospel, Jesus resists his mother's urging to help out with the wine. Why does he do that? Does he have a splashier miracle in mind as his announcement that he's arrived? Is it the typical rebellion of the child against the parent?

We don't know. We do know, based on the accounts of the Gospels, that Jesus performed many kinds of miracles. One day he's turning water into wine, and the next month he restores sight to the blind. Later he multiplies loaves and fishes, and then raises the dead. Much critical ink has been spilt over the issue of what these miracles mean. Some of them seem worthy of God, while others seem a bit frivolous.

You might make the argument that we shouldn't care about whether or not the wedding guests had wine. You might argue it's a trivial miracle.

You would then remind me of friends of mine who loftily declare that their petty problems shouldn't be a concern to God. Why tell God about my tough day at work, when God has quite a job ahead in Haiti? Why should I wine to God about my financial woes, when there are whole countries who live on less money than I make in a year?

The story of Jesus tells us that God wants to be with us more than anything else. God doesn't want to wait until we're in severe trouble. God wants to come to our weddings and parties. God wants to celebrate and drink wine with us.

In the story of Jesus and his mother, we also see a God who will listen to our requests. At first Jesus says no, then he relents. For those of us who are reluctant to ask God for what we need, we might take this lesson to heart.

We often protest that what we need is too hard for God to provide for us. But this miracle reminds us that we undersell God's talents.

What does Jesus need for this miracle? Water and jars. What could be simpler?

Perhaps this could be the year that we rid ourselves of our scarcity thinking. We worship a God of abundance and great giving. Rejoice in this good news.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"The Blind Side": A Christian Movie?

I recently read an article in The Washington Post that talked about the recent releases of movies with a spiritual side. It gave The Blind Side a rave review, so recently, when my mom and I were trying to decide what to see, we decided to give it a try.

I was a little nervous, because I worried it would be that kind of self-righteous religious movie that makes me want to puke. It wasn't. I worried that it would focus too much on the football, but it didn't. In short, it was a delight.

I've spent the Christmas season watching movies (Up in the Air, It's Complicated) that seem to stress that we're all alone out here, incapable of changing the behaviours that make us lonely. I was ready for a change. The Blind Side is that change.

In some ways, for a spiritual/religious/Christian movie, it's remarkably understated. There are many places where the movie could have gotten preachy, but it didn't. In fact, the only time the main character (played by Sandra Bullock, in what may be her most fabulous role yet) is overt about her faith is when she verbally faces off with a drug dealer. She tells him that she's in a prayer group with the D.A. and that she's also a Republican and a member of the N.R.A., and she's always packing heat. Some people may see all of these traits as being a contradiction to being a Christian, but I found them remarkably realistic. I've lived in many parts of the U.S. South, and I've known many women like the main character. My non-Southern friends might accuse them of hypocrisy, but I don't see them that way.

In fact, the main characters do a remarkable job of living out their Christian values as they take in a destitute student and help him turn his life around. It's the kind of depiction that makes me hopeful for humanity and keenly aware of all the ways I could be doing more to help out my fellow humans.

The movie was heartwarming without being too schmaltzy, both funny and tensely dramatic, an incisive social critique of all the strata of society, and a true story, so that it all seemed that much more wonderful. Movies released this time of year can be awfully grim and serious (all the better to win awards?), so an uplifting movie is that much more a treat.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Mary Daly, Feminist Theologian, Died This Week

Feminist theologian Mary Daly died this week. While she is no longer one of my favorite theologians, she shaped my thinking immensely at an earlier time. Yesterday, after I learned of Daly's death, I pulled my copy of Beyond God the Father off the shelf. I spent the rest of the night marvelling that the young woman I was who agreed so passionately with Mary Daly should find herself a faithful Lutheran, here at midlife.

I flipped through the book, looking at passages which moved me (my younger self was kind enough to write notes in the margins, so I don't have to guess). Here's one: "A third idol . . . is the God who is the Judge of 'sin,' who confirms the rightness of the rules and the roles of the reigning system, maintaining false consciences and self-destructive guilt feelings. Women have suffered both mentally and physically from this deity, in whose name they have been informed that birth control and abortion are unequivocally wrong, that they should be subordinate to their husbands, that they must be present at rituals and services in which men have all the leadership roles and in which they are degraded not only by enforced passivity but also verbally and symbolically" (p. 31).

Wow. I wrote that word in the margin, but I didn't mean it ironically. When I read this book in the 80's, it spoke to me; I really felt victimized by a patriarchal religion, even though the Lutheran expression of it is far from harsh.

Now I would say wow, as in, hmm, that's really not my experience these days. I'm lucky to be part of a church that values women and anyone else with leadership skills (gay, lesbian, transgendered . . .). I'm lucky that my pastor and the books I read don't present God as that cosmic judge waiting for us to do wrong so that he can smite us. The God we worship is a loving, aching God, a co-creator, a deity with a vision for healing the world, a vision that needs us.

My church still has some ways to go towards gender-neutral language, especially when it comes to our expressions of the deity. God is still a he, rarely a she. But the church is wrestling: changing the language of the hymns, making our references to humanity more inclusive. Some of our more daring artists have experimented with the idea of God's gender, and haven't been shunned.

Mary Daly's anger fueled my own and sent me into a search for something better. I flirted with Goddess religions and other pagan expressions. In the end, I missed the church of my childhood, which wasn't the oppressive church that other people might have suffered. I missed potluck dinners and people singing, even when they couldn't carry a tune. I missed the liturgical year, which gave a different shape to my days. I missed having an easy way to work for peace and justice (the church plans the events, I show up to do my part). I returned to church.

I'm grateful to all the people who listened to me say what must have been dreadful sounding things and who still speak to me. I am more grateful than I can express to all the people who endured my 19 year old self, who was just as judgmental as the worst of the religious traditions, and who still love me and spend time with me on holidays. I'm grateful to the elders in my life who let me explore other traditions while reminding me of what is valuable in my own tradition.

And I'm also grateful to Mary Daly and other feminist theologians, who opened us up to new possibilities. We've rediscovered all sorts of female-centered aspects of our faith, due in large part to these writers. We've gone back to the sacred texts to explore the feminine face of God, which is there but hasn't been emphasized (for example, the idea of God as knitter who creates us in our mother's wombs). We've gone back to translate the sacred texts for ourselves, often literally, from the ancient languages, to see what they really said--and we have been shocked and surprised.

Thank you, Mary Daly. Well done, good and faithful servant of liberation (although I know you'd hate that servant language!)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 10, 2009:

First Reading: Isaiah 43:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 29

Second Reading: Acts 8:14-17

Gospel: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

In this season of New Year's resolutions, consider this question: How would your life changed if you believed that God loves you the way you are, right now, before you even make any changes to become a better person?

It's true. God's not waiting for you to become more spiritual before God claims you. Even if you never get to the point where you pray more often, where you give away more money, where you become that good and patient person you are sure you can be, God loves you, marks you, claims you, is deliriously happy with you.

You don't have to lose that twenty pounds for God to find you worthy. You can have a wrecked household budget, and God still loves you.

Is your wounded elementary school/high school/adult child within you leaping up for joy yet? God would have given you beautiful Valentines during those horrid parties where the popular kids got all the Valentines and you didn't. God would choose you for the volleyball team, even if nobody else would, and God would never say hurtful things about your serve. God would have made sure to include you at lunch so that you wouldn't have had to spend your lunch hour hiding out in the library. God wouldn't make painful comments about your frumpy wardrobe, your golf swing, your decorating skills, your home repair skills, your kids, your career.

I worry that I'm veering towards goofiness, but I think that during our long years through the nation's educational systems, most of us learn all the ways we are inadequate, and most of us never unlearn those lessons. Even as grown ups, often the focus (in pop culture, in our jobs, in our families, in church even) is on our failings, on all the ways that we would measure up if we just did this thing or that thing or another thing. And then we work hard on self-improvement, and we've still got those messages: well, great, now you can focus on changing this next enormous thing.

All this effort towards self-improvement can make us a bit self-absorbed, and we forget to work on some of the real and serious problems in the world. What would happen if we decided that God needs us to be the person that we are, right here, right now, without any changes? What if we declared ourselves to be good enough?

Try it for a week or two or three. Tape the words of God to your bathroom mirror: "You are my beloved son/daughter; with you I am well pleased." Act like you believe that God loves you. Silence those voices in your head that tell you otherwise. Cease that negative self talk. And minimize the amount of time you spend with people who don't value you.

Think about the ministry of Jesus. Think about the healing nature of kingdom building that God calls us all to do. Jesus doesn't waste time saying, "Oh, if only I didn't have to spend so much time with all these sick people. If only I could get an audience with our Roman ruler. If only I had a different purpose, a different ministry, a different destiny."

We never see Jesus working to lose weight or to exercise more or to read more or . . . . Jesus gets right to work at the job God has called him to do. And keep in mind that God declares Jesus beloved and pleasing early on, before Jesus has actually done anything.

We don't have time to waste with all this negative New Year's negativity. God loves you before you ever make a self-improvement plan. In your baptism, God has already declared you perfect. Perhaps this year, instead of endless self-improvement plans, you could pledge to remember God's love for you each time your skin touches water. Imagine how your life might change if you could just do that!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Feast of the Epiphany

Today is the last day of the Christmas season, the Feast of the Epiphany. This day is the one where we celebrate the visit of the Magi, the Wise Men who come to visit the Baby Jesus.

On The Writer's Almanac, Garrison Keillor gives us some background:

"In the Eastern Church, which includes the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, today is a general celebration of God's becoming man. It includes celebrating a whole host of things: the birth of the baby Jesus, the revelation of Jesus' divinity to the rest of the world — like to the Magi visiting from Persia — and most importantly in the East, Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.

Centuries after the Eastern Orthodox Church began celebrating the Epiphany, the Roman Catholic Church decided to start doing so too. But for some reason, the Western Church really latched on to this image of the Persian priests bringing gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold to the infant Jesus, guided from their homeland of Iran by a shining star. The Magi are mentioned only in Matthew's Gospel and he never specified how many magi there were — just that there were three gifts."

Today is a good day to think about wisdom, about gifts, about the shadow side of this story, which is Herod, who stews over this vision that the wise men have given him. We might think about all the ways we turn good news into bad, of the ways that we stew over our thoughts and turn them into poisonous actions. We might make an Epiphany resolution to watch our thoughts carefully and to track our actions even more carefully.

If you haven't already undecorated your house, today might be the day to do that, to transition back to the scrap of ordinary time that we have before the penitential season of Lent begins.

You might play the Christmas music one last time and take a contemplative moment. You might think about the Christmas season we just enjoyed (or did you just endure it?) and plan for next year. What didn't you do, and what did you wish you had done more of?

You might shop the post-Christmas sales, like the wise man or woman that you are. Now is a great time to buy Christmas cards for next year, to buy Christmas-scented candles, to pick up a bargain.

Most of us have already bid good-bye to Christmas and returned to our every day lives. Today is a good day to take one last Christmas moment, to recover our capacity for wonder, to delight in the miraculous, to look for the unexpected, and to rejoice in the amazing Good News of a God who loves us so much that the Divine One comes to live with us.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The New Year, The Old Year (The Liturgical Year)

Here we are at the new year, a great time to read a book about the liturgical year. Even if you're already part of a religious community that follows the liturgical calendar and you think you don't have anything new to learn, Joan Chittister's latest book, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, is worth a look. And for those of you who can't comprehend the value of a church calendar that follows a different cycle than the worldly calendar, Chittister will explain, in elegant, beautiful language.

I've been a Lutheran since I was born, so even during the years when I wasn't part of a church, I always felt the liturgical year thrumming behind the surface of the "real" year. As a churchgoer, the liturgical year is one more reinforcing element to remind me that my "real" life may not be what the larger world sees. And my inner child loves the idea of having that many more holidays to celebrate.

I've even lately been regretting that Protestants lost all the feast days of the saints when we broke away from the Orthodox churches, and I'm pleased that some of us are reclaiming some of those elements. For those of you who feel that feast days and saint days are too close to paganism, Chittister will explain why they can enrich our spiritual lives.

I've always found Chittister to be readable and approachable, which is no small thing, considering all the topics she's covered. Best of all this book is fairly short, unlike many of the books of theology I'd like to read, books which are daunting due to their size and my diminished reading time and attention.

This book is part of a fine series, The Ancient Practices series. I've read several of the books in the series and enjoyed them all. In fact, the next book on my list is part of the series, Nora Gallagher's book about the Eucharist, The Sacred Meal. I couldn't resist dipping in when the book arrived, and if I can judge based on the first 34 pages, the book is excellent.

So, start the new year by reading about the old year, the liturgical year. Even if you're anti-Catholic, like some of the reviewers at Amazon, you'll likely find something to enrich your spirit. And even if you disagree with most of it, it's good to read something completely outside your realm of experience (in fact, a brain researcher, Barbara Strauch, says that's how our brains stay young, by wrestling with ideas outside our realm of experience--go here to read the article).

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year Ponderings

On Wednesday, my husband and I went to help First Lutheran serve dinner to the hungry. It wasn't the Wednesday that my church takes care of this meal, but I knew that the First Lutheran folks were concerned because so many people might be out of town and they might be short-staffed.

As always, I felt honored to be there and split apart by the fact that there is so much need in the world.

On the way home, my husband told me of a conversation he'd had with a man who had been wearing the same pair of pants for 8 days and was desperate for a new pair. The church keeps a few items on hand, but nothing in his size.

I thought of all the clothes I have in my closet, and how few I wear. I wanted to bring them all to the church, but I know they have limited storage space.

I thought of churches like Luther Place in Washington, D.C. or the Sojourners community, places that either moved or found themselves in the abandoned places in the empire, where land was cheap and need was gaping. I thought of religious communities that have bought up rowhouses and turned them into medical clinics, thrift stores, food pantries. Down here in South Florida, however, land is not cheap, and even crumbling buildings cost a small fortune--even after the housing market has imploded.

I thought of buying a washer and dryer for every church, so that at least people can come and wash their one pair of pants for free. I know that most municipalities have such restrictive zoning that my vision might not be possible.

I thought of all the people I've met at First Lutheran as I've served them dinner, and how most of them seem like they could move from homelessness to something more stable. Very few of them seem to have mental health issues. We need someone with an affordable housing vision and the gumption to pull it off.

I thought of all the folks I've met at First Lutheran who have serious dental issues (most of them). I thought of my own aversion to the dentist and felt some shame.

Always in my head, I have the words of the Psalms as background noise, and one of the joys of Advent is having the voice of Isaiah join the Psalmists. Here is the darkness in which so many of us dwell. Here is the darkness that wants to overwhelm the light. I trust in the promise of God, that the light will come, that justice will be established, that the poor are not doomed to be hungry always.

I will do my part to straighten the crooked pathways. I pray for the power to carry on.