Saturday, February 27, 2010

Words of Wisdom from the Archbishop

Last night, we went to see Archbishop Desmond Tutu. What a treat. He is every bit as wonderful in person as he is when I've seen him on the television.

Much of what he said wasn't new to me: he talked about the existence of good and evil, and the issue of free will. He talked about the need for us to be God's hands, that God weeps over evil in the world and waits for collaborators who will help God. He said "The ancient prophet said, 'Your name is engraved on the palms of God's hand.'" From now on, I'm going to look at difficult people and imagine their names engraved on God's palm.

He always kept his God talk gender neutral--what a marvelous thing in a man of his age! A person of any age. While my fellow Lutherans go on and on about same sex marriage, I'm still gnashing my teeth about why the people who put together the new hymnal (which isn't so new now) couldn't have de-gendered the language a bit more: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord"--yes, I know it's from the Bible, but it's easy to fix: "Blessed are we who come in the name of the Lord"--that's how I sing it every Sunday.

But I digress.

What fascinated me most is that he talked about the struggle for justice in South Africa and the non-South Africans who were partnered in that fight. He talked about meeting students in the 1980's. He talked about how justice came more swiftly because of that extra pressure.

I was there, and I remember how useless it sometimes all felt, much like the despair I feel about the Congo today. The apartheid regime appeared to be entrenched evil, undefeatable. I assumed that Nelson Mandela would die in jail. We marched, demanding his release, but no one really expected it to happen.

If we believe in a moral universe, and Archbishop Tutu does, then we know that evil will not win. Even if we believe in a chaotic universe, then we have to admit that Goodness has a shot at winning.

Archbishop Tutu closed by reminding us of all the groaning of creation (my words) needing our hands to help God. The students around me stirred to life most visibly when he talked about environmental issues. Interesting. He got a few scattered boos when he talked about Israeli oppression in Gaza. Interesting.

What an inspiring man. What a wonder that he has managed to speak out against oppression, and he's still here with us. I remember in the 1980's, when he took no more security measures than you or I might take (locking doors, for example, but not travelling with armed guards). He said that protecting him was God's job. I'm glad that he's lived to tell the tale.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Tonight!

When I was in graduate school, I saw a variety of my heroes, some of them religious. I even got to see Elie Wiesel. I don't remember what he said, but I remember being inspired.

Now that I am older, and part of a school that can't afford to bring internationally known people to campus, I don't do as much of that. I still routinely see my favorite poets at other schools, and that's nice. But it's been a long time since I've seen anyone famous who inspired me in a theological way.

Perhaps tonight will mark a change. One of my friends also works for a larger school here in South Florida, and she got me a ticket to see Archbishop Tutu. She tried for tickets to see the Dalai Lama, who is also in town this week, but those were more popular. Make of that what you will.

I'm much happier to be seeing Archbishop Tutu, who has inspired me so much throughout my life. I remember that in the 1980's, my father and I didn't agree on much politically, but he was always in favor of harsher sanctions against South Africa, and Tutu was a favorite of us both. I remember admiring Archbishop Tutu's gentle demeanor but firm moral stance during those years. I never saw him get angry, but he had an insistence about what was right.

It's interesting to read old interviews with him. I have a book of Rolling Stone interviews from the 1980's, and the interviewers talk about their amazement at his lack of security. And he's refreshingly unconcerned: "If you begin worrying about that, you might as well just stay at home and sleep."

What's more haunting about this interview are the questions about the future of South Africa. He claims the country is a powder keg, just a smidge away from all out revolution. And in 1985, when the interview took place, he was right. He talks about wanting Nelson Mandela to be free, so that he (Tutu) can go back to the job of being a pastor. I'm sure that he had no idea that it was even possible, or maybe he had more hope than the rest of us. In this interview, you can see the beginnings of what will lead to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one of the more amazing developments I've seen in my lifetime.

I remember some of my friends at UVa, who built shantytown shacks on the Lawn, to protest the university's investment in South Africa. I remember my friend Strick, who wore his "Free Nelson Mandela" t-shirt, but we never thought it would happen. I remember the day that it did happen, the breaking news, how I held my breath because I was sure he would be shot in the back. I remember the elections in 1994, when South Africans stood in line for days (literally, days!) to vote for Mandela.

And I remember Archbishop Tutu, the steady hand, the voice of reason and moral truth, the shepherd, leading his flock to a post-Apartheid world. I feel fortunate that I get to see him tonight.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ash, Poetry, and Collage

I've been thinking a lot about collage lately (go here to my poetry and creativity blog for a longer reading on the subject), so maybe it makes sense that my art project for the week would involve collaging. I started thinking about how many of my poems involve Ash Wednesday themes, so I printed some of them, cut them up, cut up a calendar page, and arranged everything on a painted canvas board:

I wondered what the work would look like with some ash. Back to the fireplace! Here's that result:

Once I had everything in place, I had a dilemma: how to glue/affix? I took pictures, just so I'd have a record if things went wrong.

Then I made another startling discovery: I actually like the pictures of the art work better than the art work itself! In the end, I threw all the scraps and ash away.

In some ways, this whole exercise seemed to teach me some Buddhist lessons about attachment. But those are probably Christian lessons too. We get most upset when we have ideas about what success will look like. So we long to transform our small, cohesive churches into megachurches. We discount the healing work that we do, blooming where we are planted, because we're so convinced that true Christians would live simply in intentional communities in solidarity with the poor.

I've always liked art that used scraps of other things to create new things (hence my love of fiber arts and quilting). I wrote a poem years ago that I'll include here for your Lenten reading pleasure; it was published in Interdisciplinary Humanities. For those of you hungry for female faces of God, I'll be interested to hear what you think:

The Precious Nature of Junk

If God is an old woman,
She uses no recipe.
Long ago she learned
what she needed to know:
how to make do with scarce
resources, how to create successful
substitutions, how to create
magic from simple kitchen chemistry.

If God is an old woman,
She saves all our old clothes. She alone
has a vision of a collage of cloth.
She cuts new shapes out of our discards
and pieces them into an intricate quilt,
even though she knows we will fail
to appreciate her demonstrated skill.

If God is an old woman,
She longs for closer connection.
She sends cards for every occasion
and fills the answering machine with cryptic
messages. She has such important
information to pass on and such little
time left. We listen
and wonder at her mental state.

If God is an old woman,
She knows that everything could have a larger
purpose. She hoards items we’d have discarded
long ago. She understands the precious
nature of junk.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 28, 2010:

First Reading: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Psalm: Psalm 27

Second Reading: Philippians 3:17--4:1

Gospel: Luke 13:31-35

This Gospel is one of those that might tempt us moderns to feel superior. We're not like that wicked Jerusalem, are we? We don't stone the prophets and others who are sent to us. We're a civilized people.

But think of how many ways there are to kill the messengers of God. Let's start with our individual Bibles. Do you know where yours is? Have you touched it this week? This month? This year?

After all, one of the main ways God has to speak to us is by way of the Scripture. And if we don't read our Bibles, we lose out on a major avenue of communication with God. You might protest that you hear the Bible plenty when you go to church on Sunday. And that's great. Far too many churches have very little scripture as part of the weekly service. But it's not enough. We'd be better off if we read our Bibles every day. It's far too easy to be seduced by the glittering secular world; a daily diet of Bible reading can help us remember God's claim on us and our purpose in the world.

But the Bible isn't the only way we can learn about God and our place in the community. We can read the works of other holy people. There are plenty of books out there that can help us be more faithful. My reading list is fairly eclectic; if you're new to this, I'd start with the works of Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L'Engle, Thomas Merton, and C. S. Lewis, among many others.

You could also listen for God. Many of us are pretty good at talking to God, especially if we're in trouble. But we're not very good at listening. Henri Nouwen suggests that we take 10 minutes a day to quiet our minds, to sit and just listen. You might also keep a journal, which can be a very valid form of active meditation for busy Westerners. Don't just write down what happens to you during the day. Keep a list of things for which you're grateful. Keep a list of your heartfelt desires. Make a space for any sorts of intuition you have. Ask God for insight. Keep a keen ear for what God replies. Write it down so you won't forget.

We stone the prophets sent to us by God by ridiculing, of course. There are many effective ministers and churches out there. Just because one church's style doesn't work for you doesn't mean that you should work to tear it down. We should all be about the same business: being a light for Christ in the world, so that we can help people find their way. If someone else's techniques work, we should celebrate that.

We stone the prophets that God sends to us by refusing to pay attention. Look at your life. To whom do you pay highest allegiance? Your God? Your boss? Your nation? Your family? What keeps your loyalties split? How can you find your way back to God?

God tries to get our attention in all sorts of ways. We're prompt to dismiss our strange dreams (both the night kind and the daydreaming kind) and strange voices (both our own and the ones that come to us from books and other media). We're quick to believe everything our culture tells us about who we should be.

In this time of Lent, we can repent for all the times we've stoned the prophets (metaphorically). We can turn our attention to God and once again, try to be more faithful. God longs to gather us, as a mother hen gathers her chicks (for those of you hungry for female images of God, here's a Sunday gift). Come be part of the brood.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Feast Day of St. Matthias

Tomorrow is the traditional feast day of St. Matthias. In the 1960's, the Roman Catholic church moved his feast day to May 14, so that we're celebrating his life in a month that makes more chronological sense--Matthias was the apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, who committed suicide after he realized what his betrayal had wrought, so it makes sense to celebrate his life after Easter. Of course, traditionalists will celebrate tomorrow. And Eastern Orthodox believers will observe his feast day on August 9.

I've recently become a bit fascinated with this saint. I've done a smidge of research, and I can't tell what, exactly, he's the patron saint of.

If I was in charge, I'd make him the patron saint of people who must wait for recognition. Would I make him the patron saint of people who must wait for recognition in the workplace only, or in any situation? Is that process of waiting so different?

I have this on the brain because I work in a place where our job ladder is very short. We have lots of folks who have been working for the organization for ten years or more--when there's a job opening, we can't promote them all. And once a person has been promoted, it might be years--decades even--before there's an opening above.

I imagine that the circle of Jesus was similar. There's the inner circle, the twelve, chosen early. Then there's a massive outer circle. Who would have dreamed of the incidents that led to a job opening in the inner circle?

Of course, as a woman, I will always wonder at what Gospel revisions went on in the early church. Was the inner circle really that tight? Was it really only twelve? Was it really only men? We know that Jesus had a sympathy towards women that was uncommon for his time period. Would he really have excluded them from the inner circle?

Then I think of the logistics of being one of the twelve--all that travel, all those difficult circumstances. Maybe it was kinder of Jesus not to call women to be part of the inner circle. If you go back to the sayings of Jesus, it's clear that he doesn't see hierarchy in the same way that humans do--he clearly mocked the idea that some disciples are more chosen than other.

So, would Matthias have even seen his appointment as a promotion? Maybe it's just our later proclivity to make lists that sees this development as a promotion. Of course, there is that passage in Acts that seems to show that the disciples shared our proclivities toward hierarchy and list making.

I think of Matthias, patiently waiting, following Christ, never knowing the outcome. In that way, he's the patron saint of us all. We follow Christ, not knowing whether we'll be chosen for some superhuman greatness, or whether we'll be called to stay put, quietly ministering the people around us. Some of us believe that God has a plan for us, while others believe that God will use us where we are, like a master weaver. Some of us believe that the universe is essentially chaotic, but we are not excused from God's mission of Kingdom building. Some of us know that we cannot possibly comprehend any of this, and we know that we are lucky that God does not depend on our puny imaginations.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

More Thoughts from Peterson as We Head to Church

I'm lucky enough to be a member of a church where I like most of the members. But I know that not everyone has that experience.

I'm lucky enough to be a member of a church where I feel like we're doing the work that God intends us to do. But I've been a member of a church that left me exhausted and drained for the rest of my Sunday, so I know what it's like to not have that kind of church home.

Some of us are lucky: we have a good church or we can leave to find a better church. Some of us, for whatever reason, have to stay where we are, no matter how unnourishing we find our circumstances.

Here are some Peterson quotes to make us feel good about church, no matter our individual situations.

First, the quotes from yesterday give us some historical context and bear repeating:

Eugene Peterson's latest book, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation with Growing Up in Christ talks about people dealing with difficult church experiences and with their longing for a perfect church. He suggests that we look at our imperfect churches in a new way: "Do you think that maybe this is exactly what God intended when he created the church?" (page 14).

He says this about the early church: "Sometimes we hear our friends talk in moony, romantic terms of the early church. 'We need to get back to being just like the early church.' Heaven help us. These churches were a mess, and Paul wrote his letters to them to try to clean up the mess" (page 16). He notes, "The Ephesian letter is unique in that it is the only one that is not provoked by some problem, whether of behavior or belief" (page 15).

Here are some of his thoughts about the current church:

"I realized that this was my place and work in the church, to be a witness to the truth that dazzles gradually" (page 27).

"There are no 'successful' congregations in Scripture or in the history of the church" (page 29).

" . . . worship isn't intended to make anything happen. Worship brings us into a presence in which God makes something happen" (page 37).

"If we are going to grow up into Christ we have to do it in the company of everyone who is responding to the call of God. Whether we happen to like them or not has nothing to do with it" (page 36).

I found that last quote particularly powerful, since interpersonal conflicts are so likely to tear the church apart. What would happen if we kept that quote in our mind when dealing with our fellow congregants?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

My 40 Day Facebook Journey with Madeline L'Engle

My mom's church is trying an experiment this year: instead of a group that meets in a physical space to discuss a book, we're doing it on Facebook--which means that they can include far-flung readers (me!). I've tried doing an e-mail book discussion group in a different church years ago, but it didn't last long. Of course, my church was considerably older, and most of the members just couldn't master the technology.

I haven't given up on the idea of an e-book study group. It's famously difficult to find a time when everyone can gather to have a book discussion. The e-book study group solves that problem. It also opens up the group to people who live far away. It can be hard to find enough local people for an on-ground group to achieve critical mass. I'm hoping that the e-book study group will solve that problem too. Will it solve the problem of faltering commitment after the initial enthusiasm? I'll let you know.

My mom's group is working through the book 40-Day Journey with Madeleine L'Engle. I've sung the praises of this series before, and I'll sing them again. Each day gives a chunk of reading (and it's a healthy chunk, not just a sentence or two), Bible quotes, questions to ponder, writing prompts, and prayers.

Yesterday's readings centered around our false expectations, of our holy days, of our churches, of our friends. I love when the books that I'm reading dovetail, and I had just been reading similar sentiments in Eugene Peterson's latest book, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation with Growing Up in Christ. He says this in the context of people dealing with difficult church experiences and with their longing for a perfect church. He suggests that we look at our imperfect churches in a new way:"Do you think that maybe this is exactly what God intended when he created the church?" (page 14).

He says this about the early church: "Sometimes we hear our friends talk in moony, romantic terms of the early church. 'We need to get back to being just like the early church.' Heaven help us. These churches were a mess, and Paul wrote his letters to them to try to clean up the mess" (page 16). He notes, "The Ephesian letter is unique in that it is the only one that is not provoked by some problem, whether of behavior or belief" (page 15).

I must confess that I never really realized this fact before. I've always assumed that the early church existed in some perfect state where people shared what they had and loved each other. But that's not true. And while some of the churches in our day are truly dysfunctional, many are functioning just as God intends. Hmmmmmmmm.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 21, 2010:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Second Reading: Romans 10:8b-13

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13

In this week's Gospel, we go back to the desert with Jesus. We see Jesus tantalized with the very same temptations that try to distract us from our relationship with God.

The first temptation is so basic: basic sustenance. Most of us in the first world find ourselves caught up in a whirlwind of earning money. Why do we earn money? Well, of course, we need to cover our basic needs: food, shelter, clothing. But most of us have far more than we'll ever use. If you're like me, you have a multiple sizes of clothes in your closet, and even if you stayed within one size, you've probably got a month's worth of clothes that you could wear before you'd have to repeat. If you're like me, you've got a month's worth of food in the fridge and pantry, even when it's not hurricane season. If you're like most Americans, you have several cars, several computers, several televisions. Maybe you even have several houses.

And once you have that stuff, your stuff holds you captive. You have to continue to work so that you have a place to put it all. You have to insure it. And then, you might feel you need to replace it all. You can't possibly drive an old car. It's cheaper to buy new than to fix. And so on.

Lately, I've been feeling that when I buy something I don't need, I'm taking it out of the hands of someone truly needy. I tie up my money in my own need for stuff, and then I don't have any to give away to someone who has no belongings. I'm trying to think more about that fact before I buy.

Jesus is then tempted with power, and it's the rare person I've met who doesn't wrestle with questions of status and fame--and the power that comes with it. Even if you wouldn't sell your family or your self to be on reality TV, you've probably felt this temptation--or envy, because you weren't someone getting offers of fame and fortune.

The third temptation shows the danger of succumbing to the second temptation: once we become wealthy and powerful, we're likely to forget that we're not God. We use our money to insulate us, but we forget how fortunate we are to have that money. We begin to think that we earn that money because we're so talented, so capable, so educated--for many of us, the fact that we have one job over another is largely a matter of luck. I got my first real teaching job because no one applied with the credentials to teach Business Writing, which was what they wanted, so they went to the second thing on the wish list, which was someone with a British Lit background, which was me. For someone with a Ph.D. in Literature, I'm always haunted by the fact that there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of people out there, many of them with better credentials/publications/experience than me--yet I am employed, and many of them are not. It's a happy accident--well, happy for me--it doesn't have as much to do with my individual skills and talent, as to being at the right place applying at the right time.

In our society, money makes us feel powerful. Fame makes us feel powerful. Acclaim makes us feel powerful. And these temptations take us away from God, where the true power lies. We want to think we can do everything on our own. We want to be like God--all powerful. We need to remember the words of John the Baptist: "I am not the Messiah."

We need to look to the model of our savior, who also wrestled with temptation. We need to be resolute in our refusal.

Perhaps we also need to invite some desert time into our life. As I grow older, I'm more and more fascinated by these brief pictures of Jesus retreating. We, too, need to carve some retreat time into our lives so that we're able to withstand the temptations that the world will hurl at us.

Maybe we can only find a few minutes a day. Start with that. Move towards a time where you take a day off, true Sabbath time, when you will only do what enriches you. Hold as your goal a time when you can go on retreat, whether it be a camping trip, a retreat sponsored by a church group, time at a monastery, or even a time when you tell everyone you'll be out of town and you take a retreat in your house (those of us coping with canceled trips this tough winter could try that consolation prize).

During our retreat time, we could meditate on the words of Jesus, so that we, too, are sustained when we return to regular life: "Man shall not live by bread alone," "You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve," "You shall not tempt the Lord your God."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Embracing the Ash

When I was young, I hated this high, Holy day. I loved the whole Advent and Christmas season, and oddly, also Good Friday (astute observers will note my early tendency to drama in these liturgical choices). But I hated Ash Wednesday. I found it gloomy, and I didn't want to be reminded of how many ways I would fail to be a good person. In my young days, that was the take-away message for Ash Wednesday for me. I doubt the Lutheran pastors of my childhood and adolescent parishes really preached that message. But that's what I heard.

Now, I find myself inspired to make art. Here's the result of my Lenten discipline: week 1, visual art project #1:

I painted a canvas board with gray and black paint, and then I sprinkled real ash from the fireplace onto it. I particularly like the black wispy/flaky bits which sort of look like birds or black butterflies. I have no idea how I will preserve this painting--when I sprayed fixative across it, some of the wispys flaked off. Maybe I won't preserve it. Maybe I'll add to it each week.

For me, as an adult at midlife, this painting embodies the message of Ash Wednesday. We are here for such a short time. We try to hard to preserve what we have, thus ensuring that we will have to watch what we love flake away from us. We are dust, and we will return to dust sooner than we care to think about. As an adult, Ash Wednesday has become one of my favorite services. I need to be reminded of the importance of prioritizing, and that God's priorities may not match those that the world would tell me is important.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, and Mardi Gras

Today is the day before Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent begins. The holidays of Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, and Mardi Gras have their roots in the self-denial of the Lenten season. My students are always amazed when I tell them about the fasting traditions of Lent and the need to get rid of all the ingredients that you'd be giving up during Lent: alcohol, sugar, eggs, and in some traditions, even dairy foods. They see Mardi Gras and Carnival as convenient reasons to drink and have ill-considered sex. They've never made the connections between these holidays and Lent--and frankly, most of them don't even know what Lent is.

Mardi Gras and Carnival, holidays that come to us out of predominantly Catholic countries, certainly have a more festive air than Shrove Tuesday, which comes to us from some of the more dour traditions of England. The word shrove, which is the past tense of the verb to shrive, which means to seek absolution for sins through confession and penance, is far less festive than the Catholic terms for this day.

So, will your church have a pancake supper today? I suspect your church is like mine, and if you have pancakes at all, you'll have them tomorrow, before your Ash Wednesday service. I'm one of the ones who will decry how hard it is to get people to come to church on weeknights, but I also feel the weariness of work, the powerful appeal of my pillow (yes, I often do go to bed that early).

I have friends who grew up in Europe, or who grew up in big American cities, who cannot dream of what a social center the church used to be in smaller towns, and what a gift that might have been. I went to college in a small Southern town (Newberry, South Carolina) so I have a sense of that deprivation. When I was in school there in the mid-80's, the stores still closed at 1:00 on Wednesdays and all day on Sundays. There was one movie theatre, with one screen, in town. The churches that had active fellowship ministries filled an important niche.

In past years, I've made pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and eaten them alone, at my kitchen table. It just isn't the same. And it's sort of a pointless exercise. As I've pointed out here, I won't be doing the traditional giving up for Lent. I'll be working my way through 40-Day Journey with Madeleine L'Engle--my mom and dad's church is experimenting with a Facebook group, and I'm looking forward not only to working my way through the book, but also to seeing an online experiment in action (and not being the one in charge). I'll also be doing one non-writing art project a week that ties in to the season--look for my first post on Thursday.

In this season of impending ash and penitence, I wish us all well as we prepare for Lent, in whatever way makes sense to us.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Launch Into Lent: Fasting

Fasting is one of the spiritual disciplines with a long association with Lent. Most people think of giving up food when they hear the word "fasting." Many people assume that when one is fasting, one only drinks water. Most of us assume we could never give up food, not for any length of time--which might be one reason we should attempt it. Fasting has been part of most religious traditions, even if it hasn't been widely used in all of them. It's a powerful tool.

Fasting gives us an opportunity to focus our attention. And if we're fasting for spiritual reasons, we've freed up some time and energy to focus on God.

If we give up food, we also give ourselves an opportunity to viscerally feel how much of the world lives: that nagging hunger in the stomach, that return of one's thoughts to food and how to find it.

Even if we think we can't give up food altogether, we could designate one day a week to be third world eating day. We could eat nothing but a bowl of rice once or twice a day. When we're hungry, we could remind ourselves that even with a diminished diet of rice, we're still getting more calories than much of the world.

And of course, we could undertake fasts of other sorts. Here are some things you could give up, for one day a week or the whole of Lent:



--local television news

--driving above the speed limit


--coffee (or just coffee from a coffee shop, which is SO overpriced)


--fast food

--soda (yes, even diet)

--restaurant food

--fluffy reading

--sending text messages

--excessive Internet use

If you want to be part of a truly ancient tradition, you might choose Friday as your fast day for Lent, as much of the church did for the first 1600-1900 years of church tradition. Or you might want to plan for some sort of three day fast that covers Good Friday to Easter morning.


Scot McKnight's wrote Fasting, part of the Ancient Practices series of books, about which I cannot say enough good things. I haven't read it, but I hear reports that it's wonderful.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Launch Into Lent: Keep a Spiritual Journal

I think that Westerners are completely out of touch with their innermost thoughts. In fact, I think that we're terrified of our innermost thoughts, and that's why we try to drown them out with music, television, chattering on our cellphones. We're scared to know what we really think.

Journalling is a powerful tool for us, and many people have said that keeping a journal is meditation for Westerners. Maybe you already keep a journal. No matter your thoughts on keeping a journal, you might try some of these techniques to add some spiritual depth to your Lent.

Don't worry about the tools of the writing process. You can write on a computer or with your trusty pen. You can buy a beautiful book or write on scraps of paper. If you already journal, you can use it.

And don't worry too much about the logistics. It would be lovely if we all had an hour in the morning and in the evening to get in touch with our deepest selves, but most of us don't. So use what you have. If you can't achieve silence, don't fret. Write while the commercials are on and your family members are clicking through channels if you have to. God can use the time we have.

Choose one of the following and write. Feel free to return to it.

Writing Prompts:

--Where did you see God today? Where have you seen God in the last week?

--Keep a prayer list. Who needs your prayers today?

--Keep an answered prayer list. How has God answered your prayers?

--Create some prayers of your own. You might start by writing a prayer for morning, a prayer before bedtime, a prayer at noon.

--Write about the Scripture you've been reading. For example, you might ask yourself, "Who am I in this Gospel lesson?" You might see what still speaks to you, and what seems anchored to a distant time and place. If you keep this spiritual discipline through the years, you might return to an unapproachable text and see if it remains unapproachable.

--Take a Bible and choose a book. Try to write in the style of that book (Psalms might be a good place to start. Or update the Old Testament prophets to reflect our current time. Or write your own letter to a fledgling church, like Paul did).

--Write about the other spiritual material you've been reading. Look for spiritual lessons in your secular reading.

--Choose a word that has some spiritual charge and write about it. Here are some words to get you started: bread, sanctuary, grace, spirit, flesh, salvation, host, wine, revelation, soul, redeem, love, trinity, creator, fruit, joy, peace. If you enjoy this and would like to read a masterful writer engaged in the same process, read Katherine Norris' Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

--If you could change your life in any way—if anything could be possible—how would your life look? Describe your job, your relationships, your house, your daily life.

--Write some music. If you’re not musical (meaning you can’t create a tune on demand), take your favorite hymn and write a new verse or two.

--Fill in this blank and then write for 5 minutes: God loves me like _____________. Or write that sentence, with a blank, 26 times and fill in the blank differently each time.

--God has assigned you to be the shepherd for your community. Write up a report that tells God what you notice that the community needs.

--Imagine that you can say anything you like to God. What do you say?

--Write in the voice of God, speaking directly to you.This last one might give you pause. Those of us who grew up in conservative traditions might fear being hit with a lightning bolt. However, I did this--with some fear and trepidation--with a journal writing workshop that I let, and my participants have let me know that this exercise was the most powerful thing we did. You might want to save this for a time when you have 15 minutes or more. It might take you some time to get into the spirit of the exercise.


Luann Budd's Journal Keeping: Writing for Spiritual Growth.

Christina Baldwin has spent most of her life writing about journalling, but she comes from a non-Christian, New Agey perspective. Her book Life's Companion: Journal Writing as Spiritual Quest is useful.

Augsburg has a neat 40 Day Journey series, which gives readings from an author, readings from the Bible, prayers, and journalling prompts. In the series: Kathleen Norris (recommended!), Julian of Norwich, Parker J. Palmer, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Madeleine L'Engle, Joan Chittister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Launch Into Lent: Increase Your Bible Reading

If you've started a program of fixed hour prayer, you're already increasing your Scripture reading. But some days, I find the fragmentary nature of this kind of Bible reading a bit irritating. It's good to read larger chunks of the Bible, and most of us don't do that very much.

If we're lucky, we get several chunks of the Bible during our church services, but some of us don't even get that. I once visited a Lutheran church and never went back--there was no first lesson, no Psalm, no second lesson. We just went straight to the Gospel. It was strange.

Maybe it's a weekday, and you're wondering what to read. You could do worse than to just read the lessons for the past Sunday or the upcoming Sunday each day of the week. Let the words sink into you and see where they lead you. If you need the lessons for the week, plus special feast days, go here and then pick up your favorite Bible. If you need to read the lectionary online, go here; if you keep clicking through screens, you can get several translation options as well as study aids.

Or maybe you want to branch out. Choose a book you've never read before. Or maybe you want to simply read a Psalm a day. Or maybe you want to read your way through the Gospels. There's no wrong way to do it. And if you find yourself bored or irritated or wishing you'd chosen a different text--change!

How much should more daily reading should you do? My students are always asking for quantifying information, so I hear their voices: how many pages? How much time should I spend?

I'd take a page from the diet/exercise/lifestyle doctors. Start where you are, doing what you can do. Read 15 minutes a day. You don't have 15 minutes? Read for 5. Or simply read a Psalm or read one chapter. Read while you eat your cereal. Read just before bed. Make your children's bedtime stories come from the Bible. Get the Bible on tape/CD/mp3 download and listen on your way to work.

Go here if you don't want the burden of choosing--you can get a new verse each day (and check out the other tabs too--it looks interesting!). Or maybe you want to be ambitious and read through the Bible in a year--this site has help for that too.

Don't overthink this spiritual discipline. Just dive right in and read a bit more each day.


--Go here for the ELCA website page that gives you the lectionary readings for the week and special days.

--Go here to read the lectionary readings online.

--Go here for a random verse of the day, as well as other ways to surf the Bible.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Launch Into Lent: Pray More Throughout the Day

For the next week, as Christians around the world prepare for Lent, I'm continuing to blog about some spiritual disciplines that you might want to think about, if you're thinking about adding a spiritual discipline into your life for Lent. At the end of each post, you'll find resources and links.

Today I want to write about fixed hour prayer (also called praying the hours, the divine office, the liturgy of the hours, and the canonical hours).

For years, I've been interested in the practice of praying at fixed hours of the day. I first became interested as I explored the worlds of monasticism, and I experimented on my own, and experienced it communally as I visited the monks at Mepkin Abbey. I find it much more satisfying to pray the Divine Office as part of a communal group committed to that spiritual discipline, but I don't live that kind of life yet.

So, I pray alone, and yet I'm not alone, because Christians across the globe are praying with me. We may be saying different words, but we're following a similar format. The simplest: a bit of the Psalms, the Lord's Prayer, a prayer of the day--all the rest are variations (maybe some other Scripture, maybe a Gloria, maybe a prayer of the Church, maybe a few more pieces of Psalms, maybe some spiritual writing/song that's not in the Bible).

Fixed hour prayer is different from personal prayer. We follow a format, with words that are prepared for us in a breviary or some other prayer book (those of us who are brave might make our own prayer books, but most of us don't have that kind of time).

Those of us who didn't grow up with that kind of prayer might protest that it feels impersonal. But fixed hour prayer doesn't have to take the place of your personal prayers. We're commanded to pray without ceasing, and so, there are plenty of hours in the day to fill with your personal conversation with God.

Those of us who often find ourselves at a loss for words when we approach God might be grateful for theologians who have done the work for us and all we need to do is to read the words.

When we participate in fixed hour prayer, we're part of an ancient tradition that goes far, far back, even before Christianity. The ancient Jews prayed seven times a day, we think. We're fairly sure that Jesus prayed these prayers too. Ancient monks in the desert prayed the daily office. We should do that too.

If you can't pray at all the times that your prayer book recommends, just do one or two offices. Monastics awake at early hours to get started praying (the Mepkin monks are awake at 3:20 praying), and they pray at fixed hours through the day: often at 6, 9, noon, 3, 6, and again before bed. If you're just experimenting with fixed hour prayer, you might decide to pray only the morning office and the office just before bed.

The benefit to returning to prayer throughout the day is that it reminds us that we're people of God. It reminds us that God's purpose for us is different than the world's purpose for us. Since fixed hour prayer is often composed of Scriptures, we sow those words deep in our souls if we pray them enough.

And of course, there's the benefit that comes from being in constant communication with God, praising and thanking and asking and glorifying.


If you want a prayer book, here are some that have been useful to me and to others:

--My favorite book is a series by Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours. It's also online here.

--I've heard good things about Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings From the Northumbria Community (HarperOne), but I haven't used it.

--The shortest useful prayer book that I've found that I've liked is The Little Book of Hours: Praying With the Community of Jesus (Paraclete Press). Go here for more information about this book.

If you want a book about fixed hour prayer, you could turn to the wonderful series, The Ancient Practices. Robert Benson wrote a wonderful little book, In Constant Prayer (published by Thomas Nelson in 2008) about the practice of praying the hours.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 14, 2010:

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm: Psalm 99

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:12--4:2

Gospel: Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

All of the readings for this Sunday talk of transfigurations, and in addition, it's Valentine's Day, which celebrates transfiguration in a different way. How are you longing to be transfigured these days?

At work, I'm surrounded by people who are on various kinds of diets. They involve strange potions and sessions with guides and unusual foods prepared in unusual ways. All this, so my colleagues can be transfigured into a thinner version of themselves.

Many of us love Valentine's Day because we hope that love will transfigure us in similar ways. Someone will come along who can overlook our faults and will focus on the reasons that we are loveable. Many of us go through our lives in various states of self-loathing, and Valentine's Day holds out the promise that not everyone judges us as harshly as we judge ourselves.

That's the message of the Gospel, too, isn't it? God loves us, just as we are. And yet God has a much bigger vision at the same time--for the world and for us. God, too, has a transfiguring dream.

In Peter, we see the human tendency to hang on to those transfiguring moments: "Let's build booths! Let's stay here awhile!"

We see this tendency in our self-improvement attempts. We want to return to earlier times when we felt transfigured, when we felt that anything might be possible: a thinner self, a smarter self, a more attractive self. Sometimes we see this tendency play out in darker ways. We grow tired of our families who know us so well, so we are tempted to find love in the arms of someone new, someone who can make us feel transfigured again.

We can see this tendency in church too. We fall in love with a new church, and then as we grow more familiar with the church and its members, we want something more. We go church shopping for that church that can make us feel the thrill of transfiguration again.

Throughout the Scriptures, we see this tension between the mountain top and the flat land experience. We feel the thrill of meeting God, and then we have to figure out how to live our daily lives afterwards. Some of us will spend our lives in permanent quest mode, going from one mountain top to the next, looking for spiritual thrill. Some of us will try to convince ourselves that the mountain top experience wasn't real, that it didn't matter, that it wasn't as profound as we know that it was. Some of us will try to live our daily lives transfigured: at our best, people, convinced that we have some yoga regime or diet that they need to know about, will ask us for our secret.

Many of us approach Lent in that spirit of transfiguration. We give up something for Lent or we add something for Lent, hoping to feel that thrill of transfiguration. But once Lent is over, we shouldn't forget our Lenten disciplines. It's too easy to let our daily lives take over. It's too easy to forget the Gospel message of transfiguration and resurrection. God calls us to transfigured lives so that we can help in the repair of the world.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Launch Into Lent: Give Away instead of Giving Up

Many of us were raised with the idea that we should give up something for Lent. As a teenager, I wrestled with giving up sugar, something I still struggle with. Did it make me spiritually stronger? No, of course not, because no one ever explained why we were giving things up.

Notice that I've written for several sentences and avoided the word tithing. This Lent, instead of thinking about tithing, or even about giving away instead of giving up, let's determine that we're going to cultivate a spirit of generosity.

People who tithe often forget how impossible it sounds to give away 10% of our income; most of us can't even give away 10% to our own savings account. If we can't convince people to give away 10% of their income to their own selves, how can we convince them to give away 10% to charity or justice operations?

The answer to that question is to encourage people to start small. Starting at 10% is overwhelming. Giving away 1% is more manageable. Then at some later date, increase it to 2%, and so on.

Or perhaps we should move away from the idea that tithing can only be measured in financial terms. We can clean out our closets and give away all those clothes we never wear. Most of us have too much stuff, and there are people who can use our castaways. Use the time of Lent to purify and strip down. We can ship books to schools and seminaries to second and third world countries that can use them (go here to read about the Theological Book Network, which redistributes the world's book wealth).

We can give of our time. For many of us, time is more valuable than money, or at least in shorter supply, and these days, to give up some time in the service of God might be closer to the spirit of tithing than giving up money. For Lent, choose a charity or service organization that needs your help, and show up to help. Work with an illiterate student, help a group with a clean up day, go bag food at a food bank: the possibilities are endless.

I understand that many people are racing faster than ever simply to stay in place: working two jobs for reduced wages, while trying to make sure that their children or aging parents get where they need to go. If that's your situation, you could still offer your prayers for those who are working for peace and justice.

Why do this? What was the original idea behind tithing?

Money--and the power and status that it brings--is a powerfully seductive thing. Once, when facing reduced circumstances as my husband left his job, my Charismatic Catholic AA friend acted as if I'd had a death in the family.

I shrugged and said, "I think having too much money is spiritually dangerous."

You wouldn't think I'd have to explain that to her, but I did.

If we have too much money, we tend to think of ourselves as capable and smart and able to go about our lives on our own. We think we don't need God. And soon, we begin to worry that we don't have enough money, and we lash ourselves to our jobs, jobs that require ever more of us, so that we can ensure we have enough money. But we'll never have enough money.

We will never have enough money. We will never be safe and protected by having enough money.

The only way to win that game (to paraphrase books and movies about other subjects, like female beauty and nuclear war) is not to play.

Giving money away loosens its grip on us. Giving away money reminds us that we can live on less. Giving away money reminds us that we are people of God, not people of the capitalist systems which would like to enslave us.


In May 2008, the magazine Sojourners published a series of stories on how Christians should handle money. They've expanded their offerings online. Go here for insightful reading and links.

The Theological Book Network will take not only your religious books, but a wide variety of books--or you can donate money to help them do their important work. Go here for more details.

And of course, there are many worthy organizations that will do good things with your money. I've written here and here before about Peter Singer's idea that we in the first world should give all our charitable dollars to the third world, because those dollars go further in developing nations and make more of a difference (go to his website for more information). My favorite charity that's devoted to the third world is Lutheran World Relief; even if you don't want to donate money, you'll find instructions on how you can buy free trade goods like chocolate and coffee, and how you can make kits of various kinds (health kits, sewing kits, school supplies), and other ways that you can help.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Launch Into Lent: Explore a Creative Practice

Lent begins next week with Ash Wednesday, so all week this week, I'll be giving you ideas for how to enrich your Lent. Those few of you who are long-time readers of this blog may find them familiar, and I did offer many of these ideas a year ago. But then I had very few readers, so it's a series worth running again. This year I'm running the series before Lent, so that you have some time to think about what you'll choose. I encourage you to choose the things that make your heart leap with joy, not the things you think you should do as a good Christian.

Today we think about enriching our Lent by infusing our days with creativity.

Our medieval counterparts would have understood the value of artistic practices to our spiritual lives, and some Christian traditions have continued to embrace the role of the arts in their churches. But many of us in churches that were birthed during the Reformation find ourselves in traditions that value logic and reason and thought rather than creativity and mysticism.

It's time to reclaim our creative heritage, and Lent is a perfect time to infuse our days with creativity.You might try a different artistic practice each week or you might choose one and focus on that discipline throughout the season. For those of you who claim not to be creative, I'd encourage you to think back to your childhood. What types of creative work did you do before you became convinced that you had no talent and therefore should give up your pastimes?

Here are some ideas:

--Write a poem about God. But before you start, fill in the following blank 25 times without thinking about it: God is like _______________________.

--Go to the store and buy 3 bouquets of flowers. Rearrange them into two bouquets and put them where you'll see them and be reminded of God's flowering love for you.

--Buy a big box of crayons (or paints or pastels or any medium that makes you excited). Create a picture that addresses your spiritual life.

--Collect all your magazines and create a collage that depicts your hopes and dreams for the future.

--Learn to bake bread. Bread is an amazingly forgiving food, and will endure countless experiments. You'll enjoy the kneading process. But if you just have no time, here's a recipe for No Knead Bread that showed up in the New York Times. It got lots of good reviews, but I haven't tried it.

--Go to a bead show or shop and buy some beads. String them together to make a rosary. Use your rosary to keep track of your prayers. For those of you who don't come out of a tradition that prays this way, go here for some ideas of prayers one might use with a rosary.

--Many churches will begin working on special music for Easter--join them.

--Plant a garden or an herb box or a huge bowl of flowers. You might feel more rooted as you get your hands in the dirt.

--Write your Spiritual Artist timeline. You can do this in your journal, on the computer, or on scraps of paper that you'll shred so that no one can see them. Break your life into 5-10 year time spans and write about what was going on in your life during those years, both as a creative person and as a spiritual pilgrim. Look for the places where your paths twine together.

--Write a chancel drama. Or some other kind of drama.

--See what happens to your prayer life if you adopt movements as you pray. Doug Pagitt wrote about some possibilities in his 2005 book BodyPrayer: The Posture of Intimacy with God .

--Explore liturgical dance.

--The image of God as a potter recurs in the Bible. Buy some clay and play with it. Think about a potter and the clay as an image.

--You might also try inviting your friends over for a Creativity Day/Afternoon/Morning/Week-end. You might decide to all work on a similar project, maybe on the same project, or maybe you just want to work on your own projects, alone but together. If most of your friends are non-believers, invite them anyway. You can tone down the spiritual nature of your creative endeavors, if it makes others uncomfortable. Or maybe your project would be an entry point for you all to talk about your spiritual journeys. If you enjoy it, try making it a standing date that you do on a regular basis. Some of you might decide to go on retreat together.


There are more resources for more various art forms than I can possibly begin to list. Go to your public library and check out some books, if that's the kind of research you do. Google the type of art form you want to try. If you're the type who wants or needs a class, many community colleges and universities offer continuing ed classes at very reasonable prices, and many community centers also offer classes.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Lent Approaches

It's hard to believe that we're so close to the liturgical season of Lent. Easter comes early this year, so Ash Wednesday comes even earlier.

Last year, I created a Launch Into Lent series, which I think I'll revisit this week. It will give you some ideas for how to enrich the season of Lent. So many of us have been schooled in the old approach to giving up something for Lent, which can be enriching. But it might be more rewarding to add something for Lent.

The other day, I was conferring with a new adjunct in my office, when he looked up and said, "Did you make all of these things on you walls?" I did, all but one. He said, "Wow, these are real art!"

I don't think of my non-writing activities as real art, exactly, but I do miss doing them. So, for this season of Lent, I'd like to create one non-writing creative work for each week. I envision that the work will be Lenten themed, but maybe not. My first piece will be Ash Wednesday in theme.

Now that I've learned how to take photographs and post them, maybe I'll post a picture of my creation. Yes, yes I will. It will be interesting to see how they translate into the blogging medium.

Maybe each week, I'll also post some questions (tied to the creation?) designed to spark meditation and thought.

Tomorrow, look for a post that gives you more ideas for how to infuse your season of Lent with more creativity.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Prayer for Days when the Economic News is Grim

Creator God,

Help us to remember the message of the angels, "Be not afraid." Help us to truly believe that in your economy, all will find care, from the sparrow to the sweet gum tree, from the infant to the infirm, from the jellyfish to the giant redwood. Remind us that you have claimed us for your own, and you will not abandon us to the whims of economic tides. Rescue us from the terrors that wake us at night, the feverish fears that press down upon us. Grant us your peace.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Liberation Theology and Me

A commenter asked, "What is Liberation Theology?" I wondered about how to talk about such a complex movement in response. Eventually, I wrote this:

Liberation Theology is a theology that emerged in Latin America during the 1950's and was a very strong theological movement throughout the 60's, 70's, and 80's. It has Catholic roots, in that many Latin American priests noticed how societal structures were set up to benefit the rich and to oppress the poor. These priests, as they read the Gospels, realized how often Jesus spoke to these kind of inequalities, and how Jesus was ALWAYS on the side of the poor and oppressed. Therefore, Liberation Theologians reason that Christians, too, should always side with the poor and the oppressed.

Liberation Theology has some similarities with Marxism and Marxist groups (both the ones that rebel against governments and the ones that run the government), but the Christian focus, the focus on building the Kingdom of God right here and now, separates them from Marxist ideology. A true Marxist would likely scoff at the Christian idea that God is at work in the world. A liberation theologian says, how can I help God, who is at work in the world?

It is likely true that some liberation theologians were co-opted into unsavory political movements, but that doesn't mean that no good came out of liberation theology. Like any far reaching movement (including Christianity, if we're fair), liberation theology has its unfortunate moments amidst many instances of positive change and good done in the world.

As I was writing this response this morning, I thought, how did I get involved with this movement? How did I, a good Lutheran girl, ever even hear of Liberation Theology?

I was in college in the 80's, and the situation in Central America haunted me. At the time, I remember that many of us talked about what we would do if Ronald Reagan escalated the situation in Central America, specifically Nicaragua. If Reagan activated the draft, would our male friends report for duty? I remember signing the Pledge of Resistance wherein I pledged that if Reagan escalated the situation, I would do some form of civil disobedience. I have no idea what I thought I would do exactly. Probably show up at a march to get arrested.

I was active in the Lutheran Student Movement, both locally, regionally, and nationally. I met many Central American refugees through my involvement, and many student activists who were far more radicalized than I was.

I went to a small, Lutheran, liberal arts college (Newberry College, in Newberry, South Carolina), and a group of us went over to Jubilee Partners in Comer, Georgia, when they were still a fairly new group. Here I met a group of people who had given up their comfortable, middle class lives to help Central American refugees (both legal and illegal), and I met those refugees. I first went there my first year of college and returned several times (for a great book on this movement, read With Our Own Eyes by Don Mosley).

I also spent the summers in Washington, D.C., where my parents lived in the suburbs, and I worked in the city for Lutheran Social Services. There, too, I met many activists and got quite an education in poverty, the kinds you find both at home and abroad.

As I became increasingly radicalized (in my safe, suburban way), I became uncomfortably aware of the Gospel message to care for the poor and dispossessed. I grew up in the Lutheran church, where that message had never been muted. We spent many a vacation helping the poor in many ways. But the church of my youth had never really focused on the societal structures that ensured that poverty would continue.

My 19 year old self planned to live her adult years in intentional Christian community, helping the poor and oppressed. In some ways, I'm doing that, but my community is my marriage and my church (not what my 19 year old had in mind), and the poor people whom I help are students--again, not what my 19 year old self would have envisioned.

I used to talk a bit about Marx when I taught the second half of the British Literature survey class. When I first started teaching that class, in 1991, students assumed that Marx was dead and that anything he had to say to us was firmly located in the past. But as we've watched how globalization ravages societies and impoverishes us all, Marx begins to seem evermore relevant.

Likewise, I've had people tell me that Liberation Theology has nothing to say to our current time period--or they used to say that, before the economy imploded. These days, sadly, Liberation Theology seems more relevant than ever.

Unlike the current Pope, I do see Jesus as a political radical, in addition to being a spiritual radical. He preached a message that would overturn the Empire, both the Roman one in which he found himself, and the Capitalist one, in which we find ourselves. For that message, he was crucified, a capital punishment that the Romans reserved for those who had tried to subvert the government. We too, are called to that crucifixion. Like other Liberation Theologians, we must wrestle with the question of how far we will go to liberate the poor and the oppressed. Will we simply feed the hungry? Or will we work to transform the empire, so that no one goes hungry?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 7, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]

Psalm: Psalm 138

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

Today's Gospel is one we must have heard a gabillion times, if we've been going to church for any amount of time at all. As the Gospel becomes familiar, perhaps the rich symbolic language loses some of its power. The symbol of the fisherman is one we find across church cultures; the mission of fishing for people, too, is one that most faiths hold in common.

Let's look at the Gospel again, to see what we might have missed. In these times of longer work days for those of us still lucky enough to have a job, I'm struck by the fact that Jesus comes to call Simon Peter and his friends and family during their work time. Christ, too, is on the job. The familiarity of this Gospel makes me forget that first verse, that Jesus is preaching when he slips into the boats. I wonder what the crowds who came to hear the word of God made of that?

The men in the boats have been fishing all night. They've caught nothing, even though they've worked hard, and I'm sure we're familiar with this scenario. To the men's credit, when Jesus tells them to cast down their nets again, they do.

I'm sure that many sermons will focus on what happens next, but let's take a minute to think about the implications of the empty nets. We like to assume that if we're doing Christ's work, our nets will be full. Yet many of us will struggle in situations where our nets are empty, again and again and again. Yet we must remain alert, always ready to cast those nets again. We're not allowed to give up. We're not allowed to say, "Well, I've done my best, so I'm going to fold up my nets and go home and sit on my couch for the rest of my life."

No, we must let down our nets AGAIN.

Look at what happens next: "And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boats to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink" (Luke 5: 6-7).

Consider the fishing in the light of the metaphor that we've been hearing for so many years. If we are to be fishers of people, what kind of fishing are we doing? Consider that verb: they enclose the fish. It's a much less harsh image than the view of fishing that so many of us have, a trick lure, a savage hook. Greek scholars have noted that the word used is the same one used in the Old Testament for saving people from danger. Ann Svennungsen comments on this verb and our evangelical mission: "The calling is not to hook people and drag them in. It is rather to cast the net of God's love all around--open to all the world--and then wait with patience for the Spirit's work and to see if any are caught by God's vision and grace."
In this world of megachurches with their megabudgets, it is not easy to wait. It is not easy to put down our nets again into the exact same waters. But Jesus calls us to do exactly that.

Jesus also calls us to do even more. Look at the last verse. The men leave everything behind. As a teenager, I thought about how compelling Jesus must have been, to inspire that level of confidence. As a teenager, I would look around my church, and not see much evidence of that Jesus remaining.

Jesus calls us to leave our old lives behind. Jesus calls us to walk away from our lives of steady paychecks and families and to risk everything so that we can have lives of fuller joy. Are we to interpret this story metaphorically?

As a teenager, I saw people confessing to be Christian, but not acting very Christian once they left the Sunday service. I was surrounded by teenagers who went to Young Life meetings and then spent the rest of their time sneering at the rest of us. They believed deeply enough to burn their record albums, but not deeply enough to risk reaching out to the unpopular kids.

Jesus enfolds us in love, so that we can enfold others in that same love. If we truly commit to Christ as our behavioral model, we will soon be living lives we wouldn't have recognized in our previous incarnation: we will give away more of our possessions, we will reach out to humans who are lower on the prestige chain, we will champion the destitute, we will forsake the behaviors that undercut love (gossip, criticism, meanness of all kinds).

Cast down your nets. Cast them down again and again and again until you are a different kind of fish and a different kind of fisherperson.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"Lost" as Christian Allegory

Ah, today I face one of life's essential question (no, not that question, "Where would you go if you died tonight?"; not that question, "Am I living a life that's in harmony with my core values?"): can I commit to another season of Lost?

I'm tempted to watch the show, especially these days, when if I miss an episode, I can catch it online. Yet, as in the days when I taped shows I missed, I eventually can't keep up with the backlog.

But I love the show, with all its allusions and its allegorical nature. I've spent years now trying to figure out the show as allegory--what's it really about? I can make part of it fit into an allegorical scheme, but then other parts sabotage my theory. I'll be interested to see how the writers weave it all together. And this show is one of the few where I think the writers are really talented enough to pull it off--and pull it together.

The show has a lot to say to us as Christians, particularly in its depictions of characters who live by faith (John Locke) and those who demand proof (Jack Shephard). The character names make me think that something deeper is happening--I've had arguments with people who say, "No, it's just one of the writers who must have been a Philosophy major having fun with us," but there are just too many references to too many important works and writers for it to be just a fun joke.

I haven't had the time to go back and watch the series as I would a movie, and I somewhat regret that. It would probably be intellectually rewarding. But that's a lot of hours. I've thought of buying all the seasons for that distant day when I have time to sit and watch for hours and days. By then, I probably wouldn't have a DVD player.

So, in the meantime, I have to be satisfied with glimpses of the richer life contained by Lost. It's sort of like the Bible or like my experience with God. I have glimpses and hints that so much more is there, but I suffer so many distractions that pull me away from concentrated study or just the opportunity to sit and wait to see what will be revealed.

Of course, I could read what others have to say. At the Hearts and Minds Bookstore website and blog posting, I read about two books that sound promising: The Gospel According to Lost by Chris Seay and Lost and Philosophy:The Island Has Its Reasons edited by Sharon Kay (as part of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series) described this way: "a fully serious collection of contemporary philosophy buffs doing serious cultural studies work, using Lost as a springboard for some very deep speculations." What fun! But can I read them if I have some holes in my Lost viewing? Perhaps I'll get them and find out.

So, yes, tonight I'll probably be watching Lost. And even though it's not a simple and obvious allegory (like one of the most famous Christian allegories, Pilgrim's Progress), I'll be the one catching the references to faith and religion, to Philosophy and all the works of literature that warm my English major heart.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Reading Philippians

Last week, a group of us gathered to read Philippians. One of us was moving away, and we thought this book would give us comfort. As humans, many of us want to avoid change. But human narratives throughout time remind us that humans have always been on the move, that to love one another means that we're likely to face the loss of separation.

One other aspect of Philippians leapt out at me. At the end of the book, it seems that Paul, too, wrestles with the issue of dealing with abundance and dealing with deprivation: "Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4: 11-13).

I tend to assume that early Christians didn't face the same struggles with balancing abundance and lean times as we do. I tend to see those first Christians as living in happy communal families, everyone getting exactly what they needed. Paul suggests that my idyllic vision may be less than complete.

It's also interesting to read this letter in light of my earlier thoughts about Paul. In my early days, I saw him as a misogynist, back before I understood how those early Christians thought that Christ would come back at any minute, and therefore they'd be better off to avoid marriage ties. I saw Paul as warped, in what I saw as his abhorrence of marriage and other fleshly interactions.

But Philippians shows a different side, a warm and tender side. Philippians shows a man hard at work in the world, a man who takes consolation in those whom he has left behind, those who are praying for him, those who are rooting for him to succeed. Philippians shows a glimpse of the lonely side of Paul, and the side that takes joy in human communion.

I don't remember ever reading this letter all at once. I'm glad I had the chance, and I'm glad I read it in a community that I hope will be similar to the one at Philippi.