Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Celebrating Passover

I have been to Seder meals before, but never have I celebrated Passover with Jews. How can this be? Well, in the 1970's and 1980's (and perhaps today?), it was fairly common for Lutheran youth groups to put together Seder meals so that we all understood the Last Supper in a more profound way. We reminded ourselves that Jesus was a Jew, and that in at least one Gospel, the Last Supper is a Passover meal.

Of course, I spent my youth deep in the U.S. South, where there aren't many Jews, so as we celebrated the Seder meal, it seemed like more of an ancient ritual, and less like a holiday observed by many people across the world. I don't think I met a Jew until graduate school.

Last night's Seder was different. I went to my Jewish friend's house, where we celebrated with her husband and son, her sister, her mom, her father-in-law. I felt honored to be included.

She invited us last year, but last year, the first two nights of Passover fell on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday--impossible to work in a Seder meal. I was thrilled when she invited us this year.

I worried that we might feel like religious tourists or that it might feel disrespectful somehow for us to be there. But my friend and her sister told us that in fact, it's important to invite people without a place to celebrate Passover to your Seder, and it's important that your Seder educate.

The Seder felt familiar, with its story of Moses and the deliverance out of Egypt. It felt familiar because I've been hearing it all my life, and it felt familiar because it reverberates through so many American stories and songs. It's hard to grow up singing Southern Gospel standards and avoid the Passover story.

The Seder felt familiar too, because it was a collection of family and friends, a mix of generations and backgrounds, a mash of religious folks. It reminded me of my childhood and adolescent holidays, where my Mom invited anyone in town to celebrate with us. I remember Christmases and Easters with a house full of students who couldn't make it home, seminarians, folks with no families. Those celebrations led to wonderful conversations about traditions and histories.

It was a gorgeous South Florida night, so we ate our Seder on the back deck. I could have sat under that full moon all night. But once the Passover candles melted all the way down, it was time to call it a night, especially since some of us had to work in the morning.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"From Jesus to Christ"--worth checking out

On late Sunday afternoon, there's often not much on television, at least not much for us non-sports folks. As we flipped through the channels, we finally decided, as we so often do, on the PBS station. They were showing an old Frontline episode, From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. We only saw the first 2 hours, the only 2 broadcast locally. On the website, it looks like there are 4 hours, and that we can watch them all here.

It's a great show, using some of the latest archaeological finds to talk about the historical Jesus and the time period in which he lived. It also talked about the earliest Christians, and how they understood what they were doing. It's a typical PBS documentary, with lots of commentary from university professors, and lots of still shots of the locations being discussed.

I come out of an academic background, and Luther was a college professor, so I'm not threatened by this approach to Jesus, even when it differs wildly from my Sunday School teachers' approaches to the subject. I've done a lot of this reading on my own, so I'm always surprised at the misconceptions that people have of the subject--even people who have been to seminary. For example, I'm still amazed that people don't understand that Jesus was killed by the Romans and killed in the way reserved for people seen as a threat to the state.

Here's a fun fact that I got from this show: during the time period of Jesus, and for about 30 years after his death, humans were more mobile than they would be again until the invention of the steam engine. I've always been amazed at the travelling patterns of those first evangelists, but apparently, lots of people were on the road; the fact that the evangelists travelled far and wide would not have been unusual.

So, during this week when so much of the world ponders what it means to be Jewish (happy Passover!) and what it means to be Christian (happy Easter!), why not take some time for some scholarly insight?

Monday, March 29, 2010

My Photo Response to Palm Sunday becoming Passion Sunday

Yesterday's Passion Sunday wasn't too bad, although I had to sit through the horrible rendition of "Worthy is the Lamb," one of my least favorite songs that the choir sings. We also had a baptism, which I never mind, although our services are already well over one hour in any given Sunday.

When we got the Palm crosses, I got an idea for photo. I took them home, played with a vase of lilies, and below is the result.

So, it's a bit late for my Lenten art project (or early!), but I thought I'd post anyway.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Holy Week Begins

Today, Holy Week begins. My church, like most other ELCA churches, will do the whole Passion story today. Then some of us will return to do parts of it again on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The very thought of it exhausts me.

When did we begin doing the whole Passion story on Palm Sunday? I know it's been some time now, but I'm almost sure that the church of my childhood in the 1970's didn't.

My mom says that churches started this approach as more and more people didn't come back to church for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Part of me understands; my life is hectic too. Part of me thinks, well, if people can't make it back for Holy Week services, that's their loss.

I wonder if there are pastors and churches out there that stick to their guns and simply do Palm Sunday on Palm Sunday. Why must we do Passion Sunday?

Of course, what I really suspect is true is that I need a bit of attitude adjustment. Why do I feel so snarly about this subject? Why am I so judgmental? What do I need to consider or reconsider?

Part of my growliness comes from trying to do too much in one Sunday, so that the Sunday service feels hectic--and lately, I've wanted more quiet, more contemplation. Instead, we'll rush through the whole Passion story. Part of my growliness comes from this sense that time is zooming by--how can it be Holy Week already? Part of my growliness comes from feeling pressed for time, and doing the whole Passion on one Sunday, far from saving me time, reminds me that we're all facing this challenge.

I hope to find some Holy Week space to remember the significance of all of this. In the hurry and the rush, I want to open my heart to gratitude.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Art Project Update

As I recall (and I looked up to be sure), my art project was going to be non-word projects each week. And two weeks ago, I started sliding, as I posted my animated/videopoem. And last week, I posted a poem. And then I was away. I did create an Easter card for missionaries last week, but I'd hardly call it art. My mom and I created a retreat, but I don't think I should count that.

No, I wanted to do more to get back to some of the art forms I've moved away from throughout the years. And in some ways, I have. A week from now will be Good Friday, and since I have an idea in mind, I'll post a picture of the "sculpture" I plan to make out of fabric and beads.

A week from now will be Good Friday. How this Lenten season has zipped by.

For now, here's a poem that I finished in the past week, to get you thinking about Good Friday:

Strange Nourishment

In the shadow of the cross, new sprouts
thrust exuberant blooms out through blackness,
out of the blood soaked
soil. They yearn for light,
where life begins.
They root themselves in tears and nails.
They suck up their strange
nourishment in the shelter
Of God’s grace.

The sprouts understand the mystery
of God’s plan, potential hidden
in the smallness of seeds,
the nourishing qualities of decay and dirt,
an imperial instrument of torture
transformed into salvation.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Feast of the Annunciation

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the feast day which celebrates the appearance of the angel Gabriel, who tells Mary of her mission. That means only 9 months until Christmas. If I wrote a different kind of blog, I'd fill the rest of this post with witty ways to make your shopping easier. I personally think that we should take the money that we spend on buying gifts for adults and give it to social service agencies with a track record of doing good things in the developing world. I think that first world adults have way too much stuff, so why give gifts--I'm Scroogy that way.

I think we should celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation by thinking about our own lives. What does God call us to do?

We might think about how we can listen for God's call. Most of us live noisy lives: we're always on our cell phones, we've often got several televisions blaring in the house at once, we're surrounded by traffic (and their loud stereos), we've got people who want to talk, talk, talk. Maybe today would be a good day to take a vow of silence, inasmuch as we can, to listen for God.
Maybe we can't be silent, but there are other ways to tune in to God. Maybe we want to keep a dream journal to see if God tries to break through to us in that way. Maybe we want to keep a prayer journal, so that we have a record of our prayer life--and maybe we want to revisit that journal periodically to see how God answers our prayers.

In our society, it's interesting to me to wonder what God would have to do to get our attention. I once wrote these lines in a poem:

I don’t want God to have to fling
frogs at me to get my attention. I want
to be so in touch that I hear the still,
small voice crying in this wilderness of American life.
I don’t want God to set fire to the shrubbery to get my notice.

But as I think about Mary's story, I realize that God has always had trouble getting our attention. What is God trying to tell me these days?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 28, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Gospel: Luke 22:14--23:56

Gospel (Alt.): Luke 23:1-49

I write this meditation on the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. At the same time, Christians around the world are preparing to remember the crucifixion of Jesus. The lives and deaths of these two men, almost two thousand years apart, remind us of the forces of the world, which we take on, when we preach and live lives of radical love and commitment to the poor and dispossessed.

In his book Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, Eugene H. Peterson reminds us, "Nothing is more rudely dismissive of Jesus than to treat him as a Sunday school teacher who shows up on Sundays to teach us about God and how to stay out of trouble. If that is the role we assign to Jesus, we will badly misunderstand who he is and what he is about" (page 135). Interestingly, many scholars believe that Archbishop Romero was chosen to his position because the leaders in the Vatican saw him as a quiet man who wouldn't make trouble.

All that changed when one of his good friends, an activist Jesuit priest, was assassinated by one of the death squads roaming the country. Romero became increasingly political, increasingly concerned about the poor who were being oppressed by the tiny minority of rich people in the country. He called for reform. He called on the police and the soldiers to stop killing their brethren. And for his vision, he was killed as he consecrated the bread for Mass.

Romero knew that he was in danger from various political forces in the country, but he refused to cower in fear and back down. Likewise, Jesus must have known what wrath he was bringing down upon himself, but he did not back down. Until the end of his life, he called upon us to reform our earthly systems, systems that enrich a few on the backs of the many. Romero and Christ both show us that the forces of empire do not take kindly to being criticized.

Jesus warns us that to follow him will mean taking up a cross, and it may be the literal cross of death. The story of Palm Sunday reminds us that we are not here to seek the world's approval: the world may love us one day and crucify us next week. Palm Sunday offers us some serious reminders. If we put our faith in the world, we're doomed. If we get our glory from the acclaim of the secular world, we'll find ourselves rejected sooner, rather than later.

It's important for us to remember the basic lesson of the Scriptures: God is not fickle; it's humans and the societies that humans create that are fickle. You can be acclaimed in one season and denounced in the next.

The Passion story and the story of Oscar Romero remind us that dreadful things may happen to us. God took on human form, and even God couldn't avoid horrific pain and suffering. But the Passion story also reminds us that we are not alone. God is there in the midst of our human dramas. If we believe in free will and free choices, then God may not be able to protect us from the consequences of our decisions. But God will be there to be our comfort and our strength.

A more important lesson comes with Easter. God can take horrific suffering and death and transform it into resurrection. We know what happened to Jesus and those early Christians after the death of Jesus. Likewise, in death, Oscar Romero became a larger force for justice than in life. His death, and the martyrdom of other Church leaders and lay workers (not to mention the deaths of 75,000 civilians) galvanized worldwide public opinion against the forces of death in El Salvador. God is there with us in our suffering and with God's help, suffering can be transformed.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Day Long Create in Me Retreat

Those of you who read this blog faithfully have read my enthusiastic writing about the Lutheridge retreat, Create in Me. Last year, when my parents attended, my mom was so inspired that she proposed that we create a 1 day version for her women's group at her home church. So that's what we did.

We were supposed to do the retreat on Feb. 7, the day of historic snowstorms in the northeast. So we rescheduled for March 20. It went fantastically well, so I thought I'd post about it, in case it serves as inspiration for your own church. It's amazing what one can do in one day. And this plan would work well for half a day, since we designed it to be a day where people who could only come for half the time could still participate.

We sang a few songs and then did the getting to know you exercise that had people compare themselves to art supplies (see this post for more details).

Then we moved to a Bible study of parables, led by me. I talked about how parables are like poems, making strange connections, making us see the world in a brand new way. I agree with Eugene Peterson: "A parable is not ordinarily used to tell us something new but to get us to notice something that we have overlooked although it has been right there before us for years. Or it is used to get us to take seriously something we have dismissed as unimportant because we have never seen the point of it. Before we know it, we are involved" (Tell It Slant: a Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, page 19). We had a rollicking discussion of what we know about God and the Kingdom of God (not necessarily the heavenly kingdom, but the one we're creating right here and right now) through the parables. We talked about what the parables teach us about what kind of people we're supposed to be.

The Bible study lasted about an hour. After that, we moved to art stations. Here's where we needed the help of a few others. The quilting group brought quilts for us to tie. They also make fabric pillow hearts to send to the troops, and those hearts needed stuffing, something a beginner can do. We had a table on spiritual journaling led by me. We have a church expert on flower arranging who could join us in the morning, and in the afternoon, we decorated cupcakes. We had a table to make Easter cards to send to missionaries (go here if you'd like to participate--it's easy!).

After about 75 minutes at the art stations, we broke for lunch. We had sandwiches, a fruit platter, and a veggie platter from a local grocery store. We had fairly gourmet sandwiches (meats and cheeses on gourmet flatbread with an olive spread), which was a pleasant surprise. But why should it have been? All the food was delightful. One of the congregational bakers brought cinnamon rolls for the morning--which she baked in the church kitchen, which was right off of the fellowship hall where we met, which meant that we were greeted with delicious cinnamon smells as we arrived.

Then, in the afternoon, we did it all again, plus a closing worship service where we anointed participants' hands with oil.

It all worked so much better than we expected. The participants were eager to have conversation during Bible study (as a seasoned teacher, I was prepared either way--I could talk nonstop or lead a conversation or both). Everyone seemed enthusiastic about the art stations--it's always hard to know in advance what will interest people. Everyone circulated, and no one sat alone at lunch (always a good sign to me). It was a delight.

Would it work at your church? I suspect that it would. I noticed a real hunger for the retreat experience on Saturday. So many of us can't get away to church camps for several days, but we can take a Saturday (or just a Saturday morning) away from our other responsibilities.

Likewise, I noticed a hunger for permission to be creative. Again, so many of us have so many obligations that creative time gets crowded out. It's easier to say, "I have a retreat at church," than it is to say, "Don't bother me for 4 hours while I work on my art."

So many churches focus on the worship service and forget about the need to nourish people in other ways and the need to give people more tools for their daily and weekly spiritual writing. A quarterly retreat held in the fellowship hall, led by lay people, could be just the thing for which congregations have been searching.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Lenten Art Project--A Poem Based on the Prodigal Son

This week I had hoped to add audio to one of my animated/video poems, but time got away from me. However, I did write a poem. During my pastor's sermon, the ideas just started to flow.

I feel like I should give him partial writing credit. I wouldn't have had the ideas for the second stanza without his sermon ringing in my ears.


And so it comes to this: we stink
of swine, and we fight
them for food, and we wonder
why we ever worried
about our extra weight.

We set up camp among the Christmas
decorations and the old choir
music and several generations
of hymn books. We sleep on cold
concrete while the worship
service swirls above us.
And soon, we know it’s time to surrender.

Our parents, people of cool composure,
refuse to bury us without a body
to prove our demise. They scan
the hospital blotters, tune
to police radios. They keep one eye
trained towards the horizon, always hoping.

We have never seen our fathers
cry. Our mothers have never hugged
us so fiercely. We wish
we had thought to take
a run through the garden hose.

We feel fluid return to our dried
up bones, as cool linen drapes
our bodies, as the bread breaks,
and the wine flows. We unclench
our fists and hold our empty
hands out to our simmering siblings.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Church of the No Trespassing Sign

Last night I was at an inner city church. We had some time before we served dinner to the homeless, so I talked to some of the members. They've been having a recurrence of the disputes that they sometimes have with the residents of the high end condos that sprung up during the housing boom. Those residents hate the homeless, and some of the residents seem to think that if the church stopped helping them, the homeless would go away.

I was incredulous at first. These folks bought inner city condos. Some of them bought condos that were made possible because low and moderate income housing was demolished. What did they think their inner city experience would be? Something different than the real estate developer told them, to be sure.

I'm always a bit suspicious of churches where I don't see the poor and the destitute, or worse, where I see no trespassing signs. I belonged to one of those churches once. The argument about the no trespassing sign was one of the early signs that I needed to leave. Once I suggested that we serve a pancake breakfast and post signs to let people know we were doing that. One fellow church council member said, "How would we keep the homeless people away?"

I said, "Why would we keep the homeless away?"

It was a doomed church-parishioner match. I see that now.

I also know that churches have to walk a fine line. The inner city church members I spoke to last night told me that the church allows four of the homeless men to camp out on the little porch by the church office door. It's covered, fairly sheltered, but still, it's hard concrete and no bathroom. I wonder how those men feel, huddled against the church door, thinking of the better space denied to them just beyond the door.

I think of the nation's churches, vacant for so much of the week. I think of all the abandoned strip malls, all the vacant houses across the nation. I wish that I could come up with an elegant plan that would be so flawless that we'd all adopt it, and the homeless would truly have an option that would let them come out of the elements.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 21, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21

Psalm: Psalm 126

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

Gospel: John 12:1-8

I've always had some amount of trouble with this Gospel; I suspect it's because I would have been that disciple who said, "Just think what we could have done with the money that went to buy that expensive oil. Doesn't Jesus know the electric bill is due? We could have helped the poor. And she went and poured it all over his feet!"

I know that traditionally we use this Gospel lesson to make us think forward a few weeks to Good Friday, when Jesus' dead body will be anointed with funeral oils (and for those of us who participate in foot washings on Maundy Thursday, perhaps we're supposed to think about Jesus' washing of the feet of his disciples). But there's still something about this Gospel that makes me restless.

Perhaps it is Jesus saying, "The poor you will always have with you." I'm uneasy with the way so many people through the centuries have used this line to justify their unwillingness to work to eradicate poverty. A shrug of the shoulders, that verse out of context, and poof, we don't have to worry about our riches.

I've been trying to sit with this passage in a different context, in the context of the whole Gospel of John. Jesus says that the poor we'll always have with us, but we won't always have Jesus (at least not in human form). I'm trying to see it as Jesus telling us that we must treasure the moments in life that are sweet. Did Jesus know what was about to happen to him? Different theologians would give you different answers, but even if Jesus didn't know all the particulars of his upcoming execution, he must have known that he was stirring up all sorts of worldly trouble for himself. He must have known that he wouldn't have had many more of these occasions to sit and savor a meal.

I'm sure he's also speaking towards our impulse towards anger and self-righteousness. I can criticize the decisions of others in how they spend their money and what they should be spending their money on ("Imagine. She calls herself a Christian and she goes to get her nails done. She could do them herself at home and send the money she would have spent to Habitat for Humanity"). It's not always easy for me to know how to allocate my resources of time, treasure, and energy.

How are you coming in your Lenten journey? The darkness of Passion week will soon be upon us, as well as the joy of Easter (and then the long hot days of summer, when many of us fall to pieces spiritually). Perhaps we should use this calm space before the coming storms to think about our long-term journey, the one that lasts beyond Lent. Perhaps we should think about the ways we can continue our Lenten disciplines. Perhaps we might think about where we'd like to be this time next year and start to shift our trajectory towards that point.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sunday School, Confirmation, and a Liberal Arts Education

I am teaching an adult Sunday School class, which is interesting in many ways. We're working our way through the same book I've been doing with my Mom's Facebook experience: 40-Day Journey with Madeleine L'Engle. We've only just started the book.

It's interesting to hear how other adults understand our faith. We come from a variety of backgrounds. So far, we've all been women, women except for me whose children (and grandchildren) are in Sunday School. I try to keep the conversation open, to talk about the different theological beliefs that are out there, to not assume I know it all.

We tend to return to the life of a parent as a metaphor for God, although we don't always follow through.

For example, on Sunday one woman said that she feels that God sends us difficult/horrible life experiences because there's some life lesson we need to learn.

I couldn't disagree more, but I understand that this idea is prevalent, even amongst the mainstream churches.

I expressed my disagreement, and I could see that most of the class disagreed with me. I said, "Think about it in terms of parenting. You don't take your darling child's hand and press it against a hot burner so that she understands about the danger of stoves and heat. No, of course not. Now, if your child burns her hand, you'll use it as a teachable moment as you comfort her, but you won't press her hand against the burner so that she more thoroughly understands the danger of hot stoves."

Quirked eyebrows. Agreement or disagreement? I pressed on: "God wants only good things for us. God doesn't have to send us disasters. We do a good enough job of arranging disaster on our own. God is there with us in our suffering, but God doesn't cause our suffering."

We moved on to other dangerous topics, like free will and divine plans.

It's interesting to me how Lutherans can say we believe in free will, but so many of us still want to believe that there's a rigid celestial plan for our lives, that God has it all mapped out for us. So, which is it: free will or divine plan?

To me, free will explains a lot. If I believed in a celestial plan, I'd have to say that God isn't a very efficient manager.

I might even go further and say that I don't believe in an all-powerful God, but that idea seems very radical in my Sunday School class. A God who creates a world committed to free will has abdicated a lot of power, if indeed, God ever had all the power.

One of the advantages of being a rebellious teenager and twenty year old is that I had to examine what I believed and why I believed it. And I've done a lot of reading and studying, so I understand various theological ideas, the strengths and disadvantages of each argument. I understand the history behind a lot of these ideas, and the fact that some of these ideas aren't rooted in much at all.

I don't know that my background makes me a good Sunday School teacher. I certainly wouldn't teach Confirmation classes. Until recently, I'd have said that I'm not Lutheran enough to teach Confirmation class. I know that I would approach Sunday School from an intellectual/liberal arts approach, and that method would infuriate some parents. I don't need those headaches.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Follow Up to Yesterday's Getting to Know You Exercise

Yesterday's getting to know you exercise went really well! If you could hear me say that, you might say, "Why do you sound so surprised?"

I thought the exercise would go well, but in the end, it's always hard to know. Some people have playful natures. Some people arrive with open hearts. Some people get the metaphor. Luckily, these statements describe the yesterday's group.

I didn't pick up any resentment from people about having to sacrifice their Saturday mornings. No one there was a literalist. No one said, "What do you mean, how am I like a hammer? Humans are humans and things are things." There was a bit of tiredness, but no grumpiness.

And we found out some interesting things about each other. If we had simply introduced ourselves, people likely would have stuck to the basics. But by having to think about how we're like potting soil or thread or vise grips--that takes us to a different level.

Will I retain that information about my Council-mates? I don't know. Did I learn things I didn't already know? I'm not sure. As each person spoke, I felt a flash of recognition: oh yeah, of course that's how he's like bread dough; oh right, of course she's like a needle.

I like that the exercise gave us a focus as we spent a few minutes in silence considering our deeper selves and the tools and mediums before us. I like that we had a few minutes to speak, but the exercise focused our minds.

Every year, I go to the Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge (go here for information; there's still time to decide you'll join us there, still spaces open). Every year, it seems like more of an effort to get myself there, and I slip into wondering whether or not it's worth it. But I learn so much that I can use in all sorts of different areas. And more than that, I get a retreat. I see humans in first world countries leading more and more harried, frazzled lives. It's important to get away.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Getting to Know You . . . an Exercise

Today our church council has a retreat. I'm in charge of the getting to know you exercise. I always hate these exercises, but I understand the value of them.

It's interesting to think about this getting to know you process for a church council. Most of us are new council members, but we know each other casually. Some of us have worked on projects together. I don't know that any of us are deeply close, meaning that we know each other's secrets.

So, what to do?

I reached back to the last Create in Me retreat, where we had various tools and mediums that lead to creativity on the wall. We were to choose the art supply/tool/medium that we felt most connected to and went to stand there. We talked about it in our small groups, and then briefly as a larger group.

Of course, with my council group, we may not all have a creative/artistic bent. So, I created several groups. I was going to use only tools (since the church council is itself a sort of tool). But then I created several groups: tools, art tools, and mediums/supplies.

I cut paper into small squares, which I'll put in envelopes and let people draw a slip of paper. They'll have 3 slips in front of them. I'll give them a few minutes to think or write. Then we'll go around in a circle. Each person will tell how they're like one or more of the tools or mediums.

Here are the lists:

tools: hammer, drill, saw, sander, tape measure, screwdriver, vise grips, wrench, corkscrew, chisel, utility knife, voltage tester, pliers

art tools: paintbrush, computer, needle, mixer, musical instrument, pencil, alphabet, chisel, scissors

supplies/mediums: glaze, yarn, clay, yarn, potting soil, bread dough, paint, cloth, metal, paper, seeds, thread

I may keep adding right until time for the retreat. I have an easier time coming up with supplies and mediums than tools. What does that say about me?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Joy and Religious Belief

My book club met this month to discuss Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project. It was fascinating to me how our religious views shape our view of happiness and how much happiness/joy producing activities we deserve to have.

My friend who prides herself on being an atheist has been perhaps forever shaped by the German culture in which she grew up. She can't shake that Protestant work ethic: joy is something you might work towards when the work is done.

Of course, the problem with that mindset is that the work is never done. There are always surfaces to be scrubbed, paperwork to be managed, family/friend crises, and any number of tasks which feel so important that we put off our own pleasures.

The idea that a person might schedule activities which bring joy was so foreign to her. She couldn't imagine clearing out time in her weekly schedule, much less her daily schedule.

My Hindu friend, on the other hand, told us that her religious tradition requires that they seek joy every day. It's a mandate.

That idea is foreign to me, although I don't think that Christianity started out as such a joyless religion. How would my attitude be different if my Lutheran faith mandated daily joy?

One of our friends seemed almost Buddhist in his mindset. He's just grateful for a day when the worst that could happen doesn't happen. He talks about practicing detachment--but then when he talked about his graduate classes that he's taking now, we could tell that he's not detached.

How would a true Buddhist approach the idea of happiness? How does detachment work in our quest for happiness and joy?

I found Gretchen Rubin's happiness projects fascinating at first, but some way through the book I lost interest. I found her projects almost too tiny, almost too self-absorbed. My faith tells me that we find happiness through service.

I remember when I was in grad school and distressed about my thesis. I felt swamped in writing and thought I would never produce something that would make my thesis director happy. I knew I had to do something to get out of my head.

So, I went to a food pantry and volunteered. Finally, I felt like I was doing work that really mattered. I could work on my prose, my literary analysis and in the end, who cared? What did it matter? What difference did it make?

But after a few hours at the food pantry, I could think of hungry families that could make it for a few more days or weeks. I bagged food, which freed up the case workers to perhaps help families with other issues.

The idea of happiness is so elusive, in so many ways. So many of us think we know what would bring us happiness, but we don't. Or we know, but we don't do those things. Or we do them, only to discover that they no longer bring us happiness.

Maybe in the end, the secret is to act like we're happy, and then our moods will follow. That seems to be what Gretchen Rubin discovers. Or maybe, the secret is to remember that God mandates us to be happy. God didn't put us on this earth to be miserable. I love the vision of God that we see in the first Genesis story (before Adam and Eve barge in), where we see God creating a variety of things and declaring them very good. Our God is a joyful God. We're created in that image.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lenten Art Project--A Video Poem

At my creativity blog, I've been thinking and writing about video/animated poems and book trailers (go here, here, and here for more). I decided to create one for my Lenten art project. Because of the length of the poem, and my novice status with Microsoft Movie Maker, I kept my project to one stanza.

Here's how the poem stanza looks on the page/screen in traditional format:

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.

Here's my video/animated poem. There's no sound because I haven't experimented with that yet.

Here's the whole poem, which originally appeared in Interdisciplinary Humanities (and yes, I posted it two weeks ago, so you're not going crazy):

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, March 10, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 14, 2010:

First Reading: Joshua 5:9-12

Psalm: Psalm 32

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Ah, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We've heard it so many times that we may have forgotten pertinent details. We remember clearly the younger son, the one who squanders his fortune in a foreign land and becomes so hungry and desperate that he yearns for swine food. We understand this part of the parable. Even if we haven't been the wastrel child, who among us has not occasionally envied the ease with which some of our society just do their own thing and give themselves to riotous living. We assume the younger son represents us as our worst sinner selves.

We forget that this story has two lost sons.

Yes, the older son is just as lost as the younger. Perhaps more so.

Look at his behavior and see if you recognize yourself. He has to find out from the servants what is going on. He hasn't been invited to the party (oh, that fear of being left out and uninvited! We think we outgrow it as we leave 7th grade, but we really never do). He has done all the right things, been steadfast, honored his father and society, and what does he get? Does he get a party? No!

Which child is more lost? The one who gives into his animal nature, who indulges in carnal pleasures? Or the one who shows himself to have all sorts of repressed anger, a well of resentment that erupts all over his poor father?

In his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen says, "Looking deeply into myself and then around me at the lives of other people, I wonder which does more damage, lust or resentment?" (71). What a powerful question.

Nouwen sees this parable as being about love and how we're loved and how we're afraid that we won't be loved. We spend a lot of time looking for the approval of others. Nouwen says, "As long as I keep running about asking: 'Do you love me? Do you really love me?' I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with 'ifs.' The world says: 'Yes I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much'" (42). Obviously, we can't win this game.

Luckily, we don't have to win. God loves us regardless. Of course, learning this lesson of love may take us a lifetime. We have to force ourselves to the disciplines that will thaw our frozen hearts. Nouwen suggests, "Although we are incapable of liberating ourselves from our frozen anger, we can allow ourselves to be found by God and healed by his love through the concrete and daily practice of trust and gratitude" (84).

He goes on to say, "There is a very strong, dark voice in me that says the opposite: 'God isn't really interested in me, he prefers the repentant sinner who comes home after his wild escapades. He doesn't pay attention to me who has never left the house. He takes me for granted. I am not his favorite son. I don't expect him to give me what I really want" (84).

Yes, trust and gratitude can be difficult moods to sustain. But we're called to do that. And then we're called to work on a deeper transformation. We must become as full of love as the father in the parable.

The traditional approach to this parable is to see the Father character representing God, which is certainly true. But many of us assume we cannot love the way God can. Maybe not. But we have to try. Nouwen says, "Perhaps the most radical statement Jesus ever made is: 'Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.' . . . "what I am called to make true is that whether I am the younger or the elder son, I am the son of my compassionate Father. I am an heir. . . . The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father" (123).

How on earth can we accomplish this? Nouwen suggests that we cultivate these three traits: "grief, forgiveness, and generosity" (128). To those I would add that we should commit ourselves to believing in resurrection. Believe in the possibility of second (and third and fourth and fifth) chances. Believe that the lost will be found. Believe that the Prodigal will return. Throw a fabulous party. And when you notice that someone is missing from the party, someone is standing in the shadows, stewing in resentment, anger, grief, envy--go get that person and invite them to the party. Remember that we are children of a God whose love we cannot begin to comprehend. Model that behavior.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Getting Rid of Sin--What Makes a Good Metaphor?

Easter is sometimes a tough time of year for those of us non-literalists. I have a different vision of the cross. I know that crucifixion was the punishment that the Romans reserved for criminals who acted against the state; Jesus died a terrorist's death.

I've had arguments with fundamentalist friends who would tell me that I'm undercutting the role of Jesus, and I would say, "No, I'm not." To me, the central message of Christianity is that the Kingdom of God will put us in direct opposition to earthly kingdoms--and we might pay with our lives.

Lately, I've been thinking about the cross and all the ways that we need a metaphor for getting rid of our sins. The Lutheran churches of which I've been a part haven't focused on the cross exclusively (or even very often, most of them) as a metaphor for humanity shedding itself of sin.

Yes, I used the word metaphor. I'm a poet, not a literalist. For me, there are far more effective metaphors than the cross.

When we were at camp in Lutheridge, we would write down our sins and cast them into the fire. I really liked that. As I got older, I liked the confluence of flame and ash, my sin like paper. I think of my sins as unforgivable, but they're just as flimsy as paper, just as easy to get rid of.

I also have a memory of casting our sins, written on paper, into the lake. But I'm not sure if I'm mixing up that memory with something else. I like that imagery better, with its baptismal connections and the washing away. Much nicer than burning. But the burning is more dramatic.

Of course, these metaphors presuppose that I'm able to quit clinging to my sins. Why on earth would we cling to our sins? They serve us in some way. Psychologists would tell us that we don't do anything that doesn't serve us in some way; even if it's negative, it's still got some sort of function, or we wouldn't do it. I believe that.

So psychologists would tell us we have to figure out why we need those sins before we can work on casting them away. A fundamentalist would tell us that we're humanly incapable of casting away our sins and that's why Jesus had to come. I, a poet, would tell us that we need more memorable metaphors and rituals to help us understand our sins and how to get rid of them.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Longing for Quiet

Lately, I find myself longing for a contemplative service. I've always loved liturgy, but lately, I just want everyone to be quiet.

I got to church yesterday while the choir was still practicing. I wasn't sure I could stay. Our sound system usually doesn't amplify enough, but yesterday we had the opposite problem. Every instrument and every voice seemed much too loud. By the end of the service, my head was throbbing. I had to take some aspirin and lie still in a dark room to recover. And I'm not prone to migraines (a bit prone to headaches, whether they be caused by stress or loudness).

Not for the first time, I found myself wishing that Lutherans had a more contemplative tradition. I just want to sit in silence. Maybe I'll let you interrupt occasionally to read the Word of God. We can do a bit of liturgy to prepare for the Eucharist. But don't bother me with lots of instruments. Don't amplify. It's O.K. to remain in the background.

I know that lots of churches have spent lots of money on sound systems. I know that lots of churches have spent lots of money on grand organs--maybe on whole orchestras. But I can't be the only woman who finds her nerves increasingly jangled, who needs a space of quiet where she can hear God speak.

Those of you who are casting about for your niche in the mission field, hear my whisper! Give me a soothing, contemplative service, and I'm yours--at least occasionally.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Of Prodigal Sons and Worldly Institutions

I've been catching up on blog reading, in addition to catching up on NPR stories. Over at my friend David Eck's blog, I came across his thoughts on the Prodigal Son. This chunk caught my attention: "The key to understanding this part of the parable lies in the two phrases 'this son of yours' and 'this brother of yours.' These two phrases speak volumes about the relationships between the three characters in the story. The first, a statement from the older brother, says he has disowned his younger brother. The second, a statement from the father, is an appeal for their relationship to be reconciled. The story is left opened, and this is a good thing, because it places the outcome of the story in our hands. The challenge of the parable is to act more like the father and less like the older brother. We are called to be reconcilers not disowners."

We are called to be reconcilers not disowners.

I'm surrounded by too many disowners these days. Perhaps the disowners always come out of the woodwork whenever too many changes start to take place. Perhaps it's normal. But I grow weary.

I'm surrounded by people who say, "How can they do this to my church?" (in light of the current National Assembly decision about homosexuality). At work, we're making lots of changes as we prepare for accreditation, and lots of people are saying, "How can they do this to my school?" Often these people talk with high levels of emotion.

Part of me feels strange because I don't feel those same levels of emotion. Maybe that's because I'm on board with the changes, so I don't feel the need to rend my clothes in grief.

But even when my school wasn't making these changes, even when the ELCA did discriminate, I didn't feel this distress that I see others evoking. I've always felt a sort of amused detachment. Is there something wrong with me?

Part of it is my distrust of societal institutions. I don't feel that sense of ownership and investment. I'm a child of the 70's, and I've seen what happens when you put too much faith in the institutions that have employed you--you end up kicked to the curb in your late middle age, blinking with hurt and incomprehension. No thanks.

Jesus warns us about putting too much faith in worldly institutions. Institutions tend to nurture the disowners. Institutions do not usually reward the reconcilers. I'll have to think about those two sentences to see how much I agree.

In the meantime, since I can't detach from worldly institutions altogether, I'll keep remembering that my role in the world is to be a reconciler, to keep my arms wide in welcome.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Authenticity, Johnny Cash Style!

I've been catching up on NPR programs by listening online--I love streaming audio! A week ago, I missed a great Fresh Air show about Johnny Cash. I particularly enjoyed the interview with producer Rick Rubin, who worked closely with Cash at the end of his life.

He talked about Johnny Cash as a spiritual person: "He's probably the most committed spiritual person I've ever met. He really lived his life according to his connection with God, really. And he had such an honest and pure way about it that - I remember we had a dinner party at my house one night with Johnny and June and some musicians and some film directors, and before dinner, Johnny had everyone hold hands and he said a prayer and he read from a Bible. And I know some of the people at the table had never experienced that before and some of the people at the table were even atheists. But his belief in what he believed was so strong that what you believed didn't matter so much because you were in the presence of someone who really believed and that felt good and that made you believe really in him more than anything else. It was really beautiful."

I've thought about that quote all week. I want to be that kind of spiritually authentic person, so that even atheists will not object to saying a prayer with me, because my life has been such a witness.

I've known other Christians who wanted to be a witness, but just turned people off. Somehow they seemed insincere, either because their behavior didn't match their words, or because they were too militant, or because nonbelievers felt harassed. How do we achieve that Johnny Cash authenticity without veering into that dangerous side territory of hypocrisy? Do we have to have those years of struggle and desperate living to achieve that kind of authenticity?

Perhaps one achieves that authenticity by being quiet for a good long time. In Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft, Bill Moyers interviews a wide variety of poets. The Buddhist poet, Jane Hirshfield talks about Teahouse practice: "Teahouse practice means that you don't explicitly talk about Zen. It refers to living your life as if you were an old woman who has a teahouse by the side of the road. Nobody knows why they like to go there, they just feel good drinking her tea. She's not known as a Buddhist teacher, she doesn't say 'This is the Zen teahouse.' All she does is simply serve tea--but still, her decades of attentiveness are part of the way she does it. No one knows about her faithful attention to the practice, it's just there, in the serving of the tea and the way she cleans the counters and washes the cups" (page 112).

The one thing I've noticed is that authentic people get a lot of practice. They don't just come to an authentic life fully formed. It is through the daily practice and daily work and the work of being self-aware and vigilant that we come to authenticity.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lenten Art Project--a photo shoot!

Last year, my husband and I added an element to the cross for each week in Lent: the first week it was a swag of burlap, the second we tied the burlap with rope, the third we added huge nails, and finally, we added a crown of thorns.

Yesterday, I was taking pictures for my videopoetry project (go here and here for more information on that project), and I decided to also take some pictures for this Lenten art project. We had the elements of the cross by the door, and I did some arranging:

And then, as I was going through my fiber art projects, I made this arrangement:

If you look closely at the fabric art, you'll see a cross underneath. I made this piece while wondering if one could have a piece of artwork with a Christian theme that wouldn't be offensive to non-believers. My boss at the time had these huge pictures of a bleeding Christ, which many found disturbing or inappropriate (when I interviewed for the job, my friend who was already there gave me a heads-up, for which I was grateful, for it would have been hard to concentrate on the interview while wondering about that art).
I like the starkness of the nails with the softness of the fabric and carpet underneath. I don't feel that the photo captures the fiber art as fully as I'd like, but that's O.K.
I've really been enjoying having this art commitment. I'd have let it slide this week if I hadn't made this commitment on this blog. I'm glad that I didn't. My afternoon taking photos was surprisingly fulfilling.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 7, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 63:1-8

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

In this week's Gospel, we get the parable of the fig tree, that poor fig tree who still hasn't produced fruit even though it's been 3 years. This Gospel gives us a space to consider our view of God and our view of ourselves.

Which vision of God is the one in your head? We could see God as the man who says, "Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?" If we see God that way, and if we see ourselves as the fig tree, that's a scary proposition; we've got a few years to produce before God gives up on us.

A traditional approach to this parable might see God as the impatient one, and Jesus as the vinedresser who pleads the case for the poor little fig tree. I know that Trinitarian theology might lead us this direction, but I'm still uncomfortable with the idea of a God who gives up on humanity. Everything in Scripture (and the experiences of those who walked this path before us) shows us a God that pursues us, going so far as to take on human flesh and walk amongst us. This doesn't sound like a God that gives up after 3 years.

A modern (post-modern?) approach to this parable might be to see the man and the vinedresser as parts of the same personality. How often are you impatient with the parts of yourself that aren't changing quickly enough? Are you kind to yourself, like the vinedresser? Or does your inner voice threaten you with destruction if you don't change? I know that some of you are saying, "This sounds quite schizophrenic." To this comment, I would say, try to observe your own inner thoughts. I hope that you're always patient and kind, but I've been on a diet more than once, and I know how quickly the self-loathing voice comes forward.

This parable gives us a hopeful view of our spiritual lives, if we live with it a little longer. Many of us no longer interact with the earth in any way, which is a shame. I wonder how many aspects of this imagery we lose as we move from being a nation of farmers and gardeners to a nation of people trapped by pavement. We tend to think of plants as always growing, always producing. We forget that for any growth to take place, a period of fallowness is necessary.

Maybe you've felt yourself in a fallow place spiritually. Or worse, maybe you've felt yourself sliding backwards. Maybe you started Lent with a fire in your heart, and you've burned out early. Maybe you've spent years thinking about church development, wondering what the Pentecostals have that you don't. Maybe you haven't been good at transforming yourself into a peace-loving person.

Look at that parable again. The fig tree doesn't just sit there while everyone gathers around, waiting for something to happen. The vine dresser gives it extra attention. The vine dresser digs around it (to give the roots room to grow?) and gives it extra manure (ah, the magic of fertilizer). We, too, can be the vinedresser to our spiritual lives. And we don't have to resort to heroic measures. We don't have to start off by running away to a religious commune and devoting ourselves to God. Just a little spiritual manure is all it takes.

You've got a wide variety of spiritual tools in your toolchest. Pick up your Bible. Read a little bit each day (to echo the words of Isaiah, train yourself to hunger after more than bread). Find some time to pray more. Find something that irritates you, and make that be your call to prayer (for example, every time I hear someone's thumping car stereo, I could see that as a tolling bell, calling me to pray). If you can do nothing else, slow down and breathe three deep breaths. Do that at least once a day. Turn your anxieties over to God. When you're surfing the web, go to a site or a blog that makes you feel enriched as a Christian (as opposed to all those sites that make you angry or anxious). Give some spare change to those people who stand in the medians of the roadways. Smile more--you are the light of the world, after all. Time to start acting like it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

36 Arguments (well, not really) To Read This Book

Over the week-end, I read Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. It's about an academic who almost accidentally writes a bestselling book that defends atheism, and it's fully of witty and profound observations about academia, religion, and relationships. It's the perfect book for people who like to think about theological issues but don't necessarily want to read heavy, non-fiction books.

The main character, Cass Seltzer, seems an unlikely creation, "the atheist with a soul," as popular magazines have dubbed him. He spends his life trying to understand the varieties of religious experience and expression, and his journey takes him to some interesting places: grad school, a separatist Hasidic group, and into the arms of some fascinating women (the goddess of game theory and a dreadlocked anthropologist who leaves for years at a time to go to the remotest region of the world).

The book considers some of the historic and contemporary reasons for both belief and disbelief, and looks at the choices that are required of us. It's both funny and profound, which is quite an achievement. I found it hard to put down, and even though I was sad when it ended, it felt complete (unlike some books, which I want to hurl against a wall, because there are so many loose ends at the conclusion).

I suspect we're not done with winter yet. When you need a book for your next snow day or your next trip or your next waiting room time, this one's a keeper.