Monday, May 31, 2010

Feast Day of the Visitation of Mary

Today is the Feast Day of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the day that celebrates the day when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth--both women, miraculously pregnant.

This encounter has inspired centuries of art. Below is a picture of a Ukranian icon, that I downloaded from this Wikipedia site:

Below is a Western interpretation, a more medieval representation:

"Visitation", from Altarpiece of the Virgin (St Vaast Altarpiece) by Jacques Daret, c. 1435.(Staatliche Museen, Berlin.); downloaded from this Wikipedia site.

I find this encounter inspiring because of Mary's words (from the first chapter of Luke):

"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
I love this promise of God's goodness, this focus on the poor and oppressed.

Here is a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime:

"Father in heaven, by your grace the virgin mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word: Grant all of us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen."

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Trinity Sunday and a Variety of Arts

Today we're launched back into Ordinary Time. I'm old enough to remember when the season of Ordinary Time wasn't called Ordinary Time or the xx Sunday after Pentecost, but instead, the season of Trinity--or as I called it, as a child, the long, boring, Green season.

I've always been part of Lutheran churches which observed various liturgical traditions, including the changing of the paraments. In the church of my childhood, once the green went up in May, it never changed. Some churches have a variety of green paraments and stoles which get switched around periodically, but that's not my childhood memory.

I remember being young and bored, bored, BORED in church. I'd sing the wrong verse of each hymn to amuse myself. I'd sketch on the bulletin. I'd look at the adults and hope that I would never end up wrinkled. I'd ask permission to go to the bathroom, and I'd dawdle as long as I could.

Now I'm in awe of my parents, who insisted that we'd be at church if the doors were open. I don't know that they stood up to the whining of their children; I might have caved in and just skipped church, going immediately to the donuts that we often got after church on our way home.

Now, when I think back to that season of Trinity, I also remember those weeks of Vacation Bible School, back in the olden days, when we had VBS during the daytime, when it wasn't one more thing we tried to cram into our after-work schedule.

And now, I'm in awe of the variety of stoles and vestments that exist. In the 70's, as we went on vacation and even then, went to church, it seemed that every church and pastor got their liturgical fibers from the same place.

Now, there are liturgical arts companies with a wide variety of stoles and vestments (see this website, for example, or this one). Now, many churches make an effort to give Ordinary Time its due. Now, many VBS sessions close with the children in charge of the worship. Now, Ordinary Time seems almost as precious as the high holiday festivals. It's a relief, after the relentless pace between Advent and Pentecost, to slow down, to stop, to ponder the regular.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Homecoming and the End of Exile

My friend David Eck has written a great post about Homecoming, about accepting ourselves. He quotes the Eugene Peterson version of the Bible: "That’s plain enough, isn't it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all -- irrespective of how we got here -- in what he is building. [Ephesians 2:19, from Eugene Peterson's The Message]."

He talks about his own journey to self-acceptance and ends his post by saying, "What about you? Has anyone ever made you feel like an outsider? Unworthy of God's love? DON'T LISTEN TO THEM! They are wrong. The kingdom of faith is your 'home country.' Claim your turf and don't let any one try to serve you an eviction notice!"

I love this idea of the end of exile, the idea that the kingdom of faith can be our home country. I've spent my whole life feeling like an outsider, and often, I was proud of it. I didn't want to be part of the in crowd. If they had accepted me, I'd have wondered what I was doing wrong.

Of course, the joke could sometimes be on me. As I got older, and got to know some of the more popular kids in college, I realized that they had good qualities too.

And as I got older still, and talked to people in a deeper way, I realized that even popularity doesn't spare us from the horrors of life. Most people are nursing deep wounds of some kind at various points in our lives. Some of us recover, and some don't. Being pretty, popular, and/or rich doesn't mean you're exempt from the human condition. In his book The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne says, "But death is the central truth of our existence--the sadness at our core. Everything we love will vanish. We can't hold on to anything. It is this tragedy that accounts as well for the beauty and nobility of our lives because in the face of this knowledge, we go right on loving, trying to hold on to what we cherish, defying death with hubris and with faith" (page 61).

I've spent my whole life feeling like I really wasn't rooted to a place, and part of me longed to find a place that I loved enough to sink down roots. We've lived here 11 years, and I'm fairly rooted in my job, so maybe this will be the place--but by default.

What an interesting idea, that my kingdom of faith can be my hometown. I'm lucky these days. My church is one of the reasons why I wouldn't want to move. I know that the Bible passage talks about the larger kingdom of faith. But I'm feeling gratitude that my local kingdom of faith is so special and nourishing.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Great Show, God!

On my other blog yesterday, I wrote this post about paying attention to our surroundings, about being fully present. I wrote: "I'm in an office 40 hours a week, which cuts down on my exploring time. Still, I try to remember to pay attention. Yesterday, as I exited a stairwell, I looked up into the deepest blue sky, a sky intercut by the view of the top of the glass building and palm fronds. I felt my rib cage open up, and I stood there for a few minutes, watching some fluffy clouds float by."

I'd like to do more of that kind of paying attention. I'm interested in the prayerful, meditative mood that an intentional stance of paying attention could motivate in me. I'm interested in the gratitude that my paying attention inspires in me.

I spend a lot of time in my desk chair, with only a glimpse of sky and some foliage growing on the terrace. I need to get out of my chair more, go out onto the terrace, see what's blooming.

When I was in college, one of my older friends told me about her kids, who when they saw a great sunset, would shout, "Great show, God!" I thought it was a wonderful response.

I need to do more of that kind of shouting, even if I just do it silently--although the thought of how people at work would react if I said it out loud is interesting to ponder. I'm an artist, and it makes me happy when people appreciate my work. I'd like to show more appreciation to the supreme artist of us all.

My summer resolution: at least once a day to say, "Great show, God!"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 30, 2010:

First Reading: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Psalm: Psalm 8

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-5

Gospel: John 16:12-15

Today's Gospel reminds us of the mystical approach of John. I find the language almost tough to wade through. It makes me turn to the other readings for today. And I find a mystical theme running through all the readings today.

The chapter from Romans reminds us of our calling. Talk about suffering and endurance and building character--that's the kind of talk we might expect on a Sunday morning! Yet the more I read it, the more it seems to take on a mystical character too. We don't know exactly how these transformations will come, but come they will.

The verse from Proverbs is even more curious. It is here where we meet the first of God's creations, Wisdom. Imagine what a different understanding of the Trinity we might have had, had our early Church Fathers paid more attention to this passage. Wisdom seems to have existed long before the Holy Spirit, who seems a late addition to the Divine Package. What if the three parts of the trinity had been Creator, Wisdom, and Savior? Would there have been a 20th century Pentecostal movement if we had ignored these passages about the Holy Spirit, in the same way we ignore the passages about Wisdom most of the year? To be fair, some of the more Orthodox churches do embrace this Wisdom aspect of God more fully than we do here in the West.

In truth, there are many aspects of God that we could focus upon, but we don't. If you read the whole Bible, you get glimmers of the maternal side of God. How would life be different if we prayed to Our Mother, Who Art in Heaven? There are passages of the lamenting of a God who seems to be absent, and I understand why we don't come back to those throughout the year. We yearn for a God who is powerful.

We live in scary times, where the news of this week brought us a ramping up of tension on the Korean peninsula. We live in strange times, where atheists release scores of furious books, and American churches align themselves with African congregations. Prosperity gospels are preached from the pulpit, and yet the gulf between the super-rich and the poor widens every day. We've been warned of global warming that will swamp our coastlines with rising tides, yet this year, we're seeing oil wash upon our shores. We see bizarre political candidates make inroads (and be elected), no matter how zany their ideas. We yearn for someone of true vision and stellar character, someone to lead us out of this morass.

Jesus made us promises, and they still hold true. The spirit of Truth leads us. Granted, it's easy to be led astray, to be seduced by the passions of the world. But we know our mission--Martin Luther said that faith should move our feet. Where do your feet want to move today?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hungry Years and Table Ministries

Last night we watched a bit of Riding the Rails, a PBS show, part of the American Experience series (learn more here). In the 1930's, more than 250,000 children and teens were living on the road in America, many of them hopping on trains and riding across the country. I remember learning about this aspect of the Great Depression somewhere along the way, but I tended to see it as a grand adventure. Last night's show reminded us of the dangers and the lack of comfort.

And the hunger. I forget how many people were so very, very hungry in the 1930's. I remember reading a fact about World War II that talked about how many recruits had to wait to be shipped off to war so that they could be nourished and so that their diseases of malnutrition could be treated.

My grandmother used to talk about my grandfather's habit of feeding tramps and hobos who came through their towns. He wouldn't give them money, but he'd make them a fried egg sandwich. My grandmother used to talk of this as if it was somewhat shameful, but I always thought it was cool. It was only later that I thought of my grandmother, with her small children in the house (and my uncle was quite sickly at times as a child), worrying about the hobos who congregated in the back yard.

When people ask me about what it means to be a Christian, I think of my grandfather, feeding the tramps and hobos. I think of my mother, who opened our holiday tables to seminarians and students who were far from home. I think of the ministry of Christ, which so often was no more complicated than inviting people to stay for dinner.

As I watched the television show last night, I got a cold shiver, remembering the cycles of the Great Depression, how it took a world war for the global economy to recover. I think of those hungry years, and wonder how many hungry years we've got ahead of us. I'm grateful to all the people who taught me to cook for a crowd on a tight budget. I want to always be able to invite people for dinner, even if all we're having are egg sandwiches.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Pentecost, Confirmation, Creeds, and Actions

Yesterday was a huge day at church for me, and by huge, I really mean long. I was there by 7:30, and was still there at 1:00. This year, I spent more time at church on Pentecost than I did for Easter.

I was there for the Rite of Confirmation, and for a variety of reasons, we confirmed youth at both services. I put stoles around the shoulders of the confirmands, and I read a part of the service about the candle they were being presented. I loved being part of the service.

I sat through the rest of the service thinking about my own Confirmation. We had just started using the new green hymnal, and so I was supremely nervous about my ability to say the Creed, with the new language. I felt like I was being hypocritical, because I wasn't sure I really believed what I was saying. I worried about insulting God with my hypocrisy. I was also supremely aware of my extended family in the pews, people who had made a very long journey to see this Rite. I didn't want to let them down, so I went through with the service, even though I suspected that God was disgusted with me for my hypocrisy.

Where did I get these strange, non-grace filled visions of God? Was it from the Lutheran churches of my youth? From popular culture? Some traumatic memory from childhood?

I did go to a Presbyterian school (for 3rd, 5th, and 6th grade), and we had chapel every Friday. In 5th or 6th grade we had a particularly troublesome pastor who came in to do the chapel sermon. We got a stinging lecture about the tortures of hell, and then there was an altar call of sorts, where we were encouraged to invite Jesus into our hearts to be our Lord and Savior.

When anyone asks me if I'm saved, I think of those Fridays, where I prayed fervently on a weekly basis. Then I worried that maybe Jesus couldn't hear me, because everyone else was praying at the same time. To correct that, I prayed throughout the week. It's no wonder I was a bit confused throughout my youth.

My parents had no idea that any of this was going on. They sent me to the Presbyterian school because the public schools were so dreadful; this was the 70's, the era of the open classroom, and children learning at their own pace. When I worked my own way from the 4th grade curriculum through the 6th grade curriculum in one year, they put me in the private school. They had no idea that I was getting a hellfire and brimstone education at the same time.

Now, as I recite the Creed, I'm still not sure how much of it believe. I think one of the big mistakes the Church has made has been to emphasize these Creeds. I think belief comes through our actions, not by our attempt to make up our minds. If I was writing a Creed, I'd probably have a different set of items that I'd emphasize.

But I no longer worry about God's anger about my hypocrisy in reciting a Creed that I'm no longer sure I fully accept. I assume that God is far more sorrowful about my inability to refrain from malicious gossipping. I know that God hates the hypocrisy of a powerful nation that can't even provide minimum shelter for all its citizens. I feel certain that God can't understand our desire for profits trumping our care for the planet. My doubt about Church and Creed is probably very low on God's lists of things to care about.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Prayer for Pentecost Eve

Creator God,

As we prepare for Pentecost, let us feel our hollowed out selves. Let us prepare ourselves for your breath to enter us. Ready us for rushing wind. Let us learn to listen. Teach us to speak in a language that all will understand. Send us your visions of a redeemed world, and help us to play our parts. Fill us with courage, strength, and love.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Homelessness Enforcers

We have finished another year of taking dinner from our suburban church to First Lutheran in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. What have we learned?

To always take more dinner than you think you'll need. When we returned to First Lutheran back in September, we ran out of food. We had enough for everyone who was on time, but not everyone is on time. It broke my heart to say to the latecomers, "We have no food. No, not even any milk." People ate every scrap: all the bread (we usually have leftovers) and even all of my vegetarian option. Since then, we've brought extra food.

We've seen larger crowds throughout the year. Is this because of the economic downturn? I doubt it. Most of the homeless who come to our dinners have been homeless quite awhile. When I talk to them, I am forced to reflect on the institutional structures that keep people homeless.

One of the most obvious homelessness enforcers in our area is the lack of low cost or medium cost housing, a total lack. I've noticed that even in the smaller South Carolina towns that I return to as I visit friends, there's not as much affordable housing as there used to be. Many cities like mine have demolished any sort of shelter structure too. If you're a woman with children, you may be able to stay at churches on a rotating basis. But gone are the large, gymnasium like shelters of the 80's. Perhaps it's for the best; those shelters were horrors. But at least people had somewhere to go when the night turned rainy.

Another homelessness enforcer is the lack of care for mental conditions. It doesn't take long talking to some people to realize why they won't be holding down a job that might earn them enough money to rent a room from someone. Many of these folks are living in an alternate reality.

A scarier homelessness enforcer is the lack of jobs for folks that have fewer skills. In this job market where the highly skilled can't find work, the future looks even bleaker for all of us. It's bleakest for those with less education and less skills.

Perhaps the largest homelessness enforcer is the attitudes of people who have never shared a meal with the homeless. I'm always startled by the harsh attitudes of some of my students. I do my best to do some consciousness raising, but I'm fighting a losing battle.

Jesus was on to a winning plan with his ministry that started and ended at the dinner table. When we share a meal with someone, it's harder to demonize the larger groups of which our dinner companions are a part.

Perhaps I'll do some thinking about how to bring more students with me to the First Lutheran dinners next year. When I got into teaching, I thought I would change the world by teaching its future leaders. I've spent the last 22 years teaching writing and reading skills. Perhaps it's time to broaden my subject matter.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 23, 2010:

First Reading: Acts 2:1-21

First Reading (Alt.): Genesis 11:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 104:25-35, 37 (Psalm 104:24-34, 35b NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:14-17

Second Reading (Alt.): Acts 2:1-21

Gospel: John 14:8-17 [25-27]

It's interesting to think how different churches celebrate Pentecost. Some churches will be stressing the rushing wind and the coming of the Spirit; perhaps parishioners will be exhorted to become more Spirit-filled. Some churches will be focused upon the mission of the early church, and I predict parishioners will be asked to think about the mission of the contemporary Church, both global and local.

This is one of those years when I'm relieved to turn my attention away from Acts, to think about the Gospel of John. I want something a bit more comforting, like John, not readings that make me feel inadequate, like Acts. I know it's called the Book of Acts, not the Book of Relaxation, not the Book of Taking a Nap. Still, some years I find all the energy in that book to be a bit draining. Some years, it all seems a bit loud, a bit energetic, a bit amplified.

This is one of those years that I find myself thinking of becoming a Quaker, or joining some other contemplative tradition. That's why I find the Gospel passage so wonderful.

Throughout the whole fourteenth chapter of John, Jesus promises that we're not going to be left alone. Jesus must know how hard it will be for his disciples; it's been somewhat easy for them as they sojourn with their Savior. But once he's gone, how will they carry on?

Once again, we have Jesus saying he will pray for the disciples. He tells the disciples that they will have everything they need as they go out into the world. He suggests that the new incarnation of himself/God/Spirit will dwell inside us.

I feel like this Gospel lesson peers straight into my soul, my tired, overstretched soul. Jesus reminds us that we are not alone. The verse after the Gospel ends has Jesus promise, "I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you" (John 14: 18). That's the Good News of this Gospel: we are not alone. We do not have to go about our Pentecostal mission alone. Jesus reminds us that it's a team effort: "Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it" (John 14: 13-14). Jesus reminds us of all that we can accomplish, if we would but call on God.

I love the way the Gospel ends, with these images of all these incarnations of the Divine, swirling in the world around us, gathering within us. This Gospel gives me hope that I will be enough. It's unlike some of those other readings that make me feel so inadequate. Speak in tongues? I can hardly get my laundry done in any given week. Help in the Kingdom mission of redeeming the world? Who will do the grocery shopping?

In our Gospel today, Jesus reminds us that we are enough because we're not all alone. It's a message that's so unlike the messages beamed to us from the larger culture in which so many of us live our daily lives. Our larger culture does not treasure teamwork. Our popular culture likes the larger-than-life leader, the one who goes it alone (don't believe me? watch T.V. for a week, watch politics, go to the movies--it's rare to see a team working together for the greater good). It's a poisonous message, one that's very useful in selling us stuff, because most of us don't feel very adequate all by ourselves.

Jesus reminds us again and again that we are more than adequate. We see disciples that are gloriously human in many of the ways that we are too, and Jesus takes a small band of these flawed humans and changes the world as he sends them out to work in small groups. Jesus can take our overscheduled selves and transform us, so that we love each other, his ultimate dream for us.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Missing Ascension

I seem to remember Ascension Sunday in the church calendar of my childhood. I wonder when and why we decided not to celebrate it widely.

Is it because it's too close to the Elijah story, and thus we see it as allegorical? Is it because we don't know what to do with it? I often assume that's the case as holidays cycle off the church calendar. But I'd like to bring it back (while we're at it, let's do more with the idea of saints). I like the idea that we can ascend what troubles us.

I also think it gives us an important message that sometimes we have to wait. Sometimes it feels like we've been abandoned, but we really haven't. The Holy Spirit has been readying Pentecost for us.

My friend, ELCA minister David Eck, preached the Ascension text this past Sunday, and he blogged about it here. I'm going to end by quoting the last chunk of the outline that he posted:

"VI. So what do we learn from today's gospel lesson?

I hope it is the good news that
---The power of the Holy Spirit is available to all of us
---To guide, to heal, to encourage, to strengthen.

However, we do not always receive this power instantaneously.
---Sometimes we have to endure whirlwinds and fires
---Before we receive a double portion of God's Spirit.

Sometimes we have to wait
---Until we are 'clothed with power from on high'
---Just like those first disciples

It's not easy to wait
---But we are sometimes called to wait nonetheless
---Knowing that Jesus will help us to ascend
---The trials and tribulations of life

So wait patiently, pray expectantly
---And trust that the Ascended Christ
---Will fill us richly with the power of the Holy Spirit
---In order that we may ascend whatever challenges or roadblocks
---We are currently facing."

Amen. Come, Triune God.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Living with our Demons

Yesterday, at my ELCA church, my pastor preached on Acts 16:16-34, the passage where Paul is irritated by the fortune telling, demon-possessed slave girl who follows them around, hollering for people to pay attention to them, and then after he heals her, he's thrown in jail, there's an earthquake, and he saves the jailer's whole family. It's an interesting juxtaposition of stories; why does the jailer merit Paul's attention, but the slave girl doesn't? Our pastor used it as a call to us to remember that we have all sorts of opportunities to share the Good News, and that the best way to do that is by slowing down and taking time to be with people.

I continue to ponder the poor slave girl, who now won't be very valuable since she can't tell fortunes anymore. I wonder if Paul's irritation stemmed from her class and gender. But I keep coming back to the demon possession, and my own experiences with people who aren't quite balanced.

It's hard to establish a relationship with the demon possessed.

Unfortunately, it's easy to live in intimacy with our own demons. We may not even see them as demons. We might miss them if they leave.

I think of Mary Magdalene, said to be possessed of seven demons (or was this a later character assassination?). I wonder if she missed those demons. Were they good company?

When I was young, we were taught that the demon possessed in the Bible probably suffered from mental illnesses, and since people back then didn't have our education, they explained the mental illness with the idea of demon possession. I've since met plenty of educated people who believe in literal demon possession. I tend to go with the mental illness explanation.

I know people who are generally med compliant, but who miss aspects of their mental illness: the manic highs, the ability to blaze with energy, the kooky ways of seeing the world. I think of that slave girl who doesn't warrant Paul's time. I think of all the ways I'm rushing through my life, too busy for those who irritate me, too busy for true intimacy that comes when we live in community. My own demon: that irritating feeling of always having too much to do in too little time, that feeling of being stretched too thin, and thus, I'm not of much use to anyone.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Working Toward What You Will Not Live to See

Occasionally, I have conversations with people about building a better world. Some people are so depressed by the glacial pace of change that they've given up working for it. They wonder how I can hang on to my idealistic visions.

One reason is that I have seen breathtaking change in my lifetime. I have a picture of a friend taken during our undergraduate days. He's wearing a shirt that demands "Free Nelson Mandela." We never thought it would actually happen.

Of course it did, and during this week in 1994, Mandela was elected president of South Africa. I could also point to the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, to the dismantling of nuclear weapons.

But even if I didn't have these world events, I like to think I would be hopeful. I spent the morning rereading parts of Adrienne Rich's prose (to see my more developed thoughts on her prose, go to my other blog post). Rereading the bits that I underlined long ago, this morning I found myself still inspired and comforted by her ideas: "I know that the rest of my life will be spent working for transformations I shall not live to see realized. I feel daily, hourly impatience and am pledged to the active and tenacious patience that a lifetime commitment requires: the can be no resignation in the face of backlash, setback, or temporary defeat; there can be no limits on what we allow ourselves to imagine" (On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, page 270).

We're like the medieval Cathedral builders. We work on our portion, knowing that we'll likely die before the building is done. But that's O.K. We've been part of a grand plan.

In the case of social justice work, we're involved in the grand plan that God has for Creation. We're part of the redemption mission. That idea alone has enough inspiration for a lifetime.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sowing the Seeds of Liberation Theology

I haven't spent much time thinking about the 19th century beginnings of the modern social justice movements in the Church. I could probably write a seminar paper (or a book!) on how these movements evolved in the 20th century, but I haven't spent much time digging deeper back into the nineteenth century, except for the places where Church social justice movements collided with the lives of British writers, like in the life of Christina Rossetti.

I came across this nugget on The Writer's Almanac today, and thought I'd pass it along. In a year of more revelations about church officials who have abused their power, it's good to celebrate this anniversary of a piece of writing that continued moving the Church towards social justice and liberation for the poor and the oppressed.

Here's the quote from the site:

"It was on this day in 1891 that Pope Leo XIII issued an official Roman Catholic Church encyclical addressing 19th-century labor issues. It's called Rerum Novarum, Latin for 'Of New Things,' and it is considered the original foundation of Catholic social teaching.
He said in the open letter that while the Church defends certain aspects of capitalism, including rights to private property, the free market cannot go unrestricted — that there is a moral obligation to pay laborers a fair and living wage.

He had much more to say to employers; first, he told them 'not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen.' He told them it was never OK to cut workers' wages. And he told them to 'be mindful of this — that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one's profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven.'

With these words Leo began a new chapter in the Catholic Church, one where social justice issues became incorporated into official Church doctrine, an essential part of faith, where the Church would stake out official positions and be vocal on issues like labor, war and peace, and the duties of governments to protect human rights."

The Pope Leo link will get you to the whole document, a document which seems full of relevant thoughts for us today, even though it was written over a century ago.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 16, 2010:

First Reading: Acts 16:16-34

Psalm: Psalm 97

Second Reading: Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Gospel: John 17:20-26

This Gospel always inspires Trinitarian thoughts when I read it: to whom does Jesus pray, when he prays? Why does Jesus have to pray, if we really believe in what we say we do, which is a Triune God? Is it a divine version of talking to oneself?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu recounts a story of asking the Dalai Lama about his prayer life. The Dalai Lama cracked a joke about talking to himself when he prays, since, of course, the Dalai Lama is the incarnation of the deity to Tibetan Buddhists.

Lately, I've been thinking about the prayer life of Christ, which we get a glimpse of in this Gospel. I find it deeply moving to think of Christ praying for me. I think of him praying for those that will come later (in our case, much later, 2000 years later) and want to weep in amazement. To the very end, Christ prays for his followers, for those that have been and those that will be. In these last prayers, he continues to focus on his central message of showing God's love to the world.

Christ also reminds God that he wants to share the glory that God has given him. He wants to give that glory to his followers. Think on that for a minute. What if you actually were capable of being like Jesus?

Many theologians would argue that we are, in fact, capable of being Christ like. If we but believe, anything Christ could do, we could do too. Of course, that would mean we'd have to shuck off the ideas of success, the way the world defines it. We'd have to give up our comfortable habits of anger, greed, meanness, looking out for our own skins. We'd have to practice radical love. The good news: the more we practice being Christlike vessels of radical love, the better we'll become at it.

But there's a downside. If you read the chapter that comes after today's Gospel, you'll see that this image of Christ praying comes just before his crucifixion and death. Unfortunately, when Christ instructs us to pick up our cross and follow him, he's not just talking about a metaphorical cross. He may actually mean an earthly sacrifice. Many a Christian has been slaughtered by unsympathetic governments.

Fortunately, those of us in the industrialized northern hemisphere (the Western part, at least) don't have to worry about giving up our lives, not in the literal, physical sense. However, we should start thinking about re-ordering our lives. But start small. Nothing is more overwhelming than thinking that we need to give up all our treasure and go out to solve the intractable problems of poverty.

Here, too, as with any change, it's better to start with the tiniest of baby steps. Maybe this summer is a good time to increase your charitable giving. Maybe you want to donate some time to work with the poor and the oppressed. Maybe you want to remember to pray for those who aren't as fortunate as you are. Maybe you want to clean out your closets and give your surplus to those who have little.

How else can you be a Christ-like light in the world? We are surrounded by people who are poor in spirit, people who are suffering terrible blows. You could be there for them. You could be the person in the office who always has a smile and a kind word and reassurance that all will be well and all manner of things will be well (to use mystic Julian of Norwich's words). You could sow the seeds of hope and help fight despair. You could be the person that makes people wonder and whisper, "I wonder what his secret is? What makes her so capable of being happy?" Maybe they'll ask and they'll really want to know, and you can talk about your faith. Maybe they'll just be drawn to you and hang out with you, and you can minister that way.

A smile is easy. Praying for the world, like Jesus does, is easy. And it's these little changes that lead to happier habits. Eventually, you've changed your trajectory and you didn't even realize it. Maybe you'll look back from a certain vantage point and say, "That was when I started to claim my glorious destiny. That's the starting point that led me on a road to be this close to the Christian God wants me to be." Begin today.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Summer Reading List: If You Have More Time

This year, two books have been published which explore what it means to be a spiritual grown up: Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ by Eugene H. Peterson and After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N. T. Wright. Both men are writing in their typically fine form.

Peterson explores spiritual maturity through an in-depth study of Ephesians, the one epistle that "is the only one that is not provoked by some problem, whether of behavior or belief" (page 15). Some have called it Paul's love letter to the Church. It's also full of information for us as individual believers and as a Church body.

Peterson has much to say about the practices of prayer, love, and worship. He talks about how difficult it is to practice these spiritual gifts in our current world that sees such behaviors as irrelevant: "The approved means of doing good in the world, accredited by the 'powers that be' and sanctioned by popular practice, are education, technology, propaganda and advertising, legislation, and money. And as a last resort, war" (page 206).

Throughout, Peterson reminds us of the importance of the Church, in all its flawed humanity: "Church is the gift of a community of Christians in which we rehearse and orient ourselves in the practice of resurrection. It is never an abstraction, never anonymous, never a problem to be fixed, never a romantic ideal to be fantasized" (page 270).

It's taken me awhile to read through this book because every page is so full of spiritual nourishment. I've long been a Peterson fan, and this book doesn't disappoint.

I'm only half way through After You Believe, but I already see its value, especially for people who haven't given much thinking to what it means to be a full participant in the coming of God's Kingdom--the Kingdom here on Earth, not Heaven, the way that contemporary society sees it (which is vastly different from how first century Jews, the contemporaries of Jesus, would have seen it). In the early chapters, Wright sketches the problems with contemporary Christianity. Too many churches focus on Heaven, on what happens after we die. But for many of us, a more pressing question concerns what happens in that time before we die.

It's the old existential question: why are we here? What does it all mean?

Wright calls us back to the ancient idea of virtue. For many of us raised in Protestant traditions, we bristle at the idea of virtue. We're justified by grace, not works.

Wright reminds us of pre-Protestant ideas, the idea that if we're headed towards a transformed life, we must start practicing. He uses a central metaphor, that of the experienced pilot who landed his crippled plane in the Hudson river. It's not that the pilot has practiced that particular landing. But the skills that the pilot practices every day have prepared him for this freak accident, and he doesn't have to take time to think through the process: he knows what to do.

And why do we do we work on our transformation? Because God calls us to be part of the transformative/healing/creating work of salvation. Unlike what some evangelical churches teach, Jesus was just the beginning of the salvation process, and God won't stop until the planet is transformed into the world that God envisioned. We turn ourselves into Easter Resurrection people, partly to be ready for the day of our own, individual lives after death, but also to be part of God's plan for our current lives: "The way to the kingdom is the way of the cross, and vice versa--as long as you remember that 'the kingdom,' once again, is not 'heaven,' but the state of affairs in which God's kingdom has come, and his will is being done, on earth, as in heaven" (page 116, emphasis Wright's).

Along the way in this remarkable book, we get a crash course in the various philosophies that the world has embraced, from Aristotle to Romanticism to our current love affair with Science, and we get a crash course in all the ways that Christianity has responded--or not. Here's a classic quote that lets you know of all the treats in store: "Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think" (page 158).

I know that many of us think about summer as a time to relax, to put heavy books aside. But for many of us, our vacations are the only time we have to read something that requires a chunk of time. If you've only got time for one or two books this summer, why waste time on fluff? Choose something that will nourish you long after the chilly winds of autumn return, like these two books.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Summer Reading List: If You Don't Have Much Time

At Synod Assembly, during our little scraps of downtime, I read Jesus Freak, by Sara Miles. You may have read her first book, Take This Bread. I did, and it didn't move me particularly, one way or another. I was interested in her experiences in creating a food pantry, but other than that information, it didn't particularly inspire me.

So, why did I pick up Jesus Freak? I was intrigued by the 3 sections: feeding, healing, raising the dead. One of the main points of her book is that we should be able to do anything that Jesus could do. She's not the first to consider this idea; Madeleine L'Engle did it much more eloquently in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. One of the main appeals of Sara Miles' book is its brevity, 166 pages, which appeals to me these days.

Her section on feeding is strongest, although the healing section was also interesting. Her argument falls apart in the third section, where she says we raise the dead metaphorically, by remembering them. Even though the argument falls apart, the plot remains compelling throughout.

Throughout this book, we meet an appealing cast of characters, including Sara herself as the most appealing character. It's refreshing to see a non-ordained woman wrestling with deep theological issues. It's inspiring to see her dedicate her life to living out her faith. It's wonderful to have a view of Kingdom building, right here, right now.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"The concrete experience of the food pantry, like the Gospel, is stuffed with stories like this: because anywhere there's food, spirit and matter intersect. And the power to feed--and particularly to share food with people outside your tribe--always has the potential to transform lives." (21-22)

"Prayer can't cure. All prayer can do is heal, because healing comes embedded in relationship, and prayer is one of the deepest forms of relationship--with God and with other people. And through relationship, there can be healing in the absence of cure." (85)

"Healing with Jesus isn't New Age-y and gentle. It is frequently about pain: which might explain, I realized, why Jesus often asks the desperate people who come to him, Do you want to be well? Do you want to be well if getting well hurts? Do you want to be well if it separates you from your old identity? Do you want to be well more than you want to stay the same?" (emphasis in original text, page 87)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day and Social Justice

In churches across the country today, pastors will preach on the importance of mothers. Perhaps we'll talk about Jesus' mom, Mary. At the end of service, maybe every woman will receive a flower. Maybe we'll clap for our mothers.

Perhaps after service, we'll go out for brunch. We'll send flowers, and many of us have already sent cards. We'll spend lots of money.

Over at The New York Times, the always wonderful Nicholas Kristof writes a piece where he declares that we should make this a day that celebrates all mothers (moving the apostrophe over a space, from Mother's Day to Mothers' Day). We could do this by donating a portion of what we would have spent on our moms to social justice networks that make the world safer for women, especially women in developing nations:

"Happy Mother’s Day! And let me be clear: I’m in favor of flowers, lavish brunches, and every other token of gratitude for mothers and other goddesses.

Let me also add that your mom — yes, I’m speaking to you — is particularly deserving. (As is mine, as is my wife. And my mother-in-law!)

And because so many people feel that way, some $14 billion will be spent in the United States for Mother’s Day this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That includes $2.9 billion in meals, $2.5 billion in jewelry and $1.9 billion in flowers.

To put that sum in context, it’s enough to pay for a primary school education for all 60 million girls around the world who aren’t attending school. That would pretty much end female illiteracy."

He goes on to talk about what we could do with the money left: we could improve women's health care and reduce maternal mortality. It's startling how many women in poor countries still die in childbirth. Heck, it's startling how many women in our country still die, or come uncomfortably close to dying, because of health complications brought on by pregnancy.

I'm lucky. My mom doesn't need much material stuff, and she's not the type who demands presents to prove that she's loved. We've all moved from giving each other presents in my family to making donations to worthy causes. Nicholas Kristof is a champion of those causes.

Your dollars do more to create social change when they go to the third world--so little money can create such good. Today is a good day to donate: in honor of your mother, in honor of past mothers, in honor of women everywhere.

God demands that we look out for the poor and the destitute, and across the planet, it's most often women who are dispossessed and marginalized. On this day that honors women, we could start (or continue with our efforts) to change that depressing fact.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

My 19 year Old Self Weighs in on Synod Assembly

I have said before how I feel weird that Synod Assembly is held at a resort. Theoretically, we get a special deal on the lodging, but it's still $139 a night and most of us stay 2 nights. I can only imagine how much it costs the Synod to use the conference center, and all the high tech set up, with screens and computers and all the rest. And we pay a registration fee to Synod, which has a fund raising aspect too. There's a profit, I think, which goes back into the mission support work of the Synod.

And we haven't added in the cost of travel or food. We've left a huge carbon footprint on our landscape. I had this ecological side on my brain, as the oil spill loomed in the Gulf and threatened our state.

At a workshop on hunger, one man talked about sea level rise and how that would threaten Haiti. I said, "If there's enough sea level rise to threaten Haiti, most of Florida is in trouble too." Not that I don't think we shouldn't be concerned about island nations, but once the polar ice really starts to melt in earnest, Orlando will be oceanfront property.

I carry around with me my 19 year old self. Do we all have versions of this self? My 19 year old self was insufferable in many ways, and I'm grateful that my poor parents still speak to me, after all that my younger self put them through.

My 19 year old self has her hypocrisy detector on permanent high alert. My 19 year old self is self-righteous, and intolerant of the failings of others, particularly when it comes to spiritual failings. Synod Assembly offered her much to get wrought up over.

We declared that the offering for the opening Eucharist would be sent to Haiti. My inner 19 year old immediately started to do math. Let's see, over 500 participants. If we didn't have Synod Assembly, but instead sent the money we would have spent on Synod Assembly to Haiti, how much would we have raised?

A lot.

Now, I understand why it's good to gather in real time, in person. There are years, like last year, when serious work must be done: votes on legislation, decisions about finances in a year of economic collapse. Some years we elect a Bishop. This year just didn't seem as earth shatteringly important to me.

My grown up self reminds my inner 19 year old that it is good for pastors to get away, to socialize and strategize. It is good for church people to come together to experience worship together in a different context. It is good to have a working vacation that has some spiritual elements. It is good to be reminded of resources that we can bring to our home congregations.

My 19 year old self is not convinced.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Spiritual Director Asks Us to Describe Our Relationship with the Divine

At Synod Assembly, I went to a workshop on improving one's prayer life. The woman in charge of the workshop, a spiritual director, asked us to describe our relationship with the Divine by writing in the tiny notebooks that she gave us.

I wrote what first came to mind, and I share it here, in case it provides comfort to anyone else feeling the same way. I wrote, "My relationship with the Divine is the same as my relationship with everyone else in my life. God calls, and says, 'Let's do lunch.' I say, 'Let me look at my calendar. I'm really overbooked. I don't really have any time until June at the earliest.' I'm afraid that God will stop issuing invitations."

I volunteered to share my writing, and I saw people nodding around the room. Another woman spoke to agree with me; she's got 4 children.

I feel like I don't have any excuse really. I don't have children, and while my job does require my on-campus presence for 40 hours a week, most Americans are working far more hours. It's not like I have tons of friends in the area.

Still, there it is, the way I really feel. People around the room offered suggestions: wake up early (if they only knew how early I already wake up), carve out 15 minutes at some point during your day, pray at red lights.

I think that these comments miss my larger point. I'm feeling frazzled for some reason, and that frazzledness leaves me unable to focus on what is important to me: my relationships with other humans and my relationship with God. Carving out 15 minutes isn't going to solve that. O.K., maybe it's a start, but it's a band-aid. A little, tiny band-aid. I'd like to figure out the larger issue. Is it a time management issue? Something gone awry with body chemicals issue? Some larger dissatisfaction that I haven't even let my conscious self think about?

Is this what a 21st century midlife crisis looks like?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 9, 2010:

First Reading: Acts 16:9-15

Psalm: Psalm 67

Second Reading: Revelation 21:10, 22--22:5

Gospel: John 14:23-29

Gospel (Alt.): John 5:1-9

As we work our way through the Lectionary again and again, I'm always intrigued by what leaps out at me. Usually when this Gospel comes around, I focus on the lines about not letting our hearts be troubled or afraid. But this year, I'm zoning in on the idea of God living with us, God making a home with us.

I think of all the roommate relationships I've ever had. Even when they've been less than optimal, I have to admit that I likely knew those roommates more intimately than all my other friends. In my younger, less content years, I'd focus on the bad traits. In my later years, I've tried to focus on the benefits to communal living while not getting derailed by the disadvantages. Now, I live with my husband only, which has a kind of elegant beauty, yet I miss having the more extended community we had when we lived in a communal household. I miss the community I enjoyed when I lived in college dorms. My mother-in-law enjoyed a similar sense of connectedness when she lived in a condo.

What would it mean to have this kind of connectedness with God? What kind of roommate would God be? I imagine that God would be the kind of roommate who would make delicious meals and would make sure that there was enough to share. I imagine that God would bring scruffy people home to dinner, but we wouldn't be afraid, because we'd know that it's always O.K. when God brings scruffy people home for dinner. I imagine that God would be the kind of roommate who would go to the trouble to arrange outings for us, thinking of what would delight us and bring us all closer together.

More importantly, this Gospel lesson points to the kind of homemaking intimacy that God longs to share with us. This Gospel doesn't present a picture of God as disapproving Judge and Jury. This Gospel presents God as roommate, who knows our hopes and fears, who shares our daily journeys. This picture of God is not a God-as-Santa-Claus. God doesn't promise to fix everything in this Gospel, at least not explicitly. But we have something that might be better. This Gospel shows us a God as partner, partner in our joys and sorrows.

The idea of God-as-roommate is probably a strange concept to most of the world's religions and perhaps to many Christians. And yet, if you go back to read the Gospels, it's an idea that Jesus returns to again and again. Maybe we would prefer to have a fix-it God. Maybe we would feel better with an absent God who returns only to judge us sternly for all our failings. That idea might be less scary than a God who lives with us and thus, sees us at our best and worst. Maybe we've spent a lot of time struggling to leave home (literally or metaphorically), so the idea of a God who wants that kind of intimacy might be offputting.

I admit that the idea of a wish granting God has more pull, especially on days when life isn't going well. I understand that people who have yearned for good parental relationships (or for those of us fortunate enough to experience a good family life), the idea of God the Father (alas, so rarely God the Mother) has appeal. But the idea of God as partner has a sturdiness to it. It's the metaphor that can last as life gets tough.

Life will always get tough, and just as spouses can't always fix everything, a God who grants us free will also cannot fix everything. When life gets tough, as it always does, the idea of God as Santa Claus will shake our faith, as life's dreadful turns of events don't support that view of God.

Jesus doesn't give us this view of a God who waves a magic wand to get rid of all our troubles. Jesus shows us a God that wants to be there with us, through all of life's events, both joyous and sad. Jesus shows us a God that will help us in our troubles if we ask, but not necessarily make them go away. Jesus shows us the idea of God as a partner, a partner with tremendous resources so that we need not be afraid or troubled.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Highest Points of Synod Assembly

Last year, the worship experiences were the high points of Synod Assembly, and this year was no different. On Saturday night, we experienced a Taize service which was beautiful and soothing and quiet. I was familiar with most of the music, but the beauty of Taize music is that you don't have to be musical to pick up the songs quickly. The room was lit with low lights, all the better to focus on the banner of an Orthodox presentation of Jesus in the front and the candle in front of the banner. The only thing that would have made this service better would have been if we could have been splashed with holy water on our way out, the way Compline ends at Mepkin Abbey. It was a little jarring to finish the service and to go out into brightly fluorescent hotel hallways, with people having fierce discussions about the sexuality statements.

Of course, the Eucharist services were a highlight all their own. I love communing with huge numbers of people. But even better, I got to assist with Communion during the first night's Opening Eucharist service. Apparently, the person who was going to offer the grape juice didn't show up. On his way to the serving station, my pastor tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I need you."

You don't need to ask me twice. I hopped right up and the other pastor handed me the grape juice. More people preferred wine to grape juice, but it was still deeply meaningful to me to participate. I am always moved to tears by the vast variety of people within our Synod, all of us sharing some common beliefs. I am moved to tears by realizing that this sacrament has lasted over 2000 years, and it binds us with Christians that have come before and Christians who will come long after we're gone.

Most of all, I love being part of a church which tries so hard to include lay people. I love being part of a church which wrestles with the best ways to include the dispossessed. Not every church would have allowed me to be part of the Opening Eucharist service: I'm not ordained, and I'm a woman. Those two items would have excluded me from that prominent role of serving the elements in many a Protestant and Catholic service.

Our ELCA church is far from perfect. But I admire the way the church makes attempts, sometimes lurching, towards becoming a better manifestation of God's Kingdom here and now, in whatever idol-filled places we find ourselves.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Synod Assembly Report #1--the ELCA in Haiti

As I think about Synod Assembly, I'm struck by how often I heard about the Lutheran Church in Haiti. Before I went to last year's Synod Assembly, I didn't realize we even had a Lutheran presence in Haiti.

The Lutheran church is blessed to have an energetic pastor, Livenson Lauvanus, a native of Haiti, serving the country. He spoke in several different venues (a workshop, the opening plenary session, informally) about the work being done there and of course, about the rebuilding work that must be done after the earthquake. We also heard from some lay people who work in the country, and we saw a film that was very moving.

The offering from our opening Eucharist service was destined for Haiti, with Thrivent matching part of the offering. I found the people who spoke about Haiti so inspiring that I gave every scrap of cash I had to the opening offering. I no longer travel with my checkbook, so that's why I was scrounging together all my cash.

I confess to being guilty of dismissing the entire country of Haiti as a lost cause. I feel blessed to be reminded that there are no lost causes. We are Easter people who believe that even in the midst of bleakest death, life can return. The words of the people on the ground in that country give me hope that rebuilding can happen.

Our Florida Bahamas is early in a process that we're calling Together in Mission, where we give money to individuals, groups, and congregations that are doing exciting work. One of those missions first to get support is the Lutheran Church in Haiti. Hopefully, we can do more consciousness raising in our local churches to help people discover the vitality of our Lutheran expression in Haiti. Hopefully, we can also do some fund raising. One of the things that we know about doing justice in the developing world is that our dollars often buy more. And we're lucky that we have people like Pastor Lauvanus who understand the situation(s) on the ground and can guide the larger church in the best way to spend those funds that we raise.