Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Feast Day of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Today is the Feast Day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. In founding the Jesuit order, Loyola has shaped our modern life in so many ways. I give the Jesuits a lot of credit for the expansion of higher education; the number of universities world wide which are fully Jesuit or who owe their existence to the Jesuits boggles the mind. The number of writers who have been influenced by the Jesuits would be hard to count. In addition, there are many people in public lives of all sorts who have been influenced by the Jesuit order, primarily through education.

St. Ignatius is also famous for his Spiritual Exercises, which I've never tried, but always been fascinated by. I am not good at sitting and meditating for any length of time. I'd love to go on retreat where we don't meditate but instead do some sort of creative activity (writing, painting, sketching, sculpting) in response to the readings and the guidance of St. Ignatius. I'm sure they exist, but I haven't sought them out. I also feel like I've seen a book or two that offers such activities for people to undertake alone in their houses. On some level, though, I'd like to be part of a group doing them with a leader who guides us. I'm tired of doing spiritual enrichment on my own.

I've been thinking about adult Sunday School this morning. I haven't been pleased with how we've been doing adult Sunday School, and this unpleasedness is especially relevant, since I've been the leader. Perhaps I could adapt some of these exercises?

No, I think these exercises need to be done in a more intense setting with more commitment than you'd find in Adult Sunday School on a Sunday morning. So, I'll keep my ears open as I go through the next year or two. Maybe I'll discover something that will fulfill my yearning to experience St. Ignatius through his exercises.

Today, I'll say a special prayer of thanks for St. Ignatius, and all of the seminaries and universities who can claim him as spiritual ancestor. I'll say a prayer of thanks for the intellectual rigor that he helped bring back to the church. I'll say a prayer of thanks for the orders that he founded and for all the religious orders that he inspired, especially the Ursulines, who focused on the education of girls. I'll say a prayer of thanks for the many people who have been enriched by his Spiritual Exercises. I'll pray that I, too, can stay open to the ways that I might improve the life of the Church and the path for those that come after me.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Ministries of Reconciliation

Do you need some inspiration today? Go here to read the sermon from ELM Rite of Reception, the service in San Francisco where ordained clergy who had been banned from preaching were welcomed back.

Here's a quote to whet your appetite:

"You gotta love a kingdom of God parable in which the citizens who make up the kingdom of heaven are completely unlikable and entitled and whiney. Don’t you picture the Kingdom of Heaven as more like a thing where everyone wears sandals and flowing white linen? Wouldn’t people in the kingdom of God appear more, I don’t know, spiritual? Wouldn’t people in the kingdom of God have that sheen of serenity and calm which is not unlike having taken a couple doses of xanex? Nope. Apparently the Kingdom of God is like a cruddy work place filled with type A personalities whose sense of entitlement would rival that of Paris Hilton working alongside slackers who take smoke breaks and earn what money they have through scratch tickets.

What kind of off-brand kingdom is made up of this kind of people?

God’s kind. Because here’s the thing: what makes this the kingdom of God is not the quality of the people in it. The kingdom of God is like a glorious mess of a kingdom where Paris Hilton and Hilton Perez and Fred Phelps and Fredrick Beuchner and ELM pastors and Core Lutherans all receive the same mercy we never saw coming because we were too busy worrying about what everyone else is doing. "

Erik Ullestad blogs about it here. If you go here, you can read the transcript and/or watch the sermon.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Be the Book

A few days ago, my spouse and I watched The Book of Eli. I wanted to see it because I'm a sucker for a good apocalyptic film. I didn't expect to find it spiritually rewarding.

I don't want to give away too much of the movie. It features Denzel Washington as Eli, a man who survived a nuclear blast and saved one of the last existing Bibles. A voice told him to head west where he'd find a community that would welcome the book, and so 30 years later, he's still walking west.

Another major character controls a town through violence and brutality; oddly, he's desperate for a Bible. Gangs of his workers scour the landscape and bring back sacks of books (among them, in a moment of humor, The Da Vinci Code).

Throughout the scenes of conflict, I wondered what would happen if modern Christians were as desperate for a Bible as the characters in this movie. Eli reads his Bible every day, as he has for at least 30 years. As a result, he can quote large chunks of it. What would happen if modern Christians committed to that reading schedule?

We'd probably find ourselves in a similar situation to Eli, as he tries to live a life that's in alignment with the values that he finds in the Bible. He's one of the only ones in the world of that movie who has that Bible. Imagine how we would transform the world if all the world's Christians read the Bible on a daily basis and let the words shape our daily actions.

In the movie, Eli has limited interactions with other people, but his ethical life transforms those with whom he has extended contact. In many ways, he becomes the Bible, in a world of illiterate people. We, too, have a call to become the book that shapes our lives--or should shape our lives.

We live a life of cushioned comfort, most of us. Our Bibles gather dust on the shelf, as do many other books. In the dusty world of a post-nuclear blast, books are revered and rare. There must be a way to live in between these extremes.

We can start by reading our Bibles more often and by trying to make our outer actions match our inner beliefs. We can be the book.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 1, 2010:

First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Hosea 11:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 49:1-11 (Psalm 49:1-12 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 107:1-9, 43

Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-11

Gospel: Luke 12:13-21

Here is another Gospel where Jesus tells us how to live, and he does it both directly ("Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions") and through the use of a parable.

In this parable we meet a common figure in Jesus' parables, the person saving up treasures on earth. Recognize yourself? We've moved away, many of us, from needing larger barns, although I've met more than one person who moved to a bigger house, just to have room to put all their stuff. In fact, the average square footage of new construction grows increasingly large, while the US family grows smaller. Barn, silo, house--it's all the same to Jesus. And it all goes back to the human need for security. We store up treasures because we're so afraid of the future.

It will be interesting to see how the recent economic downturn might change us. Will our houses grow increasingly large when fewer people can afford to buy a house? Will we trust more in God, since we've seen how much we can trust in our economic institutions? Or will the events of the Great Recession (or the Great Depression II, depending on your perspective) make us that much more graspy and scared to share?

Jesus comes to preach the radical Gospel of sharing. One aspect of his good news? We have a Creator who will provide for us. That news is supposed to free us up to give away what we have. Not just our surplus, but all of it.

Most of us don't even do a good job of giving away part of what we have. We're not good at sharing. We're good at hoarding, although if you look at the US savings rate, you might argue we're not even good at that. Most of us fill our longing for security by buying more and more and more--and wondering why we feel so empty.

We live in spiritually dangerous times, and the Gospel speaks to that. But most people, if they think about this concept, would tell us that the spiritual danger lies in a different place than Jesus tells us. Ask most people about spiritual danger and they'll talk about a toxic popular culture (video games, movies, song lyrics), public violence, private violence, wanton sexuality, moribund government, fundamentalists of all stripes, liberals, conservatives--the list could go on and on.

But again and again Jesus tells us to look to how we treat the poor and oppressed, that we will be judged based on how we treated the marginalized. Jesus rarely preaches about the family (he never mentions homosexuality), and when he does, he sounds downright anti-family. Again and again, Jesus tells us to pay attention to how we think about our money and how we use it.

I have often said that I think that money is spiritually dangerous, and most people think I'm insane when I say this. But I know that the more wealth people accrue, the more likely they are to trust themselves (and their wealth) and to turn away from God. I've rarely met the person who says, "I have enough money. I'm not concerned about money at all." I've met one or two people who have that attitude, and guess what? They don't have much money. They live simply, they pay attention to things that truly matter, they know that they are wealthy in terms of friends and community connections.

Usually, as we get more money, we want more money. We turn our attention to building our wealth and securing our wealth--and it takes a lot of time and attention. That process takes time and attention away from what matters: our relationship with God and our care for God's Kingdom.

Those of us who are younger know that we can't rely on the government to take care of us in our old age; the Baby Boomers will wipe out the Social Security system. Many people have decided that if they can't rely on the government, they'll rely on themselves. But again and again, Jesus calls us to turn away from that kind of thinking.

Does that mean we shouldn't save our money? More and more, I've come to think that if we save more than we give to charity, we're on shaky spiritual ground.

Let me be the first to admit. I DO save more than I give to the poor. I'm working towards getting to the point where I give equal amounts to the poor and to my savings account. But I truly think that I'd be better off if I gave MORE to the poor and less to my savings. I agree with Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said that the unequal distribution of wealth across the globe is the greatest moral crisis of our time. I'd like to be a one-woman redistributor of wealth. But I'm not there yet.

Again and again, Jesus calls us to recalibrate our values. Again and again, Jesus reminds us to turn to God. Even if we're not ready to embrace the vision that Christ has for us, even if we're not ready for full throttle Kingdom living, we can move that way. We can boost our charitable contributions. We can leave bigger tips. We can give change to panhandlers. We can invite the lonely over for a meal. We can speak up in support of the poor (advocate for affordable housing? tell our senators and representatives to fund the food stamp program? there are so many possibilities). If we're not ready to let go of our assets, we could think about how our investments could be used to support our values. Instead of giving each other stuff for every holiday, we could think about what it is we really want: maybe we want charitable contributions, or maybe we want to agree to go on a spiritual retreat or a pilgrimage, or maybe we want a prayer partner.

As with all movement, it's amazing how a small change in direction changes our trajectory over the course of a lifetime. At the very least, we can meditate on passages like these, and pray for the strength and courage to trust God and not our money.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Inclusive Language and our Churches

It's not just me--a report from the National Council of Churches reports that gender inclusive language is on the decline (go here to read more).

I've always been sensitive to inclusive language when it comes to talking about groups of humans. I've wrestled with languages that give objects a gender; I'm sure there are French teachers out there who still remember my explosive reaction to the whole idea and the observation that the cool objects got to be masculine while the problematic objects were always feminine.

It took some time before I became sensitized to the use of the male gender when it came to how we talk about God. I went to college in the 1980's, back in the days when we weren't afraid to call ourselves feminists. Some of my friends gave themselves to Goddess religions, some of us became atheists, and others of us decided to stay in the churches of our childhoods and work for transformation from within.

We found sympathy from some of our elders, along with the rolled eyes and raised eyebrows. I remember my wonderful mom, who always returned home from Synod Assembly or from her graduate studies with great books for me. And in time, while we didn't often hear about the feminine aspect of God, at least we moved away from the masculine aspect.

In retrospect, I find myself wishing we'd moved towards embracing the idea that God can be female: God as mother, God as womb, God as fierce protector of the brood. My childfree self also balks at those depictions. What are some other female aspects that don't include childbearing? My goddess worshiping friends would remind us of the wise old crone image that we've spent so much time avoiding with our excessive exercising and surgery to help keep us from looking our age.

I remember the first church I attended down here in South Florida and the complete lack of attention to the gendered way the church referred to God. God was definitely masculine in that church. I blamed it on the age of the pastor. He was an aging baby boomer--not his fault that he hadn't been sensitized.

But lately, I've noticed it in younger pastors too, that complete lack of trying NOT to refer to God with male pronouns. I've noticed it in the music chosen for anthems. I'm weary of this fight, but I'm not willing to give up.

I can be subversive too. One day I was a substitute teacher in our intergenerational Sunday School. It was Mother's Day, and I decided what better day to initiate a conversation about God and gender. We talked about images of God as mother that we find in the Bible, but rarely stumble across in church. It was a great conversation, and I don't know that I changed any minds--but all I really request is that we do things mindfully. If we're going to refer to God as male exclusively, I'd like us to think that through.

Happily, I'm part of a religious tradition that's always changing. If we can ordain, openly ordain homosexual men and women now, what other kinds of change might be coming in the way we see God? I tend not to think of God as sexual, but what if God does have a sexuality? How would that inform my own sexuality? What would happen if we thought of God as disabled, instead of all powerful? Might we be more willing to help God create a just world, if we knew how much God needed our help? What happens if we think of God as female? Not both male and female, but female only--would we ordain more women?

I like to think that the Church is always arcing towards justice, towards inclusivity, towards sensitivity. But I also know that the Church only arcs that direction when people demand it, when people pay attention, when people call the Church on its problematic behavior.

And we might argue that the Church has far more to worry about than its non-inclusive language. But I'm an English Ph.D., so don't start that argument with me. I can make a compelling case that all the other problems stem from the way that language orders our thoughts and behaviors. Language is the root. Ponder that possibility in your own worship services in the coming weeks.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Praying for our Enemies

In his sermon yesterday, my pastor reminded us that Jesus spent his last breath not blessing his followers, but praying for those who had murdered him. I hadn't really thought about that fact, and I found it somewhat sobering.

It's easy to pray for the people we love. It's perhaps even easy to pray for those who are behaving badly towards others, others who aren't people we love. It's much harder to pray for those who are actively out to get us or those who have harmed us.

Those of us with experience know that praying for our enemies is as important for what it does for the one doing the prayer as for the one doing the harm. Praying for our enemies keeps our hearts soft. It keeps the pathway to reconciliation open.

One of Paul's phrases that I love the most is "ministry of reconciliation." I feel like I always stumble across it when I'm musing about my life's mission.

One of the most basic ways towards that ministry of reconciliation is to pray for our enemies.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Even a Four Year Old Understands the Theory Behind Prayer Shawls

My sister wrote me this e-mail about my 4 year old nephew, Jack: "One of Jack's favorite teacher's last day is today (her son Jack was at the school and our Jack loved him....she is my favorite as well). So I asked Jack what he wanted to give her and he said a blanket of his so that if she gets lonely or hurt she can use it. "

He chose one of the blankets that I made for him when he was a baby in my sister's womb, and she wrote to make sure I wouldn't be offended if it left her house and went to the teacher's house.

Offended? On the contrary, I was touched beyond words. I wrote back that I thought it was one of the sweetest things I had heard all week, maybe all month, maybe all year.

It was only later, on my way home, that I thought of prayer shawls and my nephew. When I first heard of prayer shawl ministries, I initially didn't understand the point. But now, after many years of seeing that ministry in action, I do.

It's interesting to me that even a 4 year old can understand at least part of the principle behind prayer shawls. He may not understand the prayer part of the equation yet, but I suspect he does. I've noticed that many four year olds have a much finer understanding of theology than most grown ups.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Feast of Mary Magdalene

Today, we celebrate the life of Mary Magdalene. Take a minute to read the New Testament reading for today: John 20:1-2, 11-18. How interesting to have the Easter story out of sequence, here in the middle of summer. In some ways, we can hear some nuances when these passages come to us at a time that's NOT the end of Holy Week and Lent.

Actually, the verses in between the ones for today's Gospel interest me. After Mary tells the disciples about the empty tomb, several of them race towards the tomb. They look, they assess, and then they go home. It is only Mary who stays behind to weep.

But because she stays behind to weep, to be still for a bit, she gets to be the first to see the risen Lord (the male disciples see the evidence of resurrection, but Mary sees Christ). Soon everyone else will see him (well, select few, at least, depending on your Gospel), but she is first.

There have been many moves throughout church history to strip Mary of her importance. Many church teachings portray her as a prostitute, as mentally ill, or both. Lately, we've had The DaVinci Code, which has many people talking about the possibility of Jesus having a family with Mary Magdalene. What is it about this woman that pushes our buttons?

The early church was quite unique. Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes clear that women are important. True, no woman is listed as a disciple. But it was women (and their money) that made the ministry of Jesus much easier. It was women (and their money) that kept the early church afloat. But somewhere in the middle ages, history was rewritten to make women seem dangerous, demented, soiled, and stupid.

That's the beauty of having Scripture that's written in our own language, that we can read for ourselves (those of us who are literate forget what a great gift we've been given). We can go back to see what the Scriptures actually say.

The story of Mary Magdalene seems similar. We need to be reminded to stay alert. Busyness is the drug that many of us use to dull our senses. But in our busyness, we forget what's really important. We forget to focus on Christ and living the way he commanded us.

If we're too busy, we might miss Christ altogether. Both the Old and New Testament teach us that God will come to us in forms we least suspect. If we're not careful, we'll assume that we're not needed and go back to our houses. If we're not careful, we won't notice that the gardener is really Jesus.

It's good to be reminded of the resurrection story in the middle of July. Now the year is over half way done. We don't have the magic of spring to renew our spirits. We may be feeling scorched by the weather and by our dashed hopes for the year. It's good to remember the story that we can be part of; it's good to remember that we're promised grace and salvation.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 25, 2010:

First Reading: Genesis 18:20-32

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Hosea 1:2-10

Psalm: Psalm 138

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 85

Second Reading: Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]

Gospel: Luke 11:1-13

When I was younger, I hated the fact that so much of the church service remained the same, week after week. My attitude only got worse, as I got older and went to youth retreats. I couldn't understand why the grown ups in charge didn't do something new and fresh with the liturgy. Didn't they understand how boring it was to do the same thing again and again?

I also chafed against the parental imagery used when we spoke of God. Didn't the people in charge of church know how damaging that could be? I knew that I was lucky; I was one of the few in my high school who still had my original parents who were still married to each other and stranger yet, still loved each other and their children. But I had friends who had neglectful parents or worse, downright abusive. How could this language of a heavenly father speak to them?

Now I am older, and I hope wiser. Now I understand the yearning for parental love that we all feel--and those who weren't so lucky in our relationships with our earthly parents probably feel that yearning most keenly. Now I've seen passages (and they're not usually read from the pulpit, alas) that use maternal images for God too; the Bible, while not as inclusive as I might wish, is not the tool of male chauvinism that I always assumed it was, although it's often been used that way by women haters. The image of God as womb speaks to me in the same way that the image of God as Father giving us bread speaks to me.

Jesus knew what he was doing when he gave us this prayer. Anyone who knows humans knows that we do better when we don't have to make everything up as we go along. Most of us have memorized this prayer as children. In fact, I know grown up children of non-religious parents who were taught this prayer--perhaps as a sort of spiritual immunization? I imagine parents saying, as mine did, "Learn this prayer--you never know when you might need it."

It surprises me how often we probably need this prayer. It's good to have prayers pre-written for us. There are times when we try to pray, and we can't come up with what to say. This prayer that Jesus teaches us covers many of the concerns that we would bring to God, if we didn't feel so muted.

We pray for our daily sustenance. We pray for forgiveness. Some translations interpret this passage as a kind of debt relief ("forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors"). Marcus Borg notes that these two aspects--food and debt--would have spoken to Jesus' followers in the first century, who often found themselves short of bread and currency. Many Jews found themselves in a downwards spiral as they leveraged their land, and eventually lost their land, to pay an increasingly heavy tax burden imposed on them from Rome.

We pray not to be led astray. I like the language "save us from the time of trial," but all the variations speak to me. I often pray an expanded version of the Lord's Prayer and include them all, praying not to be led into temptation, to be delivered from evil, and to be saved from the time of trial. Sometimes I meditate on the fact that I expand and focus on this part of the prayer, while I tend to assume the regularity of my daily bread. I suspect that people in other countries would focus on other aspects of the Lord's prayer.

Notice that Jesus doesn't tell us we have to be in a certain mood to pray. We don't have to wait for the right time. We don't even need to come up with the language for ourselves. Christ provides it.

And notice that Jesus once again reminds us that our God is a loving God. We are to ask for what we need. We should not be afraid to yearn. God has not abandoned us to our own devices. We have chosen to partner with a powerful force when we pray--and yet, it's not a distant force. God loves us, the way a parent loves a child. Even people who haven't had children understand the metaphor. It's the rare grown up who doesn't yearn for that unconditional love and protection. We often seek it in less than effective ways: we fall in love with fellow humans, we have babies of our own, we go shopping, we drink, we do charity work. Some of those ways lead us back to God, the source of the love we seek. Some lead us down wrong paths, and we find ourselves yearning for love again and wondering what went wrong.

Jesus gives us a simple prayer. Most of us have already memorized it. But how many of us pray it outside of church?

Maybe it's time for a mid-year resolution, something simple. Try praying the Lord's Prayer daily. Maybe twice a day. Pray when you wake up, and say a quick prayer, asking God to help you become your best self throughout the day. Pray before you fall asleep, and say a quick prayer of thankfulness for your many blessings. You'll be amazed at the change in your attitude by Christmas.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Celebrate Seneca Falls

Today in 1848, the first U.S. women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Among the demands made by the women assembled was the right to vote.

I could make the argument that it's historical events like this one that set us on the road towards expanded pulpits, although it would be many more years after women started exercising their right to vote (in 1920) before we'd see women in Protestant pulpits. The major exception to that sentence would be the Pentecostal churches. The Pentecostal branch of Protestantism was more open to women preachers early on, since the movement was founded by women.

Of course, I must admit that we're still far away, very far away, from full parity. We still see very few female senior pastors compared to males. We still see very few female bishops, when we compare those numbers to the bishoprics held by males. But we've made amazing progress in the 162 years since the Seneca Falls Convention.

What I find most exciting about the various human rights movements of the past few centuries is how the idea of rights for one group expands to affect other disenfranchised groups. I'm a Lutheran, and as a denomination, we're still wrestling with the idea of homosexual people serving as pastors. Last summer, the Lutheran Churchwide Assembly passed legislation that allowed homosexual people in lifelong committed relationships to serve as pastors, but also allowed churches to decide not to invite homosexual pastors to serve them.

And of course, there are still plenty of mainstream Protestants who aren't comfortable with women serving. The work is not done.

And I'm not even taking on the Catholic church.

But today, let us celebrate Seneca Falls. Let us celebrate those few brave women who dared to dream of a more inclusive world. Let us offer prayers of gratitude for those women and for human rights workers everywhere. Jesus constantly reminded us that we're to look out for the poor and the oppressed. Those who work for human rights show us ways that we might fulfill Christ's mission.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Destroyer of Worlds

On this day, in 1945, we entered the nuclear age for real. On this day, in 1945, the United States exploded the first nuclear bomb in the desert of New Mexico, and launched us all into a different world with different mental landscapes.

I'm always a bit in awe and horror of those scientists, who exploded their bomb without being fully sure of what it would do. Some of the scientists worried that the explosion might harm the atmosphere irrevocably. But they went ahead anyway.

Humans are full of this kind of hubris. Many of us never seem to think about worst case scenarios, and in some instances, this optimism is infectious and admirable. Unfortunately, we've spent a long time assuming that scientists will be able to solve all the problems that our progress creates, and we've probably propelled ourselves into a new climatological age; if you don't believe me, Bill McKibben makes a compelling case in his latest book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Oppenheimer claims that he thought of lines from The Bhagavad Gita: "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds." If I had to choose a motto for the twentieth century, with its genocides and mass slaughters and illnesses and technology run amok, I could make a strong case for that line.

Unfortunately, I don't see much of a change as we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Those of us who are Christians, however, must keep working towards a better care of creation. We are charged to be good stewards of the earth, and today, the 65th anniversary of the explosion at the Trinity site, is a good day to ponder that mission. Oil has stopped spewing into the Gulf. I feel cautiously optimistic.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Saint Swithun's Day

Today is the feast day of St. Swithun, a saint that most of us probably hadn't heard of until the publication of One Day by David Nicholls. That novel takes place on a single day, July 15, across twenty years. It's a clever idea, this idea that you can tell part of a life's tale by focusing on just one day.

Perhaps it's an idea inspired by the older one of St. Swithun's Day, the idea that you can tell the weather for the rest of the summer by the weather that you get on July 15. The rhyme goes this way:

"St Swithun's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain no more"

Swithun was the Bishop of Winchester from 852–862 during Anglo-Saxon times. We don't really know too much more about him. He was devoted to restoring old churches and starting new ones, and he was the spiritual advisor to the king's son Æthelwulf (who went on to be King of Wessex from 839 to 856).

So, keep your eyes to the skies this St. Swithun's Day. May you be blessed with the weather you'd welcome for the next 40 days.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 18, 2010:

First Reading: Genesis 18:1-10a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Amos 8:1-12

Psalm: Psalm 15

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 52

Second Reading: Colossians 1:15-28

Gospel: Luke 10:38-42
Ah, the Mary and Martha story, another story that's familiar to many of us who have been going to church through the years. It's one of those stories that provokes howls of rage from people. Like the story of the Prodigal Son, it may trip our "That's not FAIR!!!" switch. It's easy to see how the Good Samaritan is the model for our behavior. The Mary and Martha story prickles us more.

Many of us were probably raised to be the Martha. I have a friend who won't let herself even exercise until her household chores are done, so engrained is the idea of "work first, play later" into her psyche--unlike some of us, who see exercise as one of the daily chores that must be done before we can play.

Think about the last time that someone visited you. If you're like many of us, you spent the days and weeks before the visit getting ready: cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, laundry, restoring order. By the time your guests arrived, you may have been too exhausted from getting ready for them to be fully present.

That's the story we see in this week's Gospel. Martha scurries around so much that she can't be present for Jesus. How often are our current lives similar? We often get so consumed by the chores of our daily life that we neglect to notice the Sacred in our midst.

Keep in mind that even though the story revolves around women, men are not exempt from this paradigm. All humans must wrestle with the question of how to balance the chores that are necessary to sustain life with the spiritual nourishment that we need so desperately. Unfortunately, often the chores win.

I can hear some of us shrieking by now: "Yes, but those chores must be done!" Really? Are you sure? What would happen if you didn't vacuum this week? What would happen if you wore your clothes an extra time or two before laundering them? What would happen if you surrendered to the dust?

Jesus chastises Martha for her busyness. It's a story many of us, with our increasingly hectic lives, need to hear again--maybe every day.

We need to be reminded to stay alert. Busyness is the drug that many of us use to dull our senses. But in our busyness, we forget what's really important. We forget to focus on Christ and living the way he commanded us.

Give up one chore this week, and return to the Gospel. Notice that Jesus never--NEVER--focuses on the household chores. Jesus doesn't say, "Blessed are those who keep a clean house, for those have already possessed the Kingdom of God." You may think that Jesus said, "Cleanliness is next to godliness." Jesus did not.

All those chores keep you away from your earthly relationships. Jesus called on us to care for the poor and the dispossessed, not the dusty objects that clutter our houses. All of our busyness takes our focus away from God. God will not appear with white gloves to assess our spiritual progress by way of household upkeep. The assessment of our spiritual progress will focus on much more serious issues than those.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Missing My Calling?

I'm pleased to report that all went well with my supply preaching yesterday. Several parishioners told me that I had missed my calling, and several others asked me why I didn't become a preacher right now. "Because it would take many years of school," I replied.

That's the easy answer. The other reasons: The nearest Lutheran seminary is in Columbia, South Carolina, but I'd probably want to go to the one in Chicago, and moving to Chicago scares me far more than going back to school. I've never lived in a place with real winters. I'd rack up lots of debt, with an uncertain career future afterwards.

But the real reason I don't want to pursue this midlife career change is that I don't want to deal with all the other things a parish pastor must deal with: building issues, difficult people, budget issues.

Still, it's nice that people didn't come up to say, "You were AWFUL. You make us really appreciate our regular pastor."

We did find out what life would be like if we didn't have a bread-baking pastor. When I handed out the pre-sanctified, crispy waferlike bread discs, several parishioners visibly recoiled. I understand that many cloistered orders make their money by making these communion wafers, but they bear no resemblance to bread, which in some ways, makes us lose key connections in the sacrament. Or maybe I'm the only one thinking these things.

I did enjoy the opportunity to be a pastor for a morning. I continue to have these moments where I wonder if I have indeed missed my calling. My spouse was on a path to seminary until he went to college, met me, and explored other options when I didn't want to be a pastor's wife. I'm still not sure I want to be a pastor's wife in the traditional sense. But to be part of a pair of pastors? That might be an interesting thing to ponder. If only we could find a seminary with a 2-for-1 special.

Lutherans headed to seminary in my college days would have been expected to be able to talk about when God first called them to this work. These days, I'm not sure God operates in that way. I do think the Holy Spirit nudges us. But I also believe that God can use us in the transformation of creation no matter where we are. Well, during good weeks at work, I believe that. During bad weeks, I wonder if the Holy Spirit has stopped nudging and started pushing me in another direction.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Supply Preaching

Today, I am filling in for the pastor at my church. He asked about 16 other clergy if they were free to supply preach July 4 and today, and they weren't. Rather than ask someone who had no knowledge of our church, our pastor asked me and another lay leader if we would be interested.

I don't feel nervous exactly. I've been teaching for many years now, and teaching that long has wiped out any nervousness I used to feel about being in front of people or being in charge. But I'm feeling something, a bit of stress. Part of it comes from the long morning ahead. Part of it comes from knowledge of all the building issues which could go wrong. Part of it comes because I want to do a good job.

I've filled in for a pastor before, at a church I went to years ago. I felt no nervousness then, because I didn't feel like our church always did a good job with the Sunday service, so I knew the the bar was set low. In fact, I suspected that many parishioners would have been just as happy if we could have skipped the service and gone directly to coffee hour--that's a different kind of pressure.

My current church does Sunday service very well, and I don't want to mess that up. We've continued to have two services through the summer, and they're very different. That leads to some stress too.

So, in this month of many vacations, I offer up prayers for those who are filling in for pastors who are taking a well-deserved break. May the experience refresh us all, especially our overworked pastors.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Singing in the Movie Theatre, Singing in Church

Last night, we went to a Grease Sing-Along. It's the movie, in a traditional movie theatre, but each time there's a song, the lyrics appear, karaoke style, and the audience sings along. What fun, to be allowed, no encouraged, to sing in the movie theatre. What fun to revisit this movie. For more on the whole experience, go to this posting on my creativity blog.

I was struck once again by how rare it is to sing in large groups. I've said often that one of the reasons I value going to church is because it's one of the rare places that we're encouraged to sing in a large group setting, no matter how poorly we sing.

Our culture has moved towards celebrating the gifted individual, and sadly we see this aspect in many churches too. I've heard tell of many churches where no group singing occurs--only gifted soloists or groups need offer their talents. How sad.

As we sang in the movie theatre, I was struck by how many of the songs we all knew. I'm sure that's because many of us have spent many hours listening to the soundtrack over and over again, probably while singing in our bedrooms and in the car.

Here we see the value that music can have for spiritual formation. Putting a piece of Scripture or a theological thought to music can help us learn and remember better. Singing those songs over and over again will cement them in our memory.

Of course, if we don't go to church regularly, we're not singing those songs regularly. And the problem with the explosion of church music in the last half century is that we're often not returning to songs. I remember so many hymns from the church of my childhood, so many songs from camp and youth group. The music was different from group to group, but the repetition was there. I wonder what the current generation will remember--or if they'll remember, since we're a generation that downloads music but doesn't often sing it.

I think one of the reasons that we sang so exuberantly in the movie theatre is that we're not often encouraged to sing exuberantly elsewhere. I'd love to see the modern church be in the vanguard of societal institutions working to change that fact.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 11, 2010:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:9-14

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Amos 7:7-17

Psalm: Psalm 25:1-9 (Psalm 25:1-10 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 82

Second Reading: Colossians 1:1-14

Gospel: Luke 10:25-37

This week's Gospel presents one of the stories that even non-Christians are likely to have heard before: the story of the Good Samaritan. Those of us who go to church have heard it so regularly that we may have lost sight of the message. The fact that we hear it so regularly should tell us how important the message is.

We could focus on the fact that it's the lowly Samaritan (a foreigner!) who helps the victim, not the priest and the Levite, who hold high status in the Jewish society. We could focus on the victim, who, after all, invited trouble by traveling alone. In the details of how the Samaritan doctors the victim, binding his wounds with oil and wine, we see the foreshadowings of Christ's crucifixion.

But go back to the story again. Note the first few verses of the Gospel; in many ways, these verses sum up the whole Bible: Love God and love each other more than you love yourself. Most of us, when hearing those commands, say, "Great. I'm on target. Love God--check. Love other people--yup, most of the time." The story of the Good Samaritan is told to demonstrate what Jesus means when he gives us the Great Commandments. And here we see the size of the task that Christ gives us.

Many of us think of Love as an emotion, something that we feel. Here Jesus shows that that kind of emotional love is cheap, and not at all what he has in mind. We show our love by action, what we do for those who need us. It's not enough to see our fellow humans and think about how much we love them. Frankly, many of us can't even do that. Monitor your thoughts and feelings as you drive around town, and be honest. Are you really feeling love? Most of us are lucky if we can pull off feeling benign neglect. Many of us go through our days feeling murderous rage. Many of us go through our lives numbed by depression and pain, and trying desperately not to feel anything.

There's a way out of this pit. We must go through life behaving as if we love each other. We can behave ourselves into love. We don't have to start out by stopping for every crime victim we see. We don't have to start out by giving away our money. Although these are worthy goals, we can start where we are. When someone cuts you off in traffic, offer up a prayer for them. Smile at your snarling comrades at work. When someone wants some sympathy, offer it. Leave the waitstaff a more generous tip. Help out, even when you don't have to. Stop keeping track of who has done what, and you must stop right now, if keeping that list makes you feel aggrieved, because you've done so much more than everyone else. Instead of keeping track of your losses, keep track of gratitude. Share what you have, and it's especially important to share what you have with people who haven't had the lucky breaks that you have had.

In this Gospel, it's easy to see the Good Samaritan as a Christ figure: the outsider who stops to help, who takes charge of the victimized who have been left to bleed to death by the side of the road, the one who finds care for the victim and pays for it. We often lose sight of the fact that we are called to be Good Samaritans to the world. Once you start looking for opportunities to bind the wounds of the world, you'll find it easy to do that task daily. And then you'll fulfill the greatest commandment. God makes it clear that we show our love for God by loving each other.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Airport as a Vale of Soul Making

In a letter to George and Georgiana Keats, John Keats called the world a vale of soul making. He talked about the sorrows of the world and how they develop our individual souls. If Keats lived today, he might talk more specifically about the airport.

I have no right to complain about the airport--I had smooth travelling during my recent vacation. But I'm intrigued by the way the airport can often bring out the worst in us, even when our travels are going well. Children cry or run wild, people yell into their cell phones, some jerks push and shove when it comes to claiming luggage, and other jerks treat the airplane staff in any number of rude ways. And then there's me, sitting there, being judgmental.

I tend to shift into sneering disdain mental mode when I'm at the airport waiting on a flight. When I can't get lost in a book, I look around and think mean thoughts about people. I eavesdrop on their cell phone conversations (which are usually the things which keep me from getting lost in a book) and make snarky comments in my head. I categorize my fellow passengers into unkind types (like women trying not to look their age or any variety of frumpy travelers or business type who wants us all to know how important he/she is). Why is it so easy to think such cold thoughts?

I hate myself when I get into this kind of snit. As Marcus J. Borg points out in The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, "When I stand in a supermarket checkout line and all the people I see look kind of ugly, I know that my heart is closed" (page 154). We are called to have soft, open hearts.

When I find myself slipping into unkind mode, whether at the airport or the grocery store, I try to remember to pray. I know that we are all struggling with any number of issues, and I pray for God to help and guide us. I also pray that God would take my snarky impulses away from me.

I want to be the kind of person who views the world with compassion. When I find myself in situations where I'm acting less than compassionately, I try to see that as a learning situation, a training ground. With each situation, I move more quickly and easily into prayer.

Maybe at some point, I won't slip into negative snarkiness at all. Until then, I'll try to remember to pray--early and often.