Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Healing Services

On the last Sunday of every month, we usually have a healing service. What this means is that the pastor reads a bit of liturgy, and people who want to come forward for a blessing and an anointing with oil. When everyone has come forward, we move on with Holy Communion.

When we first started going to the church, I had spent a bruised summer recovering from some unpleasantness involving the pastor and the council and the preschool at my last church. It was a stormy summer of hurt feelings and no apologies. I didn't expect much from the healing service at the church which would eventually be my new church. I wasn't even sure I deserved to participate. I didn't have a real malady, after all. Some of the people who went forward clearly needed healing more than I did.

The lay minister laid hands on my shoulder, blessed me, and made a cross on my forehead with an oil-dipped finger. I started to cry. I went back to my seat and kept weeping. I still didn't have myself quite pulled together for Communion, but I went forward anyway. Some Sundays, I can feel my soul longing for the sacrament. That was one of those Sundays. I noticed a few other people also continuing to cry. It felt safe.

And after that, my resentment about the way things had ended at my old church had vanished. My sorrow at all the efforts I expended at that church started to wash away. I was able to forgive myself for all those years that I spent hoping that the old church could be transformed and that I would be the one to work that transformation. At least once I left, I had no doubt in my mind that I had done all that I could have done in that setting.

I hesitated to become a healing minister myself. I love being a Communion assistant, but I didn't feel I was spiritual enough to be a healing minister, or special enough, or open enough to the Holy Spirit. In short, I was afraid. But one Sunday last summer, I was needed, so I said a prayer and hoped for the best.

I was so nervous that my hands sweated profusely, so I didn't lay hands on anyone. I worried that my sweaty palms would be too gross. These days, I don't think I'd worry as much. These days, I think that the laying on of hands is an important part.

I've grown to like being a healing minister. Every Sunday that I do it, I pray to be a conduit. And some Sundays, I feel like I am. One Sunday, a woman approached me during coffee hour and quietly asked me, "Did you feel it too?" Oh yes, I did.

I'm not as freaked out by the experience as some people. I've been a writer for many years, and I treasure those times that the writing flows out of me, writing that I later read and think, I did this? Perhaps I'm tapping into something more cosmic.

The other experience I've had of being healed through a service came during a Synod Assembly. We'd had a rough spring at work, and there was talk of lay-offs. My job was safe, but I didn't relish the thought of letting anyone go.

One of the healing ministers asked me what I wanted us to pray for, and I blurted out the truth, the first time I'd said it out loud: "My job bores me and leaves me stressed." And so, we prayed.

The bad times passed at work. We didn't have to let anyone go. I'm getting better at accepting the boring times at work and working through the stress. Is it because of the healing service?

I don't think the healing service had any sort of impact on the workplace itself. But I know that it somehow calmed my mind.

Being a reserved Lutheran, I never thought I'd be part of a church that didn't something so charismatic as having a healing service. I never thought I'd be a healing minister. But I feel fortunate to have found myself here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Last Thoughts on Yesterday's Gospel

Our pastor, in his sermon yesterday, reminded us that the Kingdom of God will likely not be neat and tidy. He gave us many examples of ways that the modern church tries to make the Kingdom neat and tidy--by managing who reads the lessons for example. You can probably think of many more examples. How would your church respond if a smelly homeless person attended service? What if the smelly, homeless person was hallucinating?

Time and again, our Scriptures remind us that God is on the side of the smelly, the homeless, the hallucinating--the poor and the outcast. We should be too.

Our pastor cautioned us that the Kingdom of God may not be in our best interest, at least not in the way that the secular world understands our better interests. Jesus came to point us towards a whole different set of best interests. And most of us are likely to be just as open to the message as the Pharisees were in their day.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Theology of "Bottle Shock"

Last night we watched Bottle Shock, an intriguing movie about winemaking and love of the land. Along the way, viewers learn about how Napa Valley wines won world-wide respect.

Much of the way through the movie, I thought, vineyards, prodigal sons, redemption: I'm watching a theological movie!

Now it's not overtly theological the way that some movies are. But the themes are familiar to most of us who make our way to church on any given week-end. And in our time of global devastation of the planet, the message about care of the land seems particularly relevant.

Here's a quote from the movie for your Sunday (down here it's rainy, hot, and steamy): "Wine is sunlight held together with water." The movie gives the credit to Galileo.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Feast Day of St. Augustine

Today is the feast day of St. Augustine--if you wanted, you could make a case for him as one of the most important thinkers in the history of the Church. We can trace our ideas about original sin and grace back to him. His thinking about God and God's existence outside of time has been enormously influential. His views of just war continue to be debated. His confessional style continues in writing to this day.

Now I know that many of us don't agree with our church's view of concepts of original sin or grace or time or abortion or war or confession. That doesn't mean that Augustine should be abandoned. Many of us reject the teachings of the church without giving them serious consideration, much less reading the important works and wrestling with the concepts.

Augustine did some serious pondering and serious wrestling. And because so many of his writings survive, we get to see that process.

Augustine is one of the easiest of the early church writers to read. This week-end would be a great time to revisit his work.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Feast Day of St. Monica

Today we celebrate the life of St. Monica, the woman who taught us to patiently pray for children who would by all outer appearances seem to be lost causes--she's the mom of St. Augustine, one of the important early church shapers, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow.

St. Monica had a difficult marriage, and by modern standards, I'd guess that most women until very recently had difficult marriages. Monica is the patron saint of abused women, abused children, victims of unfaithfulness, those who have difficult marriages, and those who have disappointing children.

I'm lucky that I've rarely been in circumstances that would prompt me to ask St. Monica to pray for me.

I'm interested in the early church and women. I'm interested in the early church women that are recognized, the ones that have been canonized. In my younger years, I'd have been rather shrill about the sexism of canonizing women whose primary attribute seems to be their patient endurance of abuse. In my older years, I recognize that people can change, the way that Augustine changed. In my older years, I recognize the value of praying, even if it takes decades for change to come.

There's a woman in my office, and we chat occasionally. She's prone to conspiracy theories. She sees the forces of evil (in the form of corporations, Republicans, the upper classes) all around, and they're winning. I'm much more optimistic.

Yesterday I tried to explain why I'm optimistic. If we could time travel back to 1985, I'd have told you that Nelson Mandela would die in jail, that South Africa would devolve into civil war, that the Soviet Union would control Eastern Europe forever. I was convinced we would all die in a nuclear holocaust.

For reasons I can't explain logically, those events didn't happen. I know that plenty of people across the planet pray for freedom and justice. I know that those prayers can be answered. I know that betrayal can lead to reconciliation. I know that God has a powerful vision for this creation, and I believe that redemption is underway.

Of course, we're not there yet. So please, St. Monica, pray for us as we struggle with abuse and abandonment.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, August 29, 2010

First Reading: Proverbs 25:6-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 2:4-13

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 10:12-18

Psalm: Psalm 112

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 81:1, 10-16

Second Reading: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14

Here is another Gospel lesson which reminds us how different a world is the one that Jesus ushers in. It also shows us that ancient times weren't much different than ours.

We spend much of our day vying for power and position. Even in workplaces where there's not much to be gained by winning favor, one still sees a ridiculous amount of energy and time spent on power games. Think of the last meeting you had at work. Think of how short that meeting would have been if you could have gotten rid of people who spoke up to say, essentially, "I agree with what the last person said." Think of all the time wasted in currying favor with supervisors.

Even outside of the workplace, one sees this dynamic. In volunteer situations, people often want to prove that they're indispensable. We even see this in our relationships with friends, the one place where you would think we would approach each other as equals. Likewise in marriages--many spouses spend absurd amounts of time trying to prove that one way of doing things is the right way, and all other ways are bad.

Psychologists would tell us that we play these power games because we're trying to satisfy our needy egos. We want to feel important because we spend much of our lives feeling insignificant. But instead of addressing that pain by making others feel better, we try to make others feel worse. We put people down so that we feel better. We connive and work to wound others.

Christ comes to usher in a new age. Again and again, he reminds us (in the words of today's Gospel), "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 14: 11). We don't win favor with God in the way we might win favor with the boss. God is well aware of God's importance. We don't need to make God feel like the big man so that we might win a promotion.

God calls us to a higher purpose. We're to look out for the poor and downtrodden. And we're not to do it because we'll be repaid by the poor and downtrodden. We do it because Christ came to show us how to crack open the world and let the Kingdom light shine into the dark cracks. And the way to do that: look out for the marginalized of the world.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Summer of Broken Objects

Yesterday was one of those days that I suspect everyone has occasionally. My spouse seemed to break everything he touched. We ended the day with a computer that still doesn't work and a broken lamp.

We've had a summer of broken objects. Our lawnmower inexplicably stopped working last month. Our computer hasn't been right since mid-July. My spouse somehow missed the first lesson of boat existence, and put toilet paper in the head of my sister and brother-in-law's sailboat--broken head! I can no longer keep track of how many wineglasses we've broken.

It's frustrating dealing with broken objects, but I prefer dealing with broken objects to dealing with other forms of brokenness. Objects can be replaced. Broken health often cannot. People can break in all sorts of ways, and I'm glad we're not dealing with that. All of our loved ones this summer seem to be in good health with no deaths on the horizon. So far, our house seems to be in good shape. Our jobs don't seem to be in danger of breaking.

Of course, life teaches us that any of these situations can change in a heartbeat. So, any time I feel a flash of irritation with all the broken objects, I remind myself of my blessings. My health is good. The health of my loved ones is good. So far, a quiet hurricane season. My finances are secure enough that I can share with others. I have a job that I like, and I work with great humans.

We live in a state of brokenness, or pending brokenness. But the Good News is that God can reassemble all of creation into something even better.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Non-Christian Places of Worship

The world has changed since I was little. I grew up in the U.S. South, in various smallish towns. I don't remember seeing Jewish centers or even very many Catholic churches. Even Lutherans were a minority. In most towns where I lived, until I moved to Newberry, SC for college, we had one Lutheran church.

We've had many decades of interesting immigration patterns. We've opened our doors to all sorts of refugees fleeing all sorts of horror. Those people want to worship in buildings that they can call their own. And now, some of them are acquiring enough wealth to do so.

Let them. If they break laws, we can deal with that then. Obviously, I wouldn't advocate allowing a Muslim group to stone a woman in a U.S. city. Those beliefs don't square with our laws. But I have to believe that most religious groups aren't violating our laws. When they do, our government comes after them.

We like to say we're a country based on religious freedom, on escaping the fear of religious persecution. Let's prove it.

It's easy for me, I realize. I live in a place of amazing religious diversity. We even have several Hindu temples. Nothing bad has happened. Those September 11 terrorists, some of whom trained down here, didn't choose our location because we have great mosques. They trained down here because we have lots of places that will train you to fly and not ask too many questions--well, once that would have been true. To my knowledge, those terrorists never attended a mosque. They went to bars so that they would fit in and not attract attention. But never a mosque.

Maybe we should shut down the bars and open more places of worship . . .

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Singing in the Stairwells

I am amazed at the acoustics in the stairwells where I work. I can sing a note, and it seems to take on an ethereal quality as it rises up and bounces off the various concrete surfaces. I try not to sing in the stairwells too often. I know that would look weird to people.

Happily, not many people use the stairwells where I work. When I need an uplift, I go to the stairwells and sing a note or a phrase, often from Compline or the line I learned at Mepkin Abbey: "Oh, God, come to my assistance. Oh Lord, make haste to help me."

It sounds so beautiful, in a way that singing does not in most suburban church buildings. I imagine that medieval monasteries and cathedrals might have had similar acoustics to my stairwells.

I feel my chest open up when I sing those notes that swirl around me. I feel my brain let go of stress. I feel as if there's a portal that takes my sung notes directly to God.

When it comes to singing, I have a whole bag of mixed emotions about my singing. I feel like I have a decent voice, but I never know for sure that it will perform. But in the stairwells, I'm always awed by the sound of my voice.

I wonder if all stairwells have similar acoustics. I hope so. As we become a nation of stair avoiders, maybe we can start reducing our stress by singing there. No one will discover us, and we can enjoy the beautiful acoustics and the sounds swirling to God.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Yard Sign Evangelism

We've got a primary election here in South Florida, which means that many yards have a clutter of political signs. I've noticed amongst them some signs with a simple Bible verse. Actually, it's not the verse spelled out. It's the book, the chapter, and the verse(s). There's the ubiquitous John 3:16, of course ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life"). Today I saw Ephesians 2: 9-10, which I came home and looked up; it's mid-sentence, so I'm including verse 8 too: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life."

These are not the verses I would put in my yard. These are not the verses that I imagine would speak to a non-believer. In fact, I don't understand why these people don't put the actual verse on the yard sign--there's room. Why do they think that someone will go home and look up the Bible verse?

These morning ponderings made my mind turn towards this question: what Bible chapter and verse would I put in my yard? Are the verses that speak to me the verses that would speak to a non-believer? I've had the phrase "ministry of reconciliation" in my head, so maybe it would be 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, verses 16-19: "16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;* even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,* we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."

Those verses speaks to me, but I don't know if it would speak to others. There are many verses from the Psalms that cry out to me. Would they cry out from my front yard? Would they catch the attention of anyone else?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 22, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 58:9b-14

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm: Psalm 103:1-8

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 71:1-6

Second Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29

Gospel: Luke 13:10-17

This week's Gospel, and others like it, is often used to show the rigidity of the religious officials of Christ's time. And indeed, the Pharisees and other temple officials were extreme in their adherence to the law. To be fair, they thought that strict observance of the purity codes would lead to the salvation of the Jews. Viewed in that light, their horror at the miracles of Jesus makes a certain amount of sense. The future of the chosen people is at stake--couldn't Jesus wait one more day to heal the woman?

I feel immense sympathy for the woman who is so afflicted that she cannot straighten her back. For eighteen years, she has suffered. It's the rare person who doesn't at least have a glimpse of what that must feel like. Our burdens can weigh us down so much that we can't look up from the floor.

Jesus makes it clear that any day is a good day to unloose people from the issues that bind them. Again and again, he tells us that we are to stay alert for opportunities to minister to each other.

Yet in our busy times, I also find myself feeling an odd sympathy with the leader of the synagogue, who says, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days to be healed and not on the sabbath day." The leader of that synagogue two thousand years ago couldn't have imagined the times we live in, our own age when it seems impossible to get away from work, where we're expected to be on call twenty-four hours a day.

One reason I didn't go into medicine, or some other kind of career centered around crisis, is that I didn't want to be on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Yet that mentality has even crept into higher education, where I am greeted with incomprehension when I tell people I don't carry a cell phone with me (it lives in my car, so that I can summon help in an emergency). We are expected to be always available, always ready to offer assistance.

It's good to remember that even Jesus had to withdraw occasionally. We, too, can start to rediscover the Sabbath. Try declaring one day a week to be your Sabbath day. It doesn't have to be the same day on which you go to Church. Many of us have to work on Sundays, after all. But once a week, can you turn off your phone? Can you turn off all your electronics? Can you focus on what's important? Jesus reminds us again and again that the things of this world aren't important; your job should be lower on the priority list than other things, like your relationship to God and your building of community and your nourishing of yourself.

Maybe you can't have a whole Sabbath day. But maybe you could declare a Sabbath evening once a week, where you turn off the TV and eat real food while you sit at a table and reconnect with your loved ones. Here we could learn a lot from our Jewish cousins. In her book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner describes the many ways that Jews celebrate Shabbot and the ways that those rituals nourish and comfort. She reminds us, "But there is something, in the Jewish Sabbath that is absent from most Christian Sundays: a true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart, and, perhaps above all, a sense that the point of Shabbat, the orientation of Shabbat, is toward God" (page 10).

In an ideal world, you'd have twenty-four hours out of every week to re-orient yourself towards what matters, but if you can't do that, start small. Every morsel of effort that we make towards this re-orientation will pay enormous dividends. The experience of Sabbath Time is one of the primary ways that God frees us from our infirmities.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Blessing Teachers and Backpacks

Based on what I'm reading on various blogposts and in various Facebook updates, the Blessing of the Backpacks as part of August church services is becoming fairly common across the nation, or at least in the Southeast. I'm all in favor. Lately, I've come to believe that as a people of faith, we need to spend more time on blessing and laying on of hands. And as I remember my own pre-college school years, I remember it as being fraught with dangers of all sorts. Yes, by all means, let us bless our students and their backpacks.

Our church also blesses teachers, the Sunday before we do the Blessing of the Backpacks. This past Sunday was the first Sunday I participated, which is strange, because I'm teaching less at this point in my life than I ever have before. But still, I teach, and so I came forward to be blessed.

I also felt a bit of a fraud because I teach fun, college-level, creative writing classes, unlike, say the man who teaches 7th graders, who stood there with me. But still, I teach, and in my administrative position, I serve as sounding board for both teachers and students. I serve as problem solver and conflict resolver. And so, I came forward for a blessing.

It was one of the more meaningful things I've been part of, at least on that smaller scale--in other words, I'm not comparing it to my wedding day. But in terms of what we do in a normal week or month in church, I found it profound.

It made me wonder why we only bless teachers. So many of us have jobs that have us caring for our fellow citizens. So many of us hold lives in our hands. Perhaps we're workers in the medical field, and we literally hold lives in our hands. Perhaps we work with data, and metaphorically we hold lives in our hands.

My church also has a monthly healing service, which I also find meaningful. It includes a laying on of hands. I'd like to see us lay on hands in blessing, not just healing. And since so many of us spend so much time at work, I'd like to see more of us blessed in our working capacities.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Last Thoughts on Yesterday's Readings

Our pastor preached on Hebrews, and I understand why: it's a text with much more sermon possibility. That image of running the race with perseverance--my pastor began with that, and I'll ponder it all week.

He reminded us that from the minute we raise our heads from our pillows, we're running a race. He reminded us that what we're facing won't take us out--the waters of our baptism surround us. We spent some time thinking about the great cloud of witnesses that surround us.

We are called to live a faith of even if . . . even if God doesn't save us from our travails, we'll still live that life of faith. He reminded us of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendigo, who went to the furnace. If God saved them, they would be O.K. with that. If God didn't save them, they would be O.K. with that too. They would stay true to their faith.

May we all run our races with perseverance, this week and every week.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Feast Day of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven

Today is one of the many Marian feast days. Today we celebrate Mary's Assumption into Heaven. When I was very little, I was taught about the two Old Testament people who got to go to Heaven without dying (one was Elijah, and I can't remember who the other one was). We were taught that very good, very righteous people got to go to Heaven without dying--but interestingly, our class of little Lutherans was not taught about Mary's Assumption into Heaven.

My childhood Lutheran churches didn't mention Mary much at all, outside of the seasons of Advent, Christmas Eve, and the post-Christmas Sundays. As I've gotten older, I've felt a bit of mourning for all the celebrations and richness that we've lost in our Protestant traditions that were so eager to show how different we were from the Orthodox religions.

I understand that Mary has often been used as a tool of sexists who want to dominate women and convince them to deny their wants and needs. But as I look around and see the consequences of a whole nation devoted to selfish consideration of ONLY their individual wants and needs, I wonder if it's not time to return to the models of the saints, the prophets, Mary, and Jesus.

Yes, there's a bit of my childhood self coming out here. I remember hearing about the possibility of Assumption into Heaven, and I remember as a child wanting to be good enough for that eventual reward.

But my desire to have more of a presence of spiritual role models in our churches and religious lives has nothing to do with my competitive nature as a child. As a Composition teacher, I know that a lot of us do learn best when we have a model to follow. And many of us need lots of models.

Mary gives us a wonderful model of how to structure our religious lives. Today is a great day to go back to read the Magnificat, Luke 1: 46-55:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy,
The promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Not Created for Chaos

Yesterday, I came across this verse from Isaiah in my prayer book: "Thus says Yahweh, the Creator of the heavens--he is God, who shaped the earth and made it, who set it firm, he did not create it to be chaos, he formed it to be lived in" (Isaiah 45:18).

I love this vision of God committing to a vision of home. This verse is one of those that suggests to me that even though this world may seem committed to chaos, God isn't. God created this world for habitation, not chaos.

I liked the verse so much that I wrote a briefer version of it, along with the book chapter and verse, on a sticky note. As I walked to my car, the sticky note kept wanting to blow away. I picked it up twice, but by the time I got to the car, it had flown away.

If I had kept the sticky note, it would have gotten lost in my pile of sticky notes, and I might have never thought of it again. But since it flew away several times and was ultimately lost, I spent the evening determined to remember to look it up again. And I decided to write about it, because I was feeling a Holy Spirit nudge.

I love that idea of someone in the parking garage finding the sticky note and thinking about it. It's a different kind of evangelism. I think of that line from one of the Gospels about the wind blowing where it will, and we can't control it.

What does any of it mean? I'm not sure yet. But I find it comforting that God created the cosmos for habitation, not chaos, so I thought I'd write it down.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 15, 2010:

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:23-29

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Isaiah 5:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 82

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18

Second Reading: Hebrews 11:29--12:2

Gospel: Luke 12:49-56

Yesterday morning, I heard that the United Nations has announced that the flooding in Asia has claimed more lives than the 2004 tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined. Fires rage in Russia, a country experiencing the hottest summer ever recorded. Crops are failing in various spots across the world. This week’s apocalyptic texts seem appropriate.

In churches that use the Common Lectionary (meaning we're reading the same texts in most of the mainline Protestant churches each Sunday), we only get an apocalyptic whiff every now and then. This week’s Gospel is one of those days. Jesus tells us that he's come to separate family members, to sow division. We certainly don't see Family Values Jesus here. In fact, if we read the Gospels from beginning to end, we see that Family Values Jesus just doesn't exist. Again and again, Jesus tells us that if we follow him on the path he shows us, we're likely to lose a lot that the world tells us we should hold dear--that might include some family members. Jesus also assures us (elsewhere in the Gospels), that if we lose our lives, the lives that society sets out for us, we might actually find those lives.

But all too often, we don't see the signs we need to see, the signs that would let us know what kind of lives we're living, what kind of lives would satisfy our souls. We're good at forecasting the immediate weather when we notice obvious patterns: the direction of the wind and the appearance of clouds. But we're not good at noticing the bigger picture, like noticing God, when God becomes incarnate. We don't pay attention to doing what we know is right and good. Again and again, Jesus tells us that we need to pay attention.

It's interesting that these Gospel lessons come to us in the month of August, a time when the historian's mind might turn to eschatology (the study of end times). We've just passed the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Barbara Tuchman wrote a book, The Guns of August, that showed the events in August of 1914 that led to World War I. Many regional conflicts burst into conflagration in August.

Jesus reminds us that the end is always near. We tend to think of the end in apocalyptic terms: mushroom clouds or poisoned water or melting glaciers. But Jesus comes with a different vision: he promises the end of oppression, the end of inequality. He holds out a dream of a world where everyone has enough and no one has to endure a boot on the neck. For those of us with eyes to see, we can notice the beginnings of God's plan for the world, even while worldly powers think they're in charge.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Start of Ramadan Prompts Me to Think about Fasting

The month of Ramadan begins today. Muslims celebrate Muhammad's encounter with the Divine in the desert and his receiving of the holy scripture that would become the Qur'an.

I've always admired the discipline of this month. In Christianity, at least in the moderate church circles in which I've travelled, we have nothing, NOTHING, to compare. Give up chocolate for Lent? That can't compare to fasting during Ramadan, where observant people eat and drink nothing, NOTHING, during the hours that the sun is up.

I had a friend once who was a Baha'i, and he observed a similar month of fasting. One year, the holy time occurred before daylight savings time started, and we barely noticed, since the sun went down so early. One year, it was well into spring, and I admired his discipline, as we all waited for the sun to go down so that we could eat together.

At our Faith and Wellness gathering on Saturday, one of our group told us about her experience with fasting. She, too, fasted for a month, eating just a meal of light grains and vegetables at the end of the day. She said it wasn't as hard as we might think. She said she's never felt closer to God.

When I was 21, I fasted one day a week in solidarity with the world's poor. I allowed myself one tiny meal a day. Ideally, it would have been a bowl of rice or porridge, the sustenance of much of the world. But I lived in a dorm, and I had to make do with what the cafeteria offered that day.

I'd like to get back to fasting on a regular basis. I fear I don't have the stamina. I fear failure. I hope I push through my fear to make the attempt.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Living in the Old Testament

One time during the 1990's, California was having particularly ghastly weather: earthquakes, floods, fire. A friend of mine said, "It's like living in the Old Testament out there."

Now, alas, many more of us are familiar with this feeling. The reports out of Russia are ghastly, with its record high temperatures combined with fires. Many people across the U.S. have endured one more of the hottest summers on record, coming just on the heels of a tough winter with record breaking snowfall followed by a hotter than usual spring.

During these times of strange weather, we begin to hear people link current events to the weather and God's judgment. But there's a more scientific reason: we've changed the planet, and the one that many of us knew growing up is no longer the planet that we have. We probably can't change it back; Bill McKibben's latest book Eaarth makes that compelling point and argues that we need to learn how to live on this new planet.

If God wanted to be mad at us, I suspect that God would be more angry about how we've changed the climate than about issues like gay marriage. But really, what do any of us know? Perhaps God is angry about something that wouldn't bother most of us.

Except we know that we were made in God's image. Can we then say that what would bother us is likely to bother God? It feels like a slippery logical slope to me.

We do have another source for knowing God, and it's not the weather. We know God through the Bible, and the Bible reminds us again and again of our stewardship obligations. Most of us have not been very good stewards of the planet.

We know that there are far more passages in the Bible that talk about economic justice than passages that talk about sexual morality. I count about 12 passages that deal with homosexuality, and none of them uttered by Jesus, the one who Christians believe points us most clearly towards God. I can't count the number of passages about economic justice; I don't have that kind of time. However, pastor and writer Jim Wallis did a count. In God's Politics, he notes, "We found several thousand verses in the Bible on the poor and God's response to injustice. We found it to be the second most prominent theme in the Hebrew Scriptures Old Testament--the first was idolatry, and the two often were related. One of every sixteen verses in the New Testament is about the poor or the subject of money (Mammon, as the gospels call it). In the first three (Synoptic) gospels it is one out of ten verses, and in the book of Luke, it is one in seven!" (emphasis in original, page 212).

We may be headed for Old Testament justice, but it's not because of the possibility of gay marriage. It's because we've watched the rich get richer as the poor get poorer, while the middle class joins the ranks of the poor. We watch increasing income disparity, and we do nothing. We watch the planet cry out in anguish, and we do nothing.

The God I believe in is merciful. Alas, the laws of nature, laws of physics and chemistry and biology, are not very merciful at all. And these planetary problems will just exacerbate our problems of economic injustice.

These thoughts could lead us towards despair, the attitude which many theologians tell us is the greatest sin of all. Again, we must turn towards the Scripture, which reminds us that God can work any matter of wonders and miracles. I pray daily for the redemption of creation, which means something vastly different, I suspect, to me than it did to my spiritual ancestors.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Food, Hunger, God, and Us

We have a Faith and Wellness group at my church, and on Saturday, we met to share a meal and to talk about our relationship with food and what that has to do with our relationship to God. It was a lovely evening, the kind of evening I longed to have when I've been at churches that didn't have similar opportunities.

In some ways, I thought we didn't delve very deeply into the systemic reasons for hunger. We talked about our own issues with finding time to grocery shop and cook, but we didn't spend much time talking about families who don't have the money to buy food. I'll always remember a dark Wednesday in 2008, when the Dow was plunging; it got down towards 7000, and I started to feel very scared.

Then I went over to First Lutheran to help serve dinner to the homeless. During the service after dinner, when the pastor asked for prayers, one of the homeless men said, "That we may find food tomorrow." My possible economic woes, the nation's economic woes, were all put into sharp perspective.

I realize that food issues are all part of the same issue, the larger issue of how we nourish ourselves and make sure that everyone else can provide nourishment for themselves and their families. I know that food justice must expand to address issues of sustainable agriculture and what it means that our food travels so far to get to most of us. I realize that the issue of industrial agriculture may in the future be seen as the greater sin than letting some parts of the world starve. I worry about the fact that we've shifted to such monocultures. I know my history, and the Irish potato famines should serve as more of a cautionary tale to us.

I also know that we seem to go in cycles. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, I was surrounded by lots of grown-ups who were talking about these very issues. Yet here we are, 30 years later, having similar conversations. What would it take to institutionalize some of the changes that we seek?

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Feast Day of the Transfiguration of Jesus

Today is the Feast Day of the Transfiguration of Jesus, the day that celebrates that mountaintop experience, where Jesus becomes radiant and Moses and Elijah appear; God speaks at the end, giving approval to Jesus. Those of us in Protestant churches are more used to celebrating this day just before Lent begins.

Peter's reaction always interests me. He offers to build booths. They'll charge admission! It'll be great!!

His reaction seems so human to me. Many of us wrestle with this very trait, this need to transfigure every event into a capitalist one. How can we make the most money? Even in the presence of God, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, Peter can't focus on the holy, because his mind keeps darting towards his need to make money.

We are in the part of the lectionary that reminds us to resist that urge towards paying attention to money and not to God. These are lessons that are always timely for most of us.

Those of us who are attuned to history might also have World War II on the brain today. It's the anniversary of the day that the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, an act that was blinding and transfiguring in so many ways.

As a poet, that incident, that desire to harness the power that comes from splitting atoms has a potent symbolic power. As a Christian, the idea of transfiguration also has power.

Today is a good day to think about what distractions, atomic, cosmic, or otherwise, take our attention away from God. Today is a good day to think about mountaintop experiences and how we navigate our lives when we're not on the mountaintop.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Meditations on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, August 8, 2010:

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 (23)
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

I've heard many a minister preach on this text, and others like it. Almost all of them rush to assure us listeners that Jesus doesn't really mean that we should sell all of our possessions and trust fully in God to provide for us. Yet as I read the Gospels, I see that Jesus gives us these instructions again and again. Why are we so quick to dismiss these instructions? What if Jesus really meant what he said? What if it's not some kind of code, but something we're meant to take literally?

Again and again Jesus warns us not to trust in earthly treasure. He's clear: earthly treasure will always, ALWAYS, fail us. That's not the message the world wants us to hear. The world wants us to rush and hurry, to buy more stuff, to build more barns for our stuff, to accumulate and hoard and lie awake at night worrying that we won't have enough. The world wants us to pay attention to our bank accounts. Jesus wants us to be on the lookout for God.

One of the often repeated messages in the teaching of Jesus is that God will provide for us everything we need. Why is it so hard for us to believe?

I share this burden. Although I give money away, I still have a variety of savings and investment accounts. What would happen if I decided that I would trust that God will provide for me in retirement? How could I change lives if I gave that money away to people who have nothing?

I remember once when my spouse had gotten a promotion and a raise, I expressed worry that too much money was spiritually dangerous. My Charismatic Catholic friend was the one who was most shocked by that idea. But really, why is that idea so shocking? Jesus is very clear that money and the pursuit of money can seduce us away from God's mission for us.

Once, when I was stuck in an airport in Kentucky, I saw a book in the bookstore with this title: God Wants You to Be Rich. Really? In what Gospel would that be? I scanned the book, hoping that the author would cleverly remind us that God wants us to be rich in love, not rich in money and stuff. Alas, no. The author assured the reader that God's deepest desire for us is for us to accumulate money.

What blasphemous heresy! Read the Gospels again. Read the New Testament again. So much of the New Testament can be summed up thus: Stay awake and alert, focused on what's important; what's important is to love each other, the way God loves us; don't get too attached to things that don't matter--they keep you from loving your fellow sheep.

Again and again, Jesus tells us that we can't serve two masters. We must choose. Take a hard look at your life and the way you spend your time. What have you chosen? Do you spend more time in prayer or more time sorting through your financial investments? Do you read your Bible more than you read the business section of the paper? Do you look for ways to welcome the poor and the outcast? The Bible tells us that we'll find God there.

Where is your heart these days? What do you spend your waking hours thinking about, your sleeping hours dreaming about? When God shows up, do you even notice?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Thinking about Forgiveness

I read this story in The Washington Post about an order of nuns who lost one of their members to a drunk driver on Sunday. I expected it to be a typical story about nuns and forgiveness. In some ways, it was. In some ways, it wasn't.

The drunk driver, who is in jail, didn't show up at the monastery where the nuns live. His parents did. They came to ask for forgiveness for him. I understood the impulse while at the same time shaking my head. The person who did the wrong has to show up to apologize. At least, that's what Lutherans believe.

I understand the guilt that the parents must feel. The story talked about all they had done to try to keep their son with a drinking problem from driving. But he found the hidden car keys after everyone had fallen asleep, and off he went. I understand how the parents might feel they need forgiveness. But what more could they have done?

There are also public policy elements to the story. Again, a familiar note: the man had numerous incidents in his past, incidents which led to him having a record.

But here's the surprising twist. It's not clear that the man is in the country legally. How could he have broken the law so many times in the past and still stay in the country? I have the same questions about deadbeat parents who aren't legal citizens. If you flout the laws of our country by not paying your child support, you should be shipped back to your home country. But that's a subject for another post.

Deportation was in process for the drunk driver, but had been delayed. And now, this tragedy.

The nuns, of course, show us the way to behave. They showed a hospitable forgiving face to the parents. They have organized themselves to sit around the clock with the injured nuns who survived the accident and are in the hospital. They offer comfort to the former students of the dead nun who call in hysterics after hearing of her death. They have not commented on immigration issues. They know their priorities.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Lives, Well-Planned and Summoned

David Brooks has a great essay in The New York Times today. He describes two ways of looking at our lives.

First, he talks about Clayton Christensen, who when he was a Rhodes Scholar, decided that he would spend one hour a night "reading, thinking, and praying" about why God put him on the Earth. Once he spent a year doing that, he found it easier to order his life's priorities. He took a longer view. Brooks calls this approach the Well-Planned Life.

He contrasts this view of life to the Summoned Life, which says we can't possibly know all that we will face, especially when we are young. Adherents to the Summoned Life see life as essentially unknowable. All we can do is to consider our circumstances and to ask what we should do next, what is needed in the current situation.

I would say that spiritual people of all stripes have some success in using both approaches to navigate our lives. For me, one of the hugest benefits of having a spiritual life is that it orders my days and helps me set priorities. I'm to be about the business of helping God bring about the Kingdom, right here, right now. That means I refrain from destructive behaviors and actions. I look for ways to build people and institutions up, not tear them down.

It also helps me keep things in perspective. I'm not going to get all riled up about certain things that go on at work. In the long run, it's just not important.

I can't always know what I'll face in any given day or year or decade. No matter how I plan for my life to go, there will be surprises, both good and bad. But no matter what comes my way, I know that I must try to react in ways that correspond to my Christian values, values that are Lutheran tinged. I am the light of the world, the salt of the earth--I must act like it!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Last Thoughts, For Now, on Yesterday's Gospel

Our pastor finished his sermon yesterday by saying, "Are we filling barns or blessing lives? Because in the Gospel lessons that are coming, Jesus is very clear. We can't do both."

It's a hard lesson for modern Americans to hear, although with the recent downturn, perhaps we're more open to the message that we can't serve two masters. We've seen what a harsh master modern capitalism can be.

What would happen if we really believed that God would provide for all our needs? We'd free up a lot of time for other people if we didn't have to constantly manage our money. We'd free up a lot of emotional space for our fellow humans if we could free ourselves from the fear that comes with money.

I'll be the first to confess that I struggle with this issue as much as anyone else. It's easier for me to trust God when I have a cash cushion--but of course, I'm not really trusting God that way, am I?

Filling barns or blessing lives? Let me make the right choice.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

What If You Are Exactly What's Needed to Heal the World?

Today on NPR, I'm listening to Speaking of Faith, and they're rerunning one of the shows which is the most profound to me (go here to listen, here for the transcript). I first heard it early in a car trip when I was driving north on I95, and I spent the next 8 hours thinking about it. I continue to think about it.

There are days when I'm just exhausted when I measure my accomplishments against my potential. I see so many faults, so many places where I've fallen short. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen encourages us to see ourselves differently.

First she tells a story about the beginning of the world: "In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It's a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It's the restoration of the world."

And then she reflects on the meaning for us in the present day: "It's a very old story, comes from the 14th century, and it's a different way of looking at our power. And I suspect it has a key for us in our present situation, a very important key. I'm not a person who is a political person in the usual sense of that word, but I think that we all feel that we're not enough to make a difference, that we need to be more somehow, either wealthier or more educated or somehow or other different than the people we are. And according to this story, we are exactly what's needed. And to just wonder about that a little, what if we were exactly what's needed? What then? How would I live if I was exactly what's needed to heal the world?"

What if God doesn't need me to change? What if God has created me to be exactly what's needed, right here, right now? For me, it's a powerful thought.

The whole show is amazing. Dr. Remen has been working with people at the edges of life, people with unhealable diseases precisely. Those people have such wisdom that those of us living regular lives don't often access. We're lucky to have someone like Dr. Remen to remind us. And we're lucky to have someone like Krista Tippett, who brings us such fascinating guests.