Thursday, September 30, 2010

Currents and Swirls and Gratitude

As tropical storm Nicole approached us and swept by, I've been appreciating our planet anew. I spend much of my life in structures made by human hands, which sometimes leads me to forget to be grateful for our wonderful planet, made by God. But in the days when a tropical system approaches, the planet does so much to command our attention: we see amazing cloud formations, we can see the circulation of air currents as we watch those clouds, we often enjoy a day or two of blazingly beautiful weather just before the storm crashes in on us.

Even the storm itself can be an awe-inspiring thing. We watch bands of rain and wind sweep across us, and then we wait in the calm for the next band. We marvel at the capacity of trees and shrubs to bend in the wind, and we pray that they not break. If the storm allows, we might make it to the beach, where the ocean roars and reminds us that it's not some trifling plaything.

Human made things also take my breath away and remind me of the grandeur of our creator. As the storm approaches, I'm ever more grateful for satellites and radars, which help us know what's out there and coming our way. I can become entranced by these images, beautiful swirls that will spell out mercy or doom.

We've been lucky so far during this hurricane season, and I say this with a bit of guilt, because I know that not everyone has been so lucky. I say it with a bit of fear too. October can be the most fearsome month in hurricane season for us down here in South Florida. Storms blow up out of nowhere and in no time; the forecast calls for sunny skies, but before you know it, you've got a hurricane overhead. October storms behave erratically. The Caribbean Sea is still a hot cauldron, even as the Atlantic begins to cool.

Hurricane season reminds me of how little of my life is really in my control, and the idea that I'm in charge is such an illusion. I can no more control many of the currents (economic, health, political) that affect my life than I can control the weather.

I could live in denial of my essential powerlessness; many people do. I could pretend that benign powers bend to my will as I cast my votes and save my money and do all the things which may or may not lead me into healthy old age. I could eat my vegetables while I salt away money and try to believe it will all work out. Or I could become that sneering cynical person who is so tiring in social settings. Or I could become comatose with hopelessness.

Happily, I have another option. I can trust in God, who has promised that my needs will be met. I can trust that this creator, who has provided such a glorious planet, has not left us all alone to the whims of currents that we can barely perceive.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Meditation on this Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, October 3, 2010

First Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4;2:1-4

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Lamentations 1:1-6

Psalm: Psalm 37:1-10 (Psalm 37:1-9 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Lamentations 3:19-26

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 137 (Psalm 137 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Gospel: Luke 17:5-10

Perhaps the Gospels of past weeks and months have left you feeling depressed. You have begun to realize that you will never succeed at this Christianity thing. You can't even remember to make a donation, much less tithe regularly. You'd like to invite the poor to your dinner table, if you ever had time to eat dinner yourself, and you wonder if you still get Christianity Points if you invite the poor to dinner, but pick up that dinner from the deli. You'd like to look out for widows and orphans, but happily, you don't know of any. And frankly, most of the week, you don't have a spare moment to even ponder these things at all.

This week's Gospel offers encouraging news. It reminds us that belief has the power of a seed. As fewer of us plant anything, we may lose the power of that metaphor. But think of how inert a seed seems. It's hard to believe that anything can come from that little pod. And then we plunk it into the earth, where it seems even more dead--no sun, no light, no air. But the dark earth is what it needs, along with water, maybe some fertilizer if the soil is poor, and time. And with some luck, and more time, eventually we might all enjoy a tree. And not only us, but generations after us--that tree will outlive us all.

Christ reminds us that faith is like that seed. And the good news is that we don't have to have faith in abundance. A tiny seed's worth can create a world of wonders. And it's good to remember that we don't have to have consistent faith. We live in a world that encourages us to think that we'll eventually arrive at a place of perfect behavior: we'll exercise an hour a day, we'll forsake all beverages but water, we'll pray every hour, we'll never eat sugar or white flour again, we'll cook meals at home and observe regular mealtimes. We want lives of perfect balance, and we feel deep disappointment with ourselves when we can't achieve that, even when we admit that we'd need ten extra hours in the day to achieve that.

Jesus reminds us to avoid that trap of perfectionist expectations. People who have gone before us on this Christian path remind us of that too. Think of Mother Theresa. Her letters reveal that she spent most of her life feeling an absence of God. But that emotion didn't change her behavior. She tried to reveal the light of Christ to the most poor and outcast, and was largely successful. She didn't feel like she was successful, but she didn't get bogged down in those feelings of self-recrimination. And even when she did, she kept doing what she knew God wanted her to do.

Many of us might have seen Mother Theresa as a spiritual giant. We might feel dismayed to realize that she spent much of her life having a dark night of the soul kind of experience.

On the contrary, we should feel comforted. Maybe these letters show that she wasn't a spiritual giant. And look at what she was able to do.

Or maybe we should revise our definition of a spiritual giant. If you read the journals, letters, and private papers of many twentieth-century people who have been seen as spiritual giants (Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Madeleine L'Engle, Dorothy Day), you'll see that feelings of spiritual desolation are quite common. The fact that we have these feelings--does that mean that God has abandoned us?

Of course not. Those of us who have lived long enough have come to realize that our feelings and emotions are often not good indicators of the reality of a situation. Our feelings and emotions are often rooted in the fact that we haven't had enough sleep or the right kind of food.

The people who have gone before us remind us of the importance of continuing onward, even when we feel despair. Christ reminds us that we just need a tiny kernel of belief. All sorts of disciplines remind us that the world changes in tiny increments; huge changes can be traced back to small movements. Your belief, and the actions that come from your belief, can bear witness in ways you can scarcely imagine. Perfection is not required--just a consistent progress down the path.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Week 2 of Bible Improv Sunday School Experiment

On Sunday, we tackled the Adam and Eve story--with mimes! We had some high school students who have done miming in a semi-professional way, along with a mom who had once done some theological clowning in addition to her days as a mime. The other children got to pretend to be trees and animals in the garden. I was the narrator.

I continue to like this interactive way of doing Sunday School. I think the participants will remember the stories more for having been part of them. I also like the intergenerational approach. I know that in many churches, there are scarcely enough children for each class: one first grader, 3 fourth graders, a pre-schooler here and there--how can a Christian Ed program work with such small numbers? How do we find enough volunteers?

Happily, our experiment has revolving leadership, so it's easier to find volunteers. I haven't often volunteered for Sunday School because I travel fairly frequently at certain times of the year, and finding a sub can be a problem. But with our current program, I volunteered to be in charge for 2 Sundays, and if I'm in town, I show up to help on other Sundays.

I suspect that the days of bustling Sunday Schools, where every grade/age has 10 or more students, are over. We need more models like the one we're creating, so I'll continue to write about our efforts here, as well as thinking about other ways to do Sunday School successfully.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Last Thoughts on Sunday's Lessons

Our pastor preached on the Gospel lesson, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. I don't blame him. I'd have found it irresistible. He even used it in the children's sermon. Several times throughout the morning, he came back to the statistic that 1 billion people would go to bed hungry Sunday night.

And Monday night and Tuesday night.

One billion people.

We've had decades of research that shows us that no one need go hungry. It's various structures that keep people hungry, not lack of food supply. We have food surpluses, which throughout human history is almost unheard of.

Our pastor took us back to the Lord's Prayer, where we pray for our communal daily bread. We are all inexorably linked. But like the rich man in the Gospel, so many of us are blind to the struggles of our fellow humans. We're not blind because we've never encountered Lazarus. We're blind because we choose to be blind.

The Good News: when we choose unwisely, God gives us a chance to choose again. Our blindness can be healed. We can be agents of grace and change.

Our pastor didn't go into the ways that we can be those agents, but I would have encouraged people to think about the distribution of their charitable dollars. After hearing scholars like Peter Singer tell us that our dollars go further in third world countries, I moved 1% of my charitable giving to Lutheran World Relief. Oxfam is another great charity that moves in similar ways: low administrative costs, great track record helping impoverished folks in the developing world.

And of course, that still leaves plenty of money to be spent here at home. Anyone who's ever participated in a feeding program can tell you about the glaring need on our doorsteps.

The Gospel is clear about the dangers of ignoring the poor. We ignore this message at our peril.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, September 26, 2010:

First Reading: Amos 6:1a, 4-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Psalm: Psalm 146

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 6:6-19

Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

This Sunday, the Gospel returns to familiar themes with the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus is so poor that he hopes for crumbs from the rich man's table and has to tolerate the dogs licking his sores (or perhaps this is a form of early medicine). Lazarus has nothing, and the rich man has everything. When Lazarus dies, he goes to be with Abraham, where he is rewarded. When the rich man dies, he is tormented by all the hosts of Hades. He pleads for mercy, or just a drop of water, and he's reminded of all the times that he didn't take care of the poor. He asks for a chance to go back to warn his family, and he's told, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead."

Maybe by now you're feeling a bit frustrated: week after week of reminders that we shouldn't get too comfortable with our worldly possessions. Maybe you suspect the Council who chose this common lectionary of readings of being just a tad socialist.

Yet those who study (and tabulate!) such things would remind us that economic injustice is one of the most common themes in the Bible. To hear the Christians who are most prominently in the media, you'd think that the Bible concerned itself with homosexuality.

Not true. In his book, God's Politics, Jim Wallis tells of tabulating Bible verses when he was in seminary: "We found several thousand (emphasis his) verses in the Bible on the poor and Gods' 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" (page 212).

And how often does the Bible mention homosexuality? That depends on how you translate the Greek and how you interpret words that have meanings that cover a wide range of sexual activity--but at the most, the whole Bible mentions homosexuality about twelve times.

If we take the Bible as the primary text of Christianity, and most of us do, the message is clear. God's place is with the poor and oppressed. The behavior that most offends God is treating people without love and concern for their well being--this interpretation covers a wide range of human activity: using people's bodies sexually with no concern for their humanity, cheating people, leaving all of society's destitute and despicable to fend for themselves, not sharing our wealth, and the list would be huge, if we made an all-encompassing list.

It might leave us in despair, thinking of all the ways we hurt each other, all the ways that we betray God. But again and again, the Bible reminds us that we are redeemable and worthy of salvation. Again and again, we see the Biblical main motif of a God who wants so desperately to see us be our best selves that God goes crashing throughout creation in an effort to remind us of all we can be.

Some prosperity gospel preachers interpret this motif of a God who wants us to be rich. In a way, they're right--God does want us to be rich. But God doesn't care about us being rich in worldly goods. Anyone who has studied history--or just opened their eyes in recent years--knows how quickly worldly goods can be taken away. But those of us who have dedicated our lives to forging whole human relationships and helping to usher in the Kingdom now and not later--those of us rich in love are rich indeed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sunday School Improv--First Day

We did our first Sunday School Improv on Sunday, and it went very well. We decided to start at the very beginning--creation! Or, to be more specific, the first Creation story, where God makes everything and declares it good, very good.

We asked for seven volunteers, and each volunteer would represent each day of creation. With guidance, they had to do something that represented the day. So, for the day where God creates rain, one of the children did a rain dance. On the day where God creates trees and other vegetarian, a boy stood in the Yoga tree pose. On the day where God creates creatures, a teenager led us through a singing of "The Itsy, Bitsy Spider."

Our narrator had recorded some sound effects, so every time the text said, "It was morning" a cock crowed. "It was evening"--cricket sounds. Every time God declared something good, half the room cheered. The other half of the room would cheer when God declared something bad--but God never declares anything bad. To me, that's the important message of the text: God never looks at a creation and says, "Blhh. This didn't turn out right at all. This is so ugly. I'm so stupid. How could I have thought this idea would work!" No, that inner critic that so many of us hear is not--NOT--the voice of God. God declares it all very good.

Everyone on Sunday seemed to have a really good time, youth and adults alike. Will children remember the story? We hope so. We hope that it comes alive for them, that they carry some of these seeds with them into their adult lives. And along the way, we can all have some improvisational fun.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Last Thoughts on Yesterday's Lessons

Our pastor chose to preach on the Amos text (8: 4-7), and I was glad he did. Our pastor is never finer than when he tackles issues of poverty and injustice. But I admit that I'm biased.

The strong message of the prophet still resonates, with its condemnation of those who trample on the needy and poor, those who are "buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat" (verse 6). I felt those prickles of discomfort; am I that rich person?

I certainly don't give away as much as I should. I haven't done as much as I could to give the poor an equal chance. I do much in the way of charity, but not as much in the way of justice, those practices that would make sure that everyone has enough. In my younger years, I did more. I need to meet that 19 year old Kristin again. If nothing else, I could write more letters to my legislators, those people who do have the power to affect the power structures (or does that just show how naive I am?).

Our pastor reminded us that as Christians, we are the voice of the prophet. And my, how our voices are needed in this current day of increasing poverty and increasing stratification.

Our pastor closed by reminding us that what caused the downfall of Israel was not idolatry of stone but idolatry of gold. We live in a society that worships wealth. I'd dare say that we idolize gold in more ways than ancient Israel could ever dream of.

Christ came to earth determined to live the prophecy of Isaiah (Luke 4: 18-22, which references Isaiah 61:1-1):

"'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’"

We should follow that model.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Christian Education, With Technology and Without

Today we begin our Sunday School season at my current church. I've seen many ways of doing Sunday School and Confirmation, and to be honest, not much has changed since the time of my own Sunday School experiences. I suspect that Sunday School hasn't changed much since the time of my grandparents.

How strange. We live in a time when secular education is changing at breathtaking speed, thanks to all sorts of technology (go to this week's The New York Times magazine series of stories, for just a hint of what's going on. We have more students attending classes online than ever before--10 years ago, it wouldn't have been possible, since broadband access was limited, and most people didn't have it. Now it's possible to get a college degree without ever leaving your house. A huge chunk of high schoolers get some or all of their high school education online.

That's just a small example. Online resources have changed radically the way that some of us teach the writing of the research paper. Similarly, online textbooks have changed the textbook market--and in some fields, free online information makes the textbook obsolete.

I'm not seeing similar changes in Christian education. Perhaps I'm just in a backwater. Perhaps all sorts of things are exploding, but I don't see it, because I'm not immersed in it.

At our church, we're about to experiment with a pre-technological approach. We're going to infuse our Sunday School experience with drama and improv. I'm not sure what to expect. We've divided up into 4 teams, so I imagine we'll be doing it all in different ways.

But the basic idea is to introduce pre-Confirmation children to Bible stories in a way that they'll never forget. Maybe they'll act out the story. Maybe they'll create new songs. Maybe they'll create puppets and a puppet show. Maybe they'll function as a Greek chorus.

I have a vision of rambunctious, yet controlled, play. I have a vision of the youthful enthusiasm for drama and Bible stories driving out the adults who hoped to have a spot of free time for coffee--we don't have much in the way of classroom space, so everyone tries to share the fellowship hall, including people who really don't want to be involved in Christian Ed at all, since it's also where the coffee hour takes place.

I have a vision of disconnected adults saying, "Hmm, that looks like fun. Let me play too!"

O.K., so that last vision is probably the least probable. But a girl can dream!

Come, Holy Spirit. Move through us in exciting ways, as we try to give our youngest members the Scripture Stories that will sustain them.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Lutheran Considers Yom Kippur

When I was growing up, I knew no Jewish people. For that matter, I knew very few Catholics. Most everyone I knew was some variation of mainstream Protestantism, albeit usually a conservative variation, since I grew up in the U.S. South. Even during my grown up years in South Carolina, I knew very few Jews.

And then, I moved to South Florida. Now I've met a lot of Jews and gotten to know a few. For obvious reasons, Passover interests me in more ways than the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But lately, I've been reconsidering.

My childhood self hated belonging to what I considered to be an easy religion. I wanted kosher laws that I would struggle to keep. I wanted to do penance for all my sins. The concept of grace left me uneasy.

The high holy days of Judaism appeal to me in just that very way. The problem with the concept of grace, the way that many people understand it, is that it leaves people with no obligation to do any kind of self-reflection that might lead to meaningful change. I've seen far too many people knowingly act in egregious ways, so assured are they that Jesus loves them no matter what they do.

The idea of a period of intense introspection enchants me. I also like the idea that it ends. Immersing myself in a period of repenting and atoning, fasting and prayer--that idea has enormous appeal. The idea that God seals the book, absolves us, and we go back to regular life also appeals. Most humans can't live in that kind of intense self-awareness and repentance for too very long.

Last night my spouse and I discussed whether or not Christianity has a similar time, and we agreed that the period before Easter, Lent and Holy Week, are the closest. I've wondered if every major religion has a similar period that happens once a year. Ramadan is one example, and I'm sure there are more.

I wonder why it's only once a year in most major religions. I'd argue that we could use this time of recalibration during each quarter of the year.

So, today, as I go about my regular life, I'll try to remember to think about God and that Book of Life. I'll think about my current life and where I need some change in its trajectory. I'll pray for all of us who are engaged in a similar time of introspection.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Prayer for a Day of Meetings about Numbers

Dear God,

On this day when we meet to discuss how the numbers have disappointed those in high positions, help me to remember my purpose on the planet. On this day when we meet to discuss our growth goals, help me to remember our Creator and the meaning of growth. On this day, when we're likely to hear blustering fear about the future of budgets, help me to remember where my riches lie.

Let me be the salt, the yeast, the light. If I must stand in the breach, let me not be torn to shreds, let me not drown.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 19, 2010:

Jeremiah 8:18–9:1
Psalm 79:1-9 (9)
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Ah, the parable of the unjust steward. This parable may be one of the toughest to understand. Are we to understand this parable as a pro-cheating text? It seems that this tale is one of several types of unjustness, and it's hard to sort it all out. Let's try.

Much like the parable of the Prodigal Son, which sends up wails of protests about unfair treatment of undeserving children, this text makes one want to wail at first reading. There's the master, who believes the charges brought up against his steward, who seems prepared to dismiss him, based on those charges--let us remember that the charges may be false.

But the behavior of the steward seems slimy too; accused of unethical behavior, he seems to behave unethically, dismissing debt in an attempt to curry favor for a later time when he is dispossessed.

And then there's the surprise twist--the master approves of the steward's shrewdness.

There are several different approaches to this parable. The easiest approach is to look at the final lines of the Gospel, those familiar lines that so many of us would like to ignore, that we cannot serve God and money. This parable seems to suggest that it's hard to have dealings with money that don't leave us looking slimy.

We might ask ourselves how a stranger would view us if they looked at our budgets. On a personal level, the way we spend money shows our values. So if I say I'd like to wipe out childhood poverty, but I spend all of my extra money on wine, a stranger would question that. If I say that I value a Christ-centered economy, but I only give money to my retirement accounts, what would that stranger say? I will be the first to admit that I want to hoard my money, that it's hard for me to trust that God will provide.

We could ask similar questions about our institutional budgets. What does our church budget say about us? If we give more money to the upkeep of our buildings than to the poor, are we living the life that Christ commands us to live? These are tough questions, and I will honestly say that I haven't met many institutions, sacred or secular, that achieve balance very gracefully--especially not in economic hard times.

Parable scholars might caution us not to adopt the most obvious interpretation. Scholars would encourage us to see the parables in relation to each other. What are the parables that surround the one about the unjust steward?

In the text just before this one, we see the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coins, the lost sons (the Prodigal and his brother are equally lost boys). In the text after the parable of the unjust steward, we receive the story of poor Lazarus and the rich man, and you may remember that Lazarus has a tough life on earth, but a good life afterwards, and the rich man receives his reward early on, and goes to his tortures in the afterlife.

We might see this parable as one more cautionary tale about how we deal with wealth, as with the story of Lazarus. Or we might see the Prodigal Son's dad as similar in his mercy to the master of the shrewd steward--and of course, we could draw parallels to God, who gives us mercy, when we deserve rejection and to be left to our own devices.

It's hard to ignore the sense of urgency in all these texts. The steward must act swiftly, to dismiss debts while he still has the power to do so. The Prodigal Son's father doesn't have much time to decide how to act, once his son appears on the horizon. The rich man pleads with Abraham to be allowed to warn his brothers, and Abraham reminds him that they've had plenty of warning. The parables are interspersed with Christ's various admonitions to pay attention to the way we are living our lives.

Christ commands us not to lose sight of the true riches, the riches that our society doesn't comprehend fully (or at all). We are not our paychecks. There's so much more to us than our job titles. We have been entrusted with so much. We will be judged by how well we show stewardship of those resources.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Internet Sabbath

My parents have been vacationing in Orlando, and we went up to be with them for the week-end. I didn't think I'd be silent for so long; usually when I know in advance I'm going to be silent, I give a bit of warning.

I decided to take an Internet holiday. The resort had Internet access. We could have worked wirelessly by the pool, had we wanted to mix business and pleasure. But I wanted to be more fully present for my loved ones, and I've realized that the Internet is one of those distractions that really keep me distracted.

As spiritual people, we should take similar inventory. What keeps us distracted from our spiritual tasks? What leaves us refreshed?

The Internet gives us a wealth of spiritual tools. I'm not saying we should get rid of our online access completely. In fact, you might not find the Internet as time and energy sapping as I do. Again, that's our task, to discover what keeps us away from the spiritual life that God needs us to be living.

Our spiritual traditions remind us of the importance of Sabbath time, which tells us that it's not just our current generation that feels that aching need of time and space. As a species, we seem to have a tendency to fill our lives with busyness. Our Creator reminds us of the importance of downtime with the mandate of Sabbath time. Maybe we could use this shift of season, a shift that's often marked by a return to busyness, to keep moving towards have downtime.

Friday, September 10, 2010

How to Commemorate a Day of Horror

I react with visceral aversion whenever there's a threat of book burning, whether sacred or secular. To me, all texts are sacred. To burn them shows a blatant disregard for what makes us human, the same way that terrorism shows a blatant disregard for our shared humanity.

So, I will not be burning books on Saturday or any other day. I will be hanging out with my parents and my spouse, and I will be saying frequent prayers of thanks that all of my loved ones are still here with me, on this side of the grave. Our time together grows ever shorter. What will I wish I had done when I've lost those loved ones?

I can't imagine the grief of losing a loved one, even to normal circumstances, like old age. How much worse it would be to lose a loved one to a terrorist attack. I loved this op-ed piece in The New York Times, where the ever-wonderful Nicholas Kristof tells us about two women who were widowed by the September 11 events. But instead of hardening their hearts, they went to work: "So at a time when the American government reacted to the horror of 9/11 mostly with missiles and bombs, detentions and waterboardings, Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley turned to education and poverty-alleviation projects — in the very country that had incubated a plot that had pulverized their lives. "

Their efforts benefit mainly women and children. These widows understand that by helping one member of a family, you help the whole family. And sometimes, that can affect the neighbors, maybe a whole village. One of the women says, “'It would be na├»ve to think that we can change the country, but change has to start somewhere. If we can provide a skill for a woman so that she can provide for her family going forward, then that’s one person or five people who will have a roof over their head, food in their bellies and a chance for education.'”

It's a shame that our policy makers can't adopt this approach. But you and I can. We have countless ways that we can make the difference in the lives that cross ours, or in the lives that we will never meet. We can donate money to organizations which make a difference in the world. We can donate our time in volunteer work. We can pray for the people around us who we see unraveling. We can pray for our leaders, even if we didn't vote for them and don't like them--especially if we didn't vote for them and don't like them. We can pray for the dispossessed who are so hopeless that they feel like terrorism is their best option. We can pray for those who seek to exploit our sense of hopelessness and despair.

We are called to be the light in the darkness, the leaven in the loaf. We must act like the resurrection people we are called to be.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Happy New Year! Rosh Hashanah and the Homeless

Last night, as Jews across the nation prepared their Rosh Hashanah* feasts, we took dinner to the homeless who gather every Wednesday at First Lutheran for a hot meal. We served lasagne, peas, salad, and all sorts of bread and desserts that a local grocery store donates. Not exactly your traditional Rosh Hashanah meal.

Of course, we're Lutheran, not Jewish, so it wouldn't surprise me if I was the only one who had the Jewish high holy days on the brain. Well, actually, we had some high school students with us, and they have today and Yom Kippur off. I remember the first autumn we lived down here, and how remarkable it seemed to me to have Jewish holidays off. I'm an equal opportunity celebrator: let's have some Muslim and Hindu holidays off too! Before South Florida, I had never lived in any place with enough Jews to affect holiday policy in this way. We moved down here to be part of a more multicultural environment, but before we arrived, I hadn't thought of North American Jews as one of the cultures I'd get to meet.

At the end of the evening, a young homeless couple asked me for bus money. Now I've worked with indigent populations for several decades, and I know the rules: don't give away money. They had such a compelling story about their baby across town in the hospital, so against my better judgment, I dug some quarters out of the car. I knew that I was going to feel bad, no matter what. And if their story is true, and my $3 worth of quarters helps a couple get to their sick baby, I'd rather err on that side. If I'm seen as an easy mark by every homeless person in Broward county, so be it. There are many more worse ways to make a reputation.

I came home and cried until bedtime. I've spent much time worrying about the shrinking middle class and the plight of students as higher ed expenses soar. But spending time with the homeless at First Lutheran reminds me that there's an underclass, and in some ways, perhaps an underclass below the underclass. I used to think that homelessness was a problem of lack of affordable housing and lack of low end jobs. But there's a substantial chunk of the homeless population who, because of various mental challenges, will never be able to hold down a job or care for a dwelling.

I believed the couple's story about their baby. I remember them from back in the spring, and she was pregnant then. I remember wondering what would happen to them when the baby comes. I remember worrying about them at the time.

Let me be blunt: future generations will judge us by the fact that we allowed pregnant women to sleep on the streets. And that judgment should be harsh.

And so I wept last night, for hours. I can't fix this problem. I don't see policy makers who are even aware of the problem. We've given up.

So, I did what I do whenever I run up against a problem that I can't fix. I prayed, and I prayed fiercely. I prayed that God be with our fragile fellow creatures who sleep on hard concrete night after night. I prayed that God show us a way to better care for our fellow people who can't care for themselves. I prayed that God not condemn our society for our lack of compassion.

In retrospect, it seems a good way to start the new year (even though it's a Jewish new year, not a Lutheran one). It's good to realign myself, to remind myself that my values are not the world's values. It's good to remember that God calls us to care for the poor and the dispossessed, not the pop culture heroes. It's good to remember to share our food and to break bread together. It's good to pray to God for justice and for redemption of our fallen creation. It's good to remember God's promise that the redemption of creation is already underway.

*The NPR program Speaking of Faith just did a program on the Jewish holidays. For great resources for the Jewish high holy days, go here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 12, 2010:

First Reading: Exodus 32:7-14

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Psalm: Psalm 51:1-11 (Psalm 51:1-10 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 14

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10

Today we have parables of lost creatures and lost things. When we read these parables, which character calls more clearly to you? Are you the shepherd or the sheep? Are you the woman sweeping or the coin?

I never really thought about the story from the perspective of the coin, until a few years ago. Pastor Mary Canniff-Kuhn was leading a Bible study on parables, and she said, “What about that lost coin? What’s it doing? Nothing. It’s just sitting there.”

These parables reassure us that we don’t have to do anything to deserve being found. We don’t have to redeem ourselves. God is the shepherd who will come looking for one lost sheep, even if that sheep is the dumbest, most unworthy sheep in the history of animal husbandry. God will light the lamps and sweep under the cupboards until the coin is found.

As Christians, we have a creator who goes to great lengths to find us, to be with us, to enter into a relationship with us. If you look at both the Old and New Testament, you see God trying a variety of techniques: crafting a beautiful creation, resorting to rage when that creation doesn’t behave, wiping out populations, rescuing populations. The New Testament shows a continuation of this story, with God taking the most extreme step of becoming human.

What does it mean for our lives if we really believe that God will go to all this effort for us? Look at the story again. The shepherd isn’t rescuing a whole flock of sheep. The shepherd goes to that effort for just one sheep. What does it mean for us, if we believe that God is like that shepherd?
Many of us might not be quite comfortable with that idea. We like the idea of a distant god, maybe one who made the whole creation and then went away to leave us to our own devices. Do we really want a God who doesn’t allow us to wallow in our lostness? Do we really want a God who takes such efforts to find us when we go astray?

Most of us do yearn for someone to pay attention to us in just this way. We often look for that kind of attention in our families, but I know I’m not the only way who has returned home after a long day in the office, only to find our families so engaged in other activities that they don’t even notice our return. Maybe you’ve yearned for a dog who would be happy to see you, and each day would announce its doggy joy in your return to the hearth.

God’s slobbery kisses may not be as noticeable at first, but God is that dog who marks our comings and goings with as much steadfastness as a good dog. God is that good dog of popular culture who will know that something’s wrong before anyone else does. God will go to great lengths to find us, to bring us back to the flock, back to the coin purse. We worship a God who will not rest until we’re all present and accounted for. That’s Good News indeed.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Who Do You Know Outside Your Faith Tradition?

At our church on Sunday, we had a protester. He doesn't believe in the Trinity, and he wanted us to stop preaching about the Triune God.

Now he's not a Unitarian. I can't quite get my head around his beliefs. I think he believes in God and the Holy Spirit, but doubts the divinity of Jesus. It's not mainstream, and it's not even a mainstream idea in the non-mainstream churches.

At coffee hour, we had a chat about other religious traditions we have known. Some of our church members talked about their experiences with Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. Later I thought about how odd it is that I have almost no experience with Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons or even more mainstream Evangelicals, yet I've known several Buddhists, a Wiccan or two, several Baha'is, and a Hindu.

My husband's restaurant work in his early years led him to know many Muslims, but I haven't met many. There was a woman in grad school who came to our Saturday gatherings where we'd work on crafts and eat yummy food. We knew that she was Muslim, and she would head back to Egypt after finishing her M.A. She kept her hair covered when any men were around; her husband seemed like a lovely man. We didn't talk about religion much, and I've always regretted not getting around to having those conversations. Some parts of the nation struggle with getting to know their Muslim neighbors, but I don't seem to have any.

The older I get, the less interaction I have with those outside of my home faith tradition. Is this state of affairs temporary? If I lived somewhere else, would my Lutheran church be doing more to foster ecumenical peace? The larger ELCA claims commitment to this ideal.

Part of my feeling of stasis may come from the fact that I've lived down here in Southern Florida for 12 years, and I've been in the same job for nearly 9. I'm not meeting lots of new people period. Instead of worrying about the fact that I'm not meeting new people, I'll try to focus on nurturing the relationships that I do have. It's not so usual to have a Hindu as a close friend, after all, and knowing her has enriched me in ways I wouldn't have predicted.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Last Thoughts on Yesterday's Lessons

Our pastor decided to preach on Psalm 139, which was fine with me. I love that language of God as knitter, weaving us together, even in the womb. In both the children's sermon and the adult sermon, our pastor focused on the idea that we are well made. Everything in our culture conspires to make us believe that we are not perfect just as we are; in fact capitalist culture depends on us believing that we're deeply flawed, so that we'll buy more products.

How would our lives changed if we could wake up every morning and look in a mirror that told us, "You are well and truly made"? For a brief moment, I even fantasized about a mirror with that saying etched across the top.

Of course, the real trick is to change my inner tape, the one that says I would be good enough if I could just lose 20 pounds or get that next volume of poems published or change my hair color or get back to where I could run 6 miles or . . . any number of ways to fill in the blanks.

The good news is that God doesn't look at us and see all the ways we could be improved. God created us. We are exactly what God intended.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

You've Fed Thousands, Now How to Handle the Leftovers

One of the dangers of an ancient tradition is that we forget that those people in the Bible were real people, people just like us. I've noticed through the years that most church going people tend to assume those people were somehow better than us. Daniel and Moses, Ruth and Esther, the 12 disciples--they take on super-hero status.

One of the ways I've tried to counteract that tendency in myself is to write poems that imagine the normal life of these Biblical people. I remember one Sunday the Gospel text mentioned Simon Peter's mother-in-law. Mother-in-law presupposes wife, right? Well here was an interesting dimension of Simon Peter that we don't normally reflect upon. I have yet to write a poem that pleases me on the subject of Simon Peter's in-laws, but I've had fun thinking about it.

Similarly, when a Gospel reading mentioned the twelve baskets of leftovers after the feeding of the 5000, I thought, what did they do with the leftovers? Jesus and the disciples were rather nomadic after all, and they couldn't exactly carry the baskets with them. And thus, a poem was born.

If you'd like to read it, you can go here to the online journal Qarrtsiluni. There's even a button which will allow you to hear me read it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A New Kind of Sunday School

My church has been experimenting with Sunday School for many years. When our pastor got his D.Min. degree, one of his projects involved creating a multi-generational Sunday School. Now we're experimenting again.

We've got a lot of people in our church who have some performing arts experience in their background. We've done a lot with chancel dramas and skits. Occasionally, our pastor's children's sermon swerves into the realm of improv. It's probably only natural that we might experiment with drama and improv in Sunday School.

We're looking for a way to help children know and remember various Bible stories. So, we've chosen 8 stories, and each week we'll focus on one story. There's no way to cover them all, but we have consensus on what's important.

We're not sure where we'll go from here. We'll probably stay away from scripts. We'll probably go for lots of audience participation--in this case, we imagine the audience to be the children who aren't in Confirmation class.

For example, in the first Creation story, where God creates each element and pronounces it very good, maybe we'll divide the group into the good and the not good section. When God creates something and calls it good, we'll have that group shout out. By the end, it will be vividly clear that God does not consider anything bad or not good--that group won't have said anything. They won't have had a chance to shout.

In later stories, maybe we'll assign roles to the children and the team leader will be the narrator/director. Maybe we'll have fun with puppets, with clowning, with mime. It will be different each week, because different people will be in charge.

We divided our Sunday School leaders into teams, and each team will be responsible for 2 stories. What happens now?

I'll be reporting back to let you know.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Spirituality and the Supper Table

When I think about spiritual practices, I usually think about things that are hard, like meditating for an hour or two a day. I think about things which require me to remember to do them throughout the day, like the Liturgy of the Hours. I think about things that require a class, like yoga. I think about activities that require vigilance and discipline, like fasting or doing volunteer work.

But what if a spiritual practice was as easy as rounding everyone up for supper? I can hear the protests now: since when is supper simple?

An article in The Washington Post argues that too many of us have made our at-home dinner obligations too complicated. We try to duplicate meals that we'd be served in a restaurant. We need a pantry full of esoteric items to complete our recipes. The article urges us to return to the strategies of our moms.

Our moms, the article posits, had a few simple recipes that they knew that hungry children would eat. The article interviews a lot of these moms, now in their 60's and 70's. Many of these women had simple strategies, a variety of them, easily adoptable these days.

And why should we do this? We can consult any number of social science research that shows us how valuable the evening meal is. Children who eat at a communal table do better in school, do better at resisting peer pressure, just do better overall.

With a bit of tweaking, we can use the evening meal as a spiritual training ground. We can begin with saying a blessing, thanking God for the food, and praying for those who don't have enough food. We can talk about the right ways to behave as we talk about how we spent our days. We can encourage compassion in our children, as we talk about the ways of the world. We can talk about where the food comes from and how we need to care for God's creation that gives us nourishment. We can foster responsibility and good stewardship patterns as we clean up after the meal.

So, as September begins, it's time to plan ahead for dinner. Soon our schedules will become cramped and challenging. It's time to decide on some simple recipes that we can cook week after week, so that supper isn't sacrificed.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, September 5, 2010:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 18:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 1

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 (Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 NRSV)

Second Reading: Philemon 1-21

Gospel: Luke 14:25-33

Here we have another tough Gospel, where Jesus seems to knock all our defenses out from under us. With his reference to the person building a tower, he seems to be telling us to think very carefully before we leap onboard his Kingdom train. We may have to give up (or at least transform our relationship to) much that we've held dear.

First, he tells us that we have to hate our family. Notice that I'm not exaggerating--hate is the verb Jesus uses. He doesn't use a verb that would be more palatable, like reject or leave or forsake. No, we have to hate them. Many of us have spent much of our lives struggling against a certain human tendency towards hating others--now we're instructed to hate our family?

It gets worse. In that list of family, Jesus includes our very lives. We have to hate our own lives? What's that all about?

Many scholars would tell us that Jesus is telling us that we can't have the same lives when we're Christians as we did before we came to Christ. Our relationships will have to be transformed. Many of us place our relationships with our family members above all else. Many more of us place our own self-worth above everything else. We've spent the last several weeks listening to Jesus telling us that we can no longer behave that way. We have to transform our world of relationships. For those of us who have been used to hiding away with our families, we are called to treat the whole world as our family, especially the poor and the outcast. For those of us who put no one's needs above our own, we can no longer behave that way. The only way towards the world for which we yearn is to place the needs of others ahead of our own.

Our relationship to our possessions is not exempt from this discussion. Here is Christ again telling us that we have to give up all that we have. For some of us, it might be easy to hate our family and give them up. For some of us who are filled with self-loathing anyway, it might be frighteningly easy to hate ourselves. But to give up our possessions too? How will we ever feel secure? Again and again, Jesus reminds us that we rely too much on the things of this world, the things (and people and our own egos) that pull us away from God.

At this point we might feel despair about our ability to walk this pilgrim path.

But as our spiritual forebears would tell us, if we would listen, this all gets easier the more we practice. If we think of all that we own as being on loan to us, it's easier to pass our stuff along. If we simplify our lives, it's easier not to clutch to our money as much. If we spend our time in prayer and spiritual reading, it's easier to rely on God. If we spend our time practicing inclusivity, it's easier to expand our idea of family. The world is filled with lonely people who would like to be invited to dinner or coffee.

And some day, we might look up and realize that the life we once lived was living death. We might realize that by renouncing that life (or by expanding it to include others), we've gained a life worth living.