Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reformation Sunday

So, here we are, another Reformation Sunday. This one will be different for me. My sister and her 4 year old son are here, so we likely won't go to church. No wearing of red, no singing of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." I'll report tomorrow or the next day on what we did, and I'll think about the Reformation tie ins. I'm an old style English major and a poet, so I can make intriguing connections out of the flimsiest evidence.

Last year I wrote this post about what to do to celebrate Reformation Sunday if you can't make it to your local Lutheran church:

"--Go to a German restaurant and eat a German meal. Think about Martin Luther, who ate this food. Drink a German beer. Think about Martin Luther, who was not inhibited about the earthly delights.

--As you're drinking that German beer, write your own hymns. Not a musician, you say? Use popular drinking songs as your base! Lutheran legend has it that some of our greatest hymns have tunes that originated as drinking songs. So, the melody is already created for you--write a hymn.

--Not in a songwriting mood? Write your own 95 theses. What do you see as wrong with the Church? Do you have any suggestions? Extra points if you can back them up with Scripture.

--One of the Church's actions that outraged Luther was the selling of indulgences, which he saw as victimizing the poor. We like to think that the modern church has moved beyond the selling of indulgences, but history suggests that we're fooling ourselves. In what ways do you see the Church selling indulgences? Another way of thinking about this question: in what ways does the Church abuse its power?

--If you want to follow in the footsteps of Luther, indulge in some guilt. Luther held himself to some stringent standards, especially in his early life. Think about all the ways you've let God down--and then remember Luther's teaching about Grace, and feel better.

--Read the Bible. Rejoice in the fact that you can read it in your own language. Thank Luther for being one of the earliest translators of the Bible into the common language.

--You don't want to worship at a Lutheran church today? Go to a Catholic church. Remind yourself of where you'd be if Luther hadn't started the Reformation.

I'm being a bit facetious with this one. I know that if there had been no Luther, there'd have been others to lead us down the Reformation road. "

I don't think the 4 year old would like any of those things. Hmm. We'll likely go to the beach in the morning and go trick or treating tonight. Not a typical Reformation Day. But a good way to reflect on the vastness of God and God's creation, and a good way, as we plan a Halloween costume, to think about our lives and any reforms that need to be made.

May your bulwarks never fail! Wait, we don't use that line (from "A Mighty Fortress") any more. Drat! How will children learn that word?

That song seems more appropriate than ever for our age. Societal institutions left and right have shown us of their inadequacy. We're lucky to have God as our shield and comfort.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reformation Eve

It's that time of year, that strange intersection between Reformation Day (for those of us Protestants who celebrate that part of our heritage) and Halloween. Many of us will spend tomorrow morning singing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" and tomorrow night trick-or-treating. I feel lucky to be part of a church that sees no special problem with this dichotomy. But if you are, and if your kids knock on my door tonight, I'll have candy.

During the past ten years, I've missed Reformation Sunday several notable times. One time was my first time at Mepkin Abbey in 2004. One of my friends who was also a Lutheran was relieved to miss Reformation Sunday. She much preferred the fierceness of the Psalms to the hearty singing of Lutheran hymns. In the evening, as we watched the sun set over the Cooper River, we watched people trick-or-treating and the flickers from Jack-o-Lanterns. We walked down the main driveway, a road flanked by giant trees draped with Spanish moss, and from a distance we saw two monks who were also out for an evening walk. I said to my friend, "If we were characters in a movie, something very bad would be about to happen." Happily, nothing did. The monks asked us if we would vote in the election on Tuesday, and one of them cackled. "I hope you vote for the right one." It was strange to me to think of these monks, who I think of as cloistered from the world, having political opinions.

Two years later, we missed Reformation Sunday because we met up with some grad school friends at Kiawah Island--one group had come all the way from England. During a Reformation Sunday walk on the beach, three of us confessed to being unhappy in our current church homes. Now it's interesting to reflect that we've found a better fit: I changed to a different Lutheran church, one friend switched from the Church of England to being a Quaker, and one has found a wonderful Unitarian church. Did that walk on the beach foster our courage to find a true spiritual home? The spirit of the Reformation was swirling around us!

A simple walk can change our spiritual trajectory? Yes indeed. The biographies of many spiritual giants show that sowing the seeds of small changes can lead to enormous harvests. For those of you yearning for baby steps which might change your trajectory, you might read my blog posting over at the Living Lutheran site.

So, as you prepare for Reformation Sunday and/or Halloween, may you have the courage of your convictions that Luther did, may you not be spooked, may you not be haunted by the past, may God grant you to fortitude to do what must be done.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween Hiatus?

Today my 4 year old nephew arrives--with his mom, my sister. So, if this blog goes silent for a few days, you'll know that I'm having fun with pumpkins and costumes. You'll know that I'm jumping at a rare chance to go to the beach to play in the sand and the surf. He'll think the water is warm, but I'll be shivering; somewhere along the way, I've become more of a native. We'll build forts and otherwise learn to see the world in a new way.

I love my nephew because so far, he is so non-judgmental. He's never criticized any of us. He loves us just the way we are. He thinks we are the grandest people he's ever met. I envision God feeling just the same way.

I realize that I'm lucky--not all children have this sweet disposition. That's what I tell myself when I'm wondering if I shouldn't have been a mom after all. What other valuable lessons haven't I gotten?

I try to be rational. Those lessons that come with a child of one's own might have been the heartbreaking kind, after all.

Still, I'm so happy to have this experience. He's changed my outlook in so many ways.

Happy Halloween everyone! May you only be haunted by happiness.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 31, 2010:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm: Psalm 46

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28

Gospel: John 8:31-36

Today's Gospel promises that we shall know the truth and the truth shall set us free. For some of us, this comes as welcome news, perhaps even as we feel a bit doubtful. After all, the Gospel doesn't tell us how we'll know the truth: will we just recognize it? Will consensus dictate what the truth is? If a majority of people believe, is that how we'll know we're in the campsite of truth?

The Gospel doesn't tell us those details. The Gospel writer John was more mystical than practical. But it's interesting to think about the issue of truth as we approach Reformation Sunday.

Think about how many of our spiritual ancestors were in a minority, before they were in a majority. If we're looking for majority rule to tell us whether or not we're looking at the truth, we will miss a lot of the truth.

Think of Martin Luther (or rent the film, Luther) and what he was up against. The Catholic church had a stranglehold on the spiritual life of Europe when Luther came along and suggested that they'd gotten off track. He didn't intend to start a new branch of Christianity. But his life shows what might happen when we start pointing out the truth. We might overturn a whole social order and begin several hundred years of new denominations. If I wanted to, I could spread many of the most exciting social movements of the twentieth century (for example, the movement to secure human rights for everyone) to the ideas that Luther put into motion. Or think about the worldwide push towards literacy. Luther might not have envisioned the changes he put into motion when he translated the Bible into common German, but he understood the importance of enlarged access. Where would we be if we still had scriptures in a language that we couldn't understand? Will we know the truth if it's in a language that's foreign to us?

Think of a revolution closer to our own time. One of the biggest spiritual stories of the twentieth century has to be the rise of the Pentecostal movement, which we can trace back to Azusa Street in Los Angeles in the early part of the twentieth century. Even those of us outside of the movement can admire the ways in which Pentecostal ideas have enriched all of us believers (the idea that there are different gifts of the spirit, for example; even if my gift is not speaking in tongues, I might have a different gift to offer, one that is equally valuable; the trick is to know my gift and commit to it). Even those of us who are fearful of the spread of Pentecostal and Evangelical ideas have to admit that our siblings in those churches understand mission in ways that many of the rest of us don't.

Those of us who feel like we're part of a dying tradition would do well to remember that even times of death can lead to times of renewal. We may be planting seeds. Those seeds might grow into plants that we can't even visualize right now.

We're in a time of tremendous renewal, even if we find ourselves part of a mainline tradition that seems determined to ignore these developments. Google the words Emergent Church and see what you find; many Christian groups who wouldn't have even spoken to each other in the 1950's are rethinking ways to do church and working on social justice movements together. Research the New Monasticism to see the ways that people are radically committing to the life of faith.

Consider the Internet, and how the Internet is revolutionizing our faith lives. We can tithe or redistribute our wealth much more easily with the Internet as a tool. We can read or listen to stories of faith to inspire us. We can go to sites to pray the Daily Office.

Will we one day look back and realize that the Internet fueled a Reformation in our own time, just as the printing press helped to speed Martin Luther's Reformation? We can't know. And again, the Gospel should echo in our ears, as we spend more and more time in virtual communities and less time with actual humans: we will know the truth (but one suspects we'll only know the truth if we're on the lookout for it). And what a promise: the truth shall set us free.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Creation Stations in Our Sanctuaries

Over at Erik Ullestad's blog, he talks about approaches to children in church. Life has changed since those days when children were expected to sit still and be quiet. In this post, he writes, "The Creation Station is a set of tables in the back of the sanctuary where kids can color, cut, paste, and mold items based on the theme of the day. There are some coloring & activity pages (similar to a children's bulletin) that are available as well. During the offering portion of the service, kids bring their creation up front to the altar as their offering to God."

I can think of many adults who would like a Creation Station for the time when the service gets a little long. For some of us, it might be the sermon, while for others, it might be the time the choir sings. Some of us might be lucky enough to be in a big enough church where Communion takes awhile and our fingers itch for something to do.

Lutherans have always embraced some art forms, like music, while seemingly scorning others. But in more recent times, we've expanded our view of what arts are appropriate for church, both in terms of worship, in terms of building adornment, in terms of enriching our spirituality. I knew I was at a different place when I first started attending my new church, several years ago when it was new to me. Here and there, women knitted. Right there, in the middle of the service! They were working on prayer shawls while also participating in the service. I got my first glimpse that I might have found a good church fit.

Lots of churches have been experimenting with a variety of ways to integrate children into the service. There's the children's sermon. And of course, some churches choose not to integrate at all; they have Sunday School when worship is going on, which is both problematic and a problem solver. Some churches have activity bags for children.

I like the option described in Erik's blog posting because the children are working on art projects that tie into what's going on during the worship service. Even if it's something as simple as a picture to color, a picture that depicts what's going on in the readings, it ties into the service.

I also love the idea that children bring their creations forward during offering. What a great way to reinforce that our offering to God can be more than money. I love this more comprehensive view of offering. Our gifts are so vast, so much more than our earning potential.

I can think of adults who need to be reminded of that message. In fact, I would argue that in our culture here in the U.S., adults more than children need this reminder. We are more than our earning power!

My four year old nephew comes for a visit this week-end. I love spending time with him, because his joy in creation is still unpolluted. Like God in the first chapters of Genesis, he creates and claims it all as very good. He doesn't ball up his works when they don't match his vision for what he was trying to do. I don't even know if he has a vision. He's just so happy to have paint to swirl on his paper.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have this kind of child in their lives--another reason to bring Creation Stations into our churches--we'd give the word sanctuary a whole new dimension!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Jacob and Esau and the Very Young

Yesterday was my turn to lead Bible Improv, our multigenerational approach to Sunday School, which, realistically, is mostly composed of pre-schoolers and elementary school kids. Some of these Old Testament stories are pretty brutal. Yesterday, I got to narrow down the story of Jacob and Esau.

I decided to focus on the sibling relationship, the trickery. We talked about and acted out Esau selling his birthright for a pottage of lentils. Then we had a cooking portion. I had brought a pot of cooked lentils, which we all tasted and asked ourselves: "Would I give away all my past, present, and future Christmas presents for what's in this pot?" We decided that we wouldn't. Then we doctored up the lentils with a can of tomatoes, herbs, a splash of vinegar, and a bit of brown sugar.

Then we returned to a later part of the story, the story of how Jacob tricked his father and got Esau's blessing. Later, we witnessed the reunion of the brothers.

I closed by stressing that we don't need to trick God this way. God has enough blessings for us all. And then we talked about our Christmas shoe box initiative, the one that many churches are probably adopting this time of year, the Samaritan's Purse group's idea. We talked about how important it is to share since we have been so blessed.

Overall, I think it went well. My only sadness is that we had such a small crowd. Ah well.

Now on to plan our next Sunday School presentation in mid-November: notable women of the Old Testament who aren't Ruth and Esther. Any suggestions?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Picture to Help You Understand Yesterday's Arts Meditation

Here's a picture of the pictures we created, just in case you're having trouble visualizing what we did in the Arts Meditation. I should have posted it with yesterday's post, but I forgot we had it. You can see how creative we all were with limited resources!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

An Art Exercise and Meditation

While at the retreat to plan the retreat, we closed with an art exercise which led to a meditation, discussion, and prayer.

We divided up in pairs. Each pair got a piece of construction paper and two piles of neon-colored stickers, the kind that's like an office supply (to mark file folders or reinforce punched holes). We did the exercise in silence.

One person put a sticker on the paper, and then the other person put one sticker on the paper, and the process continued until each person decided to be done (we folded our hands when done). Each person could only place one sticker on the paper during any given turn.

When done, we put our papers on the board and meditated on all of them as a group. What a diverse group of finished projects. Some people had tried to create some sort of realism: flowers and figures and suns in the sky. Some of us did abstract art. All of the projects were compelling.

We talked about the implications. Was God like our partner, an active participant, unable to control us, yet intrigued by what would happen? Or do we believe in a more omnipotent God, one who knew what we would each create?

What did the process say about our own creative process? Those answers were as diverse as the 18 people in the room. I was amazed by how much I liked the other creations and after viewing them, how lacking I found the one that my partner and I made. I found myself wishing I had been given differently shaped stickers--no need for analysis there. I've spent much of my life wishing that I had different gifts than the ones that God gave me.

I enjoyed working with non-high-art materials. We'd have had a different experience using paint and canvas, I expect.

It led to an interesting period of discussion. I highly recommend it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Back to Old Shoes and Porridge

We have returned from the retreat to plan the retreat; it's back to old shoes and porridge, as one of my fellow planners put it. Isn't that a marvelous way to mark the difference between life on retreat and/or vacation and regular life?

When I told people I was going on a retreat to plan the retreat, they kind of looked at me with surprise or disbelief. I couldn't tell if they thought that 2 days wasn't enough time to plan or too much time to plan.

It turned out to be just the right amount of time. Before, the planning was done around 4 lunch meetings. In later years, the participant list varied with each lunch meeting, so part of the time was spent bringing people up to speed.

We didn't have to do that when we were all there together on retreat. We had an amazing amount of focus.

We assembled at 3:30 on Sunday and read the Genesis 3 which will be the focus of our Create in Me retreat in the Spring. We have talked about the Creation story before, but we've avoided the Fall. I much prefer the earlier versions of Creation, where God declares everything good and very good.

We wrestled with the story throughout the two days we were together. We decided to focus on the 3 questions that God asks:

"Where are you?"

"Who told you that you were naked?" or another variation of that question: "Why are you listening to someone who isn't me?"

"What have you done?"

We did everything from the mundane (designing name tags) to the very important (worship planning). We chose workshops and drop in stations. We talked about T-shirt designs, special food, and decorations. We did it all. And in between, we had Bible study and arts meditations. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a Communion service.

We did a lot of work, but it never felt like work. It was wonderful to be with creative people, wonderful to make such progress. It was wonderful to get it all done in one fell swoop.

It's strange to be so far ahead. All the way home, I had to keep reminding myself that it's only October--no need to panic about how much we still have left to do. It's not that much really--contacting various leaders to make sure they're still willing to be leaders and creating the final schedule of workshops.

The weather on the last day felt almost spring-like: cool in the morning, hot as we drove away from the mountains. No wonder my inner clock is confused. But happily, I have my notes to remind myself of all the good work we did. I feel a bit of sadness that it's so long before we get to actually enjoy this wonderful retreat that we've planned. But more than that, I feel anticipation. We've got a great Bible study leader and wonderful worship planned. We've got a wide variety of arts to experience. It's going to be a wonderful way to finish the Easter season! Plan now to join us; you can find more information here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 24, 2010:

First Reading: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Joel 2:23-32

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 35:12-17

Psalm: Psalm 84:1-6 (Psalm 84:1-7 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 65

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

We are so accustomed to seeing the Pharisee as the model for what we are not supposed to do and be spiritually that it's hard to see the Pharisee as Jesus might have intended him to function as a character. Go back to read the text again, and ask yourself how often you've been that Pharisee. It's easy to feel a sense of superiority at the good and righteous deeds we do. We might say, "I go to church every Sunday, even though I struggle with some of the directions the church seems to be heading. I give 10% of my income to the church, and I even contribute to other charities if they seem worthy. I give my old clothes to Veteran's groups. I try to remember to pray several times a day. Even when it's not Lent, I undertake spiritual tasks that others don't. I fast once a week, even though my church mates only fast on Good Friday. I work in a soup kitchen and a food bank. I try to be a model of Christ's light at work."

As an English major and a Composition teacher, I immediately hone in on the speech of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the subject and the verb. The Pharisee is the subject in the sentence structure and the actor of each sentence: I _____ (fill in the verb). The tax collector asks God to be the subject of the sentence and the actor. What are we to make of this?

Some theologians would say that Jesus tells us that only God can deliver salvation. We can take on as many spiritual tasks as we like and do them all superbly, but it won't be enough. Some theologians would tell us that Jesus is reminding us of the value of humility. The Pharisee might be more spiritually pure, but since he lacks humility, he fails on some essential level.

Many theologians would comment on the human trait to draw lines of in groups and out groups, just as the Pharisee has done. As humans, we seem incapable of just accepting people. We want to change their behavior or their lifestyle or their beliefs. We compare ourselves to others, so that we can make ourselves feel better.

Jesus reminds us again and again of the futility of this action. The only way to salvation is to pray as the tax collector does: "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Notice the simplicity of the prayer. If we could only pray one prayer, this would be the one. And a good second prayer would be one of thanks, thanks for all the way God showers us with blessings.

Jesus is clear about the dangers of exalting ourselves. In our current time, he might have spoken at greater length about the danger of humility turning into false humility. He might have preached to our inner adolescents, who might have protested and wondered why we should change our behavior at all, if it doesn't lead to God's favor. He might have told us that we do the things we do as Christians not to act our way to salvation, since that can't happen, but because we choose actions which will lead to enriched lives for ourselves and others.

It would be an interesting experiment to pray the prayer of the tax collector on a daily basis and to see how our lives changed. What a simple spiritual task. What a change of trajectory might be in store if we actually prayed it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

This Blog Will Be Quiet for a Few Days

This blog will likely be quiet for a few days. It's time for some down time with friends, some unplugged time. I expect to return to regular blogging on Oct. 21.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Retreat to Plan the Retreat

For many years, I've been going to Create in Me, a retreat at Lutheridge which explores the intersections between spirituality and creativity. It was only recently that I could be part of the planning team.

When the retreat first started a decade ago, the planners were mostly local people who would come over to Lutheridge for lunch and planning. They'd do this several times a year, and the retreat got done.

Now most of the planners are coming from much further away. Last year, for example, my spouse and I took some vacation days and managed to get to one of the planning meetings. I think we win the award for furthest distanced travelled for a lunch meeting, but I'm happy for an excuse to escape to the mountains any time.

This year, we're trying something different. We're having a retreat to plan the retreat. We'll meet for 2 days, and the hope is that we'll get it all planned out. Last year, in addition to the planning meetings, the camp director and I spent more hours than I want to count in e-mailing, both each other and all the retreat leaders. Since the workshops and art drop in station parts of the retreat are mostly led by participants, we had about 20-30 people to coordinate.

Will it work? I don't know, but it's worth a try. Much as I love the idea of getting to the mountains 4 times a year for a lunch meeting, the realities of my work life mean that getting away is increasingly harder.

Once we've had the retreat to plan the retreat, I'll blog more about it, in case it helps those of you who are planning retreats big and small.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, October 17, 2010:

First Reading: Genesis 32:22-31

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 31:27-34

Psalm: Psalm 121

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 119:97-104

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14--4:5

Gospel: Luke 18:1-8

For many years, this Gospel lesson troubled me. I tend to approach Jesus' parables as teaching us something about the nature of God, so I always look for the character that is supposed to resemble God. In this parable, of course, I immediately assume that the Judge is the God stand-in. But what does that say about the nature of God? Do we really worship a God that is so distracted that he'll only respond if we beat the door down several times?

If we see the judge as the God character, we might use this parable to help us understand how God intervenes in a universe that God designed around the structures of free will. Think about your beliefs about how God operates in the world. We're back to some of those timeless questions: why does God allow pain and suffering if God is all powerful? One approach says that God gives us free will, and along with free will comes the decision to make bad choices. God is like a parent, who can't really control us, the adolescent children.

And yet, many theologians would argue that God is allowed to intervene in a universe designed to incorporate free will. The catch? God must be asked to intervene. And that's where we come in. We don't have to sit back and assume that God has the ultimate plan and design. No. In fact, this parable might teach us that our role is that of the widow. We are to demand justice for a ravaged world. If at first, we don't get it, we demand again and again, until righteousness is restored (if you're in the mood for reading more on this subject, check out the work of Walter Wink, especially Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination).

I'm still not comfortable with this view of the world or of God. Does that mean that the suffering in Darfur might have ended years ago, if enough of us had been praying? Does God turn away from injustice until enough people are outraged? Surely not.

Here, too, we bump into our beliefs about God and divine limits. Is God all powerful? Could God just point a finger and make people stop hurting each other? Where does evil come into the equation?

I'm not sure I believe in an all-powerful all the time God. I think God will be all powerful in the end and justice and mercy will be restored: the widow will have enough money, the poor will have food and shelter, lions and lambs will lie down together. I fervently pray for the restoration of creation (but I doubt it will happen in my lifetime). But I no longer rule out the very real power of evil, and it's clear to me that evil sometimes overpowers righteousness. My hope is that evil will not prevail in the end, but I also know that sometimes, I must work towards justice, without ever seeing results.

We are like the people who built cathedrals. We all have a role to play in restoring God's creation. We probably won't be alive to see its full glory; at least, we probably won't be alive in the bodies we have now. But we have a larger vision, and God requires us to do our part. Much of that role that we play is to cry out for justice. Will our cries be answered? Yes, eventually. Will we be around to feel good about the restoration of justice? Maybe. Even if we're not, that's not the point.

Think about how many people have been slaughtered as they advocated for the oppressed: famous people, like Stephen Biko or Archbishop Romero or Martin Luther King, as well as names we'll never know. They died before they got to see the full fruits of their labor, but the groundwork that they laid was vital for bending the arc of history towards justice (to use Martin Luther King's beautiful language). It's important to remember that sometimes when we advocate for justice, we might pay supreme sacrifices.

But the parable promises a positive outcome. Go back to the first verse: "And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart." That's the lesson of the parable.

This morning, as I thought about this parable and my response to it, I thought, isn't it interesting that I first see God in this parable as the male, corrupt judge? Maybe God in this story is the widow. How would this change our view of God, our view of religion, if we saw God as the more helpless characters in Scripture, as opposed to an authority figure?

It's a scarier view of God, to be sure. Most of us, if we're honest, would say that we prefer God the smiter to God the helpless widow. Even viewing God as a parent allows us to abdicate some responsibility. But as we read the Gospel with adult understanding, it's clear that God gives us a lot of power and responsibility. How will we use that power?

This parable teaches us that we're to cry out for justice day and night. If you're having trouble praying, turn your attention towards the people who are suffering in this world. Pray for Darfur. Pray for the people, whomever they might be this week, who are suffering from a natural disaster. Pray for those throughout the world who are thrown in jail to rot. Pray for the poor, beleaguered planet as it swelters beneath a merciless sun.

If the stones can cry out for justice (a line from a different Gospel), so can you. And you can take comfort from the fact that God cries out for justice right along beside you.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Grief and Gratitude on Columbus Day

Even though yesterday was the official holiday, today is the real anniversary of Christopher Columbus stumbling across the "new world" as he searched for a shorter trade route to Asia. For most cities, gone are the days when we'd mark this holiday with parades and time off. Those of us who grew up in the 70's and later have likely rethought this holiday.

What marked an exciting opportunity for overcrowded Europeans in the time of Columbus began a time of unspeakable slaughter and loss for the inhabitants of the Americas, many of whom have never recovered or who disappeared completely.

As Christians, how do we approach this holiday? We could remember that day in 1492 as the beginning of a time of enormous religious expansion, first for the Catholics and later for Protestants, many of whom needed a place to escape religious persecution. We could feel sorrow at the religious persecution of the Natives and of various other minority groups--or we could celebrate the religious diversity and tolerance that somehow survived our best efforts to kill it.

We could celebrate the ways that various cultures were enriched. Look at the European cuisine before the time of Columbus, and let yourself feel enormous gratitude for the vegetables that came from the Americas. Look at the cultures that existed in the Americas before the Europeans arrived and let yourself marvel at the ways in which technology enables the building of cities.

Or maybe we want to leave humans out of the picture and once again marvel at this amazing planet which is our home, at its diversity of land, water, and weather, at the currents that swirl through the oceans and the air, at the abundance of natural resources just waiting for us to stumble over them on our quest for something different.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Last Thoughts on Yesterday's Lessons

Yesterday the Bishop of the Florida-Bahama's Synod joined us for worship, since we celebrated 50 years of being a church. Our pastor created the service, including an interesting approach to re-consecrating our church and ourselves to our mission in the world. We had new members join. We had four acolytes, four little girls. We had a children's choir (also, all girls) and a grown up choir (yes, all women, except for my husband and the director, who also sings). I was the assisting minister:

The Bishop preached the sermon, and he focused on gratitude. Since it was our 50th anniversary, he focused on the gratitude that we should feel towards our church and the gratitude that our communities should feel for us. He reminded us that in terms of global disaster, the ELCA is usually the first to appear with help, and the ELCA usually stays long after other aid groups have left. It was a feel-good sermon, and that was O.K. with me. I spend a lot of time thinking of ways that I need to improve. I spend a lot of time worrying about the future, both mine and the future of institutions about which I care deeply (like higher education and the ELCA). It's essential to stop occasionally, to remind myself of all the progress I've made, the progress made by those institutions.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Slide Show Celebrating 50 Years

This week-end, my church celebrates 50 years of ministry. I've only been a member of this church for 2 years, so I sort of feel like I'm crashing the party.

At last night's celebration dinner, we watched a 15 minute slide show. Various people have been going through the archives, a word I'm using loosely, and putting together exhibits, so the slide show was mostly photos. You'd think that I'd find the slide show boring, since I didn't know any of those people.

On the contrary, I found it a fascinating study of your typical, suburban, ELCA church. Here's the sign from the time when the church was still an LCA church. Here's an updated sign--now we're ELCA. Here are the pictures from the 60's, with more children than we can count. Here are the 1960's confirmands, huge groups in hideous robes. Here are more recent groups, 3-5 teenagers not wearing robes. Vacation Bible School pictures seem the same from generation to generation: only the haircuts change, but summer clothes for kids don't seem to vary much through the decades. Here we are on various trips. Watch people in the kitchen through the years.

One of the things I have always loved about church is that we socialize with all sorts of people we'd never meet otherwise. All socioeconomic groups come through the door. Through my time in church, I've even had meals with homeless people, which never would have happened to this middle-class suburban girl otherwise. If we're lucky, we attend a church that welcomes a variety of races, a struggle mostly settled, which might be akin to the struggles we face with homosexuality today. If we're really lucky, perhaps we go to a church that flings wide open the doors to transgendered people.

I must confess that the people in the slideshow seemed on the surface to be mostly white, mostly heterosexual, mostly dressed the same. Until recently, that's been the church, at least in the suburbs. But the church I attend on Sunday mornings is different than the church of my childhood, the church of that slide show. We're a mixed racial group, which isn't unusual in South Florida. We've got all ages, although not as many children as in the past. Some weeks, I share a pew with a person who is in the process of changing sex from male to female, and who doesn't mind talking about that process, which is fascinating to me. That person wouldn't have been welcomed in the church of my childhood. I'm sure there are plenty of people in my current church who are deeply uncomfortable.

But Jesus didn't come to make us all comfortable. Jesus came to shake up our safe little worlds. Jesus came to invite us to be part of a Kingdom where we'll eat with the homeless and sing with the transgendered. The Good News isn't that a suburban church still exists after 50 years, although I'm not discounting that achievement. The Good News is that the Kingdom is big enough for all of us, suburban or urban, any race, any socioeconomic class, all along the spectrum of gender and sexuality.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Churchwide Assembly Decision on Homosexualtiy and the Ordinary Parishioner

A woman from a church to which I once belonged wrote to ask what I thought of the ELCA decisions on homosexuality and to express her distress about the ordination of a lesbian minister. I thought long and hard, and prayed long and harder, and wrote the following:

If we go through and quantify Bible passages, the most prominent theme is economic injustice. Throughout the Bible, we find prophets and Jesus and the early Christians telling us that what most distresses God is poverty; there are literally over 2,000 passages that talk about the subject. God doesn't require us to live in complete equality, so that everyone has exactly the same amount of money, but God does require us to work towards a world where everyone has enough: enough food, adequate shelter, a change of clothes.

We do not live in that world.

As I read God's word, I honestly don't find many passages about homosexuality, or sexuality of any kind. By my count, I've found roughly 12-20 passages about homosexuality. And I'm not sure those Bible writers were talking about the homosexuals whom I know, homosexuals in loving, committed relationships. Paul uses the word "pornea," which scholars tell us describes more of a boy prostitute kind of relationship. And the main piece of Bible text that's used in discussions about homosexuality comes from Leviticus. Leviticus is full of rules which I don't intend to follow, like separating milk from meat, and isolating menstruating women. It seems like a rule book from a very distant time, and I don't think that God intends for us to adopt those rules.

Lutherans believe that we know most about God through what we know about Jesus. Jesus trumps the Old Testament. And Jesus was very quiet on the issue of homosexuality or heterosexuality or any other kind of sexuality. But Jesus talks over and over again about the sin of allowing people to live in poverty when we could do something about it. Jesus talks about the sin of exclusion, as he goes about his ministry of having dinner with the outcast of society (women, taxpayers, the unhealthy). I'm not sure that Jesus would be a family values kind of guy. He talks about how we have to leave our families--and everything else we hold dear--to follow him.

In terms of what the ELCA has decided, I approve of those actions. I don't believe that homosexuality is a choice, at least not for most people (I have met several women who were terribly abused at the hands of men, who decided to only have romantic relationships with women). I can't believe that God would create 10% of the population, the 10% that is homosexual from birth, as a mistake. Lutherans believe that God gives us our sexuality as a gift and that we are required to not be abusive in our sexual relations.

Thus, I like the idea that all Lutheran ministers must be in either single or in committed, long-term, monogamous relations. It makes sense to me.

I also like that the ELCA leadership realizes that we don't all agree on this issue. I like that after decades of vicious fighting, we've agreed that we can disagree. If church members don't want to have a lesbian minister, the Bishop or the national leadership will not require it.

Again, I think that if we could have a conversation with God, God would not be as distressed about homosexuality or abortion or divorce or those other social issues which have divided the church recently. I think that God would be horrified at the rising inequality between rich and poor in our world. I think that God would be interested in hearing what we're doing to help improve the lives of the poor, whether in this country or across the planet. I think that God would look at my monthly budget and be very angry about the fact that I spend so much on frivolous things, while pregnant women sleep on the cold concrete streets down the road from my house and much of Africa suffers from war, hunger, AIDS, and weather-related ravages and across the planet, women suffer from unspeakable violence and we've never had more slaves in human history than we have right now. I imagine asking God how God feels about homosexuality, and God saying, "I really want to talk about the huge number of orphans in the world and how we should cope with that reality."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

In Which I Awaken to FInd Myself an Official ELCA Blogger

No one is more surprised than I am when I ponder becoming an official ELCA blogger. In fact, when I realized that links to my blog postings regularly appeared on the now defunct website Pretty Good Lutherans, I had some moments of discombobulation. I thought back to the summers when my uncle would get so annoyed with me and accuse me of turning his children (my cousins) against the Lutheran church. I probably did. In retrospect, I wish I had kept my know-it-all mouth shut more often. As a 19 year old, what did I know about spiritual yearnings and needs that might be filled by organized religion?

My grandfather was a Lutheran minister, and I've always said my mom would have been one too, if they had been ordaining women in the early 1960's, when she finished her undergraduate degree. She's spent much of her life working for the Lutheran church as a musician and lay leader. My family spent much of my childhood in church. We were that family who went to church even when we went on vacation. I hated the sameness of the liturgy week after week. Now, of course, I see the value of repetition. I hated the hypocrisy that I thought I saw. Now I'm old enough to know that what I see as hypocrisy may not be the complete picture.

I remember my grandmother asked me once if she and my grandfather did something to turn me off of church. I hate that I caused her that pain, but I did stop having much to do with church during the decade of my 20's. It wasn't her fault. I just wanted a break.

People often ask me if I think that people can lead a moral life with no spiritual grounding. Well, sure, I reply, but I think it's harder. We don't live in a culture that encourages and rewards morality. For me, one of the values of church is the weekly reminder that I'm called to a different mission/life/outlook than the world would have me believe.

But I digress.

I had been reading blogs for years before I started blogging. I especially loved spiritual blogs, but I hesitated to start writing one myself. I worried about all the wide variety of people who might stumble across it and be offended. I worried that I might damage my chance at possible future jobs. I worried about the fact that I didn't have a seminary degree (although in some ways, my literature Ph.D. has given me firm spiritual roots of a different sort). I worried about having enough to say.

Finally, I took the plunge because I just couldn't NOT do it anymore. And to my surprise, people have showed up to read what I've written. And some days, I get links!

Still, it was a complete surprise to me when Jan Rizzo of the ELCA asked me to be an official blogger for a site that the ELCA was creating. I first said to myself, "This must be a mistake. I haven't been to seminary. I'm not worthy."

Once I worked through all my weird emotions, I wrote back to accept the offer. I wrote one blog entry, but the site wasn't up, so I didn't announce the fact that I'd been chosen as an ELCA blogger. I wrote the second blog post, but the site still wasn't up. I began to wonder if it would happen. I didn't regret writing the blog postings; after all, if the Church didn't use them, I'd just post them on my own blogs.

Yesterday, I got the news that the blog part of the site is up and running at If you go to the site it looks like we've all been posting since August.

I've written two posts. My first assignment was to write about Lutheran spirituality and what it means to be Lutheran. It's posted here. I decided to focus on the Lutheran concept of grace, which I think sets us apart throughout Protestantism--and in some ways, gives us more with which to wrestle. Why be good if God will forgive/love us anyway? You can read the whole text wherein I talk about the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard: "But what if we changed the metaphor? What if instead of laboring in a vineyard, we talked about people at a party? The people who get there early get the freshest food and their choice of drinks. They get to enjoy the party for more hours than the people who stagger in late."

My second assignment was to write about vocation, so in this post, I focused on my childhood love of heroes like Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman and with feeling like I'm not living up to my full potential: "Many of us feel that some jobs are more spiritual than others. I used to think that monks and pastors enjoy more spiritually important jobs. But now I realize that we all have the same task. For many people who will never darken the door of a church, the only face of Christ they will see will be the face of Christians out in the world."

My next assignment is to write about the daily spiritual practices of Martin Luther and what they might mean for modern people. When that's posted, of course, I'll link here.

My life has taken me to many places which would surprise my younger self. Imagine my sneering adolescent self, sunk deep in her Nietzsche phase, imagine how shocked she would be to discover that decades later, she would be an official ELCA blogger. It makes me wonder what to expect for the next 20 years--what surprises are in store?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 10, 2010:

First Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Psalm: Psalm 111

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 66:1-11 (Psalm 66:1-12 NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15

Gospel: Luke 17:11-19

It's always interesting to see what other theologians focus upon for each week's Gospel. This week, I'm surprised by how many scholars focus on the fact that Jesus sent the lepers off to the priests, and they were cured while they were on their way. Why didn't Jesus just heal them there? Did it have something to do with purity laws? Did it have something to do with the larger society needing to be part of receiving the previously outcast? Was Jesus trying to include the religious institutions of his day in his vision for the world? Apparently, these types of questions fascinate many theologians.

These questions don't interest me as much as what happens later. Ten lepers leave and only one comes back to say thank you. And the one who comes back to say thank you is a Samaritan, one of the lowest of the low in Jesus' society--the one you wouldn't expect to come back and say thank you. Notice that the 9 lepers weren't punished for their ingratitude. But Jesus does notice their ingratitude.

We've spent a lot of time wrestling with texts which offer us guidelines for discipleship which may seem close to impossible for modern people to follow: give away our wealth? Surely Jesus didn't mean that.

Today's Gospel gives us a task which should be easier. We need to practice gratitude. It seems like it should be such an easy thing, but some people find it easier to give away their money than to be grateful. We focus on the prayers that we perceive of as unanswered. We find ourselves obsessing over people who seem to receive better blessings than we do. We nurse our disappointments, our hurt, our anger. We are in spiritually dangerous territory when we do this.

If you can pray no other prayer, get into the habit of saying thank you. If you think you have nothing over which you'd like to offer thanks, think again. Do your body parts work as well as can be expected? Even if you're not in the best health, you can probably focus on something that's a blessing. I'd like to be naturally willow thin, but I never have been. I could spend a lot of time making myself miserable over that, or I could focus on my genetic predisposition for low blood cholesterol and low blood pressure and say a prayer of thanks. Once I saw Arthur Ashe on the Phil Donahue show, where he had appeared to talk about his recent diagnosis: he had AIDS. But he seemed so cheerful, and when asked about that, he said that he focused on what his body could do. He grinned and said, "I've never had a cavity." If only more of us could follow his large-spirited lead.

When you think about what's lacking in your life, you might focus on your lack of funds. But compared to the rest of the world, you've extremely wealthy. Want to know just how wealthy? Go to to see. Even if you're in the lower tiers of poverty in the US, you're still fairly well off compared to the rest of the world. You're still likely to have safe water and electricity and some sort of roof over your head--even a TV!

My friend Sue used to do a type of gratitude exercise with her children. When they saw a magnificent sunset or a field of flowers or a tree ablaze in autumnal leaves, they’d yell, “Great show God!” It could be a bit startling if you were the one driving the car and not expecting this outburst. Yet the spirit was infectious. Even today, when I see something beautiful in nature, I murmur, “Great show, God.”

The beautiful thing about cultivating a garden of gratitude is that it opens our hearts in a unique way. Being grateful can lead to those other spiritual disciplines that seem so hard taken out of context. We’re saying “Thank you” more often, which puts us in a space where prayer comes more naturally. We are aware of all the blessings that we have and we’re more inclined to share. Our hearts and our brains and our hands move in unison to work with God to create the kind of reality that God wants for each of us to experience.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Noah, He Built Him an Arky-Arky

On Sunday, our Sunday School Improv team took on the story of Noah. We gave the children puppets, so that they could act out the act of going into the ark. We had some children act as rain clouds. We had a child who played the dove.

We did not sing the song that lasts forever, the one about Noah, Who Built Him an Arky-Arky Out of Hickory Barky-Barky. We ended up with extra time, and I wished that I had looked up the lyrics. I still remember some of them, but not all of them.

To me, that's the message here. The things we teach children really do stick. I can sing all sorts of songs that I learned in Sunday School. I remember a 5th grade teacher teaching us that men have one less rib than women, because Adam had to give up one of his ribs. You probably say, "Surely he was joking." He seemed serious to me, so much so that when I got to Biology and Anatomy classes later, I was a bit shocked to find out that we all have the same amount of ribs in our ribcage, unless something strange and/or dreadful has happened.

I'm always amazed at how much children seem to love Vacation Bible School. It seems a bit too much like school to me, full of boring worksheets. But I forget how much some children love those kind of things.

I love this Sunday School experiment that we're doing. We stay energized and fresh; I'm rereading some of these Bible stories for the first time in a very long time. I'm in charge of the week that we do Jacob and Esau. I'd forgotten how much deception was in those stories. My approach will be to remind the children that we don't need to trick God into blessing us, that we don't have to worry about God liking someone else better than us.

For me, the ultimate Good News in these stories is that God loves us, and even with our imperfections, God has a good use for us. That's the message that I hope our youth remember into adulthood.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Blessing Our Pets in Church

Across the country this week-end, many churches will be having services to bless pets. We do this ostensibly to celebrate the life of St. Francis, although I think a pet blessing service trivializes the life of St. Francis (I wrote about it a year ago here). Today, I'd like to think about pets and whether or not we should have a service to bless them.

I once attended a church that incorporated the pet blessing into the regular service, which meant that we all attended church with a variety of animals that day. I confess to being nervous. What if some of those less-friendly animals got loose? What if someone in the church was deathly allergic to the hair of one of those animals? I was deeply distracted that day and relieved to get out of the sanctuary. Worship should not inspire those feelings.

Many churches do a separate service these days. That means that people like me can avoid the whole thing. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate animals, and if I lived by myself, I might want a pet for companionship--but only if I worked fewer hours and travelled less.

Moving the worship service to a separate time, and perhaps a separate place, still doesn't solve the theological question. Why are we blessing our pets? I'd ask a harder question: why do we welcome pets into our sanctuaries while not welcoming the most destitute members of our society? Let's be honest: what would your church members do if a deranged homeless person walked through the doors or a skinhead or a family who didn't speak the language of members?

Maybe a pet blessing service opens our hearts to those who don't speak our language or look like us? But I'm also troubled by the knowledge of how much money we're spending on our pets. Gone are the days when you'd spend a chunk of money for shots and that would be the extent of your vet bills for the life of the pet. I know people who cook for their pets because they're horrified at what goes into pet food. Yet I don't see that passion for food safety translate into other areas of life.

What does it mean that we spend so much on our pets and so little on the poor? What does it mean that we care more about the health of our pets than our own health or the health of our fellow humans or the health of the planet?

I worry that our pets are shrinking our human contact. I know several people who are happier to spend an evening with a pet than with a friend. What does that say about our society?

A good pastor could address some of these elements in a pet blessing service. A good pastor could remind us that as we care for our pets who are thoroughly dependent on us, we are called to care for the poor amongst us, who are also thoroughly dependent on our generosity.

Yes, a good pastor could make all kinds of connections so that a blessing of the pets service avoids insipidness. But I fear that most pastors don't take advantage of this opportunity.