Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Feast of St. Andrew

Today we celebrate the life of St. Andrew, brother of Peter. Every so often I come across references to the relatives of Peter, and I'm always a bit surprised to remember that he actually had a family. What must it have been like to be the brother of Peter? Did Andrew grow tired of Peter's antics? Or was he happy to have such an enthusiastic sibling? In any case, Andrew was the first of the brothers to follow Christ, and he brought Peter to Jesus. Was there any sibling rivalry? Did Andrew sometimes wonder why Peter never seemed to get the larger picture? Was Andrew ever resentful when Peter rose to prominence?

I know that I'm supposed to assume that Andrew was more mature, that he realized we all have our own spiritual gifts, that he didn't resent his brother or any of the other apostles. But I'm also reminded again and again that the disciples were human, and even the apostles must have been subject to some of the uglier emotions that we all experience. Happily, the apostles managed to work through their human vulnerabilities to spread the Good News far and wide.

Andrew is given credit for bringing Christianity to eastern Europe and western Asia. He's also important to the people of Scotland. The image above is from a Wikipedia entry, and it's one of the icons of St. Andrew, from Kizhi Monastery in Karelia, Russia.

Here's a prayer for today, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours:

"Almighty God, who gave such grace to your Apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of your Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give us, who are called by your holy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! Blog Quiet Ahead

Hard to believe it's that time of year again--how did Thanksgiving roll around so quickly?

I will likely not be posting much, if at all, over the next week. It's time for family togetherness, and it's good to unplug. I expect to return to regular blogging on Tuesday Nov. 30.

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 28, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5

Psalm: Psalm 122

Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14

Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44

So, here we are preparing for Christmas, and we get this apocalyptic Gospel. You might have been expecting a passage about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary. You might have thought you'd hear some prophecy about the coming of the Messiah. You would have even settled for those strange passages from John which talk about the word becoming flesh and moving into the neighborhood (as Eugene Patterson paraphrases it in his The Message paraphrase).

But no, we get these verses that have inspired any number of end of the world scenarios, the most recent being the Left Behind series. Two men working in a field, one taken and one left behind. Two women grinding grain, one taken and one left behind. Jesus refers to earlier times when people should have been more alert: imagine if you had been one of Noah's colleagues, eating and drinking and making merry, having no idea of what's about to fall on your head.

Again and again, our holy scriptures remind us that we need to stay alert and watchful. Again and again, our holy scriptures warn us that God is coming and that God won't always take on the shape we expect. Sometimes, our spiritual ancestors are lucky, as Abraham was, when he invited the strangers into his tent, and found out he was having dinner with God. Sometimes our ancestors aren't as lucky. Think of all those contemporaries of Jesus, many of them good, observant Jews, who were on the lookout for a different kind of Messiah. They wanted someone to deliver them from oppressive Roman rule. What did they get? A baby in a manger.

We think that we wouldn't have been so stupid. We would have recognized the Divine, as Christ moved among us.

But think of our own lives. Many of us are so busy that we can't even adopt traditional practices that move us closer to God, practices like fixed-hour prayer or tithing. Would we really recognize God in our lives, especially if God took on an unexpected form?

We might adopt another ancient spiritual practice for our Advent discipline. We usually think of Lent as the season of discipline and denial, but Advent cries out for a similar rigor, especially in our culture that goes into hyper-consumer-overdrive this time of year. This year, practice seeing the Divine in difficult people. It's easy to look at a little baby and to see God looking back out of that face. But for a few weeks, practice treating difficult people as if they are the embodiment of God. Your evil boss? Your difficult teenager? The homeless guy at the corner who won't take no for an answer when he asks for money? Your sad mother-in-law? How might things change if we treat these difficult people as the embodiment of God, as Christ incarnate?

Our changed approach might change their difficult behavior. However, let's be realistic. It probably won't change their behavior permanently. But hopefully, if we approach everyone as God moving in the world, our attitudes will change. But even if they don't, this adjustment in perspective is good training. Again and again, Christ warns us to stay alert and aware. We live in a culture that wants us numbed (from too much TV, too much spending, too much drinking, too much working, too much, too much, too much). We need to adopt practices that train us towards a different way.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Be Not Afraid!

Yesterday was one of those days where I felt God reminding me not to be afraid. For months, we've needed to have a home inspector come to complete some reports so that we can continue to have homeowner's and windstorm insurance (two different policies, requiring two different reports). For months, we've put this off, because we've needed to make some repairs.

Yesterday, the house still wasn't in perfect shape, because it's an older house, and it never will be in perfect shape. But the deadline approaches, and so we decided to just go ahead with the inspections.

It was easy. Unlike with past inspections, the inspector didn't need to crawl around under the house. Unlike with past inspections, we've made substantial improvements in the past 15 months (new HVAC system, new roof) with all the right paperwork on file. Yesterday's inspection was fairly easy.

Our first houses were repossessed rehab houses, which we picked up for very cheap, but which needed all sorts of repairs and renovations. I often wonder if I'd be a more relaxed person about home repairs and inspections if we hadn't had the experience with those houses. I have seen first hand what damage substandard/misinstalled plumbing can do. I know first hand why aluminum coated wiring was such a bad idea. I have seen wood rot in all its glory. I know all about rodents and reptiles and insects.

Whenever it's time for a home inspection, I always worry that the inspector will find some kind of disastrous something that will require thousands of dollars to fix. Sometimes, that happens. Happily, yesterday was not one of those times.

With Advent just around the corner, I have angels on the brain and the fact that they always appear to mortals and say, "Be not afraid." I feel like this is a message that God sends me again and again. I am far too fearful. In the words of the mystic Julian of Norwich, "All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things shall be well."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Advent Retreats, Virtual and Otherwise

Yesterday I talked about carving out some quiet space during the season of Advent. I know some people who manage to actually get away, but for most of us, it's a bad time to try to schedule a retreat. Luckily there are ways to work the idea of retreat into a busy life.

Take some time now to look around to see if there are places nearby that might offer you respite. Perhaps a church that offers a noon concert series. Perhaps a quiet library. Maybe there's a park bench where you could sit if it's not too cold in your part of the world.

But maybe you just can't leave the office. Luckily, there are virtual retreats!

I especially like this slide show that presents pictures from the 2009 Mepkin Abbey Creche festival. Let it play on your computer and enjoy the calming effect.

If you have some extra money, you could enroll in this six week virtual course at the Abbey of the Arts. In addition to the weekly course materials, you'd be getting daily e-mails, a valuable reminder to slow down and remember what the focus of the season should be. If this idea interests you, keep in mind that you need to enroll by Saturday, November 27.

On Monday, November 29, the RevGalBlogPals site is having a virtual Advent retreat: throughout the day, you'll find several blog postings on the Advent texts (go here for more information). Put it on your calendars!

As I discover other ways to infuse your Advent with contemplative resources, I'll make sure to post updates.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Preparing for Advent a Week before Black Friday

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, which means we're at the end of the liturgical year. It also means that we're about to plunge into the Christmas season. This week-end is a good time to plan for how we're going to have a meaningful Advent, how we're going to resist the consumerist, capitalist madness of a whirlwind that tends to sweep us all along.

Last year was one of the first years in a long time that I experienced such a December. I had read about these kind of months, where people (often women) spend time rushing from pillar to post, whipsawed by all the obligations. I always felt proud that I was able to resist such madness. And then, last year came, when there were so many wonderful opportunities, and I wanted to do them all. ALL!!! And so, I found myself overbooked, doublebooked, with little time between activities. By Christmas day, I was exhausted and irritable.

So, let's strategize. How can we avoid a hectic season? How can we invite more contemplation and quiet into December?

--Make a budget now. A week from today, the Christmas shopping season begins for those of us brave enough to go into stores. Before you go, make sure you know how much you can spend. It's easy to get caught up in the shrill cycle of good deals and fierce desires. Don't buy so much that you'll still be paying off those credit cards in July. Nothing is worth that.

--Instead of buying stuff, buy experiences. Most of us have too much stuff. Why not give someone a meal out or a movie? Give the gift of your time.

--Instead of buying stuff, donate to charities. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy just about everything I need (and my needs are fairly simple). I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way.

--Plan your social calendar now. And keep it simple. Choose only one or two events per week-end. Declare that you won't go out on school nights. You can't do everything, and you'll only feel irritable if you try. What's most important to you and the ones you love?

--Purge the traditions that have ceased to have meaning. This one is tough. For example, I often find myself bored and irritable as I sit through The Nutcracker. I always think I'll love that ballet, probably because I loved it as a child. I don't love it as an adult. Why spend the money and time? Of course, if everyone else in the family adored it and wanted to go, it might be worth it. But now is a good time to have a frank discussion, before we're caught up in the sentimental sweep of December.

--Streamline some of the traditions. Do you really need to bake every kind of cookie that you remember from past holidays? Maybe you and your friends could have a cookie swap. Or get together to bake cookies together. Have a wonderful afternoon of cookie dough and wine and leave with enough cookies to get you through the holiday. For years, I did a cookie bake/swap with friends, which grew into a dinner swap, which we'd still be doing today, if I hadn't moved 700 miles away. That tradition meant something. These days, though, I don't bake cookies all alone. Consider ways to make the holiday meals simpler. Consider ways to simplify the holiday card tradition. Ask yourself which church events mean something to you and which you're attending because you always have.

--Take time to help the needy, and bring your children along. Some of my favorite holiday memories involve helping others. My Girl Scout troop used to go carolling at nursing homes. The church of my adolescence assembled gift baskets for homeless women. The words of Isaiah are knitted into every fiber of my being: "learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1: 17). My parents, along with social institutions like church and school, modeled the good behavior of working for social justice. It's stuck with me. Advent is a great time to train the next generation in the habits of social justice and charitable work.

--Schedule time in your day to slow down. Now is the time to remember to pray. Now is the time to rest. Light the candles on your Advent wreath and contemplate the mysteries that so many religious traditions celebrate as the year winds to a close.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Autumnal Colors, South Florida Style!

I've been inspired by the blog pictures of many people who have been cataloguing Autumn up in the upper 48 states: Dave Bonta has a great photoessay that takes us on a hike and Sherry O'Keefe shows us a weathered face of autumn. I routinely lament the lack of Autumn colors down here in southernmost Florida, but this week it occurs to me that we have gorgeous Fall colors, just not traditional ones.

So, I decided that it was time to take out the camera, to meditate on God's grandeur in a non-Brit-Lit part of the world.

This time of year, our yards are covered with a beautiful carpet of lavender flowers. From a distance, if you squint, it looks like snow. Natives call this groundcover clover, but it's nothing like the clover we'd use to make clover chains in a different part of the world.

Who says we don't have traditional Fall colors? Here's our orange--sure it's more lurid than your maple trees, but beautiful still.

I remember when I first realized what a florist in a different part of the country would charge to add birds of paradise to a floral arrangement. I thought, wow, those grow in my yard, and they spread like weeds!

Bougainvillea--the quintessential tropical tree. We used to have one that bloomed year-round, in a much more vivid pink than the one pictured. We lost that tree in the horrible hurricane season of 2005. I mourned it more than most trees, and it was one of the first that we replaced.

And now we look ahead to the next season. If you look at the above picture, you'll see it's a poinsettia bush! My spouse took one of the ubiquitous Christmas Eve poinsettias home and planted it in the yard. It's done beautifully as a green bush, but we wondered if it would turn colors. In other states, there's an elaborate procedure that involves putting a bag over the plant and putting it in a closet--something about that process tells the plant to change color. A few weeks ago, our outdoor plant began the change without all the fuss. Fascinating!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, November 21, 2010:

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 23:1-6

Psalm: Psalm 46

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Luke 1:68-79

Second Reading: Colossians 1:11-20

Gospel: Luke 23:33-43

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, which is the last day of our liturgical calendar. The readings are familiar: we're back in the land of Good Friday, with our king crucified on a cross. Perhaps not the image we'd expect for Christ the King Sunday, but those of us who have been reading through this cycle (either for the first time or for the umpteenth time) will be familiar with these strange twists of imagery, with the upheaval of all our expectations.

I have always loved the cyclical nature of the lectionary, with its readings that loop around and remind us that all of life is cyclical. When I'm having a bad day (or week or month), it's important to remember that everything can change. When I'm having a good day (or week or month), it's important to express profound gratitude and to try not to dread the next downturn too much. With every downturn comes an upturn. The life of Christ shows us this.

Christ's life shows us that being king requires something different for a believer. It's not the worldly experience of kings, who are venerated and obeyed. Being a Christian king requires humbling ourselves and thinking of others before we think of ourselves. But our rewards are great. If we could emulate Christ's behavior, we'd have a wonderful community here on earth, and whatever we might experience in the afterlife would just be icing on the cake. We'd have already had a taste of heaven right here on earth.

Maybe we feel grumpy as the holiday season approaches. Maybe we've had a season of sorrow, and we can't quite manage to feel festive. Maybe we're tired of humbling ourselves and we'd like someone to humble themselves for us.

Well, here's some good news. Someone already has. Maybe in this season of thankfulness, we can concentrate on our good fortune, even if we don't feel it. We're alive to see the sunrise and the sunset, some of the best shows on earth, and they're free! Even if we don't have as much money as we'd like, there's always someone who is in worse shape (and if we give some of our money away, we won't feel as constricted about money. Trust me. If you're feeling tight and pinched, now is the time to return to tithing). If we are having trouble keeping everything in perspective, maybe it's time to volunteer at a food bank or an animal shelter--or if we're not into organizational activities, we could do our part to pick up litter. We could smile at the janitorial staff. We could thank them for cleaning the communal bathrooms.

If we start working on our spirit of gratitude, the gift of generosity often follows. If we pray for those who need our prayers, our hearts start to open. If we work on forgiveness, our spirit soars. And soon we realize what it means to celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Poem to Celebrate Food, Friendship, and Community

At my creativity blog, I've continued my contemplation of food: this post ponders how we eat, why we eat, and how our society distracts us with weight control schemes that keep us from doing the important work (creative work, social change, you name it), and here I continue the thinking by considering the extra duties that children and pets confer.

Not surprisingly, many of my poems feature food. Here's a poem that appeared in Ruminate, a poem which thinks about women and food, women and religion, about the whole idea of communion (both the verb and the sacrament):


I knead the bread leavened with beer,
stew a lamb shank in a pot of lentils,
prepare a salad of apples, walnuts, and raisins,
sweetened with wine and honey.
No one ever had herbs as bitter as this late season lettuce.

My friends gather at dusk, a motley band
of ragtags, fleeing from the Philistines of academia:
a Marxist, a Hindu, a Wiccan, a Charismatic Catholic,
and me, a lapsed Lutheran longing for liturgy.

Later, having drunk several bottles of wine
with prices that could have paid our grad
school rents, we eat desserts from disparate
cultures and tell our daughters tales from our deviant days.
We agree to meet again.

Gnarled vegetables coaxed from their dark hiding places
transform into a hearty broth.
Fire transubstantiates flour and water into life giving loaves.
Outcasts scavenged from the margins of education
share a meal and memories and begin to mold
a new family, a different covenant.

We have participated in the Paschal mysteries,
not yet comprehending the scope of what we have created.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What the Monks Can Teach Us About Eating

The one thing that strikes me most about monastic eating is the scheduled aspect of it. We live in cultures where we're surrounded by food, most of us. Granted, a lot of that food isn't very tasty or very nutritious. I'm thinking of the past two weeks where everyone at my office has brought in the Halloween candy that wasn't claimed by trick-or-treaters. Most of us can't drive more than one block without being seeing (being tempted by?) a variety of eating establishments--again, most of them offering food that's not very tasty or nutritious. But boy, is it convenient--we don't even have to heave our bodies out of the car.

The monks eat at specific times of the day, two of the meals after a worship service. Monastic guests might have a different experience than the monks. Maybe monks are allowed to forage in the kitchen whenever they're hungry, but I doubt it.

What can this way of life teach us about eating? Plenty:

--Sticking to an eating schedule means that our blood sugar will never fall too far. It also means that we won't overeat because we snack through the day. It's easy not to snack, if there are no snacks to eat.

--There's always a bowl of fruit, if you just can't wait until mealtime.

--A sandwich and a bowl of soup make for a lovely supper. We ate this meal as our first meal at Mepkin Abbey, and I kept hoping for soup throughout the week-end.

--You only need dessert once a day. Really. Only once. Or maybe you want to make an exception for Sundays and have dessert twice.

--At Mepkin Abbey, the lodging for guests is at least a half mile away from the main part of the Abbey. One of us once had a pedometer during our visit, and we calculated that we walked 10-20 miles on an average day. Even if we didn't take a stroll down to the river or through the gardens, we'd still go back and forth to the chapel and the refectory 6-8 times a day. I often lose a pound or two during the week-end, even though I'm eating hearty meals.

--For the most part, for a variety of reasons, monks eat a tasty, vegetarian diet.

--Silence at meals means that the focus is on the food--or perhaps on God. You're not courting indigestion by talking about politics or home repairs or finances.

--At the midday meal, the monks listen to a book (I think it was a recording, but I can't be sure). I read through a lot of books and don't remember most of them. But I remember the snippets of the books that were being read when I visited the Abbey.

--We talked about how these monks put items together that we never would have done at home. For example, at the evening meal the last night, we had a spinach-tomato frittata paired with a cottage cheese and pineapple side dish. If we had been at home, we'd have probably offered a veggie side dish or a salad. We get into ruts, in food prep as with other areas. The monks point a different way. I suspect they use what's on hand, what needs to be used up.

--We also talked about how delicious everything was, even food we might have snootily turned our noses up to at home. For example, at the midday meal we had ice cream for dessert. It wasn't bottom brand ice cream, but neither was it premium. Still, it seemed like the best ice cream ever. I had an ice cream with Heath Bar bits in it, and I was surprised by how much I loved it.

--Portions are limited by eating time. You can take as much as you want, but you only have a certain amount of time to eat.

--Monks may move beyond this, but I found that because I was eating communally, I limited myself a bit. For example, I'd have loved to have more than one bowl of ice cream, but I knew that we were expected to take only one. Usually the food seems limitless, but once I was there and the one pan of enchiladas seemed to be dwindling quickly. Conscious of the line of hungry people behind me, I took a smaller portion than I might have.

--You might think that monks worry about world hunger or that they eat the way they do to free up resources for the rest of the world. If so, they don't talk about it. I suspect they eat the way that they do because they've been eating this way for many centuries and because it's a frugal way to be true to the rule of hospitality.

--Perhaps hospitality can point us back to the best way to eat. Much of what I've written above blossoms out of the monastic commitment to hospitality and welcoming the stranger. When I gobble a fast food meal by myself in my moving car, I am not practicing the hospitality of a welcoming table. God calls us to live in community. Solitary eating of non-nutritious food does not move us closer to that Kingdom ideal of sharing a table with the community.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Return to Regular Church

In between travelling and a visit from my sister and nephew, it's been a month since I worshipped at my home church. Today I plunge right back in. It's my week to do an improv Sunday School. We will be focused on cool women of the Old Testament, excluding Ruth and Esther. I will probably focus on Miriam the most. I just don't have much to say about Deborah, and the other women of the Old Testament are problematic. I don't really want to explain Bathsheba or Jezebel or the woman who cut Samson's hair to preschoolers and elementary school children.

I have learned an important lesson. It's important to have coloring pages. Some of our children would rather color than do anything else.

I've been fighting off a cold all week, so I'm not at my high energy best. A bad day to be having a low energy day--not only do I lead Sunday School, but I'm Assistant Minister. I shall muddle through somehow.

I've been to several mountain tops, both literal (Lutheridge!) and metaphorical (Mepkin Abbey!). It's always a bit hard to return to suburban church life, regular work life, the daily chores of upkeep.

So, my prayer for today:

Please God, grant me the wisdom to lead children towards your sacred text. Let me illumine them, whether through improv or coloring pages or song. Grant me the energy needed to be Assistant Minister. Let me not infect others with my germs, but only with my love.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What the Monks Can Teach Us About Ways to Lead Our Lives

Monks have so much to teach us. You could argue that most people have much to teach us, but monks, with their obviously different lifestyles, have a clearly different angle.

Here are some of the things I've learned from reading about monasticism and from being a guest in monastic communities:

--Monks understand the value of balance better than anyone else I've ever met. Their lives are highly structured, which many Western minds might balk at--yet it leads to the balance that so many of us crave. Monks worship periodically throughout the day and evening. In between they have times for study and times for work. They break for nutritious meals at specific times that never change (a lesson my grandparents knew well, but I've strayed from--my grandparents even snacked at specific times). They get 7-8 hours of sleep a night.

--They're willing to have some periodic disruptions of the highly structured schedule for special events. For example, Mepkin Abbey has an annual festival where they present creches from around the world. It's a fundraiser for the Abbey, but before the hordes of people come, the monks have a special night for themselves when they get to see the displays before everyone else.

--Meals are simple, except for when they're not. At Mepkin Abbey, the monks eat their big meal in the middle of the day, which makes sense to me. In the evening, supper is a simple sandwich, sometimes served with soup or salad or some kind of fruit. In the morning, we had hardboiled eggs with toast, and cereal was also available. Sunday evenings had a more elaborate evening meal--dessert twice in one day. Sundays are special, which make sense.

--Times of talk are balanced with times of silence. Trappists are more committed to silence than other religious orders. At Mepkin Abbey, silence isn't enforced around the clock. But for twelve and a half hours, monks don't speak. At meals, monks don't speak. At first I thought I'd hate all that silence. But now, as life becomes more filled with noise, I crave that quiet.

--Again and again, I am struck by how the monks are committed to ancient practices. They don't waste time looking for new and better and more efficient ways to accomplish things and live their lives. They're part of a community which figured out the best way of living long ago. It may not work for everyone--they don't waste energy trying to be all things to all people. They're not trying to convince the rest of the world. But the rest of the world can sense something--that's why for most communities, you need to make reservations to come visit months and months before you plan to come.

I understand that many people have problems with the Roman Catholic church, or even Christianity. I understand that many people look at monasticism and point out all the problems. Many non-monastic people are defensive for reasons that I don't often understand--it's not like monks are out there recruiting.

Or maybe that's the source of the anxiety when it comes to monasticism. Because, of course, the monks are recruiting in a sense, in the best sense. They recruit by showing us a better way to live our lives. Like so many ways the Holy Spirit works, the monks point us to a closer union with God--not by talking about it or making legislation--but by living it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What the Monks Can Teach Us About Worship

One of the raging debates in any church tends to be what the mission of the church should be. Are we there to care for the widows and orphans? To be a prophetic voice, speaking truth to the rulers of our empires? To form believers? To attract the unchurched?

Most of us can agree that one of the central missions of the church should be worship. And then we promptly tear ourselves into shreds arguing about the shape of that worship. How many readings? How long should the sermon be? Traditional music, rock, contemporary worship, or something else? How much quiet? How much time for announcements? Organ, guitar, or choir? Confession? Communion?

It's refreshing to go to a monastery, where these questions were settled centuries ago. From my limited experiences, the monks do not waste precious time second guessing worship practices that have worked for centuries.

Here are some things we might learn:

--We don't necessarily need a lengthy sermon. In fact, we might not need a sermon at all. The monks at Mepkin Abbey focus much more on scripture, song, and sacrament.

--We need more Scripture, not less. An average monastery sings its way through the Psalms every month, perhaps twice a month. The Psalms knit themselves into the memory--even a week-end stay shows that.

--A lovely floral arrangement can be made from stuff you find in your own garden--including dead leaves.

--We could do more to change up the worship space than just change the paraments. The monks at Mepkin Abbey create striking floral arrangements in huge vases and jars. During the month of November, they hang a framed print of John August Swanson's and light candles in front of it as they remember the saints who have come before us. Churches often do a good job of changing the worship space during the seasons of Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter. But why stop there?

--It doesn't hurt to bow. In fact, it helps.

--Practice makes perfect. I'm always surprised at how well these monks sing. But then it occurred to me that if you took anyone and had them sing through the same cycles throughout each day, month after month, year after year, they'd be able to sing beautifully too.

--The monks celebrate the Eucharist once a day. We need more sacrament, not less.

Of course, some of these practices are easier for monks, who live, worship and work at the same site. Still, they have much to teach us. And those of us who live and move primarily in the secular world have much to learn.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, November 14, 2010:

First Reading: Malachi 4:1-2a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Isaiah 65:17-25

Psalm: Psalm 98

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Isaiah 12 (Isaiah 12:2-6 NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19

Here we are, back to apocalyptic texts, a rather strange turn just before we launch into Advent (and just so you won't be surprised, those Advent texts can be on the apocalyptic side too). This week's Gospel is the type of text that many Christians use to support their assertion that we're living in the end times, that the rapture is near.

Keep in mind that the idea of rapture is fairly new; most scholars date it to the middle of the 19th century. But Christians have felt besieged since the beginning, and indeed, in many decades, they have been severely threatened. Lately, we’ve seen massacres during church services, both here and abroad. It’s a sobering reminder that we live in an unstable world, a world where true sanctuary is rare.

Perhaps the Gospel writer wants to remind us of the cost of following Jesus. Even those of us who won’t be massacred or martyred for our beliefs may find it hard to live openly as a Christian in this world. Many people assume that all religious people are kooks. The idea that a person could be an admirable believer is not one that we find reinforced in popular culture.

Perhaps the Gospel shows us the larger cost of existing in the world. Even if we're lucky enough to be born into a stable time period, to be part of a country with a stable government, if we're conscious, it's hard to escape the conclusion that it could all vanish at any moment. And even if we don't suffer on the grand (genocidal) scale, most of us will endure more loss than our younger selves would have believed could be survived.

Before we sink too deeply into depression, we need to remember that Jesus came to give us Good News. And that Good News is that we have each other, and we have a God who loves us, no matter what. If we devote our lives to that love, then we can survive all sorts of betrayal, loss, and persecution.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Back from Mepkin

I'm back from Mepkin Abbey--a very satisfying trip. I'm still waking in the night with the music of Mepkin in my mind. It's a bit like when I spend several days on my sister's sailboat, and it takes me days to get my land legs back. I'm always a bit sad when I stop feeling the swaying of the sea. Likewise, I'll miss hearing that plainsong in my head.

I'm planning a series of posts on what the monks can teach us. When I tell people that I'm off to a monastery, I get questions: "Aren't they Catholic and you Lutheran? Aren't they male? What can you, a married Lutheran woman, possibly gain from time in a monastery?"

I don't think I can answer that in one post, thus the series. I plan to begin on Thursday. But here are some short answers.

In our increasingly hectic lives, the one thing that often gets sacrificed is retreat time. Even some daily quiet time is often the first to go when our jobs/families/household duties demand more. Yet study after study shows us that we're actually more productive if we take some downtime. And retreat time can radically recalibrate us.

God didn't create us to be these harried, frantic creatures. We cannot minister to a broken world when we're so frazzled ourselves. We feel our jobs under threat, and so it's hard to say, "Hey, can I go on retreat?" Many of us, including me, have to use vacation time to go on retreat. But I find it renews me more than a traditional vacation (go to an exotic destination, go-go hurry-hurry to get all the activities and sights in).

It's also useful for me to discover how others are living their faith. Now I can't do everything the monks are doing. My life doesn't let me break 6-8 times a day for worship services that are at least a half hour long. But I can take shorter meditation/prayer breaks. I can use music at work to achieve that peaceful frame of mind. I can surround myself with art that will help me remember my purpose. I can remember that I need time away from screens.

As we move into the frantic time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it's good to remember these ways to stay calm.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Off To Mepkin Abbey--Back to Blogging by November 10

I'm off to Mepkin Abbey. I'd like to say that I go there every year, but I don't. One year, Hurricane Wilma had closed the airport. Some years, I didn't make reservations early enough. But the years that I've gone, I've always been glad that I made the effort. It renews me in a way that few places do.

I meet some friends who live nearby, and we enter into the rhythms of the place: lots of walking, lots of silence, some catching up when we're not being silent, services at regular intervals, vegetarian food, and reading and writing at various intensity levels. It's always hard to return to the harshness of regular life, but alas, for many reasons (I'm married, I'm female, I'm Lutheran not Catholic, I have a mortgage), I am not free to join the monks permanently. Still, I'll take periodic renewal as a good substitute for the daily renewal I imagine that I'd experience if I lived there.

I'll be back to regular blogging by November 10.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 7, 2010:

First Reading: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Psalm: Psalm 149

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:11-23

Gospel: Luke 6:20-31

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. It's a strange time of year for us Lutherans. We celebrate Reformation Day, we celebrate Halloween, we celebrate All Saints Day. Those of us who are English majors might even remember the November 2 All Souls Day, the day on which Gawain departed to find the Green Knight. All Souls Day used to be as widely celebrated as All Saints Day. All Saints celebrates all the saints which have gone before us; All Souls celebrates the lives of those who have died in the past year (and since Gawain leaves on All Souls Day, a medieval audience would realize the significance and know that he was heading towards certain doom). On top of this, we have the Gospel reading about the actions of Jesus which most frightened and disgusted some of his contemporaries.

Think about his actions and your current life: what would make you feel most threatened. Jesus healed the sick, and most of us would be OK with that, especially if we're the sick people. We tend not to worry too much about technique or qualifications, if we feel better. Someone showed me a cold remedy and said, "I always feel better within a day of taking it. Of course, it's probably just a placebo effect and not real medicine." I said, "Who cares? As long as you're not coughing." What is the difference after all, between a placebo effect and real healing? Most of us just want to feel better.

Do we feel threatened by Jesus forgiving sins? Probably not. We've had two thousand years to get used to the idea, after all. But if one of our contemporaries started traveling around, telling people their sins are forgiven--well, that's a different matter. Even if they make these pronouncements in the name of Jesus, we might feel queasy.

The action of Jesus that really seems to send people of all sorts into orbits of anger is his habit of eating with the outcasts of society. Most of us are prone to that discomfort. If you don't believe me, bring a homeless person to church and coffee afterwards. See what happens. Take a shabbily dressed person to a nice restaurant. See what happens. Suggest that your church operate a soup kitchen or turn into a homeless shelter at night. See what happens.

Here's the Good News. Jesus saw the value in all of us. Jesus especially saw the value in the least of us. When you're feeling like a total loser, keep that in mind. If Jesus was part of your church, you'd be the first one invited to the table.

That's the good news about All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and Reformation Day. We tend to forget that all the saints that came before us were flesh and blood humans (including Jesus). We think of people like Martin Luther as perfect people who had no faults who launched a revolution. In fact, you could make the argument that many revolutions are launched precisely because of people's faults: they're bullheaded, so they're not likely to make nice and be quiet and ignore injustice. They're hopelessly naive and idealistic, so they stick to their views of how people of faith should live--and they expect the rest of us to conform to their visions. They refuse to bow to authority because they answer to a higher power--and so, they translate the Bible into native languages, fund colleges, rescue people in danger, insist on soup kitchens, write poems, and build affordable housing.

The world changes (for the better and the worse) because of the visions of perfectly ordinary people--and because their faith moves them into actions that support that vision. If we're lucky, those people are working towards the same vision of the inclusive Kingdom that Jesus came to show us.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Poems in Praise of the Immune System

Now as October's cool breezes submit to serious cold fronts in the upper 48, it seems a good time to post a poem in praise of our immune systems. It's based on a true story, and it was recently published in The Healing Muse.

Some years ago, my Indian friend came to our quilting group. She said, "I saw the Dalai Lama at Whole Foods."

Of course, it took some convincing, and some of us were never convinced. But really, who else could it have been? We see many a strange costume down here in South Florida, but it's rare to see a bald, Asian, older man with a winning grin dressed in saffron robes down here. And the Dalai Lama was in town. I didn't find it inconceivable that she would see him.

It fired my imagination, in fact, as you can see below. Just for fun, I've also posted a different version of the poem. A few years ago, I was experimenting with form, and I transformed the poem into a sonnet. I honestly can't decide which I prefer. You'll notice that in the sonnet I made the speaker a Christian, which my Indian friend is not. What can I say? There aren't a lot of English words that make a true rhyme with the word immune.


She sees the Dalai Lama at Whole
Foods Market. He compares
brands of vitamin C.
She observes his weary
face, his rumpled
robes and finds a strange
comfort in the realization that even the holiest
among us has need
now and then of an immune system boost.
Namaste,” she whispers,
as she reaches
for a can of soy protein.


She sees the Dalai Lama
at Whole Foods Market. He compares
bottles of vitamin C; she thinks of his life’s trauma,
and wonders how he dares

to do something so normal as grocery shopping.
She knows what the mystics would say:
after enlightenment, continued laundry and wood chopping.
It is for such acceptance she would pray.

She thinks of this holy man and his immune
system which needs a boost.
She thinks of her own religion, a god triune,
and of her children, like chicks in a roost.

Namaste,” she whispers and reaches for soy.
She thinks of the world, and prays for its joy.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Feast of All Saints

I'm one of the featured bloggers over at www.livinglutheran.com. My posting has lots of ways to celebrate this feast day.

Those of you who have been reading here awhile and have excellent memories might remember it from last year. But I was pleased with it and thought it worth rereading and reposting.