I write this meditation on Thursday, June 24, the feast day of John the Baptist, which makes an interesting counterpoint to the Gospel lesson for Sunday. In the Gospel, we see Jesus headed towards Jerusalem. He meets people who want to go with him, and some of them he seems to turn away, by warning of a sort of homelessness, a psychic isolation that comes with nestlessness.
Other people he invites to follow him, and they want to, but they have these responsibilities that they need to attend to first. And just like that, they've lost their chance. Many of us must understand the plight of the man who needs to bury his father. In the time of Jesus, this obligation would have loomed even larger than it does today.
Jesus seems to suggest that we forsake family responsibilities, and this theme recurs periodically throughout the Gospels (and I always smile when I hear various religious types preach about the family friendly politics of Jesus--they've been reading different Gospel texts than I have). Or maybe he's suggesting that we shuck off the things which are already dead.
Our society gives us many rules and regulations that torment us as surely as the demons tormented the man in last Sunday's Gospel. Ask any sociologist, and they'll tell you that socialization binds us more thoroughly than any other aspect of our being. It's socialization that demands that we mop the floors when we'd rather be making music. It's socialization that tells us we must attend to our families in certain ways, even when those ways put our souls in danger.
Jesus warns us again and again of the dangers of taking our hands off the spiritual plow. Of course, most of us aren't leading agrarian lives anymore, so the metaphor may not be as powerful. But in our time of increasingly fragmented attention spans, the central message remains: Jesus tells us to keep the focus on him, not on our iPhones, our Blackberries, our iPads, our e-mail accounts, our televisions, all the screens which rule our lives.
The life of John the Baptist gives us a powerful role model. John the Baptist had a belief and a mission so powerful that he was willing to go into the wilderness and to eat locusts. Would you be willing to eat locusts?
If we're not willing to brave the wilderness for our faith, perhaps it's time to deepen that faith. If our mission doesn't move us to eat locusts, perhaps it's time to adjust the mission. What would excite you so powerfully that you would never lose your grip on that Gospel plow, that you would never look back? How can you get that excitement into your daily life?
I've been fascinated by South Carolina politics this season. Well, to be honest, I'm often fascinated by South Carolina politics, since I lived in the state from 1983-1998, and I know many of the players. I don't know any of them very well, except for the local politician here and there across the state, but I'm familiar with the types.
Nikki Haley doesn't fit any of the traditional types. She's the daughter of Indian immigrants; I can't remember seeing many Indian immigrants when I lived in the state. Maybe if I had gone to graduate school to study something other than English I might have met a few, but most of the Asians I met were from Korea or Japan. The state has changed.
Now people across the state must decide if they believe that Nikki Haley is a Christian, and that's an element which is more important to South Carolinians than it would be to residents of some other states. There have been various preachers who seem indignant that she still has some ties to the Sikh religion.
Well of course she still has those ties. That's the religion of her childhood. You'd think that South Carolinians, and the rest of us, for that matter, would understand. Unless you've cut off your family rituals completely, you're likely as a grown up to find yourself in certain settings that more accurately reflect your upbringing, rather than your current beliefs.
I went to church regularly in my 20s, not weekly, but regularly, whenever I was back home visiting my parents or going with my spouse to visit his family. Both of our families happen to be Lutheran, and we've remained Lutherans as grown ups, so there hasn't been much disconnect.
But I can imagine that if I had gone in a different spiritual direction as an adult, I still might want to go back to revisit my roots. And if I had children, that pull might be even stronger.
Of course, my spiritual beliefs are much more ecumenical than those of many South Carolinians. I believe that my respect for other religions doesn't threaten God. I'm not afraid for my mortal soul, should I attend a non-Lutheran service. I have read widely about other faiths and experimented a bit. Christianity, while not a perfect fit, is the best fit for me. Lutheranism is one of the better fitting expressions of Christianity for me.
If I had parents of a different faith, I wouldn't want to reject that faith completely. That would seem disrespectful. I've read enough to know that every religious expression offers much to admire, while at the same time having much in terms of history and/or theology that could trouble a thinking person. My own Lutheran tradition is a far ways away from perfection.
I'll be interested to see how this election turns out. Many South Carolinians, some of the most conservative people in the nation, could find many reasons not to vote for Nikki Haley: she's female, she's Indian-American, she's the first generation of her family to be born in the U.S., she's young, she's attractive, she's tough on some topics like transparency. If she wins, now and again in November, I'll see it as the kind of similar sign as Obama's progress.
I had such a good time helping out with last year's Vacation Bible School (VBS) that I decided to help out again this year. I won't be able to help on Friday, so it seemed that I should take a non-teacher position. The only one available? Kitchen helper.
Yesterday at church, our pastor had the kids' time and invited all the VBS workers to come forward, teachers and other helpers alike. He reminded us of Paul's idea, that we're all important parts of the same body. I tend to see the kitchen helper as being relatively unimportant, the toenail of the body, but I came forward.
We had a teaching moment, where our pastor told the children about why we raise our arms when we're blessing a person or a group. So, the children raised their hands, and the pastor did a short ritual of blessing, where we were asked about our intentions ("If you intend to . . ., please say 'Yes, and I ask God to help and guide me'). Not too much surprising, being asked to nurture children in their blossoming faith and to give them a good and safe week, and the like. The congregation was also asked to keep us all in prayer.
What surprised me is how blessed I felt as I returned to my seat. My intellectual side tends to scoff at these rituals, but my grown up self ignores my intellectual side and takes as much blessing as is offered to her. I have no problem with people praying for me, and I've grown to really like our monthly service of healing. I love watching baptisms and confirmations, and I'm reminded of how few of those opportunities exist for adults to stand before a congregation for a blessing.
So, tonight at 4:30, I'll be at church, helping make dinner for lots of children who show up to sing and dance and learn about God and enjoy crafts and have some time for Science. If you're the praying type, you might keep us all in prayer.
I've always wondered about the church experiences of those people who grew up without a father, or worse, with deeply flawed fathers. Perhaps my generation is the only one to experience the loss of a father as widely. Now, fathers seem to be more present, even after divorce, at least in the middle class circles where I travel.
I think back to my childhood friends in the 70's, who all had fathers in the home and still do. By the time I got to high school in the early 80's, in a different Southern town, only a few of my high school friends had fathers around.
If your earthly father is a huge disappointment, can you relate to all the Heavenly Father language in modern churches? My high school friends said no, but I've since met people who find the idea comforting, especially in the absence of an earthly father.
In my younger, angrier days, I rejected all of these parenting metaphors for God, but now I see their usefulness. I still wish we could open up our metaphorical toolbox and offer more maternal images of God, but I'm beginning to think that may not happen in my lifetime, in my Lutheran church. In the meantime, I'm grateful for small and giant leaps forward: the fact that women can be ordained, the fact that homosexuals called to ministry no longer have to decide between their lifelong commitments and their ordinations.
Today is a day when many of us will think about parenting, and the radio program Speaking of Faith had an interesting show, as is often the case. The rabbi who was being interviewed recounts many couples wanting to bring their children to her so that they could discuss theological issues. She says, "Your children don't want to know what I think--they want to know what you think." She talks about the modern need for silence, which she built in to a book of children's prayers that she wrote.
The website has a great list of books, both for adults who want to nurture the faith of children and books for children that will nourish that faith.
We're lucky to live in a time when younger men who are fathers feel free to do things, like changing diapers, that older generations of men never would have thought of doing. We're lucky to live in a time when more men are in touch with their emotions, so that fewer of us grow up damaged by the lack of fatherly love.
Or are we? If we look at the statistics, there are still segments of the population where absent fathers are the norm, not the exception, like the African-American population. And there are still other statistics, like the soldiers who return from war with brain damage of all kinds, that point towards a possible grimmer future. There's still a role for churches to play, to help heal that gaping wound. The good news of a Heavenly Father who loves us might help populations with no earthly fathers to love them.
The wonderful writer Nicholas Kristof has done for Father's Day what he did for Mother's Day. In this piece, he tells us some of the stats of what we'll spend on Father's Day cards and gifts, and then he suggests some amazing social justice organizations which could make better use of that money.
I am lucky, I suppose. My family is happy, whether I give gifts, flowers, or donations in their name. For Christmas, my immediate family agreed that we will give donations instead of gifts; each year we choose the organization and all contribute. For birthdays and other holidays, I use my best judgement. I usually give a book, if I give a gift at all, and often it's a book that I pick up at a poetry reading, so in some ways, that, too, is a kind of charitable gift.
I like to think that my husband and I live lightly, but we used to do a better job of that, mainly because we couldn't afford to live any differently. In graduate school, we ate meat rarely, and likewise for our beer and wine drinking. We lived near campus, so we could walk if the weather cooperated (and there wasn't parking much closer to campus, so what would be the point of driving?).
Now I look around my house and marvel at how much stuff we have. Who will ever read these books again? I have a month's worth of clothes in my closet--more if you count all the clothes which don't fit right now. We have equipment and instruments for all kinds of pursuits, pursuits which we rarely pursue.
I suspect that many of our parents are similarly situated. They don't need another gift to know how much we love them. But many charitable/social justice organizations are running on tight budgets. Our dollars could do some good there.
So, let's all give our dads social justice for this Father's Day. Maybe we could help those kids who aren't lucky enough to have a father.
First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Kings 19:1-4 [5-7] 8-15a
Psalm: Psalm 22:18-27 (Psalm 22:19-28 NRSV)
Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 42--43
Second Reading: Galatians 3:23-29
Gospel: Luke 8:26-39
I must have read this Gospel lesson over a dozen times through the years, but this time, the depiction of the demons leaps out at me. These demons who drive the man to distraction--he lives naked by the tombs, he is so distracted. These demons who disturb the neighbors who try to contain the man and his demons by chaining him and guarding him. I recognize these demons!
Now, let me stress that I read the demons as metaphorical. I've met people who believe in literal demon possession, and some of them make a compelling case. But in the end, I agree with those who say that ancient people couldn't explain mental illnesses any other way. I've also met plenty of mentally ill people who would make me believe in demon possession, if I didn't have a medical explanation.
I don't want to spend much time writing about true mental illness, but instead about the demons who possess us all. Who among us hasn't spent an anxious night worrying about things we couldn't control (finances, our loved ones, our health)? Perhaps we fall into a sinister pattern of sleepless nights being haunted by the world's worries. Most of us have probably gone through periods where we come perilously close to wrecking our relationships with our loved ones because of our obsessive worries about them.
If only my inner demons could be driven out into a swine herd, or whatever the modern equivalent would be (the neighbor's pack of unruly dogs?). If only I could be free from those wretches that wake me at night and won't let me sleep for fear of all that could go wrong.
Only recently have I stumbled upon a solution. When I can't sleep at night, I pray. I can't do anything to solve most of the world's ills, but I know a power that can. When I wake up at night and start worrying, I try to remember to turn to prayer. Lately I've been praying for all the sea creatures (and land creatures!) who will be affected by this oil spill. I pray for the leaders of the world. I pray for everyone I know who has been going through rough times. I pray for church leaders, both local and national. I pray for everyone at work, especially those people who seem to be unraveling. Eventually my mind quiets, and I drift off to sleep.
I'm also struck in this story by the formerly demon-possessed man who begs to be allowed to travel with Jesus. Jesus sends him home. It's a powerful story for people like me. I often feel that if I was a better Christian, I'd be doing more to give up my worldly goods and live amongst the poor. If I was a really good Christian, I'd be off somewhere in Africa, alleviating suffering in some way.
Some of us are called to do that. But most of us are called to stay put, to declare the goodness of God right where we live.
I have non-believer friends who scoff at the idea of monks and nuns who live a cloistered life of praying for the world. I used to be one of those scoffers. I used to say, "Do something useful. Go out and rehab houses or feed the hungry or distribute medicine." Don't get me wrong. I still think those social justice and charity activities are essential. But I also think that prayer is just as essential.
I pray to quiet my own demons and the ones that torment the world. I pray because it helps--it helps me, at least, even if it helps no one else.
My skeptic friends want me to explain, but of course, I can't. I like what Marcus Borg says: "I myself have no clue what the explanatory mechanism is, and I am content not to. And this leads to my final reason for continuing to do prayers of petition and intercession. To refuse to do them because I can't imagine how prayer works would be an act of intellectual pride: if I can't imagine how something words, then it can't work. To think thus involves more than a bit of hubris" (The Heart of Christianity: Discovering a Life of Faith, page 197).
Christians have thousands of years of thought and practice in dealing with the demons that torment us. For some, it's prayer. For others, it might be working with the poor and the destitute. We might meditate to still our minds. We might need a healing service or a laying on of hands. We also shouldn't discount the powers of modern medicine, which offers us a powerful arsenal in our attempts to manage our minds.
God needs us to allow our demons to be sent into swine. God has creative work and play for us to do, and we don't have time for the hissing of demons to distract us.
I find myself longing for quiet, longing for peace. I want to return to Mepkin Abbey, but I know this time of year it wouldn't be the Mepkin of my memory. In short, it's too hot to wander the Lowcountry grounds. So, I thought I'd make a virtual retreat, with my photos of statues as a sort of meditation object.
You may not be able to read the inscription on this statue below. It says, "Our Lady of Mepkin, pray for us."
There was a big storm somewhere around 2002 or so, and a huge tree fell over. Rather than pay the astronomical sum it would take to have the tree hauled away, a woodcarver came in to create this, the flight to Egypt.
As you wander around the grounds, you're likely to come across many statues. Some are big, like the one below.
Some are small, perched at the base of trees:
Some have that weathered look:
Mepkin Abbey has all sorts of statues, all sorts of gardens, all sorts of beautiful architectural features. Of course, there are similar sorts of things, closer to my current South Florida home. Perhaps I'll explore them in the time between now and my autumnal return to Mepkin.
I've been thinking about this week's Gospel, Luke 8:26-39, about the demons that wake us up in the middle of the night, the demons that won't leave us alone. As a modern person, I tend to see Biblical demons as metaphorical, even though I realize that people of Jesus' time would have seen them as literal. More on these demons in my Thursday meditation on the Gospel.
Over at my Creativity blog, I wrote an entry about my ongoing feelings of not living up to my full potential, my worry that I'm wasting time. I wrote:
"Since I was little, I've worried about not living up to my full potential--I've always wondered if I could be doing more to be the best Kristin I can be. Maybe I should relax a bit more about that.
I'm the kind of woman who, if she solved the world's hunger issues so that no one was going to bed with an empty stomach, why, I'd say, 'Well, that's very nice, but there's all these landmines that are maiming and killing people. What are you going to do about that, Kristin?'
For me, a gizmo that took accurate measurements might be a useful reminder of all that I do get done. Or it might be a way for me to beat myself up with more accuracy.Clearly, I have some self-improvement work to do--work at self-acceptance, at not flogging myself to always do/be more."
I've been trying to adopt what I imagine God's view of me to be, to change the inner demons who hiss in my ear, for the voice of God who would console me, if only I would hear. I want to believe that God views me in the same way that my 4 year old nephew does. So far, my nephew has been very non-judgmental. He's just so happy to be with me. He doesn't look at me and think about all the books I have yet to publish, all the pounds that I lose and regain, all the ways I've disappointed him. He just sees a wonderful woman who makes him puppets and takes him to Taco Bell and plays in the ocean and reads him story after story.
I imagine God to be much the same. God probably puzzles over all the ways I invent to make myself unhappy. God probably says, "You're such a cool person. Relax with all the self-improvement. You're perfectly fine, just as you are right now."
Maybe God says, "Hey. I made you this way for a reason. If I wanted you to be ballerina-thin, I'd have made you that way."
God probably says, "What a cool poem you've made. I can hardly wait to see the next one." But I'm the one who hears that as a negative criticism. It's my inner demons who twist my ears so that I hear, "Why are you so slack that you write so little? You're wasting your life."
Let me not listen to those demons who tell me that I'm not good enough. Let me listen to the voice of God, who delights in me.
As we head into summer, Krista Tippett did a show on the land, our food, and theology. Some of us, too few of us, have been thinking about these connections for decades. It does seem that lately more of us have been tying these strands together. Krista Tippett's guest, Ellen Davis, does a masterful job.
One of her comments leapt out at me: "I think that if one reads scripture carefully, one is continually challenged to rethink maybe everything that we take for granted. I sometimes say to my students the best way to find your preaching angle for any text is to ask how it challenges or turns on its head your ordinary way of thinking about how things really are." She calls this element "the prophetic dimension of Scripture."
Those of us who are Christians are familiar with this idea that Jesus came to turn our lives around and upside down, to show us that what appears to be real is often false. But how easy it is to forget that element of our relationship with the Divine.
So, as we read Scripture this Summer, perhaps that point should be central to our meditating: how does this text challenge our perceptions of ordinary life?
Over at my creativity blog, I wrote a post about my teenage reading self and my attempts to catch up with the reading that I thought other high schoolers were doing in their much better high schools. I felt real panic at the thought of arriving at college unprepared. In hind sight, of course, I see that I was much better prepared than most students. I had good reading habits, and I knew how to write an essay. Those skills have taken me far. I'm organized and efficient--those skills may have taken me even further.
As I was writing, I thought about not just my teenage reading self, but my theological reading self. Until 1999, I read very little theology. I started reading theology for a piece of literary criticism about Octavia Butler that I was writing. From that section of the library, I wandered over to Henri Nouwen and Kathleen Norris. I was part of a church that left me hungry for more intellectual depth, and I read more and more to get that nourishment that was lacking--much the way that I devoured classic literature in high school.
The danger of education is that you may find you've educated yourself out of certain circles. I've been dismayed to realize that I've read more theology than many people with a seminary education. Of course, I haven't had the benefit of a teacher to guide me, to talk to me, to listen to the ideas that my reading has inspired and to help me see where the reading is true and where the reading may be heading off towards heresy. Luckily, my liberal arts education has left me fairly well equipped to read critically, and my knowledge of church history has also helped me to understand where writers may be headed off to brave, new territory. I'm part of a church tradition that doesn't damn people for reading heretical ideas, so no worries there.
Lately, I'm not reading as much theology as I once did. To be fair, I'm not reading as much of anything as I once did. When I was teaching, I had more time for reading. Now that my job is an administrative job that requires me to be in the office for at least 40 hours a week, I'm reading fewer books, more online materials. Sure, I could bring a book to the office, but I've noticed that if I'm reading a computer screen, people assume I'm hard at work. Bring books to the office, and I quickly get a reputation for being a slacker.
I wonder too if I'm reading less theology because I'm going to a church that offers more spiritual nourishment. My current pastor's sermons have depth and heft. He's only 10 years out of seminary, unlike most of the other pastors in my orbit, and in the intervening years, he got a D.Min. degree. It's a nice change.
I'm also probably suffering from having read so widely in the last 10 years. I've gotten to the point where I pick up a new book, and it feels familiar. I'm underlining less. I'm surprised less and less. These experiences make me less likely to feel that old joy in reading.
Or maybe I'm just in some kind of slump. I go through these periodically, when it's hard to pray and hard to make myself go to church and hard to read the Bible. Maybe my theological reading slump is a manifestation of that.
Likely, I just need a break. My teenage reading self knew that: for every 2 trashy books, one book with heft, that was my rule. Perhaps my mid-life reading self could learn from her.
First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Kings 21:1-10 [11-14] 15-21a
Psalm: Psalm 32
Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 5:1-8
Second Reading: Galatians 2:15-21
Gospel: Luke 7:36--8:3
In our day, Pharisees have come to have a bad name as the rigid, judgmental Jews who didn't recognize the greatness of Jesus. It's important to realize that in many ways, they were the most devout of the Jews, not just religious officials who kept rigidly to hollow rules and restrictions, as Christians often paint them. In his book, The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson notes, "They had the best track record in Palestine. They had historically proven their sincerity and loyalty to the demands and promises of God wonderfully. They were the strongest and most determined party of resistance to the ways of the world, represented in Herod. . . . There was much to admire in the Pharisees. Every Jew owed a debt of gratitude to the Pharisees for keeping Jewish identity alive" (212).
It's important to remember that the Pharisees were rigid about rules and regulations because they thought the way to God led them to follow that route. They weren't being judgmental and exclusionary out of meanness. No, they thought the future of the faithful depended on right action. It might be worth examining our own individual behavior and the behavior of the church both as an individual group and a larger institution--where do we see ourselves? How might we be the Pharisee in the story?
Those of us who have grown up in the church (or who have been attending church for many decades) forget the radical nature of this story. We have this vision of Jesus that no matter where he went, people were swept away by his message and washed his feet or poured oil on his head.
This woman was an outcast, marginalized in so many ways. We don't know the nature of her sin (the fact that she was a woman in a deeply patriarchal society would have been damning enough), but we know the fact that Jesus allowed her to touch him was profoundly shocking to the Pharisee. Jesus uses this encounter to teach about love and forgiveness.
Today's Gospel also reminds us of how religious people can be so blind to the sacred as it appears in our midst. We religious people forget that the God of our Judaic-Christian scripture is most often found in communities of the poor, destitute, and outcast. We prefer to stay in our sanitary structures, to not let the poor and destitute trespass in our hearts. In doing so, we're likely to miss out on a deeper relationship with God.
People who are part of institutionalized religious structure face dangers that we often forget to understand. We lose ourselves in rules and regulations; we create a rigid hierarchy to help us determine who is holy and who is a sinner. It's so easy to forget that our central task is to love deeply and widely. Jesus comes to tell us strange parables so that we'll remember. Jesus comes to show us a way to live that will be a way of love and far-flung community. Jesus comes to give his life, to show us that the way of love is such a threat to the larger culture of empire and conquest that we can expect the same. But God incarnate in Jesus comes to show us that the risks are worth the reward.
Today we celebrate the life of Saint Columba, one of the great early Irish Christians, whom some would give credit for spreading Christianity to Scotland. He also helped spread literacy and founded a school for missionaries. He's one of the great monastics.
He's associated with Iona, that thin place in Scotland, a place that remains an important force in Christianity to this day. I could make a good argument that some of the most exciting music and liturgy of our current time period comes to us because Iona exists. Some day, I'll make a pilgrimage there. I should start planning this soon. It would be neat to go with my church musician mom.
As I think about it, I can think of a whole slew of friends who might also like to go. What I love about monasticism is that it isn't as offputting to non-believers and the less devout. For some reason, people just get monasticism, in a way that they can't comprehend other expressions of spirituality. Perhaps it's because monasticism is such an ancient tradition. Perhaps it's because monastics have a sort of discipline, a steel-like strength at the core, that other forms of spirituality lack. Maybe it's a holdover from the Thomas Merton days--and of course, Kathleen Norris made monasticism cool to a whole new generation (including me!). All I know is that when I tell people I'm intrigued by monasticism and that I go to monasteries, people accept that (and often want to go with me). It's a different matter when I tell people that I go to church most Sundays. People want to argue about what a waste of time that is.
Yes, I must get to Iona. I have no idea how or when. But this idea encourages me to start a list of all the spiritual places I'd like to visit before I get too old to travel. I turn 45 next month, so I figure I've got at least twenty travelling years left. Let's see, there's Iona and the areas of Germany which formed Martin Luther. There are any number of retreat centers, like Holden Village. There's the Taize community in France.
I should also create my literary pilgrimage list and see how much of my travel would be near each other. And then I could ponder the symmetries of the list, and wonder at the many paths in my life that are bringing me to the same end point.
The New York Times has been running a series of articles on our electronically connected culture and what that 24 hour connectedness might be doing to our brains and our relationships. This story shows a family of many screens, a family who probably has much in common with many of us. This story tells us how too much technology might change our personalities; we're likely to become impatient, irritable people as we use more and more technology. This Commentary series talks about ways to cut the electronic cord, at least for short bits of time.
I was struck by the one commentator who has declared a sort of Sabbath time with the family by having the Internet be off limits on the week-end. What an interesting idea.
Of course, the writer didn't use the term "Sabbath." In fact, none of the writers discussed the spiritual aspect of the need to disconnect from our electronics and reconnect with each other. I suspect that not only do we have trouble focusing on our loved ones when we're so electronically connected, but that we also have trouble connecting with our spiritual yearnings and our God.
When I was young, I chafed at the fact that so few stores were open on Sundays. Now that so many stores are open on Sundays, I lament that loss of downtime. Likewise, I used to wish for more Internet/computing speed and more capability. Now I find it to be intrusive at times.
When I was young, I read stories about olden days, when people sat in the parlor in their scratchy church clothes, as they waited for the end to Sunday. I thought it would be terribly boring. Now, I could use a spot of that every now and then.
An interesting possibility for the Summer: to disconnect more regularly. On this episode of Fresh Air, I heard filmmaker John Waters tell Terri Gross that he read a lot because he had no television. Likewise, we'd probably turn to healthier spiritual practices if we disconnected from our electronic media on a regular basis. We could read books that would nourish us spiritually. We could sit in silence and meditate. We could pray. We could sing. We could go to church. We could go to several churches. We could take a hike since we wouldn't need to be near electricity. We could follow the lead of Jesus, and go fishing with a picnic afterwards.
Yes, I know there are many ways that being electronically connected has spiritual potential too. But those gadgets will still be there when you return from your electronics fast. You'll likely be the one who has changed.
This morning, over at the online edition of The Washington Post, I read this article about interfaith marriages: how challenging they are and how likely to fail.
This August, I will have been married 22 years, but I still remember my mother's dating advice. She urged me not to date anyone from too different a background, particularly in terms of religion. I thought that showed a certain prejudice, but she insisted she was simply being practical. She reminded me that any date might eventually lead to marriage, and so I had to think about that possible end result, even before going on the date.
At the time, I couldn't imagine ever getting married, and so her advice seemed stuffy. But largely by accident, I married someone of a fairly similar background, a lifelong Lutheran who had spent considerable time at church and in youth groups. That similarity serves us well.
I wouldn't have predicted it would matter so much. In my twenties, when I tied the knot, I breezily dismissed religion. Little did I know that we would both feel a longing to return to the church of our upbringings. How much more difficult it would have been if we had come from vastly different religious traditions. How impossible it would have been if there had been children involved.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, the writer of the article, points out:
"One woman I spoke to who was raised as a Catholic recalled her thoughts on dating when she went off to college a few years ago: 'To limit yourself to only people of your own religion seemed bigoted. . . . There is a whole world of people that I don't know.' To write them off as potential partners before she even met them 'seemed rude,' she said.
Her language is revealing. It's as if our society's institutional rules about nondiscrimination in hiring an employee or admitting someone to college have morphed into rules for screening romantic partners.
Ten years ago, the journalist Philip Weiss wrote in the New York Observer that Jewish objections to interfaith marriage are racist.' And today, some young people go to great lengths to make sure that they don't appear to earn that label."
She makes some of the same observations that sociologist Robert Wuthnow pointed out in his book After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (recently I wrote about this book here and here). People in their 20's are at the least religious they're likely to be in their lifetimes, and yet this time period is when they make a lot of important life decisions.
Her statistics about divorce amongst the religiously different couples are sobering:
"In a paper published in 1993, Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that if members of two mainline Christian denominations marry, they have a one in five chance of being divorced in five years. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination have a one in three chance. And a Jew and a Christian who marry have a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years.
More recent research concludes that even differing degrees of religious belief and observance can cause trouble. For instance, in a 2009 paper, scholars Margaret Vaaler, Christopher Ellison and Daniel Powers of the University of Texas at Austin found higher rates of divorce when a husband attends religious services more frequently than his wife, as well as when a wife is more theologically conservative than her husband."
I know we believe that love can conquer all. But the statistics don't bear that out, not in terms of religious differences, financial differences, class differences. Marriage is tough, and any sort of radical difference seems to make it that much tougher.
After this depressing article, perhaps you need something to remind you that sometimes, the news is good. I loved Nicholas Kristof'sarticle in today's The New York Times about his recent cancer scare:
"This is trite but also so, so true: A brush with mortality turns out to be the best way to appreciate how blue the sky is, how sensuous grass feels underfoot, how melodious kids’ voices are. Even teenagers’ voices. A friend and colleague, David E. Sanger, who conquered cancer a decade ago, says, 'No matter how bad a day you’re having, you say to yourself: ‘I’ve had worse.’ '
Floyd Norris, a friend in The Times’s business section, is now undergoing radiation treatment for cancer after surgery on his face and neck. He wrote on his blog: 'It is not fun, but it has been inspiring. In a way, I am happier about my life than at any time I can remember.'
I don’t mean to wax lyrical about the joys of tumors. But maybe the most elusive possession is contentment with what we have. There’s no better way to attain that than a glimpse of our mortality."
Contentment--may we all learn this skill, without having to suffer a tumor or a failing marriage!
I've really been enjoying Willie Nelson's latest CD, Country Music. I've never been a huge Willie Nelson fan, but this CD is amazing. I didn't expect it to be so inspiring.
My favorite aspect of the album is his covers of old, traditional country music and spirituals. "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down" haunts me. I love "I Am a Pilgrim" and "Gotta Walk Alone."
It's not all spiritual. There are songs of drinking and loss, songs of the sea and trains, songs of rejoicing that bad times are gone, at least for a night. To me, it's a microcosm of the type of culture which birthed some of the more interesting artistic movements of the 20th century, as well as giving rise to some of the more dynamic social movements of the 20th century. It's also an interesting romp through the wide variety of country music that came to the forefront during the 20th century, although it's refreshingly clear of the pippy-poppy country music that I find tiresome after awhile.
What am I really saying? It's authentic. It's roots music, as roots music should be. Sure, it doesn't cover everyone's roots, but one CD can't do that.
I'm as surprised as anyone that Willie Nelson has put out this CD that I find so spiritually comforting and nourishing. Perhaps I shouldn't be. I see many musical artists follow this trajectory, taking a spiritual/back to the roots turn as they age (see Cash, Johnny). We've got a generation of very interesting artists careening towards old age, which makes me hopeful about a rich musical age ahead (or an extension of the one that we're in).
Last night I returned home. I made my favorite dinner of cheese and crackers to go with my wine--I had a HUGE lunch, so I didn't want much for dinner, but I needed something. I wanted something a bit lighter to read than the N. T. Wright book (After You Believe)I've been making my way through. But I've let most of my magazine subscriptions die.
So, I wandered through my bookshelves. For a minute, I thought I might settle down with a book of Gary Snyder essays, but no, they weren't quite right. I finally settled down with Some of Us Did Not Die, June Jordan's last book of new and selected essays.
Even though she's not a theologian, I find her words inspiring in similar ways to those of my favorite theologians. The first essay in the book is adapted from a keynote presentation that she gave at Barnard College shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001. In her essay, she calls for us to resist the forces of evil that want to transform us into similarly evil creatures: "But we have choices, and capitulation is only one of them. I am always hoping to do better than to collaborate with whatever or whomever is is that means me no good" (page 3).
Her essay"Besting a Worst Case Scenario" almost broke my heart. It talks about her battle with breast cancer, the disease that would eventually claim her life. I try to take heart that she held the disease at bay for 8 years. I try to look at all she accomplished, despite her untimely death. I hold fast to her fierce spirit.
I am so grateful to have grown up during a time period when I was surrounded by voices like hers, voices that demanded freedom, voices that gave us a vision of the end of oppression. Many of those voices came to me from religious traditions. But even secular voices can point the way to a theology of liberation.
First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Kings 17:8-16 [17-24]
Psalm: Psalm 30
Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 146
Second Reading: Galatians 1:11-24
Gospel: Luke 7:11-17
Today's Gospel gives us the kind of miracle that's hardest to explain away (if we're in the mood to explain away). Other miracles, like the one of multiplying loaves and fishes, we understand: maybe one act of generosity inspired other people to share their food; maybe the disciples miscounted the loaves. After all, we see this kind of miracle all the time: one person is assigned to bring the main dish for potluck, and other people decide they'll bring a main dish too, and pretty soon, we've got enough food to feed all the hungry people on the block.
But bringing a man back from the dead, now that's a miracle. Even in our modern time of all sorts of medical possibility, we're still amazed when people beat their cancer, when people who were dead for several minutes are saved, when the body rallies and defeats death. We know it's just temporary. We're all headed towards the grave, and medical intervention can only hold that off for so long.
Why is it so hard for us to accept the miraculous? We are part of a religious tradition that tells stories of the miraculous week after week. We worship a God who rescues humanity again and again: from the degradation of slavery, from the oppression of societal structures, from the very grave itself.
We often forget how very often we see miracles on a daily basis. Even the non-religious have been known to comment on the miraculous nature of hurricane ravaged foliage that regenerates, of cancerous cells that shrink or vanish, of the wayward child who returns to sensible behavior, of the relationships that regenerate into a deeper love. And if we think about the even larger picture, if we consider how unlikely it is throughout the universe that carbon combines with other elements to create life forms, it becomes harder to think that miracles don't exist on our own planet. Think about our own planet, and how life manages to adapt and thrive under the most adverse conditions (like in volcanic vents under the ocean).
Wendell Barry said it best: "Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes" ("Christianity and the Survival of Creation" in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, page 103).
Most of us have probably already abandoned our New Year's resolutions, so perhaps it's time to make a mid-year resolution. Let this be the summer that we take note of the miraculous on a daily basis. We live in a world that delights in delivering bad news; let this be the season that we train ourselves to recognize all the good news that God sends us each and every day.
I'm a lifelong Lutheran, and although I'm aware of some of the problems with Liberation Theology, it has spoken to me for much of my adolescent and adult life. All of the thoughts on this blog are mine (or those of commenters), and I don't intend to speak for any other Lutherans or Liberation Theologians.
A poet, a scholar, an administrator, a wanna-be mystic--always wrestling with the temptation to run away to join an intentional community--but would it be contemplative? social justice oriented? creative? in the mountains? in the inner city?--may as well stay planted and wrestle with these tensions and contradictions here, at the edge of America.
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My Poetry and Creativity Blog
To read my posts on creativity, poetry, and a host of related topics (and the occasional poem of mine), go here. You can also order both of my chapbooks from links on the creativity blog or contact me to purchase a signed copy of either book.