Friday, December 30, 2011

The Feast Day of the Holy Family

Today we celebrate the Holy Family.  This feast day is relatively recent; we've only been celebrating the Holy Family for the past 300 years or so.  Our idea of family, especially a family unit separate from multiple generations, after all, is really rather modern.

It's interesting to take up this feast day after all these days where we've celebrated Mary, and her decision to be the Mother of Jesus.  It's a great counterpoint to remember that fathers have a role in the family too. 

I always wonder if these kind of feast days bring pain to people who grew up in dysfunctional families.  I know plenty of people who have been scarred in ways that only family can do.  What do they take away from these feast day?  Despair in all the ways that families can hurt each other?  Hope that families can really be a sacramental rendering of the love of God?

Below you see a huge sculpture, made from a tree that toppled in a storm, of the Holy Family fleeing Herod's murderous intent.  I think of the Holy Family as refugee family, fleeing danger, with only the clothes on their back.  I think of all the families torn apart or torn away from their homeland because of terrible dictators.  I yearn for the day to come when we will not experience these fissures in the family.

Here is a prayer I wrote for this day:

Parent God, you know the many ways our families can fail us.  Please remind us of the perfection in family that we are called to model.  Please give us the strength and fortitude to create the family dynamics you would have us enjoy.  Please give us the courage to minister to those who have not had good family experiences.  And most of us, please give us the comfort of knowing that the restoration of creation is underway, with families that will be whole, not fractured, when all our members will be accounted for, when no one will go missing.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 1, 2012:

Isaiah 61:10—62:3
Psalm 148
The splendor of the LORD is over earth and heaven. (Ps. 148:13)
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

By now, you may be feeling that familiar post-holiday let down. Many of us spend the first weeks in the new year feeling bereft: our favorite set of holidays is over, our friends and families have left us and maybe left us feeling let down, and we have to deal with all the ways our holidays weren't what we wanted. Maybe we have whiney children to entertain. Maybe we're missing a loved one who won't ever return to us. We miss the lights and the sense of anticipation, the parties and the expectations. What's left to look forward to? Our New Year's resolutions? Presidents’ Day? No wonder so many of us go into a funk.

It's important to remember this feeling when we hear about the life of Jesus in the weeks to come. From a distance of 2000 years, it's difficult to understand why so many people were resistant to Jesus' message. But many of Jesus' contemporaries had a post-Christmas feeling when they saw Jesus in action: "This guy is our Messiah??? For how many years did we wait??? And this is what we get???" Keep in mind that the Jews of Jesus' time wanted a Messiah who would defeat the Romans and return their holy places to them. What did they get? A guy who spoke of love, a guy who offered them spiritual liberation, which was not the kind of liberation for which they yearned.

But throughout Jesus' life, there were some people who recognized him. Today we hear about Simeon. In later weeks, we'll hear about the first disciples, who left their careers and family to follow Jesus. We'll also hear about people who didn't believe, people who would eventually demand the death of Jesus.

Where are you in these stories in the weeks to come? Are you Simeon, who has been faithful, for decades longer than most of us could have been? Are you Anna, the prophetess who has been watching for a very long time? Are you Mary and Joseph, parents to a very special child? Are you the disciples, willing to risk it all, if it means a closer relationship with Christ?

Or are you a Pharisee, disappointed with what God offers you? How can you move away from being wrecked by your emotions, in order to see the great gifts offered to you?

Maybe, instead of adopting the standard resolutions (losing those 10 pounds, getting a raise, exercising more often), you could snap out of your post-Christmas blues by thinking about resolutions that would enrich you spiritually. Could you read your Bible more? Could you start and end your day in prayer? Could you move towards tithing? Could this be the year you take a retreat?

God reaches out to you, going so far as to take on human form. What are you willing to do in return?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents

Today we remember the slaughter of all the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem in the days after the birth of Jesus.  Why were they killed?  Because of Herod's feelings of inadequacy, because of his fear. Today we might say, "What an idiot that Herod was!" And yet, if you look around, you'll see that we haven't really grown that much as a people.

We are still likely to respond to our feelings of inadequacy with lethal force.  Instead of saying, "How interesting," we say, "How stupid!"  And then we go to great lengths to prove that we're right, and whatever is making us feel inadequate is wrong.

So often, in my adult life, I feel like I will never escape middle school.  I remember middle school as a particular kind of hell, where the boundaries were always fluid.  Kids who were acceptable one day were pariahs the next.  Middle school bodies are always changing, and middle school children are under assault from their own hormones, from the changing expectations of adults, from their bodies that take up space differently each day, from an increased school work load, from the crisis that comes out of nowhere to undo all the hard work done.

Adult life can sometimes feel the same way.  We fight to achieve equilibrium, only to find it all undone.  Most of us don't have the power that Herod does, so our fight against powerlessness doesn't end in corpses.  But it often results in a world of outcasts and lone victors.

Of course, the paragraphs above are not meant to downplay the physical deaths that can happen when the powerful lash out against the powerless.  We live in a world where dictators can efficiently kill their country's population by the thousands or greater.  There's never a good reason for genocide.  Yet the twentieth century will be remembered for all the genocides that took place, the ones we knew about and the slaughters that we likely didn't.

On this day, we also remember the flight into Egypt, the Holy Family turned into refugees.  We remember the Holy Family fleeing in Terror, with only the clothes on their backs.  Today is a good day to pray for victims of terror everywhere, the ones that get away, the ones that are slaughtered.

Here's a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime: "We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you , in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Feast Day of St. John

The day after we celebrate the life of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, we celebrate the life of the only one of the original 12 disciples die of natural causes in old age.  Tradition tells us that John was first a disciple of John the Baptist, and then a disciple of Christ, the one who came to be known as the beloved disciple, the one tasked with looking after Mary, the mother of Jesus.

There is much debate over how much of the Bible was actually written by this disciple.  If we had lived 80 years ago, we'd have firmly believed that the disciple wrote the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation.  Twentieth century scholars came to dispute this belief, and if you do scholarly comparison, you would have to conclude that the same author could not have written all of those books. 

Regardless, most of us remember St. John as the disciple who spent a long life writing and preaching.  He's the patron saint of authors, theologians, publishers, and editors.  He's also the patron saint of painters. 

Today, as many of us may be facing a bit of depression or cabin fever, perhaps we can celebrate the feast of St. John by a creative act.  Write a poem about what it means to be the beloved disciple.  Write a letter to your descendents to tell them what your faith has meant to you.  Paint a picture--even if you can't do realistic art, you could have fun with colors as you depict the joy that Jesus brings to you.

Here's a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime:  "Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen."

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Feast Day of St. Stephen

Today we celebrate the life of St. Stephen, the man who is commonly known as the first Christian martyr.  What does it mean that we celebrate the life of a martyr so soon after we celebrate the birth of Christ?  After all, it's not like we know the birth day or the death day of St. Stephen.  Our ancient Church parents could have put this feast day anywhere.  Why put it here?

If you pay attention to the Lectionary readings, you will see that the issue of death is never far removed from the subject matter.  Time and time again, Christ is quite clear about what may be required from us:  our very lives.  And we'd like to think that we might make this ultimate sacrifice for some amazing purpose:  rescuing the oppressed from an evil dictatorship or saving orphans.  But we may lose our life in the midst of some petty squabble; in some versions of St. Stephen's life, he is killed because of petty jealousy over his appointment as deacon, which triggers the conspiring which ultimately ends in his martyrdom.

Many of us live in a world where we are not likely to die a physical death for our religious beliefs.  What does the life of this martyr have to say to us?

We are not likely to face death by stoning, but we may face other kinds of death.  If we live the life that Christ commands, we will give away more of our money and possessions to the destitute.  We will end our lives without as much wealth and prosperity--and yet, we will have more spiritual wealth.  If we live the life that Christ commands, we may have uncomfortable decisions to make at work or in our families.  We will have to live a life that's unlike the lives we see depicted in popular culture.  That's not always easy, but in the end, we can hope the resistance to the most pernicious forms of popular culture will have been worth it.

And history reminds us that events can unfold rather quickly, and we might find ourselves living under an empire that demands us to live a life different than the one Christ calls us to live.  We may face the ultimate penalty.  Could we face death?  Could we pray for the empire that kills us?  As Christians, we're commanded to pray for our enemies, to not let hatred transform us into our enemies. 

Let us take a moment to offer a prayer of thanks for all the martyrs who have come before us.  Here's a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime:  "Almighty God, who gave to your servant Stephen boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith:  Grant that I may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in me, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen."

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Full Mangers

Christmas Day dawns, and we are delighted to find the promise fulfilled, the mangers full.  The people who have dwelt in darkness have seen a great light! 

 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Empty Manger

The manger is empty, but not for long.

"Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord."  Psalm 31:24

"For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in God."  Psalm 62:6

A Prayer in the Pre-Dawn of Christmas Day Eve:

Oh, God, we weep in our chains.  So many things hold us captived in our devastations, the ruins of our cities.  Fill our hearts with courage.  Remind us of the promise of redemption.  Come to ransom us from all the things which hold us in fear.  Set us free.

Amen!  Come Lord Jesus!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Can We Achieve Community in Complete Silence?

You may remember this post, where I wrote about talking to my friends about why one has a spiritual practice in this age of science.  My spouse, a fellow life-long Lutheran, took part; both friends were raised Catholic, before one decided to be an atheist and one decided to become non-practicing.

Last night, the non-practicing friend told us that he'd been thinking about the conversation and that he could really see the reason for having a religious practice so that you'd have community.

Then the talk turned to the meaning of community.  Can you have a religious practice without it?

I've always said that you could, but most of us aren't that disciplined.  My spouse thinks that we need to gather in church so that we have a knowledgeable person leading us through our reading of the Scriptures; I'm not convinced that most church leaders are as knowledgeable as they should be, and therefore, cannot fulfill that part.

And of course, we're Word and Sacrament people, but last night, we didn't talk about the Sacrament side.  My lapsed friend, interestingly enough, has a brother who's a monk, but a different kind of monk than the Mepkin monks.  He's one of the Irish orders that runs a school.

My lapsed friend said that he doesn't see his brother as part of a community because so much of his time is spent in solitude studying.  My friend said, "And what about those orders that never even talk to each other?"

It's an interesting question:  can we have community without knowing each other as individuals?  I would say that we can.  There's a whole school of thought that would say that our individual selves are not even essential when it comes to community.

My friend, on the other hand, seemed to think that if we don't know each other in a close way, we don't have community.  I see his point of view too.

From my visits to monasteries and from my reading about monastics, I find that they try to subsume their individual selves for the good of the greater whole and for the continuing of an ancient tradition.    It's a very different view of community from the one that says, "We're not really in communion unless you know me deeply, with all my faults and flaws, and you love me anyway."

I'm not sure that one is correct and one is not.  It's just two very different ways of thinking about what community means.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 25, 2011:

Choice 1:

First Reading: Isaiah 62:6-12

Psalm: Psalm 97

Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7

Gospel: Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20

Choice 2:

First Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10

Psalm: Psalm 98

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]

Gospel: John 1:1-14

In this season of dying dictators (Muammar Gaddafi and Kim Jong Il) and dying dissidents (Vaclav Havel), it is interesting to come across the Gospel from John for Christmas day. I’ve watched Koreans weeping for their “dear leader” who left thousands of his people to starve to death, literally, in the cold. I’ve been reflecting on the way that language can shape us for good and evil. And now, here’s an uncommon metaphor for God: God as a word that lives amongst us.

I’ve been thinking about how despots use language to convince the people that they’re living different lives than the reality they actually experience. I’m thinking about how dissidents use a similar tool to dismantle empires. Anne Applebaum wrote a great essay about Havel for Tuesday's The Washington Post. She writes:

"In this essay (‘The Power of the Powerless’), Havel didn’t talk about marches or demonstrations. Instead, he asked the inhabitants of totalitarian countries to 'live in truth': that is, to go about their daily lives as if the regime did not exist, to the extent that was possible in societies where the state ran all businesses and all schools, owned most of the property and banned free speech and free press. By the late 1980s, 'living in truth' was widely practiced across central Europe. The first time I went to Poland in 1987, I stayed with friends. According to the law, I was supposed to register my presence in a private home with the police. 'We don’t do that,' my friends told me. 'We don’t believe the police have the right to know who stays with us.' I didn’t register — and because thousands of other people didn’t either, that law became unenforceable.

But Havel proposed more than mere civil disobedience. He also argued in favor of what we would now call civil society, urging the inhabitants of totalitarian states to found small institutions — musical groups, sporting groups, literary groups — that would develop the 'independent life of society' and prevent their members from being totally controlled from above. This, too, was widely practiced, in Prague’s famous underground philosophy seminars, in the illegal printing presses all across the communist world, in Poland’s independent 'Flying University,' and, most successfully, in Poland’s independent trade unions."

Reading about these resistance techniques reminded me of Nelson Mandela, who spent his decades in prison not plotting revenge but dreaming about the best ways to govern. When he was released and elected president, he was ready with plans for creating a better South Africa.

The good news that the angels announce is not just that God has come to live in our neighborhoods in the messiness that is a human life, although that would certainly be good enough news. But the true scope of the message has to do with the redemption of creation. God has broken through the dictatorships that would hold our imaginations in dank prisons. The redemption of creation is underway, and we’re invited to participate.

We can choose to live as people of God, no matter what our human empires would have us believe. We do not have to weep in the ruins of our cities. Advent has promised us that help is on the way, and Christmas gives us the Good News that the redeemer has come, and in the most unlikely circumstances.

That’s the way redemption works—not in the ways we would expect, but in surprising ways that take us where we could not dream of going, and sometimes faster than we would expect. If we could travel back in time to tell the people of 1985 that the Soviet Union would soon crumble and South Africa would be free of white rule, the people of 1985 would think we were insane. If we could travel back to the first century of the Roman empire to tell of what the followers of Jesus would accomplish, those people would laugh at us—if they even knew who Jesus was.

In a Monday essay in The Washington Post, Madeleine Albright sums Havel this way: “he declared himself neither an optimist (‘because I am not sure everything ends well,’) nor a pessimist (‘because I am not sure everything ends badly’) but, instead, ‘a realist who carries hope, and hope is the belief that freedom and justice have meaning . . . and that liberty is always worth the trouble.’”

Christians, too, believe that freedom and justice have meaning and that liberty is always worth the trouble. And if we believe in the Good News that surrounds us at Christmas, we can be wild-eyed optimists. We know that things will end well; we have a multitude of promises and plenty of evidence that God will keep those promises of liberty for the captives.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Poem for the Feast Day of St. Thomas

Today is the Feast Day of St. Thomas, most famous for his doubting.  I've always wondered what else he did, and whether or not he'd feel annoyed that he's most remembered for that moment that he doubted.  I have this vision of Thomas as having amazing artistic talent for example, and no one knows that now.  We remember him for that one moment of disbelief.

It's not so strange that he doubted, after all.  He saw Jesus die an agonizing death.  Why would he believe his fellow disciples with their strange tales of seeing Christ back from the dead?  He must have thought they'd finally lost their collective minds, which wouldn't have been improbable, given the events of the week.

I love the post-Resurrection stories where Jesus shows up and forgives everyone:  Thomas for doubting, Peter for denying, everyone who ran away.  I was always taught that Judas would have been forgiven too, but he disrupted that potential by taking his life.  In my older view of an all-forgiving God, I think that Judas was still forgiven.  I believe that a God who has lived with us in human skin understands the despair that can lead to suicide.

But back to Thomas, who should serve as a hopeful tale for all of us in these darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere).  It can be hard to maintain our faith, especially in the face of the spirit-cracking grief of disappointed hopes.  We may yearn for evidence that's supported by our five senses.  We may get that evidence.

Thomas gets credit for bringing Christianity to India, although that's legend that's hard to support with facts.  A few years ago, I played with an idea that finally made its way into a more formal, rhymed poem than I usually write.  I was inspired by this blog post by Jan Richardson.  Her post made me think of those fancy Easter eggs that had a charming scene inside, and the interesting juxtaposition between those eggs and Jesus' open wound.

Into the Wound

Thomas approached his Savior’s bloodied side,
Everything for which he longed, yet so feared.
He felt the warm flesh and looked deep inside.
The vision left him changed and scarred and seared.

He saw a series of worlds in that wound.
He saw a future that could be so fine.
He saw a world of absence, so ill tuned.
He saw a table set with bread and wine.

He saw the start of all the universe
And staggered back, but Christ kept him steady.
“Wash your hands,” Christ said, his voice almost tense.
Christ knew the dangers for those unready.

Legend says Thomas walked to India;
What dream prompted him, we always wonder.
But you, too, could hike to outer Asia,
If you had the same vision to ponder.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Artistic Advent Alternatives to a Sermon

About a month ago, a group of us gathered at the parsonage to talk about a different approach to Advent.  I'm lucky to have a pastor who's a creative guy and thus, is open to doing worship with creative elements--especially if one of the lay people wants to take the lead.

Our pastor had a vision of having an alternative creative activity that would take place each Sunday in Advent.  We anticipated that mainly children and youth would participate, but certainly adults would be welcome too.  I had a vision of people who learned by hands-on activities working on the creative offering and listening to the sermon.

Those of you who have worked with groups of children will laugh.  But I'm calling it a success.  Do I think that participants in the creativity project got the exact same message that they would have, had they been listening to the sermon?  No.  But do I think that they'd have gotten those messages if they had been sitting in the pews?  Not necessarily.

Our experiment turned out to be a success, so I thought it worth documenting here. 

For Advent 1, the participants made 6 banners, with the Advent themes of Joy, Hope, and Waiting.  Below you'll see a sample.

For Advent 2, with its theme of Good News, participants made paper chains out of newspaper.

I thought our plan for Advent 3 was most ambitious.  The theme for the Sunday was the message of light breaking through, so one of our team came up with the idea of turning the windows in the back of the church (windows that connect the sanctuary to the nursery and to a rehearsal space) into a stained glass look by painting on them.

Below you see the windows in the before-but-prepped stage:

Below you see the participants painting the windows.

I particularly like the shot below, with the cross in the distance.

And below, the finished windows:

For Advent 4, with its themes of promises kept and the Magnificat, I thought back to what we'd done with silk and interpretive dance at a Create in Me retreat.  I had a vision of people writing/drawing onto silk the ways that they'd seen God keeping God's promises and prayers for what they still needed/wanted God to do.

I bought 12 yards of silk from Dharma Trading Company, after a very helpful Customer Service rep helped me decide what would work best for the project.  When it arrived, I thought, well, I've bought far too much fabric--as I so often do.

 But as it turns out, we used the whole length. And then we processed up the aisle as the offering was brought forward.

If I decide to do more with silk and liturgical dance for Pentecost, we'll practice more before we process.  We didn't quite get the hang of getting the silk to drift and float through the air--and of course, the children participants were shorter than the Create in Me participants.

We put the silk at the bottom of the tree.

It's been an interesting, creative approach to Advent.  And I know that some of our participants wish that we could keep having creative activities, even after Advent ends.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Soul Card for the 4th Sunday in Advent

Here we are at the 4th Sunday in Advent, the Sunday when many of us will be hearing about Mary, the Sunday when many of us will sing all of the verses of "Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel."

In January, I had a week-end experiment with collaging and soul cards; see this post, this post, and this post for more details.  I made the card above.  I like the way it combines some classic Advent themes and some maternal imagery.  I post it here for your inspiration pleasure.

Maybe this afternoon I'll make some more soul cards.  I love cutting out images, and I love combining them in interesting ways.  It's a calming, meditative activity.  Why don't I do it more often?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Real World Christmas and Its Meanings

I sometimes forget that the rest of the world goes into frantic shopping mode at this point in the calendar year.  Long ago, my family agreed to give to charity instead of giving presents to the adults.  We have enough stuff.

The ever-wonderful Jim Wallis reminds us of what our holiday dollars could have bought:  "Last year, Americans spent $450 billion on Christmas. Clean water for the whole world, including every poor person on the planet, would cost about $20 billion. Let’s just call that what it is: A material blasphemy of the Christmas season."


He reminds us of what God has risked for us:  "It is theologically and spiritually significant that the Incarnation came to our poorest streets. That Jesus was born poor, later announces his mission at Nazareth as “bringing good news to the poor,” and finally tells us that how we treat “the least of these” is his measure of how we treat him and how he will judge us as the Son of God, radically defines the social context and meaning of the Incarnation of God in Christ. And it clearly reveals the real meaning of Christmas."

The whole piece offers a nice counterpoint to those who would tell us that the real meaning of Christmas lies in making sure we say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays."  It gives us a wonderful reminder of what Christmas really should mean to Christians and to the larger world.

At this blog post, I was intrigued by a picture of Mary looking at a home pregnancy test kit stick.  Pastor Joelle's accompanying essay offers wonderful nuggets for thought, like this one:  "But this is in a part of the world where to this day, women are imprisoned for being raped, and stoned for adultery. How interesting that God chose to challenge this obsession with the purity of women by coming into this world this way and the church ended up using Mary to reinforce that purity obsession."

There was a moment in church last week, when I watched a mother comfort a crying baby, and I caught my breath at the thought of God taking on that vulnerability to enter the world as a baby.  And not only that, but to choose to be born in a remote corner of a brutal empire, to be born as a member of an oppressed class of people, why it's just remarkable.

Wallis says it this way:  "What is Christmas? It is the celebration of the Incarnation, God’s becoming flesh — human — and entering into history in the form of a vulnerable baby born to a poor, teenage mother in a dirty animal stall. Simply amazing. That Mary was homeless at the time,a member of a people oppressed by the imperial power of an occupied country whose local political leader, Herod, was so threatened by the baby’s birth that he killed countless children in a vain attempt to destroy the Christ child, all adds compelling historical and political context to the Advent season."

This week-end, many of us in the Christian world, at least those of us following the common Lectionary, will hear the story of Mary.  We will be reminded that with God, nothing is impossible.  We may not understand how God will make a way out of a series of dead-ends.  But the Advent texts promise us that the crooked pathways will be made straight, that the ruins and devastations will be restored to wholeness, that there will be justice tempered with mercy.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Be incarnate in our messy, messy world!

Friday, December 16, 2011

On the Death of Christopher Hitchens: Revisiting "God Is Not Great"

With the news of the death of Christopher Hitchens, my mind went back to his book God is Not Great.  Will Hitchens be remembered for his atheist views, for his attack on Mother Theresa, for his attacks on many other people?  It's likely too early to say.

I can't claim to have read his work comprehensively.  Whenever I saw his articles, I read them, and even if I disagreed with his views, he always gave a lively performance.  When it came to his book-length treatment of God and religion, I felt like he missed the point in so many ways.

Here's the review I wrote of the book when it first came out:

First, I should offer some disclaimers. I come from a long line of Lutherans, and some of my family members have been pastors and lay ministers in that denomination. I’ve spent more years of my life attending church services (of various types) regularly than I haven’t. I’m the type of person who goes to monasteries and cathedrals while on vacation, and I’ve even attended services—while on vacation. In my spare time, I read and write theology. For fun. So perhaps I’m the wrong person to write a review of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great.

I’ll be the first to admit that his writing is wickedly funny, and I’d agree with him on some points. Religion has been used in a variety of harmful ways; most Christians will be the first to tell you that. I haven’t met any Christians, and I’ve met a huge variety of Christians, who deny that Christianity has had its dark years or centuries, like the Crusades and the Inquisition and the failure to rescue more Jews from Hitler’s genocide.

However, for every dark moment that Hitchens brings up, I could list at least five ways that Christianity has transformed society for the better, and Hitchens seems determined to overlook that. What about the Christian cultures (like Scandinavian Lutherans) who rescued Jews from Hitler’s genocide or refused to cooperate? Some of the most successful social justice movements of the twentieth century have been possible because of the faith that undergirded them—for example, the Civil Rights movement in this country or Gandhi’s accomplishments or the monks in Burma who push for change. There are communities all over the planet who live out their faith in concrete ways that transform the secular community around them; think of the Catholic Worker movement or Habitat for Humanity.

Hitchens also takes on the Bible, and the problem that I have with him here is that he’s incredibly literal in his interpretations. He’s worse than most fundamentalists I know. Of course, I’ve been faulted for my approach to the Bible, rooted in my experiences as a poet and an English major, where every story has multiple meanings beyond the literal.

It’s in his approach to the Bible that I first realized the biggest problem I would have with this book. Hitchens seems to have read no theology at all, at least not any that was written recently. He’d have found modern theology has much to offer when he feels revulsion at the idea of a savior who must be crucified because Hitchens will sin two thousand years later. I won’t list all the possible counterarguments here, but there’s a whole discipline in theological studies that addresses issues of redemptive suffering and atonement and the idea of sacrifice and what it means. For example, one school of thought looks at the fact that Christianity emerged out of Judaism and that the first generations of followers tried to undercut the Temple monopoly on the forgiveness of sins and the stranglehold that priests had on the Jews; priests not only collected sacrifices to right sins, but also collected money that was due to Rome. Or you might say that Jesus was crucified for our sins in the same way that Martin Luther King was killed for our sins. Both men came to offer the world a radical vision of peace and justice, and a harshly stratified society had to muffle that vision to avoid uprisings of the oppressed demanding transformation of that society.

When Hitchens attacks what he perceives to be the Church, he seems most upset with the Catholic church, circa 1952. The Church he describes really hasn’t been the way he describes, at least in the U.S. and Europe, during my lifetime. In my lifetime, we’ve seen a decline (and in Europe, almost a death) of mainline Protestantism and Catholicism; we’ve been dealing with some fallout of the time when the Church was predominant, certainly, like pedophile priests, but those most of those headline grabbing crimes are being brought to light decades after they’ve happened. You might counter by offering the spectacle of the Republican Right and their dance with Evangelical Christians for the past quarter decade, but Hitchens doesn’t spend much time on the Evangelical emergence.

Again, his lack of research seems glaring to me. If he had read a book like The Next Christendom, by Philip Jenkins, he’d know that he has much more to fear from Christianity in the Global South, not some phantasm from his youth. In the past decade, we’ve seen Rwanda send missionaries to the U.S. and Europe (an interesting historic reversal) because they see us in need of the Good News. Lately, some conservative U.S. Episcopalian congregations have left to join the Nigerian Diocese.

Why should we care? Many churches in the Global South take the Bible even more literally than U.S. fundamentalists. Take that obscure verse “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). Many Africans take that quite seriously and literally. Jenkins points out, “Even today, a single outbreak of witch-panic can lead to hundreds of murders in a period of weeks or months. Moreover, one of the main centers of modern witch-hunting activity has been South Africa, the most developed state on the whole continent” (123). If you read Jenkins’ book, you realize that Christianity isn’t in decline throughout most of the planet, and the Christianity that’s practiced, if adopted widely, will have far more unpleasant consequences than the ones that Hitchens contemplates in his book.

The coming clashes of fundamentalisms of all types of religions seem like a far more pressing problem to me, and it’s a problem that gets very little press time or book length treatments or political consideration. Hitchens had a chance to turn the discussion, and he resorted to trotting out familiar arguments about issues that were dead decades ago. What a shame.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Walking Dead Through Advent

I don't always have time to watch much in the way of movies and television during Advent.  But then again, thankfully, I'm not often as sick as I have been this Advent.  Over the past two and a half weeks, I've watched a variety of shows when I've been too tired to move far from the sofa and the tissue box.

As you might expect, we've watched Christmas movies and every Christmas episode of every TV series we ever loved (at least the ones available via streaming).  But we also watched the entire first season of The Walking Dead, a series set in Atlanta after some sort of disease has turned most of the population into zombies and life has become apocalyptic.

Yes, zombies and Advent--not a combination that usually comes to mind when preparing for the season.  And yet, it works.  It's wonderful to watch this series with the words of Isaiah thundering in my head: 

They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.  (Isaiah 61:  4)

You don't get much more ruined than a city overrun by zombies!

We're seeing zombies everywhere these past few years in popular culture.  What does it mean?  Does it show the deep-seated fear that many of us have about Alzheimer's Disease?  Does it speak to our fears that we're losing our humanity as we become more digitized?  I would argue yes.

In the series, we see the hopes of the survivors--how they yearn for a savior, for some sort of deliverance, for answers.  Since it's an ongoing series, they haven't gotten what they need yet.  They move through the blighted setting, on a quest for redemption.  Again, it feels very Advent to me.

In the midst of zombies, we also watched a more traditional Christmas movie:  Midnight Clear (not to be confused with the WWII movie, A Midnight Clear).  The movie follows a variety of characters through the day and night of Christmas Eve. Along the way we see that no one is living a perfect life, although the diversity of ways that these lives have gone wrong almost stretches my willing suspension of disbelief at times. The movie also presents several characters whose lives haven't gone wrong so much as just not according to plan. I thought it was refreshing to see a conversation between the youth group leader and the pastor, in which the youth group leader expresses his doubt that carolling is worth the effort. The unspoken part of the conversation that hovers below the surface is the possibility that the youth group leader doesn't think that any of the church work that he's doing makes any kind of difference at all.

This movie, too, works beautifully in the Advent season.  We see these characters who long to be sure that their lives aren't worthless.  We see these characters, some in such desperate need of redemption.  We see that redemption delivered via methods we don't expect--a very Advent theme.

In the end, Midnight Clear is a Christmas movie in the best sense of that tradition, with a quiet, gentle insistence that we will not be left alone to our own self-destructive devices.  In our hectic Decembers, we often forget that part of the Christmas story, that glad news, the great tidings of joy.  This movie reminds us of the true message of Christmas, and it manages to do it without sinking into either irredeemable pathos or treacly sentiment.

Don't get me wrong:  I like It's a Wonderful Life as much as the next person.  I say many cheers and prayers of thanks every time A Charlie Brown Christmas airs; how unlikely--and wonderful!-- it is that a nation of largely unchurched viewers will sit still while Linus recites Luke's version of the Christmas story.  But I also love discovering Advent messages in the most unlikely places--I love these unexpected gifts!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, December 18, 2011:

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Psalm: Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Second Reading: Romans 16:25-27

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

Today we get to one of the more familiar Advent stories, one of the ones we expect to be hearing. We may say, “Thank goodness! I’m tired of John the Baptist. I can relate to Mary.”

Can we relate to Mary? Two thousand years of Church tradition tend to paint her in terms that serve whatever purpose society needed at the time. So in some decades we see Mary a perfect woman, sinless and blameless, the kind of woman who transcends humanity and gives birth to the Lord. Some decades write Mary out of the picture once the work in the stable is done, while other decades depict her as an interfering mother—the first helicopter parent!

I’m not Catholic, so I’ve never had to wrestle with the idea of Mary as sinless. In fact, the churches of my childhood and adolescence stressed that Mary was as human as the rest of us. In a recent blog post, Pastor Joelle stresses: “In fact, I think the whole idea of the Immaculate Conception, that Mary HAD to be conceived without sin in order for her womb to be worthy to hold Christ kind of chips away at the whole idea of the Incarnation and God entering this messy sinful world. And it begins with entering the womb of a young girl who was, like the rest of us, far from perfect. Mary doesn't need to be perfect to hold Jesus. And neither do we.”

We’ve heard the story of Mary so many times that we forget how remarkable it really is. We forget how bizarre the story told by the angel Gabriel must seem. A young girl growing God in her womb? A post-menopausal woman conceiving? It’s all too much to fathom.

I always wonder if there were women who sent Gabriel away: "I'm going to be the mother of who? It will happen how? Go away. I don't have time for this nonsense. If God wants to perform a miracle, let God teach my children not to track so much dirt into this house."

We won't ever hear about those women, because they decided that they didn't want to be part of God's glorious vision.

It’s important, too, to notice that God’s glorious vision doesn’t always match the way we would expect God to act. We see a history of God choosing the lowly, the meek, the outcast. Moses the stutterer, David the cheater, Peter the doubter. What business school would endorse this approach to brand building?

But our Scriptures remind us again and again that God works in mystical ways that our rational brains can’t always comprehend. If God can accomplish great things by means of a young woman, a barren woman, a variety of wandering preachers and prophets, tax collectors and fisherman, just think what God might accomplish with all of our gifts and resources.

Of course, first we have to hear that message, that invitation from God. It’s hard for this message to make its way through all the fear-based messages beamed to us from our culture. The angel tells Mary not to be afraid, and that is a message we need to hear. Don't dance with your dread. Don't keep company with your fears, your worst case scenarios. Dream big. Think of the world God promises (read further in Luke): God will fill the hungry with good things. The one who is mighty does great things for the lowly.
We have much to fear, but we’re not that different from past cultures. The ancient prophets move me to tears with the promise of the building up of the ancient ruins, the raising up the former devastations, the repair the ruined cities (last week’s Isaiah reading) and the establishment of a throne established forever for a God who wants to dwell with us (this week’s reading from 2 Samuel).

Our culture gives us stories of chronic unemployment and possible economic collapses yet to come. Our Scriptures tell us of a God that breaks into our normal lives to remind us that God is redeeming creation even if we aren’t aware of that process. Our prophets remind us that ruin doesn’t have to last forever. Gabriel gives the promise that nothing is impossible with God. Now, that is Good News indeed.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Advent Art: Santa Lucia Day Baking

When I thought about my Advent Art project, I wasn't thinking that so much of it would be baking.  I wanted to branch out, to try other artistic mediums.  I've been making Advent breads and cookies for over 30 years now.

Here's a photo of the page of the 1980 Bon Appetit magazine where I first saw the recipe for Santa Lucia bread:

Maybe I need to broaden my thoughts about my creative projects.  On Sunday, my spouse and I went to our friend's house.  She suffered a devastating house fire, and on Sunday, we went to the house that she's renting while her old house is being restored.  We helped her sort through possessions and figure out where the salvaged items would fit into her new place.  When we left, her rental house felt more like a home than it has since she moved into it.

I didn't take pictures of that process, but I did take pictures of this morning's Santa Lucia Day breadbaking.  I started last night, so that I'd be further ahead this morning:

 This morning, I got the dough ready to be braided:

The bread braids before baking:

And after baking:

The Bon Appetit issue showed this photo layout of holiday breads:

Somewhat different than mine, I guess--but I've got a kitchen of tasty bread nonetheless!

For a more traditional meditation on the feast day of Santa Lucia, see this post from 2009, where I conclude, "So, happy Santa Lucia day! Have some special bread, drink a bracing hot beverage, and light the candles against the darkness. "

Monday, December 12, 2011

Prophetic Voices in Our Wildernesses

I found yesterday's Old Testament reading (Isaiah 61:  1-4, 8-11) profoundly moving, with its talk of building up the ancient ruins, raising up the foremer devastations, repairing the ruined cities.  And Psalm 126 has always been one of my favorites:  "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then we were like those who dream."

I don't remember being similarly moved 3 years ago, when we last dropped by these readings in the Lectionary cycle.  Of course, then, we were only at the beginning of the Great Recession.  Now I have no idea how we'll move forward.  The prophetic texts offer me a vision that I desperately need.

Our pastor focused on the Gospel.  He opened with a story of a little boy who asked him, "Pastor, are you Jesus?"  And from there, he moved into a sermon that reminded us that every aspect of our lives can lead others to Jesus.  We can be John the Baptist.

He marveled at this idea that God trusts us to point the way to God by our actions, our speech, our relationships, every bit of our being.

He asked the question, "Will you be bold enough for people to see Christ in you?"

He ended by having us look at our hands.  He said "These are the hands that God has entrusted to be Christ in the world."

Mine was holding a pen!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Steve Jobs of Religion

Those of us in mainline churches have likely done a lot of thinking about how we can appeal to the unchurched, many of whom are not atheists, but have yet to find the church they like--or at least, that's what we hope.

In an essay in today's The New York Times, Eric Weiner ponders why we're so bad as a culture, those of us in the U.S., at talking about faith, spirituality, and what we really believe.  Early on, he asks, "For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?"

He posits that religious choices these days are often aligned with political choices and that many people reject both.  His thesis makes some sense:  as we've become more and more of a nation of non-voters, we're more and more a nation of non-churched.

And yet, those of us who know about the variety of ways that the church has worked in the world can make an endless list of ways that the church has made the world a better place.  Not all of us are waiting for heaven.  Not all of us are angry people who have given up on this world.

Weiner speaks to a different dichotomy: 

"We are more religiously polarized than ever. In my secular, urban and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but God? He is for suckers, and Republicans.

I used to be that way, too, until a health scare and the onset of middle age created a crisis of faith, and I ventured to the other side. I quickly discovered that I didn’t fit there, either. I am not a True Believer. I am a rationalist. I believe the Enlightenment was a very good thing, and don’t wish to return to an age of raw superstition."

Those of us in the mainstream denominations haven't done a very good job of showing that there are plenty of other options.  I attend my Lutheran church where I'm not asked to give up my scientific beliefs.  I'm sure there are many other churches like mine.

Weiner concludes:

"What is the solution? The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us."

It's an interesting proposal and a very different way of thinking about the ideas of mission and outreach.

The Steve Jobs of religion.  Hmm.

If we invented a new way (which might be a very old way) of being religious, what would that look like?  Would we adopt some monastic traditions?  Would that way embrace technology in ways that we haven't before?  And what would a new way of being religious offer in terms of creativity? 

Those are the strands that immediately came to my mind:  monasticism, technology, and artistic creativity.  I don't always weave those strands together.  What would happen if I did?

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Basket of Angels

A year ago, I created this photo essay about angels.  I'm not an angel person in the traditional sense.  I don't see angels in a warm, fuzzy light.  I won't wear them as decoration.  I don't want to trivialize them in that way.  If I saw an angel, I'd expect to be terrified, since they so often begin their encounters with humans by telling humans not to be afraid.

Still, something about the way that humans depict angels makes me want to photograph them.  And I've found a surprising amount of joy throughout the past year going back to that photo essay.  So, on this one year anniversary, let me post another series of photos of angel depictions.

At Mepkin Abbey, I was struck by this basket of angels (angel ornaments, that is):

What do angels think of from their tree tops?

Angels and gadgets that add oxygen to wine more quickly

Even angels need to sit down.

Were the artists thinking of angels when they painted the canvases below?

And my favorite angel ornament from my own collection:

This ornament comes from Haiti, and I love its Caribbean vibe.  I love the exuberant colors that traditional Haitian artists use.  I love that this angel is non-traditional.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

More on Wreaths and Calendars, Advent and Otherwise

I have calendars on the brain.  Yesterday at my creativity blog, I wrote this post about writing/organizing a book by the calendar year, which led me to remember a retreat exercise, which led to this post on how we did it and what it means.  We were given a blank calendar page and 3 markers.  We had 10 minutes to fill in the calendar however we wanted.  Here's what I did:

You'll notice a mix of sacred and secular motifs.  There are the Halloween images in the bottom left.  There's the blue cup flowing over.  We had been studying the miracles of Jesus, so you'll see multiplying loaves and fishes (the fishes are those yellow blobs).

I've also been thinking of Advent calendars and Advent wreathes.  The candles around my Advent wreath are still unlit.  Sigh.

Of course, lighting candles can lead to interesting developments, as this post on Pastor Joelle's blog reminds us.

Maybe I need a simpler Advent practice, like this Scandinavian Advent calendar that has been in my parent's house since their Air Force Days in Europe in the mid 1960's:

Ah the beauty of paper cut-out hearts!

My sister has a more complicated Advent calendar:

This lighthouse has 25 drawers, into which all kinds of treats could be deposited for children to discover each day. 

All this writing of calendars reminds me that I have yet to buy my favorite calendar, the Simple Lifestyle calendar that the Appalachian Science in the Public Interest group puts out.  Each day of the calendar gives a suggestion for living a simple, joyful life.  And the photography always interests me, even when it's not always something I'd want on my wall forever.  I've been ordering this calendar since my college days.  That's getting to be a long time now.

Simple living--many of us will spend a small fortune on any number of devices that promise to help us simplify our lives and get our schedules under control.  It's a good time of the year to think about our approaches to that issue:  what's worked in terms of living balanced lives that have time for all we want to do and what hasn't?  How can we make more time for ourselves, our friends and family, and for God in the new year?