Monday, January 31, 2011

More Thoughts on the Beatitudes

For those of you who use Scripture verses to castigate yourself, as a flog and a whip, here are some words of comfort from my pastor's sermon yesterday.

He preached on the Sermon on the Mount, those old familiar Beatitudes. Many of us look at them and despair of ever being good enough to be included.

But our pastor reminded us that these behaviors are not entrance requirements for God's Kingdom. We don't have to learn how to be meek, how to be merciful, how to be pure in heart, how to be peacemakers before God will love us and let us into Heaven (which is a fairly traditional interpretation of this Gospel).

No, in Matthew 5: 3-12, Jesus describes the Kingdom, which we could interpret as God's rule in the future, the time when God fully redeems creation, when all is set right. What a comforting vision that is!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Blog Post Leads to an Article in "The Lutheran"

Are you one of the 280,000 Lutherans who get The Lutheran, the official magazine of the ELCA? You may be like me--I get magazines, I place them in the magazines-to-be-read pile, and 6-12 months later, I put them in the recycling bin. Because of this tendency, I've let most of my subscriptions expire.

But if/when you get your February 2011 issue, be sure to look for my article. Those of you who don't get the magazine can go here to read the first several paragraphs. I'll likely repost the whole thing in a few months, but if you don't want to wait, feel free to e-mail me (or leave me your e-mail address in a comment), and I can send you the document in a Word file.

Those of you who are careful readers of this blog with a long memory may say, "Hey, this article feels familiar." Indeed, it began life as this blog post. And that blog post wouldn't have happened, had I not read an article in The Washington Post (referenced in the blog post) and been casting about for a topic. I'm always aware of my tendency to castigate myself for all the ways I imagine that I fail. If I manage to mail out 5 manuscripts in the course of a busy week, I don't say, "Good job, Kris." No, I ask, "Why not 10 manuscripts?" If I pray once a day, I ask myself why not 3 or 5? I'm always trying to remind myself that spiritual practice doesn't have to be so hard. I'm always trying not to yoke the word "discipline" with the word "punish," as so many Westerners do (and did even before Foucault!).

And thus, the blog post, and then later, an editor from The Lutheran contacted me and asked if I could write something along the same lines, but different, for the magazine. Of course, I said yes. If you want more thoughts on blogging and the route to publication, I wrote about it in today's blog post at my creativity blog.

I'm grateful that the editor saw my work and contacted me. I'm grateful for the doors that this blog has opened to me. I'm grateful to all of you who read my postings. And if I get some new readers in the coming weeks, I'd like to offer a big huge welcome. May this blog be a welcome table, of sorts, where we feast on words and keep each other nourished.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Feast Day of St. Thomas Aquinas

Today we celebrate the birth and life of St. Thomas Aquinas. Many people would list him as amongst the greatest Christian theologians, if not the greatest Christian theologian.

For me, there are more modern theologians that are more important to me; Martin Luther comes to mind, as does Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You might say, "Well, you're a Lutheran after all, and Aquinas predates Lutherans." True. But if you go back to reread Aquinas, you'll be struck by how medieval he is, how not-timeless he is.

For example, he believed that life could come from non-living things, a form of spontaneous generation. He believed in eternal law and divine law. You can argue that many theologians still believe in divine law and laws that never change, but they often have to willfully ignore scientific developments and revelations from the social sciences. Aquinas believed that sex should only be used to procreate, an idea from a much earlier age, when we didn't have to worry about reaching the carrying capacity of the planet (and reaching it in the next 10 years, if not the next 10 months).

Still, we can celebrate all the theology and philosophy that comes after Aquinas, theology and philosophy that might never have happened, had Aquinas not lived. We can celebrate the life of a man who devoted himself to scholarly study. We can devote ourselves to the four cardinal virtues as prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude, as Aquinas defined them, and the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 30, 2011:

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8

Psalm: Psalm 15

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

Here we are again, at one of the touchstones of our faith, the Sermon on the Mount (alternately called The Beatitudes). Those of us who have been going to church for many years have likely heard it so often that we zone out at the reading of it. We might say to ourselves, "Yeah, yeah, blessed, blessed, got it."

Now is a good time to revisit this text. Now is a good time to use that old technique from the ancient practice of lectio divina: sit with this text for some time and take note of what jumps out at you. That might be God talking to you through the text.

You could also use a similar technique from literary analysis. In my literature classes, I often ask, "Which character speaks to you?" Here I would ask, which verse speaks to you?

Are you that person who mourns? Are you hungering for righteousness? Are you making peace?

Maybe you have a darker glimmer: maybe you're not the person who is working for peace (perhaps in the politics of your office or your family). Maybe you're the one standing in the way of peace. Maybe the text is calling you to revolution, that turning around, in the way that St. Paul turned around. Jan. 25 is the day that the Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul. It's a valuable time to remember that God has a use for us, no matter how ferociously we've been undermining the vision that God has for humanity and creation.

The text reminds us of how to treat ourselves and others: with mercy, with compassion, with comfort. The text reminds us that just because we follow Jesus, our path will not be easy. On the contrary, we will likely face persecution. But Jesus doesn't let us off the hook. This text tells us how we are to act and what we are to value.

Again and again, Jesus reminds us that God's way is not the world's way. Read this text one night as you watch T.V. and marvel at the difference in values. The world worships wealth and power. The world worships beauty and power. The world worships those who boss the rest of us around. The world worships those who ship our jobs away, those who buy low and sell high, those who ignore the rules and succeed.

Our Gospel this week reminds us of God's rules, the way that we succeed in God's eyes. Our Gospel this week gives us God's promise that we will be comforted, that even though we may be meek in the eyes of the world, we will be filled with good things.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Feast Day of Timothy, Titus, and Silas

Today we celebrate the lives of Timothy, Titus, and Silas, missionaries and friends of Paul. Imagine having Paul as your mentor. Imagine that your work together is so fulfilling that you become friends. Imagine that you are one of the organizers of the early church.

In many ways, those men lived in a time as tumultuous as our own time. The Christian church of their time faced just as much chaos and confusion as our own time. Many of us look back and imagine the time period of Paul as a golden age of Christianity, but in truth, it was one of those time periods of competing directions, and it wasn't always sure which way Christianity would go. Would it stay a denomination within Judaism? Would it be persecuted out of existence? Would it continue to embrace its egalitarian beginnings? Would it be adopted and co-opted by local governments? How far-flung could the faith become and stay faithful?

We face similar questions, against a different set of canvases. It's worth pondering today, on this day that we celebrate the lives of missionaries and Church fathers, what roles we might play in the next emergence of our Christian faith.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Which Incarnation Walks With You?

At church on Sunday, our pastor talked about Jesus being with us. He asked us to talk about when we most felt the presence of Jesus and when we most felt the absence of Jesus.

Later, my spouse and I were talking about which part of the Triune God we perceive the most. I've known people who pray fervently to Jesus, but I've always prayed to God, and I tend to picture God in the same way that I did when I was 5. God looks like Abraham Lincoln on that white marble throne in the Lincoln Memorial, only God has a long, white beard.

Yes, I'm troubled by this. Yes, I've tried to substitute other images of God. God as mother, God as womb, God as painter/creator/weaver. Nothing works. When I pray, I'm praying to the God of my 5 year old self.

I've never met anyone who prays to the Holy Spirit. Never. I've known Christians of all stripes and no one talks about praying to the Holy Spirit. However, my spouse and I both agree that when we feel the presence of God, it's the Holy Spirit we're sensing.

Is it strange that Jesus is the one aspect of the Triune God that I experience least in my daily life? Jesus is the one I spend the most time thinking about and reading about. Jesus is the one that inspires me. When I'm structuring my life, I'm desperately trying to use Jesus as a model. But in incarnational terms, God-With-Us? It's not Jesus.

Now in true Trinitarian theory, Jesus is always there. We worship a 3 part deity, inseparable. Except that we often can't get our head around that idea, so I'm guessing that my experience of God in separate parts and personalities isn't so strange.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

"Jesus Camp"--Horrified Differently than I Expected

For years now, I've heard all sorts of buzz about the movie Jesus Camp. I resisted seeing it for many reasons. I suspected the documentarians had an agenda--and now, after seeing it, I don't see how commenters could say that this movie was neutral. It reminded me a bit of the movie Religulous, where I thought that the moviemakers were basically shooting fish in a barrel. It's easy to mock these people at extreme ends. It's harder to understand them.

I wasn't as horrified at the actions of the grown-ups in the film, although there were moments when I just shook my head. Their theology is not my theology, and I'm grateful that I was raised by rational Lutherans.

The movie reminded me of my own childhood, however, in that I went to a Presbyterian elementary school, and every Friday we went to chapel. Each Friday in chapel, we had the horrors of hell described to us, and we were urged to invite Jesus into our hearts to avoid this fate. Every Friday, I offered a sincere invitation to Jesus. And then again, several times in the following week, just in case Jesus had been to busy to set up housekeeping in my heart when I asked him. After all, dozens of other kids had been asking at the same time on Friday that I was. What if Jesus hadn't heard me?

It's been a long time since anyone asked me if I was saved. When people used to ask me that (some day, ask me about the fundamentalist scene at my high school in Knoxville, Tennessee), I used to say, "I'm the most saved person you know."

My parents, of course, had no idea that any of this was going on in the 5th grade. You don't traditionally think of Presbyterians as being Hellfire and Brimstone folks.

And I grew up in the 1970's, where there were all sorts of cults and very strange stuff, and not all of it at the margins. So what these folks were doing at Jesus camp didn't seem so very threatening to me. They seemed motivated out of love, not out of all the other reasons people work with children.

No, what horrified me was the children, not in what they said, but in the fact that these filmed depictions will last forever. And I'm sure that their parents signed waivers and are probably very proud. Still, it felt very exploitive to me.

I think of all the things--perfectly above-board activities--that went on at church camps of my youth, at lock ins and retreats, in Sunday School. I wonder what would have happened if a documentary filmmaker had taped us and spliced the tape to give the impressions that he/she wanted to give. I wonder how I would feel as a grown up. Even though we don't have the last names of any of the children, those depictions could haunt them. I'm glad that my parents would not have permitted the sale of our childhood in that way.

At the end of the watching of Jesus Camp, I felt dirty in all sorts of ways. I felt ill at some of the ghastly theology espoused by these people. I felt sick at the way that their ghastly theology wound itself around politics. I felt distressed at the way these children had been used, first by the female minister and later by the documentarians. I felt most anguished that for many people, their view of Christianity won't go any further than these folks in the movie. And that Christianity is not the sole depiction I want people to ponder, even though it often seems to be.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Just Over 12 Hours Left for Your Chance at Free Books!

You've still got time to enter book drawing #3. Head on over to this post and leave a comment for your chance to win some NPR themed books. So far, no one has entered, and it's hard for me to believe that no one wants books. You've got a little over 12 hours left to leave a comment--why wait?

Friday, January 21, 2011

On the Death of Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price died yesterday. He will certainly be remembered more for his contributions to American literature than for his contributions to American theology. However, I found his theological writings much more interesting than his novels. His book Letter To A Man In The Fire: Does God Exist And Does He Care was an elegant meditation on the subject. I haven't read his re-interpretations of parts of the Bible, but they sound like they're on par with Eugene Peterson (The Message).

I like his views on prayer, which he talks about in an interview in Parting the Curtains: Interviews With Southern Writers: "And throughout my life, . . . , certainly very intensely during the time I was going through sort of desperate health problems six or seven years ago, prayer has always been a very important part of my daily life. It's so much a part of my daily life that I don't even think of it as prayer. It just seems like the same thing as making the coffee and answering the phone and doing the work. I don't have elaborate, ceremonial ways that I do it. I am not a churchgoing person. But I think I'm an intensely religious person."

To pray as regularly as we make the coffee or talk (or text) on the phone: now there's a goal for all of us.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mystics from a Different Angle

Today is the birthday of Edward Hirsch, who wrote one of my favorite contemporary poems that explores mysticism. I like it because it comes at the topic from a different--and breathtaking--angle. That's what I like my poems--those that I write and those that I read--to do, to make me see a topic in a way I would never have thought about seeing it, in a way that my rational brain would never discover without the help of poets and mystics.

I'm Going to Start Living Like a Mystic

by Edward Hirsch

Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater
and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall.

The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field,
each a station in a pilgrimage — silent, pondering.

Blue flakes of light falling across their bodies
are the ciphers of a secret, an occultation.

I will examine their leaves as pages in a text
and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter.

I will kneel on the track of a vanquished squirrel
and stare into a blank pond for the figure of Sophia.

I shall begin scouring the sky for signs
as if my whole future were constellated upon it.

I will walk home alone with the deep alone,
a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 23, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 9:1-4

Psalm: Psalm 27:1, 5-13 (Psalm 27:1, 4-9 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23

Here we are this week, still in the early days of Jesus' ministry. We see him call the disciples with that famous offer to make them fishers of people. He goes out to preach and teach.

But notice that early on, he's also ministering to the physical needs of people. He's not here to talk to them about their spiritual ailments. At first, he doesn't go around haranguing people about their selfish natures and the need to pray more.

Notice that his fame spreads, and it's probably not because of his brilliant teaching. People will come from far and near if one of their physical ailments can be lessened.

Jesus also addresses, at least indirectly, their emotional ailments. As he heals and teaches, he's creating a community. It's exhausting work. But again, he knows that people aren't going to overthrow their established way of doing things unless they get something substantial in return.

His ministry addressed the very real, the very physical, the very present needs of the people around him. It's an example we should keep in mind, as we order our own lives, and as we think about the future of our individual church and the larger Church.

Notice that Jesus doesn't talk in terms of eternal salvation, at least not in this part of the Gospel. He doesn't promise a place in Heaven if people will just endure their ailments during this life. He doesn't tell people that they'll be popular in Heaven to make up for being outcast on earth.

No. He creates a community and includes all of these people.

I went to a strange high school in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Young Life folks had been busy, and most of the popular, in-group types had been saved. And they were all too happy to tell you about it (and to point out the ways the rest of us were doomed). But did I see anything concrete that would convince me that their lives had changed? No. They still sat at their tables at lunch time, and the rest of us sat at ours. They didn't reach out to invite any of the really outcast to their parties (or maybe they did--I don't know--I wasn't invited). Meanwhile, new kids like me were adopted by the Drama groups and the Band and Choir (those strange high school intersections where all sorts of kids could coexist).

As we think about outreach, we should keep the example of Jesus in our mind. We should ask ourselves what our lives show others about Christian life. As we think about our individual lives and about what God has called us to do, we should keep God's example in mind. What is our larger purpose? How can we effectively minister to a broken and hurting world?

Many of us aren't comfortable talking about our faith, and perhaps that's for the best. Nothing turns of an unbeliever more than someone who inserts faith into the conversation too early ("Hi, I'm Cindy, and I'm saved. If you died tonight, could you be sure you'd be going to Heaven?" I wish I had $5 for every time I heard a variation of this in high school). Instead, we can help out our coworkers who need it. We can invite lonely people over for dinner. We can be the person who always has a smile ready. We can be the person who's willing to listen. We can be the light of the world that God needs us to be.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Collage Experiment: Soul Cards, Inspiration Cards

My spouse and I spent the week-end playing with collage. He's working on a large piece with lots of under-the-sea images from his SCUBA magazines. I wanted to play on a smaller canvas with the glitter cards that we picked up at an after-Christmas sale. I also have several old Lutheran green hymnbooks (the LBW), which I retrieved from the garbage and held onto for just this very purpose. You may have to expand the photo to see the parts of the hymnbook that I use.

When I found this image of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a hero of mine, I knew I wanted to do an updated Saint card.

I've always loved Compline, and so I wanted to create a Compline card, something soothing to stare at before sleep.

"Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel" is my favorite Advent hymn, my favorite Christmas season song. I liked mixing in some female images of God with the Advent theme.

I created additional cards, posted here at my creativity blog. I had great fun creating these, and I'll probably do more. What will I do with them? I like the idea of using them for inspiration, both in how I live my life, and in my writing process. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Come and See

Our pastor yesterday focused his sermon around the words of Jesus: "Come and see." He gave us a bit of interpretation of the word "see," and how the writer of the Gospel of John uses that word--in this context (and most others) the meaning of the word "see" is more akin to "believe" than the seeing that we do with our eyes. Our pastor reminded us that the disciples weren't really interested in where Jesus was physically staying when they asked, "Where are you staying?"; they wanted to know where he would be so that they could be there.

Our pastor pointed out that people are still on a quest--and then the heartsearching question: will they find what they're looking for at church?

Churches should want to be places where people can find Jesus dwelling in us deeply and richly. Are they? Is yours?

The sermon finished by asking us to think about these two essential questions:

What do we need to stop so that people will come and see?

What do we need to start so that people will come and see?

Important questions for the Church as institution and as individual group. Important question for us as Christians, both as a group and as individuals.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

This Week's Book Give-Away (#3)

This week, I'll be giving away books that are somehow tied to NPR. Here's the one that you'll know about, plus there will be a surprise.

Leave a comment, and I'll enter you into a drawing for this book. In one week, I'll draw a name, and if you're the lucky person, I'll contact you and mail you not only this book, but a surprise book too.

Inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King

Yesterday was Dr. Martin Luther King's true birthday; tomorrow is the day when many of us get a holiday. National leaders have determined that this week-end should be one of service.

As a Lutheran and a social justice person, these declarations make me grumpy. Every week should be devoted to social justice, and that's one of my spiritual goals, to make sure I do some work of social justice and/or charity each week (beyond giving money, which is a different spiritual goal; for more on my 2011 spiritual goals, go here).

Of course, I realize that the rest of the nation could stand to be reminded periodically of the necessity of service and social justice work. It's a dark time, in many ways, and I find the words of King still inspiring, still consoling, still hopeful: "Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity. So in a real sense this is a great time to be alive. Therefore, I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life's restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men." (from yesterday's post on The Writer's Almanac).

On the NPR program Talk of the Nation, Tavis Smiley and Cornell West discussed King's legacy. They talked about the fact that when King died, he was not the beloved person he is today. Smiley said, "King's life was really about three things: justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates people. Justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates. Sometimes, when you have that as your agenda, you're not popular. You're not understood." The whole interview is well worth a listen or a read (go here).

Just think how profoundly our society would change if more of us devoted our lives to these three things: justice for everybody, service to others and love that liberates. There's a worthy goal to keep in mind, not just this week-end, but every week-end.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Last 22 Hours to Enter Book Drawing

In case you've missed it, I'm holding a book drawing tomorrow (and every Sunday that I'm near a computer) both at this blog and at my theology blog. You've still got 22 hours to enter. I'll draw the lucky winners at 2 p.m. tomorrow. If you're the lucky winner, you'll get the book plus a surprise book.

To enter the drawing for Flirting with Monasticism: Finding God on Ancient Paths, go here and leave a comment.

To enter the drawing for Exiles, go here and leave a comment.

And come back to both sites tomorrow for the next books to be given away! I'm leaning towards a cookbook extravaganza for the Creativity blog . . . everyone gets pairs of cookbooks until they run out. What will I do for the theology buffs? Something extravagent to match . . .

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Thursday Tidbits: The World's Great Traditions

This morning, I was catching up on past NPR shows, and I had the pleasure of hearing Karen Armstrong on Talk of the Nation. She's written a new book on compassion, a book that sounds full of wisdom.

Here are some nuggets from the interview:

"And there's a mood of despair around - whether we're Easterners or Westerners - and despair is a dangerous thing because once people lose hope, they can resort to extreme measures."

"But there have been people who have practiced compassion in our lifetimes. I'm thinking of Martin Luther King; I'm thinking of Gandhi; Nelson Mandela, who walked out of that prison - 27 years - and instead of inculcating a policy of revenge started one of reconciliation. And one sees what one person can do, the effect of one person, and I think we all have to step up."

"Well, I think if you think you know what we call God is - you're on the wrong track, because all the religions tell us that what we call God or Brahma, Nirvana or Tao, is inexpressible, that nobody has the last word, that we are all stumbling in our attempts to either experience or contain it."

Go here for the whole interview, either to listen or to read a transcript.

I don't have her book to give away, but the two book give-aways this week do shed light into monasticism, one of religion's great tradition. Go here and leave a comment for a chance to win Exiles, Ron Hansen's book about Gerard Manley Hopkins (part of a great poetic tradition) and the nuns who drowned on their way to emigrate to America and the great poem that Hopkins wrote about their plight. And go here to leave a comment for a chance to win Flirting with Monasticism. Remember that each winner gets the book listed and a surprise book.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 16, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 40:1-12 (Psalm 40:1-11 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Gospel: John 1:29-42

Today's Gospel continues the story of Jesus' baptism, and it has lessons for each of us. Notice that Jesus doesn't get baptized and go home to sit on the sofa. He doesn't say, "Well, I'm glad I got that spiritual landmark over with. Now I don't have to do anything else until I die and get to go to Heaven."

No. Jesus goes out and tackles his mission. What is his mission? The same as ours: to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is revealing itself right here, right now, that God is breaking through our mundane daily life to transform us into better people in a better world.

But notice that Jesus doesn't go around yakking about this all the time. He's not the type of guy that drives most of us crazy, all talk and no follow through. When people ask about his mission, he says, "Come and see."

And what will people see? They will see a man healing the sick, comforting the poor in spirit, feeding the poor, eating with the outcast, and supporting the lowest people in society's social stratum (women, children, demon possessed, tax collectors, and the like). They will see a man who sacrifices his social life and prospects for a long life so that other lives will have improvement. They will see a man of constant movement.

What do people see when they look at your life? I've said it before, but it bears repeating: people pay attention to your actions. If your actions don't match your words, people don't accept your words. But it's worse: people see you as a hypocrite, one of those Christian types they hate so much. But it's even worse: if your actions habitually don't match your words, people begin to assume that ALL Christians are hypocrites.

I know it's tough some days. We're impatient. We wonder why these out-of-towners can't turn when they get a green arrow, and we lean on our horns. In these days of gathering gloom (economic, ecological), it's harder to part with our money. We want to conserve and hoard. We don't want to comfort a sick coworker because she reminds us that human flesh is so frail and grasslike. We would rather retreat to our houses and watch reality TV shows.

What's a beleaguered Christian to do? Pray for help, of course. Each morning, when you wake up and wash your body, remind yourself that you are marked with the cross of Christ forever. Then ask God to help you be the light of the world today. Remember that the world watches you, waiting for your light. Remember that when your light shines, other people feel better about being people of the sun. Forgive yourself for days when you're a dimly burning wick (to use the words of Isaiah's, in last week's readings) and remember that God does not extinguish a dimly burning wick.

And remember, that we are called to do tough work. Remember to follow the example of your Savior. Surround yourself with like-minded people who will help you on the journey. With these people, take frequent food breaks (eat fresh-baked bread and drink wine!). Every so often, retreat from the world's demands so that you can pray and recharge. And remember that Martin Luther said that faith should move your feet. We are called to be Movement People. And even the smallest movements can lead to great changes down the road.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I Am Not the Messiah: A Mantra for Challenging Times

Perhaps you're like me, and you're feeling a bit of despair. The holidays are now solidly behind us. The headlines are horrible. It's the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. All around we are reminded of that while the Kingdom of God might be breaking through to our everyday lives, it seems very far away at times.

At times like these, it's good to remind ourselves of the words of John the Baptist: "I am not the Messiah." So many of us forget, and then we get depressed and distressed when we can't work superhuman feats.

But we are not the Messiah. God is far more powerful than we are. God calls us to participate, not to orchestrate.

The life of Jesus also reminds us that we need to withdraw periodically. It's good to pray. It's good to turn off the news. It's good to turn to the practices which nourish and renew us: spiritual reading, listening to music, sharing a meal, making a donation.

I am not the Messiah. Luckily, I know the Messiah, and I know that we can count on Him.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Beloved of God (More Thoughts on Baptism)

Yesterday, our pastor's sermon focused on the word beloved, the word that God uses at the baptism of Jesus. Our pastor reminded us that we are beloved of/by God too, and we pondered what that meant, that intimacy.

Yesterday was a day of lots of water. The day began with the children at the baptismal font with palm branches. They dipped the palm branches in the font and sprinkled water over the congregation. Several times, our pastor dipped his hands in the water.

At the end of the sermon, our pastor went to the font and held up his soaked hands again. "Miracle stuff," he said.

He reminded us that there is nothing we can do that will make God love us any more than God already does. And there's nothing that we can do that will make God love us any less.

Good tidings of great joy!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

And the winner is . . . And the next book is . . .

Jemma is the lucky winner of book #1. But happily, there's a new book drawing almost every week, so be sure to check back on Sundays.

This week's book is Flirting with Monasticism: Finding God on Ancient Paths by Karen E. Sloan. This book tells the story of a woman who meets a man who is entering a monastic order, and under different circumstances, this story would tell of a very different flirtation. Sloan comes out of an Evangelical tradition, so her flirtation has some added nuances that others would not (for example, Catholics).

Leave a comment, and I'll enter you into a drawing for this book. In one week, I'll draw a name, and if you're the lucky person, I'll contact you and mail you not only this book, but a surprise book too. Happy reading!

Thinking of Baptism and Words Made Flesh

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Yesterday, a disturbed adolescent shot a member of the House of Representatives and others, and that gunman killed a federal judge. What do these events have in common?

There will be voices far more eloquent than mine, minds who will consider the inflammatory words of various groups and the frightening Internet posts of the gunman, and make connections to actions. As children, we're taught that words can't really hurt us--but we know that to be a lie the minute we hear it. I can still recall many a mean remark. It's harder for me to remember the nice things people have said about me.

History shows us that words can often lead to actions, both good and bad. The Civil Rights Movement workers sang songs about overcoming and not being moved--and they embodied those songs they sang. We can trace the history of the Civil War back through many a speech, many given a hundred years before the first shots were fired.

In baptism, we make promises. I have often wondered if families really think about what the words mean. With the baptism of my nephew, I promised to keep my sister and brother-in-law on the straight and narrow--but why did I think I had that power?

Baptism is a sacrament that relies on word and water. The words mean more to me as the years go by--and they also make me deeply uncomfortable when families I've never seen before have their babies baptized with us. As a congregation, we make a commitment to help those families raise those children in the way they should go. It's hard for me to say those words if I know I'm never going to see the family again.

Much of what we promise revolves around words: promises to bring the baptized to church, promises to make sure that the baptized gets the Scripture, and promises that the important stories will continue to be told. Language shapes us in so many ways, for better and worse, and our spiritual ancestors knew that fact.

Again and again, I resolve to watch my words. May they always be an instrument of peace, not a weapon.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Last 26 Hours to Enter Book Drawing

In case you've missed it, I'm holding a book drawing tomorrow (and every Sunday that I'm near a computer) both at this blog and at my theology blog. You've still got 27 hours to enter. I'll draw the lucky winners at 2 p.m. tomorrow. If you're the lucky winner, you'll get the book plus a surprise book.

To enter the drawing for Women, God and Food, go here and leave a comment.

To enter the drawing for Idea Catcher, go here and leave a comment.

And come back to both sites tomorrow morning for the next books to be given away!

Epiphany Lessons

On Epiphany night, I walked in from one of the more tiring days I've had at work, a day of intensive final work on the departmental assessment document. This document clocked in at almost 80 pages, and it involved creating 2 charts of my own, and incorporating 16 charts from faculty members, along with revisions and creating an introduction and conclusion. Exhausting. I also had to hire a Psychology adjunct after one of the Psych adjuncts had a family emergency arise, which meant he couldn't teach the class that starts next week.

Suffice it to say, I was bone tired when I walked in from work. We ate dinner together, and I kept my spouse company in the study until we decided to call it a day and watch television.

I went to the living room to plug in the tree. I didn't realize it wasn't there until I leaned over to get the plug, and had one of those discombobulating moments. My first irrational thought: "Someone stole our tree!" Then my rational mind kicked in: my spouse had simply undecorated the house.

Again and again, from a variety of places, the Advent message pops up. Stay awake! Keep watch! You don't know the day and the hour! Again and again, I let life's vicissitudes swamp my spiritual boat.

I'm trying to adopt a simple mind frame of gratitude for these Holy Spirit nudges. I'm trying not to beat up on myself for continuing to slip away from my fully-aware state. I'm trying to remember to keep watch, because the Christmas story reminds us that we never know where God will appear, but the Bible and the lives of the faithful show us again and again that God will appear where we least expect to find God.

Perhaps God will appear even in the modern office building where we slave away on endless revisions of endless documents, cursing the copy machine and drinking bad coffee.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

May We All Be Wise: The Feast of the Epiphany

Today we celebrate the twelfth day of Christmas feast day of the Epiphany, the day the Wise Men visit Jesus. Some of our Christian friends will spend time debating whether or not the Magi deserve a place in the Nativity story; after all, perhaps they were pagan astrologers, perhaps dabblers in the black arts. People of various stripes (including atheists) might argue the inconsistencies of the story or the outright impossibilities. Conspiracy theorists might argue about suppressed texts (for more on that, you might listen to this episode of The Diane Rehm Show, which talks about Brent Landau's book, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem).

Maybe the maleness of the story (a male King Herod, a male savior, three wise men) makes you feel left out. Go here for Jan Richardson's interesting and inspiring blog post about the wise women.

Maybe you aren't feeling quite so wise. Maybe you spent more or ate more or partied more than you should have during the Christmas season. Forgive yourself. Move on. Take a walk and tidy up the kitchen and resolve to get more sleep. Take stock of what you truly need. And perhaps, go shopping one last time, as now is the time that so many stores have great sales to get rid of the last of the merchandise. Buy Christmas stuff (cards, lights, decorations, wrapping paper) for next year while it's at a 75% discount. Buy some winter clothes--you've still got a month or two to wear them. Replace your tattered underthings. Buy a calendar with pictures that bring you joy.

You might take some time for contemplation today. Play the Christmas music one last time. Think about the tale of the Magi and the gifts they bring. What are the gifts that you bring? What are the gifts that have been given to you?

Take some time for gratitude. God showers us with so many gifts, and often we forget to say, "Thank you."

The Christmas story reminds us again and again that the greatest gift is the gift of Jesus. Our Creator comes to live with us, to show us the best way to be human. Think about the life of Jesus, and make one last resolution to adopt one of his behaviors. Be kind to the outcast. Visit the sick. Share the good news. Invite others to come and see. Practice a ministry of the table by inviting people to share a meal with you. Speak in parables--or at least tell more stories.

Most of us have already bid good-bye to Christmas and returned to our every day lives. Today is a good day to take one last Christmas moment, to recover our capacity for wonder, to delight in the miraculous, to look for the unexpected, and to rejoice in the amazing Good News of a God who loves us so much that the Divine One comes to live with us.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 9, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 29

Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43

Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17

This week's Gospel finds Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, a ministry that shows what a difference to world history a year of two can make. Notice that Jesus begins with baptism. Much critical ink, and literal blood, has been spilled in the centuries since the baptism of Christ, as people try to determine how important baptism should be to us as Christians. But let's put those issues aside and focus on the words of God: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

We tend to see Jesus as special. We can't imagine God saying the same thing about us. But in fact, from everything we can tell, God does feel that way about us. God takes on human form in its most vulnerable (well, the form could have been more vulnerable, I suppose; God could have appeared as a female slave in the Roman empire). How much more of a demonstration of love do we need?

For those of us who are big believers in affirmations, we should print out those words and paste them on our bathroom mirrors. What does it mean, if we believe God is well pleased with us?

Many of us dwell in the land of self-loathing this time of year. Maybe we've spent too much money on our Christmas festivities. Maybe we've eaten too much in that time between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Maybe we've already broken our New Year's resolutions. We look in our mirrors and see multiple reasons to hate ourselves.

We look in the mirror and see ourselves as we imagine that the world sees us. The world looks at us and feeds us criticism: too fat, too plain, too wrinkled, too odd, too tall, too short. A diet of that commentary quickly leaves us malnourished. The world looks at us and judges us in terms of all the things we haven't accomplished yet: no child or children who don't measure up, lack of business success, a house that's too small or in the wrong neighborhood, no publication credits, no worthy creative products, the wrong kind of degree or no degree at all. Seeing ourselves through the eyes of the world means we compare ourselves to others and hold ourselves to impossible standards.

No one wins this game.

Try a different practice for a week or two (or 52). Look in the mirror and see yourself not as the world sees you. Look in the mirror and know that God loves you. God chose you. God delights in you.

Our spiritual forebears might have worried that this kind of practice would lead to too much pride. But frankly, our culture has changed. In a world where more people are seeking help for the diseases of depression and anxiety disorders than ever before in human history, and many of the rest of us are trying to self-medicate, perhaps we shouldn't worry too much about big-headedness.

God chose you. God delights in you. God loves you.

You may find this hard to believe. You may be able to believe that God loves people like Mother Theresa or Archbishop Tutu, or any number of people more worthy than you. The good news is that God loves you the same way. God sees you in the same way.

No matter how much you improve yourself, God will still love you. No matter how many times you lose sight of your goals and move further away from the best self that you could be, God will still love you. Of course God sees your full potential and probably hopes that you'll move in that direction. But even if you don't, God will love you anyway. No matter how miserably you've failed, God will always welcome you.

We've lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Why cripple ourselves with this kind of thinking? There's work to be done, and the world cannot afford for you to waste time feeling bad for all the ways you've failed. Every day, remember your baptism (perhaps as you bathe, as Martin Luther recommended) and the larger meaning of your baptism.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Tuesday Tidbits

--My friend is recovering nicely in the hospital. We even chatted for a few sentences worth on the phone last night. Hurrah!

--As I prayed for her, I broadened my concerns to pray for surgeons and patients everywhere.

--Now the hard work begins, the healing and the learning to use the new hip--and the refraining from behaviors (like bending and lifting) that will damage her body before it's had a chance to grow new bone around the titanium.

--Let us pause and say, "Great show, God!" How amazing these bodies that can grow new bone and blood. How amazing our brains, that figured out how to replace joints that no longer work. How amazing this creation that commits to resurrection on a daily basis!

--I have two book give-aways going on, one at each blog: go here and here for details. All you need to do to be entered in the Sunday morning drawing is to leave a simple comment (something like "Me!").

--I'm supposed to have a blog post put up at Living Lutheran today: resolutions that will help you take small steps towards being a peacemaker.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Praying for Our Atheist Friends Who Face Surgery

Across town, one of my best friends wakes up today (is likely already awake) to prepare to have hip replacement surgery. I have already prayed for her. And you might say, "Of course. We would expect you to pray for a friend facing surgery."

Except this friend is an avowed atheist, one of those mind made up, no hint of doubt atheists. I've wondered about the ethics of praying for atheists. I've already decided that God won't be upset if I pray for her. I pray for atheists of all sorts, usually the sort of prayer where I ask God to melt the frozen hearts of dictators, human rights abusers, those in power in all sorts of settings. My friend is no evil creepazoid. God won't mind my prayers for her safety and health, for the sure fingers of her surgeon, for her nurses.

Do I need to get her permission? I thought about this too, but I decided not to get her permission. I'm not going to be one of those loud people, who, when the surgery is a success, announces that I prayed for her. I'm not going to pray with her in a loud voice before the surgery. I won't even be in the waiting room. No, I'll pray as I so often do, in the privacy of my own bed/room/office.

I will think of those studies (perhaps disproven?) that showed that patients who had people pray for them had an easier recovery than those who didn't, even when the patients didn't know anyone was praying. I'll pray because it gives me something to do, a purpose. I can't stitch together flesh or administer drugs, but I can pray. I'll pray because it soothes me too. I'll pray because God wants me to pray. I'll pray, not because I can prove anything with science, but because it's what I do. It's a practice that will point me towards the person I want to be.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2011 Book Give-Away: #1

Leave a comment, and I'll enter you into a drawing for this book. In one week, I'll draw a name, and if you're the lucky person, I'll contact you and mail you not only this book, but a surprise book too.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I'll admit that this book doesn't have as much to do with God as the title would lead us to believe. But it seems like a good book for the new year, when so many of us are making resolutions. Also, you're not getting a brand new copy--before I realized I wouldn't be keeping it, I did underline some passages. But if I draw your name, the book is yours: to keep forever, to pass along, to donate, whatever you like!

Don't delay. The drawing will take place on Sunday morning, January 9. Leave me a comment, and you're in the drawing.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Spiritual Goals for 2011

I have always had good luck with goals. Even when I don't meet them (which is often), I think the process of creating goals and checking in periodically is worthwhile. It's so easy to get off track, and having goals in mind helps me stay on the trajectory I want to traverse.

With the exception of weight loss, when I don't meet goals, I don't spend too much time in self-recrimination. I try to assess whether or not the problem lies within the goal: too ambitious, not really what I want to accomplish, simply impossible with my current life situation? Or is the problem with me: not focused, off kilter, lazy, bone tired?

I've been feeling somewhat sad because I feel off track so much lately. It was easier to meet my spiritual goals (more prayer, more reading) before my job turned into a 40+ hours a week in an office kind of job.

But still, there are things I can do. Let me make a list of my spiritual goals for 2011:

--Pray more. I'd like to consistently pray some variation of the Liturgy of the Hours. Readers of this blog will know that I particularly like Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours. I'd also like to do a better job of praying for people and a better job of offering prayers of gratitude.

--Acts of Social Justice. Could I do one thing a week? I won't count donating money as one of those events. But surely I could do something, even if it's simply buying some fabric for Lutheran World Relief. Other possibilities: buying food for a food pantry, serving dinner at First Lutheran, putting together relief kits, sorting through my stuff and donating to charities, creating baby quilts.

--Continue to strive to tithe. Why is giving away 10% of my income hard for me? It's harder some months than others, and I always come close (6-8%). I'd like to meet this goal.

--Carefully and prayerfully consider before making commitments. I have said yes too quickly, and found myself overcommitted. I find myself thinking, wait, I thought I would like this, but I'm finding it exhausting. One example is Christian Education. I want to believe that whatever we do is vital, even if only one or two people show up. But I've begun to wonder if it's really a valid use of my time and energy (both in shorter and shorter supplies these days) to work in an area which clearly seems to meet the needs of very few people.

Four goals. Let me not fall into the trap of those of us who make lists, the trap of having too long a list with too many goals. Let me set myself up for success, not failure.