Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 3, 2011:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Psalm: Psalm 23

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14

Gospel: John 9:1-41

Occasionally, a student will ask me how I know that a symbol is really a symbol, and not just me overreacting to something in the text. I always reply that we know we're looking at a symbol when the author comes back to it again and again. Then an image is meant to take on more weight.

Today's Gospel would be a good illustration of this point. Again and again, we see blind people in this text, from the physically blind to the metaphorically blind. Again and again, the text returns to blindness. Clearly, we're meant to explore issues of our own blindness. It's not bad to do a spiritual inventory periodically. Where do we see evidence of God in our lives? Where are we blind to God's presence?

As I read the text for this week, I found myself getting to this point from a different angle. Look at how Jesus cures this blind man. He mixes dirt and spit (dirt and spit!) onto the man's eyes and instructs him to bathe. I'm not the first to be struck by the earthiness of this cure: the use of different elements (dirt, saliva, and water), the rootedness of the cure in the physical (Jesus doesn't cast a spell, for example, or call on angels), and the simplicity of it all.

It might make us think back to the Genesis story, of God forming the first humans out of dirt (Adam) and an extra rib (Eve). It might make us think of all the ways that God uses basic, earthbound elements in both creation and salvation.

Think of our sacraments, for example. There's baptism, the word bound with water. And the water doesn't come to us from some special source--it's not like we special-order it from the Holy Land. Well, perhaps some churches do, but that's a foolish use of money, if you ask me. It's not like those waters have special powers. The power comes from the word--and perhaps more importantly, from the words that the congregation offers. When we baptize someone, the whole congregation takes a vow to support that person--when you wonder why baptism is such a public event, and why some people are adamant that it not be separated from the service and the congregation, that's why. It's not a photo op. It's a sacrament.

Think about Holy Communion. I've been to many Holy Communions now. Some churches use wafers specially ordered from religious communities, but you don't have to do that. I've had Communion with pita bread, with challah, and once, with a pizza crust. I've had good wine, bad wine, and grape juice. Again, what's important is the symbol of the elements, mixed with the words. It's not just about memory--it's how God becomes present to us, through a mystery that we don't fully understand.

Sometimes, I think that Luther may have gone too far in a direction opposite of the Catholic church. I have Sacrament Envy. The longer that I am married, the more convinced I am that marriage is a sacrament. Through the love I experience from my husband, who loves me even though I am imperfect and often incapable of lasting reform--and forgives me, over and over, through these experiences, I get a glimpse of God's love. Of course, I could say the same thing about family members or close friends.

As we work our way through the Scriptures, think about how often God takes simple things and turns them into routes that can lead to salvation. The most stunning example, of course, is the story of the Incarnation. During weeks where I'm impatient with my own failing flesh, I'm even more astounded than usual that the Divine would take on this project.

And we, of course, can work similar magic. Open up your dinner table, and observe grace in action. Forgive freely, and watch redemption work. Pray for those who would do you wrong, and notice what happens. Get your fingers in the dirt and watch the flowers bloom later. Take some simple elements and envision them as sacramental, a symbolic route to God.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Poetry Tuesday: "The Precious Nature of Junk"

For today's Poetry Tuesday, I present a poem which envisions God as an old woman. This poem first appeared in Interdisciplinary Humanities.

The Precious Nature of Junk

If God is an old woman,
She uses no recipe.
Long ago she learned
what she needed to know:
how to make do with scarce
resources, how to create successful
substitutions, how to create
magic from simple kitchen chemistry.

If God is an old woman,
She saves all our old clothes. She alone
has a vision of a collage of cloth.
She cuts new shapes out of our discards
and pieces them into an intricate quilt,
even though she knows we will fail
to appreciate her demonstrated skill.

If God is an old woman,
She longs for closer connection.
She sends cards for every occasion
and fills the answering machine with cryptic
messages. She has such important
information to pass on and such little
time left. We listen
and wonder at her mental state.

If God is an old woman,
She knows that everything could have a larger
purpose. She hoards items we’d have discarded
long ago. She understands the precious
nature of junk.

I wrote this poem in my on-going attempt to see God in different ways. I grew up in a church that was fairly traditional in the way it portrayed God: God as father, God as King, God as Ruler of the World. What a revelation to later discover some of the passages of the Bible which envisions God as a mother bird, God as a knitter of our bones. I've tried to continue that tradition here, while trying to choose images that enlarge our vision of God.

If you like this work, be sure to check out Lynn Domina's latest book, Framed in Silence (order here).

Monday, March 28, 2011

What the Samaritan Woman at the Well Teaches Us about Judgmental Behavior

In yesterday's sermon, our pastor talked about the reputation that Christians have for being judgmental. Alas, I don't think that personality trait is limited to Christians. He then visited the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. What would have happened if Jesus had been judgmental? She certainly wouldn't have told her whole village about him. What an opportunity would have been lost!

How hard it is to refrain from being judgmental. How hard it is to love people where they are. But that's our task as disciples.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Prompt: Listening to our Hearts, Seeking God

Learning from Abraham: Following our heart
What does it mean to follow our heart?
If I listen to God's voice in my heart, what is he challenging me to do next, with his help?

Nicodemus was seeking Jesus, because he recognized him as coming from God.
Are you seeking him? What are you seeking from Jesus?

March 20, 2011
Genesis 12:1-4a

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves');" onmouseout="return nd();" href="javascript:void(0);"*
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

Psalm 121 (1,2)
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus him');" onmouseout="return nd();" href="javascript:void(0);"* by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ born anew');" onmouseout="return nd();" href="javascript:void(0);"* 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. same Greek word means both wind and spirit');" onmouseout="return nd();" href="javascript:void(0);"* 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You Greek word for you here is plural');" onmouseout="return nd();" href="javascript:void(0);"* must be born from above.” anew');" onmouseout="return nd();" href="javascript:void(0);"* 8The wind same Greek word means both wind and spirit');" onmouseout="return nd();" href="javascript:void(0);"* blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you Greek word for you here and in verse 12 is plural');" onmouseout="return nd();" href="javascript:void(0);"* do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.who is in heaven');" onmouseout="return nd();" href="javascript:void(0);"* 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 15');" onmouseout="return nd();" href="javascript:void(0);"*
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Prayer of the Day
O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Feast Day of Oscar Romero

So, technically, today isn't a feast day; Oscar Romero has not been made a saint yet. But I can think of few other people who lived during the second half of the 20the century who more deserve sainthood. And no one would have anticipated that Romero would be such a force for social justice when he was first made Archbishop. His story reminds us of the power of the Gospel, the power of the Easter story, the radical ways that our lives can change if we really follow Jesus.

In his book Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, Eugene H. Peterson reminds us, "Nothing is more rudely dismissive of Jesus than to treat him as a Sunday school teacher who shows up on Sundays to teach us about God and how to stay out of trouble. If that is the role we assign to Jesus, we will badly misunderstand who he is and what he is about" (page 135). Interestingly, many scholars believe that Archbishop Romero was chosen to his position because the leaders in the Vatican saw him as a quiet man who wouldn't make trouble.

All that changed when one of his good friends, an activist Jesuit priest, was assassinated by one of the death squads roaming the country. Romero became increasingly political, increasingly concerned about the poor who were being oppressed by the tiny minority of rich people in the country. He called for reform. He called on the police and the soldiers to stop killing their brethren. And for his vision, he was killed as he consecrated the bread for Mass.

Romero knew that he was in danger from various political forces in the country, but he refused to cower in fear and back down. Likewise, Jesus must have known what wrath he was bringing down upon himself, but he did not back down. Until the end of his life, he called upon us to reform our earthly systems, systems that enrich a few on the backs of the many. Romero and Christ both show us that the forces of empire do not take kindly to being criticized.

Jesus warns us that to follow him will mean taking up a cross, and it may be the literal cross of death. The story of Palm Sunday reminds us that we are not here to seek the world's approval: the world may love us one day and crucify us next week. Palm Sunday offers us some serious reminders. If we put our faith in the world, we're doomed. If we get our glory from the acclaim of the secular world, we'll find ourselves rejected sooner, rather than later.

It's important for us to remember the basic lesson of the Scriptures: God is not fickle; it's humans and the societies that humans create that are fickle. You can be acclaimed in one season and denounced in the next.

The Passion story and the story of Oscar Romero remind us that dreadful things may happen to us. God took on human form, and even God couldn't avoid horrific pain and suffering. But the Passion story also reminds us that we are not alone. God is there in the midst of our human dramas. If we believe in free will and free choices, then God may not be able to protect us from the consequences of our decisions. But God will be there to be our comfort and our strength.

A more important lesson comes with Easter. God can take horrific suffering and death and transform it into resurrection. We know what happened to Jesus and those early Christians after the death of Jesus. Likewise, in death, Oscar Romero became a larger force for justice than in life. His death, and the martyrdom of other Church leaders and lay workers (not to mention the deaths of 75,000 civilians) galvanized worldwide public opinion against the forces of death in El Salvador. God is there with us in our suffering and with God's help, suffering can be transformed.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 27, 2011:

First Reading: Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 95

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-11

Gospel: John 4:5-42

If you didn't read much of the Bible, you might assume that Samaritans are good people; after all, wasn't the only person who stopped to help the traveler who was assaulted and left for dead, wasn't that person a Samaritan?

Yes, and that's part of the point of the story that many of us miss. Church officials didn't stop to help. The only person who did stop to help was one of the lowest people in the social stratosphere.

Actually, today's Gospel introduces us to one lower, a Samaritan woman. We know that she has low status because she's a Samaritan and because she's coming to the well later in the day. It would have been the custom to come early in the morning to socialize, and the fact that she doesn't come then speaks volumes. She's a woman in a patriarchal society and part of a group (Samaritans) who have almost no social status. It would only be worse if she was a prostitute or a slave.

Yet, Jesus has a long conversation with her, the longest that he has with anyone recorded in the New Testament. Here, again this week, Jesus is in Mystic mode. She asks questions, and he gives her complex answers.

But unlike Nicodemus, she grasps his meaning immediately. And she believes. She goes back to her city and spreads the good news. And her fellow citizens believe her and follow her back to follow Jesus. Notice how she has gone from isolation to community.

Jesus preaches to them and seems to include them, complete outsiders, in his vision of the Kingdom. Hence the good news: Jesus came for us all.

Years ago, I listened to NPR commemorate the 40th anniversary of Mr. Rodgers and the neighborhood that he created for so many children on PBS television. They played a clip of him speaking to the grown ups who had grown up watching him. He reminded us of what he had told us when we were children: "I like you just the way you are."

I felt tears well up from a deep, inside place. How seldom we hear that, either as children or as grown ups! How often are we exhorted to improve ourselves this way or that way. How relentlessly we quest for perfection.

In this Gospel, we hear a similar voice to Mr. Rodgers, the voice of Christ who will spend time with people who are completely outcast. We are never too lost for God. We don't have to improve ourselves to win salvation. God doesn't tell us that we'll win love if we just lose ten pounds or pray more often or work one more night in the soup kitchen or give away ten more dollars a week to worthy charities.

Jesus doesn't send the Samaritan woman back to town until he's made a connection with her. He doesn't say, "Hey, if you're at a well at noon, you must be a real slut, if the women won't even let you come to the well with them in the morning. Mend your slutty ways, and maybe I'll let you be part of my vision for the Kingdom."

No, he spends time with her and that's how he wins her over. He knows that humans can't change themselves in the hopes of some kind of redemption; we can’t even lose 10 pounds in time for our class reunion, much less make the substantial changes that will take us into a healthier older age. However, Jesus knows the path to true change; he knows that humans are more likely to change if they feel like God loves them and wants to be with them just the way they are. Jesus comes to say, “You’ve lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Sit with me and talk about what matters.” That treatment might be enough to motivate us to behave like we are the light of the world.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Poetry Tuesday: "Rainy Redemption"

In this post, I posited that reading more poetry could help our understanding of the Bible, and I promised that each Tuesday of each week of Lent, I'd post one of my poems, along with thoughts about the poem and Biblical interpretation.

This week, I'm going to post a poem that takes a more subtle approach to religious issues. It's also a poem that celebrates Spring, which seems appropriate for this week, the week where we've celebrated the vernal equinox. This poem comes from my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Rainy Redemption

She told us the X-ray showed a black
spot on her lung. We assumed the cancer harbored
in her breast had set on an odyssey
for new land, and when we didn’t see her
again, we assumed the worst.

Three years later, the flowers bloomed in their annual
tribute to spring, and I saw
her in a parking lot. At first, I thought
I saw a ghost, but I held her fleshly
form, still sapling-thin, and knew she had returned,
Lazarus-like, to live among us again.

Our culture focuses on the lost, the missing
in action, but we forget the world commits
to resurrection and reunion. The twig of a tree
sends sap to its tips, the crispy lawn returns
to a life filled with chlorophyll, muscles
wait for the mind to remember what they never forgot,
each generation resurrects the music of its elders,
babies look towards the sky for the familiar
face of the missing parent, history holds
us in its hands and offers rainy redemption.

Notice that in this poem, the religious references are somewhat veiled; one can understand this poem without a religious orientation. The only overtly religious words are Lazarus, resurrection, and redemption.

I've often thought that most of us are reading the Bible in a similar way; most of us don't fully understand the religious references in the Bible. We assume that parts of the Old Testament were prophecy, predicting the arrival of Jesus as we've come to know him. It never occurs to many of us that New Testament writers were steeped in these texts and would have put references to them into their Gospels and letters, an intentional linking of current events to a historical tradition. It's a historical tradition that many modern Christians know nothing about.

I like poems and texts where there's an undergirding waiting for me, if I go looking for it, but for those who don't know of the undergirding, the text still works.

I also like poems that use nature to inform the reader about the nature of God. If you enjoy this kind of work, you might check out the poetry of Mary Oliver. You might start with this poem, "The Summer Day," and work out from there.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pondering Nicodemus and Everyday Incarnateness

Yesterday, our Pastor reminded us that we see Nicodemus again in the Gospel of John. I'm not sure I ever realized this, or perhaps, like most things, I knew it briefly and promptly forgot.

But we do see Nicodemus again, after the death of Jesus, where he shows up with a hundred pounds of burial spices, likely myrrh and aloe. A hundred pounds! Months of regular wages worth of burial spices. He arrives in the open, in the daylight, prepared to minister to the corpse of Jesus--so unlike his first meeting with Jesus.

Apparently, he's seen enough of Jesus in action to convince him, even if he still might not understand the concept of being born again. Our pastor, who has done some research into Celtic Christianity, reminded us of the Celtic idea of spirituality, that ancient Celts believed not only in the past incarnate Jesus, but in the incarnate sacredness of everyday life: that every task existed to point us to the Creator.

In other words, in present day terms, Jesus isn't just hanging out in church, waving good-bye to us as we leave, waiting for us to return next Sunday. No, God wants to be with us in our everyday lives, no matter how mundane.

To put this idea into concrete terms: God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit wants to be with us when we clean the toilets, not just when we get dressed up to go to church or to go out to dinner or to go on vacation.

For some of us (many of us), this thought must be terrifying, this idea that God isn't safely contained. For some of us, the idea that God is loose in the world, waiting for us, is a supreme comfort--and easy to believe, in this time of springtime, when God winks at us in the new growth and green we see every day.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Moon Directs Us to the Creator

At my creativity blog, I created a photo essay about last night's moon. It is when I'm out in nature that I find it easiest to put my doubts about the existence of God aside. What a marvelous moon! What an incredible planet!

Yes, I'm one of those people, like the Deists of old (I'm in good company--many of our United States founding fathers and mothers were Deists); the existence of a creation seems to prove to me the existence of a Creator. I'm certain that I can't comprehend the scope of our Creator, but every aspect of the natural world tells me that God exists.

Yes, those aspects give me certain contradicting information. But so far, I can live in the contradictions.

Happy Spring! May this season remind you of the commitment of creation, and our Creator, to resurrection.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Prompt: Give Us Shelter

Our Faith Writing group at church is sending out Bible readings and prompts--one for each week of Lent. You can use these prompts to inspire your writing, your creation of visual imagery, your photography, your songs, your dance.

For more thoughts on infusing your Lenten season with creativity, see this post.

Psalm 32: 6-7

Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress,
the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
7 You are a hiding-place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

Things to Ponder:

--We see themes of natural destruction running throughout the Bible. Create a modern response to natural disaster--what haunts our collective consciousness? How do we see God interacting with the natural world? How do we see God protecting us? What does it mean if God doesn't protect us or if our loved ones are swept away "in the rush of mighty waters"?

--God as hiding place: write, draw, collage that image--what are we hiding from? How does God shelter us?

--In this time of melting reactors, how would you incorporate those images, if you were writing a modern Psalm?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Feast Day of St. Patrick

Today is one of the most famous feast days, the feast day of St. Patrick, although most people will probably celebrate this day by drinking green beer and eating Irish food that they would normally go out of their way to avoid. But before we go out to celebrate by eating shepherd's pie and drinking, let's think about the life of St. Patrick and what we might learn.

St. Patrick was born to a high ranking Roman family in England, but when he was approximately 16, he was kidnapped and spent 6 or 7 years as a slave in Ireland. While there, he learned the language and the non-Christian customs of the land.

This knowledge would come in handy when he was sent back to Ireland in the 5th century to solidify the Christianity of the country. There are many stories about Patrick's vanquishing force, complete with Druid spells and Christian counterspells. I suspect the real story was perhaps more tame.

Later scholars have suggested that Patrick and his compatriots were sent to minister to the Christians who were already there, not to conquer the natives. Other scholars have speculated that one of the reasons that Christianity was so successful in Ireland was because Patrick took the parts of pagan religions that appealed most to its followers and showed how those elements were also present in Christianity--or perhaps incorporated them into Christianity as practiced in Ireland.

All scholars seem to agree: Patrick was essential in establishing Christianity in Ireland. And he wouldn't have been so effective, had he not spent time there as a slave, which meant he learned the language and the customs of the country.

So, when we despair over our bad fortune, perhaps we can remember St. Patrick, born into a noble family, sold into slavery--an experience which would later make him successful in God's mission in ways he never could have anticipated.

Here's a prayer for your feast day, a prayer said to be written by St. Patrick himself, a prayer commonly known as St. Patrick's Breast-Plate:

"I bind to myself today: The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity: I believe the Trinity in the Unity The Creator of the Universe.

I bind to myself today: The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism, The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial, The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension, The virtue of His coming on the Judgement Day.

I bind to myself today: The virtue of the love of seraphim, In the obedience of angels, In the hope of resurrection unto reward, In prayers of Patriarchs, In predictions of Prophets, In preaching of Apostles, In faith of Confessors, In purity of holy Virgins, In deeds of righteous men.

I bind to myself today: The power of Heaven, The light of the sun, The brightness of the moon, The splendour of fire, The flashing of lightning, The swiftness of wind, The depth of sea, The stability of earth, The compactness of rocks.

I bind to myself today: God's Power to guide me, God's Might to uphold me, God's Wisdom to teach me, God's Eye to watch over me, God's Ear to hear me, God's Word to give me speech, God's Hand to guide me, God's Way to lie before me, God's Shield to shelter me, God's Host to secure me, Against the snares of demons, Against the seductions of vices."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 20, 2011:

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a

Psalm: Psalm 121

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Gospel: John 3:1-17

It's always interesting to come across a familiar verse in context. John 3:16 is one of those verses that many people can quote. And yet, we're at the end of centuries of disagreement about what it means. Does it mean that Jesus had to be crucified as a sacrifice for our sins, as many Christians will tell you? Does it mean that Jesus came to show us a different way of life, thus saving us, as many people uncomfortable with a sacrificial Jesus would have us believe? Does it mean that Jesus is the only way to the Divine? What about people who will never hear about Jesus? Will they go to Hell when they die?

John is the most mystical of the Gospels, and not surprisingly, Jesus acts as a mystic in this episode with Nicodemus. He's studying the Torah at night (first century Jews would recognize night as the time for serious study of the Torah). He asks Jesus serious questions, as a scholar would, and Jesus seems to give him nonsense answers about being born again.

Read what Jesus says again, and imagine how frustrating it must have been for Nicodemus. It's frustrating for me, and I come from a tradition that would be happy to explain it to me. I can talk about the ideas of Martin Luther with the best of them, the small and large Catechisms, and yet, Jesus seems to be offering mystical babble here.

These are the passages that I hate discussing with the confused and the non-believers. I'm a poet and an English major, so I don't have as much trouble getting my head around sacraments as more literal-minded folks do--but explaining it? That's a different matter.

Maybe we don't have to explain. I take part in all sorts of mysteries that I can't explain. I don't understand internal combustion engines, but I drive my car anyway, and I have faith that it will work. I can't explain how electricity is generated or how it powers all the things that make my life easy, but that doesn't stop me from turning on the lights when it's dark.

Advent and Lent are two times of the liturgical year when I am most conscious that I'm participating in a mystery--and therefore, I can't explain everything, especially not to the satisfaction of non-believers. I can't even explain it to me. As Jesus says, "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit."

I have faith in being born again, although I might define that differently than my fundamentalist friends. Each day is like a new opportunity, a new birth, a new chance to re-align myself towards God. Each day, God wants to come be with me, and each day, I get to decide whether or not that will happen. Even if I go through a period of not living as mindfully as I'd like, I can start again, whenever I choose. And these liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent remind us of the need to turn and return to God.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Poetry Tuesday: "Heaven on Earth"

In this post, I posited that reading more poetry could help our understanding of the Bible, and I promised that each Tuesday of each week of Lent, I'd post one of my poems, along with thoughts about the poem and Biblical interpretation.

I thought I'd start with one of my more popular poems. I'm always amazed to find that it's so popular. I resisted writing it for years because it felt so transgressive. And once I wrote it, I didn't publish it for years, because I worried about the reaction of readers, who very well might find it heretical. But it's gone on to be one of the ones that people like best. This poem originally appeared in Coal City Review and was reprinted in The Worcester Review, before it ultimately became part of my first chapbook of poems, Whistling Past the Graveyard. If you want to hear Garrison Keillor read it, go here.

Heaven on Earth

I saw Jesus at the bowling alley,
slinging nothing but gutter balls.
He said, “You’ve gotta love a hobby
that allows ugly shoes.”
He lit a cigarette and bought me a beer.
So I invited him to dinner.

I knew the Lord couldn’t see my house
in its current condition, so I gave it an out
of season spring cleaning. What to serve
for dinner? Fish—the logical
choice, but after 2000 years, he must grow weary
of everyone’s favorite seafood dishes.
I thought of my Granny’s ham with Coca Cola
glaze, but you can’t serve that to a Jewish
boy. Likewise pizza—all my favorite
toppings involve pork.

In the end, I made us an all-dessert buffet.
We played Scrabble and Uno and Yahtzee
and listened to Bill Monroe.
Jesus has a healthy appetite for sweets,
I’m happy to report. He told strange
stories which I’ve puzzled over for days now.

We’ve got an appointment for golf on Wednesday.
Ordinarily I don’t play, and certainly not in this humidity.
But the Lord says he knows a grand miniature
golf course with fiberglass mermaids and working windmills
and the best homemade ice cream you ever tasted.
Sounds like Heaven to me.

I have always been fascinated by the question my 5th grade Sunday School teacher asked: if Jesus came back today, what would happen? My 5th grade Sunday School teacher surely didn't dream that her question would spark a poem series when I was a grown up. I've written many poems that come back to this question, but the poem above was the first.

Even from that early age, I learned that Jesus was not what people were expecting. As I got older, I learned in a deeper way about how Jesus did not fit the image of the Messiah that people wanted. People had been looking for a savior who would rescue them from the Roman empire, not someone who would advise them to care for the widow and orphan, to create community (and thus, the Kingdom of God) right where they were. I've also been fascinated by the idea of table ministry that Jesus perfected: invite people to a meal and you've begun to form a bond. Yell at them shrilly, and they're likely to flee in terror or annoyance.

When I started thinking about this poem, I really was at a bowling alley. All around me, people smoked and drank. I thought that should Jesus appear here, he would smoke and drink too. I also thought about all the places Jesus took his followers and tried to come up with something similar: thus the miniature golf and homemade ice cream. And the part about the strange stories speaks to the parables of Jesus. We're used to those parables, so we forget how strange they would have seemed to Jesus' contemporaries.

For example, Jesus talks about yeast, but people of that time period would have seen yeast as something alien and unclean. A contemporary example would be if Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is like the mold on your bathroom wall when you go away on vacation for a month in the summer and your air conditioner stops working." We'd recoil.

Jesus was strange, but also alluring, and I wanted my poem to capture that concept. Jesus came to people where they were--he didn't insist that they come to a distant temple or mountaintop; again, I tried to think of where humans congregate. If Jesus came back today, where would he find us? Today I might cast Jesus as an office temp. Hmm, now there's an image (I've written about Jesus as fast food worker, but that poem is unfinished).

Here's a prompt, if you'd like to play: if Jesus came into your life, if Jesus invited you to "Come and See," what would happen? How would Jesus fit into your life? How would your life need to change? How would you know it was Jesus?

If you enjoy this poem, you might want to explore the poems in Sweet Jesus: Poems About the Ultimate Icon edited by Nick Carbo and Denise Duhamel. It's out of print now, but you can likely find a used or library copy.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Henri Nouwen on Hospitality

In these days where our community bonds are more and more stressed, I thought I'd write out some quotes from Henri Nouwen. As usual, he has more profound things to say than I do this morning.

"Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host." (originally in Reaching Out; reprinted in Show Me the Way, page 25)

"We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend. But when we say, 'Please enter--my house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness, and my life is your life,' we have nothing to defend, since we have nothing to lose but all to give." (originally in Reaching Out; reprinted in Show Me the Way, page 26)

"Poverty makes a good host. This paradoxical statement needs some more explanation. In order to be able to reach out to the other in freedom, two forms of poverty are very important, the poverty of mind and the poverty of heart." (originally in Reaching Out; reprinted in Show Me the Way, page 27)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Thought from Henri Nouwen

Yesterday's Henri Nouwen reading in my Lenten devotional discipline struck me:

"To live a spiritual life does not mean that we must leave our families, give up our jobs, or change our ways of working; it does not mean that we have to withdraw from social or political activities or lose interest in literature and art; it does not require severe forms of asceticism or long hours of prayer. . . . the spiritual life can be lived in as many ways as there are people" (originally from Making All Things New, reprinted in Show Me the Way, pages 20-21, emphasis mine).

Why does this passage interest me so much? I've spent much of my life thinking of a spiritual life in terms of right or wrong: do this, don't do this, this is the right way, all other ways are wrong. What a wonderful counterpoint to my severe view: just as there are a multitude of humans, there are a multitude of ways to live a spiritual life.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

When the Planet's Plates Collide

What do we say on the day after a disaster like the Pacific earthquake and the ensuing tsunami?

We might think about the existential questions, such as if there's a loving God, why does God allow such things? Natural disasters might be harder to reconcile than human-made disasters, which we can chalk off to free will and the human tendency towards bad choices. But why would God create a planet with tectonic plates that shift and hurt us so much?

My view of God is different. I believe in a God that set creation into motion, but didn't micromanage it all. I believe in a God that uses evolution as a creation tool. I believe in a God that might cause a big bang without being in complete control of the universe(s) that big bang would create--big bangs, also, as creation tools, much the way a sewing machine, a pottery wheel, and a table saw are creation tools.

I am not sure that these existential questions are useful, but perhaps I feel that way because I'm a 45 year old woman and I'm tired of these existential questions. For me, it's clear that the proper Christian responses are prayer and assistance.

As we know now, because of so many recent disasters, sending money to responsible agencies is the best way to send assistance. My personal favorite is Lutheran World Relief, which has people on the ground already. To donate through this group, go here.

And even if we cannot afford to give, we can afford to pray. We should pray for those who are hurt and those who must clean up the mess. We can pray for the ecological disaster that may be underway as the damaged nuclear plants explode and release radiation.

My heart breaks for Haiti, who hasn't recovered from its earthquake of last January, and now may face reduced resources. We should pray for all those people, known and unknown, who struggle in the face of chaos, both natural and human made.

Is your brain so numbed by images of horrifying disaster that you cannot compose a prayer? Here's one for you to modify as you wish:

Creator God, we know that you have made a marvelous planet that we do not fully understand. Help us to care for those people who survive in the face of chaos, both the chaos made by humans and the chaos that comes out of the natural world. Help those who are desperate. Be with the sick and the maimed. Comfort those who have lost the ones that they love. Guide the ones who must direct the clean up. Give us all the wisdom to discern the best ways to help.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Prompt: Create in Us

Our Faith Writing group at church is sending out Bible readings and prompts--one for each week of Lent. You can use these prompts to inspire your writing, your creation of visual imagery, your photography, your songs, your dance.

For more thoughts on infusing your Lenten season with creativity, see this post.

Psalm 51: 1-7

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6 You desire truth in the inward being;*
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right* spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing* spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God* is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Prompts and Things to Ponder:

--What do you see God creating this week, both in your heart and in the world?

--What would a new and right spirit look like in your life?

--Tongues singing aloud of deliverance: write, draw, paint collage, photograph that song.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 13, 2011:

First Reading: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 32

Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19

Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11

This week's Gospel tells us the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Notice that Jesus is human in his temptations: he is tempted by the ideas of fame, power, and immortality.

In her book, Things Seen and Unseen, Nora Gallagher points out that Jesus will indeed accomplish these things that Satan asks him to do. Jesus will reverse these days in the desert: he will multiply bread, he will hurl himself from the cliff of his crucifixion and be caught by angels, he will be worshipped, but by humbling himself in service (page 85).

Of course, we, too are tempted. We are tempted as a church. We want to be powerful. Many of us look back to a time when the church in America was a social force, when everyone went, and not just once a week. We want to be important. We want to be the megachurch, not the small church.

Just as Jesus went to the desert as a spiritual quest, the church, too, needs a time of discernment to discover the kind of church we want to become. And we, as individual humans, need to spend some time in the wilderness as we wrestle temptations.

Gallagher says that we face the same kinds of temptations that Jesus did: “Magical powers, helplessness, rescue, fame and power—they beckon me every day of my life. Just around the corner lies happiness; a new lover will provide lasting bliss; if I had what she has then I would be . . . They are the fantasies, the illusions, that suck out my vitality, that keep me from discovering my own rich reality. To come to terms with illusion is one of the great jobs of our lives: to discern what is fantasy and what is reality, what is dead and what is alive, what is narcotic and what is food” (page 84).

We may want to tell ourselves that Jesus could resist temptations because of his Divine side. But I would posit that Jesus' special powers of resistance were less about his supernatural side, and more about his spiritual discipline. He's in the wilderness, making a retreat to pray, when he’s tempted. He resists. Throughout the life of Jesus, we see him hard at work honing his powers through his spiritual practices.

Here's the good news. These practices are available to you, as well. Great disciples are not born, they are created. How? We turn ourselves into great disciples the same way that a doughy person transforms himself or herself into a great athlete, the same way that a creative person becomes a great artist. We show up, day after day, logging the training miles, working on our art. And soon enough, we wake up to find out that we've transformed ourselves into a person with new powers.

The season of Lent begins, that season of penitence and discipline. Now is the time to attend to your spiritual life. What practices will you adopt to become a great spiritual athlete? You’ve got a wide variety to choose from. You could give something up: gossip, worry, sugar, alcohol, excessive Internet time, caffeine, chocolate, speeding, more money to your tithe. You could add something: additional Bible reading, more devotional time, prayer, a creative practice. Spend some time in discernment. What one practice could you choose that would bring you closer to God by the time that we get to Easter?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday and Lent Posts at Living Lutheran

If you came here this morning hoping for a more in-depth meditation on Ash Wednesday, go here to read my piece at the Living Lutheran site.

If my multi-day series on Lenten disciplines was too in-depth, I have a condensed version here at the Living Lutheran site.

How am I going to celebrate Ash Wednesday? Well, later, before the Ash Wednesday service, my church does a pancake supper (yes, we should have done that last night for Shrove Tuesday, but we are practical people, and we know that we're lucky to get people to come to church twice in one week, so we do Shrove Tuesday on Wednesday and move right to service). Tonight I will be both ash smudger and communion assistant. My spouse will sing a solo.

Between now and then, I'll work on our taxes. Let my poetry brain work on that for a bit!

Season of Ash and Somber Penitence--Lent Begins

Today is Ash Wednesday, the Christian high holy day that reminds us of our essential nature. We are dust--cosmic dust, if you want to dress up the idea, but dust nonetheless. And all too soon, we return to the dust of the cosmos. We don't really have much time, but most of us manage to suppress that knowledge. How would we live our lives differently, if we, like Jesus, always kept central in our mind, that we only have a few years to do our essential work? In cosmic time or geological time, we're here for a blip.

Here's a quote from Henri Nouwen to start your day. It's from A Cry for Mercy: "Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failings and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says 'I am too sinful to deserve God's mercy.' It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride. Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: 'Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God's mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?' The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God's mercy."

Here is a prayer for Ash Wednesday: "Oh God, keep us mindful of all the behaviors that move us away from you. Help us to choose our Lenten disciplines wisely. Help us to remember that we are here for such a short time, that all to soon we shall return to our dusty destinies. Keep us focused on the Kingdom work that you need us to do."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Launch Into Lent: Play with Creative Practices to Enrich Your Spiritual Life

Many of us grew up in churches surrounded by stained glass windows beaming down as the choir sang, but with very little else to speak to our creative impulses. Perhaps we were lucky enough to go to churches that had banners made by the women's group (and sadly, perhaps those banners were created by women long since dead). Maybe we decorated the tree with Chrismons each year. Maybe we went to church in the 1970's, when people experimented with liturgical dance and chancel dramas. But I suspect that our churches of our childhood, and probably our churches now, don't really speak to our creative sides.

And that's a shame. While some of us will find our way to a deeper relationship with God through our rational brains, many of us will be lost along the way, whereas a creative path may help more of us to God. Even if you think of yourself as non-creative, there are creative practices that may speak to your heart. Even if you're deeply committed to intellectual pursuits, there are creative processes that can help you access your intellect.

I offer here a variety of practices, in the hopes that one or two will attract you. You can adopt a creative discipline for all of Lent or you can try a different one each week.

--Yesterday, I talked about prayer beads, but what if you don't have a rosary? Go to a bead shop or a craft store and buy some beads. If you haven't looked at the bead section of your craft or fabric shop, you'll be amazed at how many beads are out there. You can string them together (dental floss makes a strong thread) in a way that pleases you or go here for more traditional ways to make a rosary and to see rosaries that others have made.

--If you're someone who values your intellect above your creative impulses, a spiritual journal might be for you. What to write about? Write a daily or a weekly meditation on a Bible verse. Write about where you see God at work in the world. Write about other material that you're reading. Write a letter to God. Write a letter that you imagine God might write back to you. For more ideas about what to explore in your spiritual journal and for more resources, see this post that I wrote last year.

--Our Faith Writing group at my church will be sending out a prompt each week with a Bible passage and questions to ponder; I'll post the prompt here each Friday and you could work along. Your spiritual journal doesn't have to be comprised of words. You can take photographs. You can respond to the world in paint, crayon, pastel, charcoal or pencil. You could experiment with movement.

--If you're musically inclined, most churches are doing something special this time of year. Join them. If you're not inclined to be musical in groups, sing by yourself; stairwells usually have a beautiful acoustic quality. If you played an instrument as a child, now might be the time to return to it. If you've always wanted to learn an instrument, why not now? A recorder or an Irish whistle is easy enough to teach yourself, and cheap, if you want to experiment with sound.

--A recurring image in the Bible is that of bread; this Lent might be a good time to experiment with bread baking. Bread is a remarkably forgiving food, so it's great for those new to baking or cooking. As you watch the yeast bubble, think about how your spiritual life is like that yeast or ponder how faith is like yeast. As you knead the bread dough, think about how God shapes us, like bread dough.

--Another symbol of God that we see throughout the Bible is that of God as potter. If you don't have time to make bread, get a clump of clay or make some play-dough (go here for recipes). As you work the clay, think about how God is a potter and humans are the clay. If you are the clay and God is shaping you, what is that shape? Make the shape.

--Resolve to explore the foods of different cultures. Even if you don't want to cook them, you can go to different restaurants or explore the ethnic section of your grocery store. As you explore the foods of a different culture, learn about the ways that culture expresses its Christianity. Learn about the other religions of the culture and how the religions interact and inform each other.

--Gather together a bunch of old magazines and explore the art of collage. As you sort through the magazines and rip out images, you might have a Bible passage in mind. Or maybe you have a spiritual question. Or maybe you just want to rip out images that appeal to you or speak to your dreams of the future. Once you have a pile of images, select some, trim them, and paste them onto another sheet of paper or cardstock. On the back, write down what prompted the image. Keep the collages so that years from now, you have their insights.

--Buy several bunches of flowers and combine them into one bouquet. As you create the new bouquet, think about how God's love brings your life into full flower.

--In a similar vein, you might plant a garden, either in the ground or in pots. As you get your hands dirty, think about the ways that your faith roots you.

--Buy a piece of silk or flittery fabric. Paint on the silk. Think about God as Creator, your life as the silk.

--Take your painted piece of silk or a scarf and hold it as you move through your space. Move your hands and watch the silk flutter. Think about the Holy Spirit as wind. Think about John 3:8, which describes the Holy Spirit as wind blowing, and we cannot tell where it comes from or where it's going. John tells us that Spirit-filled people are similar. Watch the scarf and think about the Spirit.

--Make wind chimes out of any items you have in your house that sound pleasant when they clink together. Hang your wind chimes outside and think of the Holy Spirit each time you hear them move.

--If you're technologically savvy, explore the ways your computer lets you be creative. Make a Power Point presentation that talks about your faith journey or your spiritual history. Most of us have software on our computers that allow us to make even more sophisticated videos, and most of us can learn them in just a few hours. Take your photos and learn to use iMovie or MovieMaker. Add your voice reading a Bible passage or a poem. Add some music--but before you upload your video to a public place, make sure you're not using copyright protected music.

--Don't forget the traditional liturgical arts. Even if you can't make stained glass, you could do something similar with tissue paper and black construction paper. Create an ornament that will remind you of your faith and hang it over your desk or dresser. Make a banner out of paper or fabric. Needlepoint or embroider a prayer cushion or a kneeler. Write a chancel drama. Go even deeper into your church history and explore the world of icons. Make or paint an icon. Take a familiar hymn and write your own lyrics. Make a lap quilt or a prayer shawl. Put together a pot luck supper.

There are so many possibilities out there, and there are more books on Creativity and Spirituality than I can count. There are also conferences and retreats. If you find yourself longing for a retreat that helps you think about faith and creativity, why not join me at Lutheridge the week-end after Easter? Go here for more information about the Create in Me retreat, a remarkably affordable retreat (the price includes food, lodging, and supplies).

Monday, March 7, 2011

Launch Into Lent: Pray More, Pray Differently

Most of us wish we could pray more. We wish that we knew what to say. We wish that we knew what to do when we prayed--maybe you find it difficult to keep your hands clasped, your head bowed, and your eyes closed, the way your elders trained you to pray.

So, what to say? When it doubt, pray the Lord's prayer. You can't go wrong with saying, "Thank you." Pray for everyone who needs your prayers. Pray that God transform you into the best you that you can be.

Here are some additional ways to experiment with adding more prayer to your life during Lent:

--Pray immediately when you wake up and when you go to bed.

--Set your watch to remind you to pray throughout the day. Or set up your Outlook calendar to remind you. If you carry a phone with you, there's probably a way to get your phone to remind you to pray.

--You might use other elements to remind you to pray. Every time you're stuck in traffic, pray. Every time you feel that flush of irritation from hearing other people's electronics, pray. When you see children waiting for a bus or riding bikes, pray.

--If the thought of praying throughout the day intimidates you, resolve to explore fixed hour prayer or the Liturgy of the Hours. Go to this older post of mine for more information and for resources for you to explore.

--Experiment with prayer as movement. You might already do this if you take a yoga class. Choose your meditative movement and as you hold each pose or complete each kata, offer a prayer.

--Find a labyrinth and walk it. Many churches and retreat centers have installed labyrinths. To find one near you, go here. What do you do once you’re there? Simply walk. Follow the path. As you get comfortable walking, try praying and walking.

--Explore prayer beads or a rosary (but any set of beads will do): If you’re not sure of how to do this, just offer up a different prayer as you touch each bead. Perhaps for each bead, you’d like to remember a specific person. Perhaps for each bead you’d like to offer up thanks for one thing for which you’re grateful. If you’re not good at creating prayers, simply pray the Lord’s prayer. If you want to really return to your Catholic roots, go here.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Launch Into Lent: Extend Hospitality and Enlarge Your Welcome Table

For many of us, it's easier to give up sugar than to do what I'm about to suggest. For the period of Lent, extend hospitality to people. What I'm really suggesting is that we look for more ways to share a meal together.

I know all the reasons why we don't share meals much anymore. Our schedules are hectic, and it's hard to find time when we're all free. If we invite people to our houses, we need to find time to clean them before people come over. We worry about what we'll talk about. We're tired, and we just want to be left alone.

But Jesus came to show us that we're not meant to be alone. Jesus' ministry was essentially a table ministry. He invited people to share a meal, and in doing this, he won their souls.

Imagine sharing a meal with Jesus. What would you talk about? I imagine that many of the conversations would be seen as mundane and meaningless to us. But what a treat, to share the particulars of our days with our Savior.

A similar dynamic happens when we eat together. We're so starved for attention, even as we purchase our food from drive throughs and eat in our cars that have been remodeled (with cupholders and platforms to place our fast food bags) to serve our desires to eat while travelling.

The human body was not meant to function this way: always on the go, always trying to do 3 or 4 tasks at the same time. We are people starved for nourishment, starved for rest, starved for appreciation. Sharing a meal together won't satisfy all those needs, but it's a start.

Here are some ideas about a variety of ways that you can emulate Jesus this Lent:

--Invite someone over to dinner. Warn them that your house is dusty, and then, all you really need to do is to make sure the toilet is clean, a 5 minute task. Give up the belief that your house must be picture perfect before you invited people over. If people snoop and see the ring around your bathtub, who cares?

And what to serve? Even if you have no time to cook, a spaghetti dinner is easy enough, if you use a jar of sauce; add some bread from the supermarket bakery, a bag of meatballs from the freezer case, and a bag of salad from the produce section, and you've got a cheap, easy meal, one suitable for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Or pick up some chicken (fried or rotissery) from the deli to go with your bakery bread and bag of salad. While you're in the bakery, buy some brownies for dessert.

--If you don't want to have people over, invite people to go to a restaurant with you.

--Organize a pot luck dinner or lunch at work. Promise each other that you won't talk shop.
If you don't work outside your houose, organize a pot luck dinner or lunch at the place where you spend the most time.

--Go to a retirement center and eat with the residents. Ask them questions about what life was like when they were your age.

--Look for other places where lonely people might welcome your company: soup kitchens, immigrant centers, churches, hospitals.

Here are some other ways to extend hospitality, ways that don't involve the actual sharing of a meal:

--write letters to your loved ones who are far away and can't come to dinner.

--give food to a soup kitchen or a food pantry.

--visit the sick in the hospitals and rehab centers. If you're fortunate enough not to have sick friends or family members, ask your church if they need your help in visiting the sick.

--You could extend this practice to visiting the members of your various communities who are stuck in their homes. If you know their dietary preferences, bring a treat. If not, bring a bouquet of flowers.

--help with coffee hour at church.

--Organize some sort of program at a place that has lonely people. Read poems to residents of a nursing home. Teach your hobby to a Girl Scout or Boy Scout troop. Take an art project to a prison.

--Don't forget our troops, many of whom are serving far away from home. You can send care packages. You can give money for phone cards. You can support the USO, which does so much for troops and their families. If you've got a favorite group, by all means support it. If you don't, be careful, as we've seen lots of scams in this area lately.

--make sure that you're the person who says hi and makes the effort with the new people. I went to a Lutheran church once; I was early and put on the visitor sticker that the usher handed me. I was obviously a visitor, so I waited for the church members to welcome me. Not one soul spoke to me. Intrigued, I decided to linger after the service, even though I wanted to flee. Again, no one spoke to me--I was wearing a visitor sticker, for pity's sake!!! I never went back.

You encounter new people all the time: at church, at school, at work, at meetings. Say hi. Make conversation. Sure it's uncomfortable. Do it anyway. You'll get better at it, and soon it won't be so uncomfortable.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Launch Into Lent: Read More

When I first heard people talk about adding something to their Lenten lives (instead of giving up something, like chocolate or sugar), one of the things that people talked about adding was additional devotion time. Now, you may have a different view of devotion time (maybe a yoga class?), but for me, when you say devotion time, I think about reading.

I can already see the eyes rolling at my suggestion that we read more. Maybe you're thinking about that book that you started during your last vacation but didn't finish, and now you can't remember the plot, and you feel like you should finish the book, but to do that you'd really need to start over again, and in the meantime, there are all these other books you'd rather read.

Oh, wait, that's my reading life. And that's my approach to things, an all or nothing, I'm going to read 200 extra pages every day!, I'll read my way through the whole Bible this Lent! kind of approach.

It's the kind of approach that sets us up for failure. Let's be kinder to ourselves.

Let's think about some ways that additional reading can be a nourishing Lenten discipline without being an overwhelming burden.

Increase your Bible reading:

--Choose one Gospel and read your way through it this Lent. We're in Lectionary Year A, which means the Gospels are primarily from Matthew. You might want to read Matthew through or you might want to choose another Gospel, so you can be on the lookout for how they're similar and how they're different.

--Read one Psalm a day. That shouldn't be too hard. Some of them are as short as 6 verses.

--Open the Bible at random and read a page or two.

--Don't forget that there are many sites that will give you Bible readings as MP3s that you can take with you (listen in the car; listen on your iPod) and there are sites that will send you a Bible verse a day, and there are sites that will send you pinging reminders )on your mobile device or computer) to read a verse or two. Harness the technology that so often rules our days and use that technology to enrich your life.

Read the Works of Spiritual Masters

--Most of us have a theologian or two that we've been meaning to read. Lent is a great time to make time for that.

--If you're convinced that you don't have time for a complete work, there are books that are set up as a daily devotional resource with a short passage from the work of an author. Look for titles like A Year With ____________.

--Augsburg Fortress has a great series, the 40-Day series. There are 11 books, each featuring a different author. You get a Bible reading, some passages from the author, a prayer, and some questions for you to think or journal about. Go here for the complete list. I've used the Madeleine L'Engle and the Kathleen Norris book and enjoyed them thoroughly; our high school youth group is working their way through L'Engle, which convinces me of the wide appeal of these books.

--Let me put in a vote for my favorite Lenten devotional resource: Henri Nouwen's Show Me the Way. It will not surprise me if future generations view Henri Nouwen as one of the most important theologians of the last half of the 20th century, and I'm so happy to find out that this book is still in print.

Read a Poem Each Day

I am not one of those people who takes the Bible literally. I'm a poet and an English Ph.D; I see the Bible not as a history book, but as a lyrical text that gives us very important information in an often non-rational, non-linear way.

And as a poet, I'm biased, but I would go ahead and argue that reading poetry trains our brain in a way that no other discipline can, and our trained brains will be better able to appreciate the Bible.

And just to demonstrate, so you won't be cast adrift on your own, during each week of Lent, on Tuesdays, I will present one of my poems, complete with explanation, and with thoughts about how understanding my poem can enrich your understanding of the Bible. At the end of the post, I'll recommend other poets and poems so that you can continue your study of poetry throughout the week.

Yes, Poetry Tuesday--I like the sound of that!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Launch Into Lent: Giving Up, Giving Away

Before I move into my posts about adding as a Lenten discipline, let's think about some other ways we could fast. In her comment on yesterday's post, Di said that she's giving up make-up; it will be interesting to see the ways that going bare-faced into the world may change her interactions.

What else could we give up beyond food and drink? Or maybe we don't give up these things completely, but we limit them. Here's a short list:


--Facebook and other online areas that take us away from local family and friends

--speeding (both in the car and in other areas of our life)



--local news, which often focuses on the scariest story

--self-help books and magazines--what would happen if we decided that if God can love us the way we are, maybe we should learn to do that too?

--self-loathing (see above)



--working extra hours (if we can give this practice up without losing our jobs)

You see the pattern here; we should give up practices and mind sets that are harmful and take us away from God.

Many of us think of Lenten disciplines as involving some kind of sacrifice, so before we shift to adding items into our lives, let us think in terms of giving away. In past years, I've used the term "cultivating generosity," which I prefer to words like "tithing," words which scare us.

So, what could we give away? How can we cultivate a spirit of generosity?

--Money is the obvious choice. Are you tithing? Probably not. Most of us can't even give 10% to our savings accounts, so I expect that we're not giving 10% to God. So let's start on a smaller scale. Could you give away 1%? If you're already giving, could you increase your amount just a smidge?

--Other ways to give away money: become a bigger tipper. Give money to that homeless guy on the corner. Buy stuff from the kids who are fundraising.

But maybe you face severe economic contractions in your household, and you're barely holding the household together financially. What else could we give away?

--Old clothes. If you're like me, you have several wardrobes in several sizes. If you're like me, you're holding onto old clothes, hoping to be able to fit into them some day. In the meantime, there are people who could be wearing those clothes now. Clean out those closets. You probably only wear 7-15 outfits each week anyway. Forgive yourself for the clothes and shoes that you bought thinking they would be perfect, but they weren't. Forgive yourself for the weight you've gained or lost. Keep the clothes you love and give the rest away.

--All the extra stuff in your kitchen. Many of us, especially if we've been on our own any amount of time at all, have accumulated extra stuff for the kitchen that we don't use: the odd size pan that came in the set, the extra set(s) of dishes, the gadget(s) that you no longer use, the machines that gather dust and take up shelf space. Get rid of that junk.

--You probably have other areas of your living space that accumulate stuff, stuff you no longer remember you have: the tool shed, the linen closet, the study, the book shelves, the toy chests, the closets that hold who knows what.

You could have a yard sale and give the proceeds to your church or your favorite charity or social justice group. You could give the stuff to any number of worthy groups who run thrift stores or who redistribute your stuff to people who are down on their luck.

But maybe you're saying, "Hey, we've already liquidated our stuff. We're out of work. We cannot do these things."

Another thing we could give away is our time. Many of us who have held onto our jobs are working more hours than ever before, so I know how hard this can be. Still, there are groups that need us.

How could we give away time? We could:

--work in a food bank.

--clean up roads or parks.

--work with an illiterate person.

--work with immigrants.

--go to a nursing home or retirement center and sing or read poems or play games.

--write letters to our legislators.

--write letters to our elders who don't communicate other ways.

This list could be endless, and you probably already have favorite ways to volunteer. Do more of that activity during Lent.

In the days to come, we'll explore more things you can add to your life to enrich your experience of Lent and bring you closer to God.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Launch Into Lent: Give Something Up by Fasting

In my Tuesday post, I talked about the idea of Lenten disciplines, that some of us will choose to give something up, and some of us may choose to add something. We should be striving toward spiritual enrichment.

Most of my Launch Into Lent series will focus on adding. But I know that many people are committed to the idea of giving something up, so I want this first post in the series to think about fasting.

The ancient way to do this was simply to choose a day of the week to give up food. But here are some different ways to fast. And if you go with one of these, know in advance to expect some discomfort (and maybe some irritability). Resolve to use these pangs of discomfort as a reminder. Maybe each time you feel your stomach growl, you could pray for those who have no food, who have to endure these feelings all the time. Maybe you could pray for assistance in your effort to be disciplined. Maybe you could pray a prayer of thanks for Jesus and others (like your parents?) who have endured substantial discomfort so that you could have a better life.

Here are some ways to fast:

--Once a week, you could eat like a third world resident. What does that mean exactly? Maybe you eat rice and not much more. Maybe you eat a bowl of beans and not much more. As you eat (and don’t eat), think about people in the world who always eat this way, who face a life that has no end to bowl after bowl of rice. Pray for them.

--Or choose a day of the week and eat nothing but fruit. Or nothing but fruit and vegetables. Or drink nothing but fruit and/or vegetable juices.

--You could fast by giving up restaurant meals. Give the money that you save to a world hunger relief operation.

--Similarly, you could give up buying overpriced drinks in coffee shops. Brew your own at home.

--You could fast by giving up second servings. Eat what’s on your plate and be satisfied with that.

--You could abstain from meat, either just red meat or all flesh foods. You could do this just one day a week (the Christian tradition would be Friday) or throughout the Lenten season.

--Giving up sugar is a time-honored Lenten discipline.

--Give up soda, both the sugary kind and the artificial sweetener kind.

--Give up on bottled water. If you need a bottle of water, fill up a water bottle from your tap. Most of us live in places that have a safe water supply. Most of the bottled water comes from a tap someplace else. These bottles are clogging up the planet, and it’s a superfluous need. Give the money you save to a world relief organization that’s dedicated to bringing a safe water supply to 3rd world nations that don’t have the safe drinking water that we do in the U.S.

--Try a news fast. That’s right, give up on keeping up with the news. The human brain was not designed to handle misery on a global scale; in fact, many people wonder if the reason why so many of us are being treated for mood disorders has to do with our increased awareness of bad news from every part of the planet. Don’t worry—if anything really important happens, someone will let you know. If you can’t handle a total news fast, give up on televised news, especially the local news, which is relentlessly grim and designed to scare us half to death. Get your news without many pictures, the old fashioned print way.

--If you’re really brave, declare a modern media fast. No music created in the twentieth century (maybe you’ll allow yourself to listen to recordings of music, as long as it’s older music, or maybe you’ll go without). No noodling on the Internet. No T.V. Amuse yourself in old-fashioned ways, like having conversations, playing games, and reading.

Fasting gives us an opportunity to focus our attention. And if we're fasting for spiritual reasons, we've freed up some time and energy to focus on God.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 6, 2011

First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18

Psalm: Psalm 2

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 99

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

Here we are at Transfiguration Sunday again. For those of you who are alert, you may have noticed that some years, we seem to have variations of this Bible passage at different times of the year. We celebrate this festival on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, and since Easter moves, it does seem that way. In addition, the earlier Church celebrated (and Catholics still do) the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6--yes the same day that the U.S. dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima--let your poet brain feast on those symbolic possibilities for awhile.

I know that some of you aren't interested in these poetic possibilities. Some of you may be dreading the moment that I hone in on Peter wanting to make booths for Moses, Jesus and Elijah. So, let's think about something else. Why does Jesus command silence?

He does this often. Go and tell no one--that seems to be a constant command. And it seems antithetical to the task of the Church.

I’ve been working on a short piece on Pentecost for The Lutheran, so it seems doubly strange to find Christ’s command to silence here, so opposite from the Pentecost message that we’ll be getting in 100 days. Aren't we supposed to go and witness? Spread the good news? If Jesus is our role model, what do we make of his command to stay silent?

In some ways, perhaps Jesus knew the times he lived in. He knew that early fame would undo his purpose. He knew that people would focus on the physical plane--"This man can heal my blindness"--but not the spiritual plane, the one where we need healing the most.

He also knew that people who see visions, who catch a glimpse of something otherworldly, are often shunned by the community. What would have happened if James and John and Peter came down from the mountain and proclaimed what they had seen? How would the community have responded?

He knew that he couldn't appear too threatening to the status quo too early. In the verses that follow, the ones not included in this Gospel, Jesus makes clear that persecution follows those who see visions. And that persecution still persists today. Our culture tolerates those of us who pray. It's less tolerant of those of us who claim that God replies to our prayers.

The life of the believer is tough, and one measure of its difficulty is knowing when to speak, and knowing when to hold our tongues. Sometimes we should keep our counsel. Sometimes we should testify verbally. Always we should let our lives be our testimony.

Like Peter, we might want to turn Christ into Carnival: build booths, charge admission, harness holiness. Jesus reminds us again and again that the true work comes not from telling people what we’ve seen, but by letting what we’ve seen change the way that we live. Our true calling is not to be carnival barker, but to get on with the work of repair and building of the communities in which we find ourselves.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Idea of Lenten Disciplines

The idea of discipline has nasty associations in our culture: think of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish, to cite one famous cultural study. To discipline a child often means a spanking or a time out. Discipline sounds so harsh, so much like breaking of our wills--which it is, but in a positive way, ideally. Christians traditionally have approached Lent as a time to impose some order and discipline on the spiral of chaos that many of our lives have become.

In the past, a Lenten discipline meant giving something up, often something that we shouldn’t have been doing anyway. Those disciplines are still valid. Yet when I have conversations with people who are giving up something for Lent, they often go something like this:

"I'm giving up chocolate for Lent!"

Me: "Great. Why?"

"Because I've always given up chocolate for Lent."

Me: "Really? Why?"

"It's what we're supposed to do, right?"

Me: "How do you expect this giving up of chocolate to enrich you spiritually?"

If the conversation has actually lasted until this point, it usually dissolves into mutual bafflement.

Don't get me wrong: it's great to give up something for Lent, if you want to. But it would be even better if you used that giving up as a pathway or a springboard to spiritual growth.

For example, you could give up chocolate, and every time you crave chocolate, you could think of all the people in the world who could be kept alive with those extra calories. You could pray for those people who need the extra calories that you usually mindlessly consume. You could research how chocolate is made, and that research will probably lead you to the decision to buy Fair Trade chocolate (Lutheran World Relief offers excellent choices here). You could give the money that you would have spent on chocolate to an organization that works to wipe out hunger.

In recent years, many people have argued that instead of giving something up, we should add something (like an extra devotional time, for example). For those of you who are baffled, be sure to tune in on Thursday, and each day leading up to Ash Wednesday, for my Launch Into Lent series.