Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Different Approach to a Ministry Report

Over the next few Sundays, our various ministries are giving reports to the congregation.  I'm chair of the labyrinth team.  I'm pretty much the whole labyrinth team, although I do have the support of our Pastor (he's helped mulch the labyrinth, he's helped with the Good Friday Stations of the Cross).

For the most part the labyrinth just sits there; people (both congregation and community members) are free to use it as they wish or don't.  So, how to create a report? 

I've been enchanted with braided labyrinths, so yesterday I created braids, and I created a small labyrinth on piece of cardboard, which I plan to stick beneath the grand piano that's in a corner of the sanctuary.  I'll let my braided labyrinth sit there, attracting attention or not, until it's time to do my report on the last Sunday of June.  It's a creative approach (and it let me play with braids of fabric!), but will it work? 

Stay tuned!

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Messiness of Faith Communities

Some of you may be spending this Memorial Day missing the communities of your younger years.  Maybe you're yearning for a past time when your faith community wasn't so messy, when people understood what was right and what was wrong and everybody behaved like they were supposed to and if they didn't, they were secretive about it.

As you can probably tell from my tone, I don't miss those days--in fact, I'd be surprised if they ever existed, at least in the rosy glowing tones that people describe.

Our pastor yesterday stressed that faith communities are always messy--something to say when people tell you that they don't believe in organized religion.

Our pastor reminded us that Jesus prefers messiness:

"Jesus, of course, always preferred messiness to simplicity.
Always preferred trouble, to a false peace that does not include justice.
Built a faith of community, not the individual.
And no doubt that he suffered for it.
No doubt he died for the sake of the community that he came to proclaim.
It flat out scared people."

It should scare us.  True community means that people know me inside out, all my faults and complexities.  In an ideal world, they'd love me, despite my faults.  My fretful brain worries about rejection.

But Jesus doesn't let us off the hook.  No, we're to love everyone.  Not just the people who are easy to love.  Everyone.  Even the people who are out to destroy us.

And if we're truly walking with Jesus on The Way, people will be looking for ways to destroy us.  But we love them, regardless.

I would rather hang out with people who believe exactly the same as I do.  But that's not my mission.  It's not yours either.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

G.K. Chesterton and the Move Towards Orthodoxy

Today is the birthday of G. K. Chesterton, a thinker gone from the consciousness of most of us.  He was a prolific British writer throughout his life (1874-1936), writing not only works that considered Christianity, but poetry, plays, art criticism, well, really just about everything.

Two things intrigue me most about him.  The first is his switch from Anglicanism to Catholicism.  Yes, I know, it's not an extreme switch.  It's not as if he became a Muslim.  Now, that would be a change.

But as I get older, I notice more and more people moving towards orthodoxy.  And it's interesting to see that this phenomenon has been going on for longer than my lifetime.

If I made the switch, I'd go towards Eastern Orthodoxy.  But it's hard to imagine changing as there are so many elements of Lutheranism that appeal to me that aren't found in most other stripes of Christianity.

I'm also intrigued by the fact that Chesterton gets credit for the conversion of C. S. Lewis, and in that way, Chesterton has probably had a much wider influence than most of us realize.  I would argue that Lewis is one of the most important theologians of the twentieth century, one of the writers that has won over more of us than any other, whether it be by way of The Screwtape Letters, or his writing on loss, or his Narnia books, or the fact that he began life as a doubter.  And we might have had none of that, if we had had no G. K. Chesterton.

So, today, as we head to our churches, as we head towards Ascension and Pentecost, we might also think about that move towards Orthodoxy.  Are we content to continue to swim in the waters we're in?  Or might we find ourselves crossing some unforeseen river, the Tiber to Rome or some river in Asia that might take us back to the Byzantine?  We might think of the appeal of more rigid orthodoxies, whether Christian, Muslim, or other.  We might wonder if reintroducing some of that firmness might lead our churches out of the wildernesses in which we wander.

Or maybe we can just enjoy the beauty of a Sunday morning, which would also be a great way of celebrating Chesterton, a man who sometimes got so lost in the present moment that he forgot where he was supposed to be.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Poetry Recommendation

Since it seems to be book review week here at Liberation Theology Lutheran, let me finish the work week by recommending a book of poems, the perfect thing for your Friday!  Lynn Domina's Framed in Silence comes at all sorts of theological and spiritual questions, but from fascinating angles, as only poems can do.

I love poems that make me see the world differently, poems that tilt my carefully constructed reality towards a different view. The first section of the book, "Creation Sequence," is full of those kind of poems. In these poems, Domina envisions God in the act of creating (or relaxing after creating), and what a delight it is: ". . . God grins at ingenuity, as at the sustenance / a thornbug derives from sap, so many insects surviving / on bits of leaf or wood shavings or stray husks . . ." It's a God that some of us may remember from the earliest Genesis story, the God that creates and declares everything "Good." It's not a stretch to imagine a God amused by some of those creations.

Domina does not give us a pre-Science view of Genesis retold here. No, right from the beginning, we know that Domina comes to this subject with an educated brain. In her poem, "Chaos," she references things atomic, electromagnetic radiation, electricity, chaos theory--all done in a condensed style: " . . . God spun doodles into symbols: / positive charge, negative charge, divided by, pi / degrees of arc, is or is not equal to, infinity."

Here's a wonderful view of creation from the same poem:

"Chaos bled into channels; the wind halted,
organized itself into breeze, gust, chinook, doldrums,
squall, gale, tempest. Meaning resided, God knew, in the proximity
of one symbol to another: . . ."

Instead of ellipses, the poem contains equations that I can't make the computer do, like E=mc(squared).

The second section of the book, "All Saints," continues the theological inquiry, but the inquiry roams more freely. "Gift" gives us a cool view of grace, through many snowflake metaphors. "Antique Shop" gives us a realistic view of the modern human: ". . . Of course I believe / angels welcomed her to paradise / even as I doubt / the reality of angels." Domina shows her ecumenical approach in poems like "New Year's at Moon Luck Noodle Shop," "Immanence," and "Opening Lecture on Buddhism."

The third section "Peaceable Obsession" offers poems perfect for people who love ekphrastic poems. These poems were inspired by the paintings by Edward Hicks, who painted many versions of "The Peaceable Kingdom," images which are probably familiar to most of us. Even if you don't like ekphrastic work, these poems have much to say about Biblical teachings and the ways we interpret them, about food, about animals, and about our relationships.

This book is well worth your time. It's the kind of book that offers rewards for reading in one sitting, from front to back. But it also offers treasures for the kind of reader who dips in and out, and for the ones who only have time to read one poem a week or one a month. There's not an unsatisfying poem in the book, and so many made me gasp in awe.

For example, here's a view of Heaven, one that would make Rob Bell or N. T. Wright happy: "Rather than Peter polishing the keys, couldn't we also imagine / heaven's gate unlocked by the Iscariot, forgiven?" That's from the poem, "The Quality of Mercy," which repeats and ends in this word: "forgiven."

"Not Exactly What You Had in Mind" gives us a vision of God as sprawling, smoking woman in a flowered, stained muumuu. Wow! It works theologically, and Domina pulls it off poetically. Here's a view of God that I adore, a view of God incarnate:

"You wonder what signal you missed,
when God became the type of person
to so let herself go, what possible whim
plopped her down amid the crabgrass
and thistles you call yours."

The God who lets herself go by hanging out with us--good news indeed!

Obviously this book will not appeal to those of you saying, "Ack, blasphemy, heresy, blhhhh." But surely those people stopped reading my blog years ago. For the rest of us, those who delight in poems that take us to unusual places and return us safely home with strange visions to delight us, do not miss this book.

You can buy it here, if you scroll down to the third row (at least that's where it is on my screen), if you want to buy directly from the Main Street Rag website.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

For months now, I've been hearing about Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins.  I haven't read any of Bell's previous books, but I have seen a Nooma video or two.  They didn't seem that radical to me, so I was surprised at first by the firestorm created by Bell's latest book.

I shouldn't have been.  His thesis, put much too simply that no one goes to Hell, is sure to infuriate many people.

Before I go any further, let me remind people that I'm a mainstream Lutheran, a liberalish Lutheran, a Liberation Theology Lutheran.  I'm not an Evangelical or a Pentecostal.  I take the Bible seriously but not literally.  I do not believe that Jesus was crucified because God knew I would sin 2000 years later, and Jesus had to pay for that.  You might ask, why was Jesus crucified then?  Because he was an enemy of the Roman Empire in all sorts of ways.

So, you might say I'm the perfect reader for this book.  Well, not exactly.  I'd like it to go into depth a bit more (for that, see N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, which covers much of the same territory; see my blog post that reviews that book here).  But Bell gives us plenty of nuggets to prove that he's done his homework. 

For example, at the end of the "Hell" chapter, he talks about the word "forever" and how Biblical writers would not have understood that word.  It's a bad translation of the word "olam," a word which means "long lasting" or "that which is at or beyond the horizon" (page 92).  Likewise, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, where the goats go to eternal punishment, that's really a misinterpretation of the phrase "aion of kolazo."  "Kolazo" is an agricultural word that means pruning and trimming so that a plant can flourish (page 91).

On page 87, Bell gives us a long list of verses from the Old Testament prophets to show us the persistent theme of healing, redemption and love.  Clearly, the man knows his Bible.

Bell has a strong sense of social justice, and he can point out the injustices that are so pervasive in our world.  He says that Hell exists, but it exists here and now, not in some future time when we die.

As Wright does so thoroughly in Surprised by Hope, Bell reminds us that Jesus didn't come to Earth just to get us into Heaven.  God's redemption of creation has already begun. Bell says, "How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age.  Jesus teaches us how to live now in such a way that what we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world" (pp. 44-45).

Near the end of the book, Bell explores the parable of the Prodigal Son and what it means for our lives.  He concludes: 

"Your deepest, darkest sins and your shameful secrets are simply irrelevant when it comes to the counterintuitive, ecstatic announcement of the gospel.

So are your goodness, your rightness, your church attendance, and all the wise, moral, mature decisions you have made and the actions you have taken.

It simply doesn't matter when it comes to the surprising, unexpected declaration that God's love is simply yours."  (page 187)

Hey, Bell sounds almost Lutheran there.  How I love that concept of grace!  I don't even have to accept God's grace--God has already given it to me. 

It's very easy for humans to corrupt these ideas in so many ways, to argue that we have to actively accept God before we're in, or that we have certain ways we must behave or believe.  Humans like to divide the world into binary oppositions:  in and out.  You go to Heaven, so do I, but all those icky people go to Hell--and won't they be sorry!!!!

It goes back to the discussion that many may have been having about Osama bin Laden.  Could God really love Osama bin Laden just as much as God loves Archbishop Desmond Tutu?  Really?

The parable of the Prodigal Son tells us yes.  Go ahead and fume.  I know that idea frustrates many people.  It's the part of the concept of grace that can be so infuriating:  I behave well, and that guy screws up, and God loves us both?  But I'm better!

So then the next question:  why should we behave at all?  If we all get to go to Heaven, why be good?

Well, many books have been written to answer that question.  But Jesus points the way most elegantly.  We can live in our tight, legalistic, morally superior attitudes.  But we'll miss out on all the love we might be experiencing.  We can go out and squander our whole inheritance on that which does not nourish us and then where will we be?  Eyeing the pig food, that's where.

For people like me, people nourished in a faith that gives this good news of love and grace, Bell's book is not that earthshattering.  But I think about my 5th grade self, when I went to a Presbyterian school; every Friday we had Chapel, and every Friday we were given searing portraits of Hell, and we asked Jesus into our hearts.  When anyone asks if I've been saved, I say, "Yes, many times."

For someone who grew up in a terrorizing faith, a controlling theology, Bell's book will either seem heretical or like very good news indeed.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 29, 2011:

First Reading: Acts 17:22-31

Psalm: Psalm 66:7-18 (Psalm 66:8-20 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:13-22

Gospel: John 14:15-21

In today's Gospel, we get a hint of Pentecost. Jesus tells his followers that he will never leave them orphaned or desolate, to use words from several different translations.

Every year as Ascension Day approaches, I think of those poor disciples. They have such a short time with their resurrected Lord, before he goes away again. How on earth do they cope with this?

I also see this situation as a metaphor for our own modern one. You may be feeling a bit whipsawed by grief and loss yourself. You may recover from one crisis, only to find yourself staring down the maw of the next. As I've gotten older, I've noticed that these crises seem to be increasing in frequency and severity. I look back to the dramas of my high school and college years, and I understand why so many elders chuckle dismissively at the troubles of youth. We forget, however, that trouble feels like crisis, no matter what our age.

But Jesus offers this comfort: we will never be alone.

Notice what Jesus does NOT offer: our God is not Santa Claus. Our God is not a fix everything quickly God (at least not all the time).

I have some acquaintances who claim to have lost their faith on September 11, 2001. They had been faithful in their church attendance, but once that disaster happened, they declared they couldn't believe in a God that would let such terrible things happen. No talk of free will would deter them in their determination to let go of their faith.

Earlier generations had a similar difficulty with Auschwitz (perhaps you do too). How can God let such awful things happen?

Well, that's the disadvantage of gifting humans with free will. We will sometimes get things spectacularly wrong. I think of it as being a parent of an adolescent. We want the best for our teenagers. We know the dangers are acute; so many mistakes that are made at this age are mistakes for life and can't be easily undone. So many choices made at this age will impact the rest of adulthood.

Yet as parents, we can't prevent every tragedy. All we can do is to be there for our children when they go off the rails.

Likewise as friends, as spouses and significant others, as children: we can't keep our loved ones safe. We can try to help them avoid the pitfalls that we see, but even that won't always be successful. We can only be with those we love as they suffer, in the hopes that our presence will alleviate some of the pain.

Evil has real power in the world, and we forget that at our peril. As Christians, we are called to take a longer view, and we are called to believe that God will eventually emerge victorious--but that doesn't mean that this victory will happen in our lifetimes. We are part of a larger story, and we all have our part to play. But we must be aware that we might be like Moses or the early apostles: we may not see the fruits of our labors; we may not get to the promised land (at least not in this life). The Good News that Jesus delivers should give us comfort: all of creation will be redeemed eventually, and that redemption has begun.

Return to that promise of Jesus: we are not orphaned. We are not abandoned. Even in our darkest days, when we feel at our most unlovable, God sees our value. God remembers our better selves. God knows what we could accomplish. If God can use deeply flawed people like Saul who becomes Paul, God will also weave us into the great fabric of Kingdom life.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What to Do When the Rapture Doesn't Come

On Sunday, I wrote this post about the day after the Rapture didn't come.  This part is an idea that's not new to me, one that I come back to again and again:  "And as my friends said, 'Hey, we didn't get raptured,' I said, 'Maybe we did, and this is heaven.'"

It's not exactly a new idea, although it's not linked to the idea of Rapture ever.  Most people like the idea of a Rapture or an Apocalypse because it means we don't need to worry about earthly problems.

But honestly, if you go back to read the whole Bible, and you look at the meanings of some of the words we throw around carelessly, words like Heaven, Paradise, and forever, if you dive deeply, you come back to the surface with some different ideas.

Jesus didn't come to earth to get us into Heaven.  We're not here to twiddle our thumbs and wait for death.  God hasn't given up on creation--far from it.  God loves this creation with a love that only the creator can have.

I've had friends shake their heads and say, "If the point of being a Christian isn't to get us into Heaven, then what is the point?"

To which I say, "Jesus came to show us how to live.  Not later in Heaven, but here, now."  Of course, if we all go to Heaven, great.  I won't reject that scenario.  But I think that Christians who focus on Heaven have missed the point.

I've been reading Rob Bell's Love Wins, and I'll post a review later this week.  Reading Bell's book sent me back to N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope:  Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  Both books explore similar themes.  Wright's is the more in-depth and scholarly.

So, before I give you quotes, let's just take a moment and think about some questions.

How would we behave if we believed we had been raptured and we were already in Heaven?

How would we behave if we didn't believe that the Earth would be destroyed?

How would we behave if we believed that God would indeed redeem all of creation?

What if God redeems creation not by burning it up and starting over but by working with what's here?

Here are several of my favorite quotes from Surprised by Hope (all emphases are Wright's):

"Mostly, Jesus himself got a hearing from his contemporaries because of what he was doing.  They saw him saving people from sickness and death, and they heard him talking about a salvation, the message for which they had longed, that would go beyond the immediate into the ultimate future.  But the two were not unrelated, the present one a more visual aid of the future one or a trick to gain people's attention.  The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing, close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term, in the future.  And what he was promising for that future, and doing in that present, was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so that they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God's ultimate purpose--and so they could thus become colleagues and partners in that larger project" (page 192).

"What you do in the present--by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself--will last into God's future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether . . . . They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom" (page 193).

"But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom.  This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more:  what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to roll over a cliff.  Your are not restoring a great painting that's shortly going to be thrown on the fire" (page 208).

Wright then goes on to list all the wonderful good works/activities/creations that we could do and says, ". . .  all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make" (page 208).

So, when you need encouragement to do great and/or beautiful things, remember that it all becomes part of the ultimate redemption of the world.

But for those of you still hungering for the Apocalypse, you might remember that Martin Luther says that the proper response to knowing that the world would end the next day is to plant a tree (Wright tells us this bit on page 209).

And for those of you still believing in an old-fashioned Apocalypse, and wondering what to do?  My friend teaches Mythology (primarily that of the Greeks and the Romans) and ends with the idea of apocalypse. The last sign to tell us that the apocalypse is almost here? The muses will desert us. So, each time we appreciate beauty or each time we create something, we've put off the apocalypse by one more day--or at least 15 more minutes.

Monday, May 23, 2011

How Does God Speak to You?

For those of you more interested in thinking about how we speak to God, you might want to read this post on my creativity blog, where I wrote about the process of writing prayers for Bread for the Day, a daily devotional resource from Augsburg Fortress (you can reserve your copy here).  I've spent the last several days thinking about how God speaks to us.

I've had several occasions in the past weeks to think about how God speaks to us.  Are you one of the people who feel that you know exactly what God wants you to do?  Do you pray and get an answer right away?  Does God speak to you in a language that you clearly understand?

I am not one of those people.  I'm blessed to be part of a church that has many ministries that are so appealing to me, and I'd like to be involved in more of them. Yet there are only so many hours in a day and week, and the time spent on one project necessarily takes away from other ministries.

I'm suspect that one response to that would be to listen for the Holy Spirit, but unlike others, I'm not always sure I know what the Holy Spirit is saying to me. I feel like the Holy Spirit often uses a language that isn't as familiar to me, and while I might get a sense of what the Holy Spirit is saying, I don't experience it as a set of marching orders or directives. More like nudges, if even as clear as that.

As I've been thinking about these issues, and wondering if Christians who have such different senses of communicating with God can really work together, I thought of a poem I wrote years and years ago.  I suspect it was in response to similar issues.  I suspect I was yearning for God to just speak clearly to me.  Some days, a burning bush would be nice!

This poem appeared in my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.  Let me say in advance that I don't feel the last stanza of this poem represents my approach to theology; I don't blame God for these deaths.  I don't hold God responsible or expect God to come sweeping in to save people from fates that come as a result of free will.

Frog Flingings

She says she’s a cultural Jew,
which really means she likes the holidays and the food.
She says she can’t be cozy
with a god who would incinerate twelve million people.

I think of God’s history in Judeo-Christian tradition,
how God must resort to desperate measures
before people will slow down to listen.
Am I letting God off the hook for the Holocaust?

I don’t want God to have to fling
frogs at me to get my attention. I want
to be so in touch that I hear the still,
small voice crying in this wilderness of American life.
I don’t want God to set fire to the shrubbery
to get my notice. I don’t want God
to have to resort to infanticide
before I realize I’m on the wrong path.

Still, a prophet would come in handy in times like ours,
someone with a direct pipe to the divine,
someone who would deliver dictums, someone we could kill
when we didn’t like the message.

No wonder God has to kill millions every decade to capture
our attention, to focus our gaze on issues of true importance.
Our thirty second attention spans wouldn’t even notice
a burning bush, wouldn’t hear God speak.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Seeing Christ in Osama bin Laden

My inner 19 year old is making it very difficult for me to be part of grown up church this month.  She just would not simmer down during Synod Assembly, where she kept saying, "What is it with all these gendered references to God?  Why so much 'God the Father?'  What is up with that?  What year is it anyway?"  (if you want more details, see this blog post).

Last week, at church we got into an intriguing discussion.  Part of our individual church's mission statement says that we will see Christ in all.  Until last week's discussion, I always thought that was a no-brainer, that it meant that we see Christ in everyone:  believers, atheists, people from other faiths, everyone.  But from the discussion we had last week, some people interpret that differently.

One of our members said, "But I can't see Christ in all, because Christ isn't in all."

I had never thought to head that route.  Are we put on Earth only to minister to those who have already found Christ?  The alternate (new to me) line of thought seemed to be that we see Christ in the people who have asked Jesus into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior.  Otherwise, Christ isn't there for us to see.

I may talk about some of what we talked about in later posts; we tried to talk about how we behave to others and how that may or may not be changed based on some of our interpretations of Christ's teachings.  The thoughts I've come back to again and again were prompted by this question:  "Could you see Christ in Osama bin Laden?"

Our group was divided, but most of us didn't want to travel deeply into that conversation.  My inner 19 year old immediately screamed, "What part of 'Love your enemies' don't you understand?"  But my grown up self tried not to say the hurtful things that my inner 19 year old went on to say in my head.

But really, does the Bible say we should treat the Osama bin Ladens of the world as we would treat Christ?  Really?

I would have to say yes.  I think the 4 Gospels are fairly clear:  we are to treat everyone as if they might be Christ in disguise.  Yes, even Osama bin Laden.  Reread Matthew 25.  Jesus is quite clear that we will be judged based on how we treated the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, the ones with no food.  We might protest that Jesus only means for us to take care of the outcast members of our society, not the true criminals.  I would not agree.

These thoughts feel scary enough that I may not explore them much further here; I don't want to be put on some sort of no-fly list or worse.  If you're one of the 12 people who come to this blog on a Sunday, go ahead and laugh at my grandiose visions of the U.S. government monitoring me and my simple blog.  Stranger things have happened.

So, in the interest of being perfectly clear, I am not supporting terrorism or suggesting that we should.  I do think that we need to pray for the terrorists of the world, that terrorists are in more need of our prayer than most people.  If you look at a church's prayer list for any given Sunday, you could make the argument that plenty of people will be praying for the people on that prayer list.  Who will pray for those who seek to destroy us?

And back to the original question about seeing Christ in Osama bin Laden.  Here's a thought that may strike you as even more radical:   if they were aware of him at all, most of the people of Jesus' time would have seen him as an Osama bin Laden figure.

Go ahead and howl in protest, but here is how I came to that conclusion.  Jesus was crucified.  The Romans didn't crucify just everyone.  They had a wide range of death-as-punishments:  hanging, stoning, beheading.  Crucifixion was reserved for those who were seen as enemies of the state.  Clearly, based on his death, someone (probably many someones) higher up saw Jesus as a revolutionary, a terrorist.

We now see Jesus as a revolutionary of a different sort.  If we truly followed the teachings of Jesus, we'd turn the world around in all sorts of ways.  The Roman Empire knew that; that's why Jesus had to be killed.  But the ideas that he gave us through his teaching did not die.  Those of us immersed in Christianity sometimes forget how radical the teachings of Christ are.  Of course, they're only radical if we do what Jesus commands.  But take a minute to imagine it.  If we transformed the world that way, to a world where everyone is treated with dignity, a world where every living human has enough, perhaps we would see terrorism disappear. 

Until then, as we work on that transformation and wait for God's ultimate redemption of creation, we can pray for those who are driven to terrorist acts, no matter the reason.  We must pray for them.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Feast Day of St. Helena

Today is the feast day of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine.  You may or may not remember that Constantine was the Roman ruler from 306-337.  Yes, that's a long time ago, and you may wonder why a theological blog would be interested in him, or his mother, at all.  Constantine gets credit for being the first Christian Roman ruler (although some historians would point out that he was not solely Christian) and for making the spread of Christianity possible.

Even if he was not personally responsible for the spread of Christianity (we'll let historians debate that, while we move on towards our discussion of Helena), he helped foster the spread of the faith by bringing an end to religious persecution.  The Edict of Milan, which set Christians free to worship as they chose, also gave freedom from persecution to other religions too; everyone was set free to worship whichever god(s) they wished.

Today we celebrate his mother, St. Helena (although if you're Catholic, you'll have to wait until August 18).  Did she bring up Constantine in the faith?  We simply do not know.

St. Helena has come to be associated with holy relics, and perhaps we might find the roots of the Reformation with her.  If she had not so vigorously asserted the power of these relics (if indeed, she did; I realize that we're talking about legend here, not history that's been written down), would their power have continued into the medieval time period?  If there had been no relics, no selling of indulgences, would Martin Luther have felt strongly enough to write his 95 theses and post them on the Wittenberg door?

If this stretch is too much for you, let's just celebrate St. Helena as the mother of Constantine, and one of his influences.  Under Constantine's rule, Christianity came to many of our ancestors, and for that, we can be grateful.

It's important to remember how much influence we may have on future generations as parents, as relatives, as concerned adults.  You may have days where you despair, where you wonder what your life means as you endure useless meetings, bullying colleagues, pointless work.  But God can use it all.  In the life of someone like Helena, we see that we don't all have to be a Constantine.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Coracles and Currents

This morning, I have coracles on the brain, thanks to Dave Bonta's post (complete with video) on his experience with coracles on his recent visit to Wales.  I knew that ancient Celtic monks set off in little boats, but seeing modern people in a coracle made me think about those monks with new admiration.

Dave reminds us, "Though the ancient ocean-going coracles did probably have rudders (and according to The Voyage of St. Brendan, could be fitted with a sail), their relative unsteerability constituted part of their attraction to Celtic monks, for whom the ideal form of travel involved surrendering to the will of God and going wherever the winds and currents took them. Some of the more God-besotted ones set off without even an oar."

Without even an oar!  As I watched the video, I thought, I'm not even sure an oar would help much, although obviously, with practice, perhaps it would get easier.  And again, I'm thinking about all of these ideas and the kinds of symbols they present.

I think about those monks setting out, and I think about our modern selves, with our sense that we're in control--at least, until the recent events of the economic meltdown, many of us assumed we were in control.  There have been times when I've wished that I had just given money away to the homeless.  Even if they used it to buy alcohol, I'd have preferred that scenario to the one of corrupt bankers and Wall Street types stealing my money.

Actually, I'm being a bit disingenuous.  I never was that invested in our economy.  I simply do not make that kind of money.  We bought our house in 1998, with a traditional 30 year loan, the way our parents did throughout the last part of 20th century.  My investments, such as they were, lost a bit of ground, which they've since made up.  So, for the most part, I didn't enjoy the 30% return rates of various markets, but neither did I suffer.

Still, all these events make me think about how much we middle class people like to think we're in charge of our destinies.  Those Celtic monks knew better.

What would it feel like to completely turn my life over to God?  How could I be sure it was God steering me and not some random current?

This week, I've been thinking about being a hospice chaplain, a real career change, not just adopting the practices of a hospice chaplain into my current workplace.  Why am I having these thoughts?

At Synod Assembly, I said, "You know, if seminaries ever decided to make a buy-one-get-one-free special, my spouse and I would sign right up."

I've said that before, in a joking, breezy tone.  But at Synod Assembly, I said it to a friend who said, "You know, there are programs in place . . . ."  And we happened to be talking right in front of the Southern Seminary display, and a woman came right over to talk to us.

Yikes!  What had I done?  I backpedaled.  I said, "Now, I wouldn't want to be a parish pastor."

"What kind of pastor would you like to be?" the woman asked.

"A hospice chaplain," I said.

Now why would I say that?  I'm terrified of hospitals.  I hate the thought of dying, even if it means I get to go to heaven--or to be more honest, I guess it's the process of dying that scares me deeply, death not so much.

But I've felt myself drawn to the idea of helping dying people with the transition to the other side, with the idea of providing comfort to the loved ones of the dying.  It's worthy work.  It seems like a career path that won't be outsourced to other countries.  There will be continuing demand. 

I'm always on the look out for nudges from the Holy Spirit.  I want to be willing to go where God needs me to be.  I want to launch my coracle with the faith of those ancient Celtic monks.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 22, 2010:

First Reading: Acts 7:55-60

Psalm: Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:2-10

Gospel: John 14:1-14

The Gospel for today has some troubling concepts in later verses, concepts that raise all sorts of questions that don't have easy answers. For example, when Jesus says, ". . . no one comes to the Father, but by me," does that mean that non-Christians are damned? And if that's the case, are we talking about Heaven and Hell (post-death?) or the Hell on Earth that comes from being alienated from Creation and the Creator?

At some point, I’ll read Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, even though I’m fairly sure I already understand his thesis. I likely agree. I tend to believe a loving God won’t send any of us to Hell, at least not more than the Hell we create for ourselves on Earth. But this week, I’m not interested in playing Afterlife Scorecard.

The first verse of this Gospel speaks to me this week: "Let not your hearts be troubled." How often is my heart troubled!

I've often thought that my deepest spiritual failing comes in my tendency to fret and to worry and to give in to full-out panic--I go through this cycle weekly, if not daily. I've managed to tame many of my other spiritual shortcomings. Why is it so hard for me to let not my heart be troubled?

I’ve spent a lot of the week thinking about the Freedom Riders, who went with untroubled hearts into the heart of oppression. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what they accomplished with their enthusiasm and by their naive belief in the goodness of humanity, their belief that they would be allowed to eat lunch together in segregated spaces, that they would be allowed to ride on a bus together.

In many ways, they were like the earliest Christians, who shared meals together and studied together and plotted ways to bring an end to injustice. Today’s reading from Acts and the violence suffered by the Freedom Riders reminds us that the price may be great. Perhaps we worry that we are not up to the task.
This passage also has Jesus tell us about the house with many rooms, a passage often interpreted as being about Heaven, but looked at contextually, Jesus could also be talking about our ministries on Earth. Perhaps he tells us that the Christian life has room for all of us, even if we can’t be Freedom Riders or the first martyr Stephen. Think about your particular gifts--how can you make Christ visible in the world?

When I was younger, I thought we needed to change the world for the better on a grand, global scale (thus setting myself up for failure when I couldn't eradicate world hunger in the course of my lifetime). Now I know that the things we do for each other to help each other are just as important: staying late to help a student, listening to a friend (not solving problems, just listening), bringing fruit, cookies, and coffee for a memorial service.

We never know what we may unleash. When the Freedom Riders boarded the bus, they had no idea of the social changes that they were about to unfurl. They assumed they’d be taking a two week bus trip to New Orleans. When we behave as the light of the world, similarly, we may help usher in God’s larger plan for the redemption of creation.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Freedom Riders as Liberation Theologians

Last night I watched the first part of a PBS program on the Freedom Riders; when the show started talking about all the political angles, I must confess, I drifted off to sleep.  Far more interesting was the first part of the story when those crazy kids decided to go deep into the heart of hatred to see what would happen.

They trained, but of course, no amount of training can really prepare for your first face-to-face encounter with people who are determined to kill you.  But even after that horrific encounter outside of Anniston, Alabama, the students were determined to continue.  And when they couldn't, others came to take their places.

It's interesting to me that the hatred and the intent to kill them ultimately didn't hold them back.  It was the lack of bus drivers who were willing to face down mobs that undid the plan.

Of course, by then, the plan had succeeded.  The Kennedy administration could no longer ignore this violence and the flagrant disregard for Federal law.  The rest, as they say, is history.

I also found myself intrigued by the fact that the older people in the Movement, including Martin Luther King, were not entirely in favor of this plan.  But the young people knew what they had to do.

I was so touched by their enthusiasm and by their naive belief in the goodness of humanity, their belief that they would be allowed to eat lunch together in segregated spaces, that they would be allowed to ride on a bus together.  At first I thought that maybe it was because of their youth and inexperience.

But as the show went on, I was also struck by how those students were rooted in religious traditions.  They believed in freedom.  They believed in justice.

I tend to think of Liberation Theology as coming to us from Latin America and from Eastern Europe.  But in many ways, the Civil Rights Movement was also a liberation theology.

I've spent the whole morning thinking about those young people and their vision for a just future.  We're not there yet, but we're much closer because of the work they did.

Christ calls us to ride that Freedom Train.  Christ commands that we invite others to ride with us.  We cannot afford the luxury of despair or hopelessness.  We've got Kingdom building to do!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Broken Bodies: Freedom Riders, Christ, and All the Bodies, Broken for Us

Yesterday morning, before church, I read several articles about the Freedom Riders in The Washington Post.  I particularly liked Colbert King's essay, which referenced Raymond Arsenault's book, Freedom Riders.   The essay ends this way:

"Freedom Riders arriving at the Anniston [Alabama] Trailways station an hour later also encountered the KKK. From Arsenault’s Freedom Riders, we know they were a pile of bleeding and bruised humanity when the Klan was finished with them."

Then, two hours later, I was Assistant Minister, handing out the bread during Communion, saying, "The body of Christ, broken for you."  My mind leapt back to that image of those young, idealistic Freedom Riders, staggering from a burning bus, only to be beaten savagely by a mob.

I thought of all the ways the human body is broken when we fight for justice, all the evidence we have, just from the 20th century alone, of the many varieties of ways to break the body, in evil's efforts to break our spirits.

I try to stay focused on the promises God gives us.  I try to think of the glorious ways that God might knit our broken parts back together again.  I think about the ways that the world is a more just place, a place closer to the creation God intended, because of people's willingness to suffer being broken.  We live in a more integrated country, with a wider variety of opportunities, than we would have if those Freedom Riders had stayed home.

I try not to get bogged down in the despair that comes from realizing how much work there is left to do.

Tonight I'll watch the PBS special about the Freedom Riders, and I'll remind myself that breathtaking change is possible, in ways we can't even imagine.  I'll pray for those still suffering brokenness. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Singing "Jesus Loves Me"

Is it just me, or have you also been singing "Jesus Loves Me" more often lately?

I'm not sure when I first noticed this, but when we sang "Jesus Loves Me" at Synod Assembly last week, I said to a friend, "The last time I sang this song so often was when I was about 8."  I've sung it in many a worship service, from suburbun church to camp.  I've sung it as a way to bring a session to a close.  I've sung it where I'd expect to sing it, in children's Sunday School class.  I've learned how to sign the song, so that I can sign and sing.

Is it a special anniversary this year?  My friend at Synod Assembly said she thought it was because the song is in our latest hymnal, so we have easy access to words and music that we didn't have before.

Can I just admit that I do not like this song?  It gives me the same kind of creeps that the "Now I lay me down to sleep" prayer gives me.  It feels vapid.  I'm a grown up.  I shouldn't have to sing this kind of simple song when we have such rich hymnody available.

But enough of me sounding cranky.  Perhaps I should think about my experience at Lutheridge, where so many people already knew how to sign and sing the song, where the sight of so many of my dear camp friends making the sign for Jesus (touching a finger to each imagined nail hole in the palm) gave me a shiver in a good way.  Maybe I should think about Synod Assembly and all those older folks, still able to sing every verse from memory. 

I shouldn't be so quick to dismiss a comfort, especially the easily attained comfort of a childhood song.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 15, 2011:

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47

Psalm: Psalm 23

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:19-25

Gospel: John 10:1-10

In this week's Gospel, Christ mixes metaphors a bit, talking about sheep and calling himself a doorway for the sheep to find pasture. He also warns of thieves and robbers, and we might ask ourselves who are modern day thieves and robbers? Who are the ones who would lead us astray?

Well, there are lots of contenders, aren't there? But the ones I'm finding most insidious these days are all the electronic activities which steal so much of our time away from us.

You don’t believe me? Try an Internet fast and see what happens. Could you go for a day without logging on? Could you go for a week?

At the past two Synod Assemblies, we’ve had free computer access with wireless connections provided to us by Thrivent, but we didn’t this year. We had wireless in our hotel rooms, but I didn’t have the laptop with me. At times, I felt positively anxious because I couldn’t log on.

We might tell ourselves that we use our online time to stay connected to family and friends, and I will admit that it’s easier to stay in touch with some people via Facebook than it was with e-mail or old-fashioned paper letters. But most of us don’t post very deep thoughts on our Facebook accounts. A brief status update is better than nothing. But often, I find myself wondering how my friends are REALLY doing.

But do I take the time to write a Facebook message to ask? No. I’m too busy racing off to the next Internet diversion.

You might protest that the Internet has allowed you to meet new people. I’ve been part of poetry communities that wouldn’t have been possible without this easy way to connect. But can those kind of Internet friendships give us what we yearn for?

We might tell ourselves that the Internet allows us to stay current with what’s happening in the world, and in some ways, it’s a wonderful thing. I can read newspapers from all over the world, often for the price of my Internet connection. Not only that, I can read the opinions of others about those articles. In some forums, I can trade ideas with people. But all of that staying current comes with a price: it takes time away from other activities. Some of those displaced activities might be trading ideas with real people at a real supper table.

Very few of us will find real community via the Internet. We often think we don't have time because we're all very busy these days. But what is really sucking away our time? For some of us, it is, indeed, our jobs. For many of us, it’s our Internet lives: we’ve got a lot of stuff to read, videos to watch, plus games to play, and virtual farms to keep up, plus status updates, and all the information we can Google now, and so we do (whereas before, if it required a trip to the library, many of us would have stayed ignorant). And if you’re like me, once you’ve spent so much of your day staring at screens, you may find it hard to reconnect to humans at the end of the day. You may feel your brain gone fuzzy. You may find yourself irritable at these humans who demand that you respond. You may withdraw before you ever have/take/make time to reconnect.

The Internet also takes time away from our relationship with God. I’ve found useful websites that allow me to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, but for the most part, I’m not noodling around the Internet looking for ways to enhance my relationship with God—or with anyone else, for that matter. I suspect that if I’m brutally honest, even my relationship with myself suffers when I spend too much time on the Internet.

Now the Internet is not the only tool and resource that allows us to sidestep the hard work of relationship. Some of us narcotize ourselves with television or with spending more hours at work than the work requires or with the relentless pace of the activities that our children do (and need us to drive them to) or any of the other countless activities that humans use in ways that aren’t healthy.

These activities can not only keep us from relationship with humans but can deafen our ears to the voice of that shepherd that goes out looking for us. Our Bible tells us over and over that God yearns to be in relationship with us. But if we’re too busy for our families and friends, we’re likely not making time for God either.

So, try an Internet sabbath, even if it’s just for a few hours a week. Try doing it every week. Invite real people over for dinner (or go serve a meal to the less fortunate). Read a book. Play an old-fashioned board game. Listen for the voice of God who calls to you across space and time. Answer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thinking about the Gender of God at Synod Assembly

Maybe it was because I spent the week writing this Living Lutheran post on Biblical matriarchs and the female face of God.  Maybe it was because I had just gotten back from the Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge.  Maybe it was because I've been sleep deprived.  Whatever the case, I found myself seriously crabby at the decidedly non-gender-neutral God language at the Florida-Bahamas Synod Assembly.

Go ahead, roll your eyes now.  I'll wait.  I used to be the same way.  Before some of my best friends in college sensitized me, I would have wondered what the big deal was.  Then the scales fell off my eyes, and I was insufferable for a few years.  Through the years, many of our liturgies changed, and our hymns changed, and I could be in church without that feeling of being under constant assault from the male bias.  We changed our language when we talked about humanity, and many of us made similar changes when we talked about God.

No longer do many of us refer to God as a father.  Some of us have expanded our language to talk about God as mother along with God as father.  Some of us, realizing how many of us have damaged relationships with our parents, have gotten rid of parental images altogether.  We talk about God the Creator when we talk about that aspect of the triune God.  We try to not use pronouns when we refer to God, even if it sounds awkward and repetitive to use the word "God" so much.

Some of us have not gotten the gender-neutral message.  At Synod Assembly, it was like we'd fallen through a hole in time, back to 1962 or so.  God was clearly male during Synod Assembly:  lots of references to God the Father.  I have a good relationship with my dad, and have been blessed to have had one through most years of my life.  But when you say God the Father, my brain fills in with a picture of a patriarch, like the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, only with a long beard and a stern frown, like those pictures of fiery abolitionists.  I bet I'm not the only one.

We recognized various pastors for years of service.  I know that we've only been ordaining women for almost 40 years, but the absence of women being recognized grated at me.  Would it have grated at me if I hadn't already been chafing at the male God talk?  Probably.

I know that we've made great strides.  I know that in terms of graduate degrees, we're almost at the point where more of them go to females than males.  I know that it takes time for those changes to filter through, and that's why I'm still not seeing many females at the upper levels of power.  I've been patient for many decades now.  But it bugs me.

I looked out across the Assembly and I noticed how, based on Synod Assembly, we're not a very diverse group.  I know that the Assembly skews older and whiter for a variety of reasons, chief among them because we met over a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, which meant that many working age people couldn't come.  I'm lucky to have some vacation days that I have to use before June 30; if I didn't have them, I couldn't have come either.  There's a reason why retirees are overrepresented at Assembly, and it's not simply because Florida is retiree-land.  Those are the people who have time to participate. 

I know that the Assembly doesn't represent my home church, which is very diverse in terms of race and class and gender and sexual preference.  That's important to me.  I wish that diversity found its way to Assembly, both on the Synod and National level.

It would be interesting to attend the national gathering, Churchwide Assembly, to see if gender-neutral language has made inroads.  Surely we don't have so many appearances of God the Father at Churchwide, do we?

My fear is that we're sliding backwards, and I've written about this issue before (go here).  There are many reasons why we don't have as many female pastors as male pastors, and one of those reasons has to do with our patriarchal language.  Having a god who is so clearly male and never, ever female gives a clear message to us.  That message may be subliminal, but we do perceive it.  It's the reason why we lose so many talented females to other professions.  It's the reason why many females leave church and never come back--many churches are not female-friendly places. 

The exodus of women from churches, both at the local and leadership levels, is reason enough to pay attention to our language and to continue to strive to be ever more inclusive.  We're not there yet.  The job is not yet done.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Twelve Million Dollars for Haiti and Other Tales of Social Justice

I don't have as much time to write this morning as I thought I would, so I'll have a longer post on Synod Assembly tomorrow. 

But I want to give everyone this nugget of hope.  Far too often we hear grim news about declining numbers in our churches, and it's important to realize the good that we can do as collective people.

During Synod Assembly, I found out that the ELCA (that's the national Lutheran group that I belong to) has raised 12 million dollars for Haiti since the earthquake.  Twelve million dollars!  That's during a time of worldwide economic collapse and turmoil of other sorts inside the church that's led to less money for the national organization.  But still, we've raised 12 million dollars.

I also found out that in the first hour after the earthquake in Haiti, the State Department reached out to our Synod's branch of Lutheran Social Services, because we have such a reputation for good work.  That group mobilized people to meet injured Haitians and their families at airports, to transport them to hospitals, and arranged for housing and translators and all the other things needed.

So, if anyone tells you of the futility of being part of a social justice organization like a church, refute them with facts like those above.  If anyone tells you that you can't make a difference, you can.  You can donate money.  You can help in any number of ways.

Of course, you should be careful.  You might find yourself like a woman who was introduced to the Assembly because she was retiring.  She's probably done more than any other Florida Lutheran to help refugees.  Not only has she been head of the group that arranges housing, food, jobs and all the other things that refugees need, but she's often been the first place that they stay after the airport.  Her guest room has been occupied by refugees more often than it's been empty.

So, you can make a difference as an individual or as part of a group.  It's not futile.  And while we can't save everyone (and remember, that's God's job), we can save lots of folks.  We can be the Harriet Tubmans of our time period.

And even if we have no money, because we're barely holding together our own families, we can make it easier for the immigrant.  We can smile at the strangers in our land.  If we do nothing else, we can do that.  We all understand a smile.  You'd want someone to smile at you, if you had been forced to flee your homeland, if you had left behind loved ones because you were the able-bodied one who could go abroad to seek work, if you had fled war or natural disaster or any of the other events that make people leave everything they've known and loved.

There's a spiritual practice we could all do:  smile.  We're all fighting hard battles on some level.  We all could use the kindness of a smile.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Julian of Norwich, Mother's Day, and the Female Face of God

Today is one of those days I'm glad that I don't have to preach.  For one thing, I just got back from Synod Assembly, and before that from the Create in Me retreat, and I'm just feeling wrung out.  But if I needed to preach, I could rise to the occasion.

No, the reason I wouldn't want to preach is that there's too much good stuff converging on this day.  Would I preach on the road to Emmaus?  Mother's Day presents its own challenges, and I've definitely seen ways that I wouldn't do it, with a mostly secular focus on moms and how hard a job they have and what great sacrifices they make--no, if I want that kind of treacle, I'll hang out in the card shop.  It would be irresistible to tie Mother's Day into the matriarch of the Bible or perhaps, Mary the mother of Jesus--although preaching a sermon that focuses on Mary might be risky for a Lutheran outside of Advent--but all the more reason to do it!  Today is also the feast day of Julian of Norwich in the Anglican and the Lutheran church.

Ah, Julian of Norwich!  What an amazing woman she was.  She was a 14th century anchoress, a woman who lived in a small cell attached to a cathedral, in almost complete isolation, spending her time in contemplation.  She had a series of visions, which she wrote down, and spent her life elaborating upon.  She is likely the first woman to write a book-length work in English.

And what a book it is, what visions she had.  She wrote about Christ as a mother--what a bold move!  After all, Christ is the only one of the Trinity with a definite gender.  She also stressed God is both mother and father.  Her visions showed her that God is love and compassion, an important message during the time of the Black Death.

She is probably most famous for this quote,  "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well," which she claimed that God said to her.  It certainly sounds like the God that I know too.

Although she was a medival mystic, her work seems fresh and current, even these many centuries later.  How many writers can make such a claim?

For a great essay on Julian of Norwich, head to this Living Lutheran post.  Clint Schnekloth does a great job of explaining mysticism and the importance of Julian of Norwich:  "It’s hard to underestimate how wacky Julian may have seemed to her neighbors and peers, or even to herself. Especially, perhaps, her hope that all would be saved, in the process reconceptualizing precisely how it is that God saves and how we participate in Christ’s suffering work."

If you came to my blog hoping that you'd find a Mother's Day meditation, you could go to my Living Lutheran post, where I talk about Biblical matriarchs and about the images we use to help us understand God.  Here's my favorite quote from the piece:  "At Lutheridge’s 2011 Create in Me retreat, Nancy Hess reminded us of a fascinating observation from Lyn M. Bechtel’s essay in A Feminist Companion to Genesis: “Cheryl Exum, in studying the concept of ‘mother in Israel’ in Genesis, Exodus and Judges, has observed, ‘A striking paradox emerges in these stories of mothers: Whereas the important events in Israelite tradition are experienced by men, they are often set in motion and determined by women.’”"

And for those of you hoping for a poem, here's one.  I wrote it years ago, during a hectic time, when I drove across 3 counties, from adjunct job to adjunct job. After I taught a session on Julian of Norwich, I sat in the car, yearning for contemplation, and wondering what a modern anchoress would look like. And thus, emerged this poem (which later appeared in my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard):

My Habit, My Hairshirt

A modern day anchoress, I commit
myself to my car. In my moving cell,
I sing constantly and pray without ceasing.

I dedicate myself to our modern religion
of hectic pace. I rush from one location to another,
showing my devotion in twelve hour increments.

No time for contemplation, the anathema
to the modern ascetic. I flog
myself with my cell phone and briefcase.
Occasionally, a heretical urge lures
me, a siren song urging me to slow down,
tempting me to tame my frantic schedule.

But no Gnostic visions for me. I race
through another week in the grip of my Daytimer,
my habit, my hairshirt.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Worship: Camp and Otherwise

When I was young and went to Lutheridge, I always came home asking, "Why can't we have church services that are more like the ones at camp?"

Grown ups assured me that I wouldn't like it if I had those kind of worship services every week.  Even today, fellow grown ups tell me it's impossible:  These things are called mountain top experiences for a reason, after all.  I once asked a fellow Lutheran Student Movement (LSM) alum if our grown up churches could be more like LSM groups.  He was doubtful, but I wanted to believe they could, even though at the time, I hadn't seen any of those churches that I wanted to believe existed.

My current church comes close.  If you want to be convinced that church worship can be the kind of worship you'd find at camp or on campus or at Synod Assembly, you should read Mark Pierson's The Art of Curating Worship.  He's got a lot of great ideas.

He says we must ask better questions, beginning with the basics:  what is church and what is worship?  Different traditions may have very different answers to these questions, and those answers will dictate the kinds of worship that we curate.

Notice that we curate--we're only part of the creation team, and perhaps not the essential part.  Curating means we must determine who is responsible for which part and then give those people autonomy.  It's a leap of trust, to be sure.

Pierson is a big believer in interactive worship stations.  Some of us might react negatively to that idea, but Pierson points out that most of us have already experienced a worship station approach when we celebrate Communion.  I love the idea of church as something less passive.  Too often the congregation is more of an audience than an active participant.  Interactive worship is not an easy task:  "I would not consider singing songs, listening to a sermon, or spoken responses in liturgy as interactive.  These are consumerist activities, completed by someone else for me to consume" (p. 123)

As an artist, I also love the idea of  guerrilla worship, which to some of us will sound more like installation art (installation art with a higher purpose!) than worship.  Perhaps these experiences are used to create sacred spaces or perhaps they are used to remind people of social justice issues or God's vision for humanity.  Pierson offers many examples, like one of a group people who set up a temporary labyrinth with bales of hay, with worship stations within the labyrinth, including a confessional where people could write a postcard or a barbed wire enclosure with images of poverty and injustice with participants encouraged to "attach a cable tie as a prayer for those who suffer" (p. 184).

For those of us who aren't so creative, the last chapter provides a lot of inspirations and resources.  I'd like to have seen more about whether or not we can create/curate similar worship services online.  And this book doesn't say enough to those of us who must worship in spaces that are rather fixed.  In my current church, I wouldn't truck in dirt or sand; I don't want to do the clean up afterwards.

Still, more is possible in our home churches than most of us do.  I've just been to the Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge, and soon I'm off to Synod Assembly.  I love both of these gatherings because the worship services are so wonderful (and plentiful!).  Both of those events remind us that we don't have to create elaborate rituals, at least not at first.  Just doing something differently would be a good start.  May we all come to the point where we say with Pierson, "I am an artist whose medium is worship" (p. 230).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 8, 2011:

First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Psalm: Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17 (Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:17-23

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35

Today we read of the sojourners on their way to Emmaus. This story gives us an important window into the lives we are to have as Christians, particularly when it comes to the sharing of a meal, and our basic obligations when it comes to hospitality.

That hospitality is the often overlooked side of the Emmaus story. The travelers have walked seven miles together (for those of you who are wondering, that might take the modern walker, walking at a fast clip, a bit over two hours; in Biblical times, with unpaved roads with poorly shod feet, I'm estimating it would take half a day). When they get back to their house, they don't say to Jesus, "Well, good luck on your journey."

No--they invite him inside. What remarkable hospitality. They share what they have. They don't say, "Well, I can't let you see my house in its current state--let's go out to dinner." No, they notice that the day is nearly done, and they invite a stranger in to stay the night.

Those of you who have read your Bible will recognize a motif. God often appears as a stranger, and good things come to those who invite a stranger in. For those of you who protest that modern life is so much more dangerous than in Biblical times, and so it was safer for people like Abraham and the Emmaus couple to invite the stranger to stay, I'd have to disagree.

Without that hospitality, those strangers never would have known their fellow traveler. We are called to model the same behavior.

One thing we can do in our individual lives is to adopt a Eucharistic mindset. Never has this been more vital. Most people have ceased cooking for themselves, and many Americans are eating at least one meal a day while they drive.

Rebel against this trait. Look for ways to make meals special. Cook for yourself, even if it's something special. Invite your friends and loved ones to dinner. Occasionally, invite a stranger. Each week, go to a different bakery and buy yourself some wonderful bread. Open a bottle of wine, and savor a glass.

Bread and wine are relatively cheap and available. When I was a teenager living in Knoxville, Tennessee, my father went to D.C. on business, and brought back sourdough bread. I thought I had never tasted anything so wonderful, and marveled at a city where you could just buy such a creation from a bakery.

Well now, most of us do. Even in small towns, it's possible to get good bread. And it's easy to make it for yourself, if you want to restore even more sanity to your schedule. And while you make that bread, you can marvel at the miracle of yeast, and think again about Jesus' call for us to be the leaven (the yeast) in the loaf.

Jesus calls us to a Eucharistic life, which requires a major readjustment of our mindset around the issues of food, drink, time, and hospitality. Consider the Capitalist/Consumerist model that our culture offers us, and the invitation from Jesus looks even more attractive.

So, before the day gets later, go and buy some bread. Think about the many ways that bread (and other grains) sustain most of us throughout the world. Drink some wine and think about the miracle of fermentation (in many parts of the world, people drink fermented beverages because the water supply is tainted, but fermentation provides some protection). You are the leaven in the loaf, the yeast that turns grape juice into the miracle of wine--how can you make that manifest in the world today?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

To Fill a Cross

Each year, during our Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge, we do a community art project.  This year's theme was "broken, but beautiful."  For our community art project, we brought our broken things to add to a cross that my spouse had built.  The sides are made of wood, with plexiglass attached.

We dropped our broken pieces in from the top.

A close up, as the cross fills.

Much of the cross was made up of broken pottery objects (and wine bottles and dishes).  We have many potters who come to the retreat, and they welcomed the chance to put their less-perfect pieces to a different use.  And many of us had fun with a sledgehammer as we made the pieces small enough to drop in.

Each year, I try a variety of arts and crafts, and this year, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed shattering objects and dropping them in.  I loved seeing how they assembled themselves and reassembled themselves.  I probably should have worn gloves--I got lots of tiny cuts.

Here are two different work-in-progress shots. 

You can see how we filled in the sides, the crossbeam, if you will.

The cross will live at the labyrinth.  The labyrinth itself began in brokenness.  Once upon a time, long ago when people still played tennis, it was a tennis court, and off to the side, you can still see the mechanism that tightened the net.  Then it was abandoned and the weeds filled in.  About 10 years ago, someone (many someones?) transformed the tennis court into a labyrinth.  Some day, I'll write a poem.

I love the symbolism of this cross.  God can take any amount of brokenness and redeem it.  God takes all our broken pieces and assembles a new creation.  What amazing Good News!