Friday, July 29, 2011

Cartwheel Friday--the Spiritual Edition

Over at my creativity blog, I wrote this post about a woman who has resolved to do one cartwheel a week.  It sounds so simple:  a cartwheel a week.  It keeps her strong and flexible.  It keeps her in touch with what she loved as a child.

As always, my brain has shifted to our spiritual lives and whether or not we can do something similar to keep our spiritual selves supple and joy-filled.

What did we love as children?  What focused our attention on God?

For some of us, it may have been when we were out in the natural world that we were closest to God.  Maybe we had a great experience in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School.  Maybe we loved singing in the children's choir.  Maybe we loved the majesty of the liturgy.  Maybe we loved making banners and Christmon ornaments and all the decorations that announced the changing of the liturgical seasons.  Maybe we loved the stories that we heard.

How can we recapture that in our adult lives? 

There's so much about being an adult member of a congregation that can strip the joy out of our spiritual lives.  There's the leaking roof and all the other financial issues that can take up so much time.  There might be interpersonal conflicts.  We might wish that our church and congregation was more one way and less another way. 

All of those issues can make us forget about God, God who should be the focus of it all.  It's time to get back to what can bring us closer to God, back to what will enrich that relationship.

It's never too late to make a Christmon!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Poetry Thursday: Psalms, Prayers, Heat

When I notice several poets in one day referring to the Bible in one way or another, it must be time to do some linking and to offer a poem of my own.

Over at Dave Bonta's blog, we find the latest poem from Luisa A. Igloria, which has an epigraph from Hebrews.  Her poems almost always delight me, and this one is no different with its shimmering insights.

Another poet who rarely disappoints and gives us poems almost daily is Hannah Stephenson.  I love today's poem "Psalm Dot Com."

And here's a poem of mine, that seems appropriate for a scorching hot day; I wrote it on an October day that felt more like August.  It appears in my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Reformation Day

The catholic heat holds us
in a tight embrace for what seems an age.
We participate in the sacraments
designed to make us forget the hellishness
of everyday life:  afternoons at the pool,
barbecues, beach trips, and for the fortunate few,
a trip to the mountains, a retreat, a pilgrimage.

We pay alms as we must:  electric bills,
pool chemicals, cool treats.  We pay indulgences
when we can’t avoid it:  the air conditioning repair
man, the pool expert who keeps the water pure,
men versed in mysteries we cannot hope to understand.

Finally, the heat breaks.  A cold front swoops
down upon us from the north country, a Reformation
bringing with it the promise of other Protestants,
more weather systems to overthrow
the ubiquitous heat, to leave
us breathless with the possibilities of change.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for July 31, 2011

Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-9, 15-22 (Psalm 145: 8-9, 14-21 NRSV)
You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature. (Ps. 145:17)
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

The story in the Gospel lesson is familiar; indeed, a version appears in each Gospel (which may mean it’s more likely to be a factual reporting, or it may mean that each Gospel writer realized the significance and implications of the story and couldn’t bear to leave it out). Jesus preaches to the multitudes, who grow hungry. Jesus commands the disciples to feed them, and they protest that they only have five loaves and two fish. But miraculously, not only are the thousands of people fed, but the disciples gather basket after basket of leftovers.

Christian approaches to this story are varied. One of the most common uses this story as a way to teach the importance of sharing—share the scarce resources and magically, everyone has enough (probably the emphasis of many a stewardship campaign). Some theologians reflect on the nature of hunger, which seems particularly relevant when coupled with the verse from Isaiah: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 56: 2). Should we hunger for bread? From the springboard of this story, we could ponder the mystery of the Eucharist, remind ourselves that “without Jesus, we go hungry, and with Jesus, there is more than enough” (Marcus Borg develops a much more intense discussion of the differences of each version of the loaves and fishes story in his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, but he starts from this simple metaphorical place).

I find the approach of the disciples one of the more interesting angles of this story. Jesus commands them to feed everyone, and they protest that they can’t, that they don’t have enough food. They’ve followed Jesus for some time and they’ve seen him perform many miracles, including making dead people come back to life. But their first response is that they can’t possibly do what Jesus expects (and what all of us, as followers, are commanded to do—to care for each other).

I think this story tells us an important lesson about the human resistance to the miraculous. We limit God, and our fellow humans, by our inability to dream big visions. We assume that we’ll always have hungry people, oppressed nations, and what can we do—we only have so much and it will only stretch so far. But we forget how much is possible—how much we have already seen with our own eyes.

For example, imagine we could time travel back to the year 1985 (only 20 years ago). Imagine that we told the people of that time that in a few short years, the Berlin Wall would come down. Not only that, but Nelson Mandela would be released from prison (and free elections would follow five years later). Not only that, the Soviet Union would soon be no more.

The people we encountered would not believe us. The people of 1985 would have been convinced that Nelson Mandela would die in his South African prison and that his nation would disintegrate into civil war. The people of 1985 would have been convinced that the Soviet Union would always be a part of the geopolitical landscape, and that there would always be a literal wall that separated east from west.

To talk about how these miracles happened would take a much larger space than I have here, but it’s important to remember that one reason is that ordinary people dreamed of something different. For example, in numerous interviews that I’ve heard, Desmond Tutu, gives credit for the fall of apartheid to the governments, institutions, and individuals who fought for divestment from a corrupt regime. And even when the call for divestment was not successful, those calls started an important conversation.

Desmond Tutu also always gives credit to the Christians (and other believers) throughout the world who prayed for a peaceful way out of an insolvable situation. Even if you didn’t own a Kruggerand (a popular way for people to invest in gold—gold that came from South Africa), you could participate in the process of mercy and justice.

And don’t let my emphasis on political miracles keep us from remembering the other miracles that surround us: health restored, friendships (and other relationships) repaired, the student who suddenly understands an impossible subject, the hungry fed, the homeless who find shelter.

I know that for every miracle, someone has suffered the pain of loss (the cancer that didn’t go into remission, the job loss that leads to other losses or a weather catastrophe—for every South Africa, there are a dozen Darfurs).

But we are called to keep our eyes towards a different reality. The Kingdom of Heaven is not just after death, Jesus declares. It is among us, here and now. And we can be a part of that glorious creation.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

When Your Pastor Goes Off Lectionary

I want to believe that pastors know when we need to hear the messages they feel compelled to preach.

I miss the lectionary when the pastor goes off lectionary.

I miss the parts of the lectionary that we leave out.

I miss them, even when I grow impatient over how long our Sunday service lasts.  I don't want more cut out.  In fact, I want some things added back in.  At the same time, I want the service to be more efficient.

I realize that my longing for efficiency is both one of my strengths and one of my weaknesses.

I miss the way that the full complement of readings from the lectionary twine around themselves and bind themselves together.

I believe that Christians need all those readings to fully bind us all together.

I miss hearing the readings and knowing that all across the planet, fellow Christians are hearing and reading what I'm hearing.

I think that the ancients understood something wise when they articulated the power of a shared set of readings.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Distinguishing the Voice of God

At my creativity blog, I wrote a post about inner voices: 

"I have the voice of the inner critic, who tells me how stupid I am and how off track I’ve gotten. That voice focuses on all that I have not accomplished. That voice mocks my earlier dreams of a published novel, of a book of poems with a spine, of all the things I can’t quite pull together.

My kind voice focuses on what I have done, how amazing it all is. My kind voice tells me I haven’t done the other things yet. My kind voice reminds me that there is still plenty of time."

Having written about Mary Magdalene yesterday, I've wondered if I sound mentally unbalanced when I write those words, when I talk about having different selves.

But this morning, as I was writing, I thought, what if my kind voice is the voice of God? 

God is not the voice that tells us that we're worthless.  God is not the voice of disappointment.  God is not the voice in our heads that says, "How stupid!"

God is the one who delights in us.  God is the one who wants what's best for us.  The voice of God is the voice that calls us to be our best selves.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Mary Magdalene and Modern Women

Today, we celebrate the life of Mary Magdalene. Take a minute to read the New Testament reading for today: John 20:1-2, 11-18.  I wrote about Mary Magdalene and the early church here, where I also talk about reading the Easter story during the long season after Pentecost.

This week has been one of those hectic feeling weeks at work, where it seems to take the better part of a day to work through the deluge of e-mails.  It's been a week punctuated by people having crises, some of them legitimate, some of them manufactured drama.  It's exhausting.

When I think about Mary Magdalene, I don't think about the tales that have her as demon possessed.  I don't usually trust the ancient writers when it comes to their descriptions of emotional states.  When I was younger, I was taught that Mary Magdalene likely had mental illnesses, which ancient people would have explained as demon possession.  Feminist scholars taught me to wonder if the ancient church had a vested interest in stripping Mary of her story and her power.

After a hectic work week, I wonder what Mary has to teach us about pace and rushing and hurry, hurry, hurry.  It's Mary who stays behind to grieve, while the male disciples are running off to do whatever it is they feel compelled to do.  It's because she stays behind to rest and to grieve that she gets to be the first to see the risen Lord.

I think of Mary Magdalene and the ways her life was changed by her discipleship.  I wonder if she ever missed those demons or if she spent every day in deep awareness of how much worse her life could be and had been.  I wonder what happened to her once her brief time with Jesus was over. 

What do ancient women have to teach modern women?  Would we have anything to say to each other if we could sit down to share a meal?

I suspect we'd all be able to talk about the difficulty of leading a balanced life.  We'd talk about the demands that our families have.  Would ancient women wonder if they were living up to their full potential?  Would modern women from industrialized nations understand the precarious lives that ancient women faced?  Or do we all feel we're living precarious lives?

For Christians, the comfort of the Gospel is that our God took on human form and came down to dwell with us.   Our God understands all the difficulties of being human.  Our God got to see firsthand that life is precarious.

For Christian feminists, the comfort of the Gospel is that Jesus included all the dispossessed in his ministry.  Jesus spent a lot of time with women, and if you read the Gospel with compassionate eyes, you'll see that the women followers often seem to be much more stable.  They seem to understand the nature of Christ's mission much more quickly than the males do.

One of the lessons of Mary Magdalene might have to do with reputation and how the world might slander us for our faithfulness.  But we really can't worry about that.  The world will slander us for all sorts of reasons.  The story of Mary Magdalene reminds us that there are greater rewards than respect and a good reputation.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Miracle of Sunrise

This morning I got to enjoy another beautiful sunrise as I slogged through my morning run at the beach.  Every day offers such a beautiful sunrise!  The variables change:  clouds on the horizon, weather conditions, the surface of the sea.  But overall, each morning we get at least an hour of a wonderful sight, as the sky transitions from night to morning, as the sea shifts colors, from deep darkness to purples and pinks.

Today I noticed how many people seemed oblivious to the sunrise.  They jogged along with their eyes cast down at the pavement.  They read their books or laptops or cell phones.

I thought about the various Gospels that tell us to always be on the lookout for God.  I wasn't thinking as much about the apocalyptic ones, as about the ones for this Sunday.  I thought about tiny seeds and yeast, and how the kingdom of God is often unnoticed.

I thought about God as exuberant creator.  I thought about God who is so often saying, "Hey, look at this sunrise I just made!  Look at how I got these colors to slide together!!  Hey, I think I just made another color!!!  How cool is that?"

So, this morning I paused several times to watch the sun come across the horizon.  I said, "Great show, God!"  I agreed with the woman who said, "This is better than Mass!"

Of course, depending on your view of worship and why we assemble in our places of worship, you might have said, "No, what we're doing here IS Mass."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 24, 2011:

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 29:15-28

Psalm: Psalm 119:129-136

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 128 (Psalm 128 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:26-39

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today we have a series of interesting parables which Jesus uses to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. I don't think that Jesus is explaining the afterlife, the way that many of us might assume when we hear the word "Heaven." Instead, Matthew uses that word as shorthand for a concept that's closer to "life as God intended." Of course, I'm grossly simplifying, but instead of doing an in-depth exploration of the word "Heaven," let's look at the images Jesus uses.

Note the smallness, the almost invisibility, of the first two images (verses 31-33): mustard seeds and yeast. There are two elements which are interesting. One is that these small grains left alone will transform themselves into something bigger--and in the case of yeast, will transform the surrounding elements too. Leave flour alone, and it won't change much in terms of volume. Even if it gets buggy, the bag won't explode. But add yeast and water and a bit of sweetness and leave the bowl in a warm place for a few hours--when you return to the bowl, the dough might be overflowing. Likewise with a seed. Plant it in the earth, add some water, and leave it alone--if you're lucky, you get a shrub or a tree. If we go out looking for the kingdom to be a big, glorious thing, we might miss the Kingdom.

Many people simply don't register the presence of God because they're looking for the wrong thing. They're looking for something huge and powerful. For example, think about the Jews of Jesus' time. They didn't want spiritual salvation. When they talked about a savior, they wanted someone who would kick the Romans out of their homeland. They missed the miracle of Jesus because they looked for the wrong sign.

The next set of metaphors (verses 44-46) talks about the preciousness of the Kingdom and also a bit about the effort required to find it. The treasure/pearl doesn't just fall into the men's laps--they're out looking.

We live in a culture that doesn't want to put in a lot of work. If you don't believe me, watch the claims that advertisers make: I can lose weight by eating a cookie, I can make by working just 15 minutes a day, I can get a college degree without leaving my house. I love talking to my colleagues and collecting their strange student stories. One of my colleagues had a student stomp out in a huff when she realized she'd have to write essays. Keep in mind, my colleague teaches an English Composition class. Did the student think they'd be creating macaroni collages?

And then I start to wonder why this student imagines that she can go to college and not have to work. Where does she get that message? Of course, the culture in which she lives beams that to her all the time.

Likewise, Kingdom living requires some effort on our part. God wants to meet us, but we have to go forward towards God. We have to look for the right signs, and we have to make some effort. That effort might be regular prayer, spiritual reading, going to church, turning ourselves into caring people, giving more of our money away.

But the end of this week's Gospel assures us that the effort will pay off. We don't want to be in the furnace where men weep and gnash their teeth. For those of you who read the end of the Gospel as a metaphor of Hell after death, you might be right. But I would argue that life is terribly hellish right here and now for people who aren't doing transformational work.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

More on Spiritual Practices and Calories

I wrote about counting calories as metaphor for time-tested spiritual practices here.  Lately, I've seen the potential flaws in calorie counting, and I've wondered if there are similar flaws on the other side of the comparison.

My moves towards healthier living inspired my spouse to count calories and to try to adopt some healthier practices.  His weight went down at the end of last week, but yesterday, it shot up.  He says, "One week of calorie counting, and I've gained three pounds."

Yes, I see the flaw in his logic.  It's been a week, not a month, not a season.  He didn't count calories on Saturday as he overate.  There are any number of reasons why his weight might be up, and it's too early to know for sure what's causing it or if it's a temporary blip.

But watching him made me think of people who adopt a spiritual practice only to find that the promises don't hold up.  I can hear the pilgrim now, saying, "Hey, I thought if I prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, I'd be feeling different.  But I'm feeling the same, but now I just pray more."  Or, "I thought that if I tithed, I'd be less stressed about money.  It hasn't happened yet.  It's been a week.  How long do I have to wait?"

Much as we long-time believers might not want to own up to our own failings and disappointments when it comes to our faith and our spiritual disciplines, it's important.  We want new believers to stay the course.  We don't want them to quit when it gets hard or when they think they're feeling ways that a Christian would never feel.  We don't want them to think that they adopt a spiritual discipline, practice it until it becomes a habit, and then they're out of danger. 

Any of us could wake up to find our spiritual lives (or other aspects of our lives) stifled and dull.  What once left us feeling refreshed and renewed, nourished and healthy, might stop working.  However, if we keep doing the spiritual practice, even if we're not feeling authentic about it, we might find that at a later point, the spiritual practice starts working for us again.

Just as our daily weight fluctuations are no reason to abandon healthy eating, our emotional fluctuations are no reason to abandon solid spiritual practices.  And if we can be open about it, we can help others.  Millions of readers and viewers have been buoyed by Oprah's weight struggles--if we're open about our spiritual ups and downs, we might find that we form a stronger generation of believers.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Our Servant Souls/Soles

My church has gone off lectionary for the summer.  I try not to think about that too much.  If I could change one thing about my church, I'd have us do the complete readings.  We usually leave out the Old Testament reading, and if we get a Psalm at all, it's a snippet.  Some days, we only get the Gospel or what we once called the Epistle--whichever one the sermon will be based upon.

This summer, we're hearing sermons based on our mission statement:  "we share Christ, live by loving, care by serving, and see Christ in all."  Yes, you'd think that we don't really need to delve into that mission statement deeply.  But it's come to the pastor's attention that some segments of our church are interpreting that mission statement differently enough that he feels the need to preach on it this summer.

Yesterday, he preached on the third part of the statement:  "care by serving."  We had an out of season sermon on foot washing and other ways we serve.

He reminded us that we're called to be Kingdom people for whom humility is a virtue and servanthood a way of life.  We are called not to worry about a seat at the table, but to remember whose table it is (we had Matthew 20:  1-28 for our Gospel, the reading where the mother of the sons of Zebedee asks Jesus to assure her that her boys will have a place at both the right and the left hand of Jesus).

It was a solid sermon, with a message that we should probably hear more often--especially since it's such a different message than the ones we usually get from our culture.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

If Our Brains Have Changed, Should Our Worship Change Too?

One of my summer vacation books was The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr.  I wrote more extensively about that book in this post on my creativity blog.

I've been thinking about this subject from a variety of angles.  My quilting group met yesterday.  I really should start calling it our eating group, because we don't get much quilting done.  I talked about an idea I have for a novel.  One of my friends, who also read Carr's book, said, "Would you really write a novel after having read Carr's book?"  Yes, I might.

I've also been thinking about these issues in terms of education.  I listened to this NPR show about changing our approach to classrooms and delivery systems for a net generation.  I had all sorts of questions, of course.  Why do we let relatively unformed youngsters dictate these things?  Do we really think the brain itself has changed, even though we understand how long these evolutionary changes take to manifest themselves?  What about the students who don't learn well with technology gadgets?

This morning, as I'm getting ready for church, I started wondering about our brains and our traditional church services, for those of us who still have traditional church services.  How long are the sermons in your church?  Is it realistic to expect that congregations can pay attention for 20, 30, 40 minutes?  Lots of brain researchers would say it is not.

I continue to be drawn to the ideas in Mark Pierson's The Art of Curating Worship (see this post for a review).  Why have a sermon at all?  Gone are the days when the pastor was the only person with a graduate education in the room.  We don't need the pastor's brain to navigate the text for us, to tell us what to think.  It would be nice to get some background, some history, some linguistic information about what the text looked like in its original language--but I've heard precious few sermons that actually do this.

What I'd like, and what I expect many others would like, is a chance to interact with the text.  Let me create something.  Let me be part of a larger happening.  Get me up and out of the pew.  I'm tired of being a passive observer!

No, don't give me a PowerPoint presentation.  Please, God, protect me from PowerPoint!  So few people do those well.  I want to move my hands, move my feet.  I want my brain to fully engage.

Those of us in mainstream churches have been slow to understand what our Pentecostal siblings have always known--we want all of ourselves to be fully engaged.  Mainstream churches are in the early days of this experiment.  Brain researchers would tell us it's time to hurry up--that one reason why we're losing so many members is that we're acting as if it's 1947, but it isn't.  Not in terms of people's brains, their educations, their desires, and their hopes.

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Good News, Not Grim News" up at Living Lutheran Website

My blog post, "Good News, Not Grim News," is up at the Living Lutheran site; go here to read it.

I was asked to write a light-hearted approach to spirituality.  I'll let you be the judge of whether or not I did that.

Here's a paragraph to whet your appetite:

"How might we incorporate creative processes into our worship services? You might protest that your congregation already does, but what I’ve seen is that a few people present a creative piece and most of the congregation serves as audience (to the choir, to the liturgical dancers, to the people who put together the service). What would happen if we passed out art supplies, and instead of a sermon, we encouraged people to respond creatively to the Gospel?"

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Poetry Thursday: Gardening Through the Generations

I've had gardening on the brain lately--you could argue that the Gospels haven't been about gardening,, but about something larger, and I'll admit it's metaphorical.  Still, the metaphors have made me think about literal gardens I have known.  It's summer, and I'm missing the abundance of produce that the upper 48 states should traditionally be enjoying right now.

My grandparents on my mom's side always had a garden, and even when my grandfather died, my grandmother planted a smaller version of the garden for many years.  I remember snapping beans on many a hot summer's night on the porch, back in the days before central AC.  I remember the thrill of picking dinner right off the vine.  The sweetness of the just-picked corn mingling with butter--no taste treat has ever been better.

When I think of Heaven, I think of tasting those foods that seem impossible to find anymore.  I'm hoping to do it with loved ones around me.

I'm also thinking of a poem I wrote years ago.  It first appeared in Tar River Poetry and will also be part of my forthcoming chapbook.

Necessity of Moisture

His last letter spoke of snow,
the necessity of moisture, the dryness of the soil.
Even though he had not tilled the ground
in more than twenty years, the dirt
still spoke to him. As with an old love,
his connection to the land would never completely cease.

Although she would never farm his way,
his daughter always kept a garden.
Even now, long after she’s let the grass grow
over the backyard once ruled by green
beans, squash, tomatoes, and okra, even now, she shovels
her organic waste back into her compost heap.

I will never garden on even my grandmother’s
small scale, but I save all my kitchen scraps,
mix them with grass clippings, compost
in my non-professional way. I long for her rich, black dirt
as I stick my seedlings in the Florida sand.
We chat every Sunday, exchange rainfall statistics
the way some men might discuss baseball details.
Catlike, I save weather tidbits through the week as a love offering.

Some families develop elaborate gift giving rituals,
a whole language of material love. Others create pet
names, secret personalities, languages no outsider understands.
My family’s secret language lies in the meteorological details
and soil analysis, love as moisture, compost, seedlings.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, July 17, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 44:6-8

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 28:10-19a

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

Psalm: Psalm 86:11-17

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 (Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-25

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Again this week we have agricultural metaphors--what an intriguing scenario, to have an enemy that sneaks into your fields to sow weeds, instead of just destroying the field outright. And what an interesting response of the owner: to let the wheat and the weeds grow, to separate the useful from the useless later, once the growing is done and the reaping finished.

The traditional response to this Gospel sees this story as a metaphor about Judgement Day. My problem with that metaphor is that weeds don't turn into wheat, and I don't like the implications of that. The parable comes much too close to advocating predestination for my Lutheran sensibilities to be happy with this interpretation.

Luckily, humans aren't solely weeds or wheat. I know that there are some weeks where I'm more of a weed than anything that is of agricultural use. And I'm the pesky kind of weed; I'm not the kind of weed that grows quietly alone; I impede the spiritual progress of others, strangling and choking and making life miserable. I console myself by telling myself that we all have those days or weeks or seasons where our weedy natures take over.

But I can’t take too much consolation. These summer Gospel readings remind us that we don’t get to sleep in the soil forever. We don't get to loll around in our wheatfield, hoping that we're one of the chosen ones and not one of the weeds. At some point, the wheat will be separated from the weeds.

Let us return to the idea of sowing and seeds, a useful metaphor in so many ways. How can we sow seeds now that will blossom into good gardens later? There are as many ways to do this as there are vegetables in the garden right now in many parts of the country.

Maybe we could pray more. Maybe we could resolve to be cheerful, no matter what the day brings. Maybe we could give one or two percent more of our income away. Maybe we could remember to say “please” and “thank you.”

Our basic task is to reflect God's light into a world that dims each day. How can you best do that?

If you feel disheartened, like your weedy self is too firmly rooted, remember those who have gone before you. One of Christianity's most successful evangelists, Paul, was killing Christians before he converted. If God found a use for Paul, God can use your seedling talents too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Agricultural Metaphors and the Gospel

As we work our way through the summer's agricultural metaphors, I have to wonder about their effectiveness.  How many of us have seen wheat grow?  For that matter, how many of us have seen anything grow?

Once upon a time, many generations ago, we were an agricultural nation.  Most of us grew our own food.  We'd have understood intimately the metaphors of good seed and bad, good soil and rocky soil.

Even when I was a child in the 1970's, it seemed that more people gardened.  Everyone in my suburban neighborhood was growing something, even if it was just tomatoes.  I remember going to church in the summer and seeing tables with the garden bounty that individual families couldn't consume.  Church members were encouraged to take what they could use.

I am only two generations removed from my farming relatives.  Had my grandfather not decided to go to seminary, I might still be on the farm--or more realistically, we'd be trying to decide what to do about the farm.  My grandmother keeps a letter that the seminary sent my grandfather as they tried to persuade him not to come to school.  The seminary letter writer points out that at least on the farm my grandfather will always have food--and in the height of the Great Depression, this was no small thing.  But my grandfather pressed ahead with his plans, and that's one reason why I'm not still on the farm.

I was lucky enough to be able to go back to the farms of my relatives as I was growing up.  My grandmother came from farming people too, and I remember at a family reunion, we took a hay ride tour of the land, with commentary about which relative had farmed which parts of the land and what had grown there.  As a teenager, I read about industrial farming and decided to become a vegetarian.  But when we went to my grandfather's farming family, I got to see what a humane picture of animal husbandry could be.  Everything we ate at Thanksgiving came from the farm.  Everything we ate, except the desserts, had been alive just a week ago:  the turkey, the pork, and the vegetable side dishes.

Most people these days have no memories like the ones that I have.  And I wonder if the agricultural metaphors still work for those people when they read the Gospel.  As an English major, we talked about readers having to understand both sides of the equation of the metaphor.  If the reader doesn't, the comparison might be lost.

What would a modern metaphor be?  Would we talk about good investments and bad investments in the stock market?  Would we talk about exercise maybe?  I need to think more about this.

In the meantime, I'll look for ways to enjoy the gardens that are part of my life.  My spouse plants everything in the yard and sees what will happen.  We have flourishing herbs and all sorts of tropical plants.  My friend planted a garden in the planter boxes in the balcony outside of my office.  It's a beautiful space, even if it's not the kind of garden that my grandmother would recognize.

Let's say a prayer of thanks for all the soil bewitchers in our lives.  We may not be growing wheat, but at least we can still enjoy the sight of a seed sprouting out of the soil.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Happy Birthday, Frederick Buechner!

Today is the birthday of Frederick Buechner.  Buechner is a Presbyterian minister and theologian--but that's a simplification, really.  He's written more than thirty books, and who knows how many sermons.  The scope of his writing is breathtaking:  novels, devotional items, sermons, autobiography, theology.

But here's what's most intriguing to me:  he's the kind of writer whom readers of all types adore.  I've met atheists who like his writing.  Christians of all stripes love him.  He achieves a kind of universality achieved by few; Henri Nouwen comes to mind as someone with similar writing achievements.  Buechner writes the kind of theology that's insightful and full of surprises, but so solid that he doesn't inspire controversy.  It's not an easy feat to pull off.

Earlier this year, in this post on my creativity blog, I wrote:

"I want to get back to thinking about the future in these terms: what would I do, if I believed that anything was possible? What do I enjoy doing? To put it in theological terms I want to structure my future in the way that Frederick Buechner would advise in his book Wishful Thinking: 'The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.'"

Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor says: "From [Buechner] I've learned that the only limit to the revelation going on all around me is my willingness to turn aside and look."

Here are some more Buechner quotes for your Monday:

"You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes can do it. ... You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next." Beyond Words

"Martin Luther said once, 'If I were God, I'd kick the world to pieces.' But Martin Luther wasn't God. God is God, and God has never kicked the world to pieces. He keeps re-entering the world. He keeps offering himself to the world by grace, keeps somehow blessing the world, making possible a kind of life which we all, in our deepest being, hunger for." From discussion with reporter Kim Lawton on Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly

"The life that I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt." The Hungering Dark [59]

"Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace." Now and Then

Even in these snippets, Buechner does what I try to do as a theologian and a poet:  he's pointing towards some insights and observations that seem fairly universal, regardless of religious and spiritual beliefs.  He inspires Christians and atheists alike.

Later today, you can go to the Living Lutheran website, where I've written a post that will be one of the featured ones for today.  Am I Buechneresque?  You decide.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Counting Calories and Other Time Tested Techniques

I've been participating in a weight loss challenge at the Wellness Center where I go for spin class.  I've met with a nutritionist and a trainer.  I've increased my exercise in hopes of burning off my stored fat.  I've been counting calories, a practice I haven't done since I was 16.

Let me confess that I am surprised at how effective these old practices are.  Burn off more calories than you take in, and you will lose weight.  Be careful when you consume those calories so that you're getting a lot of nutritional bang for each bite, and you'll be even more successful.

My experience of the past month has led me to think about other older practices that we may have abandoned but that might have merit.  And since this is a theology blog, let me think about those.

In our quest to appeal to all seekers, many churches have stripped their worship spaces of all markers of Christianity or other churchy stuff.  Some churches have removed the pews and put in chairs.  Some have gotten rid of stained glass.   Some have gone so far as to remove all crosses.  What remains is a sterile space.

I'd like to see more art, more creative expressions in our worship spaces.  I'd like to see some of the old banners share space with other fabric art.  I'd like to see more sculpture.  I'd like to see creative responses to each liturgical season which leads to a meditative experience.

Here's what my pastor set up for Lent, a diorama of sorts under and in front of the altar.  I'd like more of that. 

We might think of our personal spiritual practices too.  My grandparents may not have had a post-modern view of spirituality, but their religious practices are time-tested and solid.  My grandfather gave 10% of what he earned to the church and 10% to the family savings account before he paid any other bills.  I'm not always good at tithing, but when I participate in that ancient practice, I find myself more relaxed about money and bills.

My grandparents always read a short devotion and prayed right after breakfast.  We might protest that we have no time, but how much time, really, does it take to read a paragraph or two and to pray?  We might protest that we don't eat breakfast.  But nutritionist after nutritionist has told us how important breakfast is, so if we added both breakfast and devotion to our morning, we'd be nourished in multiple ways.

I can't remember a time when my parents weren't committed to church.  We were the family who looked for the local Lutheran church whenever we went on vacation, and we attended service every week.  At home, if the church was open, we went.

I know that modern families face time constraints, but if we can find time for sports practice, for lessons of all sorts, we can find time to go to church.  We need to be reminded of who we are, who God calls us to be.  Our larger society doesn't do that.  For most of us, church is likely to be the only place we'll hear that message.

I wonder what other older, but still useful, practices many of us have abandoned.  What should we take up again?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Of Horrible Giraffes and Genesis

I spent part of my recent summer vacation drawing with my nephew.  We had a great time drawing our favorite food, our favorite animals, our favorite flowers, and such.   I love creating with my nephew.  He's always reminded me of God when he creates.

I mean that he reminds me of the God in the earliest Genesis story, the one before Adam and Eve.  God creates and declares everything "Very good!"  God never says, “This bird doesn’t look like a macaw is supposed to look. I’m going to destroy it. I can never make those parrots like I want them to be. I’m so worthless.”

No, God is an exuberant creator in that earliest Genesis story.  God as creative pre-schooler!  How I wish we could all follow that model.

Unfortunately it's hard to make God's approach our own to creativity.  In this blog post, I talk in more detail about how we learn to be judgmental of our creations.  It's all too easy to pick up negative view points, even if you're surrounded by well-meaning adults.

I was recently horrifed to hear my nephew say, "This giraffe looks horrible!"  Where had he learned that language?  From me, of course.

When we asked him why he thought it looked horrible, he talked about the spots.  We tried to assure him that the spots were perfectly fine.  We tried to remind him of the diversity of creation, all the ways that we're all unique and delightful.

The world beams negative messages at us constantly.  The world tells us that there's only one way to have the right spots.  The world gives us a very narrow message of what's beautiful/successful/OK.

That's not God's message.  Throughout our sacred texts, we see God delighting in creation and going to great lengths to redeem creation.  We rest in the promise of ultimate redemption.

We can take part in this redemption by praising creation, wonky spots and all!  It's an important behavior to model--the children are watching us and following our lead!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 10, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-13

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 25:19-34

Psalm: Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-14 (Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 119:105-112

Second Reading: Romans 8:1-11

Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

This Gospel returns us to one of my favorite metaphors: the seed. When I first read this Gospel lesson as a child, I read it as an indictment of the seeds. Clearly some were just bad or worthless. Now, as an adult, I see this Gospel as being primarily about the ground. We've all got lots of potential, but some of us just aren't in the right kind of ground to flourish.

Unlike seeds, we can move. I'm not necessarily talking about a literal move, although the idea of moving to be near a church that nourishes you doesn't strike me as absurd, the way it once did. Many of us move for much more stupid reasons.

Unfortunately, given the state of the housing market, many of us are as rooted as plants need to be. However, there are still many things we can do to enrich the soil in which we find ourselves. Some of these ideas won't be new to you. But some of them might be. Look at my ideas, and see if you might be willing to try something to nourish your soul.

The first thing we should all do is take a long, hard look at the people with whom we spend time. Are these people who are bringing out our best traits? Or do we have negative friends, people who encourage us to gossip, to tear others down, to be angry or sour? Perhaps it's time to expand our network of friends.

Think about your daily schedule. What activities leave you feeling icky? For example, many of us start our days by watching the local news. What would happen if you turned off the news and read a chapter of the Bible? You'd probably leave the house feeling calmer. I know that you'll tell me you only watch the news to get the weather and the traffic. Well, there are better ways to get that information. The local news carries such horrific stories and our bodies can't handle that stress.

Likewise, what do you listen to in the car? Does it soothe you or drive your heart rate through the ceiling? Invest in something that calms you (a CD, a podcast, a tape). Get something that reminds you of who you're supposed to be. I've noticed that when I'm listening to Godspell, I'm less likely to curse my fellow drivers, and the lyrics stay with me through the day (and since they're Biblically based lyrics, I'm happy to have them in my brain).

Think about your charitable activities. Just as we tithe money, we should tithe time. You'll feel better if you can do more for others. Even if you don't like the populations we usually think of when we think of charity, you can find someone who needs you. Read books to elementary school kids. Or, if you don't want to deal with humans, go to a food bank and sort food. Or call charitable agencies and offer to do free data inputting.

And don't forget that humans have a need for retreat. Build mini-retreats into your day (find some green space and go there to pray; read something inspiring, if you can't leave your desk; find web sites with inspiring material and visit; close the door to your families, don't answer the phone, and practice deep breathing). And think about a longer retreat. Summer camp isn't just for kids any more. And if you can't go during summer, many church camps have year-round programming, often at very affordable prices. Or go to a monastery, which often will just ask for an offering.

And know that there are times in your life where your heart won't be fertile soil. But if gardening teaches us anything, it's that soil can be redeemed--and if you want to keep on with this metaphor: what redeems soil? Poop! Lots and lots of poop! So give thanks for all the poop that falls into your life and pray that it transforms the soil of your heart. The redemption process goes faster if you participate. And teeny changes can lead to incredible rewards. Here, in the dog days of summer, think about one change you can make and commit to a weekly practice until the weather cools off.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Limbering Up These Blogging Muscles

Here I am, back from my summer vacation and thinking about yokes of all kind (still with Sunday's Gospel, even as it's time to turn my face towards next Sunday's).  It's time to get back to my regular schedule, which includes work and exercise and meetings and at some point, I should grocery shop.  And do some laundry.  Sigh. 

At least my work and exercise and other duties shouldn't be too onerous.  And I've created some happy memories to sustain me through the drudgery bits.

For the past several years, we've met my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew at their boat in Maryland to sail the Chesapeake on their boat.  It's a special time, and I feel amazingly lucky that it continues to be special, year after year.  I love being in a different natural environment.  I love the glimpse of a different life that time on a sailboat gives one.  I love spending time with my nephew, who is five, and sees the world differently than just about anyone I know.  It's been years, decades even, since I've spent time with a child that young.  It's wonderful to see the world through his eyes.  I'm sure I'll write more on that in the days to come.

But now it's time to lace up my running shoes and greet the sunrise.  I've already prayed the morning office (another yoke I need to take up again).  Let me burn some calories and drink in some beauty before I turn my attention to my day of many meetings.