Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011:

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-11

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 12:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 119:33-40

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 149

Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20

The Gospel readings from the last several weeks have shown us Jesus trying to prepare his disciples to take over his mission, once he's no longer physically there to lead them. Here we see him address issues of conflict management, and his advice seems to hold true, even centuries later: try to work out the conflict privately and go through increasingly public discourse.

The last verse is one of the more famous Gospel verses, the one that tells us that we only need two or three to gather in the name of Christ, and he'll be there. But what does this verse mean for the larger church? If Christ is with us when we gather in his name, even in very small groups, do we really need the larger Church?

The Church as Societal Institution suffers from many problems, and today's crop of atheist writers are happy to enumerate them. I'll be the first to say that child abusers who achieve a position of power are a problem that must be dealt with swiftly, and I'm as bothered by scientific illiteracy (as well as other types) as any atheist. But the church has other profound problems, and one of them is that we're supposed to be a group that gives people a compass and a meaning, yet we do a very poor job.

Alienation is one of the issues that the Church faces but often doesn't know how to solve. Especially in larger churches, it's too easy to come to church every Sunday, yet not make meaningful connections. Many people can't conceive of having time to go to church on Sunday, much less at any other time. How do we get busy people to commit to a church, especially when they feel little denominational loyalty? How do we help people get to know each other well enough so that they would feel comfortable bringing conflicts to the church for resolution? Can you imagine doing what Jesus suggests earlier in the Gospel, bringing disputes to your Church brothers and sisters? If not, why not?

Throughout the twentieth century especially, we've seen churches try to solve these problems by adding programs to the weekly schedule, so as to focus not just on worship. Many denominations meet throughout the week with Bible studies, covered dish dinners, musical rehearsals, and the like. Many churches offer not just fellowship, but also the opportunity to do some social justice work. Churches offer these opportunities for a variety of reasons, but one of them is to keep people feeling connected, both to the church and to each other. As churches get ever larger, individuals feel ever more isolated.

Some of the more interesting late-twentieth and twenty-first century church movements have focused on that last verse and decided that the largeness of the institutional Church is the problem. When churches acquire a building, they sacrifice many opportunities to serve the world, because the building has needs. When institutions have a payroll to meet, they choose not to give as much to the poor as they could, if they had no employees.

Some modern groups have decided to simplify, to emulate the early church, which was often small enough to meet in people's houses and to share a real meal, not a symbol of a meal. Some modern groups go even further and actually pool their resources, and some even go so far as to live together. There's an exciting stream of the Emergent church which finds inspiration in earlier monastic movements and other intentional Christian communities.

Of course, this life choice wouldn't work for everyone. But we are in a time of great Church reformation, and it will be interesting to see where it all leads. As we approach both the 10th anniversary of September 11 and later, Reformation Day, it’s a good time to think about how to shape our own individual churches to make them places where we could bring conflicts to be solved, where we feel the presence of Christ in our brothers and sisters gathered there. How can the Church be a force for peace in the modern, multicultural world?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Poetry Tuesday: Risking Our Lives to Save Them

On Sunday, our pastor talked about the part of the Gospel that told us that those who would lose their lives would save them and those who would save their lives would use them.  He talked about the cost of the cross.  He talked about the French town of Huguenot Catholics who, at great risk to all, saved the town's Jews from the Nazis.

Our pastor reached right out to shake us out of our smug complacency.  We sit here, almost 100 years away from the rise of the Nazis, and we imagine that we would never let the situation get that bad.

Our pastor pointed out the increasingly harsh treatment of illegal immigrants.  He observed that churches in Alabama have declared that they will disobey the law by continuing to transport the children of illegal immigrants to Sunday School.  He told us about municipalities in Georgia who have declared that they will resist the attempts of authorities to enforce immigration laws.

He finished by asking us what we would do if the state of Florida enacted harsh laws.  It's an important question, since we live in a state that is likely to do just that.

Here's a poem that addresses that question.  I wrote it after hearing about people in the Southwest who set up water stations for illegal immigrants making that hazardous passage through the desert.  I wrote it in the summer of 2001, before the stricter laws passed in the days after September 11.  It seems like a relic from a simpler time, when people were allowed to set up water stations in national parks.  Yet it seems more relevant than ever.

This poem was first published in The South Carolina Review and was part of my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Modern Abolitionist

Two hundred years ago, we would have stitched
cloth, hung our quilts on the line to give guidance.
We would have sung songs, whispered directions,
left lamps burning in strategic windows.
Then, as now, we would have helped with the herding north.

Now we hang flags of blue plastic
above water stations in the desert. We patrol
these tanks to make sure they never run dry.
Dryness means quick death for those who make the daily
dashes towards freedom. We position
these water stations in national parks
under telephone poles that stretch high above, a sure sign
even during dehydration induced hallucinations. The flags whip
in the wind, a dry rustle above the rattlesnakes.

I keep extra food and water in the truck. When I see
parched refugees, dusty and sunburned, I offer
these meager rations. I’m not above
giving folks a ride. There’s no Fugitive
Slave Act to make me cower in fear.

Some mornings I find a few of them in the fields
or huddled against the garage, the barn.
Unlike my neighbors, I don’t threaten
them with my gun or call the law.
I’ve learned enough broken
Spanish to invite them to breakfast.
Eggs and toast translate to any language.

I wish I could fully claim my Abolitionist
heritage, instead of just dancing on the edge of lawlessness.
But I am no Harriet Tubman to safely lead
people out of slavery, no John Brown
to plot uprisings and raid munitions bunkers.
Alas, I don’t have the eloquence of Frederick Douglass.
All I can offer is a glass of water, a bite
of food, substandard shelter, and a ride north.

Friday, August 26, 2011

God of Physics and Chemistry

Yesterday, my atheist friend told me about a colleague who said that she had prayed to God that the hurricane would miss us--and lo and behold, the hurricane had missed us.  Now, did our colleague really say that, or did my atheist friend misinterpret what she had said?

Either is likely.

Any way you look at it though, it's crummy theology.  Because if I pray that the hurricane misses my coast, am I not praying that someone else get hit?

And do I really believe that our God of free will, our God who set the world up with certain laws of geology and physics and chemistry, do I really believe that God would intervene to curve the hurricane away from me?

If my house gets hurt by a hurricane, does that mean that I didn't pray hard enough?  Or that I'm spirituallly lacking, so that God pays no attention to me?  Or that other people prayed better?

Those questions also show us the crumminess of a theology that says that if we just pray hard enough and believe enough and behave in certain ways, then we can control the world around us and control God.

We can't.  That's the hard truth of the world we live in.  No matter how good we are, hard times visit us all.

The Good News of the Bible is that we have a God who loves us so much that our God would come to our difficult planet to hang out with us.  The Good News of the New Testament is one of grace:  God will love us no matter our behavior.

Hurricanes are not punishment.  On some level, hurricanes are the way the planet deals with extra heat and energy.  Yet even those who would blame hurricanes on global warming (and thus see them as a fitting punishment for errant humans) would do well to look back to remind themselves of how hurricanes have always swept across the planet, even before we warmed it up so dramatically.

On this day when most of the East Coast faces an extraordinary threat from Hurricane Irene, I'm not suggesting that we abandon prayer as a response.  In fact, on a day where most of us can't do much more than watch and hope, prayer seems like a perfectly appropriate response.

Prayer for the Day before the Hurricane Makes Landfall

Creator God, who fashioned this astonishing planet of atmospheric swirls, help us remember the abundance that our habitat usually offers us.  Be with those who work to protect their homes.  Be with those who suffer from fear and anxiety.  Remind us that you are with us, and help calm our fears.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 28, 2011:

First Reading: Jeremiah 15:15-21

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 3:1-15

Psalm: Psalm 26:1-8

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b

Second Reading: Romans 12:9-21

Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28

This Gospel shows us a picture of Jesus who knows that he's on a path to crucifixion. With clear sight and clear mission, Jesus warns his disciples of what's ahead.

Peter has a typical reaction: "That will never happen." Peter reminds me of today's prosperity preachers, who deny the ugliness of the world, the difficulties of life, and the mission that Jesus calls us to do. Forget all that, the prosperity preachers say. Believe in God and God will shower financial wealth on you. If you don't believe me, look at the bestsellers in any Christian bookstore. It's full of books with titles like God Wants You to Be Rich. My inner cynic sneers: "Yeah and maybe God can do something about my wide hips. And maybe God could fix the leak in my colleague’s roof. And maybe God can make sure that the children of all my friends get good grades in school."

My inner cynic is perhaps too dismissive too quickly. If God appeared in my study this morning, God might say something like, "Yes, I could do something about your wide hips--and so could you, since you've done it before. Yes, I can fix that leak. If those children study, they're likely to get good grades." Then God would wait for me to stop whooping with joy, and God would say, "But I have a larger vision for the world. I have a different definition of the word rich. I'm creating my Kingdom not just in Heaven, but right here and now, on your planet, and I want you to be part."

We'll have all kinds of crosses to bear, Jesus warns us, and we'll lose our lives in all kinds of ways. But we'll get wonderful rewards.

It's important to stress that Jesus isn't just talking about Heaven, or whatever your vision is of what happens when you die. If Jesus spoke directly, Jesus might say, "You're thinking too small. Did I give you an imagination so that you let it wither and waste away? Dream big, dream big."

I'm rereading N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. He's got interesting things to say about our ideas of life after death, but he's quick to stress that Jesus doesn't just announce a Kingdom in some Heaven that's somewhere else. On the contrary--the appearance of Jesus means that God's plan for redeeming creation has begun. And we're called to help. Wright says, ". . . you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus' saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project." (204-205). He points out, "But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within [our] world takes place not least through one of his creatures, in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image" (207). And for those of us who feel inadequate to the task, Wright (and before him, Jesus) reminds us of all the talents that we have at our disposal: "God gloriously honors all kinds of ways of announcing the good news" (226).

For many of us, the most difficult part of Jesus' mission that he gives us will be the willingness to believe that the arc of history bends towards justice, as Martin Luther King reminded us. The arc of history also bends towards beauty and wisdom and love and mercy. Some of us are so beaten down that we forget. Some of us would have no problem being crucified for our faith, but it's much harder to believe in God's vision of a redeemed world and to work to make that happen. But scripture and thousands of years of theology makes it clear, as Wright says, "We are called to live within the world where these things are possible and to agents of such things insofar as they lie in our calling and sphere" (248).

We'll lose our current lives of bitterness, fear, hopelessness, and rage. But we'll find a better one as we become agents of the Kingdom.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

God of the Rough Drafts

Yesterday, two different bloggers wrote about the creative process and making things with our hands.  Beth, a graphic designer, in this post remembers a time when she needed ink and paper and glue and sharp knives.  I, too, remember doing newspaper layout with x-acto knives.  I remember the huge machines that printed the newspapers.  But now, when I read a paper newspaper, I grow impatient with having to flip pages and wrestle with the paper.  I'd rather read online--me and the rest of the world, apparently.

Beth's post inspired Dave to write this post about manual typewriters and what a physical task it was to create poems.  He ends with a great image of his old computer buried in a field:  "A few years later, I finally upgraded and put the old beast out to pasture — literally. I didn’t know then about the heavy metals and other hazardous substances found in circuit boards, cathode ray tubes and the like. So now it sits in a shallow, unmarked grave somewhere out in the goldenrod patch we call a field."

I love this idea of a computer in a field.  I have this vision of plants abloom in microchips and motherboards.  I may play with this idea further.

Beth wrote this line:  "Can we appreciate creation if we don't know what it is to be a creator?"

I'd take this a step further:  can we have a fully developed relationship with our creator if we don't have experience with creating ourselves?

I'd also wonder if our experience as creators is shaped by what story we've been told about our Creator God.  If your God is the God of Noah who drowns creation, what is your relationship to your own creations?  How does the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden shape your creative self?

I prefer the God of the earliest Genesis creation story.  Many believers don't realize that there are several creation stories in Genesis, but there are.  The Adam and Eve story is a much later creation story.

Go back and reread the first chapter of Genesis.  Reacquaint yourself with that Creator.  Here we see a God at work creating and delighting in creation.  God doesn't say, "Oh, I thought this was a good idea, but it turned out to be repulsive.  I'm destroying it."  Not in the first chapter of Genesis--God declares everything God makes to be very good.

We also don't see God wrestling with new technology coming along to make the old technology obsolete.  God doesn't have to wrestle with whether or not to use paint or a computer program to make the perfect shade.  Now there's an idea for a poem.  Hmm.

I wrote a poem called, "When God Switched Fabrics."  It begins this way:

"On the third day, God switched
fabrics. At first, God had followed
respectfully the lessons of the elders:
which fabrics could be used,
which fabrics couldn’t go together,
which decorative objects were suitable.
God stuck to the established patterns:
Flying Geese, Star of Bethlehem, and Log Cabin."

In this poem, God goes on to become a fabric artist.  It's one of my favorite metaphors I've created for God.

I also wrote a poem called "God at the Creativity Retreat."  One year, the Create in Me group studied the first chapter of Genesis, and then we did our own creating.  I was struck by the difference in how we humans approached creativity during the 4 day week-end retreat and how God approached it.  I wrote this stanza:

"God doesn’t understand
the instant rejection of creations.
God spends part of each
day leaning into our ears to whisper,
'It is good.'"

I wish I could end this post by showing you what I saw in the sky this morning:  a rainbow!  It reminded me of that promise to Noah--no more drowning of creation.  But in my files, I do have this picture of a double rainbow, which appeared in the sky several years ago.  So, on this day when it may seem like the earth is shifting under your feet and you don't know what to expect anymore and a huge storm threatens the entire east coast, remember the promise!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

When You're an Eyelash in the Body of Christ

Our pastor had just gotten back from Churchwide Assembly on Sunday, and he had unity on the brain.  He preached on both the Gospel and the Romans text.  He talked about us being parts of the body.

Usually when I hear the Romans text preached, I like to think about which Christian body part I am that day.  On Sunday, I felt tired and grumpy for no good reason.  I wanted to be the liver or the kidney of the body of Christ, but I felt more like an eyelash or a fingernail. 

I tried to remind myself that eyelashes and fingernails are important too.

I told myself that I didn't really want to be a vital organ.  If I was the kidney, I'd have a lot of poison to filter.  Yuck.  Who really wants that?

Still, I can't deny that it's hard to live without a kidney, and I lose more eyelashes and fingernails in the course of a month than I can count.

Our pastor's closing comments reigned me back in from my negative self-talk.  I'm intrigued by the idea that I can recognize negative self-talk as it's going on, and sometimes, I can even shorten the negative torrent.  However, will I ever get to the point where I don't indulge in the negative self-talk at all?

After all, throughout our Bible, we see God using human eyelashes and fingernails to do great things.  Granted, God uses humans who are closer to vital organs in the body of the faithful too, but God can use even the tiniest of humans to achieve the goals of the Kingdom.

Our pastor talked about the various disagreements and more serious strife that have affected our Christian community.  He reminded us that our time fighting is time we will never get back.  We simply do not have time to waste in fighting.

We also do not have time to waste in feeling sorry for ourselves because we don't see ourselves as a rock of the church, like Peter.  I might remind us all that Peter wasn't always the vital organ that he would become later.

We all have days when we're the eyelash of the body of Christ, and we can take comfort from knowing that others are on duty as vital organs.  We can take comfort in the fact that when we band together with other eyelashes, we serve an important function too--we keep dust and dirt away so that the vision stays clear and unscarred.  We can remind ourselves that God has a greater imagination and can use us all, whether we're eyelashes or toenails or femurs or intestines or the tiniest cell.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Feast Day of St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Today we celebrate the life of the 12th century monk, St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  What an amazing man!

Those of us interested in monasticism owe a debt to St. Bernard, who was responsible not only for founding his own monastery, but for sending monks out to establish monasteries or to rescue already-formed monasteries from heretical directions.  We give him credit for the founding of hundreds of monastic communities.

Bernard was also responsible for helping the church avoid schism at several key points.  He also defended the church against various nobility who wanted church holdings.

We could give Bernard credit for moving the church towards a more personal faith, although I imagine he would be horrified at the manifestations of those ideas of a personal relationship with Jesus that many of us have.  He's also responsible for elevating the status of Mary within the church.

I confess, as a Lutheran, the veneration of Mary always mystified me.  Then I visited Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist order of monks.  I found the references to Mary soothing, and the Compline service which included prayers to Mary as we faced a stone statue (very abstract in style) surrounded by candles helped me sink into a deep sleep.

As I research these monastics of older centuries, it's intriguing to me to see how ideas that we associate with later centuries were present even in medieval times.  We see medieval thinkers wrestling with an emotional/mystical approach to faith (like Bernard of Clairvaux) and with an intellectual/rational approach to faith (like Peter Abelard).  Throughout Christianity, we still struggle with the best way to integrate these two approaches.

So, today, as I enjoy a Saturday with friends, I'll remember to be grateful for Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.  My friends and I will surely talk about the issue of how to live an authentic life, one where all our values are in sync.  In an earlier age, we might have found sanctuary in an abbey.  I'll probably float the idea of intentional community as we discuss our various options.  Monastic communities are some of the most successful incarnations of intentional communities--how could we follow their models if we want to live an integrated life?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The God of Earliest Genesis

Today I visit the part of the world that most convinces me of the existence of a Creator God, a Creator God who has a quirky imagination and a child's sense of play and delight.

I'm off for a day trip to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, one of the few parks that's almost completely underwater.  It's a protected marine reserve, where we can swim without fear of the fisherfolk and their hooks.

I love the undersea world, but it makes me sad to visit too.  We don't know how long we'll have the coral reefs, but the outlook isn't good.  Between rising ocean temperatures and increasing acidity of the water, we'll likely only have them for a few more decades.

I'd like to see a glacier, too, before they vanish.  But glaciers aren't in my backyard.

So, off I go, to swim with the fish, to pretend I'm a mermaid.  I'll strap equipment on my back that will let me stay awhile, but only a short while.  I'll return to the boat with a sense of wonder, and I'll say, "Great show, God!"

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for August 21, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 1:8--2:10

Psalm: Psalm 138

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 124

Second Reading: Romans 12:1-8

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

In this Gospel reading, we find Jesus asking some of the basic questions. “Who do men say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a curious exchange that has Peter proclaiming Jesus as Lord, and Jesus instructing him not to tell anybody about himself.

Hmmm. Is this a basic existential moment? Surely, of all the humans who have walked the earth, Jesus would have the least reason for asking these questions—depending, of course, on your view of Jesus. Many of us believe that Jesus understood his purpose from babyhood, or at least during his childhood, when he disappeared only to be found in the Temple, teaching the priests (that story appears in Luke, not in the other Gospels). On the other hand, some scholars speculate that Jesus didn’t understand the full scope of his mission, that Jesus, like many of us, spent his days asking God, “Am I doing what you want me to do?”

We see in this text Peter getting the kind of affirmation that many of us crave. Jesus tells Peter that he will be the cornerstone, the rock.

I think of Peter and imagine that in times of frustration, he must have looked back at this moment with Christ. What a comfort that memory must be.

I spent much of my younger years longing to be sure that I was doing what God put me on earth to do, as if I had only one destiny, and I might be missing it.

My parents, in their wisdom, kept reminding me that God can use me no matter where I am. God is the original collage artist, taking bits and pieces that don’t seem to go together, and creating them into a cohesive whole.

It might be worth thinking in poetic terms about this Gospel. If Peter is the Rock, who are you? Some of us are willow trees that bend with storms but don’t break. Or maybe you’re sand, having been worn down by those storms, but still valuable. Maybe you’re soil made rich by the compost of circumstances. Some of us are grass, that steady groundcover that makes the larger plants possible by holding the soil in place.

I could go on with these metaphors, but you get the idea. The Gospel wants us to wrestle with these questions. Who are you? And who is the triune God in relation to you?

What part does Jesus play in your life? A guy you see once a week in church? A fellow traveler? Comforter? Savior? Someone you don’t know very well because you just don’t have the time? Co-creator of a joy-filled life? Reason for living?

More importantly, can people see who Jesus is to you by the way you live your life? How is your life a testament, like Peter’s? How can your life be more of a testament? What changes can you make today?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Our Current Canaanite Women

When we read last Sunday's Gospel, how did we respond to Jesus' reaction to the Canaanite woman?

Our pastor did a bit of foreign language interpretation for us.  He reminded us (or told some of us for the first time) that Jesus calls the woman a bitch.  Not a warm fuzzy puppy, but a bitch.

What a slur, and from the mouth of Christ, no less.  Our pastor reminded us that a good Jewish boy of Jesus' time period would have been expected to respond this way.  The Canaanites were the lowest of the low, so on the bottom of the totem pole that it's amazing Jesus responded to her at all.

We may think we're better than that as a society, but we're fairly stratified too.  If you don't believe me, take a look around your church on a Sunday morning.  Do all your fellow parishioners look like you?

I live in a very multiracial place, so I worship with a diverse group.  On any given Sunday, only 2/3 to 1/2 the congregation is white.  Amongst the younger worshipers, we have even less white people.  We have a good mix of old and young, a good mix of people from all classes.

We don't have any homosexual worshippers whom I know about--in other words, no openly gay or lesbian couples, even though we're a fairly open, welcoming church.  I find that fact odd.  We have had some churches in our county which have been aggressive in their courting of this population, so maybe that explains it.

We've had one transgendered person who once attended quite regularly until her work schedule changed.  The way that most of our church welcomed her pleased me very much. 

You may ask how I knew she was transgendered.  Well, she was still undergoing the process, and she was very open about it.  I must admit that my Southern upbringing and all my etiquette training left me unprepared for these conversations.  I tried to be brave and not inappropriately curious.

I remember the morning she showed me her driver's license which showed her changed name and gender.  She also showed me the letter from her psychiatrist that had enabled her to get the document changed.

I remember the first time she used the lady's room, and she asked me to make sure no one was in there and to warn women at the door before they came in.  Eventually, we dropped this practice as people grew more comfortable with her.

Yes, we still have Canaanite women among us.  I remember once at an inner city church, I suggested that we advertise that we had free breakfast.  My fellow church council members worried that the local homeless people would come for breakfast and might stay for church.  I thought that was the whole idea.

Much of the ministry of Jesus revolved around expanding the borders and erasing the boundaries that divide us.  As Christians, that's our mission too, whether we're in church or out in the world.  How can we be ever more inclusive?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Blessing of the Teachers

Yesterday, we had a blessing of the teachers.  I've always loved this idea.  The children of the church help--yesterday, they annointed the teachers' hands with oil (a sign of the cross).

When our pastor invited the children up to help, he said, "We try to involve the children in our ministries here wherever we can."

My spouse said, "They're some of the most effective ministers we have."

And as we watched the children annoint the hands of the teachers, I thought about how right my spouse is.

The children waited patiently--except for the few who couldn't contain their enthusiasm and tried to cut back in line to get a second chance at doing some annointing. I wondered about whether or not any of these children would grow up to be ministers, lay or ordained. Would they look back to the times that they got to participate in services and see those as important moments?

And then each teacher got a care package and off they went into their back-to-school lives.

Afterwards, people asked me why I didn't go up.  Alas, I'm not teaching much these days.  I certainly could, but my life as an administrator is fairly full.  I wish my life as an administrator felt important.

No, I spend much of my day corralling e-mails.  Sigh.

But enough about me.  On this day where many teachers return to school, either to teach or to get ready to teach, let's give a special prayer for them.  Teachers have gotten a lot of bad press lately, and let's be honest:  for most of them, they're not making much money, and they work under very stressful conditions.  Most of us wouldn't want their jobs, and yet, we're willing to admit that they're important jobs, even as we can't figure out how to make them better or increase teacher pay.  We need to pray for all those people in charge of our children's brains.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

ELCA Churchwide Assembly--My Post at Living Lutheran

How often does your denomination gather to meet as one body?  I'm a member of the ELCA, the largest group of U.S. Lutherans, and we gather every other year.  This year, this very day, Lutherans from across the country are heading to Orlando.

You may be wondering why we do this.  You may be wondering if it's the best use of money and time.  You may be wondering if the Lutherans are up to something substantial, like the sexuality decisions of 2009.

Well, I can't answer that last one, but I do wrestle with the other issues over at this post at the Living Lutheran website.

My pastor will be blogging the Assembly, and he begins with this post.  I look forward to hearing what he's experiencing.  Our Synod often meets in Orlando, site of this year's Assembly, and I wonder if Churchwide Assembly will feel different.

I imagine that at some point we won't all gather to meet like this.  We won't have the luxury of fairly inexpensive airline tickets.  We won't get price discounts from resorts.  Or maybe we'll have something better than we can even imagine now.  Maybe we'll be such an expansive group that we'll need to meet, maybe even more often.  Maybe Lutherans a generation or two from now will look back to the tumultuous times and be thankful for what we did to stabilize the foundations of their denomination.

Even if you're not a Lutheran, I'd love for us all to join in prayer for the larger organization meeting this week.  May God grant them wisdom and a vision for the future!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Marriage as Sacrament

Twenty-three years ago today, my college sweetheart and I married each other.  It both seems like no time at all and several lifetimes ago.

I'm a Lutheran, and we only have two sacraments:  Baptism and Communion.  I think Martin Luther was too hasty when he got rid of so many sacraments.  I wish he had kept marriage as a sacrament.

Marriage has taught me many things, but the nature of love is one of the most important things it has taught me.  And by experiencing my husband's love for me, along with his forgiving of me, I've come to understand God's love for all of us just a bit better.

Understand is probably too strong a word.  In some ways, we can never understand the scope of love, either the love we have for each other or the love God has for us.

Yet on this anniversary day, I pause to thank God for that love, that love that comes to me not because I'm wonderful, not because I'm perfect, not because I deserve it.  I thank God for that love that's so much like grace.  I thank God for all the people who love me even though I haven't reached my full potential yet.  I thank God for all the people who remember me at my best, even when they're seeing me at my worst--and who love me, despite my less than loveable behavior.

I wish for us all the human love that points us to the love of God.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Feast Day of St. Clare

Today we celebrate the life of St. Clare of Assisi, one of the first followers of St. Francis, and founder of the Order of the Poor Ladies (more commonly called the Poor Clares).  She wrote their Rule of Life, the first woman to have created such a thing, a set of rules for the life of a monastic order.

The Poor Clares lived a life commited to poverty, what St. Clare called a "joyous poverty."  Why joyous?  Because they felt they were following Christ in a much more authentic way and because they more vividly felt the presence of Jesus because of their lifestyle.  Throughout her life she faced pressure from church officials to abandon or weaken this commitment to poverty, and she resisted.  The order still exists today, which tells me much about her accomplishment.

She was also instrumental in assisting St. Francis of Assisi, and many give her credit as one of his earliest followers.  Her order was based on his intentional community, and again, Franciscan strains of spirituality not only exist but are strong today--a testament to their work.

In these days of increasingly bad economic news, the life of St. Clare seems to take on fresh importance.  Let us take a moment to say a prayer of gratitude for her.  Let us remember the poor.  Let us vow to be joyous about reduced circumstances, should we be facing them.  Let us meet our savior as we minister to each other.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 14, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 45:1-15

Psalm: Psalm 67

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 133

Second Reading: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Gospel: Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

I don't like this picture of Jesus that today's Gospel represents. He treats the Canaanite woman rudely, with a complete lack of compassion. What do we make of this vision of Christ?

Part of the answer may depend on your view of Jesus/God. Do you see God as completely formed? Do you see God as never making mistakes?

If so, perhaps you should re-read your Bible, especially the Old Testament. Throughout the Scriptures, we see God changing course, often influenced by humans. God does not command us to be passive and just accept whatever comes our way--whether it be from God, powers and principalities, other humans, or Satan. That theological idea that we have to just accept our lot in life in the hopes that we'll get our reward in Heaven--it's a major misreading of the Scriptures and of theology.

I like the idea of God who allows us to disagree--and a God that sometimes agrees that we are right in our disagreement. I like the idea of a God that is being shaped and changed by creation, just as we are being shaped and changed by creation--and by God.

I know it's not as comforting as what many of us were taught in Sunday School. I know we'd rather believe in an absolute God, a God who has all the answers. We don't want to believe in a God who gets tired. We don't want to believe in a God who doesn't have absolute control. We want a God who can point and make magical changes, even though everything we've experienced about the world doesn't suggest that God does that act very often, if at all.

In today's Gospel, we see a tired, irritable Jesus. It's a terrifying idea (I'd prefer a divinity of infinite patience), but it's the best support to show that God did indeed become human.

The Canaanite woman is much more Godlike than Jesus in this Gospel. Here's a woman who is desperate to help her child. When Jesus rebukes her, she stands up to him and argues her case. And she persuades him. She demands justice, and because she stands her ground, she wins. Her behavior is much more Christlike than Christ's.

She has much to teach us. We are called to emulate her. When we see injustice, we must cry out to God and demand that creation be put right. Many theologians would tell you that if you want God to be active in this free will world that God has created, that you better start making some demands. God can't be involved unless we demand it (for a further discussion of this concept, see the excellent books of Walter Wink). If God just intervened in the world, that would violate the principle of free will which God instilled in creation. But if we invite God to action, then God has grounds to act.

I would argue that some of the most sweeping social changes of the twentieth century were grounded in this principle of crying out to the wider world and to God to demand that justice be done. Think of Gandhi's India, the repressiveness of the Jim Crow era in the USA, the South African situation decried by Archbishop Tutu, the civil wars in Central America, the Soviet occupied Eastern Europe: these situations horrified the larger world and the movements to rectify them were rooted in the Christian tradition. True, there were often external pressures applied (economic embargoes and the like), but each situation prompted prayer movements throughout the world.

I remember lighting candles on Christmas Eve in support of Polish Solidarity workers and praying for their safety and success. I remember going to an interfaith prayer vigil in downtown D.C. on the 15th anniversary of the Soweto uprising. I learned the songs of the Civil Rights movement as a child. Listening as an adult, I see those songs as cries to God demanding that justice be restored.

Let the Canaanite woman be your guide towards right behavior. Let the actions of Jesus remind you that even if you're snappy and irritable, you can change course and direct yourself towards grace and compassion. Let your faith give you hope for a creation restored to God's original vision of a just and peaceful Kingdom.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Broken Hands and Hospitality

On Sunday, our pastor broke his hand while opening the door to welcome people before the worship service.  Somehow it got caught in the handle and bent the wrong way; it's hard for me to visualize it.

What's even harder for me to visualize is that he kept going, through the worship service, through the memorial service that came after the worship service, and the covered dish dinner that was a tribute to the parishioner for whom we had the memorial service.  What a trooper!

My poet self now stops to ponder that phrase that my parents always used when they admired someone who kept going even when circumstances might have dictated stopping.  A trooper--I always assumed it had militaristic origins, but as I typed it, I thought about state troopers.

My poet self also thinks about the fact that our pastor broke his hand while extending hospitality.  Luckily he broke his non-dominant hand.  My poet self also considers the fact that a door broke his hand.  Doors and hands and hospitality--I feel a poem lurking.

My practical self tells my poet self to knock it off.  Sometimes a door is just a door.  Sometimes people break their hands, and it has nothing to do with larger issues of hospitality.

I've wrestled with that door many a time, and I'm not surprised that it broke a bone.  My practical self wonders what kind of message that door sends to visitors.

Perhaps visitors don't read as much into the facilities as I worry that they do.  My church, like many others, does not have extra money.  We can't replace doors and bathrooms and other dated interiors, just because visitors might find them more pleasing.

And then there's the part of me that laughs at our larger world.  We see danger lurking in all sorts of situations:  airports and dark streets and stock markets across the world.  We so rarely anticipate the menace that might reach out and bite us.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Voices from the Beyond

My spouse is now on the Board of Trustees for a group of Lutheran camps, including my beloved Lutheridge, and this past week-end was his first meeting.  He came back with the latest book by Henri Nouwen.

Yes, Henri Nouwen who has been dead for almost 20 years.  But he gave a lecture, which someone taped, and now the tape has been transcribed.  And so now we get a new book to read:  A Spirituality of Fundraising

I had a similar moment last week when I opened a big box from my parents.  I thought I had all my earliest writings, but apparently I didn't, because the box contained some more (go here to read more about that experience).  I was intrigued by how often I wrote about God as a child.  And I was overjoyed by my childhood view of God:  a caring, loving force.  At some point, I'll share a poem I wrote long ago.

I wonder if some day I'll look back on this blog the same way, as a voice from beyond.  I think I'll be happy with what I find here.  It's hard to believe that I'll take such a different spiritual turn that my views here will seem alien.   

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Comfort and Links for the Day After the World Ends

So, while a group of us celebrated a friend's completion of her Ed.D. degree, and then I slept peacefully through the night, the S&P downgraded the U.S. credit rating.  I read the news this morning, and I thought, well, we've heard these rumblings with their apocalyptic overtones for several weeks now.  And one of the worst case scenarios has happened.

I almost expected to see smoking ruins when I looked out the window this morning.  But the world looks fairly normal.

At work, I'm surrounded by people who are convinced we're on the road to hell.  At work, I'm surrounded by people who are convinced that we're already there.  Very few optimistic people in my workplace these days.

And here I thought I would need to change careers to be a hospice chaplain!

It's time for a larger world view, a longer view of history.  Or maybe it's time for some introspection.

In this post, the Velveteen Rabbi has some fascinating thoughts on the juxtaposition between Ramadan and Av, periods of introspection and realignment for Muslims and Jews.  I don't know as much about Av, but the Velveteen Rabbi has some instruction, links, and resources.

You might wrestle with how a spiritual person deals with catastrophe, both personal and catastrophe that comes to the larger community.  In this post, she recommends Rabbi Alan Lew's excellent book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation:   "He writes that to spiritual leaders, the only question worth asking about any recurring catastrophe is: how am I complicit in this, and how can I keep it from happening again? This is true, of course, not only on a national level, but on a personal one, as well."

And here's a post where she talks about reading the newspaper as a spiritual person.

Thanks Velveteen Rabbi, for all the ministering you are doing through your blog.  What a great resource!

If you need more comfort and courage, here's a musical recommendation.  I continue to listen to Paul Simon's latest release, So Beautiful or So What to be enormously comforting, and I can't quite say why.  The lyrics are wonderful, as always with Paul Simon, but not necessarily applicable to the larger national picture.  Paul Simon's voice is like an old friend's voice, and that's always a blessing. 

Or maybe the music of Woody Guthrie would be good for a day like today.  It's important to remember that the nation has endured dark times before, and we have not only survived but emerged as a stronger people.  I don't want to be forged in fire, smelted in the way I fear we face.  But even in my darkest personal days, like most of the year of 2005, when I'm honest and think back, there were bright places and events that brought me closer to my family and friends. 

Here's a poem which speaks to the idea that when we have the least, perhaps we have the most.  It first appeared in Mid-America Poetry Review.

Betting with Blueberries

We bet with blueberries, playing poker
late into the night. We’re too poor
for cable, but we afford occasional treats
like fresh fruit in season. The fan
blows warm air across this sauna of a room.
We drip sweat and deal the cards.

I lose every time. My appetite
for berries overwhelms my desire to win.
Besides, I barely understand the rules.
The heat sucks away my powers of concentration.
I wrap ice cubes in washcloths, dab at my skin:
old-fashioned air conditioning.

Years later, I sit alone in my air-conditioned
house. All my friends, too busy
for unstructured evenings, desert
me for families and jobs.
I could afford blueberries every night, in season and out,
if I wanted, but I’d trade all these luxuries,
so out of reach in my student past,
I’d trade them all for endless poker nights,
the comfort of friendship, the consolation of the future.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for August 7, 2011:

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
I will listen to what the LORD God is saying. (Ps. 85:8)
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

This week’s Gospel reading reinforces the themes we found in last week’s lesson. The disciples are in the boat and Jesus walks across the water to them. They don’t recognize him; indeed, they’re terrified. When they realize who it is, Peter (always enthusiastic, in a bumbling puppy way) asks Jesus to bid him to come, which he does. Peter walks across the water with no problem, until he realizes what he’s doing and starts to sink.

Now, most of us probably haven’t had experiences where we’ve suspended the laws of nature, but most of us can probably relate to what Peter experiences. When I first learned to type, I got to the point where I could type at a very fast speed—until I thought about what I was doing. If I just let my fingers go and didn’t look at them, if I did what I knew I could do, I’d be fine. I’ve had similar experiences in learning foreign languages and more recently, in learning to play the mandolin and the guitar; if I play the notes without double checking both my fingers and the chord charts and music books, I find out that I really can play—still more haltingly than I would like, alas.

This story is also about God’s presence and our inability to recognize the Divine all around us, as well as our trouble accepting the miraculous. One of the narrative arcs the Bible is God’s desire to be with God’s creation, to know everybody, to be fully present in our day-to-day lives--to the extent of becoming human. And God has to go to great lengths to get our attention—bushes burst into flame, oppressive governments release the captives, loaves and fishes feed thousands, people rise from the dead, God goes so far as to take on human form—miracle after miracle, and still humans don’t understand and don’t want to accept God’s daily presence.

Even when we do let ourselves glimpse the sacred and divine, even when we experience the miraculous, how quickly we forget and let the mundane swamp us. Psychologists would probably tell us that our approach is a coping mechanism, that if we let ourselves be that open to God, we’d go insane, or at least we’d look insane to our fellow humans. I’m not sure I agree. Maybe we’d be better witnesses, better disciples.

Be on the lookout for God in your daily life. Maybe it will just be a wink from the Creator, like a tree full of butterflies. Maybe you’ll be in the presence of the full-blown miraculous, and all doubts will vanish—the tumor shrinks, the passengers escape the burning plane, the hurricane curves out to sea. Watch for God, listen for God, be alert. God is there, by your side, both during the times of the miraculous as well as the mundane.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Spiritual Dog Days

As a child, I remember hearing the early days of August called the dog days.  When I asked why, the answer usually involved the heat sapping the energy of us all, days where it was too hot for dogs to even move.

I grew up in the U.S. Southeast, and it seemed to me that most days of the summer were that hot--and for that matter, much of the rest of the year.  Now I've lived at the far southern tip of the U.S., where record breaking heat is 94 degrees.  Yes, those of you in other parts of the country can laugh.  I remember those days when the temperature rose above 100 degrees(the real temperature, not the mythical heat index)--those days could last weeks.  And it saps you of everything.

We should expect to face similar times spiritually, but of course, they usually catch us by surprise, even though they happen regularly.  What to do while we wait for the heat to break?

We can take a cue from earlier generations.  When we're in spiritual dog days, we should slow down and try not to wear ourselves out.  We won't be able to accomplish as much--but it will be O.K.  Cooler weather will be here soon.

In the meantime, drink plenty of fluids.  I remember childhood summers as a time of sweet iced tea and lemonade.  What are spiritual fluids?  Scripture of course, and other books that enrich us.  Maybe music, movies, other popular culture.  Times of prayer.

Or perhaps our response to our spiritual dog days might be more aggressive.  I remember childhood trips to the beach.  Many summers we spent a week at Lutheridge, a wonderful Lutheran church camp in the mountains.  Those kind of retreats are still available to us, even if we're grown.

I remember wonderful summer evenings, with grown ups on the porch, talking about old times.  Maybe during your spiritual dog days, you want to start writing down your memories.  Resolve to write a spiritual memoir.

Even though it's hot, there are joys in the dog days:  watermelon, fireflies, cook-outs, sleepovers in the back yard, vacations.

Likewise, even when you're suffering spiritual dog days, be alert for joy.  

Monday, August 1, 2011

When Your Past Self Talks to Your Present Self in Prayer

Earlier this year, I was asked to write a month's worth of prayers for the devotional book Bread for the Day.  I wrote about that process here.  Last week, I got my first look at the prayers in print.

As part of my payment, I got two copies of the book.  Immediately, I turned to the August section, the prayers that I wrote months ago, prayers for August 2012.  I gave the other copy to my spouse, who also flipped to August.  We each read some of the August prayers out loud.

I felt tears welling up.  Last week was one of those hectic work weeks, where I had more work than I had time to do it, where I had to redo work that I'd submitted months ago--ah, the Penelope aspect of my job, where I weave one day, only to unweave at night.

The prayers that I'd written back in March really spoke to me last week when I read them out loud.  They were prayers for parched people, prayers that asked for deliverance.  I hardly remembered writing them in terms of specific details, but I was happy and comforted to see them again.

Here's an example, a prayer I wrote for August 18, a prayer that seems appropriate for the last month of summer during a time of climate transition (I predict that the summer months will stretch so that for many of us, August will one day be the middle of summer, not the near-end).

Creator God, we live in a time of drought. Our circumstances leave us parched and thirsty. You have promised us a spring of living water. Replenish our depleted wells. Leave them overflowing with wet promise.