Friday, September 30, 2011

Good Show, God! The Autumn Edition

When I headed to the mountains, I knew the leaves would not be in full blaze yet.  But I wasn't prepared for how green the trees still were.  I saw a gold leaf here, a red leaf there.  But nothing like what I had hoped for.  I felt grumbly but resigned, as I parked my car at Lutheridge.  And then I turned around and saw this tree:

Wow!  What an amazing view.  From one angle, the sun hit the leaves and turned them into a gilded glory.  From other angles, the leaves looked astonishing, framed by a deep blue sky.  The tree seemed like both a miracle and a sign--and yet, it happens every year. 

How often do we overlook the wonder in our lives?  Maybe it's because we're expecting something else.  Maybe we have our hearts set on a different wonder, and we don't appreciate the wonders that we do have.  Maybe we just haven't trained ourselves to be alert.

What does God need to do to get our attention?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 2, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Psalm: Psalm 80:7-14 (Psalm 80:7-15 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 19

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46

Today's Gospel contains a parable that clearly tells the story of Christ, in the vineyard owner's son, who is killed by the tenants. I suspect that when modern readers, many of whom own property, read this lesson, they identify with the vineyard owner far more than they do with the tenants. But what would happen if we thought about ourselves as the tenants?

Notice how the tenants are so stuck in their self-destructive ways that they can't change. Now, as we settle into the season of autumn, as we race towards the end of the liturgical year, it might be useful to do some self-evaluation. What are our habits that get in the way of us living as the people of God? By now, you might despair to realize that these are the same patterns you've wrestled with before. But take heart. As you continue to attempt to make changes and go astray, each time you try to get back to a more wholesome way of living, it should take less time to make the necessary adjustments.

The Gospels that we've been reading give us reassurance that we can go astray, and God will still welcome us back. Now all this talk of going astray may not be the most useful image for us. Many of us have grown up in churches that berated us with talk of sin and tried to make us change by making us feel ashamed. We live in a toxic culture that tells us that we're not doing enough, not earning enough, not buying the right stuff. Many of us spend our days with voices in our head telling us those same messages. Who wants to come to church to hear the same thing? We've tried, we've failed, we know, we get it.

The danger is that we might quit trying to live the life that God envisions for us. God doesn't want us to live the way we've been living. Many of us might agree--we don't want to be living these lives.

So take a different approach. What would a healthier life look like? What would a God-centered life look like? How would it feel?

We'll probably each have different answers to those questions. For some of us, a God-centered life would mean that we could let go of our anger; we could quit judging everyone and accept them with love. For some of us, a God-centered life would mean we could quit trying to fill the holes in our hearts with other substitutes that don't quite work: food, alcohol, sex, drugs, approval, exercise, work. For some of us, a God-centered life means that we don't order our lives around the quest for money, but instead we work for justice.

But again, as we focus on the end result we'd like to achieve, we must be careful not to get overwhelmed. It's a bit like starting a diet, when you know you have 50 pounds to lose. But if you make changes and stay with them consistently, and you keep orienting your choices towards that thinner person you'd like to be, in a year or two, you'll be amazed at the transformation.

So, start small. Take time to pray. Take time to read things that make you feel hopeful, instead of despairing. Take time to really listen to people, instead of trying to get done with that commitment so that you can rush on to the next one. Breathe deeply. Say thank you.

When you go astray, or when you feel your gifts have been trampled, take heart. Read the lessons again and think about the natural order of horticulture. The land must be cleared occasionally so that new growth can take place. God continues to call to us to work for the vision of the redeemed creation that God gives us.

Remember that God promises that no matter how far away you are from that vision, God will meet you more than half-way. If you're feeling like a rejected stone, remember that God has great plans for you. You can become the cornerstone that supports a building that you weren't even able to envision at an earlier point in your life.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

This Blog Will be Silent for a Few Days

Within the hour, I will head north. It's time for the retreat to plan the Creativity retreat that happens in the Spring!

Yes, I'm headed to one of my favorite places, Lutheridge. I'll be going by myself because my spouse has to be down here for budget hearings. I'm sort of bummed about that, but I've always liked long car trips, even when I'm the only one driving. I've solved all sorts of creative/life/work issues while driving. I'm interested to see what my brain delivers today!

I should be back to regular blogging by September 28 or 29. Regular-ish. My sister and nephew will be in town at the end of the week!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Great Quotes from "Naked Spirituality"

In his book, Naked Spirituality, Brian McLaren has this to say about prayer:

"Because however much or little prayer changes things, prayer certainly changes you, and you need to be changed.  Remember that you still have a long way to grow, and the best way to grow is to keep praying, to keep strengthening the sacred connection" (page 139).

If you're feeling depressed about how far you have to grow, McLaren gives us this quote by Philip Yancey:  "Whenever I get depressed by a lack of spiritual progress, I realize that my very dismay is a sign of progress" (page 143, originally from Yancey's Prayer:  Does It Make Any Difference?).

When McLaren thinks about results, he gives us this quote from Jim Wallis:  "To be a contemplative means to find a motivation deeper than the hope of results.  You have to be sustained by more important things.  . . . It is a paradox:  to be successful you must finally give up the demand for success and do what you do from the deeper motivation of what you believe is right" (page 225, originally from Wallis' Faith Works:  Lessons from the Life of an Activist Preacher).

Lots of great stuff in this book--it's well worth a read!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 25, 2011:

First Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 25:1-8 (Psalm 25:1-9 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-13

Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32

This Sunday's Gospel continues to explore the notion of fidelity and fairness. In the parable that ends the Gospel lesson, we might ask ourselves which of the two sons most represents us. Of course, neither one is a flattering picture.

We like to believe that we are people of our word. We say that we will do something, and we actually do it. But neither of the sons is that type of person.

One son says he won't go work, but he starts to feel bad, and so he reports to work. The other son agrees to go to work, but never shows up. Our parents would not encourage either type of behavior. And yet, how typical of humans are these two behavior types.

The lesson of this Gospel is clear: we get credit for our actions, not for our speech. This idea may fly in the face of what we believe to be good Lutheran theology. What about the idea of grace? Many of us were taught that we're such dreadful humans that there's nothing we could do to justify the gift of salvation. God swoops in and redeems us, even though we're fairly hopeless people. That was the message I got from many a church event, Lutheran and otherwise.

But as a grown up, going back to revisit these passages, I'm amazed at how often God requires more of us than just saying we believe in Christ, more than just accepting Christ as our saviour, more than just having faith. In the words of Luther, faith should move our feet. In the words of James, faith without works is dead.

It's important to strive to be people who can be counted on, people whose actions match our words. Hypocrites have probably done more damage to Christianity than many other disasters that have beset the Church. Our goal each and every day is to be the light of the world, the yeast that makes the bread rise, the radiance that allows people to see God at work in the world.

The good news of today's Gospel, and many of the others that we read throughout our 3 year lectionary cycle, is that even when we fall short, God will still love us. If we've said we'd do the work, and we fail to do it, we have other days when we can show up. God will still welcome us. The world is full of darkness, waiting for our light.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Feast of St. Matthew

Today we celebrate the life of St. Matthew, one of the 12 disciples.  Matthew was a tax collector, and that fact should give us all hope.

Throughout the Bible, we see God at work in the world.  We see God using all sorts of humans, the kind of humans that a wise CEO wouldn't promote.  But God sees their potential, and God calls them.

Sometimes, people protest and remind God of their unworthiness; think of Moses.  Sometimes God has to do a lot to get their attention; think of Jonah.

But sometimes, the call comes, and the person responds, dropping everything to follow God's call.  In Matthew, we see this example.

Maybe you're in a time of your life where you're feeling particularly unworthy.  Take advantage of this day to remember God's grace and God's call. 

Here are the Bible readings for today:

First Reading: Ezekiel 2:8--3:11

Psalm: Psalm 119:33-40

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:4-10

Gospel: Matthew 9:9-13

And here's a prayer I composed for today:

God full of grace and compassion, on this day that we celebrate the life of Matthew, help us remember that you have a plan for the redemption of creation and that we have a place in it.  Thank you for the witness of Matthew and the disciples.  Help us to follow in their example, that we may be a light, your light, in this shadowy world that so desperately needs brightness.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Table Ministries

Last week, the feeding program at First Lutheran started again after a summer break.  For three years now, once a month, my suburban church has been taking dinner to First Lutheran, and we feed anyone who shows up.  I tend to think of them as homeless, but that's not quite right.  We serve choir members, for example, and many of the regulars are only homeless part of the month.  We've fed many a student passing through, and perhaps staying for a longer Spring/Fall/Christmas break than intended.  But yes, the bulk of our dinner guests are homeless.  I've learned, and re-learned, a lot from serving them.

Jesus knew a lot of things, but his idea of table ministry was one of the super-genius ideas.  If they were giving out MacArthur Fellowships then, would he have been recognized?

When we eat dinner together (or when we serve at such a pace that there's no time to enjoy dinner together, but still we serve everyone), we learn a lot about each other--thus, it's harder to demonize those people.  I approach issues of poverty, hunger, and homelessness differently these days because I've spent more time with those populations than your average middle-class or upper-class citizen.  I understand that cheap housing pretty much no longer exists.  I know that many homeless and unemployed folks have mental health issues that mean they will never be fully integrated into society--at least, not our society as it's currently configured.  I used to think that if we just provided enough low-cost housing, the problem of homelessness would disappear.  But it's so much more complicated than that.

That's the major thing I've learned, but I've learned lots of other things too.  I'll never take my healthy teeth and gums for granted again.  Many of the First Lutheran dinner guests have dental issues, and we have to think about that as we plan meals.

I also think about how many shoes I have--well, how much stuff I have in every category.  What would happen if I had to consolidate it into a backpack?  What would I take and what would get left behind?

I feel that sorrow that comes from knowing that there's so much hurt out there in the world--and what can I do?  A meal seems so minimal.

But I find myself praying for those men and women who come to eat with us.  I find myself caring more deeply, in a way I didn't before.  I have names and faces to link with the statistics.

Now, of course, I find myself worrying about all the social safety nets that have been shredded.  And I find myself worried about the disappearing middle classes.  I find myself weeping for us all, as we struggle to keep from tumbling into homelessness and other sorts of poverty.

And so, again and again, I return to prayer.  I return to tithing.  I prepare meals and bless the food, hoping that it (along with prayer) will keep us strong for the struggles ahead of us.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Feast Day of Hildegard of Bingen

Today is the feast day of Hildegard of Bingen, mystic, herbalist, musical composer, naturalist, and Abbess.  Her life was full of accomplishments, an amazing feat considering she lived in the twelfth century.

I first discovered her when researching Julian of Norwich, whom I discovered when teaching the first half of the British Literature survey course.  I wanted to include more female writers, and the Norton Anthology of the time had about 12 female writers, even after a recent revision towards inclusion.  I thought there had to be more.

I had never thought of the twelfth century as a high water mark of feminism, but female monastics did amazing things during that time period.  By studying them, I came away with a new appreciation for the Church, where talented women found a cloistered kind of freedom.  In many ways, the cloistered life was the only way for medieval women to have any kind of freedom.

But Hildegard's life shows that freedom could be constrained, since women monastics answered to men.  For years, Hildegard wanted to move her group of nuns to Rupertsburg, but the Abbot who controlled them refused her request.

We all face constraints of various kinds, and the life of Hildegard shows what could be accomplished, even during a time where women did not have full rights and agency.  She wrote an amazing amount of material:  theology, letters, scientific/naturalist observations, musical notation, poems, and a morality play.  She wrote letters to emperors, kings, and popes in which she advocated for peace and social justice.

It's interesting to think about the different types of groups who have claimed her as their own.  Feminists claim her importance, even though she didn't openly advocate equality.  Musicians note that more of her compositions survive than almost any other medieval composer.  Her musical works go in different directions than many of the choral pieces of the day, with their soaring notes.  New Age types love her views of the body and the healing properties of plants, animals, and even minerals.  Though her theology seems distinctly medieval, and thus not as important to modern Christians, it's hard to dismiss her importance as a figure from church history.

I often say that it's odd I'm drawn to monasticism, as I'm a married, Lutheran female who has all sorts of worldly commitments, and thus cannot fully vow obedience.  But as I think about church history, I'm struck time and time again by how often monasticism has offered a safe space to women that no other part of society did.  I shouldn't be surprised that it's a tradition that speaks to me still.

Today is a good day to plant some herbs or listen to some medieval music while we write letters to the important people of our time to advocate for peace and justice.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 18, 2011:

First Reading: Jonah 3:10--4:11
First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm: Psalm 145:1-8
Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16

I've often thought that these parables that use work metaphors are less useful to those of us toiling in the 21st century--and I've wondered how the contemporaries of Jesus would hear this parable.

Outrage is the classic response to the idea that the workers who toiled all day getting the same wages as those who show up one hour before quitting time.  We howl, "But that's not fair."

Some preachers will use this Gospel as an excuse to preach on the classic idea that life isn't fair.  Maybe they'll remind us that we're fortunate that life isn't fair (how often do we pray for justice, when what we really long for is mercy?) or maybe they'll give us a real soul-sapper of a sermon about the grinding nature of life.  Or maybe congregations will hear about the idea of grace being extended to us all, no matter how long it takes us to acknowledge it.

But the poet in me immediately searches for a new way to frame this parable.  What if, instead of toiling in the vineyard, we're invited to a party?  Those of us who come early get to drink more wine, eat more goodies, and engage in more hours of intense conversation.  We get to spend more quality time with our host.  Those who come later will still get to drink wine, eat goodies, converse, and have quality time.  The wine won't have soured, the goodies won't have molded, the conversation won't have dwindled, the host won't be tired and wishing that everyone would just go home.  The party will still be intensely wonderful.  But those who come late won't have as much time to enjoy it.

God does call us to toil in the vineyard.  But toil is the wrong word, or at least, in our world, it has negative connotations that can't be easily overcome.

Don't think of it as the kind of work you had to do in that soul-deadening job with that boss who delighted in tormenting you.  It's not that kind of work.  It's also not the kind of work where it's OK to just show up and keep the seat warm, wondering when it will be time to return home, to the place you'd rather be (which would be Heaven, in this metaphor, I suppose).

Instead, God's work is like that enriching job, the one where you were challenged, but not overwhelmed.  God's work engages you on every level and you look up at the end of the work day, amazed at how time has passed and how involved you have become.  At the end of God's work day, you're amazed at all you've been able to accomplish.

God calls us to partnership in an amazing creative endeavour.  We're called to transform the world, to help reclaim the world for God's vision.  In Surprised by Hope, Bishop N. T. Wright reminds us, "But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom.  This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15;58 once more:  what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to roll over a cliff" (208).

The ways that we can do this Kingdom work are varied, from helping the poor, to enjoying a good meal, to writing a poem, to consoling a friend, to playing with your dog, to painting . . . the list is as long as there are humans in the world.  Wright assures us that "God gloriously honors all kinds of ways of announcing the good news" (226).

Do the kind of creating that involves you on many levels, that makes you lose your sense of time, that leaves you unmoored in your wonder at the beauty of creation.  That's the work that God calls us to do. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Feast of the Cross

Today marks the Feast of the Cross, at least in many Christian churches.  To those of us more outside of the Orthodox traditions, it must seem a strange tradition, with its veneration of the cross itself.  And the history of the day seems beyond belief, to those of us thousands of years away from the actual events of the Crucifixion.  Early legend has it that St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, discovered the cross upon which Jesus hung when she was in Jerusalem in 326.

Skeptics will ask, "How could she know it was the cross of Jesus and not one of the other crosses used in the Roman system of capital punishment?"  Helena was so convinced that she commanded a church be built on the site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was dedicated 9 years later, with a portion of the true cross kept inside.

The Persians took that cross fragment in 614, according to legend, and in 628, the Byzantine emperor Heraclitus got it back, and in 629, the fragment was returned to the church. 

Many of us worship in Christian traditions that tell us that the cross is the vehicle of our salvation, but the veneration of that cross may seem strange, even if we're part of that tradition.  After all, the cross was a unique instrument of torture.  Why gaze upon it lovingly?

Even those of us who don't accept the Anselmian theology of atonement can benefit from thinking about the cross today.  Crucifixion was the punishment reserved by the Romans for enemies of the state.  What is it about Jesus' message that so threatens the Roman Empire?  Is it still threatening today?  Are we living that message in a way that puts us on a collision course with the forces of Empire?  If not, why not?

Here are the readings for today:

First Reading: Numbers 21:4b-9

Psalm: Psalm 98:1-5 (Psalm 98:1-4 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 78:1-2, 34-38

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-24

Gospel: John 3:13-17

Here's a prayer for the day from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours:  Prayers for Summertime:

"Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself:  Mercifully grant that we who glory in the mystery of our redemption may have the grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

More on Forgiveness

On Sunday, our pastor's sermon revolved around forgiveness, as you might expect.  He reminded us that forgiveness is the foundation of every relationship.

And it wasn't just the grown-ups--even in his children's sermon, our pastor reminded the children that forgiveness is the basis of every relationship.

He reminded us that we should aspire to forgiveness that not only loses count (of how many times we've forgiven), but that forgets to count.

Ah, the work of spiritual formation--I suspect we all have work to do in that area.  May we all reach that summit of forgiveness sooner than we think we can!

Monday, September 12, 2011

September 11: Liturgies and Prayers

In the end, I was glad that the 10th anniversary of September 11 fell on a Sunday.  It was good to spend some time grounded in liturgy and prayer.  It amazed me that all the lectionary readings revolved around forgiveness, even though they had been chosen long before the events of September 11, 2001.

I didn't expect all the wearing of red, white, and blue, all the flags on shirts, all the pins.  Happily, our pastor kept a tight rein on worship planning, so we didn't have to sing "God Bless America" or any of the other patriotic songs that just don't belong in a worship service.

I was a communion assistant, and although my eyes were still a bit watery, I was able to hold it together.  There was one moment when I poured the wine and said, "The blood of Christ, shed for you."  My mind raced to all the people who had given up their lives trying to save others, but I pulled my brain back from that place.

I still found yesterday to be tough.  I expected it to be tough, but it was tougher than I expected, with all those stories of loss.  I didn't turn on the television, but those stories still found their way to me.  I kept trying to use those stories of loss to remind myself of how lucky I am:  most of the people I love are still alive and healthy.  But eventually, that won't be the case. 

I'm haunted by losses I haven't experienced yet.  In many ways, I always have been.  Days like yesterday make it harder to escape that premonition of loss.  But liturgy, prayer, and sacrament made me feel a bit better.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Worship and September 11

The lectionary readings for today are full of themes of forgiveness, a theme which seems quite relevant given the historical events of the day:  the planes turned into weapons in 2001, the Chilean coup in 1973.  Have we forgiven Henry Kissinger?  Have we forgiven Osama Bin Laden?

I'm hoping that in worship services across the country, we will be reminded of the need to forgive--not just once, but countless times.

I'm hoping that we don't sing too many songs that focus on the nation.  I'm like Woody Guthrie:  I hate the song "God Bless America."  I remember expressing my frustration to my mom back in 2001 because the church I was in sang it every Sunday.  She suggested "God Bless Our Native Lands."  I wanted to sing "This Land Is Your Land," Guthrie's song in response to "God Bless America."

It would be easy to sink into sorrow on a day like today.  For those of us who will worship in a Christian community, I'm hoping we will focus on the promise of Jesus:  that death will not be the final answer.

I'm hoping that worship services don't focus too much on issues of evil today.  No talk of Satan, please.  I think we're all aware of the force of evil in the world.  Let us focus on the message of hope, the hope that although evil may win the day, evil will not win the war.

I have been dreading this day for 10 years.  I suppose I'm grateful that it falls on a Sunday.  I'm grateful that I will be in a church with a pastor who has spent considerable time crafting a liturgy for this day.

It is a good day to pray, even if we're not part of a worshipping community.   We can pray for softened hearts.  We can pray for those struggling with horrific memories and struggling with loss.  We can ask for an expanded capacity to forgive.  We can ask God for grace and healing in a world fractured by violence and other forms of brokenness.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Creative Person Contemplates Spiritual Career Paths

Over at my Creativity blog, I've been thinking about alternate career paths.  Today, I spent some time dreaming about creating a track in an MFA program that explored the intersections of writing and spirituality.  I said, "Why not MFA tracks that explore spirituality and writing?  Those tracks could explore traditional genres (poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, scripts), but could also explore other areas, like writing prayers or writing liturgy. If we were allowed to do some cross-disciplinary work, it would be cool to explore traditional hymns and modern songwriting."

I also think about a creativity track in seminary, as well as how my talents might fit in a church camp or as an art therapist or spiritual director.

My thinking was prompted partly by thinking about Terry Tempest Williams, who has a birthday today, and by an encounter with a friend who was not real supportive of my dream job possibilities.

You can read the whole essay here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Sept.11, 2011:

First Reading: Genesis 50:15-21

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 14:19-31

Psalm: Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 114

Psalm (Alt.): Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 (Semi-continuous)

Second Reading: Romans 14:1-12

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

The Gospel for today, at least the first part, is probably familiar to most of us. Peter is looking for the magic number of times that he must forgive--and you can tell he's annoyed, ready to cut off the person who has offended him, but he'll forgive seven times--and you know that he's probably already forgiven that person eight times. Jesus tells him he must forgive seventy times seven.

I remember in fifth grade Sunday school class where we studied this passage. We immediately got to work on the math. And if you were an obsessive child, like I had a tendency to be, you started keeping a list of how many times you had forgiven your sister.

I had unwittingly proven Jesus' point. Peter asks a stupid, juvenile question, and Jesus gives him an answer to let him know how petty he has been. By now, we should all know that Jesus didn't come to give us a new set of legalisms to follow.

Jesus then gives us a parable about the nature of forgiveness. Most of us will need more forgiveness throughout our lives than we really deserve. We are like indentured servants who can never hope to pay off our debt, but we're miraculously forgiven.

Most of us, happily, will never experience indentured servitude in the traditional sense. But in our past years of financial collapse, many of us have discovered a different kind of indebtedness. Many of us owe more on our houses than they will ever be worth again. Many of us owe more on our credit cards than we can ever repay, and we likely don’t even remember what we bought. Because of the lousy job situation throughout the country, many of us are chained to jobs that no longer satisfy. Think of how wonderful it would be if someone came in and relieved us of those debts. Think of forgiveness the same way.

Our task--and it sometimes seems more monumental than paying off a huge financial debt--is to extend that quality of forgiveness and mercy to others.

Who needs your forgiveness? Have you told those people that they're forgiven? Do they know it by your loving actions? To whom do you need to repent? What's keeping you from doing it?

And now, for the part that might be even harder for many of us—have you forgiven yourself? I've gotten fairly talented at forgiving my loved ones, but I'm still not good at forgiving myself. I'm still angry and annoyed when the struggles I thought were past me resurface. I'm still hard on myself for my shortcomings, even as I acknowledge that my shortcomings could be worse.

Fortunately, God has a higher opinion of me than I do of myself. God is willing to forgive me for my shortcomings--even as I fall short again and again.

This Sunday also marks the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 2001. It’s also the twenty-eighth anniversary of the coup which brought Pinochet to power in Chile, an event which ushered in almost 17 years of brutality against the citizens of that country. It’s the anniversary of some of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the U.S.: Inniki in 1992, from which Kauai has only just recovered, and Carla in 1961. We may not think of these events when we think about the issue of forgiveness, but they lurk there, in the background or the foreground.

How can we possibly be expected to forgive those who have harmed us so deeply, those who have ripped away so much of what we cherished, who we cherished? Sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, Jesus reminds us that we must forgive.

And if our capacity to forgive isn’t at 70 times 7 yet, let’s pray for an expanded ability to forgive. Let us also remember to pray for our enemies, both the personal ones and the political ones, the inner voices that berate us, the outer voices that shrilly defeat all peace initiatives, all the enemies who would undo us.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Happy Birthday Jane Addams

Today is the birthday of Jane Addams, a woman who would be canonized, if I was in charge of canonization.  What a remarkable woman!

I could argue that the roots of liberation theology trace back to her.  She was a big believer in Christians becoming more involved in the world, not to convert the world to Christianity, but because the study of the Bible shows us that we find God in the midst of the poor and the oppressed.

Addams is most famous for found Hull House, a settlement house that helped poor women and their children.  What most people forget about Hull House is that it was modeled after a house in Britain, where upper class men and underclass men lived together.  Likewise, Hull House sought to do the same thing.

Jane Addams brought culture to the inhabitants of Hull House, in addition to good health and solid work.  The complex eventually grew to have such offerings as a library, a book bindery, an art gallery, a gym, a public kitchen, a music school, and school/training for all sorts of groups of people.

Addams' involvement in the lives of women and girls led her to become a tireless crusader for peace, and she was the first woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Here's an Addams quote for you to ponder on this day after Labor Day:  Action is indeed the sole medium of expression for ethics. We continually forget that the sphere of morals is the sphere of action, that speculation in regard to morality is but observation and must remain in the sphere of intellectual comment, that a situation does not really become moral until we are confronted with the question of what shall be done in a concrete case, and are obliged to act upon our theory." from Democracy and Social Ethics (1902)

Monday, September 5, 2011

New School Year, New Book

For many of us, school children reported back this past week; traditionally, Labor Day week-end marks the end of summer.  Even though we may still have weeks or months of summer weather, now is a good time to turn our attention towards spiritual development.  Summer vacation is over!

I recently read Brian D. McLaren's latest book, Naked Spirituality:  A Life with God in 12 Simple Words.  After reading McLaren's last book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, I had vowed not to read any more.  I felt his books getting more and more repetitive, and I agreed with most of his points about the mission of Jesus.  I changed my mind when I read the premise of this latest one and bought the book.

It's a worthwhile read, especially for those of us who may have moved away from a life of faith or for those of us who grew up in a more repressive faith.  He wrestles with thorny issues, like how we live a life of faith in the face of unspeakable tragedy.  He reminds us that a life of faith is cyclical, that we don't arrive on a plateau and keep on climbing.

He also focuses on practices, believing that faith is about what we do, more than what we believe.  He says, ". . . a way of life is formed by practices.  By practices, we mean doable habits or rhythms that transform us, rewiring our brains, restoring our inner ecology, renovating our inner architecture, expanding our capacities.  We mean actions within our power that help us become capable of things currently beyond our power" (page 21).

McLaren has written a book that's very readable, very accessible.  And best of all, you can dip in and out.  I started reading it in July and had several weeks where I couldn't get back to it.  I didn't have to start all over again when I returned to it.

So, if you need a way to turn your attention back to your spiritual life, a gentle refocusing instrument would be this book.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Spiritual Overlaps and Intersections

Over at this blog, Christine Valters Paintner writes about the intersections of her spiritual life. She says, “One of the things I love about yoga is how parallel its principles are to the Christian principles of monasticism which sustain my spirit. I learn through yoga philosophy how to be fully present to my experience in this moment of time with compassion. I encounter exactly the same invitation in the wisdom of early desert monks who taught how to stay with our experience and not run from ourselves. When I practice yoga I become a better monk. When I practice my monastic side, I become a better yogi.”

She concluded by saying, “I am a Monk. I am a Yogini. I have sometimes wanted to call myself a 'monk-ini' but that sounds a little too much like an umbrella drink. I am a Monk on the Mat, a Monk in the World.”

She invited us to leave comments about how our spiritual beliefs and practices overlap. To further encourage us to comment, she enticed us with the possibility of winning one of her two books.

Here’s what I wrote:

I, too, am drawn to monasticism. I've been a Lutheran all my life, even when I haven't been part of a church, so it's intriguing to me to be drawn to something so Catholic and so male (I haven't spent time with any cloistered female monastic communities, although I would like to do so). I've also been a feminist all my life, so I'm not always in step with Christian religious traditions which keep wanting to veer to the patriarchal. I'm drawn to liberation theology and the social justice movements that theology has inspired. I'm a poet and a bit of a pantheist, and sometimes, I feel the presence of God more clearly as I watch the sky swirl than I ever did in a human community. Yet I do believe that God calls us to be in community--with God, with our fellow humans, with our various environments, with animals. And so I try to learn to live with all the juxtapositions and contradictions, the stresses and the tensions.

If you want a chance to win a book and don’t mind talking about your spiritual life, go here to read the post and leave a comment.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Buddhist Teahouse Approach to Evangelism

We have once again entered the time when people discuss how much the religious beliefs of people in government should influence those people.  Lots of people seem fearful of the religious beliefs of the Republican presidential candidates, as they wonder how those beliefs might shape policy.

My atheist friends explode into anger at the idea that one's religious ideas might seep over into the work week.  Yet these are the same friends who seethe over the hypocrisy of some religious people they see, people who say one thing in church and behave another way in public.

What's a religious person to do?

To be fair, I, too, feel uncomfortable with people at work who just can't stop talking about their religious beliefs.  I was taught that it's rude and risky to talk about politics or religion in work or school settings.

Clearly, not everyone was brought up the way that I was.

I believe that if you're living your beliefs, then you're behaving in a way that bears witness.  You don't need to do any more evangelizing than that.

It's what I call the Buddhist teahouse approach to living an integrated life.  In an interview with Bill Moyers, poet Jane Hirshfield explains, "Teahouse practice means that you don't explicitly talk about Zen. It refers to leading your life as if you were an old woman who has a teahouse by the side of the road. Nobody knows why they like to go there, they just feel good drinking her tea. She's not known as a Buddhist teacher, she doesn't say, 'This is the Zen teahouse.' All she does is simply serve tea--but still, her decades of attentiveness are part of the way she does it. No one knows about her faithful attention to the practice, it's just there, in the serving of the tea, and the way she cleans the counters and washes the cups" (Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft, page 112).

Of course, I've wondered if that's just me wimping out on The Great Commission.  Jesus didn't say, "Go live a quiet, but good, life a life that makes everyone want to be around you and wonder what your secret is.  Thus you will bear witness to me."

Or did he?