Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween and Christians

I'd have mentioned this earlier, but I've been on a plane--or doing all the stuff that one must do to get on said plane (drive to airport, security, we all know the drill).

As you wait for trick-or-treaters and want something to read, my blog post is up at Living Lutheran, about being a Christian and thinking about Halloween.  And as we wait for Halloween to pass into All Saints Day, perhaps it's the perfect reading material.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reformation Sunday and Halloween Eve

So, have you bought all your candy for tomorrow?  Planned your costume?  Carved the jack-o-lantern?  No?  You still have time.

You don't have much time left to decide how you'll spend Reformation Sunday.  Will you be going to church?  Protestant or Catholic?  Will you sing some stout German hymns?  Will you drink stout German beer?

Even if you're not a church going type, the Reformation has changed your life.  I won't cover 500 years of history here, but suffice it to say that those Reformers launched us further down the road towards modernity than we would have been without them.

Will we some day say the same thing about the Occupy Wall Street Movement?  The Tea Party?  Is there a religious group that is even now working to change the Church in such ways that we will barely recognize it 500 years from now?

Or maybe these thoughts are too heavy for a Sunday morning.  Maybe you want to dress in red today and think about your personal Reformations for which you yearn.

May your bulwarks never fail! Wait, we don't use that line (from "A Mighty Fortress") any more. Drat! How will children learn that word?

That song seems more appropriate than ever for our age. Societal institutions left and right have shown us of their inadequacy. We're lucky to have God as our shield and comfort.

So, in whatever way you celebrate, may you have a meaningful Reformation Sunday.  I plan to spend some time thinking about grace and the places in my life that could use some grace.  I will pray that God fill me with the spirit of grace as I move through these darkening days of November.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Reformation Sunday Approaches!

I first wrote this post two years ago.  I think it's worth another look.  I thought I'd run it today, so you still have time to plan for Reformation Sunday, which is this Sunday.

How to Celebrate Reformation Sunday

I'm biased. I think the best way to celebrate Reformation Sunday is to go to your local Lutheran church, sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," and celebrate the Eucharist. Then you could come home, listen to Garrison Keillor's show (if your local NPR station rebroadcasts it at lunch, as mine does), drink some German beer, and take a nap.

Even when I wasn't a member of a church, I've always been intently aware of the liturgical season and the holidays that the Church celebrates. I grew up in a Lutheran family that went to church every time the doors were open--and that included when we were on vacation. So those rhythms imprinted themselves into my brain.

I love to celebrate, and I love that I have additional things to celebrate by being liturgical. But I know that not everyone is good at creating celebrations.

So, for those of you who are on your own this Reformation Sunday, here are some things you can do to celebrate.

--Go to a German restaurant and eat a German meal. Think about Martin Luther, who ate this food. Drink a German beer. Think about Martin Luther, who was not inhibited about the earthly delights.

--As you're drinking that German beer, write your own hymns. Not a musician, you say? Use popular drinking songs as your base! Lutheran legend has it that some of our greatest hymns have tunes that originated as drinking songs. So, the melody is already created for you--write a hymn.

--Not in a songwriting mood? Write your own 95 theses. What do you see as wrong with the Church? Do you have any suggestions? Extra points if you can back them up with Scripture.

--One of the Church's actions that outraged Luther was the selling of indulgences, which he saw as victimizing the poor. We like to think that the modern church has moved beyond the selling of indulgences, but history suggests that we're fooling ourselves. In what ways do you see the Church selling indulgences? Another way of thinking about this question: in what ways does the Church abuse its power?

--If you want to follow in the footsteps of Luther, indulge in some guilt. Luther held himself to some stringent standards, especially in his early life. Think about all the ways you've let God down--and then remember Luther's teaching about grace, and feel better.

--Read the Bible. Rejoice in the fact that you can read it in your own language. Thank Luther for being one of the earliest translators of the Bible into the common language.

--You don't want to worship at a Lutheran church today? Go to a Catholic church. Remind yourself of where you'd be if Luther hadn't started the Reformation.

I'm being a bit facetious with this one. I know that if there had been no Luther, there'd have been others to lead us down the Reformation road.

And in all seriousness, one of my most memorable Reformation Sundays was spent with a Lutheran friend and an Episcopalian friend during our retreat at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery. We got in touch with Christian roots that are much more ancient than the roots that we usually celebrate during Reformation Sunday.

And another memorable Reformation Sunday was spent on a South Carolina beach with some of my best friends from graduate school.  wWe had a reunion on one of the barrier islands in 2006, 16 years after the last time we'd been together in South Carolina. One friend was raised Southern Baptist and has gone on to find joy in a Unitarian church, but at the time she thought she wanted nothing to do with church. My other friend was very active in her local Church of England congregation, but she felt strongly called to become a Quaker. And I was part of a Lutheran congregation that left me desperate for more spiritual nourishment. We spent that Reformation Sunday talking about our spiritual struggles and our desire to find a group where we felt more at home.

I'm rather startled to reflect that each one of us has found her heart's desire. I give credit to the Reformation process of being able to talk about what we yearn for, about where the Church has fallen short, about being able to have a vision for the future.

Our Reformation Sunday Gospel finds Jesus promising that we will know the truth and the truth shall set us free. The truth can be terrifying and send us hurtling down paths that seem dark and dangerous. At times we may not know whether we're heretics or whether we're struggling to birth something new and inspiring. If we keep ourselves rooted in church traditions, we're less likely to flirt with the heretical. Yet, as the life of Luther reminds us, sometimes there are traditions that have gone completely rotten.

On this Reformation Sunday, I pray for us all to renew the Church the way that Luther did. I pray that God will show us the truth. I pray for us to be set free.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The Reformation Day Readings for Sunday, October 30, 2011:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm: Psalm 46

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28

Gospel: John 8:31-36

The Lectionary Readings for Sunday, October 30, 2011:

First Reading: Micah 3:5-12

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Joshua 3:7-17

Psalm: Psalm 43

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Maybe it’s because I know several pastors who plan to stay with the Lectionary readings this Reformation Sunday. Maybe it’s because I’ve been working on an article on ecumenism for The Lutheran. Maybe it’s because I read this interesting blog post over at Living Lutheran.

In that post, Clint Schnekloth argues that celebrating Reformation Sunday is spiritually dangerous: “If we celebrated an entire year, 52 Sundays, with each Sunday celebrating a development in the history of the Christian faith, with the Reformation situated within that larger context, it might work. As it stands, Reformation Sunday is the only Sunday of the entire church year that commemorates a moment in the history of Christianity rather than a moment in the narrative of Scripture itself. It is elevated and idealized precisely because it is so unique. This needs to stop.”

I hadn’t ever framed Reformation Sunday in that way before. I had always loved the celebration of Martin Luther’s accomplishment and the singing of those stout, classic German hymns. I loved the idea of nailing ideas to a door. Of course, I couldn’t tell you what those 95 theses said beyond some of the most famous ones.

Of course, many church folks couldn’t even tell you one of those theses. If you ask them to explain the Protestant Reformation, in terms of protest or reform, many Christians can’t. And when it comes to more ancient Church events, many of us are even more woefully ignorant. If we reshaped the calendar to include more Church history, we could address that: Councils of Carthage Sunday, anyone?

The creators of the Lectionary, however, must have realized the folly of a church year that celebrates Church history. Our worship should keep us focused on God, and less on human actions. And so many of those events out of Church history, important as they were, set into motion some unfortunate side events too. For example, as I’ve read more about the events that happened in the centuries following the Reformation, I was rather aghast at what Luther set into motion. I still approved of his wanting to reform corrupt practices out of the Church. But the amount of lives slaughtered because of different religious beliefs, religious beliefs which don’t seem worth discussion much less murder, still staggers me.

These days we might argue for the inclusion of Reformation Day as a high Holy day because so few people feel passionately about their religious beliefs. Maybe we hope that Reformation Day will reignite that flame of Protestantism, at least, the Protestantism that doesn’t make us uncomfortable.

The Lectionary readings give us a cautionary tale about religious groups who get too puffed up with self-righteousness. Jesus reminds us that outsiders will judge us more by our actions than by our spiritual creeds.

So, as we sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” let’s think about our heritage. But let’s also think about our future. Most importantly, let’s think about our present: are our lives a testament to a God who lives and moves among us? How can we be the light of Christ in a world that needs light so desperately?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Make Your Whole Life a Living Sacrifice

In his latest book, Naked Spirituality, Brian McLaren offers great ideas for infusing your life with more spiritual richness:  "How can we infuse our daily lives with the poetry, song, and dance of worship and praise?  I've tried to maintain several disciplines of worship in my life through the years, each involving a way to render my whole life a living sacrifice:" (page 77).

He then goes on to list them, and in the book, he discusses them in detail (pp. 77-810:

  1. Give God the first greeting every morning.
  2. Give God the first thanks at every meal.
  3. Give God the first response to every pleasure.
  4. Give God the first consideration in your weekly schedule.
  5. Make God the first supervisor or customer for all work.
  6. Give God the first part of every paycheck.
  7. Give God the joy of your creativity.
How many of these suggestions do you already follow?  What could you add to your schedule this week?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Jesus and Miracles and the World

A month ago, I was going to the Lutheridge retreat to plan the Create in Me retreat.  For 2012, we're focused on Jesus and miracles as art and invitation.  So we spent some time reading the passages about miracles and discussing them.  Here are some things we noticed:

--More is possible than we humans imagine.

--The world is full of raw materials.

--The laws of physics (as humans understand them) don't constrain Jesus.

--Each miracle is individually tailored to the recipient.  For example, not every healing miracle is the same:  some times Jesus uses dirt, some times spit, some times touch, some times commands.

--Many of the miracles require the participation of the recipient:  seeking Jesus out at the very least, washing, . . .

--The miracles show the abundance in the world.

--my group was intrigued by Mark 8:  22-26.  This miracle needs fine tuning!  After Jesus' first attempt to heal the blind man, the blind man says that the people look like trees walking.  So Jesus tries again.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Matchbox Car Theology

My 5 year old nephew asked how people got to Heaven. My sister (his mom) said, “You remember. We put a matchbox car in their coffin, and God drives them up to Heaven.”

I saw a problem with this idea.  What if people didn't know to put the Matchbox car in the coffin?  I hastened to add, “But if there is no Matchbox car, God can get them to Heaven anyway.”

I'm his godparent.  Should I have said more?  Should I have talked about Jesus as the Matchbox car?  Even though I take my godparenting duties seriously, I don’t want to be the crazy adult whom my nephew avoids because my sole focus is on “boring churchy stuff,” as I termed it when young.

Part of me wondered if he'd understand the metaphor, although I suspect that children have less trouble understanding symbol and metaphor than grown ups do.  Part of me worried that I couldn't really make the metaphor work.  Part of me worried that I'd teach him theology which I don't necessarily believe.

In the few weeks since we had that conversation, I've been thinking about the issue of metaphor.  I've wondered about what we take literally and what might have started as metaphor.

Let me say it more plainly.  I know that many people think we don't get to Heaven without the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  Our sins aren't forgiven without that sacrifice.  We may have gotten that message wrong.

If you look at the agenda of the Gospel writers, some scholars suggest that a different picture emerges.  As Christianity evolved from being an expression of Judaism to a separate religion, some Gospel writers used elements of the Jesus story to subvert the authority of Jewish priests.  The idea of Jesus as a blood sacrifice means that people no longer needed to participate in the Jewish rituals of animal slaughter that brought/bought forgiveness.  But did those Gospel writers mean for us to take that seriously or were they talking metaphorically or were they just trying to move people away from the influence of Jewish priests?

Many books have been written on this subject and great rifts have been created as believers disagree.  I can't pretend to do justice to those ideas in a simple blog post.  But long-time readers of this blog know that I believe that Jesus was crucified because he posed a threat to the government.  Crucifixion was a capital punishment reserved for enemies of the state.  If the Roman empire hadn't felt threatened, Jesus would have been stoned or beheaded.

Needless to say, I didn't want to go into all of this with my nephew, so I didn't pursue the idea of Jesus as Matchbox car.  But I have been thinking about translating theology into terms that children could understand.  I have thought about symbols and metaphors that make sense to children.

A Matchbox car theology.  A Barbie doll theology.  A blankie theology.  God as Power Ranger or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.  Hmm.  I see problems, but also possibilities!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 23, 2011:

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Psalm: Psalm 1

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46

The Gospel this week finds Jesus being tested again with trick questions. This week a lawyer demands that Jesus tell which commandment is greatest. And Jesus sums up the whole Bible by saying that the most important thing we are required to do is to love God completely, and secondly, to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Of course, this presupposes that we're good at loving ourselves, and we live in an age where this is increasingly not the case. We don't take time to exercise or eat the right foods, and most of us are sleep deprived. We're depressed about the way our lives are progressing, and instead of changing our lives, we self-medicate in a variety of ways or use other destructive methods of forgetting our sorrows. We wish we had more time for our friends and families, but we take on extra work to buy them more stuff--or worse, we take on extra work so that we can keep the job we have and worry desperately about losing.

How would your life change if you really did put God first? If God's priorities became your priorities? You'd take better care of yourself so that you could do the work and play that God requires.

And how would your life change if you responded with love, not just once a day, but throughout the day? And not just to people with whom you've made an investment, but with complete strangers? Or with people you don't really like, but you're forced to live with (like your co-workers, your child's school, your neighbors)

In this year of multiple natural disasters, I'm struck by how kind and loving we can be when facing such disasters. What would it take to show that care and commitment all the time? You might protest that you'd just be too exhausted, too depleted to do all that love and caring--and remember, that love should translate into action, and who has that kind of time?

But God requires it--and when we replenish the world with our love, we find ourselves replenished. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand--if you're willing to do the work (which might often feel like play) to make it possible on earth.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Feast of St. Luke

Today we celebrate the life of St. Luke, who most scholars agree wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts; Scholars do not agree on who the man named Luke actually was.  Luke is the patron saint of artists, doctors, surgeons, students, and butchers.   Take a moment to think about those connections.

I could argue that all those groups engage in the art of deconstruction.  Some of those groups engage in the art of putting elements back together again.  When I wrote that last sentence, I thought of butchers as the only ones who don't reconstruct, but in a way, they do as they prepare cuts of meat for the best cooking and presentation.

Traditionally, we've thought of Luke as a physician and a writer.  Some have wanted to give him credit as a historian, but he likely wasn't thinking of himself as the person who needed to record early church history.  As a Composition teacher would point out, he was writing for a different discourse community.  He had different goals in mind for the audience that would read his writings.  Historians and evangelists have very different goals, goals which do intersect, but which are not the same.

Luke as an iconographer is not as well known.  In popular imagination, Luke gets credit for creating the first icon of the Virgin Mary.  I am not brave enough to write about icons in this post, but I'm grateful to Luke and to the early Church for recognizing how the Arts can enrich our spiritual lives.

Here are the readings for today:

First Reading: Isaiah 43:8-13

First Reading (Alt.): Isaiah 35:5-8

Psalm: Psalm 124

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:5-11

Gospel: Luke 1:1-4; 24:44-53

Here's a prayer that I've written for today:

Creator God,  thank you for the inspiration that you gave us in the life of Luke.  Help us to discern our gifts for deconstruction and reconstruction.  Help us to heal what needs to be stitched together.  Help us always to have the mind of a student:  curious and quick to make connections.  Guide us as we follow our creative instincts.  In all things, be our muse.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Power of Communal/Corporate Prayer--But On a Smaller Scale

Three weeks ago, as we opened our first day of the retreat to plan the Create in Me retreat, we stood in a circle and the leading pastor asked us what we needed, what we should pray for, specific requests for invitations and miracles (images we'd be using in our retreat).

It was powerful in a way I didn't expect.  I liked hearing about the needs of my fellow retreatents, many of whom I've known for years.  I liked offering up my own need.  I liked being able to pray for us all as the planning retreat progressed.

Why does the power of communal prayer continue to surprise me?  After all, I grew up in a church, where communal praying was what we did.  Lutheran liturgy circles back to prayer again and again.

But our corporate prayer at the retreat was on a much smaller scale.  It was a moving blend of the corporate prayer and individual prayers.  We held each other's hands.  We only had about 8 requests from the group of a dozen or so participants to keep in mind.

I prayed for back-up plans.  My job lately feels more tenuous.  I don't think my job will disappear.  But of course, the 40 or so people in my school who have lost their jobs due to downsizing in the past year probably didn't think their jobs would disappear either.

When I was a teenager, I had no shortage of back-up plans:  "If that college doesn't take me, I'll go to that college."  Even as I progressed through my early adulthood, I had plenty of plans. 

In this current economy, it's harder to believe that I can make a back-up plan or two and that they'll be viable, should I have to use them.  What better time to pray for guidance?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Feast of St. Teresa

Today is the feast day of Saint Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Carmelite mystic.  For those of us soothed by meditation, we owe her a debt of gratitude.  But really, all of us, especially women, owe her a debt of gratitude.  Saint Teresa made some important gains for women in the church, by way of her writing and her leadership during the Counter Reformation.  I've always given medieval women credit for simply surviving in such a patriarchal institution, and for a woman to actually thrive despite the constrictions is quite remarkable.

Often, mystics make me feel further away from God--their visions are so different from anything I've experienced.  Many of what I've read about Saint Teresa has moved me similarly--her visions are so full of pain and piercings that they leave me a bit revulsed.

I'm grateful to Christine Valters Paintner, who has helped me see a different version of St. Teresa.  Paintner has written a wonderful book, The Artist's Rule:  Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom, which I'll review more thoroughly when I've finished reading it.  But in reading it, I've come across two references to Saint Teresa which have made me reconsider her.

In a guided meditation, Paintner says, "The great Spanish Carmelite mystic St. Teresa of Avila described such a spiritual journey as a movement through concentric rooms of an interior castle until we reach the diamond at the center of our being.  She says when we reach this diamond we will finally realize how truly beautiful we really are" (page 11).

Paintner talks about the sacraments of daily life:  "This is one of the elements I love most about Benedictine spirituality.  The cup you take down from your cupboard each morning for tea or coffee is as sacred as the chalice that holds the consecrated wine.  St. Teresa of Avila, the Carmelite mystic, said to the sisters of her community:  'The Lord walks among the pots and pans.'  We make artificial distinctions between sacred and secular, between what is worthy of our awe and gratitude and what is not." (page 38).

May the Lord be with you in your kitchen today or in your living room where you watch the television or in the Autumn afternoon with its many delights.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Nourishing Our Souls

Yesterday I talked about our God who wants to be in relationship with us.  I thought of my response during a 2010 workshop at Synod Assembly.  I can't exactly remember what prompt the moderator gave us, but I was struck by this image of God always inviting me to lunch or dinner, and me checking my calendar and seeing date after date would not work.

During our discussion of what we wrote, I said, "I'm afraid God will quit issuing lunch invitations."  Then I burst into tears.

The Good News, of course, is that God will not stop issuing invitations.  But my time-starved existence could well be damaging me in other ways.

I need to think of time in the same way that I approach food and nutritional choices. I've often thought that the modern approach to dieting is all wrong. We focus on permitted foods and forbidden ones, much the way that some churches focus on permitted behaviors and ones that are banned. But what we should be doing is considering the nutritive content of everything that goes into our mouths. Some foods,like spinach, carrots, broccoli, oatmeal, V8 juice, are packed with nutrients and well worth the calories. Some foods are empty of nutritive value, and a waste of calories--and some are downright harmful. Every time we eat or drink, we have an opportunity to promote health and healing--or to undercut it.

Likewise, the way we live our lives moves us closer to God or further away.  If we looked at all our activities and evaluated them about how they impacted our relationship with God, what choices would we make? If we thought of every action in terms of what it contributes to creating a world that is more merciful, more kind, more like God, how would we live each day?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for October 16, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 33:12-23

Psalm: Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 99

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22

This week's Gospel contains a saying of Jesus that is probably familiar: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" (Mathhew 22, verse 21). Even people who have never set foot inside a church are probably familiar with this saying, although they may attribute it to somebody else, like Shakespeare or Ronald Reagan.

I love how Jesus realizes that the Pharisees have set a trap for him, and he manages to avoid entanglement. This passage also shows Jesus reacting to the legalistic outlook of the spiritual leaders. He seems to tell us not to be so rigid in our formulas of our finances. We know what we must do. We have bills and obligations (among them, caring for the less fortunate); we cannot escape those worldly cares. But in figuring out our tithes and taxes, we should not lose sight of the larger spiritual picture.

God calls us to more than a rigid formula of living. Instead of dividing up our budget into rigid categories, we should always be on the lookout for ways to love each other. Some days/months/years, that love might be manifest in monetary ways. But in a way, just writing a check is much too easy. God calls us to be involved with each other's lives. That doesn't mean we need to hop on a plane to personally respond to every huge disaster. Look around--you'll see plenty of opportunities just outside your door.

My mother has a theory about tithing money. She posits that in our society, giving money isn't the same kind of sacrifice that it would be in earlier times. Most of us have more money than we know what to do with. You might disagree, but if you compare your income to the rest of the world's, you are rich beyond compare. I would argue that we buy so much stuff because we have that much disposable income. Do you really need more than one outfit a day? Is your closet overstuffed, like mine is? There's a disconnect.

My mother says that the more precious commodity in our culture is time, and I think she's right. Most of us can barely find time to phone each other. Have you tried to have anyone over for dinner lately? It seems to take the scheduling skills of those people who used to organize Superpower Summits. My mother's theory is that if Jesus spoke directly today, he'd tell us to sacrifice time, not money.

What if you gave 10% of your time? There's 168 hours in a week. If you gave 17.8 hours to God, how would you need to change your life?

And the reality is, that God wants and needs more from us than a mere 18 hours a week. God wants an ongoing relationship with each and every one of us. And that relationship should transform us to do the tough work of transforming creation, of creating the Kingdom of Heaven right here and now.

In these days of financial insecurity, the message of Jesus seems more prescient than ever. If we save up our treasures on earth, moth or rust or inflation or deflation or bad policies or any other kind of ruin you want to name will leave us bankrupt.

The way we live our lives moves us closer to God or further away. If we devote our lives to God, our whole lives, not just an hour on Sunday, then we'll find a relationship that we can count on. And that relationship can help us transform not only ourselves, but our families, our communities, everyone we touch.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Happy Birthday, Thich Nhat Hanh

Today is the birthday of Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps one of the most famous Buddhist monks ever.  His influence has stretched far and wide; perhaps he is most famous in terms of his influence for persuading Dr. Martin Luther King to oppose the Vietnam War.  In terms of my own personal influences, I'm amazed at how many of my mentors, both the ones I've known in real life and the ones I've known through their writing, acknowledge the importance of his ideas.

In doing some research this morning, I was struck by how many monasteries he has founded.  I am fascinated by intentional communities of all sorts, and I'm convinced that intentional communities with an underlying spiritual commitment have a better chance of lasting through the decades or the centuries.  But I tend to forget that forming intentional communities aren't just activities done by ancient monks in medieval times.  No, people are still banding together even today.

In terms of social justice and liberation theology, Thich Nhat Hanh has moved Buddhism in a direction similar to those embraced by liberation theologians and people of all sorts working for social justice.  It's not enough to practice detachment.  It's not enough to meditate.  It's not enough to make oneself a peaceful person through these techniques.  No, engaged Buddhism teaches us that we must take all sorts of stands against oppression.

I'm grateful that I'm part of a religious tradition that is open to wisdom from non-Christian sources.  I can't imagine what it would be like to be part of a community who rejected Thich Nhat Hanh, just because he's Buddhist.

The more I study religions of the world, the more intrigued I am by the intersections.  I do agree with Brian McLaren, who says, "Now contrary to popular opinion, it is not true that all religions say basically the same things.  They have much in common, but there are notable contradictions and incompatibilities, many of which become more significant as they go deeper.  But in many cases (again, not all), at any given moment, different religions are not always saying different things about the same subjects; rather they are often talking about different subjects entirely" (A Generous Orthodoxy, page 255).  But it is interesting to look for similarities.

Perhaps it's time for me to read Going Home:  Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, a book of Thich Nhat Hanh's which isn't quoted very much.  I bought it years ago, but haven't read it yet.  My spouse, who has spent more years studying world religions than I have, read it, and said it was good but didn't seem particularly heretical.

Of course, he was raised Lutheran too, and like me, he did his undergraduate work in a liberal arts college.  These ideas wouldn't be radical to us.

So, happy birthday to one of my favorite monks, with sincere gratitude for all he's brought to the human race!  If we canonized non-Christians, this monk would be the first on my list of candidates.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Who Is Missing from the Table?

Our pastor's sermon yesterday focused on the idea of the wedding party--who gets invited and who doesn't.  He reminded us that congregations struggle with who's supposed to be at the table, and then he gave us some examples from other churches that he's served.

He asked us to consider who is missing from the table.  He reminded us that Jesus calls us all to the table.  That's the vision of Kingdom living that so many of us forget.

He probably looked out over the congregation and saw too many people smiling smugly at these tales from other churches, too many of us thinking surely our church would never do that.  I know of at least one or two examples of people who have been less than welcome, so I knew he wouldn't let us get away with that.

I admired how he handled that task.  After asking who is missing from the table, he said, "It is a foolish church that believes we've done all we can do to invite people to the party."

So, today, I'll spend some time thinking about who is missing from the table, who doesn't even know there is a table.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Nobel Peace Prize Calls Us to Social Justice for Females

Yesterday, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded--what a memorable day it was.  Three women who have fought valiantly for social justice in some of the toughest parts of the planet won the award.  Hurrah for them!

In this article from The Washington PostSudarsan Raghavan and Michael Birnbaum explain what the women have done:  "The winners were Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female president in post-colonial Africa, peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman, a leading figure in Yemen’s populist revolt this year who inspired thousands of women to rise up in a region where women are considered second-class citizens."

I would state it more harshly:  these women have accomplished their amazing feats in parts of the world where women hardly count as citizens at all.  Astonishing.  Only 12 women have ever won the award, and they've all done amazing things.  If you compare what President Sirleaf has done to what President Obama, another winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has done, there's simply no denying that her accomplishments are greater.

The accomplishments of these women call us to do more to secure the rights of females across the globe, which was the intent of the Nobel Committee:  "The Oslo-based committee described the award as an important siren call for women the world over. In its citation, read by its head, Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister, the committee said that 'we cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society'" (from the previously cited article from The Washington Post).

Jesus issued a similar command during his ministry that focused on the poor and the outcast--and in his society, women occupied the bottom rungs of the social ladder.  Even women who married well and thus found themselves in a secure position were continually at risk, should their husbands die.

All sorts of traditions call us to secure the rights of the dispossessed.  Those of us who live in the U.S. are lucky in that we have some recourse, should our rights be trampled.  But I haven't talked to a woman yet who feels totally safe and secure.  We have work to do, no matter where we live.

Martin Luther King continually pointed out that injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.  In the words of that old Civil Rights song, no of us are free when one of us wears chains.  So today, let us refocus our attention on the lives of women.  There's benefit to all of us if we make the lives of women better.  Study after study has shown that as women's lives improve, so do the lives of everyone in the community.  Most of the time, women are simply better at redistributing the wealth to bring about their vision of how life could be better--everyone's lives, not just their own.

So, in these waning days of the year, let's think about what we can do to get resources to those who need it most.  Let's spend some time thinking about what a world that honors the lives of women and children would look like.  Let's get to work creating it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Moral Workers in Corrupt Institutions

Some part of me has never gotten away from asking the kind of philosophical questions that used to keep groups of us up late at night in college, dissecting and analyzing.

Having deep conversations--how I miss it.

Lately, my favorite question has been:  Can a moral person work in a corrupt institution and remain moral?  More lately it's been:  How long can a moral person work in a corrupt institution and remain moral?  A few days ago, I saw a study about new legislators who arrive in Washington, D.C.  Most members of the House and Senate come to Congress for the right reasons.  Very few come looking to abuse the system.  Yet, in time, they find themselves changing due to the inexorable, corrupting pressure of the institution.

When I ask most people this question about moral workers in corrupt institutions, they stare at me blankly and try to change the subject.  When I asked a friend the first question, she said, "Well, that's very hard."

I said, "What if it's not hard?  What if we say it's hard because we don't want to wrestle with the implications of the question and the answer?  Because I suspect the answer is no, the moral person can't work in an immoral environment and remain moral."

She snapped something along the lines of needing her health insurance, and we moved to other topics.

Luckily, in the wisdom of my youth, I married a Philosophy major.  When I asked my spouse that question, he didn't hesitate.  We talked about working for change from the inside and remaining resistant to corruption.  It was a great conversation, the kind I so rarely have anymore.

He mention Neibuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics.  I've been meaning to read that book.  Maybe now is the time. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 9, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 25:1-9

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 32:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 23

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

Second Reading: Philippians 4:1-9

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14

Today's Gospel sounds impossibly harsh. The kingdom of heaven is compared to this story of a king who can't get people to come to the wedding feast? Well, those of us who lure people away from their manic work lives (for church, for a dinner party, to go to a movie--for anything, really) may be able to relate to that part of the story. But is God really like the King who murders people who won't come to the party and burns their city? Is God really like the king who punishes a guest who comes in the wrong clothes? And such a punishment!

Some churchgoers, no doubt, will hear a sermon this Sunday that revolves around judgment and punishment. My opinion is that God rarely has to punish us, because our poor choices provide punishment enough.

So, let's look at this parable from a different angle: what's keeping us from accepting the invitation to the wedding feast? If the wedding feast is the kingdom of God, what keeps us away?

Obviously, as we devote more and more of our time to work, we have less time for the things that matter, like family, God, our friends. Many of us don't have time to eat; some of us can’t even slip away to go to the bathroom! Jesus is quite clear on this issue: we must prioritize. What good will it do us to work ourselves this way, to devote ourselves to earthly things, like work and earning money?

Or maybe we reject God's invitation because we feel inadequate. We'll accept at a later time, when we've improved ourselves. But that's the good news of God's grace that we find throughout the Gospels. We don't have to wait. God loves us in all of our imperfections.

Maybe we reject God's invitation because we haven't found the right community yet. Several years ago, one of my best friends in England finally decided that she couldn't remain an Anglican. She yearned to join a Quaker community, but hated the thought of losing her Anglican friends. Finally, she made the switch, and found to her great surprise, that her Anglican friends supported her, and her children adapted happily to the new community.

Perhaps we should see ourselves in the wedding guest that didn't have the right garment. What clothes do we need to invest in to make ourselves better wedding guests?

Maybe we need to clothe ourselves in the garments of love and acceptance. Think of what attitudes you need to wrap around yourself, and work to shed the ones that do not serve you.

Maybe we need to clothe ourselves in some regular spiritual practices. We have thousands of years of history that suggest some techniques that work: regular prayer, regular spiritual reading, cultivating a spirit of gratitude, taking a day of rest, singing the Psalms to calm our nerves, and the list could last several pages.

Life is short, and Christ returns to this message again and again. We think we will have time to get to the things that will be important. We'll do it later, when the kids are older, or when we don't have to work so long and hard.

But God calls us to focus on the important things now. The apocalyptic tone of the recent readings may seem overly dramatic, but apocalypse dramas remind us that everything that is precious can be gone in an instant--and so the time to focus on what we hold dear is now.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

Today we celebrate the life of St. Francis. Many congregations will do this by having a pet blessing service. Here again, we see a powerful life story reduced to something significantly more mundane. I would argue that the church almost always does this reduction act--and why? Why give up the power of these stories that way? We see that in our approach to Jesus Christ, and in our approach to every other believer who has a dramatic story. Are we afraid of the implications?

We often remember St. Francis because of his work, "The Canticle for the Creatures." Many people see him as one of the early environmentalists. I have no problem with animal rights crusaders and the environmental movement, but it's important to remember that St. Francis spent many years of his early ministry living with lepers and caring for them. He gave up everything he owned--and he was rich--in a quest for a more authentic life. He inspired others to follow the same path, and he founded two religious orders that still thrive.

In churches that celebrate the life of St. Francis, will we hear these parts of the story? I doubt it. Those are the parts of the story that are threatening to the social order. We can't have young people behaving in the way that St. Francis did. What on earth would happen then?

Our society would be transformed. And one of the ways that Christians have let down their faith, this is one of the most damning: we dampen the transformative message of the Gospel or we dumb it down into some sort of self-help drivel. The Gospel can transform us as individuals, sure, but then we are called to go out and transform our societies. God has called us to do redemptive work.

So, on this day when we celebrate the life of St. Francis, let's consider how we treat our pets and how we treat our modern-day lepers.  I'm willing to bet that the community in which you live, pets are treated much, much better than lepers.  Think about how your church would react if someone brought their pet dog or cat to church.  Now think about how your church would react if a drunk, smelly, raggedy person walked in.

Lately, I've been thinking about the care we offer our pets and contrasting that care with the amount of care we give ourselves.  We often do no better at taking care of ourselves than we do of taking care of the poor and outcast of our society.  I've known more than one person who cooked better meals for their dogs than they do for themselves.  You can probably offer similar examples:  humans who make sure that their pets see dentists, even when the human members of the family don't take care of their teeth, dogs who see therapists, pets who get wonderful treats that humans deny themselves--the list could go on and on.

Why is it so hard to achieve balance in our societies?  Why can't we take care of the destitute in the same way we take care of our pets?  Why does self-care often fall to the bottom of our to-do lists?  Why do we practice self-care and then not do the larger work of caring for the world?  Why do so many of us care for creation so badly or not at all?

As we think about the life of St. Francis, let's think about the wealth that we have and the ways that we can share it.  Let's think about the earth and the ways we can care for our patch of the planet.  Let's think about all the voiceless members of our society:  plants, pets, children, the destitute, the elderly.

Here's a prayer that I wrote for today:

Creator God, we don't always take good care of your creations.  Please give us the generosity of St. Francis as we wrestle with the best way to use our resources.  Please open our hearts the way you opened the heart of St. Francis so that we can take care of the members of our society who are at the lowest levels.  Please give us the courage to create communities which will allow the light of Christ to shine more brightly.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Living Our Faith Under Threat

Yesterday, I watched Of Gods and Men, a French film that tells the story of a tiny monastery in the mountains of Algeria that got caught between a corrupt government and Islamic fundamentalists, the two sides of an Algerian civil war.

At first we see the men living peacefully amongst the Muslim population; they are so accepted that they're even invited to Muslim celebrations, and they go.  The population relies on them for medical care, rudimentary as it is.  They pray, they help the population, they work in their gardens, and sell their honey.  In short, they do what monks have done for centuries.

I remember when the monks were killed in 1996.  I remember the international reaction that went along the lines of "Why would you kill monks who weren't hurting anyone?"

Of course, anyone familiar with church history will remind us that any of us can get caught up in political issues outside of anyone's control; in our lifetimes, we've seen similar situations throughout the Latin American world, particularly in Central American countries.  The life of Christ himself serves as a potent reminder of the cost of discipleship:  if you're living your faith correctly, you're likely on a collision course with earthly powers.

The monks weren't martyred because they were Christian; they were kidnapped because they were perceived to have value.  The movie shows that they were taken hostage in the hopes that they could be exchanged for political prisoners.  The circumstances surrounding their death remain mysterious.

Their Christian faith and their monastic vows keep them rooted in place and in danger.  It's interesting to watch the monks wrestle with their commitment to stay put.  At first, some of them would like to leave, but they don't.  By the end, they've all decided that staying in place is the right thing to do, even though they face increasing danger.

We see the monks as real men, not as spiritual superheroes, which is sometimes the way that monks are portrayed in popular culture.  They don't want to die, and they're tempted by the safety that returning to France or going to another monastery in Africa would offer them.  Yet they know that the community needs them, and the poor Muslims in the surrounding community have no way to flee the terrorism that surrounds them.  By staying, the monks can mitigate some of that misery.

I found the end of the film profoundly moving.  A the monks march through the snow and the strangely beautiful, but desolate landscape, we hear the words of Christian, the thoughtful leader of the monastery, who reflects on the predicament of the monks, a predicament grim even before the monks were captured.  Christian reflects on the call to discipleship and the model given to us by Christ.

It made me, in my comfortable U.S. living room, feel a bit inauthentic, like I should go out immediately and become a missionary and volunteer to go to someplace truly dangerous.  Yet many theologians would tell me that I've missed the point of the movie.  My mission is not to go someplace where I will be martyred.  My mission, the mission of all Christians, is to be the light of Christ in a world that's dark for many reasons. 

The monks show us that there are many ways we can do this.  We can be a gentle presence in our workplaces.  Or maybe we could be a more forceful witness for Christ in our workplaces.  We can strive for balance between work, study, and worship.  We can pray.  We can rely on our communities for sustenance.  One lengthy scene near the end of the movie shows the monks welcoming an old friend who has brought them supplies and treats; together they enjoy a meal and two bottles of fabulous wine and classical music played at high volume.  In the last scene, as they trudge through the snow, we see those same monks holding each other up, literally, as they head towards death.

We are all trudging towards death.  Our spiritual lives can do so much more than prepare us for life after death; our spiritual lives should give us a taste of that Kingdom right here and now, as we transform our communities, so that everyone has a vision of the Good News that Christ declares:  that God has come to dwell with us, that Heaven is breaking into our normal lives, that we don't have to wait for death to commune with Christ.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Divine Spit, Human Saliva

Over at my creativity blog, I wrote this piece about how spending time with my 5 year old nephew reminds me that we live in an abundant world.  I wrote:

"I wish you could have seen my nephew's joy when a huge leaf washed up beside him as a wave swept in. He pounded on it, and said "A leaf!" as if he'd found true treasure.

But, of course, he had found true treasure. I know that I've spent the first part of this week at Lutheridge, studying the miracles of Jesus as art form so my perspective is different right now. The life of Jesus and many other spiritual leaders teaches us that we have everything we need, if we had eyes to see it. There are too many times in my life I forget this basic principle."

I will write a longer post about the miracles of Jesus within the next few days.  But one thing that leapt out at me during our study was that Jesus used the materials at hand.  Jesus didn't say, "Drat.  We've only got bread and fish.  I was hoping for some olives and a lamb."  Jesus took what he had and what the crowds had and transformed them.

I'm also intrigued by the earthiness of the miracles.  So much can be done with spit!  Several thousand years later, we might protest, "But Jesus had divine spit." 

I would counter that Jesus came to show us how to live our human lives as fully as possible.  He came to show us what a human life could really be, if only we would live expansively.

Madeleine L'Engle addresses this point more eloquently, in her book,  Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art: “God is always calling on us to do the impossible. It helps me to remember that anything Jesus did during his life here on earth is something we should be able to do, too” (page 19).

Let those words sink into your Saturday consciousness and think about how we'd live life if we had no excuses.  Anything Jesus did, you can do.  Yes, that would include raising the dead--and raising ourselves from death.

Most of us have trouble with the literal version of this idea.  So, think metaphorically.  What death do you need to release you?  What grave cloths are holding you back and making you stink?  How can you reject this death and embrace resurrection?