Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 4, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a

Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

Today's Gospel takes us to John, a fascinating character. In today's reading, we see him, clothed in his strange costume, eating locusts and wild honey. Other Gospels present him as the cousin of Christ. Who is this guy?

I find him fascinating for many reasons. Maybe I'm always intrigued by a prophet. This year, I'm thinking about John's place in the drama of Christ's life, and how he seems completely comfortable with his place.

In earlier years, I've wondered if it would be hard to be John, with his more famous cousin Jesus overshadowing him. This year, I notice that he has the perfect opportunity to upstage Jesus--people of the time period were desperate for a Messiah, and there were plenty of predators wandering around, trying to convince people that they were the Messiah. John had more legitimacy and a wider following than most of the other people with their wild claims.

But John knows who he is. And he fills out his full potential by preparing the way for Jesus. Not only does John know who he is, he knows who Jesus is. John knows for whom he waits and watches.

We might be wise to see John as a cautionary tale too. John is one of the earliest to know the true mission of Jesus (in some Gospel versions, perhaps he realizes the mission of Jesus before Jesus fully does). Notice that John's life is turned upside down.

Many people are shocked to discover that being a Christian doesn't protect them from hard times. Being a Christian doesn't mean that we won't suffer sickness, that we won't lose our jobs, that we won't lose almost everything we love. To be human means that we will suffer loss--and thinking people know in advance that we will suffer loss, which means that we suffer more than once.

But we have a God who has experienced the very same thing. Think of the life of Jesus, who had no place to lay his head and died by crucifixion.

The good news is that we have a God who fully understands all the ways in which we suffer--and wants to be with us anyway. We have a God who fully understands all the ways in which we will fail--and loves us fully anyway.

John reminds us of our Advent goal, which is to keep watch, to stay alert. Of course, our Advent goal should spill over into the rest of our life. It's easy to keep watch in December, when the rest of the world counts down to Christmas. It's harder to remember to watch for God in the middle of summer. That's why we need to develop daily spiritual practices that will keep us watchful.

John also reminds us that we are not the Messiah. It’s Christ’s role to save people. It’s tempting to think that we can save ourselves and each other. But we can’t. It’s comforting to say, “I am not the Messiah,” as John the Baptist does, in John 1:20. In our daily lives, we’re confronted with scores of problems that we can’t solve, from various national debt crises to meetings about missed numbers and opportunities to friends and family who make disastrous choices. We can only do so much. We are not the Christ for whom the world waits.

That phrase can keep us humble too. Many a powerful figure has been disgraced by forgetting that someone else is the Messiah.

These days, perhaps we have the opposite problem. Far from feeling powerful, we may feel oppressed by forces outside our control. But our scripture readings offer comfort. We have a larger salvation, even when our daily lives feel like a persecution. Christ came to claim us, the Holy Spirit stays with us, and the day will come when we will be reunited with the Divine. Watch and wait and work for "a new earth, where righteousness is at home" (2 Peter 3: 13).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Muppet "Godspell" and Other Gifts

My spouse and I have spent a lot of time in the car lately--it's been 6 weeks of lots of coming and going for us.  We're lucky in that we travel well together.  It's good to have company--and someone to share the driving.

As we drove to our Thanksgiving reunion, we listened to the soundtrack from Godspell, one of our favorites from way back.  I'm not sure how we came to start singing in the voice of different muppets, but we did.  And we were off, envisioning how we'd put on a production of Godspell with the muppets.

It felt a bit profane, but also thrilling to think about how many people might be won over by our production.  Of course, we forget that when Godspell came out, it seemed a bit profane--Jesus and the disciples as a bunch of clowns!

Later in our Thanksgiving travels, I was amused to hear an old college friend singing songs from Veggie Tales--and he has no children.  He explained, "It's just good music!"

There are many ways tell the Good News.  In this time of Advent, perhaps we should think about alternate strategies.

The time before Advent is also a time for thinking about giving gifts.  My post is up at Living Lutheran.  It gives advice about how to give gifts without sacrificing our core values.  Ah, to live an integrated life--a worthy goal indeed, but harder for many of us this time of year.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

2011 Advent Art Project #1: The Tropical Advent Wreath

I know that the Advent wreath tradition is to have evergreen/pine boughs--so I decided to play with the theme.  Each week, I may add additional tropical elements.  Although if later weeks are like this week, I may run into trouble.  My palm trees are not nearly as much in need of cutting back at this time of year as they are in the summer.

Here's the view from the top.  I kind of like the mix of palms, which I associate with Holy Week, with the Advent elements.  I was thinking strictly in terms of tropical greenery.  It wasn't until I was cutting that I said to myself, "I remember doing this prior to Easter for Palm Sunday."

It is the start of Advent, where we turn our eyes to the manger--and to the end of the story, in so many ways.  Ah, Advent, with its apocalyptic texts, its watching and waiting.  Light the first candle and contemplate!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

Today, as many of us jump into the Christmas shopping frenzy, I thought it would be a good time to post a photo essay to help guide us back to the reason why those of us who are Christians celebrate this holiday.

And as we look to the creche, we should always also keep our eyes to the cross.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving: A Good Day to Plan for Advent

Today in the U.S., we celebrate Thanksgiving.  Many of us will spend the day cooking, eating, and resting in a variety of ways.  For today, many stores are closed.  That will all change tomorrow, early in the morning.

We're about to plunge into the Christmas season. Today is a good time to plan for how we're going to have a meaningful Advent, how we're going to resist the consumerist, capitalist madness of a whirlwind that tends to sweep us all along.

Let's strategize. How can we avoid a hectic season? How can we invite more contemplation and quiet into December?

--Make a budget now. Just hours from now, the Christmas shopping season begins for those of us brave enough to go into stores. Before you go, make sure you know how much you can spend. It's easy to get caught up in the shrill cycle of good deals and fierce desires. Don't buy so much that you'll still be paying off those credit cards in July. Nothing is worth that.

--Instead of buying stuff, buy experiences. Most of us have too much stuff. Why not give someone a meal out or a movie? Give the gift of your time.

--Instead of buying stuff, donate to charities. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy just about everything I need (and my needs are fairly simple). I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way.

--Plan your social calendar now. And keep it simple. Choose only one or two events per week-end. Declare that you won't go out on school nights. You can't do everything, and you'll only feel irritable if you try. What's most important to you and the ones you love?

--Purge the traditions that have ceased to have meaning. This one is tough. For example, I often find myself bored and irritable as I sit through The Nutcracker. I always think I'll love that ballet, probably because I loved it as a child. I don't love it as an adult. Why spend the money and time? Of course, if everyone else in the family adored it and wanted to go, it might be worth it. But now is a good time to have a frank discussion, before we're caught up in the sentimental sweep of December.

--Streamline some of the traditions. Do you really need to bake every kind of cookie that you remember from past holidays? Maybe you and your friends could have a cookie swap. Or get together to bake cookies together. Have a wonderful afternoon of cookie dough and wine and leave with enough cookies to get you through the holiday. For years, I did a cookie bake/swap with friends, which grew into a dinner swap, which we'd still be doing today, if I hadn't moved 700 miles away. Consider other ways to make the holiday meals simpler. Maybe this is the year to simplify the holiday card tradition. Ask yourself which church events mean something to you and which you're attending because you always have.

--Take time to help the needy, and bring your children along. Some of my favorite holiday memories involve helping others. My Girl Scout troop used to go carolling at nursing homes. The church of my adolescence assembled gift baskets for homeless women. The words of Isaiah are knitted into every fiber of my being: "learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1: 17). My parents, along with social institutions like church and school, modeled the good behavior of working for social justice. It's stuck with me. Advent is a great time to train the next generation in the habits of social justice and charitable work.

--Maybe today, as we cook and clean up, we can think about how we'll have some meditative time during the upcoming season of Advent.  Will we have an Advent wreath?  Will we start the day with a devotional time?  Will we listen to sacred music during our commute time?

It's important to remember that even with all the best plans, we may find ourselves overscheduled and cranky.  Plan now to forgive yourself for those times.  Plan now for how you'll get back on track.  Plan now to get yourself back to the waiting and watching state that should be our Advent mindset.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 27, 2011:

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 NRSV)
Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. (Ps. 80:7)
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

First of all, happy New Year! For those of us observing liturgical years, this Sunday marks the start of a new liturgical year. This year, many of the Gospel readings come from Mark, believed to be the first of the Gospels written (about 70 years after the death of Jesus).

Advent is a time that stresses that the liturgical year exists often in stark contrast to the calendar year. Stores have been decorated for Christmas for months, and we're only just beginning (the strictest liturgical traditions don't decorate for Christmas until after the last Sunday in Advent--that's much closer to Christmas than most of us would like). Worship planners field many complaints about not singing Christmas carols before Christmas Eve--and yet, we're observing Advent, not Christmas, so technically, Christmas carols aren't appropriate.

The readings for Advent will often seem jarringly out of place with the festive atmosphere one encounters in the secular world. Look at the Gospel for today. What an apocalyptic tone! Stars falling from the heavens and such tribulations as haven't been seen since the beginning of creation. This end times language is how we count down to Christmas?

Yet in many ways, this apocalyptic tone is appropriate. Watch and Wait. That seems to be one of the lessons for the day. Look at how many times the word Watch is repeated in the Gospel. Like a pregnant woman, like Mary, the people of God keep watch for God's presence in the world while we create new life on earth (with God's help). Perhaps we should take a cue from the Gospel and carve some time for meditation during this busy holiday season. We get so caught up in the frenzy and the festivity that it's easy to lose our focus on what the season should mean to us. Watch and Wait. Light a new candle each week as we watch for the Messiah.

Of course, the Messiah has already come--our salvation is assured. The idea of the end being contained in the beginning is part of our Advent readings as well. We hear the story of the preparations for Jesus' birth with readings that are often interpreted as prophecy about a Messiah (found in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah) along with Bible readings that remind us that Christ will come again.

Christ is coming (as he has come before, as he is present with us now)--are you ready? Take some moments this season--quit buying Christmas presents, quit cooking, quit racing from party to open house to family reunion. Listen to the voice crying in the wilderness. Think about the promises that God has made to us, the commitments God asks from us. How can you prepare? For the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Poetry Tuesday: Family Farm Heritage

Perhaps I should post a more spiritual poem.  This blog is my theology blog after all.  I should write a poem about gratitude and God and great feasts.

But Thanksgiving suggests a different kind of spiritual heritage to me.  For many years, we went back to my grandfather's homeplace, where his relatives were still farming on a small scale.  We ate a turkey that had been scratching in the yard very recently.  We ate vegetables grown in the fields outside the door.  We talked about our ancestors.

I learned about my great grandmother who was picking beans when she had a heart attack.  She made the men wait to take her to the hospital until she could change into clean underwear.

Of course, I learned more than just funny stories.  I learned about how people survived hard times and how they celebrated bounty.  I learned about a quiet spirituality (of a Lutheran variety) that formed the backbone of my family.  I learned about tables that were full of enough food to share with the family members who didn't have as much to contribute--for many starving student years, my husband and I would go to the feast with a meager loaf of pumpkin bread, and we'd leave with enough food for a week--and a Christmas tree cut from the fields!

So, here's a poem that celebrates that heritage.  It was first published a year ago in Big Muddy.

Thanks Giving

Finally, I am with my own kinsfolk.
I do not feel a freak of nature anymore.
Here beneath this hook
where my great grandfather butchered hogs and deer,
I stare into faces familiar to me.
My future face.

I have the strong, solid body
which doesn’t belong to this age
of computers and office politics.
I was meant to be up at half a crack of dawn,
fixing a huge breakfast
before I plowed a field and put an addition on the house.
All in a day’s work.

The strength of my people lies
buried in my bones and brain,
a genetic code impossible
to diet or exercise away.
My hips would balance a baby
while I shaped bread dough and slaughtered chickens,
if only I would comply.

But I’ll submit to my genetic destiny on some level.
I will always awaken before sunrise,
always keep an eye to the sky,
track the weather like a second religion.
I’ll cook enough food for a small third world country
and share my good fortune with others.
I’ll tell the family stories
about strong women
with indomitable wills.

Monday, November 21, 2011

God of the Mountains, God of the NICU: Alathea Sings!

Last night, we went to see the folk duo Alathea at our church.  They sing a fairly even mix of Christian themed music and music that's more secular.  Most of the works they've written themselves, and they play a wide variety of instruments.

In between, they tell great stories.  I loved hearing about the two young women sitting in the NICU, singing to the child who had arrived 6 weeks early.  We heard about the huge windows that look out on the Appalachian mountains.  We heard about the young woman realizing that our God of grand mountains is also the God of the ICU.  Well said!

I love that they sing their own music, but they can launch into Johnny Cash if the need arises.  They told a story of spending 12 hours in a German nursing home as they led groups of youth in singing to the residents.  One elderly German man looked at them and said, "Smoky mountains."  The group nodded.  The man said, "Johnny Cash!"  And the group launched into "Ring of Fire."  They sang it for us too.  They invited us to sing along.  Some of us did.

They also sang some Christmas songs, which fit well with the baby in the NICU theme:  our God of majesty comes to be with us.  We are not alone any more!  How I love Advent and Christmas.

I love that they've managed to make their living by singing and witnessing this way--for 12 years, no less!  I love that they see their work as a ministry.  They tour the country and do a lot of work with youth.  Hurrah!

If you want to find out more about them, their website is here--but be warned, it launches with song, so if you're at work or in the library, you might want to mute your speakers first.  We have all of their CDs, and we love them all.  If they ever sing near you, make the effort to go--they're great!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Atheists Missing Advent

My atheist friend finds herself yearning for Advent.

I could just leave that statement there.  We could celebrate the strange movements of the Holy Spirit.  But I want to explore a bit further.

My friend is German, and she pulled out some German books.  Even though I speak no German, the pictures were enough to let me know what tugged at her heartstrings:  cookies, decorations, candles--oh yes.

Her Advent childhood wasn't much different than my Advent childhood.  We both had Advent calendars, with windows that we opened each day.  We had Advent wreaths.  We baked all kinds of cookies.

My atheist friend is planning an Advent craft day on Dec. 3.  We will create some of the creations of her childhood.  My Wiccan friend will bring sugar cookies.  My Hindu friend will play along.  She's lived in this country long enough to understand the pull that Christmas has on us--plus, her German grandmother immigrated to India, so she has some connections to this holiday too.

So, is it the Holy Spirit at work?  Or do we get to a certain age and succumb to nostalgia?

For those of you who drag your children to church and force your families to celebrate in certain ways, if you wonder if it's worth it, if you wonder if it will all pay off, I'd have to say yes, based on the experiences I've had with my non-believer friends.

My atheist friend says, "Don't read too much into this.  I'm just using Advent as an excuse."

I say, "I know.  You're using Advent as an excuse to celebrate Advent."

I'm not pushing the issue too much.  I know that we can celebrate Christmas with absolutely no religious intent.  In fact, I know that even the most spiritual people can get lost in the commercialism of Christmas.  I've always been an advocate for the healthy things that bring us joy--and Advent traditions do that for many of us.

A week from today, Advent begins.  How will you celebrate?  How will you stay centered?

Friday, November 18, 2011

"Flunking Sainthood": Who Can't Relate?

During my recent trip to Mepkin Abbey, I realized I hadn’t packed well in terms of books. While I had brought some great novels, I found myself with a craving to read something more spiritual. How had I got to Mepkin Abbey without Kathleen Norris or Thomas Merton in my bags?

Happily, Mepkin Abbey has a great gift shop with a marvelous selection of books. I decided to splurge on a book purchase, even though I know I could get that same book for a cheaper price on Amazon. I’ll happily let Mepkin Abbey keep those profits.

I also decided to buy because I have time to read at Mepkin Abbey, unlike during other times of my life. I chose Jana Riess’ Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor. I had read a good review, and it looked like something I would enjoy.

It’s a delightful book, although if you want something dense and chewy for your brain, you might want to go back to that Thomas Merton. Jana Reiss zips through religious practice after religious practice, without ever really mastering any of them.

Her book is structured in much the same way as Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Each month, Reiss chooses a different religious practice to try. She also reads at least one book about the practice.

So, for example, in September, she explores the practice of hospitality. She tells us about her experience dropping in on her mother’s cousin David, a Benedictine monk, with very little notice. She talks about how generous he was: “Before I hung up the phone, David had made me feel like he had woken up that morning just hoping against hope that a ragtag band of loosely confederated idiots would descend on his monastery that very day, and he simply couldn’t wait to show them around” (114). She reads the Rule of Benedict. She contemplates pet sitting and Facebook in terms of hospitality. She realizes that “making guests feel welcome is about allowing them to be who they are, not who you want them to be” (125).

She sprinkles each chapter with great quotes, and she includes a section of notes that explain some of the quotes and that gives a reader who wants more information on the practice some additional resources. The book gave me enough information so that I felt fed, but not so much that my brain hurt.

What I really liked was her sense of humor. But it’s not a nasty sense of humor. It has a piercing insight to deliver, even as I’m laughing. For example, she says, “We believe we fall short and need to repent, but we don’t dwell heavily on the idea that we are born sinners. That’s even more true in American culture, where the only time we’re likely to hear the word sin is in a sentence about a particularly rich chocolate cake” (pp. 150-151).

I also appreciated that as she tried each practice and failed, she kept going and trying. At the end of the book, she realizes that most of these practices would have needed more than a month to take root, and more time for her to practice. She also realizes the value of attempting these practices within a community, rather than by her solitary self.

It’s a quick read, but a satisfying read. It’s relatively short, at 171 pages, which I value these days—it means I’m going to actually finish the book.

Here are some more quotes:

--“In a brilliant book about the theology of housekeeping, Margaret Kim Peterson says that it’s precisely the never-ending nature of household tasks such as cooking that makes them ‘so akin to the providential work of God’” (p. 30).

--“In Jesus, God is cleaning his house” (p. 31).

--“The problem isn’t shopping. The secret problem is coveting” (p. 61).

--“Christians absolutely can be thankful and unhappy at the same time. In fact, we ought to be because this world is not as God intended it. When we are in despair about a child getting leukemia, God is right there beside us feeling righteously pissed” (p. 110).

--“I do know one thing: the world would change tremendously if more Christians would tithe” (p. 161).

--“It occurred to me as I dropped everything to be at my father’s bedside that when we truly keep the Sabbath, God can mold us into the kind of people who don’t make an idol out of work, which is a particular temptation for me and perhaps a lot of other Americans” (p. 170).

--“And if I did it all again, I would try to stop practicing charity from a distance. One of my greatest failures this year was my careful refusal to get involved” (p. 170).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011:

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Psalm: Psalm 95:1-7a

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 100

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

This week, the liturgical year comes to a close with Christ the King Sunday. In some churches, this will be a high festival day that celebrates the power of Christ. But the Gospel reading makes it clear that Kingdom power is not the same as worldly power.

We might expect a Gospel reading that reminds us that Jesus transcended death. We might get a Gospel reading that tries to scare us with a vision of Christ at the next Coming, descending in glory to judge us. Well, in a way, we do.

But the vision we get is not the one that we might expect. We might expect to be judged and found wanting because of what we've been told are sins: our drinking, our gambling, our loose sexuality. We might expect to be judged for all the Sundays we decided we'd prefer sleep to church. We might expect to be judged because we've been lazy and we didn't go for that promotion at work.

This Gospel reminds us of how God will judge us. Did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned? Then we have been attending to our royal tasks.

And why do we do this? The Bible is full of stories of the Divine showing up in circumstances where we wouldn't expect to find God. The Bible tells us that God prefers to hang out with the poor and the marginalized. If we want to find God, we need to go there. We have a history of thousands of years of Christians whose lives support what the Bible tells us--we will find God in the meekest of places. Next week, we celebrate Advent, where we remember one of our central Christian stories: God comes to be with us two thousand years ago, but not in the power center of Rome. No, God comes to us in one of the outposts of Roman civilizations and God lives with one of the groups of people that the worldly, dominant power structure of the time despised.

This Gospel also reminds us that we are to see God in everyone. It's easy for me to see God in the eyes of my husband as he looks at me lovingly. It's harder for me to see my difficult coworker as Jesus incarnate. In any given day, we are besieged by people who aggravate us, from our family members to our colleagues to strangers who drive the road with us (or shop in the same stores or send their children to the same schools). By forcing myself to treat everyone as Jesus-in-Disguise, I will transform myself into the Christian that I want to be.

Jesus was the model, after all. Jesus had dinner with the outcast. Jesus treated everyone with love and respect, even people who were out to sabotage him. I could let myself off the hook by saying, "Well, yeah, he was God incarnate. I could do that too, if I was God incarnate."

No, you can do it, because Jesus did it. Jesus came to show us the full potential of a human life. Jesus came to dwell among us and to show us a better way to live. It's not the way the world tells us to live. The world would scoff at a king who sought out the poor and dispossessed, who sold his possessions so that he would have more money for the poor.

But Christians know that our power lies in our compassion. We don't achieve compassion by sitting in our homes, working on being more compassionate. We become more compassionate in the same way that God did, by getting involved in the world.

And we're not doing this for some after-death reward, although many preachers will use this Gospel to lecture on that. We do this because God has invited us to be part of the redemption of creation--not in some far away time, but in our very own. We don't have to wait for Jesus to come again. When we model Jesus in our everyday behavior, Christ re-enters the world.

We're not here to make money, to have a good retirement, to accumulate stuff. God has a greater purpose for us, one that will leave us infinitely more satisfied.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Safe Space Documents and National Scandals

Our church has been working on updating our Safe Space document since summer.  We switched insurers, and they wanted to see a safe space document.  We looked at what we had on file.  It would not do.  The last time we had created one, we addressed things like standing on ladders.

How the world has changed!  Actually, to be more accurate, the world hasn't changed, but we've become more aware of the dangers and tried to talk about them more.

I worked on the Safe Space document this summer (for more on that process, see this post)--not exactly how I envisioned using my writing skills, but still, I'm glad to be of use.  We sent it to our denomination's specialist in these matters and tweaked it a bit.

Last night was the Council meeting where we needed to approve the document.  I expected that it might be harder than it was.  But in the face of the grim national news about the predatory coach in Pennsylvania, who can argue that we're overreacting?

We like to think that we'd report anything that we see that's off or wrong.  But history reminds us again and again that we won't.  Most of us won't.  David Brooks wrote about that issue eloquently here, explaining all the reasons why we might not report crimes that we witness.  He says, "In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties."

Will a safe space document change the tendency of humans not to intervene?  We hope so.  The stakes are very high.

I thought of this blog post, which reminds us "What was really telling was the information that pedophile networks (you know there are such things, where they advise each other how to find and groom victims) are advising one another to go to church. Not to find Jesus. To find little boys and girls."

Should anything inappropriate ever happen to a child at our church, we will not keep the investigation in-house.  No.  We will call the police, who, after all, have been trained in this work.

We all worry about false accusations.  But the police and social workers are trained to investigate and determine the truth.  As a church, our focus must be on keeping children safe 

How I wish we lived in a world where people didn't prey on little children.  How I hope that documents like the one we approved make that world closer to reality. I know that churches of my childhood never considered that abuse could occur, and that left a lot of us vulnerable. I'm lucky in that I never experienced abuse at church--but I can't close my eyes to all the people who did.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Artistic Advent Enrichment

It's hard to believe that the end of the liturgical year approaches.  This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, which means that Advent is just around the corner.  I plan to do some sort of art project for each week in Advent, from something as simple as assembling a tropical Advent wreath, to making a creche out of wine corks, to making holiday breads.  I'll post pictures and updates, so that you can feel inspired too.

If you're looking for a disciplined approach and a guide to walk you through each practice and to help you make the connections between spirituality and art, allow me to recommend Christine Valters Paintner's latest book, The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom. Much like Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, Paintner's book is set up as a 12 week intensive immersion into techniques and practices that will make us better artists and deepen our spiritual experiences.

You might be saying "Twelve weeks?  Isn't Advent 4 weeks?"

Yes, it is.  So this book could take you beyond the Advent season--or you could choose 4 chapters which sound most interesting and do those activities for the week.

Paintner's book finds inspiration from monastic practices. Paintner is not the first person who has noticed the similarity between artists and monks, but her insights bear repeating. Both groups work in fields that aren't always honored by the larger community. Both groups are largely misunderstood by the larger community. Both groups engage in practices that aren't always understood. Both groups have to practice some sort of contemplation to do what they do. Both groups have to establish boundaries. In many cases, both groups experience a sense of awe and wonder on a more regular basis than members of the regular world will experience.

Paintner's book is a wonderful introduction to monasticism. It's also a wonderful introduction to a variety of practices that can be used in a number of ways. She has her readers make wisdom cards and arts altars. She has her readers experiment with movement in a variety of ways. She offers guided meditations. She suggests that readers play with poetic forms and fairy tales. The book includes poems, Bible verses, and quotes, and Paintner encourages the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, close reading which allows readers to uncover wisdom.

Her writing style is accessible, even for those of us who have never given monasticism much thought. When she offers activities for readers to do, her tone encourages novices and experts alike. Each chapter gives a wide variety of possible approaches, and most of them sound intriguing. I was first introduced to Paintner's approach to life and her writing style at her comprehensive website, and this book doesn't disappoint.

So, buy this book--either for yourself or for the artist or monastic on your gift list.  If we're close to Advent, we're close to the Christmas shopping season.  Plan now, for a sane approach.  Books are a gift that can keep on giving, especially books that are set up so that readers will be interacting with them for weeks to come.

And remember, you deserve these kind of books too!

Monday, November 14, 2011

God's Economy: No Fear!

It must be tough to prepare a sermon on the parable of the talents in our current climate.  Our pastor began his sermon by saying, "The last few years have plucked at our tail feathers of risk taking."

He reminded us that the 5 talents would represent 75 years of earning.  yet he went on to say that this parable is not an economic one, at least not the way stewardship campaigns would approach it.

He quoted Kelly Fryer, who says in Baptism, we all get a job to do, that our job is to determine our vocation and where it fits with the work that needs to be done in the world.

I'm uncomfortable with the ending of the parable, especially when it comes to seeing the master as God.  I do agree with my pastor, who reminds us that in God's economy, there is no room for fear.  I'm also aware of the apocalyptic nature of these parables, with their tales of watching and waiting and being cast into darkness. 

I'm also aware that this Gospel wasn't written as Jesus was living it.  It was written many decades later, when faithful Christians had been expecting the return of Jesus and were likely getting impatient.  These parables of missing men in charge must have resonated.

I'm grateful to Kathleen Kirk's blog post, which directed me to this blog post which has many interesting viewpoints and quotes from others.  She quotes Alyce McKenzie:  "The Faithful and the Unfaithful Servants (24:45-51), The Ten Bridesmaids (25:1-13), and The Talents (25:14-30) have common features: a powerful figure goes away for a period of time and in his absence people act in two contrasting ways. When he returns, he responds positively to the ones who did well and he judges those who did not. The first parable concerns slaves whose master is delayed. The second concerns bridesmaids when a bridegroom is delayed. This morning’s parable of the talents concerns slaves whose master went on a journey for a long time. The first parable ends just as we would expect – the slave who had gotten drunk and beaten the other slaves was punished. The next two parables, though, feature five bridesmaids and a slave who are judged and condemned, not for acting badly, but for failing to act. They are rebuked and punished for their passivity."

She also quotes Caspar Green's blog:  "The sign that the kingdom is near is the simultaneous widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the narrowing of options to the two end states of complicity in inhumanity on one hand, or misery and fear on the other. At that point, where people have been reduced to the point of having nothing to lose, a third option becomes thinkable: leaving the old social, political, and economic system altogether and letting the cards fall where they may. And that is exactly what Jesus was contemplating on the Mount of Olives. Two days later, he’d be crucified. A generation later, the temple would lie in ruins. Who knows what empire may fall tomorrow.”

Ah, to leave the old social, political, and economic systems altogether!  Now that's a compelling vision!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

In an Age of Science, Why Have a Religious or Spiritual Practice?

Last night, at the house of good friends who happen to be lapsed Catholics (and one is a devout atheist), the talk turned to religion and why go to church.  In a world where science explains so much, why bother?

It began as a simple question:  as educated people, how do we view the Bible?

Not a simple answer, of course.  My spouse talked about how he viewed the Bible in the tradition of wisdom literature.  I talked about my approach to the Bible as a poet, which means I don't take it literally.  I've had this argument with many people, as we talk about what the Gospels teach us.  Those books weren't written to be a historical record of the life of Jesus.  So therefore, do I believe in the Christmas story that I find there (or, to be accurate, the 2 or 3 stories I find there?).  No.

So, why read the Bible?  I tried to explain that I read the Bible so that I can find strength for the task of resisting the values that our larger culture of Empire would like me to have.

My atheist friend had lost patience at that point.  She reverted to the argument that she often does when we have these conversations.  She claims that she doesn't need religion to lead a moral life.  She doesn't kill people--but not because some church tells her not to do so.

I brought up my argument that living an ethical life is far trickier than not killing people.  We talked about how hard it is to live a life that is truly integrated, how hard it is to make sure that we're really living in accordance with our values.

Today, I'm thinking of all the other reasons why a spiritual life, why a disciplined practice (ideally daily), is so important.  Today I'm thinking of everything I forgot to say.

I did talk about the moral message of the Bible as not caught up in sexual politics or in the murder/not murder question that most people think of when they think of the morality of the Bible.  I talked about economic justice, the fact that there are about 12 Bible passages that address sex and over 2000 Bible passages that address economic inequality.  And that social justice element is important to me.

But a relationship with the Creator does so much more.  I like to think that I'm more appreciative of the beauty of the world around me because of my religious practices.  I try to remember to say, "Great show, God!"  or "Wow!  Cool creation!"

I also try to foster gratitude in similar ways.

I never had a chance to talk about this, but my atheist friend has talked about her fear of poverty.  I just don't share her fear.  I would prefer not to be poor, but my Scriptures teach me that God hangs out with the poor more than with the rich.  I think that too much money is spiritually dangerous.  It teaches us to rely on ourselves, not God.

My spouse also talked a bit about the comfort factor of our religious faith, but it's not comfort in the traditional way, the when we die we go to Heaven where we see our loved ones and our favorite dog kind of comfort.  It's the comfort of knowing that the world isn't quite right, but God has a plan, and the restoration of Creation has begun.  We didn't go into that aspect too much.  It requires a lot of background and a lot of explanation for people like our friends who haven't really been to church since 1963 or so.

This morning, as I caught up on an old On Being show and this morning's episode, I thought of how much a contemplative practice can be a comfort.  Oh, to be able to quiet the mind at will!  I haven't met many people who can do that outside of some kind of spiritual practice--except, for maybe long distance runners, which I might argue are practicing a spiritual discipline during the longer runs.

Having just got back from Mepkin Abbey, I could have talked about the monks and about the importance of praying for the world.  But the hour was growing late, and I didn't want to go down that road.  Once upon a time, I'd have sneered at the idea that prayer was important.  I'd have told people to get out there and feed the poor.  Now, I think that praying for the oppressed can be just as important--perhaps even more.

My friend whom I meet at Mepkin Abbey every year says that she would go to church even if she no longer believed because it helps her feel a vital connection to her ancestors.  My friend is African-American and Episcopalian, so she's got an interesting perspective.  She says that her experience of church is akin to Asian ancestor worship, where she can actually feel the spirits of her ancestors in church the way that she doesn't anywhere else.

I feel that connection too, although I'm not sure that I feel actual spirits.  But that discipline connects me to past generations, both those related to me by blood and not.  I love knowing that I'm singing some of the same hymns that my grandparents did.  I love saying the creeds that centuries of Christians have recited, even though I understand them differently than a medieval Christian would.

I could go on and on about the reasons why my faith is important to me.  It's impossible for me to answer concisely, and I always feel frustration later that I've left out so much.  I also feel frustration that I'm unable to really explain it in a way that makes sense to non-believers. 

Maybe I should take a lesson from my more mystical brothers and sisters.  Some elements of life can't be explained neatly.  I'm comfortable living in the mystery, even if I can't explain why I am to anyone's satisfaction.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

"And With Our Brothers, Who Are Away"

On my first visit to a monastery, I attended every service except for the ones at 3:10 a.m.  I loved the way that the Psalms and the rhythms settled into my brain, pulsed through my blood, seeped into my very bones.  I noticed that we prayed for God's help and protection to be with us, and "with our brothers, who are away."

It took me a few prayers to notice that pattern, and a bit of time to figure out what the language meant.  I thought at first we prayed for travelling monks, and that may be the case.  Monks do need to go out into the world, to do something simple, like grocery shopping, or to for more complex reasons, like travelling to meet with a book publisher, for example.

There are also darker reasons why a monk can't be in the chapel praying with the others:  sickness and death.

I love the idea of a community that extends beyond the group that's gathered.  It's an idea that speaks to us as human mammals on a deep level.

I was reminded of that longing the other night, when we took dinner to First Lutheran to feed the group that gathers there, predominantly homeless and predominantly male.  I'm often the one who prays as we gather.  It's a prayer to bless the food and to ask for safety as we head back out into the night.

About a year ago, one of the men asked me if I would please pray for the people who couldn't be there with us.  Of course I was happy to do so.  And I continue to be grateful for that request.  It's good to pray for those who can't be with us, for whatever reason.

So, today I'll pray for all of us, that God be with my brothers and sisters, who are away.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Armistice Day: How Should Christians Celebrate?

Many of you may be saying, "Armistice Day?  I thought it was Veteran's Day?"

Yes, here in America, that's what we're celebrating today.  But before it was Veteran's Day, it was Armistice Day, the day that celebrated the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I.  In some ways, it's not a hard holiday to celebrate.  Any event that restores peace in our time is worth some sober meditation.

However, those of us who know our history may be chastened by the knowledge of what was to come.  The end of World War I planted the seeds that would blossom into World War II.  World War I brought carnage on a level never before seen--but World War II would be even worse.

Why is it so hard for humans to remain at peace?  There are whole series of books that address this question, so I won't attempt it here.  Still, today is a good day to offer extra prayers for sustained peace in our time.  World War I offers us vivid examples of the horrible consequences of the lack of peace.

Armistice Day is also a good day to offer prayers of thanks for the military people who have been willing to fight.  I want desperately to be a pacifist, but I will admit that sometimes tyrants must be dealt with forcefully.    My pessimistic side believes that violence is the only language that tyrants understand, but the 20th century has given us many examples of the peaceful overturning of despots, so I don't fully believe my pessimistic side.  Still, we often don't use the forces of non-violence in enough time, and so, force may be our only option (witness the example of Hitler).

A few years ago, I was at Mepkin Abbey on Armistice Day.  It also happened to be near All Saints Sunday, the first All Saints Day after Abbot Francis Kline had been cruelly taken early by leukemia, and the Sunday we were there was a memorial service for him. Part of one of the services was out in the monks' cemetery, and all the retreatents were invited out with the monks. I was struck by the way that the simple crosses reminded me of the French World War I cemeteries:

I took the above picture from the visitor side of the grounds, but it gives you a sense of the burial area. I turned all these images in my head and wrote a poem, "Armistice Day at the Abbey." It ends this way, by pondering the graves of monks and the role of monks:

Their graves, as unadorned as their robes,
stretch out in rows of white crosses, reminiscent
of a distant French field. We might ponder
the futility of belief in a new covenant,
when all around us old enemies clash,
or we might show up for prayer, light
a candle, and simply submit.

Here's a prayer I wrote for this Armistice Day:

God of Peace, on this Armistice Day, please renew in us the determination to be peacemakers.  On this day, we pray for all who are damaged by wars big and small.  We offer a prayer of thanks for our veterans, and we offer a prayer of hope that military people across the world will find themselves with no warmaking jobs to do.  We offer our pleading prayers that you would plant in our leaders the seeds that will sprout into saplings of peace.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Happy Birthday Martin Luther!

Today is Martin Luther's birthday.  I've written before about the Reformation and what it means to me--and Western civilization.  Would we have had a Reformation without Martin Luther?  Yes, certainly.  But I could make the argument that we'd have ended up in a completely different landscape without him.

At the turn of the millennium, I remember reading many essays about which historic figure had done the most to launch us into modern life, and Martin Luther made the list.  Einstein eventually won Time magazine's Human of the Millennium designation, as I recall.  But we could posit that there would have been no Einstein without Luther.

Maybe that's a stretch, but still, how long would it have taken for mass literacy to have taken off without Luther?  Luther translated the Bible into the language of ordinary people--which infused ordinary people with a fierce desire to be able to read it.

Sure, argue that the printing press fostered literacy--you'd be right.  And you could make the argument that we'd have had no Luther without the printing press.  With no printing press, Luther's words would not have found the wide audience that they did as quickly as they did.

I know that Luther has some awful traits, like his beliefs about the Jews.  Of course, he was like many Catholics of his day.  Does that excuse him?  I'm torn about this, to be frank.  As an English major, I've had to deal with the fact that most of the writers who produced work that I loved also happened to have beliefs that I've found reprehensible.  But should I reject the work of  William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge because they allowed/expected Dorothy Wordsworth to transcribe their poems?  For years, I did.  But then I read more, and realized that Dorothy took great joy in their literary community.  It seemed unfair to castigate William and Samuel for their lack of modern feminist sensibilities.

Even as a Lutheran, I find some of Luther's writing to be a bit much.  His concept of grace very much hinges on his dim view of humanity and our sinfulness.  It can be hard for a 21st century sensibility to accept.

And yet, he's different from most pre-19th century theologians.  Think about Calvin, for example, with his view of pre-destination.  And think about the medieval theologians with their anti-woman, anti-flesh, anti-pleasure views.

Here's a quote from Luther, courtesy of The Writer's Almanac:  "Be strong and cheerful and cast out these monstrous thoughts. Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: 'Do not drink,' answer him: 'I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.' One must always do what Satan forbids. What other cause do you think that I have for drinking so much strong drink, talking so freely and making merry so often, except that I wish to mock and harass the devil who is wont to mock and harass me."

I also value that Luther valued women, unlike so many thinkers of his day.  His marriage to an ex-nun, Katherina Von Bora was by all accounts happy, and he treated her well as they raised their 6 children and gardened and made music.  There are many denominations of Christianity where I could never feel at ease because of their negative beliefs about women; happily, I've rarely felt that negativity in the Lutheran tradition, the ELCA, which I must rush to remind readers is the liberal branch of the Lutheran tree.  In the more conservative branches, I might not feel that way.

The Catholic church will never canonize Luther.  In fact, I'm told that in Rome, there's a statue of Martin Luther in the arms of Satan.  But if I was in charge of the process, I'd nominate Luther.

I know that candidates for sainthood need to have performed a miracle, and the Catholic church would see miracles differently than I do.  For me, the fact that Martin Luther could take such a strong stand and not back down ("Here I stand; I can do no other") and still survive the full wrath of Rome--that's miracle enough for me.  With the smidge of translating that I've done in my life, I give miracle credit to Luther's task of translating the Bible from Latin into German.

What would be a good way to celebrate this feast day?  With good beer, of course!  And probably some hearty sausages.  And more beer.  I wish I liked beer.

And we should probably do some singing.  Maybe write some songs.  If we don't have musical training, we can do what Luther did:  take popular music (Luther used drinking songs) and craft theological lyrics.

Or maybe we should celebrate more simply, but more profoundly:  we can read the Bible in our own language and say a prayer of thanks for Martin Luther, who realized the importance of being able to do that.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 13, 2011:

First Reading: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Judges 4:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 123

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

This week's Gospel gives us the parable of the talents. One servant turns his 5 talents into 10, one turns his 2 talents into 4, and the servant who buries his one talent in the yard doesn't create any new capital. It's easy when reading this Gospel to focus on the word "talent." It's natural to think of our own talents, to wonder how we're investing them, and how we're wasting them by burying them in the yard.

The parable makes it clear what will happen to people who bury their talents. Now, I know that many of us are blessed with a multitude of talents. We do have to make judicious choices about which talents are worth cultivating. I hope that we won't be the servant cast into worthless darkness because we pay attention to one set of skills over another.

But let's look at that parable again. Let's look at that word, "talent," again. Read the parable substituting the word gold blocks for talent.

It's worth noting that a quantity of 5 talents, according to my Bible footnote (and my Bible is published by Oxford University Press, so I trust the footnote), is worth 15 years of wages of this laborer. In an article from The Christian Century, James Howell, a Methodist minister, points out that the servant who got just one talent would be receiving more money than most of us get in a lifetime of work: "This amount would stagger any recipient and send him into utterly uncharted territory. A Mediterranean laborer wouldn't have any more of a clue about how to invest five talent than the guy who bags my groceries would about $74 million (even if I and all my friends tried to advise him)."

As I read this week's Gospel again, I forced myself to think about the fact that this parable really is about money. It's not instructing me to return to the piano keyboard at the expense of the computer keyboard. And it's an unusually Capitalist message from Christ. I'm used to the Jesus who tells us to give our money away. I'm not used to the savior who encourages us to make wise investments of our money.

I'm not used to thinking of money management as a talent. But this parable makes clear that it is. Jesus makes clear that money is one of the gifts we're given, and the verses that follow (31-46, ones that aren't part of this week's Gospel) show that Christ is not straying from his essential message. The verses that follow talk about treating the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner as if those people are Christ incarnate. God has a vision for how we'll use that gift of money.

The servant who was cast into out darkness was cast out because the talent went to waste buried in the ground. How would he have been treated if he had given the money away to the poor, the sick, the stranger? I suspect he would NOT have been cast into outer darkness.

Our collapsing Capitalist paradigm often doesn't take community into account. Not making enough money in America, where workers have unreasonable demands like a living wage and safe working conditions? Just move your industry to a country that has less oversight. Sure, you rip apart the social fabric, but at least you're making money.

God calls us to a different vision. Our God is always obsessed with the poor and dispossessed. And we're called to be part of that obsession.

Unfortunately, tough economic times mean that we'll find many opportunities for this aspect of Kingdom Living. With the holidays approaching, we might think about our customs. Maybe, instead of giving people who have lots of stuff even more stuff, we could donate to a charity in their name. In my family, the adults decided that instead of exchanging presents with each other, we would choose a different charity each year and donate to that charity. Maybe, instead of an endless whirl of parties, we might give some time to our local food pantries or soup kitchens. As we buy a book or two for our favorite children, we could buy a book or two for local reading programs or donate to RIF (Reading is Fundamental, the nation's largest child literacy organization).

The ways to help heal the world are endless, and God invites us to join in the creation project. We can donate money, time, skills, prayers, optimism, hope. Doing so is one of our most basic Christian tasks.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Even Monks Need Sabbath Time

I am back from Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery.  I tend to think of monastics as leading a life that hasn't changed over the centuries, at least in terms of schedule.  So, I was surprised to arrive on a "Desert Day," something new.

At Mepkin, the monks begin their day by getting up at 3 a.m. and going to their first worship service, Vigils, at 3:20 a.m.  It's the first of 8 services of varying lengths throughout the day.

On a Desert Day, the first Friday of every month, the monks can sleep late.  They don't have a service until the 7:30 a.m. Eucharist Mass.  The second and last service is a short Benediction service at 7:00 p.m.

The Abbot told us that they adopted a Desert Day routine because they needed more rest.  On a Desert Day, they try very hard to do no work of any kind.  It's a day to slow down and to do far less than they usually do.  He sounded a bit despairing about how busy they'd become at the monastery.

I said, "So even monks need Sabbath time." 

The Abbot smiled and nodded. 

At first I felt relieved that I'm not the only one who feels bound to a relentless schedule.  Later, I felt terribly sad.  As I told my spouse later, I tend to think of monks as leading the most balanced lives possible:  work, prayer/worship, and study. 

My spouse said, "None of which is rest."

As usual, my spouse went straight to the heart of the matter. 

It shouldn't surprise me that monks feel the need for rest.  After all, they have a fairly small community of members, many of whom are significantly older, and they have an ever-increasing stream of visitors.  Their Benedictine tradition requires hospitality to strangers, but still, it must be tough.  They have a huge property to maintain, and several businesses.  No wonder they need a down day once a month.

I wish they could have a day a week.  Their monastery gives me such a gift of renewal.  I wish the same renewal for them.

Friday, November 4, 2011

This Blog Will be Silent for a Few Days

I'm off on my annual trip to Mepkin Abbey for a Writer's Workshop.  I expect to return to regular blogging on Nov. 7 or 8.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The Lectionary readings for Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011:

First Reading: Amos 5:18-24

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16

Psalm: Psalm 70

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 78:1-7

Psalm (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13

The All Saints Sunday readings for Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011:

First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

Psalm: Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-3

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

This Sunday we celebrate All Saints Day. Most churches focus on loved ones of the congregation who have died; some churches give special emphasis to members who have died since the last All Saints Day. Some churches will be thinking about the larger collection of saints.

The Gospel reading for today at first seems jarringly out of place. Why are we back to the Sermon on the Mount? But after reading it, we see the connections. These are the behaviors of those whom we traditionally consider saints, people like Mother Theresa. They should be the behaviors of those of us still on earth who consider ourselves to be part of that saintly pantheon.

It's even more interesting to read this Gospel in the light of worldly events. These behaviors are not the ones endorsed by most of the world. Spend a night watching television and contemplate what it says about our culture. We don't see many messages that remind us to be meek, to hunger for justice, to work for peace, to be pure in heart. No, we're supposed to dance with stars, or sing for a panel of harsh judges, or watch dramas about ghastly criminals.

The Lectionary Gospel reading uses bridesmaids and lamps to tell us about the kingdom of God. Half of the bridesmaids keep their lamps ready, while half are careless and bring no oil with them. Here we have another story that reminds us to stay alert and prepared and warns us of the consequences if we don’t.

When we read Gospels like these, many of us might think that we do these things as our admission ticket for Heaven. But some of the more interesting books of theology that I've read lately remind us that Christ didn't come to take us to Heaven. In fact, the concept of Heaven with all our loved ones waiting for us there is relatively new to Christian thought. Christ came to announce that God's plan for redeeming the world had begun. That plan involves our pre-death world, which is not just a place where we wait around until it's our turn to go to Heaven. No, this world is the one that God wants to redeem. Christ comes to invite us to be part of the redemptive plan (if you want to read a book-length treatment of this idea, make N.T.Wright's Surprised by Hope your November reading).

Jesus comes to show us what a God-drenched life would look like. I recently rediscovered this quote by Marcus Borg (from a lecture that he gave 5 years ago) in my notebook: "Jesus is the epiphany of God. He shows us what can be seen of God in a human life. There's much of God that can't be shown in a human life, but Jesus shows what can be seen."

Jesus also comes to give us instructions for how we can join together in the redemption of the world. Think of the Sermon on the Mount as a behavior manual. As you move through your days, view your actions (and your thoughts) through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. Do your actions support this vision of peace, justice, mercy, and comfort? If not, how can you change to be more in alignment with God's vision of redemption?

We could use this All Saints Day as a reminder that we need to jump start our efforts to act as saints in this world. If that behavior means that we also get to be saints in the next world, swell. But the good news of Jesus is that we don't have to wait until we die to experience redemption. We're already saints. We just need to remember to be about the business of sainthood, and to avoid the behaviors that distract us from our mission.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Feast of All Souls

Today is the Feast of All Souls.  You might be confused--didn't we just celebrate this holiday yesterday?

No, that was All Saints.  All Saints was originally designed to honor the saints, those who had been beatified.  Official saints, canonized by the Pope.

All Souls Day, celebrated the day after All Saints, was designed to honor everyone else who had died.

In some traditions, All Saints Day honors all the Christian dead, and All Souls Day honors those who have died in the past year.  Those of you with excellent memories of your English major days may remember that Sir Gawain left for his adventure with the Green Knight on All Souls Day.  Medieval audiences would have read a lot into that date of departure.

In most Protestant churches, I'm guessing that you'll only celebrate All Saints Sunday, unless you're part of a tradition that doesn't celebrate that holiday at all.  It is a holiday that has retained a lot of its Catholic form, and some Protestant traditions will want no part of that.

What a pity.  I'm all in favor of more church holidays, more ways to infuse spirituality into our lives.  So let's take a few moments today to think about those who have died recently.

Here's a prayer I wrote for today:

Comforter God, you know that we miss our recently dead.  We do take comfort from your promise that death will not have the final word, but there are stages of our grief where it is difficult to believe.  Please forgive us our unbelief and doubt.  Please keep reminding us of your love and care.  Please strengthen us to be able to provide the same quality of love and care to those around us who are grieving loss.  Please keep our creative imaginations focused on the redemption of Creation, where you have promised we will not have any reason to cry anymore.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Feast of All Saints

Today is the Feast of All Saints.  Traditionally, this day celebrates the saints who have gone on before us.  Traditionalists would not approve of what this church festival has become.  Most churches celebrate All Saints Day as the day we celebrate the lives of all our loved ones who have died, whether they were consistently saintly or not.  Traditionalists would only celebrate the lives of the truly beatified and the lives of those martyred for the faith.

I think that we could refashion this holiday to cover all those bases.  Those of us in non-Catholic faiths could probably use some instruction about what it takes to become a true saint.  We could all benefit by spending some time thinking about the behavior of the saints and how it is so different from our own.

At the same time, we could also benefit from celebrating the lives of the faithful who have gone on before.  As a Lutheran, I believe that none of us can behave our way to salvation, and yet many of us use that as an excuse not to worry about our behavior at all. 

Yes, today is a good day to think about how we could emulate the lives of the saints--or the lives of the faithful we have known.  For example, my grandmother doesn't have a sophisticated faith; we would not have a discussion about the meaning of the cross, for example.  Yet she has started every day with a brief devotion and prayer.  I need to emulate that behavior.

Here are some other ways to celebrate the Feast of All Saints:

--You might start with the lectionary readings for today:

First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

Psalm: Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-3

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

--You could then light a candle as you remember the faithful in your life who have nourished you.  You could expand your thoughts to those who you didn't know who nonetheless have bolstered your faith.

--Write your living older family members a note or a card. Some day, you'll remember them on this feast day. Write them a note of appreciation now, while they are alive to appreciate your gratitude.

--Say a prayer of thanks for the saints who have gone before.

--Take a page out of the book of our Hispanic brothers and sisters. Prepare a picnic to share with the dead. Make some special sweet treats. This website has all sorts of interesting pages: recipes, photos of altars, and other interesting information.

--Plant some flowers. In many parts of the United States, now would be a great time to plant bulbs. Then in the spring, you'll have an additional treat.

--Remember your family stories. Even more important, start writing them down. You won't remember them forever. And there will be younger generations who will be starving for those stories. If you write them in a blog, hopefully, they'll be there forever.

--Make something with the herb rosemary, traditionally used as a symbol of remembrance. How about a chicken, roasted with rosemary, lemon, and garlic? Vegetarians can make a tasty bean soup with the same trio of rosemary, lemon, and garlic--add several cans of beans (whirled up in the blender, if you prefer a thicker soup) to your pot of rosemary, lemon, and garlic, and you've got an easy delicious soup. Throw in some steamed carrot pieces for an even more nutritious soup.

Here's a prayer I wrote for today:

Comforter God, we give thanks for all the saints who have gone before us.  Give us the wisdom, courage, and faith to follow in their footsteps.  And when the time comes that our earthly light will be extinguished, allow us to rest easy in the sure knowledge that we will be welcomed into the company of all the saints.