Monday, February 28, 2011

Our Christian Job Description

Yesterday, our pastor's sermon was a meditation on this job description, which he said we got at our baptism: Servants of Christ and Stewards of God's Mysteries.

So, for those of you who are part of church councils who still can't develop your mission statement, here's a simple one. Feel free to adopt it. It fits on a coffee cup. It's easy to remember.

But more important, it focuses the mind. It helps us decide which actions are worthy, and which are not. Everything we do should be to serve Christ and take care of God's mysteries.

I spent Sunday reading apocalyptic texts. No, not the book of Revelation or Daniel. I started off reading this article in The Washington Post about a climate activist who is making additional adaptations because he believes that the pace of climate change will be coming at us faster than originally predicted. In the afternoon, I read Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. It, too, presents the thesis that we've waited too long, and now we will need to adapt to a planet we've never experienced before.

We have not been good stewards of God's mysteries.

What is the solution? Obviously, it's time to step up our actions. Our pastor, who didn't mention climate change, did talk about building community. We each have special gifts--it's not a competition. Our task is to support each other in our essential job: to serve Christ and to be stewards of God's mysteries. We are all going to need strong communities to survive the coming years of tumult that climate change will provoke.

The season of Lent approaches. What discipline might you adopt to help you fulfill your essential job and use your gifts? I'll be writing a series of pieces to launch us into Lent, starting on Thursday.

In the meantime, if you want to experience my pastor's sermon, go here. You can hear the YouTube recording of the sermon as delivered. You can read the version of the sermon that my pastor posted on Saturday night if you scroll down.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

This Long Epiphany Season

It's been awhile had this long a Season after Epiphany, and over 20 years since we had this long a season after Epiphany in Lectionary year A. I find myself oddly yearning for a change of liturgical season. I say that it's odd because I don't usually have this yearning this time of year; I associate this yearning with the months of August, September, and October. Often I feel that Lent comes too soon. We barely get Jesus born and launched into ministry and boom--time for the passion story.

How strange that I am willing and eager to get down to the business of Lent. I am ready for Ash Wednesday, the service that my younger self hated most and the one that my older self finds oddly reassuring.

But we still have some time before Ash Wednesday. Today's Gospel seems a bit Ash Wednesdayish in its message. Why worry? Dust we are, and dust we shall become, and all too soon. Why waste precious time in worry?

Easier said than done, of course.

Ah, well, in Protestant traditions, it will be Transfiguration Sunday soon enough. I will be praying to be transformed from a worrywart to a woman who trusts God for everything.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Invitations

There's a Wellness Center at a hospital near where I work; it has a little gym, and I go there to do some weight work and to take spin classes. I joined up thinking I'd do more yoga, but to my surprise, I've been able to do spin class. In fact, I love spin class.

I get to the hospital early and walk quickly through the halls--it's quite a hike from the parking garage to the elevators that will take me to the Wellness Center. On weekdays, I'm usually the only one in the hallways. I try to get there early enough to get my weight work done before spin class--so I'm there at 6:00 a.m.

Yesterday, for a change, I wasn't the only one. It's obvious where I'm going, because I have a water bottle and I'm dressed in workout clothes, not scrubs, like the rest of the hospital. The woman down the hallway said, "I keep meaning to get up there, but I never do."

I said, "Some day, I hope you do."

The woman dressed in scrubs shook her head and said, "I wish I had your energy."

I said, "It's the work out that gives me the energy."

As I got to the door where we would part ways, I turned to say, "Come up and join us some time."

On the elevator ride to the 8th floor, I thought about the encounter. Why is it so easy for me to invite someone to spin class or to the Wellness Center and so hard to invite anyone to church? I would never invite a complete stranger to church, but it was easy to issue the invitation to the Wellness Center to a woman I've never met before.

I've met enough unchurched people (and spent some years as a woman without a church home myself) to know that the invitation to church can feel invasive. It can feel insincere.

Of course, the woman had expressed interest in the Wellness Center before I even opened my mouth. It makes it easier to issue an invitation where there is interest.

Which leads to the next logical question: amongst unchurched people, what would make them interested in church? What would lead them to start up a conversation similar to the one I had with the woman in scrubs?

I realize there can be a zillion different answers to that question, where the attraction to the Wellness Center only exists on a few levels (getting fit, getting/staying disease free, losing weight).

And then the harder question: just as my exercise clothes set me apart in the hospital, are there signifiers that set me apart as a Christian?

I'm thinking about more than the cross that some people wear around their necks or the bumper stickers that people plaster on their cars.

Would people know me as a resource, should they want to have that conversation with me?

As I write, I feel my deepest fear bubbling at my edges. I don't want to be seen as a hypocrite. The largest danger with being open about my faith is that people will have certain expectations--and it's all too easy to fail. Then the unchurched will see me as just one more person who can't walk the walk--and that may do more damage than staying quiet.

But I also need to do a better job at realizing that some people are hungry for invitations. I, who am so afraid of being rejected or of failing to be Christ's light in the world, I need to work on offering invitations.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 27, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 49:8-16a

Psalm: Psalm 131

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Gospel: Matthew 6:24-34

Last week’s Gospel was likely to have readers dismiss Jesus as a idealistic pacifist as some sort—even if you see the Gospel of turning the other cheek as a resistance text, as I do, Jesus still comes across as not understanding the realities of life. Last week’s Gospel might have moved some of us to want to discuss just war theory with Jesus.

This week’s Gospel is even worse. This week’s Gospel likely makes many of us want to shake Jesus. I imagine saying, “Don’t you understand? We need money to survive. We need to worry about the future because our government certainly isn’t. We don’t know what the future will bring and the only way we’ll feel safe is if we have pots of money. Preferably buried in the back yard, given the state of my investment portfolio lately.”

And Jesus would likely smile and say, “My point exactly.”

I’ve heard many a preacher talk about this text and the text where Jesus tells us to give away all we own. People will tie themselves into knots trying to explain how Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. Of course, we don’t have to give away everything, just our excess. Of course Jesus doesn’t mean that we can’t accumulate wealth—of course we can—how else will we have enough excess to give away?

But what if Jesus was serious? What if we can really only have one master? Who will we choose: God, our families, our careers, our significant others, our houses, our pets? Who/what owns us?

And what about that part of the Gospel that tells us not to worry? Seriously, Jesus? Stop worrying? I’m more likely to give away all I own than to stop worrying.

Jesus would likely be silent, waiting for me to think through all the implications.

How much time do we spend in any given day worrying? How much time do we spend fretting about events that might never happen? Is worry our master? Does fretfulness give us an essential identity?

We can’t control as much as we wish we could. It’s an essential fact of life, and we all react to that fact differently. Some of us become super laid-back. Some of us become control freaks.

Jesus calls us on this behavior. We’re not in charge. In the words of John the Baptist, we are not the Messiah. Besides, worrying never bought us an extra day of life. In short, worrying doesn’t solve anything.

I think about my own life, about all the fretting I’ve done, only to be blindsided by something I never saw coming. You’d think I’d learn my lesson and give up worrying. But instead I fret ever more fiercely.

If I’m honest, this command to stop worrying might be the hardest for me. Other people have trouble with forgiveness or with generosity. The thought of giving up fretting makes me very anxious.

I remember a commercial for an anti-anxiety drug that said, “It’s you, only without all the anxiety,” a thought which immediately plunged me into anxiety. Who would I be without my fretting?

A woman with considerably more time freed up.

So, what do we do with all the free time we suddenly have if we give up worrying and fretting? Well, we’ll have plenty of time to help those around us. We’ll have plenty of time to focus on relationships that matter. We’ll have plenty of time to build our relationship with God.

In this gospel, we see once again the radical message of Jesus. Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie sums up the passage this way: “In this short passage alone, I am being pushed to give up one of my most cherished occupations, worry, in favor of trusting God for the basics of daily life. I am being pushed to consider that my other loyalties are in conflict with my loyalty to God (6:24). Jesus' teachings are digging tools that undercut the foundation of my house. My priority, my life's project has been to build a comfortable present and a secure future for me and my family. Jesus wants to undermine it and eventually, to replace it with radical, risky trust in God and the mission of seeking God first, confident that other matters will fall in place. If I give up a preoccupation with anxiety and security, it would seem like I would have time and energy for seeing to the needs of others around me. These teachings take something away to free me for something more. In that sense they are just the beginning.” (see her whole exegesis on this week’s Gospel here).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reason, Faith, and Literary Critics

Today is the birthday of Terry Eagleton, who is most famous for being a Marxist literary critic. For my thoughts on Eagleton and literary criticism and art, go here to read my post on those subjects. His book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate is likely to stay one of my favorites of the books that Eagleton has written.

As you might expect from a writer who began intellectual life as a Marxist, Eagleton is sympathetic to liberation theology. In fact, he proclaims, "All authentic theology is liberation theology" (32).

About Christianity theology in particular, he says, "The morality Jesus preaches is reckless, extravagant, improvident, over-the-top, a scandal to actuaries, and a stumbling block to real estate agents: forgive your enemies, give away your cloak as well as your coat, turn the other cheek, love those who insult you, walk the extra mile, take no thought for tomorrow" (14).

About the recent debates that pit Science against Christianity (think Richard Dawkins), Eagleton says, "Science and theology are for the most part not talking about the same kind of things, any more than orthodontics and literary criticism are" (10). How elegant--in that one sentence, Eagleton captures the most important thing that eludes many of the shouting people in these arguments.

About the recent sexuality debates, Eagleton observes, "Jesus is remarkably laid back about sexuality, unlike those millions of his followers who can think of hardly anything else, and who have that much in common with the pornographers they run out of town. In fact, there is hardly anything about sexuality in the New Testament, which is no doubt one reason why the work is not taught in cultural studies courses" (29-29).

Even if you haven't gotten sucked into debates with atheists, even if you've managed to avoid the Hitchens and the Dawkins of the world, the book is well worth your time. Don't let the fact that it's written by a literary critic throw you off. It's accessible to all of us, even if we don't have college degrees.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Being the Drinking Gourd

One of my favorite blog posts that I wrote for the Living Lutheran site has been reposted there today. It concludes this way: "I am now a department chair, and before I speak or act, I remind myself that people will see me as the voice of the administration. I am no longer speaking solely for myself. Similarly, those of us who are Christian are being watched by the unchurched. Who do they see when we behave in non-Christlike ways?"

In a similar way, I've been thinking about Paul. On Friday, at the Treasures from the Vatican show, one of my teacher friends asked me about Paul and Paul's misogyny. I tried to explain that if Paul reappeared he'd be rather shocked at how we've been using his letters. He was writing those letters to real churches facing local problems. Paul likely had no sense that he was forming church/Christian practice for centuries to follow.

I've also been thinking about Marx, since on this day in 1848 The Communist Manifesto was published. When Marx died, he had no reason to think that this little book would be as influential as it became; for example, by 1950, roughly half of the population of the world would be living under Marxist governments, although Marx himself might have disavowed a number of those governments. And I've often wondered what Marx would have thought about liberation theologists, those folks who saw the mission of Jesus as a mission to liberate people from ruling class oppression. Would Marx have cheered? Or would he have seen this activity as a different sort of opiate?

We have no idea how God will use us and our work. We have no idea of the many ways we may influence others. We need to always remember our core mission, to be the only face of God that many people will see. We never know who is watching, who is taking notes. We are tasked to be the North Star, to be the drinking gourd that leads people to God (much like the Big Dipper that slaves followed to find their way North to freedom).

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Treasures from the Vatican

Yesterday at the Museum of Art Ft. Lauderdale, I went to see the current exhibit "Treasures from the Vatican." Some of them had never been outside the Vatican. My friend's mother had reported that it was an almost holy experience for her, a reconnecting to the Divine (although she might not have phrased it that way). I was prepared for something wonderful.

I did like the first part of the exhibit, which contained interesting artifacts from ruins. And I liked the art from the missionary section. The case of three missals was amazing. The gallery of popes left me underwhelmed, although I did get to put my hand into a bronze handprint of Pope John Paul II. It was oddly soothing. I did it several times.

I kept wondering why I was feeling disappointed. I expected more treasures from artists I'd heard of. At first I thought maybe it was just my lack of art history knowledge. Maybe I'm not as well-educated as I thought I was. But we had a painter with an MFA in our group, and she'd never heard of most of the artists either.

The various chalices and robes and worship items awakened my inner 19 year old. I could hear her scream: "All this gold! All these jewels!!! While the Christians in the pews are STARVING! TO DEATH!!!!" I tried to concentrate on the artistry, but once my inner 19 year old is awakened, it's very difficult to ignore her.

Because I went with a school trip, I got a ticket at a greatly reduced rate. The show was worth that rate. I'm glad I didn't pay full price.

Still to ponder: would there be an exhibit of art that would help me feel that I've been moved closer to God? Should a worship service be that kind of work of art? Is there just something wrong with me, that my intellect or my social justice consciousness gets in the way?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Prayer in the Schools

Last night, my office suite was a hub of activity. Several students were camped out there before class, doing make-up work or preparing for future work (my office suite has a conference room and two desks in the outer area, and in the evening, I'm the only one there, and it's cool with me if people use the space). A woman appeared, and in a soft voice, she asked me, "Can I pray?" She looked beyond me to the occupied conference room.

A variety of responses went through my head, but fortunately, I kept my presence of mind. I asked, "Would you like a more private place? I can open one of the empty offices."

The woman wore a head scarf, so I assumed that she was Muslim. I took a moment to think about the fact that a first had happened: I've never had a Muslim student ask for prayer space. It's not like we have lots of visible Muslims in our school; I see one or two women with head scarves in any given week, but not many more. And yes, I realize that there might be lots of Muslims who aren't immediately obvious.

Last night I sat in my office, with a student praying in the office to my right, and students prepping in the spaces to my left. I felt that interesting thinning of space, that occasional luminous shimmer, where I feel the veil between the Divine and the everyday lifts, just for an instant.

I took a moment to wish that our school had dedicated prayer space, although I realize all the problems inherent in creating such a space. So, for now, I'm grateful for unused offices that students can use to pray--not too long ago, we didn't have a scrap of unused space. I'm grateful that a religious student felt comfortable enough to ask me for prayer space. I'm grateful that I have an ecumenical mind set, so that I didn't feel it necessary to proselytize. I'm grateful for the many routes to God.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 20, 2011:

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm: Psalm 119:33-40

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48


Turn the other cheek. Give up your coat and your shirt. Walk the second mile. This Sunday we get to texts which have been so misunderstood through the centuries that it’s hard to remember what Jesus was really saying. Jesus was NOT saying to let your abuser batter you day in and day out. Jesus was not instructing us to let evil steamroll right over us. Jesus was not even calling us to pacifism, a stoic acceptance of brutality that will buy us a better condo in Heaven for enduring hell on earth.

No, these are resistance texts. Yes, resistance texts.

These are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that evil elements will not turn around and destroy us. Likewise, these are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that we don’t become the evil that we are resisting.

It’s important to remember that the culture of Jesus was a vastly different culture. It was a culture based on honor. It was a culture based on social hierarchy. It was also a culture ruled by Romans who were not going to tolerate social unrest, Romans who would not hesitate to slaughter dissenters.

Jesus shows us how to live in this world, how to resist evil without being destroyed by evil. If you want to read the best text on this idea, I recommend Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. It is one of the best books of theology I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of theology.

Let’s focus on the turning of the other cheek, since this passage is so well known. Notice that Jesus gives specific cheeks in specific order. That’s a detail lost on us, but it wouldn’t have been lost on the people who heard Jesus’ instructions. Walter Wink explains:

“Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? It would be the left. It is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, 'If anyone strikes you on the right cheek...' I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn't even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of the hand.

Now the back of the hand is not a blow intended to injure. It is a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It is always from a position of power or superiority. The back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew in that period. What Jesus is saying is in effect, 'When someone tries to humiliate you and put you down, back into your social location which is inferior to that person, and turn your other cheek.'

Now in the process of turning in that direction, if you turned your head to the right, I could no longer backhand you. Your nose is now in the way. Furthermore, you can't backhand someone twice. It's like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn't work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, 'I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can't put me down even if you have me killed.' This is clearly no way to avoid trouble. The master might have you flogged within an inch of your life, but he will never be able to assert that you have no dignity.”

Wink explains the other elements of the Gospel resistance readings here. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to his work, especially for those of us who aren’t up to reading his multi-volume works on resisting the various powers at work in this world.

For those of you who would sneer at the idea of resistance working in our evil, evil world, I would say that nonviolent resistance can bring mighty social change—most recently in Egypt. It was breathtaking to watch the forces of resistance bring down a dictator. I’m not na├»ve; I know that Egypt isn’t home free yet. But I add this successful resistance to the list I always keep in my head, the list that shows that we don’t need violence to bring about social change.

Walter Wink, writing in 1993, concludes by saying, “In 1989 alone, there were thirteen nations that underwent non-violent revolutions. All of them successful except one, China. That year 1.7 billion people were engaged in national non-violent revolutions. That is a third of humanity. If you throw in all of the other non-violent revolutions in all the other nations in this century [the 20th], you get the astonishing figure of 3.34 billion people involved in non-violent revolutions. That is two-thirds of the human race. No one can ever again say that non-violence doesn't work. It has been working like crazy. It is time the Christian churches got involved in this revolution because what is happening in the world is that the world itself is discovering the truth of Jesus' teaching, and here we come in the church, bringing up the rear.”

Maybe we are not up for the task of resistance, which can be scary and can lead us to unexpected places. At the very least, we can pray. We can pray for those people who are doing the heavy lifting of resistance. We can pray for those who are transforming their societies for good, whether they live in our country or on the other side of the planet. We can pray for the softening of the hearts of the hard ones. We can pray that we have the wisdom to recognize evil when we see it. We can pray that we have the courage to resist evil in whatever forms it comes to us.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Do We Need to Reaffirm Our Wedding Vows?

When I was growing up in the 1970's, we didn't do affirmation of Baptism. Sure, we baptized babies in the Lutheran church of my childhood. But reaffirming our baptismal vows hadn't become part of that rite yet.

Likewise, I don't remember any reaffirming of marriage vows. In my younger days, I associated that idea with couples who had done things to violate those vows, and who decided to publicly recommit to each other and to the marriage, even though they hadn't officially divorced.

So, when churches started doing reaffirmation of wedding vows in a wider way, it's taken me some time to get used to it. And to be honest, I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea. I'm deeply uncomfortable with integrating the reaffirmation of wedding vows into a church service.

It feels to me like watching people get rebaptized, complete with water on the head. As a church, we've declared that you only need the water on your head once. Do we really need to see couples take those vows again? Do couples need the reminder? Or is it for the purpose of the congregation?

My sneering, cynical self can't help but notice that churches across the country routinely do this service the Sunday before Valentine's Day. If we really feel that reaffirmation of wedding vows are important, why don't we do it more often? Why not in the dog days of summer? Why do we have to tie it in to a Hallmark holiday that has made every effort to cash in on the human expression of love?

I worry about the people in the congregation who don't have a partner, who feel this loss or this lack. I worry about the people in the congregation who have suffered because of broken vows.

And what do we do with the knowledge that some of the church's greatest leaders have been unmarried (like Jesus, like Paul, just to name two of the most famous)? Can we talk about what the larger world loses when any two of us marry? As an artist, I can't help but notice that the most successful female artists are the ones who haven't married, who haven't dissipated their energy and focus that way.

Of course, for my examples, you can probably name others who did much to promote the church, who wouldn't have been able to do what they did if they hadn't had a loving family to return home to.

But to return to my basic question: should we incorporate the reaffirmation of wedding vows into a church worship service? Could we do it in such a way that we're not having couples come forward and re-pledge their vows individually? Could we do it in such a way that we're not only reaffirming our vows to each other, but our vows to the larger community, our vows to God, God's vows to us?

To me, it's clear that we need a new liturgy, if we're going to continue to reaffirm vows during Sunday worship.

And I repeat, if we really think that it's an important thing to do, let's move it away from the commercial holiday that Valentine's Day has become--at least one other time during the year, we should do it.

And only if we have a meaningful liturgy that leashes the reaffirmation to larger aspects than just the couple(s) before the congregation.

Of course, I'm older and wiser and willing to admit that I don't know everything. It's quite possible that everyone in the congregation finds it deeply meaningful, and I'm the only one who sits there thinking through these implications. It's possible that the barking dogs of my theological inquiry have chased the wrong implications up a tree.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Steinbeck and Our Modern Day

I've been rereading Steinbeck, in particular, The Grapes of Wrath. For more on how I came to read that book, and my thoughts on Tom Joad's reappearances in popular culture, go to this post on my creativity blog.

I'm impressed with Steinbeck's compassion for the poor and dispossessed. His anger about their situation moves me; he reminds me of an Old Testament prophet in that way.

Bruce Springsteen wrote a song called "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Rage Against the Machine did a righteous cover version of that song.

I don't see as much of the Old Testament prophet stance in our churches today, and certainly not from our religious leadership who have the most visible perches in society. I'm not thinking so much of the bishops and presidents of mainstream denominations; they don't have much of a perch.

I'm also thinking of all the loudmouths who have much more visibility than almost any religious figure. Why get so angry about the national debt? Where is the anger about our current day Joad families?

We have as much to move us to righteous anger as Steinbeck did. In fact the parallels between The Grapes of Wrath and our day are downright scary. I'll spend the day thinking about modern day equivalents of John Steinbeck. Maybe I'm looking in all the wrong places.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 13, 2011:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 15:15-20

Psalm: Psalm 119:1-8

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37


Last Sunday, Pastor Amsalu Geleta of St. Mark's Lutheran Church (Springfield, Virginia) told us that Jesus gives us new name tags: light and salt. Last week's Gospel looks easy in the light of this week's Gospel. Light of the world, salt of the earth: check. We know how to do that: feed the poor, be kind to everyone we meet, clothe the ragged, make sure that the oppressed are taken care of. Not easy, to be sure, but easy compared to this week's Gospel.

This week, Jesus tells us that our inner landscape must match our outer actions. Righteous actions aren't good enough. We must work for purity of heart and brain too.

Everyone I know seems to be wrestling with the same question: how can we live a life of integrity, a life that's in synch with our values? The Gospel gives us some fairly serious instruction along these same lines, as Jesus directs us to be sure that our insides and our outsides match. Apparently our current struggles with living a life that's in balance are not new to our time.

We all know what happens if our lives get out of synch. We become hypocrites, and most of us would say we don't want that. I could make the argument that the hypocrisy of Christians do more to hurt our Gospel mission than anything else. If you know any non-believers and you ask them why they don't believe, they won't often bring up the fact that belief in God requires a faith beyond their senses, a faith beyond what is scientifically proveable. No, most non-believers will bring up the hypocrisy of Christians, from the smaller hypocrisies, like the Christian who pretends to be a friend to your face but spreads ugly rumors about you, to the huge hypocrisies, like all the sexual predators employed by the Church through the ages. How can they believe in the God of those types of people?

And if you ask the non-churched why they don't go to church, they will almost always bring up hypocrisy. And if I hadn't started going back to school, I'd have mentioned that too. I think back to when I was a self-righteous 19 year old, angry, angry, ANGRY about the cost of the church building, the offering collected in heavy, gold offering plates and being used to pay the light bill. I wanted to be part of a church like Luther Place, in downtown D.C., a church that transformed itself into a homeless shelter for women every night, a church that operated a variety of services for the dispossessed.

I think back to the favor that the pastor of that church did for me. I told him that I wanted to switch churches, that I wanted to drive past my suburban church and become a member of his church, a church that so clearly was doing what Jesus wanted it to do.

He studied me. He asked me which church I was a member of, and I told him that I went to St. Mark's, in Springfield, Virginia.

He said, "You know, we wouldn't be able to run any of the programs that we run without the financial help that they give us." And then, in that precise moment, my perspective shifted. I started to move away from being a self-righteous, know-it-all 19 year old towards being someone who sees life as more complex. And thus, I entered into what I suspect will be a lifelong measurement: am I living the life that Christ calls me to live? If I'm to be light and salt and to begin living the life of God's Kingdom right here and right now, what does that look like? How can I make my inner attitude match my outer actions?

Jesus wants us to be more than surface Christians. It's easy to go to church service each week, to sing the hymns, to hug each other. It's harder to live our Christian values the rest of the week. Go back and reread all of what Jesus tells us to do, both in this Gospel and throughout the Gospel texts. Can we really live like that? We're called to forgive each other more times than we think we can. We're called to make peace with our neighbors before we head to church. We're called to give away our money to those who have less than we do. The world watches to see how we live our lives.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Name Tags Jesus Gives Us

On Sunday, I was at a different church, my parents' church in the Northern Virginia suburbs. It was interesting, as it always is, to hear a different pastor. On Sunday, he talked about the church's recent experiments with name tags, and he said that in the Gospel, we see Jesus give his disciples new name tags: salt and light.

I like that idea--how are we named on our name tags?

I had heard this pastor speak earlier, when I got into town. My mom's WELCA group is exploring how Lutherans live in other places, so they had the pastor come in to talk to them about being a Lutheran in Ethiopia. Fascinating!

He said that he had gotten confirmed during the last gasps of a Communist regime. He had to go to Confirmation classes under the cover of darkness, with the full knowledge that his participation could mean his death. Wow.

He understood early on the price that Jesus' name tags might demand. And he proceeded anyway.

Most of us in the Western world face different challenges as we try to get our overscheduled children to Confirmation class. At least they're not facing death.

Of course, if we look at the history of Christian growth, we see that the most repressed countries often have the most explosive religious growth. Something to ponder as you pour your coffee.

Light and Salt--how can we claim these name tags today?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

This Blog Will Be Quiet for a Few Days

While the rest of the nation suffers all sorts of weather-related travel delays, my flight is listed as "On Time," and so, off I go to the nation's capitol to enjoy the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual convention (AWP, for short). I've always wanted to go, but this is the first year it's all worked out. I expect to return to regular blogging on February 9.

This picture is of the Air Force Memorial that's on the grounds of the Pentagon. We saw it the summer it was finished (2007). It's magnificent all by itself, but even more magnificent as the sun sets on a lovely June day and the Air Force Band serenades us all.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 6, 2011

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm: Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20


Every so often, I have a boss who wants us, the lower-level managers and the faculty, to create mission statements. Some years we’re creating mission statements for the school, and some years, we’re creating individual mission statements. The mission statements we come up with are usually useless collections of vague language that signifies nothing and makes no promises. Who teaches these management skills? I’m sure that some corporation somewhere in the years just after World War II had great success with this visioning process, but I’ve yet to see any group energized by it.

With the Gospel for this Sunday, we get our mission statement from Jesus. We are to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. It’s an interesting time of the year to contemplate light. Tomorrow is Candlemas, both a pagan holiday and a Christian holiday that celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple. It’s grown into quite an interesting festival in Mexico, where people bring their baby Jesuses from the Christmas mangers into cathedrals for a blessing (go here for more details on that festival and all the ways that people dress up the baby Jesus for the event).

Maybe you read this passage, and you despair. Maybe you yearn for verses about dimly burning wicks and the assurance that God will not extinguish you for your lackluster burning.

Jesus tells us that we are to let our light shine, but he doesn't tell us how hard it will be some days. As a child, I always thought that once the light was lit, the hard part was over. I would just shine and shine and not hide my light under a bushel and not let Satan pfff it out (as that old song goes).

How do we keep our light from going out? I suspect it's in the various disciplines that we adopt to strengthen our spiritual lives: praying, reading the Bible, reading other spiritual literature, fasting, tithing, charitable giving, working for social justice, practicing gratitude, noticing the wonders of the world.

It's important to realize that we can't keep our lights lit if we see this activity as a weekly duty. I suspect that even a once-a-day duty isn't enough. We need to develop disciplines that reorient us throughout the day. We need to build in breaks throughout the day to attend to our wicks and lights.

It’s important to remember that we are often the only light of Jesus that many people will see throughout the week. How would our attitude and behavior change if we saw our lives through this prism? We are the instruments and tools that God uses to deliver God’s light into the world. How can we make ourselves better at the task?

Some of us think that we need to lead people to Jesus by talking to them about our faith. But our lives and our actions have already done all the talking before we ever open our mouths. Keep that in mind as you interact with people. Let your life do the shining. Be the salt that adds savor to everyone’s surroundings. Glorify God in this way.