This blog will be quiet for a few days; it's time for a seasonal sabbath from electronics. I'm off to enjoy sunsets, to eat watermelon, to spend time with friends and family without the distractions of the Internet.
Psalm (Alt.): Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (Semi-continuous)
Second Reading: Romans 7:15-25a
Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
In this week's Gospel, we see the mystical Jesus that so many of us associate with the Gospel of John (but we're still exploring Matthew). The first part of this week's Gospel has those strange comparisons calling us children in the marketplace, and then Jesus reminds us that he and John are the latest in a long line of people sent by God to get our attention. And then the Gospel ends with that strange bit about easy yokes and light burdens, when the very definition of yoke and burden encompass experiences that aren't easy and light.
Maybe in these days of rising fuel and food prices, you're feeling the more traditional definition of yoke and burden (think strangling and crushing). Maybe you're weary of the world's problems and the inability of governments to even attempt to solve them. Maybe you wish for a savior to show up in our troubled times. But then you'd have to wonder if we'd even notice, in our world of noise and distraction.
Sometimes, when I feel most bleak, I like to return to the words of the Old Testament prophets. It's good to remember that no matter how terrible our historic age seems, it's not really a new situation. This week's reading from Zechariah commands us: "Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope."
That command is our burden and our yoke. We must be prisoners of hope. We are called to commit to resurrection. That doesn't stop with our belief in a resurrected Lord. That's just one sign, among a galaxy of signs, of a God who creates and recreates the cosmos daily.
In our deepest despair, we must remember that we're Resurrection People. To me, that's one of the beliefs that separates Christianity from the other major religions. We don't believe in a fixed universe. We don't believe that we're doomed. We don't believe that we have to accept our lot with stoic resignation and wait for a better life (in a future lifetime, in Heaven, but not right now).
No, our burden and our yoke is that God calls us into partnership in this remodeling of the world into one that is more in line with God's vision and plan. Could God just step in and order it to be so? Perhaps. But God didn't create that kind of universe. For whatever reason, God found it much more interesting to design a world in which we have free will. We can put our necks into the yoke that God offers us and discover that what appears to be a burden (taking care of the poor and eating together and praying regularly--who has time for that??!!) is, in fact, a blessing that transforms us as we transform the world.
Today is the birthday of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church. That word "Methodist" was used as an unflattering way of describing the religious study group of Wesley's college years: they were methodical and rigorous in their Biblical study.
Wesley will probably never be made a saint, and thus we won't really celebrate his feast day--indeed, he'd probably resist the idea. But I can't think of many other 18th century people who transformed the faith in the way that he did.
The Writer's Almanacentry for today notes that Wesley felt he wasn't reaching enough people from the pulpit--I suspect many of today's ministers and pastors can relate. But he didn't sit around and mope and rail against declining enrollments. No, he went out and saddled his horse and went to people where they lived. Historians say that he traveled roughly 250,000 miles during his lifetime. On a horse.
Yes, I'm feeling inadequate, all of a sudden. What have I done to bring the Good News to my fellow citizens? Nothing even close to what Wesley did.
He was also a social justice crusader, an ardent abolitionist. He helped to lay the foundation for the movement that would change the world.
Yes, I know that in our current day we still have slavery. Some historians would tell us that it's never been easier to own a slave than it is today, in fact. But in our current world, in the industrialized part of it at least, we seem to have reached an understanding that slavery is morally wrong. We're still arguing about the meaning of a living wage, but we don't keep people in bondage the way that 18th century people did. You can argue that we keep people in a bondage of a different sort, but it's not the kind of brutal total bondage we would have found in the 18th and 19th centuries. And for this change, I thank John Wesley (and other folks, like Harriet Beecher Stowe).
Much of Wesley's theology came back to the idea of love, the complete love that we strive to offer the world. The Writer's Almanac site offers this jewel, with this introduction: "Though there's no evidence that he actually wrote it himself, 'John Wesley's Rule' does a fair job of summing up his life:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can. "
Our pastor is preaching off lectionary for most of the summer, so my last thoughts on Sunday's Gospel will likely be on a different Gospel than most of the country hears. Still, if there are good thoughts, I want to capture them.
Yesterday he preached about love, especially our command to love difficult people. I used to think that wasn't a radical idea amongst Christians, but certain conversations have shown me otherwise. For me, it's not the idea/command, but my following of it.
Our pastor reminded us that we can ask God to help us with this task. We can ask God to soften our hearts.
He anticipated my protests. In such a broken world, surely God has better things to think about than my puny, defeated efforts to love the difficult people in my path.
No, my pastor would say. A God who can redeem the world by taking on human form and facing crucifixion can surely soften my heart and help me with the task of loving. No task is too big or too impossible for God.
God is there for us. God wants to help us. Why not ask for that help?
I saw Super 8 the other night--what a great movie! For my thoughts on the movie as a depiction of young artists and what that might mean to those of us who aren't young artists, hop over to this post on my creativity blog.
I tend to see the world, particularly pop culture, through multiple lenses. I ask, "What is the work/world saying about gender? What does it tell us about our place in the universe? What is the theological viewpoint here? What can I learn about being creative? What is the work saying about race? About class?" On and on I could go.
On the face of it, Super 8 is not a theological film. Or perhaps I should say, it's not an overtly theological film, or even a very spiritual one. Yet my brain wouldn't leave that angle alone.
I thought about the fact that the movie revolved around a small band of kids, and I started thinking about the ways that those kids resembled the disciples. You had one wise kid (John perhaps?), several who were slow to catch on (Peter), one kid who wanted to blow things up (Judas). I couldn't make any of them be the Christ figure, although Alice, the one lone female of the gang . . . hmm, I'm only just now thinking of her.
Yes, she could be a Christ figure. She's alone and unknowable in some ways. All the kids are drawn to her. She seems wise in an otherwordly way. She weeps over the plight of her friends. And she suffers a kind of living death and descent into the underworld. Does she save them? Hmm.
The movie wrestles with themes that are common to Christianity: that feeling of alienation, the wanting to connect, the way we treat the stranger, the resident alien. The movie wrestles with that question central to most religions: why are we here? What is our purpose? How can we evolve into our best selves?
The movie reminds me of the kind of movie that my middle school and high school youth groups might have seen, the ones that were popular, but not overtly spiritual. What does the Star Wars series teach us about God?
Super 8 is the perfect kind of film for a contemporary youth group. It's not preachy, but it covers some theological themes. It's not overtly spiritual, so it stands a chance with people who would be turned off by that kind of movie. It's sentimental in a way, but it never descends into sentimentality for too long. It's not an overly sexual movie, which is a relief in our day and age. It has a lot to say about parental relationships, particularly the ones we have with our fathers. Lots of missing mothers in this film. What do we do with this fact, if we're trying to look at the movie through a spiritual lens?
It's one of those wonderful films that doesn't provide obvious answers to these questions, but could yield lots of fascinating conversation. I'd love to see it again, since I suspect it's a movie that rewards a second watching.
Last week was the kind of week where I wondered if God was trying to tell me something—and that something would have been “Leave your job right now. Do not stop to pack. Just go. Go and don’t look behind you. Don’t make me turn you into a pillar of salt.”
It was a humdinger of a week: countless student complaints, threats of lawsuits, a death threat issued against a teacher, lots of anger, lots of frustration, lots of negative energy: and when I’m in my office for the over 40 hours which is my work week, I get the brunt of a lot of it, even if I’m not the cause of the anger and frustration.
Well, if God wants me out, God will need to send me a plan for how we pay the bills. And I know that God doesn’t work like that. So, I decided to keep my head low and see what this week brought. So far, so good.
Yesterday was the perfect antidote to last week—I took a vacation day. I met up with my pastor and his child, and off we went to the grocery store to restock our church food bank.
We get matching funds from Thrivent, and because of the way it works, we had to spend a big chunk of money this month. My pastor tried to do some of the shopping last week, but he still had money that we needed to spend, and dwindling time. So, since I’ve had some vacation days this week, I volunteered to help.
We loaded up with the buy one, get one free specials. We loaded up three grocery carts with cereal, canned spaghetti/ravioli, tomato sauce, jelly (for the peanut butter bought last week), mac and cheese . . . all the sorts of things that fly out of our food pantry into the households of the poor.
And in these economic times, we’re seeing plenty of poor people who need food.
In one hour, we bought food, which means we’ll get to continue to buy food with matching funds, loaded the food in the car, and brought it into the church. I felt enormous satisfaction in doing that.
In so much of the work I get paid for, I don’t have that kind of satisfaction. I’m often listening to this kind of student complaint: “I got an F for that class and I don’t understand because I did every assignment except for three and I only missed 10 hours of class.” I really can’t help that kind of student.
In fact, I spend a lot of time with students who aren’t trying very hard but they’re suddenly panicked. And for all sorts of reasons, dealing with them can take hours—or the better part of a week, when they bring in their parents, the lawyers, the threats. I wouldn’t mind spending 10 or more hours a week trying to help a student who had tried really hard and still needed some interventions. But most people feel the way I do, and those cases don’t usually find their way to my office or higher.
No, I see the slackers who have somewhere learned that if they bluster enough, the world will cave in before their demands. Not me.
There’s nothing I can do for these students who have failed on so many levels. We can’t suspend the rules for them. They had to meet certain expectations (turn in assignments, come to class, do certain things while in class), and they didn’t. The F stands. And they don’t accept this ruling gracefully.
There’s a simplicity in stocking the food pantry that I don’t find often in administrative life. People are hungry. Food is on sale, which will stretch our resources. We buy the food. We haul it into the church. It’s there to distribute. We don’t have to judge how hungry people are or how much they deserve food. We just hand it out until it’s gone.
Of course, if I thought about it deeply, I might feel a similar frustration that I feel in my administrative life. Why is there so much hunger in a land of plenty? Why can’t we solve this issue?
But yesterday, I didn’t think about the larger issues. I just took delight and comfort in the easy act of buying food for hungry individuals and families. It was just what I needed to prove to myself that my existence on this planet isn’t completely worthless and futile.
I've written before about churches and "No Trespassing" signs; this post talks about the homeless, our churches, and doomed church-parishioner matches.
Our church council does more than just make budget decisions. We also do some Bible study, and that Bible study is created by our pastor to help us think about some of the larger issues facing both our individual church and the larger Church.
Lately, we've been thinking about hospitality. Our Gospel for this Sunday also addresses hospitality.
When we think about hospitality, some of us think about the greeters who hover around the doors, the greeters who should be on the look-out for newcomers. Some of us think about the genuinely different people who might come to church and how we would make them feel welcome: our grandmothers might have fretted about the people who showed up dressed in their jeans, while some of us in more modern churches might wonder about how to make transgender people feel at home. They're variations of the same question, even if people don't see it that way. Difference makes a lot of us feel threatened, and we react in different ways.
Of course, the more practical amongst us might point out that hospitality begins in the parking lot. If I arrive at your church, will I know where the door to the sanctuary is? When I get inside and need to use the bathroom, is there a sign? And then, when the service begins, what processes do you have set up to guide me?
I've been going to church most of my whole life, so I know my way around a hymnbook. But many people don't. And the paging system of Lutheran hymnbooks is downright baffling to a person who has never used one. Why can't we just have simple pagination all the way through? Start with page 1 on the first page and carry on.
No, instead, in our latest Lutheran service book (it's more than hymns!), to make things even more confusing, we have a section with no page numbers at all (the Psalms section), in addition to the already confusing fact that we number the hymns and the front matter has a regular page numbering system.
Of course, by the time the next service book comes out, perhaps we won't use books at all. Perhaps I am the last generation who feels frustration with the physical book. Maybe in 10-20 years, people will use their smart phones, and maybe there will be q r codes from the pulpit that will guide us.
And then the hospitality team will have to decide how to welcome the people who have no smart phone.
Yes, the questions of hospitality and how we welcome the stranger will always be with us. Some people might argue that the Church has greater problems facing it. But issues of hospitality and community building--these are the essential questions, as Jesus tells us again and again. Jesus spends no time on the sexuality issues that threaten to rip our modern churches to shreds. Jesus spends time creating spaces where all sorts of people will feel welcome (unless they choose to feel threatened, of course).
Today's Gospel reading has the flavor of the theme that Jesus develops more thoroughly in the 25th chapter of Matthew (that reading where Jesus reminds us that as we treat the least of our fellow humans, that is how we treat Jesus). This tiny Gospel reading reminds us of some of the themes Jesus returns to again and again: stay alert and watchful. Treat everyone as if they're God in disguise (although I'm not sure these three verses develop this theme as thoroughly as Jesus will develop them later). Keep our Christian priorities always in the front of our vision, so that we know what's important.
If I wrote a modern paraphrase, I might say something like this: Why do you swoon over supermodels and superathletes? What good do they bring into the troubled world? Why are you not searching out the words of the wise ones among you? Why do you neglect your duties to the next generation?
When I was younger and not surrounded by multiple types of media, it seemed easier to ignore the siren calls of the larger world. I remember a world before cable TV: we had four channels, and when we lived in Montgomery, Alabama, we could sometimes see a snowy version of one of Ted Turner's superchannels out of Atlanta. Little did we know that we were seeing what would become one of the cornerstones of the cable world. Even in the early days of cable, one's viewing options only expanded to 10-40 channels, and then, as now, half of those were just dreadful creations formed to take advantage of bandwidth (bandwidth? what is that called in the TV world?).
At graduation a few years ago, I listened in shock as our graduation speaker told the graduates that there was no Internet 15 years ago. Of course there was. But there wasn't a widespread World Wide Web, so the medium was text based and not as user friendly. Unless we were at a university dedicated to the technology, it was slow and clunky. Therefore, we weren't as prone to let it suck away our lives.
Now we're surrounded by electronic information, media, and gadgets. Of course, in some ways, it's invaluable. It's much easier to research any subject from the comfort of my computer--unlike the old days, when I'd have to go to a library. It's easier to keep in touch and communicate, at least for those of us plugged in. I've often wondered if Christian communities online can be as valuable (and dare I say it, more valuable) in terms of keeping each other centered, grounded and on track. Are we headed towards virtual communion? Is that possible? What would it look like?
But of course, I wouldn't be the first to point out all the ways the technology can lead us astray. We spend our days dealing with e-mail instead of doing real work. In our quest to be connected, we often let our connections in the real, human world slide.
The Gospel for today reminds us that there are rewards for righteous living. Traditionally, Christian communities (at least in the last 300 years) have translated those rewards as coming in the afterlife. But we shouldn't overlook that righteous, connected living has rewards for us in our lives right here and now. We will be able to recognize the prophets and disciples that Jesus promises to send. We will be able to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit. We will not neglect our duties to the young and disadvantaged. We will drink from the streams of living water and be able to know what nourishes us and what saps our strength.
I woke up this morning thinking about September 11 and the fact that September 11 falls on a Sunday. I probably don't need to tell you that it's the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. It's also the anniversary of the coup that ended the administration of Allende and let Pinochet take power. It's also the anniversary of one of the most destructive hurricanes in American history, Hurricane Iniki, which devastated the Hawaiian islands of Kauai and Oahu.
What shall we do with this knowledge as an individual church? Some churches might ignore the anniversaries, but this year in particular, it will be hard to just pretend.
I'd argue that we have an opportunity that doesn't often come our way.
We can do something that memorializes the dead. We could talk about the prison of fundamentalist thinking that leads people to these kinds of expression that result in so much death and destruction. We could expand the discussion to talk about other people who die because of other kinds of oppression.
We could use the day to do some ecumenical outreach. I'm shocked by how many people still believe that Islam mandates or even approves of the kind of violence that we saw on September 11. We could talk about that. Maybe we want to be very brave and invite some Muslims to our churches that day.
I have been tasked with developing some sort of community art project. I have two ideas, but it's early in the process. I thought the cross that we made for our Create in Me retreat was quite beautiful. The theme of the retreat was Broken but Beautiful, and that theme fits for September 11.
We had a cross constructed of plexiglass and lumber, which we filled with broken objects: from broken shoes to pottery to headlights. People could write on the objects, if they wanted. One woman wrote "Tuscaloosa." Our retreat began the day after the tornadoes that did such damage. Others wrote about more private things.
In the end, we had a beautiful creation.
Could we make this work at the local church level? Would we have enough broken objects to fill a cross? If we made the cross a permanent installation at our labyrinth, would it be subject to vandalism?
My other idea begins with origami peace cranes. Has that been done too much?
If I was a different kind of artist, a mural would be interesting. Other possibilities?
I tend to think there's plenty of time, but there's really not: less than 3 months. Soon the time for pondering will be over.
But not this morning. I'd love to hear if your church is planning anything special, either as part of the service that Sunday morning or around the time period, for September 11.
I meant to mention this yesterday, but my work day quickly overtook me. Well, happily, it's not too late.
My editor at the Living Lutheran site told me that my assignment this month was to write about what it means to live as a Lutheran, which seemed like a broad topic with lots of possibilities, so I went to work. I came up with this post.
I love the photos that appear on the website, and I've always been particularly happy with the photos that run with my posts. I have nothing to do with the images. I just provide the words. Kudos to the people who choose the photos!
It's a great site, full of wonderful posts, quotes, photos, and all sorts of suggestions. Enjoy exploring it this week-end.
In thinking of the Trinity and how hard trinitarian theory is for some of us, I thought I'd post this poem. It uses the metaphor of family to understand a triune God.
I should stress that although I wrote in first person, the voice isn't meant to be autobiographical. My father didn't rage or throw fits, although our inability to put our stuff away frustrated him. My mother never cried, at least not in front of us, at the way her children treated her, although our behavior was outrageous enough to drive anyone to tears at times. The third stanza is autobiographical, but I'm the older sister.
I don't know that this poem represents the way I see God anymore. It's still accurate in terms of the Holy Spirit, but my view of God the Father has evolved into a relationship with God as a fellow creator.
Still, it's an interesting experiment, and it might spark some insight in you. Enjoy!
My father’s rages came suddenly, and I cowered,
an Israelite hiding from an angry Yahweh.
He gave our small family extensive rules
and regulations, a strict code of laws so unbendable,
unbreakable that they might as well have been carved
in stone. His wrath exploded out of proportion
to the offense as he swooped
out of his study to confiscate
all toys left in his path.
From my mother, I understood Christ’s pain
at our rejection. I declared that I, unlike Simon Peter,
would never turn my back on Jesus, never disavow
my love. And yet, I betrayed
my mother in much the same way. I insisted
that she put on make-up before chauffeuring
me on my errands. My standard refrain:
“Are you going out looking like that?”
Just my sneering tone of voice drove
my mother to tears.
My older sister didn’t pay any attention
to my horror at her dress code.
She tied the neon orange laces of her camouflage
high tops and bounded to the top of the stairs.
She laughed at my order to change.
“Do you want ice cream or don’t you?”
I reluctantly followed her, let her drive,
accepted her milkshake, and drank
the sweetness of whimsical grace.
This Sunday is Holy Trinity Sunday, one of those festival Sundays that seem a bit baffling, at first (like Christ the King Sunday, which comes at the end of the liturgical year). We understand the significance of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. But what exactly do we celebrate on Holy Trinity Sunday?
At first reading, the Gospel doesn't seem to help. And Jesus certainly didn't spend any time indoctrinating his disciples on these matters which would later split the church. He alludes to the Triune God: we see him pray to God and he tells the disciples that he will send a Comforter. But he spends far more time instructing the disciples on how they should treat the poor and destitute, about their relationship to the larger culture, about their role in creating the Kingdom in the here and now.
You get a much better understanding of the Trinity by reading all the lessons together (thanks to my campus pastor from days of old, Jan Setzler, who pointed this out in his church's newsletter several years ago). These aren't unfamiliar aspects: God as creator of the world, God as lover of humans, Christ who came to create community, the Holy Spirit who moves and breathes within us and enables us to create community.
Notice that we have a God who lives in community, both with the various aspects of God (Creator, Savior, Spirit) and with us. It's an image that baffles our rational minds. It's akin to contemplating the infinity of space. Our brains aren't large enough or we don't know how to use them in that way.
My atheist and agnostic friends will sometimes pull up these issues of a triune God when they ask me to defend the faith. I tell them that I can't do it and that I'm content to be living as part of this great mystery. Baffled, they look at me. They say, "You're an educated woman. Certainly you can't accept something you can't explain!!!"
Well, frankly, there are many things I can't explain: electricity, computers, internal combustion engines, arcane French literary theory. Does that mean that I'm going to live in the dark or not use my car? Of course not.
The message that Jesus brings us is refreshingly simple, in that it's easy to understand: "Go and make disciples."
Obviously, it's not that simple, and here, too, interpretations of this text have split the church. Does our commitment stop once we've baptized people? What does it mean to make disciples? There's an infinite supply of answers.
The God that we see in our Scriptures is a God of action. We see God creating in any number of arenas. We are called to do the same. This is not a God who saves us so that we can flip through TV channels. Our God is a God who became incarnate to show us how to be people of action: Go. Make disciples. Teach. Baptize. Keep the commandments. We do this by loving each other and God. We love not just by experiencing an emotion. Love moves us to action.
Our job is not done once we’ve baptized. Our job is not done with the Rite of Confirmation. Jesus, as always, points the way. Why not share a meal together? Why not do some work (fishing perhaps? Building housing for the poor? Weeding the gardens?) together? Why not pray together? Why not create a beautiful work of art together?
Our Triune God calls us to go and make disciples, but two thousand years of Church history shows us a delightful diversity of ways to do that. Theologian Frederick Buechner reminds us in his book Wishful Thinking: "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Jesus promises to meet us there.
Today is the birthday of Che Guevara, the man who tried to liberate Latin America by force. Like many who travel through the underdeveloped world, he came away distressed by the plight of the poor. Unlike many, he came to believe they could only be set free through armed revolution.
It's interesting to me the ways in which concern for the poor manifest themselves. What turns one man into a revolutionary fighting with machine guns, while another decides to spend the rest of his life digging wells?
I wonder how much one's religion has to do with one's response? When I go back to the Gospels looking for Christ's teachings about how to deal with state oppression, I see a very careful message. Some people scorn the passage that tells us to turn the other cheek. But turning the other cheek lets us live another day and gives us another chance to practice resistance. I've written about this idea in some detail here. Walter Wink has written volumes, should you be interested in an in-depth exploration, and I can think of no one who explicates these ideas better.
Violence can be an effective tool; we'd be crazy to deny that. But philosophers of all varieties have warned us about the danger of this tool. It's like handling a rattlesnake; the tool of violence puts the user in as much danger as the one at the receiving end of the violence.
We might look to Latin America now and say that Che Guevara was successful in transforming the society. But we all know that social transformation happens for many different reasons. Perhaps it was the CIA influence throughout the region. Perhaps it was a generation of radicalized priests who practiced liberation theology. Perhaps it was the threat of violence. Perhaps it was the violence itself. Perhaps the population finally decided that they had had enough and acted accordingly--through their votes, through insurrection, through their work abroad bringing pressure on regimes back home.
I think of Africa, particularly the Sudan region, and I can't imagine how those problems of humans rights abuses during war will ever be solved. After a place has endured such horrific violence, how can it heal?
I look to South Africa and its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What a brave experiment. I love the idea of letting victims tell their stories, letting perpetrators tell theirs, putting in place a system for restorative justice. Justice is so often punitive and harsh. It so rarely looks to rehabilitate, to reconcile. I hope in the future we see this experiment duplicated more often.
We don't do it because it's hard and so often heartbreaking to hear all those tales of loss and abuse. But faith traditions across the planet tell us that we must. Our own Gospel Good News is that the redemption of the world has begun, that we can see the bright light of God's restoration of creation breaking through already. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one of those bright lights. The battles fought by Che Guevara and the Castro brothers? Not so much.
It's easy to begin an armed battle with the right intentions, the right motivations. It's so hard to keep sight of them as the battle continues. It's so hard to win the war without losing one's soul--one reason why so many religious traditions counsel us to be careful before we embrace violence, why so many religious traditions encourage us to act non-violently in our attempts to transform the world.
I went to Pentecost service yesterday feeling tired and worn out. I knew the service would last longer than usual, and our services are almost never under 75 minutes. I wanted to feel enthusiastic, but I just felt exhausted.
I continued to feel that way until we got to the Rite of Confirmation. And then I felt transformed. We had 6 confirmands, which may not sound like very many to those of you who have huge churches or who live in Minnesota or similar places where Lutheranism is the norm, not the unusual.
Not only did we have 6 confirmands, but they had tons of family with them, many of them family members I'd never seen before. I felt touched that so many generations saw this day as important.
I was part of the service because I'm the Council president. I lit a candle for each confirmand and gave it to a family member to give to the confirmand. And then we sang "Borning Cry," and I felt close to weeping with abandon, as I stood with the confirmands and their masses of family, and I looked out at this church I love so much.
Do I feel refreshed and ready to face the week? Do I feel like I've drunk from streams of living water? I suspect that as long as I'm working full-time, I'll always welcome the chance for a nap. But I do feel hopeful, and only in this onslaught of hope do I realize how mopey I'd been during the past several weeks.
Today I face Pentecost with a bit of weariness and a bit of wariness. I want transformation, but first I'd like nap--even though I just woke up an hour ago.
I remember a Pentecost long ago when I got confirmed. Lutherans had just switched to the green hymnal, so I had spent weeks memorizing the Creed in the new language. Much of my family came for the week-end: my maternal grandmother and grandfather, my aunt and uncle and two cousins. I didn't want to screw up in front of them. Happily, I didn't.
Someone had brought a huge amount of strawberries, which we ate all week-end. I had a red dress, which we'd driven all the way to Richmond (from Charlottesville, VA) to find. Ah, Pentecost, the red holiday.
I remember a Pentecost almost 10 years ago now, when we'd spent the week-end at various events that surrounded my sister's wedding. Some of us got up early and went across town to my mom and dad's Lutheran church for Pentecost service. I'd spent the past year deeply plugged into the church holiday schedule, and I didn't want to miss Pentecost. So, though I'd only had about 4 hours of sleep, I went to church. The world seemed to shimmer with possibility.
This morning, the world shimmers with a very dry heat. We're having the driest rainy season on record, and we're not expecting rain soon. I feel like a withered plant. I haven't been eating well or sleeping well. I'm ready for renewal, but scared at the same time. I know that God's vision for God's people has often sent them where they never would have thought of going--a rewarding path but one that was sometimes very rough.
My prayer for Pentecost:
Come Holy Spirit, but come gently. We've been scoured by the fires of all our sour economies. We're ready for new visions. We'll raise our sails so that your breath can blow us in a new direction.
Christine Valters Paintner has a great post on getting comfortable with our discomfort. She talks about a yoga practice, yin yoga, where participants hold a pose for a much regular time than most yoga (3-20 minutes). Yikes. I'm usually lucky if I can hold the pose for much longer than a few seconds after I compose my body into the pose. Usually I attain the pose and topple over or out.
Yes, I have work to do. I have work to do with other areas that make me feel discomfort too. Yesterday I wrote a post about all the people who come through my office with various problems. It's all I can do to sit quietly while they explain the problem. The super-efficient part of me wants to leap right in with a possible solution--often before they finish the explanation.
You can imagine how I am with problems that have no solution.
Christine notes, "We each have a threshold of tolerance for uncomfortable or painful experiences. When we stay within this range we can be present to what life brings us in the moment. When we drop below our threshold we become numb to what is happening and seek out things that help us avoid the pain, like drugs or overwork. When we move above the threshold our anxiety kicks into overdrive and we feel panicked, unsettled, or ill at ease."
Her post made me think of the phrase "sitting with our discomfort." I need to learn how to invite discomfort in to have a cup of tea. I need to learn how to spend a day with my discomfort. What would it be like to invite my discomfort to live in my house?
The great spiritual masters have always done this and lived to tell us of their discoveries. Think of the desert mothers and fathers, the founders of religious orders (and their modern practioners), the social justice warriors who have lived with discomfort for a lifetime so that future generations could live without that particular discomfort.
So, a spiritual discipline to work on: sitting with my discomfort. And maybe I should add holding a yoga pose for longer than a few seconds. I've got all sorts of ligaments that need limbering.
I've often thought about the way that job skills in one arena transfer to another; for example, this post considers the ways I've used my drama training, even though I didn't follow through with my original plan to act on Broadway.
This week is one of those weeks when I wish I had more training in pastoral care, when I'm grateful for the training I've picked up along the way.
I've tried to soothe students and their weeping parents. I'm always intrigued by the students I meet, especially the ones who are convinced that they're about to fail a class. Often, they're in decent shape, but they've gotten themselves worked up into a frenzy. I calm them down, make a few phone calls, explain the truth of the situation, and try to help them make a plan to do as well as they can the rest of the term.
I'm also intrigued by the students who have failed and come to me. They're often indignant: "I was there every day! I did all my work! Except for one assignment." Again, I explain the truth of the situation, which often involves doing Math: "If you have a zero for this assignment which counts 30% of your grade, there's no way you were going to pass."
Are these chaplain skills? Maybe not. Maybe I'm more like a counselor than a chaplain. But then again, after my encounter is over, and the student leaves my office, I offer a prayer for the student.
I also find myself with colleagues in my office, colleagues with issues of their own. I hear about troubled children, parents in trouble, despair about the future. I force myself to leave the administrator problems for later. I try to be fully present for these colleagues. I remind myself that I'm not required to solve these problems, but that listening may be enough.
Lately, I'm feeling like a hospice chaplain (again, a Holy Spirit nudge?). I have colleagues who have lost loved ones. The part of the country we live in, South Florida (the east side), suffers from all sorts of grim economics, which affects our workplace. So far, our school hasn't had too many layoffs, but the fear pulsates through the hallways. Grim economic situations exacerbate the problems that students suffer.
What to do? What else can we do? Pray, of course. It's the piece of the puzzle that I often forget, as I'm too frazzled or emotionally wrung out. I should write myself a sticky note, or put reminders all throughout my Outlook calendar.
When Paul commanded believers to pray without ceasing, he must have had my workplace in mind!
Ah, Pentecost, day of fire and wind and foreign languages.
Contemplate how much of Scripture circles around the breath of God. Reread Genesis--creation comes into being because God breathes it into life. Something similar happens in the Gospel of John. Jesus breathes on his disciples and transforms them. Likewise in Acts--that great rushing wind. For those of you in love with words and older translations, we often find the same word in these passages: Pneuma (yes, that root that creates our modern word of pneumonia).
The twenty-first century church, at least some branches of it, is in serious need of the breath of God. Perhaps you are too.
I often think of those first followers, who went out with the breath of God in them, and transformed the world. In the history of social movements, few have been as broadly successful as Christianity (and my atheist friends would chime in that few have been as destructive--we both may be right). What an unlikely story: a small band of weirdly talented (or distinctly ungifted) men and women head out in pairs, carrying very little with them, and they survive enormous obstacles. In the process, they change the culture (and often, they move on). Think of the distances that they travelled--often on foot. Think of how hostile the culture was. You wouldn't be able to suspend your disbelief if you read it in a book.
The breath of God should transform us in the same way. Jesus transfers his powers to his disciples; we're given the power to do what he does. Now, if only we could believe it.
Maybe the key is to act as if you do believe it. You can do remarkable things, even if you don't feel like you can.
We start on a small scale. We go to church. Maybe we remember the weekly lessons on Monday. As years go by, we're better at being Christians throughout the week. We bolster our efforts with spiritual reading and prayer. As we find ourselves transformed, we transform those around us. Many of us stop at this stage (or we run out of time)--some of us will go on to transform society: maybe we'll start a food pantry or create legislation that takes care of foster children. Maybe we'll challenge our home countries to look out for the civil rights of all. Maybe we'll issue the same challenge to other cultures. Hopefully, whether it be on a small scale or an international scale, no Christian can be immune to the call to care for the dispossessed, whether on a small, interpersonal scale, or a large, international scale.
It's also important to talk about the cyclical nature of the spiritual life and work. Even Jesus needed to retreat to solitude at times. Even Jesus had to practice self-care. If you feel that you've had the very marrow sucked out of your bones as you've cared for the world, maybe it's time to retreat. Even if you can't physically leave, you can let the machine pick up the phone and turn off the electronics. If you can't do much else, claim some time for the occasional nap. No one can go at an insane pace for very long and stay sane.
Pentecost is an overlooked church holiday. No church holiday gets as much time as Christmas, not even Easter. But Pentecost is such an important reminder of why Christmas happened. God became incarnate to prepare humans to carry on the work of Kingdom creation. And Pentecost reminds us of our job description.
So, receive the breath of God. For a powerful meditative exercise, you might imagine that as you inhale, God breathes into you. Breathe deeply.
Bookgirl has a great post where she talks about Pentecost and the fact that she'll miss this holy day at church because she'll be at a different festival: she's graduating! Congrats, Bookgirl!
What leapt out at me is how much disappointment she feels about missing what her church is planning. She links to this piece, which describes a fun-sounding day with silks and dyes and color. I can imagine all sorts of ways to use those silks to remind us of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
I feel a bit jealous. I always want to like Pentecost, but I often don't. I've puzzled over why this should be so. In my essay for The Lutheran (May 2011), I wrote:
"Maybe it’s the plotline of the story: those early believers, filled with a force they didn’t understand, speaking languages that they couldn’t know. Those of us who are control freaks by nature likely feel deeply uncomfortable at the prospect.
Pentecost is the holiday designed for discomfort, a celebration that should stir us to get up off the couch to go out and do great things. We learn about Pentecost in the book of Acts, after all, not the book of Sleeping Late. Perhaps that’s why so many of us approach Pentecost with a bit of apprehension. Throughout church history, we’ve seen what the presence of the Holy Spirit can do, even in the most improbable settings."
Pentecost is a holiday with imagery of wind and flame, and I wonder how preachers across the country will approach these symbols, in a season where wind and flame have wreaked so much damage.
Our church, like many others, will be confirming teenagers. I'm deeply ambivalent about this process. I understand why we do it. But I also think that teenagers are much too young to commit to anything, whether it be Christianity or a career or safe driving.
I also remember from childhood that long season after Pentecost (the boring green season, I called it then), with no interesting holidays, no changes in color or decoration, Christmas so far away. The church of my childhood didn't do a very good job of explaining the significance of Pentecost.
Here's how I explained it in the conclusion of my essay for The Lutheran: "God became incarnate to prepare humans to carry on the work of Kingdom creation. And Pentecost reminds us of our job description, to let the Holy Spirit blow into our hollowed out spaces and to fill us with the fire to dream and the resources to bring our visions to life."
I have written elsewhere (here, here, and here) about being a drama geek of the teenage category. Occasionally I think about how much time I spent preparing for the drama career I never had and how I've gone on to use those skills in other arenas. Most obviously, I've used those skills in my life as a teacher: reading out loud, reading dramatically, improv, throwing my voice to the back of the room which enables me to talk more loudly than anyone else in the room, those kind of skills.
Yesterday, I thought about a different arena. We got to church moments before the service started, and our pastor said to me, "You know you're the assistant minister today, right?"
Well, actually, no I didn't. But happily, my theatre training and my twentyish years as a teacher means I can be ready to perform without lots of practice. Without any practice, if we're being honest. Even had I known I was Assistant Minister, I wouldn't have approached yesterday much differently, except I'd have gotten there a smidge earlier.
Yesterday, we also had a vote on the budget as part of worship (our pastor has a whole series of reasons for why we do that, but those reasons deserve a post of their own--perhaps later). We hadn't discussed who would lead this section (I'm the church council president). I said I'd be happy to do it.
Our pastor pointed out that there were 2 prayers (one for discernment before we voted and a prayer of thanksgiving after the vote) and asked if I had prepared anything. When I shook my head, but said I was willing to do it anyway, our pastor said, "Sometimes spontaneous prayers are the best kind."
So, it wasn't improv, exactly. I had the remainder of the service (roughly 45 minutes) to think about what elements should be in the prayers. Some people would have needed a week or two to write out the prayers and to practice praying them before they could pray in front of a congregation on a Sunday morning. Not me.
Some people would credit the Holy Spirit, and I'm willing to do that too. But I'm also aware that the vast majority of Christians have such public speaking anxiety that they wouldn't be able to let the Holy Spirit work through them. They wouldn't be able to pray at all, much less without preparation.
In my role as teacher and as administrator, I've often heard numerous complaints about classes that students have to take that will make absolutely no difference in their future lives. Part of me understands. Part of me wants to say, "You're 18, 19, 20 years old, tops--how can you possibly know what you will need in the future?" Instead, I often say, "You know, I didn't think I would need ________, but you can't imagine how often I use that."
What fills in the blank? No, I wouldn't talk about praying as improv, but I'd throw out using dissection skills I picked up in Biology to cut up chickens. Sometimes I convince students that Composition skills will really be worth learning, will really come in handy later. Sometimes I don't.
So, I don't regret being a teenage theatre geek, even if I'm not currently performing on Broadway. Those skills have come in handy in more ways than I ever could have imagined. As a teenager preparing for auditions or perfecting my improv skills, I wouldn't have dreamed I'd use them decades later to lead a congregation in prayer. But I'm grateful to be able to do just that.
Theatre training isn't what we usually think of when we think of spiritual disciplines that lead to spiritual formation. But if we go back to Scripture, we'll see that spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation take all sorts of forms and direction.
On this day in 1981, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report reported a puzzling case of 5 young men, previously healthy, who were diagnosed with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), a very rare disease usually only seen in people with severely compromised immune systems. The young men were gay.
One month later, the publication reported on 26 similar cases in Los Angeles--and those patients also had Kaposi's sarcoma, another very rare disease, usually found in older men of Mediterranean or Eastern Europe descent.
And thus, the AIDS story began, and it's still unfolding. For the story from the point of view of someone who was there at every step, this Washington Post story by Dr. Anthony Fauci offers fascinating insights. On the 30th anniversary of the discovery of this plague, let's think about the implications for today.
We could see the response to AIDS as a profound failure of societal institutions, especially in the early days, especially with some of the more vocal elements of the Church. In the early days of this modern plague, the dead seemed to be primarily gay men and IV drug users, groups who were demonized further because of this disease.
Now, of course, everything has changed. For one thing, those of us with health insurance have access to protease inhibitors, the drugs that changed HIV/AIDS into a chronic disease, not a death sentence. And we know more about how the disease is spread, and there seem to be some easy ways to avoid it, such as monogamy, condom use, and care around bodily fluids. It's interesting to read nineteenth century literature and to think about those diseases that felled so many of those writers, especially tuberculosis. As I used to tell my students, if I had TB, everyone in the room would be at risk because we breathed the same air. With AIDS, it would require so many freakish events that they essentially would never be at risk; even if I had AIDS and blood left my body and fell into an open wound, students wouldn't face much risk. AIDS is the kind of disease where one exposure doesn't lead to the disease. It's the repeated exposure that leaves us at risk.
Many of the people who professed to follow Christ seemed to have problems following his model in the early decade of the disease. The history shows us how hard it is to model Christ when we're fearful. Those of us who are old enough can probably recall any number of examples of hateful behavior by religious folks, who seemed to have forgotten that they followed a savior who healed the sick, not spit on them.
Happily, we had brighter lights amongst us, like Mother Theresa, who wasn't afraid to care for the sickest of the sick.
As we enter the 4th decade of AIDS, it's a good time to think about the most marginalized of our society, and how we treat them. Perhaps we've gotten better in our treatment of AIDS victims, but there's work to do with other groups. Jesus calls us to minister to these communities.
Jesus calls us to do more than minister to them. Jesus calls us to break bread with them. Jesus calls us to create a community that includes the marginalized and the ostracized, not just to visit and go back to our groups that feel safer to us.
We didn't always do that with groups who were infected with AIDS. May we do a better job as we face current and future challenges.
Bookgirl has a fascinating post on her experiences with same-gender groups; she wrote it after reading Adam J. Copeland's post where a pastor talks about why he wouldn't start same-gender groups in a new church if he formed one. Let me confess to having never joined a WELCA group (the Lutheran women's group of the ELCA) in any church I've been to, although I've attended some functions.
In the same way that having a male-gendered God makes me nervous, having groups at church that are formed simply because members are male or female makes me cringe.
For one thing, there's the very modern question of how those groups treat people who don't conform to the group's expectation of gender. And then, there's the very question of gender itself, for those of us who aren't quite sure that there are simply 2 genders, or for those of us who are transgendered, or sympathetic to transgendered people.
Far better to organize people by their interests.
But then I start to wonder about this human tendency to form groups and draw lines/circles. I understand why the small groups are essential in megachurches. But many of us are attending churches that have 75-125 members on any given Sunday. Do we need small groups?
Maybe I'm just envious. I only have so much free time, and I'm trying to be very judicious. Of church small groups, I ask the same questions as I do of any group: is this the best use of my time? Of a church small group, I have additional questions, namely, how will my participation help me with my spiritual formation?
Of course, part of my queasiness has to do with the history of how the church has used same-gender groups. Bookgirl writes: “Part of my frustration with the church was the disparity in what the boys got to do and what the girls were expected to do.” In the church of my adolescence, I felt that way as I watched grown up women too–this expectation of all this volunteer work frustrated me.
Then the late 70′s progressed into the 1980′s, and everyone worked more and more–until we get to today, when everyone is working 40-60 + hours a week, and the expectation of volunteering has gone away.
When my younger self wanted a solution to this expectation that of course women would be honored to volunteer, this scenario isn’t quite what I had in mind.
Many churches have abandoned the idea of groups meeting year-long altogether because no one has time. In most churches I've seen, the women's group meets weekly or monthly, but it's mostly older women. Younger women are too busy working (either in the house or outside). Even when the men's group meets for breakfast, the largest number of attendees has always seemed to me to be retired men. Every working man I know has no time for breakfast.
I have no solutions, except to acknowledge that every small group is different, every church is different, every human is different. I am often leery of situations that other people find perfectly acceptable (calling God "Our Father," for example). And history has a way of making our frustrations irrelevant. I used to complain about the slow pace of change when I was younger and annoyed by all the volunteer labor in the church.
Now I know that many churches are teetering because so few people can volunteer anymore, even if they want to. My younger self would not have foreseen that modern life could come to this.
Last night was the last night we'll feed the homeless at First Lutheran until September--this night brings us to the end of our third year. As I watched people eat, I thought about Jesus and his table ministry.
I am not the first person to see the radical nature of this table ministry. Radical and radicalizing. It's hard to continue to think of the destitute as "Other" when we've eaten dinner with them.
Our table ministry falls a bit short here. The homeless folks eat, and we serve. Jesus would have pulled up a chair and broken bread.
Still, even the experience of serving would radicalize me, if I wasn't already radicalized on this issue. It's easy to dismiss the homeless as drunks and weirdos, if we only see them from our car windows as we whiz by. It's harder, when we hear their stories.
I used to think that the problem of the homeless was one of affordable housing. With enough units of affordable housing, I assumed that most of the homeless problem would be taken care of.
Now I realize that many homeless people have a variety of problems that oppress them. We used to take care of our mentally ill until advocates protested the cruelty of mental hospitals. Now we let them wander the streets. Many of the homeless people who come to dinner have addiction issues. We see people with a wide variety of disability issues too.
And then, there's the issue of jobs. I remember one night when one of the homeless women was so thrilled because she had gotten a job at Subway. That's great--but it still won't pay the kind of bills she'd have with a home, even a low cost one. Still, I smiled at her news--and offered a prayer for her.
I remind myself that I'm following the way of Jesus, who lived in a hierarchical society more stringent than ours. Jesus didn't solve those social issues either. I follow his way, preparing a meal, chatting over coffee, praying without ceasing about problems I can't solve by myself.
I also console myself by thinking about various people who did transform society, like all those Civil Rights workers. They met, they strategized, and thus, they were ready when history offered them a chance to change the world.
If that chance for historical change doesn't come, at least I can take comfort from the fact that I've created a refuge, if only for an hour.
In today's Gospel, we see Jesus at the end of his mission. We see Jesus praying, telling God all the things he (Jesus) has done. We also see Jesus handing over his ministry to his disciples.
What a strange thought, that these humans are ready for such a large mission. And yet, even my devout atheist friends have to admit the success of these early followers. And those of us several thousand years out might be wondering what Jesus did to foster this success. After all, if you set out to choose a group of people to bring the Good News to the far corners of the planet, you would likely pass those early disciples right on by.
That's the wonderful news that winds its way through the Bible. God can use all sorts of misfits and scraps of humanity to accomplish wonderful things. In her wonderful book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott says, "You've got to love this in a God--consistently assembling the motleyest people to bring, into the lonely and frightening world, a commitment to caring and community."
Notice that all of Jesus' followers were given responsibilities. They didn't just show up at church and wait to be entertained. They didn't march off in a huff when Jesus didn't do things the way the last savior did. I'm sure that Jesus lost some people along the way--after all, he made some stringent demands. But he also gave people ownership and expectations.
Jesus taught his followers to live in the moment, to not worry so much about 5 year projections or the future of the faith. He taught people to focus on the needs of the community and not on power structures that they hoped to maintain.
Jesus commanded his followers to be dependent on each other and to trust that God would provide for them. Think about one of the Gospel's versions of the last supper. Jesus sends them into town to procure things and when they're asked what they're doing, they're to say that the Lord has need of these things. And it works! When they're sent out, they're sent out two by two, with only what they can carry (and it's a light load). This ensures that they'll make connections in the new community, not just trust in each other and the people that they already know.
I'll admit that it's simplistic to look at Jesus' ministry in this way. We can't just set out into the world in pairs (we can't, can we?). We can't decide to start over in thinking about the way we do ministry.
But maybe we can refocus a bit. The church does best when it focuses on the needs of the community and looks to fulfill those needs. Many of us might think in terms of a soup kitchen or a day care, but there are other needs too. Maybe our frazzled community needs a contemplative service, where people can come into a candlelit sanctuary and sit and hear the lessons, without a sermon and communion and all the other stuff we cram into a service. Maybe people need a noon concert series. Maybe people need to come to paint and to listen to the voice of God in the paint. Maybe people need a book group to keep their minds from turning to mush.
If you don't know where to begin (the needs of our communities can seem overwhelming), start by emulating Jesus as we see him in this lesson. We can start by praying for each other. We can pray for all our colleagues, not just the ones that are out sick. We can pray for all our church members, not just the ones who don't come to church anymore. We can pray for our leaders: our pastor, our President, our boss, Congress, the mayors and city managers. We can pray for our friends and family. Jesus told us to pray without ceasing, and it's much more theologically responsible to pray for the cares and concerns of others, than to pray to Jesus requesting help with finding a parking space (as one of my friends routinely does; she claims she never has trouble finding a parking place).
So, start with some simple approaches. Say a prayer of thanks before you eat, and as you say grace, remember those who are hungry. Pray for the end of hunger in our world. Say a prayer of thanks at the end of the day and the beginning of the day, and thank God for the people in your life who mean so much to you. When your boss yells at you, when your clients are frustrated, when your students curse, pray for them. Be the mirror that reflects God's light into a world that needs it so desperately.
I'm a lifelong Lutheran, and although I'm aware of some of the problems with Liberation Theology, it has spoken to me for much of my adolescent and adult life. All of the thoughts on this blog are mine (or those of commenters), and I don't intend to speak for any other Lutherans or Liberation Theologians.
A poet, a scholar, an administrator, a wanna-be mystic--always wrestling with the temptation to run away to join an intentional community--but would it be contemplative? social justice oriented? creative? in the mountains? in the inner city?--may as well stay planted and wrestle with these tensions and contradictions here, at the edge of America.
To read my posts on creativity, poetry, and a host of related topics (and the occasional poem of mine), go here. You can also order both of my chapbooks from links on the creativity blog or contact me to purchase a signed copy of either book.