Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Slogging Through "The Source"

My book club will discuss James Michener's The Source on Feb. 17.  That means, of course, that we must read it, or at least attempt it.

You might ask, "How did you come to choose a book that's over 1000 pages?"

Well, about 6 months ago, we were reminiscing about books that had influenced us, and we talked about reading The Source--at least two of us read it long ago, and we talked about learning about the Middle East by reading Michener.  I innocently said, "I wonder if we'd still see it as so revelatory now."

And thus, a plan was born.  We decided to read it months later so we'd have time.  And now, we're most of us racing against time.

Last week, one of the book club members asked me, "Have you finished it yet?"

I said, "Humanity has just developed agriculture.  I'm nowhere close."

I first read the book in 1983, and as I reread it, I'm intrigued by how much history is there, and yet, years later, when I would rediscover that history, like reading Merlin Stone's When God Was a Woman, I remember feeling this shock of never having heard of this history of goddess religions before.

And yet, clearly I had.  I read The Source before I went to college, and much of that history is there in that book.

I do remember when I first read the book, I didn't really like the first one to two hundred pages.  I was reading the book to understand the more recent history of Israel, how the Jews formed a state and why the state of Israel was so contentious as a concept throughout much of the Middle East.  I remember reading Leon Uris, and before that I spent much of my formative years devouring books about the Holocaust. 

So, it makes sense that the earlier history just washed right over me.  This time through, I'm both enjoying the history lesson and finding it all a bit tiring.  The narrative often gets lost or overwhelmed by all the background.

I read a lot of Michener back in the days of high school, when I had a lot more reading time.  I loved the sweep of them, the feeling that I learned so much at the same time that I got a good story--or a series of good stories, all bound together by place.

When I was young, I felt I had plenty of time to read, both in the present tense, and in terms of what I wanted to read before I died.  I no longer feel that way.  I begrudge Michener a bit, for all the relentless history, much of which is repetitive, that bogs me down.  I keep thinking about all the other books I could be reading.  I keep feeling like I'm running out of time, even though I know I'm likely to end up with more time to read in retirement than I'll really want.

At some point, I'll likely say more about the religion in the book, because it's a fascinating study of religion and how religious beliefs developed.  If you've ever wondered how humans developed an idea of the Divine, and how that idea split into all the gods that we see in the ancient world, Michener gives us a great window into that world.

I'm just now to the time of Constantine, so I look forward to seeing how Michener shows us those splintered religions coming back together into more whole forms.  In other words, in the very ancient world, we see people with one ultimate god (El, and variations on that word) but with some more specialized gods, gods in charge of specific aspects of life, like fertility--and then later, even more specialized like fertility of the olive groves.  Ultimately, we see hundreds, if not thousands of gods--and yet, here in 2012, there's only one or two major world religions, Hinduism most prominently, that worship a plethora of Gods.

I look forward to discussing this with my book club, because we have such a diversity of religions represented.  We have an atheist, a Hindu, at least two Jews (one of whom has been on a dig in Israel), a Catholic, and the Lutheran me.  We meet on Feb. 17, and I'll report back afterwards.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Silencing the Demons

I've always wondered how pastors across the nation dealt with yesterday's Gospel, with its message of demons and Jesus quieting them.  I realize that some churches will deal with demons as ways that ancient people explained mental illness, while there are still quite a few churches that would tell you that demons really exist.

I remember once in a Religious Phenomenology class, I did an oral presentation on exorcism along with a partner.  One of our classmates, a Baptist minister at the age of 19, said, "Oh, yeah, I've done lots of exorcisms."  He was the first person I'd ever met who truly believed in modern demon possession.  Our oral presentation went downhill from there.

So, yesterday's Gospel:  our pastor focused on Jesus silencing the demons.  He reminded us that in the person of Jesus, we receive the promise that the Powers that are lined up against us and against God will not have the last word.  Jesus gives us not the silence of death, but the word of promise, and thus, death has no power over us. 

What a great reminder:  we may not understand the process in our rational brains, but nonetheless, death will not have the final word. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

For Your Sunday Listening Pleasure

This morning, I listened to a great interview on the On Being NPR radio show.  Krista Tippett interviewed the late poet and philosopher John O'Donohue.  I heard the interview when it first aired years ago, and the rebroadcast reminded me of what a wonderful conversation it was.  They talked about a wide range of topics, like the role of beauty and our need to be known for who we really are and language and landscape.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Well, I think it makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house. Whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you but in a totally different form. And if you go towards it with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you."

"So, I think that it would be great to step back a little from one's life and see around one who are those that hold me dear, that truly see me, and those that I need, and to be able to go to them in a different way. Because the amazing thing about humans is we have immense capacity to reawaken in each other the profound ability to be with each other and to be intimate. That's one of the things I've always thought here is that, you know, there is loneliness here that is covered over by this fake language of intimacy that you meet everywhere."

"I think that beauty is not a luxury, but I think that it ennobles the heart and reminds us of the infinity that is within us. I always loved what Mandela said when he came out, and I was actually in his cell in Robben Island, one time I was in South Africa. Even after 27 years in confinement for something he never — for wrong you never committed, he turned himself into a huge priest and come out with this sentence where he said, 'You know that what we are afraid of is not so much our limitations but the infinite within us.' And I think that that is in everybody. And I suppose the question that's at the heart of all we've been discussing really, which is a beautiful question, is the question of God, you know?"

"When I think of the word "beauty," some of the faces of those that I love come into my mind. When I think of beauty I also think of beautiful landscapes that I know. Then I think of acts of such lovely kindness that have been done to me, by people that cared for me, in bleak unsheltered times or when I needed to be loved and minded. I also think of those unknown people who are the real heroes for me, who you never hear about, who hold out on lines — on frontiers of awful want and awful situations and manage somehow to go beyond the given impoverishments and offer gifts of possibility and imagination and seeing."

Through the magic of the Internet, you can hear the whole show or read the transcript here.  That site will give you lots of other resources, including additional poems and a slideshow of the landscape described in the conversation. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Saddleback Approach or the Monastic Approach?

Today is Rick Warren's birthday. He wrote The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? which has sold over 30 million copies. I have always wondered if people picked up that book without realizing its Christian focus and then were confused when what they thought would be a self-help book turned religious on them.

I have read that book, and while I didn't agree with all of its theology (it seems to discount free will in a way that makes me uncomfortable), I didn't find it egregious. I also read The Purpose-Driven Church.  I remember that it had some interesting suggestions, but I also remember thinking that a lot of his ideas won't work for a lot of churches.

For one thing, he suggests taking out the pews and putting chairs in the space.  On the one hand, it makes sense.  You can then arrange the chairs in whatever way makes sense for the service you're planning.  But most of us in established churches have a sanctuary that is designed for pews.  In most church buildings I've seen, you'd take out the pews, but you'd still have to put the chairs in rows because of the space.

His approach also seems more suited to people who are in churches that are more free-form and non-traditional.  I'm part of a liturgical church, which means that services will likely have certain elements. We're not going to throw away centuries of tradition.

I've read books that talk about appealing to the unchurched, books that talk about removing crosses and other sorts of theological symbols that might make people nervous.  Yikes.

I'm a poet, so my approach would be to stuff the sanctuary with more symbolism.  When I first went to Mepkin Abbey, I was fascinated by how the sanctuary changed throughout the day and from day to day.  For example, the monks had artwork that they used to enhance the worship, and the artwork changed depending on the festival of the day.

The more I think about Rick Warren's approach, the more I decide that I have more in common with monastics than with the Saddleback preachers of the world.  I love the monastic approach of calmly and quietly doing what the community has been doing for centuries.  Some years, the world approves, and seekers come.  Some years, they live in obscurity.

However, I've met more than one person whose life has been changed for the better because of a megachurch.  I understand the need they fill too.

Happily we live in a wide world, where there's room for both approaches and all sorts of experiments in between.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Let There Be Light (and Color!) in Late January

I tend to think of January as bleak and dreary.  I've always wished that Christmas came in February, late February, so that we had some sparkly lights and special decorations to brighten our January and February. 

As I've been looking through my pictures, I'm surprised by how many pictures I take simply because I like the colors and the light. 

Even when a picture comes out fuzzy, I like to keep it, because I like the way the colors blend and blur.

Even shots of metal (below, the pipes of a pipe organ) can give my eyes a jolt of light.

I like the gleaming metal beside the more organic flowers below (and yes, scientist friends, I understand that metal, too, is organic).

Glass is a great conductor of light:

Can you find the cross in the picture below?

At our April 2011 Create in Me retreat, our group project was filling a cross with broken objects, which fit with the theme of "Broken, but Beautiful."  The cross now lives by the outdoor labyrinth:

Close up photos of the cross yield interesting pictures of light and color:

In the picture below, can you see the leaves and trees?

At an earlier Create in Me retreat, our group project was creating mosaics on windows outside of the main office:

Mosaics often reflect light in intriguing ways, even more so when lit from the back:

Soon the sun will return to us; until then, we have to make our own light.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Meditation on this Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012:

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. (Ps. 111:10)
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

What on earth are we to make of this Gospel? Here we see Jesus casting out demons, an act which might make us modern folks very uneasy. We don't believe in evil spirits, do we?

Do we?

In her book, Preaching Mark, Bonnie Bowman Thurston points out that the person who had demons was cast out of the worshipping community, and thus away from the presence of God. She encourages us to wonder what "demons" separate people from our worshipping community today.

We might broaden our scope to think about what “demons” separate people from their larger communities in general. We might turn our analytical skills back on ourselves. What separates us, as individuals, from the communities of which we yearn to be part?

For some of us, it is that we just do not feel worthy. In her book High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver describes her childhood as a child who read a lot; as a consequence, she says she’s often surprised as a grown up to find that people really do want to be friends with her. Many of us suffer from the kind of low self-esteem that might be described as a demon plaguing us.

Or maybe we don’t want to be part of any of the societies we see around us. Maybe we’re turned off by the values which can be so different than ours. Maybe we’re surrounded by mean people, by greedy people, by people who do not want the best for us. It’s not a far stretch to describe some of the larger communities in our world as demon possessed; evil does seem to be in charge.

For many of us, the issue is time. We’re increasingly overburdened by our to-do list. For those of us still lucky enough to have jobs, we’re likely doing not only our work, but the work of those who have been fired or not replaced. We work longer hours, and then we have family commitments, and our possessions need attention. We never have much down time, even when we sleep or go on vacation. We may feel tormented by demons who never leave us alone, who bedevil us so much that we cannot think.

For many of us, those demons are our electronics. Many of us are possessed by our smart phones, by our Internet ramblings, by all the things which promised to connect us (the demon seduction) but that leave us with so little time to make real connections with that which would bring us joy.

For this week, let us think about all of our personal demons and all of our societal demons. Let us decide how we will attempt to cast them out. As a church, what can we do to minister to those afflicted? As individuals, can we be doing more to reach out to those who, for whatever reasons, feel on the outside of our communities?

When my mother-in-law was sick in the hospital, the hospital had us wear visitor stickers on our shirts. Sometimes I would forget that I was wearing mine, and I'd go to the grocery store. I noticed that people treated me more kindly. That sticker showed that I wasn't having a normal day.

We should go through our lives, seeing our fellow humans as wearing similar stickers that show their need for our gentle treatment. Think of what a different world we would inhabit if all people of faith made gentle treatment of their fellow humans a daily practice. Think of how those demons would be diminished.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Confession of Saint Paul

Today the Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul.  Take a minute to imagine how the world would be different if we had had no Saul of Tarsus.  There would have been no Saul persecuting the Christians, no Saul to have a conversion experience on the road to Damascus, no Paul who was such a singular force in bringing Christianity to the Roman empire.

Early Christianity would have had some traction even had there been no Paul.  Those disciples and apostles had a fire borne of their experiences to be sure.  But it was Paul and his compatriots who brought Christianity to populations apart from the early Jews.  Without Paul, Christianity might have withered on the tiny Palestinian vine, since the other disciples and apostles didn't have the same fervor for converting people outside the immediate geographical area.

Would someone else have come along?  Probably.  The Holy Spirit does work in interesting ways.  But Paul was a fascinating choice, a man with extensive training, a man who could speak to multiple populations.  For those of us who feel we don't fit in anywhere, we should take comfort from Paul's story.  The Holy Spirit can use misfits in fascinating ways.  The Bible is full of them.

Some criticize Paul's letters for their inconsistencies.  I would remind us that Paul was writing to real congregations who were facing real problems.  I imagine that he would be aghast at the idea that anyone centuries later would use them as a behavior manual to teach right behavior.  It would be as if someone collected an assortment of your e-mails and centuries later saw direct communication from God in them.

For those of us who have found Paul troubling in terms of his ideas about women, about married people, about slaves, I'd recommend Classics scholar Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (Pantheon 2010), which I first wrote about here.  She gives a window into the ancient world which I had never really peered through before.  Her depiction of sexual relations of all sorts makes me shudder, and more than that, makes me so glad to be alive today.  The Roman empire really was a rape culture in all sorts of ways.  Viewed through this lens, Paul's ideas on relationships seem radically forward-looking.

Here is a prayer for today:

Triune God, you work in truly wondrous ways.  Thank you for the ministry of Paul and all the ways that we have benefited from his missionary fervor.  Let us use the life of Paul as inspiration for our own lives.  Let us trust that you can use our gifts in all sorts of ways that we can't even imagine.  Give us the courage to follow your calling to the far reaches of whichever empires you need to send us.  Give us the words that congregations need right now.  Grant us the peace that comes from having partnered with you.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Leftovers from the Rapture (or was it the Rapture?)

If you're looking for a fiction book that's a compelling read, while also a challenging book about religion, pick up Tom Perrotta's new book The Leftovers.  It's a book about what happens when the Rapture--or was it the Rapture?--happens, and the people you'd expect to be taken aren't taken. Worse, there are truly vile people who disappear.  And the fact remains that people aren't sure what actually happened.  Their loved ones were there, and then they weren't.  The book takes place 3 years after the Rapture-like event.

How do the ones left behind make sense of it all and go on with their lives? As I was reading, more than once I said, "This book is the perfect post Sept. 11 book!" And as I kept reading, I thought that it was far broader than that, since very few of us will escape having to wrestle with having been left behind.

Perrotta shows that he understands how religion has been used to meet the emotional needs of vulnerable humans.  He depicts several religious movements in his book that seem chillingly possible.  There's the Guilty Remnant, people who drop out of their families, live in communes, dress in white, and take a vow of silence.  There's a group of barefoot people, neo-hippies, who may be tuned into a higher spiritual plane or maybe they just have access to better drugs.  There's a messiah who leads a movement based on hugs, a movement which quickly degenerates into problematic sex.  It's a brilliant way to dissect the role of religion in our modern lives, by not talking about religions that currently exist, but by creating new ones:  no one is offended, but we get to explore the ways that religion shapes our society.

There are also plenty of characters who aren't ready to believe in these fringe religions, but who must wrestle with which way is best going forward.  Everyone in this book must figure out how to reassemble their lives.

Tom Perrotta is one of our best writers working today who depicts life in suburbia and how ordinary adults experience it.  His depictions through the years of humans who have gotten what they want and now must deal with the implications have always been deeply resonant.  I'm happy to report that as he moves away from strict realism, his insight is no less searing.

In The Leftovers, Perrotta has written a work of zinging satire with characters we really care about--that's no small feat to accomplish.  It's a page-turner, a work of depth that doesn't get mired down in the bogs of preachiness or show-offy mastery of psychological facts.  In short, it's what I want:  a readable book that's not fluff, but compelling enough and zippy enough that I can read it in a week.

Update:  If you want a taste of this book, the good folks at Macmillan have sent this link to a sample from the audio book.  If you click on it, your computer may launch it directly, rather than taking you to a different site where you can click to listen.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Leaving Our Nets and Radical Hospitality

Yesterday in church, I thought of pastor David Eck's post on what it really means to be a welcoming church.  He concludes:  "The reason why I bring this up is that I believe the phrase 'All Are Welcome' is dead. It has lost its meaning because it has been relegated to an overused catch phrase. The challenge is for progressive congregations to talk about what it truly means to live out this phrase. Then, when we're ready to embrace the meaning of these words, we need to tell our story to the community at large with clarity and power."

Yesterday in my church, our pastor talked about radical hospitality and what it might mean.  Our pastor talked about the need to take our hospitality out of our churches and into the world.  It's not enough to sit in our churches and wait for people to find us.  We need to think about the world which has a deep need for the kind of hospitality that Christians offer.

The Gospel yesterday had Jesus calling us to fish for people, and our pastor challenged us to leave the safe boats of our churches.  I love Kathleen Kirk's view on this approach in her blog post for yesterday: 

"Pastor Bob was interested in what would make you drop everything and start a new adventure, and, specifically, what would you need to give up to do so.

This was not leading to an easy equation, nor a conventional platitude: to win big you have to take a big risk, etc. This was a suggestion that we might have to give up a sense of identity. When Simon and Andrew left off fishing, they were leaving a way of life. When James and John stopped mending their nets, they were leaving a family business:

We can safely suppose there were sacrifices involved--psychological ones as well as material, having to leave behind not only their livelihood but something of their self-understanding, too."

Here's one of her conclusions that I'll think about today, as I'm facing today's tasks and yearning to drop all kinds of nets:  "Yes, the nets could well be seen as entanglements, or things we hold onto that can drag us down into the swirling depths, or even drown us. It's hard to swim tangled in a net or lugging a lot of mental baggage."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Meditating on a Spin Bike

Earlier this week, I wrote this post about praying while on a spin bike in an exercise class.  Yesterday, I did a guided meditation.  I gave it a spiritual twist.

I've done this guided meditation in spin class with this instructor before.  We start off with visualizing a color that symbolizes to us the way we feel when we're totally engaged in a task, so engaged that we lose all track of time.  We visualize it first as a dot and then we enlarge it.  Eventually it becomes a tunnel of color through which we pedal.

Yesterday, I tried to envision the color (purple with green edges) as God.  I tried to imagine the color as God's love dripping into me.  I tried to imagine my cells, which all week have been filled with anxiety and worry, filling up with God's love.  I tried to imagine God's love squeezing all the negativity out of my cells.

I was able to meditate in this way successfully.  I haven't always been successful with meditation.  My mind drifts off, and I look at my watch, and I wonder when it will all be over so that I can go on to something else.

Yesterday, we did our spin class in a dark room lit only by some violet light.  We did our meditation in the middle of our spin class, which meant that our bodies had something to do as our brains explored.  That kind of meditation works for me.  I don't do as well at the end of a yoga class when we all assume corpse pose on the floor and lie there still and silent for 15 minutes.

I mention these experiences to remind us that there are all kinds of ways to do spiritual practices.  You may not do well with prayers in which you chat with God.  So, try fixed hour prayers out of a prayer book where the prayers have been written for you, often centuries ago or try reading the Psalms as prayer (see this post for more on fixed hour prayer).  Maybe you'd like to keep a journal but you hate writing.  Play with collage or photography.

And don't be surprised if your preferences change as the years go by.  What worked well one year might not work as well a decade or two later.  Be flexible.  Try new things.  Look for practices that let you listen for the invitations that God offers you.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Life Lessons, Small and Major

Earlier this week, at my creativity blog, I wrote this post about life lessons, so far, from January.  I tried to be both serious and humorous, while avoiding preachiness. 

I've had the idea of life lessons on my brain, in part because my new year started with the funeral of my grandmother.  Her life taught me many things:  the joys of a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, the many ways we have to recycle and re-use almost everything, the simple practices that can enrich our lives in ways we cannot articulate (morning devotion time, daily dessert, weekly church attendance, social time with family, service to community).

A few years ago, during a car trip back from our Thanksgiving family reunion at Lutheridge, my spouse asked my grandmother for her advice about what makes a great life.

She said, "You have to exercise every day.  You need to giggle every day.  And be grateful for what you have."

I was often in awe of my grandmother's wisdom, albeit, often in hindsight.  She would have scoffed at the idea that she was wise.  She didn't value the things that she knew how to do in the way that I valued them:  quilting, canning, growing food, sewing, I could go on and on.

But in her quiet living of her life, she bore powerful witness.  And I must say, the quote above sums up her philosophy quite nicely.

And it agrees with so much that researchers have "discovered."  We need to keep our spirits up, and laughter is a great way to do it.  We need to keep our perspective, and gratitude helps immensely.  Physical exercise, which need not be vigorous (my grandmother took a leisurely walk each evening), helps in more ways than we understand.

I will continue to record the wisdom of my elders so that later, when my memory falters, I'll have access.  I wish that my grandmother had been more of a writer.  She scoffed at that idea too.  Unfortunately, she subscribed to the notion that only some of us are important, and that an old woman living in a rural outpost couldn't be one of those people.

Luckily, she was surrounded by people who didn't agree.  And luckily for us, she was willing to talk.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Praying to the Rhythms of Exercise

Yesterday was a trying and exhausting day on many levels, not the least of which was finding out that my credit card had been stolen when someone wanted to make a $1500 donation to the March of Dimes.

I'd like to eradicate birth defects as much as the next person, but if I could afford to make a $1500 donation, it would be to Lutheran World Relief or to the ELCA malaria eradication efforts.

We got the phone call from the Fraud unit of the credit card company after a long morning of all the phone calls that an impending real estate transaction takes--we are hoping to finally sell my mother-in-law's condo next week.  She died just as the real estate market imploded, and we've been stuck.  But selling a condo is not without special headaches.

So, by the time I got to evening spin class, I was wrung out from a day of anxiety and phone calls.  I was also feeling guilty (and yes, anxious) about my inability to turn off my anxiety response.  I hopped on the bike and spun and prayed.

I'm always startled when I can pray during spin class.  The music is loud, and the instructor has to give us direction, and we're often changing approaches.  But when I can pray, the rhythm often works.

I've had great luck praying during walks, either in straight lines or in a labyrinth.  But I don't often pray in other exercise situations.

The pounding music was great for short prayers, repeated over and over again.  The exercise setting reminded me to pray for health for so many people who are struggling.  The sweat poured off of me, which felt like a baptism.

I emerged from spin class feeling energized and cleansed.  I need to remember to try praying during exercise more often.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Simple Jesus You May Not Know

The day before Christmas Eve, I picked up N. T. Wright's Simply Jesus:  A New Vision of Who He Was, Why He Did, and Why He Matters; I couldn't put it down.  If someone else had written this book, I might not have bothered.  I might have said, "What else is there to say about Jesus that hasn't already been said?"

Of course, there's still plenty to say.  And N. T. Wright is the person to say it, and often in ways that surprise me.

This book is most important in describing the time period of Jesus, particularly the ways that first century humans understood time, space, and matter, and the way that first century Jews understood the Temple.  Wright also does a remarkable job in explaining the prophets, the reformers, and the radicals who came before Jesus, who inspired the imaginations of their contemporaries.  It's a great way to understand the context of Jesus, what people were expecting, and why Jesus might have used the language that he did.

The second part of the book explains what it all means to us, modern believers centuries later.  He talks about our job as believers:  "The Beatitudes are the agenda for kingdom people.  They are not simply about how to behave so that God will do something nice to you.  They are about the way in which Jesus wants to rule the world.  He wants to do it through this sort of people--people, actually, just like himself (read the Beatitudes again and see.  . . . When God wants to change the world, he doesn't send in the tanks.  He sends in the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for God's justice, the peacemakers, and so on" (page 218, italics in original).

If you've been going to church, the ideas in the second part of this book will probably not be unfamiliar to you--although you may be delighted and/or perplexed to see how Wright interprets the Gospels and the lessons of Jesus.

By now, you may be thinking, hmm, sounds a little heavy for my capacities.  That's another beautiful thing about this book:  it's readable, it's accessible, and it's fascinating.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"The disciples wanted a kingdom without a cross.  Many would be 'orthodox' or 'conservative' Christians in our world have wanted a cross without a kingdom, an abstract 'atonement' that would have nothing to do with this world except to provide the means of escaping it." (page 173)

"Jesus is like somebody who has two homes.  The homes are right next door to each other, and there is a connecting door.  One day, the partition wall will be knocked down and there will be one, glorious, heaven-and-earth mixture." (page 195)

"Jesus rules the world through those who launch new initiatives that radically challenge the accepted ways of doing things:  jubilee projects to remit ridiculous and unpayable debt, housing trusts that provide accommodation for low-income families or homeless people, local and sustainable agricultural projects that care for creation instead of destroying it in the hope of quick profit and so on." (page 219)

"Jesus has all kinds of projects up his sleeve and is simply waiting for faithful people to say their prayers, to read the signs of the times, and to get busy.  Nobody would have dreamed of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission if Desmond Tutu hadn't prayed, and pushed, and made it happen.  Nobody would have worked out the Jubilee movement, to campaign for international debt relief, if people in the churches had not become serious about the ridiculous plight of the poor.  Closer to home, nobody else is likely to organize a car shuttle to get old people to and from stores.  Nobody else is likely to volunteer to play the piano for the service at the local prison.  Few other people will start a play group for the children of single mothers who are still at work when school finishes.  Nobody else, in my experience, will listen very hard to the plight of isolated rural communities or equally isolated inner-city enclaves.  Nobody else thought of organizing the 'Street Pastors' scheme, which, in my country at least, has had a remarkable success in reducing crime.  And so on.  And so on."  (p. 230)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, January 22, 2012:

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Psalm: Psalm 62:6-14 (Psalm 62:5-12 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20

I'm interested that in this Gospel (as well as other stories we've had recently, like Mary's call in Advent), people don't seem to hesitate. They don't weigh the cost of discipleship. They don't create a spreadsheet that compares the pros and the cons.

No, God beckons, and these men leave their normal lives immediately.

The story we get in today's Gospel seems like a young person's story. How hard is it to give up everything when you're young and don't really have all that much to give up? I think of the mother of Andrew and Simon Peter, who must wonder if her sons have lost their minds. I imagine her sighing, saying, "Eh, they're young. They'll come to their senses and come back to the family business--I give them 6 months of this homeless lifestyle, following this wackadoo Jesus."

I think about Jesus moving in the world today, and I wonder if we’d recognize him and if we’d drop everything to follow him. Would we think about our jobs and the current unemployment rate and the likelihood that we’d never find a full-time job again if we dropped everything? Would we think about our family obligations? Would we worry about our stuff and our mortgages and how we’d pay our bills if we just dropped everything to follow Jesus?

Would we even hear Jesus at all? Many of us wander through the world with our cell phones pasted to our ears or our fingers, careening into innocent bystanders because we’re so oblivious. What would Jesus have to do to get our attention?

Our Bible stories train us to look for burning bushes, so we ignore the still, small voice that speaks to us out of the darkness of a sleepless night: it's not God, it's indigestion. We're ready for hosts of angels, or bright stars, or wise men who let us know that there's a new savior on the scene. But if God speaks in a small whisper, can we hear over the din of our electronics?

And if we hear, can we make time? I see God as the friend who continues to invite me to lunch, the one to whom I say, “I’m super-busy this month. What’s your calendar like for next month?”

The good news is that God continues to call us anyway. No matter how many times we reject God and God's hopes for us, God comes back to see if we're interested.

God has great visions for us. But even if we can't rise to those grand plans, God will entice us with smaller parts of the larger vision. And then, years later, we look up, amazed at how our lives' trajectories have changed.

What is God calling you to do? And if you're not comfortable with the larger plan, are there smaller bits you can do right now?

Maybe you're not ready to go back to school, but you could take a class or two. Maybe you can't leave your job, but you could try something different through volunteer work. Maybe you can't solve the larger social justice issue that keeps you up at night, but you could write a letter or educate your fellow citizens.

We are all so much greater than we know. Christ came to us to show us what is possible in a human life--and so much is possible. What part in this great human drama were you born to play?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Easter Story from the Gardener's Perspective

Those of you familiar with my poetry know that I've had fun imagining Jesus alive and moving around physically as a human in today's world.  I've written about Jesus on the softball team, Jesus bowling, Jesus showing up to do hurricane clean up.

I also enjoy taking less prominent characters from Bible stories and spinning a poem.  One year, when hearing the Easter story, I zoned in on Mary thinking that the risen Jesus was the gardener.  That tidbit made me think that there must have been a real gardener, and that realization made me wonder about the Easter story from the gardener's perspective.

That poem has just been published here, in Eye to the Telescope, in a collection of poems that are persona poems.  You'll need to scroll down to get to my poem.

You may ask, what's a persona poem?  The editor, Jeannine Hall Gailey, explains:  "The definition of persona poetry is poetry that is told from the first-person perspective of a character who explicitly is not the poet; the word 'persona' is derived from the Latin for 'mask.' I like persona poetry because it allows poets to use a lot of the tools available to fiction writers; it gives poets the permission to use the imagination, to free themselves from the strictures of autobiography. Speculative poets already push the limits of imagination in their work, so this is a uniquely ambitious kind of project. I also like persona poetry because in it, you can choose to retell stories from a different perspective—often a perspective left out of the original story. If you are interested in reading a little more about the definitions of and uses of persona poetry, you can check out this essay on the subject, available here."

When I first started writing poems using Jesus or other people in the Bible, it felt very dangerous, almost profane.  I've had lots of teachers who always encouraged us to push through our fears, who said that if the writing felt dangerous, then we were on the track of a subject worth pursuing.  And so, I pushed on.

I've found that the process of writing the poems gives me new appreciation for the Bible stories.  And I've also found that for many of my readers, the poems that felt dangerous when I was writing them are often the ones that speak to them most forcefully.

Even if you don't think of yourself as a poet, you might try something similar as a spiritual experiment.  Take a page of paper and imagine Jesus moving with you throughout your day.  What would Jesus say to you?  What would Jesus see in our world?

Or, take a Gospel story and think about the humans in the story that don't have a voice.  I've long been intrigued by a reference to Simon Peter's mother-in-law.  What must she have thought about the events of Peter's life?  And mother-in-law presupposes a wife--but that wife is never mentioned that I can see.  Still, the idea of Peter's wife--I still haven't written that poem.  I think of Peter's wife, at home, taking care of the family fishing business, while Peter goes about the business of the early church.

So, take out some paper and adopt an attitude of play.  God won't mind.  Our God is not only an awesome God, but also a playful God--if you don't believe me, look at the variety of creation, and see if you don't see a sense of play at work in the world. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Arcing Toward Justice

I've written about Martin Luther King numerous times before, and today, I've written this post about MLK and nonviolent resistance for the Living Lutheran website.

My creativity blog has this post with some additional links to some of my previous writing about MLK, along with a poem.

I also write about saints on this theology blog periodically, which leads me to wonder if MLK will ever be canonized.  I could make the case that the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's was proof of miracles that we can attribute to MLK.  My thoughts in this direction make me think about what the feast day of Martin Luther King would look like.

Well, we already have a glimpse of that, don't we?  Some communities would have parades, while others would engage in social justice projects.  We would sing songs like "This Little Light of Mine" and "We Shall Overcome."  We'd remind each other not to let evil turn us around.

So, on this day where we honor the dreams, both realized and yet-to-come-true, of both Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, let's continue to dream of justice, to determine that we will continue to work towards that vision of a day when we'll be judged on the content of our character.  Let's continue the spiritual formation of having a character that's worthy.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What Word Do You Need Today?

When I was at Mepkin Abbey this past November, I was intrigued by this basket of ceramic circles, each one with a word on it:

They're a variation of the old worry stone, a talisman we can keep in a pocket, a physical object that will serve as a reminder:  a reminder not to worry, a reminder of what we want more of in our life, a reminder of the better life that God has offered to us.

I found myself drawn to the words "dream," "integrity," and "serenity."  We have been in a season of shrinking and job loss in my workplace, as well as in the larger landscape of workplaces in the U.S.  I want to dream of new vistas, instead of reacting in a panic.  I want a job that seamlessly fits with my values, a job that doesn't sacrifice integrity for the sake of paying my bills.  I want the serenity that comes from trusting that God, who knows all the sparrows and every single hair on my head, will provide all that I can dream of, and more.

God is not hemmed in by our shallow imaginations.  God has good things in store for us.  Our bowls will be full of good food that will sustain us.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Small Kindnesses and MLK

During this week-end where we remember Martin Luther King and the huge gains of the Civil Rights Movement, I think it's important to stress that small kindnesses can change the world too.  I yearn for sweeping policy shifts as much as the next person.  I long to be remembered for transforming my society.  But we're not all called to do that.

We are called to be kind to the people around us.  When I think about yesterday, a day of tiring meetings, classroom observations, and other work duties, what I will remember is the kindness of the student worker in the bookstore where I went to pick up my new campus parking sticker.

I said, "I'm here to get a parking sticker, but I just realized I brought no ID with me."

The student worker said, "But I know that you work here."  And he handed me the forms to fill out.  I might mention that these forms only require information about my car (make, model, license plate #).  The form doesn't require information from my driver's license.  It does require my employee number, which I've memorized.

I've had other people who also knew I work with them insist on seeing my ID.  And here's a student who says, "You came to observe my class today.  I know who you are."  Both of those responses came from workers who were lower in the caste system which is academia.  One response insisted on knocking me down a peg whilst being unhelpful.  One response bestowed kindness and gave me a sense of well-being that lasted all afternoon.

I could go further and say that these kindnesses can transform the world just as surely as the larger Civil Rights Movement did.  I could argue that the Civil Rights Movement was rooted in the need for small kindnesses.  Those early activists gathered together to comfort each other after being in the larger world that was full of disrespect and meanness.

Imagine how the world might have been different if the Montgomery public transit system had been committed to small kindnesses:  every weary person gets a seat on the bus after a long day at work.  If Rosa Parks hadn't had to make a stand by not standing, would the Civil Rights Movement have been launched?  Certainly not in the same way.

Small kindnesses soften our souls so that we're ready to attempt larger kindesses.  If we treat the people in our immediate circle of daily life with gentleness, maybe we'll be ready for the transformative work that the world needs.  Maybe we, too, can follow in the very large footsteps of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

Friday, January 13, 2012

An Accessible Book on Simplicity for Your New Year's Reading

Many of us probably made New Year's Resolutions that revolved around simplifying our lives.  Perhaps we made resolutions about adopting spiritual practices that bring us closer to God.  Jan Johnson's book Abundant Simplicity:  Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace describes some practices that can help us do both at the same time.

Some of the material here will not be new to any of us.  We likely already know that we need to think about our priorities before we say yes to new activities, for example.  But I love her spiritual spin on simplicity.  She reminds us again and again that we should be adopting these practices so that we have more time for our relationship with God.

She's also very encouraging as she reminds us again and again to do what we can, not to stress over what we can't do:  "The guideline for all spiritual practices is a version of Benedictine John Chapman's words:  'Pray as you can, not what you can't.'  This means focus on a simplicity practice as you can do it, however imperfectly, not as others do it or the supposed one right way to do it."(55).

Some of her simplicity practices surprised me.  She devotes a chapter to fewness and fullness of words.  Throughout this chapter, she reminds us that the purpose of speaking should be to "impart grace" "promote kindness" (64).  Think about that idea as you go about your day.  How much of your language shines light into the world?  How much of your speech is devoted to ugliness?

In this chapter she also talks about the value of complete silence.  She describes an experiment that her graduate student undertakes; she remains silent for 24 hours.  Johnson also tells us about other ways we might weave silence into our noisy lives.

Each chapter concludes with a variety of experiments to try and a list of questions to explore in discussion or in private pondering or writing.  Again, some of these will be familiar, but it's good to be reminded of their usefulness.  And it's a treat to have some new material to use.

Other topics she covers include learning not to worry, learning to pare down, learning how to keep our free time really free, learning to be unhurried, and cultivating a spirit of gratitude.  Again and again she reminds us that we're doing these activities with a higher purpose.  It's not about clearing out our closets and shelves so that we can clutter them with more junk.  It's about making more space for God.

At 172 pages, with chapters that you can dip in and out of, with headings to help you navigate, readers will find this book accessible and friendly.  For those of us who already find the busyness of modern life sabotaging our resolutions, the reminder that we can start again will be welcome.  For those of us who think that there must be more to life than what we're seeing, this book points the way to a path we can follow to a life with more depth. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Who Is a Minister?

I'm still puzzling over the recent Supreme Court decision about Cheryl Perrich, the teacher in the Lutheran school, which you can read about in this article from The Washington Post.  I'm most puzzled that the female teacher in question was considered a minister in her Lutheran school--especially once I found out that the school is part of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod tradition.

Why did this fact make me take notice?  The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod does not ordain women.  More traditional LCMS churches don't even let women read from the Bible in the pulpit.  Yet the school claimed that the teacher was a minister?

True, her training went far further than that experienced by many teachers:  "Perich joined the school as a “lay teacher” in 1999 and then underwent extensive religious training. She became a 'called' teacher, expected to perform her job 'according to the Word of God and the confessional standards of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as drawn from the Sacred Scriptures.'”

I can't shake the feeling that there's more to this story, but I must confess I'm more interested in the Human Resources side of the story.  The teacher left on medical disability leave for over a year; not surprisingly, the school did not hold her job for her, and as I understand the law, the school was not required to do so.  The Post reports:  "When she threatened to sue to get her job back, she was fired for 'insubordination and disruptive behavior.'”  Why was she not simply let go for dereliction of her teaching duty when she didn't return from medical leave?

It's hard for me to see the discrimination here, but like I said, there may be more to the story.  Did she ask for reasonable accommodation?  Did the school take pity on her and try to keep her employed, only to find themselves baffled at a worker threatening a lawsuit?

The courts ruled unanimously, which makes me think that the case was fairly clear-cut in First Amendment terms.  The school called the teacher a minister, the teacher disagreed, the Supreme Court has just decided that she was a church leader.  Will this case have far-reaching implications?

Some of the Justices don't think so:  "Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan wrote separately to make clear that they do not think the term 'minister' is central to courts determining who is covered by the exemption. Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists rarely use the title, they wrote."

So, will later cases revolve around how a minister is different from a chaplain, a pastor, a priest?  Will the Justices need to think about church founders like Martin Luther, who coined the term "the Priesthood of all believers"? 

The newspaper article points to all sorts of inconsistencies, again making me think there's more to the story.  The teacher "claimed a special ministerial housing allowance on her taxes."  And again, I come back to the idea that the LCMS doesn't recognize women as ministers, which makes me wonder what the school is thinking.

It also makes me wonder if the Supreme Court thought about that fact.  If you don't ordain women, can you claim the exemption that the LCMS school claimed?  I would say no, although I would support the school in its claim to have done no wrong, based on what I read in the article.

I wish I could come up with some snazzy conclusion that would tie up all the loose ends in this blog post.  I wish that writing this blog post had helped me clarify all the points which left me confused, but that hasn't happened.  I remain where I was at the beginning, wondering about all the parts of the story that haven't been covered.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Jan. 15, 2012:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]

Psalm: Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 (Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Gospel: John 1:43-51

In this week's Gospel, we see the start of Jesus' ministry--and what a simple start it is. A low pressure invitation to come and see.

Note what is left out of this narrative. I assume that many people declined Christ's invitation, for all the standard reasons: no time, conflict of interest, kids have after school activities, guests in town for the week, laundry and grocery shopping to do, too much work to do before quitting time; we are people with responsibilities; we can't just abandon them to follow some guy around the countryside. Experts tell us that it takes 4-8 invitations before a friend will come with you to church. Imagine what Jesus faced as he offered invitations to total strangers.

And notice that Jesus carries on. Jesus doesn't go off in a huff. Jesus doesn't spend time complaining about how he'd rather have a different sort of ministry. Jesus doesn't whine to God that God promised him something different, one of those mega-churches perhaps. Jesus walks from town to town, issuing a simple invitation: Come and see. The ones who respond to the invitation offer the same invitation to their friends. Come and see.

Jesus doesn't do spectacular miracles in the Gospel of John, at least, not at first. He tells Nathanael that he'll see great things, but he doesn't wow the audiences with his powers.

There are several powerful messages for us here in this Gospel. We, too, have been offered this invitation. Come and see. And what are we to make of what we see? How do we respond? Do we tell others? Do our lives change? Can other people tell that we've been changed?

One of the tasks that God calls us to do is to transform the world we live in, to make the Kingdom of God manifest here on earth. No small task. But God has given us an example of how to do this: Christ's experiences on earth show us the way.

For those of us who are members of small churches or small ministries, we should take heart in this example. Jesus doesn't start with a huge group. Jesus doesn't start with a huge budget. Jesus doesn't even have a building to call his own. Jesus shows us what we can accomplish with a small group of dedicated people.

Perhaps this doesn't sound like good news to you right now. Maybe you're tired and not feeling so dedicated. Maybe you find yourself waking up at 2 in the morning with doubts consuming you and eating away your stomach lining. Pay attention to the Gospel lessons in the coming weeks. God can work with that kind of disciple too.

In the meantime, listen for God. On a daily basis, an hourly basis, God constantly calls us to come and see. God always calls us to transform the world and God promises that transformation is possible, even probable. We are Resurrection People: Life blooms even in the middle of death, even in the deep midwinter.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Prodigals Returning

This morning, I returned to running (I will use the word running, even though less kindly other people might use words like "slow jogging," "lumbering," "slogging," "shuffling"). It's been almost 2 months since I ran down the Broadwalk at the beach. Again, I wonder, why have I denied myself this pleasure?

Well, for the better part of December, I didn't run because I couldn't inhale without coughing. And then there was travelling and then there was my eye infection.

And then there was laziness.

I am always a bit surprised to find that my muscles remember how to run, after a long period of not running.  And as a poet, my brain goes to other areas where I notice a similar dynamic.  In so many areas of my life, I return to activities and people which bring me joy--and I always wonder, why have I denied myself this pleasure?  I wrote a blog post with poems about the subject here.  But let me also consider the spiritual dimension.

Many of us are similarly surprised when we return to the churches of our childhood and find comfort from the Scripture, from the hymns, from the liturgy, from the community.  We may wonder why we waited so long to return.  We may find ourselves surprised to find the open arms that welcome us.

Likewise, we may experience something similar in our relationship to God.  We may begin the discipline of prayer, or return to it, and we may be surprised to find that God has been there waiting all along.

And the parable of the Prodigal Son reminds us that God is not standing around, growing impatient, watching the celestial clock, wondering where we are.  God plans the feast that God will give upon our return:  a fatted calf, a fine cloak, a circle of friends, a ring for our finger.

Now is the time of year when many of us return to regular life.  We put away the excesses that often come with December.  We return to jobs, to exercise, to regular bedtimes, to housework, and to moderate eating.  We might also be struggling with a smidge of depression--December was so much fun, so lovely, so festive!

Now is a good time to pick up those spiritual habits that we may have let slide during December.  Your worship community is still there waiting for you.  God looks forward to your return.  May you find, as you return, that the quiet joy in these relationships takes away the depression that can come as Winter settles in.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Into the Pool!

Yesterday at my local Lutheran church, we not only celebrated the baptism of Jesus, but our own baptisms.  We did the Reaffirmation of Baptism, with our pastor explaining the different parts.

When we got to prayer that concludes the Reaffirmation, our pastor had the children come forward.  Every time the word water was mentioned, the children jumped up with hands in the air and yelled "Water!"  I loved the interactive nature of it.  Then the children and the pastor went through the church sprinkling us all with water with a palm branch.  It was fabulous.

Our pastor preached a wonderful sermon about baptism.  He had an extended metaphor, based on the swimming pool his family had when he was growing up.  It was New York, so the first swim of the season was in very chilly waters.  He remembers that as a child, he didn't care:  he'd cannonball himself into the water.

As a teenager, he'd carefully arrange the floats so that he could be in the water and not touching the water.  And the adults were content to sit around the pool and barely dip a toe in the water.

He reminded us that new converts are like those kids, enthusiastic and energetic.  As our faith matures, we're in danger of losing this enthusiasm.

He encouraged us to listen to what God would have us to do.  God doesn't want us to just do whatever we want to do.  No.  If that was enough, there would be no sin, no lives gone astray.

How can we grow into the promise of our baptisms.  Our pastor gave us a question to ask ourselves.

He asked, "Having chosen us, what does God want us to choose to do?"  He encouraged us to listen with discernment.

It's a question that spoke to me, as I may be approaching a place in the not too distant future when it's time to think about career choices for the second half of my life.

Our pastor closed by reminding us that Jesus has gone before us into the baptismal water.  He said, "C'mon in--Jesus is waiting for you in these baptismal waters."

Yes, the water's fine--let's jump in!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Grandma's Love, God's Love

I have my grandmother on the brain a lot these days.  I've been feeling the grief that one would expect, of course, when a loved one dies.  I've also been feeling gratitude.  I've been thinking a lot about the love that we experience, or don't experience, from our families, and what that love can teach us about God's love.

My grandmother was not always an easy woman to love.  She had some fairly traditional ideas about how we should behave.  Her pre-20th century ideas about blacks, women, and homosexuality could be tough for me.  I remember that we cousins would often try to influence her beliefs.  Now that I'm older, and from this side of time can see the futility of our attempts, I shake my head at our belief that we could change her attitudes.

I always tried to remind myself of the social changes that she had seen in her lifetime.  Here's just one example:  her farm family used horses as vehicles, and then during the following decades, she was one of the first women in the county to ride in a car, and she saw ships carrying humans launched into space.  How dizzying.

I often just ignored her attempts to change my behavior, and now that I'm older, I see my actions as petty and disrespectful.  She didn't want me to wash my car in her driveway on a Sunday afternoon, but I did it anyway.  Would it have killed me to have waited one day?  Of course not.  I was trying to prove a point.

Now that I'm older, the idea of Sabbath time becomes ever more precious to me.  But to be honest, my grandmother didn't want to to avoid washing the car because of Sabbath time.  No, she was worried about what the neighbors would think.

My grandmother continued to welcome me back to her house, even when I didn't behave in the ways that she wanted.  In many ways, this love reminds me of God's love. 

My grandmother wanted what was best for me, as God does.  Her ideas for what was best differed from what I may have thought, but she didn't cast me away.

And I was stubborn too.  I kept coming back, even when she occasionally said ugly things about my life's choices.  Keep in mind that I wasn't doing anything truly dreadful, like developing a heroin habit.  She was baffled about my continuing on in school.  She was even more baffled about my spouse's long trajectory towards a real job.  She didn't understand my problems with organized religion.  But I continued to come to see her.  As I worked on my B.A. degree and my graduate degrees, as I worked at my first grown up job at a community college, I visited every month or 6 weeks.  She cooked me dinner and often had a tin of cookies.  She continued to sew clothes for me.  She often gave me larger gifts that would have taken me months or years to afford.

We both continued to keep the lines of communications open, and so, she was able to enjoy the times she had scarcely dared hope for, like my return to the Lutheran church.  In much the same way, I imagine God, continuing to cook meals for us and to sew us clothes, continuing to give us help, in the hopes that we'll turn our lives around.

I realize that not every story of family love ends this way.  Too many people experience family estrangement to find the idea of God as a parent or grandparent to be a comfort.  Too few of us find an earthly incarnation of the kind of unconditional acceptance that God gives us.

My hope is that we can find partial examples of that love and extrapolate.  My grandmother's love of me was incomplete.  She spent too many years feeling more disappointment than love.  I like to think that God would be more full of love than disappointment.

The love of family and friends gives us a window into the magnitude of the ways that God loves us, forgives us, roots for us, and comforts us.  And as we think about that idea, we can also think about the ways that we can help others experience a fragment of the love that God has for humans; we can love others and be an example of the Divine love.  In this way, our lives full of love can become sacrament.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Funeral So Close to Christmas

A week ago, we had my grandmother's funeral and burial.  In many ways, it was a funeral service both beautiful and strange.

The church was still decorated for Christmas, complete with lights and candles.  I found it oddly comforting, even while it made me feel a bit disjointed.

My grandmother died on Dec. 28, the day after her 97th birthday.   Our Gospel reading was the reading for last Sunday, Luke 2:22-40, with the faithfulness of Anna and Simeon. I thought it was a strange choice for a funeral reading, but the pastor made it come together surprisingly well.

The pastor's homily focused on her near-Christmas birthday, her near-Christmas death, and the meanings of Christmas.  It focused on being a servant in the tradition of Christ.  The pastor talked about faithfulness and living a long life in faith, as Anna and Simeon did.  The meditation worked surprisingly well.

We ended the service with "Joy to the World," one of my favorite Christmas hymns, that I haven't sung at all this season.  Again, a surprising choice, but it worked.

Oh, we sang more traditional funeral hymns.  My grandfather's favorite hymn was "Children of the Heavenly Father"; we sang it his funeral, and we sang it at my grandmother's too.  That song makes me weep even when we're not at a funeral.  Would it make me weep if I didn't associate it with funerals?

I find it comforting even as I'm weeping.

We read the passage from Romans (8:31-39) which assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of the Almighty.  We read Psalm 23.

In all, the funeral did what funerals need to do.  It celebrated the life of my grandmother.  It reassured those of us still living that death will not have the final answer.  It comforted those of us gathered together to grieve a loss.  It reminded us that we are still alive, with important work left to do.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Last Day of Christmas

Today we reach the end of the Christmas season, which every year seems all too short.  Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi, those wise, wise men.

Matthew 2: 10-11

10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

I find my Advent mood seeping into this Feast Day.  I think of those wise men, their study of the night sky, the arrival of the new star.

I've written a longer blog post about this aspect of the story over at Living Lutheran:  "But the Magi don’t miss the message of the star. They show up to do the work. They’re not lazing about hoping that something reveals itself. They are present and receptive to the message of the skies. They participate in the discovery of the message."

We might prefer the blaze of angel light, the night sky disrupted, the message plain and clear.  We might wish that we didn't have to rely on a lonely star, beaming its speck of light from such a great distance.  The wise men remind us of the Advent message, the value of watching and waiting and staying alert.

The travel of the Magi speaks to some of us this time of year.  Not only were the magi watching the skies, they were ready to hit the road.

Jan Richardson has a great meditation and poem on this aspect of the story:  "As we travel toward Epiphany and savor the final days of Christmas, this is a good time to ponder where we are in our journey. As we cross into the coming year, where do you find yourself on the path? Have you been traveling more by intention or by reacting to what’s come your way? What direction do you feel drawn to go in during the coming weeks and months? Is there anything you need to let go of—or to find—in order to take the next step? In the coming months, what gift do you most need to offer, that only you can give?"

Too often, with both our Christmas story and our Epiphany story, we stay with the happy elements:  we focus on the baby in the manger, the arrival of the wise men, the happy crowd, all assembled.  We forget what happened next.

Matthew 2: 12-14

12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,

The journey of the Magi plunges the family into chaos, into flight, into refugee status.  These stories are not all sweetness and light.

In this post, David Eck reminds us of the political implications of the Epiphany story, the fact that the wise men didn't find the new king in any of the power centers of the Roman Empire:  "This is good news for us who live in a world where rulers are easily corrupted and governments cave-in to lobbyists and special interest groups. It serves as a reminder that Jesus, the ruler of our hearts, is found among the poor and the needy, the lost and abandoned. If we really want to see him face to face we will NOT see him in Baptist ministers running for political office or in T.V. preachers living lavish lifestyles. We will find Jesus sitting with the homeless on a park bench, shivering in the cold, waiting for a shelter to open for the night. We will find Jesus holding the hand of the victim of a hate crime who is crying out for justice and for safety. We will find Jesus huddled close to a space heater with a family of five because it is the only source of heat in their entire house."

Here is a prayer that I wrote for today:

Creator God, on this day when we celebrate the mystery and the wisdom of the Magi, we ask that you grant us a portion of their patience.  Let us continue to watch and wait for you.  Let us see the specks of light that lead us to you.  Let us have the courage to follow the star, even if it leads us to unexpected places.  May we not react in great destruction, as Herod did.  Grant us the wisdom to know our gifts and to bring them forth.  Let us bring your light to all the dark corners of the world."

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Holy Spirit, Earthly Spirit

Last night was the first night of 2012 that we went to First Lutheran to take dinner to the hungry and homeless.  I expected it to be a record setting crowd, since it was so cold outside, cold by South Florida standards.

Of course, when it's cold, the city opens a shelter, so maybe that's why we didn't see as many people as I expected.  On the Wednesday before Christmas, a balmy 85 degrees, we served 139 people.  Last night, with the low in the 50's, we served under 70 people.

The pastor wasn't on site by the time it was time to say grace, so I said, "Luckily, we belong to a religious tradition that doesn't believe we need a pastor to pray to our God."  No big deal--I've done it before, and I'm comfortable praying in front of a group.

A man raised his hand and asked to be the one to pray.  I was a bit uneasy--was he enthusiastic because of the Holy Spirit or because of earthly spirits?  I said, "Let's pray together.  You go first, and I'll finish." 

As he came forward, I noticed uneasy looks being exchanged across tables.  I said, "You're not going to be profane, are you?"

Oh me of little faith!  He took my hand and offered a beautiful prayer.  He said, "Now you."

I prayed, "I don't have much more to add to that, except to ask that you be with those who can't be with us tonight and to be with us as we leave each other at the end of our time together tonight."

First Lutheran offers an ecumenical worship service after the meal.  The pastor still hadn't arrived by the end of the meal, and the First Lutheran woman in charge asked if I would do the service.  I hadn't counted on that, but I was game; I decided to go with an Epiphany theme, since I'd recently been writing about Epiphany (here at the Living Lutheran website, and here at my weekly Gospel meditation).  I consulted with the pianist/choir director, found a Bible passage, and waited for time to begin.

We sang "We Three Kings."  I read Matthew 2:  1-21.  I talked about the wise men knowing what they were seeing because they had been observing the skies for many years.  I talked about the different responses to God:  the wise men get up and get moving, while Herod reacts in devastatingly destructive ways.  I talked about God choosing to live among the poor, the refugees, the immigrants.

Several of the homeless men wanted to talk, and I let them.  I'm enough of a teacher that I'm comfortable with that approach, although it unnerved at least one of the First Lutheran members.

Then I took prayer requests and fashioned a prayer.  We finished by singing "Joy to the World."

Last night was one of those Holy Spirit nudges.  I always love serving a meal.  As I have said to more than one friend, who can object to feeding the hungry?  But I really loved putting together a service and doing the preaching.

I know I might not love it as much if I had to do it week in, week out.  I know that to be an ordained Lutheran, I'd have to take on a lot of student debt as I went to school for years.  I feel the Holy Spirit nudging me, but I'm unclear of the final destination.

Am I unclear or do I not want to see?  I am guilty of wanting the Holy Spirit to speak in grand gestures, like a full scholarship to a seminary with living expenses covered too, not in gentle whispers.  I worry that if I want a grand gesture, the Holy Spirit will get my attention by way of the grand gesture of unemployment or something horribly negative.  My earthly spirit clearly doesn't fully trust the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps that's why the Holy Spirit tends to work in nudges and whispers.  Most of us are skittish animals, after all, easily spooked.

Today I return to my regular life, a work life full of Holy Spirit nudges, where no one asks to pray with me, where few worship, where whining often wins out over gratitude.

I want to be like my grandmother, whom so many have told me cultivated a garden of calm and acceptance.  I want to be that woman, no matter where I'm working.  Come, Lord Jesus, and transform my worry into joy.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012:

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
The voice of the LORD is upon the waters. (Ps. 29:3)
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

This Sunday marks the baptism of Christ. I love the words of God in this baptism: "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." Note that God says this at the beginning of Christ's ministry, before Jesus has actually done much. In fact, in this Gospel of Mark, the baptism scene is our first introduction to Jesus. Mark doesn't give us a nativity story.

Here's the best news of all: God feels the same way about you.

God feels the same way about you: you are God's chosen ones; God is well pleased with each and every one of you.

For those of us who might have grown up with the idea of an angry God, a punishing parent, this message can be quite powerful. God loves you, regardless of what you've done, in spite of what you've done. God's love has nothing to do with what you've accomplished.

Certainly God has ideas of how we can live our best lives, in much the way a friend wants what's best for a friend, a parent wants a child to make choices that will lead the child to fulfillment. But regardless of what we've done or not done, regardless of the roads we've taken, regardless of how well we're living our mission to be the light of Christ in the world, God loves us.

This is a powerful message as we start the new year. For some of us, a new year is a chance to beat ourselves up over how much we haven't accomplished. We think of all the past resolutions we haven't been able to keep. We think of all the ways we haven't been our best selves. We think of all the people we've disappointed. We can quickly spiral into a vicious circle of self-hatred and depression.

God knows all the ways we might not deserve it, but God loves us anyway. Again, that's the great thing about being a Lutheran and believing in grace--God knows us completely, and God loves us thoroughly. We don't have to do anything to earn this love. Indeed, we can't.

Look at the great lengths God has gone to to let us know of that love. Think of the Christmas and Epiphany stories. God becomes a little baby, born in a stable--and why? To let us know of God's love. God becomes a refugee because of Herod's jealousy. God loves us so much--the Bible is full of stories that show God going to great lengths to show humanity this love. An observant person might say that God still goes to great lengths to get our attention.

The juxtaposition of the Christmas/Epiphany stories and the Baptism of Christ also gives us an opportunity to see how differently people respond to this gift of grace and love. Herod is so threatened that he slaughters every child in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. John, on the other hand, tells everyone about the coming arrival of Jesus.

How will you respond to God's great gift of love?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Meaning of Christmas, One Week Out

A week ago, we'd have been celebrating Christmas.  This is the time of year when so many of us go into a funk as the twinkly lights disappear and the days don't seem to be growing noticeably longer and we face the stern reckoning of what the holidays have done to us in terms of our weight, our good habits, and our finances.

A week ago I posted pictures of the baby Jesus in the manger.  For too many of us, the story ends there.  We forget the true meaning of Christmas.

Jesus didn't come to be a cute baby in a manger.  If we stop with the cute baby in the manger, we've lost the story.  In his various Christmas homilies, our pastor reminded us that Jesus comes to live in our hearts and transform our lives so that we can be Christ to each other.

He gave us the example of the feeding program at First Lutheran which so many of us participate in.  Once a month, we take dinner to First Lutheran and serve anyone who shows up.  Our pastor reminded us that since we started participating, we've fed over 3000 people.

Some days it feels like we do so little.  We've been feeding people for over three years, and yet the problem hasn't been solved.  We might even say it's gotten worse.  We see the same people each time.  We feed them for a night, but we haven't solved the thorny issues of homelessness and hunger.

I must return to the Advent words of John the Baptist:  "I am not the Messiah."

The Christmas message is that God came into the world, born to a homeless couple who would soon become refugees.  The most grim of circumstances can be redeemed.  I don't have to know how it will happen.  Christmas tells me the great glad tidings that it will happen:  the redemption of creation is underway, in ways I can't possibly predict.

Return to the angel's message.  Don't give up hope, even as the dreary days of January drape across your spirits.