Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 4, 2012:

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm: Psalm 22:22-30 (Psalm 22:23-31 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25

Gospel: Mark 8:31-38

In today's Gospel, Jesus gives us fairly stark terms about what it means to be a Christian, and it's worth thinking about, in our world where Christianity has become so distorted and used to justify so many questionable activities.

Over the last 50 or so years of the 20th century, many people came to see Christianity as just one more way to self-enlightenment or self-improvement. Many people combined Christian practices with Eastern practices, and most of them showed that they had precious little knowledge of either.

Or worse, people seemed to see Christianity as a path to riches. We see this in countless stories of pastors who took money from parishioners and, instead of building housing for homeless people, built mansions for themselves. We see this in the megachurch which is held up as an optimum model, the yardstick by which we smaller churches are measured and come up lacking. The bestseller lists are full of books which promise a Christian way to self-fulfillment or riches, while books of sturdy theology will never be known by most readers.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of a multitude of theologians who warns us against this kind of thinking, of what Christianity can do for us. He calls it cheap grace, this salvation that doesn't require us to change our comfortable lives (or worse, tells us to expect more comfort). He says, "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a person must knock" (A Testament to Freedom 308).

Jesus reminds us again and again that Christians are to strive NOT to put themselves at the center of their lives. Taking our Christian lives seriously is sure to put us on a collision course with the larger world. Christ warns us that we may even lose our lives. I suspect that he means this on several different levels, yet it is worth reminding ourselves of how many martyrs there have been, even in the late-twentieth century, people who were murdered because they dared to take Christianity seriously and called on corrupt governments to change their practices or went to places where the rest of us are afraid to go to help the poor of the world.

If we don't put ourselves at the center of our lives (and what a countercultural idea that is!), then who should be there? Many of us deny ourselves for the good of our children, for our charity work, for our bosses. Yet that's not the right answer either.

God requires that we put God at the center of our lives. Frankly, many of us are much better at putting our children first or our students or our friends--but God? Many of us are mystified at how we even begin to do that.

A good place to start is with prayer. You don't need a formal time to pray--just check in throughout the day. Go back to the practices that your parents probably tried to instill in you: say grace before meals, say your bedtime prayers, think about who could use God's assistance, and use your prayer time to remind God of those people. If you feel awkward, go back to old standards, like saying the Lord's Prayer or reading a Psalm.

Make God a daily and a weekly priority: go to church services. Lent gives you the opportunity to experience different kinds of services. Take advantage of these.

Once God is at the center of your life, then you are more well-equipped to care for the world. We are not emotionally equipped to deal with the cares of the world, especially now that we have 24 hour reporting on every catastrophe that happens. But with God at our core, we can cope.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ash Wednesday One Week Out

I continue to think about Ash Wednesday.  Our service was profoundly moving to me this year, and I'm not sure which part spoke to me most profoundly.  I continue to marvel at how much this service has come to mean to me.

I was one of the ash smudgers.  I love being an ash smudger, much the same way I love being a Communion assistant.  Some might tell me that the Holy Spirit is trying to tell me something, and that may be the case.  However, I don't like a lot of other parts of being parish pastor.  Worship planning?  Love it.  Dealing with building issues?  Blick.  Spiritual directing?  Love it.  Dealing with difficult humans?  Blick.

I smudged each forehead at the back of the church, and when we were done, I walked to the altar with my little pot of ashes.  I turned to go back to my seat and felt breathless at the sight of the whole sanctuary full of smudged foreheads.

We are a marked people.

We had a huge turn-out for Ash Wednesday.  We had more people at our evening Ash Wednesday service than we get for some of our Sunday services.

We had a visiting pastor deliver the sermon.  It made me a bit nervous, but he did a fine job.  He stressed that we cannot do it on our own.  We are a sinful people who cannot save ourselves.  This thought infuriated me when I was younger.  Now I find it immensely comforting.

Our church handed out sheets of paper that looked like pledge sheets, where we wrote down our Lenten disciplines.  At one point, the ushers collected them into a huge basket and brought them to the altar, where they were blessed.  Then we took them home at the end of the service.

I had thought I wouldn't have a Lenten discipline this year, but I'd like to give up worry and fretting.  I've also been thinking about my tithing--tax time gives me a great time to find out exactly what I've been doing, in terms of giving money away.  I still have work to do in this area, and I think it's an area with roots in my excessive worry and anxiety.  Some years I have done a great job in trusting God to provide for me.  Lately, I've felt clutchy about money and resources and the behavior of people I love.  Oh, Control Freak Kristin, it's time to work on quieting you.

So, I signed the pledge sheet.  Let us see what happens.  I will have a Lenten discipline after all.

My pastor is going off lectionary for Lent, so perhaps I'll write additional meditations for Lent.  I'm also creating a prayer chapel space out of a small choir practice room in the back of the church.  I will have Lenten practices after all.

If you're still looking for suggestions to infuse your Lent with meaning, go to this post for 40 suggestions. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Creative Lent: Collections and Assemblies

We've been thinking about creative activities that we can do for Lent.  Today, all sorts of things you can put together, often out of scraps that you have at home.

You could take small scraps of cloth and make octagons.  And then you could sew them together.

Or maybe you'd like to sew long strips together, to experience the joy of sewing a long seam:

As you sew pieces together, reflect on how the Kingdom of God is like a quilt, composed of many scraps of cloth, turned into something both beautiful and functional.

Here's something else you can do with cloth, if you've got old chair frames that need new seats:

Wrap strips around the chair going the same direction, and tie each strip so that it's tight.  Push each new strip against the accumulating strips as you go.  Knot them to the frame at either end.

Then, much the same way you likely wove pot holders on a loom as a child, weave strips over and under going the other direction.  Again, push the woven strips tight against each other.  Knot them to the frame at either end.

As you weave, admire the way that the colors go together.  Admire the way that you can take rags and a chair frame and transform them into functional furniture.  Think about how God always provides a seat, even if the bottom falls out from under you.

Maybe you want to capture the sound of the wind, so that each time you hear your wind chimes, you'll think of John 3:8:  "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

If you make wind chimes from items strung on yarn or string, just remember that they need to hit each other to make sound.  The first time I made a wind chime, I forgot, so mine isn't as melodious.  Even though the wind chimes pictured look like they're made of predominantly pottery, old pieces of hardware make great wind chimes.  You've been wondering what to do with all those old keys that no longer open any lock!

Welcome March, which has a reputation for being a windy month, with a kite you've made yourself.  As you watch your kite blow in the breeze, think about how God keeps you tethered, no matter what winds blow your way.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Creative Lent: Cook!

Maybe this could be the Lent where instead of giving up food, you resolved to nourish yourself better.  To that end, here are two recipes for main dishes.  They last (likely for several weeks) in the fridge, and they get better with time, and they're very portable, and the recipes are flexible.  Don't have carrots for the soup?  No big deal.  Have cauliflower but not broccoli?  Substitute.  No chips for the casserole?  Use crackers or tortillas or just get it into your mouth with a spoon.

As you nourish yourself, think about all the ways that God nourishes you.

Bean Casserole

I always make a 9 x13 inch size pan because we eat so much of it and it's cheap. You could always do less. And almost all these ingredients keep for a long time, so you can keep them in your pantry, and you're always prepared when you need a quick meal. Makes a great party dip too (in fact, it's a variation of that old 7 layer dip).

Grease the pan (or spray with Pam).

Spread 2 cans of refried beans (make sure they're fat free if you're watching your fat intake--or experiment with different flavors if you want) across the bottom.

You could cook up some hamburger meat and spread layer of hamburger meat--but it's fine without it. I suspect that cooked chicken would also work well. If you use meat of any kind, you could spice it up however your family likes: chili powder and/or cumin are 2 that come to mind. Or go unspicy.

Spread a layer of salsa on top (I use the kind that I get in the deli--it comes in a 16 oz. container, and I think it tastes fresher. You could also use a jar or go to the canned veggies section and get a can of diced tomatoes--the kind with Mexican flavorings might be good).

Spread a layer of grated cheese over top of that (I like cheddar--the Kraft grated 2% cheddar has less fat and melts well--I often mix it with full fat grated cheddar). Use a half cup or 1 cup--or live it up and add more!

Pop the pan in a 350 oven for 15-45 minutes--you want the cheese to be bubbly and melty and the beans to warm through. I can program my oven to come on when I'm not there, and I often have this for dinner on Friday nights--I make the meatless version of the casserole in advance, leave it in the oven, and anticipate it all day long. If I run a tad late, the stuff can handle overcooking.

When the pan comes out of the oven, you could top with sour cream. Serve with tortilla chips for scooping or serve on top of a salad to boost your veggie content.

Eat until you're full. If you make this without the hamburger, the leftovers will keep 1-2 weeks in the fridge.



And because everyone has the kind of day when they just need some good soup, here's one of my favorites. It's a great way to get both veggies and the comfort of melted cheese. I've never met an adult who didn't love this soup.

Broccoli Cheddar Cheese Soup

Take a bunch of broccoli and chop it into pieces that you’ll later put in the blender or food processor. If you want, you can save some florets, steam them, and add them to the soup later—it gives the soup texture. But if time is short, don’t worry about it. Frozen broccoli would likely work just fine.

Put the broccoli pieces in your soup pot and chop up 3-6 potatoes into chunks. Add these to the pot. By now, you should have about half your pot full. You can also add 3-6 carrots (chopped into chunks), for a nice touch.

Add some fresh (chopped into chunks) or dried onion. Here are other spices that are nice: a few cloves of garlic (or garlic salt), basil, and oregano.

Put enough water in the pot to cover the vegetables. Boil until everything is mushy. Whir it all together in a blender or food processor. It will probably take several batches.

Return the soup to the pot. Add 1 cup of grated cheddar cheese. Taste to see if you want more. I usually use half a pound of grated cheese. Heat gently to melt cheese.

If you want thinner soup, add milk (of any fat level: skim to whole) or cream and heat gently.

You can create any kind of variation. Use a different main vegetable, like cauliflower. Use a different cheese. Use Mexican spices (chili powder and/or cumin) instead of the Italian above.

This soup is a variation of the soups that appear in Molly Katzen’s The Enchanted Broccoli Forest Cookbook and The Moosewood Cookbook.


Why not experiment with bread this Lent?  Don't let bread scare you.  Like soups and casseroles, bread dough is easy, flexible, and forgives any number of sins.  I like to knead the dough, but I know that kneading scares people, so here's an easy, no-knead bread.

Epiphany/Mardi Gras Bread

2 pkg (5 ½ tsp.) active dry yeast
¼ c. warm water
2/3 c. milk
½ c. sugar
1 ½ tsp. salt
½ c. butter
3 large eggs
4 c. flour (can be part or all whole wheat)
2 c. candied fruit, and/or raisins, and/or nuts

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water with a tsp. of sugar. In a small heavy saucepan, bring the milk, butter, salt, and sugar to a boil. Once it’s cooled a bit, add the milk mixture to the yeast mixture, along with the flour, and blend.

Add the 2 cups of candied fruit, nuts, and/or raisins—or leave them out. I’ve used candied ginger with great success, and I really like dried cranberries and pecans. You can use more gourmet items, like citron. Or use the candied fruits that make an appearance during the holiday baking season.

The dough will be very sticky; fortunately, you don’t knead it. Simply let it rise. Grease 2 tube pans or bundt pans.

When the dough has doubled in size, spoon it into the pans. Let it rise again.

If you want to put prizes in the bread, you can do so before you put the bread in the oven. The traditional prize for Mardi Gras is a baby Jesus (if using plastic, stick him into the bread after baking). For Epiphany/Three Kings Bread, some bread bakers include a coin (wrapped in foil) that indicates good luck for the person who finds it. Some put a china baby into the bread. Other customs include a bean, a clove, a twig, a piece of rag. Some traditions have the person who finds the embedded item doing the clean up, some have the person hosting the next party in February at Candlemas.

Bake at 375 for 25-35 minutes. The dough should be golden, and a toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean.

The bread is delicious plain, but it’s also good with powdered sugar frosting or glaze. For Mardi Gras, traditionally you’d sprinkle the icing or glaze with sugar colored purple, green, and/or yellow.

Based on a recipe found in Beatrice Ojakangas’ The Great Holiday Baking Book

As you watch the yeast work its magic, think about all the times that Jesus likened the Kingdom of God to yeast. How is a Christian like yeast?


And sometimes, we just need sweetness.  I know that usually many of us give up sugar for Lent, but if you haven't taken a vow of abstinence, maybe you should go a different direction:  more sweetness, not less.  God wants us to have sweetness in our lives.  Eat a cookie and think about God's bounty, as represented in a cookie! Take a moment to slow down. Take a bite of sweetness and savor it. Think about the other kinds of sweetness that you'd like to see manifest in your life.

 Here's an easy way to make a sugar cookie dough that you can roll into shapes and decorate:

Sugar Cookies
2 sticks butter
1 C. sugar
2 eggs
¼ C. milk
2tsp. baking powder
4 C. flour
2 tsp. vanilla

Cream butter, sugar, eggs. Add milk and dry ingredients. Roll out to ¼ inch thickness on a floured board and cut with cookie cutters. Sprinkle with colored sugar or leave plain to frost when cool (or to enjoy plain). Bake 10 minutes at 375. Easy frosting: moisten powdered sugar with enough milk to make spreadable and tint with food color.

Or maybe you need chocolate.  The recipe below couldn't be simpler:

Revisiting this recipe, I was surprised that it's relatively healthy for a cookie:  high in protein, high in whole grains because I made it with old-fashioned oats, not the quick cooking oats that would have been in the kitchen of my childhood.  The cocoa has anti-oxidant properties that chocolate chips probably don't.

It's easy, quick, and at the end, you've only got one dirty pot.  It satisfies my chocolate craving, and my spouse, who doesn't usually like the chocolate intense recipes that I do, likes it too.

So, in case your Sunday needs sweetness, here's the recipe:

Boiled Cookies

1 stick of butter
2 C. sugar
½ C. milk
4 T. cocoa

Bring the above to a boil and boil 1 ½ minutes. Remove from heat and add the following:

2 ½ C. quick cooking oats (old-fashioned works, but results in chewier cookie; steel cut will not work)
2 tsp. vanilla
½ C. peanut butter
½ C. chopped nuts (will work without this addition)

Beat until well-blended. Drop onto wax paper and let set.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Creative Lent: Play with Paper

Yesterday, we talked about plants and seeds as metaphor for God.  But I'm aware that plants and soil and seeds can be expensive, not to mention a bouquet or two of flowers.  But you could make flowers out of paper:

The beautiful thing about paper is it's cheap.  If your household/workplace is like mine, you likely throw away a ream once a month or so as waste paper.  But there's so much more you could do.

We think that a mosaic has to be made out of jewel like bits of glass:

Or we think of mosaics like these made out of stone:

But you could make a mosaic out of paper:

For more fun, cut up magazines and have the words mean something too:

While you're cutting up those magazines, think about making soul cards or prayer cards.  Where are you spiritually right now?  Or where would you like to be?

What do you need?

Or maybe you'd like a collage without words:

I like collage because someone else has already created the images.  But sometimes, I like to swirl the paint arount:

Paint is relatively cheap, but crayons are even cheaper.

Maybe you're not a visual person.  Maybe you'd like to write on all that lovely paper.  If that feels too dangerous, write and then cut:

Tomorrow:  more fun with assemblages of all sorts.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Creative Lent: Bloom Where You Are Planted

So, here we are, two days after Ash Wednesday.  Have you chosen your Lenten discipline yet?  It's not too late.  Today I offer you the first in a series of blog posts:  photo essays that I hope will provide inspirations, should you want to experiment with creativity and different art forms this Lenten season.

First, today, let's think about the idea of plants.  One of the metaphors we see time and time again is that of a seed.  Christians are like seeds, the Kingdom of God is like a seed, the Church can be a seed.  When's the last time you grew something in the earth?

You don't even need a patch of earth to call your own.  A container and some soil will do.  As you pour the potting soil into your container, let it run over your fingers.  Scrunch some together.  Remember the story of Adam and the breath of God.

You could create a terrarium, your own little ecosystem (see examples below).  You could watch over it, and think about how, like God, you've created a world:

Eventually, maybe you'll want to put some plants into the earth.

If you have a patch of land, perhaps creating a butterfly garden would bring you joy.

You could add some statues and create a different kind of sanctuary:

But maybe gardening isn't your thing.  You can still buy a bunch of flowers (or 2 or 3!) and have fun arranging them.  Marvel at the diversity of the beauty created by God and in your arrangement:

And if you can't afford fresh flowers, you can make some out of paper:

Tomorrow:  More fun things you can do with paper!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 26, 2012

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm: Psalm 25:1-9 (Psalm 25:1-10 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

In today’s Gospel, we see Christ going through the stages of the life of a Christian, in a sort of fast-forward filmstrip: baptism, wilderness/desert time of desolation and doubt, temptation, death of mentors, carrying on with life’s work anyway. Why should we, thousands of years later, think that life will be any different for us?

Think about the sacrament of Baptism. We do not get the water and the word because we’ve proven ourselves. As Lutherans, many of us get the water and the word when we’re babies. In today’s Gospel, Jesus, too, is just a baby of sorts. God proclaims love for Jesus even before Jesus has done anything substantial. God is pleased with Jesus before his ministry even begins.

Many of us struggle with the concept of grace. I spend a lot of time trying to explain to non-believers how it is possible for so many Christians to be so hypocritical. My answer: “Because we’re human, and we can’t always behave in the best way possible.” That answer doesn’t usually satisfy my human interrogators. How lucky we are that God is not so judgmental. God knows we will fail, but God loves us anyway. God knows we cannot ever be good enough, but God doesn’t use that concept as a battering ram to promote more self-loathing. No, God loves us, even though we don’t deserve it.

Even with the gift of God’s grace, life will not be perfect for us. Jesus shows us that there will be wilderness times in every life. If the Son of God isn't exempt, why should we expect that we will be? Mark tells us that Jesus was driven into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan and the angels ministered to him.

Notice Mark's spare storytelling style. It will be up to later Gospel writers to tell us the nature of the temptations. Mark seems to say that the temptation in its particulars is not important. Satan tempts Jesus. We will be tempted. And many of us will be so out of touch, we won't even realize we're being tempted. We're so good at rationalizing that we won't even realize that Satan has been successful with us. In her book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity, Lauren F. Winner reminds us, "This is how sin works: it whispers to us about the goodness of something not good. It makes distortions feel good" (89).

Look at the end of the Gospel lesson: John the Baptist has been arrested. We can't say we haven't been warned about what might happen to us when we do God's work in the world.

But we're not excused from doing it. The Gospel ends with Jesus continuing his mission, preaching the gospel of God.

Lent is a time of spiritual conditioning. Some people fast or give up a favorite food or beverage. Some people add a spiritual discipline, like another period of prayer or additional Bible reading. Some people try to limit the activities, like Internet meandering or gossip, that take them further away from God. Lent is a season that can fortify us to for the Christian life, so that we’re ready for wilderness times and persecution and the work that must be done anyway.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Star Dust, Ashes, We're All Decomposing: Ash Wednesday, Again

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in the Liturgical year that reminds us that we are dust, and all too soon, we'll return to dust. You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same. This service used to depress me, but these days, I find it one of the more important ones of the church year.

We're not here for very long, and most of us have already used up at least half the time we have in this life. We just do not have time for most of the self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors in which we engage.

As a child, I hated Ash Wednesday. Christmas, of course, was my favorite holiday; I wanted fun and festivity. I hated Ash Wednesday and Lent, the somber mood, the focus on our sinfulness. Yuck.

So, I'm amused to discover that I rather like Ash Wednesday as an adult. Perhaps it's taken me this many years to admit (and in some cases, just to see) all the ways in which I've sinned and fallen short of my full potential. Maybe it's because I've come across more modern thinking about sin. My favorite definition of sin comes from the Gail Godwin novel, Father Melancholy's Daughter (which would make great Lenten reading--it's set during Holy Week): "A falling short from your totality. . . . Choosing to live in ways you know interfere with the harmony of that totality" (p. 198).

Here's a quote from Henri Nouwen to start your day. It's from A Cry for Mercy: "Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failings and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says 'I am too sinful to deserve God's mercy.' It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride. Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: 'Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God's mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?' The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God's mercy."

Here is a prayer for Ash Wednesday: "Oh God, keep us mindful of all the behaviors that move us away from you. Help us to choose our Lenten disciplines wisely. Help us to remember that we are here for such a short time, that all to soon we shall return to our dusty destinies. Keep us focused on the Kingdom work that you need us to do."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How Should Christians Celebrate Mardi Gras?

In the church of my childhood, a church could count on its members gathering whenever the church doors were open.  Thus we had Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers and Wednesday Bible study meetings and groups of all sorts gathering throughout the week.

These days, most mainline churches feel lucky if members come on Sunday, much less at other points in the week.  Many churches have Confirmation classes during Sunday School time, unlike my experience of trooping back to church in the late afternoon of a Sunday.  Many churches do the whole Holy Week journey on Palm Sunday because they know that church members won't be coming back on Thursday and Friday.

How does your church celebrate Mardi Gras?  Do you offer an alternate celebration for those who want festivity but not drunkeness?  Does your church do the traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake supper?

Many Christians might be amazed to find out that Mardi Gras has its roots as a Christian holiday.  In medieval times, most Christians would give up all sorts of luxury items for Lent, luxury items like milk, eggs, and alcohol.  So just before Lent came the using up of the luxury items because you wouldn't just throw them away.  Hence the special Mardi Gras breads and treats and the drinking.

You might ask, "And Shrove Tuesday?  What's that about?  And I seem to remember hearing about Carnival down in Rio?"

Mardi Gras and Carnival, holidays that come to us out of predominantly Catholic countries, certainly have a more festive air than Shrove Tuesday, which comes to us from some of the more dour traditions of England. The word shrove, which is the past tense of the verb to shrive, which means to seek absolution for sins through confession and penance, is far less festive than the Catholic terms for this day.

How did Shrove Tuesday come to be associated with pancakes?  I imagine that it's an attempt to rid the pantry of eggs, butter, and milk.  Or maybe it developed much later.  Maybe it's just a fun reason for fundraising in American churches at the middle of the 20th century.

In past years, I've made pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and eaten them alone, at my kitchen table. It just isn't the same. And it's sort of a pointless exercise.  My memory of Shrove Tuesday is less about the pancakes than about the gathering of a community.

Likewise, I wonder if we do better with our Lenten disciplines if we're part of a community.

During Lent, I have been more successful with adding a discipline, like devotional reading or more prayer or journaling, than I have been with giving something up.  I'll be praying for all of you who are giving up alcohol or chocolate; according to my unofficial polling, those are the items that people give up most commonly.

This year, I'm not sure that I'm doing a discipline, although I'm open to the process should it arise.  I've been rather taken with photography lately.  Do I want to impose a discipline upon myself or simply continue to explore the world with a camera?  Stay tuned!

For those of you wanting to bake a special Mardi Gras bread, go to this post on my creativity blog:  a relatively healthy yeast bread that requires no kneading.  Even if you're the only one eating it, it's much more festive than eating Shrove Tuesday pancakes alone.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Still Yearning for Transfiguration?

Yesterday, our pastor talked about transforming the way we think about church.  All too often, we approach church thinking about whether or not it's doing anything for us.  Do we like the music?  Does the church teach our children how to be good?  Would we miss the people if we didn't go?

Our pastor reminded us that the church should be for the people who haven't yet discovered the church.  It's not about us and our self-centered little lives.  Of course, he used kinder language.

I'd been thinking of similar ideas earlier in the week when I'd been writing this post for the Living Lutheran website.  My assignment was to write something about Transfiguration Sunday.  In past years, I'd have written about personal transformation.  This year, I decided to focus on Peter and those shelters he wanted to build (booths in some translations).

I'd also been reading this post by Nadia Bolz-Weber, where she uses the term "the Babylonian captivity of the church buildings."  Wow.  I wish I had written that!

Instead, I wrote a few paragraphs about the problems of being tied to church buildings and asked, "What would happen if we left these booths behind?"

Now I know that many of us can't leave our buildings behind, particularly not in the horrible real estate markets that still oppress so many communities.  So I wrote about ways that we could transform our buildings so that they could transfigure us.

Here's how I ended, and it's a good vision to hold on to as we progress to Ash Wednesday and Lent: 

"I am transfigured by a vision of church that contains all sorts of bodies, from the elderly woman who finds a place to stash her walker to the transgender person who is between sexes, from the man scarred by his latest heart surgery to the pregnant woman.

I am left breathless by this vision of bodies in a variety of colors from a variety of backgrounds. I am inspired by a vision of church that welcomes both the arts of the banner makers and choir members and the arts of the impressionistic painters and mystical poets. I cheer for a church that offers sanctuary from the pointless noise that assaults us in the outside world.

I am transfigured by a vision of a church that flings wide open the doors, both to welcome the stranger with more than just a visitor name tag and to send transformed members out “to heal what is split in the world” (in the words of Gail Godwin)."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What's a Funeral For?

Yesterday, our local Fox station aired the funeral of Whitney Houston.  Pastor Joelle wrote some great thoughts about the Houston funeral in her blog post yesterday:  "The televised funeral of Whitney Houston showed a community that did not throw Whitney away. And thank God it was televised because I heard the Gospel being preached over and over and over again, in word and song. And I thought of all those people who were tuned in in order to consume more, but maybe got more than they bargained for. This was not a tribute...this was church. Three hours of it."

My spouse and I watched some of it.  Although we tend to watch the home improvement shows on our PBS stations on a normal Saturday afternoon, we found the funeral oddly compelling and kept flipping back to it.  We're the last Americans who don't pay for cable TV and don't steal it and don't have a dish; in other words, what's on network television and all the odd other stations is what we watch when we watch TV.  I was kind of surprised to find the funeral on at all.  Were there no sports game that took priority?

We had friends over for dinner, and one of them said that she kept waiting for someone to mention Whitney Houston's drug abuse; essentially, my friend wanted the funeral to serve as cautionary tale.  My spouse also thinks that funerals should remind us of the good and the bad aspects of our dead loved one.

But is a funeral supposed to be a cautionary tale?  On the day of loss that a funeral symbolizes, do we really need to remember the bad habits of our loved ones?

I would say no.  First of all, pop culture is full of cautionary tales.  By now, we all understand the risks we take when we experiment with drugs, smoking, and alcohol, don't we?  I might argue that Whitney Houston's life could also serve as a cautionary tale about letting the wrong people into our lives:  would Whitney Houston be dead today if she had fallen in love with someone who looked out for her interests better than Bobby Brown did?

But again, I could argue that we all know already that some people aren't good for us, and as soon as we can figure that out, we should extricate ourselves.  Alas, as Whitney Houston shows us, sometimes that's too late.

I think a funeral should remind us that it's never really too late.  Even if we can't get our lives sorted out on this side of death, my Christian faith reminds me again and again that death will not have the final word.  I want a funeral that stresses that message.  I want a funeral that reminds the loved ones that God waits for us to welcome us to whatever is on the other side of death.  Most of all, I want a funeral that stresses that what we do is not for nothing.  I want a funeral that reminds us that our lives do have meaning.*

And then, of course, there should be food.

*Here's a quote for those of you who need a reminder of how our lives have meaning.  It's from N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope:  Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008)"What you do in the present--by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself--will last into God's future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether . . . . They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom" (page 193).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Resisting the Communists

In yesterday's post, I talked about Nathan Englander and his description of a family game (except they were deadly serious about it) that his family played: "Anyway, we really were raised with this idea of a looming second Holocaust and we would play this game. You know, that threat is always in the air. You know what I'm saying? People were comfortable in Berlin. It could happen at any time. And we would play this game, you know, wondering who would hide us. And this is - this story I've been carrying in my head from 20 years ago. It must have been 20 years ago, but I remember what my sister said about a couple we knew. She said, he would hide us and she would turn us in."

Later yesterday, I was talking to some friends about this nugget, and I said, "In my family, it was Communists we were afraid of."

My friends looked at me as if I'd lost my mind.  I reminded them that it was the 1970's and 80's, and my dad was in the Air Force so my family had a different perspective to begin with.  But I think many of us have quickly forgotten about life during the Cold War, when many people did expect a looming conflict with the Communists.

To hear my parents talk, you’d have thought that at any moment, we might all be taken away and not allowed access to our Bibles or our churches. To hear them, you’d think that they survived some horrible event involving camps, like the Holocaust or Stalin’s Russia. But they were American citizens, born just before World War II. Still, as a child, any time I protested any aspect of my religious upbringing, their response was always, “Some day, you might not have access to your Bible or the church, and then you’ll appreciate this.”

I often sat in church services and amused myself with apocalyptic visions during boring sermons. What would I say if asked to deny my faith? What would I choose if forced to make the choice between my life and Jesus? Which would I renounce? My parents made it sound like this could happen at any moment.
Of course, anyone who paid attention to world events of the twentieth century couldn’t be unaware of the possibility of cataclysm. My father, with his Air Force and CIA background was haunted by the threat of Communism. In later years, my teenage rebellion was to read, and to read publicly, Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. While my peers partook of ill-advised drugs and sex, my father and I butted heads over Central American policy.

As a child, however, I filled my head with tales of older doom. Most children first hear about the Holocaust when they read Anne Frank’s diary. I read the works of Corrie Ten Boom in elementary school. Tales of concentration camps both terrified me and lured me. I wondered how I would survive. During the early 1970’s, I augmented these stories with ones told by returning POWs, many of whom rediscovered their faith in ghastly circumstances. I remember the book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, where the captived officer talked about trying to remember Bible verses and hymns to help him keep his sanity. I wore a POW bracelet for much of my childhood, a circle of metal that had the name of a man held by the Viet Cong, which I intended to wear until his release. It reminded me of what might happen to me, even though I was a U.S. citizen with first Amendment rights. Twentieth century history provided me no comfort, as I learned about various human rights horrors visited upon people who had been living in well-established, civilized societies until unforeseen political movements marched forward. I fully expected to be taken away at some point, and so applied myself to memorizing Bible verses.

Of course, what I failed to realize as a child, is that I didn’t need to memorize extra verses. By going to church each and every week, my parents assured me of that inner resource. Even during my twenties, when I refused to go to church, feeling that I had spent far too much time in church for a lifetime, lines from hymns or Bible verses often floated through my brain at the oddest times. I was always aware of the liturgical season, even though I didn’t participate in a church.

My parents prepared me to stand up for my faith against Communists or Nazis or whoever might force the issue. What I’m not sure they anticipated was the collapse of mainstream religious faiths and the implications that would have for a good Lutheran girl. Standing up to fascists might be easier than what we face now in this strange mix of fundamentalist and secular times.

This new millennium is not a non-religious time. The fastest growing faiths are fundamentalist versions of Islam and Protestantism. Some non-fundamentalist religious folks profess bafflement at the appeal of these religious traditions, but I understand. As a teenager, I thought of switching religions, and the ones that held the most appeal were Catholics or Conservative Jews. They both both appealed to me for the same reason: rigid rules. I liked the idea of having individual confession and penance to do. I liked the idea of strict dietary and dress codes. When I read about the Amish, I was ready to join. Likewise, the world seems hungry for a religion that requires more of them than just showing up on Sunday and mumbling their way through the liturgy.

Many churches that we would label "mainstream" are dying.  Many "mainstream" churches have a weekly attendance of 50 or less.  That situation is simply not sustainable. 

What I find even more frustrating is to be put in the same camp as the science-denying right wing religious folks.  Most people I know have never met a Christian who is capable of believing in both God and evolution.  How did we get to this state?  In my Christian circles, most people I meet haven't done much with theological education; many of them have never read a spiritual book beyond the Bible.  If we're not going to a church that has a good adult Christian ed program or a pastor who creates sermons with intellectual heft, we're simply out of luck.  Most people do not want to supplement their weekly church attendance with books of theology.  I'm often the only person I know who reads writers like N. T. Wright or the desert fathers/mothers or modern monastics or Kathleen Norris, much to my sadness.

My parents prepared me for this lonely position, although I’m sure they didn’t foresee these cultural developments. Now, instead of being put away in camps, religious people are just ignored--unless they’re murderous terrorists, in which case they get a lot of attention and are put away in camps. My training prepared me to be the lone Christian standing up for my faith.  I just expected to be shot by Communists, not ignored because I'm a Christian who can read and think.

I look forward to reading Englander's latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.  It will be interesting to see what other connections I discover between my life as a Protestant and the lives of the Jewish characters in the book.

Friday, February 17, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk to Nathan Englander

This week, I heard an interview on NPR's Fresh Air that I liked so much I listened to it twice.  Terry Gross and the writer Nathan Englander cover a wide range of topics, and many of them circle back to issues of religion.

Englander was brought up by Orthodox Jews, and he even lived in Israel--he's got credibility:  "As someone who spent a lot of years living in Jerusalem, one of the great perks was that when you come back and you get into these Israel arguments in your American-Jewish clan, you can really just silence them by saying, I lived there. So we used it like a bludgeon. You know, when people would say, like, you know, I'm APAC, I'm this, move that, move the, you know. The embassy needs to be there. The embassy should have a Starbucks and be on the Temple Mount. Whatever. You know, people would do that, you'd say I lived there. And that was how we kept everybody quiet."

He was raised in a community that truly expected the Holocaust to happen again at any moment, and he describes a game (except they were deadly serious about it) that his family played:  "Anyway, we really were raised with this idea of a looming second Holocaust and we would play this game. You know, that threat is always in the air. You know what I'm saying? People were comfortable in Berlin. It could happen at any time.  And we would play this game, you know, wondering who would hide us. And this is - this story I've been carrying in my head from 20 years ago. It must have been 20 years ago, but I remember what my sister said about a couple we knew. She said, he would hide us and she would turn us in."

Somewhere along the way, he became a non-observant Jew, but that hasn't prevented him from writing/translating a Hagaddah (the Passover Seder service).  He has fascinating insights about word choice:  "I think maybe the most dangerous choice in the whole book was God of us instead of our God because we say our God, our God. It's not our God that we own like our God, our TiVo, or our lunchbox. You know what I'm saying? God, it's, you know, it's our God means the God over us and I really thought about that a ton, and I think that's, you know, I'll see how people respond. But to me, I wanted people to be thinking about what they're saying."

The conversation made me wish that I could hear a conversation between him and Eugene Peterson (translator of The Message version of the Bible).

Englander talks about his new short story collection too.  I have fallen in love with the title, with its allusion to Raymond Carver:  What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.  It's on my list of books to read soon.

The interview is a delight, and if you want to listen to it or read it, go here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Transfiguration Yearnings

Yesterday, I spent a lot of time thinking about transfiguration.  I was working on a blog piece for the Living Lutheran site; it will appear on Monday.  I was also writing my blog piece for yesterday's meditation on Sunday's Gospel.  In between, I spent time with my friend.  We worked on transforming scraps of cloth into quilts, while we talked about how we'd like our lives to change.

I was also thinking about Ash Wednesday as I thought about possible projects that would fuse photography and poetry (for more on that project, see this post on my creativity blog).

Today, I'm thinking of Ash Wednesday and Transfiguration Sunday from a different angle.  Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of my friend's mother  (a different friend than the one in the first paragraph). 

During the last year of her mother's life, I tried to help by being an occasional driver. I remember driving down to the Catholic hospital in Miami. I don't think I realized that it was a Catholic hospital until about the 5th time I saw a crucifix on the wall. Not being a Catholic myself, I thought, how gruesome, can't they choose something more cheerful for decorations. And then, it hit me; I thought, "Wait, I bet this is a Catholic hospital!"  Funny how that revelation transformed my whole thinking as I started seeing the crucifix as a comforting reminder that God has promised that death will not be our final answer.

I remember my friend's mom trying to be brave that day, trying to converse with people, trying to act like everything was normal, as if we were there for tea. I have a vague memory of her talking about how proud she was of her daughter (my friend), and an even vaguer memory (which may not have happened) of her trying to charm a doctor on her daughter's behalf, as if she was a matchmaker. I remember that my friend was trying to get information about how much longer she might last in her declined state, even as she was trying to act like we were all there for a social event.

I remember marveling at how my friend's mother was trying to be charming, even as the cancer was surely eating away her brain.

I remember thinking about how the roles had changed, the daughter becoming caretaker.  My heart broke into bitty pieces for my friend, who had to learn how to be a caretaker, how to navigate the medical-industrial complex--all sorts of new languages for her to learn.

Life will transfigure us in all sorts of way, especially as we face disease and old age.  I understand Peter's response to the Transfiguration on the mountain top, that wanting to build a shelter and stay put and pretend that we can escape the ravages of living.
We can't escape of course.  Not even God, who became human and lived with us, could escape.  But fortunately, these experiences can become transfigured into a glowing experience of the love of the Divine.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 19, 2012:

First Reading: 2 Kings 2:1-12

Psalm: Psalm 50:1-6

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9

I often approach Transfiguration Sunday by thinking about ways to transfigure myself. In just a few days, we enter the season of Lent, that season of ash and penitence. Lent gets us ready for the joy of Easter. Lent gives us the perfect opportunity for self-exploration, to analyze our behaviors and beliefs that keep us from being Resurrection People.

What do we need to transfigure ourselves? We could start with the basics: daily prayer (ideally several times a day), daily spiritual reading, weekly worship, tithing of our resources. We could surround ourselves with people who lead us to be our better selves, while we look for ways to help others be their best selves. We can be the path that helps other people find their way to God. We can practice radiating love. We can be the agents of God's transfiguring power.

You may say, "I can hardly get out of bed every morning, and now you want me to radiate love???" You may say, "I can hardly pay my bills and now I have to be the agent of God's transfiguring power?"

This year, I, too, find myself feeling exhausted. I think of adopting a Lenten discipline that says no to more activities. Instead of exploring a new spiritual discipline, as I have done in many past years, maybe I will say no to adding a new discipline to my schedule.

But before I get too busy rejecting all sorts of possibilities, maybe it’s good to return to the idea of transfiguration. How do I wish to be transfigured? What would make me glow with God’s goodness?

I’ve been reading Lauren Winner’s latest book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, which explores the life of a woman who has made her living as a professional Christian of sorts who has a bit of a mid-faith crisis (for a complete review, go here). The part of the book that resonated most with me was her experiment with giving up anxiety. She tries ignoring her anxiety in 15 minute increments. She decides to pray when she feels anxious, sometimes praying the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), sometimes a prayer she finds in the back of a prayer book. She tries repeating the word "One" until the anxiety ebbs.

She's clear on why it's important to let go of the anxiety, quoting Francis de Sales: "The anxious heart, in its flailings, loses its hold on whatever graces God has bestowed upon it, and is sapped of the strength 'to resist the temptations of the Evil One, who is all the more ready to fish . . . in troubled waters'" (page 90).

I found myself underlining this part of the book more than any other, which makes me think that I still have work to do when it comes to anxiety. I say that I trust that God will provide for me, yet my anxiety shows that I’m not as transfigured as I wish to be.

Soon, we celebrate Ash Wednesday, a day that reminds us that we are here on this earth for a very short time. Rather than get morose about this subject, we can use this as a prompt to ask ourselves what's important in our lives. Are we living daily lives that are in sync with those values? How can we make adjustments to ensure that we are not wasting our brief time here?

God promises to transfigure our lives from dust and ash to living light. Again and again, God declares transfiguring love: not just for Jesus, but for all of us. In a world that rejects us in so many ways, it's good to remember that God claims us, every day. In God’s creation, every day is Transfiguration Sunday.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Feast Day of St. Valentine

Of course, February 14, Saint Valentine's Day, hasn't been a true feast day for decades.  But as Christians, why not celebrate love, along with the rest of the Western world?  You may be saying, "But I have no love in my life right now.  I am as solitary as a stone."

But God has good news; you are surrounded by the love of God, in ways you cannot even imagine:

You say that you wish someone would send you flowers?

God sends us bouquets in every season!

If God sent you a Valentine, what would it say?

Of course, God has already sent the ultimate Valentine:

And so we are sent into the world, living sacraments, to be Valentines to one another, to show a weary world the wonders of God's love.

And God is always at your side.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Thoughts about Love Before Valentine's Day

Our pastor went off lectionary yesterday.  If I was a pastor, I would avoid a holiday like Valentine's Day, but our pastor is fearless.  He talked about famous couples in the Bible, and pointed out that the unhappiest marriages came from one or both partners being unable to be happy with what they had in the marriage.  He talked about that desperate yearning for more and that inability to be satisfied that can contaminate many a marriage--or any other human relationship.

Along the way he talked about the perfection of God's love for humanity.  God's love should be a comfort.

As I parked the car before church, I was listening to NPR's This American Life, which was also broadcasting a show about love.  A young guy was talking about how he thought that marriages should expire every 7 years, at which time couples can renew or not.  Maybe he didn't say that about all marriages.  Maybe he was just talking about how he planned his own marriage.

The interviewer, Ira Glass, offered an eloquent defense of marriage.  He said he thought that one of the comforts of marriage was that during the bad days you knew that you had a commitment, you knew that you wouldn't just leave and that your partner wouldn't just leave.

I think that in America we do a bad job of learning how to manage our emotional lives.  We think our feelings are real.  We forget that the emotion we have today will likely be gone by tomorrow.  We forget that our bad feelings are often triggered by all sorts of things that have nothing to do with how we really feel.  Low blood sugar has caused many a fight--and probably more divorces and break-ups than we like to think about.  Many of us go through daily life fatigued.  We think our boredom and sadness are caused by our families or our friends or our jobs--and that might be the case--or we might just need more sleep.

So, as we begin the mad rush to Valentine's Day, let us take a moment to remember the gift of being able to love each other.  Let us remember God, who first loved us, and who will love us long after all other love falls away.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Embroidering Hymns

When she was planning my grandfather's funeral in 1984, one of the hymns that my grandmother chose was "Children of the Heavenly Father."  Several years later, one of her friends found a counted cross stitch kit with the first verse and bought it for my grandmother.

My grandmother has never done counted cross stitch, so she gave the kit to me.  I wanted to do it for her, but when I first looked at it, I wasn't sure.  It was the tiniest gauge of fabric I'd ever seen.  I thought I might go blind.

As with so many activities, though, once I got into a rhythm, I was fine.  I spent the summer of 1990 stitching, and then, my mom made the arrangements to have the work framed.  My grandmother has had it every place she's ever lived, and when she died, I reclaimed it.  It now hangs over the beautiful dresser that came from my spouse's side of the family.  It fits with the antique vibe of our bedroom.

We sang the hymn at my grandmother's funeral too.  I spent much of the funeral wondering why I wasn't more weepy--but when we sang that hymn, I cried.

That hymn is now heavy with significance for me:  2 funerals and a craft project in between.  If I had more time, I would embroider more hymns.  If I was really entrepreneurial, I would create the patterns and market them.  But that's not where I am in my life right now.

So, I'll look at the needlework every day and remember my younger self who diligently stitched a project that would bring my grandmother such joy.  I'll remember the peace that comes from discerning the pattern and filling in with floss.  I'll look at the needlework and remember the comfort contained in the words.  I'll remember my elders and try to live in the wise ways that they modeled for us.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Must-Read for Those at Mid-Faith or Other Stages

Some time back in December I found out that Lauren Winner had a new book coming out the end of January.  I spent the next weeks wishing it was already out.  I got it a day or two after it was released, and it did not disappoint.

Winner's new book Still:  Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis explores the life of a woman who has made her living as a professional Christian of sorts who has a bit of a mid-faith crisis.  You may remember Winner from her past books, most famously Girl Meets God, the story of her conversion to Judaism and then her conversion to Christianity, all before the age of 23, if my memory serves.  Winner went on to write more books, to be a contributor to many Christian magazines, and to get a Ph.D. in History.

She also got married at the same time that her mother died and quickly felt unsettled in the marriage.  She wrestled with Christian teachings on divorce.  Perhaps more important, she began to feel a shift in her relationship with God.  She had been a Christian who had a running discussion with God, and now she didn't feel like doing it anymore.  This book chronicles her passage through this post-divorce, mid-faith time.

She includes many a musing on middles and what they mean.  As a culture, we tend to focus on beginnings and endings.  She talks about the middle voice that some languages have (English doesn't).  She talks about continuing with practices, like going to church, even though she doesn't quite believe in their usefulness in a way that she once did.  She progresses through the liturgical year and lingers in Lent, which is appropriate for the subject matter of this book.

I especially love her meditations on giving up something for Lent and her experiment with giving up anxiety.  She tries ignoring her anxiety in 15 minute increments.  She decides to pray when she feels anxious, sometimes praying the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), sometimes a prayer she finds in the back of a prayer book.  She tries repeating the word "One" until the anxiety ebbs.

She's clear on why it's important to let go of the anxiety, bringing in Francis de Sales:  "The anxious heart, in its flailings, loses its hold on whatever graces God has bestowed upon it, and is sapped of the strength 'to resist the temptations of the Evil One, who is all the more ready to fish . . . in troubled waters'" (page 90).

Her book is full of wonderful quotes like these, quotes from great Christian thinkers and quote-worthy thoughts of her own and from her friends.  Along the way, we get prayers, we get history, and we get to see her find some comfort in the ways that Christians have always felt comfort:  through prayer, through community, and through service to others.

In the end, she doesn't recover the breathless passion of her early conversion, which is no surprise to me.  Like marriage, the middle passage of a faith journey is long and often boring and sometimes colored with a tinge of terror (what if I have just been deluding myself?).  Winner has done a great job of depicting that landscape.

She does this without being too maudlin, too depressing. In fact I found it comforting.  We're not a culture that talks easily about our uncomfortable emotions, at least not in an authentic, deep way.  Winner does.  I imagine there are many readers out there who will say, "Wow!  The doubts that I feel occasionally, the boredom, the laziness--you mean those are normal?  What a relief."

Her book is an easy read, with stand-alone chapters that a reader can dip in and out of.  I zoomed right through it, but I imagine that even if I had had to put the book down for a period of time, I would have had no trouble when I returned to it.  For those of you who like the writing style of Anne Lamott or Kathleen Norris, you should be sure to check out this book.

There's an interview in the back of the book where we find out that Winner is pursuing the Episcopal priesthood, and her book doesn't really tell us how she got from her mid-faith crisis to deciding to become a priest.  Maybe she'll talk about that in a different book.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Kairos Time, Chronos Time

In my leadership roles, I tend not to take a long view of time.  I have deadlines that must be met this week, this month, maybe 6 months out.  I tend to work on those projects.  Sometimes the project stretches out due to delays beyond my control, but basically, like many people in the industrialized world, I want to see results and I want to see them soon.

Working as a Church Council president has been both rewarding and frustrating.  I'm coordinating 9 to 12 Council members, and larger chunks of church membership.  Everyone has their own schedules and views of what things should be done and when.

And sometimes, no matter how hard we work, we just cannot accomplish a task that we have deemed important.  I've been feeling like this inability to move to completion is a massive failure of leadership on my part.

Happily, my pastor doesn't see it this way.  Or perhaps he does, but then he reminds himself that the Holy Spirit moves in a different way.  Perhaps as a Church we haven't been able to accomplish certain things because it simply wasn't the time for it yet.

It's the difference between Kairos time and Chronos time.  In the youth groups of my past, we talked a lot about this idea.  As an adult, I've lost sight of it.

The world moves rather rigidly on Chronos time.  We march forward to the incessant beat of the clock.

Kairos time talks about the right or opportune time.  It's often a more indeterminate time, an opening, a qualitative measure rather than the quantitative measure of Chronos time.  In theological terms, we often use the idea of Kairos time when we talk about God's timetable rather than the timetable we create.

I find it a comforting idea.  It doesn't let me off the hook completely.  But it reminds me that I'm not the one in charge.  I have ideas about where I'd like to move the Church (both on the local level and the national level), but God may have different ideas.  And since God has a much broader perspective than I do, I need to learn to stop struggling in this Chronos world and move more gracefully in Kairos time.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 12, 2012:

First Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 30

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Gospel: Mark 1:40-45

Today's readings revolve around healings. The Old Testament reading shows Naaman, who almost refuses a healing experience, because it involves a simple bath in a humble river. He wanted something grander and glorious. We might think about how many times we get in the way of our own health and wholeness by refusing to believe that the process can be so easy.

The Gospel lesson shows Jesus healing a leper. Those of us in the 21st century forget what Jesus is doing by this healing. We aren’t familiar with the complicated purity laws of the ancient world. By touching the leper, and by the leper telling everyone, Jesus effectively exiles himself. He cannot stay in town because by touching the impure, he makes himself impure—at least, that is what the Law would dictate.

This story of Jesus gives us an interesting view of contamination and defilement. Jesus will address our very human ideas of what defiles throughout his career. He will remind us again and again that we focus on the wrong things. We worry about contamination from things that cannot hurt us while not paying attention to the beliefs and behaviors that endanger our very souls.

It’s easy for us to scoff at purity laws from 2000 years away. It’s worth considering our modern conflicts through the lens of purity laws. What tears our communities apart? What takes people away from community? Why do we exile people?

I love this vision of God that Jesus shows us. God doesn't take on human form in order to tell us how icky we are. God comes to us in the form of Jesus and chooses to be with the most outcast of the outcast. When presented with a choice, Jesus makes it clear that God chooses to be with the lowly and the exile.

And here, in this Gospel story, the people leave their human communities to go be with Jesus. I wonder if that should be a lesson to us as well. We are not likely to find God in the hallways filled by powerful people. We will find God in the outposts of civilization, in the crumbling corners of human empires.

That doesn't mean that we're forbidden to hang out with the powerful. Indeed, some of us might see it as our mission to hang out with the powerful, to remind them of their duty to the poor and downtrodden. One wonders how this current economic crisis might have turned out differently, had we not left Wall Street to the powerful men. I've read lots of interesting articles about how women might have made a difference, had they been a presence on Wall Street. I wonder the same about Christians. If more of us made our way to the highest places of power, could we affect the course of human history? To use the language of Martin Luther King, could we arc that history towards justice?

Or would we become like Naaman, who has leprosy but doesn’t have to leave the community because he’s powerful. His arrogance flowers out of that power. He almost walks away from the gift of wholeness because of that arrogance.

The outcast of civilization have a gift that doesn't come to the rest of us so easily. The rest of us find it easy to believe that we have accomplished all that we have and accumulated all that we have because of our skills, talents, and gifts. We don't like to admit that much of our present status has to do with luck--we were born to the right parents at the right time or we had other advantages that others didn't. We like to think that we have a certain power--and if we're not careful, we come to think of ourselves as gods--and then why bother to have a relationship with God, if we're so fabulous?

The dispossessed labor under no delusions. They have seen the underside of power. They understand that humans who rely on their own power can do dreadful harm. They know that they need God.

The words of Psalm 30 offer all of us consolation: we may weep all night, but eventually joy will come to us. That’s the good news that we hear again and again in our Scriptures. Most of us need that vision, that promise, as we suffer through all sorts of defilements and exiles. God promises that it will be so.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Planning for Our Lenten Disciplines

In two weeks, we will be at the day before Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent begins.  Many of us will take up a Lenten discipline, and we may need some time to plan.  In honor of that, I'm reprinting below the essay that I wrote for the Living Lutheran website last year.  Longtime readers of this blog will remember that I have also done multi-blog post series about the same theme.

Launch Into Lent

Have you decided what you will give up for Lent yet? In the past, a Lenten discipline meant giving something up, often something that we shouldn’t have been doing anyway. Those Lenten disciplines are still valid, especially if you tie the giving up to something spiritual (for example, you’ll give up sugar and contribute the money you would have spend on sweets to Lutheran World Relief). But what if instead of giving something up, we added something to enrich our spiritual lives? For those of you who are baffled, below are some suggestions to help you launch into Lent.

Increase Your Reading:

You might wail, “But what should I read?” Why not start with the Bible? Read a Gospel from beginning to end. Dip into some of the other New Testament books. Read a Psalm a day.

Lent is also a good time to add some devotional reading to your day. You’ve got a lot of possibilities. Choose a theological author, and chances are good that someone has taken part of their work and transformed it into a devotional resource. Augsburg Fortress has a wonderful 40 Day Journey With ___ series (Julian of Norwich, Madeleine L’Engle, and Kathleen Norris, among many others) which combines the writing of the author, some Scripture reading, some questions to ponder, and some writing prompts.

You might decide you want to continue this discipline beyond Lent. Luckily the Augsburg Fortress series has many books. For a more traditional series with reading alone, look for the A Year with ___ Series (Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and C.S. Lewis, among many others).

Boost Your Prayer Life:

If you’re not praying on a regular basis, now’s a good time to start. Begin your day with prayer, or end it with prayer or both. If you’re not sure what to say, start with thank you. Or, pray the Lord’s Prayer. If you want a bit more discipline, try praying for people who annoy you. Pray for countries that seem opposed to ours. Pray for peace. Ask God for what you need. Ask God to be with leaders. Ask God to be with those who need help: pray for the sick, pray for the newly wedded, pray for that homeless person you always see wandering around, pray for your boss, pray for your family, pray for the local schools.

Experiment with a Creative Practice:

You may not think of yourself as creative, but you likely were creative once. Try one or more of the following to reconnect with your artistic self:

--Buy a big box of crayons (or paints or pastels or any medium that makes you excited). Create a picture that addresses your spiritual life.

--Go to the store and buy 3 bouquets of flowers. Rearrange them into two bouquets and put them where you'll see them and be reminded of God's flowering love for you. Take this process one step further: plant a flower pot or a garden.

--The image of God as a potter recurs in the Bible. Buy some clay and play with it. If you are the clay, how is God shaping you? Make that shape.

--Learn to bake bread. Bread dough is amazingly forgiving, and will endure countless experiments.

--Start a spiritual journal. Each day, write down 5 things you’re grateful for. Or write down people you need to remember to pray for. Or write a short meditation on a Bible verse or a song. Make a list of where you see God at work in the world. Write out your prayers.

Step Up Your Charitable Efforts:

Hopefully, you’re already making some attempt to be part of God’s vision for social justice, either by contributing time, money, or materials. You might consider a few of the following suggestions:

--Make an extra contribution to your favorite charity. Maybe you could make one extra contribution per week. It doesn’t have to be huge. But it could be.

--Clean out your closets. Give away anything you haven’t worn in the past year. Clean out your kitchen cupboards.

--When you go to the grocery store, buy some extra food for your favorite charity.

--See if you can’t increase your tithe by 5 or 10 percent above what you’re doing now.

--Give some extra time during Lent. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or a food pantry. Go to a nursing home and sing some old Gospel songs. Think about the people you know who have lives that are falling apart; go buy cards and put them in the mail.

Try a Spiritual Practice that You’ve Never Tried Before:

Don’t feel compelled to go too far outside of your comfort zone. But even within your comfort zone, you’ll probably notice many practices that you might have wanted to try or that you once tried and let fall away:

--Pray the Rosary (or any set of beads): If you’re not sure of how to do this, just offer up a different prayer as you touch each bead. Perhaps for each bead, you’d like to remember a specific person. Perhaps for each bead you’d like to offer up thanks for one thing for which you’re grateful. If you’re not good at creating prayers, simply pray the Lord’s prayer. If you want to really return to your Catholic roots, go here.

--Find a labyrinth and walk it. Many churches and retreat centers have installed labyrinths. To find one near you, go here. What do you do once you’re there? Simply walk. Follow the path in and follow it back out again—you can’t go wrong. Some people pray or recite a Bible verse as they walk.

--Go to a weekly concert. Many churches offer a weekly concert during Lent, often at lunchtime. Call some of the churches around your workplace to see if they’re offering anything. Leave the office, sit in a worship site, and enjoy some different music.

--Many churches offer an extra service during the week or Bible study. Resolve to add one opportunity to your weekly schedule.

I haven't decided on my Lenten discipline, and there are plenty of other possibilities out there.  Perhaps this will be the year that I decide not to take on any additional disciplines; the thought of taking on more exhausts me.  Perhaps I will find my Lenten discipline in paring down my commitments.  Many of the above suggestions are easy for me.  Saying "no" is much more difficult.