Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Feast of the Visitation

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation, the day when Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth.  Both are miraculously pregnant.  As they approach each other, they recognize each other, as mothers, as miracles--even the babies in their wombs understand what's happening.  Here are the readings:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 2:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 113

Second Reading: Romans 12:9-16b

Gospel: Luke 1:39-57

I'm a good Lutheran girl, so growing up, we never celebrated these feast days.  As I've gotten older and explored monasticism, and to be honest, as I've blogged more and needed more to write about, I've been doing all sorts of research into feast days. 

Some feast days leave me shaking my head and wondering what modern folks are to do with them.  Some feast days, like today's, make me wish I'd known about them earlier.  I think about my younger self who was enraged that so much femaleness seemed to be erased from Christianity.  What would my raging feminist self have done with this festival?

I'm not sure she'd have been appeased.  I was also in the process of trying to assert that biology isn't destiny, while also acknowledging that I was one of the first generations to be able to assert that idea.

Now that I am at midlife, I love this story of two women from two generations coming together to support each other.  I love this story of new life being held in unlikely wombs.  I am fondly remembering female members of my own extended family and offering thanks for their support.  I remember the family stories they told and the ways they included me in family gatherings.  I remember the rides to the airport, and memorably, one time that my cousin Barbara (my mom's first cousin) came to Augusta, 60 miles away, at night, to help me out of a jam caused by the breakdown of a car.  I remember that she treated it as a grand adventure.  No castigating, no lecturing.

How might we modern folks celebrate this day?

--We could write thank you notes to elders who have helped us.

--We could write encouraging notes to younger people who could use a kind word.

--We could think about our own lives--what needs to be born?

--We could nourish ourselves with care, the way we would if we carried the baby Jesus in our wombs.

--Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist, who will go on to say, "I am not the Messiah."  We can adopt those words as the mantra for the day.  We are not required to save the world.  That work has been done.

--We could practice seeing the presence of God, or the evidence of God's great generosity, which is all around us.

--We could jump for joy at the evidence of God, still with us in the world. We could offer prayers of gratitude.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 3, 2012:

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm: Psalm 29

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-17

Gospel: John 3:1-17

As we celebrate Holy Trinity Sunday on June 3, let us pause to consider the power of three.  You probably learned from your Composition teachers that three main points have a greater chance of creating a solid essay; not one point, not two points, not seven, but three.  If you've arranged objects on a mantel or a sideboard, you've probably noticed that three objects most often leads to balance; more looks cluttered, less looks sparse.

If you're a breadbaker, you've probably experimented with braids and twists.  There's something beautiful about a braid of bread:

Consider the braid, how much stronger it is than the individual strand.  You can easily pluck individual hairs out of a scalp.  It's much harder to yank a braid of hair loose from the body. 

We worship a God in three persons, as we commonly understand it; I have long suspected that our God contains multitudes, but our human brains can scarcely comprehend a God-in-three, much less a God-in-millions, so we stop at 3.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about communities of all sorts, and I love this idea of God as a communal God, God dwelling as 3-in-one.  Throughout our Scriptures, we learn all sorts of lessons about community, and in the New Testament, we begin to perceive that God, too, dwells in community.  And God who dwells in community invites us to be part of that community.

On Holy Trinity Sunday, we might spend some time thinking about all the aspects of God whom we've met:  Creator, Mother, Redeemer, Savior, Fellow Traveler, Inspiration, Father, Breath,Mystic, Provider, Healer, Leader, Spiritual Director, Dreamer . . . the list could go on and on.  Which incarnation of God speaks to you most?

Which incarnation do you need to invite to be part of your life?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pentecost Sanctuary

Well, I had planned to make elaborate flames out of fabric and beads and hang them from the lights. 

I started to change my plans for several reasons:  the lights aren't as easy to get to as I thought, and I ran out of time.  But the fabric came in handy for other decorating.

I bought a lot of ribbon when it went on sale after Christmas--look at how it comes in handy for Pentecost!

You may remember that I wrote this post about preparing for Pentecost at the beginning of the month.  I had just gotten back from Synod Assembly, and I was drawn to the idea of streamer sticks.  I'm pleased to report that this idea worked.  Here's the process, from almost the beginning.  I should have taken a picture of the broken drying rack, from which we got most of our dowel rods.  We also used some stakes that are designed for gardening (in the plastic below).

Many of the dowel rods were kind of spotted, so we painted them!

We experimented with ways to affix the ribbons (staples, tape), but tying them and knotting them worked best and was easiest:

We used all kind of ribbons, from the cheap, plastic-ish kind to cloth ribbons. 

I cut the thicker ribbons into smaller strips.

We had a variety of sizes, which was great, because we had a variety of people carrying the streamers.  We didn't have as many children as we often have in church, so I asked high schoolers to help.  They seemed glad to do it. 

I led the procession in, so I'm not sure how it looked.  But several people told me how much they liked them, and several people talked about how festive it was.  Hurrah!  I was going for festive.

Now it's on to the long green season.  Maybe we can insert some festivity into some of those Sundays too.  Maybe a different altarscape here or there.  Let me start thinking ahead!

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Day After Pentecost

Our pastor was full of metaphors yesterday.  He said, "The Holy Spirit doesn't come like a box from Ikea with stick figures showing us how to be Church."

He also said the Holy Spirit is not a breakfast cereal; it's not the same with every spoonful.  We're never sure what we'll get from spoonful to spoonful.

I was full of strange Pentecostal connections myself.  It's Pentecost, and the Bloodmobile is here.  We're talking about the Holy Spirit, and some of us may be looking ahead a day to Memorial Day.  I felt haunted by spirits of all kinds.

Perhaps I'll write a poem or two.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost Promises

A year ago, the following essay that I wrote appeared in The Lutheran.  I'm hoping they won't mind if I reprint it here today.

Pentecost Promises

Have you decided what you’re going to wear for Pentecost? Made your guest list and created the menu? Have you decorated the house for Pentecost? Bought the Pentecost presents?

No, Pentecost is the church holiday that gets short shrift. It should be one of the three high, holiest days, but it’s nowhere near as popular as Easter, a holiday which in turn is nowhere near as popular as Christmas. Why has this holiday been overlooked?

Maybe it’s the wind. Many of us grew up in tornado or hurricane country, and the sound of a great, rushing wind isn’t one we find appealing. Or maybe it’s the tongues of fire. Most of us find fire threatening too.

Maybe it’s the plotline of the story: those early believers, filled with a force they didn’t understand, speaking languages that they couldn’t know. Those of us who are control freaks by nature likely feel deeply uncomfortable at the prospect.

Pentecost is the holiday designed for discomfort, a celebration that should stir us to get up off the couch to go out and do great things. We learn about Pentecost in the book of Acts, after all, not the book of Sleeping Late. Perhaps that’s why so many of us approach Pentecost with a bit of apprehension. Throughout church history, we’ve seen what the presence of the Holy Spirit can do, even in the most improbable settings.

If we let the Holy Spirit loose in our home churches, what might happen? If we trusted in the transforming power of God, what changes might we see, both in our individual lives and in the lives of our church bodies? How might our local society and the larger world be different? The answers to those questions might scare us.

Maybe Pentecost leaves us feeling worried that we’ll be found wanting, incapable of doing what must be done. We often forget that the original Christians began life as a cowering group of people who had seen their Savior crucified. Jesus returned to them, and then they lost him again. When we see them in Acts, they’re adrift, perhaps like many of us. Sure, they chose a man to replace Judas Iscariot, but their daily lives revolved around waiting.

And then came the day of Pentecost. The early Christians had been hollowed out by grief and loss—and the Spirit filled those hollowed spaces, making it possible for them to speak and for everyone to understand. And then the Spirit sent them out to change the world.

We live in a time of rapid change, from revolutions abroad to church schism at home. Various scholarly disciplines continue to give us new discoveries that completely reorder the way we see the world. We may not know what our next steps should be. We are people who want a plan: a daily plan, a five year plan, a ten year plan—yet the circumstances of our lives, both on the individual and the global scale, may make planning impossible.

But Pentecost reassures us with the mystical promise of the Spirit. We do not have to know what we are doing; we just need to be open to the movement of the Spirit. Pentecost promises daring visions; we don’t have to know how we’re going to accomplish them. God will take care of that.

God became incarnate to prepare humans to carry on the work of Kingdom creation. And Pentecost reminds us of our job description, to let the Holy Spirit blow into our hollowed out spaces and to fill us with the fire to dream and the resources to bring our visions to life.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Paul as Administrator

Our church council met to talk about the budget.  It's a fairly simple budget:  there's no more fat to cut, and some might say we've begun to cut into the muscle, the sinew, and the bone.  So there's no money to argue over.  I count it a success that we've kept everyone employed through our recent hard times (a surprise series of bills from the IRS along with all the other difficulties from this Great Recession).

We began by reading 2 Corinthians 8.  As we read, I saw Paul in a new light.  I've seen Paul as a missionary, as a lifestyle consultant, as morality policeman extraordinaire.  But the other night I saw Paul as an administrator. 

It's clear from reading this passage that the Corinthians have said they would do something and have failed to do it.  The Church in Corinth is still doing good work; in other words, it's not time to cut them loose or fire them.  But they've fallen short, and they need to get back on track.

I can almost see Paul choosing his words carefully.  He needs to give them something that will inspire them to be the better selves that he knows they can be.  He needs to create the right tone:  somewhat moderate, with undertones of severity, somewhat stern, very encouraging.

Most days at work, I find myself with a similar rhetorical task.  I spend much time composing e-mails--even as I know that people will not spend a similar amount of time reading them.  I imagine much was the same with Paul.

It both amuses and horrifies me that these letters of Paul have become church doctrine in a sense.  He was writing to specific churches who were facing specific problems.  He was not creating a behavior manual for future generations.

That's not to say that a lot of what Paul wrote is invalid.  It's just important to remember the context.

Just as I spend a lot of time composing e-mails, I must spend a lot of time sorting through e-mails sent and e-mails received.  I tend to wait to do this task until my e-mail system tells me that I have to or I won't be allowed to send more e-mail.  So, I end up with a lot of e-mail to sort out all at once.

I must admit that not much of it seems worthy to me.  If I found out that thousands of years from now, my work  writing had made its way into a sacred book, I'd be astonished.  And I'd probably wonder:  why did this e-mail make it in and not this other one?

I wonder if Paul would feel the same way?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Thinking about the Lutheran Church in Haiti as We Push Toward Pentecost

As I've thought back to the Florida-Bahamas Synod Assembly and been contemplating Pentecost, I've been pulled back to the reports from Haiti.

The Lutheran Church of Haiti (ELCA) has seen rapid growth since the first ordination of 3 ELCA pastors in 2009--and that's despite an earthquake, which left some of the Haitian Lutherans without their physical church.  Even before the earthquake, Haiti faces challenges more severe than any in this hemisphere.  Despite those challenges, the ELCA in Haiti has flourished.

Each year, we get a report from pastor Joseph Livenson Lauvanus, and part of the success in Haiti can be credited to him.  He seems tireless.  As he reports on the successes in his country, his face shines in a way that few others shine during Synod Assembly.

Do the successes seem so miraculous because the circumstances are so difficult?  Perhaps.  Still, when we consider numbers alone, it is clear that the Spirit moves through Haiti in a different way.  Unfortunately, I didn't write the numbers down, and despite research, I can't find them.  But suffice it to say, that in 2009, there were few ELCA Lutherans.  Now, just a few years later, there are thousands of ELCA Lutherans.

As I listen to the reports from Haiti, I'm reminded of the stories of the earliest Christians.  Those people, too, faced overwhelming odds, but went out and built a church--and then a network of churches.  They had an energy and an enthusiasm that proved incredibly attractive.  They had a can-do attitude.  If they spent much time whining about the long odds and the difficulty of the tasks, those conversations haven't been recorded.  Their communal spirit still beckons across the centuries.

We see similar dynamics in Haiti, where people know that they're stronger together than they can be apart.  We see people building what they need, often literally, with their own two hands.  We see that so little can make such a big difference--for example, a truck that's equipped to travel over harsh roads.  My suburban church would have very little use for such a thing.  That donation of that truck has made a huge difference to the Lutheran Church of Haiti.

But more importantly, when I listen to Pastor Lauvanus talk, I'm struck by his enthusiasm and love for his country.  I'm struck by how he sees opportunities and how he trusts that obstacles will be overcome.  He's not waiting for mainland churches to sweep in; he knows that his country will have to do the bulk of the work.  He seems plugged in to the force of the Holy Spirit in a more consistent way than most people I've seen speak.

As Pentecost approaches, let's remember the mystical promise of the Spirit. We do not have to know what we are doing; we just need to be open to the movement of the Spirit. Pentecost promises daring visions; we don’t have to know how we’re going to accomplish them. God will take care of that.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 27, 2012

First Reading: Acts 2:1-21

First Reading (Alt.): Ezekiel 37:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 104:25-35, 37 (Psalm 104:24-34, 35b NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:22-27

Second Reading (Alt.): Acts 2:1-21

Gospel: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Ah, the liturgical year cycles back to the feast of Pentecost.  It really should be the second most important festival of the church year, second only to Easter, but I suspect that many churches pay more attention to Christmas than to either of the other two festivals.  I've talked to many a Christian who didn't know the first thing about Pentecost.

Maybe we're afraid of some of the more, well, pentecostal elements of the holiday:  the speaking in tongues (but in languages that could be understood by native speakers), the rushing wind, the fire.  Maybe we're feeling overwhelmed by the example set by that first generation of believers.

Maybe you're having more of a dry bones year than a Spirit seared year.  Maybe you've been having a dry bones decade.  It might be hard for you to believe that Holy Spirit or no Holy Spirit, any flesh can be hung back on a dried out frame.

Maybe you've been whipped by so many winds that you don't know which way to turn.  Maybe it's hard for you to hear the breath of God with the howling of so many other winds in your life.

Maybe you feel scorched by circumstances.  Maybe you're looking at your desert of a life and thinking that you could use some water.

Often in nature, we see that it takes an unusual event, like a fire or a storm, to invigorate a landscape.  We look at the immediate aftermath and see a moonscape that looks forever barren.  Yet if we came back in a few years, we'd be amazed by how much new growth we'd see.  And that new growth would have never gotten a chance without the calamitous, clearing event.

We often celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, but we often fail to mention that this birthing, with all its pain and messiness, is an ongoing process.  We tend to look back at the early days of the Church with idealistic vision, but if we carefully reread the letters of Paul, we see that those churches had just as many problems as our current churches.  We tend to see ourselves as deficient, but we don't have the longer view.

On this festival day, revel in the promise of renewal that God offers.  Be alert for new visions and different directions.  Trust that dessicated ruins--whether that be our lives, our Church, our neighborhoods, our planet--can be reinvigorated.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Mouse and the Church

Yesterday's post took me back to our Synod Assembly.  Often, in the Faith and Family year (offered every other year, in the years when we're not doing legislative duties), we have a variety of workshops.

This year, we had a several-hours long presentation by someone from the Disney corporation.  She was there to tell us about what churches can learn from the way Disney does things.  She gave us a matrix to fill out so that we could determine our church's priorities and where we're meeting them and where we're falling short.  She seemed to be veering very close to a customer-service kind of message.

Well, those of us who have done much thinking will see the fallacy in this approach.  We're not here to please customers, as a church.  We're here to build disciples.  The Disney universe and the Church are quite different in many ways.

Sure, there are interesting similarities:  that sense of wonder, that idea that different worlds are possible, the re-enchantment of every day life.

For the most part, I felt frustrated; it reminded me of all the pop-MBA kind of workshops that I've had to take part in at work.  Some of it's useful, but most of it isn't.

My spouse pointed out that many of the pastors probably hadn't heard much of this before, and so, perhaps it was more useful  to them.

To be fair, I was also in a frustrated mood because, ironically, I'd been dealing with the hotel's front desk people, where you'd expect to find good customer service, but I wasn't.  From the time we got there to the time we left, the hotel was confused about our check-out date.  I went round and round with the staff.

Fascinating as it was to glimpse behind the Disney facade to see how they manufactured the magic, I'd have preferred the old-fashioned workshops where we heard success stories from other churches and did brainstorming about how to solve our own problems.  I'd have rather experimented with spiritual activities that could enrich my day-to-day life.  I'd have rather had additional Bible study time with the seminary professor who was fabulous.

After the session, we had lots of free time, but it was late afternoon, and we were tired.  Some Synod folks headed off to Disney, while others headed home, while others went to restaurants.  We decided to take some down time in the pool and since we had a room with a "fireworks view," to make sure we didn't miss the show. 

Instead of eating yet another overpriced meal, we bought some snacks and some beer.  We sat on our tiny balcony and watched the distant fireworks.  We ate honey-roasted cashews and kettle chips and washed it all down with very cold beer.  It was a Eucharist of sorts.  It was a moment to acknowledge that Disney does some things right (festivity!  fireworks!), but the Church prepares us for life in a way that Disney never can.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Good News, Fierce Forces that Oppose the Message

Our pastor's sermon on Sunday focused on the idea of being in the world and not of the world.  For his children's sermon, he used an interesting swimming pool metaphor:  children get in the pool, but they're not part of the pool, the way the swimming pool liner (above ground) or the tiled walls (in-ground) would be.

For the adults, he reminded us that the religious officials of Christ's day had learned to live and work with the Romans.  They had become part of the social order that Jesus came to upset.

The Gospel is not such good news for those who are comfortable with the System as it is.  Still having Walter Wink on my brain, I thought of his ideas of Domination Systems and the Powers and Principalities.

Our pastor circled to those ideas by looking at the prayer of Jesus and focusing on Jesus praying for protection for his followers.  He's not praying just in case.  He knows that that there are fierce forces in the world that will oppose the disciples.

He talked about a past governor of Alabama, Bob Riley, who tried to govern based on his understanding of the Bible's command to look out for the least members of society.  As we might expect, fierce forces organized to oppose his legislation.

Our pastor warned us about the upcoming campaign season that promises to be nastier than usual.  He cautioned that we'd hear lots of hate and fear.  He urged us to remember that when we hear such things, we're not hearing our Gospel.

He concluded by invoking this hope, that we live what we proclaim, the Good News.

Amen to that!

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Feast Day of St. Helena

Today is the feast day of St. Helena.  I've got a blog post up at the Living Lutheran site that ponders St. Helena and her relevance for contemporary Christians, especially in light of her association with relics.  Go here for more.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Not Loving Well This Past Week

A week ago, we were sent out from church with the command of loving each other ringing in our ears.

I have failed miserably.

It has been the kind of week where I often shook my head and said, "I did not go to grad school for this."  It's the time of the quarter where students realize that they can't continue to goof off indefinitely.  I've seen more than one in my office who cannot come to terms with the fact that they've blown it for the final time.  I've dealt with co-workers who have feathers ruffled in varying degrees of severity.  I've tried to sort out not one, but two, room mix-ups.  I have tried to stay patient, to hide my frustration, to not blow up as people continued to push and push and push.

As I said before, I have failed miserably.

And now I must practice the trait that is toughest for me:  forgiving myself and moving on.  I have been stuck in the beating myself up for not being able to stay calm and unflappable and above the fray.

Healing Sunday has rarely been so timely for me.  I will get the oil on my forehead and hear the words of forgiveness.

I will try to believe that I am forgiven.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Remembering Walter Wink

Over at my creativity blog, I've written a tribute to the theologian Walter Wink, who died May 10.  It might have been more appropriate for this blog, but sometimes, the blogs cross-pollinate each other.

Perhaps I should have written more about Donna Summer, but I don't really have much to say.  On our way home from Church Council, my spouse and I were trying to remember her songs.  My spouse kept bringing up other disco songs:  "We Are Family," "I Will Survive" . . . frightening that I could name each artist.  My brain is a font of only occasionally useful information.

No, it was the news of Wink's death that made me feel weepy at work. He had ideas that took my breath away. He wrote books that I underlined copiously. He made me want to work for social justice, and he convinced me that social justice was possible. He will be missed, but happily, he lived a long life, and left behind a body of work for us to continue to cherish.

This week-end, I plan to get started on Pentecost plans.  I'll take photos and post some updates.  There will be sticks with streamers and impressionistic flames that will hang from lights.  Maybe even some kind of altarscape.  Stay tuned!

That kind of work doesn't feel as important to me as the work of Walter Wink, but it's good to remind myself that it's important in a different way.  Art can lead us to God in a way that academic words and deep studies can't.

I'd like to strive, in everything that I do, to keep an eye to what's important now, what will be important in 10 years, what I hope people will still see as important work that I did, even after I've died.  I'd like to stop stressing so much over the stuff that's not important, that's already passing away.

I'd like my art to point us to the important, the essential.  Well, actually, I'd like every part of my life to do that.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Feast of the Ascension

I wrote this meditation as part of a larger assignment for the ELCA; it may have been sent to some of you electronically, but most of you won't have seen it. I'm reprinting it here, and I'm hoping that the ELCA won't mind. The prayer that follows was composed this morning.

The readings for the Feast of the Ascension:

First Reading: Acts 1:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 47

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 93

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23

Gospel: Luke 24:44-53

In today’s reading, we get a summary of the life of Jesus, and then, in a sentence, it’s over. Jesus ascends into Heaven, leaving behind gaping disciples.

They don’t get to stare into the sky very long. They have a task to do. It’s the same task that we have.

Today’s reading gives us the paradox of God’s good news. The kingdom of God is both here, now, already, but it is also not yet fulfilled. Those two conditions seem impossible to reconcile. It seems impossible to live with both conditions existing simultaneously--and yet, it is what we are called to do.

Many of us spend much of our lives as those men of Galilee, gaping into the heavens; we spend time thinking about Heaven, plotting how to get there, anticipating the time when all our tears will be wiped away.

But the coming Sundays of the Pentecost season remind us that we’re not put on Earth to wait to die. We are here to help God in the ultimate redemption of creation. Jesus began that work of that redemption. We are here to further it along, at least as much as we can during our very short time here.

And how do we do that? The possible answers to that question are as varied as humanity. Some of us will pray without ceasing. Some of us will fight for social justice. Some of us will create works that point others to God. Some of us will visit the lonely and the sick. Some of us will give away our money so that others have the resources to do the creation redeeming work that needs to be done.

Whatever we choose, it’s important that we get to work. We don’t want to get to the end of our time here, only to be asked, “Why did you stand there gaping, when there was so much work to do?”

Prayer for the Feast of the Ascension:

Ascending God, you understand our desire to escape our earthly bonds, to hover above it all, to head to Heaven now instead of later.  Remind us of our earthly purpose.  Reassure us that we have gifts and talents that are equal to the tasks that you need us to do.  Help us close our gaping mouths and get to work.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 21, 2012:

First Reading: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Psalm: Psalm 1

Second Reading: 1 John 5:9-13

Gospel: John 17:6-19

In today’s Gospel passage, we see Jesus close to the end of his mission. We get to watch him pray. And notice that Jesus prays for those people whom he has called to continue the work he has set in motion.

This passage reminds us that we are sanctified consecrated, and sent out into the world. The not yet message of the Gospel reminds us that we have work to do And this Gospel passage reminds us of the stakes: Jesus prays that we will be protected from the evil one.

In many ways, our most basic task is to confront evil. Everything we do, everything we create, needs to be a challenge to evil. We are not to go through the world with our business as usual selves. We are not to have a self that we bring out on Sundays, in church, and our week day self, and our Saturday self. Our task is to live an integrated life, a life that lets the light of the Good News shine through us and our actions.

The thought of living an integrated life can drive some of us to distraction. How can we be sure that we are? Some of us are so distracted that we never really make the attempt.

As humans, we have a tendency to make these things more complicated than they need to be. Here again, as he so often does, Christ shows us a path towards a life of integrity.

We can pray. We are to care for everyone. We can start by praying for them.

We can begin with the easy prayers: the ones for our families and friends. And then we can move on to the difficult people. You say you have a boss who is driving you crazy, making you redo work 5 times, only to arrive back at the place you started? You could growl and grumble. But you'd use your time far more wisely by praying for your boss. Your neighbors play their music too loud and fight through the night? Pray for them. You disagree with your leaders? Pray for them. As you drive home, let yourself notice the homeless people, the ones who wait for the bus, the teenagers who look to be loitering with no place to go. Pray for them.

As you move through the day, be on the lookout for ways to be the yeast in the bread, the salt that flavors the soup. Look for ways to show Christ's love. You can do it quietly--in fact, there are plenty of Gospel passages that say you must do it quietly. You don't want to be that pious Christian that makes people feel squirmy; you don't want people to accuse you of being a typical hypocritical Christian on the days when your light flickers and dims. Radiate love, as often as you can, and you will be a far stronger advocate for God, and a person who is far better equipped to fight evil.

Each day, pray the prayer that Jesus prayed so long ago, that his joy may be fulfilled in you (verse 13). Each day, look for ways to bring that joy to others. Each day, work for beauty and peace and the defeat of evil.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Broken to Beautiful and Back Again

At our 2011 Create in Me retreat, our theme was "broken, but beautiful."  Our community art project involved a plexiglass cross, which we filled with broken objects:

In the end, it looked like this:

I wrote about that process here.  I loved the whole process from the breaking of the pottery to the filling of the cross.  I loved seeing how the broken bits came together in a beautiful new creation:

I've been back to Lutheridge several times since we created the cross.  It's given me great joy to revisit the cross, to remember making it, to photograph it in different lights.  Look at how the plexiglass lets us see inside the cross, while also reflecting the outside world:

Maybe that's why I felt sad to learn that just before our 2012 Create in Me retreat, a huge storm system moved across the mountain range, and the cross tipped over:

I wanted to salvage it.  I came up with all kinds of ideas, including a plan with duct tape and a tree.  In the end, we all agreed that some times, you must let an art project go (for more on this idea, see this post at my creativity blog).  One of the camp's pastors pointed out that a year is a good run for an art project to last at camp.

My poet's brain loved the idea of taking brokenness and creating a thing of beauty.  I was not prepared for the thing of beauty to return to a state of brokenness.  And yet, metaphorically, it works.  Creation has not yet been fully redeemed, although the process has begun.  The passage from beauty to brokenness, back and forth, seems to never end. 

Yet Christ promises that at some point, it will end.  All will be made new.

I am glad to have had a year with this cross.  I will miss it.  I will remember it as a companion to the labyrinth (created on the old tennis court), a testimony to rebirth, a partner on the journey.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Love is a Verb, Not a Feeling

Our pastor preached on the Gospel yesterday and focused on what it means to love each other.  He didn't sum up his thoughts quite this pithily, but again and again, he reminded us that love is a verb, not just a feeling.

He moved to this part of the sermon after reminding us that Luther said we can't just not bear false witness--it's not enough to tell no lies.  We have to actively believe in the best of people and look for the best in them.  Oh dear.  I have a lot of work to do in this area with certain humans.

Actually, I've already done some of this work--at work, as you might expect.  I remind myself that not everyone is efficient in the ways that I am.  I remind myself that people are doing the best that they can do.  Their results may disappoint--but no one goes to work or class saying, "I wonder how I can fail today.  In what spectacular ways can I go down in flames?"

Our pastor moved to talking about our neighbor and how we define our neighbor.  It's not a geographical definition.  Luther said that where there is need, there is neighbor.

Luther said that faith is an active, busy, creative force.  With enough faith, we can't help but do good works.

And for those of us who are feeling a bit depleted, our pastor reminded us that God gives us faith enough to love as Christ loves--so much so that we would have to choose to live differently than Christ did.

What he left unspoken:  so many Christians do, indeed, make that choice not to live Christ-like lives.

My prayer for the week:  Creator God, please fill me with the faith I need to live a life that emulates Christ's.  I am surrounded by non-Christ-like ways to live.  Remind me that you have called me to a better life.  Remind me that I have a higher purpose.  Fill me with the faith that can move my feet, with faith that will remind me that love is a verb, not a feeling.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Jesus, Our Peanut Butter and Jelly God

In my Lutheran churches of which I've been a part, God our Mother hasn't gotten much attention at all.  Lots and lots of father language.  Not much mother language--alas.

We may have to do some digging, since it's not emphasized much in the Lectionary readings, but if one looks, the motherly face of God is there, hiding in plain sight.

For example:

Deuteronomy 32:18 describes God as a mother giving birth to a nation: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”

Psalm 91 uses a variety of images of refuge to describe God, including the symbol of God as bird with sheltering wings; even with the male pronouns, I see this bird as a mother figure.

Psalm 139:13 gives us this image of God: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

And we could study all the mothers in the Bible and think about what we can learn from them.

Or we could think about our own Savior, who gives us sustenance made from bodily fluids.  We don't often make the connections between the Eucharist and breast milk.  How might our lives be different if our churches emphasized the connection?

I think about my own mother, the endless sandwiches that she made.  I think of her now and her love of grilled cheese sandwiches.  I have a sudden vision of Jesus making us all peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Jesus would cut the sandwiches on the diagonal, if we wanted.  Jesus would cut the crusts off our sandwiches without lecturing us about the nutrients lost.

I think of my mother, who opened our home to various people stranded in our town without family on holidays.  Usually she met them through our church.  I loved having seminarians over for holiday dinners and brunches.  I loved the stray musicians.  It was great.

Now that I'm older, I love the example of hospitality that my parents modeled for us.  And I know that God desires a similar hospitality from us, for us.

Again, I have a vision of Jesus creating a holiday feast and inviting a rag tag bunch of us over to share a good meal and a discussion about music, movies, whatever's on our minds.

On this Mother's Day, let us honor all the ways we've been nurtured.  Let us look for ways to nurture the world which so needs our love and care.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Listening: A Spiritual Gift?

I've been thinking about spiritual gifts.  Here are two passages that talk about spiritual gifts:

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

Romans 12:  1-7

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual* worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.


I immediately wonder about the gifts that didn't make it onto the list.
Would you say that being able to listen is a spiritual gift?
Once I might have dismissed that idea.  But in these times where it's so difficult to quiet the mind and be fully present, I might say that it is.
It may not have the glitziness of speaking in tongues.  It's certainly not dazzling, like working miracles.  At first glance, it doesn't have the appeal of prophecy.
But I might argue it's just as rare.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Worth More than Sparrows, from Head to Sole

During yesterday's morning prayer, this verse leapt out at me from my prayer book (Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours):

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows."  Matthew 10:  29-31

It's no wonder that the verse appeals to me. 

We've been having day after day of scary storms, the kind of storm with dramatic lightning and wind howling around the buildings and rattling the doors, the kind of storm where I wonder if I should go to a windowless room closer to the center of the building.

Yesterday was also a day where there was some kind of horrific crime, officers shot, the Florida Turnpike shut down in both directions. I was grateful to scoot home before the traffic problems in the west of the county spread across the whole tri-county area.

It's been the kind of week where I'm glad to make it home and happy when I see that my spouse is home safe too.  So many people got home late last night or didn't get home at all--but it does look like the 3 shot officers will live.  One was shot in the neck and is still expected to survive.  Let us now say a prayer of thanks for the powers of modern medicine.

This bit of Psalm has also been rattling around my head.  I hear it as promise and hope.

"Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard;
Who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip."  Psalm 66: 7-8

I love this vision of God who knows me from the individual hairs of my head to the rough soles of my feet.  I like this vision of God who helps me travel through the dangerous parts of the world.  I want to believe that I am worth more than sparrows, and I want to believe that in God's economy, sparrows are worth more than two pennies.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Marriage for All!

Yesterday President Obama announced that he had evolved further and now openly supports gay marriage.  I may be paraphrasing wrongly, of course.  I've now likely heard paraphrases of the paraphrases.

My heart sank, not because I'm unhappy with his evolution, but because I knew that his announcement will bring out the Christians that I'd like to not have associated with me or my beliefs.

You know the ones:  the ones that always seem to be photographed when they look angry and hateful. If, as the old song from the 1970's is right, they will know we are Christians by our love, we won't be seeing much of that in evidence in the Christians who are going to get air time in the next few days.


I would like to see people who would talk about marriage as a sacrament, as a way we see a visible sign of God's invisible grace.  Why should we deny our homosexual brothers and sisters that sacrament?

I know, I know, I'm a Lutheran, and my church doesn't see marriage as a sacrament.  My church is wrong.

Nothing else has helped me understand God's love for me the way my spouse's love for me has.  I make mistakes, and he forgives me.  He forgives me, even though he knows I will likely make the same mistakes again and again.  I do the same for him.  He sees me--the best me, the worst me--as I truly am, and he loves me.  Largely, he loves me not because of my anything I might say or do to convince him, but because he knows me.

Yes, my vision of Christians invading the airwaves to talk about marriage as sacrament will not happen.  I understand how news coverage works.  Angry Christians make better TV than grace-soaked Christians.  Alas.

Maybe we could talk about how we, as a nation, talk a good talk about the sanctity of marriage, but our actions belie our blathering talk.  Look at our divorce rates, our domestic violence rates, and then come back to me for a discussion of the sanctity of marriage.

I hope that conservatives like David Brooks get more airtime.  He wrote one of the better essays about marriage that I've ever read.  He says, "Few of us work as hard at the vocation of marriage as we should. But marriage makes us better than we deserve to be. Even in the chores of daily life, married couples find themselves, over the years, coming closer together, fusing into one flesh. Married people who remain committed to each other find that they reorganize and deepen each other's lives. They may eventually come to the point when they can say to each other: 'Love you? I am you.'''

He doesn't use the term "sacrament"--after all, he's writing for the secular The New York Times.  But he's talking in sacramental terms nonetheless.

He begins to conclude his piece by saying, "The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity."

Amen to that!  May it be so, for all of us, and sooner, rather than later.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 13, 2012:

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands. (Ps. 98:5)
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

This week's Gospel continues where last week's lessons about the vine and the branches left off. Notice how many times Jesus commands us to love each other.

Yet most elements of Western culture encourage us to put ourselves first, to keep ourselves isolated. But Christ calls us to a different kind of life. In Eat this Book, Eugene H. Peterson says, ". . . the words of Scripture can no longer be handled by means of definition, 'who is my neighbor?' The text insists on participation, 'will you be a neighbor?' Jesus insists on participation. Jesus dismisses the scholar with a command, 'Go and do . . .' Live what you read. We read the Bible in order to live the word of God" (84).

Again and again, Jesus tells us to love each other. He knows how much we need each other’s love. As a church, we don't devote a whole Sunday to Jesus' Ascension into Heaven and in a way, that's a shame. It would be a perfect opportunity to remind ourselves that Jesus leaves his mission in our hands. We are the ones who must work towards concrete actions in the physical realm. In today's Bible reading, Jesus makes it clear that we're his equals. He calls us friends. We are to go forth and bear fruit.

On this Mother’s Day, as we read the Gospel, we might see Jesus as the ultimate mother. Jesus nourishes us by giving us his own body. But Jesus doesn’t nourish us just to keep us close and smothered and dependent. Like any good parent, Jesus nourishes us and trains us so that we’re ready to leave the nest, ready to be resurrection people shining light into a darkening and desperate world.

You may not be feeling like you’re in a loving space right now. Pretend that you are. Make the effort that it takes not to snap at your troublesome colleague. Pray for the people that annoy you. Leave love notes for your family members. Say please and thank you more often.

Here, too, on Mother’s Day, we can look at the mothers who are doing a good job and try to emulate them. Tell people that they’ve done a good job when they have. Thank people for doing their chores. Remind people that they need to use their words, and not in their angry voices. Say please and thank you more often, and apologize when you’ve not done your best. Look for ways to make play dates with God and with the world.

You will likely find yourself transformed by your own actions—and hopefully, you’ll find the world transforming around you in response to your loving kindness.

Receive replenishment from Christ so that your withered branch will once again bear fruit. Allow yourself to be transformed into the part of the plant that sustains life.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Preparing for Pentecost

Hard to believe but Pentecost will be upon us soon.  I've written about Pentecost before (my favorite posts are here, here, and here) and probably will again.  Pentecost has often been an overlooked or downplayed holiday, which is a shame.  It should be one of the Church's biggest holidays, second only to Easter--yes, I'd say it's even more important than Christmas.

I wrote an article for The Lutheran about why Pentecost makes mainstream Protestants nervous (speaking in tongues, lack of control, a mission that's huge).  Perhaps that's why we don't get hyped up for Pentecost.  Or maybe it's because we don't know how to decorate for the holiday, the way we do for Christmas.  It's great to change the paraments to red.  But we could do so much more.

At a Create in Me retreat one year, we experimented with silks.  We painted flame shapes onto long lengths of silk, and at our worship service, a group processed with the silks.  As they moved their arms, the silks rose and fell beautifully. 

For years, I've wanted to make flame shapes out of filmy fabrics and hang them throughout the sanctuary.  I've had a vision of them moving as the AC system sent air across the room.

I even bought some fabric, but never created the flames.  Instead, I made a collage like this:

Or fabric art like this:

At our Synod Assembly, I got a different idea, one that might work.  We had a service that included the Rite of Ordination, which meant the paraments were red.  Part of the procession included long sticks with red and gold streamers attached.

I loved seeing them in motion. 

At the end, we heard a shattering sound:  the stick had come into contact with the ornate chandelier.  My spouse leaned over and said, "Most raucous service on record for a Lutheran group."  It seemed a great metaphor for the Holy Spirit set loose in the land.

A smaller version seems like a great way to involve children in the service.  What kid doesn't like streamers and waving them around?  Or maybe that was just me as a kid (and as an adult, if I'm being honest).

There are so many possibilities.  I was reminded of all the impressionist approaches to flame when I explored Pastor Joelle's Pinterest site:  an inspiring collection of images!

We've still got time to plan, since Pentecost is May 27.  Yes, it may be too late for some things, and some may be forever out of reach, given our buildings.  But fabric and ribbon can be cheap.  Red flowers and candles don't require much creative skill.  Fans can create wind.

I am ready for a breath of new life.  I would love to see a sanctuary transformed to remind me of that possibility!  And happily, my church has a pastor who is thinking along the same lines.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Back from Synod Assembly

I am back from my church's Synod Assembly (my church, the ELCA, is divided into regional synods;  my synod is the Florida-Bahamas Synod).  We do alternating years, legislation one year, faith and family the next.  This year was a Faith and Family year.  We met in Orlando.

Usually in a Faith and Family year, we have interesting workshops.  This year, a woman from the Disney Institute came to speak to us.  It led to some interesting ruminations about how the Church is both similar to Disney World, yet vastly different.  I will likely devote a later blog post to thinking about how to be Church in a Disney culture.  Her talk was full of MBA-ish affirmations, which I grow weary of in my work life.  It was somewhat dispiriting to encounter them at Synod Assembly.  For example, do we really want to think of the unchurched as our "customers"?

We had great worship services, of course.  I will devote a later blog post to the opening worship service with ordination.  We had red paraments, which inspired lots of thoughts of Pentecost, which is coming.  Are you ready?

This year Synod Assembly lasted from Friday to Sunday, which is nice in terms of having to take one less vacation day.  But I really prefer the Thursday to Saturday option that we do in alternating years.  It's tough to get back in late afternoon on Sunday and be ready for work today.

Of course, if I could ever learn to pack light . . . but so far, that's an evolution that's tough for me.

More on Synod Assembly through the week--stay tuned!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Calendar Art Exercise

At our retreat to plan the Create in Me retreat, we tried the art exercise/meditation that our leader had planned to have us do the first night of the Create in Me retreat. I wrote this post about the process. To sum up, we arrived to our tables after breakfast to find 3 markers at our seats; everyone had different colors. Our leader brought in a blank calendar page, October, for each of us. We were told to fill in our calendars however we'd like. We could use the markers of our neighbors, but we couldn't talk. We would have 10 minutes. For the more recent Create in Me retreat, we had the materials under our seats.

The one below is mine:

We had just finished Easter, but clearly my brain has moved on to the next liturgical holiday, Pentecost, the holiday that celebrates the arrival of the Holy Spirit in tongues of flame.

Other people, however, had calmer images of grapes:

I was interested to see how people approached this exercise. Some filled in each square individually:

Some creations were more tightly controlled than others:

I can see the patterns in the piece above, but less so in the selections below.

And some people refused to be boxed in by calendar squares:

In the end, we took our calendar pages and hung them up around one of our main meeting areas: fascinating to see the different approaches.

What does it all mean? We talked about the activities that fill our calendars and our attempts to tame our schedules. We all wrestle with the same issues: too much that we'd like to do and too little time to do it all.

But the exercise reminded us that we each get precisely the same amount of time, no matter how we want to divide or decorate our little boxes. When we take a hard look at how we spend our time, we'd probably be amazed at how much time we're not utilizing well. How much television are we watching? How much Internet wandering? Are we exercising enough or not enough? Can we make a pot of soup that can nourish us for several days or do we feel the need to whip up something fresh each day?

And more importantly, can we find some extra time for God if we let go of some of the other things that clog our calendars.

I've only used this exercise in groups of grown ups, but I imagine that it would work equally well in groups of adolescents or children.  It's a creative exercise that doesn't require skills that we don't already have--and most of us have the tools (crayons or markers), too.  It's easily adapted to many types of groups and can lead easily to many kinds of exercises:  meditation, discussion, Bible study, a different kind of art project. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Eucharist in the Culinary Department

Yesterday's post about mac and cheese and Eucharist thoughts took my mental ramblings back to a Friday in February.  Before I go further, let me point out that I don't work in a college affiliated with any religion (except the gods of Capitalism and Profit), but my poet's brain is often making spiritual connections nonetheless.

I'm the administrator who works late on Friday nights.  I don't mind.  I like the campus on Friday nights as the campus gets emptier and quieter.

One late Friday afternoon, I wandered down to the Culinary department.  The Baking and Pastry students were finishing up some spectacular desserts.  I felt like the Little Match Girl, unable to take my gaze away from the treats displayed in the window.

The chef in charge invited me in and instructed some students to give me dessert.  I spooned creme brulee into my mouth and felt the day's stress melt away in a custard-induced swoon of good feelings.

The students finished cleaning up the kitchen and dispersed to get ready for their Friday night classes.  The chef asked me if I'd like to share the plate that a different class of students brought by.  We dug into fried chicken and mashed potatoes.  A different chef, arriving for his Friday night classes, arrived and kept us company.  We had dinner conversation that was both deep and light-hearted.  I suspect that the good food shared communally led us more quickly to that kind of conversation than just sitting around a faculty lounge or conference room would have.

My thoughts are never far from the sacrament of the Eucharist, and that night was no exception.  I went back to my office feeling spectacularly cared for and soaked in grace, even though our shared meal was not particularly religious in nature.

I wish I could say that I always carried that same feeling away from the Communion table.  Often I do.  But there's something different about sharing a meal and sharing a sip of wine and a morsel of bread.  Maybe that says more about me than it does about our churches and the need for change.  Maybe my focus on food and good wine, the fact that they bring me such happiness, is the problem. 

However, at our recent Create in Me retreat, I heard a room full of 70 retreatents say much the same thing, so I know I'm not the only one.

How could we recreate our Eucharist so that it's more like my meal in the Culinary department and less like crumbs from a table? 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mac and Cheese Eucharist

Today my right wrist aches and my hand is sore.  Last night at First Lutheran, I dished out macaroni and cheese to plate after plate.  I've been going to First Lutheran for years with my suburban church to serve dinner to anyone who gets there on time (mostly homeless men), but last night was the first night I served on the line dishing out food.

I've walked around the fellowship hall with trays of dessert, but that's as close as I got to serving food.  I've cooked it and brought it out to the line, but I've never served it.

Last night we were short-staffed.  A lot of the people who help out through the school year have headed to their northern homes for the summer.  I was happy to help.

I must confess to finding it a bit overwhelming.  I was given strict orders to serve smaller portions first.  People could come back for seconds, if there was enough.  I was worried that there wouldn't be enough.

People came back again and again.  The mac and cheese was a bona fide hit, which didn't surprise me.  It was warm and oozing with cheesy goodness.  More than one person shared memories of his mom's mac and cheese.  For many of us, nothing says love like mac and cheese at the end of the day.

I always worry that the food will run out.  I wonder why I don't learn the lesson that the miracles of Christ teach us.  Our God is a God of health and abundance.  Our God can take a few loaves and fishes and feed thousands.

At our recent Create in Me retreat, we talked about the Eucharist and how our celebration of it often seems stingy, with dried husks of wafers for the bread and wine that you wouldn't want to drink beyond the tiny sip in the plastic cup.

What would it look like to have a Eucharist that reflected God's abundance?  How could we have a Eucharist that nourished our bodies and spirits as well as our souls?

Our suburban church, Trinity Lutheran in Pembroke Pines, has made a start.  Most Sundays, we have bread baked by our pastor.  It's amazing.  The wine is a different story, but the bread could sustain life for weeks if that was all we had.

I think about the reaction to the mac and cheese and start to dream of a different Eucharist.  What would it look like if our Eucharist offered beloved foods of childhood? 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 6, 2012:

First Reading: Acts 8:26-40

Psalm: Psalm 22:24-30 (Psalm 22:25-31 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 John 4:7-21

Gospel: John 15:1-8

Again, we have a Gospel lesson with a metaphor that's so familiar that we might be tempted to doze off. Vine, branches, got it. But look again, closely at several verses. I find this Gospel a bit unsettling.

Notice how in just 8 verses, Jesus repeats several things. More than once, we're reminded that branches that don't bear fruit are cut away from the true vine. Look at the verbs that Jesus uses for these non-bearing branches: wither, gathered, thrown, burned.

My brain wants to know what kind of timeline we're working with here. How long do I have to prove I can bear fruit? Is it too late? Have I been cast into the fire already, and I just don't know it yet?

I suspect I'm missing the point. God, the true vine and vinedresser, seems to give humanity chance after chance after chance. In these verses, though, Jesus reminds us that much is expected from us. We might ask ourselves in what areas of our lives we're bearing fruit. What needs to be pruned away?

Maybe you're feeling fairly withered, even though you don't see yourself as being cut off from Christ. If that feeling persists, perhaps it's time to consider doing something differently. Maybe you need to pray more. Maybe you need to withdraw and take a retreat. Maybe you need to do some social justice work. Maybe you need some sort of midweek class or worship activity. Maybe you need to walk a labyrinth and meditate.

This week's Gospel makes clear that we are not put in place to just sprout meekly. We are to bear much fruit. If we feel like we're withering, we shouldn't let that feeling persist for too many months before we consider how we're going to become more fruitful.

Congregations will hear this Gospel this week, and many will consider what this verse means. Are we to bring more members to church? Are we to go out and create some sort of intentional community? Should we do more vigorous work for social justice? How can we be light and leaven in our workplaces?

The answers to all these questions might be yes. Or perhaps no. Let's return to the vine metaphor, and let's think about wine. Those of us who drink a variety of wines know that even though wines are made from grapes, there are lots of different grapes, with very different characters, which make a wide variety of wines possible.

Some of us are the type of grape who can go out and invite all our friends to church. Others of us are the kind of grape that would prefer to pray for others in private. Some of us might be the kind of grape who can visit sick parishioners, at home or in the hospital. Some of us might be called to create intentional community, while others of us have already found the community which can nurture us.

There is no single right or wrong answer. But we need to make sure we're asking the right questions. One time at a retreat, as I talked to a pastor friend about work issues, she asked, "But through your work, are you creating a thing of beauty?" That's one of the interesting questions.

We also need to consider whether or not our daily activities are working on behalf of good or evil. Every action that we take helps to create a world that is either more good or more evil. We want to make sure we're creating the Kingdom that God has called us to help create. We're to be creating it here, now--not in some distant time and place when we're dead.

We're in a world where the Good News of the Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is both here now (thus a cause for joy) and not yet (as evidenced by evil in the world). Everything we create needs to be a challenge to evil.

We don't have time to waste withering on the vine. God has many joyous tasks for us, and the world urgently needs for us to do them.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thinking about God's Work on May Day

When we were at the Create in Me retreat, Bishop Gordy spent part of Friday afternoon rocking with us on the porch.  What a wonderful thing to have deep discussions with the bishop of the Southeastern Synod.

We talked about the need for Lutheran churches to know their communities, all the better to serve them.  Now this knowing them doesn't mean we'll convert them.  He gave a great story as an example.

He talked about a Lutheran church with 3 female pastors.  One was a typical, second career ELCA pastor.  One was a pastor doing Hispanic ministry, in Spanish, I assume, and one was from Tanzania.  Their church was in the middle of a changing suburb, so they went out to meet the people of the neighborhood.

Much to their surprise, they realized that the neighborhood was now composed primarily of Iraqi Kurdish refugees.  Now, these refugees wouldn't be returning to their home country.  But unlike refugees of some past times of migration, they wouldn't be converting to the religion of their new country.  They were Muslim, with every intention of remaining so.

The three female pastors discovered that they still had a ministry role to play.  They were invited into the homes of the refugees precisely because they were women; male pastors would not have been invited into the homes.  They discovered that the Kurdish women appreciated their help in assimilation issues.

Their ministry role?  To explain the new country (the U.S.) to the refugees.  In doing so, they strengthened the neighborhood and their church's ties to the neighborhood.

It's not the kind of ministry we always think about doing, when we think about what churches are called to do.  But it's important work nonetheless.

So, on this May Day, this International Worker's Day, let's celebrate the new ways that our work in the world can lead to peace.  Let's celebrate the work in the world that we need to do as God's hands in the world.