Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Waiting for Dr. Frank-N-Furter

I've occasionally written about the office as absurdist play. This morning, as I jogged down the Broadwalk by Hollywood Beach, "The Time Warp" came on my iPod Shuffle. Office as Rocky Horror Picture Show--that idea makes a certain amount of sense too.

You may or may not remember this movie. A pair of newlyweds (a very young Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon!) have car trouble and make their way to a strange house full of odd characters in interesting costumes. They sing and dance and have all sorts of interesting encounters. At the end, we discover that the odd characters are even odder than they seem—they’re quite literally from another planet!

Yesterday was one of those days at work when more than once I said to myself, “I’m amongst alien life forms. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”

Or am I the alien life form? Maybe I have so much trouble because I’m only a sojourner here.

Of course, theology is never far from my thoughts. Much of our spiritual texts remind us that we are, indeed, aliens here for a short time. We are to be in the world but not of it.

The trick is to keep our wits about us, to remember that the values of the larger culture are not our values. It’s an even neater trick to infuse our values into the larger culture, subtly, because we have spent our sojourner time in the land.

Christian wayfarer as Dr. Frank-N-Furter? I’m somewhat uncomfortable with that idea, but not for the reasons you’d suspect. The homosexual and cross-dressing aspect don’t bother me at all—but at first glance, Dr. F. is much too mean for me to make this metaphor work.

I suspect I’ll ponder this idea further as the day proceeds. It will amuse me during boring meetings. I’m an English major—I can make just about any metaphor work if I have enough time.

And I’m sure my brain will return to the workplace metaphors as the week progresses. Workplace as horror movie parody? Workplace as Waiting for Godot? Workplace as vale of soul making? Workplace as purgatory? Stay tuned!

Monday, July 30, 2012

What To Do with Miraculous Leftovers

Yesterday's Gospel tells us that after the miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes, the leftovers filled 12 baskets.  It's always interesting to me what details leap out at me as we travel through the Lectionary.  One year, I couldn't stop thinking about those 12 baskets.

So, of course, I wrote a poem.  It appeared in qarrtsiluni.  You can read it here; hearing me read it is also an option.

Left Behind


We gathered twelve baskets of leftovers,
and then we confronted a new crisis:
what do with all the food left behind?

We slapped together fish sandwiches for all the weary
travelers. We made to-go bags
for everyone with hungry
families at home. We made sure the boy
got his investment back and then some.

We still had several baskets.
We made a picnic for ourselves.
And then Martha stepped forward.
With her old family recipe, she baked
pan after pan of bread pudding.

Some people gathered to talk mystical
theology. The rest of us helped
Martha clean up the kitchen. We wallowed
in dessert and fellowship. We celebrated
sweetness, the important life lesson.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

In Need of a Better Resistance Text

I value having a religious foundation for many reasons, but the one that has become more and more valuable through the years is that through my religious faith, I have a variety of resistance texts.  They remind me that what the world tells me may not be true.  They remind me that there may be a larger picture that I can't see.  They remind me that even in times of deepest oppression, relief may come.

Almost every day at work, I'm reminded of the value of a good resistance text.  I'm lucky to have good bosses and to work for a company which treats me fairly and humanely.  However, those facts don't prevent my co-workers from complaining.  They complain about the larger corporation that owns us.  They complain about the politicians who may or may not want to do us in.  They complain about the media.

I realize that some people will complain regardless.  I wrote a poem about this fact, which you'll find at the end of this post.

But people also complain because they're frightened.  And people are often frightened because nothing in their experience suggests that liberation is possible.  Most religious traditions, on the other hand, insist that liberation is possible and often unavoidable.

From the Exodus story to the Easter story and all the stories before, in between, and after, Christians hear that good news over and over again:  liberation is already underway, even if we can't perceive it yet.   Simmering below the surface of everything, freedom waits for recognition.

Pies in Heaven

She would complain about the taste of pies in heaven.
And I would be that angel, so desperate
to please, bringing her slice after delectable
slice. Crust, light and flaky as clouds;
fillings, sweet and full as ambrosia.
She would find fault with them all,
and I would collapse, crying celestial tears.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Within Tripping Distance of My Ego

I was feeling so spiritually evolved.  I agreed to help a colleague who's helping students who are collecting clothes for the needy.  She needed storage space.  I have a room which used to be my very small office when I was Assistant Chair, but now we use it to store records and artifacts and other documents which may or may not be important some day.  Along with a big file cabinet, we have piles of boxes lining the walls, but there's still a bit of floor space.

I showed the colleague the room and explained the importance of what's being stored and why it's important to me that it not be rearranged; some of the material is confidential, so we can't leave students in the room by themselves. 

The colleague turned to a third colleague and, with her back to me, said, "Is there another room I can use?"  Not a thank you.  No graciousness of any kind.  No acknowledgement of me.

I wanted to punch the colleague.  I wanted to take back my offer of space.

Instead, I went to my office to calm down.  This colleague has a reputation for her imperious manner.  She tends to treat people like manure-covered stable hands.  And I thought I would be treated differently?

Then I started to beat myself up for these "I'll show her!  I won't let her use my space at all!  Let her find some other idiot who will put up with her attitude!" thoughts.  Again, I tried to calm down.

Here I was, thinking I was so spiritually evolved, only to trip up against my own ego--and how little it takes, to bring me into tripping distance of my ego.   How tough it is to forgive myself, each time I discover that I am not Mother Theresa.  Sigh.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Spiritual Practice of Staying Present

I began the week thinking about Mary Magdalene.  Let me end the week thinking about her.

My thoughts returned to her when I read this powerful post by Nadia Bolz-Weber.  This part of her post spoke to me most strongly: 

"My Bishop Allan Bjornberg once said that the Greatest spiritual practice isn’t yoga or praying the hours or living in intentional poverty although these are all beautiful in their own way. The greatest spiritual practice is just showing up.

And in some ways Mary Magdalen is like, the patron saint of just showing up.

Because showing up means being present to what is real, what is actually happening. She didn’t necessarily know what to say or what to do or even what to think….but none of that is nearly as important as the fact that she just showed up. She showed up at the cross where her teacher Jesus became a victim of our violence and terror. She looked on as the man who had set her free from her own darkness bore the evil and violence of the whole world upon himself and yet still she showed up."

I love this idea of being present as a valid spiritual practice--perhaps the most important spiritual practice.  It's been the kind of week where I've had to struggle to stay present.  We have family visiting, and part of my brain is thinking about grocery shopping, about the vacation schedule, what needs to happen next to make their visit great.  I'm still trying to accomplish work duties.  I'm trying to think forward to what needs to be done at work, what needs to be done at church, what needs to be done for my retreat coordinator duties.  I'm trying to listen to the woes of friends and to pray.

Sometimes life tells you you're not staying present.

Wednesday, my spouse was unloading groceries. He said, "How long was this milk in the car?"

I said, "I didn't buy any milk."

"I brought in a gallon of milk."

I was confused. I didn't buy milk Wednesday; no, I had bought milk the day before. "The dishwasher soap?" It was vaguely gallon jug shaped.

"I put a gallon of milk in the fridge. Warm milk."

"But I bought milk on Tuesday." Realization dawned. Oh dear. We had left the milk in the trunk. Tuesday afternoon. Overnight. Throughout a hot summer morning. Happily, it didn't explode. What an awful clean-up experience that would be.

My brave spouse took the gallon of milk outside. His scientist self could not resist finding out that it was so curdled that he could only pour out a cup.

Well, no use crying over spoiled milk.  But it is good to remember to stay present.  Sometimes the consequences will be more severe than spoiled milk.  I'd hate to be so focused on minutiae that I miss the important events--like Christ moving among us.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 29, 2012:

2 Kings 4:42-44

Psalm 145:10-19 (Psalm 145:10-18 NRSV)

You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature. (Ps. 145:17)

Ephesians 3:14-21

John 6:1-21

In today's Gospel, we see Jesus feed the multitude from a tiny offering of two fish and five barley loaves. It's important to remember where this story comes chronologically in Jesus' ministry. He's already gotten quite a reputation as a worker of miracles. Indeed, that's why the crowds won't leave him alone; they can tell that Jesus is something special. And the disciples have witnessed the power of Jesus time and time again.

I mention this fact because I'm always surprised when the disciples act the way that humans do--the way that you and I do. Jesus tests them, by asking how they will buy enough bread for everyone.

Of course, there's not enough money in their communal pockets to buy bread. Jesus knows this. One of the persistent messages that Christ gives us is that to rely on money to solve problems is to put our faith in the wrong system.

Notice that the disciples don't come up with any grand plan. They've watched Jesus work miracle after miracle--they've seen this with their own eyes!--and it never occurs to them to dream big. No, they still live in a world where it takes money to feed people.

Some theologians accuse the disciples of having a scarcity consciousness--a state of mind that's all too familiar to people of our time. It's the fear of running out of what we need, and so we don't share. We don't share, and our hearts become shriveled and tiny, as opposed to the way they would blossom if we trusted God more and shared our stuff. Who amongst us doesn't have more than enough stuff to share? We're drowning in possessions.

Perhaps they are stunted in this way. But again, I think they're just not used to the power that has come to dwell with them. They're rooted in the world and they forget what they're capable of.

Jesus has a different vision. He takes that small offering and feeds the throng of people. He takes something that seems so insignificant and this act grows into one of his most famous miracles.

Our rational brains can't accept this. Most of us could eat two fishes and five loaves all by ourselves--how could Jesus feed everyone?

Not only does Jesus feed everyone, but they have leftovers, 12 baskets full! It’s one of the many times that Jesus shows everyone that the world is full of abundance. Jesus offers us more wine than we can drink (John 2, the first miracle in this Gospel), more bread than we can eat.

It’s so easy to forget what God is capable of. We don't dare to dream big dreams, for fear that we'll be disappointed. We worry that if we share our resources, we won’t have enough for ourselves and our families. We don’t dare imagine that there’s enough for everyone.

We also forget how much God desires to be an active part of our lives--and we forget how active God is in the world. All our scriptures remind us of how God yearns for communion with us--and what wondrous transformations happen when humans go to meet God. Not just personal transformations. It's very well and good if you become a better person, more compassionate and more generous. But God has a much grander vision, one that doesn't stop with our individual lives.

How can you be part of that Kingdom? Christ didn't come to get us ready for Heaven, although many church traditions focus on that part of his mission. Christ came to show us how the Kingdom can be right here, among us, here and now. We can begin by sharing our basic resources and trusting that God will multiply our generosity.

Are we people who believe in miracles or not?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Feast Day of St. James

Today we celebrate the life of James, one of the 12 disciples, the first to be martyred (Acts 12:1 tells us by Herod's sword).  He's known as James the Greater (to distinguish him from James the Lesser, James the son of Alphaeus).  He's the brother of John.  He was one of the first to join Jesus, and Jesus chose him to go up the mountain to witness the Transfiguration.  He is the patron saint of veterinarians and pharmacists, among others.

Lately, I've heard more about St. James, as more people become aware of the pilgrimage that involves walking to his shrine in Santiago de Campostela in Spain from a variety of starting points.  Walkers who cover 100 km or cyclists who cover 200 km get a compostela, a certificate, and a blessing.

I'd like to see the Martin Sheen/Emilio Estevez movie, The Way, which features this pilgrim's path.  I'd love to actually walk part of it.  Years ago I heard an NPR piece on modern pilgrims.  It sounds intriguing.

I'm not the only one who finds the idea intriguing.  In 1985, only 690 pilgrims made it to the end point, the Cathedral of Santiago de Campostela; last year 179,919 pilgrims completed the journey.  The most hardcore pilgrims walk barefoot.  I would not be one of those pilgrims.

I've long been interested in walkers who make grand treks.  Until I realized how crowded the Appalachian Trail can be, I had daydreams about walking from Georgia to Maine.  I'm about to read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, about her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail.  I'll start seeking out some books written by people who are walking for spiritual reasons.

St. James is associated with scallops, and if you look at a map, you'll see that the pilgrims arriving from a variety of beginning points to the same end point does look like a scallop shell. 

If I didn't have relatives staying with me, I'd make a variation of the French dish, coquilles st. jacques.  I'd watch The Way

Even with relatives here, I'll start thinking about making that walk some day. 

The readings for today:

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:9-18

Psalm: Psalm 7:1-11 (Psalm 7:1-10 NRSV)

Second Reading: Acts 11:27--12:3a

Gospel: Mark 10:35-45

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Demands of Justice, Demands of Dough

Last week, I wrote this post about global warming and this post about nuclear pollution.  It's easy to sink into despair when one thinks about the challenges faced by our beautiful planet.

How do we deal with the burden of this awareness?  Sunday, I heard a great interview between Terry Tempest Williams and Krista Tippett on the NPR show On Being (go here to listen, to read the transcript, and/or to enjoy the extras).  Williams says, "You know, I have a friend, Linda Asher, who's a translator of Milan Kundera. She was an editor for years at The New Yorker, in international fiction in particular. And she said something very provocative the other day where she said, 'I'm not sure eloquence is enough. I'm not sure language is enough.' And that really stopped me because for me words are everything, and I know for her words are everything. But she said, 'You know, that's too easy. It's like being too beautiful.' And she brought it back down to the notion of action. And I realized, I said, "Thank you for reminding me." And I think that was the power for me in making the mosaics. It took me out of my head into my hands, into creating something real with other people. I mean, mosaic by its very nature is a collaborative process. And, you know, beauty is not optional, but it is a strategy for survival."

Her comment made me think about bread baking.  I often return to bread baking in an effort to remind myself of who I am at my essential core. It's nice to have that practice. Years ago, I wrote this poem, as I thought about those high school years when I made the most bread, from 1979-1983. It was published in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review.

Demands of Dough

Each decade ushers in a new genocide;
each bloody crime introduces histories
of humans I’ve never heard of before. Each
year’s newscast schools me in ways to slaughter
masses of humans efficiently, human rights
violated in ways I never would have imagined. Yet,
the familiarity persists as well. Auschwitz,
Cambodia, Rwanda: an ongoing, constant
story of corpses stacked like cordwood, rivers choked
with bodies, a consistent backdrop
to the bloodiest century on record.

I turn off the news and declare a news fast.
I pull out my old recipe books to revisit
an earlier self, the vegetarian pacifist with a quick
temper, the girl who marched on Washington
to protest Apartheid and arms races and abortion
rights backsliding. I pull yeast and flour
out of my cupboard and knead myself younger.

My first loaf of homemade bread. What possessed
my mother to suggest it? Vegetarian seminarians
coming for dinner and a long, summer afternoon
to fill. What kept me baking? Praise.
An excuse to play with dough. Desire
for more nutritious food. By age seventeen, I’m the only
high school senior with her own garden.

I can think short term. I may not live
to see my twenties, especially if our president
continues to joke about bombing the Soviet Union.
But I’m able to invest the space and time
a rising bread dough demands.
I’m willing to commit to a germinating seed,
willing to hope for one more season of growth.

That was before cable brought us multiple news
channels. Somehow the abstraction of a cold
war and an arms race disturbed me less
than these scenes of neighbors butchering
each other. I cannot process misery at this scale.
I return to what I can handle:
yeast and a pinch of sugar, oats and flour,
a window sill of seedlings,
an afternoon of tea and books.

It is probably long past time to return to bread baking again!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Feast of Mary Magdalene

Today we celebrate the life of Mary Magdalene.  Some of our churches will celebrate today.  Some Christians will celebrate tomorrow.

I never thought much about saints and their feast days until I started blogging more frequently and needed more topics to cover.  I've found that contemplating the saints has enriched my modern life.  There are many things that Protestants have stripped from the church through the centuries.  Good riddance to some.  But there are many traditions and customs that I'd like to see restored.  Celebrating the feast days of the saints is high on the list.

Pastor Joelle has a great post about shuffling Mary Magdalene off until Monday.  She says:

"The old rule used to be that biblical saints and commemorations could take precedence over the lectionary for a Green Sunday. Now they all just get shoved off to Monday.

Well, no, not everyone it seems. The Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24) remained as an option on Sunday. So it all seems rather arbitrary. Well it seems someone actually asked the folks who make these decisions what the deal was. And the explanation is that those festivals which are more 'Christocentric' and 'Catholic' like Holy Cross day and John the Baptist, and Peter and Paul get to stay on Sunday. Saints who are *less* Christocentric, like Mary Magdalene get shoved off of Sunday.

HUH???? Okay before I was annoyed by the calendar alterations. Now I'm downright pissed. Mary Magdalene, the first FRIGGIN WITNESS OF THE RESURRECTION is LESS Christocentric than John the Baptist??? Really??

And what is with making hierarchy of witnesses and saints? Oh right. We are following Rome's lead on this. They are all about hierarchy. Naturally a woman like Mary Magdalene is less important than Peter and Paul."

I have written about Mary Magdalene before, and tomorrow, I'll link you to the piece I wrote for Living Lutheran.  In the meantime, here are some quotes from that piece to whet your appetite:

"This week has been more hectic than usual at work, which leads me to reflect on what Mary has to teach us about pace and rushing and hurry, hurry, hurry.  It's Mary who stays behind to grieve, while the male disciples are running off to do whatever it is they feel compelled to do.  It's because she stays behind to rest and to grieve that she gets to be the first to see the risen Lord."
"One of the lessons offered in Mary Magdalene’s story might have to do with reputation and how the world might slander us for our faithfulness.  But we really can't worry about that.  The world will slander us for all sorts of reasons.  The story of Mary Magdalene reminds us that there are greater rewards than respect and a good reputation, a reminder that’s still true today in our modern times."

Saturday, July 21, 2012

How Do You Live in Your Body?

The other night, I tried a Zumba class.  I knew I wouldn't be able to do every move.  I was a bit surprised to find out that I couldn't really do any of them.

I came home and said to my spouse, "I don't live in my body the way the Zumba instructor lives in her body."

He said, "I don't even know what you mean by that."

Not for the first time was I reminded that my relationship to my body is not the norm.  Well, not for modern times.  I used to joke that I had a medieval relationship to this body that I felt was always ready to go after the decadent, the extra calories, the slothful approach.  I felt like a pure soul trapped in a body that was always ready to embarrass me.

Of course, that's hardly fair to my physical form.  Lately, I've tried to develop a sympathy for my body, which after all, has done the best it could.  I take weight off, and I put weight on, and my body copes admirably.  Some days I give it fruits and vegetables and all the healthy things it needs.  Some days I gunk up the works with junk.

Let me just state here that I realize that I'm still sounding rather divorced from my body.  I'm far from integrated.  But it used to be much worse.

I have bodies on the brain as we approach the feast day of Mary Magdalene.  I know that church history is one of the reasons for my complicated relationship with my female physical form. 

I know that God delights in every part of me.  I suspect that God feels sadness at my alienation from my body which is the home of so many miraculous processes.

I do better in exercise classes that help us think of ourselves as athletes:  spin class and boot camp classes.  I love seeing muscles emerge.  I love feeling stronger and being able to do what I once couldn't do.

I do less well in exercise classes where there are lots of different movements.  Having arms and legs going in a multitude of directions is more complicated for me than I suspect for others.

Then there's the dance aspect.  I've always thought of myself as too klutzy and ungraceful/heavy to be a good dancer.  That said, I'd probably do better in an exercise class based in ballet than in Latin dance.

I'm circling around a different aspect, one also rooted in the life of Mary Magdalene.  Zumba moves just felt very sexual to me.  Sure, it was a class of women.  But for a variety of reasons, I've never felt comfortable in those sexy dance moves.

I've spent my life as a woman trying to blend in, trying to downplay my female body, trying not to attract negative attention.  I can't just turn that off for a Zumba class.

Maybe it's time to explore self-defense classes!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Can Resurrection Come Out of Global Warming?

Yesterday, I wrote about nuclear pollution and the nuclear nightmares that haunted my adolescence.  I noted that in recent years, I had been more worried about global warming.  An article by the ever-wonderful Bill McKibben in the current Rolling Stone confirms that we're right to worry.  The damage to the planet has accelerated in ways that have surprised even the most sober of scientists.

It's hard to imagine that the planet can regroup after the kind of disaster we're foisting upon it--but it's recovered before.  This NPR piece reminds us of an earlier global warming event that killed off an estimated 95% of life on Earth.  As we know, life has come back.

Still, I'd prefer not to have this front seat admission to the Holocene extinction.  McKibben begins his article this way:

"If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven't convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe."

The article gives important background in terms of the science of what the planet can stand.  McKibben understands what we're up against, how hard it will be for humans to change.  He says, "This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don't work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we're certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it's as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders."

McKibben is clear that the true villains in this story are the petroleum companies--that idea will probably not be new to most of us.  He concludes this way:

"The week after the Rio conference limped to its conclusion, Arctic sea ice hit the lowest level ever recorded for that date. Last month, on a single weekend, Tropical Storm Debby dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Florida – the earliest the season's fourth-named cyclone has ever arrived. At the same time, the largest fire in New Mexico history burned on, and the most destructive fire in Colorado's annals claimed 346 homes in Colorado Springs – breaking a record set the week before in Fort Collins. This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year's harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving... in the dust."

I'm convinced by his argument, although to be accurate, I agreed with his points before I read the article.  What is unclear to me is what we can do as individuals.

McKibben references the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980's, and I remember attending a prayer service during that time where we prayed for South Africa.  I remember being doubtful that we were doing any good, but I prayed too.  Not many years later, Nelson Mandela was freed, and not long after that, he was elected to lead his nation.

So, too, shall I pray for the planet.  I will pray that the health of the planet can be restored without the extinction of humanity.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Social Justice and Care for Creation

I tend to think of social justice in terms of humans.  But I try to remind myself that social justice should make me concerned about the land and the environment too.

For the past week, my reading has plunged me back into the world of nuclear nightmares.  I spent one week-end reading Kristen Iversen's Full Body Burden, a book which combines memoir with a history of Rocky Flats, a plant which made plutonium triggers and was a huge polluter.  Four days later, I read Kathleen Flenniken's Plume, a book of poems rooted in the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, another huge polluter.

For the past decade or so, I've been more fretful about global warming and sea level rise than nuclear apocalypse. And I read those 2 books in the same week, and I think about the nuclear nightmares that haunted my youth, and I'm forcefully reminded that they still exist. I think about the body's tissues and how easy it is to damage them. Some weeks, life seems so fragile.

I spent my youth with one eye trained to the distance, looking for that telltale mushroom cloud.  I didn't think about plutonium particles leaching into the soil.  I didn't think about nuclear pollution in sediments in lakes and river beds.  I didn't think about water tables being polluted.

Nuclear scientists and historians will tell us that I was right to be thinking in terms of nuclear explosions.  But I also should have been worried about pollution from the plants making those bombs.  In the long run, that pollution will probably prove more dangerous.

And since I'm writing on my theology blog, my thoughts turn to the Creator.  I feel sadness for this soiled creation.  I feel sadness for the ways we've used our creative energy to build such destructive forces.  I wonder if we're in the midst of a great die-off and if so, what will bloom from that soil?

We've had mass extinctions before (for more on that, go to this NPR blog piece).  Obviously, it's a disaster for the living organisms who experience it, but amazingly, life regroups and rebuilds. 

Why should that surprise me?  It's one of the central messages of Christianity, after all:  from death can come life/resurrection, and death will not have the last word.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 22, 2012:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The Gospel for this Sunday bookmarks two of Jesus' most famous miracles (but they're left out of the Gospel reading; we've already done them, or we'll do them later): the feeding of the great throng with just five loaves and two fishes, and Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm. As we ponder the Gospel for this week, it's good to remember that Jesus has been busy.

Notice that not even Jesus can stay busy all the time. The first part of the Gospel has Jesus trying to get away to a lonely place, and the last part of the Gospel shows the amazing things that Jesus accomplishes after he prays. These passages give us insight into our own care. Like Jesus and the disciples, many of us are living such busy lives that we don't even have time to eat.

The work of building God's Kingdom in our fallen world will wear us to a husk; it’s true of Christ, and it’s true for us. Notice that in these passages, Jesus doesn't find renewal in the Synagogue--he finds renewal in retreating and praying.

Most of us live such busy lives that we have built no time for retreats. Even on vacation, many of us are still working. We're still plugged in by way of our cell phones and laptops. And most of us don't take vacations with the aim of spiritual renewal, which is a shame. Instead, we spend obscene amounts of money going to theme parks or once-in-a-lifetime destinations--and then we complain that we can't afford a week-end retreat. We don't take working vacations, where we help the poor or clean up the environment. Instead we take vacations that leave us frazzled and exhausted--we come home needing a vacation to recover from our vacation.

Luckily, this Gospel also shows us a simpler way to recharge. It's one that you can do anywhere, at any time. Notice that Jesus prays. I find this interesting, because Jesus is one person we might expect not to pray. After all, isn't he part of a triune God? Is he praying to himself? Why would he need to pray? Isn't God even more intimately connected to him, and therefore more tuned in to what he needs?

Let's leave the Trinitarian questions aside for now. Look again at our objections to Jesus praying and consider your own prayer life, or lack of it. Aren't those the same objections we're most likely to use? Why pray? After all, God should know what we need, so why do we need to check in?

Prayer serves many purposes, but the main purpose is to give us an intimacy with God. Our friendships don't survive long silences. Likewise, our relationship with God thrives when we make time to talk to God.

Some of us aren't good at talking. Some of us feel a bit cowed at the idea of talking to God (some of us can't even talk to our loved ones, so it shouldn't surprise us that we can't talk to God). But you know what to do. Even if you can't use your own words, Jesus has foreseen that possibility and given you words to say: we know these words as the Lord's Prayer.

One reason Jesus came to us was to model the life we're to emulate. And if Jesus prays, we should take our cue from him. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus praying perhaps more than any other spiritual practice we'll called upon to do. We don’t see Jesus tithe, and we rarely see him going to weekly services. Instead, his prayers undergird his spiritual life and make it possible for him to do the works of charity and healing that he does.

The ministry of Jesus has much to teach us, and one of the most important lessons is that we can't take care of others when we're not taking care of ourselves. Jesus prays, Jesus takes retreats, Jesus shares meals with friends--these are the activities that leave him ready to care for the masses.

Our mission is the same as Christ's. Like Jesus, we're surrounded by hordes of hungry people. Broken people need us (and perhaps we feel pursued by them).

Yet we will not be able to complete our mission if we don't practice basic self-care. The message of today's Gospel is that it's O.K. to take time to pray. It's O.K. to retreat. It's O.K. to eat a slow meal with friends.

Not only is it O.K., it's essential. Christ, the incarnation of God on earth, needed to take a break. So do we all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Missing Grandmothers, Missing Fireflies, Missing Childhoods

My spouse and I both dreamed about my grandmother this week.  Even before I dreamed about her, I've had her and her house in Greenwood, South Carolina on my mind.

Maybe it's because our weather in South Florida has recently been reminding me of summers at her house:  blazingly hot in the day, stormy by late afternoon or evening, rainy coolness in the morning.  Maybe there's something about the quality of July light.

Maybe it's because I've been going to events and taking dessert in her Tupperware containers, each part carefully labeled with her last name, so she'd be sure to get her Tupperware back when she took treats to gatherings.  It staggers the brain to think how many church events those Tupperware pieces have attended.  And they're still as rugged as ever.

Lutheran theology teaches us that our dead loved ones have gone on to Heaven, but it doesn't encourage living Lutherans to talk to the dead.  The whole idea of our loved ones singing in angel choirs and watching over us--those aren't Lutheran, and most days, I'm glad.

Some days, however, I wish I was part of a religion that had more communication with dead ancestors.

On those days, I turn to poetry.  Writing gives me a way of remembering, of processing my yearning for times and people and places that are gone.  Poetry gives me a way of condensing that yearning into art.

Here's a poem I wrote years ago, before my grandmother died, and even before her house was sold.  Already, I was missing it, but more than that, I was missing my childhood. It was first published in The Palo Alto Review.

Setting Free the Fireflies

The apartment smells like my grandmother’s
house in the summer,
a childhood time before air conditioners
ruled the season.
Gentle breezes,
smelling of mowed lawns
and ripening tomatoes,
lapped their way around our beds.
The nights glowed
with that candle-like quality
which comes from distant street lights
beaming through window blinds
left open to the breeze.
Long after the yeasty smells
of my grandmother’s early morning baking
my parents crept into the bedroom
where I slept on sheets
made scratchy
from clothesline drying.
They took my jar
of carefully caught fireflies
and set my natural nightlight

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Subversive Act of Cooking--and Sharing--a Meal

During last week's On Being episode, Krista Tippett interviewed chef Dan Barber. She asked what he would say to someone who has children and a job and who sees pre-packaged food as a salvation of sorts because there is no time to cook and the pre-packaged food is cheaper anyway.

He replied, " . . .if I said to you that 25 years ago, you know, with all the time spent on TV, we're going to spend another four hours a day on average on the Internet, and you would say, 'Wow, I can't believe we'd fine four hours in the day.' I'd say, not only people are going to find four hours, but 95 percent penetration of Internet use for 4.5 hours a day or whatever it's up to today average, you would say that's absolutely crazy. Nobody will spend that time, nobody has that time in the day. Well, we figured out how to do it. So the question comes down to priorities. To what extent is cooking and eating and all the rest of the things that are attached to that, to what extent does that become a priority? And if it is a priority, you make the time.

It goes hand in hand with the amount of money you spend because what we're talking about — and I don't want to skirt around it; I think it's a big issue. It's more expensive. There's no question about it. You're paying the real cost of growing food. Locally, it's usually more expensive. So the question is, again back to the Internet example or cellphone use, 25 years ago, if I said there'd be 95 percent penetration in cable television, you all would have said, 'That's nuts. We have free television. Who is going to be able to find $125 a month extra?' You all would have agreed with Krista, right? I would say, not only that, you're going to find another $125 for cellphone use in disposable income. Everyone would say, 'Oh, $250 extra? Nobody has that money.' Well, of course, we found it because we found it indispensable without those things. So can we excite this issue around food and pleasure to the extent that people feel the same way about dinner?"

But let's remind ourselves that it doesn't have to cost a lot in terms of time or money to cook at home. It's fairly easy to roast a chicken, and much cheaper than that rotisserie chicken would be. It only takes about 25 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken. Throw some cut up potatoes and carrots in the pan with the roasting chicken, and soon, you'll have a delicious meal.

I could write a whole cookbook of recipes that only take 30-45 minutes to cook, and not much time to assemble beforehand. But until I get around to that project, there are plenty of cookbooks and websites with those kind of ideas already in existence.

If you need additional reasons to cook, it's good to remind ourselves of how subversive an activity cooking can be. We're surrounded by a variety of corporations who would like us to become increasingly unable to feed ourselves, and thus, increasingly reliant on their products they desperately want us to buy. When we cook lower on the production chain, we subvert that process.

If we want to be truly subversive, we can grow more of our own food, or if we're lucky enough to live near them, we can support smaller-scale farmers.

And if we want to be subversive to the ninth power, we can turn off our televisions and electronic devices. We can set the table. We can talk to each other.

We could even invite others to our table. Now that could be a culture changing, culture challenging act!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Woody Guthrie, Liberation Theologian?

One hundred years ago today, Woody Guthrie was born.  For a more traditional meditation on Woody Guthrie's life and impact on popular culture, see my post on my creativity blog.

When I've mentioned Woody Guthrie in my classrooms, my students have often looked at me blankly.  I always say, "You think you don't know his music, but you do."  I sing a few lines of "This Land is Your Land."  I'm relieved that students continue to know that song.

Of course they don't know some of the more radical verses, like these:

"There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
This land was made for you and me."

"As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said 'No Trespassing.'
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me."

"Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me."

"In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?"

Woody Guthrie changed this song, and many of his songs, depending on the audience and the setting and what was bothering him.

What bothered him throughout his life was the plight of people at the lower ends of the social hierarchy.  He sang about migrant workers and immigrants, both legal and illegal.  He sang about displaced people of all kinds, people who had no choice but to keep moving.  His music shows a compassion and understanding that can often be absent in popular culture.

My research has not shown that his music was not specifically informed by any theology.  His lyrics do make me wonder what would have happened if his path had crossed, say, Dorothy Day's.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Creating Social Justice with Purchases

I'm a big believer in regular giving to social justice and charitable causes.  But it's good to remember that there are other ways to support institutions and agencies that work for justice.  Many of them have products we can purchase.

By now, many of us are familiar with fair trade (as opposed to free trade) coffee, tea, and chocolate; for more information and a chance to purchase fair trade goods, go here.  But there are many other products we can purchase.

Earlier this week I got a shipment of pecans from Koinonia Partners, the group that brought some racial integration to Georgia and created Habitat for Humanity along the way.  The shipment brought me joy in many ways.  For one thing, the pecans are really good.  And even with shipping, they don't cost more than the pecans I find in the grocery store (I wrote a much longer post about pecans, their cost, and my love of them here).

You can support them too--they have all sorts of wonderful products:  go here for a variety of options.

Let us not forget groups like SERVV, which bring us beautiful creations from artisans around the world for a very fair price.  When you purchase gifts for birthdays, holidays, and other occasions, why not create a bit of social justice at the same time?

I returned to these ideas, as I do periodically, when thinking about Vacation Bible School, and the way we teach children to give to social justice projects and when praying for our youth, who travel to New Orleans for the ELCA youth gathering where a significant amount of their time will be in social justice work.  It's good to teach children to give money.  It's good to send them out to rebuild homes and cities with their own hands.  But it's also good to remember that there are many ways to work for social justice.

Even buying wine from our local wine shop in a revitalizing downtown area instead of from the national chains is a valid way of creating a better world with our consumption dollars.  What would happen if more of us made these kind of considerations every time we spent our money?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Everything is Possible with God--Even Malaria Eradication!

An important aspect of Vacation Bible School is the fundraising that we do.  We've traditionally focused our fundraising not on our own church's needs, but on the needs of the very poor.

This year we raised money to contribute to the ELCA's campaign to eradicate malaria.

We began by explaining what malaria is and who it affects.  We then turned our attention to the simple mosquito net.

If we could drape a mosquito net over every bed in Africa, we'd make so much progress toward eradication.  And at $4 a net, it's a cheap fix.

Above, so that kids can see how a mosquito net works, we draped a mosquito net over a small bed that we manufactured out of a large ottoman and bedspread.

Below, you see it close up.

Each day, we collected contributions.  We made it a competition, because we raise more money that way.  The girls collected money in a pink net, the boys in a manly purple net.

It's amazing how much we can raise, when children empty their pockets (and when well-meaning adults help out too).

We kept track of their progress each day on a bulletin board.  Below, the boys' chart.

And below, we see the girls' side.

We threw in a special prize.  All the VBS kids got their names entered into a drawing for the chance to throw a pie at one of the staff.  Happily, the teen helpers competed for the chance to be the pie receiver.

The pie was made of whipped cream, since that tastes better than the shaving cream that we used one year.  Everyone seems to have great fun.  And we raised over $300 in just one week.

Above you see one of the themes of the week.  Our fundraising efforts make me think that even eradicating malaria might be possible with God.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 15, 2012:

Amos 7:7-15

Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14

Mark 6:14-29

The Gospel lessons of both last week and this week should dispel any aspirations of glory and fame that we have as Christians. It's an idea that's almost antithetical in our society.

Our society has become one that worships fame and publicity. Now young people don't want to just earn a lot of money--they want to do it in a way that brings them fame. In her fascinating book, Generation Me, Jean M. Twenge recounts interviewing hundreds of adolescents, each one of whom was convinced that they had brilliant careers ahead of them in major league sports or entertainment.

The Gospel for last Sunday and this one define success differently than modern people would. In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus sends his disciples out two by two. They're sent out with no supplies, no money, and no real plan. And the Gospel for this Sunday paints an even starker truth. John the Baptist, someone who has remained true to his mission, is killed by King Herod. And why? A mix of motives, but the Gospel mentions King Herod wanting to impress a young woman and Herod's unwillingness to hear the truth and to admit the truth.

So, John the Baptist loses his head. Literally. Not a comforting vision for those of us who struggle to live our faith day by day. This reward is what we can expect?

Jesus never promises us an easy time, at least not the kind of easy time the world dangles in front of us when it attempts to seduce us. We see this even in Christian communities. We feel like failures when our churches aren't megachurches, when we're not the Rick Warrens of our communities. We feel like we're not a success when we have to struggle to find the money to pay our church’s bills (or worse, when we have to cut staff and programs).

But if we look at the portrait of the earliest church, we'll see that it wasn't the megachurch model. The early church builds on an idea of cells, tiny little house churches of committed Christians. Some days I shake my head in awe at what a small group of people can accomplish.

And then I laugh at my own lack of memory. My History and Sociology classes years ago taught me the exact same thing: the most fascinating change is often created by small, committed bands of people. And the most successful changes are often made by people who are grounded and rooted in some kind of larger faith vision.

Yet the Gospel for this Sunday reminds us that success may not be at the end of our individual stories. We could commit ourselves to Christ’s mission only to find ourselves wasting away in prison, a victim of a corrupt society.

It’s a risk worth taking. We know how sustaining our faith can be and how important it is to build a faith community. We know how larger faith communities can change the world for the better.

We know how to do this community building. We meet on a regular basis. We share a meal. We look out for each other and pray for each other. We take care of the less fortunate. We invite and welcome the help of the Holy Spirit. And if we're lucky, our efforts transform the larger society, which is always in need of our kind of transforming.

The larger society needs our gifts. It might not always welcome them, but it needs them.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Report on Our New Family Service: The Drawbacks

Yesterday I wrote a blog post that talked about the benefits of our new family service at our church.  But in the interest of creating an honest account, of being a good archivist and historian, let me not paint too rosy a picture.  Let me talk about some of the drawbacks.

--I worry that the family service siphons too many children away from the more traditional services in church.  I worry that children will not likely be growing up to find churches that offer the kind of service we offer.  Are we creating a generation of children who will leave church as adults because they can't find our kind of Lutheran worship service?

--I also think it's good for everyone else in church to worship with children.  I don't want families to feel quarantined.

--Every church with more than one service wrestles with the question of how to build community across the church.  By choosing one service, I'm not seeing my church friends who go to the other services.

--At some point, my spouse will return to singing in the choir at the later service.  Will he still be part of the family service?  Will I stay for the late service?  Will we go in 2 cars?

--I miss liturgy.  One disadvantage to knowing so much about the ELW (our cranberry colored hymnal that was published in 2006) is that I know about all the worship resources that we're not using.  Our new service has a sort of liturgy, but so far, it's not satisfying my liturgy cravings.  But our regular later service also does not satisfy that longing, and the early service is still using the green book that the cranberry book was designed to replace.  Sigh.

--I miss hymns.  Of course, in regular services, I miss hymns.  We have 3 hymns at the most, along with the music we sing during Communion which doesn't change much.  So if I'm honest, there will always be hymns that I'm missing.

--If I wasn't writing a weekly Gospel meditation, I'd miss the lectionary.  I like the cycles, the seasons of the church, the ways that they're sometimes in sync with the larger culture, the way they play against it.

--Here's my larger concern:  we're not a huge church.  We're not really a medium size church.  We're a larger small church.  Some weeks, we have trouble finding enough worship helpers for one service.  What will happen when/if we add our early, very traditional service back to the mix? 

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Report on Our New Family Service: The Benefits

You may remember that I wrote a blog post in early June about our new approach to worship which we're hoping speaks to the needs of families with children.  We know that many families can't devote an entire Sunday morning the way that families once did.  Many families have an hour, and that's it.  With that in mind, what can we pack into that hour?

Our new worship service sometimes feels like church camp, and I mean that in the best possible way.  There's a messiness, since we're not sunk into a rhythm yet.  There's an inventiveness.  It doesn't feel like regular church.

We've been using resources from Faith Inkubators.  We're using material from their Bible Songs Sunday School curriculum; we chose to start with the Psalms, which have an interesting connection to the Gospel lessons in the New Testament too.  Many of us could create the resources, like the Powerpoints, the songs, the dramas.  And yet, we all have full-time jobs, so it's good to have some ready-made resources.

I am getting this Holy Spirit nudge as I look at VBS curriculum and Sunday School curriculum.  How does one get to be on a team who does this for a living?  Could that be my new career direction?  Because let me tell you, I'd love to write curriculum and devotions and prayers for a living.  I'd love to teach others, should a seminary out there need me to join their faculty.  I'm ready for any MFA program that wants to put a spiritual writing component into their course offerings and needs someone to design it and teach it.  Here I am, Lord, send me.

But I digress.  Back to our current project.

We've done 3 weeks, so far, of our new service, and we've gotten enthusiastic response.  Our 2nd week was a VBS service worked into our new approach.  It, too, worked out well.  We've inserted some learning-by-modeling-behavior time into our new service.  We break into small groups and talk about our highs and lows of the week and how we see the Bible passage in our weekly lives.  We pray for each other.  We bless each other.  Some of that feels more comfortable, and some less so.

Let me be the first to admit that I'm not a small group discussion person.  But others have commented about how much they like that part.  Our hope is that maybe families will return to the practice on a daily basis, like at dinner time, or at least once or twice in the coming week.

We have a song as part of the package that ties into the theme, and we do the sign language that comes with the song too.  Each song, so far, has been in a different style.  We've had a meditative one, a Gospel tinged one, one that sounds like Elvis riffing on Psalm 23, and one that's pure pop.  Fun!

At some point, when we need something different, we may do a creative project here or there.  We'll see.

So far, we've had about 35-45 people at our Family service.  For a new service in the middle of summer, we're calling that a success.  We usually worship 15-25 at our traditional 8 a.m. service and 100 at our 10:45 blended service.  So, 35-45 at this new kind of service seems like a positive sign.

We first offered this kind of service as an alternative to the high mass Easter service or sunrise Easter service.  Imagine our pastor's surprise when more people attended the alternative family service than the high church Easter service.  I think it was the final sign he needed that it was time to pursue this idea more assertively than he had in the past.

Of course, our church has a history of embracing new programs and services enthusiastically, with attendance dropping off after a month or two.  It will be interesting to see what's happening through the fall.  I shall report back!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Charitable Giving and Youth Gatherings

Today my church is collecting money for our youth who will be traveling to the ELCA youth gathering this week.  I shall donate money.

I'm donating money for a variety of reasons, but the main one is because my going to national gatherings was one of the most formative experiences of my life.

In 1980, I went to one of the earliest Lutheran youth gatherings (we weren't the ELCA then) post Luther League years.  It was held at Purdue University.  We went with a larger group from Tennessee, and it was amazing.  That gathering also prepared me for college in ways.  We stayed in a dorm, and our days were structured like college days, with what I remember as classes, and a variety of subjects to choose from.

Equally important was meeting such a huge variety of young people, all of us at various-yet-similar stages of our faith journeys.  It was one of the first times that I remember thinking, "Ah, there are people like me.  I'm not some freak of nature."  I can't even remember what prompted that feeling, just the relief of the feeling.  And I'm not surprised.  It's a typical adolescent feeling, that we're all alone, that we're strange and unlovable, that we'll never find our tribe.

In later years, I went to Global Mission Events, which also raised my consciousness and also prepared me for college.  It was great to meet adults who were unlike most of the adults I met at church.

Now, as a grown up, I suspect there were many adults at my local church who were like the ones I met at these events.  But back then, age groups didn't mingle much.  How would I know?

So, yes, I will give some money so that our young people will have a good experience.  When I was young, unknown grown ups did that for me.  It's time to repay the favor.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Tithing Time Too

My thinking about charitable giving this week has also prompted pondering about time that we give to charitable organizations.  I remember my mom saying that once upon a time, we tithed money because money was scarce; now we'd be instructed to tithe time.

How would the world change if we spent 10% of our time on charitable and justice activities?

Some days, that would be easy.  Other days, I scarcely have time to eat lunch during my work day.

Of course, a commitment to tithe time would force me to evaluate my activities.  Often, I think we make ourselves look busy at work to prove that we're essential.

Wouldn't it be nice to work for an organization that encouraged us to do charitable work on company time on a regular basis?

Once I had a conversation with a friend about tithing time.  She's fairly open to the idea of donating money, food, and stuff, so I was surprised at her violent rejection of the idea of donating time too.  She said, "Forget it.  I don't have time.  I have to work."

I said, "If your job leaves you with so little time that you can't do volunteer work, then maybe it's time to find another job."

But I know what her job requires, and I know that she has time to donate if she wants.  What does it say about our values if we'd rather read a book than work with the homeless?  If I value time for housework more than time spent with needy children, what does that say about me?

I have been known to sneak away from work to serve dinner to homeless men.  I return to my office refreshed and renewed in a way that I'm not if I sneak away to have dinner with a friend.

I've often wondered, too, if I could find work that would let me do charitable or justice activities as my work-for-pay.  If I worked for Habitat for Humanity, for example, for 40-50 hours a week and drew a paycheck, how would I feel about that?

You could make the argument that I'd still need to tithe my time.  Work for pay is different than donated work.

And we could argue about what work counts as charitable/justice work and what doesn't.  Does the week that I spent as Arts and Crafts director for Vacation Bible School count?  Most of the children who came to VBS are not disadvantaged.  But time spent with children who may grow up to be policy makers can be important too.  And even if they don't grow up to be policy makers, they're still growing up to be the next generation of Christians.  Our VBS stressed the importance of mosquito nets for children far away (social justice!) and learning and creativity and movement.

Hopefully we spent a week modeling the kind of balance we'd all like to find.

Friday, July 6, 2012

What Our Family Budgets Say About Our Values

Yesterday's post set me on the path of pondering family budgets and tithing.  I wonder if tithing is an outmoded concept--not that it's not important, but it could be expressed in ways that are more meaningful.

Would we give more money if we understood exactly what our money was buying?  If we translated every beer into a mosquito net, would we give more?

Or, if we understood some of our spending as truly discretionary (nobody needs beer; I could get all my books from the library and do away with my book budget), would we give more?

In Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (a book I highly recommend), Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat have this interesting approach to charitable giving: "One guidepost we work with is that if we ever find in a given year that we have invested more in our won future by way of retirement savings than we have given away for someone else's present need, there is something terribly wrong. We tend to think the ratio should be at least two to one: for every dollar we invest in retirement savings, two dollars should be given away to an agency that will serve the poor" (page 189).

While I essentially agree with them, I am not there yet, and may not ever meet them there. I would be happy to match my retirement savings with my charitable/social justice giving. Actually, I might do that already and not realize it. In the past few years, I've been lucky at work to have earned promotions and to have gotten raises. As my income has risen, I've tried to also increase my charitable giving. I haven't always been vigilant at raising my non-work related retirement savings (my work 401-K plan is recalculated automatically for me, as my income fluctuates, since I've specified a percentage to be socked away, not an amount--not so with my other accounts).

Walsh and Keesmaat remind us, "We can probably tell as much about the real spirituality and the real worldview of a people by looking at the cars they drive, the food they consume, the gadgets that fill their homes and the garbage they throw out as we can by listening to the songs they sing and the prayers they pray" (page 199).

And the rest of the world is watching too.  Much of the world isn't interested in hearing us yammer on and on about what Jesus means to us--they want to see it in the lives that we live.  If our lives--and our spending--isn't a testimony to that relationship with Jesus, there's no point in opening our mouths.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

How Many Mosquito Nets Could Your Beer Budget Buy?

We had a lovely 4th yesterday.  We went to a friend's house for a cook-out.  They have a pool, so we swam and talked.  We talked about whether or not we could afford to retire early, especially if we put the money we spent on alcohol into our retirement accounts.

Then our talk turned to the graduation speaker who had addressed our students.  The graduation speaker talked about vision boards and how a vision board allowed her to buy her first Infiniti, even though she admitted that $35,000 was a lot to pay for a car back in the early 90's.  Indeed.  I bought a house for $35,000 back in the early 90's. 

We talked about a colleague who plans to buy a Lexus with the proceedings from her divorce and the sale of her wedding diamonds.

My friend said, "Just think about how many hungry children you could feed with that money."

Let me pause here to note that I didn't introduce the social justice turn into the conversation.  But once she steered it that way I could not resist.

I said, "A mosquito net that protects a child from malaria costs just $4.  How many children could we save with our monthly beer budget?"

There was resistance.  I knew there would be.  I don't want to give up my wine either.  My friend said, "Yeah, but a Lexus costs, what, $40,000?  That's a lot more than my beer budget!"

I gently pointed out that our colleague would drive that car for many years.  How much do we spend on alcohol every year?

My friends conceded my point.  I offered to take alcohol money and transform it into mosquito netting if anyone wanted--money laundering of a different sort!  The talk moved on to other subjects.

I'm not going into details here--my mom might read this blog!--but suffice it to say, if we donated just half of our alcohol budgets to buy mosquito nets, we'd save a great many children.  And we'd be healthier in all sorts of ways.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 8, 2012:

First Reading: Ezekiel 2:1-5

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Psalm: Psalm 123

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 48

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Gospel: Mark 6:1-13

What an intriguing Gospel reading for this Sunday: Jesus rejected by people who had known him since he was little and who knew his family. Perhaps you can relate.

The first part of this Gospel (in the reaction of the people of Christ’s own country) gives us a clear warning about the risks we face when we have expectations of God that might be a bit too firm. We're not really open to God or God's hopes and plans for us when we think we know what God should be up to in the world. The society of Jesus' time had very definite expectations of what the Messiah would look like and what he would do--and Jesus was not that person. How many people ignored God, right there in their midst, because they were looking for someone or something else?

This Gospel also warns us about fame and acclaim. If you've been alive any length of time, you know that the world grants fame to an interesting variety of people. But once again, if we expect God to act like a star, we're setting ourselves up for disappointment.

Much of the Bible shows us God appearing as a stranger, as a baby in a manger, as an itinerant preacher, as a crucified prisoner. We hear God speaking in dreams, in a burning bush, a whisper here, a glimmering there. If we’re waiting for angel choirs in the sky to give us a clear message from the Divine, we may wait a very long time. We need to learn to listen for God in other settings.

And the end of the Gospel has a warning for us, as well. If we become believers because we think we'll be famous or we'll make lots of money or we'll have political influence--well, we're likely to be disappointed. The Gospel of Jesus is not about those things that the world considers important--no matter what those Prosperity Gospel folks would have you believe.

If we think of Jesus as building a church, the model that we see in a Gospel might point us in a different direction than the path that many of us have been treading

Jesus sends out his disciples two by two, with no possessions and not much of a plan. Notice what he does not do--he doesn't make them create a mission statement or a business plan. He doesn't have them raise money for buildings and programs. And he doesn't expect them to work fruitlessly--they are allowed to shake the dust off of their feet and move on if a community rejects them.

What would our lives look like, if we followed this model? What would our lives look like if we trusted God more than our retirement plans? Where are we stuck, needing to shake dust off of our feet and move on? Where might God lead us, if we can just learn to trust and learn to move?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

VBS Crafts: The Story in Pictures

Above:  one of the t-shirts created.  We actually did those on day 3.  On day 1, we made noisemakers, so that children would have instruments if they needed them. 

Noisemakers are a great way to use up old grains.  Someone bought me some steel cut oats that I'm not likely to use, since they require so much thinking ahead.  They make a great sound.  Below you'll also see some adzuki beans that I bought back in 2000 for a recipe which I'll never make again--they, too, make a great sound.


Above:  the empty containers used for making noisemakers.  Children had a variety of ways to decorate the outside.

Above you see hands shaping clay.  Below, the clay drying on paper plates.

Below:  painting the dried clay.

Below:  painted clay, drying once again.

Below:  decorating t-shirts.

Below:  Painting a picture of a butterfly.

Below:  Mask making!

Below:  another way to make a mask:

A good time was had by all!  Or, by most people.  And everyone had at least one day with a craft that brought them joy. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

In Praise of VBS Helpers

I spent much of last week at Vacation Bible School as the Arts and Crafts Director.  I spent several weeks before that buying supplies.  But I couldn't have done it without the helpers.

I had a fair amount of help from the teenagers who had gotten too old for VBS (rising 7th graders can help, but there are no classes for them).  Why would they want to help?  There are many reasons, but most of the teenage helpers grew up in VBS, and they're not ready to leave.  Some of them are helping because they need community service hours.  Some of them are helping because their moms are part of VBS. 

They did the best when the kids needed them.  During periods when the kids were being self-directed, the teenagers got easily distracted.  Some nights, they did the craft, and everything was peaceful.  Other nights, they picked on each other.  They were encouraging to the children, but to each other, they were judgmental, and often in verbally brutal ways.  One night, I threatened to banish them all.  They weren't modeling good behavior.  Children internalize negativity, even if it's not directed at them.  I don't want that in the arts and crafts room.

Still, it was helpful to have them along, even when they were disruptive.  Some of the classes needed lots of attention.  We had lots of children in the kindergarten and first grade class, and they're not the most physically agile yet.  The teenagers rose to the occasion.

My spouse was also tremendously helpful.  Most of the VBS staff works in the public school system, so they're off for the summer.  They had time to get organized during the day.  I did not.

Happily, my spouse has more time than I do.  He did things like assembling old shirts for smocks.  I arrived home from work, and he had everything ready to go--which was good, because we ate a quick dinner and then headed over to the church.

He also helped on nights when he wasn't leading drumming sessions.  He was remarkably patient.  But more than that, he anticipated problems before they arose and helped develop solutions.  I felt really lucky to have him along.

I'm amazed at how many people it takes to put together a VBS program.  I feel lucky to be part of a church where we have so many people who are willing to be part of the VBS team.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Other Lessons from a Week of Vacation Bible School

--Songs are easier to remember if we have movements to go along with the song.

--Of course, words projected on a screen can help too.

--They only help if children can read.

--VBS dinners don't have to be complicated.  One of our most popular meals:  hamburgers from McDonald's.  And it can be one of the cheapest, at 25 cents a burger, if McDonald's is running their annual special.

--The eternal popularity of chicken nuggets:  some nutritionist should write a thesis.  Maybe someone has.

--This year, instead of dance each day, the activity changed:  2 days of dance, 1 day of drumming, and 1 day of yoga.  The first day was an introduction day.  It worked well.

--I used to scoff at the idea of a pre-packaged VBS.  But it's really a great alternative to those of us who don't have time to make all of this up from scratch.

--Even the snacks in this pre-packaged kit fit the theme of the day.  That idea would never have occurred to me.

--That said, I wonder if creators of this curriculum do it full-time.  I'd love to take my creativity in that direction.

--It's strange to me still to have VBS at night.  But it works.  Even if we'd had it in the day, I'd have been hesitant to take my classes outside.  Our church is on a busy road, and it was difficult enough to maintain control inside.

--It wasn't all fun and games.  It wasn't all learning.  We did a social justice project too.  Our VBS students now know a lot about malaria.  We raised money for the mosquito net campaign.  We made it a competition, boys against girls, to see who could raise the most money.  Each team raised over $150. 

--It's amazing how much money we can collect, even if the bulk of it is small change.

--And now we'll do a campaign to match funds.

--At roughly $4 a net, that's hundreds of children saved.

--I spend so much time anxious and afraid.  And yet, my life in an industrialized country is so easy, in so many ways.  I turn on a tap, and clean water flows.  I flip a switch, and light illuminates the dark.  My food comes butchered and cleaned.  I don't have to hunt or gather.

--For some of our children, VBS is the only thing they like in the church year.  The only thing!  When I think back on my church experiences, I don't remember VBS being a highlight.  I didn't mind it, but it wasn't a highlight.  Of course, my childhood VBS wasn't the kind of produced event that we see now.

--Many of my grown-up friends kept calling it church camp, as in "How's your church camp thing going at your church?"  And in many ways, it's as close to camp as children will get, down here where we're so far away from regular church camps.  We do much of the same things:  singing and arts/crafts and Bible study and making new friends. Camp and VBS serve the same larger purposes, to root some ideas in young brains, to convince children that this churchy stuff is fun and important and beautiful.