Friday, August 31, 2012

Communion Bread

Here we are at the last Friday of the month, the second full moon of the month.  How quickly August has zoomed by!

On the first Friday of the month, we were headed to Lutherock, a church camp in the highest mountains of North Carolina.  On that Friday night, we'd have had a small worship service.  We'd have celebrated Communion with a hamburger bun and higher quality wine than my local church uses:

Some gatherings you get hamburger buns, some you get pita bread:

I love the idea of buying communion wafers from monastic communities, but I love homemade bread even more:

Alas, I don't have a picture of the bread that our pastor bakes every week, so the above will have to do.  Trinitarian braids!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 2, 2012:

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Psalm 15

LORD, who may dwell in your tabernacle? (Ps. 15:1)

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In this week's Gospel, we find Jesus in trouble with the Pharisees for having followers who didn't follow the purity codes. Those of us not familiar with purity codes, but all too familiar with the viciousness of modern microbes, might read the passage from Mark and say, "Yick. They didn't wash their hands. The Pharisees are right to be appalled."

Go back, way back, into the Old Testament and read Leviticus with its rigid commands about the actions of believers, right down to the way they would store and cook food. Now imagine these restrictions taken to an even greater extreme, and you've got the purity codes of Jesus' day. It's amazing that anyone could follow them. And it's important to remember that although we think of Pharisees as hypocrites largely because of their interactions with Jesus, this could not be further from the truth. They were very sincere and committed to what they believed, far more committed than most of their contemporaries.

And it's vitally important to remember that their motivations for keeping strict standards were very good. In The Secret Message of Jesus, Brian D. McLaren notes that the Pharisees hoped that their own purity would prompt God to send the Messiah to liberate them, specifically to liberate them from Roman oppression. Therefore it's understandable that they would try to recruit others to this cause, and that they would grow frustrated with people who couldn't meet their own requirements--the actions of those people polluted the whole population, thus resulting in more alienation from God.

Before we get too snooty about those Pharisees, before we feel too superior to them, it's important to look at our own time. The Episcopal/Anglican church is very close to schism over the issue of homosexuality, and many people wonder if the Lutherans aren’t very far behind. Many of our most divisive fights within the Christian faith grow out of disagreements about behavior, not about belief. And even if you manage to avoid the larger fights about homosexuality, abortion and the like, you're likely to become engaged in fights about the right kind of music to use in a service, the proper amount of times to offer Communion, whether or not to collect donations at the covered dish potluck dinner. Anyone who has done any kind of church work probably recognizes the Pharisees in Mark's Gospel. Again, I stress it is important to recognize our own inner Pharisee. No one is blameless here.

Jesus is never shy about calling people on their wrong-hearted behavior. He quotes Isaiah, "'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.' You leave the commandment of God and hold fast the tradition of men" (Mark 7: 6-8). Again, we might think about how we give God lip service--but would a person who didn't know us at all be able to identify us as a Christian? We might say the right things, attest to the proper creeds, attend church on Sunday, feel quite self-righteous about how we are better than the rest of the scummy population--but someone observing our actions, would they know we follow Christ?

Jesus boils down all the teachings of the Torah into two commandments: love God and love your neighbor. How well are we following those commandments?

Jesus came to show us a new way--and he gave us powerful examples of how to live. In this Gospel, we see him practicing his essential table ministry, breaking bread with the outcast and unclean. In our current age, we tend to underestimate the power of these actions. But the larger institutions understood--and eventually, Jesus will be crucified, in part because of his threat to the dominant power systems. This behavior, this community building, is still a threat to the dominant culture--one reason we're all so stressed is that we seldom slow down enough to eat. One reason that we have trouble holding our families together is that we don't eat together.

Imagine how our culture would change if we insisted on taking an hour for each meal break. What would happen if we talked to each other during those hours? How would our world change if we invited others to share our food?

Jesus understood how arguments over right and righteous behavior can tear a community to shreds. Jesus also showed us how to knit our communities together. We should follow his behavior and argue about behavior less, eat together in fellowship more often.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Political Conventions and Church Assemblies

Today we've watched the Republicans try to decide what to do about their convention.  To be fair, I'd have made similar decisions; with Saturday's forecast, it made sense to delay the convention.  It was difficult not to smile at the outcome.  In this article, Dana Milbank notes:  "Completing the cosmic joke, the weather would have been fine for a convention in Tampa on Monday: gusty, with intermittent showers and sun. But minutes before the 2 p.m. start of the abbreviated session at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the wind and rain picked up and the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Tampa’s Hillsborough County. By the time the brief session ended, the sun had returned."

Some of us might wonder the Republicans decided to hold their convention in a coastal city at the height of hurricane season. But recent years have shown us that few cities are safe from weather surprises.

The larger issue: why have a convention at all? We know who the nominee will be. What is the point? Why spend all this money?

I’ve had similar thoughts about church assemblies, both at the synod and the national level. Some years, clearly we need to meet. We have elections to complete, decisions about who will provide leadership. Some denominations need to vote on how to spend the money that the Church collects. Some denominations meet to train members in various issues. Some denominations need to vote on social issues periodically.

But in this age of technology, do we need to meet in person? Do we need to spend the money and stress the various environments by descending on a city?

I can only vaguely imagine how much the political assemblies are costing. I shudder to think. When I go to Synod Assembly, it costs several hundred dollars for the hotel room, and then there’s the registration fee of over $100. I spend even more on food. And there’s the cost of travel: gasoline and wear and tear on the car. If we calculate the time off that I have to take, the cost continues to rise.

I understand that it’s good to assemble. I understand that we can network and get good ideas and do trouble shooting—I understand that some of us need to do that in person. But the harder question: is it really worth the cost?

On the national level, the stakes rise. The costs go up, the travel takes more time, some of us must take more time off.

We might argue that the national assemblies only take place every few years. But the question still remains. Is it worth it?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Hospice Chaplain Week Ahead

I almost wrote:  We have survived Tropical Storm Isaac.  And I'm fairly sure we have.  Or perhaps we're in the process of surviving.  It still sounds stormy, but no worse than your typical stormy morning down here.

I'm fairly sure my school will be open, so I shall return to reassemble pieces.  I have 25 classes left with no teacher after the recent restructuring.  I need to think about staffing needs.

I'm sure that there will be people of all sorts coming through my office.  Perhaps I should stop on my way to work and buy more tissues.  I have plenty of tea, some mugs, an electric kettle.

I wonder if it is offensive to real hospice chaplains when I think of some of my job duties as being the departmental hospice chaplain.  If so, I don't mean to offend.  I realize that real hospice chaplains are dealing with the most permanent kind of loss.  So far, we haven't experienced the physical death of one of our department members.  But we are dealing with other kinds of loss, some of the most extreme that humans can face short of death:  loss of job, loss of future, loss of community members who will still alive somewhere but won't be part of our daily lives the way they have been.

One of my pastor friends sent me this quote in an e-mail, and it seems wise to put it here, for everyone who needs the calmness that prayer might bring:

"Prayer is largely just being silent: holding the tension instead of even talking it through, offering the moment instead of fixing it by words and ideas, loving reality as it is instead of understanding it fully. We must not push the river, we must just trust that we are really in the river, and God is the current.

That may be impractical, but the way of faith is not the way of efficiency. So much of life is just a matter of listening and waiting, and enjoying the expansiveness that comes from such willingness to hold. It is like carrying and growing a baby: women wait and trust and hopefully eat good food, and the baby is born."

~ Richard Rohr


Listen to the stillness, the language of God.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Week of Waterproof Mascara

More than once this past week, I've thought, I wish I had used waterproof mascara this morning.  Or no mascara.

The week began wonderfully:  on a sailboat in the Chesapeake Bay, in the midst of nature and my family, being reminded of God's expansiveness.  No need for mascara of any kind!  It's more like a camping trip, with no mirrors and no showers and simple clothes.

I was home for all of a half hour on Wednesday before I got the call.  It was my boss, who said, "I have HR here with me."

My first thought:  nothing good ever comes after that statement.  My second thought:  I wish I had saved more money.

I was told of restructuring at work.  I'm luckier than most.  In the new organization, I can apply for a new job that's much like my old job.  I should know the outcome in the next month.

Others will not be so lucky.  At our school, 45 people lost their jobs, 21 of them faculty.  At our nationwide network of schools, 800 people lost their jobs.  It's been a tough week.

I've wept with the faculty who got the worst kind of news; we're losing 5 people from my department.  I've wept for my youthful enthusiasm that believed that jobs in higher ed would be abundant and if not lucrative, at least fairly paid.  I've commiserated with people who have survived this round of job cuts, but who wonder when they will be next.

And then, just to make life interesting, just in time for the 20th anniversary of hurricane Andrew, we've had the approach of tropical storm Isaac.  It's been hard to know how to prepare for this storm.  It's the size of Texas, so even if we're nowhere close to the eye, we'll still feel effects.  It's wobbled, so it's hard to know how close it will pass.  It's made many people more tense than they would be otherwise.

Once again, I feel the Holy Spirit saying, "I'm so glad that you're interested in hospice chaplain work.  Do I have a job for you!"

At the end of a tearful conversation, one of my laid-off faculty members said, "You know that entity in the sky who you talk to?  If you could say a word for me, I'd appreciate it."

I thought about her vision of God and how it's different from mine.  I thought about how I wished I had the spiritual discipline to pray for all the people in my life's orbit, regularly, whether I know that they need it or not.  I decided on a simple answer.  I said, "I will pray for you."

I have a friend who's from a more charismatic tradition than I am.  Friday afternoon, I told her about our week of work trauma.  I asked her to pray for us.  She told me of all the prayer networks she's part of, and she told me she'd add our names to their various lists.

I wish I was better at prayer.  But I'm thankful that I've gotten better at being present for distressed people.  Once upon a time, I'd have tried to solve problems, to cut emotional conversations short by listing all the possible solutions.  Now, I sit and listen.  As I listen to people in distress, I pray silently.  Maybe that's a good start to becoming the kind of prayerful person I want to be.  Maybe my hospice chaplain self can do no more.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Poems for Days of Drought

Here we are, nearing the end of summer, and part of the nation burns while the rest of us bake. So, it's time for some poems from desert places and past droughts.

I wrote this one first, and it appeared in The Ledge:

Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site

I didn’t develop a taste for locusts until later.
Instead I craved libraries, those crusted containers of all knowledge,
honey to fill the combs of my brain.

I didn’t see this university as a desert.
How could it be, with its cornucopia of classes,
colleagues who never tired of spirited conversations,
no point too arcane for hours of dissection.
I never foresaw that I might consume too many ideas,
that they might stick in the craw.

I never dreamed a day would come when I preferred
true deserts, far away from intellectual centers.
No young minds to be midwifed,
no hungry mouths draining my most vital juices,
no books with their reproachful, sad sighs, sitting
in the library, that daycare center of the intellect.

The desert doesn’t drown the voice
the way a city does. No drone
of machinery, no cacophony of crowing
scholars to consume my own creativity.
In the desert, the demand is to be still, to conserve
our strength for the trials that are to come.

Here, the earth, scorched by the fissile
testing of the greatest intellects of the last century, reminds
us of the ultimate futility of attempting to understand.
The desert dares us to drop our defenses.
In this place, scoured of all temptations, all distractions,
the sand demands we face our destiny.

I wrote this one a bit later, and I've often wondered if it is too similar to the first one. Is it a revision of the first one? But I've decided that although they share similar themes, they are distinctly different. It appeared in Sojourners.

Baptismo Sum

In this month of dehydration,
we keep our eyes skyward, both to watch
for rain and to avoid the scorn
of the scorched succulents who reproach
us silently, saying, “You promised to care.”

And so, although we thought we could stick
these seedlings in the ground and leave
them to their own devices, we haul
hoses and buckets of water to the outer edges
of the yard where the hose will not reach.

The idea of a desert seduces,
as it did the Desert Fathers, who fled
the corruption of the cities to contemplate
theology surrounded by sand
and stinging winds. My thoughts travel
to the Sanctuary Movement, contemporary Christians
who risked all to rescue illegal aliens.
I admire their faith, tested in that desert crucible.
I could create my own patch of desert in tribute.

Yet deserts do not always sanctify.
I think of the Atomic Fathers
who hauled equipment into the New Mexico
desert and littered the landscape with fallout
which litters all our lives, a new religion,
generations transformed in the light of the Trinity test site.

I back away from my Darwinian, desert dreams.
The three most popular religions
in the world emerged from their dry desert
roots, preaching the literal and symbolic primacy
of water, leaving the arid ranges behind
as they flowed towards temperance.

I cannot reject the religion of my ancestors,
who spent every day of their lives
remembering their baptism before heading to the fields
to make the dirt dream in colors.

The careful reader (or future grad student writing a dissertation) will notice the old familiar themes: apocalypse and the effort to live in hope, atomic issues, gardens, farm families, intellectual lives and a variety of spiritual connections.

Perhaps we'll see an El Nino develop which will send rain across the west.  Maybe the uptick in hurricane season will mean some rain for parched Southern states.  Maybe we've seen our planet swing back into a permanent state of severe drought across significant parts of the North American west, which has experienced these times before.

I worry about all the people in the path of this oscillating weather.  I pray for them, and for our planet, as we enter these post-Holocene-era times.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for August 26, 2012:

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Psalm 34:15-22

The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous. (Ps. 34:15)

Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69

In some ways, the Gospel readings get more difficult with each passing Sunday this August. They're difficult in part because they seem so repetitive: another week, another set of verses on flesh and bread and feasting on what actually nourishes us. You might find yourself protesting, "O.K., O.K., I get it."

They're also difficult because some of these verses have been used and misused in a variety of ways. Consider this passage: "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father" (verse 65).

Throughout the centuries, Christians have interpreted this verse as meaning that Christianity is the only way to salvation. At its worst, this verse has been used to justify massacres and empire building, a way to de-humanize those who don't believe the way we do. What does Jesus mean for us to do with this verse?

Peter testifies that Jesus is the only way. It's one of those moments that endears Peter to later believers. He can be so obtuse (like later in the story, when he'll cut off a soldier's ear and then go on to deny knowing Jesus); and yet, he gives Jesus full support in other places. Peter's story gives solace to believers who aren't always consistent. God uses this inconsistent man to form a huge Christian community. How could we become more like Peter, more consistent over the course of our faith journeys?

We've spent the last month hearing about the importance of both physical and spiritual nourishment. As school starts, as the political campaign season goes into full swing, as the peak of hurricane season heads our way, it’s good to be reminded of the importance of nourishing both ourselves and others.

Maybe it’s time to recommit to the good nourishment patterns that we know will keep us healthier. Go to the last of the farmer’s markets and buy those glorious fruits and vegetables. Bake a batch of bread or muffins. Watch the bread rise and remind yourself of the larger Christian task of being leaven in the loaf of society.

Think of ways that you can nourish yourself spiritually so that you can be that leaven. Can you add some additional reading to your day? How about some extra prayer time?

You say you have no time? Stop watching the news: a spiritual practice that will benefit in all sorts of ways. Spend as much time in prayer as you do on Facebook. Listen to your favorite spiritual music as you go through the day’s tasks.

The world groans more and more each day. We must fortify ourselves to face the task of repairing the world. Our month of bread readings reminds us of the ways to do that. As delicious as our home-baked loaves of bread are, Jesus reminds us of the source of our true nourishment.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Looking Forward to Fall

Are you tired of summer's pleasures?  Most of us can look forward to Fall, which is just around the corner. 

A tree in transition, as most of us are:

Some possibilities to whet your appetite:

Jack-o-Lanterns, both traditional (above) and not (below):

Pumpkins find their way into all sorts of autumnal pleasures:

Apples in their native habitat (below):

New bouquets will be possible soon:

A gingerbread haunted house?  Why not?

Ah, I can almost feel the cool breezes now!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Summer Pleasures: Still Time to Take a Trip!

Maybe yesterday's post made you say, "I'd like to travel, but not to a monastery."

Good news!  There's still time to plan and take a trip.  Where would you like to go?

A historic site?

Above:  Williamsburg in bronze.

Below:  Williamsburg in the flesh.

Or maybe you'd like something a little less developed.  You're probably within driving distance of a state or national park:

Maybe you'd like a sunrise walk on the beach:

Or a mountain retreat:

Maybe a sailing trip:

Or maybe, it's time to plan for Autumn!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Plan a Trip to a Monastery as You Celebrate the Life of Bernard of Clairvaux

Today we celebrate the life of the 12th century monk, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. What an amazing man!

Those of us interested in monasticism owe a debt to St. Bernard, who was responsible not only for founding his own monastery, but for sending monks out to establish monasteries or to rescue already-formed monasteries from heretical directions. We give him credit for the founding of hundreds of monastic communities.

For more on St. Bernard, see this post from last year.  Since this post comes in the middle of a photo essay thinking about summer pleasures and what you still have time to do, why not add planning a visit to a monastery to the list?

There are many reasons to visit a monastery, many things you might learn.  I've written a whole series, but the shorter essay is here.

From an aesthetic stand point, you'll find many monasteries located in settings that are appealing:

And many of them have breathtaking gardens (less blurry than in this photo):

You will likely be invited into the chapel to worship with the monastics:

You will likely also be invited to enter, in a limited way, into the life of the community.  Below, a table in the refectory where guests at Mepkin Abbey eat:

Mepkin Abbey has a variety of surprises, like the best theological library I've seen outside of a university:

Imagine all those rows, shelves full of books!

Your sleeping space will likely be spare, but it will have the basics:  bed, desk, and chair.  And it will be clean.   Hospitality is one of the practices of monastics, after all:

You will have all sorts of opportunities, experiences you might never otherwise have.  Start on the path by planning your trip!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Wonders of Creation

As we head into the last weeks of summer, as summer shifts to fall, it's a great time to immerse ourselves in God's creation, to remind ourselves of the wonders God created.


(above:  you see an alligator, don't you?)




(above:  I'm fairly sure this is a wild orchid)

Soon it will be Christmas, and you'll be buying poinsettias in pots.  Down here in South Florida, they grow in the ground:

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Still Time to Enjoy Summer Pleasures

How are we this close to the end of August?  You're probably like me:  thinking of all the things you meant to do this summer and now it's almost over.

Good news!  There's still time to enjoy summer pleasures:

A day at the beach:

A swim while you're there:

A kayaak trip:

Or a boat of a different sort:

A day fishing:

A nap in a hammock:

Or celebrate the end of swimsuit season by eating ice cream!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Politics, Creativity, and Dreaming the Future

I used to believe that politics had more potential to change the world than any other societal institution.  My 19 year old self would have scoffed at the idea that religion could be transformative in the same--or better!--ways.

My 47 year old self feels a great weariness when it comes to any political discussion.  Once, I would have been happy to discuss any political issue.  Once I knew exactly what politicians needed to do to fix any problem.  Once, I'd have stayed up hoping for news of Mitt Romney's running mate announcement--maybe I'd luck out and news would leak.  This week, my response has been a giant shrug.

I've been worrying that maybe my attitude signals apathy or numbness.  But Beth Adams has written a series of posts over at her blog which gives me comfort.

In part one, she gives us a quote from Richard Rohr:

"I think that the great disappointment with so much political activism, even many of the non-violent movements of the 60s and 70s, and why many people were not long-lasting in these movements, is because these movements did not proceed from transformed people. They were coming from righteous ideology of either Left or Right, from mere intellect and will, and not from people who had put head, heart, body, and soul together.

We need to find inside ourselves the positive place of communion, of holiness, where there’s nothing to react against. Pure action is when you are acting from a place which is good, true, and beautiful. The energy at that point is entirely positive."

Perfectly said.  I no longer believe that most politicians are working for a better society.  I used to believe that, even as I would admit that not all of us agreed on the definition of that better society.

Beth talks about her own evolution and concludes this way:  "I've learned one thing, for sure: you have to start with yourself and your own attitude. No matter how terrible our challenges are, when we react from a place of anger, we haven't done all the work we need to do, and ultimately we will only add to the amount of anger, violence, and frustration that already exist in the world. Positive energy attracts other positive energy, and a great deal can be built from there. One place to begin is by looking for and truly understanding what we already do have, the precious things that can never be taken away from us."

Lately, it seems that so many people who want to talk about politics have this raging anger.  It's not a righteous anger.  It's the kind of anger that so quickly veers to destruction.  It feels too dangerous to me.  We can't afford it.

Beth writes a second post where she advocates art and creativity as a response to the brokenness of the world:  "The fact is that we are living in a time when the decision to be an artist, to continue to create in spite of everything that's happening around us, IS a radical political act. This is, I feel, quite a dark time, potentially destructive to the best and most noble aspects of the human spirit. And that's precisely why it is terribly important for artists in all disciplines to continue to create, even when it feels like there's little market and little appreciation for our work. Just doing it, and making the difficult decision to continue to do it -- to live creative lives that celebrate what life is and can be - is both defiant and affirming, and it's crucially important. People need to know that someone they know -- a neighbor, a friend, a cousin -- is committed to the arts. Young people particularly need to know this."

I've been feeling a bit of despair lately, especially as I consider my work life.  Last night, at Church Council, our pastor asked us where in our weekly lives we see ourselves working towards God's purpose and vision.  I thought of all the e-mails I write, many of which aren't terribly important, even as I write them.

But maybe I should think about my art, my writing.  Maybe that's where God plans to use my gifts and talents in the transformative work that needs to be done in the world.

Or maybe, with all the turmoil at work (talk of lay offs and grimmer visions), God says, "Welcome to the second part of your work life.  I have great possibilities to discuss with you."  Is a program that would train me to be a spiritual director calling me most strongly?  Could I make a living with my art alone?  Is it time to return to full-time teaching?  Does God need people like me in administration to transform institutions like higher education?

These are the questions that I'll ponder in the weeks ahead.  I'll be looking for discernment.  Or maybe just the twinkles of possibility.

One thing is for sure:  I'm not headed into politics any time soon.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 19, 2012:

Proverbs 9:1-6

Psalm 34:9-14

Those who seek the LORD lack nothing that is good. (Ps. 34:10)

Ephesians 5:15-20

John 6:51-58

In this Sunday's Gospel, we see Jesus confounding his listeners; the more he talks, the more confused they become (and a bit revulsed by the idea of eating human flesh and drinking human blood; let's not underestimate the strangeness of Jesus' message).

We shouldn't fault the people of Jesus' time. After all, Communion can be a divisive issue even in our own time. Churches differ in how often they celebrate Communion, and denominations differ widely in what they think the Eucharist means.

I remember an incident from my own past during my first year of college. My friend, Melanie, and I had returned from a retreat where we’d had a special communion experience. We stood in a circle and communed each other. Before, I’d only had the traditional Eucharist: bread and wine given out by a church official. On retreat, it felt special to have my fellow Christians hand me the elements, which I in turn gave to the next person. Isn’t this what Martin Luther meant by the priesthood of all believers? More importantly, isn’t this what Jesus had in mind when he gave instructions during the Last Supper?

Melanie and I volunteered to be in charge of the Wednesday night campus service after we returned, and we arrived armed with bread and a jug of wine (back in 1983, when the drinking age was still 18). We didn’t create anything new; we just recycled one of the services we had experienced during the week-end retreat. All went well until we started communion. Several outraged students left.

Our campus pastor sometimes attended our Wednesday night group, but that night was one of the nights that he didn’t. We passed bread and wine that had not been consecrated by an ordained clergy member; we had said the words of consecration before we passed around the elements, but none of us had gone to seminary, or even graduated from college. Since many of the members of our group were not traditional Lutherans, this oversight slipped the notice of many of group members. Even though I am descended from a long line of Lutherans, several of whom were ministers, even though I had gone through years of Sunday School, First Communion, and Confirmation classes, I somehow didn’t get the message that communion without a minister in charge was taboo. At the very least, as our campus minister gently told me, a minister needs to have blessed the elements.

Well, this is how we learn; it became a teaching moment, and luckily my fellow college students, easily offended, were also quick to forgive. But this incident gave me insight into how this sacrament can become so divisive.

Of course, Jesus didn't intend for the sacrament to become divisive (at least not to his believers). On the contrary, Communion is designed to unite us--that's why most churches offer the sacrament as a communal practice. Unlike prayer, which is easily done in private and often silently, the Eucharist should solidify us and nourish us as a group, much the way that family meals together nourish us not only as individuals, but also as a family.

Of course, we can't leave it there. Communion should also transform us to do the work of God on earth. The surrounding lessons tell us of virtues we should strive to manifest in our lives. Our goal is to be leaven to this loaf of a world, to be the light of Christ in the world.

Again and again Jesus reminds us of the necessity of nourishing ourselves with him. Our ancestors ate manna, and they died. We can feast on the food that will bring us eternal life.

God calls us to do serious work. We must live as if the Kingdom of God has already taken over our world. To keep ourselves strong for that work we need to keep ourselves fed with good food: homemade bread and good wine, grilled fish, the words of the Bible, the words of writers who inspire us to transform both ourselves and the world, the images of people who inspire us to visions of a better world, music that can wind its way through our days, prayers that keep us connected to God, relationships that remind us that we are loved and cherished and worthy, and the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Feast Day of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven

Today is one of the many Marian feast days. Today we celebrate Mary's Assumption into Heaven. Here are the readings for today:

First Reading: Isaiah 61:7-11

Psalm: Psalm 45:11-16 (Psalm 34:1-9 NRSV)

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7

Gospel: Luke 1:46-55

When I was very little, I was taught about the two Old Testament people who got to go to Heaven without dying (one was Elijah, and I can't remember who the other one was). We were taught that very good, very righteous people got to go to Heaven without dying--but interestingly, our class of little Lutherans was not taught about Mary's Assumption into Heaven.  Mary, the mother of Jesus--why was she left out?

My childhood Lutheran churches didn't mention Mary much at all, outside of the seasons of Advent, Christmas Eve, and the post-Christmas Sundays. As I've gotten older, I've felt a bit of mourning for all the celebrations and richness that we've lost in our Protestant traditions that were so eager to show how different we were from the Orthodox religions.

I remember hearing about the possibility of Assumption into Heaven, and I remember as a child wanting to be good enough for that eventual reward.  Clearly, my childhood self was not well-schooled in the concept of grace.

I understand that Mary has often been used as a tool of sexists who want to dominate women and convince them to deny their wants and needs. But as I look around and see the consequences of a whole nation devoted to selfish consideration of ONLY their individual wants and needs, I wonder if it's not time to return to the models of the saints, the prophets, Mary, and Jesus.

You might protest, "We haven't left those models.  What do you mean, return?"  But for most of us, we're surrounded by so many examples of bad behavior.  For example, it's difficult to watch TV and come away feeling enriched.  The news is full of bad behavior, and many a reality show rewards bad behavior.  It's time to start adding good role models back to our lives.  As a Composition teacher, I know that a lot of us do learn best when we have a model to follow. And many of us need lots of models.

Mary gives us a wonderful model of how to structure our religious lives. Today is a great day to go back to read the Magnificat, Luke 1: 46-55:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy,
The promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Blessing Backpacks, Blessing Teachers (and Staff)

From what I can tell, many churches now have a backpack blessing service or part of a service.  Some churches bless backpacks of supplies that they're donating to less fortunate children, while others bless the backpacks of children going back to school.  Some bless the children, not the backpack.

Our church blesses children and backpacks, which I've always thought was great.  We also bless teachers, usually on the Sunday before we bless the children, since teachers return to school first.  Lately, we've been including staff.

As an administrator, I go up for the blessing.  At first, back when I was doing more teaching, I hesitated to go up with the other teachers, but my pastor was clear:  all teachers, from pre-K to college.  So, up I went, even though I thought I had the easier job.

On Sunday, I went up for the blessing too.  My pastor stressed that staff should come up too.  I'm in desperate need of workplace blessings, so up I went.

To an outsider, my job might look easy.  And as my grandmother might have reminded us all, it sure beats digging ditches in the heat.  But these days, as budgets shrink, it's not as easy as it once was.  Struggling to keep enough classes for our teachers is not as joyful as trying to find good adjuncts to teach the extra classes we once had to add because of demand that once we thought would never be filled.

So, yes, bless me please.  Pray over me please.  I've got plenty of work ahead as the invisible hospice chaplain of my department and my school.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Thinking about Marriage, as Sanctified and Sacrament, on my Anniversary

I've always felt that Martin Luther got rid of too many sacraments; I'd add marriage back as a sacrament, if I was solely in charge of the Lutheran world.

A sacrament is more than a symbol.  A sacrament is a way we see a visible sign of God's invisible grace, a tangible object that points us to the ineffable.

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.

Understand is probably too strong a word. In some ways, we can never understand the scope of love, either the love we have for each other or the love God has for us.

And I know that there are so many ways that marriage can go wrong.  My church has 2 sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist.  Those do not have the potential for going wrong in the ways that marriages do.  So, maybe Martin Luther knew what he was doing.   Still, for those of us in loving relationships, it's worth thinking about how those relationships strengthen both us and our societies.  It's worth thinking about how we can do more to support people in long-term relationships.    How might we transform our marriages and long-term relationships if we viewed our partners as sacramental elements?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sunday Snippets

--The NPR show On Being offered a rebroadcast of the Roseanne Cash interview.  It's an uplifting treat.  Go here to listen, to read the transcripts, to enjoy the extras.

--An interesting article in The New York Times explores the legacy of Lutheran thought in Germany's approach to austerity and bailing out its neighbors: 

"And it is true that Lutheranism is hardly the only social force alive in Germany today. Yet it is of a piece with the country’s two millenniums of history, filled as it is with redemptive self-sacrifice and bootstrapping. In the fourth century A.D., German warriors controlled virtually every senior military post in the Roman army. Later, Germans turned the wilds of northern Central Europe into a bountiful breadbasket — and, most recently, an industrial machine.

What’s more, Lutheranism survived both right-wing Nazism and left-wing Communism, both of which tried to replace its values with their own. If anything, its resilience comes to the fore when challenged by change."

--Yesterday, our Vacation Bible School adult leader group gathered at a bowling alley to celebrate our accomplishments and enjoy fellowship.  Most of them are teachers in the public school system.  When we did our VBS stint, they were all at the beginnings of their summers.  Now, they're all returning to work.  The summer has zipped by.

--But even though the summer has zipped by, there's still time for summer pleasures.  I'm working on a photo essay to run August 18-23 that reminds us of summer pleasures to enjoy with autumn joys to anticipate. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hospice Chaplain Week

I have written before about using hospice chaplain skills at work, most recently here and here.  This has been a humdinger of a week for my hospice chaplain self:  colleagues having various stresses, students in distress, all the rumors of worse days to come.

Along the way, I've been reminded that things could be worse.  I listened to interviews with David Rakoff who died this week (go here), who suffered with a tough cancer before succumbing to it.  And he's my age.  Yikes.

Suddenly, my complaints about my physical self seem whiny.  My worries about my spouse's sciatica shrink into perspective.

I've had other reminders of my good fortune this week too.  I've been working with a student who comes from a severely disadvantaged background.  Once again, I'm staggered to realize how much the simple things I took for granted are not a given, even here in the U.S.:  having parents who will buy you glasses, having an elementary school who will make sure you leave equipped with basic literacy, all those sorts of items that shoot a child so much further down the road to adulthood.

I weep at the unfairness.  As I told my colleague, I've been weeping at this injustice since I was old enough to realize that these inequities exist.

I so often want to sit down to have a conversation with God.  I might be brave enough to say, "This free will?  Do you really think it's such a good idea?  We make such bad choices!"  I might want to say, "Why isn't the world redeemed yet?"

But I would never say that last thing to God.  I know that God would say, "It's not up to me alone.  Get to work, gal."

This week, I'm weary, so weary.  The work of transformation seems so large.  I want to believe that I can be the yeast, that small seeds will sprout and grow into mustard plants.  I miss the weeks where I actually see the sturdy trees that have grown from seeds we sprouted long ago.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Rustic, Rugged Joys of Lutherock

A week ago, we'd have been making the drive from Jacksonville, Florida to the high mountains of North Carolina.  My spouse had a meeting at 2:00 at Lutherock, the Lutheran church camp near Newland, NC.  For more on that drive, see today's post on my creativity blog.

I was excited to go along because I've never been to Lutherock.  I've spent a lot of time at Lutheridge, the church camp near Asheville, NC.  Lutherock is very different.  The campers have a much more rustic experience. 

For example, instead of eating in a dining hall, they eat in this structure:

We never made it to the tents, but I imagined they were like the Girl Scout camps I've seen:  permanent platforms with huge, permanent canvas tents, structures that sleep 8-12 children and a counselor.

I might say "Summer Camp," and you might think of arts and crafts or music camp or canoes on a gentle lake.  Campers at Lutherock do much more rugged activities:

We hiked up a steep hill to get to this structure.  There's a different path that leads to a rock climbing experience, but it's been many years since I scrambled hand over ankle to get up a trail.  We decided not to try that one.  Heck, we didn't even do much more on this path than stare up at this Alpine Tower:

I must confess that I spent most of my time rocking on the porch at the retreat center:

The retreat center at Lutherock is much less rustic.  Of course, it's also much newer:

The surrounding environment is much more rural and rustic at Lutherock.  There's not a WalMart for miles.  The Newland grocery store is not a national chain.  The roads to get to Lutherock wind and twist.  At Lutheridge, you drive up I26, take the exit, make 2 right turns and you're there.  It's hard to find a view that doesn't include something humanmade.  Not so, at Lutherock.  Here's the view from the porch:

To be honest, I did spend a lot of time looking at the beautiful flower beds.  But they're planted with native flowers:

And there's the occasional Christmas tree farm off in the distance.  But I prefer to see Christmas trees in their youth to the neon signs of a crasser commercialism.