Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 4, 2012:

First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 24

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6a

Gospel: John 11:32-44

What a very strange week it’s been for so many of us. We went from the experience of Reformation Sunday straight into Hurricane Sandy—then Halloween and now All Saints Day. And even before the tumult of this week, many of us have still not recovered from the tumult of past years: job loss and continued wars and other storms and all the catastrophes that can strike our individual lives in the form of sickness and death and other losses.

Even in years when we aren’t surrounded by constant examples of how short our time here can be, All Saints Day comes around to remind us. We don’t have long on this side of the grave. It’s a good festival to take some time to think about what we’d like to get done while we’re still here.

Today is a high festival day that celebrates the saints that have come before us. Alas, in many Lutheran churches, we don't celebrate the long line of saints that Catholics do; most Protestants who observe All Saints Day mark the lives of those gone in the past year. Perhaps as we continue to reform the church, we should move back to a broader understanding of saints as the entire community of Christians.

It’s a good time to think about those who have gone before us. You might spend some time on this feast day thinking about the great saints who have helped to form Christianity through the centuries. How can we be more like them? For what would we like to be remembered in future centuries?

If you have relatives and friends who have served as models of a life well lived, this would be a good time to write a note. We won’t be here forever. Write to them now, while they’re still here and you still remember. On a future All Saints Sunday, you might light a candle in their memory. But in the meantime, you can tell them how much they have meant to you.

In many cultures, this feast day becomes a family time. Think of the Mexican tradition of taking picnics to the graveyard. Now would be a good time to record your family memories. Write them down while you still remember. Make a video. Assemble those records.

But we should also use this All Saints Day to look forward. For many people, this day is bittersweet. We’re reminded of our losses. It’s hard to think of transformation.

But dream a little on this All Saints Sunday. If you could create a new life out of the threads that you have, what would you weave? Or would you start again, with different yarns and textures? What is your dream of a renewed life?

Jesus invites us to be part of a Resurrection Culture. We may not always understand how that will work. Some years the taste of ash and salt water seem so pervasive that we may despair of ever tending fruitful gardens of our lives again. But Jesus promises that death will not have the final word.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Response

Despite the threat of Hurricane Sandy, we proceeded with our plans to join my parents and my sister's family at my parents' place in Williamsburg.  And despite the first rain bands of Sandy, we went to my parents' church to celebrate Reformation Sunday.

During the church announcements, the pastor reminded everyone that the church had a gas stove and that, as with Hurricane Irene, the church would be available to people.  He reminded people of the wonderful time of fellowship that they'd had with that hurricane:  people arrived to cook the contents of their freezers, which they shared.  While people cooked, they also read, played games, and talked. 

I found myself heartened by this vision of congregants gathering together.  And yet, I also found myself wishing that it didn't take a storm to bring us together in this way.

I know that the days to come will bring us many challenges, especially if we suffered direct impact.  But even if we didn't, there will still be needs that the rest of us can help meet.  If you don't know where to start, the American Red Cross has always been very good at getting resources to where they are needed--today is a good day to make a donation.  ELCA Lutherans have also traditionally done a great job; go here for more information.

Even if we can't spare any money, we can pray.  It's a huge storm, and victims will need our prayers for months to come.  We can pray for the government officials who will need to make decisions.  We can pray for utility workers who will work themselves to exhaustion in the weeks to come.  We can pray for those who have lost everything.  We can pray for those who must make repairs.

We might even send cards, so that people know that we're praying for them.  I remember week after week of clean up and repair after Hurricane Wilma.  One day, we got a prayer shawl from a church in Oklahoma with a card that said they were praying for us.

I cried.  From a distance of 7 years, I'm a bit embarrassed to admit how much it meant to me to know that a church many states away held us in their prayers.  But it meant a lot.  It didn't magically remove the damaged carpet or fix the holes in the roof.  But that knowledge gave me the sustenance to carry on a few more days.  And then a few more days after that.  And then month after month.

So, give money or give prayers or whatever unique opportunities you may have to be of service.  And then, pray a bit more.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Christians and Halloween

Now that we're done with Reformation Sunday, it's time to wrestle with the questions posed by Halloween.  A year ago, I wrote this post for the Living Lutheran site.  I'll post some chunks from it for your reading pleasure below:

"And those of us with a social justice conscience must ask ourselves: Is the best use of our money? Even if you celebrate simply, you’ll likely spend a bundle on candy to give out to trick-or-treaters."

"We could make our decorations. Instead of buying strings of orange lights that come from China, we could buy pumpkins from the local congregation that uses the pumpkin patch to fund education programs, and we could support local farmers when we buy mums, which last until the poinsettias make an appearance."

"As the shadows deepen and the Northern Hemisphere moves to a darker part of the year, we see people battling the gathering gloom by carving pumpkins and lighting candles.

The ghosts of the pagan customs that remain in the way we celebrate Halloween show a yearning to believe that death is not the final answer.

The good news contained in our Christian Gospels reassures us that death will not have the final word."

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ways to Celebrate the Reformation

I first wrote this post several years ago. I think it's worth another look. I thought I'd run it today, Reformation Sunday.  You can celebrate today or wait until October 31, Reformation Day itself. 

How to Celebrate the Reformation

I'm biased. I think the best way to celebrate Reformation Sunday is to go to your local Lutheran church, sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," and celebrate the Eucharist. Then you could come home, listen to Garrison Keillor's show (if your local NPR station rebroadcasts it at lunch, as mine does), drink some German beer, and take a nap.

Even when I wasn't a member of a church, I've always been intently aware of the liturgical season and the holidays that the Church celebrates. I grew up in a Lutheran family that went to church every time the doors were open--and that included when we were on vacation. So those rhythms imprinted themselves into my brain.

I love to celebrate, and I love that I have additional things to celebrate by being liturgical. But I know that not everyone is good at creating celebrations.

So, for those of you who are on your own this Reformation Sunday, here are some things you can do to celebrate.

--Go to a German restaurant and eat a German meal. Think about Martin Luther, who ate this food. Drink a German beer. Think about Martin Luther, who was not inhibited about the earthly delights.

--As you're drinking that German beer, write your own hymns. Not a musician, you say? Use popular drinking songs as your base! Lutheran legend has it that some of our greatest hymns have tunes that originated as drinking songs. So, the melody is already created for you--write a hymn.

--Not in a songwriting mood? Write your own 95 theses. What do you see as wrong with the Church? Do you have any suggestions? Extra points if you can back them up with Scripture.

--One of the Church's actions that outraged Luther was the selling of indulgences, which he saw as victimizing the poor. We like to think that the modern church has moved beyond the selling of indulgences, but history suggests that we're fooling ourselves. In what ways do you see the Church selling indulgences? Another way of thinking about this question: in what ways does the Church abuse its power?

--If you want to follow in the footsteps of Luther, indulge in some guilt. Luther held himself to some stringent standards, especially in his early life. Think about all the ways you've let God down--and then remember Luther's teaching about grace, and feel better.

--Read the Bible. Rejoice in the fact that you can read it in your own language. Thank Luther for being one of the earliest translators of the Bible into the common language.

--You don't want to worship at a Lutheran church today? Go to a Catholic church. Remind yourself of where you'd be if Luther hadn't started the Reformation.

I'm being a bit facetious with this one. I know that if there had been no Luther, there'd have been others to lead us down the Reformation road.

And in all seriousness, one of my most memorable Reformation Sundays was spent with a Lutheran friend and an Episcopalian friend during our retreat at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery. We got in touch with Christian roots that are much more ancient than the roots that we usually celebrate during Reformation Sunday.

And another memorable Reformation Sunday was spent on a South Carolina beach with some of my best friends from graduate school. We had a reunion on one of the barrier islands in 2006, 16 years after the last time we'd been together in South Carolina. One friend was raised Southern Baptist and has gone on to find joy in a Unitarian church, but at the time she thought she wanted nothing to do with church. My other friend was very active in her local Church of England congregation, but she felt strongly called to become a Quaker. And I was part of a Lutheran congregation that left me desperate for more spiritual nourishment. We spent that Reformation Sunday talking about our spiritual struggles and our desire to find a group where we felt more at home.

I'm rather startled to reflect that each one of us has found her heart's desire. I give credit to the Reformation process of being able to talk about what we yearn for, about where the Church has fallen short, about being able to have a vision for the future.

Our Reformation Sunday Gospel finds Jesus promising that we will know the truth and the truth shall set us free. The truth can be terrifying and send us hurtling down paths that seem dark and dangerous. At times we may not know whether we're heretics or whether we're struggling to birth something new and inspiring. If we keep ourselves rooted in church traditions, we're less likely to flirt with the heretical. Yet, as the life of Luther reminds us, sometimes there are traditions that have gone completely rotten.

On this Reformation Sunday, I pray for us all to renew the Church the way that Luther did. I pray that God will show us the truth. I pray for us to be set free.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Of Anniversaries, Radical Love, and Sacrament

My parents celebrate their anniversary today: 50 years together!

I think about their marriage as an example of radical hope.  The days leading up to their wedding were also the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). My dad was a young officer in the Air Force, and up until just about the moment they got married, they weren't sure if my dad would actually be there, or if he might be called back to his unit. In later years, as I've realized how close to nuclear war the world came during that month, I'm amazed that they actually pulled it off--I'm amazed that we're all still here.

My mom and dad have only recently begun to talk about their wedding in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I can't imagine my mom, as a young bride-to-be, planning the last details of her wedding, while watching world leaders huff and puff. She's rarely talked about that.

I can imagine how I would feel: terrified. I might wonder what would be the point of marrying and pretending that life would go on as normal.

And yet, here we are, 50 years later, with life going on as normal. If my parents had cancelled their wedding and lived as if nuclear bombs would rain down at any moment, they'd have spent 50 years living that way. They'd have missed out on the joy of marriage and raising two children. They'd have had no grandson (my sister's boy). They wouldn't have travelled or gone to back to school or had all the joys they've had.

I, too, have been haunted by the prospect of nuclear war, as have many people of my generation and older generations. I've noticed that younger generations just look at me, baffled, when I ask if they worry about the possibility of nuclear war.

Oddly, they're probably more at risk than I ever was. At least when the Soviet Union was intact, we knew where the nuclear weapons were. Now, many of them have vanished--but we know they're out there, somewhere.

In the meantime, I hope that we can all continue to make gestures of wild hope, during these tough times, the way my parents did, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. What would that wild gesture of hope look like, in this time of global warming and pandemic flu?

Love is always such a gesture. To commit to another person, to love others, even though you know they will disappoint you in ways that you can't even imagine--that's a radical act of life-affirming hope. We love, even though we know that all we love will be lost if we live long enough. Even if we don't have the dramatic backdrop of a international standoff that would likely end in nuclear war, to commit to love in the face of all that would erode that love is a such a bold act.

And since this is my theology blog, let me remind us that our best example of married love points us to the love that God has for us; in fact, in some traditions, marriage is a sacrament for just that very reason.

I feel profoundly grateful to my parents for demonstrating the benefits of married love.  I feel grateful to my church for finally widening the marriage circle to include same sex couples who are deeply committed.  I feel that miraculous relief to realize that God loves me in similar ways to my spouse:  both God, my spouse, and my parents have seen me at my worst, and they love me anyway--and more, they believe that I can be better.  And through that belief, I am able to move towards becoming a better human.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The Narrative Lectionary Reading for Sunday, October 28, 2012:

1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:27-30, 41-43

Luke 19:45-46
    King David wants to build a temple, but God doesn't want a temple, so David doesn't.  Here we are, a generation later, and Solomon builds a temple.

We might ask ourselves why humans want to pour so many resources into a building.  Psychologists would likely tell us that its our desire for permanence or maybe it's our desire for safety.  Creativity theorists would tell us that humans have always had these kind of projects; what could be better than a building to design and decorate?

Solomon stops to consider where the nation of Israel has been and what the temple represents.  What interests me most about his prayer is this passage from 1 Kings 8:  "41 ‘Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name 42—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, 43then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built."

I find this idea of the foreigner interesting.  Who is likely to be a foreigner to our churches and temples today?  Someone from a distant land?  Or the people who drive past the buildings every day?

I've been thinking of this NPR story which reports on the actual religious practices of U.S. residents, half of whom say they attend a religious service weekly.  But when researchers look at what people actually do, they found that only 25% actually attend.

In our time, foreigners are likely to be our neighbors.  We might ask ourselves what our buildings tell those foreigners as they zoom by.  Perhaps that idea explains the magnificence of some religious buildings.

We might also ask ourselves what the activities that occur in the church building tell the foreigner.  What values are we promoting through our activities?

We might also ask ourselves what happens should a foreigner actually attend one of our services.  Would they feel welcome?  Would they be able to follow the service?  Will they feel the Divine presence in our midst?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What We Say, and How We Actually Practice Our Faith

Yesterday, NPR ran a great story on what we say about our religious practices and what we actually do.  Below, I've quoted from the story, but it's worth hearing the whole thing.

People in the U.S. report significantly more church attendance than people in other countries:  "You know, by any measure, as you point out, the United States is a significant outlier when it comes to how religious people say they are. You know, virtually alone in the developed world, large numbers of Americans report that they are indentified with a religious faith. Nearly half of all Americans report that they attend church every week - that's every single week, compared to Western Europe, for example, where maybe about 20 percent of people say they attend church."

If you're like me, you go to a church where every attendee can have a whole pew.  And maybe you attend a church where there are many pews left empty.  If all these people go to church, where are they on Sunday morning?

Yes, maybe they go to churches that are more popular than my Lutheran church.

Or maybe the flaw is that these studies are based on people's self-reporting.  And we all know how wrong we can be when we rely on people to tell us honestly what they do.

Yesterday's story posits that maybe people are actually answering a different question:  "The question that asks how often do you attend becomes a question like: Are the sort of person who attends? The respondent hears the question how often do you attend and interprets the question to be: Are you the sort of person who attends?"

You can approach the question of attendance from a different angle and have people keep an activity log or have them take you through their week.  And when you look at activity logs, only 24% of Americans actually attended a religious service last week, according to the researchers in the NPR story.

So, should we be happy about the fact that people think that they want to be people who go to church?  Should we be happy that people still see church activity as something worthy of time?

For me, though, the more important question soon emerges:  how could we make our churches into a place where people actually want to go, not just a place where people think they should want to go?

I suspect I'll spend the rest of my life pondering this question.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 28, 2012:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm: Psalm 46

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28

Gospel: John 8:31-36

Here we are at another Reformation Sunday. As we celebrate the actions of Martin Luther centuries ago, you may be wondering what we’re experiencing right here.

Maybe you’re in an angry space; maybe you’re saying, “Hey, I have some theses of my own that I’d like to nail to a nearby church door.” It’s been a tough few years for many of us, as we’ve watched our denominations wrestle with various issues.

Maybe you feel that the Church should move more quickly towards fully embracing the idea of same-sex marriage. Or maybe you feel it’s all moving too quickly. Maybe you despair and imagine God asking, “So, enough of these sexuality issues. What are you doing as a church to eliminate childhood hunger?”

Maybe you feel a bit of despair this Reformation Sunday as you think about the Reformations you thought you were witnessing. Maybe you’re wondering what happened to all that reform. Not too long ago, we might have thought that technology would transform us—or maybe we were ancient-future folks, hoping for more contemplative elements in our services, more praying of the liturgy of the hours, more pre-Reformation elements.

Maybe you’re feeling irritated as you wish we could just go back to being the church that we were in the 1950’s, before so many denominations lost their way. Maybe you’re tired of being the only one at work who’s living a liturgical life.

Or maybe you’re feeling joy. Maybe you’re delighting in hearing about different kinds of intentional communities. Maybe you’re seeing a different way to do Christian education which inspires hope for the next generation of believers. Maybe you’re feeling your creativity enhanced by your spiritual practices, or maybe it’s your spiritual life that’s enhanced by your artistic practices.

No matter where you are this Reformation Sunday, take comfort from the knowledge that the Church has always been in the process of Reformation. There are great Reformations, like the one we'll celebrate this Sunday, or the Pentecostal revolution that's only 100 years old, but has transformed the developing world (third worlds and those slightly more advanced) in ways that Capitalism never could. There are smaller ones throughout the ages as well. Movements which seemed earth-shattering at the time (monastic movements of all kinds, liberation theology, ordination of women, lay leadership) may in time come to be seen as something that enriches the larger church. Even gross theological missteps, like the Inquisition, can be survived. The Church learns from past mistakes as it moves forward.

Times of Reformation can enrich us all. Even those of us who reject reform can find our spiritual lives enriched as we take stock and measure what's important to us, what compromises we can make and what we can't. It's good to have these times where we return to the Scriptures as we try to hear what God calls us to do.

Once the dust settles, each of the previous time periods of Reformation has left the Church enriched, but enriched in ways that no one could have predicted--that's what makes it scary, after all. As we approach Reformation Sunday, I'd encourage each of us to tap our own inner Martin Luther. What is the Church doing well? What could be changed for the better? What part can we play?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Back from a Quick Trip to Camp

We are back from one of our mad dashes to a Lutheran camp and back again:  12 hours in the car, 36 hours at camp, 12 hours back in the car. When I put it that way, it does seem insane. I return home both tired and refreshed.

Why do we do this to ourselves, you ask?  My spouse is on the board of trustees which oversees several church camps; we travel for his meetings. 

But we also travel because it's good to get away, even if only for a short time.  We have time to talk in a way that we don't when we're immersed in regular life.

It's good to see a different landscape.  Beautiful as my South Florida surroundings are, I'm happy to see mountains and autumn leaves and apple orchards.

But most of all, it's good to get away to church camps and to remind ourselves of all the ways that church camps have nourished generations of believers.  It's good to give back by serving on the board. 

Of course, it's also good to allow ourselves to be sustained by our return to camp.  I spent time walking and enjoying the sacred spots that have been planted there:  the cross by the lake, the chapel on the top of the hill, the labyrinth where once there was a tennis court.  The fact that these spots are in the middle of more nature than I usually see in a given day/week/month makes them even sweeter.

I also had time to read, a spiritual discipline that I miss the most.  I am still deep in Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. How wonderful to spend the week-end with Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy. I had gotten to the point in the book where each writer has become somewhat (or very, in Merton's case) successful and has to wrestle with how to live the best writer's life, while staying true to their Catholic calling and their vision of their best lives. They also must wrestle with the physical limitations imposed by a body (O'Connor's lupus, Percy's TB).

It was great to read this book at Lutheridge. I'd read a bit, go walk the labyrinth, read some more, walk up to the chapel--it's a delightful way to meander through a book.

Like other church institutions, church camps face a very different landscape than they once did.  They, too, wrestle with decisions that may lead them to a brighter future, but through very uncertain steps.  On our way back, my spouse and I had many a conversation about this, and I'm working on a more developed blog post for later.

I still dream of my own retreat center, even as I know it's a folly of an idea.  These organized camps are facing uncertain futures, even with so many resources behind them and years of tradition that have led to so many devoted supporters.  Who am I to think that I could do better?

I do think that in the years to come, retreat centers and camps will be increasingly important to an increasingly frazzled population.  I know they are to me.  I'm hoping we find ways to let more people know about what a great resource they are.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Yearning for Hope: Disconnected from Debates

Tonight is the night of the last presidential debate, but I will not be watching.  I have a guilty confession, although you may find it strange that I feel guilt when disclosing: I am deeply disconnected from this year's election.

Once I couldn't get enough. I not only watched the debates, but I taped them and made my students watch them.  I loved the debates and all the post-debate analysis, those written by my students and those written by the professionals.  In past election years, not only did I watch the debates, but I engaged in countless hours of debate myself.

Part of it is that I fall asleep early these days, especially if the T.V. that we're watching is boring. But part of it is a different kind of weariness. I'm just not interested in politics as blood sport anymore.

Once I felt that candidates wanted to win, not simply for the sake of winning, but because they had dreams of how to make the country better. I may not have agreed with those dreams, but at least I could have told you what they were.

Yes, I will still vote. No worries there. I know how many women struggled for so many years (centuries!) to secure this right for me. I understand how the choices affect me. At the very least, the president will make some Supreme Court decisions. At the most, the president will lead us in a certain direction and make sure to get things done.

I feel like a bad citizen. I feel like a pale version of myself.  I also feel like the candidates are pale versions of not only themselves, but the leaders our nation needs.

Maybe my detachment a healthy development. It's good to remember that it's bad to bet on one human to save us. It's early for Advent, but I remember the words of John the Baptist: "I am not the Messiah." I find it comforting to say those words when my to-do list overwhelms me.

Perhaps those words will be comforting now. These men are not the messiah, no matter how much we'd like them to be our saviors.

Just as it's unhealthy for women to expect that a handsome prince will come along to transform them and sweep them off to the palace, it's unhealthy for us to expect that politicians can save us. We each have a significant amount of work to do in our own communities, just as those running for national office will have a significant amount to do on the national level.

So maybe my disconnected attitude is not as disastrous as I worry it might be. I'm not disconnected from the woes of the nation, after all.

And I'm willing to be happily surprised, to be astonished out of my apathy about national politics. I'm ready to be jolted by hope.

But it's time to stop looking in the wrong places.  I don't need to wait for a political season to be jolted into hope.  Every Sunday as I participate in the Eucharistic wonder, I can remember the central message of Christianity:  this fallen world is redeemable, and that salvation is underway!

If politicians could channel just a smidge of that kind of hope, perhaps I wouldn't be disconnected in the way I am this year.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Great Resource for Living a Spiritual Life

I have spent the last several months reading A Spiritual Life:  Perspectives from Poets, Prophets, and Preachers (edited by Allan Hugh Cole Jr.).  It's a wonderful book of essays written from a variety of Christian perspectives.  The reason that it took me several months is that it's easy to dip in and out of, and also, I didn't want it to end.

There are famous writers here, like Gail Godwin and Lauren F. Winner, but the not-famous writers deliver inspirational work too.  Many of these essayists have a lifetime of working in Christian fields, like ministry and theological education, while others come from more ecumenical fields, like psychology.  There was not one essay that I disliked, and that's rare for a book of essays.

Most of the essays are rooted in the spiritual experiences of the writer and in the larger cultural and historical landscape.  Some of them have a self-help angle, which I didn't find offputting.  Many are analytical, but with a warmth that one doesn't always find in analytical essays.

This book is a great companion for your spiritual journey.  As we head into the dark winter months, it's good to have this kind of companion.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"But the greater dying to self, I believe, comes when I have no understanding at all of another person's repellent behavior or character traits.  There are no doubt always reasons driving such behaviors, but I need not have access to those reasons to live in greater acceptance and kindness toward difficult people" ("Habits of a Whole Heart" by Marjorie J. Thompson, page 58).

"Divine love is demanding beyond my capacity and generous beyond my prayers.  My best hope in life and death is to lose my futile battle for security and control, surrendering freely and with deep relief to the love of God until 'it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me' (Gal. 2:20)" ("Habits of a Whole Heart" by Marjorie J. Thompson, page 63).

"The academic life enriches and nearly destroys the spiritual life.  Few people have tried to probe and understand this because it is not an easy dynamic to grasp and appreciate" ("Theological Protest and the Spiritual Life" by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, p. 167). 

"But now, Nouwen was complexifying my understanding of monasticism.  He noted that monasteries were, from perhaps our angle of vision, marginal places, places on the edge of relevance.  But, he went on, from another angle of vision monasteries--where monks prayed constantly through the hours of the day--were in fact at the very center of the world and the reason that the world was still intact.  The world, he suggested, was held together by the ongoing diligence of Christian prayer" ("Practicing Spirituality in the Middle" by Theodore J. Wardlaw, p. 198).  

"I have the highest regard for Benedictine monks who tithe the hours" ("Spiritual Ill-Discipline" by Michael L. Lindvall, p. 246).  

"As Rabbi Abraham Heschel suggested, we should keep Sabbath as a constant reminder that God created the world and that God can handle the world for twenty-four (or maybe even forty-eight hours) without our help.  Furthermore, my wife Lazetta insists that I should keep Sabbath since there has been no expansion in the Trinity.  God is God, and God can handle things while we rest" ("Sanctification and Proclamation" by Brad R. Braxton, p. 238).  

A quote from Thomas Merton:  "There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence . . . [and that is] activism and overwork.  . . . To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence" (quoted in "Sanctification and Proclamation" by Brad R. Braxton, p. 238).

Friday, October 19, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The reading for Sunday, October 21, 2012

2 Samuel 7:1-17

optional additional reading:  Luke 1:30-33

 In the reading for today, we see some echoes of modern arguments.  Is it better to have a church building or is it better to be out in the world, a mobile temple?  Are we more likely to meet those who need the Good News in our churches or in our coffee shops?  

Those of us who have served on church councils can attest to the trouble of having a church building.  Buildings require so much money and care.  It's easy spend more time talking about what to do about the issues that the building presents than we do about the issues that affect parishioners.  

And more than the issue of time is the issue of money.  For every dollar that we spend on insurance and the roof and the multiple HVAC units, that's less money that we have to spend on resources like curriculum for Bible study, on musical instruments, on leaders and staff.  For every dollar that we spend on the building, that's less money that we have to donate to the poor of our communities.  

So, what do we do?  Sell the building?  That decision would bring more complications.   For many local churches, the building is a resource handed down to us.  We may not have chosen it, but it is a resource for us to manage.  Maybe we manage it by sharing it with communities that don't have a similar gift but need space.  Maybe we manage it by using it to store food, clothes, and other resources for the needy.  There are any number of ways to deal with a building.  

But the heart of today's reading goes far beyond a worship space.   In today's reading, we also see how old is the issue of the best way to honor God.

Do we honor God by having a sumptuous structure?  Or do we honor God by the activities that we host in the structure?   Or are there better ways to honor God, ways that exist outside of the structure altogether?  

Today's reading gives us a hint of what God might value, and it's not the building.  We see that God has been present no matter how transient the population has been.  God will join us where we are.  

We see a God who's thinking generations ahead.  We see a promise of a kingdom of a different sort.  

So, perhaps instead of thinking about the building, we should be about building for future generations.  What kind of faith formation can we do as a church that will equip future generations for what they will face?  

What kind of dynasty are we building in our churches? 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Feast Day of St. Luke

Today is the feast day of St. Luke.  Many of us remember Luke as a physician--today is a great day to assess our health and to use St. Luke as an inspiration for improvement.

I wrote a full essay over at the Living Lutheran website; go here to read it.

Here's a quote to whet your appetite: 

"Luke is famous as the writer of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, but it’s important to realize that he likely didn’t see himself as writing straight history. He was maintaining a record of amazing events that showed evidence of God’s salvation.

It’s far too easy to ignore evidence of God’s presence in the world. We get bogged down in our own disappointments and our deeper depressions. But we could follow the example of Luke and write down events that we see in our own lives and the life of our congregations that remind us of God’s grace. Even if it’s a practice as simple as a gratitude journal where each day we write down several things for which we’re grateful, we can write our way back to right thinking."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 21, 2012:

Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91:9-16

You have made the LORD your refuge, and the Most High your habitation. (Ps. 91:9)

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

Imagine being one of the 12 disciples; imagine the possible rivalries. Every so often, as with this Sunday’s Gospel, we see the very human side of the disciples.

Most of us, from the time we are little children, we want to be loved best in all the world. Unfortunately, many events happen to convince us that love is rare, and that if one person is loved, it means we must be loved less. Humans tend to see love as finite and to feel like there’s not enough to go around.

If Jesus was a different kind of leader, he might have decided to pit the disciples against each other, so that he could feed his own ego watching them compete for his favor. Those of you from dysfunctional families or Machiavellian workplaces have probably seen this technique in use.

Happily, we don’t worship that kind of God. We might expect Jesus to be a leader of comfort and compassion. We might expect Jesus to figure out a way to respond so that everyone gets to feel good about themselves and be assured that Jesus loves them all exactly the same.

We don’t worship that kind of God either.

Jesus reminds them that they don’t know what they’re asking. Again and again, Jesus tells his disciples, and centuries of believers to come, that the last will be first. Again and again, Jesus stresses that we're here to serve. Following Jesus isn't about self-empowerment. We don't follow Jesus because we hope to become rich. Other religions, like Capitalism, might make that promise, but not Christianity. Christianity is NOT just a big self-improvement program.

Sure, we might become better people, but not by the route that the larger world offers us. Christ tells us that we fulfill our destiny by serving others. It goes against most everything else we've ever learned. We're not supposed to look out for number one? We're not supposed to be most concerned about ourselves and our families? No, we're not.

You might feel as much despair over the need to have a servant’s heart as you did by last Sunday’s Gospel about giving away all our wealth. But here again, we can change our trajectory by taking small steps.

Think about how the world would change if each believer did one servant act each day. Maybe it could be something as easy as a smile for your beleaguered colleagues. Maybe you could resolve to believe the best of the people in charge. Maybe you could go through your day as the monks do, offering prayers for the world periodically throughout the day.

And then you can move on to slightly bigger projects. Tip 5% more than you ordinarily do. One Sunday a week, increase your offering. Clean up messes even if they aren’t yours.

As you move through the following weeks, ask God to soften your heart to become a heart dedicated to service. Maybe you’ll feel called to do a community clean up. Maybe you’ll work on community issues to bring more parks and green space to your community. Maybe you’ll work with Habitat for Humanity, or any number of deserving charities. Maybe at some point, we’ll move out into an even wider world by helping citizens in other countries.

Who knows where this path may lead? But we know that Christ calls us to follow it. By imitating Christ, we can change ourselves, and in the process, we can change the world.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Picking Up the Employment Pieces

Our justice group (BOLD Justice) will be focusing on jobs and 3rd grade reading levels this year.  We focused on those 2 issues last year, but decided that they needed more attention.

At our church group on Sunday, we talked about our experiences with unemployment, and I was staggered by how this economic recession has shattered so many people.  One woman saw her journalism career undone.  Her story reminds me of what I think is coming for academia.

Before I go much further, let me answer the protests that always arise at the idea of the loss of full-time jobs in academia. I don't think that higher education is going to disappear anytime soon, although the changes are coming quickly now. I think there will be jobs for people like me, people with a Ph.D. in English. But I think that those jobs will be part-time. We've seen a serious erosion of tenure-track jobs in the last 10-20 years. As people retire, those people are replaced by part-time people.

I've said numerous times that I feel like I'm a newspaper journalist, and it's 2000 or an autoworker, and it's 1977.  I'm seeing my industry being decimated, and it's probably time to make alternate plans.

Maybe I can keep a step or two ahead of these developments. But it's time to think about other possibilities, which leads me to thinking about what to do, should academia move to the margins.

I think back to conversations I've had with friends who have known me for a long time. A few years ago, at Mepkin Abbey, one of my Charleston friends said, "You've talked about becoming a spiritual director for a long time now. Maybe it's time to pursue that with more focus."

Another friend recently told me, "You've mentioned hospice work a lot lately. Maybe it's time to contact some hospice people just to see what kind of jobs would be available."

I've always assumed I would need to be ordained to be a hospice chaplain. In my Lutheran tradition, to be ordained would require 4 years of school that I would pay for, at least most of it. So, barring some really good scholarships, I'd be looking at roughly $60,000-$80,000, I think. And that's without counting the cost of relocating.

My conversation with my friend reminds me that ordination may not be necessary.  It would be interesting to know.

And there's always teaching. I'm not opposed to academia, just unwilling to count on academia alone. I'd love to do more teaching of poetry, especially if I could combine it with teaching of spiritual disciplines (a class on Writing Poetry, Writing Prayer anyone?).

As I told my friend on Friday, I feel like I have a lot of different pieces that could end up working together, but right now, I am unsure of how/when it will all come together.

Yesterday, it occurs to me that in 3 years, I'll be 50 years old. I'd like to have these pieces in place by the time I'm 50. Of course, if a different set of pieces assemble out of my discernment process, that will be O.K. too. But I'd like to be ever more intentional over the next 3 years.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Praying for Children

One reason why I sang on my way home Friday night was to keep from sinking into despair about the children I'd just met and children around the world.

I spent Friday hearing about the girl in Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban because she spoke up about the importance of education for girls.  It's disgusting, shooting little children.  What a bunch of bullies.

I try to be inspired by her bravery, but I spend more time fighting off despair that we can't stop people who would shoot others in the head.

Likewise, on Friday night, I tried to feel happy about how many children spent their Friday night in church; I tried not to think about how the odds are stacked against them. 

I thought about how young most of them are:  between the ages of 5 and 8.  I thought about my own little nephew who is six.  He lives in a good school district in Maryland.  The Friday night children do not.  My nephew has parents who will help him stay on track and relatives who care about him and will help his parents.  I suspect the Friday night children aren't all that lucky.

As I drove home, I saw a sheriff's car pull over to talk to the three kids who were running in and out of traffic.  I think they may have been trying to sell something.  The cop got out of the car, and the three kids dropped what they had in their hands and put their hands up. 

On the one hand, I thought, good, they won't get shot.  On the other hand, it kind of broke my heart.

I'm glad I had to stop at a red light so that I could observe what happened next.  The cop talked to them and put them at ease.  He talked about how what they were doing wasn't safe.  And then the light changed, and I drove on.

On Sunday at church, our justice group met.  We will continue to work on improving 3rd grade reading scores.  Perhaps that will help give a chance to kids like the ones on Friday night.  My spouse and I will continue to look for ways to help.

And of course, I will continue to pray.  It's important to remember that God has more power than I do.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Friday Night Drums

Last night, I helped my spouse who was invited to a Lutheran church to lead their youth in a drumming workshop.  The night had its roots in a workshop that we helped with back in September of 2009; see this post for more on that experience.

I've said before how grateful that I am that we have such a wide variety of percussion instruments (well, instruments of all kinds):  2 djembes, a doumbek, several shakers, and several small drums.  We borrowed some drums and a tambourine from our church, and we were set.  My spouse brought his violin and an electric keyboard and showed how even a non-percussion instrument could be used in a more rhythmic way.

The church had a HUGE group of children, about 40, all gathered on a Friday night.  I asked if they all show up on Sunday morning.  The pastor said only about 5 of them do, but she said, "Church doesn't just happen on Sunday morning."  Indeed.

My spouse and I were the only white folks there, but we were welcomed warmly.  The children were all fascinated by the drumming.  My spouse taught them a smidge of music theory, mainly just a tiny bit about time signatures.  But mostly, they wanted to bang on drums.  I was glad that we had almost enough for everyone; no one sat too long without an instrument to experience.

My spouse also stressed that good percussion instruments are all around us.  He showed the kids how to play spoons, and he brought some empty containers to compare how they sound to regular drums.  Yogurt tub vs. djembe--which is better?

He talked about how drums are made by indigenous populations.  We have one small drum that is covered by a hairy skin (usually real skins used in drumming are scraped clean).  Some of the children refused to touch it ("A goat?  That was a real, live goat??!!"), while others couldn't wait.  He talked a bit about Latin rhythms and African traditions.

And then, we ended by singing.  My spouse planned to do more with "We are Marching in the Light of God"; after all, it's can be sung in many languages all at the same time, it can be sung in a round, it can have people sing soaring bits behind the main song.

But the pastor and I simply sang it through, in English, several times, along with my spouse (and likely some of the parents who watched the whole workshop), and the kids drummed.  It was the highlight of my week, at least my week after my sister and nephew left.

As we sang, I felt my voice soar, which was amazing, since only recently have I started singing without caring what I sound like.  It's not a song that I've sung often (unlike, say, Christmas music), and yet, I felt like I was hitting all the notes.  I loved singing with the pastor--her voice and my voice worked well together.

I got the feeling that I only rarely get when I'm singing:  my rib cage expanded, and I felt like I could feel my body in terms of space and cavity and sound echoing against the bones.  That doesn't sound very pleasant, but it was incredible.  It reminded me of the feeling I get when I sing in the stairwell at work.

After the workshop, my spouse stayed to work with some of the kids who were more interested in the drum kit than in the hand drums.  I carried drums to the car and watched the kids play with hula hoops and chase each other around the church grounds and work on liturgical dance.

And then we drove home.  I sang all the way home.  I offered prayers for this church that's so different than mine, much more of an inner city church surrounded by urban blight.  I will continue to pray for these children, who are so enthusiastic, but who have so many obstacles to overcome.

This post is already quite long, so I'll save my thoughts on drumming as spiritual practice for a later post, and my thoughts about children and their fragile place in the world for yet a different post.  I may write later at more length about the idea that the Holy Spirit is calling us to something with this experience; my spouse has been finding fairly cheap instruments for sale on Craig's List and eBay, and the kids were SO enthusiastic yesterday.  I have this vision of music ministry of a different sort, a music ministry that takes instruments and song to children of all sorts.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Monastic Pilgrimmages of Varying Durations

The other  night I went to my writer's group meeting. It's a ragtag group, a few church people who are interested in writing but living busy lives. In fact, we're so busy that only one other member showed up. I was early, but that was OK. I had some rough drafts with me to work on.

That church writer's group is not the group that exchanges rough drafts. We have only met once, before last night, and we talked about our goals and how we planned to meet them.

Since only 2 of us came to the group, we had plenty of time to talk about his recent trip to the Abbey of Gethsemene.  He was headed to Kentucky for a wedding and decided to stay 2 extra days at the home of Thomas Merton.

He had a great trip.  We talked about the worship services.  We talked about his conversation with some of the monks, one of whom was alive when Merton was there and considered it his life's great grace to have known Merton.  We talked about silence:  how refreshing it is and how hard to find it in regular life.

Talking to my church friend made me yearn to return to Mepkin Abbey, but I've put off my fall trip until the winter.  Talking to him made me think about my own trips through the years and how blessed I've been by my association with monasticism.

I haven't done a great job of being monastic in these past years.  My life has grown increasingly noisy.  I only manage to pray the hours once or twice a day.  I always aim for balance but I never achieve it for long.

Of course, I remind myself that the monks don't always achieve it either.  On my last trip to Mepkin, I was surprised to find that the monks had instituted "desert days," because they felt so busy and overextended that they needed a day each month when they scale back.

Yesterday I dug out my journal that I was keeping in 2004 when I went to Mepkin for the first time.  I wrote about my yearning to go back, about wishing I had a job that would allow me to get to places like Mepkin Abbey and Lutheridge more often.

Oddly enough, now I do.  At the time, I was yearning for a job that would put me geographically closer.  Instead, my job morphed into an academic job that gave me more leeway about when I take vacation.

This week has been one of those weeks where it would be nice to be close enough that I could just drive out to one of my spiritual landscapes for an afternoon.  I'd like to take some hours to walk the grounds and to sit in silence.

Maybe this afternoon, I'll give myself a break and take a virtual walk by looking at old photos.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The Narrative Lectionary reading for Sunday, October 14, 2012:

1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10

Optional reading:  Luke 1:47-55
I confess that I'm deeply uncomfortable with the first 2 chunks of text for this Sunday's reading.  What disturbs me?  There are so many elements that rattle me.  

First there's the element of barrenness.  Hannah's worth is wrapped up in whether or not she can give birth, and she can't.  I understand that I'm reading a story from long, long ago, from a deeply patriarchal culture where women didn't have much agency in terms of determining their own destiny; in fact, I also know that very few people outside of a handful of very rich men had any sort of self-determination.  The desperation of the poor and soon-to-be-poor also explains the emphasis on children.  Children could bring wealth in any number of ways.  A woman who couldn't give the family any children would be even more marginalized than most people.  The times were very different, and I try so hard not to judge.  

But let me just add here how happy I am to be a woman in a first world country in the 21st century.  We still live in imperfect times, and a woman's fate can still be more affected by biology than I would like, but I would not trade places with Hannah for even one hour, no matter how much money you offered me.  

I also understand that the author of this text was not at all interested in exploring gender issues.  The author of this text explored the theme that with God, anything is possible (to use the phrase we used frequently in Vacation Bible School this past summer).  

The second part of the story that leaves me uncomfortable is Hannah's promise to give away her child.  I remember as a child reading this text and feeling horrified.  Didn't Hannah love her child?  Of course she did.  She gave him up to the best destiny that was available at the time.  

I remember feeling bad for the baby.  What if the baby wanted to be something else when he grew up?  Again, as a child, I didn't understand that babies during the time of Hannah didn't have the same sense of possibility that I did.  Now I do.  

Reading the text again as a woman at mid-life, I'm struck by Hannah's song of praise.  I'm reminded of Mary's song of praise when she found out that she would be pregnant with God's help, that everything is possible with God.  Of course, I'm supposed to be reminded of Hannah's song when I read Mary's song.  We find similar echoes throughout a wide variety of Bible texts.  

What echoes?  The theme that God cares about the poor and the destitute.  The idea that the poor have blessings coming to them and that the rich will be brought low.  The good news that barrenness is temporary.  The ultimate message that anything is possible with God.  

In this post, Roger Nam reminds us of how important Samuel will be in the narrative of King David and the greatness of the people of Israel.  He also reminds us of how different this narrative is:  "This is not the sort of beginning that fits the ancient Near East. Royal origins of Mesopotamia and Egypt typically begin with kings descending from the heavenly deities, placed on the thrones of earth to steward the will of the gods. But for ancient Israel, the beginnings of monarchy emerge with the earnest, desperate prayer of a powerless second wife. But of course, this will not be the last time when greatness begins with a birth narrative of humility."

Most of us are lucky enough that we will never face a desperation like Hannah's.  Still, we've likely often felt powerless in the clutch of forces we don't understand or control.  These stories remind us that God's hand is the one which ultimately holds us, no matter what.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, October 14, 2012:

First Reading: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Psalm: Psalm 90:12-17

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 22:1-15

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16

Gospel: Mark 10:17-31

Like so many teachings of Jesus, this week’s teaching has sent many a believer off twisting themselves into pretzel shapes to determine that Jesus couldn’t possibly mean what he said.

I’ve heard many a sermon on this text that’s designed to reassure us that Jesus couldn’t possibly mean what he said. We can’t possibly be expected to sell all that we have and give the money to the poor.

But why would Jesus say such a thing if he didn’t really mean it? And if he really means it, what are we to do?

The obvious answer: sell all that we have, give the money to the poor, and trust God to reveal the next step.

I’m in no position to preach this approach. I’m as fearful and clutchy when it comes to my stuff as the next person. I suspect that Jesus wants us to be mindful of our tendency to trust our bank accounts more than we trust God when he gives instructions like the one he gave to the rich young man.

The last few years have taught us much about the danger of counting on our possessions for security. We've seen how quickly wealth can be liquidated--and for what? As I look at my decimated retirement account, I often think of how much happier I might be had I given that money to the poor instead of hoarding it for my future. Now it's vanished, gone, like steam. No one has benefited--except, perhaps, for the people who made a profit off my money before it vanished. And I'm fairly certain the poor didn't see the benefit of that.

Jesus returns to this message again and again: our attachment to money is spiritually dangerous, the biggest spiritual danger that most of us face. Comparatively speaking, he doesn't spend much time at all on other sins. For example, he never talks directly about homosexuality, the issue that's splitting so many churches. But he returns again and again to the message that the rich must share with the poor. Again and again he tells us of the dangers of excess wealth.

Like violence, wealth is a tool that is powerful, yet difficult to control, which probably explains why our scriptures caution us about both. Once we attain a certain level of wealth (and I believe that level is fairly low), we spend a lot more time taking care of our wealth than we do taking care of God's creation. Wealth demands a lot of our time and attention, and that's attention that we're not giving to God. All our time spent tracking our various accounts is time we could use in prayer, for example.

Many Christians tithe in hopes that their wealth won't control them. It's a good spiritual discipline. The common wisdom is to give 10%. As my wise father once explained to me, 10% is enough of the monthly budget that we must be intentional to be able to make that goal. It's not enough to break the bank, but it is enough that we notice it.

And once we’ve mastered that discipline, we can train ourselves to give more. We can be mindful of all the ways that we waste our resources, and we can redirect some of that money to developing nations, where so many researchers would remind us that a dollar stretches much further than in the first world.

The end of this week’s Gospel should give us hope, even if we feel we’ll never be able to give away anything. Does Jesus know that he’s given the rich young man an impossible task? What would have happened if the young man had come back and said, “Well, Jesus, I tried, but I was only able to give up half of what I owned. What should I do now?”

I suspect that Jesus would not have reacted angrily. I suspect that Jesus would have given the young man another chance.

The benefits of the radical generosity to which Christ calls us are many. We start with feeling lighter as we get rid of stuff. Along the way, we remember the joy of sharing. And eventually, if we stay on the path of radical hospitality, we might realize that God will be there for us when our economic resources fail, as they always will. All your wealth won't help you escape death forever. But God can transform all things, even death.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Church as Resident Six Year Old

At my creativity blog, I wrote this post about living like a 6 year old.  What would it look like to have a life that was more like the life a 6 year old would live?

I don't want to underestimate the ways that life would be more terrifying:  the lack of ability to control so much of what happens to one, the being so much smaller, the lack of understanding of the world.

And yet, in so many ways, if we think we're living a life where we're that much more in control of the world as adults, where we think we understand the world so much better--well, I suspect we're fooling ourselves.

No, what I'd like is to recapture a child's sense of wonder, to put it in a banal, much overused way.  My nephew loves to go to the beach, and I often forget how lovely it is to sit on the sand and dig a trench.  Through the years, my nephew has delighted in all sorts of trash and castaway objects that he finds at the beach.

I envy my nephew's ability to ignore chores and what the world might tell him he should focus upon--or does the world work this way for 6 year olds?  Do they feel a sense of a to-do list the way that so many adults do?

My nephew is interested in having a fun game of cards or chasing each other around the yard or watching a ball game together or putting up a tent in the living room or heading to the beach to build sand castles.  In his mind, why shouldn't we do this?

In the grown up mind, there are so many reasons:  we have chores that must be done, we have to go to work, we worry about the mess, we have been approaching our lives in one way for such a long time that we forget there is another way.

In an ideal world, church would operate the way that having a 6 year old in the house operates.  It would remind us of the wonder of the world.  It would show us how to appreciate those wonders.  It would lure us away from daily drudgery so that we could remember how to have fun. 

I know that for many of us church has become one more drudgery.  But it's important to realize that church shouldn't be that way.  Church should remind us that we have so many ways to live a good life and such a short time to live that life.  Church should remind us that our Creator wants so much more for us, and calls us to a greater fulfillment.

And church should send us all out into the world equipped to live a better life and to help others find their ways to that fulfillment too.

Monday, October 8, 2012

What Columbus Can Teach Us About the Religious Life

Today is the federal holiday that celebrates the "discovery" of America by Christopher Columbus.  I'll wager that few of us hear about Columbus in our churches.  But his voyage has something to tell those of us who are living a pilgrim's life in this century.

At Charlestowne Landing (near Charleston, SC), I saw a boat that was a replica of the boat that some of the first English settlers used to get here. It was teeny-tiny. I can't imagine sailing up the coast to the next harbor in it, much less across the Atlantic. Maybe it would have been easier, back before everyone knew how big the Atlantic was.

In our spiritual lives, we may have to set off on a tiny boat.  We might wish we had different resources, but we start with what we have.  Maybe we wish we had the bigger boat of a fancier education, an ordination, a bigger budget for our church.  Maybe we wish we had the bigger boat of a trip to a spiritual heritage site or a fancy retreat or a place to live that feels more spiritual.

But important journeys can be made in teeny-tiny boats.  It's better than staring longingly out towards the sea.

I've often wondered if Columbus (and other explorers) ever woke up in the middle of the night and said, "What am I doing here? I could have just settled down with my sweetheart, had a few kids, watched the sunset every night while I enjoyed my wine." Of course, back then, a lot of options were closed to people, and that's why they set off for the horizon. No job opportunities in the Old World? Head west! Sweetheart left you for another (or died)? Head west!

It's easy to feel full of enthusiasm at the beginning of a project. Far harder to keep up that enthusiasm when you're in the middle of a vast ocean, with nothing but your instruments and the stars to guide you, with no sense of how far away the land for which you're searching might be.

I'm guessing that many of us have similar feelings during our spiritual lives.  We start a spiritual discipline full of enthusiasm.  Years later, our enthusiasm may flag, as we find ourselves still wrestling with the same spiritual issues.

What can we learn from Columbus? To answer fully would take more research than I have time for right now. But I keep thinking of the ship's logs and the captain's journals. Perhaps we need to do a bit more journalling/blogging/notetaking/observing/calibrating/focused daydreaming.  These tools can be important in our spiritual lives.

Or maybe we need to just set sail, knowing that we're going to be out of sight of land for awhile. Maybe we need to get over our need for safe harbor, for knowing exactly where we're going.

Or maybe we need a benefactor. Who might be Queen Isabella for us, as individuals and as the larger Church?

And we probably need to know that while we think we're sailing off for India, we might come across a continent that we didn't know existed. Columbus was disappointed with his discovery: no gold, no spices, disappointing land. Yet, he started all sorts of revolutions with his discovery. Imagine a life without corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes. Imagine life without chocolate. Of course, if I was looking through the Native American lens, I might say, "Imagine life without smallpox."

Still, the metaphor holds for the spiritual life. Many of us start off with a vision for where we'd like to go, perhaps even with five and ten year plans. Yet if we're open to some alternate paths, we might find ourselves making intriguing discoveries that we'd never have made, had we stuck religiously to our original plans.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

God's Big Projects: It's Not Too Late!

Last week-end, I devoured Phyllis Tickle's Prayer is a Place. I read it years ago when it first came out. At that point, I had just recently discovered her 3 volume version of the Liturgy of the Hours, The Divine Hours. Years ago when I read Prayer is a Place, I was fascinated by her discussion of the writing process of those texts.

This time, I noticed how much of the book revolves around Tickle's post mid-life career. She has a full career as an academic, teaching and being a dean. Around the age of 45, she quits those paths to found a press that has multiple focuses and is fairly successful, especially as small presses go.

Then, around age 58, she gets the call that will change her life. She's asked to be the editor-in-chief for the soon-to-be-created religion section of Publishers Weekly. She gets to read books, meet authors and publishers, and go to huge festivals and conferences. In short, she has my dream job.

And here's what made me most hopeful: she got that dream job late in life.

We're surrounded by stories of young stars. We're inundated by stories of Ph.D.s that have an expiration date. We're swamped by stories of mid-life and later job seekers who can't find anything.

I loved reading Tickle's memoir because it reminded me that those stories are not the only stories. A world of stories exists where people find that doors open when they need to, that a human that you knew briefly decades ago will come back into your life when you need that person, that there's a shape and a pattern to life that isn't just chaos theory and apocalypse.

I also noted that Tickle often felt like she needed more and more writers. She recounted one story of hiring a woman who sent her an unsolicited resume and that woman became one of her strongest employees. Note to self: don't discount sending off my resume/CV/information to places where I'd like to work, even if there are no published openings.

And then, even later in her life, she wrote The Divine Hours, the project she considers to be the reason she was put on the planet. It's been wildly successful. It's not a project that anyone would have forecast to be wildly successful, but several people had a shared vision, and thus, success.

Literary historians might remind us of many similar trajectories, especially when we consider the path of women writers and artists of all sorts. Just because you haven't produced your most successful work by the time you're 25 doesn't mean that you won't. Lots of people have done their best work at midlife and beyond.

Last week-end when I reread Tickle's book, I had been writing about St. Jerome and thinking about the big projects that God calls us to do.  I like being reminded that it's not too late.  And St. Jerome reminds me of all the tools that we have that are available to us to get it done.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Different Discernment Narrative

Yesterday I slipped away from work to help buy food for food banks.  We primarily shopped for our church's little food bank, but I also bought food for our school's food bank.

Yes, let that sink in.  I work at a school with very high tuition compared to state schools.  Students take on enormous loan burdens to go there.  Many of them are hungry.

On my more ambitious days, I think of our Culinary department and what might be done.  We have kitchens, after all.  On my less ambitious days, I go to the grocery store and buy pasta that comes in pop top cans, food that can be eaten with no prep.

On our way to and from the grocery store, we talked about discernment and future plans.  We talked about how the Holy Spirit will have to be a lot more obvious if we need to go in certain directions.

I tend to think that God has a specific plan, and in my younger years, I worried that I wasn't following the plan that God had laid out for me.

I profess to believe in free will, but I still have this vision of a God with a plan.  I'm still haunted by a feeling that I'm falling short.

Let me hasten to say that I think those feelings are a product of my brain, not a judgment from God.  Let me hasten to say that I'm not really sure that God has a plan, but instead that God can use any number of circumstances as God goes about God's business of redeeming creation.

We are not marionettes.  We are not characters in a static picture.

And yet.  And yet.  I do have this vision of God as being the one with the bigger picture.  I do like to think that God will offer guidance--or maybe a push--if we ask.  I like the idea of a God that says, "You'll be happier here than there.  You'll feel more fulfilled here than there.  You can do more good here than there." 

Some days, I feel like I pray for guidance and get no specific direction.  Other times, I feel a steady push.  And it's not just in retrospect.  I can think of several times in my life when I was aware of that push, even as it was happening.

These days, I'm feeling no push.  I could interpret my school's decision to keep me as Coordinator of Humanities and Communication as a sign from God, but it doesn't feel that way.

Perhaps the time is not now.  The Bible is full of narratives of waiting and watching.

Or perhaps I'm listening for the wrong message.  In the middle of the night last night, again, I heard the message to return to my memoir, to get it ready, to hasten my progress.

My religious tradition schools me to think I should listen for a message of being sent out to a different location.  My religious tradition has not spent much time focusing on the followers who get a lot done by sitting in the chair and focusing on the task at hand.

Maybe I need a different discernment tale.   

Friday, October 5, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The readings for Sunday, October 7, 2012:

Exodus 32:1-14

optional reading:  Luke 23:34

As we begin the reading for this week, surely some of us shake our heads.  What is up with these Israelites?  What is Aaron thinking?  Are they so quick to forget the God who rescued them?

We might see the creation of the golden calf with different eyes, if we think of it as an incident in a long line of incidents where humans want a god that they can control.  We're quick to think that we would not behave this way, but I would point out the popularity like the recent book The Prayer of Jabez, a book which tells us that if we say a certain prayer, that God will behave a certain way, and we'll benefit materially.

Humans are control freaks, and from a psychological standpoint, we understand why humans want to control this world which seems to be so chaotic.  From a psychological standpoint, we understand why we want a god that we can fully experience with all our senses.  A golden calf makes sense if you want to keep track of your god.

Again and again, our Bible stories remind us that we worship a God that we can't contain.  And again and again, we're reminded that we don't really want a contained God.  Our God has a greater vision for us than any that we can dream on our own.

We also see that humans get into trouble when they insist on their timeline.  God's salvation has its own trajectory.  We're invited to be part of that trajectory, but we're not in ultimate control.  When we insist on our own agenda and try to bend God to our agendas, we open the door to all sorts of trouble.

We also see in this story that we worship a God who engages with humanity in a variety of ways.  We see God in disappointment calling humans "a stiff-necked people" (verse 9).  We see God's first impulse as destructive.

This vision of God as Judge, a displeased judge, might disturb us.  It's likely not our favorite aspect of God.  But maybe the vision of God as angry judge should disturb us less than the many examples we have of people who followed their own plan and got into more trouble than they would have if they had made better choices.  Our own free will provides enough punishment.  We don't need God to smite us.  The outcomes of bad decisions are crushing enough.

We should take comfort from the central message of second chances and forgiveness.  Here Moses acts as intercessor.  We see a God who will listen.  Moses talks back to God, and lives to tell the tale.  Not only that, Moses changes the mind of God.  Moses reminds God of the covenant, and later, he will do the same with the Israelites and Aaron.

Again and again we're called back to God's covenant.  Again and again, we're reminded that we're put on the planet for a greater vision than our own.  Again and again, God forgives us and continues to mold us into the people that God wants us to be.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Feast Day of St. Francis: a Photo Meditation

Today we celebrate the life of St. Francis. We often remember St. Francis because of his work, "The Canticle for the Creatures." Many people see him as one of the early environmentalists. I have no problem with animal rights crusaders and the environmental movement, but it's important to remember that St. Francis spent many years of his early ministry living with lepers and caring for them. He gave up everything he owned--and he was rich--in a quest for a more authentic life. He inspired others to follow the same path, and he founded two religious orders that still thrive.

Who are our modern day lepers?  The homeless?  The mentally ill who can't find medication?  The elderly?  What modern sicknesses scare us the way that leprosy scared us for hundreds of years?

Lately, I've been thinking about the care we offer our pets and contrasting that care with the amount of care we give ourselves. We often do no better at taking care of ourselves than we do of taking care of the poor and outcast of our society. I've known more than one person who cooked better meals for their dogs than they do for themselves. You can probably offer similar examples: humans who make sure that their pets see dentists, even when the human members of the family don't take care of their teeth, dogs who see therapists, pets who get wonderful treats that humans deny themselves--the list could go on and on.

Will your congregation celebrate the life of St. Francis by having a service where pets are blessed?  Will it be its own service or will it be a bring-your-pet-to-church service?

What do we do about the animals that aren't so easy to love?  How do we handle humans who aren't so easy to love?  St. Francis shows us a model; can we follow it?

Why is it so hard to achieve balance in our societies? Why can't we take care of the destitute in the same way we take care of our pets? Why does self-care often fall to the bottom of our to-do lists? Why do we practice self-care and then not do the larger work of caring for the world? Why do so many of us care for creation so badly or not at all?

What would we be willing to give up if it meant we could have a more authentic life?  What benefits might we find?  What paths should we consider that we haven't pondered yet?

Here's a prayer that I wrote for today:

Creator God, we don't always take good care of your creations. Please give us the generosity of St. Francis as we wrestle with the best way to use our resources. Please open our hearts the way you opened the heart of St. Francis so that we can take care of the members of our society who are at the lowest levels. Please give us the courage to create communities which will allow the light of Christ to shine more brightly.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 7, 2012:

Genesis 2:18-24

Psalm 8

You adorn us with glory and honor. (Ps. 8:6)

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Mark 10:2-16

If you read the Gospels carefully, you'll realize that Jesus rarely addresses the pressing social issues of our day. Global warming? Nope, he never talks about it. Abortion? Nope. Homosexuality? Not a word: the Bible verses that may address homosexuality, depending on how one interprets certain Greek words, come mainly from the Old Testament and Paul.

But here Jesus talks about divorce. How curious, especially in light of other chapters, where Jesus seems to downplay marriage and family, where he seems to instruct people to abandon their families to follow him. Here he seems to tell husbands and wives that they must stay together, regardless of the circumstances.

Many scholars see the social justice side of Jesus here, the man who cared for the most outcast of society. Almost no one had fewer options than a divorced woman who lived during the time of Jesus. Then, and to a certain extent now, fewer things were more likely to plunge a woman with children into the bottom economic realm of society than divorce or widowhood.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see the concerns of Jesus with the most downtrodden of society: women and children. As our society becomes more and more stratified, we can all use this reminder.

It’s also a reminder that God wants something better for us. God doesn’t want us in societies that are so stratified that we only see people who are just like us. God doesn’t want our personal differences to drive us apart. God doesn’t want us severed apart from each other, if we can avoid it. Even in situations where divorce is the best option, the legacy is one of pain and a variety of new problems. God wants reconciliation.

God also recommends that we approach the world as well-adjusted children do. Through the past 6 years, spending time with my nephew has changed the way I approach the world and helps me understand these Bible passages that revolve around children. My nephew is the most non-judgmental person I know, and it's a delight to spend time with him. He wants us to dance around the living room, and he doesn't care how stupid we look. He wants us to draw him a picture of a truck, and while he'll offer suggestions, he has never crumpled up the paper and told me never to draw again. He delights in the world in a way that most adults have forgotten how to do.

I imagine God is much the same. We've got a wonderful world here, and we often forget how fabulous it is. We get so hung up on all the ways we think the world has gone wrong that we forget what is right. We spend time creating laws to try to control behavior, when we might do better to simply accept people for who they are, which is a major step towards loving them. We want to see the world in strict colors: black, white, no gray. We forget that the world is variegated. If we can leave the land of Law behind and enter the world of Love, we'll see a world washed in color, all of it good. We'll know what God knew, way back in Genesis, that the Creation is good, very good.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

St. Jerome and Issues of Connectivity and Creativity

My post on St. Jerome has been published at the Living Lutheran website.  Go here to read it.

As is often the case, I learn a lot when I write these pieces.  Being a good Lutheran, I always think of Martin Luther as being the first to translate the Bible into a common language that all could read.  I'm wrong.  Hundreds of years earlier, Jerome translated the Bible into Vulgate Latin.

I see that translation as his most important contribution, but he was one of the more prolific writers of his generation.  I think of all the resources that I have right at my fingertips.  I think of the computer, which makes my writing more speedy.  But I probably cannot hope to match the output of Jerome.

Yesterday was one of those days when I felt a bit frazzled and hectic at work.  It's probably time to take my own advice:  "As we celebrate the life of St. Jerome, it’s a good day to think about how to apply the lessons of his life to our own. Maybe we need an ascetic plan to face our daily lives; we could experiment with less technology and more listening for God. Maybe we need periodic retreats so that we can recalibrate and focus on what’s important."

I wrote that chunk of text just 12 hours before my phones would die, which would leave me disconnected.  As I wrote in yesterday's post, at first I felt annoyed, but as the week-end progressed, I felt liberated.

It's relatively easy to disconnect at home.  It's harder to disconnect on the job.  What ascetic practices could I adopt to help in that arena?

Hmm--stay tuned!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Lessons from an Unplugged Week-end

I’ve always known that when I’m on vacation and away from the computer, I get more reading done. That observation makes sense to me. Much of my reading has migrated to the Internet, after all. I only read a newspaper that’s on paper not pixels when I visit my parents. I only subscribe to paper magazines which will provide good collage images.

However, I’ve also noticed that when I’m on vacation and away from the computer I sleep later. I feel more relaxed. Is that because I’m on vacation or because there’s no Internet?

On Thursday, we realized our phones and Internet were gone. We called (hurrah for cell phones) and were told we wouldn’t have service until Monday. A technician showed up yesterday, but sure enough, the two main cables were fried, and they’d need to be replaced. Hopefully that will happen today.

But in the meantime, it’s been a peaceful week-end. I did sleep later. I read a whole book, which I rarely do in a single week-end anymore—unless I’m on vacation. I went for a run on Sunday morning, which I rarely do at home.

I thought we might get out and do more around town, the way we do when we’re on vacation. But because we’re at our house, there are still chores that need to be done. I got errands run. My spouse and I tackled the yard—which got a thorough edging and mowing; we’ll usually skip the edging if it’s just one of us doing it.

It was also a peaceful week-end in the neighborhood. As summer moves into autumn, more of our neighbors resume their outdoor life, especially during football season. Several neighbors haul their televisions into their back yards, where they grill and listen to music and watch the game and get increasingly louder as they get drunker.

But not this week-end. So, we enjoyed our backyard: we mowed and then we grilled each meal and then we watched evening come and the full moon rise.

Did I spend more time in prayer? Yes, actually, I did. And I found myself in a more peaceful mood as we drove to church yesterday. What an interesting observation. Usually, I’ve spent the whole Sunday morning doing Internet tasks, and I often feel irritable as we drive to church. Yesterday I went on a run and had a leisurely morning reading.

It was a good experiment, even if it wasn’t one of our choosing. It’s good to realize how out of sorts I can get when I’m too plugged in. It’s good to remember the different kind of life I might have if I could disconnect more.

It’s good to remember how hard it is to listen for God, when I’m always listening to the Internet.