Friday, November 30, 2012

The Feast Day of St. Andrew

Today is the feast day of St. Andrew.  I've written a post at the Living Lutheran site that ponders the first disciple.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"It’s important to remember that we wouldn’t even know about Simon Peter if not for Andrew. Andrew followed John the Baptist, and John the Baptist introduced Jesus as the true Messiah. Andrew believed, and Andrew brought his brother to see what he had seen. Andrew is remembered as the first disciple."

"We see stories that show that Andrew is the kind of disciple who is working for the glory of Christ, not for other reasons. In John’s Gospel, Andrew is the one who tells Jesus about the boy with five barley loaves and two fish and thus helps make possible the miraculous feeding."

"On this day when we celebrate the life of the first disciple, let us consider our own discipleship. Are we focused on the right tasks or are we hoping that our Christian faith brings us non-Christian glory? How can we help usher in the miracles that come with the presence of Christ? Who needs to hear the good news as only we can tell it?"

Go here to read the whole essay.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The readings for Sunday, December 2, 2012:

Daniel 6:6-27

optional reading:  Luke 23:1-5  

Today we get the story of Daniel in the lions' den; yes, it's the same Daniel as the friend of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were thrown in the fiery furnace.  Here we see another Biblical figure, like Joseph centuries earlier, a figure held captive by an alien empire, a figure with the power to interpret dreams.

We also see the story of a faithful man, like so many other Biblical stories.  When the powerful leaders of the alien empire decree the religious practices of the Jews to be illegal, Daniel continues to pray several times a day.  He's obvious about it.  Like Jesus, he's on a collision course with the empire.

As with the Old Testament story of Esther, we see a king manipulated by those who surround him.  He doesn't want to put Daniel in the lions' den, but the law is the law, and so, Daniel is walled up.

But God protects him because he is faithful.  God finds Daniel blameless.  Chastened, the king has the manipulative advisers walled up with the lions, where they are not so fortunate:  the lions rip apart their limbs.

I can now hear my atheist friends snorting in scorn:  "We're expected to believe that God swooped down and saved Daniel from hungry lions?"

Focusing on whether or not the story could actually happen isn't very useful here.  As with the story of Jonah a few weeks ago, we lose the point of the story if we focus on whether or not a man could live in the stomach of a whale for 3 days or if a man could survive overnight when walled in a chamber with hungry lions or survive a fiery furnace.

We shouldn't focus on the literal truth, but that shouldn't prevent us from thinking about the other truths of these stories.  Above all, again and again we see stories of God who can make a way out of no way.  We see stories of a God who will not be stopped by events that hold humans back.

I see this story of Daniel as one that reminds us of the importance of our religious practices.  But I also see it as a story about the problems of law and strict adherence to the law.  Because of the interpretation of the law, the king had no choice but to condemn Daniel.  The main focus of the story is that God rewards faithfulness, but an important undergirding of the story is the message that the law, with all its strictures, will not lead us to freedom.

Many of us may feel like Daniel, strangers in a strange land, an alien empire, full of practices that we don't fully understand.  Many of us find ourselves in workplaces and other cultures where we don't find many other Christians, if we find any at all.  We may find ourselves struggling to stay true to our Christian values in a world that doesn't reward us for that and may in fact actively punish us.

The stories in the book of Daniel are designed to comfort those of us who labor under an alien empire.  These stories remind us that although the larger culture may not reward us, God watches and God is the one who is ultimately in charge.

We may not escape from all of our lions' dens, but we can be sure that God will reward our faithfulness.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, December 2, 2012:

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10 (Ps. 25:1)

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Some years, the apocalyptic tone of the Advent texts feel more appropriate than other years. This is one of those years when the words of Luke resonate with me.

The other day I was praying for people I know who are in some amount of distress. I was struck by how many people whom I know personally are dealing with very serious events. My friend lost her brother who was only 60 years old, and I know several people who have lost a parent in the past year. I know plenty of people who are dealing with serious health issues. And then there’s the issue of job loss and threat of job loss, even in this economy which we’re told is recovering, but most of us don’t see it on the ground.

Yes, we live in a time where we see “men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaking” (Luke 22:26).

Maybe it’s the health of the planet that concerns you. As I write this morning, I’m hearing reports of sea level rise happening 60% faster than projected. Will that swamp my house that’s 3 miles inland? Or will we simply see more grim storm impacts like those we saw during Hurricane Sandy? The outlook doesn’t look good for any of us.

I’ve been reading Craig Childs’ Apocalyptic Planet, which talks about past die-offs and the current die-off that we’re experiencing as the Holocene Age comes to an end. The planet has been through grim times before, but often even though the planet survives, individual species do not. The words of Luke resonate: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the eath distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and waves” (Luke 22: 25).

If you're in a festive mood, the readings for Advent must often seem jarring. You’re probably wondering why we can't sing Christmas carols like the rest of the world.

It's important to remember that for Christians, the season of Advent should be a time of watching and waiting, not decorating and shopping. We remember the stories of others who watched and waited (famously, Mary; not so famously, the legions of people who have felt the yoke of oppression and yearned for a savior).

One of the messages of Advent is that God breaks into our dreary world in all sorts of ways, some scary, some comforting, some magnificent, and some hardly noticed. The story of Jesus is one of the more spectacular stories, but God tries to get our attention all the time. We are called to watch and wait and always be on the alert.

The message of Advent is truly exciting. God wants us to participate in Kingdom living now, not just in some distant future when we go to Heaven. What good news for people who are suffering from all the sorrows that our world can dish out.

Christ’s story promises us that destruction and death are not the final answers. We worship a God that finds a way to freedom, even when human minds can’t figure out how God can accomplish that freedom.

So, if you’re having trouble feeling festive, take heart in the good news that’s about to be brought to us. If you’re not in a holiday mood, let yourself sink into the meditative mood that Advent could deliver. We are surrounded by all sorts of futures that are only gestational right now. The alert watchers will begin to see the fulfillment of the promise.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Anti-Abortion Nativity Scene

We are back from our great Southeast, Thanksgiving driving tour.  We've seen a variety of landscapes, which is always a treat for me.  We usually spend the Sunday of Thanksgiving week-end at the home of an old college friend.  It's great to see him and his wife, and it keep us off of I95, which turns into a parking lot for most of the week-end.

On Sunday, we drove out to Ponte Vedro Beach, just south of Jacksonville.  On our way back from our lunch on the Intracoastal, I spotted an odd Nativity scene.  The large-size scene itself was fairly standard:  a small shed, to represent the stable, Joseph, Mary, and a manger.

But over this Nativity scene was a huge sign that read "What if THEY had believed in abortion?"

It just seemed wrong on so many levels.  There's the faulty theology, for one thing.  If Mary hadn't wanted to have a baby, she could have said no to God.  She didn't find herself with an accidental pregnancy, after all.

Was the Nativity scene suggesting the divinity of all children?  Doubtful, although that might have been an interesting approach.

I wondered about the passion of the creator of this creche.  There are very few issues that would move me to create such a project.  Part of me feels like a passionless stick to realize this.

Part of me wants to believe in installation art as agent of social change.  Part of me believes that very few people's minds will be changed that way.

And yet . . . and yet.  I think of friends of mine in college, friends who created shantytowns on the lawns of their universities to protest investment in South Africa.  I didn't do that myself, for a variety of reasons.  My own little liberal arts college was almost bankrupt, so no need to demand divestment; they had no investments of any kind that hadn't already been liquidated.

I've heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu give college kids of my generation credit for bringing apartheid to an end--not all by ourselves, of course, but he mentions those protests.  I protested, but I didn't build a shantytown.  I wrote letters, but I didn't create art.  I supported other artists' efforts when I bought Sun City, the anti-apartheid record album.

It's an interesting question, what activities do the most to bring social justice to the beleaguered world, and the range of activities is as varied as humans themselves.  I wouldn't create a creche or a shantytown, but that doesn't mean they're not valid.

I want to believe in the power of the pen, my medium of choice.  I want to believe in non-violence, although I grow weary all too often of the patience that non-violence takes. 

Above all, I want to cling to the vision of the better world that God offers us.  I want to be part of that vision.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Apocalyptic Planet, Apocalyptic Advent

Now that we have put Thanksgiving behind us, let us begin to shift our focus to Advent.  You might say, "Yup, we already put up the tree, and we have our shopping all done."

I don't mean that kind of Advent.  I mean the old-fashioned kind, where we let the words of the prophets ring in our ears.  I mean the kind of Advent that seems on a collision course with apocalypse.

Now my reading tastes run towards the apocalyptic anyway, but if you need some help getting into that apocalyptic mood, then I have just the book for you.  I've been reading Craig Childs:  what a poetic science writer!

In his latest book, Apocalyptic Planet, he visits places on the globe that are already experiencing the kind of events that could wipe out life on our planet. For example, the first chapter has him making his way through an intense desert landscape. Then he explores an iceberg.

Even when he's writing about impending loss, he's got such a beautiful style. He talks of his surprise at touching a melting iceberg and finding it cold. He considers the iceberg: "Was this some poor, dying wastrel, or was it getting what the ice always wanted, turned back into liquid after thousands of years of being chained into a molecular solid, now freed drip by drip?" (p. 42).

The book is also chock full of scientific facts, all sorts of information I didn't know about deserts, about the history of the earth, about the planet. Fascinating!

Childs has been here before. He has led the kind of life that makes me both envious and anxious. He's the type of guy who sets out on foot, without the latest equipment, with just his knowledge and a walking stick to get him where he needs to go. I remember reading The Secret Knowledge of Water, which explores the idea of water in the desert.

The earth has been here before too. The planet has survived die-offs even greater than the Holocene Extinction we're experiencing now. Of course, that's little comfort when we consider all the species gone forever.

I wonder what kind of poems will come from reading Childs' latest book. After I read The Secret Knowledge of Water, I wrote the poem below, which was published in The Ledge.  In many ways, it's a love poem.  But if you read it with baptism on the brain, you'll come away with something different.  If you read it as you think about the desert fathers and mothers, maybe you'll get something yet again.  Or could it be John the Baptist talking to God/Jesus?  Or a more modern believer, talking to God?

Floods and Desert Canyons

My friends assume I’m dry
and barren. They do not know of my secret
spots, a cup of water here, a pool
collected there. An occasional visit
from you keeps me hydrated.

I boil away with my own dreams and ideas.
I blaze with words, my surfaces
too hot to touch. My pitiless gaze
burns as I survey my culture,
dream of new life forms.

You surge through my carefully constructed canyons.
In a matter of minutes, you change the landscape,
sweep away the detritus.
You carve me into intricate
forms, unconsidered before I met your force.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Budgeting for Black Friday and Beyond

The weeks before Christmas pose challenges to most of us, no matter what beliefs we hold. Even the most balanced of us can lose our way during this time of frantic busyness and hectic schedules and our culture beaming messages at us that we must spend more. How can we as Christians best use our gift giving dollars?

Our first impulse might be to give our gift giving dollars to various charitable organizations. I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy all the material stuff I need. I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way. Then the hard part comes in choosing the charity.

Philosophers like Peter Singer would encourage us to send our charitable dollars to charities who serve the developing world, where our dollars go further. Organizations like Lutheran World Relief have long histories of delivering our donations efficiently to areas of the globe with great need. But we know that there’s plenty of need here in our home countries.

Some people who give money to charities in lieu of gifts have fun matching the charity to the personality of the gift recipient. Some families choose one charity and give all their gift budgets to the one charity. Some families support local churches.

But what about the people on our list who aren’t as charitably minded?

Maybe instead of a gift, we could give an experience. Why not give your loved ones a retreat at a church camp? Many church camps have shorter week-end retreats that are affordably priced. Why not give theatre tickets?

We could give the gift of time together. You could take your gift recipients out for dinner. Make a date for a museum or a movie.—in February, when life calms down, and we need a treat to make it through the rest of winter.

We could give magazine subscriptions, the gift that gives throughout the year. A book of devotions could do the same thing, while nourishing our gift recipients on a daily basis.

This year, we might want to give gifts that help support local businesses so that they survive. We could give any number of gift cards to local businesses: car mechanics, gym memberships, hair stylists, boutiques, bookstores, restaurants, move theatres. We could broaden our approach and choose gift cards that support our Christian vision. Instead of an Amazon gift card, we could support Augsburg Fortress. We could buy fair trade products from organizations that support people in developing nations.

But what about the people on our list who don’t want a gift card? What about the people who want an object specially chosen for them?

One year, my family had a lot of fun by giving handmade gifts. But most of us don’t have time between now and Christmas to give handmade gifts.

Luckily, other people have been preparing. Why not support a church craft fair? There we’ll find beautiful objects to suit all sorts of budgets—and we’ll support church ministries. We could support local artists. Even if you think you can’t afford art, you will likely find something in your budget, like a set of note cards or a beautiful pottery mug. We could buy our gifts from SERVV or other groups who support artisans in the developing world. We could buy books from local authors.

However we choose to approach our gift giving, we should create a budget before we begin shopping. It’s easy to get caught up in the good feelings that spending money can produce for many of us. It’s easy to whip out our credit cards and worry about how we’ll pay for it later. Unfortunately, when we do that, many of us will still be paying for those Christmas presents next summer. And when we do that, we don’t have that money available for other worthy causes.

And there are so many other worthy causes.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Getting Centered on Black Friday

Today many people in the U.S. will be celebrating Black Friday by shopping.  For a different approach, to to the Living Lutheran site, where a piece of mine will appear; in it, I suggest that we use this time to plan for how to have a more meaningful Advent.  Tomorrow, I'll repost a piece that I wrote last year about holiday spending.

But for today, let's preserve the contemplative mood, while it's still possible to have it.  Here are some pictures to keep us focused on Advent.  It's not about shopping, decorating, entertaining, and all those other frantic activities that can keep us distracted.

For today, let's keep our attention on the true gift, the God who so yearns to be with us, the God who will take on human form and become incarnate in the form of a tiny, vulnerable baby.

It's also good to remember that it's really not about Christmas at all.  That baby in the manger, he's cute.  But he's got a larger purpose:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Gratitude

This past year has been a tougher one for me than most years are.  It's been a year of cuts at work, a year of back pain for my spouse, a year with the death of my grandmother.  But there have been blessings too.

I love the holiday of Thanksgiving.  It's a clear cut holiday, although I know we are headed for the time when it becomes part of the Black Friday shopping frenzy--in fact, this year is likely the one when we discover that it's already happened.

But for many of us, Thanksgiving is about a day off, a day to eat a good meal, a day to spend some time with the people we love.  It's not loaded with emotional traps, like Christmas can be.  It's not loaded with such potential for disappointment, like Valentine's Day can be.  It's fairly straightforward.

It's a good day to remember to be grateful.  It's a spiritual discipline that most of us would do well to incorporate into our lives more frequently than just once a year.

So, let me begin today.  I still have a job.  I'm grateful for that, even as I'm sad for all my colleagues who have lost their jobs.  I'm praying for ways to soothe the people left behind and to soothe myself.

I'm grateful that my spouse isn't dealing with a more serious disease, like cancer or MS.  His pain likely has a cure, even if it means we're not college kids anymore.

I'm grateful that I had the years that I did with my grandmother.  I'm grateful for her example of how to live a good life, even if it's not always the good life I'd want for myself.

I'm grateful for my own good health.  I'm grateful that I have food and a house and clothes. 

But mostly, I'm grateful for friends and family.  I'm grateful for the good things they're experiencing.  I'm grateful for all the good times we've had together.  I'm grateful that we continue down life's road together.

I'm hopeful that the coming year will be better than the past one.  I'm grateful for my optimism that may flag, but always undergirds my outlook.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 25, 2012:

First Reading: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 23:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 93

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 132:1-13 [14-19] (Psalm 132:1-12 [13-18] NRSV)

Second Reading: Revelation 1:4b-8

Gospel: John 18:33-37

Some of us may be thinking, what a strange text to lead us into Advent. Some of us may be thinking, what a non-kingly Gospel for Christ the King Sunday. The weeks to come will be full of strange juxtapositions.

This whipsawed feeling should help us feel sympathy for the Jews of Jesus' time. We know that the Jews had been on the lookout for the Messiah for many years, but they certainly weren't looking for someone like Jesus. They wanted a more traditional vision of a King. They wanted someone who would sweep in and clean up current life. Specifically, they wanted someone to kick the Romans (and all the other outsiders) out of their homeland. They wanted someone to restore their vision of life as it should be.

We're probably familiar with that feeling. We, too, probably want a God we can controlOr maybe we want a God that makes us feel superior.

The Gospel readings for this week, and the Advent/Christmas texts remind us that we don't worship that kind of God. We worship a God who is willing to become one of the most vulnerable kinds of creatures in our world: a newborn baby, born to underclass parents, in an underclass minority, in an occupied land. We worship a God so radical that he is crucified as a political criminal. Yes, a political criminal--crucifixions were reserved for crimes against the state in the Roman system. It's interesting to reread the Gospels with that fact in mind and to ponder what Jesus said that made him seem so radical and subversive to the Romans.

We worship a God that wants nothing to do with our human visions of power. Our God turned away from wealth. Our God calls us to a radical generosity and invites us to share all that we have. Our God turned away from political power. Our experience of God, in Jesus, reminds us that if we behave in the way that God wants us to behave, we will come into direct conflict with the dominant power structures of our day.

Our God is one that we will encounter in the oddest places, like a manger or in criminal court. Advent will remind us that we need to always be alert to the possibilities of this encounter, but that it likely won't happen in the way that we've prepared for or expected.

We come to the end of a liturgical year, the end of that long, green season, as my 5th grade Sunday School teacher called it. We begin a new year trembling with fear and hope. It is a good time, as all new years are, to make resolutions. In the next liturgical year, how will we prepare to meet God? To what strange places are we willing to go so that we may encounter God?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Narrative Lectionary

The reading for Sunday, November 25, 2012:

Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-28; then 31:31-34

optional reading:   Luke 22:19-20

In today's reading, we see that not every prophet enjoys the easy acceptance that Jonah did.  You may remember that a few weeks ago, Jonah goes to Ninevah expecting to be rejected, as prophets so often are. But much to Jonah's dismay, the people of Ninevah not only accept his word, but go all out to show repentance--even the livestock fast!

Jeremiah doesn't have the same success.  He delivers God's message to the king, but the king burns the scroll to show his complete disregard for God's message.  In the parts of this book that we don't read, Jeremiah continues to try to deliver God's message, but no one pays any attention.

As we head into the season of Advent, it's good to remember that plenty of people have no interest in hearing God's message.  We'll decorate for Christmas, we'll enjoy time off, and maybe we'll even spout platitudes about the true meaning of Christmas.  But many of us are happy to stay gathered in the glow of the manger at Bethlehem.  We turn away from the cruelty of the cross.

Again and again, the prophets deliver the message that Jeremiah delivers: we are people with God's imprint on our hearts.  God wants to live in intimate connection with us.  God will go to great lengths, including taking on human form and suffering crucifixion, to make that connection.

Why do we turn away?  Why do we burn the scrolls that bear that message of God's great love?

The answers will be different for each human.  We know that even the most devout believers have moments where they, too, burn the scrolls that bring God's message.

The prophets remind us that God doesn't want the destruction that humans seem to seek out so eagerly.  God wants what is best for us.  But we often don't want what's best for us.

As we head into the frenzy that is the Christmas season for so many of us, let us take a few minutes to think about how we will keep focused on Advent, not Christmas.  So many prophets tell us to prepare our hearts.  How can we best do that?

So many prophets implore us to stay alert so that we not miss the coming of God, which will happen in ways we don't expect.  How can we keep watch in these days of so many distractions?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Forgiveness Haiku

For almost half a year, my church has been experimenting with what we're calling Worship Together, designed to be more of a family service.  I first wrote about it here.  After the first month of our new service, I wrote a post about the advantages to the service here and the disadvantages here.

Yesterday was one of the days when the family service felt like the more successful things we do.  I don't go to the early service at 8, but it's always been sparsely attended.  I go to the "blended" service at 11, after the family service at 10, because my spouse sings in the choir.  It's interesting to attend both the family and the blended service.  Yesterday, although the 11 a.m. blended service had more people in attendance, the Worship Together service felt so much more vibrant.

Yesterday, the energy level at the Worship Together service was palpable.  We sing one song, usually one that we work on for several weeks.  We learn both to sing it and to sign it.  Yesterday, we were finally pulling it all together; we were able to sing and do most of the signing.

The singing and signing time was only one manifestation of the energy.  We break into small groups to model the kind of behavior that we'd like families to do at home, ideally each day.  We talk about the highs and lows of the last week, and we talk about the Bible reading--hopefully we make connections.  We also pray for each other and bless each other. 

Some weeks, we also do an additional interaction with the Bible text.  One week, when we studied the reading about building a house on sand and a house on a rock, we did a dramatization with items given to us and items we found.  I remember that day swirling a piece of blue cloth as I impersonated the storm.  I swept aside the structure made with paper cups on "sand."  I was careful not to knock down what we'd built on a "rock."

Yesterday we wrote forgiveness haiku.  After having a Psalm about forgiveness, a song, one of Jesus' parables about forgiveness, and several weeks of suggestion, we had lots of material.  We wrestled with the central element of haiku--how to get what we wanted to say in just 17 syllables.

It was great. We counted out syllables on our fingers. We discussed the most powerful haiku possibilities. We did some revising. Everyone could do this project, from the smallest children to the older adults.  It engaged us in a completely different way than singing or creating a drama or having a conversation does--and that's the value of our approach, the way we explore a topic from all sorts of directions.

We had three groups, and each group wrote a haiku on a larger sheet of paper, and if there was time, we could do additional decorating.  We then presented the haiku to the larger group.

This project would work well in Sunday Schools and for retreats too.  If I'm the Arts and Crafts Director for next year's Vacation Bible School, maybe I'll think about incorporating haiku.

My pastor has created a lovely video which you can see by going here.  If you want to hear the haiku, go here.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Pilgrims on Similar but Divergent, Paths

I've written before about my experience at a Hindu temple; this post talks about the first time that I went there with my Hindu friend for a yoga class.  Yesterday, I had the chance to be at the Hindu temple with her again.

We were there because I had written an article for The Lutheran on the changing face of ecumenism.  That magazine requested pictures of my friend and me at her temple.  My friend graciously got us permission to take pictures outside the temple, and the magazine provided the professional photographer.  My friend agreed to be in the pictures--not every friend would do that for me.

And so, we met at the temple and talked about possible locations and agreed on a plan.

The photographer needed some time to get set up, so we slipped inside.  Immediately I felt that feeling of peace that I so often get in a spiritual place.  My friend got a blissful expression, and she said, "I so love being here."

We walked to the area where the glass cases that contain statues of the gods are kept.  There are about 8 cases with elaborate statues inside.  Outside are offerings and candles.  My friend bowed at each one and waved the candle smoke in her direction and smoothed her hair.  She told me about each god.

Fundamentalist friends might ask me if those are statues that represent the gods or if they are the gods.  Fundamentalist friends would probably never speak to me again because they'd be so shocked that I went to the temple in the first place.

But back to that question:  I am just not sure.  I've now been to a Hindu house blessing, and been to the Hindu temple several times with my friend, and I just can't tell.  She talks about the statues as if they are the gods themselves, and yet I don't get the idea that a statue can contain the god as she understands it.

Soon enough, we were back outside, in the temperate air, in a temple that feels outside of time and space, but is close to the western edge of Broward county, just a few miles away from the Everglades.  I wondered about those first Hindus, back in the early 90's, who had the wisdom to buy the land.  I wondered about my friend and other Hindus, who came to this country which is so similar and so different to their homeland in India.

And then we got to the tough work of taking pictures:  holding poses, smiling, trying to keep our eyes open.  We sat on the cleanest, outdoor concrete floor I've ever sat on.  My friend smiled when I said that. "Of course, it's clean," she said.  "It's washed twice a day.  It has to be clean enough to eat off of.  That's the standard."  They met their standard.

I'm grateful for my friend who is so patient with my lack of knowledge.  She's grateful for me, a Christian who doesn't condemn her for her polytheistic beliefs.  We're lucky pilgrims to have found each other, on these paths which are so similar and yet so strange.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Spiritual Discipline of Compassion

How did Jesus do it?  I think often of Jesus and compassion and how to live in the world when one is open to the suffering of others.

I spent yesterday morning watching my husband try to cope with agonizing back pain.  Some days are better than others, and yesterday was a bad day.  I can do nothing except to be present, and sometimes I wonder if my presence is worse than my absence.  Yesterday morning, I just happened to be home.

I wish I could do more, but I'm no neurosurgeon.  We're going to the neurosurgeon after Thanksgiving.

I drove to work listening to the Diane Rehm show.  She was talking about homeless youth, and on the short drive to work, I heard such tales of woe.  I was already in a weepy mode, so I cried.

I worked to stabilize my mood before I went in the building to my office.  But it was the kind of day that drove me to tears.  And later, my colleague friend appeared to tell me that she's arranging hospice care for her mother, who has never really recovered from a fall that she took in August.  She stood in my doorway collapsing into sobs, and so, I hugged her and cried some tears of my own.

By the end of the day, I felt like all my nerve endings were exposed.  I felt exhausted.  Not for the first time, I wondered how Jesus did it. 

Of course, Jesus had the advantage of being part of the Triune God, which I am not.  But our creeds teach us that Jesus was also human.

I picture Jesus, trapped in human form, thinking about his nerve endings, his emotional self, the parts of his brain he wouldn't have to deal with if he wasn't incarnate.  I picture him thinking about how hard it is to deal with human problems while stuck in human form.

But Jesus also came to show us how to be more fully human, to show us what is possible if we want to live a full human life.  A large part of Christ's ministry involved healing, and a large part of that healing comes from being fully present.

And so, even though my response to human suffering tends to be a turning away, I'll resist my urge.  I'll continue to try to learn to be more fully present, more fully human.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Narrative Lectionary

The Narrative Lectionary readings for Sunday, November 18, 2012:

Isaiah 6:1-8

optional reading:  Luke 5:8-10

In the past few months, you may have accumulated quite a list of people who speak with unclean lips, people who need an application of burning coal.  But truth be told, we could all use a cleansing.

I spent much of last Advent last year muted.  I came back from Thanksgiving with one of the more severe colds that I've had in the past decade.  I lost my voice, regained it, and lost it again.  I had a case of conjunctivitis (pink eye), which along with the cold, limited my social life.

When I did make it to the office, I limited my speech, since I really couldn't talk easily anyway.  I tried to determine whether conversations were worth the pain that I'd feel from the effort.  Along the way, I realized how much of my conversations aren't essential at all.  What keeps me in the pit of gossip and speculation, when I'd really like to be connecting on a deeper level? 

It's a lesson easily forgotten when one's voice returns.  It's so effortless to talk about politics, about work issues that won't be important in a year or even a month.  It's so hard to talk about the issues that really affect people. 

How handy it would be to have an angel swoop in with a tong holding a burning coal to remind us to keep our conversations on track.  Instead of crosses and other religious symbols around our necks, maybe we should wear a chunk of coal.

Or maybe we should accept that we need a certain amount of inessential talk to warm up our tongues.  Maybe we should look for ways to steer the talk in which we engage towards something more meaningful.  When colleagues rant about health care costs, we can ask about health issues that plague them.  When we talk about office politics, we can steer the conversation to people's hopes about the future of the company or about alternate career paths.

Are we called to do this?  Are we called to consider the quality of our conversations?  It's hard to imagine an Old Testament prophet demanding that we listen deeply to each other.  We think of God calling us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and set the captives free.

How many of us feel held captive in an increasingly noisy world where we feel we can't be heard?  We may as well be in prison when we consider the difficulty in scheduling a meal together.  We leave messages on answering machines and text snippets to each other, but how rare it is to talk to each other.

God calls us to many tasks, and one of them is to be fully present.  We see an example of this in the call story of Isaiah, who asks God to send him before he even knows what the task will be.  It's an unusual call story.  We're far more familiar with the Jonahs of the world who run away and have to be held captive in the stomach of a fish before he'll do what God needs him to do.  We may feel sympathy for the Moses figures who tell God why God has chosen the wrong person.

When God calls to you, can you hear?  What will your response be?  Will you run away?

Or will you volunteer eagerly, no matter the task?

And if God calls you to leave your hurtful speech behind, could you silence that speech?  Could you turn your tongue to proclaiming good news, instead of grim news?

Advent approaches.  Maybe the gift of leaving hateful talk behind is what we all need.  Try it as your Advent discipline.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 18, 2012:

First Reading: Daniel 12:1-3

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 1:4-20

Psalm: Psalm 16

Psalm (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 2:1-10

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25

Gospel: Mark 13:1-8

Here we are, back to apocalyptic texts, a rather strange turn just before we launch into Advent--and just so you won't be surprised, those Advent texts can be on the apocalyptic side too. This week's Gospel is the type of text that many Christians use to support their assertion that we're living in the end times, that the rapture is near.  Of course, with the kind of weather that we've had lately, we may see signs of the end rimes everywhere we look.

Keep in mind that the idea of rapture is fairly new; most scholars date it to the middle of the 19th century. But Christians have felt besieged since the beginning, and indeed, at certain times throughout the centuries, they have been severely threatened.

Most scholars believe that the book of Mark was written just after a particularly brutal suppression of a Jewish uprising and just before the destruction of the Temple, a time when the empire of Rome made it increasingly difficult to be an alien part of the empire. The Gospel of Mark is the most apocalyptic Gospel, perhaps because it was written when people really expected the end was near.  Indeed, in many ways, the end was near. The whole of chapter 13 of Mark is grim indeed. Perhaps the Gospel writer uses such a chapter to launch into the Passion story, to set the mood.

Or maybe the Gospel writer wants to remind us of the cost of following Jesus. Maybe it's the larger cost of existing in the world. Even if we're lucky enough to be born into a calm time period, to be part of a country with a stable government, if we're conscious, it's hard to escape the conclusion that it could all vanish at any moment. And even if we don't suffer on the grand (genocidal) scale, most of us will endure more loss than our younger selves would have believed could be survived.

Before we sink too deeply into depression, we need to remember that Jesus came to give us Good News. And that Good News is that we have each other, and we have a God who loves us, no matter what. If we devote our lives to that love, then we can survive all sorts of betrayal, loss, and persecution.

It's also important to look at the last part of the last sentence of this week's Gospel: "this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs." Birth-pangs. What is being born exactly?

The most positive spin on this bit is to say that the Kingdom of God is being born. We tend to think of the Kingdom of God as referring to Heaven, but if you read all the references to the Kingdom of God, it appears that Jesus isn't talking about Heaven as we know it. In some places, Jesus seems to talk about the Kingdom as already existing, perhaps as Jesus walking amongst us. In other places, the Kingdom of God will come to earth later, in a kind of purifying, redeeming vision. Yet again, we see references to this process already beginning, both with Christ's efforts and with the efforts of his believers.

Those of us who have had children, or who have had relatives and friends who have had children, know that parents have to go through a fierce process to hold that little baby in their arms. Jesus reminds us that the process towards the Kingdom of God can be equally fierce. Jesus reminds us that we must stay alert and aware, but that we need not feel alarmed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Even Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day Had Doubts about their Directions

I've been finishing Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own, and I'm struck by the doubts that Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton had about the lives they were leading.  I've read the book before, so the information isn't new, but it's comforting to read it again.

When I first read the book, I was shocked to discover that Merton had a love affair late in his monastic life.  He went into the hospital for back surgery and fell in love with one of his nurses.  They wrote passionate letters, and because he had to return for physical therapy and check ups, they had the opportunity to see each other.

But physical love wasn't the only thing tugging Merton away from his monastic vows.  He wondered about nuclear weapons and the future of the world.  He wondered if being a monk and praying for the world was enough.  I take comfort from knowing that Merton wasn't sure.

And towards the end of his life, Merton was doing more networking with Buddhist monks.  If his life hadn't been cut short by his freak electrocution, what direction would he have gone?

Likewise, Dorothy Day seemed to have periods of doubts, but not about some of the issues we might have thought.  She remained fiercely committed to pacifism.  She was more doubtful about the communal living that she had set into motion.  She was shocked by the rude manners of some of the people who came for food and shelter--not the behavior of the truly poor but the behavior of the bohemians.

Here, too,  I take comfort from knowing the Day did what she could to create Christian community, but that she fell short of her goals.

If these spiritual giants weren't always sure that they lived the most authentic expression of Christianity possible, why should it be different for any of the rest of us? 

The best we can do is to always strive to make room for the Kingdom of God that Christ tells us is always trying to break through into our regular lives.  We can model Christian living--we have the ultimate example in Jesus.  We can suffer through periods of doubt, and if necessary, we can adjust our trajectory.  If we're lucky, we can be an inspiration, in all sorts of ways, to future generations.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Diversity on the Local, Congregational Level

Yesterday at church, one woman asked the woman in the pew ahead of me how her medical issues were progressing.  When told that the doctors hadn't been helpful, the woman without the medical issues said, "Well, you've just got to step up your prayer life then.  Those doctors aren't the final word."  She pointed towards the ceiling.  "He's the ultimate doctor, and we know that he does answer our prayers."  On and on she went.

I bit my tongue, although I think her theology is crummy--and dangerous.  The woman without good news from the doctors--what happens when she steps up her prayer life, and her health doesn't improve?  Will she assume that she hasn't prayed with enough skill?  Will she wonder what would have happened if she could have added even more prayer to her days?

I wanted to lean forward and talk about free will, the laws of the universe, and how God may not be able to intervene.  And yet, I didn't want to take away this woman's hope.  I watched her face soften and fill with some radiance as she got the pep talk.  Who am I to swirl in with what would be perceived as negative energy?

Not for the first time have I wondered about the strange theological splits in my church, by which I mean my local church.  Some of us are traditional Lutherans--we would no more have that talk about stepping up one's prayer life than we'd talk about our sex lives in church.  Unkind people might call us "God's frozen chosen."

There are others who lift their hands when they sing or prayer.  There are some with blissed out looks.  There are some who say "Amen" with enthusiasm.  And I've had some theological discussions with some of those folks that trouble me deeply.

I know that some of them come from more evangelical denominations.  We have some who have come from a local Missouri Synod Lutheran church that went through some upheavals a few years ago.

But we have also had people moving through sex change operations, and some of those evangelical people have welcomed the gender disoriented people warmly (others have not, but we persevere).  We have people who are working their way through addiction and back to health.  We have lots of enthusiastic children.  It's an intriguing mix.  We have the most diverse congregation in terms of color, age, cultural backgrounds, and economic situations that I have ever seen.

As the political season meandered along, I know that many people who don't socialize much with people outside of their demographic population have despaired at the possibility of the nation ever getting along as we become more diverse. 

My church gives me hope that we will.  At least the shoddy theology isn't what's being preached from the pulpit.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Praying for Peace on Veteran's Day

Dawn of another Veteran's Day, cloudy and with a threatening wind.  Before today was Veteran's Day, it was Armistice Day, the day that celebrated the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. In some ways, it's not a hard holiday to celebrate. Any event that restores peace in our time is worth some sober meditation.

However, those of us who know our history may be chastened by the knowledge of what was to come. The end of World War I planted the seeds that would blossom into World War II. World War I brought carnage on a level never before seen--but World War II would be even worse.

Why is it so hard for humans to remain at peace? There are whole series of books that address this question, so I won't attempt it here. Still, today is a good day to offer extra prayers for sustained peace in our time. World War I and all the other wars of the 20th century offer us vivid examples of the horrible consequences of the lack of peace.

Veteran's Day is also a good day to offer prayers of thanks for the military people who have been willing to fight. I want desperately to be a pacifist, but I will admit that sometimes tyrants must be dealt with forcefully. My pessimistic side believes that violence is the only language that tyrants understand, but the 20th century has given us many examples of the peaceful overturning of despots, so I don't fully believe my pessimistic side. Still, we often don't use the forces of non-violence in enough time, and so, force may be our only option (witness the example of Hitler).

Some of us will have a day off tomorrow.  Some of us will go to our jobs.  Some of those jobs will be military jobs.  We all have our part to play.

But for today, let's take a minute to appreciate how few of us in most nations have had to experience war first hand.  Let us celebrate a world that can move toward peace.  Let us pray for a time when war will come no more.

Here's a prayer I wrote for Veteran's Day:

God of Peace, on this Veteran's Day, please renew in us the determination to be peacemakers. On this day, we pray for all who are damaged by wars big and small. We offer a prayer of thanks for our veterans, and we offer a prayer of hope that military people across the world will find themselves with no warmaking jobs to do. We offer our pleading prayers that you would plant in our leaders the seeds that will sprout into saplings of peace.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Happy Birthday Martin Luther!

Today is Martin Luther's birthday.  I wrote a long post a year ago which explores many of his views.  If you find Luther a troubling figure, I do understand.  His antisemitism is tough for modern readers.  And many of his views on all sorts of subjects are closer to medieval than modern.

Still, I'm grateful for the Protestant Reformation, which led us in all sorts of directions towards our modern life.  I'm grateful to Luther for translating the Bible into German which made it infinitely more accessible.  I'm grateful to Luther for his decent treatment of his wife.  I'm grateful for the ideas of grace that Luther promoted, even as his ideas about sin make me queasy with their potential to be misused.

Today's post on The Writer's Almanac celebrates the birthday of Luther.  I'm struck by this thought:  "Luther's ideas and his writing led to the Protestant Reformation. But toward the end of his life, he was so overwhelmed by the scope of the revolution he had caused that he stayed out of the limelight, at home in Germany, raising a family, gardening, and playing music."

How interesting to hear that Luther felt this way.  I was always taught that he hadn't meant to launch a revolution when he posted those theses to the Wittenberg door.  But I have assumed that after years of confrontation with the Catholic church, after being hunted and under threat of death, that he would have felt victorious  at the end.

I love Luther's coping mechanism:  to immerse himself into home life and music.  It's good to remember that even as we go out to fight the battles that must be fought, it's good to have retreat time and times of self-nurture.

Here's a Luther quote from The Writer's Almanac:  "God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars."

Most of us still have some delightful weather left to us.  Luther reminds us to enjoy the natural world and to look for evidence of God there too. Soon many of us will be driven indoors for a few months.  Why not schedule a nature walk for today?   And then you could plant some bulbs that will delight you when spring comes.  Weave music through your day.   End your tribute to Martin Luther by reading the Bible in your own language before you turn out the lights and fall asleep; say a prayer of thanks for this man who set us on the road to greater literacy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Narrative Lectionary

The readings for Sunday, November 11, 2012:

Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10 (4:1-11)

Optional Reading:  Luke 18:3    

If we've ever felt ineffective in our ministry and witness--and who hasn't?--the book of Jonah is the book for us.  The book of Jonah, while comic in many ways, has a serious message. 

God can take the work of any of us and use it for the good.  And even if we're the flailing, trying to escape God type of person, God can work with that too.  

Jonah is a reluctant prophet, at best.  He refuses to do the task that God gives him and almost brings destruction to those around him.  But notice how the men on the boat are converted by his actions.  Even as he's trying to avoid his mission, he provides a witness.  

Why is he so reluctant?  Fear for his life?  Perhaps.  But modern readers have likely lost sight of the fact that Jonah is sent to one of the most brutal regimes the ancient world has known.  Jonah may feel that they don't deserve to hear God's message of repentance.  Why would God, the God of Israel, reach out to the Assyrians?  

Jonah doesn't preach his message in the great poetry of the other prophets.  His message is short.  Even after spending his time-out in the stomach of a great fish, he's still lukewarm about his task.   And again, despite Jonah's efforts, the people repent. 

We might expect Jonah to be happy.  Again, Jonah pouts.  And if we read to the end of the book, we see a God who explains, but we don't know how Jonah responds.  

Popular imagination tells the tale that because of his time in the fish, Jonah changes his mind and commits, but throughout the book, we see that Jonah does not.  Jonah roots for destruction. 

On the other hand, we see a portrait of God who is committed to grace, who worries about the most brutal and depraved, who worries even about the cows.  

The book of Jonah is full of important reminders for us. I wonder about the symbolic message of the great fish.  We think of time-outs as a discipline option for misbehaving children, and it does function that way here too.  But it also gives Jonah time to think and consider.  Even if it doesn't convert Jonah permanently, it gives him a safe space where he can quit running.   

We see Jonah being forgiven again and again.  God has a vision for Jonah, and even though Jonah tries everything to escape or undermine that vision, God welcomes Jonah after each repentance.  

Once again, we see a message of grace and redemption, no matter how bad life has become, no matter how bad we have become.  God extends multiple chances to dictators, to wayward prophets, to cattle--and to us.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 11, 2012:

1 Kings 17:8-16

Psalm 146

The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down. (Ps. 146:7)

Hebrews 9:24-28

Mark 12:38-44

The Gospel reading for this week gives us a tough vision of God's expectations, especially for those of us of wealth in the West; or perhaps it's more appropriate to adopt the world vision of Philip Jenkins, and talk about Christians in the affluent, but shrinking in Christian numbers, North, and the poorer, but richer in Christian population, South.

Most of us can convince ourselves that Jesus doesn't speak of us in the first part of the passage--but is this true? Perhaps we should look again.

Most of us don't pray in public, where people will be sure to see us and remark on our piety. But here's a tougher question. Look at the part of the passage about the people of privilege and recognition who "devour widows' houses"; in the time of Jesus, the widow would be the universal symbol of the most economically helpless member of society.

Again, most of us would be sure that Jesus isn't describing us. We think we don't really have all that much prestige. But most of us in suburban churches really do--we drive decent cars and live in decent neighborhoods and have plenty to eat. Many of us give offerings to support the poor. Does Jesus suggest that we should do something more extreme than that? Even if we deny ourselves so as not to be that person that devours the widow, how does that help the poor?

Years ago, I went to hear one of my favorite theologians, Marcus Borg, and he said that we come to know much of what we know about God as Jesus reveals God's character to us. From reading the Gospel, it becomes clear that "God's character is compassion, and God's passion is justice" (Borg's words).

Note that the word is justice, and not charity. Look at the example of the poor widow in the end of the Gospel for today. She gives all that she has. She doesn't tithe. She gives it all. Borg points out that the concept of justice in the Bible is primarily about economic justice; everybody should have enough--not equal portions, necessarily, but enough. Borg points out that justice is far less comfortable for those of us of privilege than charity. Charity lets us tithe and thus, keep our surplus. Justice demands more.

The Gospel lesson makes it clear what God expects. God wants everything we have to give. I'm not sure we should take the end of this Gospel too literally, in economic terms, although the more I read, the more I'm thinking that perhaps God does want us to give away all that we own, if we really want the full Christian experience. God expects more from us than many of us might be prepared to give.

We've just celebrated All Saints Day, which many of us might brush off as saying that normal people just can't accomplish what those saints accomplished. And yet, perhaps we don't take ourselves seriously enough when we say that. Marcus Borg says that Jesus shows us what can be seen of God in a human life; there's much of God that can't be shown in a human life, but Jesus shows us what can be seen. Marcus Borg says that Jesus wasn't different from us--perhaps different in degree, but not in kind. He said that Jesus was like St. Francis of Assisi with an exclamation point--and just think of all that St. Francis managed to accomplish. The Gospel lesson reinforces that teaching and makes it clear that no less is expected of us.

What if we decided to require more of ourselves? What would it mean to really use Christ as your example of how we are supposed to act in the world? Not just during special events, but every day, day after day, during each hour of the day? It's a goal worth struggling towards.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

All Saints Whispers and Roars

If you to this blog hoping for election analysis, you might be more interested in this post on my creativity blog.  I spent yesterday surrounded by reminders of our mortality.  Was it Election Day or Halloween?

In some ways, I feel that the feast days of All Saints and All Souls stretch out beyond their boundaries.  Yesterday morning, I read an e-mail from a colleague who told me that her father had died.  And then, in the afternoon, one of my oldest college friends told me that his stepdad had died.  This morning, I read an e-mail from an old grad school friend who told me that her brother died.

Suddenly, I found myself just not caring about the election.  I wept for those losses, especially for my friend's brother who had just turned 60--certainly not in the death demographic.  I felt the need to tell my loved ones how dear they are to me--and so, I wrote an e-mail.

Election Day, too, reminds me of how short a time we're here.  So short a time, and so very much to do.  As I was watching results, I felt a bit ill thinking of all the work still left to do.  I thought, I wouldn't want to be elected to deal with these problems.  They feel so unsolvable.

At these times, it's good to return to the Psalms, which remind us that yes, we are grass, already in the process of passing away.  It's good to return to the Gospels which remind us that God breaks through our brokenness and brings redemption and new creation.  It's good to return to all our spiritual texts that remind us that death will not have the final answer. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Slightly Spiritual Thoughts on Election Day

--I continue to be amazed by how many people seem to have never met anyone outside of their political tradition.  I tend towards the liberal, but I know conservatives of all sorts.  Not only that, I talk to them; we have deep, meaningful conversations.  Clearly, in the caricatures I've seen spewed by far too many people, many people assume the worst of people who aren't just like them.

--But guess what?  Most of us have similar values.  We really do.  We want our children to be safe.  We want the future to be better than the present.  Everyone I know from every part of the political spectrum believes that we'd have a stronger society if people's basic needs were met.  I've yet to meet anyone who thinks that anyone deserves to go to bed hungry. 

--I point to church as a place where we meet people who aren't just like us; it's certainly where I've met the most people outside of my demographic description.

--Church also reminds us of our stories that show that God is alive and working in the world.  During an election year, it's all too easy to tumble into despair.  But our religious institutions, when they're at their best, remind us to dream of a world that's better than the one we inhabit now.  The best of our religious institutions encourage us to transform our corner of the world, not just to wait for Heaven.

--I also look to monastic traditions, especially the ones who pray for the world, even as they have withdrawn from the world.  We can pray too.

--On a day like today, let us all remember to pray.

--Here are some prayers for Election Day:

Prayer 1:   Just and merciful God, on this day help us to be wise as we cast our ballots.  Keep us from the dangers of despair.  Remind us of the times when the oppressed have been set free, and help us to be part of that process.  Give us the courage to do what must be done.

Prayer 2:   Generous God, as we head to the polls, help us stay mindful of those who have gone before us, those who didn't have the privileges that we enjoy.  Guide us as we choose our leaders.  Help us to discern which candidates will help bring to fruition the world that you envision for us.

Prayer 3:  Triune God, remind us that no matter what happens today, the sun will rise tomorrow.  Remind us of all the leaders who seemed a disastrous pick at the time but who went on to bring about important changes that we'd have never dreamed possible.  Remind us of the leaders with hard hearts that softened.  Remind us that you are a God who can make all sorts of dreams come true.  And remind us that we have a part to play too.

Prayer 4:  Creator God, on this Election Day, we pray for our country and for all countries.  We pray for our leaders, those of the past, and those we elect today to lead us toward the future.  We pray for all citizens, that we may be involved and not passive.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Of Saints and Zoos

When I was at the library last week, I picked up the DVD copy of "We Bought a Zoo."  My spouse had wanted to watch it when it came out, and I thought it would be a light comedy.

How wrong I was.

I didn't think about the dead mother.  I didn't realize how large a role she would play.  I somehow missed the fact in the previews that the father buys the zoo when he's still deep in grief.  I wept and wept.

In many ways, however, the movie felt right for All Saints Sunday.  It showed how we deal with death, with all the ways we grieve.  It talked about the importance of stories to remembering our saints.  It showed that even when our families have been ripped asunder, we can create new families.

It's not overtly theological, but it has some interesting possibilities, especially if you've got a youth group that does movie nights.  Maybe youth groups don't do that anymore.  But I love the idea of taking mainstream films and seeing where we can extract some theological/spiritual insight from them.

It's also an interesting film about our responsibility to care for creation.  It's clear that one of the animals needs more space than the zoo has provided.  There's the beauty of the countryside.  There's an old tiger who is sick, which leads an interesting discussion of end-of-life responsibilities.  Again, lots of interesting discussions that can be had here with your family or church group.

Instead of leaving me feeling cleansed, the way tearjerker films often do, I felt a bit anxious and held onto my spouse more tightly.  Like All Saints services and traditions, this film reminds us that everything we love will be lost, and perhaps sooner than we think.  It's a good reminder that we need to cherish people while they're still on this side of the grave and huggable.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Saint I Miss the Most Today

 Today, many Christian churches will be celebrating All Saints Sunday.  The feast day of All Saints, which celebrates all the saints, falls on November 1, and the feast day of All Souls, which celebrates the lives of those who died in the past year, falls on November 2. 

My grandmother died at the end of 2011.  I've been missing her even more in these past few days, in which we traditionally believe that the veil between the living and the dead grows thin, or even lifts.  I've wished I had a picnic to share with her.  I've wished that the picnic could contain one of her pies or the cookies I shared with many a college friend when I'd go visit her and she'd send me back to my college dorm with tins of cookies.

Above, you see her surrounded by her grandchildren in 1974; from left to right, there's my cousin Steve, my younger sister Megan, me with the theatrical hand, and in the high chair, the baby cousin Jeff.

Steve's wife, Sarah, just had their third baby last night.  The generations continue.

Above you see my grandmother with me at my MA graduation in 1989. 

Above, here she is with her great grandson Jackson (my nephew) back in 2008.  He's "reading" one of his favorite Richard Scary books, one with lots of earthmoving equipment and big trucks.

Above, here she is in 1986, with a needlepoint picture that I stitched.  It says, "There's no place like home, except Grandma's."  In a way, I agreed with that.  When I came to visit her, I often had a sense of coming home.  She lived in same house, while my parents moved a lot.   Her house seemed never-changing, while my parents often changed furniture and decorations.

She taught me a lot about familial love.  She didn't always approve of my choices; some of those choices broke her heart more severely than I knew at the time.  But she didn't cast me out.  She made her disapproval clear, sometimes harshly clear, in a way that my parents didn't.  But she continued to welcome my visits and to cook delicious meals and to send me on my way with love that expressed itself as cookies and clothes that she sewed for me.

I most treasure the stories that she told me, stories that make it clear that I come from tough stock.  I come from people who have made a way when there was no clear path to be found.  I come from people who made a tramp a fried egg sandwich, even when they hardly had enough food for their families.  I come from people who were both thrifty and generous, people who knew how to carry on in the face of sorrow.

Most of all, she showed me how to live a genuine Christian life.  One thing I can say about her:  she wasn't a hypocrite.  She lived what she believed.  I may not have always agreed with that expression, but she stayed true to her values.  And the older I get, the more I have come to cherish the most important of her core values and hope that I'm staying true to them too.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Monastery at Home

For the past 3 years, this week-end would be the one I would spend at Mepkin Abbey:  communing with monks, walking the grounds, reading, reconnecting with friends, and working on writing projects.  But because of a series of events, we moved our trip to February, and I found myself home alone while my spouse flew to his board meeting in North Carolina.

I had thought I would have a monastery-like week-end here.  I decided to go ahead and take yesterday off.  I'd gotten my leave time approved, and the end of the year approaches, when my leave time evaporates.  I decided to have a day spent in writing projects and contemplation.

It both happened that way and didn't happen that way.  I did get some work on writing projects done, but not the ones I planned to work on.  I did do some cooking, but not the bread baking that I planned to do.  To be fair, even the Mepkin monks no longer do their own bread baking, since Brother Boniface died.  I walked the grounds here, but I was mowing the lawn.

I'm most struck by silence issue.  I didn't talk much, but I had NPR on most of the day.  Our NPR station doesn't switch to music until much later in the night, so my day was filled with talk.

By the end of the day, I was feeling a bit of anxiety.  I often feel a bit of anxiety as the sun begins its slow descent.  But I think I also felt anxiety because of the coverage of Hurricane Sandy.  Would I feel the same anxiety if I didn't live on the other end of the hurricane corridor?  There's that survivor's guilt that comes from having dodged a bullet.  There's that terror in knowing that the odds are against me.  How long before it is me without power and water, picking up the sticks of my smashed house/life?

My thoughts turned to Thomas Merton; I've gotten to the point in The Life You Save May Be Your Own:  An American Pilgrimage where Merton gets permission to build the hermitage he wants, instead of the tool shed that he's been utilizing.  What would Merton make of our super-connected life?

I'm fairly certain he would tell us to turn off all of our gadgets and tune in to God.  And so, at the end of the day, I turned off the radio and picked up my prayer book (The Divine Hours, by Phyllis Tickle).  I read the Compline prayers.  I turned off the lights and fell right into sleep.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The readings for Sunday, November 4, 2012:

1 Kings 17:1-16 (or 17:1-24)
optional reading:  Luke 4:24-26    

The reading for this week seems fitting after a week of very strange weather.  We see that bizarre weather is nothing new to us.  People in today's reading are dealing with extreme weather too.  

As a good prophet would do, Elijah trusts God, and God provides through unusual vectors.  Ravens deliver bread and meat, and this plan goes well until Elijah's stream dries up.  

God's next plan must have seemed even more impossible.  God tells Elijah to go to a more distant town and to rely on the hospitality of a widow. 

To modern ears, this idea might not seem strange, but throughout the Bible, widows are living on the narrowest of margins, the most dispossessed even in the best of times.  Indeed, she's planning to eat the last of her food and die.   But the widow shares what she has and receives abundance.  The meal and oil do not run out.  The widow, so recently prepared to eat a last meal and die with her son, finds herself fed. 

And if you read the rest of the chapter, you discover that because of the widow's hospitality, Elijah is there to save her son when he dies of illness.   Once again, we see God providing a way when it looks like none can be found.  And once again, we see God operating in ways that we might not expect. 

In this passage, God relies on outcasts to deliver sustenance:  ravens, a widow, and Elijah himself.   Again, here, we see the value of hospitality.  The widow could have refused to take Elijah in.  But by sharing the little that they had, they find that they have more than they did when they started.  

We also see another example of faith rewarded.  Elijah obeys God; he doesn't try to control God.  He doesn't say, "Ick.  I'm not eating food that's been in a raven's beak."  He doesn't decide to leave the poorest of the poor (the widow) alone and demand food from a wealthier patron.  He holds fast to God's vision.

And in the end of the chapter, we see Elijah demanding more from God.  Elijah pleads with God to save the son, and God does it.   Many a theologian will tell us that if we belive in a free-will world, that God cannot intervene in human lives unless we ask. 

This will not be the last time that we will see Biblical people demanding that God act in a more just way.  And the good news of this story is that this cry for justice is rewarded with new life.  Unlike other ancient religions, no one has to be struck down for daring to call on God to act justly.  

We, too, live in a land that needs more justice.  We, too, see that we inhabit a wrecked planet with increasingly unreliable weather.  But the Old Testament passage promises us that God will sustain us.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

All Saints Day in Photos

We write their names in the book of the dead, but we wish we could do more:

If only there was some way we could communicate with those souls gone on to what will come after death:

If only we didn't have to think of them, flesh turning to dust:

But the gate between worlds seems closed to us:

What can we do but pray, and hope that they pray for us?

What can we do but hope?

We must trust that the sunset

will turn into the promise that comes with sunrise, the joy that comes after the night of weeping:

For more concrete ways to celebrate this Feast Day, see this post that I wrote several years ago.