I don't have an eBook ready to go, but I know someone who is offering his eBook free today--and it should be of special interest to Lutherans.
Pastor Paul Meier has written Praying the Gospels with Martin Luther: Finding Freedom in Love, and today and tomorrow, he's offering it as a free download!
Here's a description:
"If Martin Luther preached today what he preached in 1525-1540, his friends would have to protect him again – but this time, from many Protestants.
Martin Luther’s scholastic writings provided the theological foundation for change in the institutional church. Yet his sermons reveal that love lies at the heart of biblical interpretation and application. Through the Word, he unlocked the chains of religious legalism that make living one’s religion less about obedience and more about love.
In what he considered one of his greatest works, a collection of sermons called the Church Postil, Luther applied biblical texts to the practice of daily living. Meier has written prayers based on the gospel sermons to teach the principles of his practical theology in a way that makes them accessible to the average person."
While I haven't read this book, I've read Meier's writing, and it's eloquent and useful. I have no doubt you'll find similar writing in his current work.
Palm Sunday has become a busy Sunday. Somewhere in the past twenty years, we've gone from hearing just the story of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem to hearing the whole Passion story--on Palm Sunday many Christians leave the church with Jesus dead and buried. It's downright disconcerting to those of us who return to church for the rest of Holy Week--we hear the same stories on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It makes for a long, Sunday Gospel reading--and reinforces one of the paradoxes of the Passion story: how can people shout acclaim for Jesus in one day, and within the week demand his Crucifixion? Maybe it's good to hear the whole sad story in one long sitting, good to be reminded of the fickleness of the crowd.
It's one of the central questions of Christian life: how can we celebrate Palm Sunday, knowing the goriness of Good Friday to come? How can we celebrate Easter with the taste of ashes still in our mouth?
I find myself still in an Ash Wednesday frame of mind. Perhaps you do too. It's been a tough year for many of us. We’ve suffered job loss or house loss. If we’ve kept our jobs, we’ve said goodbye to colleagues. In any year, some of us lose loved ones in any number of ways. Because we are mammals that think and know, we are always aware that there will be horrors yet to come. We live in a culture that seems to prefer crucifixion to redemption.
Palm Sunday offers us some serious reminders. If we put our faith in the world, we're doomed. If we get our glory from the acclaim of the secular world, we'll find ourselves rejected sooner, rather than later.
Palm Sunday also reminds us of the cyclical nature of the world we live in. The palms we wave this morning traditionally would be burned to make the ashes that will be smudged on our foreheads in 10 months for Ash Wednesday. The baby that brings joy at Christmas will suffer the most horrible death--and then rise from the dead. The sadnesses we suffer will be mitigated by tomorrow's joy. Tomorrow's joy will lead to future sadness. That's the truth of the broken world we live in. Depending on where we are in the cycle, we may find that knowledge either a comfort or fear inducing.
It's at times like these where the scriptures offer comforts that the world cannot. Look at the message from Isaiah: "The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. . . . For the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near" (Isaiah 50, first part of verse 4, verse 7, and first part of verse 8).
God promises resurrection. We don't just hope for resurrection. God promises resurrection.
God calls us to live like the redeemed people that we are. Turn your face to the light. Turn away from the dark. Commit to redemption. Commit to new life. With a peaceful mind, wait for the resurrection that God has promised to you.
At the recent Quilt Show by the Sea (March 16-18), I was struck by how many quilts had a religious theme (although to be fair, some were subtle). Some were outrightly religious, like this quilt that looked like a stained glass window that you might see in any church:
Here's a close up:
I noticed fish of all kinds:
A detail from the above quilt:
More abstract fish below:
Of course, not all imagery was Christian. My friend and I were struck by the mandala quilt. She said she's always thought mandelas would make a great quilt--she was right.
A detail from the mandala quilt; much of it looks painted, but all of it is done in cloth.
I've always thought that labyrinths would make a great quilt pattern, but so far, I haven't been up to the challenge of making one. I haven't found that anyone else has either. Below, another detail from the mandala quilt:
I love the butterfly below. Easter will be here soon!
Our pastor has been off lectionary for Lent; he's been preaching about the last 5 days of Christ. Yesterday's pre-planned Gospel was the Crucifixion story. It provided an interesting juxtaposition with the story out of Sanford, the shooting of unarmed Trayvon Martin. When our pastor first mentioned the case, I felt my heart sink a bit. I find the story heartbreaking in all sorts of ways, yet I'm tired of hearing all the anger that it provokes.
Our pastor pulled off the tricky task of talking about the case without it sinking the larger message. Our pastor reminded us that we don't know as much about the case as we might think we do. He said, "It's not helpful to speculate on what the people were thinking or feeling that night.
He said that Christians have a voice to bring to this conversation, which is so marked by anger and speculation. He then segued to the Good Friday story. He asked, "To what is our heart clinging?"
Luther said it should be God.
Our pastor reminded us that our culture will offer us many substitutes for God. Our culture is happy to provide gods for us: self, anger, money, anxiety, status . . . the list could go on and on.
It's an important question to ask periodically: to what does your heart cling? Is it God or some other kind of god that your culture has supplied?
Yesterday was the anniversary of the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Romero. I wanted to watch Salvador, and we did, with the director commentary on. It was fascinating.
Oliver Stone made this movie on a shoestring of a budget, which meant he had to be creative in ways that he isn't forced to be creative now. He had to be accepting of some shots, because he didn't have the money or time to shoot scenes over and over again. He talked about some scenes which were unanticipated or which he had visualized as happening differently, yet he had to accept what happened. And those scenes are often ones that he has come to realize are better than what he had planned.
Over and over again, he talked about how he was pushed to the edge, pushed over the edge, and there he found all sorts of resources that he didn't know he had. He talked about the quality that everyone involved with the movie adopted, a quality of making it up as they went along. This quality led them to be more creative, to go in directions they wouldn't have otherwise gone--which led them to a movie that was better than what they would have created, had they had more money, time, and other resources.
He brought up Hunter S. Thompson and that whole school of gonzo journalists, writers who plunged themselves right into the stories that they were covering and creating a different kind of journalism. His filmmaking experience with Salvador was similar.
He talks about the quality of moviemakers in their youth, about not knowing that you can't do certain things, and so you attempt all sorts of things. And they often work brilliantly.
This morning, I've been thinking about this approach as it might apply to all sorts of other areas. What would happen if churches decided to do everything differently?
Many of us are going to have to do so, if we haven't already. Many churches face declining numbers of parishioners, aging buildings, aging parishioners, a culture that has moved on. Many churches are paralyzed in the face of this downward spiral.
But what would happen if we attempted things anyway? What would a Gonzo approach to church look like?
Would we sell our buildings and meet where the unchurched hang out? Would we re-purpose our buildings so that they became vital places to our communities?
Would we do church differently? If we find ourselves unable to afford pastors, musicians, educators, how would our approach change?
Would we think about Sunday School differently? What social justice situations would call to us, if we didn't already have commitments?
Gonzo church--I'll ponder this as I head out to my not-quite-Gonzo church.
Today is the birthday of Fanny Crosby, writer of thousands of hymns (and many other types of songs too). We don't sing many of her hymns in my Lutheran church, and I have to confess that I'm glad that we don't. I find her work overly sweet and theologically weak. But I might have had a different view had I lived 150 years ago.
Scholars note that hymns before Crosby focused on sin and the worthlessness of humans, but Crosby changed that. Her hymns focused on our personal relationships with the Divine, and with our human longings for deeper connection.
Before she wrote each hymn, she began with prayer. She always hoped that her hymns would bring people to Christ, which may explain why so many of them are evangelical in nature. She rarely wrote the music, instead concentrating on the lyrics. She often wrote 6 or 7 hymns a day, and because she was blind, she did all the work in her head.
Her accomplishment would be amazing in any age, but I'm struck by the fact that she lived in the U.S. in the 19th century, not exactly an easy time to be a female writer of any sort. In fact, some feminist scholars would surely wonder what she might have written, had all subject matters been open to her.
I think she would have continued to write those hymns. After all, she didn't want to be remembered for her hymns, but for being a rescue mission worker, and I could make the argument that her hymns are a natural offshoot of that rescue mission work. She spent much of her life living in rescue missions so that she could better help the poor and destitute. She gave away much of her money, which may explain why she didn't seem to care that she wasn't paid very well for all those hymns she wrote.
What an amazing woman. Like Dorothy Day or Jane Addams, Fanny Crosby reminds us of all that it is possible to do with one short life, even a life constrained by gender, history, disability, or any of the other things that can constrain a life.
With our recent round of lay-offs at school, and with stories like this one, many of us in the education field are thinking about alternate futures. Those of us who are older (58 or so) may be able to limp along until retirement. It's becoming increasingly clear that those of us who are younger should be making alternate plans, especially if our degrees are in the Humanities.
Through the years I've found myself at similar points, and I've found that the major part of the struggle is a failure of imagination. I think back to myself as a girl, a girl who wanted to be a park ranger or maybe a truck driver or a baker or an actress or a writer--on and on I could go like this.
But now, I'm surrounded by people who say, "But what could I do besides teach?" They say, "I guess I could do adjunct work." But there's more to life than teaching.
And yes, I understand that health insurance is the great unknown. But in the early stages, I think it's important to just let our minds wander, to see where we're drawn.
To put it in theological terms, it's important to stay open to the Holy Spirit and where it leads us. And it's important to realize that there's not necessarily one clear path. Many of us think that if we don't find the one clear path, we'll be stuck bushwhacking in the wilderness. But there may be many paths--the trick may be to choose.
Early on, the trick may be to give ourselves permission to dream. What would we do if we could do anything? What would we do if we didn't have to worry about money?
This morning, I've been inspired by this post by Christine Valters Paintner, where she talks about her decision to move to Vienna. She reminds us, "When we press against life's edges, we discover that so much of what we carry in the world is not necessary. This includes things, but also stories we tell about ourselves and how the world works, and expectations we hold. As I sell and give away most of my possessions I am taking seriously the invitation to loosen my grip on other kinds of excess baggage as well. I am doing my best to let go of the belief that this kind of dream isn't practical or wise. My husband is letting go of a good job in a terrible economy. We have both had to deal with the demon of anxiety around this one. The danger of the times we live in is that fear takes hold of us so easily. We are given so many reasons to be worried about the future. As the storyteller Michael Meade once said, "a false sense of security is the only kind there is." When we make choices purely out of holding onto an idea of how things should be, we are often disappointed. The wisdom of calling does not follow the logic of the world."
How I love that last sentence: "The wisdom of calling does not follow the logic of the world." The wisdom of the world tells us to worry about health insurance, to worry about bad luck, to try to protect ourselves in every way we can.
The wisdom of the Holy Spirit invites us to new life, not to paralyzing fear. Jesus tells us that even sparrows are nurtured in God's economy. Our religious texts remind us over and over again to be careful of where we store our treasures.
Off I go to my work day, with all sorts of dreams nibbling at the corners of my consciousness.
This verse is my favorite of the Gospel for this week: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (verse 24). I have a rather Disneyfied vision of a seed who desperately resists change, who wants life to continue as normal. "Let me have the familiar. Don't force me to change."
But that seed doesn't see that it lives alone in the dark, damp earth. It thinks life is fine, because it has never known anything else. It thinks life is fine, because it doesn't have a vision of anything else. How can it? It lives all alone in the dark, damp earth.
Only by letting go (however painful that might be) of its current life, will that little seed find itself transformed. That seed, in its current form, must die, so that it can be reborn into a much more glorious life. That seed, once it lets go, once it faces death, will break through into a life of sunshine. That seed, once it lets go, will find much company. It will bear fruit, which means it has fulfilled its biological imperative--it has gotten its genes into the next generation.
The most obvious way of interpreting this passage is to see it as being about death and Heaven. Eventually, we die and break out of our existential loneliness by joining our loved ones in Heaven.
But perhaps this passage gives us a deeper insight.
Certainly, we see a vision of Christ, who is troubled (according to traditional interpretation) by his impending death. That seed represents Christ's death as well as our own. If Christ had just lived quietly into old age, preaching and teaching, it's a pretty safe bet that you and I wouldn't be Christians. It is only by Jesus' death and rebirth that Christianity can flourish.
We might also think about how that seed could represent our current lives. What part of your life do you need to let die, so that you can be transformed into something glorious? Past visions of Christianity stressed the glories we could look forward to in the afterlife, yet Christ comes to live with us to show us how we can live now, how we can make the Kingdom manifest on earth now.
We spend much of our lives in the dark, damp earth--and that earth can be a metaphor for many things--what imprisons us? Is it our tendency towards anger? despair? Does the dark stand for the substances we abuse? Does the dirt represent the behaviors that keep us from fulfilling our true potential as Christians?
Before you plunge into sadness about all the ways you've fallen short, take heart. Remember that the dirt is also a nourishing medium. Seeds won't grow without dirt. All that dirt has gone a long way to protecting you for that time when you're ready to bloom.
God's vision for us is not one that keeps us muffled and buried and alone in the mud. All we have to do is to die.
That sounds so harsh. And yet, it is what is required of us. Much of our New Testament stresses that fact. Being a Christian requires that our old life dies. Otherwise, we won't flower and flourish like we should.
In keeping with the seed metaphor, perhaps I should have said, all we have to do is shuck off the husk of our former lives. All we have to do is to have the faith to face transformation.
It's interesting to think about the first day of Spring, when we're deep into Lent. If you want a more traditional Spring photo essay, see the post I wrote today on my creativity blog.
It's also strange to think about Spring, when so many people haven't really had a winter. Down here on the southernmost coasts of the Florida mainland, we rarely have cold weather, but I still find my heart soaring when we get to the days when the light lingers longer. I walk outside, and I think, what soft morning air; what a beautiful morning.
I haven't felt the presence of Lent theologically in ways that I have in earlier years when I've been doing more with Wednesday night services. In other years, I've adopted a more rigorous Lenten discipline. In other years, I haven't been travelling as much.
But Lent intrudes in other ways. At work, on March 7, we received word of lay offs. Before Easter comes, we will be saying goodbye to friends and colleagues. Lenten images of tombs and ashes have a different significance this year.
I should let these days of increasing light remind me of the Easter promise. What feels like death can really lead us to new life. Let it be so. Let us live into our resurrection lives.
Today is the feast day of St. Joseph, husband of Mary the mother of Jesus. Today is the day we honor fathers and faithfulness to God's plans which we may not always understand. Today is the day we pray for the protection of children and weaker members of our communities.
Will this be the day that swallows return from Capistrano? Will fish return to the rivers where they were born? Some traditions say yes.
Some people will build special altars. Some people will wear red today. Interesting traditions abound around food for this day. Because we're in the middle of the penitent season of Lent, some festivals allow no meat, but others do. Many St. Joseph's Day foods are made with bread crumbs, to represent Joseph's trade as carpenter.
Here is a prayer for today, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime:
"O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give me grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."
I honestly can't decide if I'm failing at my Lenten discipline or not. I was determined that I would spend the season of Lent refusing to fret, and I think I've only had one or two fretful days, those kind of days where worry spikes, and eventually, I find myself in a dark spiral that I only get out of by going to bed and getting up to face a new day.
So, in a way, it's a success. I've prayed more, instead of fretting. I've tried to let go and let God, as they say in the Recovery communities.
I'm rather horrified at how many elements of my life seem to conspire to send me down the fret spiral. Trying to be resolute in my discipline of not worrying, I'm astonished at how often my mind drifts towards worry.
And I've been amazed at how events blindside me. I'd been expecting more lay offs at work, but I didn't think that they'd come until closer to Summer. I didn't think I'd lose any members of my department, because our classes are jam-packed. Imagine my surprise when lay offs were announced on March 7, and 3 members of my department were on the list. Sigh. I hadn't even started to worry about lay offs when bam, they happened.
And worrying wouldn't have helped anyway, would it? I couldn't have made the lay offs not happen. I could make a back up plan if they did come, but until I know the scope, it makes no sense to plan for that kind of development: will we lose everyone, or 5 people, or a percentage? My worrying would have absolutely no effect. I know that intellectually, but I'm still not at the point of being able to control those emotions.
I'm surrounded by people who are not doing as well with their Lenten disciplines as they had wished. But I firmly believe the attempt is worth it. We learn much, even as we fail.
And the good news is that God will love us anyway. Perhaps our failed Lenten discipline will bring us closer to God, as we try again, as we ask for help and guidance, as we try to be resolute again.
Today is the feast day of St. Patrick, perhaps one of the most famous saints. Many people will celebrate this day by drinking green beer, watching a parade, drinking more green beer, baking soda bread, drinking more green beer, eating corned beef and cabbage, drinking more green beer, and drinking more green beer.
I've already written more in-depth meditations on St. Patrick. My Living Lutheran piece talks about Celtic monks and what the modern church can learn from them.
This morning, on my creativity blog, I wrote a piece about those monks and what they can teach those of us trying to live a creative life.
Both pieces return to the idea of Celtic monks who found themselves in distant outposts trying to till a stony, thorny soil. What are we do to in those hostile circumstances?
The answer, of course, will be as varied as the wide scope of humanity. But the Celtic monks show us that out of a harsh landscape, great centers of education, creativity, and spirituality can be born and can thrive.
Here's a prayer for your feast day, a prayer said to be written by St. Patrick himself, a prayer commonly known as St. Patrick's Breast-Plate:
"I bind to myself today: The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity: I believe the Trinity in the Unity The Creator of the Universe.
I bind to myself today: The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism, The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial, The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension, The virtue of His coming on the Judgement Day.
I bind to myself today: The virtue of the love of seraphim, In the obedience of angels, In the hope of resurrection unto reward, In prayers of Patriarchs, In predictions of Prophets, In preaching of Apostles, In faith of Confessors, In purity of holy Virgins, In deeds of righteous men.
I bind to myself today: The power of Heaven, The light of the sun, The brightness of the moon, The splendour of fire, The flashing of lightning, The swiftness of wind, The depth of sea, The stability of earth, The compactness of rocks.
I bind to myself today: God's Power to guide me, God's Might to uphold me, God's Wisdom to teach me, God's Eye to watch over me, God's Ear to hear me, God's Word to give me speech, God's Hand to guide me, God's Way to lie before me, God's Shield to shelter me, God's Host to secure me, Against the snares of demons, Against the seductions of vices."
Much of the U.S. enjoys spring-like weather these days. Are you tempted to get out and play in the dirt? If so, you might enjoy this post at Living Lutheran that talks about butterfly gardens and the work that Christians do in the world.
For more on coracles, including a video of modern people trying to use a coracle, check out Dave Bonta's post.
I found his post inspiring in all sorts of ways; I wrote this poem, which seems appropriate for St. Patrick's Day week-end.
Coracle of Prayer
As my computer dings
its constant reminders
of meetings and appointments,
I think of those ancient
Celtic monks and their coracles,
their faith in fragile canoes and currents
and a God who will steer
them where they need to go.
Having given over my free will
to Microsoft Office, I allow
the calendar to steer
me. I rely on my e-mails as a rudder,
although I often feel adrift
on this sea of constant communication.
Perhaps it is time to ransom my soul
which has been sold to this empire
of the modern workplace.
I look to the monks
and their rigorous schedule of prayer.
Feeling like a true subversive,
I insert appointments for my spirit
into the calendar. I code
them in a secret language
so my boss won’t know I’m speaking
in a different tongue. I launch
my coracle of prayer
into this unknown ocean,
the shore unseen, my hopes
rising like incense across a chapel.
At our recent stay at Lutheranch, I was lucky enough to be able to be part of Bible study and worship. The Bible study had much potential, and so I'm happy to tell you about it here.
We started by taking a few minutes to write on a slip of power. We were told to choose one, and only one, superpower that we would like to have. Those were written on a huge sheet of paper, and then we guessed who wrote which one, and why we wanted those superpowers.
I was struck by the fact that half of us said we'd like to have the gift of being able to heal people. I said I wanted to be able to heal people from a distance. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with the laying on of hands. But I want to be able to heal with just the power of my mind, especially if I can't be physically present.
Then we read 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit. 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
We talked about superpowers and spiritual gifts. We talked about how just like superheroes sometimes get together and are stronger as a group, those of us with spiritual gifts are stronger when we work together.
We didn't read the next chunk of 1 Corinthians, but it fits:
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
I realize there are all sorts of potential problems with this approach to the text, but it intrigues me nonetheless. It seems an interesting way to reach out to a generation who may be more familiar with superhero texts than they are with the Bible. If your youth group is more into Harry Potter, you might consider this post on Transfiguration Sunday by Nadia Bolz-Weber, who says, "You deserve some magic. And while you could dress up and go to Harry Potter’s Wizzarding World at Universal Studios in Orlando and feel enchanted for the cost of an $85 ticket. There is something about this story, This story of heaven touching earth on a mountain 2000 years ago which promises something no other story can. There’s something about this table around which we gather every week that promises to be true in a way that myth and legend and fairy tale never can. This thing…this Jesus thing is real. The Gospel is real. Heaven touching earth is real. The body and blood of Christ is real. And only this kind of realness can re-enchant the world again and again. It is good for us to be here."
It would also be interesting to talk about why we yearn for superpowers when the powers that we have are so much more effective than those that humans had even 100 years ago, or 1000 years ago. Think of all that your cell phone can do, for example.
I was also struck by the fact that I said that I wanted the power to heal, but I don't want to take the time it would take to complete a medical degree--actually, it's not the time but the debt that scares me.
But the superhero that I really want is the power to make disease/pain go away immediately. Disease as modern day demon--an interesting approach to the healing miracles of Jesus. Hmm.
Then we had a brief Eucharist service, which could also lead to some interesting meditations on superheroes and superpowers. It was a good way to end the day.
There are some Bible texts that are so prominent that it's hard to find something new to say about them. This week's Gospel includes one of them, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
I spent my childhood and adolescent years in a variety of small, Southern towns, and this text was often used as one to exclude people. Most responses to the text that I've seen zero in on the idea that we must believe in Jesus to have eternal life, and I'm certain that I don't want to wander into that theological muck. I used to be able to spend many hours deliberating whether or not a Hindu could go to Heaven, or an atheist or . . . .
Now I'm much more interested in how we live our lives here--not so that we get into Heaven, but so that we participate in God's visions for us and for the larger world.
Today, let us focus on the text that reminds us that God doesn't enter the world to condemn us--many pop culture preachers forget that. But almost every verse of this week's Gospel reminds us that God comes to us out of love, not judgment. God comes, not to cast us into darkness. Most of us spend many hours dwelling in darkness. God comes to lead us into the light.
Many of us have come from Christian traditions which would find this theology strange. Many of us have been scarred by a theology of a divine judge who finds us wanting. Many of us fear hell.
Think about the lives we're leading--maybe that's the punishment. God has come, not to punish us further, but to save us from our punishment, which is our current lifestyle.
As we move through our days, we could use our own internal judgment to ask ourselves if we're moving towards light or towards darkness. Which activities lead us towards the life we'd like to live? Which ones take us towards darkness?
Each person might answer that question differently. Coffee with friends might be a life-affirming break that helps us survive a tough work day or it might devolve into gossip and pettiness. We might be so available to help others that our family members feel neglected.
That's why it's important to keep asking the question, to keep making sure that our lives are on a trajectory towards light. We are like airplanes, which are notoriously difficult to pilot, given that humans aren't meant to fly. That's why airplanes are equipped with a variety of monitors, so that if one system fails, another can keep the plane from tragedy.
We need a similar set of systems. We need an internal compass, one that steers us towards light. We need to continuously ask questions of our activities, to make sure our compass stays calibrated. We need to surround ourselves with like-minded people who will partner with us, instead of sabotaging us. Inasmuch as we can, we need to align ourselves with institutions that have values of light rather than values of darkness.
If we take a self-inventory and realize that we've gone off track, the Gospel gives us the good news that it's not too late. And little changes can lead to quite a different destination.
Our world is desperately in need of the light that Christians can provide. We live in a world of rampant Capitalism, which is doing a wide range of harm. The world needs our message of something that is more vital, something that is more important than making money and buying more stuff. We can be the lighthouses that lead people to safer shores.
We spent the past week-end at Lutheranch in westernmost Georgia, due west from Atlanta, almost to Alabama, on Interstate 20. It's only an hour away from Atlanta, but it was amazingly rural. We spent the week-end walking on trails, petting horses, listening to geese, all things we don't do in urban South Florida.
On Sunday morning, I stood on a dock, taking pictures of the sunrise, marvelling in the quiet. Actually, it wasn't quiet. I heard roosters and geese and I think a flock of turkeys. I heard no automotive noise, no stereos, no motor noises of any kind. I heard no humans. I saw planes, but didn't hear them. I thought about how rare it is for me to hear only noise generated from nature.
Lutheranch is a very new camp. We took a walking tour to see the sites where some day there will be a dining hall and camp areas and a lodge for the adults. There are plans, but the land has yet to be cleared.
I have trouble seeing a stretch of pine trees and envisioning a dining hall. My mind says, "But there's hardly room for tables!"
I'm also miserably bad at rearranging the furniture.
It's interesting to be at a camp at the early stage of its development. I've been going to Lutheridge, a camp which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, my whole life. Once upon a time, Lutheridge was probably as rural a location as Lutheranch is today. Now, there's a Wal-Mart across from one of the Lutheridge gates.
Lutheranch is down the road from Tallapoosa, Georgia. Tallapoosa does have a small Piggly Wiggly grocery store, a Family Dollar, and a CVS, but not much else in the way of national stores. Tallapoosa does have a quirky coffee shop and an intriguing junk shop in its cute downtown area. There's a lovely stretch of about 20 historic houses. There's a huge park which memorializes the county's citizens killed in military actions, and it includes all military actions. It lists them, along with county members killed and county members wounded. Very sobering.
I look forward to seeing what develops at Lutheranch. I hope to return a time or two before construction gets underway in earnest. And then, I'd like to return to see camp in full swing. When I'm an old lady, reading in the morning while the world sleeps, I hope I read the blog of a woman who spent her girlhood years as a camper at Lutheranch, who heads to the newest Lutheran camp (in space? in reclaimed parts of the U.S.? under the incessantly rising seas?) and returns to record her impressions.
It's been awhile since I've put a poem on this blog. But what would be a good poem for Lent?
Here's a poem that fits with Lenten themes and tones. I wrote it for an anthology that wanted to show what happened to literary characters after the literary work ended.
At the time, I was rereading To Kill a Mockingbird. I've always loved Scout, both the character in the book and the movie version. I wanted to know what happened.
I can't pretend that this poem prevents a cheerful outcome. I thought that the most tragic outcome would be for Atticus Finch to suffer Alzheimer's disease--that brilliant mind, silenced--what could be sadder? You might say that I've discovered some.
I've shown this poem to several people who have parents who suffer from the disease. They tell me that I've nailed the situation, and thus, the poem is painful for them. I've worried some about that. I've decided not to include it when I do poetry readings because it really brings down the mood and the momentum.
This poem is part of my second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents. If you have yet to get your copy, I'd be happy to sell you an autographed copy.
Scout at Midlife
Several times a day, Atticus asks,
“Who are you again?”
And lately Scout shudders
to realize she isn’t sure.
Once, she was surrounded
by people happy to help
define her, to shape
her, like red Alabama clay
transformed into a garden.
But now these people are ghosts
who haunt her thoughts.
Dill gone on to marry
Lottie Mae after Scout waited
too long to say yes.
Jem dead in a hunting accident.
Aunt Alexandra and Calpurnia both felled
by the same kind of stroke.
Now, surrounded by the rabid
dogs of self-recrimination and regret,
she has only her Ph.D. in Theology
and memories of an earlier Atticus
to remind her that she once lived
on an intellectual plane.
Atticus asks, “What is it called,
that thing between your foot and the floor?”
Scout thinks about possible answers:
a carpet, a shoe, a sock, a callus.
She looks at her framed credentials as she explains,
once again, the nomenclature
of everyday objects. Sometimes she answers
Atticus’ questions in Hebrew.
Some days, she chooses Aramaic, Latin
some other dead language.
Yesterday, on my creativity blog, I wrote this piece about the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Wrinkle in Time. I was a voracious reader as a child, and I read many books which I no longer remember at all. But A Wrinkle in Time was different. I remember the first time I read it. I remember how captivated I was. I remember returning to it again and again.
As with the Chronicles of Narnia, I don't remember saying, "Gee, what an interesting allegory. In this book, I see x as a Christ figure, and I see the theology of the cross here." No, of course not. Those are things that adults say. As a child, I wanted a great story. If it transported me somewhere else, great. If it taught me something, I might be OK with that, as long as the story was good. Nothing trumped story.
I fell in love with spunky female characters: Meg Murry (A Wrinkle in Time), girl sleuth Trixie Beldon (so much more spunky than Nancy Drew), Jo in Little Women, Laura Ingalls Wilder . . . oh the list could go on.
Those books taught me that women can be brave and adventurous, and still be loved by their families and some select outsiders. The books I loved best taught me the importance of staying true to myself and my beliefs, even if the world I lived in told me otherwise.
I was lucky in that I got the same message from my parents and from my church, which put it in religious terms of staying true to God, if one must make a choice. I had some friends who also valued spunkiness, and I was really lucky in having teachers who valued the unique girl that I was. I remember teachers who praised me for my writing, instead of encouraging me to think about how to please boys.
It was the 1970's, after all. I benefited in many ways from the feminist movement that swirled in the larger culture.
Lately, I've been thinking about children's literature and how to write good books for children, how to write books that encourage children to be true to themselves and to be true to God. I want books that tell children that God loves them just the way that they are, that in fact, God created them just the way that they are and the way that they are is fine.
A grace-soaked spirituality in children's literature--yes, that's what I want. And happily, A Wrinkle in Time fits that bill. I still remember the central lesson, that abiding love can defeat a totalitarian, fascist planet. I remember the message that little children can be the ones that save us.
In the next month or two, I expect to reread A Wrinkle in Time--and I expect to love it every bit as much as an adult as I did when I first read it in the 5th grade. Maybe even more.
The commandment of the LORD gives light to the eyes. (Ps. 19:8)
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
This week's Gospel lesson has the familiar story of Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the temple. For some of us, this picture of Jesus still shocks; if we're used to thinking of Jesus as the turn-the-other-cheek pacifist, the actions in this Gospel seem out of place. Those of us who like the radical elements of Jesus may find ourselves cheering. Many of us who are involved in the Church in its present institutional incarnation may find ourselves squirming uncomfortably.
What is it about the moneychangers and merchants that so upsets Jesus? Some scholars speculate that Jesus sees the temple practices of his day as being particularly harsh towards the poor. Some scholars say that Jesus doesn't like the mixing of the spiritual (the temple itself) and the secular (represented by money). If you read the Gospel to its end, you might say Jesus engages in this act of destruction so that he can say mystical things about tearing down the temple and building it up.
In our current age, we might take a few minutes to wonder why it is that once a religion becomes institutionalized, so much of its activities revolve around making money (as opposed to making good Christians, for example). I see many similarities between the temple of Jesus' day and the Catholic church of Martin Luther's (and frankly, both of those have stark similarities to our own church, both the church with a small c, and the larger Church, with a capital C). These institutions are not inherently evil; on the contrary, these institutions provide much comfort and do much good in the world. Yet through the ages, Jesus calls on us to do more and to be wary of entrenched institutions.
I’ve been a member of more than one church council, I've been amazed at how much of our council business focuses on issues of building maintenance. Even as a child, I noticed the contradiction between the Gospel I heard preached from the pulpit (sell all your worldly goods, give your money to the poor, don't store up your treasures on earth) and the trimmings and trappings of the sanctuary; I had more than one heated conversation on the way back from church about why the church has these assets, like gold offering plates and candlesticks, which might be better sold and converted into cash to give to the poor.
And yet, I'm always keenly aware of how much good the institutional church can do. During my college years, when I was home for summer break, I became convinced that I should switch my church membership to one of those inner-city DC churches that works more directly with the poor. I even talked to the minister of Luther Place about making the switch. He asked me about my current membership, and I told him I went to St. Mark's, convinced that he would share my sneering opinion of a comfortable, suburban church. He told me I should stay right where I was, and I'll never forget his reason. He told me that his church couldn't do what they do without the huge amounts of cash that St. Mark’s sent his way. I went away chastened—but I’ve always been grateful to that pastor for telling me a truth I didn’t know before and wouldn’t likely have discovered on my own.
As we listen to this Gospel, we might ask ourselves what Jesus wants from us. Are we to sell our buildings, our properties, to divest in order that we might have more money to give to charity? We'd transform ourselves back to the first century church--small bands of people who met in living rooms and shared meals together (not a metaphorical Eucharistic meal, but a real one, with a whole loaf of bread and bottle of wine and other foods). Some groups of Christians are experimenting with this calling--many of them see themselves as the Emergent Church, and their movement may indeed be the next reformation. Soon on my reading list is Diana Butler Bass’ latest book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening; will she be talking about church buildings or the institution or any group of people who calls themselves a church?
Does this Gospel tell us to get rid of our stewardship drives and our constant calls for money? Does it tell us that we shouldn't buy or sell things on church property? What does this mean? No more rummage sales, as previous generations would have us believe? No support of our local Scout groups, our local schools?
Christ calls us to consciousness. Being part of a religion that has become a societal institution has inherent danger: temple tax, indulgences, stewardship campaigns--these are tools that religion has used to hurt people, and in worse case scenarios to exclude the poor and extort money from everyone else (money used not to help advance the cause of the Kingdom, but to support a lifestyle of a privileged few). Christ calls us again and again to consider whom we serve. Is money a tool or is it our master? Are we storing up treasures for ourselves on earth or in heaven? These are questions not just for the institutional church, but also important ones for us to consider as individuals.
In yesterday's post, I talked about creating a prayer chapel. I have a sheet on the table that gives people prayer prompts and possibilities. Here's what it says:
Prayer Chapel Possibilities
Hopefully by now, you have realized that there’s no one right way to pray. Here are some possible approaches to try.
1. Choose the rock with the word that speaks to you right now. Hold the rock in your hand and hold the word in your mind. Sit quietly for as long as you can. Or
2. Open the prayer book and say one of those prayers. Or
3. Open one of the devotional books and read what you find there. Pray the prayer that’s found there or pray your own prayer. Or
4. Look at the colors of stained glass in the window. Think about what the colors could mean. Say a prayer of thanks for the many ways in which our world is colored. Or
5. Write down your own prayer and put it in the red jar. Say a prayer for everyone who has left a prayer in the jar. Pray for the concerns expressed in this room, in this church.
If you need help knowing what to say when you pray, some prayer prompts are below:
1. Write down what makes you feel grateful. Write your prayers of thanks.
2. God knows your needs, but write them down anyway.
3. Pray for others. Who needs God’s guidance and help?
4. Pray for leaders (at work, at church, in local, state, federal, and world government) who face important decisions.
5. Pray for the planet. Pray for places in nature that need healing. Pray for places that need protection.
Please leave the rocks and prayer/devotion books for others to enjoy and utilize. If you’d like to take away a memento, feel free to take one of the blue or white glassy stones out of the bowl. You should also feel free to make notes to take with you on the paper provided.
A few weeks ago, my pastor asked me to create a prayer chapel for Lent. I had been thinking about decorating the worship space in the front of the church, but my pastor had plans for that space. Walking into the church on Ash Wednesday, we found a radically different space:
I've never created a prayer chapel, but I was game. The space had some challenges: robes are kept in a closet, and the room also has a bathroom, so it needs to be accessible to people who aren't there to pray. It's been used for storage, but it could have been worse. Here's what it looked like before I got started:
I moved some of the materials out of the way, and I set up the table that will function as an altar of sorts. We don't have a kneeler that I know of, but this set up will work fine:
A card table covered in purple cloth becomes transformed:
I hung up some gauzy cloth to set the space apart. I'm hoping that people who are praying or meditating will have a sense of privacy, while still allowing access to people who need to use the bathroom.
Here's how the table looks from above. People can hold the meditation rocks and contemplate, or they can write prayers and leave them in the red jar. They can simply read a prayer or devotion from the books I left there.
Here's a close up of the rocks. I had great fun creating them:
I knew that people might want to take the rocks with them, but I didn't want to have to keep creating replacements. So, I drew crosses on some glassy stones that I had left over from our fountain project. People can take a glassy stone with them.
Tomorrow I'll post the sheet that I've left on the table to give people some guidance and instruction.
--I continue to think about Nathan Englander. I've finally read the first short story in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, the short story with the same title. Wow. What a surprise ending.
--I wrote more about yesterday's conversations that this short story engendered in this blog post.
--This part of that blog post will likely haunt me for months:
--I posed the question this way, "Let's say the government decides to exterminate Lutherans. Would you hide me?" Posed that way, the question is almost humorous, especially since Lutherans are probably one of the least dangerous religious groups in the U.S. We tried to remind each other that even though the government has yet to set its sights on Lutherans, other groups, like immigrants both legal and illegal, are often not so lucky.
--I am aware of the school of theology that says if we were living truly Christian lives, we would be on a direct collision course with our government. To say that Lutherans are the least dangerous Christian group probably means we should be stepping up our efforts as Christians.
--Today is the day I create the prayer chapel, if all goes well. Here are some elements I will use:
--Could my spouse and I fashion a career out of creating sacred spaces for others?
--Or could we create a career making fountains? Making the elements for the prayer chapel reminded me of when we made the fountain together last summer:
--So many possibilities for the future! So much creative fun!
My Lenten discipline: to give up worry. So far, it's been going well. But last night, I almost hit a snag.
I got in the car in time to hear a week in the news kind of NPR show. The commentators were talking about Iran, and seemed rather sure that the situation would escalate; the word "war" was used. And then, the show ended, and the top of the hour newscast came on with updates about deadly tornadoes.
I turned the radio off. I practiced deep breathing. I said a prayer for everyone who was in the path of dangerous weather. I prayed for all the people who are making important decisions about the future of our country.
It's been a strange week where old white men talk in histrionic terms about women's birth control. I understand why as a nation we're not in agreement about abortion, but birth control? Really???!!! We haven't already settled this issue.
I could take the feminist road and talk about these old white men who aren't talking about condoms. But I can't help but notice that all these increasingly ugly/nasty shouting matches about women's fertility are distracting our attention away from the Middle East, which may be about to get really nasty.
We may look back to this time period with nostalgia, that time when gas was still below $5 a gallon, when we had the leisure to have melodramatic arguments about birth control.
Thinking about the national news gives me insight into how to handle my tendency to worry and fret on a smaller level. When it comes to national politics, I tend not to worry, even though I am influenced by the news. But it's clear to me that I have very little influence over Obama's decision about how to handle Iran.
Likewise, I really do not control the decisions of the individuals in my life, even though it may seem like I do. I can have some influence, but in the end, the decisions that others make are really not up to me. The idea that I can control others is an illusion, and the sooner I can let go of that, the better off I'll be.
But it's important to realize the actions that I can take. I can try to understand why people are making the choices that they are. I can protect myself, if need be; I'm thinking more of national issues here--now is not the time to go into debt to buy a gas guzzler of a car. I can pray as others make decisions. I can avoid some situations that make me anxious.
It's an easy action to turn off the radio at the end of the day. I wonder what other easy actions I could be taking to help me with my Lenten discipline.
My pastor asked me to create a prayer chapel in a room at the back of the sanctuary. The back part of the sanctuary is a wall with windows and doors and on the other side of the wall, the chunks of space are evenly divided into a nursery/cry room, a vestibule where people are greeted, and a room that is called a choir room but has turned into a bit of a storage room. I'll be converting part of the choir room to a prayer chapel.
I've had fun thinking about possibilities. If we have any sort of kneeler, I don't know about it. So, I decided to use a card table that we have. I'll provide colored paper and pens--people can write their prayers and put them into the big red jar that will be on the table.
That still leaves a lot of table space. I thought about all sorts of things: a fountain, a collection of crosses and crucifixes, pictures that would put people in a meditative space.
I decided on a collection of river rocks which are slightly bigger than worry stones. On each, I wrote a word, words like hope, joy, calm, peace. I thought they might spark people's ideas about what they need and what they'd like God to provide.
I don't want people to take the stones with them, but I know that people might want something to remind them of the prayer chapel experience. I had a lot of glassy stones left over from a fountain project (see this post for pictures and details). I drew a cross on each and put them in a bowl.
I'll be writing prayer prompts and directions so that the prayer chapel is self-explaining. I'll post those along with pictures in a later post here.
Last night, as I drew crosses on the glassy stones, I thought about what a soothing experience that was. I thought about smudging foreheads on Ash Wednesday, also a soothing experience. What is it about making that shape?
I've had a lot of fun planning this project. It will be interesting to see if anyone uses it, but on some level, I don't care one way or another. The process has been a delight for me. It's a creativity lesson I learned long ago. The finished product is less important than the process and what becomes of the finished product is even less important.
At my creativity blog, I wrote a post about what we consider to be "out there" as we get older. I talked some about plastic surgery and said:
"Yes, my stodgy Lutheran self would like us all to be comfortable in our physical bodies just the way that they are, the way that God made them. When I figure out how to do that, I'll let you know.
My stodgy Lutheran self is amused to remember that for many people of my generation, the idea that God made our bodies as already perfect would be an "out there" concept."
I also have been thinking about the fact that I'm a Christian is often considered the most radical thing about me these days. My stodgy Lutheran self doesn't really see my Christianity as the radical kind. I'm not giving away all of my possessions. I'm still working in the higher education industrial complex, and not the morally safe community college kind but the for-profit kind.
My 19 year old self would probably tell my 46 year old self to go out there and do something really radical. She would scoff at the idea that taking dinner to homeless people is a radical idea.
Still, I have colleagues who can't imagine giving up their evenings to feed the poor. My 19 year old self would say, "You only do that once or twice a month, for pity's sake!" She would like me to feed the poor on a daily basis. My 46 year old self would like that too.
I find myself in the odd position of having to explain Cardinal Bernadin's idea of a seamless garment of life to people who don't understand how anyone can be anti-choice these days. I find it odd because my 19 year old self would have told you that there was no point in arguing over a clump of cells--abort them if you wanted because it's your body. My 46 year old self has the advantage of technology, and modern ultrasound technology makes her queasy about beginning of life issues.
I find myself in the odd position of being the person who can explain all sorts of Christianities to baffled non-believers. Need to know the difference between an Evangelical and a Pentecostal? I can do that. Need to know why some of us are called Protestants? I'm your girl. Want to understand why some Christians see Mormonism as a cult? I can do that too. I'm an ecumenical gal.
But what's strangest to me is how radical my choice to spend time as part of a church community seems to almost everyone I know. If it was 1958, it wouldn't be at all radical to go to church on Sundays and to work through a church on social justice projects. But 2012 is not 1958.
I'm looking forward to reading Diana Butler Bass' new book which I think will explore some of these issues. Today she'll be on the NPR show On Point, which I'll catch online later. I expect that she will tell me that the future of the church does not lie in the institution. I'm cool with that. I think that our buildings keep us tethered to spiritual practices which take us away from a life with God. I'm not sure what to do about that.
This blog post, written by one of the founders of the D.C. Sojourners community, explores what it means to be a success and what it means to be an institutional success:
"An institution’s job is to encase the renewal insight in a preserving shell that can carry the renewal seed to a future generation — and not to die to their organizational identity, . . . .
If we are lucky, we outgrow the organizations that we ourselves give birth to and become 'joyfully disillusioned' with the very institutions that we help to create. And if we are wise, some of us will grow by staying within the very organizations that we ourselves have outgrown.
The tension of this seeming contradiction is the transformational stew of new possibilities, both for the individual who stays and for the organization. We should not expect the institution to be more that it can be."
Here are some Thomas Merton quotes, from that same blog post:
"Be anything you want. Be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form. But at all costs avoid one thing: success."
"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 ... is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism ... kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."
I'm a lifelong Lutheran, and although I'm aware of some of the problems with Liberation Theology, it has spoken to me for much of my adolescent and adult life. All of the thoughts on this blog are mine (or those of commenters), and I don't intend to speak for any other Lutherans or Liberation Theologians.
A poet, a scholar, an administrator, a wanna-be mystic--always wrestling with the temptation to run away to join an intentional community--but would it be contemplative? social justice oriented? creative? in the mountains? in the inner city?--may as well stay planted and wrestle with these tensions and contradictions here, at the edge of America.
To read my posts on creativity, poetry, and a host of related topics (and the occasional poem of mine), go here. You can also order both of my chapbooks from links on the creativity blog or contact me to purchase a signed copy of either book.