Monday, April 30, 2012

The Feast Day of Catherine of Siena

My latest post is up at the Living Lutheran site.  It celebrates the life of Catherine of Siena, whose feast day is celebrated April 29 or 30.  Happy reading!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Worship as Stations

When I read Mark Pierson's The Art of Curating Worship, I was both intrigued and mystified.  Throughout the book, Pierson advocates more involvement with the Word.  Most of us are used to hearing a sermon, but few of us have experiences in church that engage all of our senses.

Pierson suggests setting up stations where people creatively respond to the Scripture.  His book contains plenty of suggestions, and I've had no trouble thinking about possible stations.  But I've had trouble imagining what a service would look like.

At our Create in Me retreat, we experienced such a service.  We set up a variety of stations around the sanctuary of the church that we use for our worship.  We came into the sanctuary, sang together, and then had 20 minutes to experience the stations.  Then we came together for Communion (which Pierson points out is the station that most of us have already experienced).

I may say more about the specific stations in a later post.  Today, I want to talk about my reactions to the service.

I expected to feel like it was the absolute best service I'd ever experienced.  I knew we'd be doing a variety of creative approaches.  It would be the kind of thing that my adolescent self would have loved.

And it would have been.  My grown up self felt a bit overwhelmed with all of the choices of stations.  Even though I knew I couldn't get to all of them, I felt a strange pressure to try.

Each station had a page to go along with it.  The page had a chunk of Scripture, a meditation, and a set of instructions for how to use the station.  I tried to read everything, but I noticed that most people didn't.

One of our problems was space, and it's a problem that I imagine most churches would have.  We only had about 60 people worshipping, but we still experienced trouble moving easily around the sanctuary.

I thought it was a cool alternative to the liturgical service which feels familiar to so many of us.  If my church had a creative service as one of the options, I'd probably choose it over the liturgical service.  I liked feeling more involved.  I liked moving around the sanctuary.  I liked the creativity.

After the service, I spent time thinking about how I'd respond to our service if I was used to this kind of worship with stations.  At some point, the newness would wear off.  Would I engage with one or two stations more deeply if I knew I'd have a chance to experience stations on a more regular basis?  Would I spend less time thinking about how the logistics worked or didn't work?

I'd like to experience this kind of service more often, but I suspect this kind of worship planning isn't taught in seminary.

And returning to The Art of Curating Worship, I'd love to take this kind of worship out into the world, a guerilla kind of worship and installation art/art in public space kind of event.  I love the idea of setting up a small station that encourages people to pause, to pray, perhaps to do something more.  In chapter 10 of the book, Pierson describes all sorts of efforts, from a huge labyrinth project that required over 1000 bales of hay to a Christmas tree decorating contest to various smaller meditative spaces.

Always interesting these questions of how to worship, how to bring the Good News to the world, how to be together as Church.

Friday, April 27, 2012

BOLD Justice: Does It Matter?

Our ecumenical group, BOLD Justice, has grown so large that we can no longer hold our annual Nehemiah event/rally at a church.  We are too many people.

We had a huge group last night; for more information on what we wanted and background on why we wanted it, see this post that I wrote yesterday.

Do these efforts really make a difference?  Some days, I suspect that the politicians will say anything.  In this age of promising anything, it's also intriguing to see what they won't say.  I want to think that when politicians show up and see over 2000 people gathered, it makes some kind of impact.

It's also important for me personally.  Some days, I get discouraged.  It's good to take action.  At work, I'm surrounded by people who love to take a morally outraged stance.  On and on and on they talk.  But they don't actually do anything, not even so much as writing a letter or making a phone call.  They certainly don't run for office or work in a food bank or organize information sessions.  No, they'd rather just have passionate discussions with people who already agree with them.

What is the point of that?

Far better to show up on a Thursday night and make some demands of politicians.  And we'll be watching, to see if they follow through.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

BOLD Justice Nehemiah Action Tonight: Join Us!

As Christians, we're called not just to do charity work, but also to do the justice work necessary so that our societies no longer need charity work.

In Broward county, in South Florida, an ecumenical group has been meeting the past few years to demand justice from our local leaders.  Some years we've worked on housing issues, some years dental issues, and so on.  We make real changes.

This year, we're meeting with the superintendent of schools to demand a better reading curriculum, and we're also meeting with city and county leaders to demand that county contracts go to local and small businesses.

Join us tonight at the War Memorial Auditorium at 800 Northeast 8th St. in Fort Lauderdale.  Parking is free, unlike with other events there.  Registration begins at 6:45 p.m., and the call to order is at 7:30 p.m.

If you're worried you'll have to sit alone because you won't know anyone, come join the Trinity Lutheran Church group.  Or sit with people you don't know and make new friends.

That's the abridged version of what we're doing.  For more details, read on; one of our congregation's BOLD Justice leaders explains:

There is an instructional method called direct instruction (reading mastery) that has been proven to show significant improvement in reading levels and overall student performance in schools using this method. This has been demonstrated in other urban school districts such as Houston and Baltimore. In Baltimore, first graders went from a mean national percentile in reading of 54.5 to an 82. In Houston, where the method has been used for over 20 years, 86 percent of all third grade kids were meeting or exceeding the state standards in reading in 2010, and this is in a school where more than 90 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Direct instruction had been used in some Broward Schools many years ago, and it reportedly raised student performance significantly, but the methods were discarded when a new administration took charge of the schools.

Trinity's Justice leadership saw a 60 Minutes segment that portrayed the use of direct instruction in Houston, and it was quite compelling. In addition, a 2009 synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement found that direct instruction was the only method of instruction that consistently showed strong positive effects with students of different ability levels and ages and with different subject matter. This was one of a number of studies cited that found direct instruction to be an effective teaching method.

72 percent of Broward County elementary schools are not meeting state standards. Of these, there are 28 at the lowest end of the scale in which less than 55 percent of their third graders are reading at grade level.

So here is the proposed solution to ensure that all students are reading at grad level by the time they leave third grade:

Since research has shown that the direct instruction (reading mastery) program, when implemented properly with adequate training and support for teachers, is the most effedctive educational strategy in underperforming schools, BOLD Justice is asking Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie to implement a direct instruction pilot project in 5 of the 28 lowest performing elementary schools. Superintendent Runcie has met at least twice with representatives from BOLD Justice and has agreed to attend on Thursday to respond to the BOLD Justice request.

A powerful turnout will send an important message to Superintendent Runcie and other county leaders that we want this pilot project implemented! That we are tired of failure. That we want students who read to learn, succeed, and graduate and who do not fail to graduate high school because early reading struggles could not be overcome.

In turn, students will graduate rather than drop out. And they will continue on to further education or training or be ready to perform well in first-time jobs.

And that brings me to the second thing that BOLD Justice is seeking on Thursday. There are about 84,000 people in Broward County looking for jobs, and there are some major county contracts projected to create new jobs, many of them permanent. These include county courthouse expansion, possible expansion of Port Everglades, and numerous other projects. One of the things the county considers in determining who gets these contracts is to make sure that small businesses get their fair share of the contracts. The county aims to give 25 percent of all contracts to small businesses. However, in 2011, less than 11 percent of county contracts went to small businesses. In addition, the county didn't track the amount of jobs that were created by these projects, nor did they make job creation a major consideration when awarding contracts.

BOLD Justice met with leaders and experts on economic development in Broward County, and determined that greater emphasis needs to be placed on considering small businesses and job creation when awarding county contracts. We believe that what BOLD Justice is pushing county leaders to do is to reach their own goal of awarding 25 percent of all contracts to small business, to emphasize job creation, and to make sure that a significant percentage of those new jobs created go to Broward County residents. I'm not sure what Broward County officials may be on hand to hear and respond to these requests on Thursday.

So, again, if people wish to walk together humbly with our God in pursuit of justice for those who are going without good educational and job opportunities, they should join us at the BOLD Justice Nehemiah Action this Thursday, April 26, at the War Memorial Auditorium. Registration begins at 6:45 p.m., and the call to order is at 7:30 p.m.

War Memorial Auditorium is located at 800 Northeast 8th St. in Fort Lauderdale. From Sunrise Blvd., go south on US 1/Federal Highway, then it is a short distance to NE 8th Street. Turn east on NE 8th St. and it will lead straight to the site. If coming from the south on US 1, cross Broward Blvd. and continue about 9 blocks to NE 8th St., where you will turn east (right) and go straight ahead to War Memorial Auditorium. Parking is free, but please try to arrive early.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The readings for Sunday, April 29, 2012:

Acts 4:5-12

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. (Ps. 23:1)

1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18

Here's another familiar set of images in today's Gospel, ones that are so familiar that we neglect to see the strangeness. But read the passage again and notice how many times Jesus says he's the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. At first, knowing the outcome of Jesus' life story as we do, we might find that a comforting thought.

But imagine that you're a little lamb with a scary wolf nearby. Maybe the good shepherd kills the wolf while laying down his life for you. But does that leave you protected from the other wolves that are out there? No. A dead shepherd is no use for further protection. We don't raise much in the way of livestock these days (most of us), so we forget how strange this metaphor would have seemed to an audience of people who knew shepherds (and thanks to Pastor Jan Setzler, who led Bible Study at the excellent Lutheridge Create in Me retreat several years ago, who pointed out the oddness in this metaphor--the first time I'd ever thought about that angle).

The people of Jesus’ time who heard him speak in this mystical way would have been more puzzled than comforted. I suspect that would have been their usual reaction to him. His parables are familiar to us, so we’ve lost sight of their strangeness. Two thousand years ago, people would have said, “What good is a dead shepherd?”

They might have been more like me. I want a shepherd who will remind me to come out of the rain. I want a shepherd who will tilt my head back down so that I don’t drown in the rain because I’m too stupid not to inhale the rain. I want a shepherd who will gather the flock together and kill the predators with a skillful shot from a sling. I want a shepherd who leads us to safe pastures.

And the good news of the Gospels is that we have such a shepherd.

These verses serve to remind us that the world we live in is a scary one. You may think you can make it on your own, but you can't. Notice that Jesus doesn't compare us to cats or horses--no, we're sheep, some of the dumbest animals ever domesticated. You may be able to make it on your own up to a point--but where will that point be?

No, we need the safety of the flock, the safety of a shepherd. We need someone who will train us to recognize his voice. Now if we could only slow down and quiet our minds enough to hear our shepherd’s voice.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Prayer Invitation as Refrigerator Magnet

At our Create in Me retreat, one of the subthemes was invitation, specifically, miracle as invitation.  We looked for ways to work invitation into our retreat.




We always have a campfire/talent show the last night, and there's a price of admission, which is usually something created during the retreat and often worn.  One year we did hats, one year ears, and one year we had costumes.

This year, people created magnets, with invitations to prayer.  So, I'd create one for myself that said, "You are invited to pray for Kristin, that she have extra patience."  Or whatever I'd like a prayer for.  We had a paper decorating drop in station, with all sorts of embellishments and peel and stick magnets.


At the start of the Saturday night program, we dropped the invitations in baskets.  At the end, we each took one that wasn't our own.  The idea is to put them on our refrigerators so that we remember to pray.


It's been amazingly effective.  We often offer prayers as we say grace before the meals that we eat in our kitchen.  I pray in the morning while putting the dishes away as I wait for the coffee to brew.  When I'm out, even if I can't remember the specific prayers, I remember the look of the invitation, and I pray for those who made the invitations that are on my fridge and for all others who need prayers for issues they face.




It's been so effective that I've wondered about other applications.  The other night, when our pastor asked Church Council members how we could transform ourselves into a community that prays more, I thought about this exercise.  Could we do this on a weekly basis?  I'm more likely to remember to pray for you if I have a fridge magnet reminding me.  I feel somewhat bad about admitting this, but there it is.  I suspect I'm not the only one.



I have a vision of baskets or bags of art materials that we give out as people enter church.  They could create the magnets as the service progresses or there could be a separate time.  The ushers could collect prayer invitations with the offering.  The baskets of prayer invitation magnets could be in the back for people to take with them so that we remember to pray for each other through the coming week.



I like this idea too, for individual prayer.  I like the idea of creating illustrated prayer lists and attaching them someplace prominent.  I like the visual reminder to pray.  I like the idea of keeping them as a record.  I like the idea of going back periodically and seeing all the ways that God has answered my prayers.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Early Church as Community: Lessons for Us?

It's always interesting to study Bible texts with a group of Christians and see what speaks to us.  During our Church Council meeting last week, we looked at two texts.  Here's the first:

Luke 9: 1-6


9Then Jesus* called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. 3He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. 4Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. 5Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ 6They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.


I was interested in the fact that they were sent out in pairs.  They left with no possessions.  Others focused on their being forced to rely on the kindness of unknown people, while others focused on the necessity of leaving a town if they weren't welcoming.

I wondered about what this passage says to modern Christians:  are we supposed to leave our buildings behind?

Some people nodded.  Others saw this going out in pairs as metaphorical and argued that we can bring the Good News to others even if we stay in our church buildings.  Some of us talked about being witnesses in our modern lives:  workplaces, neighbors, the people who provide services.

Then we moved on to a different passage:


Acts 2: 41-47

41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.


I wonder how many Christians are even familiar with this view of the Christian life:  living in community, praying and eating together, sharing all possessions (when not selling them to generate funds).

Of course, not all of my fellow Council members saw it this way.  Some argued that the Church does function in this way.  Some argued that this passage shows the importance of the sacrament of the Eucharist.  Some argued that this passage said we should praise God in our daily lives.

I confess to some impatience with these approaches.  What if this text means what it says?  What if we really are supposed to live together in a closer community, not a community that only meets once or twice a week?

I asked that question, and I said, "There are lots of forecloses houses in my neighborhood.  We could all live in the same neighborhood and do a better job of supporting each other in prayer and meals."

I didn't expect everyone to embrace that idea, but I'm always surprised at how threatening my basic question is to some people:  what if Jesus means what he says?  Sell all your possessions and rely on God.  Live in deep community with each other.

I realize the irony here:  I rarely take Biblical texts literally.  I'm that annoying person who thinks figuratively and approaches texts with my English major heart.

We ended our Bible study with this question.  How can we as a church be a community that studies Biblical texts together more often?  How can we support each other in prayer and encourage each other to pray more?

I have an idea about that last question, but I'll save that for tomorrow's post.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

R.I.P. Charles Colson

It's been a week of many losses, as so many people have died this week.  I know, I know, lots of people die every week.  But this morning's news of the death of Charles Colson made me stop again and resolve to remember that I do not have an infinite time upon this planet.

I felt far sadder about the death of Levon Helm, the drummer for the Band, the amazing talent for so many groups through the decades.  I felt fonder of Dick Clark.  With Charles Colson, there was plenty not to like, both before his born again transformation and after.

But in hearing his biography again, I was stuck by the way that grace works its way in through the cracks.  I was amazed by how transformation is possible.  For all the ways that Chuck Colson does not represent my beliefs about Christianity, I am forced to admit that he did so much to bring grace and transformation to others.

I am most impressed by his prison ministries and his work towards prison reform.  Would he have followed this route, had he not spent time in prison?  It's hard to imagine.

It's interesting to me that a copy of C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity is the book that led him to evangelical Christianity.  It was given to him while he was awaiting arrest after his indictment for his involvement in the Watergate mess.  It wasn't a fundamentalist or an evangelical book, but C. S. Lewis was the one that led Colson to Christ and to his career as one of the world's most famous fundamentalists.

I am not a fundamentalist or an evangelical, and I imagine that Charles Colson wouldn't like me any more than I like him.  But that's a great message from our God:  we're all equally loved and there are so many ways of radiating that love back, so many ways of being the light God's love in the world.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Transforming the Desolate Valley

One of the advantages of praying the hours using Phyllis Tickle's wonderful book, The Divine Hours, is that I often see Bible verses in new ways.  Even though I've read the verse before, I'll find something new leaping out at me.

Last night's Vesper readings included Psalm 84.  I was struck by the last passage that talked about moving through the desolate valley which would become a land of springs and rain.  Some translations say the valley of Baca, but I like Tickle's translation much better.  Desolate valley--what a resonant phrase.

It hit me:  we have to go through the desolate valley.  Just because we're blessed to be on the pilgrim's way, it doesn't mean we'll avoid the desolate valley.

By going through the desolate valley, we leave it transformed.  But first, we must make that descent.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Community Art Project: The Wonder Cabinet

Every year at Create in Me, we create a Community Art Project.  Some of them could be adapted for communities of different sorts (church, school, and artist communities come to mind).  In fact, some years, we've done a Community Art Project that comes directly from someone's church group, like the year we finished quilts for Lutheran World Relief.  Some years, the project stays at Lutheridge, like various crosses we've made.  Some years, the project only remains for the length of the retreat.



This year we created a Wonder Cabinet.  We based it on Wonder Cabinets of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, when cabinets filled with treasures from museums travelled the U.S. (and before that, we've discovered evidence of wonder cabinets kept by medieval rich people, to show off their wealth and treasures).  Often Wonder Cabinets included two hinged doors, a triptych kind of design, so that they could close and travel while keeping the treasures safe.




Our Wonder Cabinet was created out of a variety of boxes.  For the stronger, corrugated cardboard needed for the structural sides and back, our Wonder Cabinet creator used lawnmower boxes from Sears, a trick she picked up from her work with the Girl Scouts.  Instead of gluing everything together, she used binder clips.



We began with a few objects from the natural world, but the idea was that over the course of the retreat, the Wonder Cabinet would be filled with items created/constructed at the retreat.



We've always had a gallery of some kind, and we usually despair at how many people forget to bring something from home with them.  This approach worked much better.  Plus, many people commented on how much they enjoyed seeing what people were making.


We talked about all the ways one could use a Wonder Cabinet in one's church (or any other group).  Constructing the cabinet itself might be the biggest challenge.  The woman who masterminded it said it was really like a big puzzle.  And they didn't intend for the cross to be in the center--that was a serendipitous accident.  They decided to paint it purple to help us all see that particular wonder.




So, what could you do with a Wonder Cabinet if you didn't want to fill it with creative output?  One of our groups plans to construct a Wonder Cabinet to showcase the history of their church as part of an anniversary celebration.  I could envision people bringing historical documents, photos, and other items.  Another participant plans to use it in her work with older people.  She'll use it as a place for them to work with collecting their memories.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Making Crosses as Workshop and Meditative Practice

Back in October, one of the Lutheridge leaders asked me if I'd heard of a book, Making Crosses.  I hadn't.  She thought it would make a great workshop at our Create in Me retreat, and we agreed that I'd lead it.



I fully intended to spend the intervening months making some crosses, but I didn't.  So, I decided that we'd all explore this idea together.  I wasn't sure what to expect, and in fact, I was a bit fearful, but it went well.


We spent the first half hour gathering our materials.  We had a lot to choose from.  At Lutheridge, we were surrounded by blooming plants, sticks of all sort, nature in all kinds of glory.




We had much to choose from indoors too.  The Create in Me retreat includes all sorts of Creation Stations, which have all sorts of craft and art supplies:  fabric, yarn, papers of all kinds, corks, all sorts of fun stuff.



For the next 30 minutes, we assembled the crosses.  We attempted a meditative silence.  I was impressed with the focus on the process, although I did wonder if paying attention to the process took away from a meditative and/or prayer focus.


Then we talked about the process and the crosses themselves.




We also talked about other elements we could have included:  an opening prayer, Bible verses that mention crosses, the historical use of crosses, a discussion of symbolism.




We also talked about whether or not this workshop would translate well to our home churches.  I thought that it might not because we wouldn't have all the natural materials and it would take some work to assemble all the arts and craft supplies.


But the workshop participants thought that this workshop would work really well in their home churches.  I like that it's a workshop that could appeal to all sorts of people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds.  Plus, it doesn't take a lot of skill to be able to do this.


We wondered how our crosses might have been different if we weren't one week out from Easter.  Would we create different crosses during Advent?  We thought that they might.




All in all, it was just what I wanted the workshop to be:  a meaningful experience for the participants, with lots of potential for use in the future.


The publisher's website lists these possibilities for making crosses:

Worship:

Cross making during a worship service based on the movement of the Holy Spirit

Spiritual Work of the Church:

- Discernment Committee: To bond the committee and help in the discernment process for candidacy for the priesthood
- "Festival of the Cross" featuring all types of hand-made crosses, including found object Creation Crosses

Outreach:

- Children's crosses displayed and sold, with money sent to congregation's mission work
- Neighborhood clean-up project with found objects used to make crosses
- Inter-congregation crosses made by two downtown churches
- Cross making session at local homeless shelter

Themed Explorations:

- Holy Week crosses created in group weekend before Holy Week and used in prayer/added to throughout the upcoming week
- Pentecost "Spirit Cross" created during Fellowship Hour in summer months with heavy participation by all members of the church
- Earth Day crosses in children's Sunday School class
- "Coming to the Cross as a Child" during women's retreat
- Lenten Crosses created at weekly gatherings of small groups

Bonding:

- During Sunday School where children and supervising parents make crosses together
- Display of crosses created by congregants encourages discussion of faith and spirituality and further introduces congregants to each other
- Group cross created during women's retreat, then placed in chapel to commemorate time with God and each other
- Silent retreat cross making

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 22, 2012:

First Reading: Acts 3:12-19

Psalm: Psalm 4

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-7

Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48

In this week's Gospel, we have another appearance story, and what an odd story it is. In the post-Resurrection stories, Jesus has taken on supernatural capacities that, with the exception of some of his accomplishments with his miracles, he didn't really demonstrate before his crucifixion. Here, he suddenly appears; a few verses earlier, he has vanished after eating.

The disciples, rooted in the rational world, can't make sense of what they're seeing and hearing. Those of us who spend our secular lives surrounded by people who are disdainful of the mystical might find ourselves more sympathetic to their plight.

I find myself coming back to verse 41, the disciples who “disbelieved for joy.” In Eugene Peterson’s words, it seems too good to be true (The Message version of the Bible).

So many things get in our way of believing in good news: despair, fear of hurt, joy, our commitment to what our senses tell us. Even as the disciples see Jesus standing in front of them, even as they touch him, even as they share a meal together, they can’t believe how lucky they are. They literally will not believe.

How much we are like the disciples, buffeted by bad news, unable to see the Divine standing right there in front of us. How nice it would be to have Jesus there to help us understand all these mysteries: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24: 45). So many weeks we have minds that have snapped shut. I find myself envious of these disciples who are there at the beginning, with open minds and joyful hearts and a soul that finally understands.

I remind myself that I have an advantage that these disciples didn’t have. I know that this Good News will be spread far and wide. I know how the world has received it at various times. I have seen regular humans who are able to transform their corners of the world with an ability that seems almost superhuman—but it is a power that comes from Christ.

I want to be part of that community. I want to be a resurrection human, one of those lights who doesn’t let the drumbeat of bad news drown out the Good News of Jesus.

Jesus is still here, reminding us of his scars and of the capacity to overcome those things that scar us. Jesus is still here, waiting to share a meal with us. Jesus is still here, reminding us that we are witnesses and co-creators of the Kingdom, that we are called to a far greater destiny than our tiny imaginations can envision.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In Praise of Retreats

We have spent much of the last week away, up in the North Carolina mountains, at the Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge.  I first went to this retreat in 2003, and I haven't missed one yet.  My spouse went first in 2005, and he has gone every year since, although some years he's had to spend more year focusing on his consulting work on a budget for a local government while he's been there.  This year, we were both more present.

Some years, I've spent more time taking pictures than participating.  This year, I led 2 workshops (one of blogging, one on the meditative practice of making crosses from found materials); I also led a drop in creation station that let people play with fabric, yarn, and fibers to create a scarf (go here for the blog post that shows my first experiment).  So, in many ways, I was more involved, less an observer.

I also enjoyed the efforts of others in many ways.  The Bishop of the Southeast Synod led our Bible study, and it was fascinating.  We had a very different kind of worship experience, the kind described in Curating Worship.  I will write more about these experiences in the coming days and weeks, as well as about some of the things we did that you might adapt to your own churches and groups.

Now comes the hard part:  getting back into regular life, after life on the mountain top.  I think back to the Transfiguration readings, about Peter's desire to never leave the mountain, to hold tight to that spiritual high.  I certainly understand.

But our spiritual texts tell us again and again that we are not renewed just for ourselves.  We are renewed and sent out into the world to heal the world and to stitch it all together again.

I am grateful beyond words to have these experiences that repair me.  I know that there are many people who never go on retreat, who run and run and eventually collapse.  Some of those people never recover.

I've said numerous times that we should follow the example of Jesus, who needed to retreat periodically.  If Jesus needed time away, it shouldn't surprise us that we need time away.  And not just vacation time:  Jesus spent his away time in prayer.

So, if you feel yourself running on fumes, it's time to think about a retreat.  Even if you can't afford one of the reasonably priced options offered by many church camps, there are ways to get away.  Many monasteries, for example, will offer hospitality, and accept whatever donation you can afford.

And if you can't get physically away, you can disconnect for small periods of time.  Turn off your electronics and sit in silence.  Or read something that nourishes you spiritually. Even 15 minutes can make an enormous difference.

And then, renewed and refreshed, you will be ready to re-enter the world and to re-engage.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Reading N. T. Wright for Holy Week

This year, during Holy Week, I read N. T. Wright's latest work, How God Became King.  It was the perfect book for Holy Week.

I like that he avoids the old rugged cross, washed in the blood of the lamb theology, while not getting rid of the theology of the cross altogether.  Jesus was so much more than just a social revolutionary who was crucified because he made Rome nervous (although he was that).

Wright roots his theology in the history of Israel, as a nation and as a people of God, something that has become increasingly rare in the theology of the past 100 years.  In fact, he uses an interesting metaphor to explain how Christians have not fully heard and understood the message of the Gospels.  He talks about the Gospels as a sound system where some of the speakers have become distorted or inaudible, and how we need to get the system in tune so that we can hear them all.  The story of Israel is one of those speakers.

The last part of the book explains Wright's view of the cross and what it means, and here's where it would be helpful to have read Wright's second latest book, Simply Jesus, where he explains the ancient view of what a temple was (along with other ancient ways of viewing the world).  In that book and in his latest one, he talks about Jesus talking about himself as a new temple, the place where we find God, the place where "Heaven" comes to earth.  In How God Became King, Wright reminds us, "And the gospels tell the story of Jesus as the story of a one-man walking temple. . . . Jesus is portrayed by the gospels as a one-man apocalypse, the place where heaven and earth meet, the place where and the means by which people come and find themselves renewed and restored as the people of the one God, the place where power is redefined, turned upside down or perhaps the right way up" (page 236).

And what does that mean for us?  Wright calls upon us to become walking temples too:  ""Jesus's followers, equipped with his Spirit, are to become in themselves, individually and together, little walking temples, rescued themselves from sin through Jesus (sic) death, and with the living presence of God going with them and in them" (page 247).

What a goal for us!

Wright doesn't give us a laundry list of things to do.  In some ways, I was disappointed.  In others, I thought it was fitting; after all, there are so many possibilities that we're only limited by our lack of imagination.

So, if you're feeling frustrated by your church's focus on the creeds, on Paul, on the lack of Jesus in your life, here's a great book.  Or maybe we should do what Wright suggests:  choose a Gospel, sit down, and read it straight through.  By doing this, we get a restored sense of the power of these texts.  Wright points out that these Gospels are short, shorter than most texts we read.  It certainly won't take much time. 

But it may transform our lives.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Easter Reminders

A week ago we'd have been celebrating Easter.  But maybe you've lost hold of Easter's promise.  Here's a photo essay to remind you!
























Saturday, April 14, 2012

Our Lenten Journey in Altarscape Form Comes to Its Conclusion



Strange to think of all the transitions that happen during the last few days of Holy Week.  On Maundy Thursday, we began with a Lenten altar (above). 

Of course, all is stripped away at the end of that service.  In some ways it's a terrifying reminder of all that will be stripped away from all of us.



Above you see our Good Friday altar.  Our stripped altar reveals a beautiful marble.  It's not nearly as austere as some of the stripped altars I've seen.


Below, a close up of the Good Friday altar.


On Holy Saturday, we arrived to get the sanctuary ready for Easter.  We wanted something to hang on the bare branches, and we came up with the idea of origami cranes.

Luckily there are people far more talented at origami than I am.  My cranes looked crippled and crumpled.  They were Good Friday cranes, not Resurrection cranes.



Above, the cranes from a distance.  Below, the cranes up close.


With some flowers that will later be transplanted in the butterfly gardens, the transformation is complete!


Below, a view from the side of the chancel.  I love the profusion of flowers and cranes, all the colors, with the choir in the background.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

For Those of Us Who Do and Don't Have Coffee with God

Earlier this week, on the NPR show Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Tanya Luhrmann who has just published When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.

It was a fascinating interview.  Unlike many who set out to study evangelical Christians, Luhrmann really does seem to be able to stay objective and not turn condemning.  She meets people with a wide range of beliefs, from the many people she meets who have a second cup of coffee with God, to those who claim they hear a larger music (Handel) in the chirping of crickets to the woman who feels inhabited by demons but unhelped by an exorcism.

She wants to do more to understand the different end results of people who pray and people who listen to lectures or use other self-improvement techniques.  So she fashioned an experiment:  "At one point I ran an experiment because people had told me that prayer was hard, you had to work hard to pray and practice, some people would be better than others and that people who are good and who practice would change. And one of the things they would sometimes say was that their mental imagery would get sharper. That didn't sound like theology. That sounded like psychology. And so I ran this experiment in which I randomized people into prayer and lectures on the Gospels and I made sort of an equivalent of imagination-rich prayer, Bible study. On the iPods they came in, they did a bunch of questionnaires, computer exercises, we interviewed them. We sent them out with a brown envelope that contained one of these iPods and the rule was they had to listen for a half an hour a day, six days a week for four weeks. When they came back, the people in the prayer group were more likely to say that they experienced their mental imagery vividly. They were more likely to use mental imagery. They were more likely to say that they experienced the near tangible presence of God. They were more likely to say they experienced God as a person, and they also had some additional kind of objective cognitive advantages. They had a better sustained attention. They could solve little problems a little more easily."

Terry Gross asked if they could have gotten similar results if they'd substituted a meditation tape or some other kind of deep relaxation experience, and they go on to have an interesting discussion.

And that's only one of the interesting discussions.  They talk about 1965 as a turning point, when God becomes kinder, more supportive, more loving.  They talk about Rick Warren's mega blockbuster, The Purpose Driven Life.  They talk about the different varieties of evangelical belief in the U.S. 

I'd have loved to have heard more about her thoughts on the mainstream church, but perhaps that's a different book.  Or maybe I need to read the whole book to get the whole picture that she presents.

It sounds like a fascinating book, and it's now on my evergrowing reading list.  In the meantime, I'm grateful for these kind of interviews, which keep me feeling fed.  It's not the full-blown nourishment of a good book or a good class, but it is the nourishment of the kind of soup you can get if you've got a can of beans, a can of tomatoes, and some bags of frozen veggies.  It'll keep me going until the day that I can stay home stirring the stew pot as it simmers all day long.

To listen to the interview or to read the transcript, go here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, April 15, 2012:

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
How good and pleasant it is to live together in unity. (Ps. 133:1)
1 John 1:1—2:2
John 20:19-31

I love the post-Easter encounters with Jesus. It's as if the Gospel writers knew that we'd need to be reminded of the amazing thing that has happened. It's no wonder that Thomas said he wouldn't believe until he'd touched the wounds.

Jesus was dead. He wasn't just passed out or in a deep sleep or let off the cross early. He died and rose again.

Notice that here, as elsewhere, Jesus knows what humans need and meets them on that level. He doesn't get huffy. He doesn't say, "Well, if Thomas isn't glad to see me back from the dead, then I'm not going to talk to him. I'll just hang out with people who believe." No, he lets Thomas put his hands inside of his side wound, if that's what it takes.

He forgives the doubt. He forgives the disciples who ran away. He doesn't show up to berate the disciples for hiding in a dark room when they've got work to do. He forgives all the human ways we can't rise to the vision that God has for our behavior, for our blessed lives.

Notice in these post Easter lessons how Jesus roots his actions in the physicality of life. He cooks people breakfast when they've been off fishing. He breaks bread and blesses wine. He presents his very wounded body. For those of us modern Gnostics who want to deny that Jesus was as human as the rest of us, these lessons seem specially placed to help us work against that belief. Jesus was NOT just a mystical creature with a human form that he could put on and take off, like a special set of clothes.

Perhaps that should be a lesson to the rest of us as well. When we feel despairing, we should look for ways to root ourselves in our physical lives; maybe we should try baking bread or cooking a meal. Maybe when we're depressed, instead of moping, we should write a letter to our loved ones, telling them how much we love them. Maybe we should plant some herbs or flowers, get our hands in the dirt, remember our roots in the world that deserves our love and attention.

This approach is also a good way to minister to others. Instead of some sort of theoretical approach to evangelism, we should look minister to our neighbors on a physical plane first--that sounds almost obscene, but I'm thinking of sharing a meal, not a bed. Once we’ve ministered to the physical needs of people, we can think about their spiritual lives.

God came to this world to become physically involved--we are called to do the same.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Happy Birthday, Anne Lamott

Today is the birthday of Anne Lamott.  She's become somewhat famous for many reasons, but since this blog focuses on theology, let me think about her as a theological writer in this post.

I first found out about her because of her famous book on writing, Bird by Bird.  The metaphor that gave the book its title comes from an incident where Ann's brother had put off writing his research paper on multiple kinds of birds, and he despaired of being able to do it.  Ann's father said he'd have to do it "bird by bird."  Step by step, that's how anything gets done.  Her book is full of good advice and stories about how to be a writer. 

I remember when Anne Lamott made the talk show rounds to promote her book Traveling Mercies:  Some Thoughts on Faith.  At first, I was horrified.  I was still in a snooty, anti-church stage of my life.  Yet Lamott didn't come across as one of those bigoted, hypocritical Christians that I hated so much.  She was very honest about her struggles, about all the ways she still got things wrong.  The way she talked about her church made me wish I could go there.

Perhaps it's because of her honest writing about her church experiences, along with Kathleen Norris' writing, that led me back to church.  I'm sure it's part of what pulled me back.  Those writers, and so many like them that I was reading in the late 90's and early part of this century, reminded me of the wide variety of faith experiences:  suburban churches, priests of all sorts, monastics, college kids, radicals of all stripes.

And it's Lamott's own writing about faith that gave me the courage to try.  I love her quirky way of looking at the world, of looking at Bible stories, of retelling them and weaving them with her experiences.

Here are some quotes from some of her books.  I highly recommend all of them.

I was looking for the bit in an Anne Lamott book where she talks about a mom being locked out of a bedroom. Behind the door was a screaming toddler. The mom couldn't get the door open and neither could the toddler. While she waited for help to arrive, she stuck her fingers under the door and talked in soothing tones to the toddler. Anne Lamott saw that incident as a metaphor for God's presence in our lives.


I thought the obvious place to look for the source would be Lamott's book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year.  I couldn't find it, but this metaphor is almost as good as the mom metaphor for which I was hunting: "He said he'd finally figured out a few years ago that his profound sense of control, in the world and over his life, is another addiction and a total illusion. He said that when he sees little kids sitting in the backseat of cars, in those car seats that have steering wheels, with grim expressions of concentration on their faces, clearly convinced that their efforts are causing the car to do whatever it is doing, he thinks of himself and his relationship with God: God who drives along silently, gently amused, in the real driver's seat" (p. 113).
 
"At some point you pardon the people in your family for being stuck together in all their weirdness, and when you can do that, you can learn to pardon anyone. Even yourself, eventually. It's like learning to drive on an old car with a tricky transmission: if you can master shifting gears on that, you can learn to drive anything" (Traveling Mercies 219-220).
 
"You've got to love this in a God--consistently assembling the motleyest people to bring, into the lonely and frightening world, a commitment to caring and community" (Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith page 22)
 
Her quote from her friend John is one I come back to again and again:  ". . . if you have a problem you can solve by throwing money at it, you don't have a very interesting problem" (Traveling Mercies 259).


"If my heart were a garden, it would be in bloom with roses and wrinkly Indian poppies and wild flowers.  There would be two unmarked tracts of scorched earth, and scattered headstones covered with weeds and ivy and moss, a functioning compost pile, grat tangles of blackberry bushes, and some piles of trash I've meant to haul away for years (Grace (Eventually):  Thoughts on Faith, page 107).  She then goes on to write a wonderful essay about what it means to clean up and cultivate our heart's garden, which entails dealing with a lot of our messes, like jealousy-caused meltdowns.

"When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility" (Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith pages 33-34).

Monday, April 9, 2012

Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer

On this day in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was put to death by the Nazis. Like Anne Frank and many other nameless victims, he came heartbreakingly close to surviving the war.  Like Oscar Romero, he fought against a corrupt government and paid with his life.

Bonhoeffer was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. A Lutheran pastor, he lived what he preached, actively resisting the Nazis and living in intentional community. He was arrested for his role in an attempt on Hitler's life.

Here are some Bonhoeffer quotes for your Easter Monday:

Let's begin with one of his most famous works of theology, The Cost Of Discipleship. Here's one of the most famous quotes from that book:

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Here's another good one from that classic text: “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

Here are some other great quotes:

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

“In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.” Letters and Papers from Prison

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Feast Day of Easter

Here we are, Easter morning, the end of our Lenten pilgrimmage.  Our Easter morning is relatively quiet:  no children ripping into Easter baskets, no sunrise service, no big breakfast.  It gives me time to think about that long-ago Easter morning, coming after sadness that's almost inconceivable to me.

Last night we watched Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ after friends told us how good it was.  I worried about the goriness, but it seemed right for Holy Saturday.  It created a good pause, as we moved from Good Friday towards this morning.

As I watched it, I thought about all of those families through the centuries who have had loved ones ripped from them because of oppressive state governments.  My mind went to a different movie, Missing, where the characters are determined to get answers about their missing loved one, and they uncover horrifying truths about the lengths a government will go to suppress dissent.

Jesus found himself sucked into a state maw, but unlike so many, he was able to transform a horrifying event into one of redemption.

I've always found my attention rivetted by the idea of the women who get to the garden early, after days of weeping, to find their loved one returned.  A few years ago, I found myself thinking about the gardener.  This poem was the result.  It first appeared in issue 3 of Eye to the Telescope. The whole volume is devoted to persona poems and edited by Jeannine Hall Gailey.


The Gardener’s Tale



I liked to get to the garden
early, before the harsh
light of day revealed
all my mistakes, all the growth
I couldn’t contain.

I liked the pre-dawn
hours, when I knew
the flowers by their smells
as I rustled
their stems.

That morning I saw
him first. He asked
for bread, and I had a bit
to share. I offered
him olives and some cheese
from my son Simon’s goat.

We talked of ways to attract
butterflies to the garden:
the need for nectar
and leaves for the babies.
I showed him a tree
that had been ailing,
and he suggested a different nourishment.

I thanked him for his wisdom
and moved to the border
of the garden. I didn’t make
the connections until I heard
the shrieks of the women
and Peter nearly knocked me down.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

More Thoughts on Favorite Church Services

My spouse says that his favorite church service of the year may now be the Maundy Thursday service.  I understand.  Our church's Maundy Thursday service was particularly wonderful this year.  Our pastor knitted it together out of various Biblical texts that talk about love.  It was great.

Our evening Good Friday service also went well.  As I wrote yesterday, there are all sorts of ways that this service can go wrong:  too much of a focus on the sin, on the fault, on the theology of substitute sacrifice, on and on I could go.  My only complaint with last night's service is that I would have liked to have sung more.  We had lots of singing, but it was mainly the choir doing the singing.  They did a good job, don't get me wrong--I just would have liked to participate more.

Our midday Good Friday service that was held indoors went fine.  We had planned to offer a Stations of the Cross walk at the labyrinth, but we had to cut it short because a huge storm swept through.  Still I marked the places in the labyrinth where people would have stopped (oil pastel crayons work really well in this application:  numbers on red bricks), and I enjoyed an hour of waiting at the labyrinth, reading and watching the gathering clouds.

So, instead of spending the afternoon by the labyrinth, we came home and enjoyed a rainy afternoon of cooking and reading.  My spouse got practice time with his violin, and I got to nap.

I have always enjoyed services that we do at the labyrinth.  One year, we met at the labyrinth every Friday in Advent.  One year, we did a brief Wed. night service every week of Lent and walked the labyrinth.  When the weather permits, our earliest Christmas Eve service ends at the labyrinth where we walk while one of our church musicians plays "Silent Night."  I must confess that our Stations of the Cross walk is my least favorite labyrinth service.

I find myself more and more drawn to Ash Wednesday.  If I wouldn't be seen as so strange, I'd like to spend every day marked with ash.  I need that reminder that life is short, and that I'm often stressed about issues that won't matter in the long run--or even in a week.

It's interesting to me that when I think of favorite services, I think of high festival days.  Is there a way to make weekly services have similar impact?  Or by the very nature of their rareness, will high festival days always have an advantage?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Crucifixion: a Photo Meditation

When I was young, Good Friday was my second favorite service of the year.  My very most favorite, of course, was Christmas Eve.  But I LOVED Good Friday with a passion that might have frightened people if they had known.



For several years, the pastor of my childhood church, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Montgomery, Alabama, read an article that recounted the crucifixion in medical terms.  The article was quite clear about the agony that Christ suffered, hour by hour on the cross.  I remember hearing about wood scraping against scourged flesh and the suffocation that crucifixion brought about.  And the nails--through the wrists, not the palms, since the flesh in human hands won't support human weight on a cross.



I loved that the lights went out as the Good Friday service went on, and eventually there was the big bang when our pastor slammed the big Bible shut.  I loved the drama.  I loved that the service was so different.  I don't understand why churches don't do more with that.



There are so many ways this service can go wrong.  It's too easy to get bogged down in what I call the Old, Rugged Cross school of theology.  That script can get dangerously simplistic:  that Jesus had to come to pay for my sin because 2000 years later I would get into fights with my baby sister.



Of course, my theology of the cross can get dangerously simplistic too.  I focus on the fact that Jesus was crucified.  Ancient Rome had many crimes that warranted death as punishment, but crucifixion was reserved for those who were seen as a threat to the State:  terrorists and insurrectionists and such.  Jesus was seen as such a threat to the social order that the government had to kill him.  But of course, the crucifixion of Christ was about so much more.



I may say more on this later, once I've finished N. T. Wright's latest book, How God Became King:  The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.  I've just gotten to the third section where he proposes to bring the "kingdom Christians" and "cross Christians" together:  "We have lived for many years now with 'kingdom Christians' and 'cross Christians' in opposite corners of the room, anxious that those on the other side are missing the point, the one group with its social-gospel agenda and the other with its saving-souls-for-heave agenda.  The four gospels bring these two viewpoints together into a unity that is much greater than the sum of their parts, and this is mostly what Part III is about" (159).




I will have some reading time today because I will sit out at the labyrinth for those who want to do a self-guided Stations of the Cross today.  I will greet people and give them the booklets; I will answer any questions that they have about the labyrinth.  If past years are any indication, I'll have plenty of time to read.  I'll read the N.T. Wright book and Diana Butler Bass' latest work, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.


Another quote from the new N. T. Wright book:  "God himself will come to the place of pain and horror, of suffering, and even of death, so that somehow he can take it upon himself and thereby set up his new style theocracy at last.  The evangelists tell the story of Jesus in such a way that this combination of Israel's vocation and the diving purpose come together perfectly into one.  This, I suggest, is the reality behind the later abstractions of 'humanity' and 'divinity.'  The humanity is the humanity of Israel, the divinity is the divinity of Israel's God" (page 196, emphasis Wright's).



Tonight I'll go to my church's Good Friday service.  We will end with a procession and adoration of the cross, something I'd never seen before being part of this church.  Some of our congregation are visibly moved.  I find myself feeling awkward, unsure of what to do.



I want to have an experience like the one that Nora Gallagher describes in Things Seen and Unseen:  A Year Lived in Faith:  "I kneel down in front of the cross.  I've come full circle from Ash Wednesday, on my knees for the imposition of ashes, to kneeling here to kiss the cross.  I am marked here, in the same way I was marked with ashes, in the same way I was marked at my baptism.  As my lips met the wood, I'm pierced by a shaft of pain so tender I sob.  A last layer cracks" (page 128).





Good Friday reminds us of all the ways our hopes can be dashed, of all the ways that we can be betrayed and abandoned, of all the ways that it can all go so terribly wrong.  N. T. Wright says, "The greatest religion the world had ever known and the finest system of justice the world had ever known came together to put Jesus on the cross" (How God Became King, page 208).


It's good to remember on Good Friday that God can make beauty out of the most profound ugliness, wholeness out of the most shattered brokenness.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday Musings

--Last night, I went to First Lutheran for our monthly meal with the homeless.  And then, several hours later, as I left my office at 8:45 at night, I heard and then saw a man who was pushing a cart through our school's parking garage.  As he walked, he shouted all sorts of profanity.  I went to the desk of the security guard and spent the rest of the evening ruminating on the experience.  For a taste of what I've been thinking, go here.

--Feeding the homeless seems like a good way to get ready for Maundy Thursday.  As with many a Holy Week experience, I kept waiting to be profoundly moved, but felt strangely emotionless.

--This morning a great, rushing wind rattled the hurricane shutters (metal awnings).  Much more suitable for Pentecost than Maundy Thursday.

--What is the best way to celebrate Maundy Thursday?  I'll end this long day at church.  I've started by eating some good homemade bread that I found stashed in the freezer.  Bread for Maundy Thursday seems appropriate; eating it by myself, not so much.

--Many churches will have a foot washing service.  I understand the reference (read John 13: 1-15 if you need a refresher).  But in these days of pedicures and protected feet, do we lose the symbolism?

--If we washed the feet of the homeless, the meaning might be restored.

--A few years ago, I thought about foot washing and non-sexual intimacy with both our bodies and the bodies of others.  I wrote a poem, "Drained," after a Maundy Thursday service. I was thinking about the woman who anoints Jesus with costly oil and I remembered (wrongly, it turns out) her wiping his feet with her hair.  I was thinking about how shocked the disciples were that Jesus should wash their feet. I was wondering what a similar act would be today: what would be both invasive and intimate. I thought about how many of my friends refuse to let people see the true state of their houses. I thought about how the state of my bathroom often embarrasses me. And voila, a poem was born.

--This poem first appeared in Chiron Review.

Drained


Jesus showed up on my doorstep, demanding
to clean my bathroom.
I refused.
I mean, it’s one thing for him to face
Crucifixion for my sake.
It’s quite another for him to see
how I really live.

His face—so sad.
He talked about searching
for feet to wash, but modern feet are so clean.
It’s no sacrifice to touch people’s feet.
In this world of pedicures
and solid shoes, a foot washing doesn’t convey
the same care it once did. That’s how he came
to develop his crazy cleaning scheme.

I offered to let him scour my oven,
but he said it wasn’t the same,
and besides, it’s self-cleaning.
He really wanted to deal
with the detritus of my life.

What can I say? Jesus is persuasive.
He organized my jumble of cosmetics and healed
my slow drains. He cleaned
my toilet with his hair.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012:

First Reading: Acts 10:34-43

First Reading (Alt.): Isaiah 25:6-9

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Second Reading (Alt.): Acts 10:34-43

Gospel: Mark 16:1-8

Gospel (Alt.): John 20:1-18

Finally we move through Holy Week to Easter Sunday. At last, our Lenten pilgrimage draws to a close.

I have an atheist friend who says she envies me my belief. I argue that my beliefs come because of my practice, and that she could enter into spiritual practices, and she would be a different person in a year. She proclaims not to believe me, but she also refuses to try my experiment. Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity, says "We become what we do" (192). Holy Week reminds us of what we are called to do.

The stories we hear during Holy Week remind us of how to move from lives that have been reduced to ash back to lives full of resurrection.

In An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor observes, as many theologians have, that the teachings of Jesus revolve around the things we do, not the things we believe. The Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed came much later in Christianity. Long before we had creeds, we had Jesus saying, "Do this. Now do this. Now do this." We are to feed the hungry, care for the sick, protect the widows and orphans. Taylor comments on the Last Supper: "With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do--specific ways of being together in their bodies--that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself" (43). We have "embodied sacraments of bread, wine, water, and feet" (44).

We are called to break bread together, to drink wine together. We are called to invite the outcast to supper with us. We are called to care for each other's bodies--not to sexualize them or mock them or brutalize them, but to wash them tenderly. Thus fortified, we are called to announce that the Kingdom of God is breaking out among us in the world in which we live, and we are called to transform the world accordingly.

Of course, Holy Week reminds us of the risk. Jesus was crucified--that was a capital punishment reserved for those who were considered a threat to the state, people who would foment rebellion, for example. The world does not often respond kindly to the call for transformation.

But Easter promises us that our efforts will not be in vain. N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, is a great Easter text, and Wright says forcefully, " . . . what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to roll over a cliff" (208). We may not understand how God will transform the world. We may not be able to believe that bleakness will be defeated. But Easter shows us God's promise that death is not the final answer.

Spring reminds us that nature commits to resurrection. Easter reminds us of God's promise of resurrection. Now is the time for us to rekindle our resurrection selves.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday on the Plains

My spouse wrote this response to Mark 11:  7-10; I thought it was a different take on Palm Sunday and it fascinated me; thus I share it here.

First, the Bible reading:

Mark 11: 7-10

7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
"Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

Now, my spouse:

I was raised in a unique environment when the twin towers of cinema were John Wayne and Bruce Lee. Blockbuster films were westerns and martial arts films with revenge masquerading as the final and only appropriate just outcome. The suffering and injustice wreaked upon innocent men, women and children was graphically presented with the torching of houses, cold blooded murders from hired gunmen and rapes of widows by clans of men.

There could be no doubt about who was the oppressor and who was the victim. Similarly, there was little doubt about who would be the hero, the savior, who would set things right and exact violent revenge on the cruel and powerful. The only questions were how long the injustice would continue before the presumed hero rose to the occasion and what means the savior would use to vanquish the cruel.

Raised in that context, the scene in this reading is one of exceedingly high drama. It is a moment of anticipation which rivals the entire season of Advent. This is where we would see the all important preparation for righteous conflict.

In this reading we see the colt being dressed for the grand and final entrance. This simple act of dressing seems insignificant given what is ahead. Notice, though in cinema, we still watch as the ninja pulls on his black face mask and secures his swords, the western hero straps on his colts, or the reluctant western hero picks up his blacksmith’s hammer or whaling harpoon. The dressing preparation detail brings strong visual evidence that the saving hero accepted the life or death challenge to face the powerfully corrupt even when the powerful were backed by the accepted law of the land.

In the western, the conquering hero mounts his enormous stud, which should have a name like “hell bitch” or “Diablo Blanco” and begins his methodical march to the scene of confrontation. He knows what he must do, but takes no delight in it. The gun slinging hero is finally soon to make his entrance into the sleazy town -uncertain of the outcome. The audience has the full and complete expectation that while the odds are stacked against the hero, good will triumph.

The audience knows that if wounded, the hero always survives. Not uncommonly the bullet is stopped by a good luck charm carried from a loved one, a Bible carried in the left vest pocket, or contemporarily by Kevlar. We clear his path, salute him, and sing his praises as he makes his way toward what proves to be a final show down whereupon all of the corrupt forces that have been terrorizing and unjustly persecuting the righteous will be slain.

But here there is no enormous stud, no sleek, prancing, Mexican breed Paso fina, only a puny colt still innocent and wet behind the ears which isn’t even “broken” until Christ receives it. This pathetic looking creature with no gatling gun or even scythes rides an even more pathetic excuse for a horse. He has only a colt, not a .44 Colt Dragoon.

This is the moment in the western where the tympanis would build to a great crescendo as we hear the people of faith making noise and rejoicing in this moment of anticipation. Here is the King of the Jews, the Savior, the Messiah, the one who will destroy decades of oppression and injustice suffered by the Jewish people. How “in the world” is He going to pull this off and come out relatively unscathed as we have come to expect?

This is as far as the current text takes us. At the end of this reading we are left optimistic and in exceedingly high expectation but not at all certain until the rest of the story is told which side the law will support, who will find sufficient confidence to support the savior when called upon, who will find sufficient indignation against the un-righteous to fight, and whether justice will somehow prevail.