Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Spiritual Goal for 2014

Last night, talk turned, as it often does this time of year, to resolutions.  If your resolution is to have a more spiritual life, you are not alone.

But what does that mean?  More prayer?  A retreat?  Discernment about life shifts?  Putting more of your efforts towards the service of God's vision?

Where do we want to be on Dec. 31, 2014?

In past years, I've wanted to pray more, to keep a spiritual journal of some sort, or to adopt another spiritual discipline.  I'm still not as good at tithing as I would like to be.  My thoughts are never far from discernment, as there are many days when I just cannot believe that God intends me to have my particular life.  Surely I could be of more use in a different setting?

But maybe it's precisely in this setting setting that God needs me.  My workplace is full of anxiety about the future, as I imagine many halls of higher education are these days.  For much of the day, every day, I am surrounded by people who are upset, people who are sorrowful, people who spend their hours haunted by worst case scenarios.  I turn on the TV, and it's more of the same.  Even moving through the world eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers, I hear negativity and doubt and suspicion. 

The great English poet Keats would have called it "a vale of soul-making."

My goal this year is more simple and infinitely harder than past goals.  I want to refuse to participate in fear mongering.  I want to believe the best of people, that people are trying hard and doing all that they're capable of.  I am amazed at how often people are willing to believe the worst, whether it be of our coworkers, our legislators, our people in power, everyone else who is out of power.  Do we really believe that people are out to wreck our societal institutions? Do we really believe that people are shirking their responsibilities, all the time, every day? Do we really believe that people are showing up with the intention to avoid doing quality work? 

What would happen if I just refused to engage in the outrage?  I've spent years pointing out possible better case scenarios.  I don't change anyone's mind.

Let the fear mongering and suspicion go on without me.  Let others sow the seeds of despair.  That weed is one that has been running too rampant in my garden as of late.  It's time to plant some different seeds.

And when I hear people engaging in that behavior, let it serve as a tolling bell to remind me to pray for everyone in difficult circumstances.

And let me always remember the life lesson that I learned from watching the end decades of the life of Nelson Mandela.  Sometimes, the worst situations, like apartheid, look intractable.  Some years, a civil war looks inevitable.

And then, there are years when the prison doors swing open and great minds can form a new creation like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Let me side with that force of history.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Blessings of Christmastide

It's been a week of many worship services, and there could have been more.  I decided to only attend 1 Christmas Eve service, my favorite, the more contemplative one at 5 p.m.  Before that, on Sunday, I went to two services, and on Saturday night, the service of the longest night on Dec. 21.  I went to a Christmas Day service, and a service yesterday that reprised the Christmas cantata, along with Communion and the rite of healing.

You would think I would feel exhausted, and there's some of that, but more than exhaustion, I'm beginning to feel renewed.  It's been an autumn of much church activity, but not much that was nourishing.  Lots of discussion about finances, for example, perhaps necessary, but leaving me with more negative feelings than anything else.

It's good to feel hopeful again.

The most moving part of Christmastide so far happened in conjunction with our pastor's sabbatical.

On Sunday, Dec. 22, I wrote to our pastor.  I knew that he would be leaving for his sabbatical right after the Christmas Day service.  I assumed that he had set up some sort of blessing for himself, but I wanted to make sure.  I wrote a Facebook message:

"I also wondered--and it won't surprise me if you're 5 steps ahead of me, if we should have some sort of blessing for you on Christmas Day or at least a prayer. We send others off on life journeys with a laying on of hands and/or prayer. I would like us to do the same for you as you go to Sabbatical time.

I will take the risk of overstepping here: I will be at Christmas Day service. I could take the lead on this. I also understand if it's not cool in some way."
Come to find out, he hadn't made these arrangements, and he said he'd welcome a blessing.  And so, I spent a few days contemplating it.
We did the blessing and prayer just before the sending hymn, which was "Go Tell It On the Mountain."  That hymn couldn't have been more appropriate.
I knew that the Christmas Day service wouldn't be packed, and I was right.  As I had planned and hoped,  I invited those that wanted to participate in a prayer of blessing and sending to come forward.  Everyone did.
I asked our pastor if he was comfortable with us laying our hands on him, and he said, "Of course."  And we all did, and I prayed a prayer asking that his sabbatical be a time of refreshment and renewal.  I also asked for those of us left behind, that we also have a time of refreshment and renewal.  I asked for visions and discernment.  I asked that we all be kept safe until we were together again.
I was very pleased with how it went and how it was received.  I so often worry about overstepping, about people saying, "Who does she think she is?  She is not ordained.  She doesn't have the appropriate training."  I ignore that voice in my head, that worry.  It would have been far worse to send our pastor off on sabbatical with no blessing at all.
I've written before about how I feel we need to have more of these services of blessing, the laying on of hands.  We do it when people move, when people make major transitions.  But why save it for those special occasions?
I'm reminded of a time not so long ago when churches believed we shouldn't have Communion as often as we do.  And now, churches like mine believe we should have it as part of every worship service.  It nourishes us, so why limit it?
I dream of a day when we say the same thing about blessing and anointing and laying on of hands.


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Prophetic Imaginations and Our Imaginations

If you're needing inspiration and great interviews, let me recommend some great stuff I heard during Christmas week on NPR.

Even if you're not Catholic, you'll likely enjoy this discussion of Pope Francis on The Diane Rehm Show.  They talk about all sorts of theological issues and the history of the church and the future.  Good stuff here.

I have written here before of my love of Nadia Bolz-Weber, too many posts to link to here.  But if you want a short piece that will help you see why I love here, check out this interview on Morning Edition.

I also listened to this interview with Walter Brueggemann on NPR's On Being.  What an amazing mind!  I've read his work before, and I've always come away impressed.  I suspect the reason I want to go to seminary is so that I'd have a chance to read books like the ones he's written.

I want to go to seminary because I assume my seminary professors would be like he is, and one reason why I'm resisting going is because I'd be so disappointed.

Happily, I can read these works on my own, and hearing this interview is like what I imagine a seminary class would be--and it's much cheaper!

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"The other text I'll read is Isaiah 43. It's a very much-used passage. "Do not remember the former things nor consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" And apparently, what he's telling his people is just forget about the Exodus, forget about all the ancient miracles, and pay attention to the new miracles of rebirth and new creation that God is enacting before your very eyes. I often wonder when I read that, what was it like the day the poet got those words and what did it feel like and how did he share that? Of course, we don't know any of that, so it just keeps ringing in our ears."

"But the amazing contemporaneity of this material is that the issues are the same, that the world we have trusted in is vanishing before our eyes and the world that is coming at us feels like a threat to us and we can't quite see the shape of it. I think that is kind of where the church and the preachers of the church have to live, and people don't much want to hear either one of those words, that the world is vanishing or that a new world is coming to us, which is why this kind of poetry always leaves us uneasy, I think."

"It is counter-cultural because our consumer culture wants somehow to narcoticize us so that we just settle in on things. I think Kafka maybe said that a poet or a novelist is like a pick ax that attacks the way we've got things arranged, and I think these poems are like pick axes that are not welcome among us, but we're going to miss out on the reality of our life if we are narcoticized both about the loss and about the newness."

"Yeah, well, I think we think in terms of systems and continuities and predictability and schemes and plans. I think the Bible is to some great extent focused on God's capacity to break those schemes open and to violate those formulae. When they are positive disruptions, the Bible calls them miracles. We tend not to use that word when they are negative, but what it means is that the reality of our life and the reality of God are not contained in most of our explanatory schemes."

"I've asked myself why in the church does the question of gays and lesbians have such adrenaline. And I've decided for myself that that means most of what we're arguing about with gays and lesbians has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It is rather that the world is not the way we thought it was going to be. I think what has happened is that we've taken all of our anxiety about the old world disappearing and we've dumped it all on that issue.

So I have concluded that it's almost futile to have the theological argument about gays and lesbians anymore because that's not what the argument's about. It is an amorphous anxiety that we are in freefall as a society, and I think we kind of are in freefall as a society, but I don't think it has anything to do with gays and lesbians particularly."

"You may know that the Hebrew word for — Phyllis Trible has taught us that the Hebrew word for mercy is the word for womb with different vowel points. So mercy, she's suggested, is womb-like mother love. And it is the capacity of a mother to totally give one's self over to the need and reality and identity of the child. And mutatis mutandis then, mercy is the capacity to give one's self away for the sake of the neighborhood.

Now none of us do that completely, but it makes a difference if the quality of social transactions have to do with the willingness to give one's self away for the sake of the other rather than the need to always be drawing all of the resources to myself for my own well-being. So it is this kind of generous connectedness to others and then I think our task is to see how that translates into policy. I think that a community or a society finally cannot live without the quality of mercy. The problem for us is what will initiate that? What will break the pattern of self-preoccupation enough to notice that the others are out there and that we are attached to them?"

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sympathy for the Devil (Herod, in this case)

On Dec. 28, we remember the slaughter of all the male children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem in the days after the birth of Jesus. Why were they killed? Because of Herod's feelings of inadequacy, because of his fear. The magi tell him of a new king that has just been born, and he feels threatened. He will stop at nothing to wipe out any rival, even one who is still a tiny baby.

We like to think that we wouldn't have reacted that way. We like to think that we'd have joined the band of wise men and gone to pay our respects. We like to think that we'd have put aside our worries of not being good enough and our doubts.

But far too many of us would have responded in exactly the same way, if we had the resources at our command. You need only look at interpersonal relationships in the family or in the office to see that most of us have an inner Herod whom it is hard to ignore.

If you're old enough, you've had the startled feeling when you realize that the next rising star at your workplace or your congregation or your social group is a generation younger than you. It's hard to respond graciously.

Many of us are likely to respond to our feelings of inadequacy in unproductive ways. If we hear a good idea from someone who makes us feel threatened at work or in our families, how many of us affirm that idea? Instead of saying, "How interesting," we say, "How stupid!" And then we go to great lengths to prove that we're right, and whatever is making us feel inadequate is wrong.

So often I feel like I will never escape middle school, that particular kind of hell, where the boundaries were always fluid. Kids who were acceptable one day were pariahs the next. Many adolescents report feeling that they can't quite get their heads around all the rules and the best ways to achieve success.

Adult life can sometimes feel the same way. We fight to achieve equilibrium, only to find it all undone. Most of us don't have the power that Herod had, so our fight against powerlessness doesn't end in corpses. But it often results in a world of outcasts and lone victors, zero-sum games that leave us all diminished.

But feelings of inadequacy can have lethal consequences, especially when played out on a geopolitical scale, the powerful lashing out against the powerless. We live in a world where dictators can efficiently kill their country's population by the thousands or more. Sadly, we see this Herod dynamic so often that we're in danger of becoming jaded, hardened and unaffected by suffering.

Now as the year draws to a close, we can resolve to be on the lookout for ways that our inner Herod dominates and controls our emotional lives. We can resolve to let love rule our actions, not fear. We can also resolve to help those who are harmed by the Herods of our world.

Thinking of Herod might also bring to mind the flight into Egypt, the Holy Family turned into refugees. We remember the Holy Family fleeing in terror with only the clothes on their backs -- and we remember that this story is so common throughout the world.

As we think about Herod, let us pray to vanquish the Herods in our heads and in our lives. Let us pray for victims of terror everywhere, the ones that get away and the ones that are slaughtered.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Feast Day of Saint John

The day after we celebrate the life of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, we celebrate the life of the only one of the original 12 disciples die of natural causes in old age.  Tradition tells us that John was first a disciple of John the Baptist, and then a disciple of Christ, the one who came to be known as the beloved disciple, the one tasked with looking after Mary, the mother of Jesus.

There is much debate over how much of the Bible was actually written by this disciple.  If we had lived 80 years ago, we'd have firmly believed that the disciple wrote the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation.  Twentieth century scholars came to dispute this belief, and if you do scholarly comparison, you would have to conclude that the same author could not have written all of those books. 

Regardless, most of us remember St. John as the disciple who spent a long life writing and preaching.  He's the patron saint of authors, theologians, publishers, and editors.  He's also the patron saint of painters. 

Today, as many of us may be facing a bit of depression or cabin fever, perhaps we can celebrate the feast of St. John by a creative act.  Write a poem about what it means to be the beloved disciple.  Write a letter to your descendants to tell them what your faith has meant to you.  Paint a picture--even if you can't do realistic art, you could have fun with colors as you depict the joy that Jesus brings to you.

Here's a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime:  "Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen."

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Feast Day of St. Stephen: Remembering the Martyrs

Today is the feast day of Saint Stephen.  I wrote this blog piece for the Living Lutheran site.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Maybe it’s time to go back to read those Christmas texts. The threat is never far away. After all, we see Mary and Jesus as parents who can’t find a decent place to stay as they bring their baby into the world, and then they must flee the terror that Herod is about to inflict. They’re refugees, in almost constant peril in the story — that’s if we read beyond the angels and the worshiping shepherds and questing wise men."

" Let us take some time away from our holiday festivities to remember those who have died for their faith. Let us take some time to remember the refugees who must flee the force of tyrants. Let us offer prayers for those who are still persecuted. Let us light a candle as we remember God’s promise that the kingdom breaks through in the presence of the baby in the manger, a kingdom where families will not lose their babies to the terror of tyrants, where young adults like Stephen will not be stoned for their beliefs."

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 29, 2013:

First Reading: Isaiah 63:7-9

Psalm: Psalm 148

Second Reading: Hebrews 2:10-18

Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

After all the joy and wonder of Christmas Eve, this Gospel returns us to post-manger life with a thud. In this Gospel, we see Herod behaving in a way that's historically believable, if perhaps not historically accurate, as he slaughters all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two. Why would he do such a terrible thing? Partly because he's worried about keeping his power; he's worried about what the wise men have told him, and he doesn't want any challenges. Partly because he can; he has power granted to him by Roman authorities, and that power means that he can slaughter his subjects if he sees fit to do so.

Jesus, however, escapes. A power greater than Rome protects him. Warned by an angel in a dream, Joseph flees with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, to safety. But still, the earthly power of Herod turns them into refugees.

Early in the Gospel, we see that the coming of Jesus disrupts regular life. Even before Jesus tells us that the life of a disciple is not one of material ease and comfort, we get that message. Even before Jesus warns us that following him may mean that we're on the opposite side of earthly powers, we see with our own eyes, in the story of Herod and the slaughter of the innocents.

This Gospel reminds us of the potency of power. We shouldn't underestimate the power of the State, particularly the power of a global empire. With the story of Herod, we see the limits of worldly power. Yet even within those limits, a dastardly ruler can unleash all sorts of pain and suffering. Those of us lucky enough to live under benign rulers shouldn't forget how badly life can go wrong for those who don't share our good fortune.

The Gospel reminds us of who has the true power in the story--it's God. The Gospel shows us who deserves our loyalty. And the Gospel also reminds us of the hazards of living in a universe where God is not the puppet master. In a universe that God sets free to be governed by free will, it's up to us to protect the vulnerable. And this story of Herod's slaughter reminds us of what happens when despots are allowed to rule. Sadly, it's a story that we still see playing out across the planet.

If we're not in the mood to see this Gospel in its geopolitical implications, we might take a few moments of introspection in these waning days of the year. Where do we see Herod-like behavior in ourselves? What threatens us so much that we might do treacherous deeds? What innocent goodness might we slaughter so that we can allay our fears and insecurities?

I predict that churches across the nation (and the world) will choose to ignore this difficult text on this morning after Christmas. Far better to enjoy Christmas carols one last time than to wrestle with this difficult text. But Jesus reminds us again and again that he didn't come to make us all comfortable. He didn't come to be our warm, fuzzy savior. He came to overturn the regular order, to redeem creation, to restore us to the life that God intends for us--and Herod stands as a potent symbol for what might happen if we take Jesus seriously.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Inner Intellectual on Christmas Eve

I am used to feeling out of place in church.  I have heard a woman say to another woman who was suffering great pain and had just had bad news from a doctor, "We worship the great physician.  You just ignore those doctors and keep praying.  You'll get better."

I wanted to inject myself.  I wanted to say, "That's crap theology.  What does that mean if she doesn't get better?  That God ignored her?  That she didn't pray hard enough?"

But I didn't say those things.  Who am I to strip away hope?

I'm used to feeling out of place particularly around Lent and Easter.  I have real problems with atonement theology.  I don't believe that Jesus had to be crucified because some day I would sin.  Jesus was crucified because he was seen as a threat to Roman order.  Otherwise he'd have been killed another way, stoning perhaps, or beheading.

Usually around Christmas I can silence my inner intellectual.  This year, perhaps because I've been reading Reza Aslan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, I find my inner intellectual increasingly tough to drown out with my usual arguments about loving the essence of the Christmas story.

This year, I hear Aslan's words:  "Luke's suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family I order to travel great distances to the place of his father's birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and possessions, which in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous" (p. 30).

I don't read the Bible as history--what folly that would be--but I know so many people who do.  They are astounded and disbelieving when told that there is no historical record of this census of the Romans.  Why, then, did Jesus' parents go to Bethlehem?

Is it because I've gotten graduate degrees in literature at a time when the literary theorists looked at texts and audiences and creations of texts and the many motivations for creating a text?  I also don't think those Hebrew Bible prophets were talking about Jesus.  I see that literature of prophecy as talking about current conditions, but in veiled terms, so that the writers weren't killed.

I see the same thing in many literatures.  My dissertation looked at Gothic literature, traditionally thought of as unrealistic, as an exploration of domestic violence in the modern 18th/19th century family.  So, the fact that I approach the Bible the way that I do is not surprising.

What is surprising--I don't find that many other people read the way I do, particularly not church people.

But perhaps I'm being too grim on this Christmas Eve.  Let me remember the other approaches to the Christmas story.  Let me remember the wondrous story of a God who wants to be with us so much that God will put up with the indignities of being trapped in human form.

Here's a wonderful quote that I came across in the comments to this post by Historiann, a post about beliefs in Santa and in God.  Contingent Cassandra says, "Interestingly, the sermon in my church this morning (on the lectionary passage, from the beginning of Matthew), focused instead on Joseph, and what one does when one’s plans have been entirely overturned, and God is saying 'just go with it; good will come of this.'  This same argument would, of course, work for Mary (but the annunciation isn’t included in Matthew’s account, so it hasn’t been the subject of a sermon this particular year; we’ll get back to it another year), but Joseph had more of a choice (and Mary was in much more peril, up to and including the possibility of stoning). It was a good sermon, one which I think would even work in some ways from an entirely secular viewpoint, since the emphasis was on what to do when everything seems to have fallen apart (stop, consider/discern in whatever way fits your beliefs, live into what seems like a 'mess'). But the idea that one tries to listen for God’s voice in such crises is certainly distinctive to a religious viewpoint (though few if any members of my church are expecting guidance from angels, or dreams; in fact, the preacher acknowledged that that’s not part of our experience these days)."

I love this paragraph.  I love the idea of living into what seems like a mess.  Living into the mess!  Maybe that will be my motto for 2014.

I'm also drawn to the idea of how God speaks to us.  We are so narcotized by so many things these days:  junk TV, alcohol, high calorie foods, hard drugs, soft drugs, more junk TV. 

But the Christmas story reminds us that being narcotized in this way may be part of the human condition.  How many times did God try to get Mary's attention, Joseph's attention, the attention of the Magi, the attention of the shepherds, before resorting to sending angels?

I don't want to let my inner intellectual blind me to the larger vision.  We have good news of great joy:  the kingdom of God is breaking through, right here, right now.  It's not about a savior who will be tortured on a cross, although that's part of the story.  It's about a savior who came to show us how to live the best life we can live as humans.

Now that's news that's worthy of angel choirs--and human choirs too.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Baby, the Manger, and Other Nativity Elements

In our Worship Together (intergenerational, non-traditional, very child friendly) service, we're often doing creative stuff, whether it's a drama of some sort (puppets!), singing, or some arts reaction to the story.  For Advent, we've been following the Advent stories, and yesterday, for our Arts segment, we made a crèche.

Yes, it could have gone terribly wrong.  But in the spirit of full disclosure, let me admit to liking those nativity scenes with strange figures, like a toy dinosaur.  If you're really interested, I wrote this post years ago which also has a poem I wrote on the subject.

But back to yesterday.  We were sent outside to get natural materials and then we'd make our nativity scenes.  Again, in the spirit of full disclosure, let me say from the outset that none of these pictures depict what I made.

I expected to be better at this project; after all, I've contemplated doing something similar before.  I love the variety of crèches that the monks at Mepkin Abbey collect.  I've thought of making my own as an Advent project.

I found part of a pod for a manger.  But what to use as a baby?  I found a cigarette butt, which led to a brief discussion of whether or not it would be appropriate to use.

I said, "I'm a poet.  I could make the symbolism work."  Luckily at that service, I'm surrounded by friends who are fond of me, so they didn't argue too strenuously.  But I did decide not to push the point.  I chose a dirt clump instead.

In the picture above, you can see my hands assembling my crèche.  I'm sitting at the head of the table.  I made a Mary by sticking tiny flowers in the end of a stick, and then I did the same for Joseph (yellow flower for Joseph, purple for Mary).  I thought I was pretty clever--until I saw what others had managed to do with similar resources.

As I looked at the nativity scenes made by other people, I was pierced by a sense of inadequacy.  I said out loud, "Remember, Kristin, it's not a competition."  My art teacher friend gave me a hug at that.


What did we learn by doing all of this?  We had a chance to talk about the figures in traditional crèche scenes, and looked at the 4-6 that people had brought.  We talked about how we came to have these scenes--who is present and who is missing.  We blessed the crèches and the people who had made them.

I think that any project like this one that engages our creativity is a good one.  And while not everyone would go as far as having a cigarette butt Jesus, it does makes us interact with a very familiar story in a new way.  Even if we go back to our traditional scenes, we'll be enriched by our time with our imagination.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Worship on the Longest Night

Last night I went to a worship service that was new to me:  the service of the longest night.  Unbeknownst to me, this service has been growing in popularity as an opportunity for people who find the Christmas season overwhelming because they're struggling with sadness and grief.

I thought about not going because this year is not one where I consciously feel like I'm struggling with sadness or grief.  Other seasons have been more filled with sadness--or worse, anger.  I remember the Christmas season of 2004, when my mother-in-law fell and broke her hip, which started a whole sequence of events that led to her death in 2005.  The Christmas season of 2005 was filled with sadness and loss--we started the year with her struggles and ended with the worst hurricane season I've ever experienced.


But this year is not that year.  This year is not 2 years ago, when my grandmother hovered at death's door.  I thought perhaps I shouldn't go, that I'd be an impostor.

However, I was interested, and so was my spouse.  We went, even though we weren't sure what to expect.

The mood was sober and contemplative, a quietness, with an upright bass and a soft organ as the only instruments.  We had readings, some from Psalms, some from the Gospels, with promises of God's presence.  We had prayer stations:  we could light candles in memory of our loved ones who had died, we could write our gratitude on paper Christmas ornaments, we could ask to be anointed with oil and prayed over, we could write our struggles in sand and wipe them out, and we could dip our fingers in the baptismal font and remember the baptismal promise.

We finished with Communion and the soft singing of "Silent Night."  We left in silence.

Can I be blunt?  I loved this service, even though this year has not been one of struggles as past years have been.  Still, there have been struggles.  Something in me needed that message.

I loved the quietness.  I struggle with amplification in many services.  I want acoustic instruments.  I want quiet.  I liked that there wasn't a sermon.

I've spent my life yearning for sermons with intellectual heft, and I rarely find them in church.  What first attracted me to the church where I'm a member now is that the sermons had some depth.  But lately, I just want to hear the Bible read out loud.  I want the words to sink into my bones so that they can bubble out again.

In the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, I needed to sit in quiet and listen.  I suspect that in other liturgical seasons, I could be happy just sitting and listening.  I'd like contemplative acoustic music, chunks of the Bible read out loud, and the Eucharist--I'd also be willing to confess my sins, because I know the importance of them. 

Here's my ideal service, right now.  I'd enter with a piece of paper in hand, and I'd spend quiet time thinking about my sins and writing them on paper.  Maybe there would need to be some prompts for people who aren't used to thinking about their sins.  We could bury or burn those papers.

Then we'd listen to the Bible and have musical interludes.  We would end with the Eucharist.

That's it:  no creeds, no corporate prayers.  No choir anthems.  No chancel dramas or dances.  Not much liturgy to speak of.

What does it say about me that I'm yearning for a stripped down service?  I've spent a lot of my life writing liturgies, writing prayers, writing chancel dramas and presentations, writing meditations and sermons.  Am I moving to a new season of my life? 

Or is it just the yearning of an overstimulated mind?  I suspect that the answer lies in that direction.  I spend a lot of time with lots of information coming at me, often at high speed and high volume.  The idea of something much simpler holds enormous appeal to me.

I suspect I'm not the only one.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Feast Day of St. Thomas

Today is the Feast Day of St. Thomas, most famous for his doubting.  I've always wondered what else he did, and whether or not he'd feel annoyed that he's most remembered for that moment that he doubted.  I have this vision of Thomas as having amazing artistic talent for example, and no one knows that now.  We remember him for that one moment of disbelief.

Who can blame Thomas for doubting? It was a fantastic story, even if you had travelled with Jesus and watched his other miracles. Once you saw the corpse of Jesus taken off the cross, you would have assumed it was all over.

And then, it wasn't. Thomas, late to see the risen Lord, was one of the fiercest believers, legend tells us, Thomas walking all the way to India.

I wonder if Thomas is near and dear to the heart of the more rational believers. We're not all born to be mystics, after all. But I worry about our vanishing sense of wonder.

We've all become Thomas now. We don't believe anything that we can't measure with our five senses.  And yet, we live in an interesting scientific time, where discoveries seem more aligned with the miraculous than we might be used to thinking of science being.
The more I read in the field of the Sciences, the more my sense of wonder is reignited. I continue to be so amazed at the way the world works, both the systems we've created and the ones created before we came along. The more I know, the more I want to shout from the rooftops, "Great show, God!"  Long ago, when my friend had small children, they would shout this refrain whenever they saw something beautiful in nature, like a gorgeous sunset; I try to remember to shout it too.

I’m also aware that it’s the time  of year when people sink into depression, when their sense of wonder might desert them.  But it is the Winter Solstice, and starting today, we get a bit more light, day by day, until before you know it, we’ll be back to summer again.
So today, as the earth leaves its darkest time and inches towards light, let us raise a mug of hot chocolate to St. Thomas, who showed us that we can have doubts and still persevere. Let us raise a mug of hot chocolate to quantum physics and solstice celebrations and all the ways that the natural world can point us back to our Creator. Let us pray that our rational selves live in harmony with our sense of wonder.

And if you need a poem for your feast day, here’s one that I wrote years ago, in the time after Easter.  I was inspired by this blog post by Jan Richardson.  Her post made me think of those fancy Easter eggs that had a charming scene inside, and the interesting juxtaposition between those eggs and Jesus' open wound.

Into the Wound

Thomas approached his Savior’s bloodied side,
Everything for which he longed, yet so feared.
He felt the warm flesh and looked deep inside.
The vision left him changed and scarred and seared.

He saw a series of worlds in that wound.
He saw a future that could be so fine.
He saw a world of absence, so ill tuned.
He saw a table set with bread and wine.

He saw the start of all the universe
And staggered back, but Christ kept him steady.
“Wash your hands,” Christ said, his voice almost terse.
Christ knew the dangers for those unready.

Legend says Thomas walked to India;
What dream prompted him, we always wonder.
But you, too, could hike to outer Asia,
If you had the same vision to ponder.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Last Year Santa Comes to Visit

I have several friends with elementary school children of varying ages.  One of them said recently, "This may be the last year that Santa comes to visit."  There was a wistfulness in his voice; I felt that sadness too.

It's such a quick season, childhood.  Many of us spend the rest of our years trying to re-enchant our lives.  We have the poets like William Blake who would remind us of the dangers of that enchantment (see Songs of Innocence and of Experience), but I understand why we miss it so much.  I suspect that one of the reasons that many people have children is to experience that enchantment vicariously again--and to have the joy of creating that enchantment for the next generation.

These thoughts lead to thoughts about the church. When we first find a church that seems like a good fit, it can seem downright magical:  we love the sermons and the people feel so familiar and the building inspires us.  Maybe we sign up for all sorts of programs and events.  We volunteer.  But then, what happens?  I've known many people for whom the enchantment has worn off--and then the hard work of creating a mature relationship begins.

Of course, many people leave at that point.  They go from church to church, hoping to find what they feel they've lost.

We see this dynamic with all sorts of relationships, from marriages to best friends--even in our relationship to God.

Many of us want the Santa Claus.  We want the lights and the cookies and the expectation. We want the jolly guy who swoops in once a year.  We don't want him to move in with us.

Our God is not Santa Claus.  Our God wants to move in with us, and our God is not likely to take our "no" as our final answer.  Our God will show up in a variety of desolate places.  Our God will share our grief as well as our joy.  Our God is happy to see us, no matter what a mess we've made.  Our God will sleep in the stable, if that's what's available.

The prophets promise us again and again that God is coming.  It may not have the same festive feeling as a visit from Santa, but God's presence will nourish us better than any Christmas cookie can.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Historical Jesus, the Mythical Jesus, the Baby in the Manger

In this Advent time period where we're waiting for the baby in the manger, it's interesting to meet Jesus in other incarnations.
I've been reading Reza Aslan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Reza Aslan would not be interested in the baby in the manger.  He talks about Jesus as a Jew, Jesus as a radical.  How do we know he was a radical?  Because of the way he was executed.  If you've read widely, especially in the realm of historical Jesus scholarship, these ideas won't shock you, as they did not shock me.  Still, it's interesting to read this book in Advent, to think about the messiah the first century Jews wanted, the messiah who came.

On the morning that I finished reading that book, I listened to this interview with Jay Parini on NPR's On Point.  Unlike so many others these days, he's trying to re-mythologize Jesus.  By that, I mean he's reminding us of the larger truths of Jesus.

As a poet, a son of a Baptist preacher, a scholar, and a long-practicing Episcopalian, Jay Parini is uniquely qualified to do this.

He talks about going back to the Greek and seeing how the translations have fallen short.  Consider the following:

"Repent and you shall be saved."

Using his knowledge of Greek, Parini translates that passage this way:  Open your mind to the larger mind of God and experience enlightenment--which will enable you to go out into the world and behave the way I've been teaching you.

Parini notes the geography of the Jesus story, that he lived at a crossroads of the Silk Road, and thus he's synthesizing Greek ideas and mystical, Eastern ideas.  And by his discussion, it's clear that he's done his research.

Aslan is a very different thinker as he tries to strip the mythology away from Jesus.  Along the way, he explores how we came to have these mythologies.  He lays the blame solely at the feet of Paul, and he makes a compelling case.  Let me also warn you that Paul looks like an egomaniacal, crazed leader in the hands of Aslan.  Again, it's not an unfamiliar picture, but having spent time avoiding Paul and then trying to reconcile Paul with my views, it's interesting to come across this depiction again.

There are days when I think I'm about ready to be done with organized religion, especially as a church leader who does more thinking about the church building than the spiritual development of the members.  But then I watch the actions of the new pope, and I think, well, maybe I'll continue on.

Granted, I'm not Catholic.  But I'm amazed at how Pope Francis has won over the grumpiest of people.  I listened to this interview on NPR's Fresh Air, and I am even more impressed--and hopeful that one could make a difference as an administrator.

It also makes me hopeful that even if I haven't reached my full potential, that there is still time.  As we've listened to the retrospectives on the life of Nelson Mandela, I'm struck by the fact that Mandela was elected to be president when he was in his 70's--and he did some of his life's most important work with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee during those years.

And with this pope, in his middle years, he was making mistakes (or so they seem to me) supporting the wrong side of justice.  But he is open about the mistakes he's made, and he has managed to move on--and now he is uniquely situated to do God's work.

May we all be able to say the same as we approach the end of our days.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 22, 2013:

First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16

Psalm: Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25

The Gospel for the Sunday before Christmas Eve gives us an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream. It's interesting to think about our lectionary, which moves in 3 year cycles and leaves out part of the story each year. This year we read about Joseph; other years, we see the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and to Elizabeth before her. This week, on Christmas Eve, we'll hear about angels appearing to shepherds.

Notice the responses of these people. They give themselves to God's will. They don't protest, the way that some of our spiritual ancestors did--think of Moses, who tried and tried to get God to go away.

It's important to note that God always gives us a choice, although God can be notoriously insistent. Joseph could have gone on with his plans to divorce Mary quietly; notice his unwillingness to shame her publicly, as would have been his right in a patriarchal society. But the angel appears to give Joseph a fuller picture, and Joseph submits to God's will. Likewise, Mary could have said, "Mother of the Messiah? Forget it. I just want a normal kid." But she didn't.

During this time of year, I often wonder how many times I've turned down God. Does God call me to a higher purpose? Am I living my life in a way that is most consistent with what God envisions for me?

The readings for this time of year reminds us to stay alert and watchful. This time of year, when the corporate consumer machine is cranked into high gear, when so many of us sink into depression, when the world has so many demands, it's important to remember that God's plan for the world is very different than your average CEO's vision. It's important to remember that we are people of God, and that allegiance should be first.

What does this have to do with Joseph? Consider the story again, and what it means for us modern people. Maybe you're like Joseph, and you're overly worried about what people will think about you and your actions. The Gospel for this Sunday reminds us that following God may require us to abandon the judgments of the world and accept God's judgment.

Notice that Joseph is the only one in the story who receives an angel visitation in a dream. What is the meaning of this fact? Perhaps this route was the only way that God could reach Joseph. Many of us are so used to having our yearnings mocked or unanswered that they go deep underground, only to bubble up in dreams and visions. Convenient for us, since we can discount things more easily when they appear in our dreams.

God will take many routes to remind us of our role in the divine drama. Many of us won't notice God's efforts; we're too busy being so busy. This time of year reminds us to slow down, to contemplate, to pay attention.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Margaret Atwood's Latest Journey into Creation (of Worlds, of Religions)

I've spent the last few weeks reading a variety of religious works.  Some, like Madeleine L'Engle's The Irrational Season and the latest by Ann Lamott, are clearly designed to be religious/spiritual in nature.  I'm not sure that everyone would see Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam as particularly religious/spiritual, but she gives fascinating insight into how religions could be created.

Astute readers of this blog will say, "Hey, haven't you written about this before?"  Yes, back in 2009, when I read Year of the Flood, the second book in the trilogy, I wrote this post.  And now I've read the third book, and I'm more fascinated than ever.

MaddAddam, the 3rd book, presents a variety of intellectual creatures.  There are the humans, some of which have vast scientific knowledge, while others have knowledge of plants, and others have knowledge of guns and weapons.  There are the Crakers, an engineered life form that have human traits and are lacking in other human traits (can they feel fear?  can they learn it?  oh, the philosophical questions!).  There are other engineered forms that aren't human at all, but might have enough human genes to give them an advantage; for example, pigoons are very intelligent.

Some of these creatures join forces in interesting ways, and they enter into commitments to honor each other once the battle is over.  And thus, the humans stop eating pork.  And I thought, yep, this could be how these religious taboos get started.

The Crakers demand stories, which the humans give them, and they take on a profoundly religious tone.  They want to know about the one who created them, and the humans tell them.  The gene splicers take on godlike qualities, and one sees how religious traditions are born.

Maybe it's that I'm reading the book during Advent, so I have messiahs on the brain.  Maybe it's that I'm also starting Reza Aslan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Does my reading choice show that I'm predisposed to these stories of the creation of messiahs?

It's also an interesting book on literacy, which I also have on the brain.  And it shows how oral traditions become written traditions.

One can imagine the notebooks in MaddAddam being put into pots in caves for safekeeping.  And one can imagine these notebooks found later and disrupting 2000 years of what people had come to believe.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Poetry Saturday: All Our Bleak Midwinters

It's been a hectic week, and the week-end will not be restful.  I'm going to see my quilting group today and hosting a church group for dinner.  At some point, my husband's brother arrives to start a new job on Monday; he'll stay in our guest room until he finds a place in Homestead.  And there is grading to be done for my online classes.

During weeks like these, it's good to have something already written to post.
I went back through my poetry files to see if I could find a holiday themed poem that I haven't already used--and I did.

One of the delights of keeping such extensive files and keeping a blog is that I occasionally find things I've forgotten ever writing. This poem is one of those things.

I remember the images that inspired it--years ago. I remember taking a road trip and seeing the toys alongside the Interstate. And I really did see shoes in such an arrangement--or maybe it was a piece of installation art that I didn't recognize as such. Those of you from religious traditions that delve deep into the prophets this time of year might recognize the reference to John the Baptist and his taste for honey, and you may or may not remember Advent as a time when angels visit.

This poem has never been published until this week--enjoy!

In the Bleak Midwinter

In another climate in a different age,
these clouds would portend snow.
Instead it’s a strange winter thunderstorm
that swoops from the south
to pelt the land with weather
more suitable for spring.

Two trucks collide to litter
the side streets with stuffed
toys. Someone arranges child-sized
shoes in pairs, ghost feet
heading off into the wilderness
in search of honey.

The nation debates the proper way to offer
seasonal greetings (“Happy holidays”
or “Merry Christmas”?), while most city dwellers
have given up all pretense
of December cheer, and cannot even muster
the everyday civility of social niceties.

The angels sing their news of good tidings
of great joy, but we cannot hear
them. We’ve forgotten to look up.
We’ve blanketed the sky with emissions,
and we can’t see the stars,
much less the rarer sight
of celestial beings who call us blessed.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Untraditional Santa Lucia Festivities

Today is the feast day of Santa Lucia.  For more on that saint and ways to celebrate, head over to this blog post at the Living Lutheran site.

Today will not be the kind of Santa Lucia day I've had in the past.  I will not be baking.  I might have a leisurely morning, but it's hard to know for sure.  I will be the only one in the office.  It might be blissfully quiet--or it might be busy, with only me there to handle questions. 

Then I will go to the holiday luncheon.  We will not have Scandinavian foods and we probably won't have Santa Lucia bread.  But we will have good food and treats and we'll sing a Christmas song or two.  It will be good to see my colleagues, of whom I'm genuinely fond.  I'd socialize with them even if we weren't forced to be together at work.

We will take down the Christmas tree in the main building.  We have to do it today because the floors are being restored next week.  I often get depressed when it's time to undecorate, but maybe it will be OK today, since we have our own decorations still up at home.

At some point this week-end, my husband's brother will arrive.  He is spending his Santa Lucia day by leaving Memphis to start his new job in Homestead.  He'll live with us for a few weeks until he can get set up for his family to join him.  He's got to find a place to live and sell his house in Memphis.

He will likely want to find a place to live rather quickly.  It will be quite a commute from our house to Homestead.  It looks easy on the map, but it's 45 minutes on a day with no traffic.  And he'll have traffic.  It will likely take him at least 90 minutes each way.

I am not sure what to expect, and I'm trying to stay laid back and open to possibilities.  I will bake Santa Lucia bread tomorrow morning, and we'll have it for a variety of festive events:  the arrival of my brother-in-law, the back yard friend who will be doing laundry, my quilting group who will meet on Saturday afternoon, a group from church who will be coming for dinner.

I have a vision for some poems that I want to write.

Yes a festive week-end lies ahead.  It's not my traditional way to celebrate the life of Santa Lucia, but it works on a symbolic level.  My day today will be filled with light, and I always go to work with the goal to be a light that won't be overcome by darkness.  My week-end will be filled with brightness--and perhaps some visions.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Preparing for the Feast Day of St. Lucia

I woke up this morning thinking about the feast day of Santa Lucia, which happens tomorrow.  Some years, I'm home or have an afternoon/evening schedule, and so I can bake bread, my favorite way to celebrate this feast day.  This year will not be one of those years.

I will likely bake the Santa Lucia bread on Saturday.  This morning, I was astonished to realize that I haven't baked bread at all in this house.

Once, I would have tended to bread as one of the first tasks in a new kitchen, a way to break it in, a way to feel at home.  But I haven't yet.  So, perhaps on Saturday.

I wrote a piece for the Living Lutheran site which is up today.  Go here to read more about Santa Lucia, both the history and the more recent ways of celebrating.  That post has a link to a post about the bread, in case you find yourself yearning to celebrate the feast day of Santa Lucia the way the Scandinavians do, with fresh-baked bread and coffee and maybe a wreath of candles for your hair or table.

The feast day of St. Lucia--it's a great festival in Advent, a way to remember that we need light and fresh bread and a new vision (St. Lucia is the patron saint of the blind and visually impaired.).

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 15, 2013:

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 146:4-9 (Psalm 146:5-10 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Second Reading: James 5:7-10

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11

Here again, in this week's Gospel, Jesus reminds us of the new social order--the first will be last, the last will be first. Since many of us in first world churches would be categorized as "the first," this edict bears some contemplation. What do we do if we find ourselves in positions of power? Are we supposed to walk away from that?

Well, yes, in a sense, we are. Again and again, the Bible reminds us that we find God on the margins of respectable society. Again and again, we see that God lives with the poor and the oppressed. Nowhere is that message more visible to Christians than in the story of the birth of Jesus.

We get so dazzled by the angels and the wise men that we forget some of the basic elements of the story. In the time of great Roman power, God doesn't appear in Rome. No, God chooses to take on human form in a remote Roman outpost. In our current day, it would be as if the baby Jesus was born on Guam or the Maldives. Most of us couldn't locate those islands on a globe; we'd be surprised to hear that the Messiah came again and chose to be born so far away from the most important world capitals, like Washington D.C. or London, Beijing or Moscow.

God came to live amongst one of the most marginalized groups in the Roman empire--the only people lower on the social totem pole would have been captives of certain wars and slaves. Most Romans would have seen Palestinian Jews as weird and warped, those people who limited themselves to one god. Not sophisticated at all.

God couldn't even get a room at the inn. From years of Christmas pageants, we may have sanitized that manger. We may forget about the smelliness of real hay, the scratchiness, the bugs, the ways that animals stink up a barn.

God chose a marginalized young couple as parents. Did God choose to be born in the palace of Herod? No. We don't hear about Joseph as a landowner, which means that his family couldn't have been much lower on the totem pole, unless they were the Palestinian equivalent of sharecroppers. God does not choose the way of comfort.

Again and again, Jesus tells us to keep watch. God appears in forms that we don't always recognize. God appears in places where we wouldn't expect to find the Divine. Jesus reminds us again and again that there's always hope in a broken world. God might perform the kind of miracles that don't interest us at first. The Palestinian Jews wanted a warrior Messiah to liberate them from Rome. Instead they got someone who healed the sick and told them to be mindful of their spiritual lives so that they didn't lose their souls.

Many of us experience something similar today. We want something different from God. God has different desires for us than our desires for our lives. We ask for signs and miracles, and when we get them, we sigh and say, "That's not what I meant. I wanted them in a different form." We turn away.

The John the Baptists of the world remind us to turn back again. Repent. Turn back. Forswear our foolish ways. Go out to meet God. Your salvation is at hand.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Two Weeks to Christmas Eve

We see this scene from far away.  But each day brings it closer.

This manger is empty.

But it won't be empty much longer.

Is the story new for you this year? 

What happens if we change the people in the creche scene? 

What happens if we think about Advent differently?

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Lifetime with "The Messiah" and Other Christmas Music

On Saturday, my spouse sang with the Broward Chorale.  Part of the program was selections from The Messiah.  How sobering to realize how long I've been hearing people sing this work.

When I was in elementary school, my parents sang it every year, at Easter and at Christmas.  It was a community group which met in a huge church.  They had free childcare during rehearsals, which is why my parents could participate.  I have a memory of being in the church basement with the distant sounds of the rehearsal.  We'd be watching whatever Christmas program was on TV, but I'd wish that I could be in the sanctuary, watching the music come together.

Is that a true memory?  Was I really that precocious?  Or is that just the way I'd put it if I created a scene in a novel?  Yes, I think is the answer to all those questions.

It seems that The Messiah is always nibbling around the edges of various holiday happenings.  Maybe someone has a CD.  Maybe I hear it in a commercial.  Maybe I just find myself humming it for no apparent reason.

After all, the lines are from various Advent texts, and when I hear them in church, it triggers that memory of song, which I then hum all week.

This week, I've had the bit "For He shall purify" in my brain.  On the one hand, it's simple:  my spouse has been practicing it, over and over.  But I also wonder if I'm longing for purification.  After all, my spouse has been practicing other bits too.

I've also had the Gilbert and Sullivan that they sang in my head.  So I often move from "For he shall purify" to "We are gentleman of Japan."  Sigh.

Maybe it's time to step up the Christmas music.  I've got so many wonderful CDs and the time is so short.

My spouse and I have been trying to take a walk at night; our neighborhood is so festive with lights.  Last night he sang as we walked.  I said, "We're carolling."  I sang a bit, but I'm fighting a sore throat, so I didn't sing as much. 

He asked me which hymns I knew all the verses to; "Joy to the World" came to mind.  And just prove we could, we sang 4 verses.  I know there's one more verse, maybe 2.  But I was impressed we could sing those 4.

But why shouldn't we?  We've been singing that song since birth, practically.  It's a mainstay of Lutheran Christmas Eve services.

It's what I love about most Christmas music:  it's SO singable, and we've been practicing those songs so long.  I'll belt out a Christmas song without worrying that I can't do it.  I'll sing parts of The Messiah without a pause, but other classical music?  No way.

Could I get to that place with other music?  Well, plenty of rock and roll songs are like that for me too.  But other sacred music?  I've probably started too late.

So, I'll enjoy the Christmas music and keep looking for chances to sing.  More Christmas carol rambles around the neighborhood, more CDs, Christmas karaoke (tastefully done).  Yes, time grows short, and it's time to rise up singing.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Social Justice: Are We Mandelas or Afrikaners?

In all of our memories in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela, I think it's important to remember that the outcome we know now--Mandela released to become the first freely elected president of South Africa and a nation transformed--that outcome was so impossible that few of us dared to hope for it. Somewhere in my photo albums, I have a fading picture of a friend wearing his "Free Mandela" t-shirt. Mandela had been in jail for our whole lives, and we expected he would die there, t-shirts or no t-shirts.

I think it's important to remember how strong the forces of evil seemed then--and it wasn't just South Africa.  I spent many years in the 1980's meeting refugees from Central America.  They had tales of horror that were hard to believe.  And then to find out that our government supported El Salvador--and to watch Missing, and to discover that we weren't always a bright, shining light of freedom as a country.  During those cold war days, it seemed a hopeless task to advocate for liberty.

But we built our shantytowns on the Lawn, we helped Central Americans get to Canadian safety, we demanded changes in U.S. policy which were ignored or dismissed. We bought our protest albums and went to concerts. Elders sneered and warned us about the dangers of not establishing anti-communist bulwarks, even if they were staffed by genocidal maniacs, as much of Latin America was in the 1980's.

For many of us, it was a spiritual fight too.  I remember going to Jubilee Partners in Comer, Georgia.  At that time, they were a group working to get Central American refugees to Canada.  Later, I read a book, With Our Own Eyes, by Don Mosley, one of the founders.  He remembers not only the 1000+ people that they helped/saved, but all of those who perished.

I went to many a candlelight vigil, many a prayer service, many a demonstration.  I remember a multi-faith gathering that assembled to mark the 15th anniversary of the Soweto uprising. We prayed for the end to apartheid. I can't speak for the others, but I didn't expect it to happen. It's not the first time I've dismissed the power of nonviolent protest and prayer, and happily, it's not the only time I've been proven wrong. For more on the power of non-violence and the intersection of faith movements, see this great article by Jonathan Schell and Taylor Branch.

All the coverage, particularly of Mandela's speeches, all this coverage makes me think about my own life.  What would I be willing to die for?  Would I be willing to die for it even if it wasn't clear my sacrifice would make a difference?

I think about the value of a moral compass and all the ways we can ignore our moral compasses.  I wonder about my own life and all the compromises I worry that I am making.

But I also think of vignettes from my past few weeks as an administrator and teacher.  I work hard to stay a person of compassion, and I think it's vitally important to have people of compassion in positions of power, whether that power be nationwide or more local.

I may not be ending a brutal system like apartheid, but I can help students in their struggles to finish their educations before their money runs out, and I can fight for good working conditions for my faculty.

Some days, I believe that.  Other days it seems like a gross rationalization to me, a way to let me stay in middle class comfort, enjoying the fruits of oppression.

I want to be Nelson Mandela, but I fear I'm an Afrikaner.  I want to write missives that will inspire people to take the arc of history in their hands and bend it towards justice--but I fear I am missing my mark.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Feast Day of St. Nicholas

If you came here hoping for a piece on Nelson Mandela, head on over to this post on my creativity blog.

I've run this blog post on St. Nicholas before, but that's fine.  I don't have much more to say about this holiday.  And like many of us, I'm a bit pressed for time this week, between the end of Thanksgiving travels, a Church Council meeting, and coming into the home stretch of several academic terms.

But today is the feast day of St. Nicholas, a good day to stop and think about the Christmas season which is upon us.  I need to start slowing down or the season will have zoomed on by before I have a chance to catch my breath.

 It's always a bit of a surprise to realize that Saint Nicholas was a real person. But indeed he was. In the fourth century, he lived in Myra, then part of Greece, now part of Turkey; eventually, he became Bishop of Myra. He became known for his habit of gift giving and miracle working, although it's hard to know what really happened and what's become folklore. Some of his gift giving is minor, like leaving coins in shoes that were left out for him. Some were more major, like resurrecting three boys killed by a butcher.

My favorite story is the one of the poor man with three children who had no dowry for them.  No dowry meant no marriage, and so, they were going to have to become prostitutes. In the dead of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold into the house. Some legends have that he left a bag of gold for each daughter that night, while some say that he gave the gold on successive nights, while some say that he gave the gold as each girl came to marrying age.

Saint Nicholas is probably most famous for his associations with Christmas. Today, all over Europe, the gift-giving season begins. I had a friend in grad school who celebrated Saint Nicholas Day by having each family member open one present on the night of Dec. 6. It was the first I had heard of the feast day, but I was enchanted.

We don't give gifts much, in my various social circles, but if I did, I'd want to start on St. Nicholas day and not end until Epiphany, Jan. 6.

Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, who used to leave each other by saying "May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller!"

So, on this day, may we be led by the spirit of generosity, especially generosity to the poor. May Saint Nicholas hold our tillers and guide us to open our purses and wallets and bags of gold.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Advent Dreams, Building Transformations

Tonight we are likely to have the kind of church council meeting that I dread.  We will likely talk about how our income is nowhere close to matching our outflow of cash.

I suspect that these conversations are not uncommon in churches across the land.  But oh, how I am weary of this conversation.

Our situation may feel more acute because we've just finalized a loan so that we can take care of building repairs (the roof, the AC, some parking lot issues).  Instead of rejoicing that the money is in the bank and work can begin, we are feeling a bit of panic because now we must repay the loan.

As a woman who did a lot of the work to get us the loan (e-mails, phone calls, e-mails, photocopying documents, e-mails, more phone calls, e-mails, filing paperwork at the Broward county office, and yet more e-mails), I'd like to spend a bit more time in gratitude before we move to panic.

Or maybe we just skip the panic please.  Do we trust in the Holy Spirit or don't we?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm not sure I do.  Wait, let me clarify.  I'm not sure I trust in the Holy Spirit to send us money to pay the bills.  In my quieter moments when I'm not doing tasks to finalize a loan, I'm wondering if the Holy Spirit isn't telling us something that most of us don't want to hear.

I had these thoughts again when I read this blog post and wondered if we'd rather have staff or a church building.  We can just barely afford our pastor and our building.  I'm not sure we can afford our staff members.

Of course, we have a building that's on lots of land for a South Florida location--we haven't even begun to explore utilizing/maximizing those resources.  Is the Holy Spirit nudging us that way?

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you've read my thoughts on my uneasiness with buildings; this piece is typical, plus it has a link to a great post by Nadia Bolz-Weber about the Babylonian captivity of our buildings.  Jesus sent his earliest followers out into the world, and they weren't scouting for locations for new church buildings.  Sigh.

Lately I have been wondering if Church Council is not the place where I'm supposed to be.  I just do not care about this building.  It's ugly.  The space is poorly designed.  And did I mention how ugly it is?  Why must we spend so much time talking about the building?

In this time of Advent, what is the Holy Spirit saying to me?  To phrase it another way:  if we have to spend so much time talking about this wretched building, what kinds of conversations could thrill me?

I've been thinking again about the church as a center for the arts.  Could I transform this ugly building into such a vision?

Could I make it possible for others to do that?  It doesn't have to be about me, after all.

I'm more interested in the programming than in the building.  What would that programming look like?

It's Advent, the time for diving deep into our dreams and visions.  I shall try to be more open to mine.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 8, 2013:

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12

Today's Gospel continues with the theme of watching, waiting, and listening for the call. Today it's John the Baptist who tells us of what's to come.

The real, living Jesus was not who John's listeners expected. Many of them probably thought that John was talking about himself; after all, first century Palestine was full of self-proclaimed Messiahs, and I expect many of them spoke of themselves in the third person telling (or warning) of the deeds they would do. Many of John's listeners probably had no idea what he was talking about; humans seem incapable of thinking in terms of metaphor and symbol for very long. Many of them probably expected a Messiah that would come in a form they'd recognize: a warrior to save them from the Romans, a temple reformer to get rid of corrupt priests, or maybe someone who would lead them into the wilderness to set up a new community.

Are we not the same way? How many of us read the Bible literally, expecting specific answers to social or political issues that would have been unheard of thousands of years ago when the Scriptures were written? How many of us expect our salvation to come in the tired old ways? We go to church, we sit in our pews, we wait for God to appear. We wonder why we don’t feel the presence of God, as we go home to take a nap and gear up for our secular week ahead. We scurry through the rat race of our lives, substituting other things for God. We worship at the churches of Capitalism, buying things at the mall or on the Internet, which means we have to work overtime to pay for those things. We wonder why we feel unfulfilled. To try to fill that emptiness, we do more of the activities that leave us with gaping holes in our Spirit. We hear that voice, the voice of the Spirit--maybe it cries or maybe it whispers. It scares us, so we eat some more or flip through ever more cable stations or go to bed early--because we can't deal with the implications.

John warns what happens to those of us who don't listen: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (verse 12). Some of us don't like this vision of a God with a winnowing fork in hand. How does this mesh with a God of grace and love?

But I'm reminded of the situation I find myself in, when students come to see me to complain about their teachers, teachers whom I supervise. I often see students who don't come to class, they don't do the work, they make no attempt, and so, they fail. Maybe they tell the stories in a familiar narrative that blames the teacher. But truth be told, they didn't fail the class because of the teacher. On the contrary, those teachers would have worked with them and led them out of the valley of failure and despair. But they can only do so much, without a student working with them.

Likewise, God doesn't have to do much winnowing. Our lifestyles are already punishing us. Many of us are already feeling that unquenchable fire.

The good news is that there is time to change our ways. There is still time to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." (verse 3). Advent, traditionally a time for getting ready, is a good time to think ahead. How could we make the next year to be our best spiritual year ever?

Choose just one simple action, whether it be keeping a prayer journal or making gratitude lists or learning to play or sing sacred music. Choose just one action and attend to it faithfully.

In this way, you will be in a much stronger spiritual place a year from now. You will be bearing fruit. God will call, and you will hear. God won't have to go to such great lengths to get your attention. Your deepest yearnings, the ones you didn't even know you had, will be filled, as you move towards God--and God moves towards you.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Missing the First Sunday in Advent

I really like the years when Thanksgiving comes earlier.  I like the years when Christ the King Sunday is the Sunday of Thanksgiving week-end.  I don't mind missing that service.  I mind missing the first Sunday in Advent.

We usually leave our family reunion on Saturday and go as far as Jacksonville, where we stay with an old college friend and his wife.  Would they be interested in Advent services?  It's hard to say.

This year, I left our Thanksgiving reunion with a variation of the stomach bug we'd been passing around, so I was not in any shape to go to church.  I spent Advent I sipping ginger ale and nibbling saltines and hoping for the best.

Last night, after we got unpacked, we set up some Christmas ornaments.  We have a tabletop tree which is very small, but my spouse figured out how to the get counted cross stitch Chrismons onto it.  I miss having a big enough tree for all the ornaments we have, but that will have to wait for next year.  This year, the tree would be in the traffic pattern, and we'll have lots of houseguests and visitors.  It's just not feasible.

We have not one, but two Advent wreaths, and I have one at school.  Will we actually light the candles this year?  Our track record isn't good, but we can hope.

I feel the season rushing by already.  I need to focus.

Last night, I changed the markers in my prayer book.  I try to pray the liturgy of the hours that Phyllis Tickle created with her series, The Divine Hours.  In the past years, I've managed the morning prayers and little else.  But last night, I was able to pray Compline.  I read some verses from Isaiah, and I felt my heart relax into the vision of the ancient prophet.

I will continue trying to slow down, to focus, to enjoy Advent.  That is my Advent wish, for me, for us all.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Keeping Our Seats and Our Eyes on the Prize

On this day in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. This act is often given credit for launching the Civil Rights Movement, but what many forget is that various communities had begun planning for the launch, even before they could see or know what it would look like.

In fact, for generations, people had prepared for just such a moment. They had gotten training in nonviolent resistance. They had come together in community in a variety of ways. They were prepared.

Someone asked me once how I had come to be such an optimist. I've always had an optimistic streak, but frankly, my whole world view shifted when I watched Nelson Mandela walk out of prison. I fully expected him to be killed, but again, my worldview shifted when I watched South Africans stand in line for days (days!) to elect him president. And he was ready to be president because he had spent those decades in prison thinking about how he would run the country and making plans.

I have seen enormous social change happen in my lifetime--in the face of such evidence, I must agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, who said the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.

Today is also World Aids Day, a somber day that recognizes that this plague has been one of the most destructive diseases in modern human history. We don't have a cure, although we do drugs that make the disease manageable. We don't have a vaccine. Happily, so far, the disease is fairly preventable. Imagine how this disease would shape us if it was airborne, not blood born.

Those of us who work towards social justice and human dignity for all know how long the struggle might be. We are similar to those medieval builders of cathedral: we may not be around to see the magnificent completion of our vision, but it's important to play our part. In the words of that old Gospel song, we keep our eyes on the prize, our hands on the plow, and hold on.

Here is a prayer I wrote for today:

God of Justice, we pause on this day to remember Rosa Parks and all the other Civil Rights crusaders who worked so unceasingly for justice.  We celebrate their accomplishments that brought us all closer to the peacable Kingdom that you want for us.  We know there is work yet to do,and we pray for the strength to do it.  God of health, we pray for all those who are sick, and we pray for vibrant health:  for them, for us, for the whole world. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Feast Day of St. Andrew

On November 30, we celebrate the life of St. Andrew. Unlike his more famous and flamboyant brother, Simon Peter, Andrew often fades into the background.
It’s important to remember that we wouldn’t even know about Simon Peter if not for Andrew. Andrew followed John the Baptist, and John the Baptist introduced Jesus as the true Messiah. Andrew believed, and Andrew brought his brother to see what he had seen. Andrew is remembered as the first disciple.

Tradition has it that the brothers didn’t give up their family fishing business at first, but eventually, Christ requested full commitment. I’ve always wondered about the family relationships that simmer in the background of the Gospels.

I remember one Gospel reading that mentioned Jesus healing the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. I thought, mother-in-law? That means there must have been a wife. What did the mothers and wives and mother-in-laws think of the men abandoning their fishing business to follow Jesus?

I also think about the sibling relationships here. What does Andrew think about Simon Peter, who quickly moves into the spotlight? Is Andrew content to stay in the background?

We know from the passage in Matthew that begins with Matthew 20:20, that there is competition to be Christ’s favorite. We see the mother of James and John who argues for her sons’ importance. We see the other disciples who become angry at the actions of this mother. I extrapolate to imagine that there’s much jockeying for position amongst the disciples.

Christ never loses an opportunity to remind us that he’s come to give us a different model of success. Again and again, he dismisses the importance that the world attaches to riches, to status, to a good reputation. Again and again, Jesus instructs us that the last will be first. Jesus tells us that the way to gain prestige with God is to serve.

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

Andrew was the kind of disciple we could use more of in this world. Andrew so believes in the Good News that he brings his family members to Christ, and he continued in this path, bringing the Gospel to people far and wide. We see him beginning this mission in John’s Gospel, where he tells Christ of the Greeks that want to see him.

Andrew gets credit for bringing Christianity into parts of eastern Europe and western Asia: Kiev, Ukraine, Romania, Russia. He’s the first bishop of the Church of Byzantium and patron saint of all sorts of places, from Scotland to Cyprus to Russia.

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

Friday, November 29, 2013

Remembering Christmas on the Biggest Shopping Day of the Year

On this day when many of us will head out to shop, shop, shop, let's take a minute to remember why we're celebrating Christmas, if we're Christians.

It's not about the gifts under the tree, it's about the baby in the manger.

And let's remember the true meaning of that baby in the manger, if we're Christians.  If we stay stuck in the story with the cute baby in the manger, we've lost the important point of the story.

And if we leave Christ on the cross, we've lost the even larger story.

And the empty tomb is not even the end of the story.  We have a mission--and it's not to get the best bargains.  Could we transform our shopping day so that we're doing something to heal the world?  It could be something as simple as adding socks for the homeless to our shopping list.