Thursday, January 31, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The readings for Sunday, February 3, 2013:

 Luke 7:1-17
Psalm 119:105-107 or 119:107
In today's reading, we see two miracles of Jesus, both involving healing.  In this post, Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman has created an interesting chart that looks at the two miracles side by side.  It's worth a look.

The miracle of the healing of the Roman centurion's slave shows a Roman who knows how the system should work.  He makes his appeal for the life of his slave through proper channels.  Jesus responds.

The miracle of the healing of the widow's son shows a woman of low social status.  Jesus' healing shows that once again he's flouting the purity code when he touches the bed of the dead son.

Both miracles show the compassion of Jesus.  We don't have to pray in just the right way to get God's attention.  We don't have to go through a certain pattern of behaviors to win the favor of Jesus.

I'm always a bit wary of texts like today's.  I worry about the people who have prayed for healing, but haven't gotten the outcome for which they yearned.  We can say, "God is the ultimate physician."  It's important to remember how rarely God subverts the physical laws of the world that God created--when that happens, as C. S. Lewis tells us (Bishop Gordy cited Lewis in a Bible study at the Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge in 2012; I don't have the direct reference).

And it never happens because we've prayed the right prayer, because we've contributed to the proper social justice funds, because we've behaved the right way as opposed to the wrong way.  We can't control God that way, and it's vital that we remember that we cannot.

Luckily, we worship a compassionate God, one who wants to be with us in good times and bad.  We worship a compassionate God who will touch us, despite our impurity, and we are healed, often in ways we cannot fully understand.

And if our cells continue to die, as cells do, if our body wears out, as bodies do--the narrative of Jesus tells us the larger story.  Death is never the last word.  It may be the outcome we wanted to avoid.  But resurrection will come.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 3, 2013:

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm: Psalm 71:1-6

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30

In this Gospel, we see the reactions of Jesus' listeners to his proclamation that the Scripture has been fulfilled. They can't believe that this boy that they knew as a child could be the Messiah. And then they decide to throw him over a cliff.

I wish I could say that I thought this behavior was bizarre, but I don't. Unfortunately, many people, even dedicated Christians, have this reaction to the Sacred.

How many times have you seen clear evidence of God working in your life? How many times have you discounted your experiences? "It can't be God. It's just coincidence that the issues for which I prayed for help and guidance have been resolved." We should be shouting for joy, and praying prayers of thanksgiving, and instead, we chalk it up to randomness.

In some ways, this behavior is similar to the desire to throw Jesus off the cliff. We discount the power of God, and so we diminish our relationship with God. Later, in the Good Friday story, we scoff at Simon Peter's denial of Jesus, but we often deny God on a daily basis. Many of us are committed to a scientific, rational view of the universe that leaves no room for a divine power. We throw God over the cliff.

Or worse, we're committed to a view of the universe as dark, chaotic, and threatening. We discount the power of light and good to overcome the powers of darkness. Again, we throw God over the cliff. God commands us to be children of the light, committed to love. Many of us prefer to wallow in our feelings of fear and despair. Ah, despair, the sin that medievalists would remind us is the deadliest of the deadly sins--for it is despair that keeps us from believing that life can be different, that God is really in control. And if we can avoid believing that, then we can avoid our responsibilities towards this world that God created.

One of the most insidious ways that we continue to throw Jesus over the cliff is in our daily behavior, especially if those around us know that we are Christians. So often, our behavior undercuts our Christian stance. What will the rest of the world think of our triune God when they see us behave in ways that they know are distinctly not Christian? How do we lead people away from Jesus by our unflattering behavior? It's time to remember that we are to be an example of the kind of world that Jesus came to help us create.

The new year, which is quickly moving towards becoming the old year, is a good time for reflection, a good time to turn inward and to become aware of areas where we could still use improvement. Sure, God loves us the way that we are (a gift of grace to be sure). But God always calls us to be better. It's time to work on our attitudes and beliefs and actions that throw Jesus off the cliff, attitudes and beliefs and actions that make others think that God is indeed dead.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

For Our Reading Pleasure (and Inspiration)

I've been reading Phyllis Tickle's latest book, Emergence Christianity, published in 2012, not to be confused with her earlier book The Great Emergence.  In Emergence Christianity, she covers some of the same ground, but weaves in strands of developments since her earlier work, as well as more speculation about where these developments will take us.

One of the things I find myself thinking about again and again is the idea of online Christian community.  I haven't played Second Life, but I know many people who have.  It never occurred to me that there are churches in Second Life--which leads to all sorts of interesting issues.  Can non-ordained people consecrate elements in cyberspace?  Can bread and wine made of pixels instead of wheat and grapes be sacramental?  Fascinating questions.

She points out that we conduct much of our lives online:  banking, reading, shopping, bill paying.  What does it mean to be church online?

And then there are even larger issues looming:  "For the first time in human history, so far as anyone can ascertain, we do not know what a human being is" ( p. 194).  You may argue that we do, but people who study both biology and computers will tell you that the boundaries are getting blurry very quickly.

In short, this accessible book covers lots of ground in just 200 pages--there's lots to think about here.

I've also been rereading Lauren Winner's Still:  Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.  I've written about reading this book the first time in this blog post.  In many ways, I liked it better on the second read.  It wasn't as much of a surprise.  I remember feeling a bit of disappointment when I first read it, a wishing that she had answered more questions.  On the second read, I could appreciate what was there.

I plan to spend the coming week-end rediscovering the works of Lauren Winner, Nora Gallagher, and my all-time favorite Kathleen Norris.  I'm beginning serious work on crafting my own memoir, which will explore how a spiritual woman lives an integrated life staying true to her faith in a workplace that isn't always set up to support those ideals.  I admire the work of these 3 women in so many ways.  I plan to model my work on theirs, in that I want to write essays that can be read alone, or as a narrative in one gulp.

I think back to when I first read Norris' Dakota:  A Spiritual Geography.  I was so inspired, but dejected in a way.  I thought, I'll never be able to do what she did.  But blogging has helped immensely. 

I've gotten many a compliment as a writer, along with rejections, of course.  But the one that means the most to me is the one where people say my work reminds them of Norris.

That is my goal:  to be the Kathleen Norris of my generation.  Stay tuned!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Weaving Congregational Meetings into Worship

Yesterday at church, we had a congregational meeting that was part of a worship service.  We used to have horrible congregational meetings before we started weaving them into worship services.  You've probably experienced these kinds of meetings, if not in church then in some other setting:  people who are vicious to each other in subtle ways, lots of undermining, lots of doubts, and perhaps some yelling.

When a congregational meeting is woven into a worship service, people have a tendency to behave in better ways.  And it's good to remember why we're doing all of this in the first place.  It's not about us, or it shouldn't be.  It's about God and God's vision for us, which doesn't involve viciousness to each other.

Yesterday was our annual meeting too.  Our pastor prepared a great slide show highlighting what we've done in the past year.

I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about all the things we don't get done.  It's a trait in all aspects of my life.  At work, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I wish we had done as a department.  I always think of the places I wish I had gone, instead of remembering all the great places I've visited.  I think about the time I didn't find for friendships, instead of giving myself credit for finding slips of time here and there.  At church, especially since I've been on church Council, I agonize over all the work left to be done.

It was great to remember what we have accomplished:  we've created a great new kind of worship service, we did VBS, we had a pumpkin patch, we fed varieties of hungry people, we raised money to fight malaria, we gave money to many other worthy projects, we sheltered the homeless, we created great holiday worship in addition to regular worship and our new service, on and on the list went.

I have learned a lesson from yesterday's service, although it was perhaps not the lesson my pastor intended.  I need to spend some time thinking about what I have done, and less time beating myself up for what I haven't done.  Perhaps I need to start keeping track, not just annually, but monthly or weekly.

Sometimes looking back through my blogs serves the same purpose.  I'm amazed at what I manage to accomplish, even though I have a full-time job.  And that realization spurs me to do more, unlike flagellating myself for all I didn't get done.

More praise, less castigating:  a motto for 2013! 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Dreaming of Ordination

Just before I woke up, I had such an intense dream that it seemed like something else.  Do I believe that God still talks to us through dreams?  Do I believe that dreams give us a pipeline to our subconscious?

I'm not sure of my answer to those questions, but I wanted to record my dream.  In my dream, it was late afternoon, around 4:45, and the sun was setting.  My mom and I were at the edge of some small town.  I said, "Wasn't there once a Methodist bookstore around here?"

Then we were in the bookstore, but it was a small thing, a room in a church, essentially.  There was an older woman (but perhaps younger than my mom) who took one look at me and handed me a book.  It's title:  Ordination.  It was a book that went denomination by denomination to talk about how each denomination dealt with women and ordination.

The book had the same yellow cover as the first edition of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women that I bought in 1986, but the pages weren't thin, and the book itself, while as thick as the Norton, had larger pages.  The cover had representatives, somewhat cartooony, of some of the denominations, including a monkish Martin Luther with a whip.

My mom made sure that I saw the part of the book that dealt with my grandfather, who was a Lutheran pastor in real life, and who did not approve of women's ordination. 

I knew that I couldn't afford the book, and I wanted to read as much as I could before the store closed.  I asked the older woman when they closed, and she said, "7."  I looked at my watch, saw that it was 5, and sat down to read.  My mom went to help with a children's choir.

That was my dream.  When I write it out, it's difficult to convey how lovely it was, how warm it all felt, how in my dream, I felt like I was getting a clear sign (get to seminary!), even as I wondered if I really was getting a clear sign.

I woke up, and before my rational brain got to work, I felt I had been sent a sign.  Then my rational brain got to work and reminded me of all the obstacles to seminary, and from that my brain moved on to thinking about how outmoded seminary is and how I'd change things.

Yes, seminary as it exists now, seems like a relic of the middle part of the 20th century, when people went to seminary right out of undergraduate school, before they had families.  Or if they had families, there was a wife who had no career, and thus, the family could be uprooted to head off to the seminary of the future pastor's choice.  Even as we have more mid-career seminarians, seminaries haven't changed to meet this reality.  We're still expected to troop off to a distant school.

And once we get there, we must ask ourselves if what we study is still relevant.  How much New Testament Greek?  Might not Spanish have more of a use?

And a 4 year program to get a Master's degree?  Really?  Once we've uprooted ourselves for a seminary education, then we may have to uproot ourselves again for the internship year?  Who designs this program?

It may be appropriate for young folks just out of college who have not much church experience, but for people who have been Church Council presidents and Confirmation leaders and curriculum designers and worship leaders--do we really need an internship year?  Many of us have led churches through many a crisis and/or a time of searching for a pastor, which may mean lay preaching or overseeing the office, the finances, the week-to-week running of a church.

OK, enough of my sermonizing--there's my rational brain at work.

And in the interest of full disclosure, I do love the idea of school and learning more.  I don't like the idea of taking on student loan debt and taking a 4 year vacation from earning money to go to school.  That's the conundrum I can't solve as I think about ordination.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Try a Tableau!

If you're looking for a more interactive kind of opportunity, but you don't have much in the way of drama geeks at your church, here's an exercise to try.  We saw it modeled at the Florida-Bahamas Synod Assembly this year, and it looked like it would work with a variety of groups, except for the very shy.

Instead of a skit or a puppet show, try a tableau.  Here's how it worked with our group.

We read the texts for the day.  We studied the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (the Prodigal Son).  Then the groups doing tableaus went off to discuss. 

Just the conversation leading up to the tableau leads to interesting insights, arguments, and conversations.  Which part of the parable leads to a good scene?  It's a scene that will be a still scene, after all.

And then, the tableau:  the participants stood in a frozen moment in the story.  I recall the father of the Prodigal Son embracing the returning son, while the faithful son scowls in the background.

It's a great exercise because it requires no movement (or not much, depending on how you want to do it), no memorization, no speaking in front of a group of people.  You might find that people are more willing to try experimenting with drama if they don't have to speak.  You don't have to have costumes or props.

Or you could have costumes and props.  It's a remarkably expandable exercise.

I love these exercises that could work with groups that have all ages and abilities.  I love these exercises that could work in all sorts of settings:  Confirmation class, Vacation Bible School, Sunday school--even a worship service for adventurous congregations.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The Narrative Lectionary Readings for Sunday, January 27, 2013:

Luke 6:1-16

optional reading:  Psalm 92 or 92:4

Many people have never met anyone--anyone--who is serious about keeping the Sabbath.  Amongst my friends, I'm seen as an oddity for regularly attending church.

Imagine what modern folks would have made of people like my grandmother.  My grandmother believed that there should be no work on Sunday.  Of course, her idea of what constituted work was curious.  My grandfather, a Lutheran pastor, certainly worked for much of Sunday.  My grandmother cooked.  But there would be no shopping. 

I have a lot of memories I'd like to go back through time so that I could do things differently; I remember insisting on washing my car in my grandmother's driveway one gorgeous Sunday afternoon.  It upset her more than I realized that it would, and now I regret it.

We tend to see the Pharisees in this story as the bad guys, and indeed, they do seem to be a legalistic bunch.  It's important to remember that they thought that by keeping stern adherence to the purity laws they thought they were keeping the people of Israel safe in various ways.  Not only that, they thought that the Messiah would not come until the people were pure enough.

It's not their fault that they didn't realize that the Messiah had come already.  Many people don't.

When I was young and had a more free-form life, I, too scorned the Pharisees.  I'm sure the Gospel writers made them a bit over the top so that we'd be sure to scorn them.

Now I find myself feeling a bit more sympathetic.  It's an essential question:  what is the Sabbath for?

Some of us would answer that good Christians need to be in church.  But that still doesn't answer the question of why we need to be in church.  If church is just one more obligation, particularly one we take on because we think we need to be pure, we have a Pharisee mindset more than a Resurrection mindset.

There are many ways to worship God, and I believe God's happy with what makes us happy.  There's something to be said for being out in creation, appreciating God's handiwork, for example.  Why gather in a building instead of kayaaking in the Atlantic or watching the sun rise across the mountains?

The answers to this question will be as various as the individuals who gather in the building.  But we do know, because of the example of Jesus, that our lives will likely work better if we live them in the midst of good community.  At it's best, a gathering in a church building is that good community.

In these days when most people I know are living increasingly frantic lives, I find myself thinking about the Sabbath and the best way to keep it.  We can dismiss the Pharisees, but it's important to recognize their lessons for us.  We don't want to get so rigid that we make our Sabbath one more kind of duty, obligation, and stress. 

But we don't want to be so free-form that we forget to insist on the boundaries that a Sabbath observance can give us.  God showed us the importance of rest, from the beginning, with the Creation story that ends in rest.  Likewise, Jesus retreats periodically to rest.

We can probably do a better job of rest and retreat.  Many of us desperately need to do a better job of rest and retreat.  Now might be a good time to adopt an additional spiritual practice that allows us to do that.  Maybe we want to declare one day each week to be free of Internet distractions.  Maybe we want to reserve Sundays only for church and relaxing with friends and family.  Maybe we only want to watch wholesome things on our Sabbath day.

It's good to have boundaries.  The Sabbath gives us those boundaries.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Women in Combat and Monks in Prayer

Listening to news about women being allowed to serve in combat conditions took me back to prayers at a monastery.

It was a few years ago, at Mepkin Abbey.  During the prayers that allowed for intercessions, one elderly monk prayed for forgiveness for a nation that sent women to fight in combat.

Even in a monastery so removed from so many aspects of modern life, the monks realized that women were serving in combat positions.  Now, the Secretary of Defense may be willing to do the same.

The monk who prayed was horrified that we'd send vulnerable women into such danger.  As I listened to him, I thought about my younger self who would have been indignant.  My 40-something year old self tended to agree on strange levels.

It's taken me a long time, and witness to decades of sexual violence, to come around to believing that women are more vulnerable.  I know that men can be raped, but in regular military operations, I haven't read much about men being raped.

Women are raped and brutalized in all sorts of ways.  Civilian populations have been subject to all sorts of horrors.  And now we're realizing that women serving in the military are too.

My younger self would have advised giving women information, and then, if they still wanted combat positions and the inherent risks, I'd have let them do it.

My older self is not so sure.  My older self often feels that the government should operate like a parent of toddlers, intervening when necessary to keep the toddlers from hurting themselves.

I'm not comfortable with these feelings, which is why my first impulse was to cheer at the idea of women having more options for their service with the military.

Of course, my heart breaks at the idea that any young person, male or female, is sent to war.  It seems such a waste.  All that potential lost.

I have plans to return to Mepkin in February.  It will be interesting to experience the monastery during a different season.  I've only ever gone there in the Autumn.  Now a winter sojourn!

I look forward to returning to the monks who pray while we're all going about our business.  I know that there are plenty of people who scoff at the idea of cloistered people praying for the world instead of actually DOING something to make the world better.

My younger self would have agreed.  My older self has begun to believe that praying for the world multiple times a day is the most important thing that can be done.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 27, 2013:

First Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm: Psalm 19

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Gospel: Luke 4:14-21

In this week’s Gospel, we see the first public appearance of Jesus. He preaches on a text from Isaiah, (chapter 61, to be precise). In this teaching, we see the plan of God.

Notice that God offers us a big vision, release of all sorts: recovering of sight, liberty to the captives, release from debt (which happened during the year of the Lord). These are not the tiny dreams that humans might have. Jesus reminds his listeners, and us, of God’s plan for the redemption of creation.

It’s fascinating to read this text in the context of Monday’s Inaugural activities and the celebration of the life of Martin Luther King. It’s worth reminding ourselves how unlikely it was that the Civil Rights Movement would meet with any kind of success. Early on, the Civil Rights workers experienced incredible violence and sometimes even death. Yet they persevered.

And now, 60 years later, we see an African-American president elected not once, but twice. Once can be written off as a fluke. Two electoral victories mean that attitudes have changed—not everyone’s attitude, to be sure, but a significant amount from the attitudes of 1950’s American citizens.

Even for those who didn’t vote for the one being inaugurated, Inauguration Day offers all sorts of inspirations. We dig back into our past and many of us contemplate what an unlikely success our democracy has been. If you had lived in 1776, you wouldn’t have thought that the American colonists could throw off the oppressive rule of the British. And yet, they did.

In this 150th year after the Emancipation Proclamation, we might also reflect on a different time that was even more polarized than our own. Those alive in 1863 would be surprised to discover that descendents of slaves and Africans had won an election; they might be surprised that Lincoln’s Bible endured to a new swearing in.

Our Bible reminds us again and again of God’s liberation narrative. We may feel enslaved and hopeless, but the narrative arc of the Bible reminds us that God comes to set us free in any number of ways. We may feel overwhelmed by debts that seem insurmountable, but Jesus reminds us that debt can be overcome.

The ministry of Jesus will go further. Again and again, Christ will remind us that we have work to do. We are not redeemed from our captivity so that we can sit staring blankly at computer screens or televisions. We are set free so that we can set others free. We live in community not so that we can feel good about our acceptance, but so that we can bring others into community with us.

In the coming weeks, we’ll see Jesus and his disciples at work in their world. We should take heart at the fact that Christ called ordinary people, people deeply flawed, people who were already overcommitted. In short, he called people just like you and me.

We know the story from the vantage point of 2000 years of history, but if we could travel back in time to see Christ at work in Palestine, we’d likely predict that the ministry of Jesus would be unsuccessful. Jesus doesn’t call the successful, the rich, the well-connected.

No, he calls ordinary people. And he’s still calling ordinary people. What will you be doing this year to declare the good news of God’s liberation?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Liberation Narratives

I have often said that one of the advantages to going to church on a weekly basis is to be reminded of liberation narratives that we wouldn't hear in the larger culture.  Yesterday's Inaugural celebrations operated on a similar level for me.

I hadn't planned to watch the Inaugural events yesterday. I wasn't even sure I'd listen. I'm tired. I'm not as interested in politics as I was. But the truth is closer to this statement: I'm afraid to let myself hope anymore.

So, I was rearranging stuff in a closet, the closet that holds old backpacks that will likely never be used to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, but getting rid of them means finally admitting that I'm not that backpacker I once was. The closet holds all sorts of exercise equipment and old games and cleaning stuff and fishing gear that's been used once.  It's the closet of abandoned dreams. I was trying to make room for an inversion rack that's clearly going to just be in the way no matter where it is.

Then it was on to the cooking tasks.  As I cut a roasted chicken, I listened to President Obama's speech. What a masterful piece of rhetoric. Here's my favorite part:

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."

I love the vision of a star guiding us. I love the alliteration of Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall. I found myself feeling inspired. And I let myself feel inspired. So few politicians aspire to inspire these days.

I'm ready to feel optimistic again. Last year sorely tried my sunny temperament, between work lay-offs and my spouse's pain. But I'm ready to hope audaciously again. I'm ready to dream bigger dreams. I'm ready to emerge from my closet of broken, discarded plans.

I'm grateful to yesterday's events for reminding me of how far we've come, and in a very short time, when we look at the narrative arc of history. We think that things will never change, and then, they do. May they continue to change for the better!

And the subtle undertone yesterday reminded us that the social justice trail blazed by people like Martin Luther King was undergirded by spiritual strength.  Would I have gotten that yesterday if I didn't know my history?  I don't know.  As I say, it was very subtle.

Our spiritual narratives of captives set free reminds us that we may think that our dreams of liberation seem impossible, but they're not.  Yesterday's Inaugural events did the same.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Theologian and Worship Planner Considers the Inauguration

Here we are on the morning of another Inauguration Day.  I don't usually have the day off, so I don't usually watch the festivities.  Four years ago, I had to watch:  it was too historic to miss.

I've had lots of time to reflect, especially as the nation has geared up to do it again.  It's interesting to me how similar the Inauguration could be to a worship service:  not in who we're worshiping, but in how we put the components together.

I know people who believe that Christians have been worshipping the same way since the first century, but that's not true.  Still, even as the means of delivery change, the component parts have been remarkably similar:  music, Bible readings, sermon/homily, and prayer.  Some of us have a sung liturgy, while some have no liturgy at all.  But it's a rare Christian worship service that has no Scripture reading.  I have yet to attend a worship service with no prayer.

The Inauguration is similar.  Central to the ceremonies is the swearing in--but the way it's approached tells us much about what to expect.  What Bible will the President choose?  We're told that today he'll be using both the Bible that Martin Luther King used and the one that Lincoln used, their personal Bibles.  That seems appropriate to me.

We'll have poetry today from a Cuban-American immigrant gay poet.  This choice shows Obama's inclusionary streak.

But we'll also have some preachers.  I'll be very interested to see how they behave.  Will they strive for inclusivity?  How will they structure their prayers?  Will the prayers be anchored in Biblical imagery?  If so, which imagery?

There will likely be music, and I'll be interested to see what's chosen. 

And then there's the parade.  And the balls.

I love how this kind of festive day can pull so many of us together, even if we didn't vote for the one being inaugurated.  I love that this kind of festive day can remind us of the larger picture--a similar goal for worship, I think.  We tend to get bogged down in minutia, things that won't be terribly important a year from now and maybe not even next month.

Like worship, Inaugural festivities call us to be our better selves, while reminding us of the sacrifices that have occurred to get us to this point.  In a way, it's a shame we can't have Inaugural festivities more often.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Meditation on This Week's Narrative Lectionary

The readings for Sunday, January 20, 2013:

Luke 5:1-11

optional reading:  Psalm 90:14-17 or 90:17b

 If you were setting up your new ministry--or any other kind of venture--would you choose the men that Jesus chose?

In hindsight, it's easy to say "Of course."  But take a minute and consider the story for today.

We see fisherman, and unsuccessful fisherman.  In the Palestine of Christ's time, these men wouldn't have been at the bottom of the social ladder, but they'd have been close, viewed as solidly working class or lower.  It's hard, heavy work to do this kind of fishing--and dirty work, as there are fish and nets to clean.

These are not men who own land, the kind of men that would have had status.  These are not men who have been trained by religious authorities, as we might have expected Jesus to choose for his ministry.

Jesus chooses regular, ordinary people.  These are not men with gifts of oratory, not first.  These are not the best and the brightest, at least not at first.  But Jesus chooses them.  In similar ways, Christ still calls us, if we can hear.

There are several powerful messages for us here in this Gospel. We, too, have been offered this invitation. And what are we to make of this invitation? How do we respond? Do we tell others? Do our lives change? Can other people tell that we've been changed?

One of the tasks that God calls us to do is to transform the world we live in, to make the Kingdom of God manifest here on earth. No small task. But God has given us an example of how to do this: Christ's experiences on earth show us the way.

At this point, perhaps you echo John the Baptist, "I am not the Messiah."  Perhaps this knowledge that God still invites us to be part of Kingdom building makes you feel tired, instead of excited.  You think of the chores you have to do each day, your family responsibilities, the work tasks.

The men in Luke's Gospel were no different.  In the previous chapter, Jesus has healed Simon's mother-in-law.  These are not young, single men, fishing on a boat to pay for college.  Just like you, these men had families and work and lots to accomplish in a day.

But Christ calls, and they respond.  Perhaps it's because of the nets that are so full to bursting that they almost sink the boats.  Perhaps they realize that on their own, they have empty nets, while with Christ in the boat, they're successful in ways they didn't think they could be.

It's a potent metaphor.  Christ wants to join you on the boat.  Will you give him a place to teach the world.  Christ wants you to try again, when you're convinced that only failure can come from casting down your nets again.  Will you follow Christ?  Will your nets be empty or full to bursting?

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Confession of St. Peter

All continues to go well with my spouse's recovery from his microsurgery on his spine.  He's walking fairly easily, and though he can't bend over or reach too far, he's fairly self-sufficient--on the morning after his surgery, no less.

I don't have much time to write this morning, but luckily, I have a post up at Living Lutheran for you to enjoy.  Today is the feast day that celebrates the confession of Peter. 

You may be wondering why we have a feast day that celebrates this one act; most feast days celebrate the whole life of a saint.  My post will explain why.

Here's a quote to whet your appetite:  "On this day that celebrates Peter’s confession, let’s look at our attitudes. Are we gloomy people? Or do we bring brightness into the world? Do we focus on the bad news that comes our way? Or do we trust in God’s goodness? Do we live in a fear-based economy or a world drenched in love and generosity?"

Go here to read the rest.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Comfort in the Maw of the Medical-Industrial Complex

My spouse had microsurgery on his spine yesterday, and it's looking like it was successful, although it will take time to know for sure.  But as of last night, at least nothing catastrophic had happened--and we were surrounded in the recovery room by people who were not so lucky.

Along the journey yesterday, I experienced many comforts.  The main one was knowing that so many people were praying.

Do I know for sure that the prayers changed anything?  No.  In fact, I cannot believe in a God who says, "OK, I've gotten the requisite number of prayers for Carl, so, instead of paralysis, I'll send him health."

No, that is not the God I worship.  The God I worship set up a universe that has laws and gave us all free will to make decisions that may be painful.  I do believe, as C. S. Lewis posits, that God will occasionally disrupt the laws of the physical universe so that the grandeur of God may be revealed.  I also think that God cannot intervene in our decisions that we've made of our own free will unless we ask.  I don't know that God will always intervene.  I don't know much at all, but I have hopes.

For the most part, I pray not to change God's mind, but because I don't know how to do anything else.

I was also comforted by the kindness of the hospital staff.  From the minute we entered until the moment we left last night, everyone was calm and professional and warm and welcoming.

I was also comforted by whisps of the Bible that went through my head.  I was comforted by images of God as a mother bird sheltering us under her wings.  I was comforted by the image of God holding the whole world in God's hands.  I was comforted by the idea that we can emerge from dark valleys safe and whole.

Most of all I held fast to the idea that death and disease do not have the final word.  God has a plan for the redemption of creation and that plan is underway.  It isn't complete yet--thus the death and disease.  But it is underway.

I think of all the people who comforted me with a smile and with grace under pressure.  I hope to be that kind of comfort as I move through life.  I pray to be that light in the world.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 20, 2013:

First Reading: Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm: Psalm 36:5-10

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Gospel: John 2:1-11

Today's Gospel presents the first miracle of Jesus, the turning of water into wine at a wedding. No doubt that some preachers across the country will take this opportunity to talk about weddings and the sanctity of marriage; they'll see the participation of Jesus as his sanction of this institution. Perhaps others will talk about miracles, while others talk about the proper way to treat one's mother.

I'm less interested in the marriage issue than in the miracle issue. In this Gospel, Jesus resists his mother's urging to help out with the wine. Why does he do that? Does he have a splashier miracle in mind as his announcement that he's arrived? Is it the typical rebellion of the child against the parent?

And then, why does Jesus change his mind?

You might make the argument that Jesus shouldn't care about whether or not the wedding guests had wine. You might argue it's a trivial miracle. But scholars would remind us that to run out of wine at a wedding would be a serious breach of hospitality. The whole extended family would suffer great embarrassment and shame—and there might be rippling effects through a community with strict codes that modern readers can scarcely imagine.

At last year’s Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge, Bishop Gordy, head of the Southeast Synod of the ELCA, led a fascinating study of this text. He sees the this first miracle as showing us that Jesus was not so focused on his own agenda that he couldn’t act on the need for compassion for this couple who is about to experience great humiliation.

Bishop Gordy also pointed us to the abundance in this miracle. Just like the loaves and fishes miracle, Jesus provides more than humans can use—not just enough for the given situation. The wine doesn’t run out. Indeed, they have wine left at the end of the wedding feast.

And it’s good wine. God doesn’t just give out leftovers and lesser quality. We’re the ones who operate out of a scarcity consciousness. The miracles of Jesus, particularly in John’s Gospel, remind us that not only will there be enough, there will be great abundance.

What does Jesus need for this miracle? Water and jars. What could be simpler? Gail O’Day notes that the jars were used for purification. The old forms aren’t destroyed, just filled with newness and new purpose.

We often hesitate to ask God for what we truly need and want. We’re afraid of rejection. We’re afraid that the task is too hard. The miracle stories remind us that God can use the materials at hand to give us more abundance than we can use.

Perhaps this could be the year that we rid ourselves of our scarcity thinking. We worship a God of abundance and great giving. Rejoice in this good news.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Loving in the Face of Pain

I used to hear people with children say, "I didn't know I could love another living being so much."  Occasionally, I hear people say something similar about a pet, a dog or a cat.  I don't often hear people say such a thing about a spouse.

Lately I've been feeling the acute pain that comes from loving so much.  My spouse spent the year of 2012 in varying amounts of pain.  And here's my pain:  there's been absolutely nothing I could do to alleviate that pain.

We've tried all sorts of things (massage, exercises, healing services) with minimal success, so tomorrow, we try what we hope will be a more permanent solution:  surgery.  I'm not as frightened as I thought I would be, when surgery was first suggested.  The neurosurgeon calls it "routine microsurgery," so it's a different kind of back surgery than the kind our mothers had--just an overnight stay in the hospital.  I'm hoping that it's more like the kind of surgery that cleans out a knee, less like hip replacement.  But overall, I'm ready for my spouse to feel better.

I've been thinking of parental love, and how so much of parental love involves the pain of wishing the best for your children while watching them make choices that aren't the best for them or watching random chance deal harsh blows.  Lately, I've been thinking that spousal love may be similar. 

If I had had a child, I'd expect to spend sleepless nights worrying about drug interactions and what the future will bring in terms of careers.  I'd have expected to lie awake wishing that I could change outcomes or worrying about the pain coming to my child.  In my youthful rush to the altar, it didn't occur to me that I'd feel the same way about the man I was marrying.

Of course, to love deeply means that we will feel that pain, whether it be the love for child, spouse, or friend.  Many of us feel similar love for institutions, countries, you name it.

Lately I've been reminding myself that God feels that same kind of love for each of us.  God feels anguish when we make choices that are less than optimal.  God smiles when good things come our way.  God cheers us on when all goes well.  God is there to comfort us when it doesn't.

Unlike our human counterparts, however, nothing can affect how much God loves us.  No matter how many times we make disappointing choices, God still hopes for our best outcomes.  No matter how many times we betray God, God will still be there, happy to see us, day after day.

Monday, January 14, 2013

What Tempts Us and Redeems Us, in Modeling Clay

At our church, our 10 a.m. service is designed to be more of a family experience, one where we approach the Biblical text from a variety of approaches; we've been using materials from Faith Inkubators, as well as doing some of our own projects.  We learn a song that's related to the Bible reading, and we learn to sign the song.  Some weeks we see a play or a puppet show; in alternate weeks, we study the same text, but use a different approach, often from a creative angle.

We've been studying the text of Jesus being tempted by Satan after 40 days in the wilderness.  Our pastor reminded us that in the Bible, 40 years is shorthand for "a REALLY long time."  I had a few minutes where I thought, hmm, that could explain all the missing years of the early life of Jesus.

But then we were off to our arts project.  We broke into small groups.  Each group had a pack of non-drying modeling clay in 4 colors.  We had a paper plate and plastic utensils, in case we needed help in shaping the clay.

Our assignment:  use the clay to make something which represented a temptation for us.  We put those items around the edge of the paper plate.  Our group created a screen (which could symbolize T.V. or the computer), a boat (oh, the temptations of a big ticket item), a controller (like your old Atari controller, which represents the need to be in control), a teardrop (my contribution, which represents how prone I am lately to fall into despair and hopelessness), and an exclamation point (which represented how modern life can feel like rushing from one stressful event to another).

I was intrigued by the fact that no one in my group talked about food temptations.  In my younger years, I'd have created something representing a high calorie treat.  These years, when I have little time to bake, it's easier to avoid those temptations.

We used the rest of the modeling clay to make a cross, which we put in the middle of the paper plate, rising up from the paper plate.  The cross, of course, represents the way in which our temptations are ultimately put to rest.  We will continue to be tempted, but we're forgiven.

Our group noticed that the cross didn't want to stand up, and while we reinforced it with more clay, we talked about the symbolic aspects.  I love the idea that we had a cross, a symbol of the power of the Roman empire, and all sorts of other powers and principalities, but it cannot stand forever.

Here again is another arts project that can be used in any number of settings:  Sunday School, worship service, and retreats.  It seemed to work well with all ages, from our youngest toddlers to our elderly folks.  It has the benefit of time flexibility too:  it could be a quick exercise or something more leisurely.  All in all, it's another good addition to the creativity toolkit.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

We Are Not Our Sadness

I know many people who had a very tough time of it in 2012.  Just because the year has changed, that doesn't mean our sorrow has lifted.

I found this morning's episode of On Being to be quite helpful.  It was a wonderful interview with Roshi Joan Halifax, a Zen leader who has done a lot of work in the areas of both social justice and grieving.

I particularly liked the meditation that was included.  I loved the soothing voice of Halifax say the following:

"So I would like to invite you to put down whatever might be in your hand and to find a position that's comfortable and also that supports you and listen to my words. And if they are resonant for you, if they are helpful, really let them enter into your experience and bring your attention to the breath for just a moment and let the breath sweep your mind and notice whether it's a deep breath or shallow. And recall for a moment now a loss or losses that have really touched you or the anticipation of loss. And now offer some simple phrases: May I be open to the pain of grief? May I find the inner resources to really be present for my sorrow? May I accept my sadness knowing that I am not my sadness?"

It's always a revelation to remember that I can feel my sorrow and grief and that it won't rise up and overwhelm me.

I am not my sadness.

It was also a relief to hear Krista Tippett and Joan Halifax talk about the resiliency of people and how caregiving may enrich us instead of simply depleting us.  They also had a brief discussion of the plasticity of the brain.  We don't stop learning when we're 3 or 8 or 16.  It's a lifelong process.

You'll find lots of great resources here, including links to past shows, as well as a way to listen to this week's show, and the complete meditation.
We are not our sadness:  my reminder for the coming week, which brings back surgery for my husband, which will hopefully bring pain relief--but which is also a reminder that we're not college kids anymore.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Poem as We Leave Epiphany

Tomorrow we enter the time after Epiphany.  I already miss the holiday season.  I miss Advent. 

For years, the time between New Year's Day and Epiphany was a time when I prepared for classes.  With all those holiday associations swirling in my brain, this poem came forth.  It's included in my second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents.

Preparing Syllabi on the Feast of the Epiphany

In this lowly manger of a community college,
she is always on the lookout for wisdom
of any kind. So many students, so numbly submissive
to their destiny of refrigerator repair
or dreary office work.

She has simplified the assignments
since the majority of her students will settle
for their Associate’s degree, so afraid
are they to set their sights higher.

She always includes one project designed
to break them from their myopia,
a light in the wilderness assignment
that beckons them to be better students
than they dreamed possible.

Most will not accept this crucifixion
of an assignment. Most are comfortable
in their pre-resurrection skins.
Still, there’s always one or two who catch
that holy fire and feed on the locusts
and wild honey of true scholarship.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The Narrative Lectionary readings for Sunday, January 13, 2013:

Luke 4:14-30

optional reading:  Psalm 146 or 146:7b-8

Today we see Jesus beginning his career by reading from Isaiah 61, the text  that we had as our primary reading a month ago.  This text from Isaiah tells us what the people of God should be doing. If God had a business plan, we could find it here. If God had a mission statement, we could use one of these verses.

The verbs should not be a surprise to the faithful: bring, proclaim, grant, give. The populations that concern God should be familiar too: the afflicted, the captives, the mourners.

Here, in this chapter that Jesus reads, once again we hear God's promise: repair, resurrection, and new life.

So far, so good.  But then Jesus goes further and reminds the people that God's promise extends to more than God's chosen people.  This message infuriates, and the people rise up against him.  It won't be the last time.

We might say this is an inasupicious beginning for the Messiah, but it sets the stage for the ministry of Jesus.  God incarnate isn't going to spend time courting favor with the rulers of the land.  The focus of Christ's ministry will be the poorest of the poor, the outcast amongst the outcast:  the bleeding women, the sick, the tax collectors, and the prostitutes.

Jesus won't announce his presence with a show of weapons and firepower, no matter how much people would prefer that kind of Messiah.  Again and again, Jesus will remind us of the true power of the Good News, the liberation of the oppressed.

Think of all the ways you've been feeling oppressed.  Think of all the prisons from which you've yearned to be free.  Jesus invites us to liberation.

Jesus will also be inviting us to liberate others.  There are so many facets of society which conspire to hold us all in chains.  How can we be part of the Jubilee time that Jesus proclaims?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Impossible Happening to the Unlikely

Now is the time to prepare to move into the season after Epiphany.  This year, Easter comes early--not as early as it could be, but early enough so that we don't have many Sundays in this post-Epiphany season before we launch into Lent.

But before we leave Christmas and Epiphany behind, make sure to read this post by Nadia Bolz-Weber.  Many of us go to churches where the Christmas story has been sanitized and sentimentalized so much that we forget how radically strange the incarnation of Christ is:  "In a way, the story of Jesus’ birth is about God redeeming the whole world through making the impossible happen to the unlikely. Which is important to remember since within the first few hundred years, Christianity had lost it’s original dinginess, it’s origins of marginalized people and out-of-wedlock pregnancies and beloved prostitutes and dinner parties with all the wrong people and loving the enemy which all quickly gave way to respectability and fancy robes and emperors and pageantry."

I love that phrase:  "making the impossible happen to the unlikely."  There's God's mission statement.  What would happen if churches adopted it?

What would happen if we as individuals truly remembered it?  We spend a lot of time suppressing and repressing our less desirable parts.  Many of us inhabit communities and workplaces and relationships that require us to reshape our essential selves and not always for the best.  What would happen if we remembered that God loves every aspect of us?

Bolz-Weber talks about how she's tired and yearning to be enchanted again.  And then she reminds herself that she's likely missing God moving amongst us:

"But this week I started to wonder if I miss noticing God’s reality of the impossible and the unlikely because instead I’m focusing on the important.

Because I think we often miss that God is incarnating the impossible among the unlikely because we are busy with whatever seems important to us instead. And I wonder if this is the same way people missed it in first century Palestine. Perhaps they were so busy at their prayers, that no one noticed God walking among them because God was inside the womb of an insignificant peasant girl rushing to the hills to visit her kinswoman and that’s not the kind of thing you pay attention to when you have important things to do."

She ends with a list of the impossible happening among the unlikely, a list that includes new births and sobriety and the hospitality of a church.  It's an important version of a gratitude list.

This week, I've been wrestling with feelings of despair and a vague hopelessness about the future.  Part of it is standard post-holiday blues.  Part of it is a variety of mid-life crisis, although crisis is too strong a word.  What word would sum up the need for a shift to a new path, without the discernment of what the path should be?

I feel I've even lost my capacity to dream.  Once, I had so many visions of possible futures that I couldn't decide which one would be best.  Before that, I assumed that I would have time to complete all of those possible futures:  backpacking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, completing multiple graduate programs, writing novels, a rewarding career (or 2 or 3 or 4!)--all those things and more I assumed would be mine.

Now I feel tired.

It's good to be reminded that God does not grow weary in this way.  God has grand visions, and we don't have to understand the full scope of them all.  God will make a way out of no way.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013:

Genesis 1:1-5

Psalm 29

The voice of the LORD is upon the waters. (Ps. 29:3)

Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

This Sunday marks the baptism of Christ. I can't help but think of all the years that are missing in this cycle--what would Christ have been like, as an adolescent, as a young carpenter?

I love the words of God in this baptism: "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." Note that God says this at the beginning of Christ's ministry, before Jesus has actually done much. In fact, in this Gospel of Mark, the baptism scene is our first introduction to Jesus. Mark doesn't give us a nativity story.

Here's the best news of all: God feels the same way about you.

God feels the same way about you: you are God's chosen ones; God is well pleased with each and every one of you.

For those of us who might have grown up with the idea of an angry God, a punishing parent, this message can be quite powerful. God loves you, regardless of what you've done, in spite of what you've done. God's love has nothing to do with what you've accomplished. Certainly God has ideas of how we can live our best lives, in much the way a friend wants what's best for a friend, a parent wants a child to make choices that will lead the child to fulfillment. But regardless of what we've done or not done, regardless of the roads we've taken, regardless of how well we're living our mission to be the light of Christ in the world, God loves us.

This is a powerful message as we start the new year. For some of us, a new year is a chance to beat ourselves up over how much we haven't accomplished. We think of all the past resolutions we haven't been able to keep. We think of all the ways we haven't been our best selves. We think of all the people we've disappointed. We can quickly spiral into a vicious circle of self-hatred and depression.

God knows all the ways we might not deserve it, but God loves us anyway. Again, that's the great thing about being a Lutheran and believing in grace--God knows us completely, and God loves us thoroughly. We don't have to do anything to earn this love. Indeed, we can't.

Look at the great lengths God has gone to to let us know of that love. Think of the Christmas and Epiphany stories. God becomes a little baby, born in a stable--and why? To let us know of God's love. God becomes a refugee because of Herod's jealousy. God loves us so much--the Bible is full of stories that show God going to great lengths to show humanity this love. An observent person might say that God still goes to great lengths to get our attention.

The juxtaposition of Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ also gives us an opportunity to see how differently people respond to this gift of grace and love. Herod is so threatened that he slaughters every child in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. John, on the other hand, tells everyone about the coming arrival of Jesus.

How will you respond to God's great gift of love?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cosmology Questions on a Plane above the Continent

On our recent trip to California, we shared a row with an 8 year old girl.  Her family boarded late, and she sat beside us, with family members all around.  I was in the middle seat.  If it had been a shorter flight, I might have offered my seat to one of the family members.  But since it was such a long flight, from Fort Lauderdale to Las Vegas, I really wanted to be able to sit by my spouse, to lift up the armrest, to share our backpack.

We were flying Southwest, which doesn't have assigned seats, and every seat was taken.  But the 8 year old proved to be an easy person to sit beside.

She slept for the first part of the flight, as the landscape below us was green.  When she woke up, the shift had begun, from green to brown.  Much of our trip was over Texas, which was fairly dull.  We talked about the roads we saw or didn't see.  We wondered who lived down there.

As the landscape changed to a more rugged desert with canyons, with mountains in the distance, she turned to me at one point and said, "How did all of this get here?"

Oh, so many ways to answer that question.  I didn't leap immediately to God.  I talked about continental plates and the shifting which heaved up mountains and the seas which once covered the landscape and before that, the glaciers which carved so much of the continent, although not the part we flew over.

She said, "Yeah, but how did that get here?"

I said, "You mean, how were the planets formed?"

She nodded, and we talked about the big bang.  I said, "But the question that you still have is how that matter that exploded came into being."  She nodded again.  I said, "Nobody knows for sure.  Maybe it was always there.  Maybe God put it there."  She nodded again and changed the subject.

I thought about what a delicate balancing act it can be, to answer these questions in simple enough terms for an 8 year old, to talk about the beginnings of creation without denying the possibility of God, but also without denying the science of it all.

Of course, of all of us, 8 year olds are probably most capable of dealing with the paradoxical nature of these questions of cosmology.

My larger question:  how can we deny the beauty of this creation as we see it from afar?  And how can we not want to save it?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Feast Day of the Epiphany

Today is the Feast Day of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the ways in which the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus is revealed early in the Christ story. More specifically, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the wise men from the East to see and bring gifts to the baby Jesus. Often, the Epiphany season also includes the baptism of Jesus, which in some Gospels, can include a descending dove and God telling us that Jesus is God's son, with whom God is well pleased.

Note that God is well pleased even before Jesus has done a thing. For those of us who suffer self-loathing because we feel we're not doing enough and we're not living up to our full potential, perhaps we could take this lesson and back off a little.

There are so many ways to celebrate.  Many of us will go to church, where we will contemplate the arrival of the wise men or the baptism of Jesus.  A year ago, I created this meditation with photos for Epiphany.

There are ways to celebrate at home too.  It's so rare that this feast day falls on a week-end day, which opens up so many possibilities.  We could bake 3 Kings Bread.  For a simple, relatively healthy, no kneading version, see this recipe with photos in this blog post.

If you want more suggestions for ways to celebrate this holiday today, this post at my creativity blog will give you some ideas.

Many of us will celebrate this feast day by getting ready to return to work tomorrow.  Some of us will celebrate by putting away the Christmas decorations.

But before we let go of Christmas entirely, let's take a bit more time to savor the season.  Have one last cookie or cup of Christmas tea.  Think about how you will continue to infuse sweetness into your post-holiday life.  Think about the twinkly lights and the star that is so central to the Christian Christmas story.  How can you get more light into your life?  What star waits for you to notice and to follow its guidance?  What gifts do you need?  What gifts does the world need from you?

Happy Epiphany!  May it be a year of light and a distant star that brings us to Good News.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Epiphany Eve

Here we are, at the 12th day of Christmas, the day before Epiphany.  Tradition has it that we should take down our Christmas decorations today, to avoid bad luck in the new year.  Hmm.  I've always waited until Epiphany--although if I'm being honest, I often wait until my husband does it, and he usually takes care of the undecorating on Epiphany.

On Jan Richardson's blog post, I read about an interesting tradition, Women's Christmas, which is traditionally celebrated on Epiphany:  "In some parts of the world, Epiphany (January 6, which brings the Christmas season to a close) is celebrated as Women's Christmas. Originating in Ireland, where it is known as Nollaig na mBan, Women's Christmas began as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany as an occasion to enjoy a break and celebrate together at the end of the holidays."

She also includes a link to a free download of her Retreat for Women's Christmas, which includes poems and artwork and blessings and writing/thinking prompts--a great resource if you're in the mood for a contemplative treat with a spiritual theme, all done in a wonderful way.

Similarly, in this post, Beth Adams offers wonderful Epiphany art, along with a link to the Evensong service she'll be participating in tomorrow.

Once upon a time, we might have been preparing for 12th night festivities tonight, but I suspect that most of us don't celebrate these customs anymore.  In today's post on The Writer's Almanac site, we learn:

"In some parts of England, Twelfth Night was also traditionally associated with apples and apple trees. People would troop out to their fruit orchards bearing a hot, spiced mixture of cider and ale for the 'wassailing of the trees.' They would pour the wassail on the ground over the trees' roots, and sing songs, and drink toasts to the health of their orchards. They also hung bits of cider-soaked toast in the trees to feed the birds. The attention paid to the orchards during the wassailing would be repaid with a bountiful harvest the following fall.

English settlers in the Colonies brought the Twelfth Night tradition with them. In colonial Virginia, it was customary to hold a large and elegant ball. Revelers chose a king and queen using the customary cake method; it was the king's duty to host the next year's Twelfth Night ball, and the queen was given the honor of baking the next year's cake. George and Martha Washington didn't usually do much for Christmas except attend church, but they often hosted elaborate Twelfth Night celebrations. It was also their anniversary; they'd been married on January 5, 1759. Martha Washington left behind her recipe for an enormous Twelfth Night cake among her papers at Mount Vernon. The recipe called for 40 eggs, four pounds of sugar, and five pounds of dried fruit. It wasn't until the mid-1800s that Christmas became the primary holiday of the season in America, and at that point, Twelfth Night celebrations all but disappeared."

I love the idea of sharing a celebration with the orchards and the birds who live there.  Maybe I'll share my wassail with my bougainvillea trees, which seem to be blooming beautifully this morning.

The last stanza's of Jan Richardson's poem moved me this morning, and I'll probably think about it often as I move through today and tomorrow:

"Do not expect

to return
by the same road.
Home is always
by another way
and you will know it
not by the light
that waits for you

but by the star
that blazes inside you
telling you
where you are
is holy
and you are welcome

Friday, January 4, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The readings for Sunday, January 6, 2013:

Luke 3:1-22

optional texts:  Psalm 51:6-17 or 51:13

John the Baptist often shows up during Advent, either as the baby in Elizabeth's womb who moves when Mary arrives, or as his prophet self in the wilderness who tells people that he's not the Messiah.  It's a mantra we would all do well to adapt:  "I am not the Messiah.  The redemption of the world does not rest on my shoulders."

Of course, if I did go around saying that, John the Baptist might accuse me of being part of the brood of vipers that he castigates in today's reading.  It's much too easy to say, "I am not responsible," and then to sit back and do nothing.  Today's reading makes clear that doing nothing is not an option.

Here's the good news contained in today's reading:  what we must do is not really that hard.  Look at verses 10-15 and remember again our task:  to share what we have with those who have nothing, to not take more than our share, to deal with people fairly, and to be content.  On its surface, it seems so simple--why are these goals so hard for so many people?

Perhaps, as with so many New Year's resolutions, we try to do too much all at once.  Maybe we should start small.  Here are some possibilities:  once a week, buy 10 cans of food for your local food pantry.  Once a week, sort through your possessions and give away one thing.  Tip 1 or 2% more than you do right now.  Eat a meatless meal once a week--and give what you save to an organization like Lutheran World Relief that gives money to people who struggle in developing nations.  Put 5 more dollars in the offering plate each week.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

John makes clear what the penalty will be if we do not adjust our trajectory to be more generous people.  He talks of axes taken to trees that do not bear good fruit, he talks of winnowing forks, and he talks of chaff being thrown into the fire.  We may feel despairing as John assails us again and again with our unworthiness.

The end of the reading gives us more hope.  Note that Jesus has God's approval, even before his ministry starts.    God does not withhold favor until the job is done.  Like John the Baptist, we're often much more harsh with ourselves than God is.

God delights in us, the way that God delights in Jesus at the baptism scene.  You already have God's favor--now go out and live like you believe that fact.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Joshua Tree Crosses

You may remember that in April, I wrote this post about making crosses.  I haven't done much more with that creative practice.

On a recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park, I had an urge to leave a cross, which is odd, since there's not much wood around.  Still, when I found a fibrous, dried-out branch leaning against a stone, I couldn't resist.  I found a cross beam and experimented with different approaches.

I didn't lash them together or do anything permanent.  It's one stick leaning against another.

The desert southwest is a harsh, rugged landscape.  I wouldn't have been surprised to have seen John the Baptist in a loincloth out there.  More on John the Baptist tomorrow when I return to weekly writing about the Narrative Lectionary.

I also thought about my own creative work that's set in this landscape.  Here's one from Whistling Past the Graveyard, my first chapbook:

Modern Abolitionist

Two hundred years ago, we would have stitched
cloth, hung our quilts on the line to give guidance.
We would have sung songs, whispered directions,
left lamps burning in strategic windows.
Then, as now, we would have helped with the herding north.

Now we hang flags of blue plastic
above water stations in the desert. We patrol
these tanks to make sure they never run dry.
Dryness means quick death for those who make the daily
dashes towards freedom. We position
these water stations in national parks
under telephone poles that stretch high above, a sure sign
even during dehydration induced hallucinations. The flags whip
in the wind, a dry rustle above the rattlesnakes.

I keep extra food and water in the truck. When I see
parched refugees, dusty and sunburned, I offer
these meager rations. I’m not above
giving folks a ride. There’s no Fugitive
Slave Act to make me cower in fear.

Some mornings I find a few of them in the fields
or huddled against the garage, the barn.
Unlike my neighbors, I don’t threaten
them with my gun or call the law.
I’ve learned enough broken
Spanish to invite them to breakfast.
Eggs and toast translate to any language.

I wish I could fully claim my Abolitionist
heritage, instead of just dancing on the edge of lawlessness.
But I am no Harriet Tubman to safely lead
people out of slavery, no John Brown
to plot uprisings and raid munitions bunkers.
Alas, I don’t have the eloquence of Frederick Douglass.
All I can offer is a glass of water, a bite
of food, substandard shelter, and a ride north.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 6, 2013:

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (11)

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

Some of us have always celebrated the 12 days of Christmas, which begin on Christmas Day and end on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. But it’s rare in the lectionary that we celebrate Epiphany at all, much less on an actual Sunday. The 3 wise men have such a place in our collective imagination that it’s interesting to return to the actual story that only appears in Matthew. What a strange tale!

Notice that it’s not 3 wise men, but a group of wise men from the East. Some have speculated that they were scholars of some sort or astrologers or maybe kings from a distant land. Clearly they are men of power and wealth. They can afford to travel, and they can afford to bring lavish gifts.

It’s no wonder that the wise men from the east would come to one of the population centers of the Roman empire looking for the King of the Jews. It’s an interesting statement that they assume that they’re looking for someone who has political power. Those of us who know the rest of the story already know that they couldn’t be more mistaken.

Herod is also a man of power and wealth, but he reacts very differently from the wise men of the east. The wise men come a great distance to be part of the story. Herod, too, could have participated in the Good News and the work of Kingdom building. God wouldn't boycott him, just because he was a tool of the Roman empire. God can use any of us, no matter who we've been or where we are.

But Herod has no interest in hearing God’s invitation. Notice that not only is Herod troubled, but all of Jerusalem. Herod consults not only his own staff, but also the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem.

Herod’s reaction shouldn’t surprise us. He’s not a Roman emperor, after all. He rules only as long as his Roman overlords say that he can. He’s already feeling threatened, and then wise men from the East appear, searching for a ruler who isn’t Herod. We may say that we’d have reacted differently, that we’d have joined the quest and rejoiced when we found Jesus, but we’re likely kidding ourselves.

What does it mean that the good news of the birth of Jesus comes not only to shepherds (in Luke’s Gospel, not Matthew’s), but also to strangers from a distant, non-Jewish country? From the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we see the inclusivity of the incarnation of God. And from the beginning, we see the rejection of God’s invitation, from Herod onward through all of Jerusalem.

Jesus escapes death by government hands in this story, but again, those of us who know the whole story know that Jesus can only dodge the authorities for so long. Before Jesus opens his mouth, his trajectory places him in direct conflict with the ruling government. His very birth threatens the establishment, as will the rest of his life.

I think of that simplistic bumpersticker: “Wise men still seek him.” But we shouldn’t forget that the quest of the wise men also puts them at severe risk as they meet with Herod, who might have easily had them killed for their impudence of searching for a King of the Jews that wasn’t sanctioned by the state. Indeed, he likely would have killed them, had he not needed them for intelligence gathering.

Wise men and women do indeed still seek Jesus, but we often underestimate the risk. Jesus doesn’t come to occupy a tidy corner of our lives. Jesus doesn’t come to invite us to lunch once or twice a month.

No, God comes to live with us, in all of our brokenness and messiness. God comes to turn our lives upside down—and to turn us around. God has a very grand plan for creation, and for all of the individuals inside of that creation. A life spent searching for Jesus may well set us on a collision course with everything that our culture tells us we should be searching for.

The world tells us to seek wealth; God tells us that we have more than we need and that we should give it all away. The world tells us to seek education; Jesus comes to give us a very different education, one based on compassion and sharing. The world tells us to seek power that only empires can maintain; Jesus shows us the brutality of that kind of power.

But Jesus also tells us that another, deeper power is ours for the taking. Jesus shows us the power of community and love. Jesus comes to show us a different kind of sojourn.

We like to think we’d have reacted differently to Jesus, had we been alive back in the time of Herod. We like to think that we would understand the Epiphany in the ways that Herod and the inhabitants of Jerusalem did not. Would we?

Yes, wise men and women still seek him, but daily life often grinds our capacity for wonder out of us. We miss the miraculous as it twinkles at us, daring us to see, inviting us on a marvelous journey. Let this be the year that we see the portents and the signs, the year that we say yes to God.