Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Language of Dreams and Investing in Them

Last night I went to a presentation by Brainard Carey, who talked about making a living as an artist; I wrote about it in more detail in this post on my creativity blog.

I was struck by how much of what he said could apply to churches too.

He began by asking why do we, as artists, check our success at certain levels? He says the only thing holding us back is ourselves. In other words, we've got a lot of self-defeating behaviors, and many of them are unconscious. If we could control that behavior, all sorts of success would follow.

I've noticed that churches have a lot of self-defeating behaviors too.  We cling to doing what we've always done, even if we've lost sight of why we do it or whether or not anyone finds it meaningful or relevant or even fun.  We watch our members grow old and wonder why younger people no longer come to church.

Brainard Carey talked about artists who need to learn to speak in the language of financiers, if we want to find a patron.  Likewise, the old church language may not work.  People might ask us why they should come to church.  What do we say?

Too many people talk about getting to Heaven.  But frankly, that's not very motivating.  We can't control our addictions, even when they destroy our lives.  Why would we expect that life after death would be compelling?  The idea of life enhancing behaviors during life is rarely motivating.

Brainard talked about artists who approached rich people not by asking for money, but by describing their project, saying "This is our dream," and then asking, "Have you ever thought of investing in a dream?"

What if we talked about the dreams of God for our lives and for all of life on earth?  Would non-churched people invest in that dream?  Can we describe it so vividly that people want to be part of it?
Over and over again, Brainard Carey reminded us of the value of asking for what we want and need. If you want a show, ask for one. If you need an audience with a mover in the industry, invite that person to coffee near where the person works or for 10 minutes in a cafe in the building. He understands how we're afraid of rejection, which makes us afraid to ask, but he assures us that we will be astonished at often the answer will be yes.

With our members, I've noticed that church leadership can be hesitant to ask people to work on projects, much less lead them to fruition.  And then we wonder why we're so burned out.  The same is likely true of working with people in other institutions.

And in a corollary command, Carey warned us about underselling ourselves, which artists tend to do. He reminds us to ask for the moon.

What would happen if churches asked for more?  What if we told members what it really would take to create the church communities we want to have?

We worry that people would run away in horror.  But maybe they'd commit more fully.

If you live in Southeast Florida, you've still got one more chance to hear Brainard Carey: he'll be speaking tonight at Girls' Club Gallery (117 NE 2nd Street in Ft. Lauderdale)at 7 p.m.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 3, 2013:

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 63:1-8

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

In this week's Gospel, we get the parable of the fig tree, that poor fig tree who still hasn't produced fruit even though it's been 3 years. This Gospel gives us a space to consider our view of God and our view of ourselves.

Which vision of God is the one in your head? We could see God as the man who says, "Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?" If we see God that way, and if we see ourselves as the fig tree, that's a scary proposition; we've got a few years to produce before God gives up on us.

A traditional approach to this parable might see God as the impatient one, and Jesus as the vinedresser who pleads the case for the poor little fig tree. I know that Trinitarian theology might lead us this direction, but I'm still uncomfortable with the idea of a God who gives up on humanity. Everything in Scripture (and the experiences of those who walked this path before us) shows us a God that pursues us, going so far as to take on human flesh and walk amongst us. This doesn't sound like a God that gives up after 3 years.

But what if God is the gardener who pleads for the tree? What if we’re the owners of the fig tree, the ones who grow impatient with the lack of progress on the part of the tree?

My pastor friend David Eck, in this post, says, “As we listen this coming Sunday to the parable Jesus told, we must be careful not to equate God with the man who had a fig tree and Jesus as the gardener. Instead, we need to think of this parable as debate between judgment and mercy. The easy path to walk in this story would be to simply cut the tree down. Likewise, in life, we are tempted to walk away from tasks and people whom we find difficult. Judgment is always an easy thing to do. It takes very little effort on our part.”

Eck goes on to urge us to “consider for a few minutes the trees God has planted in your life. They may be people or places. They may be dreams or projects. Which ones have been giving you a hard time lately? Which ones have you been tempted to chop down and walk away from? Perhaps with a little more tender care, these barren trees just might produce some fruit. The questions is, are we willing to be patient enough for this to happen?”

But what if it’s your own spiritual life that’s the fig tree that’s refusing to bear fruit? Maybe you've felt yourself in a fallow place spiritually. Or worse, maybe you've felt yourself sliding backwards. Maybe you started Lent with a fire in your heart, and you've burned out early. Maybe you've spent years thinking about church development, wondering what the Pentecostals have that you don't. Maybe you haven't been good at transforming yourself into a peace-loving person.

Look at that parable again. The fig tree doesn't just sit there while everyone gathers around, waiting for something to happen. Action is needed. The vine dresser gives it extra attention. The vine dresser digs around it and gives it extra manure (ah, the magic of fertilizer). We, too, can be the vinedresser to our spiritual lives. And we don't have to resort to heroic measures. We don't have to start off by running away to a religious commune and devoting ourselves to God. Just a little spiritual manure is all it takes.

You've got a wide variety of spiritual tools in your toolchest. Pick up your Bible. Read a little bit each day. Find some time to pray more. Find something that irritates you, and make that be your call to prayer; for example, every time I hear someone's thumping car stereo, I could see that as a tolling bell, calling me to pray. If you can do nothing else, slow down and breathe three deep breaths. Do that at least once a day. Turn your anxieties over to God. When you're surfing the web, go to a site or a blog that makes you feel enriched as a Christian, as opposed to all those sites that make you angry or anxious. Give some spare change to those people who stand in the medians of the roadways. Smile more--you are the light of the world, after all. Time to start acting like it.

God is not the harsh gardener who will chop us down and throw us into the fire, but the season of Lent does remind us that we won’t be here in our current physical form forever. Choose your spiritual manure and get to work bearing good fruit.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Free Time and God

Each Lent, I read my way through Show Me the Way:  Readings for Each Day of Lent; the readings are taken from the works of Henri J. M. Nouwen.  Each year I wonder if I can possibly read anything new in this book that I've been using for a decade.  Each year, I do.

Even if I didn't, I'd still use it, because the ideas contained are so wonderful and so essential--it would be good to rediscover them each year.  But each year, something new leaps out at me. 

This morning, the reading that leapt out at me came from Letters to Marc.  The first bit has leapt out before; I know because I underlined it:

"You are probably wondering how, in imitation of Jesus, you are to find that descending way.  That's a very personal and intimate question, and in the end I don't think that anyone can answer it but you.  It's not simply a matter of renouncing your money, your possessions, your intellectual formation, or your friends or family.  . . . It has nothing to do with spiritual heroics, dramatically throwing everything overboard to 'follow' Jesus" (p. 47).

He talks about finding the descending way by discovering what the path concealed in every person's heart.  But because we rarely walk that path, it may be overgrown with weeds, which we'll need to clear out.

How do we clear them out?  By prayer.

Here's the part that spoke to me this morning:  ". . . to pray is to make free time for God" (p. 47).

I love this idea of creating more free time by praying.  Too often, we see prayer as one more thing on our to-do lists, one more obligation.  But so rarely, I'm guessing, we see it as creating more of what we crave:  unstructured time.

I also love the idea of free time with God.  I have a vision of God and me walking through a museum or deciding to go out for lunch or having a beer at the beach.

I also think of the unstructured time we've had with our nephew, which are some of the most fun times.  We have sword fights and sand castle building at the beach and ice cream outings and Lego constructions of all sorts.

I'd like more of this kind of time in my life.

I suspect God would like more of this kind of time with me.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Pope's Last Sermon and Christ's Last Words

Yesterday, as I watched news snippets that showed the Pope and his last Mass, I found myself wondering about the Pope's last sermon.  He has the advantage of knowing it's his last sermon.  What a difficult, yet wondrous, rhetorical task.

What would you say, if it was your last chance to speak with such authority?  What final words does your flock need to hear.

I have the last words of Christ on the brain this Lent season.  Our pastor has started this blog, and my spouse and I are trying to contribute photos for the last word of each week. 

We missed week 1 and contributed week 2.  This week the last word is "Woman, behold your son; behold your mother" (John 19:  26-27).  It's a tougher assignment.

We agree that we don't want to do any mother-baby combination.  That's much too Christmas-y.

My spouse would love to find a way to get a shot of a mother at a courtroom.  Perhaps it's time to leave the realm of photography.

It's an interesting Lenten discipline that we've taken up.  I like that we're doing it together.  Even if we can't create the ideal photograph, it's intriguing to talk about what we would do, if we could accomplish anything.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Director/Faculty in Practices of Ministry Position Announcement

On Thursday, my mom and dad told me about this job at a Lutheran seminary.  My mom's cousin is a dean at a different Lutheran seminary, and she heard about this job opening, thought of me, and told my mom.  My parents think I would be perfect for the job.

So do I, if it's the job I want it to be.  The announcement is written so broadly that I could make it be any number of jobs.

The link ot the Global Preaching Initiative website at the bottom of the announcement intrigues me. I'll be interested to hear what the Seminary plans to do in conjunction with this initiative.  Or will that be part of the Director's job, to provide vision and leadership for this initiative?

I have a Ph.D. in British literature, not in theology or other related subjects.  My Ph.D. may be the dealbreaker for a search committee.  If they hired me, I'd be the only faculty member with a non-theology degree.

I think about my evidence of scholarly potential.  My publishing record is very eclectic, to say the least.  I've written articles for The Lutheran and I've been a regular blogger for the Living Lutheran site.  But I haven't done scholarly publishing much of any kind, and the little bit that I've done has been about literature, not theology.  So, when I look at my CV, I see evidence of potential, but I don't know if it's the kind of evidence that a job search committee would want to see.

I have a lot of non-academic training in areas which I suspect the Director of Practices of Ministry would need to have, but no official degrees or official training. I can offer a valuable perspective as someone with decades of experience but as a lay leader, not a pastor.

Part of me agrees with my parents that I should apply, just to see what happens.  Part of me doesn't want to waste anyone's time.  If I could find out that my Ph.D. in English isn't good enough, that would answer some questions.  Perhaps the next step is to send an e-mail with that very question ("Is a Ph.D. in English enough?") to the dean who is chairing the search.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Reports from the Afterlife

This morning, I listened to a fascinating interview with Dr. Sam Parnia, the author of Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death.  He's spent his medical life easing people back from death, and he's got all sorts of insights.

If you're interested in the biology of death, and why some people can come back from death relatively unscathed while others are terribly damaged, he's got some answers.  He also reports on his efforts to determine whether or not the experiences that people have after death are due to chemical reactions, pop culture expectations, or something else.  He reports that people who can discuss leaving their bodies do indeed have experiences and knowledge that they couldn't have had at the moment of death.  For example, he's placed pictures at the head and the foot of the bed as they worked to bring the patient back, and the patient can describe the pictures in great detail.

Very good, you might say, but what happens to them?

Some of what he reports will probably not be new to you:  the light in a tunnel, a presence that welcomes them.

But one chunk of what he said made me wonder if we'd behave differently during life if we knew we'd be facing a test when we died:  "They often describe having a review of their lives, everything that they had done from early childhood to that point. And interestingly, the way they describe their review is very much like they experience, sometimes, everything that they had done. So for instance, if they had hurt somebody's feelings, even inadvertently, without purpose, they feel the pain that they had given somebody else. And therefore, they judge themselves, in effect, and their actions. And that's why when they come back, many of them are motivated to lead their lives in a completely different way. I remember one person who said that, I particularly wanted to make sure that I don't fail again; and I want to make sure that I at least end up with a C, when I get back there again."

I have always loved the great English poet John Keats' view of heaven as one where we experience again all the joys we experienced during life; but we experience them even more intensely in the afterlife.

But what if we also experienced all the pain we'd caused to others?  Would that knowledge shape our behavior here on earth?

The interview with the doctor is fascinating from beginning to end, and if you want to hear it or read the transcript, go here.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary Reading

The readings for Sunday, February 24, 2013:

Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

optional reading:  Psalm 122 or 122:6

I don't have much history with sermons that implore us to repent.  I grew up as a good Lutheran girl and learned that God has already forgiven me.  I struggled with the concept of grace; if I'm already forgiven, why should I be good?

I don't want to wrestle with that particular question this morning.  Whole fields of Philosophy and Literature and Psychology and Sociology can give us a wide variety of answers.  No, I want to think about this issue of turning around and returning, verbs which are at the root of the word "repent."

In many passages, Jesus implores his listeners to leave the path that they're on and to choose activities that will lead to new life.  The prophets that come before and after Jesus have trumpeted a similar message. The end of the Narrative Lectionary reading for this week shows that Jesus knows that his listeners will not pay him attention any more than they did the prophets of old. 

But Jesus is clear:  repent we must.  Jesus didn't come to earth to get us into Heaven after we die.  Jesus came to earth to show us how to live so that we create the Kingdom of God right here on earth now.

Those of us who cling to the concept of grace like to think that we have plenty of time.  Sure, we'll take care of our neighbor.  But first, we've got some movies to watch.  We'll help feed the poor--right after we get back from our vacation.  We've got a grueling work schedule, so maybe we can just arrange for our credit card to automatically send money to Lutheran World Relief.

It might help us to think about that fig tree that gets a reprieve.  The fig tree doesn't get an indefinite amount of time to bear fruit. 

I'm not about to suggest that God will chop us down and send us to the flames of hell.  Frankly, God doesn't have to do that.  We marinate in the bad choices that we've made, and that's punishment enough.

But the parable of the fig tree suggests ways out of our barrenness.  We could think of pruning.  What in our lives needs to be pruned so that we can bear good fruit?  We could start with a bad habit or two keeping us from the life God wants us to have and build from there.

Or think of fertilizer.  What would enrich the soil of our lives?  More prayer, more inspiring reading, stopping each day to take a real break for a meal together:  the list is endless.  Choose one and begin to enrich the soil in which you're planted.

Like ancient people, we kill the prophets of God in all sorts of ways.  We like to think that we'd have recognized Jesus had he appeared to us, but would we?  Now is a good time to tend the fig tree lives so that we can truly repent and choose the way of Jesus.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lenten Discipline: Progress Report #1

A week ago, I'd have been washing the ashes off my face.  On Ash Wednesday, when I knelt to receive the ash cross on my forehead, I got more ash than anticipated.  Ash fell across my eyebrow and onto my cheek.  As I wiped my face, I made it worse, or better, depending on your viewpoint.

I've said before that I could use a daily reminder of the shortness of our time here, something to keep our descent into ash ever present to me.  If only I had time to design jewelry!

But jewelry design is not my Lenten discipline.  I have decided to work on my memoir 3-4 days a week and to write one poem every day.  So far, I've done well. 

Of course, it's early yet.  But I'm happy that it's going well so far. 

I'm also giving myself latitude to write a gratitude haiku at the end of the day to fulfill my poem-a-day obligation, if I hadn't produced anything else.  It's a practice that I've been wanting to explore.

I'm using the word "haiku" very loosely.  I simply mean the form of 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second, and 5 in the 3rd line.  I am aware that if I adhered to the Japanese form, I'd need to be writing very different poems.

So, I've written 2 haiku and 6 non-haiku poems. 

As with regular blogging or taking a photograph daily, writing a poem a day trains me to be aware.  I'm always looking for nuggets that could lead to a poem.  I'm always thinking about the next day's task.

Here's the gratitude haiku I wrote last night:

I am so much more

than the sum of my e-mails
whole worlds hidden plain

If you want to know more about what prompted it, go to this post on my creativity blog. 

So far, Lent seems different to me this year.  I'm often in a severe mood.  This year, I feel more joyous.  My spouse continues his successful recovery from his back surgery, which leaves me hopeful, not somber.  It also makes me mindful of our dusty destiny, a feeling that we're staving off the inevitable descent into pain that comes with aging.  Still, I'm happy that his spine could be repaired this time.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, February 24, 2013:

First Reading: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Psalm: Psalm 27

Second Reading: Philippians 3:17--4:1

Gospel: Luke 13:31-35

This Gospel is one of those that might tempt us moderns to feel superior. We're not like that wicked Jerusalem, are we? We don't stone the prophets and others who are sent to us. We're a civilized people.

But think of how many ways there are to kill the messengers of God. Let's start with our individual Bibles. Do you know where yours is? Have you touched it this week? This month? This year?

After all, one of the main ways God has to speak to us is by way of the Scripture. And if we don't read our Bibles, we lose out on a major avenue of communication with God. You might protest that you hear the Bible plenty when you go to church on Sunday. And that's great. Far too many churches have very little scripture as part of the weekly service. But it's not enough. We'd be better off if we read our Bibles every day. It's far too easy to be seduced by the glittering secular world; a daily diet of Bible reading can help us remember God's claim on us and our purpose in the world.

But the Bible isn't the only way we can learn about God and our place in the community. We can read the works of other holy people. There are plenty of books out there that can help us be more faithful. My reading list is fairly eclectic; if you're new to this, I'd start with the works of Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L'Engle, Thomas Merton, and C. S. Lewis, among many others.

You could also listen for God. Many of us are pretty good at talking to God, especially if we're in trouble. But we're not very good at listening. Henri Nouwen suggests that we take 10 minutes a day to quiet our minds, to sit and just listen. You might also keep a journal, which can be a very valid form of active meditation for busy Westerners. Don't just write down what happens to you during the day. Keep a list of things for which you're grateful. Keep a list of your heartfelt desires. Make a space for any sorts of intuition you have. Ask God for insight. Keep a keen ear for what God replies. Write it down so you won't forget.

We stone the prophets sent to us by God by ridiculing, of course. There are many effective ministers and churches out there. Just because one church's style doesn't work for you doesn't mean that you should work to tear it down. We should all be about the same business: being a light for Christ in the world, so that we can help people find their way. If someone else's techniques work, we should celebrate that.

We stone the prophets that God sends to us by refusing to pay attention. Look at your life. To whom do you pay highest allegiance? Your God? Your boss? Your nation? Your family? What keeps your loyalties split? How can you find your way back to God?

God tries to get our attention in all sorts of ways. We're prompt to dismiss our strange dreams (both the night kind and the daydreaming kind) and strange voices (both our own and the ones that come to us from books and other media). We're quick to believe everything our culture tells us about who we should be.

In this time of Lent, we can repent for all the times we've stoned the prophets (metaphorically). We can turn our attention to God and once again, try to be more faithful. God longs to gather us, as a mother hen gathers her chicks. Come be part of the brood.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Optimism, Work, and the Words of Jesus

Yesterday a colleague and I were talking about all the recent upheavals at work.  I said, "I feel like there's a big picture that I just can't see.  I can see my little piece of it, but I just can't get enough distance for it to make sense."

He said, "You assume there is a big picture, not just chaos."

Well, I have my dark moments when I assume that no one is in charge, or that the people in charge are working at cross purposes.  There are moments when I think I wouldn't like any of their purposes, cross or not.

My work colleague said, "It must be your faith that makes you believe in a big picture."

I thought of that comment for the rest of the day.  Is it my faith?  I would argue that it's not.  I just tend toward optimism.

In fact, I would argue that my religious tradition would warn me against putting any faith at all in the corporation that owns and runs my little school.  That corporation is one of the powers and principalities of this world, as Paul labeled it, and Walter Wink so eloquently described it.  That corporation is at cross purposes with almost everything that Jesus tells me is important.

The words of Jesus echo in my head most loudly when I'm at work.  I hear his advice to the rich, young man who has followed every commandment so carefully.  He's expecting a pat on the back, but Jesus tells him to sell all his goods and follow Jesus, to turn away from the worldly commitments and give himself to Christ.

What if Jesus meant what he said?

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Spiritual Gift of Counting Money after Church

I tend to think that volunteer work looks a certain way:  it helps the poor, the dispossessed, those who can't help themselves.  If I'm not alleviating a social injustice, I tend not to count it.

Yesterday, we spent almost 2 hours after church counting the offering.  We have 3 services, plus there was the Ash Wednesday money and the Men's Pancake Supper fundraiser dollars that had never gotten taken to the bank.

You might say, "How difficult could it be?"  I would excuse your dismissal.  I, too, used to say such things.

We're not a very automated church.  We have a variety of slips that come back that have to be separated.  We have envelopes for this, and envelopes for that:  regular offering, special gifts, upcoming events that require flowers and dedications (lilies, poinsettias, etc).  We have people who forget to use their special envelopes, and so we have to sort the pew envelopes.

We have cash, and we have checks.  And then there are the forms.

Oh, the forms.  We've streamlined them, but still.  The bank requires forms, and we fill in our own forms for our records.  We make various tallies, and then they must match.

It's dizzying and headache inducing, and it takes time.  And then, when it's done, we take it to the bank, to the overnight depository, because it's just not safe to leave that much cash in an office.  And then we bring the overnight depository key back to the office.

When I take a tally to determine how much good I'm doing in the world, I tend to forget about this kind of work.  It doesn't feel like I'm making the world a better place by doing it.  No one says thank you.  No one exclaims how important it is.  Like straightening the kitchen after coffee hour, it's very much a behind the scenes kind of thing.  Even more behind the scenes than coffee hour clean up, I would argue--the people who stay for coffee hour can see the mess they're leaving behind.  People who donate money have often never stayed to count.

But just like the kitchen clean up, the money counting and going to the bank is essential.  There are bills to be paid, paychecks to distribute, social justice to be done--and none of it can happen if the money doesn't make it to the bank.

Anyone can clean the kitchen, but not everyone can be allowed to count.  Some people should not be subject to the temptation of that much cash, that much banking information.  Some people shouldn't be allowed access to the confidential information contained in offering plates. 

And you'd be surprised how many people don't have the basic math skills required for counting.  Or the patience.

I was tired before we started, and we came home to collapse on the sofa.  We watched a western, Open Range, where the bad guys are clearly differentiated from the good guys, and by the end, the town is cleaned up.  No mundane tasks like counting the money.  I've been shaped by this ethos.  It's no wonder I think that social justice work should blaze forth, not work behind the scenes.

Soon we will be in the season of Pentecost, that time where we think about our spiritual gifts.  I notice that Saint Paul never mentions counting the money either.

Sure, I'd like a flashier spiritual gift:  to be able to heal or prophesy.  Of course, those probably come with some fairly severe drawbacks.

Ah, the eternal task:  to appreciate the gifts that I have, without envying the gifts bestowed to others.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Popes, Sacks of Stardust, and Inspirations

It has been almost a week since the Pope announced his plans to step down at the end of February.  I've been wondering if I should write a response.  But frankly, I'm not Catholic, and issues that swirl around the Pope interest me less than many other ecumenical issues that I'd rather write about.

I've listened to all sorts of responses to the Pope's announcement, and I've been amazed at how hateful so many of them have been.  Yikes. 

But finally, I've found one response worth referencing here.  E. J. Dionne makes a compelling case for making a nun the next pope in this essay in The Washington Post.  This essay is a great reminder of all the great work done in the world by all sorts of Catholics, from ordinary people to nuns to even the Pope, hard as that idea is for some people to accept.

But maybe all this ugly talk about the Pope has made you long for something more lofty.  I've been listening to this episode of the NPR show, On Being, where Krista Tippett interviews Natalie Batahla, an astronomer who studies exoplanets. She has amazing insights.

She compares love to dark energy:  "This has been the surprise to me actually that my perspective on love has been so informed by science, but it has. It's been fundamentally shifted, you know. And then I read other scientists who've had the same perspective and it all kind of makes sense. I mean, Carl Sagan's quote, you know: 'For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.' This love, this idea, is this moving force. I mean, it just permeates our history, our culture. I've equated it to, you know, this analogy of dark matter.  Ninety-five percent of the mass of the universe being something we can't even see, and yet it moves us. It draws us. It creates galaxies. We're like moving on a current of this gravitational field created by mostly stuff that we can't see. And the analogy with love just struck me, you know, that it's like this thing that we can't see, that we don't understand yet. It's everywhere and it moves us. And science has given me that perspective, but also in very logistical, tangible, practical ways, you know. I mean, when you study science, you step out of planet Earth. You look back down at this blue sphere and you see a world with no borders."

Her love for our universe permeates everything she says.  It's a beautiful interview, and it makes me wish I could be an astronomer.  But I'm a poet and a theologian, and listening to her reminds me of how close all of those interests are:  poetry, astronomy, and theology.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Meditation on this Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The Narrative Lectionary readings for Sunday, February 16, 2013:

Luke 10:25-42

Optional reading:  Psalm 15 or 15:1  

Many of us are probably familiar with both stories that are presented in today's Narrative Lectionary:  the parable of the Good Samaritan who stops to help the brutalized traveler after religious authorities have refused to help and the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, one of whom sits with Jesus and the other who bustles around the house doing chores and resenting the fact that no one helps.

Yes, we've read them separately many times, but how different to read them together!

I read the story of the Good Samaritan in many ways, but the one I come back to most regularly sees it as a lesson about the importance of our actions matching our mouths.  Which of the characters in the story of the beaten and robbed traveler shows love to the neighbor?  The one who stopped to help.  At first read, it's a story that seems clearly to instruct us to show love by our actions, not by yakking about how much we love the world.

But then comes the story of Mary and Martha.  It's hard not to sympathize with Martha, the sister who understands the importance of getting the daily chores done--and there's a guest, who must be fed!  She hustles and bustles and grows increasingly resentful of all these people who ARE NOT HELPING.

Based on our reading of the Good Samaritan, we might expect Jesus to tell Mary to help her sister.  But instead, Jesus gives us an opposite instruction:  it is good to sit with Jesus.

Should we see the pairing of these stories as instruction about which work is important and which is not?  Are we being instructed on the true nature of hospitality?

Most of us will never be faced with such extreme choices, but we like to think that we would behave appropriately.  But as we think about our daily lives, we see how often we take the safe path.

The safe path takes us away from the bleeding stranger.  The safe path has us doing our household chores instead of paying close attention to God.  Jesus came to show us that we should leave the safe path.

The life of Jesus also warns us that by leaving the safe path, we may end up broken and bleeding ourselves.  But Jesus shows us that redemption can come from this kind of suffering. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 17, 2013:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Second Reading: Romans 10:8b-13

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13

This week's text is the classic tale of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. Jesus goes to the desert to find out "what it meant to be Jesus" (in the words of Frederick Beuchner). Jesus goes to the desert, that scorched, barren land. We begin our journey with Ash Wednesday, with scorched ashes from last season's palms that we used on Palm Sunday. Richard Pervo points out that it is a journey that starts in ash and ends in flames (think Pentecost). Along the way of our spiritual path, we will face similar temptations to the ones that Jesus faced.

The first temptation is the most basic: turn the stones into bread. Watch out for the needs of your physical body. Certainly the scriptures don't suggest that we should ignore our physical needs; indeed, we can't. But many of us go way beyond providing for our daily bread. We stockpile our resources. We save for a rainy day. We save for retirement. We end up with more money than we need, while our neighbors, both here and in other countries, starve so that we might satisfy our mad lust for security.

If we save our money, are we really trusting in God? If we ask God for our daily bread, but in fact we have a month's supply of bread in the freezer, and money to buy bread saved up for when we've consumed all the bread in the house, are we really trusting God?

At one point in my life, I would have scoffed at the idea that it was immoral to save money while our neighbors to the south starved. Now, I'm not so sure. UCC minister Lillian Daniel says, "The churches around the world might remind us of our wealth in light of their lack. They might point out that it is a luxury to have so much that we keep money in the bank--not just individuals, but congregations too."

Have I stopped saving money? No. I'm not that spiritually developed yet. But I do know of people who have a deeper trust that God will provide than I do--and they don't go hungry or lack for anything. It's something to think about, as so many of us don't even do basic tithing. At the very least, we should clear out our closets, and stop buying so much stuff that basically replaces our stuff that we already have, stuff that hasn't even worn out yet.

Satan then tempts Jesus with fame. All Jesus has to do is to worship Satan. We still live in a culture that worships the famous, that can't seem to get enough of the famous. We live in a time where people aren't even famous because they're talented or good-hearted or striving for justice.  I'm not sure why we're all so obsessed with the Kardashians and their ilk. 
Meanwhile, people who are doing truly miraculous good in the world go without acclaim. Luckily, this work provides rewards on multiple levels. If we've become Christians because we think it's a route to fame, we're in the wrong arena. Based on the people who are famous, I suspect most of us already know this. We don't seem to have very many people who are famous because of their breathtaking charity or their ability to bring light to a darkening world.

Most people assume that they can resist the temptation to worship Satan--and yet, even if we haven't sold our souls directly, many of us have plenty of other gods that come before God. Think about the life priorities of most people. It's hard to pray daily or give away 10% of our money. Many of us take on more debt, even though it means we'll be less free to follow God wherever God might lead us.

The last temptation is the temptation to control God. Satan tells Jesus to jump and to command the angels to catch him. Most of us aren't standing on ledges when we give in to this temptation. But how often do we pray in an attempt to control God? Maybe we pray for specific results to a problem. Maybe we pray for things we want, even if it's something that seems good, like an end to world hunger. Most of us aren't very patient with God's time scale. We wish God would just hurry up and show us the Divine Plan.

Let's face it, we want to be in control of our lives.  It's why we hoard our money and possessions, it's why we overeat or undereat or exercise too much or call our children several times a day. It's a natural, human response--and yet, it's one we should resist. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we're sinful creatures. Ash Wednesday reminds us that left to our own devices, we'll make a huge mess of everything.

The beauty of the cyclical nature of liturgical life is that it is full of chances to turn around. Even if you recognize that you've given in to these temptations or the many other temptations the world offers, it's not too late. God calls us to return. God gives us any number of welcome home parties. God waits patiently, like the father of the prodigal son. And God knows that we will stray again. Like keeping to a sensible eating plan, this spiritual path requires more vigilance than we can sustain all the time. And yet, the struggle to wage this spiritual warfare will yield results eventually.

Welcome to Lent, the season of ash and penitence. Repent, return, retool your lives. It is time again to commit to resurrection, to submit to the purifying flames of Pentecost. Turn away from the ashes and towards the light.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Renewing Wedding Vows in Church Services: A Valentine's Day Meditation

Here's one of those strange feast days, a feast day that's more popular in the general culture than it is in the church culture that pays attention to saints and their days.  For those of you in search of a meditation with photos, you might enjoy this post from last year.

Those of us in religious circles might spend some time thinking about this feast day and the ways we celebrate it, both within our religious cultures and in popular culture.  I've often thought that marriage at its best is sacramental:  it demonstrates to me in a way that few other things can how deeply God loves me.  If my spouse's love for me is but a pale shadow of the way God loves me, then I am rich in love indeed.

I use the word marriage cautiously.  I don't mean it the way that some Christians do.  I mean simply a love relationship between adults that is covenantal and permanent in nature.

Our church offers couples a chance to renew their wedding vows during the Sunday service before Valentine's Day each year.  I've written about my queasiness about renewal of wedding vows in this post.

This year was different.  Perhaps it was because I was closer to the front, where I could see the expressions on the faces.  I could see that the couples were profoundly moved by repeating their vows.  I was moved too.

I still worry about how this service might make people feel excluded.  I worry that as with baptism, we don't support people in their covenantal relationships in all the ways that we could.

To me, this feast day is essentially a manufactured holiday, yet another one, designed to make us feel like we must spend gobs and gobs of money to demonstrate our love.

Every day, ideally, should be Valentine's Day, a day in which we try to remind our loved ones how much we care--and not by buying flowers, dinners out, candy, and jewelry.  We show that we love by our actions:  our care, our putting our own needs in the backseat, our concern, our gentle touch, our loving remarks.

And sustained by the love that sustains in our homes, we can go out to be a light that shines evidence of God's love to the dark corners of the world.

On this Valentine's Day, let us go out into the world, living sacraments, to be Valentines to one another, to show a weary world the wonders of God's love.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Decomposing Stars: To Dust We Shall Return

Today is Ash Wednesday, the Christian high holy day that reminds us of our essential nature. We are dust--cosmic dust, if you want to dress up the idea, but dust nonetheless. And all too soon, we return to the dust of the cosmos. We don't really have much time, but most of us manage to suppress that knowledge. How would we live our lives differently, if we, like Jesus, always kept central in our mind, that we only have a few years to do our essential work? In cosmic time or geological time, we're here for a blip.

We are here on this earth for a very short time. Rather than get morose about this subject, we can use this as a prompt to ask ourselves what's important in our lives. Are we living daily lives that are in sync with those values? How can we make adjustments to ensure that we are not wasting our brief time here?

The time for this kind of reflection seems common across religious traditions.  On Yom Kippur, rabbi Rachel Barenblat wrote this reflection which reminds us of what this high holy day should be about: "On Yom Kippur we try as hard as we can to make teshuvah, to correct our course and shift our alignment so that our actions, our emotions, our thoughts, and our spirits are aligned with holiness. We try to repair our relationships with ourselves, with each other, with God. We try to relinquish the emotional and spiritual calluses which protect us in ordinary life, and to go deep into awareness of our mortality and deep into connection with something beyond ourselves."

In the past year, I went to a Hindu houseblessing where I spoke to the priest.  He smears ashes on his forehead every day. It reminds him that we're only here for a short time. It reminds him to keep events in perspective. So few things are worth getting upset over.

Yesterday, at the gym of all places, I spoke to a friend about our changing attitudes towards Ash Wednesday, a high holy day which we both hated when we were children.  Now, we see how relevant it is.  I mentioned the Hindu priest, and she said that she thought daily application of ash was a bit extreme.  I thought that having this kind of reminder more than just once a year could be a good thing.

I say that we were at the gym, and you may have pictured a place of beautiful bodies.  But our gym is part of a hospital where the bulk of the work that they do is cardiac rehab.  We work out and are surrounded by examples of all the ways our flesh can fail us.  All the ways our flesh will fail us.

We are ash, after all, and to ash we will return.

Here's a quote from Henri Nouwen to start your day. It's from A Cry for Mercy: "Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failings and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says 'I am too sinful to deserve God's mercy.' It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride. Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: 'Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God's mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?' The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God's mercy."

Here is a prayer for Ash Wednesday: "Oh God, keep us mindful of all the behaviors that move us away from you. Help us to remember that we are here for such a short time, that all to soon we shall return to our dusty destinies. Keep us focused on the Kingdom work that you need us to do."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mardi Gras: A Good Day to Think About Your Lenten Discipline

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the day that begins Lent. Will you have a Lenten discipline?

I hadn't really given it much thought until I saw a place on our worship slip that asked if we would have a Lenten discipline and if we wanted supportive e-mails.  I thought, hey, that's a good idea!

Last year I tried to give up worrying, with mixed success.  Some years I've tried to add some enrichment along the lines of nourishing reading or weekly art projects--again, with mixed success.

On Sunday, I sat quietly with the idea of a Lenten discipline to see what might rise to the surface.  Work on your memoir--that's what I heard.
So, my Lenten discipline will be to work on my memoir 3-4 days a week. I thought about pledging every day, but my travel schedule between now and Easter will defeat a daily discipline. But 3-4 times a week is both a challenge and accessible.

When I first thought of it, I thought, that can't be my Lenten discipline. I'm enjoying working on my memoir too much. I think of a Lenten discipline as something grim like giving up a pleasure like chocolate or wine or meat or sugar.

But many of us are good at self-denial. What if we gave ourselves permission to add a pleasure to our lives?  Not just any wanton pleasure, but pleasure followed by gratitude for the pleasure, happiness for the pleasures that we're able to afford.

What if, instead of waiting until we're done with our chores to do what brings us pleasure, what if we devoted ourselves to the pleasurable part of our life first?  The scrubbing and the washing can wait--go ahead and dive into that novel you've been waiting to have time to read!

I do think that a Lenten discipline should be something that strengthens and enriches our spiritual lives.  For more possibilities, you can click on the Launch Into Lent label on the right sidebar and get a host of essays that will give you more options than you can possibly adopt in one 6 week period.  Choose one and devote yourself fully.

Today is a good day to plot a road map.  What, exactly, will you do?  What benchmarks will you use to measure your success?  What supplies do you need?

Maybe today, instead of indulging in the usual Mardi Gras excess that we see advertised, we could take time to ready ourselves for our Lenten journey. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

What Do You Talk About on Transfiguration Mountain?

For yesterday's sermon, my pastor focused on this part of the Transfiguration story in Luke 9:

30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Our pastor focused on that word "departure."  In all my years of Transfiguration Sundays and that text in other settings, I had somehow never realized that the story tells us what Moses, Elijah, and Jesus discuss.

Our pastor told us that the word for "departure" is also "exodus."  And from there, we launched back to the Passover story.  The Israelites find themselves out of Egypt, but like many of us who have found ourselves miserable on vacation because we've brought ourselves along, the Israelites can't stop their habits of whining and complaining.

They're out of Egypt with nothing between them and the Promised Land, nothing but themselves.  They have to learn to trust God and that God will follow through on God's promises.  We need to do that too.

Jesus will come down from one mountain and trudge towards another, the mountain of Golgotha:  God keeping God's promises.

Our pastor reminded us that we are called to live the Good News, to live the story so well that people will want to know what we know.

He said that we could see it as God's wisdom or God's sense of humor that we are the way that God has chosen to tell God's story.   God counts on us to get the message out there into the world.

You might protest that you didn't sign up for such a task.  Like Moses, you might see people that are better suited to declare God's mission and wonder why God doesn't pass over you.

God has infinite capacity for knowing what is best--and God has chosen us.  So, live like the Resurrection Person that God knows you can be!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Adult Baptism

Today I will stand in front of my church with a woman who has decided that it's time to be baptized.  I suppose that makes me a sponsor?  I don't have a long experience with adult baptisms, but I'm happy to be part.

I first met this woman years ago when she left church early, but wanted to make sure that her offering got put into the plate.  I must have been the usher or the greeter; I assured her I'd take care of it.

We had another few encounters that were similar.  She mentioned that her sister was very sick.  I sent her a card, and one Sunday, when she could stay longer, I sent her away with a prayer shawl.

Her sister, however, was very sick, and she died.  I remember sitting with the woman after the service on one Easter morning as she wept, knowing that her sister would not be alive next Easter.  There we were, surrounded by people in their Easter finest, children excited by their Easter candy, and we wept together.  I hugged her, and I said, "Easter reminds us that death will not have the final say.  We don't know how and when, but we know that we will be reunited with those we love."

It seemed to be the right thing to say, and I'm grateful that the words came to me. I don't want to be one of those Christians who says trite, sentimental platitudes in the face of enormous loss.  I can't imagine that hearing about my loved one singing in the angel choir would comfort me.  But I've always hated what so many Christians have done to the idea of angels.  Others might find the idea of angel choirs comforting, and I should be less judgmental.  I'm working on it.

Today, several years after the death of her sister, this woman has decided that the time has come to be baptized, and she wants it to be in our church, even though she's from a different church background.  I'm happy about that, but for different reasons than some Christians might be.

I don't come out of the tradition that sings for joy with every soul saved by way of baptism.  I think that we promise a lot during that sacrament, and most people aren't aware of the covenantal nature of the rite.  I'm uneasy when we, as a church, baptize a baby whose parents don't attend.  The church community promises to help launch that child on a spiritual path.  If you're going to have your baby baptized, and we'll never see you again, how can we do that?

Some people would answer, "But now that baby gets to go to Heaven."

I don't believe that people have to be baptized as their entry pass to Heaven, so that argument doesn't matter to me.  I would respond that there's lots of time between baptism and Heaven, and we would be better served by focusing on that journey. 

But wars have been fought over these theological issues, and I'm not likely to convince those who don't believe as I do.

Besides, there's a baptism to get ready for!  I'm happy that the woman feels the time is now, and our church is the place.  I'm happy that the woman wants to join us in this way.  And I'm touched that she asked me to stand by her side.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rereading "The Cloister Walk" at a Monastery

When I tell people I'm headed off to a monastery, I get a variety of responses.  For people who know me well, my sojourns to the world of monasticism is no surprise.  I'm sure that some of them are surprised that I come back.  Some people are fascinated and want to know more.  And I see a flicker of doubt in some eyes, as if the person is thinking, I thought Kristin was a sane, rational woman, but now I'm not so sure."

The book that launched me on this path was Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk, which I consumed many times as the twentieth century shifted to the twenty-first and implored my friends to read.

Let me amend that--I only implored the friends whom I thought would like the book.  Even then, I knew that monasticism was not for everyone.

I had already moved from the Charleston area to the tip of southeast Florida when I read it, but one of my South Carolina friends wrote to tell me that she went to Mepkin Abbey periodically, when she needed to get away for an afternoon or when she wanted to buy the eggs that the monks sold.  She proposed that we go on retreat there at some point.  I said yes, and a tradition began.

I've dipped in and out of The Cloister Walk in the last ten years, but I haven't read it cover to cover.  I took it with me to last week-end's trip to the monastery.

What a great experience!  Granted, Kathleen Norris' monastery is a different place than mine--a lot more monks, a lot less isolated.  But the monastic schedule is similar.

She writes essays that try to convey a sense of the schedule and a sense of the effect of the monastic practices.  It was very neat to read her essay about Vespers service and then go off to Vespers service.

I always succumb to a bit of romanticizing of the monastic life, and it's good to read her work to remember that these monks are humans, just like the rest of us.

And it's wonderful to read her essays about her efforts to integrate her spiritual tugs, her married life, and her domestic duties.  Again, I succumb to a bit of romanticizing, assuming that someone like Kathleen Norris has no problems with conflicting duties.  Her essays serve as a corrective.  It's no easier for her than for any of us.

I might feel frustrated because the demands of my administrative job keep me in an office for 40-60 hours a week.  She might feel fretful about money because she doesn't have my kind of job.

The Cloister Walk was published in 1996, which means Norris wrote it twenty years ago.  It still feels fresh and interesting, although some of the geopolitical events referenced, like the situation in Bosnia, have been sort of settled.

As we took walks on the monastery grounds and talked about our projects, my friend said that she felt that I had been taking steady steps staying always on the same path.  I feel like I've been zigging and zagging.  For example, I find it ironic that when I lived a half hour away from the monastery, I wouldn't have had the slightest interest in it--I was probably in the most agnostic phase of my life (my late 20's).  And now that I live 10 hours away, I yearn to make more frequent trips.

The Holy Spirit works in interesting ways indeed:  a book that I found in the library sparks a passion for monasticism which launches me to a monastery and friends on a regular basis.  It makes me wonder what seeds are being planted now.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary: Transfiguration Sunday Edition

The readings for Sunday, February 10, 2013:

Luke 9:28-45

optional text:  Psalm 36:5-10 or 36:9     Here we are, the final Sunday before Lent begins.  Transfiguration Sunday gives us a chance to wrestle with an essential question:  who is this Christ?  Why worship this guy?

Do we worship Christ because of his glory?  The mystical elements of Transfiguration Sunday dazzle us and threaten to overshadow the rest of the story.  What a magnificent tale!  Moses and Elijah appear and along with Christ, they are transformed into glowing creatures.  A voice booms down reminding us of Christ's chosen and elevated status.

It's easy to understand Peter's response:  we'll stay on the mountain, we'll build booths!  It's easy to understand why the disciples stay quiet about this mystical experience.

Jesus then heals a child; he's a success where his disciples have failed. 

Do we worship God in the hopes of harnessing this kind of transfiguring power?  It's easy to understand this impulse.  But the rest of the lesson for today warns us against this impulse.

Jesus know that he's on a collision course with the powers that rule the world.  The disciples argue about who is greatest, and Jesus reminds him of the nature of his ministry:  to be least.

For those of us who worship Christ because we want transfiguration, it's important to remember what kind of transfiguration we're going to get.  We're not likely to get worldly power because we're Christians--in fact, it will be just the opposite. 

Will we get healing?  Maybe.  Will we be creatures that glow with an otherworldly light?  Metaphorically.  Can we charge admission and get rich from our spiritual beliefs?  Go back and reread the Gospels, and see what Jesus has to say about wealth.

Ah, Transfiguration Sunday which leads us to Mardi Gras, a few last hurrahs before the serious season of Lent, that season of ash and penitence.  Let us stay here in this glow.  But let us not forget the path before us, the path that brings us off the mountain and into service.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Candlemas: The Close of Christmas

I had been excited to see Mepkin Abbey in action during a different part of the year.  We usually go in the fall, and I wanted to see what winter at the Abbey looked like.

We were there during the Feb. 2 celebration of the presentation of Jesus at the temple.  We didn't bless all the candles that the monastery would use during the coming year, as is the tradition in some churches, but we did have a special service. 

We met in the solarium of the senior wing, did a bit of the service, and lit candles.  Then we walked in a procession to the chapel to the Eucharist service.

Throughout the day, we were reminded of the light of Christ that we all carry within us.  We heard the story of Simeon, who held the light of the world, in the form of a tiny baby, in his hands.  It was a beautiful end to the Christmas season.

I'm thought of as odd for hanging on to the Christmas season until Epiphany, January 6.  The feast day of Candlemas, or the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, reminds us that the season could be even longer.

I've often said that I wanted the Christmas season to last into February.  In January, the light still leaves us earlier than I'd like.  Christmas lights make the evening so cheery.

In November, the outdoor nativity scene is mostly empty:

During our February trip, I noticed that the nativity scene was complete:

I peeped into the manger, where I noticed that the baby Jesus looks a bit like a termite:

I love this nativity scene, and longtime readers of my blogs know that I've written about it before.  I love that this art project uses things that might otherwise be thrown away:  old gears (look at the halo around baby Christ's head), chain link fences, twisted and rusted metal of all types.

I wonder if the monks now take down this scene.  I imagine that the manger stays up and empty year round.  It would be hard to move that heavy piece of concrete.  The metal shapes could be easily stored elsewhere.

I also love how the monks use elements from their natural surroundings in the chapel space.  During the time that we were there, some of the buds on this branch opened up:

The holidays of early February (Groundhog Day, Candlemas, St. Brigid's Day) remind us that the light hasn't really left us.  Spring will be here soon.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 10, 2013:

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]

Psalm: Psalm 138

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

Today's Gospel is one we must have heard a gabillion times, if we've been going to church for any amount of time at all. As the Gospel becomes familiar, perhaps the rich symbolic language loses some of its power. The symbol of the fisherman is one we find across church cultures; the mission of fishing for people, too, is one that most faiths hold in common.

Let's look at the Gospel again, to see what we might have missed. In these times of longer work days for those of us still lucky enough to have a job, I'm struck by the fact that Jesus comes to call Simon Peter and his friends and family during their work time. Christ, too, is on the job. The familiarity of this Gospel makes me forget that first verse, that tells us Jesus is preaching when he slips into the boats. I wonder what the crowds who came to hear the word of God made of that?

Jesus slips into the boat of weary fisherman who have had an unsuccessful night. What convinces Christ that these men are the cornerstone of his work on this planet?

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?

Cast down your nets. Cast them down again and again and again until you are a different kind of fish and a different kind of fisherperson.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Monastery Teachings: Time, Light, and Solitariness

I've written many posts on what my time at a monastery has taught me, from approaches to creativity to worship to food to community to simple living.  What a delight to discover that there are still lessons from the monastery for me.

I spent the last week-end at Mepkin Abbey, and I'll write a future note about spending the Feast Day of the Presentation of Our Lord with the monks.  It was wonderful to be thrust back into Christmas and the season of light.  I've already turned my attention to Ash Wednesday and Lent.

It was wonderful to be reminded of Simeon and Anna and waiting patiently for salvation.  We returned again and again to the idea of holding the light of the world in your hands.  We returned again and again to the idea of ourselves being the light that the world needs.

I have always taken my monastic retreats with friends, and my friends left on Sunday.  I've never spent a night alone at Mepkin before.  I thought I might be more afraid.  Our lodging is in a trailer about a half mile from the monastery.  It's on the monastery grounds, but very far away from anyone if I needed help.

I didn't know in advance that I'd be there Sunday night by myself.  I decided to be big and brave, and my mood quickly passed into acceptance and calm.  It's very dark, walking to Compline by oneself, but I didn't feel afraid.

The Abbey is deep in the country, and country scares me less than city.  I willed myself not to think about all the scary movies set in the country.  I slept easily.

I was the only woman at Compline, which was new.  Often there are plenty of female retreatents, but not this week-end.  I didn't feel out of place or threatened, just solitary.  It wasn't unpleasant, just something I noticed.

On Sunday, I asked the monk manning the gift shop what time the gates were opened, and he told me 4:30.  So, I planned to leave at 4:30 a.m. yesterday.

I knew that monastery time is different from regular world time, so I wasn't surprised that the gates weren't opened when I drove up at 4:35.  I went back and forth:  back to the trailer to go to the bathroom one last time (which I did several times) and then, when it was 5:00, and the gates were still closed, I decided to have breakfast and fix peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the trip.

Finally, at 5:30, I returned to open gates, and I was on my way.  It was a useful lesson in patience.  There was no one to consult.  I knew that we were still in the silent hours, even if I could find a monk.  And my travel schedule really wasn't that important, in the long range--or the short range.

In the end, did it matter that I got on the road an hour later than I planned?  No.  I was pleased with my quiet acceptance of the circumstance.  It's a lesson I'll try to carry with me.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Shifting of Seasons

Today is Candlemas, where Christians celebrate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and pagans long ago celebrated the goddess Brigid, and some Wiccans today will be celebrating at Imbolc, or a variation of any number of pagan holidays. It's also Groundhog's Day.  It's one of those times when we can almost perceive the shifting of the seasons.  It's not spring yet, but it will be soon.

A year ago, I wrote this post, which has this wonderful reference and quote from Christine Valters Paintner:  "She reminds us that this time of year, with St. Brigid's Day and Candlemas, celebrates the light shining in the darkness, the seeds already germinating in the ground. She encourages us to go inward to see what's sprouting inside ourselves: 'Candlemas and Imbolc are traditionally a time to look forward. What does the new life stirring in your own world sound like? Can you hear it deep within you? How can you nurture this seedling in the fertile dark earth of your soul in the coming days?'"

My post of a year ago went on to consider my work at my job, which some days consists of reading many e-mails most of which are trivial, and my social justice work of feeding the homeless.

This year, I'm at Mepkin Abbey where I'm working on my memoir and thinking about restructuring a poetry manuscript.  I'm reading spiritual works of all sorts and going on walks through wintry landscapes that are shifting to spring.

I'm ready for new seeds to sprout.

Soon it will be Ash Wednesday (February 13 this year).  How quickly the seasons shift!

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Feast Day of St. Brigid

Today is the feast day of St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland. She is one of the early Christians who stood at the intersection of Christianity, Druidism and the other pagan religions of Ireland. She is also one of those extraordinary women who did amazing things, despite the patriarchal culture in which she lived.

To learn more, see this post that I wrote for the Living Lutheran site.  It's also got a beautiful picture of St. Brigid's well in Kildare.

There are so many ways we might celebrate her feast day.  To celebrate her generosity, today would be a good day to give away some of our stockpile, secure in the knowledge that we'll find abundance as we need it.

To celebrate her miracles, which involved abundances of butter, milk, and beer, we could bake some bread and slather it with butter.

To celebrate her artistic tendencies, we could start an illuminated book of our own.  How would our lives change if we kept a daily book that illustrated all the miraculous abundance that we found in the world?

But above all, today is a good day to consider our own lives.  If centuries from now, a middle-aged woman read about your life as you’re living it, would she be inspired?

Across a space of centuries, Brigid inspires me.  I'd like to be a similar inspiration.