Friday, May 31, 2013

New Traditions for the Feast of the Visitation

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation, the day when Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth. Both are miraculously pregnant. As they approach each other, they recognize each other, as mothers, as miracles--even the babies in their wombs understand what's happening.

Here are the readings:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 2:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 113

Second Reading: Romans 12:9-16b

Gospel: Luke 1:39-57

I'm a good Lutheran girl, so growing up, we never celebrated these feast days. As I've gotten older and explored monasticism, and to be honest, as I've blogged more and needed more to write about, I've been doing all sorts of research into feast days.

Some feast days leave me shaking my head and wondering what modern folks are to do with them. Some feast days, like today's, make me wish I'd known about them earlier. I think about my younger self who was enraged that so much femaleness seemed to be erased from Christianity. What would my raging feminist self have done with this festival?

I'm not sure she'd have been appeased. I was also in the process of trying to assert that biology isn't destiny, while also acknowledging that I was one of the first generations to be able to assert that idea.

My middle-aged self is willing to admit that biology is often destiny, although not in the womb-centric way that the phrase is often bandied about. I'm seeing too many people at the mercy of bodies that they have increasingly less control over.
Now that I am at midlife, I love this story of two women from two generations coming together to support each other. I love this story of new life being held in unlikely wombs. I am fondly remembering female members of my own extended family and offering thanks for their support. I remember the family stories they told and the ways they included me in family gatherings. I remember the rides to the airport, and memorably, one time that my cousin Barbara (my mom's first cousin) came to Augusta, 60 miles away, at night, to help me out of a jam caused by the breakdown of a car. I remember that she treated it as a grand adventure. No castigating, no lecturing.

Some feast days come with a whole passel of traditions, including all sorts of food traditions. This feast day doesn't appear to have those associations. So all morning, my mind has spiraled about the kinds of traditions I'd create, if the Pope appointed me the one in charge.

Yes, I know, I'm a Lutheran and a woman, and thus, the Pope is not likely to appoint me in charge of anything. But it's fun to play.

How might we modern folks celebrate this day?

--Every feast day needs food traditions, so today, I'd encourage us to nourish ourselves as if we're pregnant with a child who will go on to save the world, and thus needs a good head start. Today is a great day to eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Enjoy the finest protein. Drink an extra glass of milk--but because it's a festival day, make it a milkshake in your favorite flavor.

--Ask yourself why you don't show this level of self-care every day. And be gentle and realistic with yourself. Buy some multi-vitamins for future days when you don't have time to stock up on nourishing food or when you don't have time to eat. Today is a good day to make a resolution that those days will be few and far between.

--Take some time to think about all the elders who have guided you along your path. Who has been Elizabeth to your Mary? Write a thank you note or e-mail to those people.

--Think about the younger generation who looks to you for similar guidance. Write an encouraging note, e-mail, Facebook post, or Tweet. Think of other ways you might serve as a shepherd for the next generation: tutoring, reading in the schools, leading a Scout troop, getting involved with a group that speaks to your heart, donating money to a group that does good work--the list is as varied as we humans.

--We could write encouraging notes to anyone who could use a kind word.
--We could think about our own lives--what needs to be born?  I'd encourage us to think beyond babies and future generations. What creative work haunts your dreams? What visions for the future make your innards leap for joy? What social justice work remains to be done and done by us?

--Today is a good day to spend some time in discernment.  God called Mary, and she said yes.  God called Elizabeth, and she said yes.  God had a larger vision for them than they could have imagined for themselves.  Imagine that the angel Gabriel appears to you with a special request from God.  What is that request?

--Remember that you are blessed in so many ways.  Remember that the world desperately needs what only you can offer.

--Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist, who will go on to say, "I am not the Messiah." We can adopt those words as the mantra for the day. We are not required to save the world. That work has been done.

--We could practice seeing the presence of God, or the evidence of God's great generosity, which is all around us.   We could write down what we see, or take photographs, or record in some way the gifts that God gives us.  That way, we'll have a record for days when it's hard to remember our gratitude.

--We could jump for joy at the evidence of God, still with us in the world. We could offer prayers of gratitude.

Here's a prayer that I wrote for today:

Creator God, today we offer thanks for Elizabeth and Mary, women who were willing to follow your invitation into adventures that must have seemed impossible.  Open our hearts so that we hear the invitations you offer to us.  Give us the courage to say yes to you.  Plant in us the gifts that the world needs.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Moonlight Sonatas

I have Nora Gallagher's latest book, Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic.  I'm a little afraid to read it.

I thought I was afraid to read it because it's about a journey through an illness.  I worried that I would become like those medical students who learn about a variety of illnesses and become convinced that they have every single one.

I know that part of her journey involves eyesight, and that worries me because my eyes are feeling the effects of age more than they once did.  I told my eye doctor about the left eye which has a tendency to get teary.  He suggested I get more sleep.

This morning, I read the first part of Gallagher's book, and I recognized a different illness, one which so many of us share:  "Even when I didn't need to rush, I rushed.  I fast-brushed my teeth, I washed the dishes so fast I dropped them, I threw laundry in the direction of the washing machine, my mind working on the things not happened yet" (22).

My eyes get teary for a different reason, as I, too recognize these symptoms.

She talks about travelling the country to talk about religion and spirituality, while she has less time for those practices herself.  I'm interested to see how this story unfolds.

I'm afraid I'll recognize myself.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 2, 2013:

1 Kings 18:20-21[22-29] 30-39

Psalm 96 (7)

Galatians 1:1-12

Luke 7:1-10

In this week's Gospel, we get the story of the centurion of great faith.  This centurion will not be the only one that we see throughout the New Testament.  What's behind their presence?

We may have forgotten our history.  We may have forgotten that Jesus lived in an occupied territory.  There's a reason why Christ was crucified, a Roman style of execution, not a Jewish one.  Centurions were omnipresent in the culture to keep the peace, by brute force if need be.  That might be one reason why they make appearances now and then.

From a distance of 2000 years, we also may have forgotten about the earliest conversations in the Christian Church, before it really became the Christian Church, about who could be included and who should be left out.  If we go back to the Gospels, it becomes clear that Jesus did not come only for a small group of Jewish people.  The Gospels show the broadening ministry of Jesus.

It's also important to realize that in speaking highly of the centurion, Jesus is embracing an enemy.  The centurions work for Rome, which means that they often have to oppress Jews and other cultures that Rome defeated.  Yet Jesus recognizes faith when he sees it.

It's a surprise to find faith in this kind of man.  It's a lesson that we would do well to remember.  We tend to think we know how God works in the world and how humans respond.  Then, as now, we can find examples of righteousness in unexpected places.

The Gospel lesson for this week is also a story about power, the kind that the world embraces and the kind that Christ offers.

The centurion is used to having a certain amount of power, as his language makes clear.  But then, as now, human power only takes us so far.  We may be able to hire and fire people.  We may be able to issue orders that people must follow.  But all this worldly power can only take us so far, especially when we face the issues of sickness and death. 

Do we have the faith of the centurion?  Are we open to faith in unexpected places?  How can we be enriched, so that we're not surprised by the centurion types who may wander through our lives?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Pentecost Art Project

On Sunday, I volunteered to be in charge of the art project for our 9:45 Worship Together service.  That's the service that's based on Faith Inkubators material.  It's the service which recognizes that worship needs to have some Sunday School kind of elements, since our congregation's children tend to come to one event a week:  Sunday School or church, but not both.

On Sunday, we were still exploring Pentecost.  I've been watching Facebook friends, who have been creating cool tongues of flames out of fabric and coins and clothespins (which they would then attach to paper plates that children drew on to represent their faces).  I thought about doing something like that.  I thought about something even more complicated that involved masks.

In the end, I went with a simpler approach, something that the whole group could do.  I know that creative projects often work better when done in a group--it short circuits our tendency to get too focused on the end product and to get frustrated with the process.

I cut out a lot of paper flames, just in case we had lots of people:

But what to do with them?  I thought about having people write spiritual gifts that they hoped God would give them on each flame--but I didn't want to reinforce that God-as-Santa-Clause idea that lots of people have.  My pastor suggested that we have group members write spiritual gifts that they see in each other on each flame.

I liked this idea.  I suggested that as people go through the Faith Five, they be on the alert for evidence of spiritual gifts.  I reminded them that spiritual gifts aren't always flashy, like speaking in a foreign language that we didn't already know.  And then, we got to work/play.

People shared their weekly highs and lows and looked at the Bible passage to see how the passage relates to our modern life. 

And then, they started writing spiritual gifts on the flames.  Along the way, I overheard great conversations on spiritual gifts.  I thought about what a spiritual gift it is to know each  other well enough to say, "I love how you relate to the children of the congregation."  "I see your spiritual gift as one of great patience.  I've noticed it in this situation and that situation."  We usually end our Faith Five time by blessing each other with a ready-made blessing that comes with the Faith Inkubators materials, but our conversations this week were a blessing of a different type.

I had drawn simple faces on poster board, and we glued the flames to the top of the head.  And after the service was over, I gave the posters a title, "Our Spiritual Gifts," and hung them on a railing.

I like this view of the altar, the candle, and the leftover Communion elements (a sip of wine, crumbs of bread) in the background:

I like this reminder that our spiritual gifts are not about us.  They're not meant to be private.  God gives us our gifts to enrich the community.

Of course, they're also not about just our church communities.  The background mural is a picture of our green planet, held in the hands of God, against the vast blue background of the universe.  I like the way that the picture goes increasingly outward, from bottom to top, if you know what you're looking at.

When I design curriculum, whether it's in church, or for a retreat, or for an English class, I'm never sure how it will work out.  I can never be sure I've thought of all the possibilities and problems.  It's made me very good at thinking on my feet, if need be.

Sunday was a delight.  The process worked smoothly, and everyone entered in, and people seemed to have open minds and hearts.  And hopefully, it's a project that we'll ponder in the coming weeks, and a project that will make the ancient text more vivid.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Prayers and Practices for Memorial Day

I have always had an uneasy relationship with Memorial Day.  My dad served in the Air Force so we were never far away from a conversation about the sacrifices others made so that we could live in freedom.  We went to memorials and statues and cemeteries.  We often made our way to Washington D.C., where it's impossible not to be aware of the sacrifices made--so many and of so many kinds--for the sake of freedom.

As I got older, I wanted to be a pacifist, and so, Memorial Day became more difficult.  I've read my history, though, and I realize how often war, even if held as the last resort, has been necessary.

It is impossible not to realize the cost of war.  There's the money, of course, and the death of soldiers.  We may forget the other costs:  the families of military members, the injured veterans, the civilians damaged in so many ways, peace of all kinds shattered.

So, on this day which has become for so many of us just an excuse to have a barbecue, let us pause to reflect and remember.  If we're safe right now, let us say a prayer of gratitude.  Let us remember that we've still got lots of military people serving in dangerous places--and even if they're not in dangerous places, a person can be hacked to death in a peacetime city like London. 

Let us remember how often the world zooms into war.  Let us pray to be preserved from those horrors.

Let us pray for nations that are involved in wars.  Let us pray for a time when we can all beat our swords into ploughshares.

We could resolve to do more than pray.  We could get involved in social justice groups that actively work to bring the world to a more peaceful place.

We could resolve that we're going to do more to support our veterans.  We could donate money to groups that care for vets.  We could make care packages.  We could write cards.

For more ideas of how to celebrate this day, here's a great article on the Living Lutheran site.

Here's a prayer I wrote for this Memorial Day:

God of comfort, on this Memorial Day, we remember those souls whom we have lost to war.  We pray for those who mourn.  We pray for military members who have died and been forgotten.  We pray for all those sites where human blood has soaked the soil.  God of Peace, on this Memorial Day, please renew in us the determination to be peacemakers.  On this Memorial Day,we offer a prayer of hope that military people across the world will find themselves with no warmaking jobs to do. We offer our pleading prayers that you would plant in our leaders the seeds that will sprout into saplings of peace.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Christian Wiman on Faith and Practice

This morning, I heard another great episode of On Being.  Krista Tippett interviewed Christian Wiman.  He grew up in a conservative faith tradition.  The interview begins with an exchange in which the two remember the church of their childhood, where they attended multiple times a week, memorized Bible verses, how they grew up surrounded by people who, as Wiman says, "knew the hymns and had the singing. And there was no possibility of puncture to that world. You know, I never met anybody who didn't believe until I went off to college. Never met a soul, you know. And I value the coherence of it and I value the intensity of it and the momentum that it's given my life. But it's also created all kinds of difficulties, as I'm sure you know."

Wiman moved away from that tradition, but felt the tug of Christianity.  And then he developed a rare blood cancer.  The show is a fascinating discussion of theology, practice, and poetry.

Go here to read a transcript, listen to the show, and enjoy additional resources.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

--"I think it's a perilous difficult situation for everyone to be left on their trying to choose their spiritual life."

--"You know, I think we have these experiences and they are people reacting against the word spiritual these days. But I don't know what other word to use at this point. They are spiritual experiences and then religion comes after that.

Religion is everything that we do with these moments of intense spirituality in our lives, whether it's whatever practice we have, whether it's going to church, whether it's how we integrate sacred text into our lives. Being religious or taking on some sort of religious elements in your life, you're not necessarily saying I agree with everything that this religion says. What you are saying is that I've had these incredible experiences in my life of suffering or joy or both and they have demanded some action of me and demanded some continuity of me. And the only way that I know to do this is to try to find some form in it and try to share it with other people."

--"And that has helped me to at least understand those terms somewhat and to explain to myself why I do need some sort of structures in my life. I do need to go to church. I need specifically religious elements in my life. I find that if I just turn all of my spiritual impulses — if I let them be solitary, as I am comfortable in being, I'm comfortable sitting reading books and trying to pray and meditating. Inevitably, if that energy is not focused outward, it becomes despairing. It turns in on itself and I will look up in a couple of months and I find that I'm in despair. So I think that one of the ways that we know that our spiritual inclinations are valid is that they lead us out of ourselves."

--"I love Bonhoeffer, and I'm struck by something else he said in a letter that he was often more drawn to atheists. He felt more fellow feeling with atheists than he did with his fellow believers. And he was trying to understand that in himself. I find Bonhoeffer an incredible figure not simply because he returned to Germany when he could have had a safe life in the United States.

You know, he returned and he felt like if he didn't share in the destruction of Germany, then he couldn't credibly participate in its restoration. And he also simply felt that he had a call. You know, we wait and wait and wait for the right thing to do in our lives, but he says, no, no, no. You've got to obey, follow that impulse as hazy as it is and then your faith will come. You don't get it first. You don't get it first. So he lost his life in that. He also said at one point, you know, God has called us to be in a world without God."

--"And I think that a lot of mid-century Protestants' theology led by Karl Barth was a reaction against this, that you can't simply trust your gut, trust your impulses, that we've got to have some way of finding God together. For him, it was the Bible, and he was very conservative in certain ways. And I just cannot go there. I cannot follow. I don't think we can just recovery orthodoxy in that way. I really feel that a whole new language is being created and there's too many people who are struggling with this. I mean, traditional religious language is part of it and will be part of it, but a whole new thing is being created, and it's going to involve other religions. It's going to involve other practices. I don't think you can simply resist it and say, you know, I'm going to just have my little corner and keep it safe and secure."

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Happy Birthday, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today is the birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in 1803, dying in 1882.  While he is never likely to be recognized as a saint, his life changed much of our way of thinking.

When I was a younger undergraduate, I'd have told you that Emerson was important because of his influence on other important thinkers, like Thoreau.  Now that I'm older, I can admit that I would have said that because I didn't know enough about Emerson--and let me stress that I haven't really rectified that situation.  I can write for days about Thoreau, but I'll only be writing this short blog post about Emerson.

This morning, I'm struck by the fact that almost 200 years ago, Emerson thought that the profession of being a minister was antiquated, along with the worship that he saw being done.  People are still saying the same thing today.  Maybe we've always said it.

Emerson may have inclined to make such pronouncements because his wife had just died.  But he continued to make controversial statements, most famously, perhaps, his denial of the divinity of Jesus and his discounting of the miracles.  In most churches today, these statements would still be controversial.

The philosophical tradition with which he's most allied is American Transcendentalism.  These days, a lot of Transcendental beliefs are quite common, but they weren't accepted in the 19th century.  These days, many people might tell me of the inherent goodness of humans.  They might tell me how they see God in everything, which might be more pantheism than Transcendentalism.  Still, these ideas have passed into the popular culture to find widespread acceptance.

Lately I've come to cherish Emerson as an essayist and keeper of the personal journal.  In many ways, every blogger owes a debt to Emerson and his literary movement.

And all of us writing in the U.S. owe a debt to Emerson, who argued fiercely that our literature was every bit as good as British literature, as European literature.

Here are some Emerson quotes to inspire you.

"Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

“The good news is that the moment you decide that what you know is more important than what you have been taught to believe, you will have shifted gears in your quest for abundance. Success comes from within, not from without.”

“Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.”

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

And my all-time favorite:

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Friday, May 24, 2013

Soundtracks to a Budget Process

Last night, we had a budget meeting.  It's part of a long process wherein we try to drain the potential negative energy out of the process.  We present the proposed budget to the congregation during a week night.

We used to have long meetings after church--long, ugly meetings.  People were already there, so they stayed, and during coffee hour, we'd present the budget.  We always hoped that the coffee hour element would help people stay civilized.  It did not.

Now, we are happy to meet with people as long as they'd like, but in a different setting, one where newcomers won't see us at our worst.  We also require people to make some effort.  We've had much less ugliness after adopting this approach.

Now we hold our congregational vote on the budget during part of a worship service.  It's an up or down vote--no conversation.  If you want conversation/debate/discussion, you come to the week night presentation.

Last night was a bit surreal.  Our fellowship hall has 2 wings.  We met in one, while the drama group that uses our space with a stage met in the other.  They were having their end of the year talent show.

So, we talked about the budget with lots of different background music, like that song which says, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."  Later in the evening, Annie sang "It's a hard knock life."

We had to admit that our congregational life was not so hard knock.  We have some issues, like a lot of roof repair to be done.  But we have resources.

And it's important to remember the message of abundance that we get over and over again in the Gospels.  In some of those Gospels, Jesus begins his ministry by turning water into wine for a wedding feast--and not just any wine, but good wine.  Jesus expands a simple lunch of loaves and fishes into enough for everyone--with 12 baskets of leftovers.

That message of abundance is one that doesn't often come through during budget meetings.  Could we shift our budget process to one of embracing abundance instead of minimizing ugliness?

It's a vision worth keeping.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Grooves of Happiness, Ditches of Anxiety

--I just ordered fabric markers from Amazon.  You might ask why I bought them there.  When I looked at every store last year, I couldn't find them.  Well, I could find expensive ones, but not the cheap Crayola markers.

--Why do I need fabric markers?  I've been asked to be the Arts and Crafts director at our Vacation Bible School again this year.

--That invitation makes me feel ridiculously happy for several reasons.  For one, it means that I must have done a sufficient job last year.  Of course, it may mean that no one else wants to do it.  But I do.  I found it immensely satisfying last year.  I'm thrilled to be an integral part of VBS again this year.

--Lately, I've been thinking that I need to make more room for happiness in my life--not contentment, but happiness and joy.  I get contentment from a tasty supper at home.  I get happiness from having people over for dinner.  I'm going to start doing that more often, even if it means that people will see how I really live, with unswept floors and a smidge of toothpaste in the sink.

--In this post, Rachel Barenblat explores happiness.  This paragraph resonated with me:  "I find myself thinking about a lot of these ideas in terms of what kinds of grooves I want to be carving on my heart and in my mind. We're all creatures of habit. I try to cultivate the habit of seeing myself, and seeing everyone around me, through generous eyes. I try to be kind to myself to and to everyone around me. I try to say thank-you to God, at least every morning and every night, for the many blessings in my life. This sounds a little bit corny, I know! But I've found that when I make a practice of saying thank you, when I make a practice of trying to give people the benefit of the doubt, when I stop to notice what's beautiful in my life and in the world, I am calmer and kinder as a result. I am a better person, a better mom, a better rabbi, a better spouse. And the more I do those things, the more well-worn that path becomes in my mind and heart, the easier it is to keep doing those things."

--This image of grooves seems to be popping up a lot in my reading this week.  In The Prosperous Heart:  Creating a Life of 'Enough,' Julia Cameron relates a story of a wealthy woman who can't stop fretting:  "She is habituated to worry, and worry about money is the most deeply grooved worry of all" (page 4).

--I wrestle with anxiety more than I want to admit.  Most of it is low grade.  Is any of it justified?  The anxious part of me says of course--what if we make the wrong choice and run out of money?  My serene self says that none of this matters in the long run or the short run.

--I also have anxieties on my brain because we're in the process of thinking about moving to a new house.  We will be moving to a new house, unless housing prices zoom out ahead of what we can afford in the next month or two.  It's more of a mortgage than I would have ever thought we could afford.

--Of course, our first house was a VA repo which we bought for $35,000 back in 1993.  Now I think that every house should cost $40,000-$50,000.  Yes, only 4 zeroes in that number.  And yes, I realize how unrealistic my anxiety brain can be.

--I have a vision that our new neighborhood will bring me more happiness and joy.  But I know I'll need to cultivate that happiness and joy. 

--To quiet my anxieties in the coming days as we move through this process, I'll start planning dinner parties!  I will keep my brain from driving off into ditches of anxiety by reading books like Cameron's that remind me that I have all I need already.

--And I'll pray more.  I'll ask for Divine guidance as we move through this house hunting adventure.  I will trust that the God of abundance will not leave me orphaned.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 26, 2013:

First Reading: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Psalm: Psalm 8

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-5

Gospel: John 16:12-15

This week's Gospel reminds us of the mystical approach of John. I find the language almost tough to wade through. It makes me turn to the other readings for today. And I find a mystical theme running through all the readings today.

The chapter from Romans reminds us of our calling. Talk about suffering and endurance and building character--that's the kind of talk we might expect on a Sunday morning! Yet the more I read it, the more it seems to take on a mystical character too. We don't know exactly how these transformations will come, but come they will.

The verse from Proverbs is even more curious. It is here where we meet the first of God's creations, Wisdom. Imagine what a different understanding of the Trinity we might have had, had our early Church Fathers paid more attention to this passage. Wisdom seems to have existed long before the Holy Spirit, who seems a late addition to the Divine Package. What if the three parts of the trinity had been Creator, Wisdom, and Savior? Would there have been a 20th century Pentecostal movement if we had ignored these passages about the Holy Spirit, in the same way we ignore the passages about Wisdom most of the year? To be fair, some of the more Orthodox churches do embrace this Wisdom aspect of God more fully than we do here in the West.

In truth, there are many aspects of God that we could focus upon, but we don't. If you read the whole Bible, you get glimmers of the maternal side of God. How would life be different if we prayed to Our Mother, Who Art in Heaven? There are passages of the lamenting of a God who seems to be absent, and I understand why we don't come back to those throughout the year. We yearn for a God who is powerful.

We live in scary times, where the news of this week brought us all sorts of horrors, like the massive tornado in Oklahoma. We live in strange times, where atheists release scores of furious books, and American churches align themselves with African congregations. Prosperity gospels are preached from some pulpits, and yet the gulf between the super-rich and the poor widens every day. We've been warned of global warming that will swamp our coastlines with rising tides, yet this year, we're seeing oil wash upon our shores. We see politicians still unable to act. We yearn for someone of true vision and stellar character, someone to lead us out of this morass.

In this time after Pentecost, let us turn back to our roots. Let us remember the promises that Jesus made. Let us remember the possibility of transformation.

Those promises still hold true. The spirit of Truth leads us. Granted, it's easy to be led astray, to be seduced by the passions of the world. But we know our mission--Martin Luther said that faith should move our feet. Where do your feet want to move today?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Radical Nuns, Radical Acts

I've been hearing a lot about 3 nuclear protesters as their case moves to trial.  They broke into an Oak Ridge facility that  deals with depleted uranium; for more on the story, see this article in The Washington Post.  This story tells about not just the protesters, but also the security guard who lost his job because he didn't shoot them.

One of the protesters is an 82 year old nun, which might lead some to wonder about the tradition of social justice and protest in the Christian faith.  Michael Gerson has a great essay in The Washington Post that explores these ideas as he reviews the latest book, On God's Side, by Jim Wallis.

I've met some Christians who believe that we should be removed from the world.  Obviously, as someone with a blog title like this one, I disagree.

Gerson explains it this way:  "At one level, Christianity is deeply individualistic — promising a personal relationship to the Creator and imposing a set of individual moral responsibilities. But, as Wallis points out, Christianity is also inherently communitarian — the 'call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships.' The Golden Rule and the mandate to 'love your neighbor' challenge social systems based on tribe, class or race. Christian ethics has been the halting, inconsistent but continuing struggle to draw out the full implications of God’s image in every life."

When I was in undergraduate school in the 1980's, I met more radicals than I do now. I knew people who would have been willing to do anything--anything--to stop the nuclear-industrial complex. I wonder what's become of them. Are they still protesting nuclear weapons? Have they moved on to something else?

When I was younger, I knew more people who lived in intentional communities, like the Sojourners community of which Wallis is a part.  I wonder how many of those communities still exist?

One of the things which really appealed to me about one of the candidates for bishop was her service in Lutheran Volunteer Corps.  I liked that willingness to live out one's faith deeply.

Once I didn't use the AC during the summer--I didn't want to contribute to global warming. I was young and principled once. Now I am older, and I use the AC. I give money to groups who work in peaceful, non-confrontational ways to bring about a more just world. I write letters. I do some networking.

I know that I could do more, and when I hear about nuns breaking into nuclear facilities, I immediately feel inadequate. It's good to remember that there are other ways to work for justice.

The group of radicals didn't succeed in their goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. It's not even clear that they built much sympathy for their cause. And my brain can't move far away from that poor security guard who spared them but then sacrificed so much.

Still, as I move into comfortable middle age, it's also good to be reminded that I could be doing more, even if I don't want to turn off the AC. I don't have to turn off the AC, but I can take other steps towards a more peaceful future.  I can do a bit more than write letters.

On Sunday, I completed some sewing kits for Lutheran World Relief, kits which had been sitting unfinished on the shelf for years.  I boxed them up, and I will mail them this week.

It's not as radical an act as I might have once envisioned.  But perhaps that thread and cloth will help a person in the third world sew their way towards better opportunities.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Holy Spirit Does Not Tweak Around the Edges

Our pastor delivered a grand Pentecost sermon.  He focused more on the Holy Spirit and how the Holy Spirit works in the world.  We didn't really hear much about the early church--or the later church.

My favorite bit:  The Holy Spirit is not to content to tweak around the edges.  The Holy Spirit does not politely observe the speed limits set by congregations.  The Holy Spirit may not even admit there's a road to be followed.

It was also Confirmation Sunday, and our pastor encouraged the Confirmands not to worry about bringing back the Church of the past or even preserving the Church of the present.  He encouraged them to lead the Church down the path for which the Holy Spirit will equip them.

I thought about us all, sitting in our suburban church, with Confirmands at the front.  I thought about the larger institutional Church.  I thought about the first Christians who both worked within the institutions of Judaism and created something very new.

They probably felt much the way I do:  excited at the possibilities, and apprehensive of what may happen.  Did they feel apprehensive about what might not happen?  Did they feel abandoned?  Even though Jesus promised that he would not leave them orphaned, I imagine that some of them felt quite orphaned.

As a young woman, I hated Paul's letters.  Now, as a woman in her middle years, I find them oddly comforting.  In them, I realize that the early church, so often held up as ideal, faced all the problems we have now:  difficult personalities, differing agendas, diverging visions.

I don't feel the attachment to the church of the past as some people do.  I like the current church which is wrestling with issues of diversity and decline.  I know that the church of the past was not in decline because so many people were smothered or shut out all together.

I could be happy to leave the current church behind too.  We spend a lot of time navigating personalities and dealing with issues of buildings that were created for a different time and people.  I could be happy to follow the Holy Spirit elsewhere.

I'm sure it would be somewhere I could never have imagined.  And when I face the exhausting process that faces us to fix the roof, that vision looks very attractive.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost Dawn

Here we are at Pentecost again.  The liturgical year has zoomed by just as quickly as the calendar year is zipping along.

Some years,  I'm in a more Pentecost frame of mind.  This year, I feel a bit disconnected.  I want to the tell the Holy Spirit, "It's not you, it's me."

I want to be ready to be infused and blessed and sent out to be a blessing.  I fear I am more like Lot's wife, looking back.  Or maybe there's some other Biblical person, the one who says, "This speaking in tongues is very nice, but who is going to fix the roof?"

I would be the snarky disciple, the one who says, "Speaking in tongues?  We're not doing a very good job of listening, are we?  Maybe instead of being gifted with different languages, the Holy Spirit could gift us with open ears."

I am hopeful though, because I know it's when we're feeling tired and disengaged and smug that the Holy Spirit can rush through and cleanse us with one big whoosh of Godly breath.

I know that a smelting fire can transform all sorts of drek.

I suppose an important question to some might be, "Do we want to be transformed?"

But I take heart from the stories that show that God doesn't always wait around for us.  One minute we're the disciple saying, "That guy on trial?  Nope, never seen him before."  Fifty days later, we're transformed into someone who can speak the words that people need so desperately to hear.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Good Work, Good Sabbath--and a Good Book

Two weeks ago, I started reading Timothy Keller's latest, Every Good Endeavor:  Connecting Your Work to God's Work.  At first, I thought, I need to buy this wonderful book!  I'll stop reading right now and wait until I have my copy so that I can mark it up.

But I'm trying to buy less books.  I decided that since I had my library copy and time to read, I'd keep going.  And I turned down pages as I went. 

In the end, I decided not to buy the book--not because it's not good, but because I'm not likely to read it again.  If the book was on my shelf, I would go back through and read the marked passages--which made me decide to write some of those quotes here.

But first, a bit of a review.  Timothy Keller takes a different view of work than much of our current culture.  He decries the idea that some work is worthwhile, while much of work is not.  He encourages us to remember that we're made for work and have been from the very beginning:  6 days of work in the garden, one day of rest.

More important, he encourages us to move away from our idea that some work is God's work while most of work is done in a non-sacred realm--and thus, a very small amount of workplaces are doing God's work.  He reminds us again and again that any workplace has sacred work that needs to be done.  We can be about God's work of Kingdom building even if we're not pastors or youth directors or music leaders.  He encourages us not just to do our work, but to be very competent, as competent as we know how to be.

He uses a story by Tolkien as a grounding metaphor.  He tells us the story of the painter, Niggle, in "Leaf by Niggle."  Niggle has a vision of a leaf and then the larger tree, and he spends his whole life working on this painting, while being distracted by the needs of others--hence, he never finished his painting.  He has also been desperately putting off a journey. In the end, he must go on the journey and leave the painting unfinished.  But then he discovers that in the new country, his painting exists, not as a painting, but as a real tree.  It's part of the True Reality that would live forever.

Keller sees this story as a parable about work and Heaven.  He reminds us of the meaning of Niggle for our workplaces, especially when we get frustrated or tired:   "Whatever your work, you need to know this: There really is a tree. Whatever you are seeking in your work—the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing—it is there. There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring about, and your work is showing it (in part) to others. Your work will be only partially successful, on your best days, in bringing that world about. But inevitably the whole tree that you seek—the beauty, harmony, justice, comfort, joy, and community—will come to fruition. If you know all this, you won’t be despondent because you can get only a leaf or two out in this life. You will work with satisfaction and joy. You will not be puffed up by success or devastated by setbacks" (page 30).

You can find links to parts of the book, including the Introduction with his discussion of Niggle as metaphor, here.  Here are some additional quotes that I found inspirational.

"The current economic era has given us fresh impulses and new ways to stigmatize work such as farming and caring for children--jobs that supposedly are not 'knowledge' jobs and therefore do not pay very well.  But in Genesis we see God as a gardener, and in the New Testament we see him as a carpenter.  No task is too small a vessel to hold the immense dignity of work given by God.  Simple physical labor is God's work no less than the formulation of theological truth" (page 49).

"In Ephesians 6, Paul sets forth a simple but profound principle that both ennobles work (for those in danger of viewing it as drudgery) ad demythologizes work (for those in danger of making it their identity). He says all work should be done 'as if you were serving the Lord'" (page 213). He also gives a great explanation of slavery during Paul's time and how it is different from more recent experiences of slavery.

A book about a Christian approach to work would not be complete if it did not also discuss the idea of Sabbath, and this one has a great discussion. Keller explains why the idea of stopping work is so radical, both in ancient times and in our own. He encourages us to adopt a true Sabbath mindset:

"Anyone who cannot obey God's command to observe the Sabbath is a slave, even a self-imposed one. Your own heart, or our materialistic culture, or an exploitative organization, or all of the above, will be abusing you if you don't have the ability to be disciplined in your practice of Sabbath. Sabbath is therefore a declaration of our freedom [emphasis Keller's]. It means you are not a slave--not to your culture's expectations, your family's hopes, your medical school's demands, not even to your own insecurities. It is important that you learn to speak this truth to yourself with a note of triumph--otherwise you will feel guilty for taking time off, or you will be unable to truly unplug" (236).

Friday, May 17, 2013

Decorating for Pentecost

I have a post up at the Living Lutheran site about decorating the sanctuary for Pentecost.  You can read it here.

I begin by wondering why we don't do more decorating for this holiday:  "I wrote an article for The Lutheran about why Pentecost makes mainstream Protestants nervous (speaking in tongues, lack of control, a mission that’s huge). Perhaps that’s why we don’t get hyped up for Pentecost. Or maybe it’s because we don’t know how to decorate for the holiday, the way we do for Christmas. It’s great to change the paraments to red. But we could do so much more."

And then, I have suggestions.

Astute readers of this blog may think it sounds familiar.  Yes, it's a post I wrote on this blog last year. 

To see how these ideas actually worked in a real sanctuary, see this post.  It has photos.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 19, 2013:

First Reading: Acts 2:1-21

First Reading (Alt.): Genesis 11:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 104:25-35, 37 (Psalm 104:24-34, 35b NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:14-17

Second Reading (Alt.): Acts 2:1-21

Gospel: John 14:8-17 [25-27]

It's interesting to think how different churches celebrate Pentecost. Some churches will be stressing the rushing wind and the coming of the Spirit; perhaps parishioners will be exhorted to become more Spirit-filled. Some churches will be focused upon the mission of the early church, and I predict parishioners will be asked to think about the mission of the contemporary Church, both global and local.

This is one of those years when I'm relieved to turn my attention away from Acts, to think about the Gospel of John. I want something a bit more comforting, like John, not readings that make me feel inadequate, like Acts. I know it's called the Book of Acts, not the Book of Relaxation, not the Book of Taking a Nap. Still, some years I find all the energy in that book to be a bit draining. Some years, it all seems a bit loud, a bit energetic, a bit amplified.

John's Gospel reading for today has a different emphasis. Throughout the whole fourteenth chapter of John, Jesus promises that we're not going to be left alone. Jesus must know how hard it will be for his disciples; it's been somewhat easy for them as they sojourn with their Savior. But once he's gone, how will they carry on?

Once again, we have Jesus saying he will pray for the disciples. He tells the disciples that they will have everything they need as they go out into the world. He suggests that the new incarnation of himself/God/Spirit will dwell inside us.

I feel like this Gospel lesson peers straight into my soul, my tired, overstretched soul. Jesus reminds us that we are not alone. The verse after the Gospel ends has Jesus promise, "I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you" (John 14: 18). That's the Good News of this Gospel: we are not alone. We do not have to go about our Pentecostal mission alone. Jesus reminds us that it's a team effort: "Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it" (John 14: 13-14). Jesus reminds us of all that we can accomplish, if we would but call on God.

I love the way the Gospel ends, with these images of all these incarnations of the Divine, swirling in the world around us, gathering within us. This Gospel gives me hope that I will be enough. It's unlike some of those other readings that make me feel so inadequate. Speak in tongues? I can hardly get my laundry done in any given week. Help in the Kingdom mission of redeeming the world? Who will do the grocery shopping?

In our Gospel today, Jesus reminds us that we are enough because we're not all alone. It's a message that's so unlike the messages beamed to us from the larger culture in which so many of us live our daily lives. Our larger culture does not treasure teamwork. Our popular culture likes the larger-than-life leader, the one who goes it alone (don't believe me? watch T.V. for a week, watch politics, go to the movies--it's rare to see a team working together for the greater good). It's a poisonous message, one that's very useful in selling us stuff, because most of us don't feel very adequate all by ourselves.

Jesus reminds us again and again that we are more than adequate. We see disciples that are gloriously human in many of the ways that we are too, and Jesus takes a small band of these flawed humans and changes the world as he sends them out to work in small groups. Jesus can take our overscheduled selves and transform us, so that we love each other, his ultimate dream for us.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Pictures for Pentecost

This year at our Create in Me Retreat, we focused on the Holy Spirit, and more specifically, on the fire aspect of the Spirit.  So, here for inspiration as you prepare for Pentecost, some pictures:

Some of us made mosaics on glass blocks.  They look great alone (below) but as with Christianity, they can do so much more as a group (above).

We made banners of torn tissue paper glued with wallpaper paste onto canvas. 

For those of us focusing on the wind aspect of Pentecost, one could do fun things with cut paper shapes made into hangings to capture the breeze.

Our Lenten journey soon ends for another year.  We begin with desert, ash, and sand and end with the blazing fire of Pentecost.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tuesday Morning Gratitude

I usually make gratitude lists at the end of the day, but today, let me begin the day with gratitude for items large and small:

--My mom had an a-fib event, but she seems to be OK.  When I was talking to my dad yesterday afternoon, my mom's heart went back into rhythm for the first time since her admission to the hospital Sunday night.  Hurrah for hearts that slip back into rhythm!

--This morning, very early, my brother-in-law and I went out to get bagels.  The guy who waited on us gave me a coupon, which took $4 off the bill.  Hurrah for small kindnesses which result in free cream cheese!

--On Sunday, we had a safe trip to Key West and back, and our driving tour of Broward County yesterday went well.  We were delayed a bit by accidents, but not part of any of them.  Hurrah for cars that stay in the road!

--Last night, as we drove home from a lovely dinner at house of the cousin of my spouse and brother-in-law, I saw flashing blue lights behind me.  I decided not to panic:  I hadn't been speeding, I hadn't run any lights, and I'd had my last glass of wine with dinner hours ago.  The officer asked if I knew that I had a headlight out.  Our darkness is so lit up down here by artificial light that I did not.  He gave me a written warning, and I was on my way.  Hurrah for kind police officers and written warnings that have no fines and carry 48 hours of protection if other officers notice our transgression!

--I have the words of a Psalm in my head, or maybe it's several fragments weaving themselves together.  Praise to you, God of the universe, who keeps our lives in our hands and does not allow our soles to slip.  Hurrah for our God, who loves us, who keeps our soles and souls on right paths, who doesn't allow us to slip!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Post Mother's Day Thoughts

If you came here hoping for a meditation for the Feast Day of Julian of Norwich, it's here.  Lutherans and Anglicans celebrate her day on May 8.

I thought about writing a Mother's Day post yesterday.  But we were up early, headed to Key West with my brother-in-law and his wife.  My Mother's Day post might not have been anything you wanted to read anyway.

I'd have said talked about all the money that we spend on one day, and all the money that we don't spend on mothers in 3rd world countries.  Or our own country.  I'd have probably talked about all the mothers who can't afford to stop working, Mother's Day or no Mother's Day.  I'd have probably lingered on various social justice issues.

Maybe I'd have talked about how much families spend on this one day, on things that are fleeting, like restaurant meals and flowers.  Why not buy Mom some shares of stock for her special day?

I'd have wondered how many pastors were going off lectionary to talk about mothers, even though many churches don't talk about motherhood at all for the other Sundays of the year:  just Mother's Day and perhaps Christmas Eve.

Maybe I'd have talked about creative acts, like making a baby, and how that could give us insight about God.  Maybe I'd have talked about mothering an adolescent, which could give us insight into the ancient question:  "How could God let this bad thing happen?"  We're not puppets controlled by God.

Maybe my feminist self would have come out railing against the idea that woman should be defined by their wombs.  Maybe I'd have celebrated the 20th century developments in birth control that allow us to control our fertility.

Or maybe I'd have just taken a gentle way round and posted a poem.  When I read this poem, I see my sister with my nephew when he was younger.  I also see a feminine face of God.


The pediatrician tells her to change
her bedtime practices with her baby.
All her friends agree: "Just leave
the baby in the crib. Let the baby cry."
In this way, the baby will learn self-comfort.

The evening compresses with the wails
of a baby not skilled at self-comfort.
The mother sleepwalks through the day,
but even her bleary eyes can see a failed
domestic policy. For several generations,
parents have left screaming children to self-comfort.

Now a nation careens from bottle to bodies to fudge,
looking for love.
Never before have so many members of a country gulped
anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants.
The unmedicated drink wine or scotch
or eat whole cakes for dinner.
With a shudder, the mother looks at the angry
offerings of a popular culture raised
on this belief that they need to comfort themselves.

She returns to the rocking
chair, the nightly ritual craved
by herself, her baby, and several billion citizens
of a scary world that's short on comfort.
She sings nonsense songs and smells
her mint tea seeping on the windowsill
keeping the horrors at bay.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Great Book for Mother's Day--or Any Day!

I am late to make this Mother's Day gift suggestion, but I suspect many people out there will wake up today and say, "I completely forgot that Mother's Day is on Sunday. What should I get?"

Why not get your mother a book of poems for Mother's Day? Rachel Barenblat's latest collection, Waiting to Unfold, was written during her first year of motherhood, and the book is wonderful. You can go here to order it in several ways; I recommend ordering directly from the publisher, Phoenicia Publishing, so that more of the proceeds stays with the small publisher and author. While you're at it, order a copy for yourself.

You may be saying, "But it won't get here in time for Mother's Day." That's OK. Revert back to your childhood and make a certificate; that way she'll know that her present is on its way. My mom is the kind of person who loves stretching out holidays; she'll often save a Christmas present to open Christmas night. She'd love having a gift certificate that lets her know that a book is coming and then she'd love the anticipation and then she'd love the eventual book.

I'm not a mother, but I know a lot of mothers, and I imagine that this book reminds them of both the joys and the terrors of that first year of motherhood. But even if we haven't experienced those emotions first hand, the book can speak to us too.

I enjoyed it immensely, probably because it was honest in its exploration of that first year. Too many chronicles of the first year seem determined to refuse to admit that it's anything but glorious. Barenblat's poems are rooted in the every day, which includes the not-so-glorious, like a child who doesn't want to sleep, a child who explores the world in a terrifying, head-on, exhilarating way.

It's Barenblat's care given to the depiction of the every day that keeps the poems working so well: the walk with the stroller that ends in Whole Foods ("Mother Psalm 8"), the box of castaway clothes that are too big and will soon be too small ("Hand-Me-Downs") and the first Thanksgiving, with its memories of other Thanksgivings ("Thanksgiving").

I'm also impressed with Barenblat's abilities as a poet. She offers poems written in form, like "Newborn Sestina." Most poems are written in stanzas of the same number of lines, but there is a prose poem here and there. A series of "Mother Psalms" winds its way throughout the book.

Rachel Barenblat is a Jewish rabbi, so her poems are rooted in her religious practice and religious texts. But don't let that worry you. There are plenty of poems that will appeal, even if the reader can't stand any whiff of spirituality.

I found the spiritual undergirding to be one of the best parts of the book, but I am wired that way. I loved the references to the Biblical Psalms, like this one: "Your tired tears may endure for the night / But breakfast comes in the morning" ("Mother Psalm 7") which references Psalm 30 ("weeping may stay the night, but joy comes in the morning"). I loved the references to Jewish practices, and even though they're unfamiliar to me, I didn't find the reference to them to be a stumbling block.

Some books about motherhood make me wince and say, "Well, I'm glad I decided not to follow that path." Some make me second guess my choices. Barenblat's book gives me a window into that first year in a way that doesn't feel manipulative at all. But I don't read it dispassionately.

Barenblat's Velveteen Rabbi blog is one of my favorites, so I don't come to Waiting to Unfold as a person completely unfamiliar with the poet or her baby. But even if I was completely unfamiliar with Barenblat, I'd still feel like I was reading the poems of a real person, with all the joys and sorrows contained. I like this book because it doesn't idealize motherhood, the way our culture is inclined to do. However, it's also not too mired in the messiness of it all. It's a nice balance of poems.

It's a collection that makes me return to my own life with a sense of wonder. After all, we've all been children, and most of us have been around children. I love poems like "Taste," poems that remind us of all the delights in store as we move from thin gruel to other, richer treats. The book is full of reminders of how much each day has to offer, if we can just slow down to savor them.

So order this book--order several copies. You probably know multiple people who would enjoy a book like this one. After all, a poem could be a daily treat--and these poems, which remind us of all the other delights of dailiness, have much to offer.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 12, 2013:

First Reading: Acts 16:16-34

Psalm: Psalm 97

Second Reading: Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Gospel: John 17:20-26

This Gospel always inspires Trinitarian thoughts when I read it: to whom does Jesus pray, when he prays? Why does Jesus have to pray, if we really believe in what we say we do, which is a Triune God? Is it a divine version of talking to oneself?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu recounts a story of asking the Dalai Lama about his prayer life. The Dalai Lama cracked a joke about talking to himself when he prays, since, of course, the Dalai Lama is the incarnation of the deity to Tibetan Buddhists.

Lately, I've been thinking about the prayer life of Christ, which we get a glimpse of in this Gospel. I find it deeply moving to think of Christ praying for me. I think of him praying for those that will come later (in our case, much later, 2000 years later) and want to weep in amazement. To the very end, Christ prays for his followers, for those that have been and those that will be. In these last prayers, he continues to focus on his central message of showing God's love to the world.

Christ also reminds God that he wants to share the glory that God has given him. He wants to give that glory to his followers. Think on that for a minute. What if you actually were capable of being like Jesus?

Many theologians would argue that we are, in fact, capable of being Christ like. If we but believe, anything Christ could do, we could do too. Of course, that would mean we'd have to shuck off the ideas of success, the way the world defines it. We'd have to give up our comfortable habits of anger, greed, meanness, looking out for our own skins. We'd have to practice radical love. The good news: the more we practice being Christlike vessels of radical love, the better we'll become at it.

But there's a downside. If you read the chapter that comes after today's Gospel, you'll see that this image of Christ praying comes just before his crucifixion and death. Unfortunately, when Christ instructs us to pick up our cross and follow him, he's not just talking about a metaphorical cross. He may actually mean an earthly sacrifice. Many a Christian has been slaughtered by unsympathetic governments.

Fortunately, those of us in the industrialized northern hemisphere (the Western part, at least) don't have to worry about giving up our lives, not in the literal, physical sense. However, we should start thinking about re-ordering our lives. But start small. Nothing is more overwhelming than thinking that we need to give up all our treasure and go out to solve the intractable problems of poverty.

Here, too, as with any change, it's better to start with the tiniest of baby steps. Maybe this summer is a good time to increase your charitable giving. Maybe you want to donate some time to work with the poor and the oppressed. Maybe you want to remember to pray for those who aren't as fortunate as you are. Maybe you want to clean out your closets and give your surplus to those who have little.

How else can you be a Christ-like light in the world? We are surrounded by people who are poor in spirit, people who are suffering terrible blows. You could be there for them. You could be the person in the office who always has a smile and a kind word and reassurance that all will be well and all manner of things will be well (to use mystic Julian of Norwich's words). You could sow the seeds of hope and help fight despair. You could be the person that makes people wonder and whisper, "I wonder what his secret is? What makes her so capable of being happy?" Maybe they'll ask and they'll really want to know, and you can talk about your faith. Maybe they'll just be drawn to you and hang out with you, and you can minister that way.

A smile is easy. Praying for the world, like Jesus does, is easy. And it's these little changes that lead to happier habits. Eventually, you've changed your trajectory and you didn't even realize it. Maybe you'll look back from a certain vantage point and say, "That was when I started to claim my glorious destiny. That's the starting point that led me on a road to be this close to the Christian God wants me to be." Begin today.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Poem for the Feast of the Ascension

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, which commemorates Jesus being taken up into Heaven.  For a more serious meditation, see this piece that I wrote last year.

Several years ago, I wrote a meditation on this feast day and then headed off to work to do annual performance reviews.  Various themes and images pinged through my brain through the day and eventually wound themselves into this poem.

Conducting a Performance Review on the Feast of the Ascension

I have wrestled
with these forms—a modern
crucifixion—for over forty
days. I spend more time
trying to coerce
the software into cooperation
than I do in assessment
of employee performance.

Regulations require me to assemble
the same information across several forms.
Employees must cobble
together thick packets of proof
that they’ve done what the forms
report, although if they hadn’t,
the work would have ground to a halt.

How I wish I could ascend
above all this bureaucracy,
that I could shower
my employees with all the glory
they deserve. I long to welcome
them with praise instead of forms.

Alas, the modern workplace
has yet to be redeemed,
and so, I slog
through forms and documentation and rubrics and scales
of pay. I protect my cowering, stressed
employees as best I can.
I whistle “Solidarity Forever” as I complete
the tasks that must be done.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Feast Day of Julian of Norwich

May 8 is the feast day of Julian of Norwich in the Anglican and the Lutheran church; in the Catholic church, it's May 13.

Ah, Julian of Norwich! What an amazing woman she was. She was a 14th century anchoress, a woman who lived in a small cell attached to a cathedral, in almost complete isolation, spending her time in contemplation. She had a series of visions, which she wrote down, and spent her life elaborating upon. She is likely the first woman to write a book-length work in English.

And what a book it is, what visions she had. She wrote about Christ as a mother--what a bold move! After all, Christ is the only one of the Trinity with a definite gender. She also stressed God is both mother and father. Her visions showed her that God is love and compassion, an important message during the time of the Black Death.

She is probably most famous for this quote, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well," which she claimed that God said to her. It certainly sounds like the God that I know too.

Although she was a medival mystic, her work seems fresh and current, even these many centuries later. How many writers can make such a claim?

I find myself thinking of her more and more frequently these days. In my 20’s, I saw her as bizarre and strange. Who would willingly shut herself away in a small cell?

Now I find the idea attractive: a small room in complete stillness with meals slid through a slot in the door, very little in the way of human interaction. My yearning probably speaks to the chaotic nature of life in my own cell.

My office is likely not much bigger than Julian’s cell, but it’s much more chaotic, people coming and going with a wide variety of problems, humans reacting to stress in a variety of agonizing ways. My office is certainly not connected to a cathedral, which would lend a sense of peace, especially these days when cathedrals aren’t community centers, the way they would have been in medieval times.

I also comfort myself by reminding myself that Julian of Norwich would be astonished if she came back today and saw the importance that people like me have accorded her. She likely had no idea that her writings would survive. She was certainly not writing and saying, "I will be one of the earliest female writers in English history. I will depict a feminine face of God. I will create a theology that will still be important centuries after I'm dead."

That's the frustration for people like me: we cannot know which work is going to be most important. That e-mail that seems unimportant today . . . will likely be unimportant hundreds of years from now, but who knows. The poem that seems strange and bizarre and something that must be hidden from one's grandmother may turn out to be the poem that touches the most readers. Being kind to one's coworkers who cluck and fuss and flutter about matters that seem so terribly unimportant is no small accomplishment either.

I think of Julian of Norwich’s most famous quote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Would Julian of Norwich be pleased that so many of us derive comfort by repeating those words? Or would she shake her head and be annoyed that we have missed what she considered to be the most important ideas?

I remind myself that she would have such a different outlook than I do. She was a medieval woman who served God; she likely would not even view her ideas as her own, but as visitations from the Divine. If I could adopt more of that kind of attitude, it could serve me well on some of my more stressful days at work when divesting situations of my ego could be the most helpful thing that I could do.

And maybe I could do that by adopting more of the habits of the anchoress in my own modern cell. I can’t keep people from coming to my office, but when I don’t have people there, I could pray. Even when I do have people in my office, I could pray.

I don’t have cathedral bells nearby, but I could use the tools of the modern office to remind me to pray. I could use my calendar dings to remind me. I could even insert reminders into my electronic calendars to call me back to prayer and my better self.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Random Encounter or Holy Spirit Whisper?

I keep thinking I'll have a longer writing time to leisurely write about discernment and some interesting options I've been stumbling across.  But it's not this morning, so let me post here part of a piece I put on my creativity blog a few days ago.
The election of a bishop at Synod Assembly meant we never had an opportunity to do much else. There was no session for those discerning a call. There weren't as many people in the marketplace, which in retrospect, is not a surprise, because we had even less down time than usual. No networking, no innovative worship services, no interesting Bible study.

However, I did have an experience that seemed so extraordinarily outside of the realm of possibility that I'm unable to write it off as coincidence, even as I know that my scientist friends would scoff at me.

About a month ago, a friend at Create in Me told me that Luther Seminary has a low-residency track, and I did some research and found out that the low-residency is for the whole program, not just the first year. I tucked it away and didn't think about it much more in the past month.

At lunch on Friday, our pastor told us that lots of seminaries are creating low-residency options and all kind of other approaches for people who can't just pick up and leave. And then, we returned for the afternoon's smaller group sessions with the bishop candidate.

I found myself sitting beside a man who is a student in the low-residency program at Luther Seminary! What are the odds of that?

I found out because I asked him if he'd be going to the dinner to honor the Bishop. He said he had to finish a paper for seminary. He said, "You wouldn't expect it, would you, that I'd be working on a paper, for my seminary in Minnesota?" Something clicked in my brain, and I blurted, "Are you part of the low-residency program?"

Indeed he is. I asked lots of questions, and I am just so happy to have met a real, live person who is experiencing the program. He spoke very highly of it. He's managing to go through without taking on debt, through grants and scholarships and careful budgeting. He said it's a great option in that he doesn't have to pay for a whole year at the beginning of the year.

He said it is somewhat exhausting to continue to hold down his full-time job, which involves working outdoors, and doing the school work. As summer has approached, he's felt even more tired.

He praised the community that he feels, which has been one of my concerns.

It was interesting to me that just as I was despairing about the lack of anything other than electing the bishop, I sat beside just the person I needed to meet.

I'm sure I'll be writing more on discernment as the weeks go by. I don't feel like I'm any closer to knowing anything for sure. But I do know that it was an important encounter that I had this week-end at Synod Assembly. It doesn't feel like it was random chance.

Monday, May 6, 2013

When the Transgendered Serve the Eucharist

At the closing Eucharist service at Synod Assembly, I went to the woman pastor who was representing the bishop of the national Lutheran church.  I have so few opportunities throughout the year to receive the elements from an ordained woman that I walked right by our two bishops who would have been happy to serve me and went to the station with a woman presiding.

You may wonder why it matters to me.  You may ask me about all the lay women who have served me the sacraments through the years.  Isn't that enough?

It's certainly better than it was when I was a child.  When I was a child, the only females whom I remember seeing in positions of authority in the front of the church were organists and choir directors.  I don't even remember women reading the lessons.  I'm not even sure I remember lay men reading the lessons.  And of course, the church of my childhood had no female pastors.

It's hard for some of us to remember that we didn't always ordain women.  My Lutheran denomination only started ordaining women in the late 1970's.  In fact, it's a relatively recent development in most denominations, and some Protestants still don't ordain women--and of course, Catholic women can't be priests.

I thought about the first time I received the elements from someone who looked like me, and how deeply moving it was.  I am not the first feminist to make this observation.

This time at Synod, I thought about transgendered people, and how long will it be before we receive the sacrament from hands that had begun life as another gender.  Would it make a difference to most people?  Would we even know?

At first I thought that maybe it's a non-issue.  The transgender surgery is expensive, and in the case of female-to-male surgery, it's still imperfect; it's hard to create a working penis.  The surgery also takes a lot of time, and how many of us can afford that kind of time off?

But even those who can't acquire surgery would still be considered transgender.  There are all sorts of ways a transgendered person could present him/herself to the larger world.

I feel certain that a transgendered clergy member who was completely open about being transgendered would be a blessing for many, many transgendered people in more ways than we can imagine.  One of those ways would be sacramental. 

What about the rest of us?  I'm sure there are still people who are deeply uncomfortable receiving the elements from homosexual leaders.  But we can't allow the discomfort of others to prevent us from doing what's right.

We declare ourselves to be a welcoming church.  And with each passing decade, we get closer to that ideal. 

Some have thought that homosexuality is the last frontier, but now we're wrestling with transgender issues.  What will be the next frontier?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

First Impressions from a Bishop-Electing Synod Assembly

I am back from Synod Assembly, where we have elected a new bishop:  Robert Schaefer.  If you are a praying person, he has asked that we keep him in prayer.

We had a wealth of good candidates, and I'm pleased with our choice.  He's already done a lot of work with our synod, and he's served in the national headquarters too.  I like his vision of us being a people of the table, by which he means the Eucharist.  In one session, he said that when he comes to visit churches, if he's bishop, he'll be expecting to meet us at the table.  He sees this sacrament as the most important thing we do.

He's got a lot of work ahead of him, and he knows it.  He says that he'll hire people who don't look like him.  If I may put it more bluntly:  he's an ordained, older white guy, married with children.  The Synod leadership and the national church leadership has been full of older, ordained white guys, married with children.  There's a lot of work to be done reaching out to younger people, to non-white people, to people of different sexual orientations, and to the non-churched.  There's still a lot of work to be done incorporating the skills and talents of women, and there's even more work to be done in inclusivity with lay leadership.

And we haven't even begun to include transgendered people.  But that's a topic for a different day.

I've never been to a Synod Assembly where we elect a bishop, and I wasn't sure what to expect.  I'm still a bit baffled by the process.  It consumed a lot of time, and I'm not sure it needed to do so.  In between the various ballots, we heard reports from other parts of the church, but we didn't get to the heart of what really interests me.  This was my 5th Assembly, and the reports begin to feel the same from one year to the next.  Is there much new to say about the Malaria campaign?

I would rather have had a chance to network with individual churches to find out what's working and what's not.  I don't know how we'd get people to be honest about what's not working, but that conversation would fascinate me.

I would have rather had a chance to do some directed visioning.  I have no idea what that would look like, but surely someone could have led us through that.

I had little nudgings along the way.  When we heard the presentations about new mission plants, I was struck by how much the new mission plants are like old mission plants:  we go somewhere where there's no Lutheran church, and we try to get one started, and we hope for a building at some point.

But what if  a church plant involved ideas or activities instead of recruiting people to sit in pews on Sundays?  I would love to be part of creating a center for Liturgy and the Arts.  The center would explore ways that artistic activities can enrich and undergird liturgy and worship--and vice versa. 

I've had a few experiences with children and music, and I'm convinced that we'll reach more people in the future generation by starting a drumming ministry than by some of the other ways we've tried.  We have lots of enthusiasm for Vacation Bible School, with lots of non-member children, but then we don't see those children again--it's worth wondering why.

As we moved through the election process, I was struck by how few concrete ideas I heard.  I was enthusiastic by the macro visions that each candidate offered.  But how will those ideas work in real time, on the ground?  I still don't know--and maybe the bishop can never really know until one is in the office.

Much of Friday afternoon was taken with smaller group sessions with the final three candidates.  Again, I found it interesting, but the format didn't allow for much depth.  We had 30 seconds to ask questions that would be answered in 2 minutes or less.

What I really wanted was a long, lingering discussion.  Could we have moved more quickly through earlier balloting to leave time for that kind of discussion?  I think we could have--we were using electronic voting mechanisms, after all.  We could have had less reports and more conversations of depth.

I was pleased that we had two strong female candidates, one of whom made it to the final 3.  The one who didn't make it to the final rounds was born in 1970, and she checked the box that said "married," and her partner's name was female.  So, I'm part of a synod where a younger lesbian in a committed relationship can make it to the final 5--that fact encourages me.  The other female candidate, the one who made it to the final 3, has worked for the Bishop, and had a lot to offer.  I'm hopeful that she'll have a role in the structure that the new Bishop sets up.

My concerns about Synod Assembly remain the same, and more so this year.  It's an expensive proposition to come to Synod Assembly--I imagine that this expense prevents many a smaller church from participating fully.  On alternating years, like this one, Synod Assembly is held Thursday-Saturday, which excludes many working people and students.

What would a Synod Assembly look like, if we'd never had one, if we invented it at this time and place, from scratch?

More thoughts to come, I'm sure, as the week goes on.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Last Day of Synod Assembly

I am writing this post in advance, since I'm not sure what my options will be while I'm at Synod Assembly. By the time this post goes up, most of Synod Assembly will be over. ELCA Lutherans from across the state of Florida and various Caribbean nations will have gathered and focused upon the question of who should be the next Bishop of the Florida-Bahamas Synod.

I wonder what answer will be emerging. I've met plenty of people who could make a good Bishop. As with being President of the U.S., I'm unsure of why anyone would want the job.

There may be other answers to emerge from Synod Assembly. There's usually a session for people who are discerning a call. If you've been reading my blog for very long, you know that there's a part of me that feels pulled toward ministry. This year, I'll attend the session for people who feel called. I'm sure there won't be a definitive answer, but I can at least get a handle on the process.

This will be my fifth Synod Assembly. It may well be my last for awhile. Of course, I say that every year.

Will I see people whom I know? By now, I see people who look familiar, even if I don't know them, because we've been assembling for so many years. I often see people whom I know from various Lutheridge connections.

For me, Synod Assembly is a bit like an academic conference. There are usually some interesting sessions which make my brain perk up.

But it's also a bit like camp or college, where I realize that we're a group that won't be together long, and thus, I forge connections more quickly.

It's a bit like a creativity workshop, where I say, "Hey, I could do this myself. Hey, I'd like to make something like that. Wow, what if I took what they're doing with this thing and applied it to that thing?"

And it's a bit like the best church, with great worship opportunities.

I'll report more fully upon my return.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Prayers for a Synod Assembly

I am writing this post in advance, since I'm not sure of the resources I'll have at Synod Assembly.  Friday is likely to be the day where we close in on the choice of a visit.

Notice the language that I'm using.  Whose choice will it be?  I want to believe that the Holy Spirit will be moving amongst us, moving us closer to the person who is right for this time and place.

Of course, the tricky part will be staying open.  How can we be sure that we're not being influenced by other spirits, other motives?

All we can do is pray.  And if you're reading this post, I'd invite you to pray for us all too, at our Florida-Bahamas Synod Assembly in Orlando, not far from a Magic Kingdom of an altogether different sort.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, May 5, 2013:

Acts 16:9-15

Psalm 67 (4)

Revelation 21:10, 22--22:5

John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

I find these post-Easter, pre-Ascension, pre-Pentecost lessons poignant. I feel this ache for both the disciples and Jesus. They've suffered an almost inconceivable trauma, a wrenching death--and now, some time for them to be together again, to have barbecues on the beach and a few last instructions. But Jesus must know that soon he'll be gone again. The older I get, the more this seems one of life's central lessons: our loved ones will soon enough be ripped away.

This Gospel lesson addresses that dilemma of being a biological being. Jesus promises us a Holy Spirit, a Counselor. He promises us His peace. He tells us that it is not peace as the world understands it, but a different kind of peace.

Of course, that's the central message of Christianity. The world offers us many false comforts. Feeling like someone's ripped a hole in your life? Buy more stuff. Feeling so rushed that you can't hear yourself think? All you need is a new cellphone that costs several hundred dollars to keep you more in touch. Hurry, hurry, busy, busy--all to keep earning money so that we can keep buying more stuff that doesn't fill our deep emptiness.

Christ came to show us the way to deal with the pain, loss, and emptiness of being human. Fix food for each other and then eat together. Again and again and again. Invite people who don't have enough food. Share our goods. Don't hoard our money for the future, but invest in community. Don't save up treasures on earth. Trust in God, who will not leave you orphaned and alone. Instead of hiding from pain, face the pain of our own lives and sit with the pain of others.

Jesus tells us plainly: "Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." That's a tough commandment for most of us these days. But Christ clearly tells us not to give in to our anxiety, to resist fear-based thinking, to cultivate a consciousness of abundance, instead of focusing on scarcity. There's enough for us all, and we will not be abandoned. Act like you believe Christ's words, and eventually you won't have to work so hard to believe it.

Jesus doesn't give us a view of a God who waves a magic wand to get rid of all our troubles. Jesus shows us a God that wants to be there with us, through all of life's events, both joyous and sad. Jesus shows us a God that will help us in our troubles if we ask, but not necessarily make them go away. Jesus shows us the idea of God as a partner, a partner with tremendous resources so that we need not be afraid or troubled.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Of Maypoles and Miracles

So, how will you be celebrating this first day of May? Will you weave ribbons around a Maypole? Will you go to a demonstration in favor of worker's rights? Will you bring a bouquet of flowers into the house? Will you sing "Solidarity Forever" or "L'Internationale"?

I imagine that most of us will go to our jobs on this fine May Day. Well, those of us in the U.S. will go to our jobs, if we still have jobs. May Day is a holiday in many other parts of the industrialized world.

In my elementary school in the 1970's, we had a May Day celebration that focused on flowers and Maypoles, not on workers. Looking back, I'm amazed that our teachers were able to rig together a Maypole. We spent weeks practicing the weaving of the ribbons in the Maypole dance. We had a whole Mayday festival. Parents came. There was a Mayday king and queen.

Ah, those good old pagan school days!

I have spent most of my life in climates where Spring came long before the first day of May. In fact, in most places I've lived, Spring has shifted into Summer by May 1.

My inner Marxist would want me to give up all pagan celebrations of beauty. My inner Marxist would demand that I transform the workplace.

How I wish I could. My inner Marxist and my inner 19 year old have amazingly simplistic ideas of how the world works and how much power individuals have. That's why I both love my inner Marxist and my inner 19 year old and find them frustrating.

And yes, it can get a bit crowded in my head.

My tired worker self goes through her days noting convergences that other people might not notice and making poems out of the connections.  A few years ago, May Day and Ascension Day converged.  Today, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Lutherans celebrate the feast day of Philip and James.  You may wonder why I'm not focusing a whole post on them.

I thought about it, but as I researched the two disciples, I didn't find much.  In John's account of the feeding of the multitudes, Philip is the disciple who talks about the cost of feeding everyone.  Later in John (chapter 12), Philip is also the disciple approached by some Greeks in a crowd who ask to be introduced to Jesus.  Philip tries, but Jesus gives a mystical answer (so typical for John's Gospel) that later readers see as Jesus talking about his upcoming death and withdraws.  And then he goes off and hides.

Clearly, Jesus doesn't understand the value of ecumenism the way that later cultures will.  Clearly Jesus isn't interested in networking, the way that modern business would have us all do.

If Philip lived today, Philip would be the one who went to business school.  Philip would write books about the irrefutable laws of leadership.  Philip would be the cautious one reminding us of what the true costs of our discipleship would be--and he wouldn't be talking about it in Bonhoeffer terms.  He'd have some sort of mathematical formula to show us what we should spend time doing, what would pay off.  He'd talk about opportunity costs.

I feel a bit of fondness for Philip.  Each of us probably has our own inner Philip.

Oh, great, another inner voice to join all the others in my head!

Still, I recognize some of my behavior when I read these limited accounts of Philip.  I often feel like the one who doesn't quite get it.  I often feel like the one who comes up with a solution, only to be brushed off.  I feel like the one voicing perfectly reasonable objections while not understanding the miracle that's right there in front of me.

We all feel that way, like there's a group of cool kids, and we linger at the periphery never excluded, but not really included either.  I joke about expecting to be able to graduate from high school some day.

I wonder if bosses understand this dynamic and use it to control workers.  I expect that some nefarious bosses do.

As someone who supervises people now, I wonder how I could turn this dynamic around.  How can I make sure everyone feels included?

Marx would probably tell me that it can't be done.  He'd talk about the alienation of the workers.

Maybe my elementary school teachers had the answer:  construct a Maypole!

In some ways, it's the same answer Jesus gives us.  Jesus sees an aching need and wants to feed a crowd.  Philip gives the answer that many of us would give:  too costly, can't be done.  Jesus creates such a miracle of abundance that there are 12 baskets of leftovers.  It's a Maypole of a miracle.